~ Twenty-five hours before the end ~
It's always been Ruby.
That's the first line of this "assigned" love letter, and it's all it takes to get the juices flowing and put me in the zone.
From the first time I saw her eleven years ago at the local garden center, freeing some ladybugs from their netted prison. There she was, six years old, a mere fifteen feet from me, ripping open the small nets.
She had this fierce expression on her face, lips pressed together, dark eyes blazing with determination. And just like that, I was sucked into her orbit. Even at the ripe old age of seven, I knew she was uncommon.
I still remember how my heart lurched, screaming at me to go over and help her, to be her partner in crime: Take a risk! But I'm not built that way, never have been. Risks lead to injury and injury leads to pain and pain leads to misery. See the problem? Besides, I was seven and the thought of landing in Dick's Garden jail sounded like the worst kind of misery.
So I hung back with my eyes glued to her, like she was some story and I needed to see how it ended.
Some of the ladybugs were smart enough to take flight; others crawled over the netting, and the rest? They landed on Ruby's arms and hands. She just stood there, smiling, observing them with this kind of awe that I wished everyone in their life could experience even once.
Most people would have fled the scene of the crime, but not Ruby. See, Ruby's a study in daredevilry. She didn't care if she got caught. All that mattered to her was setting those damn ladybugs free.
A wedge of sunlight spilled onto Ruby's golden-brown tangled hair. She looked up. Her eyes met mine. My face burned with the heat of someone doing something wrong. "Are you a good liar?" she asked.
I quickly spun away, knocking a tiny pot of mint off the shelf. I shrugged, feeling lost in my own skin. "Uh, not really."
She marched over with so much purpose, I thought maybe I should run, but she was already standing right in front of me. The ladybugs still clinging to her.
"Well, you have to be," she insisted as she picked up the mint pot and put it back in its place. "If anyone asks, I wasn't here. You don't know me."
"But . . . I don't know you."
Just then her mom called to her. "I gotta go," Ruby said with a smile that showed off a missing front tooth. "Don't forget." She mimed something with her hands that I took to mean, You never saw me.
And then she was gone. And I was left standing
next to some wilting basil, wondering what had just happened. As I walked back to meet my dad near the Mexican palms, I felt a tickle on the back of my hand. I looked down. One of Ruby's ladybugs skittered across my skin. Bright red with four black dots, its wings opening and closing, closing and opening. And then it took flight.
Yeah, so like I said, it's always been Ruby.
Now I look down at the legal pad on my bed, worried as hell that the words won't be good enough. There's tons more slashing I've got to do, but at least it's a start for our time capsule that Ruby insists we make for memory's sake.
The sound of a car engine and an electrical drill fill the space. Me and my dad live above his auto shop, Jorgé's. His specialty is the restoration of classic cars. I used to hate it, the noise, the grease, the late nights. But now? I see it as his art form; it's calming to head down there and watch him work on an old Firebird or Porsche.
I glance at the clock. Shit! We're supposed to be at Martin's party in fifteen, and I haven't changed into my swim trunks or . . .
My bedroom door swings open. It's Ruby.
Quickly, I shove the essay under a pillow, nearly knocking my guitar off the bed, and decide it's best to head her off at the pass: "Give me ten and I'll be ready."
"You're going to be late to your own funeral," Ruby says, still standing in the doorway like she isn't sure if she's going to come in. She's got her dark sun-streaked hair tied back and her Ray-Bans are perched on top of her head, getting stretched out because her head is way big. She's wearing a pair of jean shorts, and a T-shirt that hangs off one shoulder, revealing a red bikini top.
"I was working on the letter for our time capsule thing. I guess I lost track of time."
"You're a songwriter. This should be easy for you." She takes a few steps into my minimalistic room, glancing around like she half hopes to find a discarded sock. What kind of a monster doesn't use the hamper?
Knowing Ruby, her letter will be five words long. She can't even write a proper birthday message in a card, so I don't know why she would torture herself like this. Even if this was her idea.
She falls back onto my bed, simultaneously smacking my chest. Her sunglasses fly off her head and onto the floor.
"Hey, you okay?" I lie on my side, resting on my elbow, looking down at her, wondering how after all this time she has this unraveling effect on me. Whenever she's this close, I just want to feel her skin against mine, to breathe her in, while I think I've gotta be the luckiest guy alive because she chose me.
She hesitates. There's a long silence and I'm not sure if she's formulating a joke or a killer comeback. She's capable of both, but she does neither. "I guess I can't believe five months is the only thing between us and senior year and everything is happening too fast and . . ."
I wrap her hand in mine. "Hey, I'm the worrier, remember? And you're totally encroaching on my territory."
She doesn't lean into the levity.
"I just feel like . . . I don't know." She squeezes my hand, looking out the window to the sunny skies beyond.
Here's the thing about Ruby: she never worries about anything. Ever. Sneak off campus? Rules are meant to be broken. Leap from a sea cliff? Keep your eyes open. Flat tire on a back road? Let's get lost in the woods.
"And this is why we are supposed to be making killer memories, like tonight."
"The party?" she teases, knowing full well I meant the surprise I have for her later that I've been planning for months and when she sees it, she's going to flip.
"Or we could do it another night," I tease back with a shrug.
"Don't even think about it." She gives me a kiss, meant to be a peck, but I'm greedy, and in a nanosecond the kiss is deeper, our bodies pressed so close I think we could melt into this mattress. Sometimes I wish we had never agreed to wait to have sex until college, because right now she's seriously ruining me.
In an instant she pushes off of me, sucks in a lungful of air like she's having the exact same thought. Or not. She dives past me, reaches beneath the pillow, and jerks free the essay. Like she knew it was there all along. Am I really that predictable?
