The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  I wish he knew I couldn’t help it. I wanted to move. I desperately wanted to move and run inside and hide under my covers and pretend it never happened.

  “Karina.” Kael’s voice was punishment wrapped in silk.

  I couldn’t speak through the lump in my throat. My tongue felt so heavy.

  He looked the same and it surprised me. How had it only been a week since I had touched him? It didn’t seem possible. My body was a traitor, reminiscing over his warmth as he stood in the yard, too far away from me.

  My brother stood up, covering my view of Kael for a second. Just what I needed to help me snap out of it.

  “See you later,” I said to Austin, as casually as I could manage without looking at Kael. I deserved an Academy Award. I grabbed the screen door handle and didn’t look back again. Once inside, once I heard the click of the lock, I pressed my body against the front door. It was an attempt to stabilize myself, to keep myself upright. It didn’t work. I cried so hard that I slid down onto the floor. That’s where I stayed until Elodie came home from work and lured me up with pictures of her sonogram. Her little avocado was now the length of a banana. She was so happy that I cried again.

  I WAS FINE CLOSING FOR ELODIE since she was having back pain. And I was fine when Mali left early to let her dogs out because her husband’s poker game bled over and he wouldn’t be home in time. But being in the spa alone? I hated it.

  My imagination was the problem, the way it loved to travel to extremes—and quickly. I was starting to get creeped out, like I used to when I was left alone in my parent’s house and still do sometimes in my own place. I was thinking of all those urban legends that everyone thought were so funny. The call is coming from inside the house! I never got the joke, myself. And the one about the man hiding under the girl’s bed, licking her fingers so that she’d think it was her dog? Yeah … I was freaking myself out.

  I didn’t have long to go. There were no clients on the schedule sheet and I doubted anyone would be walking down the strip mall within the next twenty minutes, so I closed down my room for the night and got stuff ready for the morning. The cleaning company had been in the night before and everything was in pretty good shape. I just had to straighten up a few things and make sure all the candles were out. That kind of thing. I turned the lights off, one by one, before locking the back door—padlock too—and shutting off the office light.

  I practically ran to the lobby where the lights were still on, and switched off the overhead lighting. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and walked to the front corner window to turn on the floor lamp. We always kept one dim light on, to prevent break-ins. Mali told me that schools did this too, and for the same reason. Just the mention of a break-in plucked at my nerves.

  Freaking yourself out much, Karina?

  I was laughing a little at myself then, telling myself what a wimp I was. It was like all those CSI scenarios I made up for people. And Law & Order? Too many Law & Order SVU marathons had obviously done a number on my head.

  And then I saw a shadow approach the door and practically jumped out of my skin. I think I may have screamed a little, too. I stood still, trying to catch my breath and slow my heart rate. The shadow moved closer into view and that’s when I saw that it was a man—a young one, but not a boy. Maybe a soldier given the haircut. It was a little late for someone to just pass by. Plus I didn’t recognize him, and that made me a little uneasy.

  I had never been alone in the spa at night before and I would surely never do it again. And I wished to God I had listened to Kael when he told me to start carrying mace again. I looked at the now empty pink stick dangling from my purse. Wasn’t it funny how it was pink? Like it just had to be “cute and girly” so I could protect myself from men at night.

  The man tugged at the door and I stepped into view, flicking the other lamp back on. I turned the flashlight off on my phone and kept a little distance from the door.

  “Hey, sorry are you closed?” He was calm. His voice was friendly enough.

  “Yeah, well, in ten minutes.” I sounded like a terrified church mouse. I felt like one too, and I hated that. Courage, Karina.

  “Oh, sorry. I think I did something to my back during PT and was hoping you guys would still be open.” He sounded genuine enough, but I couldn’t see his face.

  “We could see you in the morning? I could come in early?” I offered, assuming he would have to work, but feeling sort of guilty knowing he was a soldier and in pain.

