Counting the Stars
Ruby loved parties. The music, the people, the talking, the laughter—God, she’d missed this. It’d been a while since she’d been to a real party, and her whole body practically shook with excitement. She had a plan for the night: talk to some people she hadn’t hung out with in ages, dance to some generic pop songs, and kiss Jacob at midnight.
Maybe it was seeing Lexa and Theo awkwardly confess their love for one another, but Ruby was feeling inspired. She’d tried to deny it, but it was pointless: she wanted t0 date Jacob. She wanted to hold hands with Jacob. She wanted to kiss him and cuddle and do stupid, gross romantic things with him, things she’d never wanted to do with anyone before.
The only problem? Ruby couldn’t find him, and it was getting late.
“Kellan!” Ruby shouted across a room full of gyrating bodies. Ruby’s red-haired friend somehow managed to hear her, and she began forcing her way through the crowd.
“What’s up, girl?” Kellan asked when she’d finally made it through.
“Have you seen Jacob anywhere?” Ruby asked. “We’ve been here for hours and I haven’t seen him since your car!”
Kellan’s eyes flicked away as she shrugged. “He’s definitely here. I think I saw him talking to the one blue-haired girl in your grade?”
Ruby’s heart sank. That girl was cute. “Really?”
“Yeah, my bet is that she’s gonna make a move on him at midnight.” Kellan still wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Is that cliché or what?”
“Yeah.” Ruby felt the energy drain for her body. This was it, wasn’t it? Sure, when they were making their agreement Jacob had said he didn’t want a girlfriend, but of course Ruby had to go and get him one anyway. Of course.
“Don’t tell me you wanted to make a move on that nerd,” Kellan sneered. “Ruby, you’re way out of his league. You can do so much better.”
Yeah. Yeah.
Ruby straightened her spine, lifting her chin up. So what if Jacob wasn’t interested? That was his loss. She was Ruby Theresa Scott. She didn’t need him. She didn’t need anyone. She wasn’t going to let Jacob ruin her night.
“As if,” Ruby snorted. “I was just making sure that nerd didn’t get himself into trouble.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s fine,” Kellan said, taking a sip of her drink. “Hey, the host’s been looking for you. He’s out on the deck.”
Jett. Despite being in his house, Ruby had forgotten about him.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Kellan said. “It’s almost midnight, and there’s a cute girl waiting for me on the other side of this room.”
“Go get her, girl!” Ruby yelled as Kellan shoved her way back through the crowd.
Jett, huh? The guy was a jerk, but he was hot. He wanted her, apparently, even if Jacob didn’t. And hey, it’s not like what she and Jett had was ever serious—Jett was a fun fling, and right now, Ruby could use a little fun.
She grabbed a cup out of someone’s hand and took a huge gulp, swallowing the rest of the drink in one go.
“Hey!” the person complained.
“That drink sucked anyway,” Ruby said dismissively. “Go get another one.”
She still had several minutes to kill before midnight, so Ruby took a lap around the house, chatting with people she knew and dancing with people she didn’t. She stole another two cups from random people, lost her jacket somewhere in the crowd, and made every room she walked into just a little bit louder. Whenever her mind drifted towards thoughts of a certain glasses-wearing nerd, Ruby shut down that line of thought as forcefully as she could. She was here to have fun, and thinking about dorky boys with cute laughs and bright smiles was not helping.
People were beginning to count down when she finally made her way to the deck. Snow drifted down from the sky. Apparently the cold had chased most people off the deck; there were only a handful of people outside, and everyone was paired off except for one dashingly handsome boy. Ruby smiled as she strolled up confidently behind him.
The chanting was nearly deafening inside, but from out here it sounded muffled and distant.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ruby saw Kellan already locking lips with some girl she didn’t recognize.
The light from inside cast deep shadows across Jett’s shoulders. Ruby smirked as she tapped him on the shoulder.
Jett turned around, surprised. Ruby looped her arms around his neck.
“Happy New Year’s,” she whispered into his mouth.
To her surprise, Ruby realized she’d kind of missed this. If she ignored... Jett’s entire personality, he was alright. He was a good kisser—and really, in that moment, that was all that mattered.
“Hey,” Jett said, grinning as he pulled away. “Took you long enough.”
“I was just enjoying the party,” Ruby replied. “And I want to start hanging out again.”
“Right,” Jett said. “And, just to make sure, does ‘hanging out’ doesn’t mean dating, does it?”
Ruby felt a sudden pang in her chest, but she ignored it. So what if Jett didn’t want to date someone? She didn’t really want to date him, anyway. She just wanted to have fun. “Whatever you want.”
“Man, I’m so glad to hear that,” Jett said, pulling away from her. “Because, see, I had this idea–”
From out of nowhere, a girl from Ruby’s grade came sliding up to Jett’s side. Ruby recognized her as someone Jacob occasionally hung out with—was her name Sharon? Jett looped an arm around her shoulders as the girl gave Ruby a grin.
