The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  I got up from the couch and if Kael noticed, he didn’t care to show it.

  I SAT DOWN ON MY MOM’S swing, feeling the heaviness of the situation with Kael. Not for the first time, I thought of it as a mood swing. My own little joke. Only it wasn’t funny.

  I’d lost track of the number of times I’d made my way out to the porch. If I was feeling anxious and alone, if I wanted to think something through or just daydream, I’d head to the swing. I was out there a lot after my mom left, sometimes I thought maybe she would be sitting there. And when Dad was talking about shipping Austin off to live with our porn king uncle, you’d find me on the swing. There was just something soothing about the gentle back and forth as the seat pushed into its arc and then returned. I could be close to full-on panic, but after a few minutes on the swing, my breathing would slow and I’d feel myself calm down. Most of the time, anyway.

  When Brien and I were on the rocks, I’d planted myself out here, trying to get some perspective. But more than once, Estelle had followed me out to see how she could help. She’d give me this look that I could tell she thought was sympathetic, but I just thought was creepy. It was like she was trying to sell me something. A used car, maybe. A used stepmother was more like it.

  She’d say things like, “I was young once, too, you know.” That was my cue to say, “Oh, but you’re still young,” and, “You’re so pretty.” But I wasn’t going there. I wouldn’t have given her what she wanted even if it had been true. Then she’d tell me that everything was going to be okay, that what I was going through was tough, but she understood how I was feeling. That bothered me the most. How could she possibly understand what I was feeling when she didn’t know me and I didn’t know myself?

  And there I was again, sitting on my dad’s porch, not really knowing what I was feeling. I wanted to get closer to Kael, but I felt stung by his silence. I wanted to ask him to join me on the swing, but I felt too timid. I wanted … whatever it was I wanted, I wasn’t getting it, so I had sulked off like a little kid.

  I was kicking my feet a bit and just starting to move the swing when the front door creaked open and Kael stepped out onto the porch. He leaned against the railing, watching me with glassy eyes. He looked older, somehow. I wasn’t sure if I liked it.

  The streetlight hummed as it cast a dim glow over my dad’s yard. I could make out cars, trees, houses—but just the outlines. I wasn’t sure if this was because it was getting dark or because I was getting buzzed. I didn’t particularly care. It had been a while since I had had anything to drink other than a little wine and I felt this hazy glow. Actually, I felt pretty damn good.

  Rocking gently back and forth, I was aware that my breathing was syncing to the rhythm of the swing, and that made it easier to pretend that I hadn’t noticed Kael. No way was I going to be the first one to say something. I kept my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself. God, this guy was tough to figure out.

  Maybe it was the way he was with me—observing, non-judgmental. That was rare. So often you could feel people sizing you up, trying to figure you out. Who are you and what do you have that I want? Not Kael. He just noticed. I liked that. But it didn’t seem fair, somehow. He knew a lot about me and I hardly knew anything about him. The things I did know I could count on one hand. Almost reflexively, that’s what I did.

  One: He was charming in that strong, silent way.

  Two: He had this almost magnetic draw that attracted people to him.

  Three: He made you want to know what he thought of you. (Or was that just me?)

  Four: He acted as if he had something really important to say.


  There was no five. That’s how little I knew about him.

  Everything about Kael seemed so complex, but uncomplicated at the same time. He hadn’t said much to me while we were inside, other than to ask if I wanted a slice of pizza, but he had clearly followed me out. So why was he just standing there with that force field around him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and looking at me as if words were a burden too heavy to carry? I started to say something to break the tension, but stopped myself just in time. No way was I going to make this easy on him. I’d give him a taste of his own medicine and see how he liked it.

