Posted on 2011-06-03
Finals were over! Freshman semester had been a thoroughly fun and novel experience, yet Louisa Musgrove couldn't wait to go home for winter break – especially since going home meant she would see Frederick again. Although nothing was official between them yet, Louisa was sure that after the dizzyingly heady summer they had spent in each other's company, she could not have mistaken his feelings for her. Though the practicalities of Frederick's flying schedule and Louisa's college life had curtailed the opportunities for them to be together in the past four months, she excitedly anticipated the prospect of seeing him again, getting to know each other better, and perhaps – just perhaps – being able to reach a new level in their relationship. But for now, Louisa would spend the last few days of fall semester partying hard like any freshman would, fully enjoying the precious time she had with her sorority sisters before they returned to their respective families for the holidays.
And Louisa had a goal for this evening – to break her previous record by downing fifteen shots of vodka. A rush of anticipation shot through Louisa as the pent-up restraint from finals week evaporated into thin air. She let out an excited giggle, savoring the prospect of a full month away from her books where she could party to her heart's content, and headed to the bathroom to start preening for the evening.
Can't I have just a moment of peace, thought Frederick Wentworth irritably as he picked up his beeping cell phone. He knew the sentiment was somewhat unwarranted, but ever since he'd moved back home with his sister Sophia, any quiet evenings he could snatch for himself were few and far between. Glancing at the latest disruption, Frederick saw a multimedia message with a photograph of a teenage girl posing provocatively at the camera with two fingers of her right hand extended in a "V" and a cheeky grin on her face. "Record breaking night... way to go for 15 shots!" the accompanying message read. Momentarily, Frederick was confused – it was a long time since he'd counted ditzy teenage girls amongst his friends – until recognition dawned. It was Louisa, his neighbor Charles Musgrove's sister, whom he'd befriended over the summer before she went to college. But why was she messaging him with party photos now? From the looks of it, she sure was getting tipsy, and the reference to "15 shots" had to have something to do with that.
Confronted by the image of a tipsy Louisa, Frederick was hit with the reality of the yawning gap in maturity between them. Even in his own freshman year at MIT twelve years ago, Frederick couldn't afford to party himself drunk like that, and he'd known it. Of course, in the company of newly liberated eighteen-year-olds raring for adventure, Frederick had faced his share of temptations to get drunk or stoned, but it was always Anne's calming influence that gently steered him back towards his responsibilities to his family and his future. Anne Elliot had been his best friend, his rock to lean on, all through their college years; bound by their shared love of aviation and their common struggle against family and societal expectations to pursue it.
Unlike the sheltered, upper-middle-class kids he'd grown up with at school, Frederick Wentworth had been forced to make his own way in the world since the age of thirteen. Though his parents, as academics, should have been comfortably middle-class, his mother's lengthy battle with ovarian cancer had greatly sapped the family's resources. Just three months after his mother succumbed to her illness, his father had suddenly suffered a heart attack, leaving behind the three Wentworth children with hardly any assets or savings, except their suburban house in Detroit. Twenty-year-old Sophia had dropped out of college to support her brothers, renting out the house to generate additional income while the three siblings moved into a tiny inner-city apartment. Overnight, the Wentworth family's status had plummeted from "middle-class" to "poor"; and from that day on, Frederick was dependent on financial aid to continue his education. Fortunately, Frederick's strong academic results saved him from the indignity of ever being "a charity case"; an Air Force ROTC scholarship put him through his aeronautical engineering degree and insured his livelihood while satisfying his passion for flying. Nevertheless, Frederick had keenly felt the weight of his added responsibilities throughout his college years; he never could escape fully from the pressure to excel at school and his future career, and to put aside enough savings from his small stipend to help Sophia with the household expenses.
It was greatly ironic, then, that Frederick should find a soul mate in Anne Elliot, who'd grown up in the midst of privilege and old money. By her birthright, Anne should have attended a finishing school followed by a liberal arts education, perhaps even at a women-only college. By her birthright, Anne should have been a flashy diva hobnobbing in America's richest circles, all out to secure a trophy husband. Anne had captured Frederick's attention – and his heart – by being exactly the opposite of what he had expected. She had been modest, even understated, in her dress and bearing. Yet she'd hidden a fierce passion for aviation and sharp intellect beneath her quiet exterior, fighting neck-to-neck with him for top spot in many of their classes at MIT. Eventually, he'd found out that Anne, too, was supporting herself through college on a scholarship, the price she had to pay for thumbing her nose at her father's expectations of her as a society lady. During their four years at MIT, Frederick and Anne's keen rivalry in academics and sports had blossomed into a strong friendship, challenging and encouraging each other to persevere and maintain the self-discipline they needed to achieve their goals in the face of adverse family circumstances.
