The Hanford PD had been called to the corner of Irwin and Keith Street. For the third night in a row residents reported hearing a woman screaming for help. Witness statements read identically; they awoke around two in the morning to a woman screaming “Help! He’s going to kill me! He’s going to kill me! Please don’t let him kill me!” The screams would continue for a few minutes before suddenly ceasing.
Uniformed officers went door to door interviewing residents looking for leads. As had been the case every night no one had seen the screaming woman, nor did they have any idea where the screaming was coming from. Only that it had been so loud it sounded as if the woman were just steps outside their doors.
The police finished their interviews, took reports, canvased the area, and return to the station. Without anyone coming forward, or the discovery of a body, there was little the police could do. After repeating this process for a fourth night in a row, they concluded that it was most likely a teen in the area pulling off a tasteless prank.
This prank continued for several weeks.
Local news sources reported the story interviewing residents on camera and quoting them in the local paper. Both the residents and news agencies urged anyone with information to contact the sheriff’s office. Yet, despite the call for public assistance and added police patrols, no one came forward, no leads broke in the case, and no suspect had been apprehended.
In a local coffee shop sat Terry Grimshaw reading the paper and sipping on a warm cup of coffee. He was a pudgy man of average height who wore a black suit and tie he had pieced together from a clothes bin at the local Goodwill. Thin wire frame glasses sharpened the letters on the tiny print in the want ads.
Terry was looking for a new job. The used bookstore he worked at downtown was going out of business. The digital age and online discount booksellers had taken a toll on sales, and the owner informed Terry the shop would close its doors at the end of the month.
He wondered how he would pay the rent and make ends meet without a job. He daydreamed of buying a tent and camping supplies; live wild and free. Then he remembered how much he hated camping and how much he loved his apartment.
A few tables over he heard an elderly discussing the “wild screaming woman,” who would wake the whole neighborhood at god forsaken hours of the night. They hoped the five thousand dollar reward offered for information leading to an arrest would put an end to the woman’s antics.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help overhear. There’s a $5000 reward for catching the screaming woman?” Terry leaned towards the couple and spoke just loud enough for the couple to hear him.
“That’s right, young man. We all put money in hoping someone would come out and say something. My wife and I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks!” The elderly man said. He added, “Some damn kid thinks this game is funny! The police don’t even come out no more. I wish she’d come scream on my lawn. I’d pop that punk with my .22!”
“Calm down, Don.” The woman snapped at her husband. “I’m sorry. We’re just so tired, and those screams are just awful!”
“Well,” Terry began, “I’ll keep my ears open.”
“Keep your eyes open! Everyone’s heard her. Ain’t no one seen her!” The old man snapped.
Terry offered a sympathetic smile and turned back to his coffee. Five thousand dollars would help with the rent when he no longer had a job. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme, but it would buy him time if he couldn’t find a new job right away; and if he were to help catch this prankster, then he’d also be doing a service for the community. Being a local hero might help him find a job sooner than later.
He made up his mind. He’d run home, take a long nap, and go for a drive down Irwin and Keith Street to see if he could succeed where others had failed. He finished his coffee before gathering his things and heading home.
Terry awoke late that evening. He grabbed the flashlight and digital camera from his nightstand, placed them into a backpack, and left the apartment.
The drive to Irwin and Keith Street took only a few minutes. The streets were empty which did not surprise Terry considering it was a quarter to two in the morning. He parked the car and began to patrol the neighborhood on foot.
Large shade trees lined either side of the street. The street lights along the sidewalk were either out or dimmed. Two businesses and a soup kitchen watched over the neighborhood from the corners of the intersection.
The darkness around the homes and empty lots was thick and broken in only a few areas by the weak street lamps. He strolled up and down the sidewalk, but saw not a soul. He glanced at his phone, and just as the clock on the screen displayed “2:00 a.m.,” the screaming began.
A woman’s voice could be heard crying for help. Pleading desperately. The screams sounded as if they were coming from every directions. Terry panned the area, but saw no one.
From the corner of his eye he saw a shadow in the empty lot behind the soup kitchen. The lot, obstructed by old crates and pallets, and poorly lit, was the perfect hiding place for a young prankster. He ran towards the lot armed with his digital camera. He snapped photos wildly as he approached hoping to catch the perpetrator on film.
The shadow darted between stacks of pallets towards the dumpster at the far end of the lot with incredible speed. The screaming grew louder sounding as if coming from right beside Terry. He pivoted and snapped even more photos.
Neighbors could be heard yelling from their windows. A barrage of “shut the fuck up’s,” and “I’m going to kill you’s” bled through the screaming. After a moment the screaming stopped leaving an uneasy silence in its absence.
Terry crept along the edge of a stack of old wooden pallets slowly making his way to the dumpster where he had last seen the shadow. Like a cat ready to pounce on its prey, he readied himself along the side of the metal trash bin before leaping behind it taking photo after photo.
The flash on his camera exploded in bright blinding burst like lightning in a thunderstorm. He paused. No one hid behind the dumpster. Only the cinderblock wall lining the edge of the lot, the back of the dumpster, and dirt spread out before him. He walked around the dumpster, looked inside, and still found no one.
He knew someone had ducked behind the dumpster, and he was certain he would have seen the culprit running off or scaling the wall, if she had fled. Yet he saw no one and wondered if perhaps there was no shadow at all. Perhaps it had only been a trick of the light playing with his eyes.
No one but he stood in the cluttered lot.
A bright light flashed in Terry’s eyes.
“Police! Don’t move!”
Terry instinctively shot up a hand to block the blinding light. “Officer…”
“I said, don’t move!”
Terry stood still as the officer approached him with the palm of his hand resting on his pistol’s grip.
“What are you doing out here, son?” The officer demanded.
