The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  “I used to love those when I was younger,” I told him. “My best friend Sammy and I ate them all the time. Oh my god, that and Mountain Dew. My mom wouldn’t let me drink it, but Sammy’s mom always had the Kroger brand version that was actually better.”

  I was totally rambling.

  Kael seemed to be more relaxed than he was a few seconds ago. I didn’t look at him as long as I wanted to, or tell him how much I missed Sammy since she got married and moved across the country, like I wanted to. Not the married part, just the move the hell away from here part.

  We didn’t talk again until we checked out separately. We both had to show our ID cards, his Active Duty and mine a dependent ID. He was a gentleman and helped me load my car, carry the bags into my house, and he even asked if he could help unpack them. I hated that my brain was trying to figure out why he was so nice. It was like I couldn’t just accept kind gestures or compliments from people, like I wasn’t worthy of them.

  But as much as he made me feel flustered and a little bit paranoid, I was starting to kind of like the way I felt around him. As long as he didn’t think we were going to end up hooking up. He hadn’t mentioned a girlfriend or anyone in his life at all—though, he hadn’t exactly been forthcoming. But we weren’t doing anything wrong. Nothing. Just grocery shopping and sharing a living space for a few days.

  If I was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t be too happy about him staying with two women. Regardless if one was pregnant or not.

  Why was I back to assuming he had a girlfriend? Or that he would even like me?

  Hell, I didn’t even know him enough to like him that way, and he looked like the kind of man that every woman was drawn to. I realized that I was a little more interested in him than I had admitted to myself. I was sort of freaking out and he was in the seat next to me. I could feel his eyes on my face.

  “Everything okay?” he asked after all the groceries were put away. It took half the time with him helping and I didn’t have to tell him to recycle the paper and plastics.

  We were both sitting at the table now. He was scrolling through his cell phone and I was eating my second granola bar and getting ready to leave for work. I could hear the shower from down the hall so I knew Elodie was up. Thank God. I couldn’t imagine telling Mali that Elodie was going to be late again.

  Through my lashes, I tried to watch Kael without him noticing. He noticed immediately, like the good soldier I was sure he was. I felt the words building in my throat and didn’t want to stop them. I had to know. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I blurted out.

  “No. Do you? Have a boyfriend, I mean, or a girlfriend?”

  I shook my head. My fingers felt like they were shaking against the cold back of the chair.

  “No. Neither.”

  He let out a breath and stood up. My eyes followed his movement from the fridge, to the cabinet to grab a glass, and back to the fridge. He poured himself some milk, splashing a little onto the floor. If I could have had one thing in that moment, it would have been for him to say something, anything. My throat felt like it was on fire. My whole body felt like it was on fire.

  “So, we’ll be gone until later, but we always have our phones on at work. If my brother comes by, let him in?”

  Kael nodded. I watched as he cleaned up the splashed milk that I’d assumed would dry on the floor with the rest of the random spillage that had accumulated since I’d mopped about two weeks ago.

  Elodie came walking down the hallway with her short hair soaked, staining the shoulders of her gray t-shirt. “The shower is finally fixed!”

  “What do you mean?” I made my way down the hallway toward the bathroom.

  “The temperature! You had it fixed right?” she asked. I passed her, shaking my head. Sure enough, when I went into the bathroom and turned the shower on, it was immediately warm. I turned it to cold. Immediately cold. The pressure was even stronger, like a normal shower. Such luxury.

  “I have no idea how it’s fixed. I’m glad it is though, because …” I started to say. My eyes landed on Kael’s and he licked his lips, turning his cheek slightly away from me.

  “You!” It dawned on me. “Did you fix it?” Somehow I knew he did, even though it was such a foreign concept to me.

  Kael nodded sheepishly. “It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a loose pipe. It took me less than five minutes.”

  Elodie walked toward him, her hair dripping as she moved. “You are so nice. Oh, I can’t wait to tell Phillip. Thank you, thank you,” she told him, hugging one of his arms.

