The Brightest Stars by Anna Todd

  Kael’s eyes were on me and I was aware of how the heat was spreading on my cheeks. The way I was talking … well, it was like I was thinking out loud. I barely realized it. I knew that it sounded cheesy. I’d read things like that in books sometimes or had seen it in movies, and it just didn’t seem possible. What a cliché. Yet there I was, being opened by a stranger.

  “I mean it was way more complicated than that, obviously. That was the quick version. There were actually civilizations whose entire religions were based on the whole galaxy of planets and stars. My mom used to tell me all about them. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? They were here first.”

  Kael spoke up. “Were they?”

  His words seemed important, there were so few of them. I guess that’s why when he asked me questions, I wanted to really think about my answers.

  “I’m not entirely sure,” I finally said. “What about you?”

  He shook his head.

  “I think that’s okay,” I told him. “There are so many different religions … too many people to get to agree on one thing. I think it’s okay to take a little time, learn a little more. Don’t you?” Such a heavy question, and wrapped in the most casual bow.

  He sighed, blowing out a puff of air. I could hear the whisper of his words coming together, but couldn’t quite make them out. The longer he sat on his opinion, licking slowly at his lips, chewing on his cheek, the more I anticipated his answer. Time melted as I waited.

  “I think so,” he said at long last. “I just want to be a good person. I know a lot of people inside and outside the church who are both bad and good. There’s so much out there that’s bigger than us … I’d rather focus on how to make things better than wonder how we got here in the first place. For now, at least.” He sounded so sure.

  He kept talking. This was the most he had shared since we met. Usually I was the one going on and on. “I don’t know what I believe yet,” he said.

  There was a long pause before he continued. A car door slammed and my phone buzzed with a text from Elodie. She was going to someone’s house—someone named Julie—so everyone except her could have a few drinks. I dimmed my screen and put my phone facedown on the concrete porch.

  “I don’t know,” he repeated. “But I do know that I have a lot of shit to make up for.”

  His voice slipped a little at the end and my brain took a bite of his words. The gravity of what he was saying ate at me. My throat burned and I swallowed, trying to dilute it, but it didn’t work. It was physically painful to think about the kinds of things Kael had seen at his age—at our age. It was easier not to feel anything at all, but I couldn’t do that.

  I’d always felt so much, ever since I was a child. I was always either burning or floating, moving from one extreme to another. “Karina feels things deeply,” my mother said of me. “She takes things to heart.”

  Kael cleared his throat. I wanted so badly to ask him what he had to make up for, but I knew he wouldn’t want that. I could feel him next to me, brewing, but I kept my eyes on the sky. I blinked, watching as blue swirled into orange. I pictured him with a gun strapped to his chest, a boyish smile. I didn’t know what he’d experienced over there, but that blank stare on his face … I had to say something.

  “I don’t think it works like that. I think you’re safe.”

  My words were weak when said, but if he could feel what I felt for him in that moment, he would know it couldn’t be further from the truth.

  “Safe?” he asked, as the clouds drifted over us. “From who?”

  I DIDN’T HEAR LOUD MUSIC or see bright lights when I pulled up. And nobody had spilled onto the lawn. That had to be a good sign.

  “Doesn’t seem too bad,” I said.

  The bungalow was in the far corner of a quiet cul-de-sac, with a field at the back and houses all around. I had to park on the street because three cars were already in the driveway—two of which I didn’t recognize. Plus there was my dad’s van, an ugly white thing he hadn’t touched in at least a year. I’d come to hate that van. It wasn’t always that way, but pleasant memories of our one Disney road trip had long ago been replaced by ugly arguments and resentments that spilled over from the front seat.

  My parents didn’t have typical husband and wife shouting matches. Even as a child I remember wishing for some of the honest anger I had heard in other families. Theirs was worse. My mom would use a cold, flat voice to deliver her punches. She hit hard, and she knew instinctively where to strike, how to make it hurt the most. I was a needy girl and wanted her anger to reassure me that she cared. I think my dad wanted it too, but she either couldn’t or wouldn’t give us that. My dad and I both navigated our losses differently.