When graduation, and the prospect of separation, loomed, Frederick realized that he'd taken Anne's presence in his life for granted. Every summer, they'd gone home to their respective families with the secure knowledge that they'd see each other again in the fall. But the moment Frederick stepped down from the valedictorian's podium on Commencement Day, the realization shot through him that he never wanted to be parted from Anne again. He'd made a beeline for her, swinging her around in his arms, and blurted out the first words that came to his mind – "Marry me?" Though his proposal had been born of impulse, nothing had felt more right in the world than the moment that Anne flung her arms around his neck with an excited "Yes, of course, yes!"
Though the proposal itself may have seemed flippant, Frederick and Anne couldn't have been more serious about planning their future together. Keenly aware of the resistance they would face from their families, Frederick and Anne had decided that they would keep their engagement a secret for six months, while they settled into their respective jobs – Anne as an engineer with Northwest Airlines, and Frederick as a fighter pilot. Over Thanksgiving weekend, they would announce their engagement to both families, so they could get married the following summer with one year's savings under their belts.
For years, Frederick had assumed that Anne had turned her back on him to choose a life in the lap of ease and luxury. But when he came to know her again this summer and fall, eight years after that fateful Thanksgiving night that she walked away from his apartment door after telling him of her decision to break the engagement, it pained him to see that hardship was written into every aspect of her life.
It was written in her frail, thin frame and the tired, careworn expression on her face.
It was written in the way she coaxed her spoiled little nephew Charlie to eat his vegetables, every last ounce of her patience put to the test.
It was written in the worn, faded jeans and fleece jacket she always wore.
And most of all, it was written in her resigned air as she pulled her wallet from the pocket of said jeans to pay for the Louis Vuitton bag her sister had demanded during her last visit to Detroit. Frederick knew that the purchase would wipe out more than half of Anne's monthly salary as an engineer. Clearly, Walter Elliot's fall in fortunes had done nothing to curtail the spending habits of his eldest daughter. It certainly did not help that Elizabeth Elliot was brazen enough to display such blatant extravagance, never mind how obvious it was that she could ill afford it, right in front of her brother-in-law's family and neighbors.
After returning to her family, Anne's existence had been a far cry from the charmed socialite's life Frederick had imagined all these years. So why on earth had she given up her life with him and the dreams they'd had together? A small voice in his head told him that he, too, knew what it was like to give up his dreams for the sake of family – upon the sudden death of Admiral Croft, he hadn't hesitated to leave his dream job at the Air Force and move back to Detroit with Sophia and her young daughter Tiffany. Though he missed the adrenaline rush of flying a fighter jet, he could bear with the more sedate life of a commercial pilot if it meant being able to be there for his sister and niece when they needed him most; to give them the assurance that he would be safe, not risking his life in a faraway country. Instinctively, Frederick now knew that in breaking up with him, Anne had believed she was making a similar sort of sacrifice for her family.
His reverie was broken by the shrill, insistent ringing of his cell phone.
Henrietta Musgrove stretched lazily on the sofa and then rose unsteadily to her feet, shaking her head as if to shake off the drunken haze that had enveloped her. Where in the world was Louisa? It was 2 a.m., and they'd best be going back to their dorm. Still staggering slightly, Henrietta took a few tentative steps towards the bathroom, and then she saw –
The motionless, flaccid form of her sister was slumped on the floor, with her head propped against the rim of the toilet. Apparently, Louisa had been throwing up in the toilet, and the other girls at the sorority had gone off to sleep without bothering to check on how she was. In a flash, Henrietta flew to her sister's side and tried to wake her, but the unconscious Louisa couldn't be roused. In her panic, Henrietta felt completely lost. Picking up the mobile phone lying on the floor beside Louisa, she called the first person she could think of who'd be concerned enough about Louisa's welfare to help. The first person she could think of who wouldn't tell on them to Charles.
"Fred? I'm Henrietta. Louisa's sister, remember? Louisa... she's passed out..."
"Mmmpf..." Charles Musgrove rolled over in bed, ignoring the ringing cell phone on the bedside table.
"Charles! For God's sake, pick up the phone!" Mary screeched. "There are other people in this house who want to sleep, for your information!"
