Counting the Stars
CHAPTER
23
Bonus Chapter: Snippets to Senior Year
“Thanks again for letting us stay here,” Ruby’s dad said, carrying two suitcases with him. Inside were all the belongings he and his daughter owned. “Your house is at the perfect spot, just a five-minute drive to the hotel where Rose and my wife are staying.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem!” Jacob’s mom said. “Here, I’ll help you with that...”
As their parents chatted in the hallway, Ruby snuck upstairs to where Jacob was waiting for her. He grinned and gave her a peck on the lips when she got to him.
“So, I know we’re forbidden from sharing a bed,” Jacob said, following Ruby into his room. “But my basement has a pretty sweet couch we could sneak down to when everyone else is asleep.”
Ruby hummed wrapping her arms around Jacob’s waist. “Oh, I like that. Just the two of us, alone in the dark, keeping quiet so nobody hears us...”
“You’re thinking what I’m thinking, aren’t you?” Jacob said, sly grin in place.
“Oh yeah,” Ruby said with a wink. “Just you, me, and ten hours worth of classic fantasy cinema.”
“Ohhh yeah,” Jacob groaned. “You know me so well.”
“Am I a good kisser?” Jacob asked.
Ruby had to physically restrain herself from tearing his head off. “Why,” she panted. “Would you ask me. That question. Mid-makeout session?”
“I don’t know!” Jacob said. “I was just thinking, like, before you, I’d never done this kind of thing before. And I know Jett–”
“Jett is the scum of the earth,” Ruby growled into Jacob’s neck.
“Yeah, I know,” Jacob agreed, pretending like he didn’t find that incredibly hot. “But, like, he really knew what he was doing when it came to this stuff, and you went from that to me–”
“Look,” Ruby said, scooting backwards so she could sit up without smacking into Jacob’s head. “Technically? Jett was a better kisser.”
Jacob’s entire body deflated. “Oh.”
“But,” Ruby continued, “kissing you is still a million times better.”
“Oh!” Jacob’s face brightened, then fell in confusion. “Wait, what?”
“It’s like–” Ruby cleared her throat, trying to collect her thoughts. “It’s like I was making out with a robot that was programmed to do exactly what I liked. Well, not exactly—he wasn’t that good—but it was alright, making out with this robot. Then you come along, and you’re the first human person I’ve ever made out with, and it’s incredible. Even if you’re not as flawless as the programmed machine, you’re human and you have emotions and care about me.”
“I’m glad to know you see me as a human being,” Jacob joked, but Ruby could see his shoulders relaxing. “Still, though. Do you think you could... teach me?”
Ruby couldn’t help but smile at her stupid boyfriend. He was such a nerd. “Is it my turn to tutor you? How the tables have turned,” she said. “You mostly just get better with practice, though.”
“Practice, huh?” He was back, the grinning boy she knew. She figured his expression was meant to be alluring, but his smile mostly just looked happy. Then he crawled back towards her, slowly leading her back into a horizontal position, and Ruby remembered that her boyfriend was plenty enticing. “I’m down for some more practice.”
“Then get down here already,” Ruby complained, looping her arms around his neck and pulling him flush against her.
“My transcript is so ugly,” Ruby whined.
Jacob leaned over her shoulder. “Ruby,” he says. “Ruby, you practically got all A’s.”
“But look at that B!” she said, pointing to the letter next to the word MATH. “Viola hates me!”
“I hate you,” Jacob said. “Are you really mad about this year’s one single B, when freshmen year you–”
“Shhhh, we don’t talk about freshman year,” Ruby said. “Freshman year doesn’t exist. Those seven C’s? I don’t know them. Those aren’t mine.”
“There’s a pun in there, somewhere,” Jacob said. “Something about the Seven Seas.”
“If you make that pun, I will punch you,” Ruby warned.
Jacob laughed and leaned against her. “I know you’re just fishing for compliments,” he said, pressing a kiss against her temple, “but I think it’s adorable, so I’m gonna indulge you. Congratulations on your report card.”
Ruby’s face burned bright red. “Whatever! It’s Kellan you should be congratulating, now that you helped her finally graduate.”
