Counting the Stars
“Your parents really like Christmas, huh?” Ruby said, eyes roaming the foyer of the Whitman household. Tinsel spiraled up the stairwell, paper snowflakes hung from the chandelier, and every doorway in sight held a few pieces of mistletoe.
“My dad does,” Jacob said. He shut the door behind her. “We also have cookies if you want them.”
Ruby groaned as she slipped off her coat. “I’m going to miss his cooking over the break.”
“You can come over, if you want,” Jacob offered.
“Can’t. My parents just told me today that we’re heading to my uncle’s place in the city for break. Which, actually, I wanted to talk to you about.”
Ruby set her backpack down and zipped it open, pulling out a brand-new binder she’d just bought the day before. She felt a swell of pride as she handed it to Jacob: this was something she’d actually done right.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“A study guide,” she replied. “For all my classes.”
Jacob’s eyes widened. “Even history and math?”
“I had to ask people in my classes for their notes, but yeah, this is everything.” She didn’t beam, exactly, but she held her chin up a little higher and smirked. “Took me all weekend.”
Jacob did beam. “This is great, Ruby!”
There it was again.
Ever since the day, a little over a week ago, when she’d dragged him into the girl’s bathroom, Jacob’s been saying her name differently. Boys always said her name with awe, but now it’s like... softer. Warmer. Weirder.
“So this is what you’ll be doing over break?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah. And other assignments, of course. There’s a group project in English that I’ll have to work on, plus a couple other things here and there. Viola’s been burying us in homework.”
Jacob laughed. “Do you want to work on that now?”
“Actually, I was thinking we’d skip homework for today,” Ruby said. “My grades are starting to creep up, I’ve got my new best friend right here–” she gave the binder a pat, “–so I figure it’s time we work on your project.”
Ruby wanted to laugh at the deer-in-the-headlights look Jacob sported. “Come on, it’s not that bad!”
“You threw out half my clothes last time!” Jacob said. “My mom’s been looking for my plaid shirt all week!”
“Okay, for the record, that shirt was repulsive. Secondly, no more throwing out your stuff, I promise.”
Jacob breathed a sigh of relief.
“Let’s start by getting rid of your glasses.”
“Wait, what?”
“Come on, let’s go to your room and see what I’ve got to work with.”
Spluttering, Jacob followed her up the stairs. She spotted Jacob’s brother poking his head out of his room, but Ruby pretended not to notice him as she lead Jacob into his room and shut the door behind him.
It was neater than the last time she’d been in here (probably because a decent amount of his clothes were now gone). The bed was still unmade, the desk still kind of sloppy, and the odd assortment of posters on the walls still hanging from the walls in all their glory.
“Do you like basketball?” Ruby asked, nodding at the only sports-related poster in the room.
“I used to play,” Jacob said.
Ruby hummed. “We should probably get you back on the team. Now, give me those–”
Jacob spluttered some more when Ruby plucked his glasses off his nose. “Don’t break them!”
Ruby shot him a withering stare as she set the lenses down on his dresser. “I’m not that stupid.”
Jacob huffed, crossing his arms. He was squinting slightly, leaning towards her to see better. “I need those to see.”
“How blind are you?” Ruby asked. She took a step back, inspecting the boy. Jacob wasn’t a lost cause (she wouldn’t be constantly caught off guard by him if he was). He was shorter and slightly broader than his brother, and no matter what Mike (that was his name, right?) had said, Jacob had the better face. Mike’s nose was bigger, Jacob’s jaw sharper.
Plus, Jacob was a nice kid. Not too arrogant, not too nerdy. They actually got along better than she’d expected.
“I can make out your facial expressions, kind of,” Jacob said. “If you stepped back a few feet, I’d have no idea. Why are you biting your lip?”
“No reason,” Ruby said quickly. “Just thinking. Do you brush your hair?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Well, stop it, it makes your hair lie flat.” She reached up and ruffled his hair.
Jacob yelped and ducked away. “What the heck?”
“I’m just trying something, hold still.”
He did as she said, tilting his head down to let her mess with his hair a little more. When she was done she gave his forehead a light flick and stepped back.
“It’s so much easier for boys get makeovers,” Ruby lamented. “Look at you, you look like a whole new person!”
