The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  No matter what the cost, I had to risk it.

  KAEL WAS PARKED IN the back of the spa when I got off work the next day, his huge Bronco dripping water from its massive body. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with his company’s name printed on the front and blue jeans with frayed bottoms, as if he had worn them for years. I wanted to touch the soft, worn denim and feel the thread of the fabric against my fingerprints.

  “What are you doing here? How did you know when I would be finished?” I was surprised to see him at my work, waiting with a freshly washed car and new shoes on his feet. Thrilled, but surprised.

  “A little birdie told me,” he said, pulling his sunglasses off his eyes, opening the passenger door for me.

  “Does that little birdie happen to have an adorable French accent?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “That’s confidential,” he said with a straight face. I could see a little gleam in his eye. How was it possible that I missed him overnight when he had stayed on my porch with me until almost midnight, and here he was again.

  “What are you doing here?” I asked again. I wasn’t going to just climb in the car without making him work for it.

  “I came to hopefully get you to go on a date with me.”

  “A date? I thought we said we weren’t going on dates, that we were just hanging out, seeing where this goes?”

  He shoved his hands into his pockets and stood there, next to the open door.

  “We don’t have to call it a date then. But would you like to hang out with me tonight since you’re off work until tomorrow at noon.”

  I said yes without even pretending to have to think about it. There was no point. We both knew I would go anywhere he asked me to. He held me by my elbow as I climbed inside and he shut the door behind me. The fact that he opened doors for me was so polite. He was a gentleman without even trying. I couldn’t wait to meet the woman responsible for raising him and his science prodigy of a sister.

  “I have something planned for you. I put together some music,” he paused, sheepishly, “and I want to take you to my favorite food spot in this whole city.”

  I was getting more excited by the minute.

  “I found like five bands I think you’ve never heard of. One is called Chevelle. I once knew this guy in basic training who would scream their lyrics over and over. They were from his hometown and by the time we graduated, I knew almost all of their songs by heart. I don’t know if you’ll like them now, but if you had listened to them before you fell for Shawn Mendes, it might have been a different story.”

  I loved the way Kael’s tongue wrapped words up to sound so much more impressive, more pleasurable to listen to, when he spoke them.

  He was lighthearted and heavy, both home and away. Biting whiskey and smooth wine. I loved the way he contradicted everything about himself. He was a fascinating man and I couldn’t wait to learn more about him.

  “Leave Shawn out of this,” I told him with a smile.

  “I saw that poster in your room at your dads. I didn’t think about it then, but I remember it now.”

  Kael turned onto the highway as daylight was disappearing from the sky.

  “He’s the John Mayor of our generation,” I argued.

  Kael snorted. “John Mayer is the John Mayer of our generation.”

  A few minutes later, he was quiet and I was happy as we listened to music and drove down a long, curvy road I had never been on before. I would always remember the way the sun and moon danced in the sky that night and what a sense of calm his silence had started to bring over my body.

  I listened to his voice when he asked me random questions like he had on our first “date” on my porch. It would forever remain the best first non-date of my life.

  “How many siblings do you wish you had?”

  “Which is your favorite character on Friends?”

  “How many times have you watched The Lion King?”

  I was starting to get too comfortable with him, there in the front seat of his Bronco. And yet I could almost feel the chaos brewing somewhere nearby. Everything was going too well. I was starting to feel too much for this guy.

  My brother’s name popped up on my cell phone screen and I thought about ignoring it, but decided against it. Music boomed through his side of the line and his slurred words were tumbling through, becoming inaudible.

  “Kareeee, come get me. Please, Katie. Fuck Katie. Fuck Katie and her ex-boyfriend and her fucking phone …” Austin slurred his words. “Kare, please come get me.”

  Chaos. No longer brewing.

  I couldn’t say no. I asked Kael to drive me to the address that Austin gave me and we went straight there. By the time we arrived, two guys were rolling around in the middle of the street, a red T-shirt and a black T-shirt were all I could make out of the bodies.

