The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  My heart raced when I glanced over and caught him looking back at me, his long fingers toying with the necklace around his neck. Maybe it was the effect of the vodka, but as I refilled my glass, I could feel Kael’s eyes on me, as if he was taking me in, head to toe. He wasn’t appraising me in that skeevy way some guys had when they were so obviously checking you out. It wasn’t like that at all. When Kael looked at me, it was as if he saw me, the real me—who I was, not who I was trying to be. He held my gaze for a moment, then lowered his eyes. My chest fluttered. Forget butterflies, these were blackbirds. Big, glossy blackbirds flapping their wings, making my heart take flight. I took a deep breath to calm myself down. I felt him looking at me and tried to ignore the pang at the bottom of my stomach. I put the bottle back on the counter and mixed in apple juice. Someone had cleared out the cranberry.

  “What’s that going to taste like?” He was standing right behind me now. Whether he had moved or I had, I couldn’t say. I saw his shadow in the metal sink and hoped like hell that he couldn’t hear the wild beating in my chest.

  I turned slowly to face him. He was so close.

  “Either great or not.” I shrugged.

  He took a half-step back. My body didn’t calm.

  “And you’re willing to take that risk?” he asked, smiling behind his drink. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t need to hide it—his smile, that was. That I really liked it when he was funny, when he teased me. But I needed a few more shots to be at that level of bold.

  “Yeah. I guess so.” I put my nose to the glass and took a sniff. It wasn’t so bad. I took a sip. It wasn’t horrible. But maybe I should microwave it to pretend it was a cider?

  “Good?,” he asked.

  “Yeah,” I said. I lifted the cup between us. “Wanna taste?”

  “No, thanks.” He shook his head, holding up his beer.

  “Do you always drink beer?” I asked him.

  “Yeah, mostly. Not in a while, though,” he said, smiling and trying not to. “Because of being gone. Of being over there,” he clarified.

  “Ohhh, because you were gone.” It took me a second to catch on regardless of how many times we had repeated the word “gone”.

  “Right. Yes. Gone. Over there.” I was an idiot, echoing everything he said. “Wow. Yeah, adjusting must be so weird.”

  Every time he reminded me that his life was so drastically different than mine, I felt shaken. I noticed his glassy eyes again … his beautiful brown eyes. Maybe he was just as buzzed as I was. I leaned towards Kael to ask if he was drunk, to ask him if he was okay. That’s when Austin barreled in with Mendoza right behind him. Way to kill the moment. “Hey guys! It’s awfully quiet in here,” he said, clapping his hands together as if he were trying to frighten a small animal.

  Kael and I stepped back from each other, as if by instinct.

  “My man. You leaving?” Austin asked. When Mendoza nodded, Austin continued, “Thanks for coming. I know it’s hard to get out.”

  “Yeah.” Mendoza turned to Austin, then Kael. I felt like something significant was going on in front of me, but I wasn’t really able to decipher it.

  “Next time bring Gloria,” Austin said, reaching for the tequila bottle. And then, “One more before you go?”

  Mendoza looked at the thick, white watch strapped to his wrist and shook his head.

  “No way, man. I have to go home. Babies get hungry and Gloria’s tired. The kid is keeping her up all night.”

  “I didn’t mean you.” Austin touched Mendoza’s car keys on his belt loop. “But for me?”

  Mendoza poured a hefty amount of tequila into Austin’s glass. It wasn’t my responsibility to worry about my brother. This was his party and I wasn’t going to be the house mother. Not tonight.

  “It was nice to meet you,” I told Mendoza when he said bye to me.

  “Take care of my boy,” he whispered. Then he hugged Kael and went out the side door, leaving me to wonder what on earth he meant.

  “MAN, I LOVE THAT GUY. He’s a Grade A fucking guy.”

  Austin was over-the-top cheerful, even for him. It made me a little nervous. It wasn’t that I was worried about him getting into trouble. Not really. It was just hard to see him standing there swaying like that.

  “My sister! My beautiful twin.” Austin wrapped his arm around me. His movements were fluid and his pale cheeks were red. He was clearly smashed.

