New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Abby Cummins of Annandale, Virginia is the winner of the twenty-fourth Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 10, 2010.
From a very young age, Abby Cummins has been writing and has been fortunate enough to receive instruction from the Northern Virginia Writers’ Project for multiple years. She has three wonderful dogs and loves music almost as much as writing (but not quite). She has been published both in school-wide contests and magazines and has received grants for her writing.
From Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
Alone: A Love Story
…..When I was ten, I was in a movie. It was a very famous movie. It ran in theaters for over a month, bringing in more and more revenue for the production company. When it finally came out on VHS (it was old enough that it was a tape, with reels inside it), the film grossed in the millions. The director was hailed as “visionary”, the actors as “superb”. The film itself became famous for having been one of the best horror movies of the year (1992). Critics said that it had “truly ushered in a new era of horror, one in which the innocent and benign murder recklessly”. The review that held these words was taped to my wall, for I’d been mentioned by name, praised, and it was a very well known newspaper, indeed. “Sharon Ellis, a real child actor who will no doubt amount to something great, gives a phenomenal debut performance. Her emotion and sensual expression are truly remarkable for such a young girl so new to the scene.” I used to read those words, over and over again, and imagine the critic who had written them watching me on the big screen before them.
…..They didn’t know me, but they thought they did. This was what I came to find out. The critics and movie lovers, basically the spectators of the game, were sure they understood me and all of my motivations. I could be classified. The Shirley Temple of horror, I was even called once. (What a moniker, as if anyone wanted to be associated this way!)
…..I was ten. Who knows what they want to be at ten? My brother’s son is nine now, almost the age that I was when I gave up my heart, and he still believes that he will become a professional snowboarder and never marry. When I was ten, I must have had that certainty, too. I must have known that there was something I wanted to be, some aspect of the world that I wanted to conquer. I just can’t remember what it was.
…..My lover’s name is Nikolai. He is Russian, like the guttural-sounding fair-haired men who were the faces of the Soviet Union. The ballerinas (mostly very manly and muscled men despite the female connotation) are similar in physique. High cheekbones, alabaster skin, defined arms like marble sculptures of anatomy. He has an accent that is only slightly noticeable, soft consonants switching to harsh unexpectedly. He speaks English better than I do, to be honest. I like him to be himself, which is to say that he is shirtless, padding around my apartment as lithely as a cat, in search of something to draw. He sometimes introduces himself as Nikolai when we’re at parties, and the other person will say, “You mean Nicholas?” And his cold glare, icier than a mountain river, shuts them all the way down as he replies, “No. Nikolai. From Moscow.” The reason people ask is, we live in a small town, very white and very American. They’re unused to foreigners.
…..Nikolai doesn’t know yet about who I am. It has to do with how Russian he is. He would never watch American horror films, especially not from an era before he had even moved to the US. Nikolai prefers the sad elegance of 1920’s silent films. He likes the way the actresses’ big eyes plead dark in their medium of gray. He thinks the scores to the silent films, so many violins against so many piano chords, are more poignant than the raucous voices of laughing children and bawdy jokes. “Look at the comedies,” he tells me. “See how the actors use their bodies, their faces, to play up even the most inconsequential of incidents? This is true skill, here.” I’m inclined to agree with him. I love that he doesn’t know who I am. He has never walked into a video rental store and pulled down a plastic-backed copy of “Alone”, never seen my childlike face pouting seductively out at him from the cover.
…..That movie ruined me.
…..It was marketed as being one of the scariest movies of the century. Now that we live in a world where movies look like real life easily, I can pick out the faults in “Alone” like I’m picking out chunks of unwanted tomato from a salad. But back then, it was quite simply the state of the art stuff. All the effects, the blood, the makeup. It was as realistic as the nineties film industry ever got.
…..I don’t know if it was all that scary, to be labeled as “the scariest” of the entire century. But it deserved some type of title. It was disturbing to see a child doing those things, even if was simply fictional actions, made your back run with shivers and your teeth clench. The psychosis of an angry child was described in that film, in as much gory detail as ratings would allow.