  “I think I can get out of PT in the morning, can I come in and put my name down?” he asked. I looked up at the little red light of the camera hanging on the wall and unlocked the door. My mind flashed back to Law & Order and how Mali would react when she discovered my body in the morning.

  The man stepped inside and looked into my eyes. It was a little off-putting, but honest too, in a strange sort of way. He followed me to the desk and I grabbed the paper version of the schedule since I had already shut the computer down. I looked at my day tomorrow.

  “I have a ten o’clock opening and a twelve, but I could come in at nine or eight thirty for you since you came all this way tonight,” I told him.

  I didn’t know where he came from, but I was trying to recite some of the typical customer service lines I’ve used from job to job. Inconveniencing yourself for the unhappy customer or client usually does the trick, unless the customer is a real jerk. Then they’re on their own.

  “Let’s do nine thirty so it will be extra quiet in here.” He looked behind him to the hours of operation painted on the front door in clear white letters.

  “Okay.” I swallowed. “Nine thirty it is. Can I have your name please?”

  “Nielson,” he told me. I wrote it down. It sounded familiar, but I knew I had never seen his face before. I knew faces.

  “Are you the one who … you know, gives the special kind of massage?” His voice crawled over me like tiny little spiders.

  My stomach dropped. “What did you just say?” I asked. Accused was more like it. I looked at the camera again, this time in a real obvious way. This time he noticed.

  “Um, er … yeah. Well … I heard there’s one of you here who does,” he slithered. “You know. Special massages …”

  I wanted to throw up. I wanted to run. But I reached deep for my courage and held my ground.

  “I’m going to ask you to leave,” I said, as firmly as possible. Then I reached for the land line and lifted it halfway to my ear.

  He held up his hands in mock surrender, smirking. I thought I saw a flash of metal in the back of his jaw when he laughed. “Sure, okay, okay. I’m teasing. Sorry, sorry.” He held his hands up. “No harm done. No need to get defensive.”

  I stared at him, silently, not lowering the phone and hoping he couldn’t see my hand shaking or the way my knuckles were stretched and white, holding onto the phone as tightly as I could. After the longest few seconds of my life, he retreated, walking backward toward the front door.

  He kept his eyes on me though. Those icy blue eyes and taut pale skin were much sinister now that he was scaring the shit out of me. I couldn’t let him see that he was though, so I held my lips in a tight line and kept the phone up so that he could see.

  Just before he backed out of the door, the stranger smiled again. “You’re Fischer’s daughter, right?” An alarm sounded in my head. Who was this guy?

  The bell dinged when he pressed his back against the door. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Please leave, I silently begged him. Please go. He turned around and hovered in the doorway. And in that moment, just as the door was slowly pulling closed, Kael appeared on the sidewalk. I thought I was going to pass out at the sight of him there.

  Kael. In the flesh. I wasn’t alone anymore.

  KAEL OPENED THE DOOR and I climbed into his truck. I tried not to think about how much was left unresolved between us or how much I wanted to move next to him and hold onto his warm body.

  Old-school Kings of Leon was playing low t
hrough the speakers.

  “Seatbelt,” Kael reminded me, as usual.

  “You’re in no position to be bossy,” I told him. He smiled. “I’m starting the clock now,” I said. “Twenty minutes.” And I did too. I set my iPhone timer.

  He smiled again. I hated that my guard was slipping and slipping fast, but the burst of relief I felt when he looked at me, head titled and lips parted … well, I didn’t hate that.

  “What?” I asked him, tucking my chin into my shoulder to hide my mouth.

  “It feels good to breathe again,” he responded, eyes locked onto mine. That was it. Addiction. Relapse. I couldn’t help it if I wanted to.

  “Mhmm,” I teased him. “Ask me stuff,” I said to break the intensity. It was either that or give into my body and touch his shoulders, his neck, his lips.

  All of the pain from the last week felt worth it just to be sitting here beside him. As I said. Addiction.

  He turned the radio down.

  “Are you sure you’re okay? You looked spooked. You know, by that guy who was walking out of your work.” He sounded concerned. I wanted him to be concerned, even if I wouldn’t ever admit it to him.

