The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd


  And …

  “Is it overly decorated in here?” I’d asked.

  “I didn’t notice,” he’d answered.

  And …

  “Do you feel like you’re in an expensive spa in a big city, instead of here, in this strip mall?”

  Shrug.

  Kael answered with a word or two now and then, but mostly it was my voice that filled the room. We were in the lobby now—not exactly a therapeutic space—but he was still playing the strong, silent type.

  “Do you want a receipt?” I read the prompt from the credit card machine.

  “Of course.” He held out his hand.

  “Of course? Such certainty over a credit card receipt?” I teased him. I was beginning to love doing that. He reacted differently nearly every time. It was fascinating.

  “Responsible,” he said. He almost smiled as he tucked the receipt into his wallet. It was leather, light brown and obviously well-used.

  “Sure,” I snorted. “Whatever you say.”

  “Better hope you don’t get audited.” No smile this time, but he did give me a raised eyebrow.

  Mali was watching everything closely. When Kael came out into the lobby after his session, she had been busy nearby, humming to herself while wiping the fingerprints from the glass door. Now she’d given up even the pretense of cleaning.

  “See you tonight?” I asked.

  “Yeah. For sure.”

  He waved to me and said a polite goodbye to Mali, calling her ma’am and all. The door closed and she turned her attention to me.

  “Mhm?” I knew what she was thinking.

  “What mhm?” I closed the cash register and stuck the tip in my pocket.

  Her eyes fell on the door again and a Cheshire-cat grin spread across her face. “Oh, nothing.”

  “Stop gossiping,” I told her as I disappeared down the hallway.

  I WAS KEEN TO GO HOME while the sun was shining—for once. That’s why I didn’t stay to clean as thoroughly as I usually did. I still put a load of towels into the dryer and opened a couple of boxes of product and put everything away, but my coworkers could do a little more to pick up the slack around here. I was okay with that.

  The alley was busy when I left. Bradley was helping a customer load a king-size mattress into the back of a truck when he waved to me, friendly as ever.

  I pulled out my phone to open Instagram when my brother’s name popped up on the screen.

  “Austin, what the hell is going on? Are you okay?” I didn’t bother with hello. I had no time for formalities.

  “I’m fine. It’s fine. Really, Kare, it’s not that big of a deal. It was just a fight.”

  “A fight? With who?”

  He sighed for a second. “Some guy. I don’t know. I was out somewhere and this guy was giving a girl at the bar shit.”

  I rolled my eyes and pressed my body against the trees lining the alleyway so a van full of kids could pass.

  “So, you’re telling me that this whole thing stemmed from your chivalry?”

  Austin was good at spinning things. He would make a wonderful publicist for a messy celebrity—or a horrible husband.

  “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he said, laughing.

  His voice was calming, it was like hearing an old song you had forgotten you loved. I’d really missed him.

  “Right. So how much trouble are you in?”

  “I don’t know.” He paused.

  I thought I heard the flick of a lighter. “Dad bailed me out … which sucks, because now I’m going to owe him money.”

  Unbelievable. I wish I had his ability to look the other way and not worry about things. He knew he would figure it out—or someone would figure it out for him—before it got too serious.

  “Yeah, because owing dad money is your biggest problem.”

  “I didn’t kill anyone, ok? It was your standard bar fight.”

  I laughed. I could feel his magic working. I was starting to feel almost-ok about his arrest, and the ink on his discharge papers wasn’t even dry yet.

  “How did you even get into a bar? We’re not twenty-one for another month.”

  This time, it was his turn to be amused. “You’re not serious.”

  “Yes, I am!” But I was joking, sort of.

  There was this thin line between me worrying about my brother and just wanting to have fun with him. I was by no means a stickler, or super responsible; I was just light years ahead of my twin. The difference was incredibly noticeable.

  I knew my loser uncle was taking Austin to bars with his gross older friends, probably introducing him to women who downed too much alcohol, wore too much makeup, had too much experience … too much everything.