…..The plot talked mostly of insanity. What if everyone whom you’d ever loved, ever trusted, was convinced that you’d gone crazy? No one would trust you. Your word would be taken for granted as false, no questions asked. What if you saw something true and horrible, but everyone thought you were completely insane and ignored you? You’d be forced to watch everything disintegrate around you. All the little pieces of life that you thought you’d had lined up so neatly like prize belongings, shattered on the floor like so many shards of glass. You’d see the truth and know the truth and live the truth, and everyone would think you were completely off the wall.
…..This was an issue that many books and movies dealt with, but none so eloquently as “Alone”.
…..A woman, thought to be crazy, gives birth to a child. The little girl grows up to be eleven years old. Or was it ten, or twelve? It might have been a younger child I’d played the role of, or an older one. I can’t remember anymore. The little girl is inherently evil, which is shown in the movie through increasingly worse and worse incidents. The mother is the only one who sees it. A mother’s instinct always is correct. The mother watches as the daughter turns into a seductress, tempting and having sex with grown men and then killing them. Come to think of it, the girl who I’d been playing might have been twelve. That would have made more sense. The mother tries to stop the girl from killing, but is deemed mentally unfit and must watch as the girl goes on a killing rampage, ending with the girl’s own father.
…..To write it on paper made it seem ridiculous. Cheesy. Hokey, even. To watch it on a screen would make you cringe. You’d never seen a person murdered so violently before, I’d guarantee it. You’d never seen a little girl sleep with men old enough to be her father, or her grandfather. You knew there were some things that weren’t meant for human eyes. All of this was called art. The American public flocked to it, soaked it in. Its horrific nature made it appealing. You could not see these things in real life; to do so would be to brand yourself as having something wrong with you. But to watch it on a reel of film then, you could empathize with both the killer and the killed. You could find out the secret, twisted things you’d always wondered about sex. You could be a voyeur, and it was liked, even encouraged, by popular society.
…..I was the evil little girl. Onscreen, I had sex with multiple men. Not pornographic sex, of course, for this was only an R-rated movie and the whole world was watching it. But enough so that it was clear that real events were transpiring. I beat a man to death with the clawed end of a hammer. His blood spattered the ceiling, my clothes, the camera lens, everything. I pushed a man down two flights of concrete stairs and broke his neck. I stabbed a man to death. There was one man, a cop by profession, from whom I took his gun and then his life. He had a hole through his cheek, the ragged edges of his skin making pulpy sucking noises as he breathed, and a hole in his stomach, from which he bled out. I seduced, wearing cocktail dresses, with rocks in close reach to crush the skulls of unsuspecting victims.
…..Sometimes, when they took me out of makeup and sent me down to the set, I’d look in the mirror and think, this is my real face. This, with mascara and eyeliner, dead pale color and bloodstains ingrained into my unwashed and pallid skin, was the real me.
…..I can still remember the casting call like it was yesterday. The director’s name was Neddy (an innocuous name by most standards), and he had short brown hair and sideburns. He sat on one side of a big desk with a copy of the script in front of him. I read my lines out to him, a vicious monologue about how I wanted to kill, to eradicate what I perceived as evil.
…..I was into it. No other way to describe it. As a child, I loved to act. I’d go around the house, spouting off lines from movies I’d seen. I could imitate an accent in only seconds. My parents would tell me to be quiet. They wanted rest, peace and quiet. Finally, though, my mother realized that she could capitalize upon her child’s hobby. She was the one who had brought me to the casting call in the first place, telling me to put on my best face and to be as animated as I could.
…..And I was. I didn’t know exactly what I was reading, but I put my whole heart and soul into it. The script was focused on the directness of children, the way a child will often say all the things he or she is thinking, without a filter. I read to Neddy like I’d just discovered language. I shouted; I cried; I laughed bitterly; I got tears in my eyes.
