I was supposed to be looking after my brother. When the fish pulled on the line, I took my eye off him. He was only five years old. I was twelve. I should have known better. The sun had already begun to set; we should have been back at the campsite an hour earlier.
“What happened next?” my brother prodded, as we sat with friends and drank beer.
“You know,” I said, feeling slightly bashful. Everyone was staring at me.
“Come on, Dave,” he urged then turned to the group, “this is an amazing story. He saved my life.”
I sighed and swigged my drink.
“I frantically reeled in, I was so sure I was going to lose it. That fish was the biggest I’d ever landed, though it almost got away. I had no idea what I was doing.
“I fought with the thing for ten minutes before I was finally able to put the net out and bring the fish in. And yeah, I was stoked. It was huge, way bigger than my hands. I turned to Jesse, but he was gone.”
Jesse fell about laughing.
“I shit myself. The fish flapped and I didn’t know what to do. Instinctively I removed the hook and put it back in the water, when what I really should have done was go after Jesse.
“After I returned the fish to the water, I shouted for him. My voice was lost in the forest. I was so far from the campsite that not even our parents could hear me. It was so silent except for the leaves that rustled in the breeze. I couldn’t even see the way out.”
“Where did you go, Jesse?” Carol asked.
“I have no idea.”
“Yeah? I cannot even remember fishing.”
“You were like five? Surely you’d remember something?”
“Nope, nothing. I find it fucking hilarious how this has scarred Dave so badly, and I have no memory of being abducted.”
“What, did someone take you away?”
“Like I said, no idea. Dave carry on, tell them how you cried.”
“Of course I cried. I had no idea where he was. Dad was not someone you wanted to get angry, so even when I was looking around, I really wanted to pick up the fishing equipment and take it back to the campsite first. That’s when I heard Jesse scream.
“I raced in the direction of the sound, jumping over roots and branches. It was getting so God damn dark, I was running on adrenaline.”
“Look at his nose,” Jesse said pointing at me.
“Who’s telling this story?” I snapped.
“Sorry,” he held his hands up and continued to smile.
“Yeah, I tripped and hit my face right into a fallen tree trunk. Broke my nose. Yeah, stare away, never had it fixed. Blood poured out. Jesus, the taste of it made me feel sick. I lifted my T-Shirt up and wiped as much as I could, but it kept bleeding. At that age, I had no idea how to stem it.
“I didn’t stop, I kept running up the trail. I knew I should have gone back to the campsite, but I couldn’t bear to tell dad I’d lost Jesse. Even if he was found I’d have seven shades of shit kicked out of me.”
“He’s right,” Jesse said smirking.
“I held my hand to my face, the blood kept coming. My heart was thumping so fast in my chest I could feel the blood spurt with every thump. I thought I was going to die.”
“Stop it,” Carol said, hitting Jesse on the arm as he continued to laugh.
“The trail started to rise and I began to lag, my legs were like jelly. At the top of the hill I saw a small wooden hut. Light flickered from inside. I raced to the door and banged. I cried my eyes out, holding my t-shirt sleeve to my face.
“A few moments later an old man answered. He looked exactly like the type of person your parents would tell you to stay away from. He had a few crooked teeth, his threadbare shirt was peppered with dark brown stains. The hem was ripped in several places, as if many children had tried to get away from him.
“Come in, he said.
“I stepped back. Suddenly wary that this man may have taken Jesse.
“Come, come, he said waving me in.
“I’m not sure, mister, I replied, looking around the dark forest.
“Are you looking for Jesse? he asked.
“I was stunned. How the fuck did he know his name. I didn’t realise it at the time, but now I know he must have been watching us for hours, maybe days.”
“That’s fucking horrible,” Terry said.
“It was. Looking back on it, I must have been crazy to step into that cabin. If he had taken Jesse so easily, he would have me too. But I did. I wasn’t thinking.
“It was warm inside. A fire roared in the corner. It appeared that there was cloth burning in the hearth. It could have been clothes. I have no idea. It wasn’t until later that I even thought about it.
“Where’s Jesse? I asked.
“The man offered me a seat. But I didn’t sit down. He approached me, his arm outstretched. I cowered, not knowing what he was going to do. He grasped my nose. I screamed in pain.
“Shhh, he said, this will stop the bleeding.“
“I stood there for five minutes as the feeling drained from my nose. I swayed slightly. Every time I did, pain from the broken bone jolted through my face.
“Stay still, the man said, almost demanded.
“A radio crackled into action. I looked over and saw the large metal box with one of those receivers you see in cop cars. I didn’t know at the time it was a police scanner. There was a report of two lost children. I assumed it was my parents looking for us.”
“You must have been petrified,” Carol said, her face filled with sympathy.
“I was. I assume Jesse was too, not that you’d believe it looking at him now.”
