My Dearest Julia,

I sincerely hope you never have to read this letter. If you do, I know your father and I are both gone, and gone far too soon. We should have had more time with you.

I know right now you're probably upset. It's your first Christmas after your father and I pass. I know it must not be easy. But maybe, at least I hope, this letter will help give you some peace of mind and help you get through these tough times.

First, I want to make sure you know first and foremost that we are proud of you. Whatever you decide to do, and despite any mistakes you might make, we are and always will be proud of you. You are a wonderful person with a good heart. I know that. I hope you know that too. All I ask is that you live your life by that heart, and I would never be able to be disappointed with you.

That being said, I wouldn't be me if I didn't try to give you some motherly advice, even now that I'm gone. I hope you have friends. Wherever you end up, make friends. Friends can stay with you for as short as a day or as long as a lifetime, but chances are they do something incredible for you during that friendship. So make them and love them. It will be worth it. It's in your nature to push people away when you're hurting. Just this once, don't. Bring people close to you. Because, even though it seems like they can't, they can help you.

Take your education seriously. I want the very best for you, and I truly believe that finishing high school and going to college is the best way to get the best. I know you've always wanted to go to college, so please don't let this stop you. I couldn't bear if you gave up on that dream because of my and your father's untimely deaths. And, when you do go to college, I hope you have an extraordinary time.

Finally, fall in love. It doesn't have to be anytime soon, but sometime in your life, make sure to let love in. It's so easy to hide away in grief and push anyone who might love you, or even worse, anyone whom you might love, away, but don't. You deserve to be loved, and you deserve to love. Remember that.

I don't know if this letter will help. I hope it does. But whatever is going on in your life right now, I hope you're living it to the fullest. Because, as you read this letter, I know you have a very sharp understanding of how short life can be.

I will always love you, Julia. Live life, and above all, be happy.

Mom

A tear dripped onto the letter. Julia looked up after she was done reading it and wiped her tear streaked face. She read the letter several more times, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. She wanted to know why her mother had written her a letter in the event that she died, but Julia also didn't really want to talk to Rory at the moment. Instead, Julia looked back inside the box.

There was another smaller box inside. Julia opened in. Inside was a silver bird pendant, just like the one on the necklace Julia had inherited from her mother, but instead of a diamond making the eye there was a tiny aquamarine—Julia's birthstone.

Feeling inspired, Julia got up and brought Will and Rory's gifts from her desk to her bed. Julia opened Rory's first. It was a small, travel sized set of colored pencils and a pretty hair clip. Setting them aside, she carefully unwrapped Will's gift. She opened the box and saw a thin, silver anklet with a sun charm on it. The card inside the box said, in Will's handwriting:

For when you miss California. –W

Julia stared at it for a moment, then got up from her bed and retrieved her mother's necklace. Taking the charm off, she attached her mother's charm and the one she just received to the anklet on either side of the sun. She put it on.

After staring at the anklet for a moment, Julia picked up her phone opened Will's texts. After thinking for a moment, Julia wrote—Merry Christmas, thank you—but hesitated on hitting send. After a few moments, she deleted the message and threw her phone down on her bed.

The next morning, Julia picked up her phone and looked through her contacts. She stopped at the E's, at Eliza's number. Eliza had given it to her in case of emergencies, and while this wasn't exactly an emergency, Julia desperately needed someone to talk to.

After dialing the number, the line rang a few times before Eliza picked up.

"Julia?" Eliza asked, sounding concerned. "Is everything okay? Did something happen?"
"Um, hi, Eliza," Julia said, unsure of herself. "Everything's okay, I'm okay. I just, I don't know, I know it's the day after Christmas and everything, so I completely understand if you're busy, but—"

"I can meet you in half an hour at Starbucks," Eliza said. "If you want to talk."

Julia breathed a silent breath of relief. "Yeah," she said. "I'll meet you there."

As Julia headed out of the house, she intended to ignore Rory, but couldn't help but say something.

"I deserved to know about this before."

Rory looked up. "Excuse me?" he said.

"The letter," Julia said quietly. "You should have told me about it before."

"I was just trying to do what your mother wanted," Rory said gently. "She told me that if anything happened to her and your father before you finished college, she wanted you to have that letter on the first Christmas after whatever happened, happened."

Julia shook her head. "I know that's what she wanted," Julia said. "But I needed to know about it before. You should have told me." Without giving him a chance to reply, Julia left.

There was only one Starbucks in town, and half an hour later Julia and Eliza were sitting across from each other, steaming drinks in front of them. Julia didn't touch hers much, but Eliza sipped slowly, waiting for Julia to start.