….. Neddy’s face, after I finished the monologue, was halfway to stunned. “Thank you,” he said. He reached out his hand to shake mine. He dwarfed me, the big class ring on his middle finger bigger than three of my own knuckles. “That was truly amazing. Thank you so much.”
…..The following week, there was a callback. Two weeks after that, they confirmed it. They wanted me. I’d be Ellie, the little girl in “Alone”. I’d be the face of modern horror.
…..Halloween arrives; Nikolai and I hunker down for the night. We are too old for the revelry. I’m twenty-three, Nikolai twenty-six. We used to dress up in college, put on slutty outfits and get drunk and be raucous all night long. But this was before I’d even met Nikolai, before I’d begun to appreciate the beauty of silence and tranquility.
…..“This is a pagan custom, you know,” Nikolai tells me. We’re sitting together, nesting like birds within the confines of our bed, and watching TV. Since our apartment is a converted studio, we can see the front door from here. There is always the risk that a wayward child from the building may knock, hoping for candy, even though our lights are turned out and our lock secured.
…..“Pagan?” I say.
…..“Yes. Pagan. We’re supporting a pagan tradition in this nation every time we give a child candy. All Hallow’s Eve, the night of the saints and ghouls and ghosts.” Nikolai laughs. “But it’s better not to tell the children that. Wouldn’t want to offend their sensibilities.”
…..“They love it,” I tell him. “It’s a chance to be someone else for a night. To escape the reality of you.”
…..“But you are who you are. It isn’t going to go away.” Nikolai doesn’t understand the complexities of the English language all the time; he is a literal person. “Besides, don’t you think it’s a little sick?” he asks.
…..“It’s a delusion, really. An homage to the dead, to the gruesome. Corpses and murderers and skeletons, they’re all revered on this one day.” Nikolai shakes his head, disgusted. “Why anyone would want to think of such horrors unless they had to, I can’t comprehend!”
…..And he sees me romantically. Me – the queen of horror! The most frightening child in the American film industry! I wisely suppress any opinions; this is a discussion I don’t want to get into.
…..After I acted in that movie, I could not get a man to love me.
…..The first one was Bobby Goldfarb. He was a nice Jewish boy, curly brown hair and fumbling hands. We dated for two months when I was a sophomore in high school. Bobby was everything to me, best friend and most ardent supporter and my grounding when I needed someone to hold me. It was the sweet kind of first love that touches your heart, reminds you that you once trusted someone completely back before you were hurt in all the ways that we get hurt.
…..He wanted to have sex. I didn’t have a problem with it. We were raised in an environment in which freedom was encouraged, in which sex was commonplace. It was expected that a girl would lose it somewhere between high school and college; a boy, if he hadn’t lost it by the time he graduated high school, was considered to be a loser. It was a bad thing to be “too” virginal. So when Bobby began making his overtures, I allowed him to do so.
…..Before we did anything too crazy, Bobby and I talked. We were doing things carefully. We’d waited a good long time, to make sure things were right. We’d told each other all the important things. But that night, as Bobby and I laid next to each other on his bed (his parents were gone for the weekend), I decided that we should tell each other secrets. I was silly, romantic like the media encouraged us to be.
…..I’d moved that year, with my parents. We were in a different part of California now, far away from where we’d had the casting calls and the acting and the movie premiere. No one knew me all that well in our new town. No one, I thought, except Bobby, who knew the secret small things like that I loved chocolate-covered cherries, and that when I was especially happy, I smiled with my tongue between my teeth.
…..“All right,” Bobby said. He put his hand on my stomach, strong and warm. We were mostly undressed, just underwear and a bra for me, and Bobby in sleek black briefs. “I’ll go first,” he said. “When I was ten years old, I accidentally hit my little brother and broke his nose. He was behind me and I didn’t see him, and he scared me. When I turned, I must have been at just the right angle, I guess. We told my parents he fell off the slide. They believed us. I’ve never told anyone before.”
