Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
I’m a reporter in Southern Oregon. This is the story that you will never read in my newspaper.
It starts with Georgina Hicks.
Ms. Hicks lived in a trailer at the end of the pavement on Oak Street. Not the end of the road mind you, just the end of the pavement. That road goes on up into the mountains where it winds through lumber stands and clear-cuts until it splits into so many nameless stretches of gravel and mud that it may very well never end.
But the pavement sure as hell does — about ten feet from Georgina Hicks’ driveway. Even the rest of Oak Street — the paved parts — isn’t what you’d call urban. Oak Street is mostly private forestland, tree farms and huge houses nicer than anything we’ve got in town. Some of those houses are nicer than city hall.
That’s why there was a place in my heart for Georgina Hicks and her rundown little trailer at the end of the pavement, her gaudy flower beds and her grinning lawn gnomes.
Of course, Ms. Hicks was also the town kook. I regularly saw her name on weekly crime reports with claims of faces staring at her through her kitchen window, lights in the sky above her trailer and figures standing in her driveway at all hours. The local police force — five-man strong, including Jared, the police chief’s nephew, who just answers phones — had an understanding about Ms. Hicks; when those calls about ghostly stalkers and living shadows came through, one of them would head over to the local drugstore and make the trip up the road to deliver Ms. Hicks’ medication.
So, you can probably see why I was tempted to ignore the report when I heard that the police were headed up to Ms. Hicks’ place. It was seven o’clock on a Friday night. I really didn’t fancy driving all the way up Oak Street just to hear another crazy story that would never touch the newspaper.
Then my phone rang. On the other end was Officer Dale Scott, one of the officers who regularly took Ms. Hicks her medication.
“Hey, you’d better get up here. They’ve called out search and rescue. She’s reported a man screaming in the forest.”
I sighed and rubbed my temples. “Dale, you know how she is –“
Then he said something that made the skin on my arms prickle with imagined cold.
“I can hear him too.”
Nobody speeds on Oak Street. Not twice anyway. There are too many blind curves and too many deer. But I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles as I made my way. The normally empty road was packed with traffic and I followed a pickup truck with five men in orange and neon-green sweaters most of the way up. One of them waved at me in recognition.
I’ve got to know the search and rescue volunteers pretty well in the last few years. Sometimes, I go out with them myself but usually if they’re busy in the woods I’m busy asking questions in town.
I waved back though and wasn’t surprised to see the truck stop next to Dale’s squad car. As I pulled in behind them, I watched them start to jump out of the truck and then, all at the same time, freeze in place and look at each other with horrified faces.
As soon as my engine shut off, I heard it too.
The scream…I’ve thought a lot about the scream and how to describe it. My business is describing things and I’ve never come up with anything to do it justice. It was an undulating, panting scream, like a hundred smaller screams woven together. It was loud. So loud that it sounded like it was coming from the trees right next to the road.
And it didn’t stop. Whoever it was, he never stopped screaming long enough to take a breath.
Dale was surrounded by searchers. The lights on his car played across the trees in surreal flashes. No one spoke. He saw me and shot a questioning glance through the windshield of my car.
Did I want to go on the search?
I shook my head no and watched him give orders to the men before I got out of my car and headed to talk to Mrs. Hicks.
The man’s screams didn’t change or lessen as I walked across the road. Now they seemed to come from every direction. They were joined by the yells of the search and rescue teams as they cried out for the man to tell them where he was.
I had to pound on the trailer door before Mrs. Hicks answered. She was wearing a faded, thread-bare pink robe and her left hand lingered inside the doorframe. I knew she kept a shotgun next to the door.
I’ll spare you the bubbly, saccharine questions I had to ask the woman to get her to speak with me. It’s all part of the job. What I learned was that the screaming had started at sundown. Apparently, she thought it was her “noisy neighbors” again and called the police. It had taken two hours and three more calls before Dale responded.
And there is one bit of the conversation that sticks out to me today. The last bit. Georgina Hicks hanging her head, her greasy, steel-wool hair drooping forlornly as she shook her head back and forth and said, “I know you. I read your stories. You never believed me either.”
I shivered, wondering if maybe there had been something out in these woods all along and that I and everyone else had just ignored it.
At sunrise, the screaming stopped as if it had been cut off. The searchers spent another hour coming the brush, then came back with haggard, stricken faces.
I got some quotes from a few of the searchers I knew before they disbanded and left me alone on the empty road with Dale. The forest seemed to hum with silence after the noisy night.
“Don’t write this down,” Dale told me. “I don’t think there was ever anyone to find.”
When I handed in the story, my editor just glared at me over her glasses and lifted an eyebrow. She asked me if I was feeling alright and I told her that Officer Scott and about a dozen search and rescue volunteers would back up the story.
She was already picking up the phone to call the police station when I left her office and headed home to have a nap before I had to come back in to work.
