Anne distractedly gathered her books into a stack on her desk and tied a leather strap around them to carry. She slung them over her shoulder with a sigh.
School that day had been, to say it kindly, unpleasant; Mr. Phillips had started the day in a particularly cantankerous mood, snapping at Anne several times; Josie Pye, vexatious as always, had snidely remarked on Anne’s new dress, telling her that it was “the color of mud” and inquired as to whether or not Marilla Cuthbert possessed any semblance of taste at all. Anne’s face had grown beet red at that, and she had retorted derisively that Marilla boasted more taste in her left pinkie finger than Josie sported in her entire body. Josie had given an indignant huff and stalked away, taking Tillie Boulter and Jane Andrews with her and leaving Anne, Diana, and Ruby to sit and eat their lunches alone. All this on top of an especially arduous maths quiz had left Anne desiring the refuge of Green Gables.
“Are you ready to go, Anne?” Diana called from just outside the coatroom, snapping Anne out of her moment of contemplation.
“Yes, coming!” Anne replied, and made her way toward the back of the classroom. A handful of boys were loitering near the back row of desks, clustered in groups and goofing off. Gilbert Blythe was leaning against a desk, mid-conversation with Moody Spurgeon, and directly behind him, sitting atop a desk, was Billy Andrews, engaged in some sort of tomfoolery with his friends. As she passed by, Billy caught her eye. He winked at her, and the action, along with his leering grin, filled Anne with unease. She hurried to Diana, who had witnessed the brief exchange with a crease between her brow.
“What was that about?” Diana inquired.
Anne snatched her hat and coat off the rack and shook her head. “Frankly, I don’t wish to find out.”
The girls shrugged on their coats and fixed their hats atop their heads, changing the subject to discuss their plans for the upcoming weekend. They were about to walk out the door when Diana’s expression suddenly turned sour and her nose wrinkled.
"What is that dreadful smell?”
Anne sniffed, and immediately regretted it. The air was tainted by a rank, oddly familiar odor. Dread pricked faintly at the edges of her subconscious, causing her limbs to stiffen in apprehension. Her hand brushed the side of her coat, and she frowned. There was a small lump of something tucked away in her pocket that hadn't been there before. Bemused, Anne reached inside. Her fingers stroked fur, and then a thin, cold length of flesh.
Anne shrieked and ripped her hand out of the pocket, startling Diana and dropping her books. She tore off her coat and threw it across the room, where it landed at the feet of Gilbert Blythe. Gilbert stared at Anne with confusion wrinkling his brow, then reached down to pick up her coat. As he stood, clutching it in his hand, a small object fell from the crumpled mass of fabric and hit the floor with a soft thud.
A dead mouse.
Raucous laughter rang through the classroom. The boys were having a fit at Anne’s reaction, and no one more than Billy Andrews. He flashed Anne that same, unsettling grin, and then nudged Tommy Sloane and joked crudely, “I didn’t know dogs were afraid of mice!”
Gilbert whirled on Billy, his jaw taut and pulsing with ire. “You did this?”
Billy’s smile faltered, fear flashing briefly in his eyes. Then he placed a hand over his heart in mock indignation and feigned innocence. “Now when did I say that?”
Throughout this exchange, Anne’s eyes never left the mouse, scarcely hearing a word the boys had said. Though the creature was half the room away, she felt the stench of death begin to surround her, suffocating her. A voice that haunted her memories echoed in her head, threatening and cruel, and she lost herself in the recollection of hands snatching at her dress and yanking her hair. Her throat constricted painfully and tears blurred her vision. Diana gripped her shoulders, but she felt far, far away, as if she was holding onto someone else. Even with her best friend supporting her, the room seemed to spin and twirl, and her knees nearly buckled. Then Gilbert was beside her too, calling her name, his voice ringing faintly in her ears. Anne struggled to catch her breath and gasped for air, then choked on the rancid taste of dead flesh.
Nausea twisted her stomach and bile bit at the back of her throat. Anne staggered away from Diana and Gilbert and pushed open the schoolhouse door. Once outside, she stumbled off the steps, falling to her knees by the side of the building. Fisting her fingers into the grass, Anne leaned forward and began to retch.
