Anna is eighteen today. She has been taught by her Mamma that cleanliness and purity are the path to God. But Anna is rebelling. She’s waited her whole life to visit Florida’s biggest theme park and now she’s going against her Mamma’s wishes. So why, when Anna arrives, is she so certain she’s been there before?
Rosie has grown up in the shadow of a missing sister she barely remembers. Her parents’ relationship has been fractured by fifteen years of searching for their daughter. Now Rosie is determined to uncover the truth, however painful, before it tears her family apart…
My Name is Anna follows two sisters desperate to unlock the truth. But how much will they sacrifice to lay the past to rest?
Read on for the first two chapters of My Name is Anna by Lizzy Barber!
My Name is Anna
Dirt has a way of falling through the smallest of cracks. You may think there is nothing there, but it will always be found eventually.
I raise my fingers through the cooling bathwater and check my nails, looking for the invisible fragments of dust I always fail to spot but Mamma hones in on with such definite aim. In my head, I rehearse the words I have whispered to myself so many times I see them written across my lids when I close my eyes.
Today is my eighteenth birthday and, for the first time, I am lying to my mother.
I sought out the comfort of the bath, hoping it would ease the tension. But even here I cannot shut out the remnants of my fractured sleep. The ghost of my dream floats on the water’s clouded surface; the dream that has come before, that has grown more frequent as my anxiety has mounted, its creeping fingers reaching for me in the strangest of moments. A dream that feels so real I swear it isn’t a dream at all.
It taps me on the shoulder now, revolving and gyrating just out of reach. A whirl of bright colours. Laughter, music. A face, the features blurred. And a voice, calling. I know it’s me they’re seeking, but something isn’t right: the name they’re calling isn’t mine.
I pull the plug and the water begins to swirl around me, milky with the residue of peach-scented foam. My voice penetrates the silence of the bathroom, although I’m not sure if it’s real or in my mind. ‘No. My name is Anna.’
The bathwater drains, but the dream lingers.
In the bedroom, I situate myself. Take in the calico curtains that remain always drawn; a hermetic seal against the outside world. The pinewood dresser whose contents are neither numerous nor elaborate. The crucifix on the wall, under whose watchful limbs I say my nightly prayers. The bed. The chair. These things – these petty, everyday things – are the items that make me feel safe. These are the sights that tell me I am home, and happy, when my memory tries to convince me otherwise.
I peek through the curtains and turn my chin to the daylight, allowing it to wash away the last of the disquieting night. It’s another beautiful morning in Alachua County. I’m reminded of my favourite hymn, ‘Morning Has Broken’, and hum the opening notes as I tidy the bed and fold my nightdress under the pillow, making everything neat, precise. When not a speck remains out of place, I pull on the denim blue dress I know Mamma likes best, and release my hair from the knot that has been holding it, damp around the edges from where the bathwater has licked it.
‘Happy birthday,’ I tell the girl in the mirror as I rake a comb through the tangles. ‘Today is your eighteenth birthday.’ She smiles back, curious, uncertain, and I ask her, not for the first time, if I am pretty.
I asked Mamma once, but she shook her head and gave me a little laugh. Not cruel, just dismissive. ‘Pride is a sin, Anna. We are all pretty, because we are all gifts from God.’ I never asked her again.
I suppose I consider myself pretty enough. My face, though I always find it a little round, is free from marks or blemishes. I’ve never needed braces, which is good, because Mamma despises the dentist. My eyes are clear, and a soft brown like maple syrup, although not Mamma’s enviable sparkling blue. My hair is the colour of wet sand, but it picks up blonde streaks in the summer, and falls about my shoulders in a thick curtain. Some of the girls at school, the so-called popular kids whose names all blur into one, have theirs dyed bleached-blonde and cut into sharp layers, but I know that even if I should have such an inclination, there is no way Mamma would allow it.
Mamma says we should be happy with what God gave us.
Dressed, I make my way down the stairs, mentally skimming through that string of words one final time: We’re driving to Ocala National Forest; we’re going hiking; we’re having a picnic. My throat constricts – I swallow sharply. Forest. Hiking. Picnic. Nothing else.
