The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “I’ll keep tryin’ to call them,” he offered.

  His fingers reached down and touched his longhorn belt buckle. He looked like he was already sweating and when he grabbed the massive rug from the bed of his truck, I almost wanted to help him.

  “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll let Mali know.”

  THE DOOR WAS LOCKED, the lights were off—even the hallway light that we usually kept on—and it was freezing inside. I turned on the oil warmers and lit the candles in the lobby and in two of the rooms.

  My first client wasn’t until ten thirty. Elodie’s wasn’t scheduled until eleven thirty. She was still snoring when I left the house, which meant she’d rush through the door at ten past eleven and give her client a sweet smile and a quick apology in that cute little French accent of hers. Then she’d be on with her day.

  Elodie was one of the few people in the world I’d do most anything for. That was especially true now that she was pregnant. She’d found out about the baby just two days after her husband’s boots hit the dirt in Afghanistan. That kind of stuff was the norm around here. I saw it with my parents, with Elodie … pretty much everyone around these posts knew it was a possibility. Not just a possibility. More like the reality when you were married to the military.

  I shook the thought off. I needed some music in here. I hated silence. I had recently convinced Mali to let me play more relevant music over the speakers while we worked. I couldn’t handle another shift of “relaxing spa tunes” on repeat for hours. The sleepy sounds of waterfalls and waves got on my nerves like no other. Made me drowsy, too. I turned on the iPad and within seconds, Banks was washing away the memory of all that soft, dreamy babble. I walked to the front desk to switch the computer on. Not two minutes later, Mali came in with a couple of big tote bags hanging from her little arms.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked as I took the bags from her.

  “Um, nothing? No, hi? No, how’s it going, Karina?” I laughed and made my way to the back room.

  The food in those bags smelled so good. Mali made the best homemade Thai food I’d ever tasted and she always made extra for Elodie and me. She graced us with it at least five days a week. The little avocado—that’s what Elodie called her baby bump—only wanted spicy drunken noodles. It was the basil leaves. Elodie had become obsessed with them since getting pregnant, to the point where she’d pick them out of her noodles and chew on them. Babies made you do the strangest things.

  “Karina,” Mali said, smiling. “How are you? You look sad.”

  That was Mali for you. What’s wrong? You look sad. If it was on her mind, it came out of her mouth.

  “Hey—I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just not wearing makeup.” I rolled my eyes and she poked my cheek.

  “That’s not it,” she said.

  No, that wasn’t it. But I wasn’t sad. And I didn’t like that my mask had slipped enough for Mali to notice. I didn’t like it one bit.

  TEN THIRTY CAME AND my client was right on time. I was used to his punctuality, not to mention his soft skin. I could tell he used oil after his showers and that made my job easier, massaging already soft skin. His muscles were always so tight, especially around his shoulders, so I assumed he sat behind a desk all day. He wasn’t military. I gathered that by his longer hair, curling at the tips.

  Today his shoulders were so tense that my fingers hurt a little when they rubbed the patch of tissue at the top of his shoulders. He was a groaner—a lot of clients were—and he made these deep throaty sounds when I loosened the knots he held in his body. The hour went fast. I had to tap his shoulder to wake him when it was over.

  My ten thirty client—his name was Toby, but I liked to call him ten thirty—was a good tipper and kept things simple. Except for that time he asked me out. Elodie freaked when I told her. She wanted me to tell Mali, but I didn’t want it to become a thing when it didn’t need to be. He was fine with my rejection—unusual with men, I know. Anyway, he hadn’t even so much as hinted at any attraction toward me since, so I figured things were okay between us.

  Forty-five minutes past eleven and there was still no Elodie. Usually she’d text if she was going to be more than fifteen minutes late. The man in the waiting area must have been new, because I didn’t recognize him and I never forgot a face. He seemed patient enough. Not Mali, though. She was two minutes away from calling Elodie.

