“You’re positive he was being serious, Jo? It could be he was aware how silly the pickup line is, and just wanted to test your sense of humor.”
Jo pauses lifting her coffee cup to her lips and stares in disbelief at Meg, who as always is blissfully unaware of how crippling her passive nature is. “Well,” she says, taking a sip and setting the drink back on the counter, “I hope I’m positive that you’re joking right now.”
Her sister shuffles over to the fridge and slides the egg carton back in its respective place. Decked out in a pilled bathrobe and decade-old slippers, Meg certainly couldn’t be any farther from her more glamorous days acting in different theaters around Boston. But the little upward quirk at the corner of her mouth as her gaze lands on Demi and Daisy’s crayon drawings taped over the fridge door tells that she doesn’t mind. It gives Jo this dull ache in her chest, like a mallet prodding her ribs apart.
“I’m just saying,” Meg counters, raising her arms in exasperation, “you could’ve... I don’t know... given him the benefit of the doubt. There’s no need to get so worked up about it.”
“Too late for that,” hums Jo around the lip of her cup. “I may have, um, already tweeted about it.”
Now it’s Meg’s turn to freeze. She halts across the kitchen island from Jo, crossing her arms and tilting her head at an angle like a confused dog. “Of course you did.” In the living room behind them, sheltered well within Meg’s watchful eye, one of the twins— Daisy, Jo thinks— gives a delighted giggle as if she’s listening in on their conversation.
Jo shrugs. Well, at least the two-year-old thinks she’s a hoot. “What? It was too good an opportunity to be funny. How could I resist?” After tapping on her phone a few times, she presents her older sister with the latest entry in Jo’s Volume of Wit, also known in simpler terms as her Twitter account. Somehow she’s managed to amass close to one thousand followers, and she assumes it’s because she must have at least one humorous bone in her body.
“Wow. Clever,” Meg snorts, barely skimming over the screen before she turns to load their breakfast plates into the dishwasher.
“You too could be charmed by me on the daily if you signed up and gave me a follow,” Jo says. She sets her phone down while keeping an eye on the time; she’ll have to pick up Beth in a half-hour.
With her back to her, Meg shakes her head. “Oh, Jo. You know I’m strictly on Facebook and that’s it. I don’t do any of the other things— there’s too many. On Facebook I can post pictures of the kids and keep in touch with John’s family. That’s all I need.”
“Ugh. Facebook sucks. Have you ever heard of that Mark Zuckerjerk guy? I think he literally shits pure money.”
Meg brushes her off though. “I could stare out the window over my sink for ten minutes and see more entertaining stuff than I ever would on Twitter.”
Jo bites back another scathing remark, since she feels she’s already spit enough venom this morning. Instead she concedes, “Fair enough. Your neighborhood is pretty wild. You ever find out what happened with that guy who was pushing a piano through three feet of snow?”
“Nope. Still could be pushing it to this day for all I know.” Meg finishes off the earl grey Jo brought her from Starbucks and returns to the fridge, grabbing Beth’s mango iced tea. “Here, this should still be chilled enough for her.”
Jo drains the rest of her drink and hops off the stool. “Thank you.”
“Text me later and let me know how she’s doing, okay?” Meg says, and at Jo’s nod, she adds, “Okay, I have to run to the store and get things for dinner, now shoo!”
Just to spite her, Jo continues standing there as if she can’t hear her, until Meg literally starts pushing her toward the door. “Okay, okay!” she laughs. “I’m going, I’m going. Talk to you later.”
“Bye!” Meg calls, a smile in her voice as the front door closes between them.
Jo gets to the outpatient office a bit earlier than she wanted, so instead of idling out front she chooses a parking space that faces the building so Beth will easily spot her when she comes out.
She turns the car off, admiring the peaceful plainness of the day for a moment. She’s always thought of Concord as a sleepy town, but now it’s more pronounced than ever since she’s moved back here from New York. The snow that’s currently blanketing the town seems to muffle things even more than usual, concealing storefronts and providing a gray backdrop for everything.
Out of boredom, she scrolls through her notifications on Twitter. It doesn’t take long for a familiar profile picture to pop up in the comments of this morning’s offering to her followers:
After a few years of steadily growing her online presence, this Teddy guy has become a loyal follower and reliable commenter. The day he doesn’t interact with one of her posts, Jo will probably assume the worst. At first she’d found him somewhat creepy and assumed he followed her because he likes what he sees in the occasional selfies she posts, but after a couple years she now regards him as a good friend (not to mention the content on his account is nothing short of hilarious). About two years ago, before she finally publicly came out on her account, he slid into her DMs and, in a way only he could, this near-stranger sidestepped the awkwardness of rebuttal and instead sought her as a friend. Their direct message conversations are an archive of solid gold humor. To be fair, she still has no clue what he looks like or is like in person, but Teddy really has some charm to him.
