Meg’s hand wandered to the velvet box in the pocket of her dress, fiddling with its lid. Her legs folded beneath her as she palmed her way through the chest of childhood treasures in their dusty attic, a grin quivered on her face. So many memories this one room held.
From the chest she withdrew items so markedly telling of the way each of them had grown up.
Jo’s first forays into writing, scrawled in pages after pages of her spiral bound notebooks, the best cared for of all her belongings. Amy’s watercolour pad lay next to those books, each page overlain with pale colours and daring strokes of the brush.
For Beth, there had been her very first manuscript books, tucked into a folder with loose leaf manuscript paper as well, all filled with lines of neat music, handwritten in dark pencil. Those books, Meg could barely bring herself to look at. Even after all this time, after every day she had spent in that hospital room, and that day all dressed in black when they lowered the casket into a freshly dug hole in the ground and Meg had tried so valiantly not to shed a tear while her sisters were sobbing.
Gently putting the manuscript books aside, Meg pushed away the image of Beth’s pale face and the memory of a starkly clean headstone inscribed with the name Elisabeth and years too close together to bear, brushing her hair out of her face with the back of her hand.
As for Meg herself, well, she lifted a box out of the chest, her name carved carefully into the wood of the box’s underside — Margaret Eleanor March, aged seven to thirteen. The box held mementos she could never quite bear to throw out, like the earliest plans she had written out for herself, printed lettering on lined foolscap paper. How differently her life had turned out, from what she had planned all these years.
For good reason, the deviations terrified her. Meg worried her bottom lip with her teeth as she rifled —no, systematically worked through — the rest of the chest’s contents until her slightly quivering fingers wrapped around the item she had come to the attic in search of.
The thin metal chain threaded around her fingers was drawn out gingerly, a locket weighing it down in the middle.
It wasn’t expensive, not extravagant or anything of the sort. Just somewhat more valuable, materially, than the cheap costume jewelry that had been the playthings of Amy’s childhood.
Pressing the tip of her index finger to the release clasp, Meg opened the locket for the first time in years. Sucking a breath in through her front teeth, she ran the pad of her thumb over the glass covering of the interior.
Nothing had changed, and yet everything had.
My Meg, I wish this will keep you safe while I am away, Marmee had murmured as she fastened the locket around her neck the day she had turned ten, the day you see fit to place this locket around another’s neck, and they accept it wholeheartedly, I hope you will have found your life’s happiness.
Marmee had kissed her gently on the forehead, showing her patiently how the locket unclasped, and the space in it for whatever Meg wished to place in it. With shaking hands Meg had wrapped her arms around her mother. As her pale cheek rubbed against the starched roughness of Marmee’s uniform, Meg had promised herself that the locket would go to no one but the person who made her truly happy.
Inside the locket, just as it had been all those years ago, was the smallest of folded butterflies. Faded emerald green gingerly manipulated by young Meg’s small fingers, the first of countless butterflies she would fold over the course of her childhood and teenage years. And now it would finally find a new home with the one person who managed to elicit butterflies in Meg’s stomach.
Her phone buzzed abruptly, and Meg nearly dropped the locket to the ground. If not for its chain, she might have.
Five minutes out, the message read in shaking letters — well, Meg’s hands were shaking, not the letters themselves — care to tell me what this is about yet?.
Winding her fingers tighter around the chain of the locket hanging from them, Meg dared to set herself on her feet and work her way down the stairs. With each step she worried her knees would just give way, and Joan would walk in on her sprawled head first at the bottom of the stairs.
Funny, Meg’s mind dared venture for the briefest of moments as the balls of her feet met the landing at the bottom of the stairs, how the house is far too quiet now only since the quietest member has gone.
As she wound the chain as neatly she could around in a coil in the heart of her right palm, Meg did not try to hold the grin that snuck its way onto her face as she thought of how her mind had never seemed to fill with that empty sort of quiet, even after Beth was gone. Even when Jo had lost that fire within her for those few months before her first film was accepted by a festival, one she put together in Beth’s name. Even when Amy had taken to blasting Pop 100 at the loudest she could make it when the house stopped being filled with Beth’s music.
For her, home had become two eyes and one beating heart. A hand to hold and a mind so brilliant it couldn’t possibly be contained or leave her to wallow.
For her, Joan had made it bearable. She had never tried to make Meg stop mourning, but her gentle hands and her bright words, every action that overran with kindness and caring, not just for Meg but for all the March sisters, well, Joan had made all the difference. She had been the difference.
And now, it was two years to the day that she had let her walls down. Just a month off from when Beth went; it had been too quick, too much all at once. It hadn’t even been soon enough for Marmee to return from her deployment.
At least they’d buried Beth with Marmee there, Meg on her left and Jo with her, Jo, Amy and Laurie on her right as they bid their last farewells.
For the first time in years Meg had played the piano, just to see her sister off one last time.
Meg stepped towards the piano then, lifting the dust cover and then the lid. The ivory keys had yellowed over the years, and Meg had no doubt that the strings were rusted, the hammers misaligned.
As much as she didn’t want to be cheesy, her fingers itched to play love songs.
Before Meg’s fingers could land on the keys, however, the doorbell rang and in much the same fashion as she had a year ago, Meg stumbled and dashed her way towards the door, stopping just shy of opening it. With quivering hands she pulled the door open, simultaneously wondering why Joan ever bothered knocking anymore, especially since she had a key.
Joan stepped into the house with a sort of hesitance bordering on apprehension, leaning her hip on the doorframe as she spoke, “The last time you called me over to ‘hang’, you confessed. What’s going on this time?”
Taking Joan’s hands in her own quivering fingers, Meg led her over to the piano bench, gesturing for Joan to sit. Setting Joan’s hands palm-up on her legs, Meg allowed her own to slip into the pocket and grasp the locket in it, coiling the chain up in her grip.
Wordlessly, Meg dropped lay the locket in the heart of Joan’s left hand as Joan’s playful questions began to grow worried.
When she finally could bring herself to break the silence, Meg’s voice cracked as she spoke, “Marmee once said, that this locket could only go to the one who held my life’s happiness in their hands. I never fully understood that, until now. Now, I know exactly what she was talking about.”
Reaching into her other pocket and getting down on one knee shakily, Meg opened the velvet box and stammered out the next few words, “I know this is sudden, and not exactly expected, but you’re it for me, Joan. You’re the one. You make me think and act and be better than I ever believed I could be, than I ever dared to be. Marry me, Joan Brooke, and make me the happiest I’ve ever been?”
If anything, it was the first time since they’d met that Meg had seen Joan truly speechless.
Snapping the ring box shut, Meg ran a hand through tousled red hair as she tried to backpedal, “It’s alright if you don’t want to, really. I get that it’s too soon, and we ‘re not ready and if we were waiting we must have been waiting for something right, and—”
Joan cut her off with a soft palm — the one not holding on to the locket like a lifeline, of course — over her lips, and a quiet ‘yes’.
“We can build a thousand dreams, Meg March, but only if we dare. Of course I’ll marry you.”