My name is Anna. Anna Clarabelle Jones. It's important for you to know my name because to all who claim they matter, I don't exist. In the middle of history's most important event I never happened. Erased without anyone in the outside world knowing that I am a person and I have a name. I used to hate my name. I thought it was plain and simple when I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to do great things, lead kingdoms, free enslaved tribes. As it turns out, I would do all those things, but I didn't know it would cost me my name. My story is a sad story and it pains me to tell it, but it must be told. If no one knows the tale of Anna Jones, will she disappear? Fade into nothingness? I hate the thought of children sitting in classrooms learning how the world was saved and never hearing my name or knowing my part in it. Let's be honest. Your children wouldn't be learning without me. They wouldn't be free without me. You wouldn't be able to give them siblings without me. I don't want a pat on the back or a gold medal. I want truth…and justice. What happened to me nearly broke me in half, but I am stronger than the strongest mountain. I survived something no girl my age, or any woman, should have to endure, but I did it. Such a tale of perseverance should be told, and it will be my revenge. Like most stories, it all starts with a boy. He had a smile that could light a dirty cellar and eyes like forget-me-nots.
We had come a long way, my family and I. A disease had killed most of the people in our gulf coast town and when the sickness and death started to slow down, we had to move. My mother passed away when I was young and my older sisters, Jessie and Lola, were too busy sleeping with anything that moved to be useful, so it was all on me. I was on autopilot getting our clothes and things together and putting them in our cart, feeding my two younger brothers and my sisters' kids, and confirming with the dying mayor that we were cleared to go. I don't remember what my father was doing, so I'll assume he was drunk somewhere. We were nomads. I was born outside of a dessert, my mother died while we were living in a cabin in the woods, and we finally settled in Old Orleans in the Southern Bayou. The land was so gross the government didn't care what was done with it, so we were left to our own devices. I think that's how we escaped the plague because everyone that was evacuated had come from the swamp. No county or town would take us out of fear, which was understandable. Our only option was the Metro, the capitol outside of the capitol. The rails still worked, so we took the train as far as Fulton, but we had to walk the rest of the way. I remember the road being unmarked and unpaved, but worn. How many people had taken this pilgrimage, hoping for a better life?
We made it to Richland, where my mother was born, and that's when Jessie and Lola took off. Unfortunately, they didn't take their children. There were five between them, two girls and three boys, and they were mine now. They had always been mine. My father was drinking long before my mother passed when I was nine, but it got worse once she was gone. There was never a vote on who of us would lead the family; I just did it. Who else would if I didn't? I wasn't worried about caring for them along with my little brothers, since I had always done it, but I had an innate since of responsibility. They gave birth to those children, not me. I knew where my mother's family lived, but when I got there the place was empty. A cross for my grandmother was on the door. She had died the week before. Needless to say my sisters were nowhere to be found and I didn't know where to look. It was another five days until we reached the Metro, a large city east of the Appalachians. The locals called it the Queen City. Soldiers were waiting for us when we reached the border. They gave a speech, welcoming us to their city and how we would fair better here than the plague-stricken gulf. The schools were better, they said, but housing was limited. We were split into groups by last name and escorted to our new homes, which seemed even longer than the trip there. The Jones Family was placed in a neighborhood called a subdivision where all the houses looked alike and the houses had stairs. These houses, we were told, used to house families of five but now housed five families. All nine of us would have to share a room. I don't know if it was the tone of my voice or the sight of my drunken father picking up one item at a time, but a soldier figured I should be the one in my family to know where the market was.
Lucky for me, many people in the metro took pity on the southern refugees and were allowed to take as much as we wanted until we could find a source of income. I got plenty of fruit and beans and rice and bottles of water. One man had fresh corn, broccoli, and carrots and hamburger meat. One lady offered me a job as cashier when she came in once a week. "That's a lot of kids," She said, "You need to something else to do." I made soup for dinner that night. While it wasn't our turn to use the kitchen for dinner, the families there didn't seem to mind. So much pity, it made me sick. But the family was fed and my father was passed out. By midnight everyone was half asleep except for Don and me. My younger brother had turned thirteen between Richland and the Metro and like most boys from the Bayou he looked beaten and worn down. I was too busy playing mother and father to make many friends, but most of his were either dead or missing.