With every possibility of sleep rendered moot by the racket beside him, Charles lazily reached for the phone and grunted a greeting. Then, as if suddenly called to attention, he shot up into a ramrod straight sitting position. "What? Louisa? Passed out, you say? She's been drinking too much?"
After a long pause, Mary could see Charles mustering up all his dignity as he said, "Thank you for telling me, Frederick. Don't worry. I will take care of Louisa from here. No, it's OK, don't stay up; I'll update you in the morning. Good night."
Charles turned to Mary. "It was Frederick", he explained. "Hetty called him in the middle of the night. Said something about Lulu being passed out and all. She was right scared, was Hetty. Seems like Lulu drank too much at a party, fifteen shots of something or other... I have to find out what's happening." He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and made to stand.
Mary let out a loud huff. "Charles, there's no big deal. People drink till they pass out all the time. What's it to Frederick anyway? He must be really in love with her, to fuss over a small matter like that! You get back to bed now, hear? She'll just sleep it off and be all right in the morning."
A shadow appeared in the doorway. Anne. She knocked tentatively on the door. "Is everything OK?" she asked. "Pardon me - I just came round to see if I can help."
"Anne? Can you talk some sense into Charles? Tell him he's not going anywhere tonight and to get back in bed this instant!" screeched Mary. "You've been in college before. Don't you see kids drink till they pass out all the time? There's nothing to it and I'm not going to lose a good night's sleep just because Frederick's so in love with Lulu he has to make a big deal out of a simple hangover!"
"She's had fifteen shots." Exasperation seeped into Charles' voice. "Fifteen shots of vodka, or tequila, or whatever, that's no joke. And Hetty had to be real worried to be calling Frederick out of the blue like that. I owe it to Hetty, at least, to find out what's going on."
"Charles, I'm sure Lulu will be fine." Anne's reassuring tone had been practiced many times on her sister and nephews. "Anyway, I'll give Hetty a call, just to see if she needs any help. Since I'm awake now, it's really no trouble for me to make a trip down to Ann Arbor if it's needed. Just go back to sleep, yeah? I'll keep you posted about the situation."
With her experience volunteering with at-risk youth, Anne knew that alcohol poisoning could potentially be serious, even life-threatening. Fifteen shots of vodka, if that was what Louisa had taken, was definitely not a trivial amount of alcohol. She dialed Henrietta's cell phone, and after listening to the tale, instructed the frightened girl to call 911, while she would drive out to Ann Arbor and meet them at the University of Michigan Hospital.
It was going to be a very long night, thought Anne as she dressed and made her way out the door into the cold Michigan winter.
Now that she knew Louisa would be all right, Anne felt the tension from the hour-long drive from Detroit to Ann Arbor, followed by the anxious wait at the emergency room, drain from her body together with the rest of her energy. Henrietta had not hesitated to give in to tiredness the minute Louisa was settled, sleeping sprawled lengthwise on a row of plastic chairs outside the ward. Tempted as she was to do the same, Anne couldn't bring herself to let Frederick down by not watching over Louisa properly. She would keep vigil here, by Louisa's bed, all through the night until Charles – or Frederick – came to take over in the morning.
Throughout the summer, Anne had struggled to keep up her countenance as she bore silent witness to Frederick's growing relationship with Louisa. Her head knew that on that long-ago Thanksgiving night, she'd resolved to set Frederick free to pursue his own happiness; yet her heart found it hard to be gracious when constantly faced with the fact that the special bond they'd shared was gone for good. The memory of Frederick's stunned, speechless expression as she turned her back on him right at his doorstep had haunted her for the past eight years. She hated to think of the pain her rejection had caused him, but she'd stayed firm in her conviction that releasing him to follow his dream, instead of being tied down by her and her family, would make him happiest in the long run.
All alone in the dead of night, Anne let her tears fall for the first time in all those months since she'd seen Frederick again. Her four years in MIT had been the very best years of her life, the only time she'd ever been valued for being herself. Amongst her father and sisters, and amongst the girls at high school, Anne had been relegated to the sidelines as an insignificant nobody. No matter how she tried, she couldn't change her petite stature or the unassuming way she carried herself, or get herself excited about fashion and high society. Instead of dreaming about being a wealthy, glamorous socialite, she had wanted to make her future designing and building the latest airplanes – an ambition that none of her family members could relate to. But at MIT, she had been in her element and believed that anything was possible. After graduation, she had brightly anticipated her future with Frederick, despite the niggling sense that things were too good to be true, until she was brought down to earth with a thud.