Jacob just rolled his eyes and kissed her again.
The blue-haired girl in in their grade—now the purple haired girl in their grade—sighed dreamily as Jacob crossed the cafeteria. “How did you know he was secretly such a charmer?” the girl said. “I always thought he was so awkward, but he’s so smooth with you.”
Ruby watched Jacob approach their table, thinking about how the night before he’d accidentally let out a massive fart while they were out for dinner at a semi-fancy Italian place. “Uh.”
Jacob had seen Ruby in bikinis. He’d seen her in a sports bra. He’d seen her in a regular bra, on one unforgettable and accidental occasion. He’d seen her in short shorts and short skirts, in crop tops and low-cut necklines. He’d seen her in a variety of highly flattering attire, but this... this was too much for his brain to handle.
His flannel. His ironic t-shirt. The outfit was baggy and ill-fitting, yet Jacob felt like he was about to burst a blood vessel.
“Hey, remember last year, when you pulled me into the girl’s bathroom to yell at me because you thought I was telling everyone we were dating?” he asked her.
“Hm? Yeah,” Ruby answered absentmindedly, busy jotting down notes in Honors English—a class they were taking together! He was so proud of her, taking challenging classes and pushing herself. “Sorry about that.”
“No, trust me, I don’t need your apology, everything turned out great in the end,” he said with a grin. “But, uh, would you be averse to a repeat of that encounter?”
Finally Ruby’s head lifted up, eyes drifting away from the paper. “What?”
Jacob squirmed in his seat. “I just thought that, uh.” He gulped. “You look really good, and it’d be kind of funny if we contrasted what happened the last time we were in a bathroom together with kissing real quick.”
Ruby looked down at her outfit. “Oh, these are your clothes.”
Something about her not realizing—about her not even knowing when she picked out her outfit that morning, makes Jacob feel lightheaded. “Yes, they are.”
Ruby looked at him, considering. “Nah,” she said. “You can wait till after school.”
Jacob wanted to cry. “Are you kidding me?”
“I don’t want you getting a detention,” Ruby said. “You can’t be our valedictorian and a Peeping Tom.”
“I can keep my eyes shut!”
Ruby covered her mouth with her hand, stifling a laugh. “No, sorry, I don’t think that’ll hold up in court. Hey, do you think I could be a lawyer?”
Jacob gave himself a ten-second break from the sexual frustration to say, “Ruby, you can be anything you want to be,” before resting his head in his hands and groaning.
“Huh,” Ruby said.
“Wow,” Jacob said.
“Would you look at that.”
“I... wow.”
“And you thought dating me was a huge step up,” Ruby joked, nudging Jacob with her elbow.
“How... how did he do that?” Jacob asked. “Like... how.”
Ruby shrugged. “He tried out for the team and made it, I guess,” she said. She paused. “Are you jealous?”
“What? No!” Jacob shook his head. “Just... really confused. A little in awe, yes, but not jealous. And, uh... kind of proud?”
Ruby nodded. “No, I understand. I don’t talk to him much, but I’m proud of him, too. Look at the little man go.”
Both parties fell silent as they watched Nikolas, from across the cafeteria, eating his lunch with ten cheerleaders and wearing the same matching team windbreaker as the rest of them.
Jacob sighed, frowning at his reflection in the mirror. It was hard to get a good look, but if he twisted his body and tilted his head Jacob could see almost every inch of scarred skin covering his back.
“Well, hello,” a voice said.
“Ruby!” Jacob whipped around, hastily reaching for a shirt. “What are you doing here?”
“Why the modesty?” Ruby asked, eyes roaming Jacob’s body. “It’s not anything I haven’t seen before.”
Jacob flushed, but he hesitated, not dropping the shirt but not putting it on, either. “Uh... H-how did you get here?”
“Oh, y’know,” Ruby said with a shrug and a twinkle in her eye that told Jacob she was beyond ecstatic. “I just decided to go for a spin with my brand new license!
“Your what.” Jacob grinned. “You passed on your first try?”
Ruby nodded, smug. “Unlike someone I know.”
