The Spring Girls by Anna Todd

  Denise nodded and told us she couldn’t wait to see my mom. She wasn’t a good liar.

  Meg told me she was going over to the face-painting station to help, and Amy ran after her. Beth stayed with me, and we perused the table full of baked goods, aka my happy place, then started handing out blocks of sugar and cornstarch to already-hyper children.

  Meredith showed up an hour later with two pans of sweets. Her famous peppermint bark and her gooey brownies were scooped out of her arms the moment she walked in the door. Denise gave her a quick hello and a lengthy reminder of Meredith’s tardiness before shoving a brownie down her throat.

  “Jo Spring? Is that you?” I recognized the voice, but couldn’t put my finger on who it was until I turned around.

  Shia King. There, in front of me. He looked older somehow, much older than he did just four months ago, when I had seen him last.

  The top of his hair was grown out more than it had ever been, and the sides were shaved close to his head. He was taller, too, and he looked like a man.

  This new Shia seemed far from the mouthy teenager who I’d caught Meg kissing in the living room the day of her graduation party. Balloons had been everywhere, and confetti was in my hair and Meg’s dress was so tight and mine was so long. I was gnawing on a piece of pretzel dipped in chocolate icing, running through the house, high on sugar and caffeine. Wearing a tiara on my head, I had been trying to find my oldest sister, and when I found her, she was spread across Shia’s lap, her creamy thighs open, covering his dark skin, and her floral dress was bunched at her waist. His hands were in her thick brown hair, and I covered my mouth and watched them. I couldn’t make out what he said when he stopped kissing Meg, but whatever it was, it made her jump off of his lap and push at his chest. When he grabbed her by the waist and whispered something else, she kissed him again. Seconds later, he said something else and she shoved at him again. This time, she climbed off him and moved toward me in the hallway. I ran away before she could see me, and as far as I knew, Meg hadn’t spoken to him since that day. She still watched him through social media, but they weren’t on speaking terms, she swore.

  “It’s me,” I mumbled, struggling to erase the image in my mind of Meg’s mouth touching his.

  Shia King smiled and his arms flew around me. “How are you?” he asked, squeezing my rib cage. He lifted me off my feet.

  No one except my dad had ever hugged me like that before.

  I kind of liked it, even if it took me by surprise. He felt warm, and I wondered if he thought I was Meg. We didn’t look much alike, though some said we did. My hair was all one color and long and my eyes were lighter than hers. She had more cushion to her and more confidence.

  “Good,” I huffed out. My rib cage was burning from his strength. Ten more seconds and it would collapse. I was sure of it. “Are you back in town?”

  I didn’t remember him knowing me enough to be giving me so generous a hug, but I also couldn’t remember the last time anyone had hugged me even half of this.

  “Yep, I’m back for a week.” He put me down on my feet. “For the holidays. Just enough time to dip my toes in the swamp and jump back out,” he joked.

  His eyes sparkled under the awful yellow lighting of the ballroom.

  I studied his face and noted the changes in him. He was wearing a worn T-shirt that had the shape of the earth printed in colored ink. The land was covered with stacks and stacks of buildings, and one lone tree was in the center, somewhere near Colorado. He was wearing loose joggers and dirty sneakers with no laces. I bet it drove his mom crazy, that he would leave the house looking like the rest of us. Mrs. King was sure to want her offspring to dress their best.

  While Shia asked about Meredith and Amy’s art, I looked around the room at the chaotic party and searched for Meg’s red shirt. She looked like an old Hollywood starlet that day. Her hair pinned back with thick dark-and-light curls, and her eyelashes long and fluttery, like the wings of a butterfly. The blush and highlighter on her cheeks were striking, one of the many perks of working at a makeup store. Her makeup was always flawless, and even if she was constantly teetering on the line between too little and too much, she managed to pull it off. I was decent with makeup, but nothing close to Meg.

  “How’s your family? How are you? Man, you look different,” Shia said. His light eyes darted back and forth between my eyes, mouth, and forehead.

