— A Novel —
To the Keeper of the stars,
For first loves
And for last loves
And for every love in between.
It’s been said that you never forget your first love.
I’ve only got one story to tell, and it’s about a girl, and it starts with you. But first I’ve got to do this one thing because I worry if I wait a second longer, I’ll lose even more of what I’ve already lost. I promise, though, there is a method behind my madness. And if everything goes to plan, you’ll see why very soon.
But like I said, I’ve got this story to tell, though I don’t yet know the ending. All I know is that it can end only one of two ways — with or without you. But despite which way fate will have it, the way I see it, I’m left the same — still in love with the one that got away.
You’ve given me hell, Julia Lang, just by being you. But then what’s love if it ain’t worth the fight? And I’ve got some fight still left in me.
“Are you ready, Will?” a young man with shaggy hair asks from the other side of the glass.
I anxiously readjust the big microphone hovering above me.
“Yeah,” I eventually say.
A restless sigh is attached.
“Okay,” I hear the man say, “I’m going to start the track.”
I look through the glass and slowly nod my head.
My palms are sweaty; my heart is pounding. But it isn’t the young man on the other side of the glass or the taller man sitting next to him who is making me sweat. It isn’t even that I am about to sing in front of them or that I am here at all. In fact, now, right now, I only have one thought cycling over and over in my mind. The only reason I am standing here, gripping an old, metal pin as if it were my lifeline, praying my silent prayers continuously in my head and replaying all the memories that have led me to this place is for a chance that she will hear this song.
I suspect that she doesn’t know it’s coming. But I also pray that she hasn’t forgotten her promise. I pray silently that this song will make her stop, will make her remember — a different time, years ago, lifetimes ago.
A soft melody starts playing in my headset. I press the metal pin tighter against my palm. I am waiting for my cue, my lips almost touching the mesh in front of the mic. Then, suddenly, as if by instinct, my mouth opens, and my first words fill the tiny, soundproof room. And my only thought is: Here goes everything.
Eleven Years Earlier
“Jeff, is that Julia Lang?” I asked, as I leaned up against my locker.
“Who?” Jeff asked.
Jeff was busy digging up remnants of pens from the bottom of his backpack and scribbling faded lines onto the front cover of his notebook. I, on the other hand, knew full well who the girl was, but he didn’t have to know that.
“Her, trying to stuff that bag into her locker,” I said, directing his attention to the girl.
Jeff stopped scribbling and looked up.
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “She must be from that little, country school.”
He turned back around, as if not interested, grabbed a book from his locker’s shelf and then slammed the metal door shut.
“But I know who I’m asking to the homecoming dance,” he said, setting out in the girl’s direction.
Without hesitation, I grabbed the collar of his shirt.
“Whoa there, son,” I said, pulling him back. “First of all, homecoming’s months away. Second, you’re not taking her anywhere.”
“Geez, buddy, watch the threads,” Jeff said in a higher than usual pitch as he paused to readjust the shirt’s collar around his neck. “And why can’t I ask her? If I don’t, someone else will.”
I kept my eyes on the girl across the hall. She had just gotten the oversized duffle bag into the tiny locker. Impressive, except now I watched as a book slipped from underneath her arm and fell to her bare toes, causing her nose to scrunch up and her eyes to wince in pain.
“You got a point there, buddy,” I said, patting him on the shoulder.
I handed Jeff a working pen and then quickly pushed past him.
“I got it,” I said, bending down to pick up the book from the floor at the girl’s feet. “Are you all right?”
The girl looked up at me, still cringing a little.
“I’m fine,” she said, softly smiling.
She took the heavy text book from my hand and shoved it into a row of books already on the locker’s shelf.
“Thanks,” she said.
“It’s Will,” I said, extending my hand.
She stopped, and her stare found my hand. She looked suspicious.
“I know,” she said, cautiously placing her hand in mine. “Will, it’s Julia.”
