Anne always thought she liked to watch him go. Not because she was happy to see him leave, but because she always got the faint feeling that perhaps he would stay longer if he could. Or maybe it was that he wanted her to trail along with him.
Whatever the source of the longing in his eyes was, he would always stop at the end of the drive at Green Gables, look back at her, then head home. No wave, no last call goodbye, just a small, happy smile and a truth that he had yet to mutter aloud to anyone. Even himself.
So focused on the memory of him standing beside her, shoulders brushing and gazes lingering, Anne nearly missed the sound of voices coming from the parlor of her own home. She stopped in the doorway, instincts telling her to restrain the rambunctious girl who always greeted guests.
“You have to know that I don’t agree with them, Marilla!”
Rachel Lynde’s voice echoed across Green Gables like the fire siren it was, and suddenly Anne was glad she had held her tongue. Creeping like a mouse avoiding being caught, she maneuvered herself past the creaky door soundlessly and sat on the stairs.
“I just don’t understand why you think it matters,” Marilla replied. “If no one has heard for certain of his plans, then perhaps all the gossip is over nothing.”
“You and I both know it isn’t over nothing. Sooner or later Gilbert Blythe will propose to Anne and that fact is as true as the good Lord’s Holy Bible.”
Anne felt her entire spirit leap out of her body and settle back into her with a jolting force. She gripped on the edge of the stairs to keep from toppling over, lightheaded and confused. There was no way Gilbert was planning to propose to her. They were friends - equals in intellect, friendly rivals in school, companions who spoke the same language that could break through loneliness. Anne knew Gilbert well enough to know that he did not feel anything remotely romantical toward her, not even a little.
But, oh, how she wished for it sometimes. In the depths of her heart, she wished that the whispers could be true, and that she could hold his heart. It was the disappointment that kept her protected. Even if he thought he loved her, how genuine could it be with a girl so…plain?
“I just thought you should know what the ladies in town say about it,” Rachel concluded.
Something in Anne snapped, and with a fire in her that ignited without warning, she was marching into the parlor where Marilla and Rachel sat wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“And just what do they say about it?” Anne demanded. Marilla met Rachel’s eyes, but the woman only shrugged off her friend’s warning and spoke in a gentle tone.
“Now listen here, child, I’m only telling you myself because I don’t want you to hear it from anyone else in town when you’re not expecting to,” Mrs Lynde started. Anne fought back the urge to tap her foot impatiently. “The ladies in town say that if you were to marry Gilbert Blythe, it would ruin his career as a doctor. If he’s to be the medical professional around here, he’ll need someone…sturdier, more level headed.”
Ruin his - what?
“Oh, don’t look like that, Anne,” Marilla comforted. “You know how cruel the Avonlea ladies are. Don’t put any stock in the things they say.”
But the Avonlea ladies made up the society that Gilbert would reign doctor over. If they spoke something as truth, perhaps they knew best of it, then.
“It doesn’t matter. Gilbert isn’t going to propose to me,” she heard herself saying. “I think I’m going to go upstairs to read a little.”
The book was open on her lap, but Anne only stared blankly down at the words.
It ached enough to know that she was too plain to catch Gilbert’s affection, but for the entire town to know she wasn’t sturdy enough to be his wife, and that she’d ruin his medical career was more than she was prepared to weather through. A stray tear slid down her cheek, dribbling at the edge of her chin before she swiped it away.
Was she really that hopeless of a girl?
“You know, I thought I might find you here. Marilla said you and Mrs. Lynde had a little bit of a spat yesterday.”
Anne looked up to see Gilbert standing before her, blocking the sun from shining in the small patch of earth next to the willow tree where she sat. Just the sight of him was a salve on her aching heart and another tight, twisting pain all at once. Relief and agony twisting her every which way, for once striping away her ability to speak. So instead, she patted the grass beside her. Gilbert sat with the same ease as he always did around her, pushing back a stray hair sticking up from her head as he settled against the tree.
“What’cha got there?” he asked, poking a finger down into Anne’s lap where she was weaving a huge collection of dandelions together into a crown.