  “Get off him!” I recognized Katie’s voice before I saw her.

  “Come on, Nielson, fuck him up!” Someone said in the background. A couple more lines of toxic encouragement were thrown out before I realized it was Austin in the red shirt. He looked like he had the guy in a head lock and he didn’t seem to plan on letting up anytime soon.

  “Stop it!” Katie yelled again. I ran over to where she was standing, her face streaked with mascara tears.

  “What happened?” I asked, grabbing her by the shoulders. Kael was yelling Austin’s name, trying to break up the fight.

  “My ex, and Austin—” She started crying hysterically and couldn’t tell me anymore than I could see in front of me.

  Sirens whirled through the air as Austin let up on the choke hold so he could punch the guy in the black shirt in his ribs. They looked like little boys wrestling in their WWE themed bedrooms, but they were adults, and the police were pulling up.

  I yelled Austin’s name and Kael tried to pull at Austin’s shirt to get him off the guy. If he got arrested again, he would be fucked. The siren cut off and the voices got louder. There were only maybe five people outside, but when all of the voices were yelling at once, it was complete chaos.

  Everything happened so fast.

  The MPs rushed out of their car, heading straight for Kael. I screamed, running to him when Austin’s body hit the ground, knocking me into the man he was fighting, whose elbow or fist was flying toward my face. I lifted my hands up to block my face and heard Kael scream. Not just a scream, but a guttural groan of pain. It was animal like in its intensity and it shot straight through me. I turned to him, no longer thinking about shielding myself. The only thing on my mind when I saw the MP draw his black baton into the air was that Kael was on the ground, his right leg in the line of direction for the officer’s assault.

  Another scream rang through the air. Maybe it was Katie. Maybe it was me. I’d never know. What I did know was that while Austin crept through chaos and found the Bronco, he managed somehow to lift his drunk ass up inside and lie down.

  Kael and I were questioned by the MPs.

  “Where were you two headed?

  “Are you sure you weren’t drinking at the party?”

  “Let me see some ID, soldier.”

  I glared at the cops long after Kael stopped shivering on the parking block. The other guy involved in the fight walked away too, yet it was Kael’s identification they had asked to scan.

  When I told Kael it wasn’t fair that he was being treated this way when he wasn’t even fighting anyone, he told me not to question authority, that it wasn’t safe. Give a man power, and he’ll ruin the world, my mother always told me.

  She was proving to be more right every day.

  An hour later we finally made it back to the car. Austin woke up, we were almost to my dad’s house. My brother was out of it all right, asking for Katie, for our mom, for a peanut butter sandwich.

  “I think he’s more than drunk,” Kael told me after he helped Austin into my dad’s house and up the stairs. Kael practically tucked Austin into his bed, yet my dad had the nerve to text me and ask if Kael was drinking and driving a f
ew minutes after we pulled away. I wondered why my dad was up so late on a weekday, but I didn’t respond. There was only so much I could take.

  “What does that mean?” I looked at Kael with harsh eyes. It wasn’t the time to throw out unreasonable accusations. Like my brother was on drugs, he could barely afford to get his haircut, let alone buy drugs and keep up with his love of alcohol and Chipotle.

  “Nothing, I’m just thinking out loud,” Kael told me.

  “Well don’t.” I was defensive and Austin was my twin. He wasn’t on drugs, he just drank way more than he ever should have.

  “I think it’s best if neither of us talk,” I said, just to try to get a rise out of him, which was completely unfair, especially given the altercation with the police. I still couldn’t believe the way they behaved toward Kael. It was like they had something against him personally. The MP nearly took a night stick to his already injured leg. The sight of it had been horrifying and the memory of it was a hundred times worse.

  “I’m sorry, I really am,” I told Kael, reaching for his hand to calm me. His fingers, warm and familiar, threaded through mine and I felt grounded again.