He and I lit a candle in the middle of the room and sat in silence. Close as we were, we didn't need to speak to one another to express ourselves. However, some things needed to be said out loud. "Anna Claire," He started, "Is this it? Are we done moving?"
"We have to find a better house. This is too cramped and too small and there's too many of us –"
"I don't mean that," He interrupted me. "I mean the Metro. Are we staying in the metro?"
"This is the last time. I promise."
"What about Jessie and Lola?"
I paused, held my anger in. "They're gone and they're not coming back."
"How could they just leave?" He looked over his shoulder at our nieces and nephews, who were curled up next to their grandfather. As far as they knew, their mothers were on a trip and were going to meet us soon. They were all under the age of six; how could I explain to them their mothers had left them? I couldn't even explain it to Don. We went back to silence and watch the candle light flicker until it was gone.
The weeks passed and things went to a new normal. My father found ways to get alcohol and the kids started school. I was working for three different people at the market on different days and no one went hungry. Whatever life we had in the Bayou was gone and forgotten. Good riddance. I'm sure you're wondering about the boy and where he comes into this story. Before I can get to the boy, you have to understand where I came from. A preface, if you will. While the great migration and my sister's skipping off was a big deal, the story really begins on a Thursday morning. It was storming and the market was full. Umbrellas and sheets covering people and food made the area look like a circus. Rain, sleet or snow, people needed to eat. I sold apples for Mr. Holmes that morning, and it was busier than usual. Poor people, rich people, and a boy in a brown cloak that covered him from head to toe. I remember my first thought being, "His eyes are beautiful." He seemed out of place, much like how I was when we first arrived. Empathy is natural to me, but I hate it now.
"Did you just move here?" I asked him. He smiled an ironic smile, but I didn't think anything of it. All I knew was he had pretty teeth and he was much more a man than a boy.
"I'm in-between towns," He said, "I was just in Richland and I'm on my way to the Capitol."
"You live in the Capitol?" My voice was almost too high.
"Yes, but I'll be here a few days. It's nothing special, just a bunch of cottages and farms surrounding a family that thinks it does."
"We wanted to go to the Capitol. We figured we'd be better off there, but we never got the okay."
"Where did you come from?"
He straightened his back, and he was tall. When I said "Old Orleans" most people were scared, but he wasn't afraid. He seemed sad.
"The plague." It wasn't a question. It was a fact, as if I didn't already know.
"How did you manage to escape it?"
"We came from the Bayou."
He laughed lightly, "Something about the swamp."
I laughed with him. Talking to him felt right. I didn't feel like a teenage girl who had seven kids and a useless father to take care of. For a second those other people and worries didn't exist and I reveled in it.
"What's your name?" He asked me.
"Nice to meet you, Anna. My name is Alex." He took my hand and shook it. He did this everyday for the next three days no matter where I was working. I told myself he needed, like most people, different foods in his system. I wouldn't entertain the thought he was looking for me; but when he did find me it was with that big smile and those eyes. A "Hello, Anna" always preceded a handshake and he would ask me questions. We talked more about me than him, which I didn't mind. Talking about my life as if I didn't live it was a good change. My family was always the joke, a father with kids he couldn't take care of and two older daughters he couldn't control. To this man, Alex, I was a piece at a history museum. I was fascinating. Things didn't get emotional until he asked me about my sisters.
"We stopped in Richland to get something to eat. They took their kids ahead because women and children could eat first. By the time the rest of us got to our table, the children were alone and my sisters were gone." It was on my day off I told him this story. What else was there to do, I told myself, besides shop and mingle at the market? He was in his brown cloak again, the hood covering his head so only I could see his face. Half the time I wondered if he was real because no on else seemed to notice him.
"That must have been awful." He said matter-of-factly.
"I didn't look very hard for them. I went to my mother's old home and stopped looking once I realized they weren't there." I grabbed a stick and started doodling in the dirt. "They loved their children, but the disdain they had for motherhood was evident to everyone but their kids. I always knew they would leave I just didn't know when."