…..“Well,” I said. “When I was ten, I acted in a movie.”
…..“Oh yeah? What movie?” Bobby’s eyes shone with the promise of this piece of news. I could be someone famous! I hadn’t told him about my career yet; I hadn’t trusted the information to anyone. Now was the perfect time to tell, I knew, for it showed that truly all my trust had been given to Bobby.
…..“‘Alone’,” I said. “I was Ellie.”
…..And then Bobby was recoiling from me. His eyes opened wide and his lips drew back from his gums just the slightest bit. He was horrified. I could see it in his eyes.
…..“I see it,” he said. “I mean, I knew there was a resemblance. But I just thought it was – you know. Coincidental. But you do. You look just like her.”
…..Her, I knew, was Ellie. I did not, actually, look all that similar anymore. They’d dyed my hair for the role. Since then, I’d grown a chest, grown my hair out, grown cheekbones that were high and sharp. I was now blonde, a young woman. Nothing like the dark-haired, seductive child in “Alone”.
…..But a perception taints everything. Bobby had seen me as Ellie, and now I’d be Ellie to him forever. I couldn’t be anyone new, because I was trapped in the role of the monster child.
…..Bobby and I had sex that night after we told those secrets. But the next day, he broke up with me. He could not bear the idea of being with someone who’d murdered so heartlessly and had so much sex in such wrong ways. I wanted to cry out to him that that was only a character and nothing more – certainly nothing like me, a normal girl! But it was too late. I’d been ruined.
…..It was always like this. The boys found out, and then left me. They were too disturbed by what I’d represented as a child.
…..Why didn’t you ever do another movie, people ask me sometimes.
…..And I say, oh, you know. I had enough money already. I was so young!
…..But really, the real answer was that the one movie I’d been in had ruined me, for now I was forever caught in being Ellie. I could never escape it. Not even through another movie.
…..For a while, they talked of a sequel. But I said no. Never again would I do that to myself. Now, I hear, it’s remakes they’re talking of. I pity the poor girl
…..Being Ellie was scary.
…..I began to think like her. This was the mark of a very good actor, I’d been told. That you could think like your character enough to truly become them. Surpass the boundaries of reality to create your own true fiction (an oxymoron that perpetuated the film industry). But to think like Ellie was to think carnal thoughts, based only on screwing and killing. I was too young to even know of these things, much less to contemplate their completion by my own hand.
…..I.was psychotic. I was a killer. I’d gotten the taste for blood.
…..This was how I thought sometimes, staring into the mirror at my made-up face. As Ellie, I had sunken eyes. I had deep blue shadows for cheekbones. I had colored contacts that darkened my irises to a shade of blue deeper than my own, sinisterly deep.
…..When I left the set, I recognized the murderous impulses outside, as well. Also, the sexual ones. I’d be on the street and I’d think, that man is attractive enough for it. Or, that girl is so annoying, I could just smash her skull in.
…..It was real to me. I’d wake in the middle of the night from a nightmare, the same one every time. Neddy the director would be telling me, “Harder, Sharon, you’ve got to hit harder! Really get into it!” And I’d smash down the hammer over and over again, like I’d done on-set into some stunt pillow thing, but in my dream it would be a real person’s head, bursting like so much ripe fruit with the sickly rending of flesh that accompanied my frenzied swinging of the hammer Never would it end.
…..There was a man when I was twenty-one. He was the man to spend my life with, I knew. He was the only person who had ever known me so thoroughly. We lived together for almost a year.
…..You become set in a routine when you live with another person. You learn to accommodate their quirks and habits, to leave the lights on in the bathroom, not to cook dinner before seven. It is so easy to lean into the lulls of routine, to let it take over your life. I let this man take over everything; he was the most important thing I’d ever had in my life.