  I nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. Really.” It would hit me later on. I knew that. When I was alone, without the safety of Kael’s body next to me, without the protection his presence offered, it would hit me what happened, that some creepy guy came in and made a disgusting joke and knew my dad by name. I rolled down the passenger window to get some fresh air. It smelled a little like fresh rain and earthworms. It helped calm me. The wind blowing, Kael driving, the loud thrum of the engine in this beast of a truck he drives. It all helped calm me.

  “Okay, as long as you’re sure?” He waited for my response.

  I nodded.

  “How old were you when you lost your first tooth?” he asked.

  I thought about it for a second. “Six? I think. My mom said I used to eat them. Like literally I would swallow them before she caught me so the tooth fairy missed me twice.”

  He bit his lip, trying not to laugh.

  His next question was, “Okay, how many tickets have you gotten? In your life?”

  I tilted my head. “Traffic or concert?” I clarified.

  “Traffic.”

  “Three.”

  “Three? You’ve only been driving, what, four years tops?” he teased me. “Well, if you’re going for one a year you’re a little behind. You know that don’t you?”

  I nodded.

  He continued. “How many pets have you had over the span of your life?”

  “Only one. His name was Moby.” I explained how I loved that furry little fella until he ran away for the fortieth time and never came back.

  “Like the whale or the singer?” Kael asked.

  I bit down my laugh, but missed a little of it. “Neither. We just liked the name.”

  He was wearing a gray T-shirt with a navy bomber jacket over it. The jacket was tight on his arms and his jeans were black, with rips in the knees, my favorite jeans. Ever created really.

  “What does the taste of macaroni and cheese remind you of?” he asked me as he turned on to the highway.

  “Where do you come up with these questions?” I was laughing now.

  He shrugged. “Why, did I stump you?”

  I shook my head. “Mac and cheese reminds me of my mom.” I leaned forward, covering my face. “That’s always my answer.” I uncovered my face and pushed my wild hair back away from my cheeks. “But she makes … made, the best macaroni and cheese ever. From scratch. Except the noodles, of course. She doesn’t make the noodles,” I told him.

  “She always told me that when I get married she’d teach me the recipe. Which is weird.” I half laughed.

  “And outdated,” he added.

  “Totally outdated,” I agreed.

  “I have a few more questions,” he said. The turn signal clicked as we waited at a red light in front of Kroger. It was across the street from a car wash, the one where Brien and I broke up while he was vacuuming his car. He was obsessed with vacuuming his car.

  “Go on.” I encouraged him to keep going so I could wash Brien from my brain.

  “When did you realize that you’re different from everyone else around you?” he asked. Our eyes met, just then. It was so dark in the car, he had one hand on his steering wheel and one hand on his lap. I wanted so desperately to touch his fingers. All of the will power I summoned up over the last week had evaporated so quickly. I moved a little closer to Kael and moved his leather book bag out from between us. A small stack of papers fell out of the unzipped top; I sat them on the empty space next to me.

  “What kind of car do you imagine you’ll drive in five years?”

  “Hmm, probably the same one? I don’t know, I don’t care about cars,” I told him.

  “What’s your biggest fear?” Kael asked me.

  I answered that one without even thinking about it. “Something happening to Austin.”

  Kael looked over at me and without a word, told me that he felt my worry for my brother. Kael was the first person to ever just get me so effortlessly, it was so refreshing to be around him again. So much so that it overpowered the doubt that had been clouding my mind since I had seen him last.

  “My turn.” I was quiet for the last couple of questions. I didn’t have an answer for the first question he asked because I had never seen a Marvel movie.

  “Do you feel like you know me now?” he asked. I shook my head.

  “I said, my turn.” I was nearly next to him in the front cab now and he looked down between us.

  “Put your seatbelt on, then it’s your turn.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth then a flash of light illuminated the windshield.

  He had swerved into another lane. A horn blared as Kael jerked the wheel to straighten the car and I caught my breath.