  “I can take him if she’s not here in five minutes. My next client can be moved an hour later, it’s Tina,” I told Mali. She knew most of the patrons who came in and out of her salon; she remembered names like I did faces.

  “Fine, fine. But your friend is always late,” she scolded. Mali was the nicest woman, but made of pure fire.

  “She’s pregnant,” I said, defending my friend.

  Mali rolled her eyes. “I have five children and I worked just fine.”


  I kept my laughter quiet and texted Tina to see if she could come in at one. She immediately responded with a yes, like I knew she would.

  “Sir,” I called to the man in the waiting room. “Your therapist is actually running late. I can start you now if you’d like. Or you could wait for Elodie.” I didn’t know if he was partial to her for some reason, or if he just wanted a massage. Now that we were on Yelp and booking online appointments, I never knew which clients wanted a specific therapist.

  He stood up and walked to the desk without saying a word. “Is that okay?” I asked.

  He hesitated for a second before he nodded. Okay …

  “All right—” I looked at the schedule. Kael. What a strange name. “Follow me, please.”

  We didn’t have assigned rooms—not technically—but I had fixed up the second room on the left to perfectly fit my taste, so that was the one I used the most. No one else took it unless they had to.

  I had brought in my own cabinet, my own decorations, and was in the process of convincing Mali to let me paint the walls. Anything would be better than this dark purple color. It wasn’t exactly relaxing, plus it was dull and dated the room by about twenty years.

  “You can leave your clothes on the hanger or the chair,” I told him. “Go ahead and strip down to however you’re comfortable. Lie facedown on the table, and I’ll be back in two minutes.”

  The client didn’t say a word; he just stood next to the chair and lifted his gray T-shirt over his head. He was definitely military. Between his solid build and his nearly-shaved head, he screamed soldier. I grew up inside army posts my entire life, so I knew. He folded his shirt and set it down on the chair. When his fingers tugged at his athletic pants, I left him alone to undress.

  I PULLED MY PHONE OUT of my scrub pocket and read the first line of a text from my dad: See you tonight. Estelle is making one of her best recipes! I could name at least a thousand things I’d rather do, but this is what the three of us—sometimes four—did every single Tuesday. I’d missed only one family dinner since moving out a year ago, and that was when my dad drove Estelle in our family RV to the boot camp graduation of some distant relative, so technically I guess I wasn’t the one who missed it. They still had it, on their little family vacay, while Elodie and I shoved our faces with Dominos.

  I didn’t respond to my dad because he knew I’d be there at seven. My “new” mom would be in the bathroom curling her hair and dinner wouldn’t be started, but I’d be there on time. Like I always was.

  It had been three minutes since I told Elodie’s client I’d be back to start his treatment, so I pulled back the curtain and walked into the room. The lights were dimmed so everything was a shade of purple from the hideous walls. The candles had been burning long enough for the air to take on the clean smell of lemongrass. Even after my restless night, this room had the power to calm me.

  He was on the table in the center of the room with the white blanket pulled up to his waist. I rubbed my hands together. My fingertips were still too cold to touch someone’s skin, so I walked over to the sink to warm them. I turned on the
faucet. Nothing. I had already forgotten Bradley’s warning and for the last hour, I’d managed without water.

  I rubbed my hands together and wrapped them around the oil warmer on the edge of the sink. It was a little too hot, but it did the trick. The oil would be warm on his skin and he probably wouldn’t notice that the water wasn’t working. It wasn’t convenient, but it was manageable. I hoped that whoever worked the closing shift put clean towels in the warmer last night before they left.

  “Do you have any specific areas of concern or tension that you’d like me to focus on?” I asked.

  No answer. Had he already fallen asleep?

  I waited a few beats before I asked again.

  He shook his shaved head in the face cradle and said, “Don’t touch my right leg. Please,” he added the please at the end as an afterthought.