  Kael’s phone lit up in his hand. He glanced down and put it into his pocket. I felt important. Prideful as it was, I still felt it.

  We were walking up the grass when someone I didn’t recognize came out of the house and walked towards the street. I saw Kael watch him until we were safely inside. It wasn’t anything obvious, just a tilt of the head, an almost imperceptible scan of where this other guy was and what he was doing. It made me wonder what Kael had experienced, and what he might fear. I tried not to let it affect my mood, thinking about what he had seen in Afghanistan. I was sure that was the last thing he wanted to talk about the night before his birthday.

  I led Kael into my dad’s house for the second time in a week. Brien had only been there a total of maybe three times our entire four months of dating. He liked my dad … well, he liked trying to impress him while staring at Estelle’s boobs. She was new back then, her boobs too.

  Ugh. Brien was the last person I should be thinking of. I looked back at Kael to edge him back into my mind, and also to make sure he was still behind me.

  Someone’s music was playing on the TV screen. It was a Halsey song, so I knew I’d like at least one of these random people. I was relaxing a little now. Austin had been right about the party, so far anyway. There were only about ten people there and everyone seemed to be out of high school, thank God. And there was no sign of Sarina or any of her other friends and as far as I knew, she was Austin’s only high school hook up. No sign of Austin either, which meant he was either outside smoking, or in some room with a girl. As long as it wasn’t my old room, and the girl was of age, I didn’t care.

  Five or six people were dotted around the living room. The rest were in the kitchen, crowding the booze counter. There wasn’t much to speak of: a bottle of vodka, a much bigger bottle of whiskey, and tons of beer. We stayed in the kitchen, moving around a guy and a girl who seemed to be mid-argument, and passing a man wearing a gray beanie. I couldn’t see his hair, but I suspected he was a soldier, based on his build. My brother always seemed to gravitate toward people in service, even when we were in high school.

  Austin and I made a pact from a young age that neither of us would ever enlist, but he still had a natural draw to army life. Whether it was out of habit or comfort—the pull of the familiar and all that—I didn’t know. His curiosity scared me sometimes.

  Kael stood near me by the kitchen sink, not touching or speaking, but close enough that I could smell the cologne on his shirt. The smell was sweet and it made me wonder if he had other plans tonight. I wasn’t naïve. I knew the local clubs like Lone Star and Tempra were flooded with singles and single-for-the-night’s. But I didn’t want to think about Kael at either of those places. I grabbed a plastic cup from the stack and poured in a little bit of vodka and a lot of cranberry juice.

  “Want one?” I asked Kael.

  He shook his head, no. He seemed tense. Whether he was more tense than usual, I couldn’t say. He looked at me as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t. His eyes leveled on the cup in my hand.

  “I’m only having one since I’m driving,” I explained, slightly defensive. Guilt didn’t really feel appropriate, since I could crash upstairs in my old bed if I needed to.

  “I don’t like liquor much.” I didn’t need an explana
tion, but it did make me wonder what it was that was making him seem so on edge.

  It was like he wanted to be present, but his mind was wandering back and forth between the kitchen and somewhere else. I tried to guess where, and even considered straight up asking him, but the idea made my heart pound.

  “I’ll just take a beer,” Kael said.

  I handed him a can from the bin in front of me, next to the partition between the living room and kitchen. Shelves full of eight-by-tens of my dad and Estelle, and me and Austin when we were young, stared back at us. My mom had long since been erased from the record.

  Kael studied the beer for a moment, rolling it in his hand before popping open the tab.

  “Natural Light, huh?” He raised his brows. They were so thick, they shaded his deep-set eyes and helped hide him from the world. Like he needed help with that.

  “Yep. The best of the best.” I took a gulp of my vodka mixture. I felt it fast, my cheeks and tummy warming up.

  Kael took a drink of the watery beer. I lifted my cup to touch his can. “Happy birthday! You’ll be drinking legally in about three hours,” I joked.

