The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  “Thank you. You’re the—”

  “I know, I know. I’m the best. Now I have to shower so I’m not late to my dad’s.”

  She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you should thank me.”

  We both laughed and I shut the bathroom door in her face.

  MY LITTLE HOUSE WAS in dire need of a few … ish, repairs. It’d been that way since I’d moved in a few months ago. Every day it was the same dance, bouncing from foot to foot on the cold tile, completely naked, waiting for the water to heat up. That wasn’t even the worst of it. Once the water got hot, it didn’t stay that way—not for long anyway.

  The water went from hot, to cold, to hot again. I could barely stand it. I loved my slightly shabby little house, but there were a lot of things that needed fixing and it was going to take a while to get through them all. I tried some of the smaller renovations myself. Like the shower tiles I bought during an over-adventurous Saturday afternoon at Home Depot. I bought cans of paint, little tubes of white gunk to patch the holes in the hallway walls, some knobs to replace the ones on the kitchen cabinets, and some tiles for the bathroom. The knobs found their way onto the cabinets. I had to admit they really did update the cabinetry just like HGTV told me they would. Great!

  I painted the kitchen walls. Also great. Then I started the bathroom shower tiles. As in, I removed about half of them and replaced maybe … six.

  I counted them.

  Okay, so eight.

  As convenient as it was to use the “remodel” as a way to discourage my dad’s random drop-ins, I really needed to stop procrastinating. This house was my way to prove that I could take care of myself. I didn’t know who I was trying to prove that to more, myself or my dad. And did it really matter?

  The water was finally warm enough to wash my hair. It only shorted out on me a couple of times. When I turned it off, the shower still dripped behind me as I rough-dried my hair. I thought of Elodie’s friend again, the stranger in my house. He seemed nice enough, but so quiet. I wrapped a hand towel around the leaking bath faucet. I wondered if Phillip was the kind of guy to mind his friend staying with his pregnant wife.

  I started to feel uneasy as I blow-dried the tips of my hair. It was impossible to blow-dry in less than thirty minutes and I only had about ten before I had to leave. That would have to do.

  I had to do laundry—and soon. I didn’t need to be super dressed up for my dad and his wife, but I knew my outfit would be the topic of conversation at the dinner table. Outside of each of our outfits and the typical, “Have you seen any movies lately?” question, my stepmom had nothing to talk to me about. To be fair, I had even less to say to her.

  I barely had any clothes left in my dresser, so I shoved my hand in the Forever 21 bag next to my nightstand. Would I be Forever 21? I guess I’d find out next month on my birthday. There wasn’t much of use in the bag: a pair of jeans one size too big and a brown shirt that fit me but looked like it would make me itch.

  I could hear Elodie’s voice as I got dressed. It sounded like she was trying to explain Scandal to her soldier friend and it made me laugh because she was the absolute worst at explaining movies or shows to anyone. She always got everyone’s names confused and would spoil the ending without even meaning to. As someone who hated spoilers, I now knew better than to ask her about anything she had already seen.

  I finally made it out to the living room with about five minutes to spare before I had to leave. Kael was sitting in the same spot, his eyes looking like they were going to close any minute, his T-shirt clinging to his broad shoulders. It was funny the way the chair looked so small when he was in it.

  Elodie popped out of the kitchen with a big bowl of popcorn. “Leaving?” she asked.

  I nodded, digging my hand into the bowl. I was starving. “I’m going to be late,” I said, groaning.

  “What would happen if you didn’t go?” Elodie and I joked about my Tuesday date often. Every single Tuesday to be exact.

  “They would disown me.” I looked at Kael. He wasn’t looking our way, but somehow, I knew he was listening. He was a soldier, after all.

  “So, wouldn’t be so bad, yeah?” She wiped her buttery fingers across her shorts and then licked them. Just to be sure, I guess.

  “Not bad at all. Hey.” I pulled open the fridge door to grab a drink. Elodie went a little far on the salt in the popcorn. “Do you want me to bring you home dessert?”