  When I’d seen him for the first time, he was scrawny with eyes too big for his head. He was always cute, but too old for me to actually pay attention to.

  “Thanks?” I murmured. I wasn’t sure if he was being nice or not.

  His eyes told me that he was, but Meg’s constant complaining about him told me otherwise. I wasn’t ready to trust him. Meg was my sister. He was a stranger who most people had something bad to say about. That had to say something about his character.

  Or maybe it didn’t? I was starting to think that was all a big conspiracy theory. Like when Shelly and Mateo broke up for the third time last summer over a new girl named Jessica. She had bigger boobs and a shorter skirt than Shelly, so when Mateo ditched Shelly in pursuit of the new girl, Shelly told everyone how awful Jessica was. Come to find out, Jessica was actually great, to the point it was hard to keep a straight face when she rejected Mateo.

  His smile said he was more of a Jessica than a Shelly, though.

  “How’s your family?” he asked again.

  I didn’t know how much to tell him. I never really knew him, despite how he was acting now. I wasn’t sure if I should tell him the shallow version, the typical “Oh, everyone is fine and dandy! Sunshine and happiness galore!”

  I studied his face and his hands and the way he stood with his back straight but his shoulders slightly slumped.

  When I paused too long in reply, he got more specific. Pressing his hand against the back of his neck, he asked, “How’s Amy? She must be so grown now.”

  “She’s in seventh grade.”

  “So basically grown.” He smiled and his eyes were alive. “What about Beth? Is she still playing piano?”

  How did he even know that Beth played music? I tried to think about him and how well I knew him, but could only remember a few brief interactions.

  “Yeah, she plays some still.” I felt my pulse quicken under my chest, and I swallowed, looking directly into his eyes. I didn’t know if I was supposed to tell him anything, but the longer I stood with him, the more I thought Meg had to be hiding something. I couldn’t find a single reason to hate him, from the statement T-shirt he was wearing to the way his hands moved when he talked. I didn’t know exactly why Meg disliked him so much, but I knew it had something to do with love, or lack of. Standard grown-up problems.

  I found myself wanting to ask him about his travels instead of telling him about the rest of my family. I looked at the tree on his shirt again, and when my eyes went back to his face, they caught his. So, I just told him about Beth. I told him how she spent her days and nights wishing she could make it as a musician. I told him that she had been composing her own music lately, instead of just covering the songs from pop radio.

  “She was always so talented,” he said, like he remembered something about Beth that I didn’t know. “When I was in Peru, I met this woman who teaches music to deaf children—it’s fascinating.”

  I had to think about where that was on the map longer than I wanted to admit.

  I thought about Shia in Peru and I felt so young, and I realized that I was so inadequate to be out in the world in the way that I had planned to be by seventeen. I wanted to do things for people like I heard he did. I wanted to help in a bigger way than just fighting with internet trolls in Facebook comments.

  “How was Peru? It looked beautiful,” I said, remembering the pictures I saw of his trip on Facebook. Meg had made me sit there for two hours, clicking on pictures of his new life abroad. We followed him from California to Brazil to Peru. I thought about how full his passport book must be and then remembered tha
t I didn’t even have one.

  Shia’s eyes closed slightly and his head tilted in confusion. “Did it?”

  I thought I was going to have to explain to him why I had been scrolling through his photos of Peru, of Mexico, and of the Philippines. I couldn’t just say, “Oops, my sisters and I were cyberstalking you and know your entire life.”

  At least the one he portrayed on the internet.

  Just then Meg walked up to us, her cheeks glowing and shimmering. Shia’s back was to her, and as she got closer, I watched as her face twisted into an expression that immediately told me she didn’t expect or want to see Shia King here at the party. Even though I knew this would be trouble, I was still glad that she saved me from the awkwardness of having to come up with some kind of reasoning for knowing what was happening in his life when I barely knew him.

  Meg approached us and stood next to me, her game face in full effect. Grown-ups were good at game faces. When Shia saw her, her expression said she couldn’t have been happier to see him.

