The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  He was Elodie’s friend, so it was only right that I made sure he got into his truck okay. I didn’t want him to have to trek three miles back to my house if he couldn’t get it to start. I knew all about cars not starting. I watched as he stuck his hand under the metal sheet just above his front tire and felt along the surface. He repeated this with all four tires before he pulled his phone from his pocket.

  His expression changed from concerned to upset. He wiped one hand over his face; the other still held his phone. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I avoided the temptation to roll down my window to hear. There was just something about him that I needed to figure out.

  The more I watched him, standing there in the dark, pacing around with his iPhone going back and forth from his pocket to his cheek, the more I needed to know who he was.

  I was just about to Google Clayton County, Georgia when he opened the car door and leaned down.

  “You can go,” he told me.

  Almost rude. If he wasn’t locked out of his car, I would have been snarky back, but I couldn’t find it in me.

  I looked at his truck and back to him. “Are you sure? Can you not get in?”

  He sighed heavily and shook his head. “My keys are supposed to be here. I’ll find my way back, it’s cool.”

  “I’m so late to this thing I have to do.”

  “The dinner,” he told me.

  So he was paying attention.

  “Yeah, the dinner. I can’t take you back before … but maybe I can call my dad and just cancel. It’s not like—”

  Kael interrupted me. “It’s cool, for real.”

  I couldn’t just leave him there. I told him so.

  “Why?”

  I opened my door and got out of the car. “I don’t know?” I replied honestly. “It’s a long walk back. Do you have another set of keys somewhere? Or a friend who can come help you?”

  “All my friends are in Afghanistan,” he said.

  My chest burned.

  “Sorry,” I said, leaning my back against my car.

  “For what?”

  We kept eye contact until he blinked. I quickly looked away.

  “I don’t know? The war?” It sounded so stupid coming from my mouth. An army brat apologizing to a soldier for a war that started before either of them were born. “Most people wouldn’t have asked me why just now.”

  Kael’s tongue grazed his bottom lip; he tucked it between his teeth. The parking lot lights above us clacked on, buzzing, breaking our silence.

  “I’m not most people.”

  “I can tell.”

  The lights shone through the windows of the barracks across the street, but it didn’t seem like he lived there. That meant he was either married, or higher ranking than his age would suggest. Soldiers below a certain rank could only live off post if they were married, but I couldn’t imagine that a married man would be sleeping on my chair right after a deployment. Besides, he wasn’t wearing a ring.

  I was checking out his ACU jacket for his rank patch when I saw his eyes on me.

  “Are you coming with me, Sergeant, or are you going to make me stand in this parking lot until you call a locksmith for your car?” I looked at the patch on his chest, his last name stitched in capital letters: Martin. He was so young to be a sergeant.

  “Come on.” I put my hands up, begging. “You don’t know me, but this is what will happen if I leave you here knowing you will walk back to my house. Two seconds after I drive away, I’ll feel guilty and I’ll obsess over it the entire way to my dad’s, the entire dinner,” I explained. “I’m talking apology texts to Elodie, who’ll be stressed because she worries about everyone, and then I’ll feel even more guilty about stressing out a pregnant woman, so I’ll have to drive around trying to find you if you haven’t made it back yet. It’s messy, Kael, and honestly easier if you just—”

  “Okay, okay.” He held up his hands in mock defeat. I nodded, smiling in my victory, and you know what? He almost smiled back.

  NO MATTER WHERE WE were stationed, my dad always chose to live in post housing, from Texas, to South Carolina, down to Georgia. I didn’t mind it so much when I was young, because all of my friends lived by me, but as we moved, then moved again, and again, it got old fast. I started to hate the groomed cul-de-sacs and the lines of cars at each gate. My dad loved being so close to the PX, the grocery store without tax, and to the company where he worked every day. He felt safe, but as Austin and I grew up, we started to feel trapped.