“Julia Lang,” I said, smiling and acting as if I had just now put her face with her name.
“Yes,” she replied, slowly nodding her head.
I watched as a coy smile fought its way to her face.
“You remember me?” I asked, hesitantly.
I was really hoping she only remembered the good parts — if there were any of those for her.
I noticed her eyes fall on my hand, still holding hers, but she was smiling, so I kept a tight grip on her hand. It was soft and girl-like.
“Yes,” she said. “How could I forget?”
“The hardware store?” I asked.
She nodded her head.
“We used to play on those toy tractors outside, and all the old people would give us candy as they walked in,” she said.
The corners of my mouth started to lift as I watched the green in her eyes light up.
“That’s right,” I said, starting to laugh.
But just then, her smile faded slightly.
“You would never let me ride the big tractor,” she said, sharply pulling her hand back from mine.
My laughter stopped. And then what was left of her smile turned into a smirk.
Ugh. She remembered.
“If I remember right, you said that it was a boy’s tractor and that girls weren’t supposed to drive tractors anyway,” she said. “And then, when we were nine, you…”
“Okay, okay,” I said, stopping her. “That’s probably enough memories for one day. The good news is that the big tractor is still up at my grandpa’s store, and you can ride it anytime you want. Oh, and best of all, I have finally come to the ultimate conclusion that girls really don’t have cooties.”
“Really?” she asked, giving me a sarcastic look.
“Really,” I said, leaning against the row of lockers. “It was all a myth. Turns out, it was just some scorned second-grader who didn’t get a Valentine from his secret crush one year.”
She glared at me with narrowed eyes.
“And then after that,” I continued, without missing a beat, “the kid decided to ruin love for all kids from then on, declaring every girl was stricken with the cootie disease.”
She laughed once and then went back to fidgeting with something inside her locker.
I smiled, silently hoping that getting her to laugh was enough to erase the memories I had accidentally resurrected.
She turned back toward me a second later and gave me a soft side-smile.
“I have to get to class,” she said, pulling a book from her locker and then slamming the door.
The door didn’t close on the first try, so I watched her put her weight into her next try.
“Can I walk you there?” I asked, once she had successfully shut the locker door. “What’s your first one?”
She shot me a suspicious look again and then pulled out from the back pocket of her tight-fitting jeans a small piece of paper with a set of classes and times printed on it.
“Umm, history,” she said, stuffing the piece of paper back into her jeans. “It’s just down the hall. I think I can make it.”
“I think doesn’t sound very confident,” I said. “I should walk you, just to make sure you’re not late for your first high school class. This isn’t kindergarten-through-ninth-grade anymore.”
I smiled a confident smile. She, on the other hand, stared at me with two impatient eyes, then turned and started walking in the opposite direction.
I shuffled to catch up to her.
“So, I really did recognize you,” I said.
She looked a little irritated, but she smiled anyway.
“You do look a little different from the last time I saw you, though,” I said.
She looked me up and down once.
“So do you,” she said.
“It’s the muscles, isn’t it?” I asked.
I watched her eyes follow a path from my shoes to my eyes again.
“What muscles?” she asked.
I grabbed my heart and pretended to shrink in pain.
“Ouch,” I said.
She smiled a satisfied grin.
“Don’t you have to be getting to your own class?” she asked. “What’s your first one anyway?”
“Oh, I’m not worried about that,” I said. “The teacher’s my neighbor. Plus, I already know my way around a kitchen.”
She stopped in the history classroom’s doorway and faced me.
“Kitchen?” she repeated.
I cringed on the inside, and my smile faded.
“Did I say kitchen?” I asked. “I meant woodshop.”
“No, you didn’t,” she said, accusingly.
“Okay, look, I promise you I can build a coffee table, but home economics is a guaranteed A,” I said. “I couldn’t pass it up.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Quite the scholar,” she said, while shaking her head and stepping into the classroom.