After reading his comments, which are purposely idiotic as usual, she goes to message him: i’m gonna need proof you didn’t just google “coffee puns,” stat.
It doesn’t take long for him to ping back: of course. would you like it sent by email or fax?
Too busy smirking down at her phone, Jo doesn’t even realize Beth has come out of the building until she’s standing at the car, knocking gently on the window with withered knuckles.
Jo unlocks the door and as soon as her younger sister is situated in the passenger seat, she goes through the usual motions. Meg drilled into her all the things to bring: a little tube of honey lavender hand lotion; a grande mango dragonfruit refresher from Starbucks, easy on the sugar; and a long playlist of Mitski songs ready to go on Spotify.
“Hey,” Jo says, handing her the lotion accordingly. She then starts the car and backs out of the space, because staying here longer than needed is not on their to-do list. This is only her second time being the picker-upper and it’s not as easy as she thought it would be. It is very simple to drive to the place, pick Beth up, and take her home. But the deeper meaning of this crouches behind the forced cheerful facade and plays them both like fiddles, like fools. It’s emotionally taxing, and these days Jo is constantly paying up in her sister’s presence.
“Hi,” Beth says. The greeting is a blank shred of paper, thin and feather-light. She squirts a healthy dollop of lotion on the back of her left hand, starting the process of massaging the cream into her cracked knuckles. Today her skin is so translucent Jo can practically see the brittle bones beneath ready to snap at the slightest touch. To quell the frustrated heat that burns behind her eyes, Jo focuses instead on the tote bag shoved between Beth’s knees, overflowing with knitting supplies. It’s her favorite activity to do during her treatments, something to keep her hands from getting stiff during all the hours she sits there.
Last time, Jo made the mistake of asking How was it? and the second the question left her lips, she regretted it. Most people would lie, because there are so many ways to lie in response to that question. But Beth, made of spun sugar and light enough to be blown away— she’s the only March sister who received the gene that values unfiltered honesty.
Last time, Jo asked her How was it and in response dear sweet Beth took off her beanie and revealed a patchy, nearly bald scalp with fragments of hair barely clinging on. In happier times, better times, Jo might’ve seen it as a poor bald cap application for some Halloween costume, and could’ve compared the look to Ben Franklin’s hairstyle. Instead, she took Beth home and helped her 23-year-old sister shave her head. That day Jo insisted on saving one strawberry blonde lock, sealing it in a small plastic bag and taping it to Beth’s dresser mirror. So you can remember what you had and what you will have again soon.
So today, Jo absolutely does not ask that same question. Instead she gestures at the bag of knitting tools and yarn. “So what have you knitted today? Are you still working on that scarf for Marmee?”
“No, I finished that,” Beth tells her. She turns her head to the window, watching the damp February morning slide past them in muted watercolors. “I was starting a hat for Demi, with the blue yarn he picked out, but... I stopped.”
“The...” Beth trails off, her jaw rippling under the pale skin. Jo knows all too well what that movement means, and on top of that Beth still hasn’t touched her drink yet, which is concerning enough itself. “It was too much,” she sighs after some heart-thudding seconds. “The needle felt so... so heavy. So I stopped, and napped instead.”
The car stops at a red light, and Jo takes a moment to look at her sister. Beth refuses eye contact, instead turning the bottle of hand cream over and over in her hands. Where there should be beautiful curls tumbling out from beneath her beanie, there is nothing. The silence— or rather, silence with Mitski’s hushed “Nobody” playing in the background— is like sandpaper rubbing on Jo’s heart. She has to say something. Change the subject, come on.
“Oh! You know— you know what I was watching last night?”
“Guess,” Jo insists. As they move forward under the green light, she snags Beth’s gaze for a moment. “C’mon, guess.”
Beth rolls her eyes to the ceiling of the car as she thinks. “I don’t know... another murder documentary?”
“No. Close, though. Actually... not really. I was watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Jo smiles as memories flicker through her mind like an old film reel. The four of them would always sit there, throw popcorn at each other, and argue over which character in the movie represented each sister the best. Jo had been the first to read the book, and always saw herself as Bridget, the most adventurous and outgoing of the friends.
