The Spring Girls by Anna Todd


  11

  I easily found my way to the upstairs bathroom, the one that was connected to Ineesha’s room. She was the oldest daughter of Mrs. King. I wondered if Ineesha was here, too. I hadn’t seen her, but it would be even stranger if Shia’s sister hadn’t bothered to come to town for his engagement party. I stood in front of the mirror for a few minutes before I struggled with my Spanx and relieved myself.

  On my way out, I thought I heard male voices talking low, but in a fury. I paused by a heavy painting hanging on the wall. I knew the painting well. It was of the entire King family. I didn’t have to look up at it to know that Mrs. King was wearing a vivid red dress and that a young Shia sat at his mom’s feet, a teddy bear in his small arms. His cheeks were chubby from childhood, and his hair was long on top; clusters of curls sat on his head.

  I saw the painting every day that I walked through the empty halls upstairs. Now, as I tried to listen to the conversation through the open door of the room closest to me, I looked around to make sure no one was coming. I hid behind the corner wall. The halls were empty; only faint voices and the echo of music downstairs could be heard. I was surprised that it wasn’t louder up here, given the number of people in the house.

  My stomach turned. The King estate always felt so empty. I could always hear my own footsteps clomping on the original hardwood floors—which Mrs. King loved to tell me were from the 1860s—to the high ceilings, which complemented the original crown mouldings that clung to the crème walls. Mrs. King was so proud of her home; she talked about the detail on the stained-glass windows in the attic with far more pride than on those rare moments when she spoke of her only son and his “adventures” around the world.

  I began to feel bored and wanted to go back and find Jo, even though she was grinding on my nerves with that Laurie boy.

  Right as I took my first step away, I heard a voice I recognized.

  “You don’t know that!”

  Shia was speaking loud and deep. I slowly slid my feet across the floor, quietly moving closer to the voices.

  “I don’t know that?” a booming voice howled toward the empty hall. Something fell and broke against the floor. It sounded like glass smashing.

  “You know nothing, boy! You think just because you went on some child’s mission and fed a village of people that you know about the world? Well—”

  The voice cut off and I heard Mrs. King say something unintelligible next.

  I had never met Mr. King in all my time at the King house. I had only heard his voice once, when he had called the house phone to speak to his wife. His voice was the deepest I had ever heard.

  “Are you happy now? You made it clear that you don’t want me to be a part of this family!” Shia yelled.

  I wondered if Bell Gardiner was in the room. I couldn’t help my constant craving for drama. It usually wasn’t a coincidence when I found it, but that night I was actually minding my own business, just using the bathroom—trying to get away from the drama of Bell—so it had to have been fate that brought me to hear the argument they were having.

  It was strange, though, because unlike in most cases, as I stood in the hallway listening to Mr. King yell at his son, I didn’t feel the adrenaline rush from the drama of it. I felt the hairs on my arm tingling and my back straightening.

  “You never deserved to be a part of this family!” Mr. King shouted. “You’re my only son, the only one who can carry my family name, and look at you!”

  I thought I heard the sob of a woman.

  Bell Gardiner, maybe? I thought to myself, inching closer.

  I drew a deep breath and took one last step toward the door. I had never been in that room before, but I knew it was Mr. King’s office. I had passed it once when the door was open, but the only thing I remembered about it was the large desk in the center of the room. Now when I peered around the doorframe, I saw three people.

  Shia stood closest to the door, his back turned to me. Across from him was Mr. King, a man almost the height of Reeder. His skin was a deeper brown than Shia’s and his eyes were dark, but they looked so much alike that it surprised me.

  Mr. King stepped toward his son, who turned in profile to meet him. Shia’s shirt was untucked now, hanging low below his hips. His face was pulled into a tight grimace, eyes closed and mouth twisted at the corners.

  “I thought by now you would be done wasting your time on these childish games,” Mr. King said, his voice going right back to a shout.

