That damn Sarah Hatley is dangerous. She’s been “dowsing” for dead animals ever since the last of the winter snow melted. The Hatley girl is always carrying that same crooked bit of a willow branch. Sarah holds it out in front of herself with her eyes closed, and then makes faces like she’s detecting something invisible in the air. She calls it her “sensing stick.”
I’ve seen her digging things up, too. She’s telling everyone who asks that she can make the little corpses “feel better” again. I will admit that I’ve noticed a strange abundance of squirrels and blue jays in the parklands this year. Maybe that’s just an eerie coincidence, though. The recent winter’s snowfall in Ashland was also irregularly heavy. Sometimes things are related and sometimes they aren’t.
Speaking of things that might (or might not) be connected, almost a dozen people went missing this winter. Not a single one of them has returned to Ashland or otherwise been found. The police are starting to think these incidences might all be related. In the papers, it’s been theorized that “a single unknown assailant” might living here in town. They’ve started calling this unknown person the “Ashland Flayer.” No official leads on a suspect yet, though. That’s even despite all the odd body parts that started turning up around town. It’s ugly business, to be sure.
Sarah’s nineteen with the mind of an eleven-year-old. Physically, she’s more like a young man. The girl is nearly six feet tall and broad in the shoulders. She not just big; she’s got muscles all over her body. I’ve caught Sarah on my property a few times now, and each time I’m afraid to have her anywhere near me. She climbs the chain link to let herself into my backyard without my permission. I’ve had to chase her off every time that she’s done it. Her dowsing rod keeps bringing her back. I don’t keep pets and I never did. I’ve told her that several times now, but she doesn’t seem to believe me.
Neighborhood kids have started saving up their lunch money and allowances to “hire” Sarah. They want her to bring back their dead pets. She’s more than happy to accept all the pocket change and crumpled-up bills they manage to bring her. Parents have started to worry, and I’ve decided to start being more vocal about my own concerns. It’s felt good to share my anxiety with others in the community. There’s no question that Sarah Hatley will keep stirring up trouble in Ashland. If she hasn’t done so already, she’ll soon go way too far.
The kids have started sneaking out after night. Even stranger, there’s stories about pets coming back. Parents shrug it off, mostly. Mundane explanations are quickly found, because the only alternative is to believe Sarah’s claims. “It’s not the same dog,” they say. “It’s just that an oddly similar animal has wandered into town.” Coincidences like that seem harmless enough at first. I’ve seen a few families chasing animals away, though, too. The father shouts and brandishes some makeshift weapon while standing in the driveway, and the mother waits nearby until the animal is out of sight. Usually, she’s trying to convince her crying children that “it wasn’t their dog” that’s being chased off.
It’s hard to tell how much Sarah understands because she’s developmentally delayed. She could be a killer. That’s certainly true. It wouldn’t take a wild stretch of imagination to think of her bludgeoning or stabbing a man to death. She’s a remarkably strong girl. Sarah might easily fill the role of the Ashland Flayer. The only missing piece is a demon in her heart. In my opinion, that’s what makes someone lash out to kill a stranger. When you look at a person from the outside, here’s no way to tell whether that demon is there.
I heard rustling outside my window last night, and retrieved my gun before heading to investigate. I clicked on the porchlight as I stepped outside. At the periphery of the illuminated area, I found Sarah Hatley creeping near the side of the house. She looked dazedly in my direction as I leveled my rifle at her. “You damn girl,” I hissed loudly. “You’re trespassing!” Maybe it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the flood of light that I had brought outside with me. When she recognized the firearm that I carried, Sarah’s face changed briefly into an expression of obvious anxiety.
“There’s dead animals buried here,” she stuttered out. Her face returned to tranquil blankness as I lowered my gun, but a trace of fear remained. That damn, stupid dowsing rod of hers was still pointed in the direction of my house. The tip of the branch wavered gently in the air as Sarah’s hands began to tremble. I could tell that she was still thinking about how she had risked getting shot.
“I don’t keep any pets,” I told her yet again. “I never have.” I shouldered my rifle as though I was ready to drive Sarah off my property by force. She made the same anxious face as before. “I don’t want to see you here ever again,” I growled.
“Awful sorry, mister,” she responded. “But there’s dead critters here that want healing.” Looking crestfallen, she turned and started walking in the direction of her own house. I kept my gun at hand and the porchlight on as I watched her leave. Sarah lifted herself over the chain link fencing at the border of my property and continued walking into the darkness until I could no longer see her.
Maybe I overreacted, but could you really blame me? The local newspapers published another story about the Ashland Flayer this morning. The Flayer’s been connected to another disappearance that happened in the late hours of New Year’s Eve. The police claim that they are narrowing their list of suspects, but they haven’t arrested anyone yet. That’s got me feeling scared. The last thing I need now are random townsfolk skulking around on my property. If I let my guard down, then I’m risking my own neck. I suppose that’s true for anyone – isn’t it?
One of the strange dogs that’s supposed to have been “healed” by Sarah caused some serious trouble today. It went berserk and started biting the kid that paid Sarah to bring his old dog back. By the sound of it, the kid took some really nasty bites. He was basically mauled. Finally, the people of Ashland are starting to organize against that weirdo clan of Hatleys. The mother and father are just as odd as Sarah is. Maybe they’re afraid of their own daughter. Could that be why they never speak up about her behavior?
The boy that was mauled returned from the hospital today. He wore some fresh stitches in his neck, down near the collarbone where the teeth had gone in. He’s claiming that it’s his fault that the dog bit him. He says that Sarah didn’t do anything wrong. Apparently, he did something that used to bother his dog before it died. He did it to test whether his new dog was really the same one he buried last summer. He says that he’s certain now that the creature that bit his throat open can only be the revivified body of his old pet. That irrational fool of a boy says that he still loves his childhood pet.