  “Meg!” Shia smiled at her, but it was faker than Meg’s glue-on eyelashes, which fluttered and fell onto her cheeks when she closed her eyes. A girl at her work did them for her every week and she loved them. When everyone around me started getting them, I considered letting Meg’s old boss at the makeup store do them for me, but then I watched a YouTube video and decided my eyesight was more important. I’m not willing to sacrifice that much for beauty . . .

  Not yet, at least. I was still in high school. I hadn’t even grown into my skin yet. Well, that’s what the internet said, so I thought it had better be true. I was still staring at Meg’s eyelashes when she finally responded to him.

  “Shia.” She paused, then upped the wattage on her smile. “Hi.” Meg matched Shia’s fake grin and doubled it, unleashing the biggest, brightest glowy-eyed smile I had ever seen across my sister’s face. “How are you? How’s life? Where are you living now? Canada?”

  He laughed and licked his full top lip. His lips were the kind boys don’t usually have; they were pouty and perfectly bowed. Meg always obsessed over her lips, complaining how thin they were. She used to tell us how she wanted Amy’s blond hair and my big lips. I wondered if all pretty girls picked apart their looks like Meg did. It seemed like such a waste, to have it and still find things wrong. I grew up hating my lips, especially when I was young and the kids in my grade who hated themselves would tease me, puckering their lips and calling me “fish face.” Oh, how much I hated middle school.

  “No.” He laughed. It wasn’t real, I thought. “Actually, I’m going to DC for two weeks, then to stay with a friend outside of Atlanta. How’s life here in Fort Cyprus? The same”—he paused and his eyes darkened—“I assume? Doesn’t seem like much has changed around here.”

  Meg’s Barbie smile faltered for a split second, and Shia leaned toward Meg and whispered something in her ear. Her eyes, looking into mine, rolled into the back of her head, but when Shia’s eyes met hers, she composed herself and returned to her smiling demeanor. She was good at being comfortable in every situation—or at least appearing so.

  She was so good at being a woman, I thought.

  “Everything is great here. John’s coming back from West Point in a few weeks. He finished top in his class, isn’t that great?” Meg waved her hand around and didn’t look at Shia’s face.

  I watched his hard expression crumble like dead flower petals. I felt like I was missing something, but I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted to find out what. Boys and girls dancing around things wasn’t something I wanted to know about yet.

  “I know. I talked to him a few weeks back,” Shia said.

  Meg’s shoulder’s stiffened. What kind of game were these two playing? I didn’t know, but it seemed exhausting. I hoped when I started dating, I wouldn’t fall into that.

  “Is that so?”

  “Yep” was all Shia said, and then he told us both how great it was to catch up.

  Meg turned away from him and didn’t watch him walk away like I did.

  “He’s such an asshole,” Meg huffed. She grabbed a roll of wrapping paper and slapped it against the table. “He thinks he’s so much better than everyone.” Meg’s hands were slightly shaky, but I pretended that I didn’t notice. “I don’t give a shit what he’s doing. John will be home soon anyway.”

  “And John coming home will change things how?” I asked, wanting her to share her secrets with me, but also knowing that she would expect a secret back. That’s how Meg was, and I sort of liked the give-and-take of it.

  Meg just sighed, looped her arm through mine, and walked me away from my station at the holiday party. We pushed past Lydia Waller and her boyfriend, Joeb Waller (they weren’t related, but sharing the same name was still weird), who were holding hands.

  “When they get to the pole, who do you think will let go first?” Meg whispered into my ear.

  “Neither.” I laughed, and we watched them move around the support pole instead of separating their hands. Joeb looked like someone who would have sweaty hands, and Lydia looked like someone who liked it.

  I turned back to my sister, and she squeezed my arm tighter. “I can’t believe he’s here out of all places to be. He’s here.”

  “He’s from here and his parents are still here,” I muttered. It wasn’t such a surprise to me.

  Meg was frustrated and flustered, and it was an odd but slightly fascinating thing to watch my elegant sister, who never so much as has chipped nail polish, be so turned around by someone. I could feel the tension radiating off her; who knew Shia King had so much power?

