it's been forever, i know, and i feel so terrible about not updating despite all your fantastic reviews and messages. i love you guys, seriously. i wasn't even planning on going on with this story, but i knew i couldn't leave you hanging—it's not the best i've ever written, but i hope you still enjoy it!
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"Nervous for your first day?"
My dad is standing in the doorway of my bedroom, leaning his arm on the frame. With his head cocked to one side, he stares at me with an expression I can't quite decipher.
I'm standing in front of the floor-length mirror in the corner of my old bedroom, uncharacteristically inspecting my reflection. The mirror is the only new thing I placed in my bedroom since we moved back. Everything else—from the pale yellow bed sheets to the sticker-covered dresser to the sycamore tree painting hanging on the wall—is exactly the same.
Instead of turning around, I look at the reflection of my dad in the mirror. "I'm not nervous," I say with a small laugh, which sounds fake even to my own ears. "What makes you think that I'm nervous?"
"Hmm, let's see—maybe the fact that your room is a mess, you haven't eaten breakfast, and you don't even care that we're already running ten minutes late?" my dad answers with an amused smile. "Normally you're the one dragging us through the front door half an hour before we're even supposed to leave."
"We're late?" I glance hurriedly at the clock. It's almost five after nine. I've been so preoccupied in choosing my outfit, getting my bag ready, and desperately trying to push away the panicky, anxious feeling in my stomach—I hadn't even thought about the time. "Oh, no. The bus is definitely gone already… Should I just take my bike, then? Aren't you supposed to be at work already?"
"Well, I kind of expected this," my dad replies with a chuckle. "I called in last night to say I'd be an hour or two late. They're fine with it. Are you ready to leave?"
I turn away from the mirror and give him a big smile. It's exactly like my dad to know what I'd do even before I do it. 'Two peas in the same pod,' he always says, whenever I point out his scarily accurate premonitions. "Thanks, Dad, and yeah, I think I'm ready."
"Do you want some breakfast first?"
I shake my head. I doubt I could force anything down even if I tried—my stomach is still in knots. I'm not nervous, I keep on telling myself. I'm not nervous. It's fine. I'll be fine. I'm not nervous.
"Alright, then, I guess we'll get going," my dad says.
I pick up my bag, sling it over one shoulder, and follow him down the stairs. He grabs a banana for me off the counter and presses it into my hands, saying, "Eat. You'll need the energy." I accept the fruit unwillingly. While my dad heads out the door, I quickly toss the banana off to the side.
I slide into the passenger seat of the pick-up truck. The feeling of the smooth, worn leather material of the car seat is comforting. All of a sudden a rush of nostalgia comes over me. Sitting next to my dad, driving down this street, turning the corner so that I can just see the red bricks of Oakland High… Everything is so familiar and yet so strange at the same time.
The truth is, I am nervous, despite how many times I've insisted both to myself and my dad that I'm not. And the car ride seems altogether too short. In what feels like no time at all, we arrive in front of the school. My dad smoothly parks the car near the sidewalk, and then turns to look at me.
"Do you know where you're supposed to go?"
I nod. "Homeroom class. Miss Helms."
He nods back. "Okay, kiddo. You're all set."
I unbuckle my seat belt and start to get out of the car, but then hesitate. For a few prolonged seconds I hover there, trying to gather up the courage to get out.
My dad asks, "Are you going to be okay, Juli?"
"Yes." I take a deep breath. "Yes, it'll be fine. Don't worry about me, Dad. I—I'm fine."
With a forceful push, I open the car door. With one final smile and wave to my dad, I make my way across the small grassy field and walk towards the entrance of Oakland Plains High School. Behind me, I can hear the sound of the pick-up truck's engine, and then the squeal of tires disappearing down the street.
Here goes nothing, I think to myself. I push open the doors.
I hear her before I see her.
Homeroom class has already started—Miss Helms, a thin lady with a sharp gaze and no-nonsense personality, has finished taking attendance and is now busy scrawling our first lesson on the chalkboard. As soon as her back turns, everyone starts whispering to each other, starting their own conversations about their summer experiences, all the new things they have to tell each other.
Shelly immediately taps me on the shoulder—unfortunately, she sits right behind me—and starts chattering about all the fabulous clothes her daddy's going to buy her this weekend. At first, I try to smile and nod politely, but after a minute I can't stand it anymore. I take out a pen and start doodling on the margins of my notebook, completely tuning out Shelly's high-pitched voice and the rest of the class.
I'm in the middle of shading the rose I've drawn when, suddenly, I hear it. Well, to be more accurate—I don't hear it. The conversations, the whispers, even the faint squeal of Miss Helms's chalk moving across the board—it all halts. The silence is unnerving.
Confused and startled, I look up.
Standing in front of the doorway is Juli Baker. She looks different than I expected—she's no longer the same scrawny kid who raised her hand in answer to every question and glared at anyone who defied her. Although she's slightly taller, and her long brown hair is a few shades lighter, there's still something different about the girl standing in the doorway that I can't quite place my finger on.
Miss Helms raises an eyebrow at Juli. "Yes?"
Juli looks taken aback for a second—she's probably surprised at the harshness in Miss Helm's voice. She recovers quickly, however, and introduces herself with a small smile. "Um, hi. I'm Juli Baker."
