Flash Fiction: Stella & Jack

(Stella & Jack’s story originally appeared as a serial flash fiction on CharlieGsOutfitRatings Instagram on 3/1/21 to 3/5/21 under “Book Vibes.” It has been modified for this blog post.)

Why on earth had Stella agreed to this camping weekend? It’s not that she hated camping—although, to be fair, she preferred things like flushing toilets and duvet covers over a hole in the ground and a musty sleeping bag—but it was supposed to be a best friends weekend. Her three closest friends and her.

Except someone had invited Jack. Freaking Jack. And now, she had to listen to him hum some ridiculous song no one cared about while bouncing around. With a hiking backpack AND A GUITAR! What person in their right mind brought a guitar on a hiking trip?!

God he was so extra.

They were only three hours in and she already had a headache. She rubbed at her temples. She should’ve argued harder for the weekend at her Uncle’s cabin, which was really more of an HGTV house in the woods. She would’ve laughed at herself for also being extra, but she didn’t have it in her.

“Hey Stella, you good?”

She dropped her hands and looked up to find Jack smiling at her. He held out his water bottle and a travel bottle of pain reliever.

“Need some?” he asked. She eyed him suspiciously. “It’s not poisoned. I’m not carrying your dead body around all weekend.”

With a nod, she took a pill and swallowed it down, trying not to think too hard on the fact that only he had noticed she wasn’t feeling great.

***

Stella tilted her head back and stared at the never ending night sky, the stars so numerous she lost count even before she started. It was amazing how small and insignificant her broken heart seemed when she remember she was made of stardust from this great big universe.

Her headache had dissipated and she was less crabby. Probably a good thing since Jack was sitting across from her, quietly playing songs on his guitar. She’d only admit to herself that she almost enjoyed it. Almost.

“Stella, where’s Brody this weekend?” her friend Kylie asked.

Jack hit a wrong chord and stopped playing. He resumed, starting a stylized tune Stella couldn’t quite place.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” she admitted. She opened her mouth to admit they broke up when the song clicked. “Jack, why are you playing ‘Creep’ by Radiohead?’”

Kylie stifled a laugh.

Jack just shrugged and played louder. “Seemed appropriate.”

Stella stood, her relaxed mood gone. She pointed at Jack. “This bullshit is why I don’t like you.”

Another one of their friends gasped.

He stopped playing. “Wow. You don’t like me?”

Stella lifted her hands and let them fall against her legs. “All you do is mock my choice in men, then bounce around like you’re a little kid. It drives me freaking nuts! And I know I drive you crazy.”

He looked like someone had punched him on the stomach. “I see.” He put his guitar back in his case. “I’m really tired.” He walked to his tent without looking back.

Kylie moved over to Stella. “That was not cool,” Kylie whisper-yelled. “You know that boy’s in love with you. Why are you so mean to him? He begged me to come along when he heard you were coming.”

Stella stared at her, my mouth hanging open. “Wait, what are you talking about? He doesn’t…”

“I know you and Brody broke up. He texted me to check on you. Would’ve been nice to hear it from my bestie.”

Stella pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know. I just didn’t want to talk about it.” She dropped her hand. “Wait, is this whole trip you trying to hook me up with a man I hate?”

Kylie looked up to the sky and sighed. “Well I didn’t know you hated him! I thought he’d be good for you.”

“Good for me? How?”

“Because he thinks you’re the sun and the moon and after the shitheads you continue to attach yourself to, I thought a change of pace would be nice.”

Her critique of my dating life just made me angrier. “I’m going to bed before I say something I regret.”

She ignored Kylie’s “too late.”

As she zipped up her tent, her gaze lingered on Jack’s. She was going to need to apologize and then let him down easy. Tomorrow.

***

Stella rose with the sunrise, feeling like she hadn’t slept at all. The guilt of last night combine with Kylie’s words were like a weight on her chest. She wished she could just go home and bury her head beneath her blankets, but she still had two more days on this trip. With Jack.

She groaned and covered her face with her hands. She needed to apologize to him immediately. She may not feel the same way, but she was completely out of line yesterday.

Rolling out of her sleeping bag, she pulled on her shoes and a t-shirt over her sports bra, then snuck out of her tent.

Their campsite was bathed in sunrise gold, the half circle of tents guarding the cold fire pit. She moved quietly, hoping not to wake anyone. When she reached the nearby riverbank, she scooted onto a big rock hanging over the edge, the morning sun already warming the surface.

