The Spring Girls by Anna Todd

  Jo always loved to linger in the dark like a freaking bat, but not me. I sat up a little, rubbed my hands together to warm them, and moved across the king-sized bed to check the time on the alarm clock on the nightstand. The room was cold, and I was topless. My nipples were hard, and John didn’t so much as move when I touched his back with my cold, peaked chest.

  The screen on the alarm clock flashed two ones and two zeros. I couldn’t believe I had slept that late, but sleeping on clouds will do that to a lady. Maybe John’s snoring wouldn’t bother me as long as we had the kind of luxurious down comforter of the Ritz.

  I felt rich here; even in the dark of the room I felt like royalty in a space fit for a queen. In the Quarter, I felt so far away from Fort Cyprus. The bed and room seemed like they were nestled somewhere in the rolling hills of Tuscany, all the way across the ocean. The idea of Tuscany made me think of Shia, who had posted pictures of himself in beautiful small towns in Italy, drinking wine and eating whole baskets of fresh bread with fresh handmade mozzarella. He posted pictures from the rocky coast of Naples to the beautiful structure of the Milan Cathedral. He said he went to Italy as often as he could.

  I would travel someday. Mrs. King had told me that there were military bases in Italy, England, and Germany. Living in Europe, Jo says you can take a train to any country to visit for the day. She says that’s why families in the U.S. who save up their entire lives to go to other states hardly ever leave the country. It’s too expensive to travel outside of the country. Even Disney World costs thousands. A bottle of water there costs more than a case from the grocery store. It’s one of the many things Jo is aware of that I had never thought about. Social media has changed the world.

  Camera phones ruined my high school years. I can’t imagine what Twitter and Instagram will do as they grow.

  Still, I learned a lesson. I spent most of my time online scrolling through pictures of the people who graduated before me and seeing their babies popping out left and right. When I was in high school, most of my friends were older than me, so now most of them were twenty-two and on their second kid.

  Back then I had this rule: I wouldn’t take the school bus after the first week of school, so I molded myself into the cool freshman with big boobs and a naïve attitude. I always had a ride. It annoyed me how much I cared my entire high school life about what boys thought of my body. What a waste of my time and energy. I never knew how in control of my body I actually was.

  “John,” I whispered, but he didn’t budge.

  I imagined I could make out the blondish red of his hair and his tightened jaw in the blackness. Amy once said he looked like he was constantly pressing his top and bottom teeth together. He had the face of a soldier, the face of a prom king. I cast my vote for him by pressing my lips to the back of his neck.

  “Ugh.” The groan echoed through the darkness. I kissed him again and nipped at his skin just slightly. “Meg, please. I’m dead tired.”

  His words stung me right in the face, but I had to consider that he had been on someone else’s schedule for almost four years. He had to wake up at the crack of dawn for PT, and West Point had much more strict qualifications than for the regular enlisted soldiers. John Brooke was in the elite. One of the best of the best. He deserved to sleep.

  I wasn’t going to sit and pout about his not wanting to wake up with me, even though we’d been apart for months. I needed to consider how he felt, how tired he must be. So, after ten more minutes of staring at the ceiling, I dragged my body out of the comfy bed and made my way to the bathroom.

  When I flipped on the switch, the lights were bright, too bright for my eyes. I swiped across the switch again and turned on the dim lights on the ceiling. I set them as low as they would go. My cheeks were red in my reflection, as usual, even under the muted light. I hated that no matter how much green primer I slathered across my rosy skin, it was constantly red. I got my mother’s skin, as did Amy.

  I turned on the cold water in the marble sink and sprayed the dark roots of my hair with dry shampoo, raking my fingers through the white powder. I brushed my teeth, secretly hoping that John would wake up before I was dressed. But he didn’t, and twenty minutes later I found myself with a napkin shoved into the front of my cotton sundress, digging my teeth into an authentic Café Du Monde beignet, alone. The powdered sugar blew all over my lap, latching its way into my navy dress, but I didn’t even care. They were that good.