From behind me, Shelly sniffs. I can feel the inquisitive gaze of more than a few people in the class, but I ignore them determinedly. The last thing I want is for the school to explode into rumors, and with Shelly Stalls sitting right behind me, it'll be a miracle if that doesn't happen.
"Juli Baker," Miss Helms repeats, looking at her over the edge of her glasses. "And tell me, Juli Baker, why exactly are you fifteen minutes late coming to my class?"
Juli twirls a strand of her hair around her finger nervously. "Sorry—I just moved back into town yesterday night."
"Back?" Miss Helms's glasses have slipped onto the edge of her pointed nose. "So you're not a new student?"
"Um," Juli shrugs. "Not really, I guess, if you think about it."
Miss Helms smiles, all fake and cheery. "Well then, Miss Juli Baker, I suppose that means you have no excuse for your tardiness. Fifteen minutes at lunchtime with me."
Shelly snickers, but the rest of the class murmurs unhappily. Anyone can see that detention on the first day for being a few minutes late to class is unfair. For a moment, I can see the conflicted emotions on Juli's face—I half expect her to burst into a speech about the atrocity of the punishment. But the moment passes and Juli just nods, although there's an obvious look of displeasure on her face.
"That'll be all, Miss Baker. You can take a seat—there's a free one right there, near the back."
The only free seat in the class is the one next to me. Juli looks to where Miss Helms is pointing and catches my gaze for the briefest of seconds. She looks away so quickly that I'm not sure if it even happened at all. She scans the rest of the room, but it's evident that the only place she can sit is here.
"Juli Baker. I wasn't aware that you needed your own allotted amount of time to sit down. Do you want to discuss this with the principal?" Miss Helms gives Juli a stern look. Juli bites her lip and then makes her way to the back of the classroom, sliding into the chair on my right without even glancing at me. She immediately takes out a notebook and ducks her head down, so that I don't have a chance to say anything to her.
Miss Helms starts rambling about the new assignment we have, to the displeasure of the majority of the class. A project on the first day of school? It's practically unheard of. She talks for the rest of the period, and then gives us five minutes of free time right at the end. I'm about to turn to Juli, but Shelly jumps out of her chair and distracts me before I can even move.
"I'm going to try to convince Miss Helms to make this assignment a partnership," Shelly informs me with a bat of her mile-long eyelashes. "I think it'd be so much fun to work together, Bryce—just me and you and hours of time. Don't you think?"
"Uh, I guess so," I say, just to placate Shelly. From behind Shelly's head of voluminous hair, I can see Juli stand up and walk over to the other side of the room. She starts up a conversation with a few people, laughing and smiling. I sigh. It's obvious that Juli doesn't even want to look at me, much less talk, but I wish I knew the reason why.
The bell rings. Everyone gathers up their books at an inhuman speed and rushes out the door. By the time I shove away Shelly and reach the hallway, Juli Baker is already swept up into the crowd, blending in with the hundreds of other students. I've lost my chance.
At lunch, Garrett practically tackles me.
He explodes out of nowhere, pushing past people with his dark hair messed up. He screeches to a halt next to me, catches his breath, and says, "Dude."
I shrug. "Dude."
I raise an eyebrow. "Dude?"
Garrett punches my arm. "Dude!"
"Enough with the dudes, Garrett," I say, exasperated. "Just tell me what you want."
"All I want is two words: Juli. Baker." Garret smirks at me. "And from what I hear, she's totally free."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't pretend. Come on, I know for a fact that you've seen Juli. She is smoking. I mean, Juli's always been pretty decent—but that personality of hers was killing the whole vibe. Not to mention the whole stalkerish attitude towards you. But who would've thought that snobby Juli Baker would turn out to be hot?"
I clench my fists. "Shut the hell up, Garrett."
"Whoa. Calm down, my man. I thought you were okay with it." He shrugs. "And besides, from what I've heard, she's not yours anymore. A little birdie told me that Juli Baker is not only in your homeroom class, but she's sitting right next to you, too. Apparently you spent the entire period trying to talk to her, and she wouldn't even give you the time of day. Guess the whole Juli-and-Bryce romance is finally over, huh?"
I grit my teeth. "Where did you hear all this?"
"Are you serious?" Garrett laughs. "Man, you're out of it. Everyone's been talking about it. This is the biggest thing that's happened in Oakland since—well, since ever."
I roll my eyes and shrug, about to make some flippant comment about how small town gossip is overrated, but I'm distracted by a flash of long dark hair that catches my eye. It's Juli, walking into the cafeteria with Dana and another girl whose name I think is Alissa. Juli looks perfectly content—either she hasn't heard about the rumors yet, or she just doesn't care. I'm suddenly filled with the overwhelming urge to get up, walk over, and talk to her. Everyone's looking. Everyone's listening. But despite that, all I want to do is go up to Juli and confirm the fact that she still knows that I exist. That maybe—just maybe—she still cares.
Impulsively, I push back my chair and stand up. I start making my way towards Juli, who is still looking away and talking to her friends. The distance between us slowly decreases—I'm ten meters away, then five, then two—and then, finally, Juli turns around and her eyes meet mine for the first time in over two years—
Without warning, Shelly Stalls bursts out of the crowd, throws herself into my arms, and kisses me full on the mouth.
Garrett's voice pierces the completely silent cafeteria. "Holy shit."