(Writer’s Note: This was an opening chapter for a story I had outlined almost two years ago. It was going to have three POVs: a film documentary director/teacher, the murdered girl’s mother, and the girl’s teen sister. I gave up on it for three reasons: 1) I was working on a gothic novel, 2) my voice was more teen-based and 3) the plot felt too Tana French-ish, and there’s quite enough of those out there. Still, I have written many things in between the finished projects and I like sharing them here. Hope you enjoy it.)
“Just two weeks ago, Felicia ‘Fanny’ Manning, 34, arrived at Bryn Mawr Hospital between 9:00 and 9:30 P.M. with her ten-year-old daughter, Jenna, covered in blood. The child was pronounced dead at the hospital. Upon questioning, the mother claimed that her daughter had fallen from her bed while sleeping. However, the autopsy revealed severe injuries to the face and body, both of which were fatal. Since then, the case has gained notoriety for the discrepancies and irregularities surrounding the evidence and testimonies from friends and family members, which initially led to the girl’s mother, along with two males, to be labeled potential suspects by the local authorities.”
— The Main Line Chronicle, October 17, 2008
I’ve been a storyteller my whole life, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I like bad stories. Creepy stories. The kind that keeps you awake at night. When I was a child, if my teachers had wanted a story about girls and dolls, I would tell a story about undead girls and evil dolls. And death. I wrote stories about the dead. Death — and the inevitable uncertainty that came with it — had stirred an ugly, almost macabre desire within me that no living person could ever quench.
This time I wasn’t writing about death, nor was I talking about it. I was filming it. And it wasn’t a made-up story either. It was real. Tragically real.
It was going to be a nail-biting day.
For one thing, my “film crew” — three hipsters — were busy editing blog pieces with such intriguing headlines as “Kate Winslet Eating Ice Cream on Central Park is Literally All of Us!” when they should be joining me in the twitching and scalp-scratching, not to mention helping me set up the audio and lighting.
“Does anybody know when our guest will be here?” I inquired of the room at large.
“Should be here any minute now,” said Larry, my cameraman, a lanky, bearded, perplexed-looking guy with a “Feel the Bern” t-shirt that should have been tossed out ages ago.
“Might be a few minutes late though,” piped up Joni, in charge of lighting and audio, a white girl with wild dreadlocks. Joni wasn’t her real name. It was Joanna.
“How do you know this?”
“Just got a text.”
“And you didn’t inform me of this because…?”
She rolled her eyes. “I literally got it two seconds ago.”
I sat down, wishing I had brought in an unlimited supply of triple-shot lattes. “I don’t want any setbacks today,” I said. “I want this to be perfect.”
“You’ve said that already,” Seth, my ponytailed film editor said. “Trust me, we’ve got it all under control.”
“She doesn’t believe us,” said Joni, her eyes on her phone. “Always thinking we’re nothing but a bunch of burnouts. Right, Abs?”
I ran my hands through my shoulder-length blond(ish) hair and tried to remain calm. Perhaps I should do some side work while I waited. I could take some notes, sort through e-mail, plan an outline for my next novel, pull my hair out…
Nothing else mattered but this project: an unauthorized documentary on the Manning Girl, a seven-year-old murder investigation so disturbing, and yet so fascinating, that I just had to finally put my vast knowledge on short filmmaking and eerie storytelling to good use. I could shine some new light to the police, which had all but given up on the case by now, and give my wayward students something to do at the same time. Perhaps they’d be able to graduate from Rosedale College’s Academy of the Arts school with something other than the inevitable years of student loan debt and career disappointments ahead of them.
“New developments on the Manning file?” I asked the crew.
“Nope,” said Seth. “Just the same old, same old.”
I sighed, tried to sit still. The Manning Girl Murder was quite a fascinating case. Everyone knew the story by now. Jenna Marie Manning, age ten, was murdered in her home in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, back in 2008. At the time of her death, her mother, Fanny Manning, and two men (one of whom was her boyfriend at the time) were at the house, having a “private dinner,” whatever that was. Jenna’s sister had been away on a school trip at the time, making her the “lucky one.” Jenna’s death had been a violent one, almost furious, which was why most of it was concealed from the media. No one knew what had happened that night, or who could have done such a thing and why. According to an anonymous source, the girl had shouted “I’m gonna tell!” again and again. The man had refused to elaborate on the subject.
“I need coffee,” I said to the room. “Joni, go get us lattes. I’m dying here.”
She spun from her computer and shot me a look. “Why can’t one of the men go?”
I huffed out a breath. “Just go get the coffee.” Then I added a “Please” for good measure.
She jumped out of her chair and stormed out of the loft.
“Did you guys take care of the… thing?” I asked.
“You mean the barely legal thing?” Larry countered. “Yup. All set.”
“I need to unwind,” I said to the room. “Come get me when our guest arrives.”