  I took a swig of coffee to make it feel more like breakfast and finished the plate in less than five minutes. The coffee at Café Du Monde was good, and that they only served it two ways made it feel like a luxurious thing. It wasn’t like Starbucks, where I ordered a Grande Iced Caffè Latte, extra shot, extra ice, please. At Café Du Monde, you get two choices: coffee black, or mixed with milk. I got it au lait—half coffee, half hot milk.

  As the minutes ticked on, I got worse and worse at pretending I didn’t care that John didn’t wake up for me. Should I have tried to wake him up again? I didn’t know, so I washed the thoughts away with another gulp of coffee. I was surrounded by people, a tourist group from China, all dressed in crisp, clean clothing, sharing a couple plates of beignets. A little Chinese girl with a bright smile pointed at a pigeon eating from a plate a few feet away. An African-American family wearing matching MERRIWEATHER FAMILY REUNION shirts were getting up to leave, and I watched as a girl with beautiful natural hair, about my age, tapped the shoulder of the waitress and handed her a large tip. A group of teenagers, all mixed races, were laughing and shouting at a table near the back. An old white man ate with a little girl who couldn’t be over five and a woman who looked like an older version of the little blond girl.

  New Orleans was a soup pot of different kinds of people, and I loved it. Military bases were like that, too, but they were never as beautifully crafted as a city like this. Government buildings were mostly brown and tan, whereas New Orleans was a complex mix of creole- and American-style houses with lots of color and detail. In the air, I could smell coffee, sugar, cigarette smoke, and the sun all at once. I could see every skin shade, every walk of life, while sitting at the little iron table outside Café Du Monde. It was still early in the afternoon, so there were more empty tables than I had ever seen, but it was still pretty packed.

  “You finished, honey?”

  I looked up and smiled back at the older waiter with a missing tooth. He had something sweet about him. Maybe it was the silver hair and weathered wrinkly face. He looked like he’d had a rough night for at least the last four hundred nights.

  “Yeah.” I slid my plate over to him.

  He made a tsk sound. “You’re gonna waste all that sugar?” His voice was as high-pitched as his hair was gray. He had a paper cap on his head and a white uniform, the traditional uniform of Café Du Monde. Since the place never closed, I wondered if his shift had just started or was about to end.

  My eyes moved to the plate he was taking away and the pile of white powder on the paper. It looked like cocaine, only a little better for you. He folded the wax-sheet liner like a taco and grouped the powdered sugar together. It was the same color as his hair.

  “I’ll tell you a little secret,” he whispered to me in a conspiring voice. It made me think about when Jo used to wake me up in the middle of the night to go on an adventure. We would sneak out the back door of our house in Texas and pass through the broken gate to get to the community center at the end of our street.

  I nodded, waiting for the man to share his secrets with me.

  “A little local secret”—his voice went lower again—“is to pour some of this”—he gently shook the sugar around—“into that.” He pointed to my coffee.

  A smile broke apart my face, and I told him I would love to try it. After I mixed the leftovers in, I downed the rest of my sweet au lait coffee with the extra powdered sugar, feeling like I belonged in the Quarter now that I knew the delicious secret of the insiders. After I slid him a ten, I walked next door to torture myself.
I did that often. I was the kind of person who was extremely self-deprecating as well as self-aware. The mix was a circus.

  When I walked next door, the smell of candied pralines was so strong that I was instantly hungry again. I checked my phone for a text or call from John, but it only showed a voicemail from the concierge at the Ritz. What even? Nothing from John. I would bring him back some pralines. I had already eaten an entire order of beignets; if I ate any more, I would have to change my powdered-sugar-dusted dress. There was already a line for Aunt Sally’s, of course, so I stepped into the end of it. The woman in front of me had a little dog in a purse, and I made a face at it. It growled and I jumped back a little, laughing at myself. The woman turned around and gave me an annoyed look. She rolled her sweet little beady eyes at me. She dripped sticky-honey-dipped Southern woman, the kind who would insult you and then follow with “Bless your heart.” Basically my mom’s mom.