Some people from the town went out to confront the Hatleys last night. I was among them. Sarah’s parents were shy and did not seem to take our anger seriously. They meekly defended their daughter. They proclaimed that their family was innocent on all counts. The father claimed instead that the evil happenings around Ashland must be coming from somewhere else. The Hatley mother even dared to whisper that there was something particularly strange about my own property. I spat in anger to hear it, and then I loudly called the whole family devil worshippers. I said it right into their faces, and did not grant any of them a single batted eye of doubt or sympathy while the family denied it. The town was mostly on my side by the end of it. We had decided by now that the Hatleys were no good.
The police continue to provide no real answers about the disappearances that occurred over this past winter. It’s become something of a nightly routine for many people in Ashland to carefully check their surroundings before bed. Some from the community like to watch their yards from behind the barely-parted blinds that obscure their upstairs windows. Other people are brave enough to step out onto the sidewalks near their homes to talk with neighbors. Eventually, we all go inside and lock up extra securely as the dusk wanes to night. I’ve started to complain more openly about that damn Sarah Hatley. “I think she’s the sole source of all this trouble.” That’s what I tell the parents of those children who have asked for five or ten dollars to give the Hatley girl. “They want their dead pets back, and she’s playing along with a perverted sort of glee in order to keep pocketing their money.”
“She’s just a girl,” some of them respond.
“Sarah’s a grown woman and stronger than some men,” I tell them. My correction of this detail is stern enough to make most people’s eyes flit nervously away from me. No one wants to look me in the eye because I’m saying things that disturb them. “She’s strong and strange enough to drive a knife into someone who doesn’t suspect it,” I’ve declared aloud more than once. “And she’s sneaky enough to find people who would make good targets.”
It was a Sunday morning when Sarah Hatley finally went too far. She found something in the town square that Ashland police had completely failed to notice. I was one of the first people to gather around her as Sarah started prying up the cement pavers that were there in the public promenade. She looked to be keen on revealing a section of soil that was hidden underneath. Reaching down into the dirt with her bare hands, Sarah quickly uncovered the rigor-stiffened arm of a corpse. It had been buried only inches beneath the surface of the ground. The killer had covered the body with little more than a dusting of dirt, and then simply crunched the heavy cement pavers back on top of the shallow grave that had been made there. Now, Sarah was gripping the corpse by its exposed wrist. She was heaving with all her strength to bring more of the body up and out of the ground.
Those of us who were standing there with Sarah begged her to stop. “The police will be here soon,” we told her. “You don’t need to touch the body anymore.” Sarah kept digging, though. She was prying at the caked-on dirt with her fingertips to reveal more of the corpse. It soon escalated and became even worse than that, though. Repeatedly, she drew her nose and mouth disgustingly close to the putrefied flesh. Was she smelling it? No, it was even worse than that. Each time that Sarah’s face went near the arm, I could see that she was leaving toothmarks behind. “That damn girl is biting the body!” I screamed in pure revulsion. “She’s tasting it!”
My accusation was enough to draw Sarah out of her reverie. She looked up to all of us who were gathered there around her. With a look of fear on her face, she glowered toothily at us and revealed that there were indeed gritty bits of rotten coagulate stuck in and around her mouth. Solidified blood stained the crooked angles between most of her teeth. The saliva from her tongue rehydrated some of the congealed mess, returning it to something like fresh blood flow. The liquified red trickled down in rivulets from the pouting corners of Sarah’s mouth.
“It’s a misunderstanding!” Sarah wailed. “I found this fella down here, but I didn’t do nothing to him!” She let out of a scream of frustration. “He just needs waking up! I have to wake him up now, or he won’t get another chance! He wants to get up here, along with the rest of us! He’s begging me to help him wake up!”
Sarah brought her voice down into something like unintelligible sobbing, and remained sitting by the corpse she had unearthed. She sat like that until the police arrived. They put Sarah in a holding cell down at the county jail, and they brought the remains of that corpse to the morgue. It’ll take a few days for the body to be identified properly. I reckon that we’ll learn a lot more in the coming days, but it’s already gotten to the point where the community of Ashland seems to have come to a final consensus. The Hatleys are going to be forced out of town. We’ll drive them out with weapons and actual bloodshed, if it has to come to that. Even local the police and churches seem ready to stand aside and let us take matters into our own hands. I suspect the newspapers won’t breathe a word if we’re all ultimately forced to kill them. We’d all be criminally complicit, just for defending ourselves and our homes. What sense is there in airing an honest town’s dirty laundry like that?
Sarah’s back out of jail on a pathetically small bail amount. It was made clear to her that we mainly just never want to see her face again. The Hatleys are packing up everything in their house, and they’ll be on the road soon enough. I don’t know exactly how much of a direct role I’ve had in purging that clan from my beloved Ashland, but I’m glad at least to see that they’re finally almost gone. It’s an undeniable relief, but I wonder whether this could really be the end of my restless nights. Am I finally safe?
You and I are strangers, dear reader, and I am confident that we will never meet. For this reason, I can at least admit this to you. I’m the one they call the Ashland Flayer. The remains of no fewer than thirty victims are buried in the cellar beneath my house. I work in the winter to stifle the smell. By springtime I’ve cleaned and preserved all the trophies that I care to keep.
I hope for their own sake that the Hatley family never tries to come back to Ashland. If Sarah Hatley “dowses” her way back onto my property, she’s going to find a lot more than she ever bargained for.