The Spring Girls by Anna Todd

  “Is everyone ready?” Jo asked, and hit play without waiting for a reply.

  As the movie started, I went back to thinking about how fast my daughters had grown. This could be the last year that we would all be together for Christmas. Next year, Meg would more than likely be with John Brooke’s family in Florida, or wherever their vacation home was. I couldn’t keep track sometimes. It wasn’t that Meg dated a ton, but she’d had a few boyfriends. Unlike my mom, I kept a close eye on my daughters and the guys they brought around, although so far that really just meant watching Meg. Frank minded more than me, but I knew firsthand that being too protective of our daughters could be worse than making sure they were educated about dating and relationships.

  When Meg was sixteen, I took her to get on birth control, earning me an awkward lecture from my own mom.

  She wasn’t one to give anyone advice: she had had two kids before she was twenty-one.

  The house phone rang again, and Jo leaned over and shut it off.

  Meg’s phone rang next, a pop song that Amy immediately started singing along to.

  “Technology, man,” Jo commented from the floor.

  “It’s Mrs. King.” Meg sighed, getting to her feet.

  Jo grabbed the remote and paused the movie. Meg disappeared into the kitchen.

  Amy lay down where Meg had been sitting, even though she would just have to get back up when her sister got back. “I’m too young to work, but when I’m old enough, I’ll work at a better place than a coffee shop or a makeup store.”

  “You’re being obnoxious,” Jo said.

  “You’re being obnoxious,” Amy mocked in a voice that sounded a lot like Jo’s.

  Being the youngest, Amy liked to point out the flaws of her sisters any chance she could. I had a feeling that it took a heavy toll on Amy’s confidence to exist under her three sisters, who in her own way she looked up to. Sisterly love was tricky because she loved her sisters more than anything, but at the same time, she was jealous of nearly everything about each of them. Meg’s wide hips, Jo’s confidence, Beth’s ability to cook anything and everything . . .

  When Meg returned to the living room, Jo started the movie again.

  “Did she pay you yet?” Beth asked, mirroring my own thoughts.

  I didn’t mind Meg working for Mrs. King, even if the woman intimidated me with her huge house and tiny purebred dogs. I had never met Mr. King, but I had met their three children on a few separate occasions. Meg had had a real thing for the boy, Shia, and I could see why. He was nice, with a big heart and a freight train of passion. I thought if there was a man who could keep up with Meg, it would be Shia King. I didn’t know much about what had happened between them, but I figured if Meg wanted me to know, I would.

  Meg shrugged. “She just hasn’t yet. I don’t know why.”

  Jo rolled her eyes and threw her hands into the air. Meg’s brown eyes bulged out of her head in response.

  “Well, haven’t you asked her?” I said.

  “Yes. She’s been so busy, though.”

  “Doing what? Throwing parties?”

  Meg sighed. “No.” She shook her head at me. “It’s the holidays—she’s busy.”

  “I’m surprised you’re okay with this. I thought you were tougher than that,” Jo said.

  “I am.”

  “Yes, she is. You’re not tough as Jo, though—Jo’s as tough as a boy!” Amy laughed.

  Jo shot up to her feet. “What did you say?”

  I sighed from the chair. “Amy.” I said her name harshly enough for her eyes to snap to me. “What did I tell you about that?” I wasn’t having that in my house. My girls could dress however they wanted.

  “I said you act like a boy.” Amy sat up on the couch, dodging Meg’s attempt to hold her on her lap. I knew if it got too heated, I would have to interfere, but I wanted to let the girls at least attempt to work things out on their own. Just like Meg with Mrs. King, though the nerve of the woman for not paying for honest work did grate at me.

  “And what exactly does that mean, Amy? Because there’s no such thing as boys being stronger than girls!” Jo’s voice was loud and her fingers were bent into air quotations. “Being tough has nothing to do with being a boy. If anything—”

  “Not true! Can you lift the same as a boy?” Amy challenged.

  “You aren’t serious.” Jo’s mouth was a hard line.