She nearly screamed when she heard a splash. Peering down over the edge of the rock, she saw Jack, shirtless. Glistening. He stood waist deep in the river, he sculpted arms flexing as he splashed water over his body, little rivulets zigzagging down his well defined chest. His eyes were closed and his head lifted toward the sun.

She’d never seen anything so beautiful.

She’d never seen Jack so still. She realized, as her stomach tightened and her breathing hitched, that she didn’t really know Jack at all.

“Are you just going to stare or are you going to join me?” he asked, not bothering to open his eyes.

Her mouth fell open. “I—how—but—“

“You’re as quiet as a bulldozer.”

Her cheeks heated. “Oh.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Jack, I’m sorry about last night—“

“It’s forgotten.”

“No, please.”

He turned to face her, tugging on a smile. It didn’t reach his eyes. “Well then come on in and tell me to my face. No chickening out on the rock.”

She slid down the rock to the bank, then kicked off her shoes and yanked off her t-shirt. Left in only a sports bra and sleep shorts, she walked into the water.

“Holy crap that’s freezing!” Stella whisper-yelled. “Jack, what the hell?”

He looked over at her, eyes widening, then closed them. “It’s a glacier fed river, so it’s bound to be cold. Quite thankful for that right now.”

“Why’s that?”

“Didn’t realize you were taking your clothes off to come in.”

She looked down at herself. “I’m wearing more clothes than you.”

“Yes, but you’ve made it very clear that I do not have the same effect on you as you do on me.”

She paused, halfway to him, his words cutting her. “Jack, I’m sorry. What I said was mean and came from a place of anger and heartbreak.

That’s not an excuse, just an explanation. I promise to be better.”

He nodded, then opened his eyes. A crease appeared between his eyebrows, a look so infrequently there, she almost didn’t recognize it on Jack’s face. “Heartbreak?”

Stella crossed her arms in front of her, self-conscious now that her pain was exposed. “Brody broke up with me for someone else.”

“I’m sorry he hurt you.” He pushed his damp hair out of his face. “But I’m not sorry he’s gone.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know, just when I was starting to like you—“

“Stella, you stopped laughing around him. That light inside you that always pours out when you smile was fading. It was like he was surgically removing all the things that made you YOU and it was terrible to watch.” His voice caught on the last word.

Stella’s gaze flew to Jack’s, his face twisted with emotion. His blue eyes desperately searching hers, looking for something.

She walked up to him and threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him tight. As his arms circled her waist, something inside her chest clicked into place. She sucked in a sharp breath.

***

Jack had purposely forgotten this part of the hike. He knew it was coming, but he had shoved it out of his mind and filled the space with the moment Stella hugged him this morning.

Hugged. Him.

And she didn’t let go for a long time.

Thank god for freezing water.

Now, she was walking next to him and they had been actually talking. He didn’t want this weekend to end. He didn’t want to lose this carefree, sun drenched version of her.

He was so wrapped up in their debate about deep dish vs thin crust pizza, and which toppings were better with each crust, that he missed the approach.

But she had stopped to tie her boot and he froze the moment he saw the drop. A eight hundred feet of nothing stood between the edge of the rock and the earth below. One wrong step and that was it.

His heart beat grew very loud in his ears. He didn’t know how long he’d stood there, staring at the edge only six feet away, but it was long enough that everyone had left him behind. Shit. What was he gonna do? Cold sweat pricked the back of his neck.

“Jack? What’s wrong?”

He blinked and looked to his left, Stella staring between him and the cliff. “I forgot about this,” he admitted.

“You’re afraid of heights?”

He nodded, smiling bashfully. “Looks like I have a weakness.”

She reached for his hand, entwining her fingers with his, their palms pressing tight together. He inhaled sharply then his arm stopped shaking.

“I heard they’re going to remake The Princess Bride,” she said, tugging him along.

Anger chased away the anxiety. “That’s the stupidest idea ever. You can’t remake a classic that’s THAT classic! If Cary Elwes isn’t in it, I don’t want it. And Billy Crystal! And…”

He didn’t know how long he explained his reasoning, but when he finished, they stopped for water, not a cliff edge in sight. He looked over his shoulder, then back down at his hand still joined with Stella’s.

She winked at him. “I’m lying. Although there was a rumor that it could be a Broadway musical one day.”