  “Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked Kael. I froze. I hated when Austin talked about my looks.

  Kael nodded yes, clearly uncomfortable.

  “You’ve really grown up. Buying your own house and shit,” he said, squeezing me. “I mean there you are, holding down a steady job and shit. Paying bills—”

  “And shit?” I finished for him.

  “Essactly,” he said.

  Something on the bridge of his nose caught my eye. I moved toward him. “Did you actually break your nose?” I asked, lifting my hand to his face. He jerked away, laughing me off.

  “It didn’t break. It just, um … it just moved over a little.” Then he turned to Kael with a goofy smile plastered on his face. “Be careful with her, bro. I’m not going to be that guy who’s like threatening dudes over his sister or anything like that. Nothing like that. I’m just saying, my sister, well … she flips on you and man …” He used his fingers like a knife under his throat.

  Kael cast his eyes downward, giving no indication of what he thought about what he’d just heard.

  “I’m kidding. She’s a peach.” He hugged me again. “A real peachy, peach of a sister. Aren’t you?”

  Oh yeah, totally smashed.

  The kitchen was getting busy now with people coming in to refill their drinks, as if shift change had been announced or something. It wasn’t until Kael looked at me that I felt like a kid. I probably seemed so immature, borderline wrestling with my brother who was completely out of it. And shit.

  “Right. Thanks for the news bulletin,” I said, maneuvering out of his arm. “Your new little friend is waiting for you. She looked lonely.” I nodded my head toward the living room.

  “Did she? She’s cute, huh? She’s going to school to be a nurse,” he told us with pride.

  Kael made a face like he was impressed, but I wasn’t as drunk as Austin, and I could tell that Kael was humoring him. He mostly hid his mouth behind the dark beer bottle.

  “You mean the little girl wants to be a nurse when she gets to be all grown up? After she’s out of high school and into the big world?” It was how I was with Austin—teasing him about stuff. It was just part of our twin dynamic. We didn’t have that mythical thing where we could read each other’s minds or feel each other’s pain. Nothing weird like that. Okay, I understood him on a level that I didn’t feel with most people. And I felt a closeness to him that I couldn’t explain. But a lot of siblings felt that, especially when they’d gone through their parents’ divorce and all the mess that came with it. But it had nothing to do with being twins.

  So, really, my comment had nothing to do with the girl at all. It was just what we did. Like the comment he made to Kael. (The comment that I swore to myself I wouldn’t obsess over until later, when I was alone.)

  “She’s nineteen, okay? And she’s going to actual nursing school.” Austin lifted his plastic cup to his mouth, pouring out the last drops of whatever concoction he had been downing the whole night.

  “I’m sure she is.” I rolled my eyes at Austin. “And the next Barbie will be—”

  It took me a moment to register that everyone was looking over my shoulder to something behind me. MPs, I thought for a split second. Damn. We’re busted. I turned around to face the officers, to give them some sort of excuse or attempt some type of negotiation. Only, when I turned around, I saw that it wasn’t the MPs at all. It was the girl in the ruffly shirt and she had heard every word I’d said.

  Damn. I was the one who was busted.

  THE GIRL’S FACE FELL. My face fell. We stood there in silence. Caugh
t. Two deer in the headlights.

  I had just insulted her, insinuating that not only was she in high school, but that tomorrow night, my brother would be making out with someone else. Which not only made my brother seem like a total douchebag, it was rude as all hell to her.

  Her eyes welled up with tears.

  “Sorry …” I said. “I’m so sorry … It wasn’t anything against you, I just meant—” She looked so young when she pouted like that, her bottom lip quivering. Damn. I didn’t want to give her a half-assed apology, or make something up just to make her feel better. But I couldn’t tell her that she really did look like she was in high school and I sure as hell couldn’t tell her that in all likelihood, my brother really would be making out with someone else—if not tomorrow, then the day after.

  I stood in the doorway for a second, not facing the group, debating apologizing to her again—and thinking of how to smooth things over with Austin, too, even though he wasn’t likely to be that annoyed with me. He knew my sense of humor better than anyone. And he gave as good as he got.