  She nodded, smiling with a mouth full of popcorn.

  “I’ll be back around nine. Maybe later but hopefully not,” I told both of my houseguests. I found myself wondering what they would be doing after I left. The images in my head bothered me a little, but I wasn’t sure why. Before I could even contemplate that, his voice surprised me just as I reached the front door.

  “CAN I USE YOUR SHOWER?” His voice was soft as rain, and he looked at me patiently, as if he expected something. It was a look I would come to know well.

  Kael was familiar in the way that only a stranger could be. I hadn’t seen him before today, but already I had memorized his face. The thick draw of his brow, the little scar above his eye. It was like I had come across him somewhere, or sometime, before. Maybe I had seen him in passing, at a store or on the street, on line for a coffee or donut. Or maybe he just had one of those faces that felt familiar. There were people like that.

  “Can I?” he asked again.

  I fumbled a little. “Um, yeah. Of course. Of course, you can shower. And maybe you want something to eat? There’s not much in there, but make yourself at home.”

  I could tell that Elodie was waiting for Kael to leave the room so she could start talking, but I didn’t have time for even five minutes of adorable small talk. I knew my dad and if I was just five minutes late, he’d spend twice that time lecturing me. I needed to leave.

  “Thanks,” Kael muttered and stood up.

  He looked so big next to my little leather couch. Actually, he looked so big next to everything in my house, even the china cabinet I bought off Craigslist, before I realized how dangerous it was to meet strangers in the back of the Walmart parking lot. I had a lot of stuff in my house, most of it old and previously owned, and I had a thought for a second, an insecure one, about this guy in my home. Did he notice the pile of dirty clothes desperately waiting to be washed, the stack of dirty dishes in the sink?

  And why did I care?

  “If there’s that one pie … how do you say …” Elodie struggled for the English word. “The one with the little rouge …” She held up her fingers and I finished her thought for her.

  “Cherries?” Rouge was one of the very few words I remembered from high school French class. Elodie nodded, but she didn’t have to. I knew she could eat an entire cherry pie in one sitting—I’d seen her do it. And who could blame her? My dad’s wife Estelle was a decent cook. If I liked her more, I would admit that I actually loved her food. But I didn’t, so I wouldn’t.

  “Yes, yes! Cherries.” Elodie licked her lips. I had to laugh because she was feeding into every stereotype of a pregnant woman I’d ever heard.

  I told her goodbye again, and Kael nodded at me, barely looking in my direction before heading down the hallway. I found myself waiting for the bathroom door to shut.

  “Is he always this quiet?” I asked Elodie. Then I shouted, “Towels are in the closet behind the bathroom door!” loud enough that he would hear me.

  She shrugged. “I don’t know …” She winced a little.

  I sighed. “Yeah, don’t remind me.”

  She chewed on her lip the way she always did, and I gave her a somewhat reassuring smile. I left before another minute could pass.

  I WAS LATE. Not a fender bender holding up traffic late, or my dad called last minute and asked me to grab some pop on my way late. This was big late, the kind of late that would end with my dad’s dramatic sighs and a lecture about how Estelle had to keep the oven on to warm the food, but now the chicken was all dried up, and did I ever think of anyone but myself?
I was supposed to be at my dad’s house in ten minutes and I was still sitting in my driveway. As I said, late.

  I wasn’t sure what I was doing, sitting in my car and staring out the windshield in silence. All I knew was that I hated Tuesdays and that I dreaded starting the car. I hated any and all obligations that I had no control over. I didn’t like to be told what to do and where to be, and yet I let my dad put that burden on me. He’d applied that kind of pressure my whole life—and I did nothing to stop it.

  I checked my phone again: a missed call from a random number. When I tried to call it back, it said it was a collect call. Did those even exist anymore?

