Counting the Stars
Jacob Whitman answered the door angrily, throwing it open like it had personally offended him.
“What did the door ever do to you?” Ruby asked.
“Keep me trapped,” he said sarcastically. “Come in.”
She entered the house tentatively, expecting it to be clean, orderly, and reeking of smart-people germs. Instead, she found that this house was pretty similar to her own. It had the same basic layout and a similar style, but a few pieces of furniture were in different places. For example, the room her parents had designated as the dining room was an office here, and vice versa.
Speaking of office, as Jacob lead the way through the house (she didn’t know where he was going, but she didn’t care), she caught the eye of a middle-aged woman in the doorway of the office. She looked like Jacob’s mother: they had the same nose, the same coloring, and the same face shape, but her face was pressed into a stern look that she fixed Ruby with as the girl passed by.
Ruby flashed her a sarcastic grin, and the woman’s expression tightened.
“Here.” Jacob gestured to the kitchen, where a wooden table sat, completely covered in papers. She eyed a slightly cleared spot and sat down, pushing away a few stacks of paper.
“Sorry about the mess,” Jacob said. “My mom’s company is under new management, and it’s been pretty hectic.”
“Okay,” she said, making her tone as bored as possible to show that she didn’t care.
“Okay,” he said. “What class do you want to work on first?”
She shrugged. “Any of them. I’ve got a C minus at best in all of them.”
Ruby saw him cringe. “Okay, well, which are you doing the worst in?”
“Reading,” she said easily. “I hate Shakespeare.”
“Me too, honestly,” he said. “But it’s easy if you know what resources to use. Do you have any notes?”
“Do you at least have the book?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t been able to find it in months.”
“You haven’t even been reading it?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t feel like it.”
“Wow.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
This was ridiculous.
She didn’t even have half the materials for any of her classes, she hadn’t been paying attention since September (at best), and now he was reading Romeo and Juliet with her.
With Ruby Scott.
God, how many boys would kill to be where he was now.
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” he read. “Deny thy father and refuse thy name/ Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love/ And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
“What does that mean?” Ruby said.
“She’s saying that she wants him to stop being a Montague so she can love him,” he explained. “Or, if he won’t do that, just tell her he loves her and she’ll stop being a Capulet.”
“Rich people problems,” she scoffed.
“The next line’s yours,” he prompted.
She sighed. “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this? I understood that.”
“Good,” he said. “‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy/Thou art thyself, though not a Montague/What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot/Nor arm, nor face, nor any–”
“Oh god, I think I’m going to throw up,” she said suddenly. “This is so boring.”
“It is,” he agreed.
“And they’re so stupid!”
“They are.”
“They just met, like, an hour ago!”
“I know.”
“Why do I have to read this?” she moaned, putting her head in her hands. “I’d rather read bad fan fiction written by twelve year olds. At least that’s funny.”
“What, all the innuendos in this aren’t cracking you up?” he said, grinning.
She fixed him with a withering stare. “Please let us do something else.”
“Okay,” he said, putting down his book. “Do you want to work on Math, then? Or science, you did say you had a test–”
“No school,” she interrupted. “We’re done with school for now. Let’s do something fun.”
His teenage boy mind went somewhere it shouldn’t have, and he shook his head to clear his thoughts. “You don’t really have the benefit of time here, seeing as it’s almost winter break and you haven’t been doing your school work for months–”
“I don’t do anything over break,” she interrupted. “I mean, usually I do stuff I’m not supposed to, but I’m turning things around now.”
He blinked. “So you’re saying...”
“I’m saying I’ll work hard over break. But right now, I need a break. I’m going insane.”
“You kind of can’t afford to–”
“Look, I don’t need to be straight As,” she said. “I just need, like, less Ds and Fs.”
Cringe, cringe. God, if he had those kinds of grades...
“Like, one C is acceptable,” she went on. “And having As in the easy classes would be great. I’m just shooting for Bs, honestly. And will you stop cringing already!”
She slammed her hand down on the table, startling him. Her eyes were narrowed into furious slits.
“Look, I know I’m a failure, but I really don’t appreciate you judging me every time I say something about my grades!” She took a deep breath. “It doesn’t just come to me like it does for you, okay? B is a good grade for me. If you could stop cringing and flinching and making that face when I say something stupid, it’d really help me feel better about myself.”
Jacob was speechless. “I–I don’t...” He trailed off. “I didn’t...”
“You know what? Forget it.” She stood up suddenly, the force of it sending papers flying. “This was a mistake.”
“What? Wait, don’t–”
“I’ll go find another tutor,” she said, picking up her backpack and shoving in, everything she could undoubtedly crumpling the papers (don’t cringe, he told himself). “Or I’ll just give up. It doesn’t matter. I’m just done.”
She didn’t listen. With everything in her backpack, she swung it onto her shoulder and stormed out of the kitchen, her back stiff and her face unreadable. Cursing under her breath, Jacob scrambled out of his chair as fast as he could.
“Wait, Ruby!”
He caught up with her just as she reached the front door. He wrapped a hand around her arm to stop her, and she reeled back and almost hit him in the face.
“What?” she demanded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “The cringing, the flinching, that—that’s not about you, honestly, it’s hard to explain–”
“Well explain it fast if you want me to stay.” Her voice was icy cold.
“It’s—ugh.” He groaned and let go of her arm to rub the back of his head. “I just—my mom, okay, she puts a lot of pressure on me, and every time you say something about your grades—every time anyone says something about their grades, really—I imagine that I had those grades.” He broke off with a sigh.
Ruby was staring at him expectantly. “And?”
“And I don’t think a B is a bad grade!” he said. “A B is awesome! But my mom, she’d flip if I had so much as an A minus on my report card, and–” He broke off again. “Yeah, I cringe. If there wasn’t my mom to worry about, I wouldn’t think twice about you shooting for a B. But she’s very much here, and so I think about it constantly.”
His eyes were trained at Ruby’s feet, at her scary black boots. Everything about her was scary, actually. Like her gaze, which he could feel boring into his skull. He wanted to look at her to try and figure out what she was thinking, but he knew her face would be unreadable.
“That’s kind of sad,” she said suddenly.
His head whipped up. Her face was still unreadable, but at least now she was talking.
“What is?”
“You’re so scared of her,” she said. “She’s your mom.”
“Well, I’m not scared of her, really,” he argued. “I’m scared of letting her down. I’m scared of disappointing her.”
Ruby let out a single-syllable laugh. It was a harsh, bitter sound, and it made Jacob flinch. Luckily, she didn’t seem to care this time.
“Disappointing my parents is all that I do,” she said with shrug that was a far cry from indifferent. “Which is why I’m here.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’ll try to stop cringing.”
“And I’ll try to remember that you’re struggling with mommy issues,” she said with a wry smile. “But for today, I think I’m done.”
“Really?” he asked.
Ruby nodded. “I mean, we did a good chunk of Romeo and Juliet. We could work on math tomorrow, or something. And I can figure out what things I have and what I don’t.”
“Try emailing your teachers,” he said. “Tell them how you’re trying to turn things around.”
“All the teachers hate me,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give me the time of day.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said, smiling gently. “Most of them would be impressed that you had the guts to ask them for help. Those who aren’t, well, boo them.”
She chuckled at that. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll get out of your hair now.”
He nodded. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow,” she said before shutting the door.
He stood there a few seconds longer, watching her walk to her car and get in. It wasn’t until she was at the end of the street that he heard the creak from behind him.
Spinning around, Jacob came face-to face with a taller, darker-haired version of himself.
“Oh,” he said. “Hi Mike.”
“Well,” said his brother. “That was dramatic.”
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