The World Will Know Your Name


A songfic inspired by the song “Annie” by James Blunt

 

I don’t consider myself a guitarist; in fact, I rather suck at it.  But, nevertheless, here I stand, at the top of the carpeted steps that serve as my stage, strumming my guitar.

Amazingly, the familiar chords resonating from the guitar sound better than my real instrument, my voice, which cracks and breaks on the first word.

“Annie…”

Clearing my throat, I play the chord progression over again and try a second time.  This time, my voice, though raspier than ever, holds true.

“Annie… you had your name in the bright lights…”

I gaze out at my audience; it feels strange to be able to see their faces as I sing.  Normally, the stage lights just about blind me, and I can only squint into the first few rows.  But today, I can see everyone.  There are no bright lights on me, no bright lights flashing her name.  Instead, it’s spelled out in small, black print on the pieces of paper folded in many of their laps.

“… I thought I saw your photograph, having such a laugh, in a magazine…”

There is a photograph, I know, somewhere off stage left.  I saw it when I came in.  She isn’t laughing in it, but she’s smiling.  She has a beautiful smile.  Worthy of the magazines, for sure.

I don’t want to look at it.

“Did it all come tumbling?  Annie…”

***

She was born Ana-Maria Estella Oceguera, but since that was a mouthful, most everyone just called her Annie.  Only her mother used her full name on a regular basis.  I can still hear her trilling it out the window in her quick, Cuban tongue.  “Ana-Maria Estella Oceguera!”

That was her cue to come home, and we both knew better than to ignore it.  “‘Night, Annie,” I’d say, as she turned to run back to her house.

“‘Night, Alex!” she’d call back over her shoulder, already halfway across the yard.  She could run like a gazelle, her skinny legs flying, long black hair streaming out behind her.

Her family lived next door to my mom’s house in Boynton Beach, where I grew up.  I’m an only child, and after my dad left, it was just Mom and her parents and me, but Annie came from a big family.  Her parents were Cuban immigrants, but she was born in the States, the first of their seven children.  With four little brothers and two sisters running around, her house was always loud and crazy.  I loved spending time there, probably because I had no siblings of my own, and no father either.  Annie’s dad was great.  He had to work a lot to support the family, while her mom stayed at home with the kids, but when he was around, he was never too tired to roughhouse with his children or play baseball with us in the yard.  The Ocegueras were like my second family when I was young, and though it’s been a long time, Annie’s parents still embrace me like a son when they see me.

Just as I enjoyed spending time with her big, close-knit family, Annie loved to escape them and hang out at my house, where it was much quieter and less crowded.  She didn’t mind just sitting around with my grandparents, listening to their old records and hearing stories about their lives.  In many ways, she was an old soul, able to carry on an adult conversation when she was only in elementary school.  She adored my grandma, and when she died in 2001, Annie took it almost as hard as I did.  She was sensitive, too, maybe more sensitive than I ever realized.  She took things to heart.

I remember she cried for days after she didn’t get the part of Snow White in the Royal Palm Dinner Theater’s production of it when we were seven.  Everyone tried to tell her it was nothing personal – she never really had a shot, considering the girl they cast was, like, seventeen.  They weren’t looking for little kids, except to play dwarves or animals.  But Annie didn’t want to be a dwarf, not even after I was cast as Dopey, nor did she want to be a chipmunk or a bird.  She wanted a singing part.  She wanted the lead.

“I know all the songs by heart,” she would say in earnest, and for days before the big audition, I’d had to put up with her singing “Whistle While You Work” in her shrill, shrieking, little girl’s voice, while she swept the floor of our clubhouse.  I guess that was better than her other favorite number, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” which she’d sing shortly before making me rehearse “true love’s kiss” on her.  I complained, but I always went along with it.  I guess I was always a ladies’ man, even as a seven-year-old.

We were cut from the same mold, Annie and me.  Both of us wanted to be stars.  And in our childhood naivety, we both believed we could make it.

***

“Annie… you were made for the big time…”

My mouth forms a smile around the words I sing.  They are so close to my heart, I don’t even have to think about them, and as I keep singing and strumming my guitar, my mind takes me back.

