The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  “The same. I’ve barely heard from him since he’s been staying with my uncle. Who knows when he’s coming back?” I sighed, gliding my fingers down Tina’s neckline.

  “Is he in school there yet?” she asked.

  “No. They keep saying they’re going to sign him up, but haven’t.” I tried not to think much about it, but my brain didn’t work that way. Once I cracked the door open, the wood snapped off of the hinges and everything rushed in.

  “It sounds like they don’t plan on it,” Tina said.

  “Yeah. I figured as much. He won’t talk to me about it, and his scholarship to the community college expired last month.”

  Little pokes of stress rapped at my shoulders and down my spine. I understood that Austin couldn’t bear to live with our dad any longer, but I was conflicted; he was my twin, twenty and headed nowhere. He shouldn’t be living in the next state over with our thirty-year-old uncle who smelled like Cheetos and watched online porn all day, but I also didn’t want him to live in my house with me. It was complicated. I still couldn’t believe my dad had let him leave in the first place. But I really couldn’t blame my brother. Again, complicated.

  “Honestly, Karina, you can’t take on full responsibility for this. It’s not good for you and at the end of the day, your brother is the same age as you. Or five minutes younger, if I remember?”

  “Six.” I smiled and moved my hands down to her shoulder blades.

  I knew she was right, but that didn’t make it any easier.

  I moved my hands along her skin, using a compression stroke. “You have to decide what’s best for you,” she said. “You’re starting a new chapter and you should have the most de-cluttered life possible.”

  Easier said than done.

  “I’ll ask my dad if he’s heard anything from him.”

  Tina didn’t say anything after that. She must have known that talking about the dinner with my “family” would be too much for me that early in the day, so she just enjoyed the rest of her treatment while my thoughts boiled inside my brain.

  IT WAS ALMOST SIX when I finished for the day. I had three more clients after Tina, and each of them occupied my mind in different ways. Stewart—I called her by the last name stitched into her ACUs—was an army medic who had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. She kept me busy talking about her next post, about how, with her job, she could be stationed almost anywhere in the world, so being posted to Hawaii was like hitting the jackpot. It was nice to see her so happy.

  Some people loved to move around in the military and Stewart was one of them. She was only a year older than me, but she’d already been deployed to Iraq—twice. And man, did she have stories. At twenty-one, she’d had experiences most people couldn’t dream of. But when those experiences turned into memories … well, they started playing through her mind on a constant loop. Never waning, never quiet, those memories became background noise that eventually took up residence in her head—tolerable, but always there. I knew all about it. My dad’s brain was full of that clamor. With six tours between Iraq and Afghanistan, his background noise blared throughout our house. His house.

  I thought about all of this while Stewart lay on my table. I was glad she could open up to me, that she could unburden herself by talking and releasing a bit of her background noise. I knew better than most that it wasn’t just the physical aspect of massage that reduced stress, that helped a body come alive.

  It was almost poetry the way Stewart talked about her life. I felt every word when she spoke. I thought about things I tried hard not to. She connected me to something and when she told me everything she had been through and everything she knew, she opened me up to a different perspective.

  For instance, Stewart talked a lot about how, in the United States, less than eight percent of living citizens had ever served in the military. That included all the branches—every veteran who had ever served, even for one term. Out of over three hundred million people, less than eight percent. It was hard for me to realize that the way I grew up, moving from post to post, trying to make new friends, trying to adapt to strangers every few years, wasn’t the reality for most people. For most Americans, anyway.

  Less than eight percent? It seemed impossible to me, that small of a number. From my great-grandfather to my dad, my uncles and cousins who were scattered across the country (except that loser uncle my brother was living with), everyone around me wore a uniform or lived with someone who did. The world had never felt so big until Stewart and her statistics.

  She talked a lot during our sessions, like Tina. But unlike Tina, Stewart didn’t expect me to share. I could hide behind her experiences, many of which forced me to bite back my tears. Maybe that’s why her sessions went so fast.

  THE WATER CAME BACK on right after Stewart left. I washed the sheets and towels, and while I was waiting for my next client or a walk-in to arrive, I worked on a new playlist.

  Elodie managed to be busy with a client each time I finished with mine. I was dying to ask her how she knew that soldier with the strange name, but we kept missing each other. I usually didn’t get involved in other people’s drama—I had enough of my own—but Elodie didn’t know many people here. The only other army wives she talked to were on Facebook. My next client was a sleeper. He usually conked out within five minutes, which left me with the entire hour to think about my brother. Oh—and how much I was dreading tonight’s dinner. I was slightly envious of Austin for being so far away in South Carolina, sleeping past noon and working part-time at Kmart.

  I also thought about Elodie’s friend, how he wore pants throughout his treatment and how the amount of tension he held in his body wasn’t healthy for such a young guy. He couldn’t have been older than twenty-two. If that.

  My last client of the day was a walk-in who left me a big tip for a thirty-minute pre-natal massage. Her belly was so full and she seemed so tired. I almost asked her if she was okay, but I didn’t want to be rude.

  I walked by Elodie’s room again. The door was closed and for a second, I even imagined that her soldier friend might be in the room with her. My imagination sure ran wild.

