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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven GONE FISHING



e’ve never fished so close to home before. Twitch says it’s real bad to go fishing in our neighborhood. That we might get caught. And if we get caught, he’ll have to hurt Mom. I tell him I don’t want Mom to get hurt, so he makes us fish in towns way far away, or on the other side of the big buildings downtown where the police won’t know. My teacher taught us the police were nice, but Twitch says they’re really not.

I don’t think I believe him.

Today is different. Today we’re down at the park a few blocks from our house, and Twitch is staring at my friend. Well, she’s not really my friend, but I like to pretend she is. Sometimes she waves at me when we come home from fishing. I wave back and imagine all the things we could do together, like ride bikes or play hide-and-seek. You know—normal kid stuff. I think she’s my age or maybe a little bit younger, but I’m not for sure.

Most of the time she’s playing with other kids, but today she’s all by herself on a swing. I like the color of her hair. It looks like cinnamon; the same color as my dog Bear who lives at my old home. He used to meet me at the door when I came home from school to lick my face and wrestle. Sometimes I think of him at night, right before I fall asleep, but I can’t remember him too good anymore. I miss him a lot. I hope he’s okay.

“You ready?” Twitch asks. Twitch, by the way, is my secret name for him. His hands get all shaky when we go fishing. All twitchy. But I never say it out loud. No way. Never to his face.

“Do we have to?” I ask.

Twitch ignores me and continues to stare. I don’t like the way he looks when we find a fish. His eyes do this weird faraway thing, like he’s in a place only he can go. I know better than to bug him when he looks like that, so I stay quiet and wait for him to turn my way. Finally, he does, scratching at something in his neatly trimmed beard. “You know we do. Don’t ask stupid questions like that.”

“Okay,” I say and lean to open the door. Twitch grabs my wrist and stops me. I flinch. His fingernails, unlike the rest of him, are dirty and yellow.

“Don’t screw this up like at the mall. You know what happens if we get caught, right?”

I nod and jump out of the van.

As I near the playground, I spot two little kids playing on the see-saw, but a lady in crazy-yellow exercise pants calls them to lunch and they run off. She doesn’t see me.

Either does the girl.

I walk up to her and put on my sad face. The one Twitch makes me practice. If I don’t do it just right, he hits Mom until I do.

“Hi,” I say as I wave at her.

She looks down at me and smiles. She’s real pretty up close. I like her eyes.

“Hey, have you seen my dog?”

She slows down, and then jumps from the swing. Little bits of sand spray my legs.

“What’s he look like?” she asks, crumpling up her forehead.

“He’s all white with big black dots.”

Her eyes widen, and she tilts her head to the side and bites her bottom lip. “No, I haven’t seen him.”

“I—I hope I can find him,” I say. “He’s still a puppy.” I look at the ground and cry a few tears just like Twitch taught me—but this time they’re real—I don’t even have to pinch my leg. I know what he’ll do to her.

She reaches out and pats my arm, and I smell strawberries. “Please don’t cry. I can help you look for him.”

I jerk my head up. “Really? You will?”

Her face brightens. “Sure. I love puppies!”

I’ve got her hooked.

First, we circle through the park and yell the puppy’s name. It always changes, but today it’s Bungee. After a few minutes, I pretend to spot him in the alley across the street, and we run over.

She stops.

“My mom says I can’t leave the park.”

I nod and let her think about it.

“But that’s because of strangers, and you’re a kid like me, so it’s okay.” She says it proudly with her hands on her hips. “We can’t go too far though, promise?”

“Okay,” I say with my fake smile. I don’t even know her name.

We stroll through the alley, looking behind empty trash cans and blue recycle bins for the pretend puppy. The girl bounces from side-to-side, and I feel a little sick about the trap I’ve set, like I might throw up or something, but I concentrate real hard and make it go away. As we near the end of the block, I spot Twitch, and I want to scream at the girl to run back to the park as fast as she can. But then Mom might lose another finger, and it would be all my fault, just like last time. I don’t ever want to hurt Mom again. I bite my tongue real hard and tell the girl to stop.