“Ah,” Beth says. “Have you finally accepted that you’re a total Tibby?”
Sigh. Tibby, the sarcastic one. Of course the others would jump to pin that personality on Jo. “One day Amy will grow up and realize I’m the Bridget here, not her.”
Just saying Amy’s name is enough to spark the angry nerves in Jo’s fingertips. She grips the steering wheel more tightly. Being around Amy is also emotionally exhausting, but in an entirely different way. Then Beth says something to further ripen the festering fury in the pit of her stomach.
“Have you... been talking to Amy much lately?”
Jo wants to ask what in the world kind of question is that, because no, of course she hasn’t spoken to Amy recently. Her dear youngest sister’s head is too far up her own ass to care about anyone but herself. She’s currently galavanting around Europe, originally drawn there to attend an art school— a prospect which has since spoiled. Apparently she now makes buckets of money as a so-called “influencer” on Instagram, sharing her sketches and paintings as well as photos of herself, because naturally people online find her beauty to be an art form in and of itself. Rather aptly, her profile bio reads: “I want to be great, or nothing.”
Jo thinks this is all baloney and that Amy’s “modeling” paychecks actually come straight from their great aunt’s bank account. When she voiced that one day in a fit of rage, dropping a comment on Amy’s latest picture, she received a brisk reply: funny how you say that when nobody knows where your money’s coming from now. how about that book you didn’t finish? Then she was promptly blocked. That was a few months ago.
“That’s funny,” Jo replies, slowing down for a turn— which she still takes a bit too fast due to her abrupt white-hot annoyance.
Beth unconsciously grips her seatbelt, and Jo bites back a sigh. Of course she would be the one who would end up killing poor Beth in a car accident rather than the—
“I was just wondering because... well, there’s some news,” Beth finally says after a pause long enough to make Jo itch. “She’s coming home.”
Jo chuckles. “Is that so? She’s ready to return to ‘small-town Boston’?” She turns onto Beth’s street and pulls up in front of the house which is now both her and Beth’s house. Since she put everything on pause, and left New York, and moved into her sister’s cramped 500-square-foot home.
Beth says nothing, instead pulling up something on her phone then holding it out so Jo can see it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Jo explodes. The words surge up out of her in a rush of fiery lava that sears her throat. She squints again at the caption before shifting her wide eyes up to Beth, who looks quite indifferent— or, more accurately, unsurprised at the reaction. Jo shakes her head in disbelief. “Who the hell is Laurie?”
“Her boyfriend,” Beth says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “They’ve been together like five months, I think. He’s pretty secretive, though. She never posts his face.” Just then, Jo’s phone dings and she glances at it. Another message from Teddy: so your just leaving me unanswered? stone cold.
She’s almost too caught up in her fit to answer, but Jo manages to type out a swift response with fingers stiff like claws: *you’re . Next she’s slamming her phone back into the cup holder and sliding her seatbelt back into its buckle. She takes off down the street.
“Whoa, wait, where are we going?” Beth asks. Any other person might make it a forceful query, demanding Jo to stop and think for a second. But Beth just stares at their house, which is rapidly getting smaller in the side mirror, and rides along with only the slightest trace of alarm in her face. Jo wants to think that’s just how she is, but the meek cough Beth gives makes her think otherwise.
“To our parents’. I’d love to hear their take on this,” Jo says, and Beth rattles out a breath in response.
“Jo— I don’t know if that’s such a good idea—”
“It’s okay. I’ll take you right home afterward, I promise. But I need you there with me, to”— she thrashes one hand in the air, grasping for the right words— “to back me up with telling them how ridiculous this is.”
Again Jo interrupts her, pinching her face so she looks like she just swallowed a mouthful of lemon juice. “Engaged to some European guy she met five months ago. Typical.”
Because, yes, Amy March happens to have a heavy little book weighing down her pocket, a dictionary stuffed with past exes who all fall under their own special definitions of “douchebag” or “bitch.” One of these days, her history will no longer be able to be kept up with.
In the cupholder, a new notification from Twitter announces itself on Jo’s phone, interrupting the music. Beth’s face is neutral, but something in her eyes is prickly when she picks up the device and asks, “Who’s Teddy?”
“My online friend from Twitter,” Jo answers curtly, blindly reaching over to snatch the phone and drop it back in the cupholder. “I’ve told you.”
And just wait until she tells him about this bullshit.