  Before I went home, I helped Mali restock the back room and the towel warmers, and folded the laundry. I wasn’t in a rush to get home, especially on so-called family dinner night.

  When I finally left for the day, I took Mali’s delicious leftovers home with me. That whole thing about pregnant women eating for two might be an old wives’ tale, but it was still important for Elodie to have nutritious meals. I carried the food in one hand and tried to call my brother with the other. Voicemail.

  “Hey, it’s me. I was just calling to check on you. I haven’t heard from you in a few days. Call me back. I’m going to Dad’s for Tuesday dinner. You suck for not being here.”

  I hung up and put my phone in my front pocket. Around me, the sky looked like the sun couldn’t decide to set or not, staying an orange color that made everything look just a little nicer. The parking spots in the alley were all full. Bradley’s white truck was there—parked sideways, taking up two spots—and the truck bed was so full of mattresses it reminded me of that fairy-tale about the princess and the pea. He walked out the back door and tossed a pillow into the pile.

  “Water’s back!” he shouted, waving his hand.

  “Yeah …” I said, smiling. “Thanks for being on the water company!” I added.

  Okay, that was awkward. I could feel it and I knew that conversation would mull over inside my head later tonight. My brain usually worked that way. Bradley didn’t seem to notice or overthink my words the way I did—he just told me to have a good night, locked the door to his shop, and climbed inside his truck.

  Doors slammed, tires crunched over branches, and voices filled the rest of my short walk home. I thought about dinner tonight and what forced conversation we would have during at least three courses.

  I had to be at my dad’s by seven, which meant I had to be ready to leave my house by six forty. I neede
d to shower and put actual clothes on, even if I was just giving my appearance minimal effort. My dad’s wife had stopped commenting on my looks once I lost enough “extra pounds” to please her. Small mercies, I guess.

  I really wanted to stay home and eat leftovers with Elodie. I’d had variations of that same thought every single week since I moved out. I thought it would go away, that I’d get used to the routine. But nope. I hadn’t and didn’t think I ever would. Sure, dinner once a week was better than living there—by far. But, I hated the task of it, hated that my entire week revolved around Tuesday at seven. When I did my laundry, when I washed my hair, when I could work. It all revolved around this dinner. I guess I wasn’t as much of a grown-up as I thought.

  I WAS STARTING TO HATE FACEBOOK. Every single time I opened the app, there was either a newborn baby, a proposal, or a death. If it wasn’t that, it was politics, with everyone shouting so loudly they couldn’t hear what the other was saying. The whole thing was exhausting and I had barely posted anything in months. I never felt like I had anything to share with people I hardly knew. And unlike Sarah Chessman, who had moved away my senior year, I didn’t feel like every Crockpot meal or selfie was social media worthy.

  But out of slightly bitchy curiosity, and because I had another few minutes to waste on my walk home, I went to Sarah Chessman’s page to scroll through her boring life. Maybe it was the fact that I was walking through the noisy alley and my feet hurt like hell, or that I’d be knocking on my dad’s door in an hour, but Sarah’s life actually looked okay today. She had a husband—a newly minted soldier stationed in Texas—and she was pregnant. I watched a ten-second video of her opening a box full of pink balloons, revealing the gender of her upcoming baby. She didn’t look terrified the way I would if I were her.

  I started to feel like a hypocrite for judging her, so I clicked back to my main feed. My dad had posted a picture of himself holding a fish in one hand and a beer in the other. He loved to hunt and fish; my brother and I couldn’t stomach it. Austin more than me. He would go on hunting trips with Dad until we got to high school and started dating. My brother, who I had talked to every day up until a few months ago but now could barely get on the phone, had already liked my dad’s post. So did someone with a golden retriever as their profile picture. The golden retriever friend had commented that my dad was “looking happier than ever.”

  It stung. It really stung. I had been hearing that phrase since he got remarried three years ago. From the neighbors to the cashiers at the PX, everyone thought it was okay to congratulate my dad on how happy he was. No one seemed to consider that I might be in earshot, that telling him how happy he was now implied that he had been really unhappy before. No one seemed to consider me. That’s when I started clinging to people, boys mostly. Some at my high school, some older. I was searching for something I wasn’t getting at home, but I couldn’t tell you what it was.

  Mostly, I clung to Austin. Maybe it was the twin thing, maybe it was the fact that our parents were never around when we needed them most, when their guidance would have mattered. Staying close to my six-minutes younger brother seemed to help for a while, but once we were out of high school, I started to consider that maybe Austin wasn’t the person I had built him up to be. One of the weirdest parts about growing up was the way memories changed.

  Like when Austin took me to that party in Chesapeake Manor, where all the officers’ kids were partying. He told me that everyone our age was drinking, that I should just relax. Then he passed out in one of the bedrooms with some girl from a high school across town and I was forced to sleep there, surrounded by loud, belligerent boys. That’s when one of them, the one who called me “Austin’s sister” and had too deep a voice for a high school kid, swore I had a crush on him and shoved his tongue down my throat—repeatedly. Until I started crying and he got “weirded out.”

  Funny how my telling him to stop, my constant no no no, please no didn’t do it.