A pair of hands pulled her braids away from her face, and another grasped her shoulders. A shudder ran through Anne's body and she heaved again, gagging on the putrid taste, her throat burning. The hands that held her began rubbing slow circles on her back. Anne coughed and panted for air, before emptying her stomach one last time.
When it was over, Anne closed her eyes and slumped against whoever was holding her. She trembled, and their grip grew tighter.
"Oh, Anne," she heard Diana say beside her. "You poor thing!"
Eyes still closed, Anne reached out blindly toward her friend, who grabbed her hand and squeezed it fiercely.
"I'll help her home, Diana," the person holding Anne said, "She's not fit to walk alone."
Anne's eyes fluttered open, and she looked straight up into the hazel eyes of Gilbert Blythe. His lips were pursed and his forehead was furrowed with concern. If Anne had possessed the strength to do so, she might've sat straight up and out of his arms, and chided him for embracing her without asking permission. She didn't need help, is what she wanted to say, but his arms were warm and she was bone-tired and numb, and even though it hurt her pride to admit it, having some help sounded pretty good right at that moment.
Diana agreed to Gilbert's offer, and took a hold of Anne’s other hand, helping her up onto her feet. Gilbert stood as well, and when Anne wavered slightly he quickly rested a hand on her back to steady her. Embarrassment flushed Anne’s cheeks and she avoided his gaze, wiping her tears onto her sleeve.
“I’ll go fetch your books, Anne,” Diana said, patting her shoulder comfortingly before skipping up the steps into the schoolhouse. Gilbert watched her leave, and then gently turned Anne to face him.
“Are you alright?” Gilbert asked in a low, worried voice. His hand brushed hers and Anne swiftly drew herself up and folded her arms across her middle.
“I’m fine,” Anne insisted unconvincingly, her tremulous voice betraying her.
Gilbert’s brow furrowed and he opened his mouth to reply, but before he could Diana returned, Anne’s books in hand. Anne turned to receive them and froze. Diana had also retrieved Anne’s coat and was holding it out for Anne to take. The smell of death had mostly faded from the garment, but it was still there, faintly, and Anne jerked away from it, backing into Gilbert and covering her mouth with her hand.
Diana’s eyes widened and she hid the coat behind her back. “I’m so sorry, Anne, I didn’t—I’ll take this home myself and get it back to you after it’s been washed thoroughly. Is that alright?”
Anne nodded, reluctantly letting her hand fall from her face. She suddenly became aware of how close she stood to Gilbert, how her back was pressed ever so slightly against his warm chest, and brusquely stepped away from him. Anne plucked her books from Diana’s hands with a quiet murmur of thanks and promptly set off toward Green Gables.
Her steps were sluggish and her mind felt full of cotton, so when Gilbert caught up to her and reached for her books, she let him take them without dispute. He also handed her her hat, which had fallen aside when she had taken sick. Anne didn’t bother to put it back on. They trudged down the road in silence until they reached the woods. Then, Gilbert spoke.
“Anne, may I ask you something a bit personal and direct?”
Anne bit her lip and said nothing for a minute. Then, she nodded. “Yes.”
“Why—“ Gilbert’s voice faltered in hesitation, and he cleared his throat. “Why did you have such a…a severe reaction to that mouse?”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes at the bitter memory his words invoked. Anne tried to furtively wipe them away before they fell, but Gilbert saw.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, just forget I asked.”
Anne sighed. “No, it’s alright. I suppose I should explain my queer behavior. But—But not here. Follow me.”
Though puzzled, Gilbert let Anne guide him through the trees until they reached a small sylvan hut made of old boards and capped with evergreen branches that Gilbert had never seen before. Ducking through the low entranceway, the two entered the quaint hovel. Anne crossed the small space and sat down on a little stump, while Gilbert stood at the entrance, contemplating the room with lips parted in wonder. He held out his hand and caught a glimmering ray of golden light as it streamed through a crack in the thatched roof, and admired it peacefully.
He looked up at Anne. "Is this place yours?"
Anne nodded. "Welcome to my humble abode," she chuckled nervously, fingers tapping her knees restlessly.