Their childhood home is down a country road that carves through a vast field of wildflowers which are currently frosted over by winter. Jo knows Orchard Lane as well as the back of her hand; she’s walked and driven it a million times, tracing it like the veins in her inner wrist. The car’s tires skim the edge of a pothole and grumble over a rough patch marked with gravel. It takes a good five minutes of travel to reach her parents’ house, and the car hasn’t been parked five seconds before she hops out and races up to the door, kicking up dust along the way.
Beth follows at a slower pace, tugging her beanie more tightly over her head. She keeps her shoulders hunched in resignation, her eyes hollowed out save for dread as she hugs herself and trails her older sister to the front stoop.
Robert and Margaret March are known far and wide in Concord for their limitless generosity and hospitality, which means the door is always unlocked (and in the summer, propped open) for anyone who needs help or company to wander in. Many a time growing up, Jo arrived home to find neighbors and strangers alike set up with a cot in the family room and a plate at the dinner table. With all four daughters moved out, the March household has become somewhat of a hostel for locals; though Jo wouldn’t be surprised if someday soon they’re added to TripAdvisor as an “unofficial” recommended place for travellers to stay.
So, of course, the front door is unlocked today, free for Jo to barge through in a hurricane of blonde frizz and stained old leggings. “Well,” she announces, pausing to check the living room before storming to the back of the house, “wouldn’t you believe what she’s done now!”
Marmee glances up, surprise written between the lines on her face. She turns down the volume on the TV and steps into the kitchen, brows knitted. “What’s the matter?”
Jo the tsunami crashes into the room, Beth shuffling quietly behind in her wake. Beth shoots her mother a defeated look and mouths the same name that leaves Jo’s mouth a second later: “Amy.”
Marmee deflates a bit, but holds her stance when she meets Jo’s gaze across the kitchen table— and with a start, Jo translates her body language.
“You knew,” Jo whispers. Then her voice climbs, echoes slamming through the room. “You already knew. Did everyone know before me? Dad? Meg?”
“Jo, please, we have guests—”
“Of course we do, don’t we always?” Jo yanks out a chair and folds herself into it, putting her feet up and tucking her chin between her knees. She shakes her head slowly. “Amy— she’s— she’s still a child!”
Beth leaves her things on the counter and slips upstairs.
Marmee rubs her temples. “Meg was 23 when she got married. Amy is only a year younger than that.”
“Yes, but Meg’s Meg and Amy’s...”
“She’s not little anymore,” Marmee explains, patient as ever as she reaches across the table to grab Jo’s clenched fists. “She’s capable of making her own decisions.”
Jo’s jaw drops. “So you’re just gonna... let this happen?” Right then, her phone chimes and she takes five seconds to snarl back a reply:
When she finds Marmee’s eyes again, her mother adds, “I know you worry about your sister, as much as you don’t want to admit it. But she’s with a very kind young man and I trust them to take care of each other.” The words have a blanketing effect on Jo, wrapping around her with a weight she doesn’t like, so she shrugs them off.
“I’m not worried about her. I just don’t want her to make another dumb decision,” Jo mutters, leaning back in the chair. “And anyway, how do you even know him? They’re across the ocean.”
Marmee opens her mouth, then closes it. Then she says, “Your father and I have met him over video chat. He’s... met everyone, actually—”
“Except me.” Jo crosses her arms. Because she chose to distance herself from Amy and her self-absorbed, glamorous lifestyle, it’s now all Jo’s fault that she doesn’t know anything about her little sister’s personal life. Oh, well, she figures. That’s exactly what she wanted to happen, right?
A few more messages pop up on her phone: seriously jo. i need to tell you something.
She silences her phone and flips it over so it’s screen down on the table. “So what is it really? Is she pregnant? Does he sweat money? Or—”
Feverishly, Marmee leans over the table and again grabs Jo’s hand, giving it an urgent squeeze. “Jo,” she says tightly, and in the next instant the room ices over.
Jo looks to her left, and already she can imagine the tension-laced frost crawling up the walls of the kitchen. Standing at the end of the foyer is one Amy March, sunlight caught in golden hair that falls loose around her shoulders. With slitted eyes and thumbs hooked in the pockets of her jeans, she yawns and goes over to get something from the fridge. Over her shoulder, she tosses a challenge: “You done, Josephine?”