“Hey look, there’s my uncle! Cool! Maybe he’s seen my dog.”

She does a funny thing with her mouth and twists it to the side. “That’s your uncle?”


Twitch grins and waves us over. His salt-and-pepper hair is parted neatly to the side. He wears a red and black checked shirt tucked into a pair of faded blue-jeans. Everything about him looks normal; regular. Everything but his eyes.

“Hey Mac!” He yells. “Guess who I just found?”

Mac’s my fake name.

I grab the girl’s hand. “C’mon. Let’s go!”

She doesn’t move, and I know I’m about to lose her. My heart does a flip-flop thing in my chest. I can’t lose her.

“I—I don’t know. Mom told me not to talk to strangers.”

“But I’m not a stranger, remember?”

Her face goes soft. “Oh yeah. Okay, I guess. But then we have to go right back to the park.”

My insides hurt.

We run over together, and I let go of her hand and poke my head in the van. Twitch’s orange cat Brutus is in the back licking his paws. He stops and looks up at me with his green eyes, and then goes back to work with an annoyed meow.

“Aww, here he is.” I say, trying to sound excited. “Wanna pet him?”

The girl isn’t watching me anymore. She’s looking at Twitch. “Um…no, it’s okay.”

Twitch’s jaw bunches like it does before he hurts all the other girls, and I know she’s in trouble. He takes a step forward. “What’s your name sweetheart? Mine’s Greg.”

She takes a step back. “Ma—Madison.”

He grins, and it reminds me of the werewolf with the sharp teeth from the Halloween story Mrs. Simpson read to us when I was five. Big yellow teeth. That was two years ago. Or at least that’s what Mom says. I’m not so sure she knows anymore.

“Well hello there, Madison. Very nice to meet you. Wanna see the puppy?”

She shakes her head, almost like she sees Twitch for the first time, and then backs away, but he’s on her in a flash, rag in hand, smearing his special sleeping potion all over her face


Even now, the smell still scares me. It’s how he caught me.

Madison’s eyes pop out, and I think of the goldfish my brother spilled from our tank once when we were little. Its mouth whooshed in and out until it died on the floor. I feel the same way now as the girl squirms around in Twitch’s arms. Suddenly, her eyes find mine, and she asks me her questions—the same ones they all ask: Why’d you trick me, Ben? Why? I thought you were my friend? I thought I could trust you?

I bury my face in my hands and, after what feels like forever, her shoulders sag, and she goes to sleep. Twitch lets out a satisfied grunt, and then carries her to the van, her head bouncing up and down on his shoulder like a living doll.

His hands are doing the shaky thing.

“Hurry up and get in,” he hisses.

I do just that.


It only takes a few minutes to get back home. We live in Twitch’s big, brick house at the end of a lonely cul-de-sac. I don’t know the street name, but I think it begins with an A. There’s lots of tall trees around his house. They stretch out on both sides like gnarled giants. Two of them are dead; their branches hang bent and broken. They remind me of bones. On one side is a white, paint-chipped wooden house that’s falling apart. Twitch says it’s been empty for years. On the other side is a brown trailer home. An old woman lives there. A real nag. Or at least that’s what Twitch says. I’ve never seen her. Behind the house is a dirt field full of sticker weeds and trash.

Even if I could, I wouldn’t play out there.

Inside, Twitch slings Madison over his shoulder and disappears down into the basement while I make us lunch: Three turkey sandwiches, two with mayo and one with mustard. Twitch hates mayo. I forgot once, and he slapped me so hard my face stung for the rest of the day. I get three apples and add some chips to the plates and carry them to the table. Twitch reappears and fishes a beer from the fridge before joining me. He smells like chemicals.

“You did good today, kid. Real good. That one,” he says, letting out a slow hiss of air. “Mmm, she’s something special.”