  I knew her type. Her eyes lingered on the white powder on my dress, and I wondered if my pouty lips and expensive eyelashes would let her know I wasn’t some worn-down girl in the line for pure sugar on a wax sheet. “If you don’t want attention, why carry around a dog in a bag?” I said under my breath.

  She heard me and huffed, then turned back around. I smelled her Chanel No. 5 and checked for her huge rock—which was indeed decorating her manicured finger. Her ass looked great in the jeans she was wearing, and it made me want to roll my eyes, for no reason beside my own pettiness. I spent so many wasted thoughts bringing down other women. I hated to think about how often I had done that when I was younger. Jo and her documentaries had changed my perspective. I’m still not as angry at the world as Jo, but maybe I should have been?

  The line inside Aunt Sally’s was moving pretty quick, and when I made it to the counter to order, I fumbled with my choice between original and chocolate. I wanted both.

  “Two chocolate please. And a box of mixed,” I finally said after a two-second pause.

  I handed the smiling woman my debit card and waited to sign the receipt. I wondered when Shia was going to leave New Orleans, and I wondered if John had plans to meet up with him. This store was full of Shia and the memory of our first meeting, pretty much right where I was standing. There should have been caution tape wrapped around the area, or at least around the man himself. I tried to think about John, my lovely John, who would probably be waking up right about now. The night before wasn’t exactly the romantic, passionate night I had anticipated, but today was a new day, and I had pralines to bring to the table.

  When I walked outside, I thought my mind was playing a trick on me.

  But nope. It was actually happening.

  Shia King was walking toward me, live and in the flesh, his eyes already on me. I couldn’t run or hide. Well, I could, but he would for sure catch me if I did. And I didn’t feel like running. This street was big enough for the both of us. But he was the worst possible person for me to bump into at that moment. The literal worst.

  Even though I knew there was no way in hell he was going to let me walk by without at least a snarky remark, just to make a game out of it I turned the other way and took a bite of my praline. Before my teeth finished sinking into the caramel, his hand wrapped around my arm. I gently pulled away from his touch, but turned to him.

  “Do I know you?” I asked with my mouth full. Shia made me lose my manners like no one else. His mother would be horrified by my classless chewing with caramel stuck to my teeth.

  He started laughing, but there was no noise. His body shook lightly and he shook his head, his white smile so big and his teeth sinking into his bottom lip. I always lost my breath when he did that.

  “Really?” He tucked his chin down a little and raised a brow at me.

  I held my breath now, though, because he was engaged to Bell Gardiner. Bell Gardiner out of all people.

  “Hmph. Not sure.” I took another bite and started to walk away. I knew he would follow me. “You look like my friend’s fiancé.”

  He popped up next to my shoulder. “Is that chocolate?”

  I jerked away the praline before his fingers could grab it. “Maybe. What can I help you with, Shia?”

  “So you do know my name after all?”

  “Like I said, I believe you’re engaged to my friend.”

  People were all around us. A couple pushing a set of twins in a stroller. The twins were wearing matching boat hats on their little potato heads; one of them made eye contact with me and smiled, and I smiled back at him.

  His smile made me a little sad, but he was so charming.

  “Hmm, don’t think I am,” Shia said.

  The baby I thought I was having a moment with started crying hysterically. I continued walking.

  Shia laughed next to me, then said, “Anyway, this is a coincidence. What are you doing in the Quarter?”

  He was walking next to me, but backward. The sun was so bright that I had to squint a little when I looked at him. He was wearing an earthy-green T-shirt, and Jo’s poetry book came to my mind again. The one that says a little more human than the rest of us. Shia’s facial hair had grown out a little more than I was used to, and it made him look older than he was. I had never seen him in person with the beginnings of a beard—only on Facebook. When he was home, he always kept it shaved.

  “Minding my business. You?”

  He laughed without noise again. “I can’t say the same.”