  I had requests from people all the time not to touch certain parts of their bodies. They had all kinds of reasons, from medical conditions to insecurities. It wasn’t my business to ask. My business was to make the client feel better and provide a healing experience. It seemed like every time I didn’t have them fill out a treatment card, they had special request. Mali would scold me over this for sure.

  “Will do. Would you like light, medium, or intense pressure?” I asked, grabbing the little bottle of oil off the cabinet shelf. The outside of the bottle was still really hot but I knew it would be the perfect temperature when it hit his skin.

  Again, no answer. Maybe he was hard of hearing. I was used to this as well—one of the rougher things about army life.

  “Kael?” I said his name, though I didn’t know why.

  His head popped up so quickly, I thought I frightened him. I jumped a little myself.

  “Sorry, I just wanted to know what level of pressure you wanted?”

  “Any?” He didn’t sound like he knew what he wanted. Probably a first-timer. He put his head back into the cradle.

  “Okay. Just tell me if the pressure is too light or too firm and I’ll adjust my touch,” I told him.

  I could be a little heavy-handed and most of my clients liked that, but I’d never worked on this guy before.

  Who knew if he’d ever come back? I’d say only about four of out of ten first-timers actually returned and only one or two become regulars. We weren’t a big salon, but we had a steady clientele.

  “This is peppermint oil.” I dotted the little bottle against my forefinger. “I’m going to rub some into your temples. It helps with—”

  He lifted his head up, lightly shaking it. “No,” he said. His voice wasn’t harsh, but it let me know he absolutely did not want me to use peppermint oil. Okay …

  “Okay.” I screwed the lid back on the bottle and turned the faucet. Damn it. The water. I knelt down and opened the towel warmer. Empty. Of course it was.

  “Um, just a second,” I told him. He laid his head back into the cradle and I shut the warmer door a little too hard. I hoped he didn’t hear it over the music. This wasn’t turning out to be the smoothest session …

  MALI WAS IN THE HALLWAY when I pushed through the thin curtain to search for towels. “I need water. Or warm towels.”

  She put her fingers to her lips to tell me to hush. “There’s no water. I have towels. Who didn’t stock?”

  I shrugged. I didn’t know and didn’t really care; I just wanted a towel. “He’s been in my room for five minutes and I haven’t started yet.”

  At that she moved faster, disappearing into the room across the hall and popping back up with a few hot towels. I grabbed them from her, shifting the steaming bundles from palm to palm to cool them off.

  When I got back into the room, I waved the towel through the air one last time and rubbed it across the bottom of his bare feet. His skin was so hot to the touch that I pulled the towel away and touched the back of my hand to the top of his foot to make sure he didn’t have a fever or anything. I couldn’t afford to be sick.

  Literally. The days on my dad’s Tricare were coming to an end and I couldn’t afford health insurance on my own.

  His skin felt so hot. I lifted the blanket a little and realized he was still wearing his pants. That was just … strange. I didn’t know how I was going to rub his other leg, the one I was supposed to massage.

  “Did you want me to avoid your legs altogether?” I quietly asked him.

  He nodded his head in the cradle. I continued to run the hot towel across the bottoms of his feet, something I did to clean off any oil and dirt. The hygiene of clients … well, let’s just say it varied. Some people came in wearing sandals after walking around all day. Not this guy, though. He must have showered before he came in. I appreciated that. These were the things you thought about as a masseuse. I started on the balls of his feet, applying pressure there and moving to the arch of his left foot. There was a soft, bubbly line across the bottom of his left foot, but I couldn’t see the scar in the dark. I slid my thumb slowly along the arch and he jerked a little.

  I was used to timing my hour sessions perfectly, about five minutes per leg, so I took the extra time to work on his shoulders. A lot of people carried tension in their shoulders, but this guy—if these weren’t the stiffest shoulders I’d ever worked on, they sure came close. I had to stop myself from making up a story about his life.