I shudder and keep my eyes low and hope he leaves soon. It’s the only time I can be alone with Mom. He works afternoons in one of the big buildings downtown cleaning rooms or something.

He slaps the table. “Hey! You hear me?”

I flinch and lift my gaze, stare at his dark eyebrows. Anywhere but his eyes. They don’t sparkle like most people’s. They’re like the eyes on my little brother’s teddy bear. All flat and dull and lifeless.

Twitch cracks his beer and takes a long drink. “Have some manners, goddammit. I said you did good. What should you say to that?”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Always Sir.

Never Twitch.

This makes him happy, so I ask if I can bring Mom lunch. He groans and lets out a belch, stares at me. “When you gonna grow up, huh? You’re not a baby anymore. Quit acting like such a momma’s boy. Such a pussy.”

“Yeah…” I mumble. Twitch doesn’t like my mom much. Or any mom for that matter. I think it’s ‘cause his did bad things to him when he was little. I’ve seen the scars: A bunch of wrinkled, pink dots tracking up his arm. He showed me once. Said when he was bad, his mom would burn him with her cigarettes. Said she did other bad stuff to him too, but he didn’t tell me what it was.

I don’t want to know.

“Go on. Get out of here then.” He waves me off. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

I leave the rest of my lunch and grab Mom’s plate and hurry down the stairs past the burn box. It’s big and black and scary. Nothing but metal and a sickly-sweet smell. I try not to look at it, but it’s hard not to, especially when it’s open, like it is now. If I get close enough, I know I’ll see the ashes and maybe a few bones. Twitch just fed Emily to it a few nights ago. She was really nice.

They all are.

I push through the heavy, shiny door and find Mom leaning against the wall. She’s scary looking now—like a Halloween skeleton: black smushy eyes, pointy face, hair that doesn’t hide all the skin on her head. Voice all scratchy. I think it’s because Twitch only lets her eat lunch.

“Hey Benji. How’s my boy?” Mom asks, lighting up when she sees me.

I hand her the plate. “Not too good.”

She brushes my face. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“We caught a fish.”

“You know you’re not supposed to call them that.” Her face stays flat. She’s used to the fishing. Still, she pats my arm with her bad hand, and I count my escape attempts in missing fingers. She only has three left: her thumb and two of her long fingers.

I don’t try to run away anymore.

“She’s really little, Mom. Littler than me.”

Mom draws in a sudden hiss of air. “No…”

I nod, and my eyes grow hot, but I swallow it away. I can’t cry in front of her no matter what. She needs me to be brave.

“How little? You think she’s your age?”

I nod.

“Oh my God,” she says, her hand going to her mouth. “Oh, my God. We have to do it today.”

“But Mom, it’s not—”

Footsteps clank down the stairs, and I scramble to my chain and put it on. It’s a rule: When I’m down here, I have to put my chain on. I barely get the lock clipped shut on my ankle cuff before Twitch walks into the room. He’s carrying Brutus. He sets him down, and the cat purrs against his leg for a minute before trotting off. I like Brutus. Sometimes he even lets me pet him, but only when Twitch isn’t around.

Twitch watches the cat leave, and then goes over to Mom and jerks her chain. I can tell it hurts by the squinty face she makes, but she tries not to let it show. He’s always yanking her around like that. Jerking her this way and that. It’s turned her ankle into a checkerboard of blue and purple and black.

I want to bite his arm off.

“Well,” he says, standing with his hands on his hips. “Any big plans for the day?”

She stares at the floor and shakes her head.

He laughs his mean laugh, and then comes over and checks my lock before returning to the doorway. “Tonight’s a big night guys. A big night.” He claps his hands together and rubs them, winks at me. “Maybe I’ll even have little Ben help this time.”

Mom jerks forward, teeth bared. “Don’t…you…dare.”

Twitch shakes his head and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. “Ah, ah, ah. Careful now. You know what happens if you get lippy with me.”

Mom leans back against the wall. She looks tired.