I locked myself at my office, the only part of the loft with an actual door. I owned this place, the whole three-story building, in fact. My apartment was on the third floor, followed by the film-slash-extra-credit-room (this one), and then there was the café on the first floor, a cozy and rather profitable little haven called Coffee Nutz, a gift to myself after selling the film rights to Eternity — my first of four paranormal novels. A romance series, really, with such intense titles as Eternity, Infiniti, Immensity, and Afterlife. It was about a mousy-haired girl named Stella, the star of a love triangle between her, a ghost (her dead boyfriend) and the unrequited feelings of a Medium (the one who had summoned her dead boyfriend’s ghost). My readers adored this oddball yet prosaic love story. They couldn’t wait to find out which scrumptious bachelor my geeky-yet-desirable heroine would choose. Edmund vs. Caleb. Team Ghost or Team Medium. My readers had some interesting back-and-forths on the Internet over it.
(“Edmund still loved her after his death!”)
(“At least Caleb is still alive — duh!”)
They loved it… Well, not all, but most people did, and that was all that mattered.
I plopped down on my desk, clicked on a picture from a file named “Manning Stuff.” It was a family photo of the three girls — Fanny and her two daughters. Fanny had chestnut-brown hair, with the kind of green eyes that made her look as approachable as a tiger on the prowl. Her two girls, however, had blond hair and soft blue eyes. They’d looked like their father, who had died on a plane crash two years after Jenna had been born. There were two men in this photo, Fanny’s back-then boyfriend, a state senator by the name of Hector Norris, and Mark Latimer, Hector’s assistant. I studied Mark Latimer — his alabaster skin, his short dark hair, his hazel eyes…
I bit my bottom lip. I’d tried to stay away from him, but I couldn’t. Just couldn’t.
A knock on the door broke the spell.
“What do you want?” I said, sniffling.
“Uh.” It was Seth. “Just letting you know that our guest is here.”
I jumped off my seat. “Since when?”
“Since right now.”
“Be right out!”
I switched off the computer, rushed to the bathroom and finger-combed my hair, wiping the tears from my eyes. (Had I really been crying?) I dabbed some lip balm and applied some pink blush. I looked… like a college professor, with the dull brown eyes and bad fashion sense to match. My guest was bound to be quite impressed.
“You’re Ms. Torres?”
I smiled. “Yes, but you can call me Abby.”
She said nothing for a beat, just stared at me. I knew exactly what she was thinking.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were–”
“One of the students. I get that all the time. Short girls don’t age, I guess.”
She linked her hands together, stealthily appraising me. Again, I knew what she was thinking. She may look young for her age, but she’s not as hot as I am. She was right. I wasn’t. But then again, who was? She was tall, about five-ten. Long blond hair, soft features, blue eyes — the type that people often described as “angelic.” Chic sunglasses kept her soft hair away from her face, a small Chanel bag was crossed over a tight pink dress, an outfit that accentuated the kind of figure that belonged in a bikini catalogue (or in an Instagram account full of scantily-clad selfies, whatever rocks your hovercraft).
Larry was salivating. So was Seth.
Joni was probably salivating too.
“By the way, I’m a huge fan,” our guest said. “I love the Eternity series! I read it when I was a little kid.”
Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m old.
“I don’t remember seeing you in the back covers though,” she said. “Or anywhere, really. I Googled you and… nothing. You’re very low key.”
“I’m not very photogenic.”
“I… doubt that.” Pause. “So what would you like me to do?”
I hadn’t realized I was staring. “Right, sorry. Today is going to be easy, actually. I’m going to ask you some simple warm-up questions — questions you’ve gotten from reporters before — and then we’ll decide where to go from there. Sound good?”
She shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Larry, Seth — get the cameras ready. Joni, you do the focus lighting. Wait, where’s Joni?”
“Downstairs getting the lattes.”
I sighed. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
“Is there a makeup person here?” our guest fretted as we readied our equipment. “I look really shiny under heavy lighting.”
“No makeup crew,” Larry said. “This isn’t Hollywood.”
I shot Larry a look. “You can go powder your nose if you like,” I said to our guest. “Bathroom’s over there.” I indicated my office door. “And take your sunglasses off.”
Once that was settled, I made her sit on a tall stool, her back facing a wall with exposed brick. She reached into her tiny bag and pulled out various pieces of paper, folded in four directions. “My release forms.”
I snatched them from her. “Great.” This won’t make me any less liable, but it’ll do.
Joni came back with four lattes.
I offered my latte to my guest, but she declined. Her hands appeared to be shaking.
She nodded, letting out a hash breath.
“You need some time?”
She shook her head. “I’m — fine.”
“Right. Okay, everyone, let’s settle down. Quiet on the set.” I turned to her. “We’re going to do a short rehearsal. Something quick and painless. I’m just going to ask you to state your name and your relation to Jenna. All right?”
Another deep breath. “Yeah.”
The room was silent as I said, “Introduce yourself… Now!”
“Hi… I’m Gem, and I’m–”
“No, no nicknames,” I said gravelly. “I need your full name. It’s important.”
She licked her bottom lip, eyes as wide as an owl’s.
“You sure you’re all right?”
A solemn nod.
“Then let’s try again.” Silence. “Now… Go!”
“Hi, I’m Gemma Manning, and I’m” — a long pause — “Jenna Manning’s twin sister. And I’m here to tell the truth.”