I can still picture her leaping off the rickety, old merry-go-round at the park down the street, stretching her skinny legs out as wide as they would go in mid-air and screaming, “Fame!  I’m gonna live forever…”    “Fame” was our favorite TV show.  We would always run home to my house to watch it together, because it was quieter than her place.  I owned a copy of the movie on home video, and we had all of the songs memorized.  We would sing them together in the park, using that rusted merry-go-round as our stage, too young to care how fruity we must have looked, dancing all around the playground equipment and singing at the top of our lungs.

In those days, I dabbled in a little of everything entertainment had to offer.  Singing, dancing, acting, puppetry – I tried it all.  And, not to sound like an arrogant prick, but I was good at it all too.  The stage was a place where I felt comfortable, where I felt good about myself, and I loved being on it.  I reveled in the spotlight; I thrived on the attention I got.

Annie was all about the music.  She really wasn’t a great actress, and when it came to dancing, she had two left feet.  But her singing voice was pretty and sweet, and she showed a real talent for songwriting.  She just had a way with words, their rhythm and flow.  Even as a little kid, she could string together silly rhymes and melodies off the top of her head.  Maybe they didn’t always make sense, but they sounded good.  The lyrics she wrote in later years were pure poetry, her music far more brilliant than anything I could compose.

“They said you’re a star to be, in the NME…”

That still holds true today, which is why it’s so ironic.

“… but the walls came tumbling down, down… will you go down on me?”

It’s ironic that I’m the one standing here, plucking this guitar I can barely play…

“Annie, you’re a star… that’s just not going very far…”

… singing this song I wrote.

“… and all the world will know your name, and you’ll be famous as you are…”

The song I wrote for her.

“…‘cause I’ll sing for you…”

***

            “Annie… would it be nice to be recognized?  And did you practice your autograph…”

Annie started practicing her autograph when she was about twelve, the last year I lived next door to her.  I remember sitting next to her in sixth-grade study hall, watching her scrawl her name all over her notebooks, in different styles of handwriting, not to mention different versions of her name.  She couldn’t decide what she wanted to go by once she was a famous singer.

“My full name is too much of a mouthful… and way too long for signing autographs,” I remember her saying.  She wrinkled her nose at the words Ana-Maria Oceguera, signed in her fanciest cursive, and crossed them out.  “But then, ‘Annie’ seems too plain for a star.  I need to stand out to make it, don’t I?  I dunno… what do you think, Alex?”

I considered the matter.  “What about just using your first name?  You know, just Ana-Maria.  You could be like Madonna… or Cher.”

She brightened at this thought and wrote out Ana-Maria, tipping her head to the side to survey how it looked on paper.  “That might work…” she said thoughtfully.

“And if that gets to be too much,” I added, with a rush of further inspiration, “you could just sign it ‘A.M.’  That’s what I’m gonna do – go by my initials.  A.J. is a way cooler name than Alex.”

“AJ,” she repeated, nodding her approval.  “I do like that, Alexander James.”

I gave her a scathing smirk for the use of my full name, but deep down, I was pleased.  It was around that time that I started insisting on being called AJ.

In the next few years, many of the people in my life would know me as nothing other than AJ, but I was still “Alex” to a special few, Annie among them.  She called me AJ when the occasion called for it, but at home and in private, I would always be Alex.  Much the same, she always signed her letters and, later, her e-mails Annie, even while she was writing songs and recording demos under the trademark of Ana-Maria.

I missed her terribly when my mom and I moved to Kissimmee, although I was too macho to admit it.  At that point, Annie and I hit a fork in the road of our friendship.  Our lives took two separate paths, which crossed from time to time, but never truly converged.  Through a mix of talent, luck, and the right connections, I achieved the dream we had both sought after:  stardom.

I tried to help her after; I really did.  But what had worked for me never really did for her.

“… but now no one’s asked, and it’s such a shame, that the dreams are crumbling…”

My Annie… I miss her now, more than ever.

***

            “Annie… why aren’t you bathed in the limelight?  ‘Cause I thought you said you’d be a celebrity several years ago…”

I was fourteen when I auditioned for the male vocal group which would eventually become the Backstreet Boys.  When I called Annie from Orlando to tell her all about it, she couldn’t have been happier for me.  “This could be it, Alex,” she gushed excitedly over the phone.  “Your big chance… your shot at being a star!  You could be like the New Kids!”