  DUSK WAS GIVING WAY TO NIGHT. The sky was darkening now, filling with the most gorgeous stars. I knew everyone thought they were magical, diamonds hung aloft in the sky and all that, but I found them sad. Stars seemed so fierce and bright, but by the time they got to us, they were dying, almost gone. And the biggest stars? They burned the fastest, as if their intense radiance was too much for them to hold onto. Damn. There I was getting sappy. I always thought of how fragile things were when I drank. I could move from beauty to despair in the blink of an eye. Or the twinkle of a star. As I said, damn.

  “Can I sit with you?” Kael finally asked. Had he seen the shadow cross my face?

  I nodded yes and moved over to make some room.

  “This is the swing?” he asked.

  I nodded again. I still had a dose or two of his own medicine to give him. Not really. I was just trying to stay cool. If I was going second-guess myself, I might as well be cool about it.

  “She didn’t take it with her?” he asked into the night air.

  I jerked my head, looking at his face. “What?”

  “When she…” He could see that he had struck a nerve, but he couldn’t exactly backtrack.

  I blinked. He was referring to my mom, of course. For all his reserved nature, he sure liked to ask questions that packed a punch.

  “Left?” I finished for him. “No, she didn’t take anything.”

  Not even us.

  Not even me.

  I didn’t really feel like talking about my mom, but I was happy he asked—happy that he had remembered the swing. He was a good listener; I’d give him that. We sat with nothing but the stars between us for a while, which was fine by me. I just wanted to sit next to Kael, to know he was there. In that moment, it was enough.

  The peace didn’t last long, though.

  “Oh, man, you wiped out!”

  “No, hey, Austin—watch!”

  “Dude! You are crazy. I mean what the fuck!”

  It was just some lame video game, but it had put Kael on high alert. It was hard not to notice how hyperaware he was of his surroundings. I couldn’t imagine how tough that must be, to never be able to relax. It must’ve been exhausting. He turned to say something, but was interrupted by wild shouts from inside the house.

  “You got him, man. Killed him with one shot!”

  “Fuck yeah! Dead as a fucking doornail, man!”

  I shook my head. Kael clenched his jaw.

  At least we agreed on something.

  “I’M BEING WEIRD, AREN’T I?” Kael asked, picking at his fingers.

  How the heck was I supposed to respond to that?

  “Do you think you’re being weird?” The best way to avoid answering a question was to repeat it. I had learned that from my dad.

  He let out a breath. “Yeah, probably?” he said, cracking a smile. I loved the way his whole face changed when he smiled.

  I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t say weird. But one minute you’re ignoring me and the—”

  “Ignoring you?” he asked, startled.

  “Yeah,” I explained. “You were kind of blowing me off.”

  He seemed genuinely surprised. Almost hurt. “I wasn’t trying to.” He hesitated. “It’s kind of hard to adjust to being back here. It’s been like a week and it’s just so … different? It’s hard to explain. I don’t remember it feeling this weird last time I came back.”

  “I can’t even imagine,” I told him. Because I couldn’t.

  “It’s the small things. Like those coffee makers with the little pods, or being able to shower every day and wash my clothes in an actual machine with those little pods.”

  “I’m guessing there aren’t any tide pods in the army,” I said. My dad always hated the
m, so even when he returned and could use them, he refused. He liked old school powder and it grossed me out.

  “Sometimes. Wives would send packages to their husbands and we would all get the hook up,” he said.

  I wondered if anyone sent him packages, but didn’t ask. Besides, it was my turn to laugh now, but I didn’t. If I wanted to connect with this guy, to find out who he was, then maybe I should make the first step. Stop deflecting. Build a bridge. Find some common ground and all that. “You know,” I started, “my dad always came back acting like he just got home from Survivor. It was kind of a joke in our house. Not that it was funny.” I was so bad at this. I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth.

  “It’s fine.” He smiled, obviously amused by my ramblings. He looked at me straight on. “Honestly, Karina. It’s fine. You’re fine.”

  I kept going, more relaxed now—reassured. “He would crave the weirdest things, and eat Taco Bell for a week straight after coming home.”