  I remember my mom pacing around the houses, each one of them, during the summer days. There were these hours of madness for her where the curtains were always closed and the couch turned into her bed. At first, the shift was subtle, only lasting while dad was at work. She had two personas and could switch gears within seconds. But sometime over the summer before eighth grade, the mania took over. She woke up later, took fewer showers, stopped dancing, and even stopped pacing.

  Dinner was late, then hardly at all, and our parents’ voices at night got louder and louder.

  “Uh, Karina?” Kael’s voice drew me out of my memories.

  He was eyeing the green light above us. I pressed the gas.

  “Sorry,” I faltered, clearing my throat.

  My chest was aching as I drove my thoughts into reality.

  “Okay, so we’re going to my dad’s house and he’s kind of…” I exhaled, trying to pinpoint such a complicated man with one word. “He’s sort of—”

  “Racist?” Kael asked.

  “What? No!” I felt a little defensive over his question until I turned toward him and saw the look on his face. It said that he genuinely figured that’s what I was going to say.

  I didn’t know what to think about that.

  “He’s not racist,” I told Kael as we drove. I couldn’t think of anything he’d ever said or done to make me believe he was. “He’s just kind of an asshole.”

  Kael nodded and leaned back in his seat.

  “It’s usually like a two-hour thing. Too much food for three people. Too much talking.”

  I turned onto the main road, really the only one I could navigate on the entirety of Ft. Benning. We were less than five minutes from my dad’s house. We were twenty-six minutes late. It would be fine. I was an adult and something came up. They would get over it. I repeated that to myself again and began to concoct my excuse that didn’t necessarily involve a stranger staying at my house.

  My phone started vibrating in the cup holder between us, and I reached for it the moment I saw that it was Austin calling. I grabbed the phone. I couldn’t even remember the last time he actually returned my calls.

  “I’m going to get this, it’s—” I didn’t finish explaining to Kael.

  “Hello?” I spoke into the phone, but only got silence.

  I lifted it from my cheek. “Damn it.” I’d missed the call. I tried to call him back but he didn’t pick up.

  “If you see that light up, tell me? The sound only works sometimes.” I looked down at my phone and Kael agreed with a nod.

  I turned onto my dad’s street and tried to spend the last two minutes of the drive conjuring up an achievement, or something I could stretch to sound like one. I would need something to talk about after the scolding for my extreme tardiness. My dad always asked the same questions. To me, to his darling wife. The difference was, it only took her planting a flower bed or going to someone else’s kid’s birthday party to get praise, when I could save a small village and he would be like, “That’s great Kare, but it was a small village. Austin once saved a slightly larger village and Estelle created two villages.”

  It wasn’t healthy to compare myself to his wife, or to my brother. I was self-aware enough to know that, but the way I felt she was positioned against me still bugged the hell out of me. And then there was the fact that Austin was always my dad’s, and I was my mom’s. This worked out better for my brother than it did for me.

  “We’re almost there. My dad’s been in the
army a long time,” I told him. Kael was a soldier, he wouldn’t need more of an explanation.

  He nodded beside me and looked out the passenger window.

  “How long have you been in?” I asked.

  I heard him swallow before he spoke. “Little over two years.”

  I almost asked him if he liked it, but we were pulling up in front of my dad’s house.

  “We’re here,” I warned him. “It’s like a whole fiasco, three courses. Lots of small talk and coffee after. Two hours, minimum.”

  “Two hours?” He blinked.

  “I know. I know. You can wait in the car if you want?”

  Kael opened the passenger door and leaned down to talk to me while I was still in my seat.

  I checked my hair in the mirror. It was almost dry. The air was thick with humidity and it showed.

  I grabbed my phone. Austin hadn’t called me back. “Just saying, however awful you think it’s going to be, it will be worse than that.”

  “Mhm,” I thought I heard him say. I looked up as the passenger door shut. The reality of just how bad an idea it was to bring a stranger to Tuesday dinner was sinking in.

