The night air is unusually warm for March as the young woman emerges from the subway. It’s a little after midnight and a full moon lights the sky in a pale glow. She sways a little as she crosses the road and the clips of her heels echo down the empty street. She’s whistling a happy tune and smiling to herself.
Tidy townhouses line the quiet avenue. Most windows are dark, curtains drawn, but a few are lit yellow, signalling some night owls haven’t yet succumbed to sleep.
The girl has lived on the street for over a year now. The place feels familiar and safe. She isn’t entirely without her wits though. That’s why she shifts her purse from her shoulder to across her chest as soon as she spots the man. He’s standing on the pavement just ahead. Tall and muscular, he leans casually against a brick wall. The burning tip of his cigarette glows with a lazy curl of smoke.
She briefly considers crossing the street again, to create more space between herself and this stranger, but decides against it. Instead, she slips her hand into her pocket and closes her fingers around her house keys, the pointed end sticking out between her index and middle fingers.
‘He’s just a guy who’s stepped outside for a late night ciggie,’ she tells herself, ‘Nothing to worry about.’
Even so, the woman’s heart starts to pump a little faster and her body tenses just a little bit as the gap between her and the man closes. When she gets close enough, she steps as far as she can to the edge of the footpath away from the man. Her breath is caught in her chest but she manages to nod towards him and gives him a small smile. Quickening her pace, she moves past the man. He lifts his hand in passive acknowledgement and then takes another draw on his cigarette. After a handful of steps, the girl lets out the breath she’s been holding in. Her shoulders relax and she continues on her way home.
She doesn’t see the man drop the cigarette to the ground and stamp out the end. She doesn’t hear him push off the wall and take three strides towards her. She doesn’t spot the long silver blade in his other hand. The man stalks behind her like a predator and strikes.
A rough hand grasps at her hair and yanks her backwards. A short sound of surprise escapes her. An arm wraps around her chest and holds her tightly. Warm breath blows against her neck and the strong stench of nicotine floods her nose. She tries to twist out of his grip but he’s too strong. She opens her mouth to scream but the man’s palm clamps down over her mouth, cutting the sound off. Then a white hot pain blooms in her side. A slicing through her abdomen that burns, making tears instantly fill her eyes. Another stab of pain hits her, this time in her lower back. A rushing sound swells in her ears and dancing black spots appear in her vision.
The young woman wrenches her hand from her pocket and drives the tip of her keys into the man’s forearm. It pierces the skin and the man grunts in surprised pain, loosening his grip on her. She then drives her elbow backwards hard into his chest and spins away from him, her keys clattering to the ground. Once free, she stumbles forward and lets out a howling scream.
“HELP!” she yells into the night air. “SOMEONE HELP!”
She presses forward, trying to make her shaking legs run. She makes a few halting steps but the pain in her stomach causes her to stop. She pushes her hand against the cut in her skin. It’s hot and wet, her blood seeping out in a steady flow. Her lips tremble and she screams again for help.
The man attacks for a second time, pushing her sharply in the back, making her collapse onto the concrete. Her knees crack against the hard ground and she yelps in pain once more. She scoots forward, legs scraping. Turning towards her assailant, she brings her arm up to shield her face against him. The knife slices her skin and she sees crimson blood begin to flow in a line along her forearm. Her mind is wild and frantic. She can’t believe this is truly happening but the agony tells her it’s real.
“HELP!” she screams again, tears streaming down her cheeks.
She looks up at this man, this unknown attacker, and takes stock of his face. His eyes flash with an angry hunger and his mouth is set in a wild grin. Grimy stubble covers his chin and small acne scars pock his cheeks. She begs him to stop.
“Please! Don’t do this! Please!”
He ignores her. His tall frame looms above her like a dark shadow. Using his knees, he pins her down and raises the knife above his head. Her eyes go wide as she watches the long blade descend towards her. Time slows and she feels her chest heave. Her eyes close just as the tip of the knife connects with her skin. The blade gouges into her again and again and again. Her body convulses with each strike and gushing blood pools beneath her. After twelve slices, the man stops. The young woman’s body goes completely still. He stands and wipes the blade against his trouser leg before grabbing her purse and tucking it under his arm. Turning on his heel, he walks down the quiet street away from her. After a couple paces, he glances back over his shoulder, scanning the crumpled body with cold eyes, and then he slips away into the night.
Above the gruesome scene, a curtain twitches and a window with a yellow light goes dark.
This story was inspired by the Bystander effect. A phenomenon that attempts to explain why people sometimes don’t react or step in to stop criminal activity. It proposes that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely any one person will intervene. People assume that someone else will take action and then no one actually does.
The Effect became the subject of intense interest following the murder of Kitty Genovese, where the New York Times erroneously reported that 38 people witnessed her murder but did nothing to help.
So while many people would say that they’d of course step in to stop a crime, the reality is, most of us seem more likely to whip out our phone and film it these days, rather than get involved to stop it.
Enjoyed this story?
Subscribe to get stories straight into your inbox or donate to show your support!