From their childhood, Amy has always kept Jo’s biggest pet peeves on file, a neatly sorted deck of cards that those nimble fingers of hers can flip through at a moment’s notice. And she never plays her cards wrong. Judging by the dimple in her cheek, imprinted by a vicious smirk, she knows this very well. Cracking open a can of sparkling water, she takes a seat at the end of the table between Jo and their mother.
Beth wanders back into the room a moment later, staring evenly at them despite a wobbling lower lip. She takes her iced tea and slinks into the living room, but Jo knows she’ll still be listening in. Marmee looks between them and says, “Please, you two, talk it out. I won’t get in the middle of this unless you need me to.” With that, she gets up and disappears upstairs.
“Sorry,” Jo says as Amy sips her water, “I didn’t get you any Starbucks this morning.” She keeps her gaze on her hands, picking furiously at her cuticles. “Meg likes earl grey with two sugars, Beth likes mango dragonfruit with extra mango flavor. I like Pike Place roast with a little cream, and you— you know what? I’ve forgotten what the hell you like from Starbucks, Amy, because you’re never around.”
Amy doesn’t answer right away, feeding the silence by taking the longest possible sip of her stupid lime seltzer. After an eternity— which is fine, because this gives Jo more time to bolster her argument— Amy sets down the can and laces her fingers together. The corner of Jo’s vision snags the glittering on Amy’s left ring finger, but she pays it no mind.
The youngest March considers a moment, then says, “You know, jealousy really can weigh you down.”
Jo stares at her. “Don’t think for a second that I’m jealous of you. What kind of absurd idea is that?”
“I wasn’t talking about you,” Amy says through gritted teeth.
Amy blows out a breath that’s more like a balloon popping. “I don’t know what to say, Jo. I- I mean... it’s so hard to make something of yourself, to put yourself out there and— and show off your talent and get people to like that talent.” She purses her lips and meets Jo’s gaze, blinking rapidly for a reason Jo can guess but knows Amy would deny. “So,” her sister continues, “when school didn’t work out I found a different outlet for myself, and that still wasn’t good enough for you.”
Jo rakes a hand through her tousled hair, trying to determine her sister’s tone in the space of silence she has to interject. Could this be a ploy to garner sympathy? Her mind flashes to a time years ago, when Amy was too young to see a more mature movie with her and Meg, and upon arriving home hours later, Jo found her sputtering laptop on its last legs, drowning in orange juice that had “accidentally” spilled onto it. Minutes later, it died and took all of Jo’s writing with it. Amy, poor twelve-year-old Amy, almost immediately caved and sobbed that she was so deeply sorry, that she just wanted to be with her big sisters. For a week Jo didn’t speak to her; then one day they just slipped back into normal conversations and routines again. Jo never explicitly forgave her, even long after she’d written enough to fill ten times the pages of stories she’d lost.
She studies her sister now, who is equally willing to remain in this staring contest. Finally Jo asks, “Why do you care what I think? Doesn’t seem like you ever have.”
“Are you kidding?” Amy snorts. “I’ve read every single one of your short stories that’s been published. I’ve read what people say about them, and they love your work. And now you’re working on an actual novel—”
“— a novel that’s on indefinite hiatus,” Jo says softly. “I left New York and came back home because the family needed me. Meanwhile you’re off doing photoshoots in cafés in Paris, projecting a perfect life to all your gawking fans. All that, while everyone else is right back here in Concord. And you only come back now, to gush about your Mystery Groom and flash a ring that reeks of shameless vanity?”
“No, Amy, I want you to stop and think for a moment—”
“Think?” Amy cries. She swipes at her eyes. “All I’ve done is think! For my entire life all I’ve done is think things over. I thought about how I could make something of myself. I thought about how to keep everyone around me happy, because I’d hate for anyone to feel the way I have. And I thought that maybe staying away for a while would be the best, so things could relax and I could figure myself out. I made my mistakes and I wanted to find the best way to undo them and make it better. And Marmee didn’t tell me how sick Beth was for months, a- and...”
Jo feels like an unsuspecting tea bag that’s suddenly been plunged into hot water— even though that’s a tea bag’s entire purpose. “You have talent, Amy. In more ways than one, and don’t take that as a pure compliment. But I find it hard to believe that you know who is best for you after only five months.”
“And why not?” Amy sniffs.
“Because of your past choices,” Jo tells her, trying to hang on to their now faltering eye contact. “And if I see you get hurt one more time, well— this wound would be deeper than any of the others, and—”
“Damn it, Jo! Can’t you trust me to trust myself?”