“I was trying to catch the woman.”
“The one who’s been screaming.”
“You know her?”
“No. I-I was hoping to catch her. Y’know. For the reward.”
“Dammit. Fucking people. Look, son, it’s our job to catch her. Not yours.”
“I-I know, but, some folks were telling me that you don’t come out here anymore.”
“I’m here now. Got reports of someone skulking around the neighborhood.”
“I’m sorry. I was just…”
“Well. Did you see her?”
“I’m not sure. I saw something over here, but I guess I was wrong.”
“Look. Thanks for trying to be a good citizen and all, but why don’t you go home and let me do my job.”
Terry’s heart sank. Of course he wouldn’t be able to catch the woman. The police were trained, and they haven’t found her. What on earth made him think he could do their job any better? He lowered his head and walked out of the lot towards his car.
“Hey,” the officer said as Terry passed him, “if you find anything that can lead to her arrest, you’ll get the reward.”
“Thanks.” Terry said defeated. He knew the officer was trying to be encouraging, but he was ready to get home and put the whole night behind him.
He got in his car without putting the key into the ignition. He just sat there. His body felt heavy. His mind a visionless blur of embarrassment and disappointment. He let out a heavy sigh and flipped through the sixty or so images he had taken with his camera.
Dozens of unfocused pictures passed through the LCD display screen. Occasionally a clear photo of the sidewalk, or a tree, would pop up on the display. He was convinced that even if he had caught the culprit on film, her image would have been distorted and unrecognizable. The night had been a wash.
He was about to put down the camera when he flipped across the images taken behind the dumpster. One photo had come out clear and crisp. In focus. Taken in an instant of absolute stillness. From beneath the dumpster he could just make out a girl laying prone.
She was angled toward the camera, but her face had been obscured by shadows and a hand cupped over her mouth. She was frail in form and wore a white hospital gown. Her hand, which she held over her mouth as if to muffle her screams, was bone thin. She appeared to be such a small thing to produce so great a scream.
He stared at the photo. Most of her face had been hidden. Perhaps, however, it would be enough for someone to recognize the girl, or at least provide a break in the case. The girl was wearing a hospital gown. Maybe she had run away to avoid some painful treatment or procedure? Maybe she was mentally disturbed?
Terry wondered for a moment if the local hospital housed the mentally ill, or if such patients were sent to larger facilities in Fresno or Visalia. Could she have escaped during transfer? The clockwork gears of his mind spun wildly upon theory after theory before finally dismissing them. After all it wasn’t his job to figure out the details. That job belonged to the police.
The time on his phone displayed 2:54 a.m. Nearly an hour since he had been reprimanded and told to go home. He had felt defeated, but now he was filled with renewed hope and a certainty that he had the lead which would lend to a successful apprehension. The reward money would be his.
Too excited to wait, Terry reach to open the door to see if the police officer was still around. As he pulled the latch the locks on his doors retracted with a familiar click.
“What the hell?” Terry said pushing on the button which should have unlocked the doors. He pulled on the handle of the passenger door. He reached over and did the same to the rear doors. The doors, however, refused to unlock.
He jammed the key into the ignition. Turned it forward. Nothing. He tried again, and again, and again. The car wouldn’t power on. The engine would turn over.
“What the fuck? C’mon, dammit!” He slammed his fist on the dashboard.
The radio, and only the radio, powered on. Deafening white noise blasted through the speakers. Terry tried to turn it down, but the volume controls refused to respond. The radio began scanning through stations filling the car with snippets of words, tones, and static from every frequency. The cacophony of noise screamed painfully in Terry’s ears.
The radio scanned faster. The noise seemed to string together to form words. Sentences.
“Why…didn’t…you…help…me? Why…didn’t…you…help…me? Why…didn’t…you…help…me?” The radio repeated over and over again.
A sick feeling weighed in Terry’s stomach as he began to understand the words coming from the radio. The last word, “me,” was distinctly female and carried in it anger and desperation. He leaned back in his seat trying to make himself as small as possible.
“Why…didn’t…you…help…me?” The radio continued to repeat through the channels.
“I-I d-did-didn’t see you!” Terry said.
The radio died off leaving an uneasy silence broken by Terry’s heavy breaths. He pulled forcefully on the door handle and slammed his shoulder against the door. He tried again. He tried a third and fourth time. The door would not budge. He looked around for anything he could use to smash out the window.
“Oh fucking hell!” Terry screamed when he looked up from his search. Outside his windshield, crouched on the hood, he saw the frail girl in the hospital gown staring in through empty black pits where her eyes should have been. Blood poured from her mouth and trailed down her chin.
The radio powered on, louder, scanning through frequencies at breakneck speed. Words strung together.
The girl slapped her hands against the windshield. Her mouth opened, stretching impossibly wide, and issued forth a deafening scream drowning out the repeating question from the radio.
Terry screamed. He beat his fist bloody against the window of the driver’s side door. Blood rushed and swished about his ears. His heart beat wildly in his throat. Over and over he threw his weight against the door until he had no strength. All he could do was scream back at the girl until everything went black.
Terry’s lifeless body was found the next day when neighbors called police to report a suspicious man sitting in a vehicle with blood staining the driver’s side window. Emergency response teams arrived to pull his body from the car.
The police officer from the night prior identified the man as the person trying to catch the screaming woman. Coroner reports concluded the man had shattered his right hand striking the driver’s side window, dislocated his shoulder attempting to break through the door, and passed away of a massive heart attack. Investigators were left stumped as to why the man didn’t just open the unlocked door and call for help.
Word soon spread that the residents along Irwin and Keith Street were celebrating their first full month of scream-less nights. Most figured the prankster either got bored or was spooked by the news of a dead body being found in their neighborhood. Whatever the case might be, everyone was just glad to finally get some rest.