The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “He was in his front yard, waving a gun around in the air. He told me he didn’t deserve to live.” The words tore through Kael. I could feel it. I felt everything he felt on top of my own emotions. My back was close to breaking from the weight of it all.

  “He told me he was a monster. A monster. Gabriel Mendoza thinks he’s a monster? If he is, we’re all fucking Satan himself.” Kael’s voice was creeping into the darkness that made me split in two. Half of me was terrified that this was going to swallow him whole. He needed me to pull him out of this quicksand, but how could I when I didn’t know who or what to believe. I knew both of them were pulling at me, using me as a pawn to hurt the other. Even if it wasn’t premeditated on Kael’s part—and I honestly couldn’t imagine it being true—I couldn’t completely dismiss it either. There were still lies. Lots of lies.

  “Karina, honey. You know right from wrong. You may not think I’ve been the best father to you and your brother, but you know that I would do anything for you and for the soldiers under my command. I’ve dedicated my life to serving this country. I meant no harm when I tried to help them. Tell him that, Karina, if he doesn’t want a dishonorable discharge.” My dad held his hands up like he was praying.

  I had only seen him do that once before when my mom was packing her bags, the first time. He followed her around the living room, telling her all the reasons their life was fine. Not good, but fine.

  You’ll be fine, he told her.

  Everything will be fine.

  Between his begging hands and the almost believable devastation in his eyes now as he looked at me, I could see a flicker of what my mom saw in him all those years ago.

  “Come on, Karina. You don’t want that for him. It will ruin his future.”

  Kael was slipping away from my little living room. He was leaning against the drywall that he had patched up after I tried to hang up a clock and ripped half the wall down. My house, like my personal life, was becoming too much for me to repair.

  “He can’t look at his kid’s face without seeing their faces. You know that? It’s eating him up. He’s not right in the head over it. None of us are.” Kael had torn me open, devoured my body and mind in such a short time. I would have done anything to heal his pain any other time since I met him, but not then, when everything was foggy.

  “We’re all like that. We all have demons that keep us up at night. He can go in for PTSD if he needs to, but you have to stop poking a sleeping dragon. That’s the last warning. You’re putting us all in danger, even her.” He pointed at me, using me to chip away at Kael.

  If my dad thought Kael was deceiving me, why would he think he cared that he was putting me in danger? My dad was a liar. The good kind. Not good for anyone but himself, but still the very, very good kind. My mom told tales about the man she met her senior year of high school and how he wooed her when she served him a stack of pancakes every Tuesday. That’s where the Fischer family tradition stemmed from.

  The man she fell in love with had soft eyes and a thoughtful heart. Supposedly, he even called her sunshine, like she used to call me. That man had slowly disappeared, dissolving into a manipulative piece of havoc that I had stumbled in to.

  “Think about it, Martin. Don’t jeopardize your future. I’ll make sure that medical discharge goes smoothly as long as you can promise me the same about my retirement.”

  There he was scheming in front of me. Asking Kael to ignore the pain of his friend and make a selfish choice to appease my father.

  “You’re disgusting,” I told my dad before Kael could agree or disagree to his deal.

  “Stay out of this.” He brushed me off. There he was, diminishing my intelligence, my strength to make my own choices. He was feeding off of my insecurities. Was Kael too?

  I looked at Kael, then my dad. “Both of you, get out.” My voice was shaky in its delivery, but the words made it to their ears.

  “Martin, don’t be a fool and get yourself tied up in something you can’t handle. There will be no more lifelines after this,” my dad continued despite my very blatant request.

  “Get out of my house,” I said, louder this time.

  Kael begged with his eyes and my dad with his voice. “Get out. Now,” I said as Elodie stepped into the house. She took in the scene in front of her.

  “Should I—” she began to ask.

  “No. You stay. They were just leaving,” I told her.

  My dad was the first to give. To not break character in front of Elodie, I was sure. I didn’t care what it was, only that he walked out of my living room and the door shut behind him.