  “You’re a worrier. You and Dad.”

  I groaned. I didn’t want to worry. I didn’t want to be the nagging older-by-six-minutes sister. And I certainly didn’t want to be anything like my dad.

  “Don’t lump me in with Dad. Come on. I just don’t want you to be in trouble. That’s all.”

  I was almost home.

  “Yeah, wouldn’t want to mess up this bright future of mine.” It was meant to be funny, but a hint of sadness filtered through.

  “Do you want to come over tonight? I miss you.”

  “I can’t tonight. I’m meeting up with someone. But tomorrow? Dad and Estelle are going to Atlanta this weekend, so I’ll have the house to myself.”

  “House party!” I laughed at the memory of Austin’s streak of failed house parties throughout high school. Most of the kids our age had been too afraid of the military police to go to a party on post, but fewer people actually made the parties more fun.

  “Totally.”

  “And I was totally joking. You’re not going to have a party at Dad’s house.”

  “Uh, yeah. I am.”

  He could not be serious. Our dad would lose his mind if Austin had a party at his house. I couldn’t bear to think of the consequences.

  “You are not. I mean, throwing a party a couple of days after you get arrested? What is wrong with you? We aren’t in high school anymore!”

  It was stuff like this that made me return to my family theory, which was that Austin was the one who got all our mother’s charm. My little brother was always so good with people. He could be thrust into any situation and people would flock to him. What’s that saying, like flies to honey? He had all the honey. Me—I was just the opposite. I fluttered around people like Austin, easily charmed, like my father.

  “Speak for yourself.”

  “How do you even know enough people here to have a party? I mean—”

  “Look, I gotta go. See you sometime tomorrow. You should come over. Love you.”

  He hung up before I could get in another word.

  Oh, Austin. I love you, but sometimes you make some really shitty life choices.

  I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED to find my front door locked. I dug for my key and let myself in, grabbing my mail from the box on the way. My little mailbox was falling off my house. Another thing to fix. As I slid through envelopes, a realtor’s brochure of fancy, expensive houses in Atlanta was on top. I searched for the smiley realtor, Sandra Dee, it said her name was. The price for a house in Buckhead, with a sparkling swimming pool was two-million-dollars. Yeah, I freaking wish, Sandra.

  Until I hit the lottery or my random ideas of opening up a chain of high-end but fair priced spa experiences takes off, it’s my little house with the dangling red mailbox for me. When I got inside, the house was heavy with silence. I went through the rest of my mail—nothing interesting, mainly bills and flyers—and because the entire house smelled of Elodie’s popcorn and it made my stomach growl, I grabbed some pretzels from my pantry.

  My house felt different with no sound. It felt strange not hearing the name Olivia Pope every few minutes. I was completely alone. No Elodie. No Kael. We didn’t agree on a time or anything, but I guess I’d just assumed that he would be at my house when I got off work.

  W
here else would he go?

  I microwaved the last of the leftovers from Mali. I washed a load of dishes. Sat at my kitchen table. Grabbed the paperback I was reading and tried to pick up where I had left off. I kept thinking about Kael, wondering how he would be when we went shopping. Would he be more talkative or would it be a silent excursion?

  I loved to torture myself with second thoughts, so now I was thinking that maybe I had misconstrued the whole situation and that Kael was under the impression I would be dropping him off to shop by himself. Then I convinced myself that I had invited myself to shop with him, and that he probably thought I was weird or pushy. Or both.

  Ten minutes later, I was back to reality. No way would Kael be sitting around overthinking our conversation—wherever he was. I was totally overreacting.

  Overthinking. Overreacting. Not exactly skills I could put on my resume. I put the book down without having read a word, then picked up my phone and went through Facebook, typing Kael Martin in the search box. No change in his profile. And I still couldn’t bring myself to send him a friend request.