“So, I’m thinking—I have an image to uphold, right? Like, all the adults need to think I’m this goody-two-shoes nerd, y’know?”
Ruby nodded absently, narrowed eyes flicking between Jett and the girl.
“But if I’m dating you, well—that doesn’t look too good. Like, it was one thing when you were just the hot troublemaker, because then I at least got all the respect from the students and whatnot—but now you’re turning into some kind of nerd, like you’re trying to split yourself between two sides, and no offense? You don’t do the split personality thing nearly as well as I do.”
Ruby’s eyes snapped to Jett’s face. He looked at her with a smug grin, his arm still firmly wrapped around the girl. “I what?”
“Like—look, let me explain it in a way even you can understand,” Jett said. “Before, when you were just a bad girl, dating you was a really cool thing for the peers, but not so much for the adults, which is why we were never really official. Now, you’re still not good enough to pass as a respectable girlfriend to the adults, but you’re not even edgy enough to really count as my girlfriend to the peers.”
The girl was still smiling at Ruby, like she was taking intense pleasure from listening to Jett tear Ruby to shreds. Something about her seemed really familiar—Ruby felt like she knew her, not just through Jacob.
“So Shannon here,” Jett said, nudging the girl under his arm, “is gonna be my real girlfriend, the one I take to prom and show off to all the adults. You and I can hang out from time to time—y’know, just for fun—but it’s not gonna mean anything, you feel?”
“No.” Ruby felt her face growing hot. “No, I don’t feel, what—what do you mean, I’m not good enough to pass as a respectable girlfriend?”
“Ruby, honey, just look at yourself,” the girl—Shannon—said. “You’re not the kind of girl a boy can take home to his parents.”
This—this hurt. This shouldn’t be affecting Ruby so much, but it... it hurt.
“Uh, Jett?” Kellan appeared out of nowhere, arm around the waist of the girl she’d been making out with earlier. There were lipstick smears across both of their faces. “What’s going on? This wasn’t part of our agreement.”
“You had an agreement?” Ruby said, betrayed. Not Kellan, too. She couldn’t handle any hurt from her best friend. “I thought you hated each other.”
“Look, If she wants to be a nerd now, I can’t stop her,” Jett said to Kellan. “I’ll still hang out with her out of pity, but she’s changed. I’m just reacting to the change. You should, too.”
“Ruby’s my friend, jerk!” Kellan yelled, untangling herself from her lipstick-stained companion. “I’m not just gonna ditch her because she wants to do well in school!”
Jett shrugged. “Not my problem.”
“Kellan.” Ruby grabbed Kellan’s arm. “Kellan, what’s going on?”
Kellan looked to her, regret etched across her face. “We... we made a deal. We’d work together to get you to ditch Jacob, and you’d go back to being the rebel we all know and love. He wasn’t—he was supposed to convince you to go out with him, officially, while I was supposed to get Jacob out of the way.”
“I did that for you, by the way,” Shannon said, smirking. “You’re welcome.”
“What did you do to Jacob?” Ruby demanded.
“God, you’re so in love with that loser,” Jett sneered. “That’s so disgusting.”
“Pathetic,” Shannon giggled. “Hey, Ruby, remember when you ruined my life with your stupid ladybug prank? This is payback.”
Oh, that’s where Ruby recognized her from. When Ruby’d snuck thousands of ladybugs into the girls’ locker room, Shannon’s locker was the one to carry the brunt of the damage. The girl’s clothes were covered in ladybugs, and they’d swarmed up her legs and across her face.
“Really?” Ruby asked. “Your payback is to steal my kind-of-boyfriend? It takes a lot more than that to hurt the queen of pranks.”
Shannon’s face turned red. “Fine, then! I’ll bring even more payback!”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She turned to Jett. She didn’t even know where to start with him—she’d known he was a jerk, but she hadn’t known he was this much of a jerk. Sure, she was planning to just use him for fun, and technically he wanted the same thing, but to think... he held so little respect for her.
“I hope you rot in Hell,” she said before storming away to find Jacob.
Jacob was bored.
He’d peed three times in the past however many hours just for something to do. He’d discovered that the mirror was actually a cabinet and had broken all rules of politeness to rummage through the medicine. He was almost considering just taking a shower so he wouldn’t have to sit in silence for another ten minutes.
He wondered what Ruby was doing. He’d heard everyone count down at midnight. He wondered if she’d kissed anyone. Probably Jett Wayview. She was probably still kissing him right now. They were probably going to leave the party to go spray paint bad words on buildings or whatever it was that cool kids did.
“Jacob! Jacob!” someone called.
“Hey!” Jacob shouted, springing to his feet. He ran to the door and began banging against it. “Hey, I’m in here!”