  Kael was harder. He was shaking. I could see his shoulders shaking under his ACUs and it took every last drop of ability within me to repeat it to him.

  “Get out of my house,” I said with as much conviction as a broken voice and heart could manage.

  “Karina, please listen to me.”

  I held up my hand. “If you want me to ever speak to you again, get out of my house and let me breathe.” I refused to raise my eyes to him. I knew better.

  I only had a few breaths left in me until I would collapse in his arms, healing us both. I could see the pain burning bright in his eyes as he turned and finally walked out of the door.

  WHEN I WOKE UP THE next morning, my head was throbbing. My body ached. My heart was broken. It all came flooding back to me.


  My dad.

  Their history.

  My dad’s accusation that Kael was using me as a pawn in some revenge plot for what happened in Afghanistan. What they did there. What Kael had to go through. What Kael had covered up.

  Part of me thought my dad was completely delusional, obsessively creating this entire thing in his head. It was a just a coincidence that Kael and my dad had ever known each another. A coincidence, like bumping into an old friend at the movies, or thinking about someone you haven’t heard from in a while and then seeing their name pop up next to a text. The fact that my dad and Kael were in the same Company was like that. a very extraordinary circumstance. But that they had actual contact while overseas at the same time. And the way Elodie’s husband just happened to be Kael’s close friend. That was pushing it even for someone who wanted to believe. The pain of it made me want to torment myself just to distract from the agony I was already feeling.

  This was exactly what I had been avoiding with Kael.

  I knew that, sooner or later, he would reveal himself to be exactly what he was, what we all are, the most selfish of creatures. I shouldn’t have ignored that little voice inside that told me we were headed for nowhere fast and running out of gas. I felt it, the way he withdrew from me the moment we were close. It was fucked up the way he cracked me open, turned me into a freaking Blossom Family maple tree, my deepest private thoughts pouring out of me and into him. He soaked them up, but kept the tap closed when it came to himself.

  I got a line here or there, a little image of his former self lying in my bed in the middle of the night, wrapped in each other. Everything was different now, even if I did believe that our relationship wasn’t premeditated. He promised me, over and over, that he wanted to try this, whatever it was.

  Was, was, was, I reminded myself.

  While I got dressed I tried to think about something, anything other than Kael. Other than his brilliant deep mind. I could spend days inside, picking around his light. He was everything a man was supposed to be, the first one I had ever loved, and he turned out to be just another factory model.

  Even so, my body clung to the hot flash that he was in my life. And then I thought about my own advice to Sammy after she and Austin broke up again, that he was only a teen tiny little part of her life, that in a year he wouldn’t matter. In five years, he’d barely exist in her memory. She said she’d never forget him because she’d always be around me, and that where I was, Austin wasn’t far behind, but things change. Obviously. I walked around my room and with each step I felt my body ache from last night. Every ounce of pain wa
s felt through my entire body.

  Even so, my body didn’t get the memo that we hated Kael now.

  I wanted his touch. I needed to feel him, skin against skin. I couldn’t get him out of my mind, he had gotten so comfortable there. My fingers ached for him as I dug through my drawers for something thin and comfortable. I cancelled work for the day, ignoring the questions in Mali’s voice. I hung up before I started to cry. I focused on getting dressed. Of course today would have been a short day at work, and of course Kael and I had plans to drive as far away from this town as we could. We were preparing questions for each other, gathering music. Just the night before, Kael was making plans to thread our lives together.

  Or so I thought.

  Maybe he was just making plans to avenge whatever the fuck happened during that deployment.

  How had everything shattered so quickly?

  I thought that if I cleaned myself up, if I had a shower and brushed my teeth, I might feel a little more like myself. A little less than a zombie, anyway. But when I got to the bathroom and saw his tube of cinnamon toothpaste, rolled up at the end, I nearly choked. I hated the way this felt. This was bad. This was almost worse than the good had been good. I wasn’t sure if any of it was worth it. I never wanted to feel this again. Right then and there I decided that I wasn’t ever going to allow myself to step inside this danger zone.