Ruby turned Jacob to face the mirror over his dresser. He squinted leaned in, and said, “Ruby, I can’t see.”
Ruby sighed. “How badly do you need your glasses?”
“Pretty bad!”
“Okay, fine, you can wear them,” she said, handing his glasses back to him. “Ask your parents if you can get contacts, though. If not, we should get you a new pair.”
“What’s wrong with these?”
Ruby scrunched her nose. “Too round for your face. You look kinda like Harry Potter.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Jacob asked.
“Sorcerer’s Stone Harry Potter,” Ruby clarified. “Not hot adult Daniel Radcliffe. Do you want to look like a twelve year old?”
“No, but–” Jacob’s eyes widened. “Wait a second.”
“What?” Ruby stared at him in confusion.
“You’ve read Harry Potter?” Jacob said.
“Yeah? I had a childhood.”
“I just thought it was all, I dunno. Jungle gyms and climbing trees.” Jacob can picture an elementary-school-aged Ruby, gap-toothed and bruised, using sticks as swords and sticking her tongue out at adults.
Ruby scoffed. “I did that too, duh. What, are you surprised I knew how to read?”
“From how fast you picked up Romeo and Juliet? No way.” Jacob shook his head. “I just didn’t take you for a recreational reader.”
“I like stories where the main characters get up to trouble,” Ruby said with a shrug.
Jacob smirked. “Inspiration?”
“You could say that, yeah.”
“So you’re, like, a closet nerd.”
“Excuse me?” Ruby demanded. “I’m not a nerd.”
Jacob’s look read, “come on, really?”
“I can’t believe I’m being attacked like this. My own tutor! My own popularity protégé!”
“Have you ever seen The Lord of the Rings?” Jacob asked her.
“No, and I never will! Keep your nerd lifestyle away from me!”
“Come on, those films are classics! I’m not even asking you to read the books! Which you should do, obviously.”
“Stop. Talking.”
“Listen, here’s the deal,” Jacob says, trying not to smile. “If you don’t watch all three movies with me, I will stop tutoring you.”
Ruby gaped. “You’re joking.”
“Not even remotely! I would never joke about Tolkien.”
“About what?”
Jacob rolled his eyes and smiled. Ruby was acting like watching a fantasy movie would ruin her entire life. “Look, come on, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“I turn into a nerd like you.”
“Ouch.” Jacob clutched his chest in mock pain. “Fine, then. If you won’t watch, I won’t tutor.”
“You can leave, now.”
“Have fun failing all your classes!”
“Jacob!” Ruby’s arms were crossed, but she was smirking in amusement. “Fine! I give in! Pull up some lord of the dork and get some popcorn. How many movies are there?”
Jacob beamed. “Three, not including the Hobbit movies. Which we should also watch.”
“Coerce me into that later,” Ruby said. “D’you think we could binge all three movies in one go?”
“That’s, like, almost ten hours.”
Ruby winced, but then her jaw settled. “Let’s do it. All three movies in one go.”
“Not now, God, I’m not staying over at your house.”
Jacob flushed. He hadn’t thought about that. “Okay, then when?”
“We can have a ten-hour Skype session over break,” Ruby decided. “We should also just keep in touch over the break to make sure I’m staying on task.”
“That’s... a good idea.” Jacob shook his head, laughing lightly to himself. “First the study guide, now plans for winter break? You’re really taking this seriously.”
“You’ve been tutoring me for over a week now,” Ruby said. “You of all people should know that I’m not messing around anymore.”
“No, no, I knew.” Jacob smiled, his hand absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck. “You just keep surprising me, is all.”
Ruby smiled, one of her rare genuine smiles. Jacob could count on one hand the amount of times he’d seen her smile like that. It was a small smile, barely a twitch of her lips, but it wasn’t tinged with light sarcasm the way her smirks were. Her face looked open, honest. It was... god, it was almost painful to look at.
He wasn’t delusional. Ruby was beautiful, enthralling, alluring. The more he got to know her, the more he saw her as a person instead of a legend, the more painful it became.
She was so far out of his league. It was almost embarrassing to stand near her. Anyone with eyes would pick it up in an instant: she was amazing, and he was ordinary. Boring.
God, he really didn’t have a chance, did he?
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