  Meg put her hands on Amy’s slim shoulders and pressed her flowery fingernails into her sister’s sky-blue nightie. Amy let out a stubborn huff of breath, but she lay down and let Meg play with her hair.

  Jo waited, her hands on her hips.

  The movie played in the background.

  “Let’s enjoy our winter break. This is better than sitting in math class, right?” Beth asked. My sweet Beth was always trying to fix things. She was the most like Frank in that way. Jo had his political and social passion, but Beth was a natural caregiver.

  Beth and Jo stared at each other for a few moments before Jo gave in and sat down quietly on the floor.

  However, before long Amy began in again on her favorite topic of the last couple days. “Ugh, it’s not that much better than math. It’s not fair. You don’t understand that all the girls at my school are going to come back with all new clothes, a new phone, new shoes.” She counted the list on her fingers and lifted her cell phone in the air. “And here we are with no gifts under our tree at all.”

  My heart ached and my head swam with guilt.

  This time Beth spoke first. “We make more money than half the girls at your school. Look at our house and look at theirs. Our car, too. You need to look around and remember how it used to be before Dad was an officer.” Beth’s words were sharper than usual; they seemed to settle into Amy, because she frowned and her eyes darted around the living room from the beige walls to the fifty-inch flatscreen we’d bought from the PX, tax-free of course.

  Amy looked at the Christmas tree. “Exactly my point. We could have—”

  But, as had often been happening during the break, Jo forcefully interrupted Amy to remind everyone that the family only had extra money when Frank was dodging bullets and IEDs in Iraq, and so we had to respect that and not seem like we were being opportunistic on the back of his risk.

  I hated when they talked in specifics like that; it was a little too much. I wondered if I still had that Baileys in the fridge. I thought I did.

  “Plus,” Jo went on, all worked up into a lather, “all the girls in your grade steal most of that stuff anyway. You really think Tiara Davis’s family can afford to buy her Chanel sunglasses? Only officers can, and you don’t have any officer’s kids in your grade beside that one kid who moved from Germany, what’s his name?”

  Amy nearly growled his name. “Joffrey Martin. He’s a jerk.”

  Jo nodded. “Yeah, him. So, don’t be jealous. No one else has any money around here unless it’s the first or the fifteenth.”

  “Except the Kings,” Meg said under her breath.

  Her words expressed more than annoyance at not being paid. Everyone in the room could easily detect the longing in her voice for the finer things in life, and the King’s had all the finer things. There were even rumors that they had gold toilets in their expansive mansion, though Meg said she hadn’t seen any.

  I knew how much Meg loved working for Mrs. King as an assistant. I hadn’t been quite sure how my princess Meg would do following orders all day, but since Mrs. King had plucked Meg from her job at Sephora and asked her to work for her, she hadn’t fired her yet. So far her job description remains unknown, aside from doing Mrs. King’s makeup and walking her yappy little dogs. Last week Meg loaded the dishwasher, but she told me that Mrs. King told her to never touch a dirty dish again. I wasn’t sure that I liked that message, but Meg was nineteen and I had to let her decide what kind of woman she wanted to be.

  “No one likes the Kings anyway,” Amy said.

  “Yes, they do!” Meg defended.

so you like them. That isn’t saying much. That’s like saying people like Amy,” Jo teased, but Amy wasn’t having it.

  Amy shot up like a firecracker to yell at her sister. “Jo always—”

  Meg put her hand on Amy’s chest and laid her back down on her lap. “Amy, it was a compliment . . . Anyway, John Brooke is going to be an officer, too. When he graduates from West Point in a few weeks.”

  I felt like a teenager when I rolled my eyes at Meg at this. “Don’t throw around rank like that. You sound like a snob.”

  What Meg didn’t say was that she didn’t so much mind being a snob if it meant she got Chanel sunglasses or a pool in her backyard, like Mrs. King. I’d heard her say those exact words to Amy last week.

  “Yeah, Meg,” Amy added.

  “Shut up, Amy.”

  “Meredith, do you know how rich they are?” Meg asked.