  I grabbed his gross toothpaste and tossed it into the trashcan. When I missed, it cracked against the drywall and a black line spread across at least five inches. I was starting to despise this house and it knew. That’s why it was falling apart right along with me.

  THE SHOWER HAD HELPED a little, but I still looked like hell. I threw on black leggings and a T-shirt and towel dried my hair and sprayed a little salt spray throughout. It was a lifesaver on my thick hair. I wanted the day to go fast, that’s all I wanted. I pinched my cheeks to bring a little color to the surface.

  I heard Elodie’s voice as soon as I stepped into the hallway. It sounded like she was hushing someone, but she was alone with her laptop. Phillips voice was coming through the speaker.

  “Don’t lie to me,” he said.

  I thought I heard him wrong, but he said it again. “Don’t lie to me, Elodie. Cooper’s wife told me that you were over there. His wife tells him everything, unlike mine.”

  Elodie was crying. I had to hold onto the doorjamb in the hallway to stop myself from getting into her business. I didn’t know what Philip was talking about, but I knew I didn’t like the sound of his voice. I had never seen that side of him, or heard it. I couldn’t tell if his wife was used to it or not.

  “I’m not lying. We stopped there for an hour at most. We went to the meetings, then to that house. There weren’t any men there,” she told him.

  I tapped my fingers against the wall to let Elodie know I was coming. She perked up and wiped at her tears as I knew she would.

  “Phillip, Karina is here,” she said. To warn him, I guess.

  I didn’t know what was going on between them, but I knew I didn’t like the way he was speaking to my friend, who was swollen with his child.

  “Hey, Karina,” Phillip said, his voice nice and friendly, opposite of what it just was.

  I threw him a bland “hey,” and walked into the kitchen. Dishes were piling up in the sink. The laundry in the corner of the kitchen was overflowing in the basket. I couldn’t even blame the mess on my emotional despair, because the breakup had happened barely twelve hours ago. I managed to take one bite of an orange before he surrounded me again, the taste of his lips on mine the first time he kissed me. I felt the warmth of him, tasted the sweet citrus that clung to him the first time he kissed me and I tossed the orange in the trashcan.

  This was getting to be a habit, tossing things into the trashcan.

  Elodie signed off Skype and met me in the kitchen. Her eyes were bloodshot; the tip of her nose was red as fire.

  “Everything okay?” I asked, licking the last of the orange juice off of my lips.

  She nodded and sat down across from me at the kitchen table.

  I didn’t want to press her, but she was obviously not okay.

  “Elodie, you know you can talk to me?”

  “You have enough problems.” She tried to smile, to be strong.

  “Elodie, we can talk about anything. I have time for you.”

  She shook her head. “No, no. I’m fine. Really, it’s just drama from the other soldiers. Why is there so much drama? Don’t they have anything better to do?” she asked me, sniffling and rubbing her nose.

  “How are you?” she asked, reaching for me. I pretended not to notice as I lowered my hands onto my lap.

  “I’m fine. Just tired,” I lied.

  If she could lie to my face, I could do the same.

  I SPENT MY DAY READING. Elodie was working and going straight from there to one of the other wives’ houses. Instead of worrying about her, I tried to do the things I liked to do before I met Kael. It wasn’t so long ago. That meant reading an entire poetry book, the new hipster style of poems with black covers and catchy titles. I’m a sucker for good marketing, so I ordered three more from Amazon. Every time I ordered something online I felt like I was receiving some sort of adult points for having enough money in my checking account to be able to afford it. After I scanned Amazon for too long and talked myself out of buying a pressure washer that I would most definitely never use—the one I was eyeing was called The Clean Machine—I got on Facebook. A quick scroll would clear my head. I mean, it was so much easier to focus on everyone else’s problems than my own.