He wrapped her in a hug, cheek resting on top of her head. “Thank you.” He stepped back but he didn’t let go of her hand. She didn’t let go of his. “If it goes to Broadway, I’ll take you. But only because your taste in music is atrocious and we need to work on it.”

Her mouth fell open. “Excuse you?”

He tugged her hand playfully and they resumed walking. “Come on slowpoke. They’re gonna leave us behind.”

She smiled at him. His heart did a double tap. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed his back.

He briefly wondered if he was dreaming. If he’d wake up in his tent, flushed and panting from a wild dream with her.

Or worse, this was a vacation thing. What if she went back to hating him when they got back to the city and their every day lives?

***

It was their last night together and Jack couldn’t keep his eyes off Stella. She sat next to him as he played his guitar, the entire group singing loud and out of key to the bats and the birds. They toasted the last of the marshmallows until they made themselves sick, then passed around Kylie’s camera to look over their favorite pictures.

When Stella handed back the camera, Kylie and said, “Hold up. I need photographic evidence that you two are getting along.”

Stella gave her the finger. Jack threw his head back and laughed. Kylie snapped the photo.

“One more,” he said, then threw his arm around Stella’s shoulder. Right before Kylie took the picture, he leaned over and pressed his lips to her cheek. His lips tingled where they touched her skin.

Their other two friends cheered, but Kylie stood still, camera poised. “I’m waiting to see if Stella’s going to throw you on the fire or break your guitar.”

Stella shook her head. “I’m not doing anything that results in photographic evidence. This is not my first rodeo.”

“Aw, come on.”

“And end up the most liked photo on your social media? Again?”

Kylie lowered her camera and winked. “You got me sixteen jobs off the throwing-a-pie shot.”

Stella tried to give her a dirty look but her smile betrayed her. Something in Jack’s chest loosened at that smile. She was glowing again. Had he had a part in that? He hoped so.

After Kylie returned to her seat, Jack nudged Stella’s knee with his. “Hey, short walk?”

She bit her lip. “The moment we stand up together, we are gonna get so much shit.”

“Worth it.”

Another smile. His heart jumped to his throat.

She nodded her head then stood. “If any of you say a word, I will return ruin the end of every movie for a year.” The group stilled as she looked down at him and held out her hand. “Let’s go, cowboy.”

He set down his guitar and took her hand, ignoring the sound of Kylie’s camera clicking rapid-fire.

They went just far enough to be out of the campfire glow, the night unrolling before them. Jack took a deep breath, then turned to face her, grabbing her other hand. “Can I take you out for pizza next Friday? We can order a plethora of deep dish and thin crust to test out our toppings theory.”

“I can’t…”

His stomach sank. He moved to release her hands but she gripped his tighter.

“Friday’s too far away and I’m too hungry. How about Wednesday night?”

He laughed lightly. “Wednesday works.” He actually had no idea of Wednesday worked, but he’d make it happen.

“Like a date?” she asked.

He nodded once. “Definitely a date.”

She squeezed his hand again. “I’d like that.”

“Are you ready to date again?”

“I’m ready to date you,” she admitted. “Don’t forget I know you, Jack. Even when I secretly daydream about smothering you with a pillow.”

He laughed so loud, it echoed. “It’s true.” He released her hands and put his against her cheeks. She leaned into him. “And I know you.” His voice dropped to a whisper.

“I think maybe better than I know myself,” her voice barely audible.

He ran his thumbs along her jaw line and took a step closer. “I know that strawberry is your favorite everything, that you eat your Skittles by color, you can quote all of Season 1 of The Good Place, you always buy two pairs of jeans when you like the fit, and you refuse to eat mushrooms unless you cook them.”

She inhaled sharply. His nose brushed hers, their breath mingling. “I know you stole my sweatshirt from the pool party at Kylie’s. It keeps me up at night wondering if you wear it.”

“It’s my favorite,” she breathed. “I wear it all the time.”

His heart was thundering so hard, it was shoving the oxygen out of his lungs. “And I know you need to be kissed under the stars.”

“I need that most of all.” She lifted her hands to the back of his neck, her fingers running through his hair. “Kiss me, Jack.”

“As you wish.” He pulled her into his arms and closed the distance between their lips.

His breath caught as her lips parted. This kiss was every look she gave him, every summer day they spent by the pool, every joke that made her laugh, every song he played for her, every star that shone down on them. This kiss was the only thing that mattered in the universe.

He knew as she stood on her tip toes and wrapped her arms tighter around his neck that this kiss was his last first kiss.

The end.

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