Jo is struck, the words hitting her in the face, stomach, and kneecaps all at once.
Her sister’s pretty eyes are rimmed with red that matches the angry shade flushing in her cheeks. “It’s something I’m still learning to do,” Amy says, “and god, Jo, the way he supports me wholeheartedly... I’d say it’s unreal, but it’s so real and it’s so incredible. No, we haven’t been together for ages and ages, but when you know, you know, and... I love him.”
Jo swallows around the choking lump in her throat. “I just... I just want whoever ends up with you to understand what they’re getting into, because... because my baby sister is unlike anyone else, a- and they need to know to appreciate that.”
“That’s fine,” Amy nods, “but it’s not your place to say who deserves me nor who I deserve. Who are you to say who I can love?”
Jo stands up, her chair screeching back over the floor. “I’m done with this conversation.”
“What?” Amy snaps, also standing and watching Jo snatch her keys from the counter. “No, you’re not. Come on!” She tries to grab at Jo’s arm, but she elbows her away. “I’m tired of this back and forth, Jo, I can’t take it anymore. Is there no compromise?”
“I told Beth I would take her home,” Jo says quietly. She calls for their sister, but Beth stays parked on the sofa in the other room. “Beth,” Jo repeats, stepping in front of the TV. “Let’s go.”
Beth shakes her head, and it almost looks like she’s numb doing it because it’s such an unfamiliar motion for her. “I’m not going until you two can agree with each other,” she whines, “please. You both want the exact same thing.”
Amy leans on the doorway, exchanging a glance with Jo which quickly transfers over to Beth. “What’s that?” they both ask at the same time.
But Beth says nothing. Again Jo’s eyes flutter over to her youngest sister, who’s scowling at the carpet as if she’s trying to solve the world’s most difficult math problem in her head.
“It... it feels like,” Amy says, twisting a strand of hair around her index finger, “you guys didn’t need me around. Not that you didn’t want me, but that you didn’t need me. So... so I found someone who did.”
Jo stares at her phone, scrolling idly through the flood of messages Teddy’s bombarded her with, but not really reading them. What could possibly be so urgent right this minute? She stuffs the device in her hoodie pocket and laughs. “Yeah, him and fifty thousand others.”
Amy frowns. “I like modeling. It’s fun.” She tips her head to the side and, cautiously like a puppy that’s just been scolded, she approaches her older sister. “You know, if we can finally get on the same page... maybe I’ll unblock you.”
Jo tenses when Amy touches her shoulder, but she doesn’t jerk away. Amy takes this as a cue to pull her into a full-on hug. It’s an embrace that deluges Jo’s senses completely, plunging her into a world that’s dominated by Amy’s fruity perfume, which is strong enough to initiate heartburn.
She drinks in all she can manage from the hug, then pulls back. “Okay,” she tells Amy. “And you know that’s not true, by the way— that we didn’t need nor want you. Every family has to have the baby, and that’s you.” She boops Amy’s nose.
“So... are we good?” Amy asks, because apparently she didn’t absorb quite enough affection in the hug. Jo looks at her hopeful face and sees the face of a twelve-year-old who just wanted to be with her sisters— then she blinks and there’s a young woman standing before her, uncertain eyes like stones in a sunlit stream. Jo knows their disagreements are attached to them like an anchor, and that if they’re dragged down any more they might drown without forgiveness. They have to stick together— not so much for themselves, but for Beth.
“Yeah,” Jo sighs, feigning reluctance. “I think you should stick around a while.” Before the sentence is completely out, she’s wrapped in Amy’s arms again. Beth hops up to join them, probably using all her stores of energy to hold them as tight as possible. Relishing the closeness, Jo suspends herself in this perfect glass-bottle moment, because part of her still worries that if she lets go, both of them will blow too far away to better places.
When they break apart, Amy leans over to whisper in Beth’s ear. Whatever she says Beth agrees to, then without another word Amy disappears upstairs.
“What’s going on?” Jo asks.
“You’ll see,” says Beth.
They sit quietly on the couch, Jo staring blankly at the muted television. Beth breaks into a coughing fit that could shake the shingles off the roof, and when Jo asks if she needs soup, or a glass of water, or hot tea, or, god, anything, she says she’s fine. She says it in a rasp that sounds like it’s just barely slipping past the reaper’s clutches, like bare tree branches are scraping the insides of her lungs. The other day she told Jo she’s in the winter of her life— Jo would’ve asked what she meant, but she’s a writer who’s penned countless metaphors by now. She knew what it was.
