[ juli ]

I stare outside the taxi window, rain drops racing down it drop by drop and the street lights in a blurry haze from the fog of the rain. Still, I know exactly where I am.

I can't believe it. I'm almost... home.

Home. The single word in itself encompasses about a million different images and memories, from being a small baby to the day I left everything behind. The taxi ride from the airport to what I used to call home has only lasted about ten minutes so far, but it feels like an eternity. What is taking so long? I just want to be there already.

I've been gone for four years. Four years. So much has changed since then. I am no longer Juli Baker: the weird girl who climbed sycamore trees and owned pet chickens I hatched as a science project. I'm 22 and a recent college grad of the University of Oxford. I practically have the whole world at my feet. The opportunities are endless. I'm nothing like the old Juli; that young girl is just a vague memory now. Moving to an entire different continent to study at a university does that. It changes people.

Nearing the corner to my street, I feel my heartbeat pounding like a drum. I'm anxious to see my mother and father, as well as my brothers. They would all be waiting there for me. But I'm not the same person anymore. I've changed, and all of the sudden it scares me. What if they don't like the new me? During my time at Oxford, I worked so hard, always making outstanding grades, and maintaining a position as one of the top students there. I was always extremely busy, so naturally, I didn't have the time to return home and visit during holidays or extended breaks. They'd forgive that, right? Really, I'd chosen the UK as an escape and now here I was, showing up on my family's doorstep as a completely different person. I pray for a moment that they will welcome me with open arms.

Finally, the taxi comes to a stop.

This is it. Breathe, Juli.

Stepping out of the taxi, I hand money to the driver and thank him as he places my luggage next to me. Luggage in hand, I watch as the taxi drives off. It is still drizzling outside, but at this moment in time I could care less. I need a moment to take in the realization that after four years of escaping from everything I had ever known, I've finally returned home. It is a very odd feeling. Looking towards my driveway, the first thing I see is the sycamore tree. I feel a twinge of sadness come over me the moment I see it, but I can't quite place why. A voice breaks me away from my thoughts.

"Juli, honey! What are you doing? Come inside, it's freezing."

The sound of my mom's voice has me practically running to the door to be greeted by a warm hug from her. "I've missed you, mom."

I can see her eyes beginning to well with tears. "We've missed you too, sweetheart. Look at you. You look so beautiful and grown up."

"Yes, she does," my father agrees, squeezing me tight.

"Dad! It's so good to see you."

"It's about time you popped up on our doorstep and visited. Oxford must have been working you too hard," dad jokes.

I feel a little bad when he says this. I probably should have stopped by every now and then instead of disappearing all together while in college.

"And the hard work paid off. She graduated at the top of her class, Richard." Mom seems to sense my guilt and tries making a case in defense of my absence the past four years.

"And we are so proud of you for that." Dad knows when to drop the subject with mom's little subtle cues. "Well let's drag your stuff to the living room. Dinner is almost ready. Mom made your favorite."

I sigh heavily, feeling relieved. They aren't angry at me and seem really happy to have me back.

Sitting in the living room are my two brothers.

"Oh hey buttface, we missed you."

"Yeah, welcome home, buttface!"

Mark and Matt smile triumphantly. After all, it had been four entire years since they teased their little sister. I can't help but smile too. Somehow the term "buttface" is strangely endearing and makes me feel like I never really left home.

Some things just never change.

It had been a long time since I sat down and had a family dinner with those I love most. Mom was still an expert at preparing those warm, appetizing, home-cooked meals filled with love. The table was especially decorated with fancy plates and candles for my homecoming. I noticed that. Mom has always been great with little details like that. After dinner, everybody migrated to the living room for conversation. We talked a lot about my experiences studying at Oxford, living in the United Kingdom, and how it felt to be finished with school. It was good to be home again. I missed my family, my room, and the town where I had lived my entire life.

Sitting on the sofa, I gaze outside the window where my attention is inexplicably drawn to the sycamore tree yet again. Suddenly, it clicks. I had worked so hard to suppress the memory while I was away from home, but deep down, it would always be a part of me. That tree had been planted especially for me by someone who had once held a special place in my heart.

Bryce.

The giant tree smack dab in the middle of my front yard would always make erasing Bryce Loski from my memory an impossible task. He had been a very long chapter in my life, and partially a large factor in my decision to study across the ocean on a completely different continent (though I would never fully allow myself to admit that). I was too proud, and my pride was something that would remain untouched by anyone, especially not a guy. Before I left for college, Bryce and I had not split on the most amiable terms. I'd worked so fervently to erase whatever hurt me initially that now it was all a vague and unpleasant memory. Everything had happened so long ago, and as usual, it had been a messy situation. My relationship with Bryce had always been that way: messy and confusing. We were just kids though. That was all in the past. Again, my thoughts are broken by a voice.

"Julianna?" My mother is raising an eyebrow at me inquisitively.

"Hmm?" I try regaining my thoughts and bringing my attention back to the conversation.

"She's been talking to you for the past minute or so buttface," Mark teases.

"You completely zoned out," Matt chimes in.

"Oh, did I?" I feel my face getting hot from embarrassment. I'd only been home a day as a "mature" college graduate and here I was zoning out on a conversation with her parents. Real smooth.

"They're not there, Julianna." Dad seems to be relaying the information in a careful way, so as to not hurt my feelings.

"I don't understand," I say furrowing my brows in confusion. What are they even talking about?

"The Loski family- they don't live across the street anymore," mom gently answers as if she thinks the news will upset me in some way.

Why would that bother me? I see my family staring at me concernedly. They always know when something upsets me or makes me sad. I try to cover it up and not let on. Shrugging my shoulders in a nonchalant fashion, I quickly try to change the subject. "Who's up for Baker family game night?" I hastily make my way to the shelf containing boxes of games like Monopoly and Scrabble, not waiting for an answer to my question.

"Julianna." My father's tone is firm, as if indicating the topic is not finished being discussed.

"Yeah dad?" I reluctantly make my way back to the sofa, boxes in hand.

"They still live in town. Chet knows you're back and would really love to see you soon. We told him you might stop by tomorrow."

I feel myself beginning to smile. Of course I'll visit Chet. I haven't seem him in so long and miss him dearly. I also cannot wait to tell him about my adventures living in Oxford!

"Ok, dad. I'll visit Chet tomorrow."

The thought of seeing Chet and being home again with my family makes my soul feel happy. My family seems to know not to bring up Bryce Loski's name and ruin such a perfect night. As we are playing Scrabble, I can't help but worry a little about the possibility of seeing him again. Maybe he'd already married Shelly Stalls and they moved away to some big city halfway across the country. But what if Bryce was still in town too? Then it would only be a matter of time before we run into each other again. I tell myself to stop being a baby and not to worry about it. For tonight, I'd play play Scrabble with my lovely family and do what I had done so well for four years while I was away in Oxford: pretend Bryce Loski was never part of the picture. He's not real. He doesn't exist.


A/N: There was kind of a lack of dialogue towards the beginning, but that is only because I really wanted to set up the exposition about Juli being away for so long. I promise lots of dialogue for the next chapter! Be sure to drop a line and let me know what you think. I am really excited to write this and see where the story goes.

So…what happens next? Will Juli and Bryce meet again? Will Bryce and Shelly Stalls have two kiddos as annoying as their mother but as darling as their father? Will Chet play matchmaker again? We will see ! :]