Chapter One: If

~Bryce~

If this was the end, then why couldn't I see the vast blob of light beckoning me up to dance with the dead?

It had to be the end- of breathing, of life, of me. Somewhere inside my body, organs were shutting down for permanent hibernation, blood circulation slowing with each dull, weakening thump of my heart. I was dead, in both a literal and figurative sense. I had to be. There was no other exclamation for the sudden sensation that what I was hearing had to be some terrible, ominous memory from a past life.

Garrett cocked his head sideways, giving me a look similar to one you'd get if you came to school naked. Then again, maybe it was the effect of alcohol poisoning.

I watched him tilt back his head and swallow the last few gulps of beer, throwing down the bottle among his collection of empty ones with a satisfying clank. The table shivered, rattling the bottles in a harmonious song only alcoholics knew the words to. That wasn't to say Garrett was so far gone, but I had my reasons to worry. Especially when the last statement he had spoken within the minute had two of the most potent words laced within it: Julianna Baker.

Sometimes I'd dream of that eventful day of my Basket Boy career, standing in the cafeteria and holding Juli's hands, hoping I wasn't too late to receive the kiss I'd just realized I so desperately wanted. The hugest what if in my life had to be what would have happened if she hadn't pulled away. Maybe we'd be friends, a couple if it had gone so far.

But for one stupid mistake, one missed kiss, branded me as an idiotic failure for life. Not only was that blow crushing to my ego, or lack thereof, but the girl I finally began getting heart pounding feelings for had disregarded her own feelings as a complete waste of time, consequently shutting me out of her life for good.

For years, Julianna Baker and Bryce Loski were not two names put together. At times, it was like we weren't even neighbors. Popularity and stereotyping distanced us worlds apart. I was sure giving her a simple nod of recognition in our school hallway would call for a giant plummet in my social ranking.

I tried to assure both my gut and my heart that Julianna wasn't worth such risk. She'd stood me up in eighth grade, and it was her own fault for leaving our relationship hanging. As much as befriending Julianna again would patch things up between us, bringing her back into my life would only cause more trouble than I could handle.

Knowing this, it didn't take me long to form a response to Garrett's dare.

"Hell. No."

"Aw, come on, Bryce! You haven't even thought it over yet. This could be just what you need."

"Actually, I don't think I need anything at all." I picked up a beer bottle and wiggled it in front of his face. "You said it yourself, Garrett. All you need is a six pack and you're golden."

He snatched the bottle away. "I don't remember saying that, but I bet I did because that's completely right."

"And what's not right is daring me to ask out Julianna Baker."

He stopped midair of setting down the bottle to give me a tantalizing smile. It was a smile that went on the lines of if your life isn't hell yet, then just you wait.

I followed his gaze to the dinning room window where the subject in question just so happened to be outside. A westerly wind swept Julianna's long hair across her back as she kneeled down to move a hand across her lush grass.

It was amazing to think five years ago it was only dirt. Since then, tiny seeds had transformed her yard into the brightest, greenest front in the neighbourhood. Trust me, I knew. Dad couldn't complain enough about how our own yard lacked in comparison.

"I see that look of admiration in your eyes, Bryce."

I snapped back to find Garrett laughing at me.

"You're drunk, you can't see anything correctly."

"I'm not drunk yet, my friend. Plus, I'd be able to see your red and embarrassed face even if I was. It's priceless. And the only time you make it is when Julianna just so happens to come up in conversation."

I threw him a look of annoyance, but I had a regrettable feeling he was right. I could almost feel my cheeks burning, a subconscious effect Julianna had on me.

"Look," I said with as much sternness as to not sound pathetic. "I don't like Juli. Maybe I did a long time ago, but I don't now. My face gets red because when I think about her, all I can see is that day in eighth grade. It was one of the most embarrassing days in my life. Asking Juli out, even on a dare, would guarantee a repeated embarrassment."

Garrett leaned forward and placed a hand on my shoulder. The air mixed with the smell of beer and heavy cologne.

"Don't be mad for me saying this because it's true. Your life is boring. I mean, when's the last time you crashed a party or made out with some girl you didn't know? You rarely come out and hang with us anymore. We're seniors, Bryce, legit seniors with only a week left of school. If you're going to do something daring, the time is now or never."

I threw his hand off my shoulder. "What does being daring have to do with Juli?"

"Face it, Bryce. Julianna's been bugging your conscious since eighth grade. You're not gonna let her go until you see what you two could have been."

Disregarding his satisfied smile, I turned back towards the window. Julianna was still outside, this time just sitting there looking at nothing and everything as only Juli could do. Back when she'd climb up the sycamore tree near our bus stop, I never understood the beauty she got out from looking at the world from a higher perspective. What could she see besides roofs and treetops? With Juli, though, I knew she was seeing much more than that. She was seeing something that wasn't even real, but of some figment of the imagination, something magical.

I shook my head in dry amusement. Juli and I were nothing alike. I didn't understand her world and she would never fit into mine. We were polar opposites, spinning around together but never making a connection.

"So, what do you say?" Garrett broke the silence with a loud pop of a beer cap.

"She won't say yes," I assured him.

He didn't look convinced. "She used to be obsessed with you, man. You're not gonna know unless you go ask her out."

"I honestly don't want to."

"So you're a coward, huh?"

I gave him a death glare. Coward. I hated being associated with that word. It had been hooked on me since eighth grade and it seemed to be far from wanting to leave.

"Don't call me that," I spat.

"Then go ask Juli out."

"No!"

"Then you're a coward!"

"Fine!" I found myself getting up out of my seat and heading towards the door. "I'll ask out Julianna Baker, and I'll bet you all the money in the world she won't say yes."

Suddenly I found myself outside and my footsteps loud and quick against the ancient pathway towards the Baker's house. Every thought in my head screamed at me to retreat back inside, even if that meant continuing to be dubbed the coward of our school.

But I was so close now. So close, I caught Julianna's eye and it held for the most awkward of moments. I couldn't remember the last time I'd looked at her, I mean really looked at her and remembered how I thought she was beautiful.

Her name uttered out of my mouth breathlessly.

"Julianna."

She smiled.

"Hey, Bryce."