Under a Cursed Star

Originally published in Menacing Hedge

 

Vaughn imagined a catfish or a bass crackle-popping in a skillet full of hot butter when he saw his fishing line go taut. He’d only been back-trolling for ten minutes, so an early strike was a good omen. The upside to catching fish early in the evening was getting home sober enough to cook them without burning down the house.  His mother had always told him, “You take your happiness where you can find it.”

The act of grabbing his rod and reel, the release of the spinner, and the gentle, backwards tug on the pole all acted in concert to exorcise the stress from his body. His mind went to a better place and he said a small prayer the week would finish in a finer place than it started. Vaughn thought it sure as shit wouldn’t be hard to do that, but his hopes were dashed as he started to reel in his catch.

Not a lick of fight on the line. Probably hooked some lake trash.

He reeled it in a little faster than he normally would, after all there was no danger in losing a live one. But he might have gone a little slower if he’d known what was on the other end. The thing that cut through the water wasn’t the door off on an old toaster oven (he had caught one of those before and almost lost his lucky lure in the process) or some old tree branch. This object traveled easily, and as it began to surface, it gave the impression of being thick and slithery. Although, as Vaughn pulled it out of the lake he could tell it wasn’t a snake.

He raised his catch a little higher, but still couldn’t quite make out what he’d hooked. He reached for his flashlight and appraised it under the soft, flickering glow of a bulb in need of replacement.

It twirled on the line trying to spin itself back to its original untwistedness.

Vaughn remained calm as he swung the catch over and cut what looked to be a human forearm off of his fishing line. The waterlogged limb fell to the fiberglass bass boat with a wet whump that reminded him of the dropped-on-the-floor Thanksgiving turkey he’d taken a beating over years ago when such things mattered.

There was no one here to punish him with words or belts or fists tonight.

There was just him and someone’s arm.

Part of him expected the arm to move. Maybe the act of catching it like a fish made him think it would behave like a fish, but it did no such thing. It just lay there, oozing water and some other yellowish mucus onto his battered-but-not-yet-broken boat.

As the boat lilted back and forth in the water, Vaughn shifted his body allowing the full moon to illuminate the limb.

The hair on the arm suggested it belonged to a man. But Vaughn had seen plenty of hairy-armed women buying groceries at the store. So it could be a woman’s. The limb was so swollen with water that identification was impossible to his untrained eye. Vaughn decided his evenings spent watching TV crime shows had left him much less prepared in the world of forensics than he’d have hoped.

It was not uncommon for Vaughn to fish on a Friday night. He was not the kind of man who kept company with his office mates who spent their “happy” hours and the better part of their paychecks trying to woo the interns with liquor and lies. He took pride in the fact that he did his work and went home. It was much easier to avoid glancing at the women if he got home as quickly as possible. If he’d known he was going to hook an arm instead of a bass, he might’ve opted to endure that particular brand of torture instead.

Vaughn thought about just throwing it back. It would actually be the easiest thing to do. Find a different fishing hole and tell himself that he’d just dreamed up the whole episode. But that note rang falsely to the compass in his head. Vaughn was many things, but he wasn’t a liar. He cleared eight out of the twelve beers from his cooler and set the arm in the ice.

It seemed rude to keep fishing, so he called it a night and headed back to shore.

                                                                       

* * *

 

Vaughn heard the slosh of the melting ice as he set the cooler on his kitchen table. He pictured the arm floating amongst the Budweisers and wondered why he hadn’t taken all the beers out. It would be hard to drink them now. Probably not sanitary either.

His mother would’ve said, “That’s just the cost of doing business.”

She’d said lots of things like that to him as she’d taught him how to behave and the harsh consequences of getting it wrong. Out of habit, he uttered her words aloud.

He picked up his phone and dialed. Even though it was a landline, he held the receiver away from his ear. Touching the plastic to his ear felt wrong, but he preferred it to cell phones. He was certain cell phones would give him ear cancer or brain cancer or some kind of tumor in the pocket area near his penis so he chose a “real” phone and kept it at a safe distance. The good news was he got the internet when he ordered a phone line, and the internet was good to have when you lived alone.

“Sheriff’s office.” A polite, female voice answered.

He was thinking so hard about his love of the internet and his mistrust of phones that he forgot who he was calling.

 “Sheriff’s office.” The voice repeated. At the sound of the woman’s voice, Vaughn’s stomach lurched.

“Do you have any male officers I might talk to?” His voice was sandpaper in his throat.

“Excuse me?”

“I’d just be more comfortable talking to a man.”

The politeness fell from her voice. “Are you calling to report a crime?”

Vaughn peeked under the cooler’s lid. The arm floated peacefully. He considered her question. There were probably lots of non-criminal ways one could lose an arm. Wasn’t that what the police were supposed to figure out?

“I’m not sure. But I am sure that I would be more comfortable talking to a man.”

“I can do anything a man can do sir. I am trained, I am certified, frankly, I teach people how to do this job.”

Vaughn picked up a gruff man’s voice in the background, “Who’s on the phone, Wanda? Are you giving somebody trouble?”

Vaughn heard the man take the phone away from her.

“Can I help you?”

Vaughn thought he sounded like a man working on something in his mouth. Maybe he was eating? Maybe chewing tobacco? He hoped it was eating.

“Oh thank god, thank you for doing that.”

Vaughn heard the man spit. Chewing tobacco, it was. Vaughn tried not to judge. Tobacco was a “bad habit.” His mother told him this many times.

“Yes? You need some assistance, sir?”

“Do you have anyone missing an arm?”

“Excuse me? Is this some kind of prank?”

“No sir.” Vaughn thought talking to a man would make him feel better, but clearly talking to the police terrified him regardless of gender.

