Ashley Pemberly stood at the door looking barely a day older than the day Sarah Goodsen watched her descend the front stairs and walk out of her life for good. That was twenty years ago, but there had rarely been a day Sarah hadn’t at least thought of her once in passing.
They didn’t leave on bad terms. It had been time for Ashley to move on and for Sarah to grow up. At least, that is what Mama said. Tall, beautiful, and full of youthful exuberance, Ashley was everything Sarah wanted to be. Now, except for a hint of a wrinkle, she exuded the same gypsy spirit that Sarah remembered.
When they first met, Sarah was eight years old and swore she didn’t need a babysitter. Mama disagreed. When she turned fourteen, her Mama finally agreed, but by then, Sarah worshipped Ashley.
“Ashley, what are you doing here?” Sarah grabbed her and pulled her inside.
“Hi, Sarah. It’s great to see you,” Ashley said.
“Sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, I would love one.”
“So, what brings you here?”
Ashley settled into a seat at the dining room table and Sarah prepared tea in the adjacent kitchen. Sarah turned the television volume down and let the news filter in the background.
“I was hoping to get a reference. I have applied to take care of an elderly woman over on Juniper Lane.”
Sarah poked her head through the doorway. “Are you sure you don’t want one from Mama? She’s living at my sister’s house.”
“Yes. That would be lovely.”
“I’ll give her a call.” The teakettle whistle blew. Sarah poured the hot water over loose tea. She slid her newly sharpened cimeter knife, the same she used at her restaurant, from the butcher block and marveled at its sleek design before slicing several pieces of bread and cheese.
“Do you remember those ghost stories I used to tell you?” Ashley asked.
“How could I not? They scared the bajeezus out of me. I hope you don’t plan on telling them to your poor old woman.”
“No, of course not. I don’t know why I thought of it. Those were great times and you were such a willing audience.”
Sarah carried their cups and the cheese platter to the dining room and settled in. “They accounted for more than one sleepless night. Do you remember the last one you told me? About the guy who was run over by the train and died, but haunted everyone who lived within a mile of the tracks? The sound of the train in the middle of the night used to fill me with terror. Daddy was so cross at you. Thank God the train doesn’t come through anymore.”
Ashley giggled. “Yes. I remember. I hope I didn’t upset your parents too much.”
“No.” Sarah took Ashley’s cold hand and held it. Outside, it was the kind of autumn day for which the occupants of the small New England coastal town waited all year. Gold and orange enflamed the warm air, but inside the memory of ghost stories chilled the air. Sarah shivered.
Ashley smiled. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, of course. Do you want more tea?”
“Yes, that would be lovely. I do so enjoy seeing you again.”
“Me too.” Sarah rose. “Wait here.”
The kitchen glimmered in sunlight. Flickering light caught her attention. An image flashed on the television. A woman. Tape scrolled across the screen. The large image hovered over the scrolling tape. A disembodied voice said, “The partially dismembered body of a woman discovered along the abandoned railroad tracks has now been identified as Beverly Knapp. She had been visiting relatives when she went missing. It is in the same spot in which several previous victims were found. The first known victim, Ashley Pemberley, died here ten years ago. In further news…”
Chills ran along Sarah’s spine. No! A voice urged her. Flee! Leave the house. Run! She backed away and bolted. The path alongside the house lengthened. She peered behind her. Hurry! Questions twisted her thoughts. If Ashley was dead, then who drank tea in her dining room? Sarah had to assume whomever or whatever it was would find her. The faster she got away and found a large group of people in which to disappear, the safer she would be. But what could this mean? She needed to find Shane. Her brother would make sense of it.
She pulled her cell phone from her pocket. Shane’s voicemail. Leave a message.
Sarah headed to the grocery store. Light. People. Security. Sweat clung to her trembling hands. What always seemed a short distance felt like miles. She dialed Shane’s work number. His voicemail again. Where could he be?
Vertigo whirled her sideways. She spun into a tree. Did she know the other victims?
She didn’t want to bother her sister, Anne, and by extension her Mama, but panic clouded her judgment. She staggered across the street and dialed Anne’s number.
“Thank God, Anne. I was beginning to panic.”
“Anne?” Sarah looked at her phone. There were enough bars. “Anne?”
Her Mama’s voice worried in the background. “Who is it dear?”
Anne sounded tired. “It’s no one Mama. Probably someone who wants to pay their condolences.” Her voice broke. “Someone who loved Sarah.”
The line died.
Black spots floated across Sarah’s vision. Her knees buckled and she crumpled.
That’s how Ashley found Sarah.
She laced warm fingers in Sarah’s. Images flashed in Sarah’s mind. A dark corner. Upended garbage bags. Just a few steps to the dumpster. Pale moonlight. Pleading for her life. Something sharp. She could see a man’s black heart.
Ashley smiled. Her lips did not part. It’s time.We will find him, Sarah. Together.
Sarah nodded, swept away her tears, rose, followed, and joined several others. They were of one mind.
A black heart was easy enough to find and Sarah knew exactly what to do with it.
© Elizabeth Campbell Frey 2019
Photo by Andrea Boldizsar on Unsplash