The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “My sister,” Austin said to both boys.

  “We met before. I don’t know if you remember,” I said. It shouldn’t have rattled me that Kael and this guy knew each other, but it did. Military bases always seemed so small, but they were really little cities with hundreds of thousands of people. When someone said, “Oh, your dad’s in the army. I bet he knows my cousin Jeff, he’s in the army, too!” it didn’t really work that way. So, Mendoza knowing Kael and Austin, and sort of knowing me, was a coincidence to say the least.

  “I do. We met a couple times.” Mendoza cocked his head to the side. “Didn’t we go to the castle one night? What was that, like two summers ago?” I thought back to the end of summer, riding in my dad’s van, which had been too full of Austin’s friends. Definitely squished.

  “We did,” I told him. “I forgot all about that.” Brien was there too. We had just met, in fact. I didn’t mention that.

  “Your brother and that damn castle.” He laughed, and Austin flipped him off.

  Kael was looking at us both like we were crazy. “Have you heard about it? Dracula’s castle?” I asked. It sounded ridiculous out loud.

  He shook his head and I continued to explain. “It’s not really a castle, but it’s this big stone tower that everyone says was haunted.”

  “IS haunted!” Austin argued.

  “Is haunted,” I said, rolling my eyes. I had gone to Dracula’s castle at least five times with Austin since we’d moved here. I didn’t know if the story about the kid getting electrocuted at the top was really true, but the old tower had earned a reputation for being haunted by ghosts. “Actual ghosts!” is what everyone said. There were all kinds of stories.

  “Anyway, so it’s a tower and people drive up there at night to drink and try not to get caught,” I explained to Kael.

  “She’s acting like she’s cool now, but she’s always the first one to run back to the car.” Austin held up his drink to Kael and Mendoza, laughing.

  “Oh, fuck off.” I shot him a look—more laughter followed.

  Mendoza started to taunt Austin. “Oooh, looks like sis has grown up since I saw her last,” he said, picking up the bottle of dark liquor from the table.

  “Shots, anyone?” he asked the room.

  EVERYONE TOOK A SHOT of warm liquor. Everyone except Kael, that was. There were shouts of “To Austin!” and “Welcome Back Bro!” Austin gave a mock bow to acknowledge his friends as they celebrated his return. I wasn’t sure if any of them knew that he had been arrested. Looking around at these guys … well, I wasn’t sure if any of them would even concern themselves with something as trivial as a night in jail. But maybe I was being hard on them.

  We all migrated back to the kitchen to cheers Austin’s return to Ft. Benning. I put my shot glass in the sink and gathered up a few more. A guy in a bright blue T-shirt that said Bottoms Up! grabbed his glass back from me and went for a refill. Definitely a soldier. He was with a younger-looking guy wearing a brown MURPH tee. Also a soldier. I kept forgetting just how distant I had become from life on post. Sure, I still saw soldiers at work and at the grocery store. I still smiled at them while going through the gate to The Great Place, but I didn’t have any friends who were soldiers. Not one.

  Not unless you counted Stewart. She was the closest thing I had to an army friend. But even though I liked and respected her, even though I felt close to her, I couldn’t really claim her as a friend. As Mali liked to remind us, clients were not our friends.

  I turned on the hot water and rinsed out a few shot glasses just for something to do. I was glad Austin didn’t see me. He would have made some crack about my being responsible. It wouldn’t have been a compliment. God, it was so weird having him back, being at my dad’s, being surrounded by all these people. No doubt about it: This was Austin’s world and I was just visiting.

  I wasn’t the same person as I was before he left, though. It felt good to remind myself of that. And Austin, as much as he gathered people around him, he latched onto them, too. Which was risky in his case, because he was often the one to run, like our mother. And he often left broken hearts behind, also like her.

  I walked over to Kael, Austin, and Mendoza.

  “Another?” Mendoza asked.

  “No way.” I shook my head and held up my hand, the universal symbol for no, thanks.

  My stomach still burned as the tequila settled inside of me. The flavor was strong—pretty good, but so strong compared to the cheap vodka diluted with orange juice that I usually drank.