  I WAS FIDGETY, WIPING my hands on my legs. I always did that when I was nervous. “I’ll do the talking,” I said to Kael as we approached the door. “Let me explain why we’re late. Why I’m late.” Then it dawned on me who I was talking to. Soldier wouldn’t have a problem being quiet.

  We walked into the kitchen, which was filled with the aroma of honey and cinnamon, and what might have been ham. It smelled like a holiday.

  “Sorry I’m late,” I said. “I had to stay behind a little at work, um … and then I was helping Elodie’s friend.” I turned behind me to introduce Kael.

  My dad was seated at the head of the table when we came in. No reading the paper, no listening to the radio. Just waiting. I looked at him sitting there with his craggy face and his sparse white hair. It was really thinning now. So was his papery skin. Everyone on my dad’s side turned to snow early. It looked beautiful on the women—at least it did in photographs—but I always hoped I would take after my mom. I guess we’d see.

  My dad moved his eyes off me and looked at Kael, who took a step back. Instinct or nervousness—who knew? Despite being just a tad over five feet tall, my dad was intimidating. He could be soft when he wanted to. And when he didn’t want to, he could cut life a knife.

  “Martin, nice to—”

  My dad shook Kael’s hand. I was waiting for the fall-out about being late when Estelle walked into the kitchen, carrying a bowl with a big wooden spoon sticking out of it.

  “Hey!” She greeted me like she usually did. Excited. Fake.

  Estelle always wore slightly different versions of the same outfit: jeans with a little flare at the bottom and a buttoned-down shirt with a pattern. Always. Today’s top was striped blue and red. Like all of the others, this one had darts at the waist and bust to, as she put it, “create a streamlined silhouette.” I couldn’t be less interested in the fit of Estelle’s clothes—or anything about her for that matter—but she told me one day how she liked to buy these fitted shirts because of the way they flattered her shape. She twisted her torso like a model when she said it, as if she was having fun bonding with her then-boyfriend’s daughter. It had been excruciating.

  It was weird that Estelle never changed her style. I loved consistency, but not from her. I didn’t want anything from her.

  “Oh, well … hey. Hi! I’m Estelle.” She wasn’t doing the best job at hiding her surprise over the extra body in the room.

  Kael waited for her to put the dish down before extending his hand.

  “So, um, Kael is Elodie’s husband’s friend. He just got back from deployment yesterday.” I avoided looking at my dad. “He’s going to eat with us, ok? He’s locked out of his car.”

  Estelle motioned for Kael to sit next to my dad in his King chair, but I sat there first so Kael could sit beside me. No need for him to occupy the hot seat.

  “I’m assuming you’ve heard from your brother?” my dad asked.

  I pulled out my phone. “I missed a call from him.”

  “He’s on his way.”

  “What?”

  My dad took a long, slow drink of water.

  “He was arrested last night.”

  I stood up from my chair. “What? For what?”

  My dad’s eyes were a carbon copy of my brother’s. He was like him. I was like her. We had heard it all our lives. That didn’t mean it was true. Example: this arrest.

  “I don’t know, exactly. The precinct won’t tell me. If it had been on government property I could easily have found out,” he huffed. My dad was in knots—frustrated and disappointed. I could see it all roll off him and I knew he was feeling as if he had failed as a parent. Couldn’t disagree with him there.

  “And how is he getting here?” I asked.

  “Driving. He should be here in a couple hours.”

  Kael sat there staring at the table, strumming his fingers, trying to be discrete.

  “Where is he going to stay?”

  “Here,” he answered with certainty.

  I sighed. “Does he know that?” I picked up my phone and dialed my brother, but it went straight to voicemail. I didn’t bother leaving a message.

  My dad furrowed his thick eyebrows. “Does it matter? He’s getting himself in real trouble. This isn’t child’s play anymore, Karina. You two are adults now.”