She thinks of when they were all still little girls playing dress-up in the attic. Meg hiding a smile behind neatly folded fingers, who would later stitch together her senior prom dress from scraps of fabric found in their mother’s chest. Jo refusing to wear anything but a dusty old tuxedo jacket and bowtie over her sweatpants, who would later learn to save the words she finds in others. Beth with a million bows and ribbons woven into her hair, who would later meet an early winter. Amy prancing around with an elegant daintiness deep in her bones, who would later favor purposeful, blissful ignorance to make everything okay.
Amy’s voice cuts into her thoughts and she looks up again. Her sister is tugging the arm of a definitely familiar young man who Jo has definitely never met before. Amy pulls him into the room and brings him up to Jo, presenting him like one of her paintings— and, Jo, has to admit, he would be a captivating figure to carve out in acrylics or charcoals. She has no doubt Amy has already done that multiple times, what with the way she gazes at him like he’s the finest piece kept behind velvet ropes at the Metropolitan.
“Hello again, Beth,” he says, greeting the only seated sister first. Regal like a prince— though Jo senses it’s a bit of an act— he takes her hand and deposits a polite kiss on the chapped knuckles.
Jo just stares. “Who’s this?” she asks.
Amy leans on him like he’s a wall. Probably climbs him like a tree, too. “I just said, Jo, didn’t you hear me?” She laughs, unbothered by Jo’s sharpness, and repeats (apparently), “This is Laurie,” she says, “my fiancé. He’s from Plymouth, believe it or not, but we met in a painting class in London—”
“— where her talent outshined mine, and everyone else’s, in fact,” he finishes for her. She beams and links their arms tighter while Laurie extends his free hand to shake Jo’s.
Jo stares at his abundant dark curls and chiseled jaw and knows she’s never seen Laurie before in her life, but god, she can’t shake the familiarity of him. “Laurie,” she says stupidly, shaking his hand.
He chuckles nervously, retreating his hand after a moment to tug at the collar of his button down. “Well, Jo, has anyone ever told you have a way of staring into their soul?”
She tears her gaze away, feeling like there’s a fly buzzing near her ear. More frustrated than embarrassed, she mutters, “No, that’s... a new one.”
“Perhaps I should clarify,” Laurie says. “Jo, has anyone ever commiserated with you over how much a random Starbucks patron’s coffee puns suck?”
Her jaw is on the floor in an instant. “W- wait... Teddy?” she sputters. “You’re not actually a cat wearing sunglasses?”
“Nope,” he says, chuckling again. “I’m just... a private person, I guess. I don’t even let Ames post my face online. I told her she can post me if she edits the sunglasses cat’s face over mine, but she won’t do it.”
Amy rolls her eyes. “It would ruin my aesthetic.”
“And how the hell do you get Teddy and Laurie?” Jo asks.
“My full name’s Theodore Laurence, but if you ever call me Theodore I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.”
“So I call him my lord instead,” Amy purrs, fingers picking at the buttons on his shirt.
Laurie smirks and buries a kiss in her hair. “What a wild coincidence, huh, Jo? Who would’ve ever thought we’d finally meet face to face? Now I can annoy you in person, future sister-in-law!”
Jo scowls at him, and as an afterthought he adds, “... if you would be okay with that.”
Beth and Jo end up spending the rest of their day at the March home base. Amy goes to volunteer with Marmee at the soup kitchen, so Jo takes charge of the kitchen to prepare dinner with a not-so-new but also very new companion in tow.
Jo tasks Laurie with chopping vegetables, tossing a cutting board and two onions at him. “I value my life a lot now because of Amy and you,” Laurie says, setting the things on the counter, “so can I please request that you don’t follow this pattern of throwing things when you give me the knife?”
“Get the knife yourself,” Jo huffs, nodding at the wooden knife block in the corner. She hides her smile behind a concentrated frown as she flicks on the heat under a cast iron skillet. It’s thinly veiled, but her face gets darker when she hears another series of coughs from Beth in the other room. Just a year ago, Beth would’ve been here with them in the kitchen, bumping hips and rubbing elbows in the tight space. Beth was always the best cook out of all of them.
Laurie notices this and moves his chopping station closer to Jo’s place at the stove. “Beth,” he says softly, straining to grab Jo’s gaze. “She’s...”
“It’s not looking good,” Jo murmurs. To dismiss the subject and her tears along with it, she orders him to get butter from the fridge. He obeys, and when he hands it to her she asks in a cheerier tone, “So, you never told me you were in a serious relationship. Let alone one with my sister.”