Mamma’s voice rises out of the kitchen as I go to greet her. She’s singing, which means she’s in a good mood. She loves to sing, even though her voice is a little thin and can come across a tad flat. But I’d take a chorus of tone-deaf, happy Mammas than one single, silent alternative.
The kitchen is my favourite room in the house. It has big French windows overlooking the backyard, the only ones that aren’t suffocated by curtains, so that daylight streams right in. The big farmhouse table always has a vase of fresh flowers on it, grown by Mamma’s own green-fingered hands. Today they’re tulips, pink and red and yellow, their tight-lipped petals on the verge of spilling their secrets. On the far wall, next to the stern grandfather clock that stopped working years ago but that neither of us knows how to fix, are the little pencil scratchings which mark how I’ve grown, right back from when I was nigh on three years old and we first moved here, until last year: five foot four, and not likely to have much growing left in me. Mamma is taller; she must hit five eight, five nine, in bare feet, but she always seems to stoop, as if worried her height makes her conspicuous.
‘Good morning, Mamma!’ I call, hopeful that I have judged her mood correctly. She turns to me, gives me her best attempt at a smile – the one she saves for the really good days – and I am thankful that I’m right.
She opens herself out to me. ‘Good morning, Anna dear.’ I step towards her, breathe in her familiar scent of lavender soap and Lysol. A clean home and a clean body are the first steps to a clean soul. I could pick Mamma out across a crowded room with my eyes closed, through just that scent. I want to throw my arms around her and kiss her cheek, like I’ve seen other girls do. But I know that wouldn’t do.
Instead, Mamma holds me at arm’s length, and I feel her taking me in, assessing me; her eyes searching me over for any sign of sin or contamination. She lets go with a satisfied nod. My arms drop to my sides. I’ve passed the test. ‘Happy birthday, dear heart. May the Lord bless you and keep you well.’ When she’s content like this, all is right with the world.
She points to the vitamins laid out on the sideboard and I duly take them, wash them down with the glass of water waiting. She pulls out one of the chairs from around the kitchen table, motions for me to sit down. I obey, hearing the ping of the toaster and knowing it must be frozen waffles again. Mamma hates to cook, but she sure has a sweet tooth.
She sets a plate down before me bearing a dense, rectangular slab, a pat of butter and a drizzle of maple syrup slowly melting into each rectangular depression. Sometimes it feels as if Mamma would like to keep me frozen too, forever her little girl. ‘Thank you, Mamma,’ I say quickly, and raise a hand to pick up my cutlery.
My fork freezes in mid-air. I set it down, the waffle untouched, realising my mistake. Eighteenth birthdays aren’t exempt from grace. I clasp my hands together and bow my head as Mamma takes a seat opposite, relieved as she starts to speak.
‘Lord, we thank you for all that you give; for the food we see before us, and the home over our heads. Help us to live our lives with thanks and grace, and to always remember that, as long as we have You in our hearts and live pure lives, You will show us the way. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ I mumble into my hands, chastened as always, then open one eye to peek. Hers are squeezed shut, as I know they will be: continuing the secret, silent prayer she always adds on for herself, lips pursed in a thin, pious line. I’ve never asked what it is; never dared.
Before we eat we each pick up a fork, hold it to the light and then rub it carefully with our napkins. We do the same with the knife, scouring it for any speck of contamination. As always, Mamma leads, I follow. Before I even set the edge of my cutlery against the plate, I wait for the telltale sign: a slight tilt of her head, the barely audible ‘hmm’. When her knife touches the rim of the plate, I can begin.
I’m so het up I can barely manage a quarter of it. My stomach plaits and unplaits itself as the acidic orange juice Mamma pours us from a carton bubbles against the waffle batter. I do my best to finish the whole thing, knowing how Mamma feels about wasting food, feeling the crunch of sugar against my teeth with each bite. She spies me agitating a piece around the plate and I quickly swallow it down in a swirl of syrup and butter.
‘Delicious. Thank you, Mamma.’
To prove it, I reach across the table for the jug of maple syrup and drown the remaining mouthfuls. The syrup soaks through the batter and is so sickly-sweet I almost wince, but it helps the food slip down my throat with more ease.
When only crumbs remain on our plates, Mamma surprises me by setting a package down in front of me, wrapped neatly and simply in plain blue paper. I eye it casually, but Mamma gives me an encouraging nod. ‘Go on.’