  “Come on. Anyone?”

  Austin’s eyes were on Kael, who was also saying no. He didn’t need to put his hand up or shake his head. Apparently “no” is all the answer you need when it comes from a guy.

  Austin turned to Mendoza and refilled his glass. “He’s trying to get as many shots in as possible before his wife calls for bedtime,” Austin heckled him.

  By the way Mendoza smiled when my brother teased him, I could see their bond. He was a nice guy, this Mendoza. I could feel it. It was never easy to predict the people I would meet through my twin, because he never had a type. Soldiers were usually involved, but that could be more of a geographical thing. Mostly strays. Mostly friendly. But every pack had a few wild cards.

  “Well, she did let him come out this week,” another male voice taunted. I turned around to see the guy in the Bottom’s Up! T-shirt holding his shot glass in a way that was slightly menacing. He had a square face, tiny lips, and a bad crew cut.

  Mendoza laughed still, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Not like it did when he had joked with Austin. The guy in the T-shirt snickered, pointing a Bud Light bottle at Mendoza. “How many kids you got now anyway?” This question was delivered with a straight face.

  “Three,” Mendoza replied, humorless now. Something shifted in the room. I could feel it. Kael stiffened next to me. Austin inched closer to the two jerks.

  “Three? That’s it? I thought I saw you driving out of the commissary with like ten—”

  “You’re not funny, Jones. Neither are you, Dubrowski. Comedy’s not your thing. Now, move along, or get out,” Austin snapped, pointing his chin towards the door. His eyes may have been glassy, but he was fully present. He wasn’t having any of their shit.

  The room was silent, except the obnoxious intro music to the video game that was playing on a loop in the background.

  “Chill, we’re leaving anyway,” Bottom’s Up! said.

  No one made a sound as Jones and Dubrowski sat their beers on the counter, opened the back door, and left. Mendoza and Austin stared at each other for a second. I tried not to look, but I caught a glimpse of it.

  “Who were those guys?” I asked Austin when the door shut.

  “They’re in my new company,” Mendoza answered. “I thought they were cool and felt bad because they’re so young and just got home and don’t have any family here, you know?”

  “Quit being so fucking nice!” Austin slapped Mendoza on the back and we all laughed. “See where it gets you? Now let’s have a drink and not waste any more time or tequila on those pricks.”

  “This isn’t just any tequila my friends.” Mendoza held up the bottle. “It’s an Anejo, aged to perfection. Smooth as butter.” He showed me the label and I nodded, reading what I could as he watched me, before moving it to Kael.

  Anejo or not, I knew I shouldn’t drink much more. Even with my mother’s tolerance for all vices, I could tell the alcohol was settling into my bloodstream. My cheeks were red—I could feel them.

  But Kael was less blurry somehow.

  You know those moments when someone just looks different to you? Like you swipe and a filter covers the picture? Everything about them becomes a little deeper in color, a little more vibrant?

  Kael was leaning against the counter in my dad’s kitchen of all places, answering trivial questions from my brother, when it happened. There was something about watching him with there with Austin, the way the way he was standing with his back straight, his e
yes a little more wild than usual. He was still the definition of composure, but there was something emanating from him in that moment.

  Something strong and dark. I had to see more.


  “Atlanta area. You?” Kael took a drink of his beer. And then another. I remembered that he said he was from Riverdale. Easier to say Atlanta, I supposed. I liked knowing that, as if I was in on one of his secrets.

  Austin crossed his arms. “All over. Ft. Bragg, Texas, and a couple others. You know, army brat.”

  Kael nodded. “Yeah. I can’t imagine, man.”

  The doorbell rang. “Pizza? I hope so. I haven’t eaten all day,” Austin said, disappearing from the kitchen.

  “Are you hungry?” I asked Kael.

  “Kind of. You?”

  I nodded.

  “Shall we?” I gestured toward the living room.

  He nodded, smiled at me, and tossed his beer into the trash.