  Shia spun around and looked at his mom. “Childish games?” He pinched the bridge of his nose and walked in a jagged line across the carpet. “I’m doing what I’m passionate about! Do you have any idea how many people I’ve helped? Fed, taught to read—and here you are still telling me that I’m a child?”

  The chime of a cell phone seemed to shriek throughout the room. It rang and rang until Mr. King finally snapped, “I have to take this.”

  The clattering of his shoes on the floor echoed back to me—almost through me—in the hallway.

  “Of course you do,” Shia said, but his father didn’t respond.

  My chest tightened, and I thought about the first time I met Shia King. We had just been stationed in southern Louisiana from the middle of Texas, and I was walking alone around the French Quarter. I remember leaving my sisters and Aunt Hannah at a frozen-yogurt shop, to explore for a few minutes alone. I had never been to the French Quarter before, and it was the one thing I was looking forward to when we got the news about our PCS—permanent change of station—to Louisiana.

  I wanted to move from Texas after what happened during my freshman year. It felt like a godsend when my dad sat us down, nervous and ready for the worst reactions from us, and told us girls that we were moving that summer. I cheered, ready to get away from the torturous assholes at my high school. Jo threw a fit, Beth was smiling, and Amy didn’t care at all.

  That summer was the summer I reinvented myself. I dyed my hair dark, dark brown, and I cut my bangs. I learned how to do my makeup, and I felt like I could start over.

  That particular day, the sun was beating down on my skin as I walked around the cobblestone streets. My shoulders were sunburned within twenty minutes. I was walking aimlessly, just wanting to explore the streets. The sweet smell of sugar led me down Decatur to a creole praline shop.

  The building was beautiful; the outside looked so charming, so New Orleans. Blue metal that resembled lace ribbon draped over the windows. It was impossible to think anyone could pass this place without going in. My mouth was watering and my body was overheated and I wasn’t the only soul who came out that day. I was about the twentieth person in line in the big room. The air-conditioning was on high, blowing loudly from the ceiling.

  Little carts were full of souvenirs, with the logo of the store on everything from T-shirts to mugs. I grabbed a mug because I couldn’t resist.

  “You have to try the chocolate,” a voice behind me said.

  I turned around to see Shia standing there, his smile youthful and his eyes frosted green.

  “I’ve never been here.”

  He smiled at me and glanced at my mug. “I figured.”

  I turned back around.

  A few moments later, his fingers tapped my shoulder. “You didn’t get the chocolate,” he said as I took my first bite of the crunchy praline treat.

  I almost got the chocolate, but chose not to just to spite him. Our relationship kept with that pattern. Him giving me advice and me doing the opposite, just to prove a point. It’s why we would never work. We tried a few times, but neither of us had the patience to put up with the other.

  “Meg? What are you doing up here?”

  Mrs. King’s voice pulled me from my walk down memory lane. Her square chin was raised, and I stood up straighter, trying to come up with something to say.

  And yet her tone smoothed over her words, as if her husband and her son hadn’t just been screaming at each other like the family tree was being chopped down.

  “
I’m, uhm”—I paused—“I’m looking for my sister.”

  I heard shuffling inside the big room and wanted to get moving before Shia came out and saw me.

  “Your sister? The little blond one or the one with the long hair?”

  I wanted to tell Mrs. King that I actually had three sisters, but I felt it wouldn’t do any good; she didn’t seem to remember their names even though I talked about them all the time. Well, I wouldn’t say all the time, since I didn’t actually speak much around Mrs. King, but when I did, I talked a lot about my younger sisters.

  “That’s the one, yes. I’m sorry to disturb you.” I looked around me, trying to avoid her heavy gaze. She was so damned intimidating.