She’s not usually one to fuss over birthdays.
The package is soft to the touch. I unstick the Scotch tape neatly, cautious of Mamma’s watchful eye, and take in the cream hessian that begins to reveal itself. It’s a cushion, a perfect square I know has been sewn by Mamma: across its front is her distinct, careful stitching: I prayed for this child, and the Lord answered my prayer. 1 Samuel 1:27.
‘Oh Mamma,’ I breathe, turning the cushion in my hands. ‘Thank you.’
‘I thank the Lord for you, Anna.’ She turns to look at the picture hanging on the wall, one of the few we have in the house: my parents on their wedding day. ‘And I know your father would too.’ I follow her head towards the picture I have studied so many times I no longer really see it. Mamma in a plain satin dress, a spray of calla lilies resting over the crook of her arm. My father next to her, his stiff grey suit a little too close-fitting, looking younger than his twenty-five years. I was only two years old when he died. A car crash – piled into by some drunken teenagers on their way home from a game. It was after that we moved here: a fresh start. Mamma always said she had no family to speak to, no ties to hold her, no reason to stay.
It’s hard for me to get a clear picture of him, this shadowy figure who is more of an idea than a reality. Like Mamma, he’s no stranger to height; there must’ve been a short ancestor in the distant past whose unlucky genes I was handed down. And he’s clean-shaven; although somewhere, somehow, I see him with a beard. A whisper of my baby hands reaching out for the coarse hairs on his chin, and then it’s gone. From the picture, it’s hard to tell what features of his are mine. I want to ask Mamma what he was like, what he would think of me, what traits of mine are his. But whenever I ask questions like these, she clams up, keeping her pearls to herself.
‘Let’s clean up.’ She severs the mood as quickly as she created it, moving across my vision and breaking my contact with the picture. The sound of the doorbell wakes us both from our own private thoughts as we stack plates and wash dishes. We both step into the hallway and I can make out William’s shape through the glass on the front door. His arrival makes this all seem alarmingly real, and I feel my breathing quicken, the centre of my palms moisten even as I chide myself to calm down. Just a few more minutes and we’re in the clear.
Mamma goes to greet him, and his lanky frame slinks into the house, ducking to pass under the Tiffany chandelier – most definitely a relic of before Mamma’s time here – threatening to upset the coloured glass and prompt rainbow shadows to ricochet off the walls.
‘Good morning, Mrs Montgomery. Good morning, Anna.’ He nods deferentially at my mother, a wisp of hair escaping onto his forehead, and then pulls a bright bouquet of wildflowers from behind his back. ‘Happy birthday, Anna.’
‘Oh William. They’re beautiful.’ I take them from him shyly, feeling the tops of my ears burn pink. ‘I’ll put them in water right away.’
He leans forward as if to kiss me on the cheek, but at the same time he eyes Mamma, pulls back and nods politely at me instead.
William and I have been dating for nearly a year. He’s older than me, already in college, and Mamma only permits it because he’s the son of Pastor Timothy, and therefore she couldn’t bring herself to deny it. We met in the church choir when his daddy took over our local parish, and we’ve been seeing as much of each other as possible since then. Nothing fancy, just trips to the movies, bike rides on Saturday afternoons, helping out with church fundraisers – our time together carefully meted out by Mamma’s exacting direction. We’ve talked, loosely, about getting married when he graduates next spring, but this isn’t exactly a conversation I have shared with Mamma.
I parade the flowers into the kitchen and set them in a vase on the sideboard, ready to take up to my bedroom later. When I return, William has his hands in his pockets, his feet shuffling the way he does when he’s running out of polite conversation. My secret squirms around me. We are so close to freedom. I stride over to William and take a strong grip of his hand.
‘Mamma, we should probably be heading out now, if we want to make good time…?’ I try to sound firm, but I can’t stop the upward inflection of a question nudging its way into my voice. Always asking for permission. ‘We’ll be home in time for dinner, I promise.’ I imagine kissing her on the cheek, wrapping her into a hug. Instead my hand reaches out, pats her upper arm. ‘Thank you for breakfast. And for my present.’
We’re nearly out the door when Mamma rests her hand on the frame, blocking my exit. ‘Remind me where you two’ll be again?’