…..He accepted me. He loved me despite my role in “Alone”. I’d learned to give out the information right away, at the very beginning of any relationship. Otherwise, the revelation made the rejection seem intensified. But this man, more of a boy, really, was fresh-faced and smiling, determined to love me no matter what I had in my past.
…..In the end, though, it was his martyred expression that broke us into pieces. “I love you,” it seemed to say, “because I must.” I could see his struggle – not to be repulsed by the thought of my movie character. He treated it like a trauma. The subject of “Alone” was too delicate for discussion and the fact of my acting in it was akin to the fact that death existed. It started off just fine, but ended with him treating me like I’d been raped or abused, instead of having been famous. It told me what he didn’t want to say out loud – that he thought I was a freak, fragile, something to handle rather than someone to love.
…..I moved out. We broke the monotony of our routine. I cried for its loss, for (though it was slightly shameful), I missed having to leave the bathroom light on for him.
…..With Nikolai, I forget the age-old impulses that had consumed me right after the shooting of the movie.
…..Watching the premiere, I’d had to get up and leave in the middle, because of how hard my hands were shaking and how sick I felt inside. I’d been remembering everything from the movie, all the scenes I’d shot, like I’d really killed these people. And all of a sudden, I could not remember.
…..Had I killed them?
…..No one from the movie was at the premiere with me except for Neddy. No other actresses or actors had shown up to watch. It was only me, in the darkened theater and solitary, with my memories of the deaths of my co-workers. I began to wonder: What exactly had I done? Was it real? Were my scenes in the film really memories, captured by the lens of a camera?
…..After that premiere, the impulses had come and gone. I’d wondered what it would be like to kill again. How difficult could it be? The only difference would be that I no longer had a director standing over me, telling me what to do.
…..Nikolai makes me forget. I know only the beauty of silent films, with him. With him, I know only the feel of his sculpted muscles sleek beneath my fingers. His accent erases all else.
…..There were other boys, a few that I’d even dare to call men. They all left me eventually. They all thought I’d become Ellie. Or that I was her. I was beginning to become confused by the distinction, myself.
…..Nikolai, as a Russian man, is well grounded in horror and death. Within his nation, the former Soviet Union, there was always the history of destruction: gulags, death camps, oppression of rights.
…..I, like every other American history student, had seen the pictures of the men and women and children, shot and starved and hung with the enigmatic Cyrillic alphabet littering the captions. This was what Nikolai’s country was responsible for, he told me sadly. “Is Communism really such a bad thing?” he asked me sometimes, usually when he got drunk or slightly maudlin. “It’s the idea of a utopia that we’re talking about here. A place where everyone is equal and everything is harmonious.”
…..“Yes,” I’d tell him. “It’s true. But unattainable, since the nature of humans is to corrupt and control.”
…..Nikolai’s eyes are haunted, like the specters of the men and women killed in the gulags are always visible to him. I know he sees these things late at night. But at least he doesn’t see what I see. For I become Ellie in my dreams, a bloody murder weapon in my pocket, and it is all the worse because I know that I’ve done things that are unforgivable. Knowledge is one of the most devastating things on earth.
…..Sometimes Nikolai will wake me from a dream, shaking my arm as though he is afraid I’ll do something dangerous to someone – myself or him, I don’t know which. “What were you dreaming?” he’ll say. “Your face ”
…..But I will never tell him. For often what I wake from is gory and frightening, too much to take. I will never tell Nikolai of my role in the movie – all of the child actors’ horrors, and the years of subsequent celebrity, and the drama of the industry – for that would mean explanations. And I will not explain. For then, I will have to explain demons.
…..I will nestle into the crook of Nikolai’s shoulder, lean against the hard muscle there, tell him that all I want is for him to hold me while I calm my breathing.
…..I will not tell him that in my dreams, I am Ellie and she is me, and that I am no longer sure of who she is coming for. It could be me that “Ellie” wants. Or, who knows? It could be that “Ellie” is coming for Nikolai.
…..But I will never tell him. For so far, we have been blissful in our ignorance.