  I shook my head. I only knew that Mr. King helped big corporations get out of lawsuits. I wasn’t fascinated by the Kings the way my daughters seemed to be. I was the opposite of my oldest daughter; I absolutely hated when people thought they were better than others, which happened too often in the Army community. Before Frank got his latest promotion, I felt like I fit right in with the enlisted wives. Everyone was equally lonely, equally broke, equally stressed over the war and taking care of their households. Some of the enlisted wives even worked, and I loved that. I had a small group of friends, one young wife who had just had her first baby and a woman my age who had just been stationed at Fort Cyprus from Fort Bragg.

  After Frank became an officer, I was no longer accepted by my lower-ranking group, but I didn’t fit in with the officers’ wives circle, either. Being an officer’s wife came with more social responsibility that I simply didn’t want. I already had four daughters to raise and a husband to support while he was away.

  Denise Hunchberg, the leader of our old Family Readiness Group, was pleasant once upon a time, but she’d become increasingly catty and crazed with the little bit of power she had. It drove me insane to sit back and watch her use her so-called authority to bully the younger wives. Every time she scolded me or mocked another wife behind her back, I would mentally lick my fingers and wipe the awful woman’s penciled eyebrows off her smug face.

  Sometimes when I was feeling especially petty, I thought about telling Denise—a woman who acted as if her status in the FRG was the same as leading the free world—that her husband slept with the female medic, twice, during the battalion’s last deployment. When Denise’s little finger was waving in my face for forgetting to bring hot dog buns to the last fund-raiser that I actually went to, I almost told her off. But I knew better. I was too smart to do something stupid like that. It would be an awful thing to destroy someone’s family, and on top of that, a husband would get the heat for his wife’s mouth, so her behavior had to stay mature, almost regal.

  Officers’ wives were held to a different standard than enlisted wives, and I couldn’t do that to Frank. Sometimes I felt that Fort Cyprus was like being a fish stuck in those fish tanks in Walmart. Too many fish, too little food, and nowhere to go but the other side of the dirty tank.

  Our daughters needed to keep a good reputation, too. Well, as good as four teenage girls could. Word traveled faster than light at an Army post, and the Spring Girls had been sprinkling seeds for gossip all around town.

  Something had turned in the conversation while I pondered Denise, because I was brought back by Amy saying, “And Dad has a safer job than everyone else. He doesn’t even have to carry a gun.”

  No one told her she was wrong.

  I had told her that little lie once to make her feel better. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to tell my seven-year-old when she asked if her dad was going to die?

  For her part, Jo always tried to ignore the huge gun strapped across her dad’s chest in every single picture he posted on Facebook. Jo hated the idea of guns and said so often. She would be content never to hold a weapon in her life. I was the same.

  “I wouldn’t call being on a base in the middle of Mosul safe,” Jo said, not bothering to hide the darkness of her tone. She had long ago given up on pretenses.

  Never-minding Amy’s lack of details, my daughters knew where their dad was and how dangerous it was in Iraq. They knew that men died there, from both countries. Men like Helena Rice’s father. He left two days before her last year of high school and was dead before Christmas. Helena and her mom were now moving back to wherever they came from before the Army told them where to live. They were only given ninety days to evacuate their home on post.

  It was awful. Just plain awful.

  “It’s the safest post,” Amy said.

  Another lie I told her.

  “No—” Jo began, but I interrupted by saying her name.

  I felt tired all of a sudden. Sometimes I had moments like that, when I wished Frank were here to help explain such heavy things to his girls.

  “Meredith,” Jo snapped back at me, though her demeanor softened a little when she felt Beth’s eyes on her.

  “Jo, come on. Let’s just watch the movie.”

  I was so tired; I’d been very tired lately. I wanted to get up and check the fridge.

  “Sorry, Beth, that my concern about our father’s life is disrupting your movie,” Jo snapped, crossing her arms around her chest.

  If Jo would have said that to Amy or to Meg, or even me, she would have gotten an earful, a lecture, or even a slap from Amy. But Beth didn’t say a word. A few seconds passed, and Jo turned up the volume on the television. I felt the tension seep out of Jo’s shoulders, along with mine.

  We just missed Frank, that was all.