“Whelp, gotta go make some hay. I can’t bum around all day with you two. Be back around six.”

He turns to leave, but I stop him.

“Sir, you think you can leave the door cracked? It’s really hot in here.”

And it is. I’m already sweating.

Twitch rubs his chin for a minute. “Sure kid. It’s the least I can do after this morning.” And then he’s gone, tromping back up the stairs.

When the door whumps shut above, Mom turns to me and tells me to get back to my job on the pipe, but her voice is different this time. High and thin like a bird. She’s scared for Madison. I am too. I scurry over to my bed and dig out the piece of rusty metal Mom has me hide in the mattress. She found it two weeks ago inside a crumbly cinderblock next to her bed. She calls it a file, but I like to pretend it’s a sword. Sometimes I wave it around like one, but she always stops me. She’s scared Twitch will hurt me if I get caught.

But he won’t catch me. I’m already halfway through!

I told Mom to use it on her chain, but she said it won’t work on the chains, that it will only work on the plastic pipe. The big black one that mine wraps around. She makes me rub it hard from the back where Twitch won’t think to look. It hurts my hands, though. Sometimes I bang my knuckles on the cinder blocks, and it makes them bleed.

Today, I start carefully, sawing back and forth in little motions, but Mom’s face twists up, and she stops me. “Benjamin, listen. You have to work harder than you ever have in your whole life. You have to finish. Today. Before Sir gets home. We can’t let him do his bad things to that little girl, understand?”

I nod my head. I will do good for her.

I work super hard, but I have to take lots of breaks. Mom yells at me to keep going. She’s never yelled so much before. I don’t want to let her down, and I want to save the girl, but after forever, I have to stop because the skin on my right hand is all scraped up. Mom says not to stop, but I show her my hand and her mouth falls open. It’s bleeding pretty bad. She tells me to take my shirt off and use it as a glove.

I nod and pull it over my head…and stop. A sound. The girl. She’s awake, her voice still wobbly with the sleeping potion. We can hear her through the air duct. Her voice is light and feathery.

“Mo-momma? Momma…”

The cage clanks, and I know she’ll scream soon. They all do. Twitch said I was lucky not to go in the cage when he caught me and Mom. Said he had a different idea for us.

“Momma, where are you? Momma? Mommy!”

Mom tries to calm her down, but it’s no use. The girls always scream when they first wake up. They scream until they can’t scream anymore. I hate it. I shove my fingers in my ears and, after a long time, Madison stops and starts to cry. The sound of it makes me cry too. I’m the one who did this to her. Me and no one else. Mom is crying, too. She hates it when they wake up even more than I do. She wipes her eyes and quietly asks me for the Madison’s name.

“W-who, who are you?” Madison asks.

“My name’s Melody, and I think you met my son, Ben.”

I wipe my eyes with my hurt hand and say hello. The tears sting my scrape.

“We’re stuck here just like you,” Mom says.

“How come I can’t see you?”

“Because we’re in the room next to you.”

“Is Ben…is he the boy with the puppy?”

“Yes honey, he is.”

Madison’s voice goes up a notch. “Why’d he do that? Why’d he trick me?”

Mom’s face collapses inward and she looks down and shakes her head, her hair falling around her in thin strands. When she looks up again, her eyes are wet and stained with tears.

“Listen sweetheart, Ben didn’t do that to you. That man, the one who put you in the van. Do you remember him?”


“He’s a very bad man. He’s the one that tricked you. He tricked us too.”

“He—he did?”

“Yes. We’ve been stuck here for a long time.”

“Mrs. Melody?”

“Yes honey?”

“Is he…is that bad man going to hurt me?”

Mom’s face falls, and she shakes her head. “He might, but we’re not going—”

“He’s gonna hurt me? But I don’t want him to hurt me! I want to go home!”

Madison screams again and rattles the cage some more. Her voice is so high it hurts my ears.

“Madison!” Mom yells. “Madison listen to me!”