“Shut up.” Jacob rolled his eyes, but he crossed the room to hug his girlfriend anyway. “Good job.”
“Thanks.” Ruby’s hands settled on Jacob’s bare back. Jacob could feel her fingers tracing the ridges and lines across his skin. He shuddered and pulled away.
“Anyway.” Jacob stepped back and pulled his shirt on. “How did you–”
“Why do you always do that?” Ruby demanded.
Jacob paused. “Do what?”
“Put your shirt on when I touch or look at your back,” Ruby said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh.” Jacob winced. “I just... don’t like people seeing the burn scars.”
Ruby’s eyes widen slightly. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” Jacob turned away, anxiously glancing around his room for something to do. There was a sizable amount of clothes on the floor, so he hurriedly began cleaning up. He grabbed a pile of jeans and tossed them into the hamper. He was reaching for a shirt when he felt a hand slide up the one he was wearing.
“Hey, stop that.” He tried to turn around, but Ruby held his shoulder and stopped him. “What are you doing?”
Ruby didn’t respond. She pushed her hand up farther, dragging Jacob’s shirt up and revealing his bare skin.
“Ruby, stop,” Jacob said, but he didn’t move.
“I think it looks kinda cool,” Ruby says quietly, brushing against the twisted, shining skin. It looked stretched apart, pulling across the muscle and bone in his back. It was redder than the rest of his skin. It wasn’t pretty, but the doctors had told him it could’ve been a lot worse.
The top of the burn scar just barely peeked over the collar of Jacob’s shirt. Ruby slid her hand out and grabbed the collar, pulling it down to see where the shiny skin met normal skin. Gently, she placed a soft kiss against the edge of the burned skin.
Jacob sucked in a quick breath. “Oh.”
Ruby wound her arms around his waist and smiled, pulling herself close to Jacob’s body. “If you want to hide it from other people, that’s your business,” she said. “But I don’t want you to be afraid around me.”
Jacob took a deep breath and held on to her arms. “You’re just so... perfect.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m just the epitome of beauty and grace when I’m on day two of my period and I’m bawling my eyes out in stretchy pants because my stomach’s bloated to twice its normal size.”
“That’s not–”
“Or when I get stressed out and my whole hairline erupts into pimples.”
“You don’t–”
“Or when I haven’t bothered to shave in weeks and my armpits are hairier than yours.”
“But you–”
“Or when I have a cold and I’ve coughed up one ton of phlegm in one hour.”
“That’s not what I mean!” Jacob said, pulling away from Ruby’s arms and turning to face her. “Yeah, I’ve gotten to see the less-than-perfect side of you, but it doesn’t even come close to all the embarrassing parts of me you’ve seen. Like, you’re way out of my league, and then I have this ugly scar to remind me of how poorly I compare to you.”
“You got those scars from saving my sister’s life, Jacob,” Ruby said. “You really think I look at your back and think, ‘wow, gosh, he’s so ugly, I could do so much better.’”
“No, but.” Jacob sighed. “I feel like you look at me and think that. I know I do, anyway.”
Ruby was torn between rolling her eyes, bursting into laughter, or bursting into tears. Her body tried to do all three things at once, which just resulted in a strange, indescribable sound escaping her lips. Jacob’s eyes widened, eyebrows raised in a question.
Ruby covered her mouth with her hand. “Ignore that noise,” she said. “Also, you’re a big stupid idiot if you think you’re not good enough for me.”
“But you’re out of my league–”
“Shut up about leagues!” Ruby yelled. “Oh my god, none of that matters! Beauty standards are a social construct! A hundred years ago, everyone wanted unibrows and obesity! I like you, and I want to date you! End of story!”
“But–”
“Agh!” Words obviously weren’t working, so Ruby grabbed his head and pulled him down into a searing kiss.
Kissing Jacob had always been amazing, but he’d improved even more since they’d started dating. In the year they’d been together, he’d learned how to make her feel like goo in seconds. Ruby usually liked to pat her back on that one, but it was really frustrating when she was trying to sweep him off his feet and he was doing that thing with his tongue oh my god
“How?” Ruby pulled away, face red with anger and wow.