Everyone else taught me to be cynical, to be skeptical, to not count my chickens before they hatched.  My family was supportive, don’t get me wrong, but in trying to protect me from having my dreams crushed, they were also cautious in their optimism and wanted me to be the same.  But not Annie.  She believed with her whole heart that this was it for me, that I was going to be a star.  She made me believe it too.

“When we get our record deal and make it big, I’m gonna bring you with me.  I’ll make you a star too,” I promised her.  I meant it, and she believed it, just as she believed in me.

Now here I stand, singing to an audience that’s just a small fraction of the crowd I’ve performed in front of, night after night, for all these years.  I’m doing what I love, what I was meant to do, but today, it brings me no joy.  I only feel sadness… and guilt.

            “… did it all come tumbling down?”

I feel like I failed her.

***

            “Annie, you’re a star… who’s just not going very far…”

I know I can’t blame myself.  I did what I could to help her.  I tried; I really did.  She tried too, in the beginning.  She wanted a record deal more than anything, and she fought for it, as hard as I fought for her.

She went to all the meetings I set up for her, smiled her most endearing smile and flirted with all her Cuban charm had to offer.  She recorded demo after demo, singing songs she’d written herself and showing off her abilities on the guitar as she accompanied her own sweet voice.  She took extra waitressing shifts at the Mexican restaurant down the street from her apartment just so she could afford her vocal lessons, after the first couple of record execs told her she didn’t have the voice to be a solo singer.  All of her tips went into a jar, which she saved up for fancy clothes so that she could dress the part.  After all, she and I both knew it wasn’t just about singing in the music business.  You had to have the right look, the whole package.

I still don’t know what she was missing.  She was certainly a pretty enough girl, exotic-looking with her dark features, and even if her voice wasn’t tops, she could definitely sing.  And she could write music, and play it too.  She was talented.  But in the early days, before I’d even thought of starting a record label of my own, when I was still trying to use my then-limited connections in the business to sell her to whatever label might be interested, she just didn’t have “it.”  Whatever “it” they happened to be looking for.  “It” seemed to change every year.

First, it was the voice.  “Sorry, honey, but guitar or not, you just don’t have the pipes to compete with the likes of Celine and Mariah.”

So Annie took lessons.

Then, it was the act.  “Sorry, dear, but young female soloists like you aren’t real marketable right now.  We’re searching for groups.  Just look at how the Spice Girls have exploded!”

Less than two years later, Britney Spears broke out and paved the way for the likes of Christina, Mandy, Jessica, and all the rest.

But not Annie.  Her ethnicity was the next barricade.  “Sorry, chica,” sneered a particularly scathing exec, “but if you can’t be blonde and bubblegum, the kids aren’t interested.  And if the kids aren’t interested, we’re not interested.”

It was right around that time that Ricky Martin ignited the Latin explosion, and even Jennifer Lopez got a record deal.  If there was one certain moment where all the stars aligned to make Annie one of them, I’m sure that was it.

            “… and all the world will know your name, and you’ll be famous as you are…”

One more chance, one more try, and she could have made it.  But that last rejection hit her hard, harder than even I realized at the time.  Looking back, I can see that it was the last straw for her, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Annie’s dreams were broken, and her along with them.

At that point, it wasn’t I who failed her.  She failed herself.

***

It started with the pot.

Before that, it was just cigarettes.  She had smoked almost as long as I had, since we were both just teenagers, too young to be smoking, but what can I say?  It’s still a bad habit of mine.  Annie didn’t apologize for it either.  She said she liked the way it made her voice sound.  Huskier… sexier.  Maybe she thought smoking would actually get her farther with her music.

It didn’t.  And when it didn’t, the cigarettes turned to joints.  That didn’t really surprise me… I mean, who hasn’t smoked pot?  We used to smoke it together.  She was always well-stocked when I came home to Florida on breaks, and I had a stash of it hidden in my bunk on the bus, for when she came to visit us on tour.  I regret to say it was the two of us who got Nick high for the first time.  We knew enough to hide it from Kevin, but it really didn’t seem like a big deal to us.  We had a blast that tour.

After a week on the road with us, Annie flew back home, and I didn’t see her again for months.  This was 1999, the biggest year of our career, and our tour went on for almost a full year, with only a few weeks off in between legs.  I was busier than I’d ever been, and back home, Annie was busy, too… busy getting herself into trouble.