  I moved back to my seat at the other side of the cab and buckled in. Kael was looking straight ahead, his hands strangling the steering wheel.

  “Are you okay?” I asked him.

  A couple seconds passed and he swallowed. “Are you?” he asked me without looking at me.

  “Yeah. You were so worried about my seat belt that you almost killed us.” I reached for his hand and realized just how hard he was gripping the wheel.

  “Kael,” I said his name softly, like I did when he woke up in the morning, confused as to what continent he was on. I saw the same look on his face now.

  “Kael, it’s okay. I’m okay. We’re okay. Do you want to pull over?”

  He was silent. I reached across the pile of papers and the book bag and put my hand on his leg. I gently stroked his skin over his jeans.

  “Pull over.” It wasn’t a question. I could see that he still hadn’t snapped out of it. “Kael.” I lifted my hand into the air. “I’m going to touch your face,” I warned him, not knowing how he would react. My body was going to give up on me if I kept going through rush after rush of fear like this. He nodded slowly and I gently placed my open palm on the side of his cheek, pressing softly into his warm skin. I kept it still and slowly rubbed my thumb across the light stubble on his jawline.

  He pulled to the side of the road before I had to say his name again. His breath came in heavy puffs, thick blasts of panic. I was so happy to be there with him, so close and forgetting the pep talks I had given myself every morning and night while trying to keep my distance. I should have known that it would be impossible to stay away from him.

  “It’s okay,” I said again, hugging his waist.

  “Karina.” His breath came hard and fast, like he had run up a flight of stairs.

  I leaned over and knelt on the cushion, my body turned toward him.

  “We’re okay. Look.” I nudged his nose with mine and his eyes regained their focus. He looked like a little boy, not a war veteran. Not a man. It melted my heart. It made me want to tell him that I was falling for him, that all he needed to do was explain what had happened without any
lies or bending of the truth. We had so much to talk about.

  Right now, I just wanted to comfort him. He was coming down from it—wherever it was. He was coming back to me.

  I moved my body closer to his.

  “I’m just going to move these papers,” I said as I stacked them neatly. There was an Army folder on top with the typical Army star. Kael stilled next to me. I felt the shift in the space around us as I realized what the packet said. Cars passed us on the freeway, but I didn’t care. I wanted him to be calm, to be able to breath.

  “Who’s enlistment packet is this?” I asked, curious as always. “Thought you were trying to get out?” I couldn’t stop myself. I opened the folder. That’s when Kael reached over, trying to grab it from me. “I can’t believe you’re going to re-enlist, after all you—”

  And then I read the name on the first page.

  AUSTIN TYLER FISCHER

  NOW IT WAS KAEL’S TURN to call my name. Kael’s turn to bring me back to earth.

  “Karina. Karina,” he said. “Listen to me, Karina. There’s an explan—” His words were gibberish. I could make out my name, but that was it. I could barely feel my body.

  “What is this, Kael,” I managed at last. The truck was parked on the soft shoulder, but felt like it was dangling over the edge of a steep cliff.

  When he didn’t answer me, I screamed. I didn’t have time to waste on his cons and excuses. I was reading the evidence.

  “WHY IS THIS … WHY IS THIS IN YOUR CAR?” I slammed the folder down onto the empty space on the seat between us. A semi honked at us and Kael shifted into drive.

  “Do not move this fucking car until you tell me what this is and why it’s in your car!” I was every emotion: fear, anger, disgust, contempt. He was a marble statue—beautiful, but cold.

  The alarm on my phone went off. His twenty minutes was up. Had it only been twenty minutes? Had Austin really joined the Army? And Kael knew? More to the point … what was his part in it?

  “Answer me or never speak to me again,” I told him as I dug in my purse for my phone. I had a missed call from a local number that I didn’t recognize, but nothing else. I searched Austin’s name and my head was spinning so fast that everything was blurry when I tried to type a text to him. I called him, he didn’t pick up.

 
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