"They should have left you a two-week notice." He held up a random piece of paper mockingly and spoke in a girly voice, "Dear Little Sister, we are leaving our children in due time on this date for you to take care of. Please feed them veggies so they won't be fat. P.S. Don't bother alerting their fathers, for we don't know who they are." I laughed the biggest laugh in years.
"Their sons will be better men when I'm done with them. Don wants to quit school and help me, but I want him to be a kid, you know?" I looked at him for understanding and he nodded. "I want him to be educated so he can get a real profession and he can get a stand-up wife and be a better husband and father than our dad ever was." I stopped and took a breath. "Character. I need him to build character, and he's not done yet."
"You'd never let your sons grow up too quickly?"
"Never. The world is hard, but no so hard they can't have a childhood."
"Your time came too early," He said to me. He was almost angry. "It's not fair."
"Maybe it was meant for me."
I didn't see him the next day or the day after that. The first real friend I ever had and the first boy to find me interesting was gone. I tried to hold on to his eyes. The way he looked me in the eye when we talked, like I was an adult. I tried to hold on to those moments when I didn't feel seventeen. The first few weeks after my mother died, we were starving. My father couldn't stop crying long enough to move or comfort his children and my big sisters were way past emotionally unavailable. It would be another year before Jessie had her first kid. I don't remember how I managed to get dinner on the table that one night, but I did. And then the next day, and the day after that. No one asked me or begged me. I got tired of watching everyone I depended on do nothing. I figured my dad would wake up one day and be a dad again or my sisters would step up. My dad turned to the bottle and my sisters decided to expand our family and I'm still waiting on that one day.
On the fifth night, I sat in the room watching everyone sleep. I wondered what it would be like if I left. Could I honestly go on with my life and not worry about them? Be like my sisters: selfish and cold? Could I move to the Capitol without them, find Alex? Meeting someone who found me fascinating besides a bunch of kids was a taste of a different kind of life, and I was hungry for more. Alex was right. It wasn't fair. Don stirred in his sleep, reminding me of the last time Alex and I spoke. He asked a lot about Don, how I was raising him, things we did together. "People don't know how to raise boys anymore. You're doing such a good job." At the time I welcomed the compliment, but in the middle of the night watching my little brother sleep it seemed…off.
"Anna," Don's voice snapped me out of my daydream. Wobbly and disoriented, he crawled over to me. He seemed happier to me, much happier than the Bayou allowed him to be. There was promise for him in the Metro. He could be somebody. "Why are you still awake?"
"Can't sleep, I guess."
"We learned about the Capitol in school today?" Speak of the devil.
"What about the Capitol?" I did my best "intrigued" voice.
"It's called Nouvel and that's where the king and queen live." He pulled his knees up to his chest and leaned into me. "The people who live there are shepherds and farmers and a lot of the merchants in the market are from Nouvel." Of course I knew all this, but someone at home needed to be interested in his schooling.
"What else did you learn?"
"There wasn't always a king and queen. The teacher said it was the last democracy. Before the royal family all the kingdoms were one country and we had a president and representatives and the people voted,"
"Oh yeah. Everything was different. So different." He got quiet and still I knew him well enough to wait. Whatever else was weighing on his mind he would speak it when he was ready. He shared his problems like a storyteller with a beginning end and rising and falling action. He didn't want to just tell you what was wrong; he wanted you to understand it. We were alike in that way.
"Anna, will things always be this bad?"
I took a deep breath. "They say that darkness always precedes the dawn. The dawn has to come sometime."
"You'll never leave us like Jessie and Lola, will you?" And here it was. It came out of his mouth so fast I almost didn't catch it. I knew that if something were to happen to me it would all be up to Don and he was unprepared. I knew I should at least teach him how to cook or budget or what foods to get from the market, but I didn't want him to have to care. Him wanting to help was enough.
"I'll never leave you. Never." I held out my pinky and he wrapped his around it. He rested his head in my lap and went to sleep. I followed him soon after.