  “Do you want another one?” I asked, looking into my almost empty cup and debating on a refill.

  “I’m good. One of us has to drive,” he said.

  “Ah,” I said, biting on my lower lip. Kael’s shoulder brushed against mine. He was standing so close to me. “I can stay here.”

  His eyes widened a little. “You can too. There’s plenty of room.”

  We had stopped walking, but I couldn’t remember when. He was looking down at me and I was looking up at him. I remember the curve of his lashes shading his brown eyes. The way he smelled like cinnamon. For the first time, the scent didn’t remind me of anything except for him. My brain was short-circuiting, not connecting thought with my tongue.

  “I mean, you don’t have to stay here. You can use my car, or an Uber. Whatever, I was just suggesting because I’m obviously not driving and your car—” Kael leaned toward me. I had to work hard to catch my breath.

  “I’ll get another beer,” he told me in a whisper. He paused there, so close to my mouth, that the bottom of my stomach ached.

  He moved away, casually, and grabbed for another beer. I swallowed, blinking.

  Did I think he was going to kiss me?

  I so did.

  That had to be why I was breathing like I had just run up a flight of stairs.

  I gathered myself as quickly as I could.

  “Uh, yeah. Me too,” I said, voice hoarse and audibly awkward. I pulled open the freezer door to grab some ice. The cold air felt so good against my hot face. I let it roll over me for a few seconds before I filled up my cup.

  Kael was waiting for me by the wall, sipping his new beer. My insides wouldn’t settle. Gah, he made me feel so on edge one second, yet so calm the next.

  We were both quiet as we walked into the living room. There seemed to be the same number of people in the house—minus the two assholes—but the crowd felt dense now that everyone was crammed into the living room. It didn’t help that my heart was pounding in its cage, no matter how hard I tried to calm myself.

  Austin was talking to the pizza delivery man. I watched as he handed over some cash, shoving a wad back into his pocket. As far as I knew, Austin had only been working a few hours a week at Kmart, which he supplemented by asking my dad for money here and there. My brother was never good with money. Even when he worked summer jobs, he’d spend his check the day he got it. I wasn’t much better, so I wasn’t judging, but where did that cash come from? It didn’t make sense.

  “Kare! Grab some plates?” Austin yelled to me, passing out pizza boxes to the group.

  I didn’t know what was going on, but my brain couldn’t handle any more tonight. I just wanted to have fun, to not worry about things that I couldn’t control. I had been trying that for years—maybe tonight would be the night that I actually followed through with it?

  BLACK JEANS WERE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND. They stood out from the usual indigo. They made your legs look longer. And that dark wash was great when you were out on a date and needed to do something about greasy pizza fingers. Not that I was on a date. Was I on a date?

  There was just this way that Kael was looking at me that made me wonder. The fact that he agreed to come to the party at all made me wonder. But as with everything with Kael, I couldn’t be sure.

  We were still sitting next to each other on the couch. Kael’s empty plate rested on a napkin on his lap. The plate was clean and the napkin was spotless. My plate had a splinter of hard crust on it and a bit of stray pepperoni. My white paper napkin was splotched with pizza sauce. My black jeans didn’t show my greasy handprints, though. Small mercies. I wasn’t neat and tidy. Not like Kael. And certainly not like Estelle, the perfect housewife whose picture was hanging in a thick black frame above us. A black cloud was more like it. I couldn’t see her face, but I could feel her bearing down on me. I knew that picture well—it had been taken on one of their many vacations. My dad was next to her wearing a big smile and a Florida tan. A beachfront American gothic.

  Kael leaned up to grab a pizza box. “Can you hand me a napkin?” I asked.

  Another guy might have made a crack about the red sauce massacre I had going on, but he didn’t say anything, just grabbed some pizza and napkins, then leaned back into the couch cushion. I could feel the heat rising off him. My imagination was playing with that. My body, too.

  “Want some?” he asked. He offered his plate, which had two thick slices, glistening with cheese.

  I shook my head, thanking him.