My mind goes blank. Stupid, stupid.
‘Just heading across to Ocala for a hike and a picnic, Mrs Montgomery.’ William touches me lightly on my lower back, letting me know he’s got me. ‘I promise I’ll have her back in one piece.’
She blinks, then gives him a tight-lipped smile. ‘Yes, you did say that. Be careful on the hiking trail, Anna; it’s easier than you think to slip and fall.’ Her hand releases the door frame. ‘You kids have fun.’
We watch the door creak shut behind us, and then finally we are released into the fresh air. I gulp it in as we make our way over to William’s red Ford Focus, the beaten-up old car he is prouder of than almost anything else in the world. He opens the passenger door and waves me inside. ‘Princess, your chariot awaits.’
With the doors shut, I rest my head against the seat back as William reverses out of the long drive, and turns in the direction of the I-75. With the roar of the engine in my ears, and the hot breeze fanning my face through the open window, I let go part of the tension I have unwittingly been storing up all morning. But although we seem to have escaped, a part of me does not feel entirely free. The residue of the dream still clings to me, stronger today than ever before.
I press my hand to the dial on the car stereo, trying to drown out the noise inside me, attempting instead to hum along to whatever lazy pop song is blaring from the station.
Because today is my eighteenth birthday, and I feel invincible.
Because we’ve made it this far, and nothing bad happened. We are really on our way, and no one has stopped us.
And we aren’t going to Ocala. Or hiking. Or having a picnic. Or going to any other place Mamma would allow.
We’re going to Astroland.
I rake through the pile of clean laundry. Cotton socks and T-shirts and pyjama bottoms spill out of the dryer and fan around me, bursting with the powdery smell of synthetic lavender. I rise, frustrated, and pluck a peach-coloured bra bristling with static from my thigh.
‘Mum, have you seen my gym socks?’ My voice ricochets through the house. ‘Mum?’
I pull out my phone from my jeans pocket and click the home button. My face, highlighted with purple glitter from last year’s school disco, gurns back at me. Above it, the time flashes in neat, white letters. It’s quarter to eight. The bus leaves in ten minutes. ‘Muuuum!’ I shout again, craning my neck towards the stairs.
We live in one of those stretched-out town houses off a backstreet in Islington: a basement kitchen, permanently at risk of damp; two interconnecting living rooms, one always empty, the other squashed; at least one too many floors. Dad calls it a triangular house, because the rooms get smaller as you go up it, so even though it looks big at the start, by the time you get to my room in the attic you’re breathing in to get past people.
I shove the phone back in my pocket, about to give up and look upstairs, when a piece of paper on the kitchen counter catches my eye. It’s an email to my parents, I notice, looking-but-not-looking. Odd, to have it printed out. And then I see the name of the sender, and edge closer.
I am concerned that I have still not received an answer from you regarding my email dated 3 March 2018. As you know, we only have funds to last us until the end of May, and unless anything happens to the contrary before then we will be forced to close the trust.
I in no way wish to burden you further at such a sensitive time, but I would be grateful if you could please let me know how you wish to proceed.
The end of May. That’s six weeks away.
It’s as if someone’s pressed the mute button. Every petty urban chirrup, the beeps of cars outside, the whirr of the washing machine, the indistinct motions of the rest of the family have all been silenced. I reach for the paper, my fingers barely touching the space where the text finishes and the blankness begins. So few words, to say so much.
I hear the hurried bump, bump, bump of feet on the stairs, and Mum’s head appears round the door. I swerve my eyes from the paper, take a step away from it.
‘Are these what you’re looking for, Rosie?’ She dangles a pair of blue and white striped socks between her fingers.
‘Yes, that’s them.’ I snatch them from her. ‘Thanks.’
‘They were in Rob’s room,’ she tells my back, following me up the stairs to the front door.
‘Course they were.’ I shove the socks into my kit bag, not wanting to look at her. Worrying that she’ll read my face, and know instantly that I’ve seen it. Why did she have it out now? Is it because of the interview tomorrow – our last hope, a last-ditch plea, to keep the trust alive?
My backpack is where I left it last night, hanging on one of the hooks by the front door, textbooks on the brink of spilling out. I grab it, trying to ignore the words that feel as if they’ve been taped across the inside of my eyelids, so Mum won’t know anything is amiss.