  The Spring Girls went through phases of missing their father. Meg missed her dad the most when her boyfriend showed the other boys at her school pictures that were supposed to be for his eyes only. Jo missed her dad the most when she was chosen to be the youngest editor her school newspaper had ever seen; then she missed him, even more, when she got her title taken away. Beth missed her dad the most when she was playing music and couldn’t find the right note. Amy missed her dad the most when she wanted to hear him sing her favorite Disney songs. And lastly, their mother missed her husband when life got just a little too heavy for her shoulders to bear.

  The five of us missed our lieutenant for all different reasons, and we couldn’t wait for him to return next month. It felt like he had been gone so much longer than one year, and two weeks of R&R wouldn’t be nearly enough.

  During those two weeks, he would always try to spend a year’s worth of time with his girls. Last year, we drove from Louisiana to Florida and spent a week at Disney World. I could feel Frank’s anxiety growing with each burst of fireworks in the sky above us. He left during the show, and I would forever remember the way he looked as he walked back to the hotel, his shoulders shaking as each blooming flower of fire lit up the dark sky. The explosions were beautiful to Jo with her wide eyes, and to Amy with her big smile. The booms made my blood pump, worrying about my husband, who couldn’t handle the chaotic blasts of color.

  When Frank disappeared into the noisy crowd, I ran after him, and apparently Meg left Jo in charge and ran after a boy she’d met in the line to walk through Cinderella’s castle.

  Jo smiled and leaned down to her sister’s ear. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I was sure I didn’t want to know.

  In the kitchen, the oven beeped and Beth jumped up. If the other girls heard the sound, they didn’t show it. Beth spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Lately, I had felt less and less like cooking, and Beth was the only one of my daughters who noticed when the laundry was piled up.

  “Are we watching a movie, or what? Everyone quit moving around and talking!” Amy exclaimed, to which Jo rolled her eyes.

  Every year, I made my four girls watch horror movies on Christmas Eve. It’s been a tradition since my and Frank’s first Christmas alone. We were stationed in Las Vegas, and I was feeling homesick. Halloween was always the be
st part of my years growing up. My mom went all out, and I had adopted her love for the holiday, so when I sought out comforting things from home, I happened upon an all-night monster marathon that Christmas Eve. Ever since, I’ve kept the habit up and brought my girls into it.

  All of my girls got into Halloween and spooky things, but since we’d moved to New Orleans, Beth and Amy had become more and more entertained by the voodoo tales and urban legends surrounding the Big Easy. I prided myself on having the scariest house on the block, no matter where we lived. I reminisced about my childhood and told ghost stories about haunted places in my hometown in the Midwest. When I was young, my friends and I spent our weekends touring “haunted” places near our small town, which comprised the few good memories I had of that place. So it was lucky that on that Christmas Eve I hit upon a TV horror marathon, instead of one about, say, depressed rural areas and alcoholism.

  Jo pointed to the screen. “I love this part.”

  She picked the same type of movies from the same time frame every year, always virus- or zombie-themed horrors. Last year it was 28 Days Later. Meg always chose movies off the lead actor. Last year her celebrity crush was Tom Hardy, and I had to agree with her on that . . . which was a weirder occurrence than ketchup on tacos.

  “Me, too,” Amy said.

  I caught Jo smiling at Amy and my heart warmed.

  The house fell to a steady quiet, aside from the screams on the television.



  As usual, I was the first one up on Christmas morning. Typically, I would wake up before the sun rose and go downstairs to peek at the unwrapped gifts from “Santa.” Afterward, I would wake up Beth, then Meg. Amy always woke up the moment that Beth did since they shared a room.

  That year was different, though. I had no urge to rush quietly to the living room and check for gifts. At least our stockings were still hung up that year. The stockings were always my favorite of all things Christmas because my parents would just cram as much little shit, mostly candy, as they could inside the giant sock. I would dump the whole thing on the floor, and I would have to keep my sisters from touching my stuff, even though they had their own. Amy was the worst at that; she was known to trade out her stuff with ours on the sly if she liked ours more.

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