  Nope, it was the salty, hot tears streaming down my face that finally got him to go away. Eventually I fell asleep on a couch listening to some war video game being played in the other room. Austin never apologized the next morning. He never asked how I had slept or where. He just kissed that random girl on the cheek and made a joke that she and I both laughed at, and then we Ubered home like nothing ever happened. Our dad yelled at me, not him, and we both got grounded for a week.

  I clicked on Austin’s profile and thought about calling him again, but then Elodie opened the front door and surprised me. I hadn’t even realized I was on my front porch.

  MY HOUSE IS SMALL, so when you go through the front door, you’re already in the living room. That’s one of the things I liked about it, the way it was all cozy and warm, everything there waiting. The lights and TV were on when I got home that night, the room filled with the voice of Olivia Pope. And there was Elodie, standing at the door, greeting me with a nervous smile. Something was up.

  I hadn’t known Elodie that long, but I felt I knew her well. I’m not sure how much we had in common, other than being the same age. And even that, well, I felt older somehow. I looked older, too. Elodie had this way about her that made her appear younger than she was, especially when she smiled. And when she was nervous or sad, she looked about sixteen. Younger even. That brought out the protector in me.

  Elodie tried her best to be the perfect young army wife, but she was already at the center of so many petty rumors. The wives in Phillip’s platoon made little jokes about her accent and called her a “mail-order bride.” She was hardly the only one. Tons of soldiers met their wives online, but that didn’t seem to matter to these women. Maybe they should talk to Stewart. I bet she had some statistics about how many members of the military met their spouses on sites like MilitaryCupid.

  Anyway, that’s how a lot of military posts were—everyone bickering and jostling for position. Elodie’s neighbors were bitches who spent their days selling pyramid schemes on Facebook and bullying her over her grass being an inch too long. That’s not an exaggeration. I was with her once when the “mayor” of her housing department pulled up, tires screeching, and scolded Elodie for letting her grass grow half an inch too long.

  Yes, the “mayor” measured.

  No, she didn’t have anything better to do.

  That’s why Elodie preferred to spend her nights on my couch, or in my bed, depending on where she fell asleep. I got the feeling she liked the couch the most. She didn’t wake up asking for Phillip when she was on the couch.

  I planned on asking Elodie about the guy from earlier. Obviously she knew him—but how? She didn’t have many friends, as far as I was aware, and she didn’t spend much time socializing. Maybe Phillip had buddies outside of his platoon. It wasn’t too common, but it wasn’t impossible either.

  Elodie sat down on the couch and tucked her feet under her. Her petite body was changing, her belly starting to swell. I wondered where the baby would sleep in my little house.

  Elodie’s favorite American show at the moment was Scandal. She was binge-watching it for the first time.

  “What season are you on now?” I asked her.

  “Two,” she said softly.

  She was being so quiet. I pulled my shoes off and it wasn’t until I dropped one on the floor and something moved in my peripheral vision that I realized another person was in my house.

  A noise, a little like a shriek, flew from my mouth when I saw him. He was staring at me, the one-syllable client from earlier. He was sitting in my chair—the dark pink, used-to-be-red one that my nana gave me before we moved to Georgia.

  “Um, hey?” I said when my heart stopped doing little flips from the aftershock of surprise. How did I not see a whole human in my living room? I had been feeling spacey a lot the last few weeks, but that day was another level.

  “How was work?” Elodie asked, looking at the TV while her fingers picked at the fabric on her pants, and then back to me.

  “Good …”

  I sta
red at this Kael guy and he stared back at me. When I would recall this later, the first time he was inside my little white house, the memory would change from a burning pain to pure bliss and back—again and again and again. But when it happened in real life, it happened fast. Before he was anything to me—before he was everything—he was just a quiet stranger with a blank face and distant eyes. There was something indomitable about him, something so closed, that I couldn’t even begin to make up a life for him. He hated peppermint oil and hadn’t wanted me to touch his leg—those were the only clues I had to who he was.

  I smelled the popcorn right before the popping actually started. “I’m making popcorn,” Elodie announced. She was nervous. What was going on here?

  “Okay …” I started. “I’m going to take a shower. I have to be at my dad’s at seven.”

  I walked down the hallway. Elodie followed, chewing on her bottom lip.

  “Well?” I asked.

  “He just got home last night. He was with Phillip.” Her voice was low and I could tell she was gearing herself up to ask me something. My mom was like this too, when she wanted something. “Can he stay here for a day until he can get ahold of his …” She trailed off, stopping for a second. “Until he can get into his place. Sorry to ask like this, I—”

  I held up my hand. “How do you know this guy?” I wanted to make sure this was on the up and up.

  “Oh—I met him right before they left. He’s a good guy, Karina. Honest. He’s Phillip’s closest friend over there.”

  “What’s he doing back?” I asked her.

  She shook her head. “I didn’t ask. Should I ask?” She peered into the living room.

  “I wouldn’t,” I told her. “He can stay here, but if he ends up being a creep, he’s out. So are you,” I teased her.

  She smiled at that and touched my arm. She was always so affectionate. Me, not so much.

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