ANNIE — A SHORT STORY

It’s a quirky thing about people that when they know your name, they think they know you. Mrs. Biggs, for example. Every church has a Mrs. Biggs, middle-aged, nosy as all get out and entirely without shame. You know her; we all do. But when you belong to a family like mine, notorious throughout the churchgoing populace of a small town, there’s no keeping her nose out of the latest dirt.

She cornered me on the Sunday after it made the Saturday morning headlines. “You’re the Montgomery’s girl,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on me like a pair of headlights. All I could see was how much sharper her nose appeared when she stared like that. “I know all about your sister, dear. You poor thing. You must be traumatized. I must give you the name of my therapist. She’s wonderful and has the cheapest rates of anyone in town. It would be good for you, dear. Being the sister of someone who was murdered, well, it’ll leave you scarred for life, I just know it. Oh my, how tragic.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and I truly couldn’t distinguish if she was a brilliant actress or just oblivious. I stared at her with one of my expressions of unfiltered disdain that always earned me an elbow to the ribs from my mother. But I couldn’t respond even if I wanted to—which I didn’t. She knew nothing, not even my name. I walked away, comforting myself with thinking about how unattractive she looked in her too tight dress that revealed every lump and roll (of which there were plenty, I must add).

“For real,” my mother huffed on the drive home, “why can’t you believe in people more? They have good intentions. Why not let them get to know you?”

But that’s just it, I wanted to scream. They aren’t trying to know me. They’re like the Eeyore cross-stitch I did when I was five; the front, a perfect facade of grays and good intentions but on the back, the mess of knots and threads reveal the true motives that create it. I always felt like I saw life inside out with the tangles facing outward, obscuring my view.

Mrs. Biggs died of an aneurysm on Christmas Eve. At the service that night, she had put a hand on my shoulder, going on and on about what a difficult Christmas this must be and that she’d pray for the peace of God to be on me and my family as we grieve our loss. I didn’t look at her, just shimmied out from beneath her grasp and grabbed a slice of coffee cake off the dessert table. I got an elbow in the ribs but I didn’t care. It wouldn’t change my mind or put Mrs. Biggs’ nose back on her face and out of my life.

During the eulogy, I was on my phone, changing my name on all my social media accounts. Girl with the Murdered Sister, Just Another Traumatized Teenager, Blank. If my name didn’t matter, then I’d go without. By the time the punch was served, I was a nameless blob with a story that everyone knew about but no one cared to know.

My parents soon gave up calling me by my name. In fact, everyone seemed to talk to me less and less as time passed, I suppose, because they didn’t know how to relate to me anymore. I was like a book with a missing title page; it confused people who picked me up off the shelf and rendered me beyond comprehension. They didn’t realize though, that my story was still intact, with characters, plot and a good twist that readers never see coming.

Without a name, I was like the label on my bottle of antidepressants. I was only what happened to me, not who I was on the inside. To Mrs. Biggs, I was the sister of the murdered girl. To my parents, I was the headstrong teenager. And when I went searching for love and found a night with the high school quarterback, I became the teen mom.

The only thing I was asked more than if I was going to marry the father—which was an emphatic no since he blocked my number after I texted him a photo of the positive pregnancy test—was what I was going to name the baby. I got everything from Allison to Abcde. I just rolled my eyes and spouted my automatic reply: “I won’t know until she’s born.”

“You have to think about it before she arrives,” my mother said, flipping through a name book as fat as my expanding belly. “It won’t just come to you, not when you’re sweating and exhausted from a 24-hour labour.” She handed me the book, waving her hand across the highlighted page. “I think these would be just gorgeous.” I snapped it shut without even glancing at my mother and got up to waddle off toward the kitchen.

Talk about being exhausted. Was no one else thinking about how a sixteen-year-old was planning to pay for diapers and childcare while she tried to finish high school? Whether my daughter had a three or a ten-digit identity tag meant nothing if I couldn’t provide for her. Yet, it was the name that mattered most. I groaned. I would never be known as anything other than a name, and neither would my baby.

I was due on the first anniversary of my sister’s murder. My contractions were coming twenty minutes apart but I figured I still had time to visit her grave before getting dragged to the hospital. I walked down the path, reading the names and dates on the headstones I passed. I paused by the headstone of Aldis McCain, born 1941, died 1959. He was the same age as my sister. And all that was left of him was a name. I knelt down and felt the cool stone beneath my palm.

“You’re more than a name,” I said. “You have a story, and I hope you had someone who cared to read it.”

Next to Aldis was a grave with a blank headstone. There was just a date of death written: November 27, 1919. I wondered who lay interred there; maybe a World War I veteran, or maybe it was a boy who died of pneumonia in his mother’s arms. Whoever it was, they had a story, even if we didn’t know it.

Why was I the only one who understood that? I touched the nameless headstone, and let the first tear slide down my cheek since she died. I prayed—maybe to God, maybe to something else, I didn’t know—that no matter if everyone else only remembered her name, I would remember her story and be brave enough to tell it as long as I lived. She would never be forgotten.

I almost delivered my baby in the cemetery that day. That sure would have made the headlines, I thought, and I smiled thinking of how Mrs. Biggs would have been all over that. But I managed to waddle back to the parking lot where my frantic mother drove way too fast toward the emergency entrance of the general hospital. And there I was, sprawled out on a bed, pushing and panting. But as she came out, I came into something, something that I hadn’t expected. This new world of being a mother was a bewildering mess and it would only get messier. But I promised myself that my baby would not be only a name, but a tapestry of everything she loved—everything she hated, dreamed about, failed at, and all that comes with living a beautiful, messed up life. Her name was only a small piece. She would grow to be much more than just a name. And I knew exactly what it would be.

When the nurse asked me for a name for the birth certificate, I said, “Annie.” She smiled and I felt my mother sigh with relief from across the room. Life was normal again.

But joke’s on them. Annie is short for Anonymous.

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