  I went on Instagram, for no reason really, and scrolled through pictures of girls I had known in high school and were now away in college or in the military themselves. Not a ton of people I went to high school with ended up going to college. For money or whatever reason, it just wasn’t the norm like it was in movies. I stopped scrolling when I saw a picture of a coast, bright blue water, and white sands. This was the backdrop to a couple of lounge chairs shaded by beach umbrellas, and in the corner of the photo, two hands clinking glasses of what I guessed were piña coladas. The caption read, “OMG if you think this view is nice wait till we post pics tonight!!! The sky here is sooooo beautiful!” with a bunch of heart-eye emojis. The girl whose account it was, Josie Spooner, was a complete social narcissist who posted every time she left the house. Her daily coffee cup with a quote about how she’s “ready to kick Monday’s ass!” or “Ugh, people suck. So bad. Don’t feel like talking about it!” filled my feed often. I didn’t know why I didn’t just delete her. I hadn’t spoken to her since we moved from North Carolina. Then again, if I deleted everyone who annoyed me on social media, I would have zero friends.

  I was mid eye-roll when I caught something out of the corner of my peripheral vision. It was Kael, dressed in his tan camouflage ACU uniform, striding down the grass and onto the sidewalk.

  I rolled my window down and called to him. “Hey!”

  He walked toward my car, ducking a little so he could see me.

  “Where are you going?” I asked, before I realized how nosy that sounded.

  “On post.” That soft voice again.

  “Right now? You’re walking?” Like it was any of my damn business.

  He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah. My car’s there.” He looked down at his uniform. “And my clothes.”

  “But it’s so far.”

  He shrugged again.

  Was he really going to walk three miles?

  I looked at the little digital clock on my dash: seven o’clock. I should be knocking on my dad’s door right now, but here I was, sitting in my driveway, debating with myself whether or not to offer him a ride. We were both going to the same place after all …

  Well, maybe we were. Ft. Benning wasn’t as big as say, Ft. Hood, but it was big enough.

  Kael stood up straight, his upper body disappearing from view as he walked away. I called out for him again, almost by instinct.

  “Do you want a ride? I’m going through the West Gate—where’s your company?”

  He leaned down again. “Near Patton, same gate.”

  “That’s right by me—I mean my dad’s. Get in.”

  I noticed the way he was fiddling with his fingers. It reminded me of how Austin used to get so antsy when we had to go to our mom’s. He would sit in the backseat with me, picking at the skin around his nails until they bled.

  I repeated my offer. It was going to be the last one.

  Kael nodded, no words, just walked to the passenger door—actually he went for the back seat.

  “This isn’t an Uber,” I told him, only half joking.

  He sat down next to me. This was different. Usually my only passenger was pint-sized Elodie, but here was this big guy sitting next to me with his knees touching the dashboard, smelling like my coconut body wash.

  “You can adjust the seat,” I told him.

  I put the car in reverse and my gear shift stuck for a second. It had been doing that lately. My reliable 1990 Lumina had been my one constant since I bought it for five hundred dollars—almost entirely in singles from tips I made at La Rosa’s pizza, where I had worked after school and on the weekends.

  I was the only one of my friends to have a job in high school. My small group of friends would complain, trying to pull me away from work to go to parties, to the lake, to smoke weed in the parking lot of the elementary school we hung out at. Yes, elementary school. We were mildly delinquent, but at least I could pay for my own delinquency.

  “Ugh,” I groaned and jiggled the gear.

  Kael stayed silent in the seat next to me but I swear I saw his hand lift from his lap like he was going to reach over and help me if I didn’t get it. But I did. My tires crunched down the gravel driveway and we were on our way.

  I didn’t text my dad that I was going to be late. Why would I, when I knew he’d lecture me by text and then again in person, just so he could be sure I got the point. He was that kind of guy.

  Yay for Tuesdays.

  THE ALLEYWAY LOOKED DESERTED. It was like everyone had cleared out in the last hour, which I supposed they had. Kael buckled his seatbelt across his chest. I ignored the little ding my car gave, the one that reminded me to put my seatbelt on, like I always did. Luckily it was an old car so it would only ding once, sometimes twice.