"It's quite charming."
Anne nodded again, but was too lost in thought to respond. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips were drawn together in a thin line.
Gilbert noticed Anne's state of rumination and slowly sat down next to her. "Anne," he began in an undertone, "You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to."
"No!" Anne said a bit too loudly. She closed her eyes, and then repeated in a softer tone, "No. I have to tell someone. I have to get this—this ponderous burden off my weary chest. I just—I need a minute. Please."
He nodded solemnly, and waited patiently as she composed her thoughts. When she spoke again, her voice wavered.
“Before I came here, to-to Avonlea, I spent some time in an orphanage in Nova Scotia. And there were these girls who didn’t think very fondly of me.” Anne took a deep, shuddering breath, her throat burning from the effort of holding back tears. “One night, they dragged me into the stairwell. They told me that I…I talk too much. That they were sick of my stories. And they pulled my braids and held me down, and dangled and rubbed a dead mouse against my face. The fetor of death was stifling. I-I could”—Anne whimpered softly—"I could taste it.”
The sorrowful sympathy in Gilbert’s voice broke what little resolve Anne had left, and she started to cry. Her hands began shaking and she fisted them in the fabric of her dress. Gilbert reached forward and covered them with his own, a gesture that at any other time would've earned him a slap on the wrist from Anne and a proper scolding. But his hands were big and warm and her chest ached with the remembrance of miseries past, and so she let him brush his thumb gently across her knuckles, allowing the motion to lull her tormented spirit. She shifted closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder, sobbing quietly. Gilbert encircled his arm around Anne, pulling her flush against him, and Anne buried her face in his chest. Rubbing circles on her back, Gilbert bowed his head and murmured comforting words into her hair.
They sat together, holding each other, for what felt like hours. The sunlight spilling into the shack turned amber and the shadows lengthened. Gradually, Anne’s sobs subsided, but she continued to rest her head against Gilbert’s chest, listening to the rhythmic beating of his heart. Even with tear-stained cheeks and a bitter taste still lingering in her mouth, she felt safe, content even. It wasn’t until her empty stomach gave an unceremonious rumble that Anne realized the impropriety, as well as intimacy, of their position, and abruptly pulled away from Gilbert. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve, then took a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet Gilbert’s. He was watching her, eyes soft. His jaw clenched ever so slightly, an action Anne had witnessed before and now found herself intrigued by. It created a dimple along his jawline, and Anne was seized by the sudden desire to trace it with her finger.
She folded her hands in her lap and cleared her throat awkwardly. When she spoke, her voice was formal, words stilted. “Thank you, Gilbert. For listening to my tales of woe with such patience and understanding, and, um…” Anne couldn’t bring herself to put into words all that had occurred between them within the last hour, so she simply skipped over it and continued. “…and escorting me home—well, partially home, to be particular about it, but I guess that doesn’t exactly matter does it—”
Her anxious rambling was cut short when Gilbert unexpectedly reached forward and absentmindedly brushed a stray tear from Anne’s cheek with his thumb. His touch was light, tender, and it lingered for a few heartbeats longer than—by Avonlea’s standards of decorum—was proper. Anne shivered, all the way from her nose to her toes, and felt a warmth blossom under her cheeks. She stared at him, slack-jawed, and he gazed back.
“A-Anyway…” she concluded in a whisper, her heart pounding in her ears.
“Anyway…” he echoed distractedly. His thumb grazed the corner of her bottom lip as he let his hand fall away from her face.
Anne stammered. “I-I should…I should go. Marilla’ll be wondering where I am.”
This seemed to snap Gilbert out of whatever reverie had possessed him, and he drew away from Anne. Together they stood and exited the hut.
“I can walk home alone from here,” Anne told him, tugging self-consciously at her braid.
Gilbert didn’t bother to argue. “Alright then…Have a good weekend.”
“You too. Um,” Anne shifted awkwardly. “My books?”
“Huh? Oh, yes.” He handed her the bundle of books, and Anne tucked them under her arm. Gilbert swallowed hard. “So, I’ll see you, then.”