The girl doesn’t, but Mom keeps trying, and finally she quiets down.

“We’re not going to let him hurt you sweetheart, but I need you to be brave, understand? Really, really brave. Do you think you can do that for me?”

She sniffles. “I—I think so.”

“Good. Ben is working to get out of the mean man’s trap as fast as he can. Then we can help you.”

“Okay. Mrs. Melody?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Please tell him to hurry.”

Mom’s face snaps my way. “C’mon, baby. You can do this. Don’t stop until you get all the way through.”

I nod and wrap my shirt around my bad hand and go back to work. Mom keeps talking to Madison.

It takes the rest of the day, but I finally saw through the pipe with my sword. My hands ache so bad they won’t open anymore, and there’s blood all over my shirt. I look up at the small window near the ceiling, and the light tells me Twitch will be home soon.

Mom claps her hands. “Good Ben! Good! Now pull on your chain super hard.”

I do and the pipe bends a little.


I try again and it bends a little more, but not enough for me to get free.

Mom tells me to come over to her, and together we yank on it crazy hard. With a loud thwap, the pipe bends and I’m free. Well, sort of. I still have the chain on, but I can go anywhere now.

Mom takes my face in her hands, her eyes flashing like the sun. “You know where Sir keeps the keys, right?”

I do. Way up high on the board by the cupboards. I’ve seen him put them there after we catch a fish.

“Go. Go as fast as you can and bring them back.” I start to, but Mom pulls me back. “If you see Sir, you run outside and scream as loud as you can for help. You can’t let him…” She breaks off and wipes her eyes. “He can’t catch you, Ben. No matter what. Even if you have to leave me down here, you do it. Now nod like you understand.”

My lip trembles, and I nod. She crushes me to her chest, and I wrap my arms around her and cry into her shirt. I don’t ever want to let go.

“I love you so much, Benji. I love you more than you’ll ever know. Don’t ever forget that. Now go!”

I run out of the room past the burn box, and my chain gets caught, and I trip. It takes me a minute, but I jerk it free and pick up as much of it as I can. I can’t carry all of it. Just enough so I can walk a little better. Once upstairs, I head straight for the board. It’s high up, so I have to push a chair over and climb onto the counter. It’s hard with the chain getting in the way, but I do it, and scooch myself to the edge and peak around the cupboard.

No keys!

Gravel crunches outside. An engine rattles, and I look out the window: Twitch’s van pulling into the driveway. My stomach twists into a thousand slippery knots, and suddenly I can’t move. I know I should go like Mom said. That I should run outside through the backdoor right now before it’s too late, before Twitch sees me and explodes, but I can’t leave Mom. I can’t! Or Madison. Not after I got her stuck here. Twitch will kill them both. I just know it.

I check for the keys again hoping my eyes are playing tricks on me.

Nope. Not there.

I look away, and something shiny catches my eye on the floor, in the corner.

They must have fallen somehow.

I hop down and scoop them into my hand and race toward the basement as the van door slams shut outside, but before I reach the stairs, I’m jerked back and slammed to the floor. My chain. It’s stuck! I frantically glance back and see it jammed beneath the fridge. Footsteps clomp up the porch, and my heart skips a beat. I scramble back and yank it free, and then pick up as much of it as I can, but I can’t get it all. A long length of it clinks against the linoleum as I dash for the stairs.

It’s the loudest sound in the word.

The backdoor bangs open and I hear Twitch roar.

He’s seen me!

I make it halfway down the stairs before the chain gets tangled in my feet. I roll to the bottom, my head banging hard against the last step. Fireworks shoot everywhere, like on the Fourth of July. Except these fireworks are in my head and they hurt. I stand up and touch my forehead and feel something warm and sticky. I know what it is and start to cry, but bite my lip and tell myself to be big. I’m not little anymore.

I’m big.

I’m brave.