  I continued, keeping his legs covered by the blanket and working on his neck, his shoulders, his back. His muscles were defined, but not bulky or hard under my moving fingers. I imagined his young body had been carrying the weight of something for a long time—a rucksack, maybe. Or just life itself. He didn’t express enough of himself for me to make up a life for him the way I did with Bradley and most of the other strangers around me. There was something about this guy that kept my imagination at bay.

  His scalp was the last part I worked on. The soft pressure release usually made people moan or at least sigh, but nothing came from his lips. He didn’t make a peep. I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. That happened often and I loved when it did. It meant I did a good job. When the time was up, I felt like it had just started. I usually drifted in and out of thought—my dad, my brother, work, my house. But there was something about working on this guy. I came up with nothing.

  “Thank you, was everything okay?” Sometimes I asked, sometimes I didn’t. This guy was so quiet that I wasn’t sure if he’d enjoyed it or not.

  He kept his face in the cradle so I barely heard him when he said, “Yeah.”

  Okay …

  “Okay, well I’m going to step out and let you get dressed. I’ll see you in the lobby when you’re finished. Take your time.”

  He nodded and I left the room, pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting a tip.

  I HEARD ELODIE IN THE LOBBY. She was talking to Mali, who was giving her a hard time for being late.

  “I took your client—he’s dressing now,” I told my friend. It didn’t hurt to let Mali know that everything was covered, no harm done. Elodie smiled at me and tilted her head to the side. She had this thing about her where she could get away with just about anything.

  “I’m so sorry, Karina. Thank you.” She kissed both of my cheeks. That was something I got used to the first week she moved in. I wasn’t really fond of excess touching but with her, it was hard to recoil the way I normally would.

  “I couldn’t fall asleep last night. The avocado started kicking.” Her smile grew wide, but I could tell by her eyes that she wasn’t rested. I could relate.

  Mali put her hand on Elodie’s stomach and started talking to the baby. I half expected her to ask the bump what’s wrong, why aren’t you smiling? but Mali was soft and kind around children, even the ones who hadn’t been born yet. It made me a little uncomfortable, the way she was touching Elodie like that, but the idea of the baby kicking was exciting, so I smiled. I really was happy for my friend. It worried me that she was so alone here with her family and most of her friends across the Atlantic Ocean. She was young. So young. I wondered if she’d had the chance to tell Phillip
that she thought she felt the baby move yesterday, or if he would even get to check his email today. The time zones made it so hard for them to talk as often as Elodie or anyone with a soldier in their life would want, but she was handling it with grace, as she did everything. It scared the hell out of me, though—the fact that she was going to have a baby in a few months.

  Elodie’s eyes snapped to the curtain behind me and she lit up like a Christmas tree, pushing past me to the client. She said a name that I couldn’t hear completely, but it didn’t sound anything like Kael. She double kissed his cheeks and hugged him.

  “You’re here! I can’t believe you’re here! How did you know?” She squealed and hugged him again.

  Mali nodded to my next client who was walking through the front door. “Back to work for you,” she said.

  TINA WAS ONE OF MY favorite clients. She worked from home as a family therapist and more than once let me use her massage session as my therapy. I wasn’t open with too many people, but Tina had no one to tell my secrets to. It made me sad for her, though, thinking about how lonely she must be in her big, empty house, eating dinner alone in front of the TV. Then again, that’s what my life consisted of, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too sad for her. I felt slightly guilty about the way a strike of fear slapped against me—was Tina’s life my future?

  Today’s session with her felt like it was never going to end. I checked the clock again: ten minutes left.

  “So, how are things with your brother?” she asked. I moved her hair to the side so I could focus on the tight muscles in her neck. Tina had recently cut her hair—The Demi, she called it—but hated it and immediately started wearing hats to cover her dark strands. It still wasn’t long enough to put into a ponytail.

  I didn’t really want to talk about my brother. Actually, I didn’t want to feel the way I would feel if we talked about my brother.

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