The mother in the room next to us decided to make a big breakfast for the whole house. We ate pancakes and sausage and eggs and fresh milk. My dad was still asleep and I didn't feel like waking him. After breakfast, I got the kids dressed and showered and sent them off. The best thing about the metro was the cars and buses. I didn't have to stay in my little corner of town and the kids could go to great schools instead of the nearest bait store on the swamp. We had money left over and the kids had food and clothes, so I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch on my day off. I found a restaurant downtown that made breakfast all day, fresh bacon and shrimp and grits. I almost fell asleep at the table. I bought a new dress and a book for Don about ancient kingdoms. It was hard watching the other women in their fine clothes with perfect hair. At first I was angry at their ignorance. Did they not know how people were suffering just miles away? But then I felt grateful they would never know our struggles. They would never be without and their sons would grow up to be real men who be better than my dad or the men who got my sister's pregnant. I hoped they were teaching their girls to be ladies, to be responsible. I took my bitterness and threw it away and headed home.
My dad was still asleep when I walked into the room. It was our turn to use the kitchen so I prepared the stove for dinner. Steak and potatoes would be our meal and I was excited. Don liked mushrooms and Davey, my youngest brother, liked onions, so I made sure to grill them to perfection. Jessie and Lola's kids loved cream corn and I knew just how to make it. None of them cared much for potatoes, which was okay with me. Learning how to cook was the worst part of this journey. Everyone was picky and wanted everything just right. I was always burning something or undercooking the chicken. It took me a year to get it right, but when I did no one complained again. In the middle of marinating the steaks I realized something: my dad was in the same sleeping position. He hadn't moved. I ran upstairs quickly and rolled him over. White stuff was coming out of his mouth and his eyes had rolled into the back of his head. His skin was blue and I couldn't tell if he was breathing.
"I NEED A PHONE!" Frantic, I ran from room to room. No one had a phone. Who could afford one? I ran out of the door and down the street screaming for help. The neighborhood was unusually still. Even when the children were at school, there were usually people in the front yards doing work or chatting. Usually there were men exercising or women pushing baby strollers, but nothing. The emptiness, though chilling, didn't slow me down. A patrol car was coming my way and I ran faster. A man in a black uniform got out of the car and approached me.
"What's wrong, ma'am?"
"My dad," I couldn't breathe. My thoughts were all over the place. "I don't think he's breathing. He's blue. He's –"
"Okay, ma'am. Okay," He grabbed my shoulder to shut me up. He pulled a walkie-talkie from somewhere and started speaking into it using code words I didn't know and describing me as a short adolescent female with blonde hair. He drove me back to my house and I took him upstairs. He rolled my father on his back and wiped his mouth.
"Has he taken anything?" He asked me.
"Like drugs? No, he just drinks a lot. He probably drank too much." The man pinched his nose and blew air into his mouth. Suddenly, my dad was coughing and I was crying. I stood outside while the paramedics worked on my dad. I figured I could make the school bus come faster if I stared down the road. I wanted to see my family and tell them how everything was going to be okay and we would be fine because I knew that would make me feel better. As useless as he was, he was still my dad; though he did nothing for me, I still needed him.
"Ma'am," I turned around and one of the officers was coming towards me. How could he look so calm, I wondered? Everything around me was still so calm. Something wasn't right. "We're taking your daddy to the hospital. You can ride with us."
I shook my head, still trying to collect my thoughts. "I can't. My family is coming home soon. They're just kids."
"Can anyone else take care of them?"
"No sir, it's just me."
He nodded and smiled, "Okay, then. We'll take him to the hospital and we'll have an officer check on you later tonight to give you an update. How's that?"
"That's perfect. Thank you, sir." He squeezed my shoulder and walked away. Just as they were leaving the driveway, the school bus pulled up. Don and Davey hopped off and ran to me. Davey was none the wiser, but Don knew something was wrong.
"Go inside, I'll tell you later." I said before he could ask me any hard questions. I finished cooking dinner in silence, and it was ready by the time the younger kids got home. Two of Jessie's kids cried when I told them their grandfather was in the hospital. The rest seemed to either not care or they weren't worried. Don, I felt, seemed relieved. I didn't say much. Instead I tucked them in and read them stories. For the first time since we had settled in the Metro, I didn't stay up for hours watching them sleep. I slept right next to them.