  Kael nodded slowly, sucking on his lips. “How many times has he gone?”


  “Wow.” Kael blew out a breath. “I’m over here complaining about two,” he said, laughing weakly.

  “That’s a lot, though. And you’re my age. I’m over here complaining about zero.”

  “Did you ever think about joining?”

  I shook my head so quickly.

  “The army? Nope. No way. Austin and I always said we wouldn’t.”

  I sounded like those creepy twins you read about in sappy books where they make weird promises to each other. One lives in the shadows and the other has to live out their twin’s legacy. I didn’t want to think about which role I played in that saga.

  “Why not? Just not your thing?” Kael asked me.

  “I don’t know,” I started. Careful, Karina, I warned myself. I didn’t want to offend him, but my mouth was known for spitting out words without my brain’s approval.

  “We just agreed one day. I don’t remember what even triggered it, but my dad was deep into his third deployment and …”

  I could picture the smoke as it billowed through the hallways. I smelled the fire before I saw it.

  “And my mom made … well, let’s just say she made a mess in the living room. A charred mess.”

  Kael looked at me, puzzled.

  “She said it was from a glue gun, like for crafts? But it was a cigarette. She fell asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette in her hand, and had barely woken up when I came rushing down the stairs to find the room filled with smoke. It was crazy,” I told him.

  A few people came out of the house. A few people went in. Party traffic. I stopped talking. The last guy to come out was wearing a plain white T-shirt with a red stain on the chest. I stopped my imagination from turning a pizza sauce stain into anything else. Kael kept his eyes on me the whole time. It was intense, the way he looked at me. The bottom of my tummy ached and eventually, I had to break eye contact with him. Pizza stain guy walked down the steps and got into his car. I recognized him from the kitchen. He was one of Austin’s quiet friends. The quiet guys always left first.

  “And then?” Kael encouraged.

  “She was walking toward the door, just straight forward, headed for the door like she was going out to buy milk or some orange juice. She didn’t yell for us. She didn’t look for us. No … nothing.”

  Kael cleared his throat. I gauged his expression to make sure he wasn’t uncomfortable with the details.

  “So … you know those quizzes where they ask you what you would save if your house was on fire?”

  “Not really,” he said.

  “I guess it’s like a Facebook thing. They ask what possessions you would save if your house was burning down and your answer is supposed to reveal your personality. If you say you’d save your wedding album, that says one thing about you. But if your choice is to save your vinyl collection, that says something else.”

  Kael raised his eyebrows, as if he hadn’t ever heard of anything so absurd.

  “I know, right?” I continued with my story. “Anyway, it’s so insane, but the smoke was growing and as I rushed up the stairs to get Austin, I remember thinking, that quiz is the most ridiculous thing ever. Who would even think about possessions at a time like this … But then I was thinking about that stupid quiz so what does that say about me.”

  “I think it says that your mind was keeping you from panicking. I think it says that you have good instincts.”

  I let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “So, I ran up to Austin’s room and shook him awake. We ran downstairs together—he was leading now, squeezing my wrist, so hard, and when we got outside to the lawn, our mother was standing there just watching the smoke. It wasn’t like she had tried to set the house on fire, nothing like that. More like she didn’t even realize what was going on.”

  “Karina …”

  “It was like one of those old movies, you know, where the madwoman starts the fire and just gets mesmerized by it, like she just goes into a trance—” I laughed a little, not wanting to be awkward. “Sorry, all of my stories are over the top.”

  “Karina …” God, I loved the way he said my name.

  “Oh, it’s—” I was going to say, it’s okay. That’s what I always said when I told this story. Not that I told it often. But the thing was, sitting in the dark with Kael beside me, urging me on, listening, not judging … Well, I knew that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay at all. I could have been killed. Austin could have been killed. It was so not okay. But what was not okay was usually my reality.