  But Austin spoke first. “Nice, Kare,” he said. “Real nice.” He moved toward the girl and put a comforting arm around her. “This here is my sister, Karina,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “Karina, this is—”

  She cut him off. “You can call me Barbie,” she said through her breaking voice.

  The room erupted with laughter. Big, bold, side-splitting laughter. Score one for Barbie. And who could blame her? Certainly not me. I let myself exhale.

  Everything would have been okay if we’d stopped there. Awkward moment confronted and dealt with. Move on, folks, nothing to see here. Only Austin had to open his big mouth. “Don’t worry about her,” he said, throwing his chin in my direction. “She’s pissed. She’s always pissed,” he corrected. The word sounded slippery. Mean. I opened my mouth to say something, but apparently, he wasn’t finished yet. “She likes to play the big sister. The only grown-up in the room. Just ignore her.”

  I felt slapped. Hard. I knew I had hurt the girl’s feelings and I really did feel bad about that. But I hadn’t done it on purpose. It was a lame joke between a brother and sister and it was just rotten luck and bad timing that it went awry. But what Austin said about me hurt. It really hurt.

  I wanted to say something in my defense—anything—but I didn’t want to make a scene. If I got upset in front of everyone, it would prove Austin’s point and make everyone think I was crazy or that I was always pissed. I left the room with a growing ache in my chest. Now it was my turn to cry.

  SHIT, AUSTIN. SINCE WHEN DID you think of me as always pissed? Worrying about you wasn’t being pissed. Someone had to do it and obviously, you weren’t too concerned with your future since you just got out of jail and the first thing you did was throw a party with plenty of booze and underage drinkers. On post. At Dad’s house.

  Those were the thoughts swirling around in my head as I walked up the stairs to my old room. The air inside the house was thick and getting thicker. I had to get away. I needed a break from Austin. From the vodka. From the party. I wasn’t sure if I needed a break from Kael and for a moment, I almost forgot he was even there.

  For a moment.

  Almost.

  There was no way he missed the exchange. He probably thought I was being catty, that I was a bitch. It wasn’t true. It really wasn’t. I tried not to give other girls a hard time. We had it tough enough. Hormones. Periods. Underwire bras. Double standards. Douchey guys. We needed to stick together, not stick it to each other. I really believed that. But … there was always a but, wasn’t there? I just couldn’t help that immediate assessment I did of other females. Giving them the once-over, trying to determine who they were, where they figured in our invisible hierarchy. It seemed so mean to put it like that, but it wasn’t that I was comparing them to me—more like I was comparing myself to them.

  Ruffly shirt girl was prettier than me. She had beautiful clear skin, slender hips, and long legs. Her hair was amazing. She dressed to flatter herself, to bring out her best features. I dressed in what was clean(ish) or what was on sale. I wasn’t competing with Katie, Barbie, or whatever her name was. (Okay, that was bitchy.) I really wasn’t. First of all, she was in a totally different league than I was, and second, her target was my brother. That was clear from the get-go. So this comparison thing, this competition … it wasn’t about guys.

  If it was, why would I compare myself to the girls on IG or on TV, like I did when Madelaine Petsch looked out at me from the screen? She was flawless. Even with my ultra-high-def TV, she had the smooth skin of a porcelain doll. Not a blemish, not a spot or bump. It almost made me want to go vegan, if that’s what it did for you.

  I thought about this sort of thing a lot. I tried to figure out where it came from. Where all my insecurities came from. I really didn’t care that boys looked at other girls more than they looked at me. It was just that some girls made me feel less than. I couldn’t explain it, not really, but it was hard to get out of my head. And the thing was, I knew it wasn’t just me. I thought about Elodie, beautiful blonde Parisian Elodie with her pretty cheeks and doe eyes. She’d sit with a mirror in her lap, picking at her face, saying how horrible her skin was, that her eyes were uneven and her nose was off-center. Did all women do that?