  I looked at her outfit and wondered if I would ever dress like her when I was older. Her maroon blazer matched her pencil skirt perfectly, not even a fraction of a shade off. Around her neck was a thick rope of pearls, and her lips were dark fuchsia. She was a beautiful woman in her late forties. I couldn’t imagine what she looked like when she woke up. Even when I came in the early afternoon to do her makeup, she already had her hair done and she was usually dressed to the nines. Perfectly paired jewelry and all.

  I wanted to be like her when I grew up.

  I don’t think she wanted me to notice the way she glanced back to the open door as we began to walk down the hallway. “It’s fine, dear. Let’s go downstairs,” she said neutrally.

  Mrs. King was at least five inches taller than me in her stilettos. The way she could walk in them made my already aching feet feel even more pathetic. I had a long way to go.

  She made me feel both the oldest and the youngest I could ever be.

  I looked up at my boss, and she turned to face me as we passed the upstairs bathroom. The door was closed and a thin line of light was cast on the floor. It was quiet, so when she spoke to me, her voice was as soft as a sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar.

  “Have you enjoyed the party? I’m sure you heard some things you shouldn’t have. We can just forget about that private family moment, can’t we?”

  I nodded. Yes, please.

  I hoped she didn’t call me out for calling out sick for work and being here, dressed up and obviously not sick.

  “Of course. And, yes, the party is stunning. I’m happy for your son, and for all of you.”

  Her smile slid up her dusted cheeks. Whoever did her makeup tonight did almost as good a job as I do.

  “I wouldn’t be too happy,” she said so low that I almost thought I had imagined it.

  Neither of us talked as we crossed the upstairs of the house. The music and voices from the party downstairs carried up to where we stood. It was weird how quiet it was upstairs. In my parents’ house, I can hear every single noise from wall to wall. I will have a house like this by the time I’m thirty.

  “Do you want to have a glass with me before we rejoin the party?”

  I never thought I would see the day that Mrs. King would invite me for a drink. I didn’t even know what the glass she was offering would be full of. But at that point, I would have gulped down a cup of molasses just for the sense of inclusion.

  “Sure.” I tried to keep my smile chill, not too excited. Mature girls keep their cool. All the time.

  I followed her into a small butler’s pantry. While we walked, I pulled my hair out from behind my ears and tugged down the hem of my dress. After she pulled down a black bottle with a diamond-shaped sticker on the front, she turned to me.

  She pointed above my head. “Grab two glasses.”

  When I looked up, there were racks of glasses and goblets. Everything from champagne flutes to beer mugs. I grabbed two cups that I thought looked good for whatever it was that she was going to have me drink. When I handed them to her, she turned her wrist around, and her watch sparkled under the light. Everything about her dripped elegance and class. She gave me an approving smile, and my heart leaped. She then opened a small fridge built into the wall. She bent down, and I heard ice clinking into the glasses.

  I read the label on the black bottle: HENDRICK’S GIN. I had had gin only once until that night, with my ex–best friend from Texas, Justina. That was an awful night. The beginning of the end of our friendship.

  “Here we are.” She slid my glass to me and set hers down. Her slender fingers wrapped around the glass bottleneck and she yanked the top off. Her crème-brûlée nails looked so posh and beautiful against her dark skin as she poured the clear gin over the ice cubes.

  When she finished, I waited a moment, hoping that she would pull out a mixer of some sort. She didn’t. She just took a drink of it straight and said, “I don’t drink often, but when I do, it’s the real deal.”

  I smiled and followed her lead, raising my glass to hers. I took a small sip and my tongue burned, but truly it wasn’t so bad. It was a hell of a lot better than cheap beer or the wine coolers my friends in Texas always stole from their moms’ stashes. To that day, I couldn’t stand the smell of wine coolers—they reminded me of those fake bitches who ruined my life in Texas.

  Mrs. King put her glass down on the counter in front of us. “So, Meg, are you seeing anyone?”

  I couldn’t help but wonder how her lipstick wasn’t smudged even a bit.

  I nodded and hoped that I wouldn’t choke when I went to speak.