  I thought about starting a conversation, but from what little I knew about this guy, it wasn’t really his thing. I glanced over at him and quickly turned on the radio. I had never been around anyone who made me feel this prickly awkwardness before. I couldn’t explain what it was like—couldn’t even be sure that I disliked it—but I just felt like I should talk. What was that, the urge to pierce the air, the need to fill the space with words? Maybe Kael had it right and the rest of us had it wrong.

  The radio was playing a song I hadn’t heard before, but I recognized Shawn Mendes’ voice. I turned the music up a little and we drove in silence until we got closer to the post.

  I hoped his company was as close as I thought it was. I tried not to come on post unless I had to, or to go to the doctor. Which was often one and the same.

  My gas indicator light was on, a bright reminder of how irresponsible I was. When the Shawn Mendes song finished, it was time for a commercial break. I listened to the ads: a testimonial for a weight loss clinic, an offer for low interest car loans. “Huge Military discounts!” the voice promised with a borderline shout.

  “You can change the station if you want,” I told him, ever the cordial host. “What kind of music do you like?”

  “This is fine.”

  “Okay.”

  I exited the highway and was glad to see there wasn’t a line to enter the base. I loved living on my side of town, close enough to the post, but far enough from my dad that I could breathe.

  “Here we are,” I said, as if he couldn’t see the bright lights ahead of us.

  He shifted his hips and pulled out a dog-eared wallet from the pocket of his ACU pants. He dropped his military ID into my open hand. The tips of his warm fingers grazed my skin and I jerked my hand away. His ID fell between the seats.

  “Damn it.” I shoved my fingers into the slim slot and managed to grab the card just as it was my turn to approach the guards.

  “Welcome to The Great Place,” the soldier working the gate said.

  “Really?” I couldn’t help but tease him.

  Ever since the soldiers were required to recite that ridiculous motto, I gave them shit about it. I couldn’t help it.

  “Yes, really,” he said, his tone neutral. He inspected our ID cards and the standard decal stuck to my windshield.

  “Have a good night,” the soldier told us, though I knew he didn’t care about our night.

  He probably thought we were together, that I was some barracks whore driving us to this guy’s small room where we’d have sex while his roommate slept in the other bed.

  “I do
n’t know where I’m going,” I told Kael.

  He switched off the radio. “Turn right,” he mumbled, just as I was passing a street on the right.

  “Right now?” I jerked the wheel to make the turn in time.

  He nodded.

  “Next light. Turn left there. There!”

  As if it wasn’t bad enough that I would get to my dad’s late as hell and that the car was running on empty, I could feel my palms getting clammy on the steering wheel. Kael looked over just in time to see me wipe them on my jeans.

  “They’re up here on the right. It’s a big brown building,” he told me.

  The buildings were all nearly identical. The only thing differentiating one from the other was the number painted on the side.

  “Yeah, they’re all big brown buildings here at The Great Place.”

  I swear I heard the tiniest hint of a laugh, just a small puff of smoke, enough to show that he was at least mildly amused by my comment. Sure enough, when I looked over, there it was—a sliver of a smile spread across his lips.

  “Just here.” He pointed to a massive parking lot. Kael kept his finger pointed at a navy blue truck parked in the back of the mostly empty lot. I pulled up next to the truck, about a car’s length away.

  “Thanks …” He looked at me like he was searching for something.

  “Karina,” I told him and he nodded.

  “Thanks, Karina.”

  My stomach flipped a little and I told myself it was just nerves, that it didn’t have anything to do with the way he said my name. I tried to calm the swarm of bees in my stomach as he climbed out of my car without another word.

  I DON’T KNOW WHAT I expected him to drive, but this beast of a truck wasn’t it. Despite his size, I figured he’d drive something small and sleek, not this old blue thing with rust circling the wheel well. That’s the problem with pretending—people’s real lives are never like you imagine. He had typical Georgia plates, with peaches and the cheesy slogan, and Clayton County printed across the bottom. I had no idea where that was. I wondered if he was pissed that he joined the army and somehow ended up in his home state.

 
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