  I clicked out of his page and went to my inbox, as if I was expecting an important email or something. I was pacing around my room before I knew it, going in circles, getting myself worked up. I stopped dead in my tracks when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. With my dark hair pulled back, my eyes wild, I looked like my mother. Frighteningly like my mother.

  I lay on my bed and grabbed my book again, but soon felt like I needed a change of scenery, so I went to the living room and flopped on the couch. I checked the time on my phone. Almost seven. I picked up where I left off on my last dog-eared page—I had never been a bookmark kind of girl—and let Hemingway’s brutal tale take me to the first World War. It wasn’t the distraction I had hoped for, though. The closer I got to sleep, the more Kael’s face appeared on multiple characters. He was a drill sergeant. A wounded soldier. An ambulance driver. And he looked at me like he recognized my eyes.

  I woke up on the couch, the sun bright on my face. I looked around the living room, gathering my thoughts.

  Kael hadn’t come back.

  IT WOULD BE THREE DAYS before I saw him again. When we finally crossed paths again, I was sitting on my front porch, trying to get my feet into a new pair of shoes I had seen on Instagram. I knew that the IG model I followed had most likely been paid to wear them, but I still had to have them. Per the caption, they were “The Best!” and “SOO comfy!!! *heart-eye emoji*” Maybe for her. I could barely get the first one on. I mean, the damn thing just wouldn’t go over my heel. I was tugging on the shoe, leaning back on the porch like some kind of idiot, when Kael pulled up in his gigantic jeep-truck-thing. Nice timing.

  He must have gone shopping after all, since he was head-to-toe in civilian clothes. Black jeans, a rip on one knee, and a white cotton shirt with gray sleeves that looked almost identical to one that I had. The only difference was that mine said “Tomahawks” on it and had a picture of an actual tomahawk.

  My best friend from South Carolina gave it to me. It was from her old high school in Indiana somewhere. I wondered if her Midwestern home had been like the place where my mom grew up, a little town that was hit hard by the advances of technology, causing factory after factory to close down completely. I also knew horror stories from the place, like when the hyper schoolchildren had gone on field trips to sacred Native American burial grounds—what they called “Indian Mounds”—and stomped all over them while being taught a false history of dangerous savages. No mention that these people were victims of genocide or that we had taken their land and forced them into poverty today.

  Come to think of it, I didn’t really want to wear that shirt anymore.

  Kael stopped just short of my porch.

  “Hey stranger,” I said to him.

  He tucked his lips in and shook his head, then nodded. I guess that was his way of saying hello.

  “Looking for Elodie?”

  Little Mama was spending her Friday night at the monthly family readiness group meeting for Phillip’s brigade. She was determined to make the other wives like her before the baby came. I didn’t blame her. She needed all the support she could get.

  “I’ll tell her you stopped by.”

  “No, actually. I just—” Kael paused. “I went to get a massage but you weren’t working.” He looked down the alleyway toward the shop.

  “Oh.” Now that was a surprise.

  I scooted over on the porch and made room next to me. Sort of. I had been blowing the seeds off dandelions in between my Cinderella act, so Kael had to move a pile of bald weeds before he could sit down. He dropped them softly into the palm of my hand.

  “I could use some wishes for sure,” he said.

  “There’s more if you want.” I pointed to my weed garden. I hadn’t meant to harbor all those dandelions, wild daisies, and creeping something or other, but there they were by the corners of my concrete porch. Surrounded.

  “I’m good,” he told me.

  He looked so different in regular clothes.

  “I see you went shopping?” He was obviously okay sitting in silence, but I wanted some conversation. Plus, I wanted to know where he’d disappeared to.

  Kael pulled at his T-shirt. “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s been kind of a crazy few days.”

  I had to ask. “Crazy? How?”

  He sighed, picking up a dandelion stem from the steps. “Long story.”

  I leaned back on my palms. “Yeah.”

  “When do you work again?” he asked a moment later.

  A plane flew overhead right as I started to answer. “Tomorrow. But only for two hours. I’m filling in for someone.”

  “Do you have any openings?”