  First the gas, now fixing my shower. Of course I thought it was nice of him, but it also made me feel helpless.

  “What she said.” I was annoyed and they both picked up on it. “Okay, gotta go, I’m going to be late. See you at eleven.” I hugged Elodie and walked to the front door.

  I didn’t look back at Kael as I walked out. I knew I would feel guilty if I did. He did something nice for me. It was not only thoughtful, but practical. I appreciated it, I did, but I also didn’t want him treat me like I needed help fixing things. I bought that house to prove that I was no damsel.

  MY MORNING WAS THE SAME as always: two elderly retirees and one married soldier who came in the same time almost every week. He never made an appointment, but I always kept the spot open for him. He was nice and easy, tipped well, and didn’t groan and moan while I did my job.

  I now had “free time” to help clean up around the spa and avoid walk-ins—as much as they could be avoided. I didn’t like the uncertainty of them. They were always uncomfortable and they hardly ever came back. Even the fittest of bodies let their insecurities shine in my room. It was comforting and disheartening to know that other people thought of their bodies in the same harmful way that I did.

  I was pulling out my second round of towels from the dryer when I thought of how I used to have to roll silverware when I waitressed at a steakhouse. I guess all jobs come with add-on chores.

  “That guy came here for you,” Mali told me while we folded towels.

  “What guy?”

  “The one you used to like,” she said. The way she wrapped “like” around her tongue made me feel like a child.

  Oh. Brien. Great.

  “When?”

  “About ten minutes before you got here.”

  I dropped a towel onto the pile before I folded it. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

  She snickered. “Because I was afraid you would call him and we can’t have that.” She shrugged her shoulders. I gaped at her, grabbed the towel, and threw it at her.

  “I would not call him, by the way.” I may have been a little defensive. Anyway, I didn’t think I’d call, even if I was curious to know why he came by. I know I didn’t leave my earring in his bed, that’s for sure. I guess I could call him after my lunch break.

  Okay so, maybe Mali was right.

  “Mhmm.” She nodded yes with her lips jutted out sarcastically. The deep wrinkles on her bronzed skin made her look extra serious, though I knew she was mostly teasing. She’d never liked Brien and even cut off the electricity in the lobby when he came to see me the first time after our breakup. In her defense, I was crying and he was accusing me of something that I couldn’t even remember anymore. That must’ve meant I was innocent, right?

  Truth was, I wasn’t as sad as everyone thought I should be after we broke up. And, truth was, I’d used him to fill something broken inside of me. That’s what most relationships actually boiled down to.

  Mali interrupted my sour memories of Brien. “We have a walk-in,” she said.

  Her back was hunched so she could see the little security television screen. I couldn’t make out whether it was a man or a woman, but I knew Elodie had just started on her two-thirty appointment and we were the only two in until four, when three more therapists came in for the night shift.

  “I’ll take it. I don’t have any more appointments today.”

  Honestly, I was hoping there wouldn’t be any walk-ins and tha
t I would be able to do laundry, clean my room, and help Mali with the bookkeeping, instead of giving a massage, but this was my job. This is what I chose. That’s what I told myself every time my fingers ached or my head pounded from the smell of bleach on the towels just after they’d been washed.

  I pushed through the curtain in the lobby to find Kael walking around the small space, almost pacing. There were only a few chairs in the lobby, but between them and the front desk, they took up so much space. I watched him walk back and forth before I pushed all the way through the curtain.

  “Hey?” I greeted Kael, my stomach tied in a knot.

  “Hey.”

  We stood there, standing in the thick smell of incense and the dim lights in the room. The old PC tower on the floor hummed between us.

  “Is everything okay?” As I asked, it dawned on me that he might be there for a reason.

  “Yeah, yeah. I came to get a massage, actually.” He held up his hands.

  “Really?”