Until the time had come to say goodbye.
She'd dreaded this goodbye for as long as she could remember, even though she'd known from the tender age of four that people didn't live forever. Her Grandma Stephenson had been the only mother Anne had ever known, since her mother had died giving birth to Mary. Even though Grandma hadn't fully empathized with Anne's unconventional aspirations, she had truly doted on the three Elliot girls, and brought them up after their mother's death. Anne didn't doubt that eventually, Grandma would come to accept her marriage with Frederick, but it would take time for her to come to terms with that reality. And when Grandma received the dreaded lung cancer diagnosis less than six months after Anne's graduation, it became clear that time wasn't on Grandma's side. Not only did Anne wish to be by her Grandma's side for whatever remaining time she had left, she couldn't bear to bring this shock onto Grandma. Not with a prognosis of six months, a prospect which Anne was not prepared at all to face -
"I'll wait for you, Anne, I promise", Frederick had pleaded. "After she passes-"
"No!" Anne cut in, her voice cracking like a clap of thunder. "Never! It's going to be years, OK? Maybe even forever! At least, that's what I want!"
Anne may as well have slapped him, for Frederick's face had the look of an animal that had just been shot. She whipped around and marched away, walking out of his life for good, keeping her back resolutely turned away from him so he would not see the rivulets of tears making their way down her face.
Immobilized by grief, Anne had barely gotten out of Frederick's sight before she sat down by the sidewalk with her head slumped on her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. She stayed there for two full hours before making her way home. But once she straightened her shoulders and soldiered on, she was completely devoted to her family; first to Grandma, then to Mary, then to her little nephews Charlie and Walter. From that day on, though, it was as though a part of Anne was dead and buried; that spark of life that had been the very essence of Frederick's attraction to her had vanished.
6 a.m. When Frederick woke, he was greeted by the blinking light on his mobile. A text message: "Charles, Fred – Louisa treated for alcohol poisoning but recovering well. Do not worry she will be fine. We are at U of Mich hospital, Rm 332. See u tomorrow. Love, Anne."
Love, Anne? What did that mean? He knew that Anne saw Charles as a brother – did that mean that she regarded him as a brother too? Or that she had impulsively signed off with "love" out of relief and happiness that Louisa would recover? Or that she had been so exhausted at 4 a.m. that she just texted whatever was on her mind without considering the meaning?
What if Anne really did love him still? He had dismissed the possibility for so long, and finding out that Anne's grandma had passed away five years before only further reinforced his perception; for if she had truly loved him, surely she would have sought him out after her grandma's passing. It was pure coincidence that they ended up meeting again as neighbors – when her father and sister were forced by financial circumstances to move out of their Grosse Pointe mansion to a condo in Florida, Anne had moved in with Charles and Mary to their house in a middle-class Detroit suburb, which just happened to be a few doors away from his parents' old house, which he and Sophia moved into after Admiral Croft's death.
With the recollection of Anne's financial straits, the pieces of the puzzle slowly fell into place in Frederick's mind. He recalled Walter and Elizabeth's weeklong visit, just two months ago; the man was up to his neck in debt, yet he and his eldest daughter had lived like royalty. Who had paid not only for the Louis Vuitton bag, but for the loft suite at MGM Grand, the rented Bentley, and all the designer clothes they bought? It dawned on him that for many years, Anne had been funding her father and sister's lavish spending in whatever way her modest salary could support. No wonder she couldn't afford her own apartment, new clothes, or a new car, even after having worked for eight long years. When Anne broke up with him, she hadn't just been sacrificing him – them – for her family; she had also sacrificed herself for him. A logical explanation now fit together - she'd known more than anyone else about Frederick's determination to raise himself and his siblings from poverty, so when her father had run into debt, she'd deliberately stayed away, to make sure he could pursue the dream of uplifting himself and his family. The timing of the Elliots' move, now that he had found that out from Charles, certainly supported that explanation.
But if he was right now – if Anne had really given him up out of her love for him – what had the attention he'd shown to Louisa done to Anne? For Louisa to text him with her party photos; Henrietta to confide in him, rather than telling Charles, about Louisa's drunkenness; Charles to reassure him nervously that he would look after Louisa; and Anne to text him in the middle of the night to update him that Louisa would be all right; why, what did they think his relationship with Louisa was? To escape the muddle of resentment, disappointment and repressed love he still felt for Anne, he hadn't had the energy to resist Louisa's attentions to him over the summer. But to him, it was just a summer fling and that was all. Now, it seemed as though everyone believed the two of them were an item! Without knowing it, Frederick had backed himself into a fine corner.