"I haven't been a very good person, lately," Julia started. Eliza opened her mouth to say something but Julia shook her head. "No," she protested, "I need to get this out."

Eliza nodded.

"My friends have been too good to me," Julia continued. "And all I've done is push them away. And honestly, I'm not really sure of the full reason. I'm still trying to figure that out. But truthfully, I don't think that really matters right now."

After Julia said nothing for a few moments, Eliza prodded, "What made you call me?"

Julia said nothing, just took out her mom's letter and put it in front of Eliza.

Eliza picked it up and read it. It took her a few minutes, but when she finally put it down Julia could see her eyes were very bright.

"Who did you get this from?" Eliza asked.

"My uncle had it," Julia said. "But I don't want to talk about what it means the fact that I got it, but what I should do about it."

"What do you mean?"
"She said she wants me to have a good life and be happy," Julia said. "She calls me a good person. But I haven't been any of those things lately. And I don't think I know how to."

"What made you happy before all of this happened? You could start there," Eliza suggested.

Julia shook her head. "No," she said. "Those things made a very different person happy. And even though she was, or at least I think she was, happy, I wouldn't want to go back to that person."

Eliza nodded thoughtfully. "Well, what about your friends here? Sometimes the best way to heal yourself is not by working directly on yourself, but by working on connections with other people. You're friends with Megan and Jack, right? You could start with them."

"At least I was," Julia said. "I haven't been very good to them recently."

"If they're really your friends," Eliza said, "I would think they wouldn't be too quick to give up on you."

Julia nodded slightly. "Thanks, Eliza," she said.

Julia continued to keep to herself the next week, but instead of ignoring the world, she spent the entire time thinking about it. She did a little bit of drawing, but mostly would just stare out the window or at her mother's letter. Rory seemed to notice the change in her attitude; he stopped looking so worried at meal times and instead seemed content with her silence.

On New Year's Eve, Julia got her one super fancy dress out of her closet. It was dark blue with a lace overlay and lace long sleeves, and accented it with silver eyeshadow and a full face of makeup. She did her hair nicely and threw on her black coat to go out in.

Megan had sent her more information on the New Year's dinner party earlier in the week, but Julia hadn't bothered at the time to respond. All it had said was it was an overly fancy affair and to get there at seven if she wanted to come, followed by an address. Julia didn't want to at the time, but now, wanting to reach out to her old friends, decided that this was a good place to start.

Rory looked up as Julia came out of her room. "Where are you headed?" he asked her.

"My friend, Megan, I guess her parents throw this dinner party every year for New Year's," she said. "She invited me. Is that okay?"

Rory nodded. "Of course," he said. "Are you staying overnight?"

Julia shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "I'll let you know."

"Are you going to walk or do you need the car?"
"Whichever."

Rory tossed Julia the keys. "Here, I don't need them," he said. "I don't want you to freeze."

"Thanks," Julia said, and she left the house.

The drive was quick, and when Julia got to Megan's house there were already several cars outside of it. The house was definitely bigger than Julia's, but still smaller than Will's. Still, Julia figured it could host a significant amount of people.

As she got out of the car, Julia became more nervous than she thought she would be. She hadn't exactly left things on good terms with either Megan or Jack, who Julia assumed would already be there. Steeling her nerves, Julia went up to the front door and knocked.

After waiting for a few moments, the door opened and a woman who Julia assumed to be Megan's mom opened it. Based on what she was wearing, Julia was relieved to see that she hadn't overdressed.

"Hi," Julia said. "I'm Julia, Megan invited me. I'm sorry I never let anyone know I was coming."

Megan's mom smiled. "Oh, it's no worry dear. Megan wasn't sure if you were coming but we're very happy to have you. Please, come in. It's so nice to finally meet you."

"You as well," Julia said as she stepped into the house. She took off her coat and hanged it up with the rest of the visitor's coats by the door.

"Megan and Jack are just through there," Megan's mom said, pointing through a door way. "Second door on the right. We won't make you talk to us boring adults until dinner." She said this last part humorously.

"Thanks, Mrs. Todd," Julia said.

Julia headed down the hall and after a moment's hesitation, opened to door Megan's mom told her to. Inside, Megan and Jack were playing cards. They both looked up when Julia entered the room.

"Julia!" Megan said in surprise when she saw who it was. "It's good to see you here."

"Hi," Julia said, uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry I never told you I was coming. It was kind of a last minute decision."

Megan got up and gave Julia a hug. "There's nothing to be sorry for," Megan said after she pulled away. "Nothing," she added for emphasis.