I should have seen the signs.  When I finished touring the following spring and came home for a long break, she blamed her red nose and constant sniffling on allergies.  The hoarseness in her voice, she said, was from too much singing.  Having toured for a year, I could relate.  I just told her to take it easy, to rest her voice, and offered her a bottle of Benedryl for the allergies.

“Naïve” isn’t a word people normally use to describe me, but I guess, at that point, I was.  Or maybe I was just blind when it came to Annie.  I always saw her as the little girl who had grown up alongside me, my friend, with the long, black hair and the big, dark eyes, the skinny legs and the voice like a bird.  I didn’t see her for what she was fast becoming:  an addict.  And by the time I caught on to her cocaine habit, I was ready to join her.

***

            “…’cause I’ll sing for you…”

I look out into my audience and see my mom, sitting just behind Annie’s parents, and I think of my grandmother.  For a few seconds, her face takes the place of Annie’s in my mind, and as my voice breaks off too soon, I am glad for the excuse to look down.  I watch my fingers as they find the chords for the guitar progression I wrote into the middle of my song.  Thankfully, it is simple, because my mind is no longer on the song.

As a guy who has sung the song “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” at every Backstreet show for over a decade, I am pretty damn good at performing without thinking.  Sometimes, like now, I just wish I could perform without feeling.

God knows I’ve tried.

***

I spent most of the first leg of the Black & Blue tour drunk or high, and not just with the natural euphoria brought on by performing.  We were on top of the world, but I was struggling to keep my balance, as my life crumbled around me.  My grandma was dying of heart failure, and the tour kept me far away from where I should have been – at her bedside.

I was overwhelmed even before the tour started.  The holidays had been rough; deep down, I’d known that Christmas would be the last one I’d ever spend with my grandmother.  Right afterward, I had to leave Florida to shoot a music video for “The Call,” our second single.  I hated to leave my family, with my grandma so ill, but I had no choice.  I couldn’t let the group down.  My only consolation was that out in Los Angeles, I could see Annie, my little slice of home.

She had moved to the west coast the previous summer, around the same time I left Florida again to record Black & Blue.  I should have seen it as another sign of her slowly slipping away from us; the Annie I knew would never want to live so far from her close-knit family.  But then, Annie was also desperate to break into the business.  I figured she had finally decided her chances to make it would be better in L.A.  Aside from her family, there was nothing for her in Florida.  She’d tried community college, but dropped out a semester shy of her associate’s degree.  College wasn’t for her, she told me.  I know now that it was the drugs talking, not my Annie.

This new Annie ended up in Los Angeles, living in a crappy apartment in a bad part of the city, waitressing tables in a diner during the day and bartending at night.  Somehow, the shifts were enough to cover her rent, as well as her habit.  She even managed to take some time off when I flew in for the video shoot.

The night before the shoot, she came over to my place, and we hung out, got drunk, and then just talked early into the morning.  Aside from my mom, Annie was the easiest woman to talk to I’d ever known.  We had so much in common, and, having grown up together, I felt like she knew me inside and out.  She knew the real me.  She knew how I was struggling with everything going on in my life – the pressures of fame, the breakup with my latest girlfriend, and the fear of losing the woman who had been like a second mother to me.  She heard my deepest confessions, knew my darkest secrets, and on that night, I found out one of hers.

I went to check on her, after she stumbled up to the upstairs bathroom and didn’t come back.  She’d left the door cracked open, not expecting me to come upstairs, or just too drunk and desperate to care, and I peeked through to see her reflection in the mirror as she slid a piece of straw up one nostril, pinched the other shut, and snorted the line of white powder spread over the countertop.

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Of course, I knew what I had witnessed… I’d toured around the world; I had seen plenty of cocaine use.  But Annie?  It just didn’t seem like her.  This wasn’t just booze, or tobacco, or even pot.  Coke was in a different realm, on the other side of a line I’d never crossed.  I wasn’t sure how to react, but I’m not anything if not blunt, so what did I do?  I pushed open the door.

The slightest display of shock flickered across her face when she looked up and saw me standing there, but her reaction was not what I had expected.  She didn’t flip out, get all defensive.  She just smiled.  It was a guilty smile, a shifty one, but a smile just the same.

I couldn’t smile back.  “Shit, Annie, what are you doing?” I muttered, shaking my head at her.

She just shrugged, her expression turning sour.  “You tellin’ me you’ve never tried it?”