She watches me, her face wrinkled with concern. She’s dressed in her usual work uniform – flared knee-length skirt, blouse, cardigan – but on her feet are the big fluffy slippers she swaps her heels for as soon as she walks in the door. She works in advertising, a huge corporate company that makes things like that Christmas supermarket ad that went viral last year, but I can’t remember a single day when she hasn’t been there to see me off in the morning, or welcome me home after school.
‘You will be on time tonight, won’t you, Rosie?’ She works a strand of brown hair around her finger, waiting for an answer.
I am seconds from the door. From being able to think. ‘Yes, of course I will.’
‘You know it’s important – to me and your dad. It’s an early start tomorrow, to get to the studio, and we want to spend some time together tonight. To talk about her. As a family.’
‘I know, Mum. I’ll be on time. Early, even.’ I puff my cheeks, jigging from foot to foot as I eye the door.
‘Text me when you’re off the bus, and when you get on this afternoon.’
‘I will. I always do.’
‘And if you need anything, anything at all, you can call me at the office. I’ll always answer.’
‘OK,’ she sighs, then opens the front door for me, holding on to the frame as I duck past her. She grabs me on the shoulder just before my foot touches the first step, pulling me into a hug I have to fight the urge to struggle out of. ‘I love you. Be safe!’
‘Yes, Mum. Love you too.’
She relinquishes her hold and I hurry down the steps.
When has she ever not ended a farewell like that? Be safe.
I try to do my Spanish homework on the bus next to Keira, but I can’t help but play the words of the email in an endless loop: …only have funds to last us until the end of May… now it’s nearly the end of April.
Keira sticks her feet up against the seat in front of us, balances the book on her knees. I see her watching me, caution in her eyes, but then she rests her iPhone on the wedge between our seats, the magenta sparkly case picking up the specks of the mottled purple and grey upholstery, and wedges one of her earbuds into my left ear, turning the volume up on the Drake song she knows I love.
‘¿Admíras a los famosos?’ she asks, reading from the maroon textbook in front of me.
It’s like I’ve never heard the words in my life.
‘¿Admíras… a… los… famosos?’ she asks again, nudging me. ‘Come on, Rosie, it’s an easy one.’
I see her features crinkle together, and I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands, forcing myself to scrub the email from my mind. Do you admire celebrities? The meaning comes to me at last. ‘Sí, sí, admíro mucho. Liam Hemsworth es muy guapo,’ I joke. That’s what I always do.
She giggles, thumps me on the head with the book, and I know I’ve struck the right note. It’s always so much easier.
…forced to close the trust. That must be what it is. They’ll use tomorrow’s interview as an appeal – to see if the nation’s ghoulish hunger for sympathy will invite a new wave of donations that’ll allow us to keep the trust afloat a little longer. The interview will be the biggest piece of coverage we’ve had this year, and the fifteen-year anniversary is a big one – we’re sure to pluck at the heartstrings of all those stay-at-home mums glued to the television set tomorrow morning, clutching a half-drunk mug of tea to their chest as they comfort themselves with the knowledge that their little Bobby or Jane is safe in bed.
The bus drops us in Highgate Village, where we pass the newsagent Keira got chased away from last week for trying to convince a man outside to buy her a bottle of vodka. I clock her smoothing down her nut-brown curls, turning her head in the opposite direction to avoid detection.
‘Like they remember you, you twat.’ I nudge her in the ribs. ‘Can you imagine how many times someone’s tried that on? You weren’t even in uniform.’
She reaches a hand out as if to give me a shove, but then she stops, grabs hold of my hand and squeezes it hard. Her features whirl into a concerned frown. ‘You’re all right, yeah?’
I go cold. At first I wonder how she can know, replaying the morning’s conversation to see if there’s anything I could have said that betrayed me. Trying to work out if it’s something my mum may have told Keira’s. But then, why her and not me?
I open my mouth, about to ask how she knows, when it strikes me: she doesn’t mean the email, she means the date. Of course: she knows that. ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ I feel my shoulders tighten, and force them to unknit themselves from my spine. I’ve been told before I need to stop acting defensive. That my ‘natural inclination to keep people at arm’s length makes it hard to form true and meaningful attachments’.