Jacob heard the person run to the door, push something aside, and swing the door open. Jacob’s heart soared when he saw Ruby, but it immediately sank when he saw the expression on her face.
“Woah, are you okay?” he asked.
Ruby choked out a painful rendition of a laugh. “You’ve been locked in a bathroom for almost three hours and you ask me if I’m okay?”
“Well, are you?”
She took a deep, shaky breath. “No,” she decided. “No, not really. I think I’m going to cry, and I don’t want to do that, because everything is so stupid and I’m being so stupid–”
“Hey.” Jacob took a step closer, hands flailing awkwardly around her. “Hey, look, I promise you, it’s not stupid. The way you feel is not stupid.”
“You don’t even know what I’m upset about!” Ruby said.
“But I know you,” Jacob said. “And I know you’re not the kind of person to get upset over nothing.”
Ruby’s eyes widened. She gaped at him, and for a moment her distress melted off her face. She bit her lip and her eyes flickered down slightly.
“Jacob, I–”
Ruby spun around. “What do you want?” she demanded angrily.
Kellan McNulty stood at the end of the hall, palms held upwards in a show of surrender. “Ruby, I am so, so sorry about everything. I—I should’ve just talked to you. I was a bad friend and this is all my fault.”
“It’s not all your fault,” Ruby said. “But a whole lot of it is. I’m going home.”
“Let me drive you,” Kellan said. “You and Jacob—I mean, I’m assuming Jacob doesn’t want to stay.”
“Yeah, this party hasn’t been a whole lot of fun,” Jacob said.
“That’s my fault,” Kellan said. “I’m sorry, both of you, I really am. Ruby, I understand if you don’t want to talk to me ever again–”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Ruby said. “Just... drive me home. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk.”
Kellan nodded. “Okay.”
The drive to Ruby’s house was silent and awkward. Both Jacob and Ruby sat in the back seat this time. Ruby stared out the window the whole way, hardly even blinking. Kellan worried her lip between her teeth and glanced at Ruby through the rearview, but Ruby never made eye contact.
Kellan dropped them both off at Ruby’s house. “I’m sorry,” she said again, but Ruby only shook her head.
“Later,” Ruby replied.
Ruby let Jacob come inside while he texted his brother for a ride. She didn’t say much of anything to him, just offered him a drink before going upstairs to her room.
Jacob sat there awkwardly, unsure of what to do with himself. Should he go after her? Should he make sure she’s okay?
He couldn’t work up the courage to move. Instead, Jacob sat at Ruby’s kitchen counter and tried to pretend he didn’t exist.
It worked, for a while. The house settled around him, quietly creaking in the night. Jacob could hear Ruby pacing above him, but then that stopped and all that was left was the sound of Jacob’s breathing.
Which is why he nearly passed out when a quiet voice asked, “Who are you?”
“Oh my god!” Jacob clutched his chest, trying to steady his heartbeat.
“Sorry,” the voice said. “But seriously, who are you?”
“My name’s Jacob.” Jacob turned around to see who was talking. “I’m a friend of–”
Jacob didn’t mean to stop talking, but the sight was shocking.
The voice came from a girl, probably younger than he was, sitting in a wheelchair that looked like it was out of a sci-fi movie. Her body was shriveled and tiny, almost no fat on her, and her bones stuck out at odd angles. She was completely hairless and the palest person Jacob had ever seen. She was hooked up to an oxygen tank and some kind of IV tube. She looked like she was on the verge of death.
“I’m Rose,” the girl said. “I’m Ruby’s sister.”
“Oh,” Jacob said. He knew Ruby had a mysterious sister, but this... this was unexpected. “Nice to meet you.”
“Were you the one who was tutoring her?”
“Uh, yeah,” Jacob said.
Rose was quiet for a long moment, gazing into the distance with unfocused eyes. Finally, she muttered something under her breath.
“What was that?” Jacob asked.
“I said ‘thank you,’” Rose said. “You made her to be a better person.”
“You’re welcome,” Jacob said. “But I didn’t make her a better person. I just gave her the help she asked for. She grew on her own.”
Rose nodded. “I know. I’m glad she changed. She’s... she’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” Jacob agreed. “She is.”
“Are you sleeping over or something?” Rose asked abruptly.
“Uh, no, I’m—I’m waiting for my brother to come get me.”
Rose nodded. “Good. Ruby seems pretty upset.”
“Yeah, I...” Jacob trailed off. “I’m worried about her.”
Rose fixed him with a strange stare, analyzing him. Her eyes were sunken into her skull, outlined in deep shadow and purple bags. her gaze was piercing, and it made him feel like an insect under the needle.
“You’d better not be the reason she’s upset,” Rose finally said. She pressed some buttons on her wheelchair and began to slowly wheel away. “I’ll kill you if you are.”
Jacob knew the girl’s body was a delicate glass sculpture, but something about her tone told him that she would find a way to kill him if he gave her a reason to.
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