I shook my head again in honesty, and the impish little smile returned to her face.

“Well, maybe you should.”

***

I’m not gonna blame Annie for my drug addiction.  I already had substance abuse issues before I added cocaine to the mix, but alright, yeah, she was the one who introduced me to that particular vice.

I didn’t sleep at all after catching her in my upstairs bathroom, and I felt like a zombie on the way to the video shoot.  She told me it would work wonders; after all, it was a stimulant.  I’m not trying to justify why I did it, but the truth of the matter was, I was a confused, depressed son of a bitch who needed a pick-me-up like nothing else, and my girl Annie had a cure.

In the privacy of my trailer on the set, she pulled a baggie of white powder and a credit card out of her handbag and arranged a neat little line on the table for me.  She gave me a clean straw, and I sniffed.  It wasn’t pleasant at first… but then it started to kick in, and it was amazing.  I felt revitalized, euphoric.  Better than I had in months.  Annie was right.  It worked wonders.

I know now that I have an addictive personality; all it took was that first try to get me hooked.  I started to crave that “pick-me-up” again and again:  when I was hungover and exhausted after a night of partying and had to do a concert… when I was depressed about what was going on back home… or just when I wanted to forget it all and relish in that amazing high.

Of course, the highs never lasted, and the lows only got worse.  After my grandma died, the whole thing escalated.  I was a mess.  The guys were concerned; they wanted me to have a therapist travel with me on the second leg of our tour.  The only one I wanted was Annie.  She was my confidant, the only one who truly knew what I was into, the only one who understood.  My grandmother’s death hit her hard too, and we started hooking up more often to get trashed and party the sadness away.

By July, I knew, deep down, that I had a problem, and that she had one too.  When Kevin and the guys finally intervened and got me to agree to rehab, I tried to reach out to her, tried to convince her to come with me.  I tried again after I got clean.  “Annie, don’t you see?” I begged her.  “It’s not gonna be easy, but if you just go and do this, you can break the cycle.  You won’t be dependent anymore; you won’t have to work so hard to buy the coke.  You can get back into music.”

“Get back into music?” she scoffed, her voice tinged with bitterness.  “I never made it in music to begin with!”

“But you could!  I can help you now!  If you cleaned up your life, you could make it this time!  It’s your dream, Annie.”

She shook her head.  “It’s your dream, Alex.  Not mine.  Not anymore.”

I saw then that there was no helping her.  She had to want help before I could give it to her, and she just wasn’t ready to accept it… not in any sense.  I realized that, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut her out of my life until she got clean.  Not when she had been a part of it for about as long as I could remember.  I just cared about her too much.

But my love for Annie couldn’t help her, and it only hurt me.  It cost me my relationship with Sarah, the woman I’d intended to spend the rest of my life with.  I don’t blame Annie for that either; I blame myself.  I just couldn’t stay away from her.  I’d been clean and sober for months, but all it took was one visit with Annie for me to slip up and fall off the wagon.  We got drunk and slept together that night, a first for us.  I still don’t know how I could have let that happen.  I loved Annie as a friend, even a sister, but never anything more.  But in the moment, we just got carried away, and I awoke the next morning to find myself naked in her bed.

I told Sarah the truth, but lied to the public, blaming an anonymous AA sponsor instead of Annie when I confessed my slip-up.  I wasn’t going to dirty her name in my effort to come clean.  Anyway, it didn’t really matter who it was I’d cheated with.  Sarah couldn’t stay with me after that, and I guess I can’t blame her.

At the same time, I realized I couldn’t be with Annie anymore.  Not until she got clean.  She’d been my best friend forever, but now she was a toxic one, and I knew that if I kept seeing her, she would bring me down again.  I couldn’t let that happen.  Severing ties with her was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, but I did it.  The sad thing was, she wasn’t even hurt.  She was so far entrenched in her addictions that nothing mattered to her anymore, including me.

So in the end, I was the one hurt.

***

I feel that pain again today, as I sing her name.

“Annie, you’re a star…”

It kills me to picture her the way she looked the last time I saw her, but I can’t get the image out of my mind.

“… that’s just not going very far…”

I was in Los Angeles, laying down some new tracks for my solo album.  It had been five years since I distanced myself from Annie, but I recognized her immediately, standing there on the street corner, her long, black hair billowing in the night wind.  When the light changed, I turned right and pulled up alongside the curb.  She came over right away, and I thought she recognized me too.  I was wrong.