“Diana wants me to make her a crown of flowers for her wedding,” Anne explained softly. “I’m practicing on something small first, so that it doesn’t fall apart atop her head when she’s at the altar with Jerry. One less thing for Mrs. Barry to add into her eventual temper outburst, I suppose.”
“I admire Diana for still marrying Jerry even though her parents disapprove,” he said in a strange voice. “She deserves to be the person she wants without judgement from everyone else.”
Anne got the sinking feeling that Gilbert wasn’t just talking about Diana. Maybe Mrs. Lynde had been right. Maybe -
“There’s actually something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about, Anne,” Gilbert continued. He took the crown in her lap and placed it on her auburn hair. His eyes softened the way they sometimes did when he was thinking of something couldn’t see, the same way people look at stars and the sea. He sat on the back of his heels before her, hands slowing moving to hold hers. “I’d just rather you heard it from me than the ladies in town.”
“Gilbert-” Anne’s heart felt like it was clawing its way up her throat. How could she stop him from whatever he was going to say next?
“You’ve done all the talking in this friendship, Anne-girl. Just give me a few minutes to speak my peace before I lose my nerve.” His hands did take hers then, and Anne felt herself tighten her grip against her will. She felt if she let go, she’d widdle into nothingness and float into the wind - away from Gilbert somewhere where he couldn’t find her.
“What is it?” she said meekly. He opened his mouth, then closed it with a furrow in his brows. He tried again, only no sound would come out. Anne thought about what she’d heard Rachel Lynde saying, and fear twinged at her nerves.
Just as she was about to retract her touch from him, he said, “Anne, I care about you.”
“Well I care about you too, Gil, but-”
“Not just like a friend. I mean, I cherish you as a friend, as someone I can confide in and trust with anyone, but it’s more than that. I want- ” His voice cracked a little, and he swallowed. “I want to be with you, and I’ve spent a lot of time pretending that it wasn’t true, but I was just lying to myself and lying to you. I’m done lying, though.”
Anne fortified herself, wishing the tree wasn’t pressed against her back so she might flee.
“I love you, Anne. I can’t remember when it started, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love you.”
Anne felt the whole world crumbling around her. Goodness, she was so happy, though. Why was she so elated to hear those words from his mouth? And if she was so happy, why did it hurt so badly? Then she remembered with a start - she was poison for his future. If they were together like he wanted - like they both wanted - he’d only grow to resent her, to regret they’d ever done it.
But still, she wanted to leap into his arms and bury her face in his neck and accept him with all the feelings that she had contained in her heart for years. She wanted to laugh and cry and yell into the sunset sky about the endless days of pining and craving his attention. She wanted to analyze every meaningful stare he’d ever thrown her way, having burned every single one into her memory, never to be forgotten.
But she didn’t want him to hate her in the future, either. And he would. If she ruined his dream of becoming a successful doctor with her own outlandish ways, if she made it so no one would ever trust him because of her inadequacies, she’d never be able to forgive herself and neither would he.
Anne reached forward, caressing both of his cheeks in her tender hands. She bent his head toward her and pressed her lips to the spot where his dark curls danced along the soft skin of his forehead.
She lingered there for a second and said against his skin where he couldn’t see the pain on her face, “I’m so sorry, Gilbert. But I can’t.”
GIlbert tore away from her, shock evident on his face. Not just shock - the betrayal in his eyes was no different than it would have been if Anne had taken a blade and run him through. The effects of her rejection were immediate. He stood up and back away a few steps, the air between them burning like acid. His eyes were glassy.
“I thought…I was so sure that…” he mumbled out. Anne had to bite the inside of her cheek from yelling at him that he was right all along. That she did care for him the way that he cared for her.
But she couldn’t. And it was too late to change that. Not with things the way they were, not with his future hanging in the balance.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say through her own lump of tears. She reached for one of his hands, but he jerked back as if he had touched fire.
“You don’t have to apologize.” His voice was rough, nails on a chalkboard to her ears. “I’d better…” He pointed behind him. “I’ll see you around.”
She waited until he was gone, dark hair and strong back lost in the colors of the sunset, before leaning against the tree and weeping out an entire friendship’s worth of tears. Maybe she was terrible for him, after all.
Oh, what had she done?