Renae was on her way to the set when she felt a crunch from behind after sliding to a halt in front of a stop sign. She glanced back at the other driver. A girl, well a woman really, who responded with a dazed stare as she maneuvered her car to the shoulder.
The girl’s face descended until all that was visible was her sleek bobbing head. Periodically, a piece of paper was fished out and deposited on the dashboard. When enough evidence was assembled, the door opened, and a sandaled foot studded with blue nail polish slid out.
She was around 25 or so, with a red, wet face. Clutching her phone. Shaking and crying. Flinging blame at Renae with each sob.
“Why did you stop?” She gasped as she clung to her car door.
Renae pointed at the stop sign.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I don’t deserve this,” the girl said as she stabbed numbers into her phone.
Minor car accidents used to make Renae cry. Speeding tickets also. Withering under the gaze of a humorless cop as she rummaged through a glove compartment crammed with five years’ worth of insurance cards, license plate registrations and for some reason lots and lots of brown paper napkins.
Renae sped away after getting the girl’s information. This was a setback. Her bumper scuffed and damaged. But at least still attached. Would she even claim it? If she did, it was more likely the money would go to living expenses.
Luckily, she’d allowed plenty of time to get to her destination. She wouldn’t be able to stop for coffee, which sucked. But she would not be late. She had a job. The main role on an episode of the true crime show, Unsung Victims, on the Justice channel. Murder 24/7: We’ve got you covered was their motto. She would be playing the role of Melanie Borowitz, the third victim of the serial killer, Ethan Bender. And, this would not be just a TV show. There was also a podcast.
Renae’s agent explained the Justice channel was going in a new direction with Unsung Victims. They wanted to address murder in a calmer, less exploitative manner. The mission statement spoke of their intent to form a network of TV crime show fans who were not just passive watchers but also potential crime solvers. Each week, a new crime victim would be featured at the end of the episode along with a toll-free number and a website where listeners could leave tips.
The idea was to take a step away from shows like Not in my Hometown, where each episode opened with: Things like this don’t happen here as foreboding music played. Or Split Second, which featured people, mostly women of course, who turned their head for a second and poof, their child was snatched. Missing from the McDonald Playland, the park or the grocery store. This never turned out well. Or Renae’s favorite, Welcome to Murder, shining the spotlight on women making a fresh start in a new city, who then got murdered. All of them portrayed by young, perky actresses presenting a glammed-up version of the victims. The story reenactments interspersed with friends and family members chiming in about what a good person Dawn, Linda, Ashley or Brittany was. Who often said things like: this is a mother’s worst nightmare or she’s in a better place. Well you would hope so.
The first person she recognized upon arriving was the director. Undoubtedly, he would remember her. They’d had a good discussion when she’d met him a month ago on the set of a reality show about laundromat makeovers. Renae’s part had been small. But she knew she had made an impression.
She’d played a laundromat attendant who had to deal with a woman who was washing soiled baby diapers in the washing machines. Renae and the woman were supposed to come to blows. There was no money in the show’s budget for a fight coordinator, so they had choreographed the brawl down to the last punch. When the show wrapped, there’d been hugs allaround and the director had given her a thumbs up. She’d sensed a real connection.
Renae stepped into the director’s path, smiled and waved. He stopped. “Do I know you?”
“You remember me, right? I’m Renae from The Clean Team. I’m playing Melanie.”
His smile was quick and faded fast. “You’ll do great.”
Renae looked down at her script. “I’ll try to do her justice.” She fought to catch his eye.
No luck. She wanted to know who or what he was looking at and why. There was always something to be learned in these situations. Why is someone paying attention to someone or something else more than you? Are they or it cuter, smarter, more influential? Instead of stressing about it, she needed to find and fix the problem.
The director raised his arm, crunching his hand into a feeble little wave before slipping past her. It was best to be alert and informed about how relationships worked out here. How people promised to stay in touch and never followed up. She couldn’t afford to let this get her down. Because here she was the most noted victim of a serial killer. Possibly because out of all the victims Melanie was the most photogenic. Reality crime shows had an unspoken hierarchy white good, young better, blonde best. Perhaps some might call it racist. But these were preferences based on actual scientific data. No use in arguing with an algorithm.
Focus! Forget Renae. She was now Melanie, 32, a third-grade teacher in Dover, Delaware. Everything had to be perfect down to the Delaware accent which required a YouTube tutorial. Unfortunately, she had never gotten a handle on it mainly because it didn’t seem distinctive. It probably didn’t matter for a show like this. It said something about her though. That she never took anything for granted. That she would never phone it in. That the desires in her heart and her sacrifices were so great that there was no way she wouldn’t eventually be recognized.