  “Us two?” I scoffed. “I’m not the one who was arrested. And Austin’s not even here to defend himself, so that’s hardly fair either.”

  Estelle clucked around my dad as we fought. She did this every time. She was literally making my dad’s plate as we discussed his only son’s failing future. He and I raised our voices, but she was her normal, perky self. Kael shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

  “Would you like some ham?” Estelle asked Kael.

  She was exactly what my dad needed. Someone who could ignore the chaos and play the role of the obliging wife in the second half of his life. My mom was a hurricane and Estelle wasn’t even a drizzle.

  “The glaze is a family recipe. Here take some.” She held up a little plantation-style gravy boat full of dark, syrupy liquid. When she bought the thing off eBay, she literally told me it was “from a real plantation,” like that wasn’t a gross thing to say and own.

  Kael thanked her for helping him make his plate. I told my dad that I knew he shouldn’t have sent my brother away, that this was his fault. He told me the fault was all mine.

  “I’m not hungry,” I told Estelle when she passed me the ham. My stomach gurgled, proving me a liar.

  “Don’t be a child,” my dad told me. He smiled at me, a sorry attempt to soften his words.

  “You just said I was an adult. Now you say I’m being a child. Which is it?” I hated bickering like this, but my father brought out the worst in me. Especially when the subject was my brother. “I’m just confused why you’re acting like it’s not a big deal,” I said. “Because it is. It’s a very big deal.”

  “I know, Karina, but this isn’t the first time.”

  “It’s only the second,” I snapped. “It’s not like he’s a career criminal.”

  “Let’s not worry about him until he’s here, okay? There’s nothing either of us can do from here. He’s a twenty-year-old man.” My dad’s response to my brother’s second arrest was rational, almost to the extreme.

  I wished I could just push my emotions away like that. It took me a while to shift gears. My dad could bounce back and forth between extreme emotions, just like my mom. She was worse at it. Or better. I guess it all depended on how you looked at it.

  My stomach rumbled again and I gave in and started making myself a plate. Kael had a forkful of mashed potatoes moving up to his mouth. I figured he could sense we were calming down and getting into our regular motion. We would be back bickering soon enough.

  I put my phone on the table, screen up, just in
case Austin texted or something. And then I tried hard not to think of him, driving all the way here by himself, scared about being arrested, scared about facing our dad.

  “So Kael, are you home for good?” Estelle was the stage director, moving the conversation away from our family dramatics. This time I was almost grateful.

  “I think so. Not quite sure yet, ma’am.”

  His manners were impeccable. I wanted to know more about this man. I bet his mother was kind. I couldn’t remember the last time I heard someone my age call someone ma’am.

  I watched him as he politely answered every question she threw at him. What battalion was he assigned to? Where in Afghanistan was his camp? His answers were short but sincere and his lips wrapped around every word he said. I wished he enjoyed talking more than he seemed to.

  By the time we were eating dessert, I’d forgotten that we were even late. Austin’s arrest took the attention off of me. Not the first time that had worked in my favor.

  “WELL, THAT WAS NICE,” Estelle said. She stood awkwardly, waiting for me to hug her. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t.

  “Let me know when Austin gets here. I’d stay and wait, but I have to work in the morning.”

  My dad nodded.

  Kael stood in the doorway, half-in, half-out.

  My dad hugged me. “What are your plans for the weekend? We’re going up to Atlanta if you want to—”

  “I’m working.” I loved Atlanta, but no way was I going with them. And wouldn’t their plans change with Austin coming to town?

  “It was so nice to meet you, Kael. Drive safe.” Estelle smiled. I wondered if she thought he was my boyfriend. I would never introduce him in that way, but she was awfully smiley and more than a little nosy the way she looked at us when I nudged him to open the door.

  I didn’t give anyone else a chance to speak before I stepped onto the porch and practically ran down the driveway.

  “God, I hate those dinners.”

  Even after all we had endured, Kael didn’t have a word to say.

 
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