It didn't take Frederick long to decide what he would do next.
It was a rather grim tableau that greeted Frederick and Charles when they reached the hospital room at the crack of dawn – Henrietta still fast asleep, Louisa lying pale and still in the bed, and Anne wearily but doggedly keeping vigil in a chair beside her. Frederick could not help considering the contrast between the girl whom he'd been paying his attentions, and the one who still held his heart. One outwardly had all the joy, the spirit, the love of life – yet she'd nearly thrown her life away in a fit of recklessness. Though the other may appear dull and staid outwardly, he remembered a time when she had been full of enthusiasm, hope, and happiness. Even now, when she'd cast her dreams and hopes aside, he could still see that she genuinely cared for her family and those around her; her sincere concern was shining on her face as she watched over Louisa. She was the one he'd really come for, no matter what the others may think.
Anne rose, stepped forward and enveloped Charles into a warm, sisterly hug, reassuring him over and over that Louisa would be fine. As she drew back, Frederick could see, in the split second of eye contact between them, the look of love in her eyes before she averted her gaze carefully. He remained rooted to the ground, knowing that they all expected him to step forward to look more closely at Louisa, though inwardly that was the last thing he wanted to do.
After an awkward, silent moment, Frederick turned to Charles. "I'm glad Louisa's going to be OK", he said, hesitantly but sincerely. "I'm flying tonight, so I have to start heading back now. Would you stay with her and drive Anne's car back?"
Anne resolutely fixed her gaze at her feet, trying to keep the floodgate of emotions at bay. It was a lost cause, after all – Frederick coming first thing in the morning was a clear sign of how much he cared for Louisa, and she couldn't let him see how much she cared for him when betraying her true feelings couldn't possibly help him in any way. She'd stayed away all these years to release him to pursue his own happiness after all; so when finally his happiness was right there in front of him, how could she stand in his way?
She felt a hand on her arm, a voice – Frederick's – asking her in soft, concerned tones whether she was tired and offering her a ride home. It took all of her self-control to accept the offer with a barely perceptible nod. He should be looking after Louisa, not her. But she didn't trust herself to say those words without revealing her sadness to him. Instead, she blindly let him guide her along the hospital corridors and across the parking lot, so buried in her fatigue and repressed emotion that she was barely aware of when, or how, they had taken their leave of Charles.
All this while, as they navigated the way to Frederick's car, Anne hardly said two words to him. After settling into the front passenger seat, Anne said in a barely audible voice, "Frederick, I'm sorry I'm too tired to be good company at the moment. I hope you don't mind if I just want to sleep on the way home. Thank you so much for the ride." The gratitude – and something else – shone in her eyes before she closed them and turned away, leaning back in the seat as if asleep.
During the long drive home, Frederick was thankful for the blessed silence that allowed him to sort out his own jumbled thoughts. He had a hunch that Anne was merely feigning sleep to ease the awkwardness between them. A fine kettle of fish they were in; and it was all his doing. He had no idea how to start putting right the situation between them, even though that was the only outcome he desired.
As he exited the freeway and reached a stoplight, Frederick glanced over at Anne. He could see a thin sheen of tears on Anne's cheeks, and that redoubled his remorse at having landed all of them into a situation which could cause only pain and embarrassment to Anne. For a moment, he saw instead the Anne of twelve years ago. He remembered the day he had first become aware of her existence – the day they presented their freshman design project, which was to build a device to launch a projectile of their choosing. Frederick's cardboard airplane had launched farther than anyone else's, until a petite, nondescript girl with mousy brown hair in a short gamine haircut stepped up and launched hers, breaking Frederick's record by mere inches. To be beaten by a girl – and at that, with the most ridiculous projectile on earth – a fat pink pig with a balloon middle and big cartoon eyes? Since that long-ago moment, Anne Elliot had been unforgettable to Frederick.
Frederick pulled into Charles' driveway and parked. "Anne, wake -" His voice trailed off as he saw that Anne was soundly asleep, having succumbed to fatigue and stress after that long and harrowing night. In a snap, he made his decision – he backed out again, and drove over to his house instead. After parking the car, he went over to Anne's side, and carefully lifted her gently so as not to wake her, carrying her into his house.
He would never let go of Anne again.The End