  “I’m sorry for all of this. You standing up for Austin and getting attacked by those fucking MPs, having to nurse my brother, ugh, I’m sorry for all the complicating of your life I’ve been doing lately.”

  Kael sighed in the quiet car and pulled my fingers up to his lips. “You are worth every single complication you bring along.” He leaned in to kiss me. “I hope you’ll always feel that way about me,” he said to me, cradling my face between his large hands.

  “Always, huh?”

  “Well maybe not always, wouldn’t want to scare you off,” he said.

  “Almost always?”

  Kael nodded, smiled and pullied me close to him. Even inside of the eye of a storm, he could make me feel like I was safely planted. It was all about perception, and mine could have used a dose or two of reality. But instead of searching for the ground, I was floating in the sky with the brightest star of all. My mom’s voice echoed in my head as I kissed Kael again: The brightest stars burn the fastest, so we must love them while we can. She only told me that once, but all these years later I still remembered it. I guess now that she was gone I couldn’t afford to forget all her wisdoms and wives’ tales she collected over the years.

  “Let’s go home?” I asked Kael, knowing he would know I meant my house.

  He nodded and we drove home in the most peaceful silence and my mother’s words faded from my mind as we merged onto the highway.

  I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’D do without my job. It wasn’t only about paying bills—although God knows there was that. It was about turning the key in the front door, switching on the lights, making sure we had fresh towels and were stocked with oils. Each little task took me out of myself and helped me connect to the world around me. I was sure of my skills as a massage therapist, proud of what I could do to help people disentangle the knots of their own lives. I needed that more than ever today, as I tried to disentangle the mess of my own life.

  Mali understood why I was late. She had urged me to take the day off when I called to tell her what had happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Kael had appointments on post all day and I needed the distraction. I thought about going with him, but I was afraid to be mistaken for his young wife. Even more afraid that I would like it. I did hate being away from him, and even called him while I walked to work.

  I was grateful for the work, but I had put in an almost full day and was ready to be going home, especially since Kael said he’d come over after my shift. I was scheduled to work until four, but I would slip out an hour early if I didn’t have a walk-in by three.

  I was tired, worn out from our date night from hell the night before. The way Kael had tried to come to Austin’s aid with the MPs, the way he kissed my forehead when I cried in his arms on the way home. Austin didn’t remember any of it. Of course, he didn’t. He was beyond recollection. I knew it wasn’t just alcohol—although that was bad enough. (Our mom should have been a warning to us both.) But it was more than booze, that much was made obvious by his big, black pupils. He was disoriented and sloppy, like someone who had been left blindfolded in a forest and was trying to make his way out. When he called my name he couldn’t even form the first few letters. All I heard was a strangled “K.” Was Kael right? Was it more than alcohol controlling his body, clouding his mind.

  I wanted nothing more than to clear my own head of the events of last night and I sure as hell didn’t want to experience something so frightening ever again. Everyone was saying that I wasn’t as shaken as I should have been. I’m not sure what they meant by that. Was it supposed to be a compliment? Elodie made tea and sat up with Kael and me while I talked and cried, trying to make sense of everything. Trying to punch my way out of the darkness. When I could talk no more he lifted me under my knees and back, and carried me to my bed. To be held like that. To be picked up like that … it was the closest I’d come to being rescued.

  I was exhausted. My body melted to the mattress until noon.

  Kael wasn’t fazed by the incident, other than being angry. I supposed it would take a hell of a lot more than a dickhead MP who had probably been bullied in high school and was now taking it out on every person of color he came across. I watched the news; it was an epidemic across the country. Kael didn’t want to pull the race card as he called it, but I wanted to. I wanted to pull the whole damn deck. The least I could do was try to use my privilege for something meaningful. But you don’t realize how powerless you are until you try to do something meaningful.