The episode began with regular people talking about how lovely and sweet Melanie was. A woman with an abundance of friends eager to testify to her zest for life. The murdered were rarely described as quiet types. The narratives demanded memories be skewed towards “lit up the room” versus quiet anonymity. However, the details of Melanie’s life seemed to support this upbeat interpretation. The characterization of a loner who kept to himself was left to the murderer.
Melanie worked as a schoolteacher. But had grandiose dreams of making it as a model. The script played this up, first depicting Melanie in her class of third graders. Then abruptly cutting to the next scene in a photographer’s studio where she posed in a leopard print bikini as the narrator intoned: Melanie loved her students. But life in her small town was growing increasingly claustrophobic. (shot of abandoned factory) Melanie yearned to break free (Melanie writhing under hot lights beneath a prop beach umbrella).
A diary entry: My first modeling job! Of course, it’s just for cheesy Kleinmart. But it’s a start. This photo will go in my portfolio. It doesn’t pay much. But frankly I’m so thrilled I’d “almost” pay them!!!
Note: Remind her never to keep a diary.
Melanie had plans and ambitions. (a shot of her gazing out the window of her classroom on a rainy day). A child approaches and says: Ms. Borowitz you look sad.
Melanie smiles and takes the child’s hand and leads him back to his seat.
I don’t feel sad, she replies. I was just thinking. Was it a crime to think without smiling? Perhaps not. But her face and body sometimes cause men to do weird things. Speaking of which, as Melanie bends over to shoo Mark to his seat, he places a finger on either side of her mouth and attempts to push the edges up into an approximation of a smile. So damn specific that it really must have happened. Somewhere at some time to somebody.
I am sad, Melanie thought, as she straightened back up. Her boyfriend, also named Mark was getting impatient with her career plans. Mark said uncomfortable stuff like: Why did you major in childhood education, if you wanted to be a model? and Will you marry me?
She often spoke of not only modeling. But of someday heading up her own modeling booking agency. In the months before her tragic end, she’d taken steps to turn her dream into a reality. She’d even created a business plan. In the script the runup to the crime dominated the episode. Until the end when the serial killer who was stalking her stabbed her 42 times.
Was it a crime of passion? The severity and rage of the attack suggested it was personal. Because nobody stabs somebody they don’t know 42 times. Then again, the killer thought he knew every woman.
You wanted to shout warnings at Melanie. She wasn’t to blame. Locks could be picked. Bolts could be smashed. Cars mowed down pedestrians on sidewalks. Danger lurked in unexpected places. Sometimes you just had to walk into a dark parking garage. But it was unsatisfying not to be able to cite examples of how much more careful you would have been under similar circumstances. What about the windows? Yes. Never leave them open. Not even a crack. If you were hot or stuffy, invest in central air conditioning. If you wanted fresh air take a walk during daylight hours or at night on a crowded well-lit street. But never let your guard down. Because look what happened. All it took was a little jimmying with a chisel to break into Melanie’s apartment.
Renae went into makeup.
The girl, let’s call her Hailie, had been rattled the whole day. Even though the other lady
had been nice, she hated her. Because it was fake nice. The accident was Hailie’s fault which rankled her even more. She felt not just shaken but stupid. A blow by blow dissection of the interaction was on continuous playback in her head. The search terms were: insincerity, pandering, patronizing bull shit.
Renae, who spelled her name weird, but at least phonetically, was not like any Rene she’d ever encountered. Renae told her accidents weren’t worth crying over. Even though it should have been obvious to anyone that while Hailie’s crying was triggered by the crash, it wasn’t the only cause. It had simply knocked loose the anger stuck up deep inside her.
She’d been on the verge for days. And the one person who noticed asked her if it was her time of the month. Then when they saw her reaction, back pedaled so hard, hastening to assure her this was not a denial of her very real feelings that had a basis in fact and were not just a reaction to her body’s physiological symptoms.
Hailie pulled into a parking lot. She drove up and down the lanes searching for a spot. Finally, she found one. As she locked her car, a woman wearing a look of concern and nosiness walked by. Hailie was cornered. “What happened to your car?” the woman asked.
Hailie shook her head and took off. Hah! She should have seen the other one. She almost stumbled as she pushed open the door to the studio and shot down the long hallway. Her backpack loosely tethered to her boney shoulders, pummeling her every step of the way.
Anita, the makeup artist, sponged foundation onto Renae’s face and expertly blended it
with her fingers. Renae tilted back in her chair listening to the tinkly vaguely new-age music emanating from Anita’s computer.
“You all got anything coming up?” Anita said. There was something in her voice. Vaguely southern in origin. When certain words were used you could really hear it. But at other times it only registered as a memory.
“Well,” Renae hesitated. Should she tell her? Oh, why not. It was kind of a funny story. “Adult diapers.”