I remember the next day like it was yesterday. I remember Jessie's youngest, Josie, crying because she had wet herself and the smell woke everyone. I remember putting the sheets in the washer while everyone got breakfast. I remember hearing Davey sing in the shower and Don telling him to shut up. Flora, the mother who liked to make king-sized breakfasts, told me about her father who also had a drinking problem and how his liver exploded. A few minutes later, the young ones came down the stairs ready for me to walk them to the bus stop. Don and Davey were standing in the front yard staring down the road, stone still. I could see neighbors across the street starting in the same direction, clutching their children's hands. I looked around me and everyone in the house, at least twenty-five people, was staring out the windows, heads turned slightly to the left. I stepped outside to pull the boys in, and I remember the horses. There were ten of them all with men on their backs. Behind them was a large car, black with four doors.
"They don't even make those anymore," A man said.
"Make what?" Another man asked.
"Range Rovers. There's a picture of my great-grandfather with his Range Rover. It was in our family until the engine died." The windows were tinted and it was driving slowly. Behind the car were more horses and more men. It looked like a death parade. Though the officer came by and told us our father was all right, I remember wondering if he had died and they were delivering his body. I remember wondering if this was how things were done in the Metro, but I knew better. The men and horses passed us, but the car parked right in front of our house. One of the men on the horses stepped off and approached us as I yanked my brothers back into the house and I pushed Jessie and Lola's kids up the stairs.
"Anna Claire, what's going on?" Davey asked me.
"I don't know," I said as I herded them in the bedroom. I told them to be quiet and I listened through the door. They introduced themselves, but I didn't catch it. The next few words were clear as a bell.
"We require your cooperation. We're looking for a young girl named Anna." Someone grabbed my wrist and squeezed. I racked my brain going through every name in the house, trying to find another Anna, but I was the only one. I got confirmation when they came through the door. They looked like the businessmen I saw downtown but their waistcoats and ties were blue and purple. I pushed everyone behind me and stood straight. It was easier knowing what to be scared of. I remember not knowing what was going on or why.
"Can I help you?" I intended to speak louder, but I could barely manage a whisper.
"Are you Anna?" The one in front said.
"Why do you want to know my name."
"Answer the question," He said, "Are you Anna?" I was trying to think of something smart to say and some way to get out, but my brain was blank.
"My name is Anna Jones." I could hear Josie crying behind me.
"We have an order. You're coming with us."
"NO!" Davey screamed as he hauled himself in front of me, pushing me farther into the room. Josie or someone smaller, I couldn't see, grabbed my dress and pulled me against them.
"What have I done?" I whispered.
"She's a good sister, she takes care of us, she hasn't done anything wrong." Don cried.
The man in front looked down at him and I remember seeing something: empathy. "She'll be all right. She has to come with us."
"Is she coming back?" Josie wailed over and over again.
Now the man was looking at me. "This is not a request or a suggestion. You are coming with us."
Just in time, I had found my voice. "My father's in the hospital and there's no one else here to take care of them. I made a promise; I'm not going anywhere."
"Don't say her name!" Davey picked up something and threw it at him. Suddenly, objects were flying at the men in suits and I was holding Josie in my arms. I kept screaming, "I'm not leaving," but I believe Don and Davey drowned out my voice. One of the kids took a shoe and threw it, hitting one in the face. Davey and Don were throwing towels and sheets. When their arms tired, the silence was deafening. It was a starring match, and I had lost. Faster than I could blink two men charged, one grabbing Josie and the other grabbing me. Once they pried Josie out of my arms, I was hauled over someone's shoulders and carried out the door.
I remember the looks on their faces, the sounds of their voices screaming for me to come back, to let me go. I remember the tears in Flora's eyes and the stunned looks on the neighbor's faces as they carried me outside. Someone threw me inside the Range Rover and slammed the door behind me. I reached for the handle but it was locked. Suddenly the car was moving faster than it arrived. I remember Don running faster than I had ever seen him run and I remember Josie lying in the road writhing and crying. I swung my fists at the two men in the front and the men next to me. I called them every name I could, demanded they take me home…and then nothing. Someone hit me and I was on the car floor.