I lunge, falling on top of her. She squeals, shoves the paper under her back, and stares up at me defiantly. We're so close that our foreheads are pressed together. "What happened to being late for the party?" I ask.
She makes a sad pout. She's perfected the expression over the years, a look I can't say no to. "Just give me one line," she says, "kind of like a prompt."
I laugh. "If I give you one line, will you give me back the paper?"
Her lashes look longer from this close, and the golden specks in her dark eyes look brighter. She blinks, her lashes tickling my cheek. "I promise."
I pull back, so I can see her face in full view when I say the words. She does a half-hearted drumroll. Voices carry from the shop below. A car engine rumbles.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" I say, still smiling.
"It can't be that good."
"Oh, it is."
She rolls her eyes. "Lay it on me."
I hesitate, let her squirm another second before I say, "It's always been Ruby."
Her face shifts from wonder to surprise to frustration in the span of half a second. Then she bunches my T-shirt in her fists and says, "I really hate you, Hart Augusto."
I kiss the tip of her nose. "I really hate you, too, Ruby Armenta."
"So much. I will hate you for so long; I plan to get sick of you."
"Deal!" She's up and hovering over me with a hand on her hip. "So are we going to do this party slash surprise, or what?"
I change super quick, and as we head out, I sling my arm over her shoulder and kiss the side of her head, thinking my first line is perfect.
It's always been Ruby.
~ Twenty-four hours before the end ~
We're in Hart's 1982 yellow Mustang, a car his dad gave him last year for his sixteenth birthday when it had no tires and only half an engine. It took six months of work in the shop to get Monster in gear-barely running on four wheels. I tried to help but ended up fumbling with the tools, so Hart put me on DJ duty instead. Monster's an old stick shift. Third gear locks up a lot, and she doesn't do hills, can only get up to fifty-seven miles per hour, and has enough scars to say she's been through some stuff. And her floors are always, and I do mean always, coated with a thin layer of sand that no vacuum can get rid of. Hart's tried. Believe me.
Monster's engine churns as we loop down the hillside toward the ocean. We've got the windows down (she's got no A/C), and the warm night air spills into the car.
Pretty soon we're belting out the words to U2's "Beautiful Day." Hart's an old soul, and his music choices only add to that vibe. My already loose rubber band pops free and my hair whips around my face and all I can think is I hope we never change.
"Hey, let's skip the party," I say.
Hart turns down the music. "What's going on?"
I didn't want to tell him earlier, but there's this tension in the center of my solar plexus telling me something is wrong or about to be wrong. It's a strange feeling, like thorny branches are growing inside of me. Mom says my great-grandmother had that kind of intuition, too-a gift, she called it. I call it a pain in the ass that only serves as a red flag, never giving any details that would actually affect the outcome.
But I refuse to allow this intuition to make me a worrywart. Hart's already got that covered.
When we were kids, he wouldn't climb the monkey bars or anything more than four feet off the ground, he started a petition for seat belts on the school bus, and he insisted on helmets whenever we rode bikes.
I tell Hart, "We could go down to the shore and . . ."
He squeezes my hand. "I promised you the party and you promised to let me surprise you. And tonight, we are both keeping those promises."
Why does he have to be such a stickler for the rules? "Fine," I say, turning the music back up, but the moment's passed, and I worry that everything is about to change.
Incoming!" Martin shouts as he flies through the night air, cherry bombing into the dimly lit pool.
His splash is like a tidal wave. No big surprise there, since he's the top dog tight end for Seaside High's football team. Plus, he's six and a half feet tall and weighs in at over two hundred and thirty pounds. But the thing I like most about Martin (other than the fact that we've been friends since our band days in middle school) is that he's chill; he's this really cool guy who, yeah, can smash in your ribs on the field, but then play the sax like some kind of reincarnated jazz icon.
Going to his Friday night bash was strangely my idea, to get Ruby out of her funk. This party isn't too wild, just a few friends and their friends and their cousin's friends, hanging at Martin's pad, which happens to be without parental controls.
"Get in here, Augusto!" Martin hollers from the deep end of the pool. A beach ball flies through the air. A couple of people are playing chicken, squealing and laughing and splashing. The rest of the crowd is hanging in tight little huddles.
"Nah, I'm good," I say, even though I'm in my trunks.
The problem isn't the swim, it's that from where I'm standing, I can see the germs practically floating on top of the pool, mad-dogging me.
My buddy George hauls himself out of the pool, dripping water all over my feet. "Water's perfecto, man. You're missing out."
We've been friends since the third grade when he moved to town with his mom, two older brothers, and one abuelo. His house is chaos and noise and fighting and total devotion. I love it.
"Pretty sure I'm not missing anything," I tell George just as his dog, Josie, trots over and rubs her big chocolate body against my legs.
"Hey, girl." I kneel down and rub her neck the way she likes it. Josie tilts her head back to make sure I get all the good spots while her tongue hangs out the side of her mouth in clear appreciation.
"She likes you better than me," George grumbles. "Come on, Josie. I'm way better looking, girl."
I laugh while Josie laps up the love and totally ignores George.
I was with him when he picked her out at the shelter five years ago. She and George are inseparable; he even got her certified as a therapy dog so she could hang with us anywhere. She looks like a hellhound, but deep down she's a big softy. Unless you're a stranger she doesn't like.
"Hey," he says out of the corner of his mouth. "Did you see Marina? She looks . . ." He closes his eyes and inhales. "You think I have a shot?"
Copyright © 2023 by J. C. Cervantes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.