  I felt better—shamefully so—when I saw that Melanie Pierson was getting divorced. Melanie was in the grade above me and slept with Austin her senior year. She pretended to like me, no doubt to get closer to my brother. Until one day we were swimming and she saw the little white lines on the tops of my thighs. I hadn’t noticed them, didn’t even know what stretch marks were, until she made her hand look like a paw and called me “tiger.” Just another person who tried to boost her own poor self-image by making fun of someone else.

  Melanie no doubt thought that she would escape this town by marrying a soldier, and look at her now. Coming home with her tail between her legs. She updates everyone on everything she does, so I knew that she was moving back one week to the day. Literally.

  I moved on from her to my uncle who had posted pictures of rocks that look like people. Boredom and lack of motivation will do that to a man. I wondered how people would respond if I posted a broken heart emoji. Or a lengthy paragraph about my heartbreak and how it was eating me up from the inside out, and how I probably deserve to feel every bit of this agony for being so desperate for attention that I lost control of myself and my life.

  I wondered if Melanie would have the same reaction to my misfortune as I had to hers. Did she see me as Austin’s bitchy sister who was always tagging along, the girl who wore a bathing suit that showed too much, things she found repulsive enough to pick at in front of everyone we knew. I wondered about Sammy too, and if she would see my post and feel bad for her best friend, or whatever we were supposed to be. We barely talked anymore, but I still considered her my best friend. At least when anyone asked. Not that anyone did. A habit, I guess.

  I closed out of Facebook before I could follow through with my social experiment. I moved on to the porch. It was the perfect temperature outside, warm enough not to have to wear a jacket, but not too warm as to be hot and sticky. I took the poetry book and a beer that Kael left in my fridge and spent the next hour outside in the fresh air. I had one drink of the dark amber beer and all I could taste was Kael.

  He was everywhere. He had become everything. I turned the pages in my book and felt like every single poem was read in Kael’s voice, I skipped from page to page.

  Your skin is dark

  As the velvet night

  Your starred eyes

  Are tenants in the constellations

  I closed the book and tossed it, wat
ching as it went skidding across the porch. The Chaos of Longing is exactly what I felt and I wanted the collection as far away from me as they could get. I kicked the little pink book and watched as it disappeared into the patch of weeds next to my porch.

  Then I felt guilty. It wasn’t the poet’s fault that my first love only lasted a week. I crawled over to grab it and dug my hand into the stringy weeds. They were too long, too unmanageable, growing into unpredictable vegetation overgrowing my yard. This little house was the only thing that wasn’t going to turn out to be something that it wasn’t. I knew what I was getting when I signed the dotted line for the basically abandoned house at the end of a strip mall covered street. The house was exactly what I knew it was. Sure, it was falling apart and unkempt, but that’s what I had signed up for. I was working my way back to making it beautiful. My house. For me. And yet, it had become another thing that reminded me of Kael. I began to pull at the weeds in the yard. I needed a distraction and had the rest of the day to do as I pleased, as long as Mali didn’t drive past my house and see me out here yanking the weeds from the yard. Minutes went by and I moved on from the weeds to sweep the gravel back into my driveway. It had started to take over my yard.

  I thought about Kael and his remodel plans for his duplex. He had a talent for home design and I hated that he told me I should pave my driveway and now every time I see the gray stone gravel, I’m would think about him.

  Don’t even think about that, I told myself. Possibly out loud, but at that point I couldn’t be sure. Don’t let him make you turn on this house. It’s all you have.

  AT FIRST, I THOUGHT THE white Bronco pulling up to my house was a mirage. The sun was setting so I had to have been out there for at least two hours. My mind was obviously playing tricks on me. I stood up and stared, watching unwavering as he pulled up.

  When he got out of his truck, it hit me. He was at my house and I was letting him walk toward me.

  “Karina.” His voice danced around me, hypnotizing me.

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