  “And you in a month,” he said, taking a swig of the beer and making a face. I didn’t blame him. I much preferred vodka over heavy bubbles of beer. It was my go-to when I drank. Drink less, feel more.

  Another plus with vodka: I knew exactly how much to drink before I would get too drunk. I’d pretty much mastered vodka. I’d been drinking it since Austin and I had gone to that Seniors Only party back in South Carolina.

  Austin and I were probably the only freshmen there. We scanned the place when we arrived, but it didn’t take long until Casey, a popular seventeen-year-old, made a beeline for Austin. She was one of the popular seniors. Popular. I hated that word. Austin didn’t, though. He knew it was his way in. The moment he complimented Casey’s eyelashes—it was something lame like, You have the longest eyelashes—well, that was it. Five minutes later, they were tongue-to-tongue and I was left to wander the party by myself.

  The only person who talked to me was a boy who had a mustard stain on his shirt. He had sharp canines, like a wolf, and he smelled like orange Lysol. I left him in the hallway by the bathroom and found the vodka bottle in the freezer. It was cool going down. That’s probably why I drank so much so fast. Too much. Too fast. I ran to the bathroom with my hand covering my mouth, holding in the vomit. Unfortunately, I ran into Lysol guy again, and he looked at me like I was the pathetic one. Maybe I was? I mean, I was the one pushing people out of the way to get the toilet.

  But that was then and this was now. That party was different. I was different. I had learned to hold my liquor. And I was no longer the girl who couldn’t walk away from a scary guy without second guessing herself. I felt safe with Kael. Interested and interesting. Like I was the senior at this party.

  KAEL WAS TAKING EVERYTHING IN. He wasn’t obvious about it, but he was watching. Analyzing. Paying attention.

  We made eye contact and he surprised me by being the one to break the silence between us.

  “Just how I thought I would spend my twenty-first birthday,” he said, taking another gulp of beer. And another.

  Someone turned on an old Usher song and I smiled into my cup. People were definitely trying to set the mood if they were playing old school Usher. I was liking this group, even though I tried not to. I was a sucker for nostalgia.

  “Wow. Usher. Well, take all the sarcasm out of what I just said.” Kael smiled.

  I hadn’t known this guy long, but wow, I loved it when he was this way. Unguarded and funny. I laughed at him and he took me in—my mouth, my eyes, my mouth again. He wasn’t subtle about it.

  Was he aware of the way he was looking at me?

  He had to be aware of the way he was looking at me.

  My head felt fuzzy and it had nothing to do with the vodka.

  “Kare!” Austin’s voice boomed over everyone and everything, including the blender being used to make some sort of neon mixed drink that I hoped wouldn’t be splattered all over my dad’s bathroom floor later.

  “There you are!” He wrapped both arms around me. He smelled like beer himself.

  The thought passed just as quickly as it came. He hugged me tight and kissed my hair.

  “Look at you,” he said, holding his plastic cup in the air. I knew he was drunk. He wasn’t wild. He wasn’t belligerent. But buzzed for sure.

  “Did you get a drink?” Austin’s green eyes were bloodshot. I reminded myself that he had just gotten out of jail, that he probably needed the drink.

  The fact that jail was a part of my vocabulary was something in itself, but I refused to be anything but chill the entire night. I was there to blend and now that Kael was there, I wanted him to have fun.

  “Yes.” I held up my cup and Austin nodded his head as if to say good.

  “Did you meet everyone?” His words were slightly slurred. His hair was messy, tousled, hitting the middle of his forehead.

  “Not yet. I just got here.”

  “You look happy. Are you happy?” my twin asked me.

  His cheeks were flushed. I put both of my hands on his shoulders.

  “You look drunk. Are you drunk?” I taunted him. In a loving way, of course. But I taunted him nonetheless. He was drunk. I was happy. But I wasn’t going to talk about it in front of an arguing couple and Kael.