  “Yeah. Is that okay?” His voice was soft, an unsure question.

  I nodded and brought my hand up to my mouth. I didn’t know why I was smiling, but I was and I couldn’t stop.

  I PULLED BACK THE CURTAIN TO MY ROOM.

  “I’ll give you two minutes or so to undress and I’ll be back,” I told him.

  Kael stood by the table with his arms crossed. His sweats hung on his hips and his skin glowed in the candlelight. I couldn’t remember the last time I liked looking at someone as much as I did Kael. It fascinated me. He fascinated me. I didn’t know what it was about him, but he got more attractive every time I looked at him.

  I moved out into the dark hallway and took a deep breath. I told myself that it wouldn’t be weird. I did this all day, every day. He was just a regular client, a stranger really. I barely knew him and on top of that, I had already given him a massage. I pulled my phone from my pocket to see if Austin had called me back yet. Nothing. I texted my dad. Anything to distract myself.

  I could hear Mali talking to her husband down the hall. Something about extending a hot stone promotion we had going this month. She was always trying to come up with new promotions and semi-free marketing for their small business. It was impressive to watch her keep this place full of steady clientele, even though there were parlors on every nearly every block outside of each gate. Most were about thirty bucks, some more, some less. Some shady, some not.

  A text from my dad popped up on my screen.

  Austin is okay. He’s asleep right now.

  I shoved my phone into the pocket of my uniform. It had to have been two minutes. If not longer.

  “Can I come in?” I touched the curtain.

  “Yeah.”

  He was face down on the massage table, his head in the cradle, the white sheet resting right at his waistline.

  “Do you remember what you liked and didn’t like last time?” I asked, mostly just for my own consumption.

  “Everything was good.”

  “Okay, so I’ll apply the same pressure and see where we go from there?” I asked him. He nodded.

  I grabbed the towel and went through the motions. The warm towel glided easily across the bottoms of his feet. He was wearing his sweats on the table again, the black fabric peeking out of the bottom of the white sheet. I almost pushed them up a little so I could rub his ankles more thoroughly, but something told me not to. He was wearing the pants for a reason and though I could admit to myself that I was dying to know what that reason was, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable or cross any boundaries.

  I pressed my thumb into the pad of flesh right under the line of his toes and he groaned. I eased up and his tense body relaxed. He rolled his ankle to get rid of the feeling. It was a sore spot for a lot of people.

  “Sorry. It usually releases tension.”

  I walked back around to the top of the table where his head was and reached for my oils.

  “No peppermint, right?” I asked him.

  “No, thanks. I hate the smell.”

  Okay then.

  “I’ll use one without a smell. Will that work?”

  His head nodded in the cradle.

  I rubbed the warm oil between my hands and started at the base of his neck. The cords of his muscles were thick around his neckline and down his shoulders. In a way, he looked like someone built to fight, to protect, but sometimes he seemed so boyish, silly even, someone who should be kept out of harm’s way.

  “Elodie is here,” I told him. He stayed quiet as I moved my hands across his soft skin. His shoulders held a little less tension than yesterday. Holy shit, it had literally only been a day since he came in for Elodie!

  “I met her in training for my therapist license. She had just gotten here from France after researching programs for military spouses.”

  I remember how thick her beautiful accent used to feel to me. “She was so determined and was taking the first day so seriously. I was drawn to her almost immediately.” I explained.

  He laughed a little. His shoulders danced with slight amusement.

  “Phillip’s as nice as I think he is, yeah?” I asked Kael while we were on the subject. He stayed quiet for a few seconds.

  “He’s a good guy.”

  “Promise? Because he brought her here from another country with no family and no friends here. I worry about her.”

  “He’s a good guy,” he said again.

  I needed to stop grilling him and just do my job. I kept thinking about more and more to say to him. But he didn’t come here to talk to me. He came here to get a treatment for his aching body.