My heart does its whoomp, whoomp thing in my chest as Twitch crashes down the stairs behind me. I don’t look back and dash to the room. Mom sees me, and her face gets all messed up—all white and panicked—and she shakes her head real fast.

“No…no…no. God no, Ben. No. Why did you come back? Why?”

I don’t have time to answer. I throw her the keys and dive back behind the burn box. Back in the corner where Twitch can’t reach me. Except there’s a problem. My chain is hanging out. I try to pull it back before Twitch can reach it, but he’s too fast. He yanks it hard, and my ankle screams. He yanks again, and I almost lose my grip on the burn box.

“Come on out, you naughty boy, you,” Twitch says, laughing. But it’s not his funny laugh. It’s the one that means he’s about to do really bad stuff. I’ve heard it before, mostly when he’s with the girls in the cage.

He jerks the chain harder, and I feel like my ankle’s gonna tear off.

I scream my lungs out.

“Get out her you little fucker. Just you wait until I get my hands on you.”

“Leave. Him. Alone.” Mom. Her voice low and tight. So low it scares me.

The chain goes slack. “Or you’ll do what?” His voice sounds like he’s swallowed a bunch of rocks.

Brutus hisses, and then shrieks like someone stepped on his tail: Rreeoowww!

“You take your filthy slut hands off my cat. Right. Now.”

“Not a chance.”

“Bitch, if you don’t, I’ll cut off every last one of your fingers and toes. And then I’ll cut out your tongue and eat it.”

I quietly collect my chain and slip around the burn box to the other side where I can see Twitch. He takes a step toward Mom. Her eyes have gone wild. Crazy. Stretched wide open like two huge blue and white marbles in the dim light. Her eyebrows are popped way high up on her forehead, and she’s got Brutus by the scruff of his neck. The cat is hissing and jerking around, swiping at her arm. She’s cut. I can see the blood dripping on the floor, but she doesn’t seem to care. All she’s focused on is Twitch. She shakes the cat. Hard.

Brutus shrieks.

“No closer, or I promise you, I’ll snap his neck.”

He stops. “You filthy whore! I’m going to kill—”

I bite his arm as hard as I can, taste blood.

He roars and more fireworks explode as he backhands me. I fall and skid backwards. I see him stalk forward through a shower of stars, but not before Mom explodes from the room with an awful wail. She runs straight at him and, for a moment, she looks like a demon, her hair sticking out at crazy angles, her face pale-white and all twisted up with rage. I’ve never seen her move so fast. She slams into him and sends him tumbling backward into the burn box. His eyes go wide and he tries to grab onto something. Anything. His hands claw at the empty air around Mom. She ducks out of his reach, and, before he can stand, slams the lid down. Locks it. Twitch screams and pounds on the metal (BAM! BAM! BAM!).

Mom tells me to close my eyes and plug my ears.

I do, and she clicks the red button—the one Twitch presses to feed his girls to the box—the one that makes them disappear. There’s a few clicks, like a barbeque grill starting, and then a hot whoosh. He screams and it’s a sound worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had. It bubbles up through the metal and right into my skull, going higher and higher and higher until I can’t block it out, no matter how hard I try.

It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

After what feels like forever, Mom brushes my cheek with her hand, and I open my eyes to see the outline of her in the dusty light. She pulls me forward and hugs me so hard, I feel like my ribs will crack.

I don’t care. I hug her back just as hard.

A moment later, I push away and stare at her dirty face. It’s all wet and shiny with tears, and I worry she got burned too.

“Are you okay, Momma?”

“Yes, baby. Yes.” She makes a strange choking sound and hugs me again. Madison watches us through the bars in the next room and somehow, in this moment, I know I’ll never have to go fishing again.




Caleb Stephens is a novelist living in Denver, Colorado. His short stories have been published in Suspense Magazine, Horror Tales Podcast, Ink Stains, Dark Tales and Hinnom Magazine, for which he is the Assistant Editor. He is represented by Ann Collette of the Rees Literary Agency. You can learn more at www.calebstephensauthor.com.

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