  “How am I supposed to work at the King house if he’s there? It was bad enough to see pictures of him hanging on the walls of the house. None of them was recent, so it was kind of easy to pretend the light-eyed, beautiful brown-skinned boy wasn’t Shia, but still I hoped he wasn’t planning on staying long.

  “Oh, Jo, how lucky you are,” Meg’s dramatic voice told me. She didn’t elaborate on why I was lucky, and I didn’t ask her to.

  Then she shot me a defensive glare. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

  Damn my face for being so transparent. I needed to work on that before pursuing my dream career as a journalist. I needed a game face.

  I shrugged my shoulders at my sister, and a soulful, smooth voice singing “Hello” took over the radio. I thought I had heard this song more than any other song in my life, aside from that Black Eyed Peas song that played every other second of my entire seventh-grade year. I looked over to the makeshift DJ table in the corner and saw Beth standing behind it. She was always where the music was.

  “I just don’t get what’s going on with Shia? I thought you guys couldn’t stand to be in the same room as each other? Now you’re standing here acting like you were his first wife or something?”

  “Nice way to put it.” Meg’s eyes rolled back. She was the best at this.

  “I’m just saying.” I wanted to sound mature enough to get an actual answer.

  “What do you know about boys, Josephine?”

  “Not much.”

  I knew about boys from the internet, but not real-life boys. I wondered how different they could possibly be. Boys on the internet seemed better than the game masters Meg got mixed up with.

  “You have so much to learn.” Meg wrapped her arm tight around me. I let her. “Remember when I was dating River and we always fought, then made up, fought, then made up? Like that time when he kissed Shelly Hunchberg?”

  I nodded. I hated Meg’s ex-boyfriend River Barkley. He was the worst. I remember when we were in Texas and Meg put an entire bottle of Tabasco into her ex–best friend’s Starbucks cup, and everyone laughed when she threw up all over the gym floor.

  “Well, Shia is like River, but much worse. He is the definition of a snake,” Meg warned me. She even included a little hisssss.

  I couldn’t help but look around for him, and when I found him, he was hugging Meredith and his entire face was lit into
a smile.

  “Worse than River? Yikes.” I looked away from Shia.

  “So much worse than River,” Meg groaned, and we kept walking. “Do you like anyone, Jo?”

  I shrugged. “Not really. No.”

  It was weird to talk about boys with Meg. Sometimes she would get in a mood where she would talk about boys with me, but she didn’t usually ask me anything. She talked and I listened.

  “Anyone at all?” she gently prodded.

  “No. Now tell me what happened between you and Shia? Did you guys sleep together or something?”

  The words felt weird coming out of my mouth. Meg divulged things here and there, but I was ready for more. I was trying to land in the sweet space between little sister who she trusts and mature sister who she can share her relationship secrets with. It was a thrilling yet dangerous shift, and I felt it inside me as it was happening. I felt my doll’s bows being traded in for a padded bra, and my crayons upgrading to tampons.

  “Yes. But more than that. He made me think—” Meg cut off her own sentence, and I felt disappointment creeping in. I was almost seventeen and ready to hear whatever she was going to say.

  I tried not to picture Shia and Meg having sex, but it was nearly impossible.

  I followed Meg’s eyes and saw Shia standing just a few feet away. A group of girls from my grade were huddled around him like little old ladies admiring a newborn.

  Meg huffed. “Ugh, I need to find out how long he’s going to be here.”

  “Don’t let him get to you, Meg. John will be back soon.”

  I liked John Brooke. He was a short man with cropped red hair and a gentle smile. He was infatuated with Meg; she reminded us every day how much he missed her and how hard it was for him to be away from her.

  Meg’s eyes opened wide, and for a second I thought she had already forgotten that John existed.

  But then she took a heavy breath and exhaled. “You’re right, Jo. John will be back and Shia will go away. It’s been so long since Shia and I were a thing anyway, why should I even care?”

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