They stood there for a few more tense seconds, both reluctant to leave, before Gilbert finally tore his eyes away from hers, tipped his hat, and turned away. Anne watched him go, an unknown cavity somewhere deep in her chest swelling with a queer ache, until he disappeared from her view.
With an unsteady sigh, Anne turned and headed home.
That Monday, Billy Andrews came to school with a swollen black eye and a busted lip, vehemently refusing to tell anyone what had happened. But when Mr. Phillips called Gilbert to the blackboard to complete a maths problem, Anne noticed that his knuckles were red and bruised.
It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together, and when Gilbert turned to head back to his seat, he locked eyes with Anne. Something unspoken passed between them, and somehow Gilbert could tell that she knew. He shoved his hands into his pockets self-consciously, and Anne could’ve sworn that his face flushed red. He bowed his head as he passed by, avoiding her gaze.
But he couldn’t avoid her forever. At lunch she found him sitting alone by the stream, thumbing through a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
“'Now I make a leaf of Voices—for I have found nothing mightier than they are',” Anne recited, kneeling beside Gilbert. “'And I have found that no word spoken, but is beautiful, in its place'.” She glanced at Gilbert, her heart pounding. He was watching her reticently, and she swallowed thickly. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he echoed. “You like Whitman?”
“Yes. I have not read much of his work, but I adore Voices. He has such a romantic way with words, doesn’t he?”
Gilbert tapped his thumb against the cover thoughtfully. “My father’s favorite was Song of the Open Road. He used to read it to me when I was little. And then…and while he was sick, I read it to him.”
Anne didn’t know what to say to that. A silence stretched restlessly between them, and Anne found herself staring at his hands. His knuckles looked worse up close, the skin puffy and scarlet. Without thinking she reached forward and clasped his hand gingerly. Startled, confusion lined Gilbert’s brow and he glanced quizzically between their intertwined hands and Anne.
“I—“ Anne’s voice caught in her throat, and she took a deep breath. “Thank you. For…” She nodded toward his hands. “For everything.” Then she laughed softly. “I always used to say that Billy Andrews deserved a good sock in the kisser.”
Gilbert chuckled at that. Anne admired the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “He is thick, that one. You’d think he would’ve gotten the message the first time.”
“'The first time'?” Anne repeated curiously. “You mean you’ve fought him before?”
He scratched his head and grinned sheepishly. “I may have knocked him around a bit last year. And, well, let’s just say that he’s not as tough as he’d like everyone to think.”
A delighted smile spread across Anne’s face. “How marvelous! Oh, how I wish I could’ve witnessed you put that big bully in his place!” Then she remembered Gilbert’s hands, and her smile evaporated, her gaiety replaced by guilt. “But you…you’re hurt.”
Gilbert stretched out his fingers, examining the knuckles with a mellow tilt of his head. After a few moments he threaded his fingers in between Anne’s and met her gaze, eyes shining despite his composed countenance. “Worth it,” he murmured simply.
Anne’s cheeks grew warm and she bit back a smile. She could feel his heartbeat pulsing quickly but steadily beneath her fingertips, thrumming in cadence with her own.
Somehow, this felt right.
“You know,” Anne began, “I’ve never actually read Song of the Open Road.”
Gilbert quirked an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Never,” Anne admitted with a dramatic sigh. “Maybe you—I mean, would you mind, possibly—could you read it to me?”
His lips curled into a small, wistful smile, and, without another word, Gilbert opened his book and began to read.
Gilbert’s rendition carried none of the theatrics Anne normally relished, yet his tone was nowhere near as monotonous or soporific as Josie Pye’s, nor as labored and dubious as dear Diana's. His voice glided over the words like water over stones, harmonizing euphoniously with the stream before them. Several lines in, emotion dimmed his eyes and his voice faltered. Anne squeezed his hand tenderly and leaned upon his shoulder. He rested his head atop of hers, and for a moment all was still. Then Gilbert took a deep breath, kissed her temple lightly, and continued.
I do not want the constellations any nearer;
I know they are very well where they are;
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
Still here I carry my old delicious burdens;
I carry them, men and women—I carry them with me wherever I go;
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them;
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.