Jesse was still grinning, loving every moment of the story.
“There you are, child, he man said, releasing the pressure on my nose.
“I was relieved to see the bleeding had stopped. It was only then that I took in the rest of the room. It was covered in wooden panelling. Small clothes decorated the walls.”
“Children’s clothes?” Carol asked.
“Yeah, little t-shirts and shorts, like you’d expect to see a sport kit on display for your favourite team.”
“How many were there?”
“Around ten or so. That wasn’t the worst bit. Each one had what appeared to be a necklace of teeth hanging above the clothes, beneath what I now believe to be locks of hair.”
“Bollocks!” Terry scoffed.
“I swear!” I replied, getting angry that having poured my heart out, he didn’t believe me.
He went to the kitchen to get another beer.
“I panicked and turned to leave. But the door was locked shut. A large padlock had been placed on the door. I didn’t even see that happen.”
Carol stared in awe, she hadn’t touched her drink. I finished mine.
“You can’t go anywhere, the man said.
“Where’s Jesse? I demanded. The man smiled, showing off his missing and rotten teeth.
“He’s here, he continued, in one of those two trunks.
“The man pointed at two separate wooden chests that sat in the corner.
“Let him out! I screamed, trying not to cry. The man grinned.
“How about we play a little game, do you know chess? he suggested.
“I nodded. I’d played it in junior school, after class. I was never very good, but I wasn’t bad.
“I don’t want to play, I want to see Jesse.“
“I can’t do that, the man said sitting down on the worn couch, You play me and win, and you get to see your brother again. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the other chest.“
“I began to breath heavily. I turned and pulled on the lock on the door. The man cackled, his voice wheezing as he did. He knew I had nowhere to go. I relented and sat on the chair opposite him. He delicately reset the board, his breathing raspy. He continued to chuckle.”
“You can go first, he said.
“I moved one of my pawns. He giggled and moved one of his. I moved a knight. His grin got even wider. He moved another pawn. Then I moved a bishop. His shoulders sunk.
“Fools mate, he said.”
“Did I win? I asked. The man didn’t respond. He unlocked the front door and said, Jesse is outside.
“He pushed me out and slammed the door behind him. I called out for him. He didn’t reply. I ran around the cabin, he was nowhere to be seen. When I got back around the front, he was there. A wave of relief rushed over me and I threw up. He staggered, not knowing where he was. I scooped him up and ran back to camp.
“Dad was not happy when we arrived. A police officer was talking to our mother. I cried, telling dad I was so sorry about what happened. He wouldn’t even let me explain. He shouted until the police officer told him to stop. By that time, I was too scared to tell him. We left the campsite in the morning. We never went camping again.”
“Isn’t that an awesome story!” Jesse said, clapping his hands.
“No!” I shouted, “It was fucking horrible. Dad never let me look after you after that. I can’t imagine how much of our childhood was ruined because of it.”
“Nah, it’s a great story. If it wasn’t for my bro, I’d have been diddled by a paedo in the forest.”
I sighed again and took a large swig of Jesse’s beer.
“Don’t be a dick then!”
“Take this,” Terry said, returning from the kitchen.
I gratefully received the beer.
“So, you’re good at chess?” Carol said.
“Really? I’ll play you,” Terry offered, making his way over to his gaming shelf.
“No, I’m shit. I just got lucky.”
“Well, I’d like to play you. This time for your soul!”
“Don’t joke about shit like that.”
“Come on, it’s only a bit of fun.”
“Leave off,” Carol said.
“Hey, if he’s too chicken… Don’t want to embarrass him in front of his friends.”
“Fine!” I said.
Terry put the board down in front of us. As he set up the pieces I thought back to the time in the cabin and shuddered.
“You ready?” he asked, “You go first.”
I moved my pawn.
Terry moved his.
I moved my knight into position.
Terry moved a pawn.
I moved my bishop.
He moved his queen.
“Fool’s mate,” he said.
“You must be mistaken.”
“Well technically it isn’t, fool’s mate is usually two moves, still checkmate though.”
I stood up.
“That can’t be right.”
I brought my hand to my mouth.
“Dave, are you okay?”
I shook my head.
“Jesse, you know you said you have no memory of getting kidnapped?”
“Yup,” he said, drunk and still grinning.
“Do you remember anything before that day, like anything?”
He peered up as he recollected.
“I’m not sure.”
“Think hard, this is important!”
His smile fell away.
“Didn’t you say the man told you Jesse was in one of the chests?” Carol asked.
“But you didn’t see him get out of one, right?”
I shook my head.
“You just saw him outside?”
The colour drained from her face.
“I don’t think you won.”
A shiver enveloped me. I went ice cold. How didn’t I see this before? I think they’re right, I didn’t win.