  “I see you have a new twin.” Austin pointed to Kael and mostly everyone looked at him, then me. His shirt and jeans were practically identical to mine. I thought back to the photograph of my dad and Estelle, standing side-by-side in their matching Hawaiian shirts from Old Navy, and burned with embarrassment. Kael cracked a smile, though. A very small smile, but it was there, all right.

  “Ha ha,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You were gone a while, sooo—”

  Laughter bounced around the room.

  “Fair enough.” Austin took a bite of pepperoni pizza.

  Cheese slid down the slice and he caught it with his tongue. He was so much like a teenage boy sometimes, as if he had stopped maturing after tenth grade. It was part of his draw, I guess—the innocence of him. He really did have a good soul and it was easy to see. He was the kind of boy who would start a fire and then save you from it.

  I wondered if this new girl understood what she was in for, if she knew she was playing in the brush on a hot day. A pretty brunette with a smattering of freckles across her cheeks, she had deep blue—almost navy—eyes. Her shirt set off her coloring, and the style of her loose peasant top resembled her hair—ruffled sleeves falling in waves down her arms, just like the ones curled into her long tresses. She was sitting on the floor by Austin’s feet, looking up, a flower tilted to the sun. The attraction she had to him was clear as day. The way she almost willed him to turn his face to hers, to say something, anything, to her. The way her shoulders were angled toward him, pulled back to expose her long, graceful neck. She wasn’t sitting cross-legged like the others on the floor. The awkward child’s pose was not for her. She had folded one leg on top of the other, ankle to knee, and she was tilted sideways so that her legs formed an arrow pointing toward my brother. This girl was vulnerable and open. Calculating, too.

  Body language could be so obvious.

  Did Austin know that she was planning their first kiss, their first date?

  The paper plate in his hand slipped a little and she lifted the corner for him. He looked at her, smiling, thanking her, and then she did this pouty thing with her lips, and a flippy thing with her hair. It was impressive as hell, even to me, and I wasn’t the intended target. I looked away from my brother and the girl. I’d seen this movie before.

  “MENDOZA SEEMS NICE,” I said to Kael.

  “Yeah. He is.” Kael looked at his friend, who was offering his special tequila to someone who had just come in. I thought I had seen the guy before. In the kitchen, maybe. I remembered his black-and-whit
e checked T-shirt. From the way he reeked of cigarette smoke, it was clear that he had just been outside for a smoke break. At least this group of friends was respectful enough not to smoke inside the house, unlike some Austin had had in the past.

  “He’s married?” I asked.

  Kael’s forehead scrunched up a little and he nodded.

  “Cool.” I was about out of small talk. I could have talked about the weather or the Falcons, but that would have seemed desperate. I was buzzed from the drinks and getting paranoid about Kael’s silence, and while I may have been anxious, I wasn’t desperate. I wasn’t going to be the needy girl at a party. A party at my dad’s house, of all places.

  Kael nodded and then … nothing. I should have been used to the barriers he put up, the distance between us, but he had let down his guard a little since coming to the party, so much so that I was beginning to forget it had even existed. But there it was, brewing next to me.

  And that was why I didn’t like dating. Or whatever this was.

  I knew I was being ridiculous. I mean, it had only been about twenty minutes since I’d decided to admit to myself that I was attracted to him. We had been standing side-by-side in the kitchen and I could feel that heat of his. It didn’t matter that we weren’t touching. I could feel myself being drawn toward him. It was strong, this pull. Almost animal in its intensity. I lost myself in the physical for a moment, and then my brain took over and started to dissect the reasons he wouldn’t like me, or why this couldn’t—wouldn’t—work. I was such a romantic.

  I looked around the room, to friendly Mendoza pouring Austin and the ruffly brunette a shot. To the three guys sitting on the floor, and the voices coming from the kitchen. Everyone was alive in their own way, talking, listening, drinking, laughing, playing with their phones. Everyone except the one person I really wanted to connect with.

  My frustration grew and grew inside my head and by the time Austin and the girl were making out (which took less than five more minutes), I couldn’t sit there anymore. I needed some air.

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