Jacob squinted at her in confusion. “Ruby, you’ve been ten steps ahead of me for this entire conversation, but I still gotta ask: how what?”
“How can you think you’re not good enough for me when you kiss like that?” Ruby cried. “You’re ridiculous! I hate you!”
“You do?”
“No, not even close!” Ruby kissed him again, briefly. “Dating you is impossible!”
“Yeah, uh, right back at you,” Jacob said, dazed.
“Just think,” Ruby sighed. “This time next year we’re gonna be getting ready to go to college.”
“Don’t remind me,” Jacob said. “We’re at the pool to enjoy summer, not fill Jacob with dread about the future.”
Ruby scoffed at him. “You’re going to do fine, Jacob.”
“I can’t go anywhere if I don’t get a scholarship,” Jacob whined. “I’m going to have debt for the rest of my life. I’m going to become homeless and die on the streets, alone and unloved...”
As her boyfriend continued to complain, Ruby caught Nik’s eye. The kid was swimming with his cheerleader friends, in the middle of a water gun fight, but he paused when he saw the meaningful look Ruby gave him.
“You’re such a downer,” Ruby said to Jacob, keeping his attention on her and not on the cheerleaders who were creeping up behind him. “Lighten up.”
Jacob looked at her, sadness in his eyes. “But how–”
“Now!” Nik yelled.
Ten girls pushed a flailing Jacob into the pool.
Ruby was cracking up when her boyfriend resurfaced, glaring and soaking wet. “Ruby!” he cried. “I haven’t even changed into my bathing suit!”
“Well, hurry up!” In one swift movement, Ruby grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off, already wearing her bathing suit underneath. She leapt into the water and swam over to Jacob, looping her arms around his neck and kissing him.
“Awww!” Nikolas and the other cheerleaders all cooed from the side of the pool. Jacob made a rude gesture toward them as he continued to kiss Ruby.
“So, should I write my college essay about my house burning down, or about how you tutored me into self-improvement?” Ruby asked.
“Don’t do the house burning,” Jacob said. “I’m doing the house burning as a metaphor for my work ethic.”
“That’s so stupid.”
“College essays are stupid by default,” Jacob said. He squinted closer at his computer screen. “Hey, do you think my comma usage here is correct?”
Ruby leaned over his shoulder, reading the sentence Jacob had highlighted. “Use a semicolon,” she suggested.
“God, you’re right,” Jacob said, beaming. “You’re the best.”
Ruby sniffed and turned back to her own computer. “Duh.”
The “no sharing a bed” rule was still firmly in place, but by the time they were coming up on their third year they had figured out a strategy. Whenever Ruby’s parents were out for the night—not as often as either of them would like, but often enough to become familiar with the strategy—Jacob would park his car at a gas station around the corner and climb in through Ruby’s window. Nik was willing to cover for Jacob, telling Jacob’s parents he was at his house if they happened to ask. Ruby’s new house had cameras, but Ruby had become adept in replacing the camera feed. Jacob always left early in the morning, kissing a sleeping Ruby on the forehead before climbing back outside.
Jacob sighed as he groggily pulled his shirt on. Ruby slept beside him, snoring softly and drooling onto her pillow. She looked like a mess; Jacob was in love.
Gently, he brushed the hair off her forehead and smiled. Ruby shifted and hummed, but she sounded like she was still asleep.
He leaned down and kissed her forehead, just like he did every time he left, only this time he muttered a soft “I love you” as he pulled away.
Ruby’s eyes snapped open. Jacob’s heart stopped.
They’d probably passed the point where they were supposed to say “I love you,” but his heart still pounded out of his chest. He’d never said that out loud before, not in as many words.
Ruby gave him the softest, warmest smile he’d ever seen. “I love you, too.”
Jacob felt his entire body melt. He couldn’t help but lean back in for a real kiss.
Jacob didn’t mean to fall asleep kissing her, but when Ruby had to awkwardly explain to Rose why Jacob was in their house at eight in the morning, he found that he didn’t care. It was worth it.
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