  “I am. As you should be,” Austin told me with conviction. “It’s so good to be back.” He raised his hands in the air. His happiness was contagious, giving me a burst of energy I hadn’t felt in a while.

  Austin raised his cup to mine and then moved to Kael’s. It took a second for him to register that Kael wasn’t someone he had invited.

  “Hi.” Austin extended his hand to Kael. I cringed, wishing I had poured double the vodka into my drink.

  “Hey, I’m Kael. Nice to meet you.” The two guys shook hands like they had just made a billion-dollar deal.

  “Kael.” Austin let that one sit for a second. “Nice to meet you, man. We have drinks in here, pizza on the way. She knows where everything is,” he said, pointing at me with his cup. “You guys should come out to the living room with me.”

  Kael looked at me and I shrugged. I knew it was either the best, or worst, idea to follow Austin back to the living room.

  “Here, refill your drinks and come with me.”

  I tried to make eye contact with Kael, but he was looking at Austin, who was asking how long he had been in the army. Austin could tell. Even without being told, he could tell.

  I knew that Austin wouldn’t embarrass me by asking too many questions in front of Kael, but I also knew by the way he was looking at me that he was going to ask a hell of a lot questions later. The arguing couple disappeared down the hallway, probably to have make-up sex in the downstairs bathroom.

  “I’m glad you came,” Austin said to me, leading us into the living room.

  He looked at Kael again and I rolled my eyes. Austin and I mostly stayed out of each other’s dating lives. Not that there was much on my end to be nosy about. I had only had one serious boyfriend who I had decided not to think about for the night and as months passed, I realized we weren’t as serious as I thought we were. I had been told I love you by someone who meant it. Austin was different, falling in love every week. He somehow managed to stay honest about it, channeling his need and loneliness into physical contact. If it was the thing that made his life just a little better, who was I to judge? I had that same itch, just no one to scratch it.

  KAEL AND I WERE SMUSHED together on one end of the couch. Not squished. Not smashed. Smushed. Austin and a guy who had introduced himself as Lawson were on one cushion; Kael and I were on the other.

  “You look so familiar,” Lawson said to Kael after a few minutes.

  Kael reeled off a few things that sounded like army lingo and Lawson shook his head. “No, that’s not it.”

  “You say that to everyone,” Austin said. Then he grabbed a video game con
troller from a basket under the entertainment center. “Who’s ready to play?”

  “Not me,” Lawson said. “Time to go. I have to be up at five for duty.” He and Austin stood up and did that handshake thing guys do where they slap their palms together and make a fist.

  Once there was more room, I moved over a little on the couch. We weren’t smushed anymore, but my thigh was still touching Kael’s.

  “Do you want to play?” Austin lifted a controller to Kael, who shook his head.

  “No, I don’t really play.”

  Oh, thank God.

  “Who wants to play?” Austin asked again, holding up a controller to see if he had any takers.

  The front door opened and a familiar face walked in. I couldn’t remember his name off the top of my head, but I knew he and Austin used to hang out before he went to our uncle’s house to keep out of trouble. Yeah, because that worked out so well.

  “Mendoza!” Austin rushed to the door to greet the guy in the Raiders shirt. Austin always collected people around him. He was good at it.

  The guy, presumably Mendoza, hugged Austin. His eyes landed on me as I stared him down. My cheeks flushed. He looked next to me, to Kael.

  “Martin!” he said, pulling away from my brother. He walked over to the couch and Kael stuck his hand out between us. It took me longer than it should’ve to realize that they knew each other and that Martin was Kael’s last name.

  “Thought you were staying in tonight.” Mendoza’s honey-colored eyes were on me.

  “I was going to,” Kael said.

  Mendoza looked at me again, then back at Kael. “Right,” he said, smiling.

  “You two know each other?” Austin pointed between them. I sat there, observing. Confused. Austin was just as surprised as I was.

  “Yeah, we were in basic together. And we deployed—”

  “Mendoza, this is Karina,” Kael interrupted, looked at me.

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