“That’s where the money is. All those baby boomers.”
“Yep,” Renae said perking up. “I’m going to be the young fresh face of adult diapers. An exact quote. It’s insane.”
Anita chuckled. “Nothing insane about money in your pocket. Work is work.”
“You’re right. Things are picking up. I’ve got a lead part. Couldn’t say that a year ago.”
Anita reached into her makeup bag. “Last month, a woman came in here around your age, 35 or so. Saying she was told she was too old for a commercial for sanitary napkins.”
Renae looked at Anita while she cleaned her makeup brushes. The makeup artists knew all the secrets. She’d guessed her age too accurately. Renae turned away to check her reflection. “Am I good?”
“Yep. We’re almost done here. Hang on for a little blusher.”
Renae lifted her chin in anticipation. Anita brushed each cheek with the powder.
“What kind of work do you think I need to get done?” Renae stroked her face, right under the eyes.
“Uh. Gosh. I don’t know. Looks like you’re getting plenty of work looking just the way you do. And you look great if I do say so myself.” She pointed to Renae’s phone. “Selfie?” The two women peered upward.
“Fantastic angle,” Anita mused as Renae snapped away.
Tonight, Renae would post it on Instagram with the caption: Having a blast on set of Unsung Victims! #behindthescenes.
She headed over to the waiting area and sat down to read over the script. There was a red herring thrown out early on pointing an accusatory finger at a woman in Melanie’s church who she owed 500 dollars to in some sort of pyramid scheme. If the show was to last an hour, they needed to cast doubt on this church lady and paint her as a viable murderer. People had been killed for less.
Then there was Melanie’s boyfriend, Mark, who in most scenarios would be the default perpetrator. There he sat with his air-tight alibi. No need for strategic camera work to conceal an obviously institutional setting. Waiting for the reveal at the end when the camera pans down to the prison work clothes or over to the barbed wire on the windows. Luckily for him, all evidence pointed to the serial killer scenario.
Mark was cautiously happy. (He had found love again). Yet appropriately sad. He said on her birthday he placed flowers on her grave. His new fiancé approved or kept quiet about it. By the end of his segment the script would be at approximately the 46-minute mark. Leaving plenty of time to go over the crime scene in excruciating detail.
Mark needed to be coaxed to provide the appropriate sound bite. First, he said: I will always remember her, which was deemed a little weak. Then: She was the light of my life. Okay but . . . finally with a little prompting he said: We always had each other’s back. Which meant? Except for that one time, huh Mark?
Mark was okay. It was just too damn easy to point fingers.
The murder scene was staged first because the specialty makeup artist had another job to get to. Renae’s Google research had led her to a low-resolution photo of Melanie curled into a fetal position on the kitchen floor. It looked like she had been wearing a green cotton T-shirt and white shorts. They weren’t aiming for historical accuracy, however. The major consideration was how well the blood stains stood out. So, they clad her in black leggings with a white shirt covering her butt.
She was instructed to position herself on her side while the special effects artist decided where to place the stab wounds. Sal was his name. He seemed to be a perfectionist. Yet aware this job did not require the highest expression of his talents. Nevertheless, he took pride in the smallest detail.
“How do you simulate stab wounds?” Renae asked.
“In a live action stabbing we would use a blood bag, a blood pumping knife with a retractable blade. Or in a top-flight production a blood tube can be inserted in the clothes that gushes blood on command.”
“But for this, all we need is these.” He pulled small ready-made wounds made of silicone, foam rubber and latex out of a bag. Then went to work, bending down over her crouched body. Renae was almost in a meditative state. She often felt this way when people were working on her, patting and tucking, enhancing and defining her. This Zen state also extended to more stressful situations. Look at how well she handled the car accident. She was a successful de-catastrophizer. It was almost as if the accident had never happened.
“Wrong place at the wrong time.”
Renae lifted her head slightly. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind,” Sal said. “Just stay where you’re at. I have to get something.”
Minutes passed. The camera operator checked his shot. The assistant director spoke with the lighting technician and Renae didn’t move. Her arm was going numb. So, she shifted the slightest bit. She didn’t want to disturb the placement of the wounds. This was really taking forever. People were drifting over to the craft services table. After all it was almost lunchtime. Should she get up? No, he would be back soon. This was her moment. She may as well lay back and enjoy it.
Elaine Little’s short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. Her essay, “Now It’s You,” was chosen as the winning essay at the National Veteran’s Creative Arts Festival in October 2019. She is also a screenwriter and a filmmaker whose screenplay, “Boys + Music,” recently placed in the Austin Screenwriters Festival. In a previous life, Elaine served as an Army Interrogator in Afghanistan, and as a broadcast journalist in Cuba and Bosnia. She is currently working on a novel.