  I moved down his back and up his arms, settling into my normal groove. I did the same thing most treatments, medium pressure, a little more oil than most therapists use. The song playing was an older Beyoncé song and I let the music fill the quiet air until about twenty minutes later, when I asked him to roll onto his back.

  He closed his eyes when he turned over and I took the liberty of studying his face. His sharp jawline, the light stubble under his chin. He took a deep breath when I tucked my hands under his back and raked them up his skin, pressing and stretching the muscles in his back.

  I opened my mouth to ask Kael about shopping tonight. Then closed it.

  Seconds later, I almost asked him what sounded good for dinner. Then I almost told him that I loved the song that was playing and in my head I was telling him how Mali let me have my own music playing in my room. Something about him just made me want to speak. Almost.

  I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

  I sighed.

  I couldn’t chit and chat to him the whole time he was on my table. It was unprofessional. I repeated that to myself a few times.

  I checked the time. Only two minutes had gone by since I’d had him roll over. Fuck my life. I wanted to tell him that time was going so slow. Or ask him if he could smell the caramel cake candle I’d had burning since I opened.

  “Everything good?” I asked finally.

  He nodded. “How’s your brother?” His question surprised me.

  “I thought he’d have come to my house as soon as he arrived to town, but I guess not,” I said. “He’s asleep at my dad’s now. I still haven’t gotten to talk to him alone. It’s so frustrating. We used to be so close.”

  Kael kept his eyes closed. I was kneading my closed fists down his shoulders and arms. His eyes clenched shut.

  “Sorry I’m talking so much. I seem to do that a lot.” I laughed but it sounded so fake. Probably because it was.

  Kael’s eyes opened for a second and he leaned his head up, forcing eye contact. “It’s fine. I don’t mind it.”

  I looked away and he laid his head back down. “Thanks, I think,” I teased and my stomach flipped when his face broke into the biggest smile I had seen on him yet.

  I WAS WAITING FOR KAEL when I got Elodie’s text with the Buzzfeed link. She was the queen of “Is It Your Fault You’re Single?” quizzes, and “Are Women Taking Over the Self-Employme
nt Industry?” articles. This one was “25 Things You Need To Know About Target” I was one click away from finding out something new about Pringles and Tide PODS, or maybe how to spot the quickest checkout line, when Kael appeared in the lobby.

  “Hi,” I said. “Hope everything was okay.”

  “Yeah, thanks,” he answered. I rang him up and handed over the credit card slip to sign. I’d never felt anxious seeing a client scribble his name across that little black line before, so this was new. And, of course, Kael wasn’t giving anything up, which left room for me to fill in the blanks. First I wondered if he’d come back for another massage. Then it was, What’s going to happen after he stops crashing on my couch?

  He left me a twelve dollar tip on a forty-five dollar massage. It was more than generous. Certainly it was more than I usually got. I felt a little weird about it, like he was giving me charity or something. Or paying for my time, which I guess he was. But I did need the money, so I took it with a smile. Ok, the smile was mostly forced, but he couldn’t tell. At least, I didn’t think he could.

  I thought about how I had talked through half of his massage. It probably didn’t make for the most relaxing experience.

  “Sorry I talked so—”

  Kael cut me off before I could finish. “No,” he said, and offered me a friendly shrug of his shoulders. “It’s cool.”

  I was learning him, but I still couldn’t tell whether he was lying or not. Wouldn’t he be at least a little annoyed by all my nervous chatter? Ok, he asked me a question or two, but I was the one who talked about my shifts and how my brother was causing me major stress over his second arrest. I almost spent the next few minutes talking about my brother and how I was worried about him, but for once, I didn’t want this to be about Austin. Maybe I wanted to seem more mature than I was, or maybe I wanted to protect Austin from a stranger’s opinion. Whatever the reason, I moved on to something else.

  “What color should I paint the walls in here?” I had asked him.

  “What color do you want to paint them?” he’d answered.

 
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