  That was a kind thing to say. Not, God, your mom sounds like a wack job. I was a good storyteller. I liked the sound of that. I liked the certainty with which he said it.

  “So yeah, I don’t know what I was even talking about …” I did that a lot, told long tales with lots of sidetracking and other mini-stories in between.

  “You not wanting to join the military,” Kael reminded me.

  “Oh yeah.” I pulled myself together. “I mean, it was basically my dad being gone so long and coming home and then having to train so much still. He was always gone and he was always so unhappy. My mom, too. The lifestyle basically broke her, you know?”

  He nodded.

  “So, my brother and I promised after that fire that we wouldn’t live our whole lives this way.”

  “Makes sense,” Kael said, looking around the yard, then back to me. “Wanna hear my side?”

  I shook my head, teasing. He smiled.

  “I get that. For real, I do. But to me, a black kid from Riverdale, joining the army changed the trajectory of my life. It was the thing that changed my whole family. My great-grandpa’s dad was a slave, and here I am, you know? The only job I’d ever had was bagging groceries at Kroger and now I drive a decent car, can help my mom—” He stopped abruptly.

  “Don’t stop-“ I urged him.

  That earned me a big smile. “All the shit like that. It’s hard, yeah. Really fucking hard sometimes, but it’s the only way I was ever going to be able to afford to go to college. Live on my own without an education.”

  I sat, digesting. He had extremely valid points. It was kind of crazy how his experience with the army was so opposite of mine.

  “I get it.” I told him.

  “There’s two sides to everything, you know?”

  I nodded, whispering, “Yeah. Two sides at least.” I tilted my head and asked, “Is your mom proud of you now?”

  “Oh, of course. She tells everyone at church and anyone who’ll listen that her son is a soldier. From my town, it’s kind of a big deal.” He was shy, now. It was beyond adorable.

  “Local celebrity,” I teased, leaning into his shoulder.

  “Right,” he said, smiling. “Not like Austin,” he joked as my brother yelled again.

  “Ugh, we should go in. I have to remind him that the MPs could come at any time and as far as I kno
w, no one in there is of age except Mendoza,” I took my phone out of my pocket and checked the time. It was almost eleven thirty. “Not for another thirty minutes,” I teased.

  THE PARTY HAD QUIETED DOWN. The coffee table was littered with beer bottles and plastic cups; the game controller sat idle in front of the TV. Limp bodies covered the couch and a few people had made themselves comfortable on the floor. It was mostly guys (and mostly army, I figured), except for the girl who earlier had been entwined with Austin. She was sitting alone on the floor now, moving slightly to the music, her shoulders doing this chill dance. Basically, she was doing that thing you do when you’re all alone at a party and you want to say it’s fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine.

  “Do you need another drink?” I asked Kael.

  He held up his beer, shaking the empty bottle. “Yeah, please.”

  We made our way out of the living room, stepping carefully over denim-clad body parts. The kitchen was empty. Estelle’s attempts at what she called French Country décor—a dish towel that said CAFÉ; a ceramic rooster; a little metal Boulangerie sign that Elodie says Estelle pronounces wrong—were visible among the litter of empty bottles and pizza boxes. Still, seeing Kael here against the backdrop of so many familiar things, feeling him next to me radiating that damn heat … the kitchen just felt so small. He seemed outsized now, larger than life, and when I scooted past him, I almost elbowed him in the rib cage. He inched further away from me, towards the fridge. Of course I needed to get ice from the tray in the freezer.

  “Sorry,” he said, nearly tripping over my feet to get out of my way.

  “Isss fine,” I told him, my words blending together.

  He made me feel so … nervous. Maybe that wasn’t the right word. I didn’t feel tense or panicky, the things that usually come with nerves. It was just that he made me feel as if everything was so much closer to the surface, raw and more alive. When I was around him, my brain processed everything so fast, but everything felt so still, so calm in the cracks of him opening up to me. I felt bright and quick and stable and level all at once.

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