“Hey baby, you want some company?” she asked, leaning into the passenger-side window as I lowered it.  Her words slurred together, and the trace of Cuban accent in her voice was more pronounced than I remembered it.

“Annie…”

When I whispered her name, her glazed eyes widened, as if she were seeing me for the first time.  “Alex?”  She blinked rapidly, looking disoriented, like she wasn’t sure if I was real or a hallucination.

I reached over and opened the passenger door.  “Get in.”

She did.  As the interior light spilled over her, I got a good look at her for the first time and was shocked that I’d known her.  Her makeup was smeared, as if she’d had it on for two days straight, and there were dark circles beneath her black-rimmed eyes.  Her apples of her cheeks were hollow, even concave, with her cheekbones jutting out unnaturally.  The mini-skirt and skimpy tank she was wearing did little to hide her emaciated body.  She’d always been slender, but her legs looked like sticks, as skinny as they’d been when she was a little girl who liked to leap off the merry-go-round at the park.  I could practically see the bones of her arms through her papery skin, and there were clear track marks up and down her forearms.  Apparently cocaine wasn’t enough for her these days; she was also shooting up.  On what – heroin?  I didn’t want to know.

A part of me was relieved when she pulled the door shut, plunging us back into darkness.  I didn’t want to have to look at her.  There were a million thoughts racing through my head, but I didn’t voice any of them.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say… I just couldn’t bring myself to say it.  I know – unusual for me.  As I’ve said before, I’m not anything if not blunt.  Maybe Annie needed someone to be blunt with her.  But then, maybe she didn’t.  Surely, she already knew what a mess she was – did she really need me to rub it in?  Probably not.  But I wasn’t going to lie and tell her she looked great either, so I just said nothing and drove.

As I pulled away from the curb, I didn’t know where I was going to take her, and she didn’t ask.  Inevitably, my car guided me to the place I’d been heading before I had stopped to pick her up:  home.

“Long time since I’ve been here,” she mumbled as she climbed out of the car, craning her neck to look up at my Malibu mansion.

Not replying, I thought back to the night I’d caught her snorting coke in the guest bathroom.  It had been six years since that night.  Six years, she’d been doing this shit.  I wondered how she could possibly afford to keep it up.

I didn’t have to wonder long.

“I haven’t offered up my services in a crib this nice in… I don’t know how long…”   She sounded like she was talking more to herself than to me, but I felt like she was taunting me.

“Well, you’re not servicing anyone here, Annie, so shut the fuck up,” I growled.  “If you’re lucky, you’ll get a decent meal out of me.  Nothing more, got it?”

“Sure, whatever,” she replied as she wove her way up the path to my front door.

Again, I was reminded of the little girl I’d once known as I watched her stumble in her tall, black boots, their stiletto heels scuffing against the pavement.  In a strange way, she mimicked a child, trying to walk in her mother’s too-big high heels.  But Annie wasn’t a child anymore.  She had none of the innocent optimism of the girl I’d grown up with.  Years of drugs and broken dreams had jaded her, transformed her from a beautiful, talented young woman into this crack whore I was letting into my house.  She was practically a stranger, yet I couldn’t turn her away, just as I’d been unable to ignore her there on the street corner.

I wish I could say that my being a good Samaritan had done her some good.  I wish I could look back and remember that night as a turning point, the pivotal moment when Annie finally saw the light and decided to change her life.  But wishes and happy endings are for fairy tales, and Annie was never meant to be Snow White.  I couldn’t just ride in on a white stallion (or, rather, in a black Range Rover) to kiss her and bring her back to life.  The Annie I’d known was already dead.

I got one last glimpse of her that night.  She looked like such a mess that I sent her up to the guest bathroom to freshen up while I ordered take-out.  When she came back down, her hair was damp from the shower and left wet marks on the long t-shirt I’d loaned her as it streamed sleekly down her back.  She looked better now that she was out of her hooker’s clothes – the baggy t-shirt hid how skinny she was.  Her skin was still pale, stretched thin across her bones, but with her face scrubbed clean, her natural beauty shone through.  Still, the light was missing from her dull, brown eyes.  She was like the ghost of my Annie… recognizable in form, but somehow diminished.