He shrugs, flicking onion skin off his thumbnail. “Never came up. Come on, you know we never talked much about what was going on in our lives besides, well, besides traumatic pun experiences in Starbucks and such. And all I ever post are outdated memes and self-deprecating jokes.”
Jo hums and drops a square of butter in the hot pan. It sizzles immediately around the edges.
“And you were always the mystery sister when it came to Amy. You were the only one who’s face I had yet to see. Then two days ago we flew home, and she showed me her childhood bedroom, and well— finally I knew where she’d left all her pictures of you. She has so many of you, Jo, you’re everywhere up there.”
“Yeah, well,” Jo mumbles, leaning over to check his progress at the cutting board. “We had issues for a while.”
“Onions,” Jo says. He holds the cutting board over the pan and dumps them in.
“I should’ve known, because she mentioned your first name, obviously, and I knew your family’s last name, March— I should’ve connected the dots,” Laurie admits. Somehow he reads her mind and starts dividing up the carrots next while she takes the thawed chicken from the fridge.
Jo shakes her head. “It’s alright, Teddy. It’s fine.”
“I can start making up for lost time now,” he says. “Would you... maybe... allow me to impart some wisdom on you?”
“Wisdom? I don’t know, Teddy, do you have any to spare?”
He narrows his twinkling eyes, but his face stays serious. “Wow, Jo, I have to say you’re funnier through a screen. In any case, I just want to address the elephant that’s still lingering in the room— I know you and Ames have your differences. But— you know that she’s read your published short stories?”
Jo nods, scoring the raw chicken rhythmically. “She told me.”
“But listen, she— I doubt she told you this. She’s sketched all these wonderful little illustrations to go with them.”
At this, Jo pauses her work, puts the knife down and looks at him. Yes, the elephant is certainly still in the room somewhat, having trouble squeezing out the door fully— but now?
“At first she only seemed to be doing them as a hobby, something to exercise her skills. But they’ve gotten so detailed, so pretty a- and friendly looking, and— well, I’ve put some thought into it,” says Laurie, “and well, people might need a little something to break up the words, to paint a scene for them, a visual companion—”
“— so, a children’s book?”
“Maybe! Or— or a compilation book with illustrations. Or for something new, a novel—”
Jo sucks in her cheeks in thought. “Will people really care for a novel full of pictures?”
Laurie leans toward her challengingly. “Who says they wouldn’t? You won’t know until you try, but you two can... you guys can work together. What do you think?”
Jo tilts her head. “I’ll... I’ll talk to Amy about it.” Inside, her blood is roaring. Outside, she says, “So you really love her.”
It’s the kind of question some would need to ponder, but he doesn’t hesitate for a second. “God, Jo, it’s an incredible feeling. When you meet somebody and you feel something entirely new, that’s when you know. I met Amy and I was... I was new. I know five months isn’t a long time to know someone, but we’re constantly learning about each other and it’s so much fun and— and yes, we’ve had all the important adult conversations.” He pauses, sucks in a breath, and makes his voice low. “And... she and I are prepared to— to push the wedding up if we need to— for Beth—”
Jo nods quickly, silencing him. Then she turns away from the food and plunges into her great friend’s arms, burying her tears in his shoulder so Beth won’t hear from the living room. For a minute Jo and Laurie stand with only the stir-fry hissing on the stove and Beth’s show laughing on the TV.
They break apart and all Jo can manage to say is one thing that’s been on her mind for a few hours now— “Teddy. Her engagement ring must weigh five pounds, you rich bastard!”
He laughs, and it’s the way she always imagined he would sound back when they spoke through a million-mile-thick screen.
Jo stays up half the night texting Meg about everything. Her older sister, busy doting on her own family now, isn’t too far away yet is safely separated enough from the chaotic inner workings of the Marches. She seems like her own entity sometimes, being Meg Brooke and all, but Jo doesn’t spare her a single detail so she can feel as if she were there.
When Meg eventually talks herself into going to bed, Jo switches through different apps. If the dark of Beth’s living room is a shawl around her, then the sound of Beth’s gentle breathing from the other room is the warmest scarf cuddling Jo’s neck.
Twitter comes first, of course—
She’s still debating whether “Lord” is fitting for him or not. Amy does tend to exaggerate a bit. Speaking of which, Jo swipes over to Instagram. She’s been unblocked. And even better—