But Keira’s different. And she knows me too well to press me. Instead, she gives me a forced smile, hikes her bag over her shoulder as she turns to leave me. ‘OK, cool. Save me a seat on the bus.’ She blows me a kiss and weaves off down the hall through the anthill of navy uniforms.
At school I keep my head down, try to avoid the whispers. It’s a big enough place that I can slip down the corridors without bumping into anyone I know, but of course they all know me. Even the younger ones – the ones who weren’t even alive fifteen years ago – regard me with a rich mixture of horror and curious fascination. I see it in their faces – their eyes wide, their shoulders hitched back a little, as if it might be contagious – as they wonder to themselves, What would I be like, if it happened to me?
When I do my journey in reverse, get off the bus at the top of Highbury Corner, I switch on my phone, kept dark all day to avoid the inevitable barrage of alerts. The ones that now flood the screen. The messages of sympathy from people who barely know me, but feel like having me as a friend – even a virtual one – gives them a certain cachet. The running commentary from Mum, telling me about her day, asking me how mine’s going, telling me she’s just checking in. Each ping on the screen is heavy with her desperation to know I’m still at the other end.
At home I dodge past Rob, who’s already in his usual position in the living room playing video games on full volume, and shout down to Mum in the kitchen. ‘Home! Got an essay due for English!’ I can’t deal with it now – all of it, all of them. I crave the closed door of my room, the sanctuary it provides.
Upstairs I change into a pair of red tartan tracksuit bottoms and a grey T-shirt that reads, ‘But First, Coffee’, discarding my uniform on the bedroom floor like a body has melted from it. I tap methodically at my keyboard for an hour, trying to contemplate How Austen’s portrayal of Mr Darcy reflects the attitude towards men in the novel as a whole, but the letters on the screen before me are meaningless.
Is the email still there in the kitchen? Or did she clock it after I left, secrete it away? Does she know that I know? Is tonight when they are planning on telling us? Prepping us for the interview tomorrow, so that we’re primed to make our sob story even more compelling?
At half past six the distant sound of the front door opening and slamming shut, followed by the metallic thunk of a bike, signals Dad’s return from work. He’s a music producer – classical stuff mainly; good enough so that the press always trots out the same, well-rehearsed line, ‘celebrated music producer David Archer’, as if he has no right to complain about what happened because he’s successful.
‘Evening all!’ I picture him unclipping his helmet from under his greying beard, removing his high-vis jacket and seeking out Mum; seeking out the reassurance that everyone is OK. Everyone who can be.
The smell of cooked meat rises up the stairs and curls around my room in fatty, salty tendrils. My stomach rumbles. I couldn’t face lunch.
At ten to seven I scrape my hair into a high ponytail, trying to avoid looking at my reflection. If I do, I’ll be compelled, tonight of all nights, to look for the similarities. Does my mouth curve the same way as hers? Are our eyes like Mum’s, or Dad’s? Is there something in our noses, our ears, our jawline, that I can look at and say, ‘That’s us’?
I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to sit there over dinner, and watch Mum screwing up the corner of her mouth, and Dad ripping his napkin into shreds, as we go over it and over it all again: every shred of every story they have, nothing to be forgotten. The muscles in my legs tense in resistance. I consider calling down, telling them I feel sick, I have to finish an essay, I’m not hungry. But I know no excuse is good enough tonight.
Instead, I ball my fists, take ten deep breaths. A doctor with a German-sounding surname once told me this is ‘an excellent technique for self-reflection and relaxation’. That was after the time I punched the wall in my room so hard I broke a knuckle.
When it doesn’t work, I stop by the bathroom and pop a couple of aspirin, curling my lip at the razor by the sink. Too like The Bell Jar, even for me. I turn towards the stairs, and the smell of cheese and tomato permeates the air – lasagne, I guess – and I place a foot on the topmost step.
I practise a smile, a nod. I’m OK. We all do our best to pretend we’re OK.
And then, with nothing else for it, I make my way downstairs, each step bringing me closer to the moment I’ve spent all day dreading.
To my family.
To the past.
Enjoyed the first two chapters of My Name is Anna by Lizzy Barber? Let us know in the comments below!