  I tried not to laugh. “What do you want, Shia? Where’s Bell Gardiner?”

  His smile didn’t falter, not even a smidge. “Working. Where’s John Brooke?”

  Touché, asshole.

  I didn’t look at Shia. “Sleeping. Say, I didn’t know bars were open so early on a Sunday. Or maybe you have a connection?”

  I hoped my words annoyed him as much as I wanted them to. He was lucky I was even speaking to him. At least, that’s what I was trying to convince myself.

  “Ha-ha, Meg. Don’t be jealous. It’s not a good look on you.”

  I almost bumped into a man carrying an ice-cream cone, and he cursed at me under his breath when he had to basically jump out of my way. How was it that Shia was walking backward and he didn’t run into anyone? He was too casual. Even the staple look he wore, and wore well: a T-shirt that said MANILA on the front with a colorful bus under the word, black gym shorts with a Nike check, of course. He must have had those shorts in every color. Shia was being so . . . Shia.

  “I’m not jealous,” I denied. I focused my eyes on a passing taxi van full of rowdy men, and they shouted something gross to a group of women all dressed in the same shirts. Only one was different: it said BRIDE on white instead of BRIDE’S BITCHES on black. The women shouted back and I looked at Shia.

  “Gross,” he remarked. His eyes followed the taxi until it disappeared and we couldn’t hear the men shouting anymore.

  “Very.” I hoped those women were going to be careful in a city full of taxi vans full of men full of frozen liquor slushies. I hated that part of the Quarter. I loved the rich culture and the food and the music. New Orleans held so much beauty outside of Bourbon Street. I dreamed of living in a town house in the heart of the Quarter. I would have to wait until my husband and I retired, as I figured I would spend most of my life on a military base.

  “Wait, why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be gone by now?” I asked Shia.

  We reached the corner of Canal and Decatur and had to stop at the crosswalk to wait for the light to turn. At least half a dozen people were on the sidewalk with us, but it didn’t feel that way. They were all minding their own business.

  “I’m staying home a little bit longer.”

  I looked at his face, into his eyes. “Why? Is Bell knocked up or something?”

  His smile faded. “Really, Meg? You’re going to be that immature?”

  I was determined not to say anything—

  “I’m not being immature,” I snapped, a little loudly.

  My eyes bounced from the ground to
the people around us, to the traffic on Canal Street.

  He cracked a smile.

  “Go away,” I said, not really meaning it.

  “Nope,” he responded, knowing I didn’t. “I thought you and Bell were friends? Plus you kept saying I looked like your friend’s fiancé.”

  I gaped at him. “Friends? You’re joking, right?”

  Bell and I were never friends. She was awful in that way where she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Little passive-aggressive insults like “Meg, I know the best dermatologist if you need one” when I ran into her at the PX with one tiny little pimple on my chin. The only times she had been “nice” were questionable. She slid me a drink here and there at her work, but even that stopped once my aunt Hannah got a job behind the bar with her. Reeder, Breyer, John, and I went out in the Quarter each time John came back from New York for leave, but it went from my favorite to least favorite place overnight.

  Shia smiled. “Okay, so maybe not friends exactly.”

  We had resumed walking, I forward and he backward even on the busy cross street. We were in the center of the Quarter and there was no shortage of people bustling through the warm Sunday morning.

  “But you don’t have any reason not to like her. I like John just fine.”

  My hotel was coming up. It was almost a perfect square of a walk back from Aunt Sally’s to the Ritz. What was I supposed to do about Shia walking with me?

  “You and John were friends. That’s not the same thing.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket and checked for something from John. Nothing.

  “We weren’t that great of friends, and why do you care who I’m engaged to anyway?” Shia shrugged. The green of his T-shirt went so well with his dark skin. He always looked so effortlessly put together, but he was more than his pretty face. As was I.

  Shia had told me that exact same thing about John once before, that they weren’t that great of friends. When I had asked Shia why, he’d only said, “Why do you think?” and opened the door to the black town car that would drive him to the airport that September.

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