I wasn’t surprised to find my story heavily edited down into a blurb about search and rescue looking for an unknown man near Oak Street. All mention of the screaming had been removed except that Georgina Hicks had first been alerted to the man’s plight after hearing a scream. I decided that I was okay with the butchering my story had undergone and that, if I’d been more awake, I’d have made a lot of the omissions myself. A small-time local reporter doesn’t have much credit but he has to hold on to what he’s got.
At dusk, I got another call from Dale.
“He’s back,” he said.
I groaned and banged my head on my desk, then got up and found my coat. I was headed out the door when my editor caught me.
“I just got a call about someone else screaming,” she said.
“Dale just called me, I’m headed back up.”
“It’s from River Park,” she said.
Oak Street snakes up into the mountains west of the city. River Park is on the northern edge of the city, almost fifteen miles away.
It’s a small park nestled in a bend in the river mostly full of trailers and campers. There’s an old church just on the edge of the river and then there’s an actual park, the kind with swing sets and benches.
Cars lined the road next to the park and dozens of people stood in a loose clump on the side of the road. They were all hearing what I had heard last night, unending screams of pain and terror coming from empty air.
But it wasn’t a man this time. It was an old woman with a shrill voice cracked by too many years of cigarettes and alcohol.
It sounded like someone was torturing her to death.
I called Dale and asked him to go up to check on Georgina Hicks. He kept me on the phone as he knocked on her door and got no answer.
Georgina Hicks was gone and now there were two voices screaming into the empty night.
My article for the next day’s issue was more circumspect than the first and my editor seemed to be pleased with it, though I wasn’t sure how useful it would be as around thirty people had heard the screaming at the park and rumors were beginning to spread.
I was eating lunch at a little diner in the center of town when I heard the third scream. It began as a hollow noise, something that could have been the wind howling between the trees at the edge of town, but it built and built, fading into existence from a ghostly cry until it was a full, spine-stiffening scream.
This one was male again. It was a piercing, repeating whine, like an animal in pain, but definitely human.
Everybody in town heard it. What few shops and restaurants we had emptied as people came out into the street to look for the source.
There would be no tucking this sound away behind a story about a missing person. This would be big news. This would spread.
This would get picked up by nationwide news.
The newspaper office was only a few blocks away. I had about an hour to get something written up and convince my editor to put it out before TV news from the nearest city came stomping into town.
I had just pushed my way through the doors and was on a bee-line for my office when my editor intercepted me.
“There’s more screaming,” she said.
“I know; I just came from downtown — “
“Downtown? This was out at the high school.”
The local high school was about two miles outside of town because it had outgrown the original building — which is now a grocery store — there was no chance that they had heard the same voice that I had heard downtown.
I never made it out to the high school. By two o’clock, there were a dozen voices screaming throughout the town. I was right that rumors of what was happening reached nearby news agencies. They descended on the town without even the politeness of locusts. News vans dotted downtown. Along with the out-of-town news came out-of-town police. Sheriffs, State Troopers and even a few cars from nearby towns and cities came to “lend a hand.” I’m told that the FBI even sent out a unit, though they never arrived. They were turned back when, just as everyone was arriving, just as TV cameras were setting up to record the sounds, just as other reporters were getting ready to deliver their news…it stopped.
All across town, at — or nearly at — the same time, the screaming just stopped. Heavy silence filled the air. People looked around in confusion and horror. Horror because, somehow, the sudden end of the phenomena was more disturbing that the screams themselves.
After all, someone who is screaming is almost certainly still alive.
My editor and I agreed not to publish the final story. A few news programs went forward with reports of the sounds being heard but with no film most didn’t make it to the evening news. Even when they did, the screaming had become “strange sounds.”
I was happy not to have my story published. It’s not the kind of thing that I want my actual name tied to. But, I’m not happy to leave the story untold, though I don’t have much of an explanation for what the town heard.
What I do have is this: Sixteen people were reported missing after the screaming stopped, including Georgina Hicks. I didn’t hear many of the voices myself, but that one I heard downtown, I’m pretty sure I know who that was. His name was Jason Bellforte and he was nobody. I’d spoken to him twice in my time in the town, once as a witness and once when he was arrested for having a pound of pot hidden under the seat of his truck when he was stopped for speeding. Jason was a local drug dealer. Nobody knew when he had come into town or where he had come from and nobody expected him to stay. Jason Belleforte was a man destined to disappear. Either something from his past would catch up to him or he would go running after something else. It could have been a coincidence that he disappeared on the same day that we heard the screams. It could have been that he heard those same screams and decided that now was as good a time as any to move on. But that voice. That whiny, shrill scream of pain and surprise. That sounded like Jason Belleforte. Jason, Georgina Hicks and the others…they were people with no one. People one step away from already being forgotten. I don’t know what caused it. I don’t know where they went. I just know that something pushed them that final step.
I don’t know why they were screaming. I don’t want to know. I suspect that if I did know, my voice would join theirs.