Home > The Falling (Brightest Stars #1)

The Falling (Brightest Stars #1)
Author: Anna Todd





To you, the reader holding this book:

I hope you find comfort, solace, or distraction from any pain or loneliness you may be carrying—and at a minimum, I hope your heart feels a little lighter as you read these words.

You’re never alone. <3





The wind whips around the coffee shop each time the old wooden door creaks open. It’s unusually cold for September and I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of punishment from the universe for agreeing to meet up with him, today of all days. What was I thinking?

   I barely had time to put makeup on the swollen pockets under my eyes. I held two freezing ice cubes to my face and moved around my kitchen while they dripped down my cheeks, melting quickly. It was humid in my house and the smell of cool Georgia rain filled the whole place, not that it took much. And this outfit I’m wearing? A simple fall ensemble that took me an hour of digging around my drawers and my closet—with a mini fashion show in front of my bedroom mirror—to decide on the same thing I usually wore to anything formal: an all-black outfit, pants with a crease that looked very grown-up and like I tried, even though I felt like wearing sweatpants. To go with them, I put on a thick black turtleneck and only discovered an annoying drop of toothpaste on it as I turned the speck into a big spot, rubbing it with water and a paper towel while driving. After so much effort, I look like shit. Complete shit.

   Sitting here, my head aches but I’m not sure I have any ibuprofen in my purse. I’m thinking that it was smart of me to choose the table closest to the door of the coffee shop, in case I need to get away quickly. Or if he needs to. This little place in the middle of Edgewood? Another good choice—it’s neutral and not the least bit intimate. I’ve been here only a few times, but it’s my favorite coffeehouse in Atlanta. The seating is pretty limited—just about ten tables—so I guess they want to encourage a quick turnaround. There are a couple of Instagram-worthy features, like the succulent wall and the clean black-and-white tile behind the baristas, but overall, it’s quite austere. Harsh gray and concrete everywhere. The whistle of an espresso machine. Loud blenders mixing kale and whatever fruit is trendy.

   There is a single door: one way in, one way out. I look down at my phone and wipe my palms on my black pants. Another stain. I need to get my shit together.

   Will he hug me? Shake my hand? Is he preparing for our reunion obsessively, the way that I am? Did he toss and turn like I did, thinking about what to say and how to present himself? The new awkward. Mature and like I’ve gotten my shit together, that’s who I want him to think I am. A better version of the girl he knew so well.

   I can’t imagine him shaking my hand and using such a formal gesture. Not with me. But maybe he’s just as anxious as I am, maybe his head is spinning with memories and regrets like mine? He isn’t even here yet and my heart is pounding in my chest. For about the fourth time today, I can feel the panic bubbling just below my rib cage, and it pisses me off that I can’t control the physical effect he has on me. It pisses me off even more that he will probably walk in completely calm and steady, his own version of masking. I have no idea which mood of his I’ll get today, controlled or turbulent? Will he bring up the one thing I don’t want him to? I haven’t seen him since last winter and I don’t even know who he is now. And really, did I ever?

   There were little things I should have let go of, but there was one big thing that I still can’t accept. Even now the thought twists my insides and makes me want to change my mind about this whole Atlanta ordeal. I could go check out of my hotel, pack up my carry-on suitcase, and drive two hours back to my house, a place now off-limits to him. Did he remember that? I’ll be able to tell if he often thinks of me by the way he looks at me. He isn’t a mystery anymore, he is now a memory. Maybe I only ever knew a version of him—a bright and hollow form of the man I’m waiting on now. I have to keep reminding myself that this trip isn’t about him, it’s bigger than him, bigger than both of us. Kael would be hurting. He would hide it like a professional soldier, but I knew he would be hurting. I didn’t know how much contact he’d had with our friend over the last year, but I knew Kael couldn’t afford to lose anyone else around him.

   I suppose I could have avoided him for the rest of my life, but the thought of never seeing Kael again seemed impossible and worse than sitting here now, driving myself insane with anxiety. At least I can admit that. Here I am warming my hands on a coffee cup, waiting for him to come through that raspy door after swearing to him, to myself, to anyone who would listen for the last few months, that I would never . . .

   He’s not due for another five minutes. It feels like the longest five minutes of my existence, but if he’s anything like the man I knew, he’ll strut in exactly on time with a straight face, not showing one hint of emotion.

   When the door tears open, it’s a woman who walks in. Her blond hair is a nest stuck to the top of her tiny head and she’s holding a cell phone against her red cheek.

   “I don’t give a shit, Howie. Get it done,” she snaps, pulling the phone away with a string of curse words.

   God, I hate this about Atlanta. Too many people here are like her, tetchy and forever in a hurry. Zero patience and not seeming to care that other people have shit to do, too. The city wasn’t always like this. Well, maybe it was? I wasn’t always like this, though. Or maybe I was? But things and people change. I have. He probably has. I look around the shop again and watch the door for a few seconds. If he doesn’t arrive soon, I’m going to end up talking myself out of this whole meetup. I used to love this city, especially downtown. The dining scene is full of small, privately owned restaurants, not just chains, with actual chefs who create dishes that I’ve never even heard of but love. There’s always something to do in Atlanta and everything is open later than it is around Fort Benning. The exception, of course, being the strip club—there’s always at least one outside every military base. But the biggest draw to Atlanta for me back then was that I wasn’t constantly reminded of military life. No camo everywhere you look. No ACUs on the men and women waiting in line for the movies, at the gas station, at Dunkin’ Donuts. People speak real words, not just acronyms. And there are plenty of non-military haircuts to admire.

   I loved Atlanta, but he ruined that.

   We ruined that.


   That was the closest I’d get to admitting any fault in what went down.

“What are you staring at?”

   Just a few words, but they pour into and over me, shocking every one of my senses and all of my sense. And yet, there’s that calm, too, that seems to be hardwired into me whenever he’s around. I look up to make sure it’s him, though I know it is. Sure enough, he’s standing over me with his hickory eyes on my face, searching . . . reminiscing? I wish he wouldn’t look at me like that. The small café is actually pretty packed, but I hardly notice. I’d had this meeting all scripted, and now, with five words, he’s disrupted everything and I’m unnerved.

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