  He was looking at me, his dark eyes hooded by his long lashes. “Maybe.”

  “Maybe?” He raised his brows and I laughed. He was soft today. I liked this relaxed version of him. Kael the civilian.

  “I’m going to a party tonight,” I told him. “It’s at my dad’s house.” He made a face. “Yes. Exactly. Only worse because my brother is being an idiot and throwing it while my dad and his wife are off in Atlanta at the Marriott, eating lobster tails and boozing with expensive wine.” I rolled my eyes.

  My dad never took my mom anywhere like that. They never had adult time without my brother and me. One of the many reasons they didn’t work out. That and the fact that they were the two least compatible people on earth.

  “Your dad doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants a party thrown at his house,” Kael observed. “Especially when he’s not there.”

  If only he knew. “Oh, he’s not. That’s why I’m going to chaperone.”

  He made a noise—something between a grunt and a laugh. He was actually amused. I was really liking this, the way I was starting to read his face and guess what he was thinking.

  “Aren’t you a little young to be chaperoning?”

  “Ha. Ha.” I stuck my tongue out at him … then snapped my mouth shut as soon as I realized what I’d done. I was flirting with him!

  And I didn’t know how to stop. Who was this person, sticking her tongue out a a boy?

  “How old are you, Mr. Expert-on-Ageism?”

  “That’s not what ageism means,” he corrected me with a smile.

  I scoffed. I was equal parts charmed and surprised.

  “Okay Mr. Know-it-All, how old are you?”

  He smiled again.

  So soft.

  “I’m twenty.”

  I shot up. “Really? I could be older than you?”

  “How old are you?” he asked.

  “Twenty-one next month.”

  He licked his pink lips and bit on the bottom one. It was a habit of his, I’d noticed.

  “I turn twenty-one tomorrow. I win.”

  I opened my mouth in an O. “No way. Show me your ID.”

  “Really?” he questioned.

  “Yes, really. Prove it.” And then, because I couldn’t help mysel
f, I added, “I want receipts.”

  He pulled his wallet out from the back pocket of his jeans and handed it to me. The first thing I saw was a picture of two women. One was older than the other by a couple decades or so, but the resemblance was there.

  I looked up at him, apologizing for the lack of privacy. The picture was obviously old and important, otherwise it wouldn’t be in his wallet. Across from the picture of the women was his military ID card. I read his birthday. Sure as sin, his birthday was tomorrow.

  “So you’re older than me by like a month,” I gave in.

  “I told you.”

  “Don’t brag.”

  I leaned into Kael and repeated the awkward grocery store shoulder-bumping. Only this time, he didn’t move away from me, or freeze up. This time, on my sunny porch, in ripped jeans and with soft eyes, he pressed his shoulder back into mine.

  “I HAVEN’T SAT ON MY porch in so long. This is nice.”

  It was just me and Kael, with the occasional passing car for company.

  “I’d sit out here almost every day when I first moved in. I couldn’t believe it. My porch. My place.” I paused for a moment. “It feels good, you know? The street in front of you, the house behind you.”

  Talking to Kael was like writing in a diary, sort of.

  “I’ve always loved sitting out front. Not just here. Did you notice that swing on my dad’s porch? I’m not sure if you even saw it, but we moved that swing with us when we were growing up. It came from base to base, from house to house—just like my dad’s recliner.”

  I could feel Kael listening, encouraging me to go on.

  “When we first moved to Texas, we didn’t have a big enough porch, so we kept it in the shed. It’s heavy wood … you can see where it’s splintered in a few places and where it’s worn down on the arms a little. It’s not like that plastic outdoor furniture you get now. What’s it called—rosin?”

  “Resin,” he said, helping me out.

  “That’s it—resin.” I was thinking about my mom now, how she would sit out front in the dark and stare up at the sky. “My mom practically lived on our porch, all year round. She told me once that she believed God was made up of all of the stars and that when one burned out, a little bit of the good in the world died with it.”

 
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