  This was when I missed my mom the most. It would have been nice to be able to talk to her about this sort of thing, to have someone to confide in, to have her listen without judgment. Has it always been like this, I’d ask her? And she’d tell me, No, it was never this bad, social media and selfies and the Kardashians have made everything so much worse. Or she’d say, Yes, it really has always been like this. I used to compare myself to Charlie’s Angels back in the day. Then she’d get out her old photo album and we’d laugh at her eighties hair.

  Who was I kidding?

  That would never have happened.

  MY BEDROOM DOOR WAS CLOSED. Was someone inside? It wouldn’t have been unheard of to find a soldier passed out on my bed, or a couple hooking up. Not Austin and Katie, though. They were still in the kitchen, probably talking about me. Katie would be over her hurt by now and, smart girl that she was, she would have turned the situation around to her advantage, used it to get closer to my brother. United against a common enemy and all that. And Austin would have known that he was onto a sure thing, so he’d likely be going on about how annoying I was, how I’d always been so uncool. He had two sides to him, one that fiercely defended me, no matter what. And one that used me as a prop, a pedestal that elevated him to cool guy status. I didn’t need three guesses to know which one was down in the kitchen.

  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t rid myself of the habit of imagining what other people were thinking or saying about me. I did it all the time, even though I knew no good would come of it. It was like picking a cuticle, scratching and nipping at it until it started bleeding. I was doing that now, picturing everyone in the kitchen, wondering what they were saying or thinking. Even the ones who didn’t know my name, they’d just think of me as that prissy chick who badmouthed sweet Katie. Someone would ask who I was and they’d say, oh, that’s Austin’s sister, and then they’d remember me as the girl who went around picking up empty bottles and pizza boxes as if she was working the night shift at Friday’s.

  Ugh.

  I hated the way my brain worked. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t do anything too horrible, that people would understand I was mostly joking. I never would have talked like that had I known she was there, even if what I said was true.

  I was grasping now.

  Wasn’t it funny how people always demanded the truth, yet mostly couldn’t handle it when it came along? In all fairness, I was the same way. Demanding the truth, yet holding onto the lies. They came in handy when you wanted to guard yourself against the truth—lies, that is.

  I paused in front of my room. I didn’t really think anyone would be inside; this get-together was way calmer than most of the parties Austin ha
d thrown in the past, before he went to stay with our uncle. And I had to admit that Austin seemed a little different now, more stable. Or maybe I just wanted him to have calmed down and thinking this way protected me from seeing the truth.

  I knocked, then waited a moment before opening the door into what turned out to be an empty room.

  I stood for a moment before entering, just taking everything in. Even the smell. God, the air was like nostalgia, like the scent of my former life. I had been trying so hard to start a new chapter, turn a new page … whatever it was people did when they tried to move on and stand on their own two feet. I stood there looking at my old bedroom while thinking of my new bedroom. Such a stark difference.

  It was the same as it ever was. The same purple bedspread with little white flowers all over it. The same matching curtains with a burn mark on the corner from my one day as a smoker. I got grounded for that. My parents didn’t notice the burnt curtain, lucky for me, but they had caught the cigarette smoke as it wafted down the hallway. After that I was forbidden to hang out with Neena Hobbs, the only girl in my grade who was allowed to shave her legs—and who had made me want to smoke like she did.

  My dresser was cluttered with the usual teenage girl stuff. Old tubes of glittery lip gloss that had been expired for years. Bundles of headbands and hair elastics. Notes from my best friend, Sammy. Gel pens in every conceivable color. Everything had a memory attached. Some, more than one. I couldn’t bring myself to toss a thing. Not the headbands I had worn for years through multiple hair colors and multiple bad haircuts. Not even the sticky lip gloss that my mom snuck me when my dad said I couldn’t wear makeup until high school. I picked them up now and rolled them around in my hand. They had names like BERRY BEAUTIFUL, PUCKER PINK, and SWEETER THAN SWEET. Funny though, once you got them on your lips, they all had pretty much the same rosy color, the same sugary and sticky shine that always caught ahold of my hair.

 
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