  I saw it. Every dirty moment of bias and racism. I loved my brother and no way would I want him to get hurt, but man … no matter how fucked up he was, Austin was treated like an upstanding citizen. The way the cop protected Austin’s head as he helped him get into the squad car for the two minutes he actually had to stay in it. Even Austin was taunting the cop, or trying to anyway. He could only spew out little bits of words from his slanted mouth. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

  It was awful to watch him look so much like our mother.

  I still didn’t fully grasp what happened, it all went down so fast. I was yelling for Austin, then Kael, then black sticks were pulled from belts, I was shielding Kael’s leg … I shivered. Okay, maybe it still bothered me a little. I just felt like it didn’t make sense how fast they came, how quickly they went from nearly attacking Kael to telling me to get my brother back into the Bronco they had pulled him out of. Even when they questioned us, they were harsh and biting, but retreated so quickly. Little bits and pieces of the incident

  I was halfway done with the day when Kael texted me. He was leaving post and would come over after he had stopped by his duplex to drop off some paint. I told him to use the key under my Hello welcome mat. It was worn down and the letters weren’t so clear as they once were, but it was fine for key hiding purposes.

  *I’ll keep the bed warm,* he texted me.

  I sighed, pressing the phone against my chest. I felt that sense of relief you feel when you slip into a warm bath or a warm bed. Bed. When I thought about Kael waiting for me in my bed … He had a way of making everything seem manageable.

  I sent him a kiss emoji and he sent me one back. I missed him so much that I could physically feel the emptiness of his missed presence. At three p.m., there were no walk-ins. Not a single one. It was Tuesday. I needed to squeeze in every minute of my time with Kael before going to my dad’s house for dinner . I thought about bringing Kael, but I didn’t want anything to poke at our happy little bubble, especially not my dad. I couldn’t imagine Austin telling him about the incident, so it was very possible he didn’t know. I was counting on that.

  I wanted to skate through dinner without any complications or drama. I didn’t want to go, I wanted to stay in my bed with Kael. I was completely addicted to him and it terrified and thrilled me at once.

MANY THINGS I wanted to do, and they all involved Kael. There was only one thing I had to do—dinner at my dad’s.

  I could still taste myself on Kael’s lips when I kissed him again. I was wrapped around his body, stuck to his side. He was so warm, his skin and body were so beautiful, like he was sculpted directly from the soil that nourishes and feeds the earth itself.

  I licked his skin, just to taste him. I didn’t even worry about anything at all, except him and the way he groaned when I sucked at his skin. I never really thought about this kind of dating before I knew him. Brien and I started dating without ever saying we were dating too. I didn’t know we were a couple until he told me that I shouldn’t wear such short shorts in front of his friends. He didn’t protect me in any other ways, only when he wanted to act macho in front of his friends. Toxic masculinity at its finest.

  I didn’t even know dating or whatever it was we were doing could be like this. Brien and I made out a lot in the beginning. I’m not sure what happened, but our physical attraction turned in to something else. That something else was comfortable … and destructive too. It wasn’t good for either of us. Well, it wasn’t good for me. I only wish I’d had the sense to know that at the time. Anyway, we started out hungry and hot, but we grew tired of our anxious and inexpert fumbling. Then our time together seemed to be spent going to the movies and the mall. After that we broke up a few times and hooked up again. Because we were lonely, or bored, or whatever excuse I told myself as I drove to his place those last few times.

  I didn’t feel the way I do now, with Kael. I didn’t try to count the number of times he breathed in a minute. I didn’t try to hear his heart beating inside his chest.

  I kissed Kael again and his hands moved from my back down my body, and his hands squeezed my ass.

  “God.” He groaned into my neck, kissing me. “It was like you were sculpted just for me.” He moved his hands to the front of my panties. He rubbed gently, brushing over me. I tried to stay quiet, it just felt so good. I didn’t want him to stop and I also didn’t want to make a big deal of it. So as my hips moved and lifted gently, and my breath caught in my throat, I swallowed his name as my eyes closed. My body tensed and released and I clung to his body as I came.

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