“Then why would you ask a question like that?”

He heard the female officer in the background. “Um-hm, he’s yours now.”

“I figured if someone was missing an arm, you would know about it.”

Vaughn sighed. This was not going well at all. This is not how things went on the cop shows on TV, although those shows usually happened in the big city. Wiggins Creek was not a big city, but it was home just the same.

“We would. Yes. Your logic is superb, son. You gonna tell me what’s going on? Are you in some trouble? What have you done?”

Shit. Vaughn panicked. I haven’t done anything. I just went fishing.

He hung up the phone.

 

                                                                    * * *

 

Vaughn thought the best thing to do was to get rid of the arm. After all, the limb had been nothing but trouble. He’d acted like an idiot on the phone with the Sherriff’s people and he’d lost four good Budweisers to it in the cooler simply trying to get it home.

The arm had to go.

He grabbed his ice chest and headed to his truck. As he pulled away he knew he’d never want to hear the sound of ice sloshing around in a cooler again. From now on, he’d have to only drink as much as he could carry.

Vaughn drove around trying to think of a good place to get rid of the arm, but anxiety twisted inside him like a wet rag. He drove past the hospital, thinking they must know how to get rid of things like this. They amputated body parts everyday. Surely they had systems in place. But there would be questions. And nurses.

He also drove past the dump. But this was a human arm and a human hand. At some point it must have thrown a ball or raised a glass or had to hit someone for getting the rules wrong. You couldn’t just throw it away. It would be disrespectful.

Plus, sometimes dogs get in the trash. Heaven forbid if a dog got ahold of the arm and ran home with it. If a child saw his fluffy dog chewing on someone’s arm he might never sleep again. Vaughn knew he wasn’t going to sleep well tonight after what he’d seen and he was a grown-ass man.

He drove back home and grabbed a shovel.

 

* * *

 

Vaughn chose a patch of dirt away from the house where nothing seemed to grow anyway to bury the arm. He was almost done with the hole when he spotted the police cruiser’s lights in his driveway. He cursed himself for trying to be too neat with the hole. He’d wanted the sides to go straight up and down like the graves on television. If he’d just dug a shallow round hole, it wouldn’t be right. His mother had always told him, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you definitely don’t have time to do it twice.”

He figured the police must be able to find your address when you call them. He’d seen that once on one of his TV shows.

He heard them call his name. “Vaughn Carson!”

He heard them coming through the woods. “Vaughn Carson!”

He put the shovel down and waited. “Vaughn Carson!”

It didn’t take long.

 

* * *

 

Vaughn tried to explain he’d found the arm in the lake and called the police. He tried to explain that the police themselves didn’t know about anyone missing an arm. He tried to explain that you don’t just throw out an arm and he was just giving the arm a decent burial.

He kept trying to explain until one of the policemen put his hands on him.

There were many things that made Vaughn feel uncomfortable, but people putting their hands on him made him angry. Vaughn tried very hard to control his temper. He had his pills and he had his training. The doctors had given him lots of ways to “stay even.”

He wished he’d been able to stay even.

 

* * *

 

It was hard to sit in the back of the cruiser with the handcuffs on.  It hurt on his wrists, but it also hurt in his head.

He’d sat in the back of a car like this when he was twelve, but they didn't put him in handcuffs then. They’d asked him if he’d like to bring along a toy. He thought he would look like a baby, being twelve years old and holding onto a crappy Stretch Armstrong doll, so he declined.

The cool thing about Stretch was you could pull him and pull him right to the breaking point and he’d always snap back. Sometimes Vaughn dreamed about Stretch. He’d been so worried about looking like a baby in front of the police that he’d left his favorite toy to fend for himself. You’re never supposed to abandon the things you love and he swore he’d do better the next time he had to make a hard choice.

Young Vaughn had been found by some neighbors. They must have heard him screaming in the closet. His mother kept him there when he broke the rules. He tried to be good, but sometimes he’d make mistakes and have to sit in the dark and “think about it.”  

And once, while he was thinking about it, his mother was choking on a hot dog.

He could hear her trying to breathe. He could hear her thrashing into the kitchen table and the daisy-patterned Corelle plates hitting floor. They were the kind of plates that couldn’t break, but they sure made a ruckus just the same.

Vaughn’s mother finally landed next to the door of the closet he was locked in and he heard her not breathe her last breath.

When she was frustrated with him, she used to tell him he was born under a cursed star. But he thought choking to death on a hot dog in her own home didn’t say too much good about his mother’s relationship with fate either.

 

* * *

 

The police did indeed find the remains of a woman in the lake. And as Vaughn noted during questioning, the woman was hairier than most. The fact was noted in the autopsy and oddly enough, that detail helped her family come forward and identify her.

She’d been missing for thirteen months and thirteen days and her family had assumed she was dead. They’d made their peace with her disappearance, but were grateful to have a body to bury and the mortician did a fine job reattaching the arm.

And though Vaughn was relieved the police eventually got the matter sorted out, he still spent an evening in the lockup with some of the town’s less than model citizens.

While he was in the holding cell, Vaughn got into a scuffle with some drunks. He tried to explain that he didn’t like to be touched, but that only made matters worse. He probably shouldn’t have hit the biggest one, but his mother always said, “You take the big one down and the rest always scatter.”

It was then that Vaughn realized his mother had told him many things that made sense when she said them, but rarely seemed to work out in the real world.

The rest did not scatter.

As the drunkards’ kicks and blows rained down on him and he started to lose consciousness, Vaughn banished the thoughts of his mother and her pointless sayings. Instead, he found comfort in the face of Stretch Armstrong who said nothing, but always managed to smile and endure.