  “Yes, Mrs. King. I’m dating a man named John Brooke. He’s graduating from West Point next week.” I wanted her to be impressed.

  “I know him, I believe. Good for you, he’ll take care of you. That’s all we can hope for.”

  The way she said those words grated on me a little, but if she weren’t anything close to right, why did I mention John’s West Point graduation?

  “Yeah” was all I said.

  “Let me tell you something, Meg.” It wasn’t a request. She was going to speak regardless of my response.

  I nodded anyway. I took another sip of gin, and it burned just a touch less than the first.

  “My son thinks he knows everything about the world and the way it works. He has these illusions of himself being some type of savior.” She waved her hand in the air like she was dismissing someone who wasn’t there. “All we want for him is to be successful. We want him to make our family proud and carry on his father’s legacy around here. Do you know how much pressure is on our family already? To be the wealthiest family around here and be black?”

  My boss’s eyes fell on me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t know how much pressure there was. I only knew the way people talked about the Kings, as if they were somewhere between a fairy tale and royalty.

  “My son has a responsibility to carry on our name. Both of my daughters did what they were supposed to—hell, even more than they were supposed to. Ineesha graduated top of her class and is now the youngest partner in her firm’s history. My youngest daughter’s husband is running for Senate. And here’s Shia, wasting his time in these countries, letting the delusion of liberty affect his future. He dropped out of college, for Christ’s sake.”

  I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t feel qualified to give advice or even comment, but I wanted her to keep talking.

  “What would you want him to do?” I asked.

  She didn’t hesitate. “Go to law school. Enjoy this engagement to Bell Gardiner. Listen to his father.”

  “Shia doesn’t want to be a lawyer, though?” I wished I could clip my mouth shut.

  Her eyes hardened a little, but she nodded. “You’re right. He doesn’t want to, but when he’s an adult living in a house like this, he will thank us. Wouldn’t you be happy living in a house like this, Meg? Even if you had to make a few sacrifices to get here?”

  I looked around the butler’s pantry, which was nicer than most rooms in my parents’ house. “Yes, I would be.”

  When Jo and I talked about the future and our plans for it, I always felt reflexively guilty about wanting to be a mother and a wife. Jo has a different plan for herself, and the idea of being a wife and mother, without a c
areer, would be hell for her. But for women like me and Mrs. King, there’s no shame in it. Is it so bad that I would sacrifice a few things to be a wife and a mother? No, I didn’t think it was. To Jo and Meredith, yes, but to me, no.

  “I knew you had your head screwed on right. Why couldn’t Shia have just done what we said and enrolled in law school? It’s still not too late; his father has connections. He could get accepted now, even after wasting two years pedaling around the globe. He just won’t listen to us, that impossible child.”

  It was weird to hear Mrs. King talk about Shia like this, like he was making all these mistakes, when sometimes I wished I could be like him. I wished that I didn’t care what people thought about me, and I wished I could leave my family to travel the world. I wished I was brave enough to. At least for a little while.

  “I’m sure he will come around. He’s lucky to have parents like you,” I reassured her, feeling slightly traitorous.

  Mrs. King’s smile would have made up for my guilt if Shia hadn’t walked by the open door just then and given me a look that said he’d heard every word we’d said about him.

  12

  jo

  Meg had been gone for twenty minutes by the time I got bored and wanted to leave. Well, to be completely honest, I was ready to go the moment we stepped through the wrought-iron gate separating the Kings from the rest of the world. It really did feel like some alternate universe where rich people stand around shoving tiny spoons of caviar into their mouths and wash it down with expensive booze. This was a world I never wanted to end up in.

  Fortunately, the champagne was helping things.

  “Isn’t this party beautiful?” a tall woman asked me. I had to turn my neck up to see her, and even when I did, I couldn’t see much of her face. She was wearing a big, feathery hat on her head. She was an elaborate, rich peacock. Perhaps just as useless.

 
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