She sobered up a little over dinner, though she didn’t eat much, and I convinced her to stay the night, thinking that if I could just keep her away from the streets and the drugs and the toxic people in her life for a day or so, I’d be able to talk some sense into her and get her into a treatment program.

It was a naïve thought.

She slid between the clean sheets in my guest room that night, already shaking with the symptoms of heroin withdrawal, and when I awoke in the early morning and went to check on her, the sheets were hanging off the bed, my t-shirt was wadded in the corner of the room, and Annie was gone.  So, I discovered later, were a prescription bottle of Tylenol with codeine, left over from my knee surgery a couple years before, and all the cash I’d had in my wallet.

That was the last time I saw Annie.

***

The image of her haunted me in the weeks after she disappeared.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her… how she’d looked, how she’d acted, and, most of all, how different her life was from the life she’d imagined.  It was during that time that she became the inspiration for this song I’m singing now.

            “… and all the world will know your name, and you’ll be famous as you are… ‘cause I’ll sing for you…”

When I made the decision to put it on my solo album, I wondered if she would ever hear it.  I didn’t stop to think that she would never get the chance.  Nor did I see myself singing it at her funeral.  But here I stand, at the top of the carpeted steps that serve as my stage, strumming my guitar.

I’ll never forget that call from my mother last week.  “Alex?”  Her voice shook as she used my real name; she never calls me AJ anymore.  “I just got off the phone with Inez… Inez Oceguera.”

Annie’s mom, I thought, my heart already sinking.  The tone in her voice said it all before she could.

“Annie’s dead.”

Annie’s dead.  The words bounce around in my head, and even though I’m here, halfway through her service, they still seem surreal.  I suppose her death wasn’t altogether unexpected, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept, or to understand.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.

I finally look to my left, and I see her picture there on the altar.  It’s an old picture, taken when she was a senior in high school, and she looks beautiful in it.  She looks like the Annie I knew… not the person she became, but the person she had been.  The little girl who had grown up alongside me, my friend, with the long, black hair and the big, dark eyes, the skinny legs and the voice like a bird.

Annie was supposed to be a star, not a statistic.

No one really knows what happened.  According to the autopsy, she died of an overdose, a lethal mix of heroin and cocaine, but it’s impossible to know whether it was an accident or suicide.  I’d like to think that it was an accident, that she slipped away without knowing what was happening to her, that if she had really wanted to kill herself, she would have reached out to someone for help instead.  Like who – me?  I don’t know.  It’s been over a year since I ran into her that last time in Los Angeles, but I still believe I could have helped her, if she’d let me.

Everyone else has been telling me there’s nothing I could have done.  They think they’re comforting me by telling me this.

They’re not.

I know it’s too late to help Annie now, but there is still something I can do.  I’m doing it now.  I’m singing this song I wrote.  The song I wrote for her.

            “Annie, you’re a star… that’s just not going very far…”

When my album comes out later this year, this song will be on it, and people around the world will hear Annie’s story.  The may never know of Ana-Maria Estella Oceguera, the girl with the bright future who fell into darkness.  But they will know of my Annie.

            “And all the world will know your name, and you’ll be famous as you are…”

They will sing her name at all of my shows, and wherever she is, I hope she’ll be able to hear them.  I think she will.  In my mind, she’s already listening.

“… ‘cause I’ll sing for you.”

I don’t have to look at her photo to imagine her smiling.  She has a beautiful smile.  It was worthy of the magazines, for sure.  And now, it’s worthy of the stars.

The End

Lyrics:  “Annie” by James Blunt


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2 reviews for The World Will Know Your Name

  1. Jemma Bond says:

    Blimey, that’s such a sad story, poor Annie. In a way I can relate; no, I’ve NEVER done drugs (Well, I once tried to sniff coke, but the ice cubes got stuck up my nose…), but around the time BSB were on top I had aspirations to become a singer myself, but it never quite worked out. I’ve since graduated from university, and I’m now working on what to do next – at one point I considered nursing, but I’m too squeamish. RIP Annie. PS – More Howie stories, please!😊

    • Julie says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting on this one! It definitely was a downer of a story… my favorite kind LOL. I hope you find something you’re passionate about! Hopefully I will write another Howie story one of these days. I have a short story involving Howie I’ve been working on.