Julia gave her a small smile. "Thanks," she said. Julia turned her attention to Jack. "Hey, Jack, how is everything?"

Jack got up too. "We missed you, girl," she said as she gave Julia a hug. "It's good to have you here."

"Dinner should be starting soon" Megan said. "We can talk afterwards. How long can you stay?"
"As long as you'll have me," Julia said.

"Perfect!" Megan said, smiling. "I love slumber parties." Megan left the room, Jack following her.

Julia smiled to herself, pulled out her phone and sent a quick text to Rory saying she would be back in the morning, and followed the other two girls out to the dining room for dinner.

The meal itself was uneventful. Julia was introduced to all of the other guests—all adults—and during the meal was questioned with all of the usual questions—college, boyfriend, hometown, etc. Julia kept everything brief, but tried to be friendly. It was only after dinner when Julia felt she could actually talk to her friends.

In Megan's room, while Megan and Jack were hanging out on Megan's bed, Julia sat awkwardly on the desk chair, trying to decide where to start. As soon as she opened her mouth to say something Megan stopped her.

"Confession," Megan said. Julia stopped and looked at her questioningly. "We know why you were upset, we know what happened with Jacob."
"How do you know that?" Julia asked. It's not like Jacob would have ever said anything to them.

"Don't get mad," Jack said. "But it was Will, actually, who told us. He was concerned."

Julia shook her head. "No, I'm not mad," she said. "It's probably good that he told you."

"Well, I get why you were upset," Megan said. "That was a total dick move. I mean, who does that to a person?"

Julia laughed. "Yeah, who knows," she said. She grew more solemn. "But, that's not the only problem," she said.

Megan and Jack gave her questioning looks.

"I mean, that kinda set everything off," Julia explained, "or, set me off is more accurate. But there's more to it. It kind of all ties back to why I'm here in the first place."

"You never did tell us that," Megan said thoughtfully.

"I haven't really told anyone," Julia said. "Only, Eliza, or, Miss Bee. And Will, actually."

"Miss Bee?" Jack asked. "The school counselor?"
Julia nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I've been going to her every Monday, pretty much since school started."

"And Will knows that?" Megan asked. "Why wouldn't he have told us when he told us about Jacob?"
"He doesn't know I'm seeing her," Julia said. "I just told him the reason why I'm going. Or, I guess I sort of screamed it at him," she amended.

Megan and Jack waited in silence.

Julia swallowed. "Two weeks before school started," she began, "back in California, I was in a car accident with my parents. I got away with only minor injuries, but," Julia paused, "but they were both killed." Julia looked down, clenching her jaw.

Megan and Jack sat there in stunned silence. "Jesus Christ, Julia," Jack said softly.

"I'm so sorry," Megan said. "I can't even imagine."

"Yeah," Julia said. "So, I don't know. I was glad to come here and get away from everything, I guess. And it was going alright. But then this whole thing with Jacob happened, and I guess I just couldn't handle anyone else hurting me."

"So you pushed everyone away," Jack said. "I've done that before. It sucks."

Julia laughed. "Yeah, you could say that," she said. "So look, I really am sorry," she continued. "I shouldn't have pushed you guys away like I did. I guess it was just my natural reaction."

"Like I said," Megan said, "you have nothing to be sorry for. I'm sorry that you've gone through all of that."

"Yeah, me too," Julia said, half to herself. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. "But, if you guys don't mind, I would like to talk about something else. Anything else, really."

Jack laughed and Megan said, "Yeah, of course. We can catch you up on everything that's been going on."

In truth, there wasn't much that was going on. They girls caught up on school drama, college plans, and general family life. But mostly, they just talked about nothing. Julia thought it was nice. They talked through the fireworks and eventually all fell asleep in various places around Megan's room.

After New Year's, there were only a few days until school started back up again. For once, despite all of the people she didn't want to see, Julia was actually glad to go. She hoped things would start to get back to normal, at least as normal as possible.

Julia was still sour with Rory, and was mostly just ignoring him as much as possible, so on the morning of her first day of school, and for pretty much all mornings afterward, said nothing or very little to him.

Julia got to school and after warming herself up from the cold, headed toward her locker. Her schedule didn't change after the first semester, but she was determined to change herself and do better. Heading to English, she was hoping to be able to talk to Will before class started, but when she got there was disappointed to see that everyone was standing around the perimeter of the classroom—they were changing seats. As expected, Julia was not placed next to Will.

Despite trying to talk to Will all day, he seemed to be pointedly avoiding Julia—something Julia could hardly blame him for. At lunch, she told Megan and Jack about it, wondering what she should do.

"You could try and catch him after the soccer game on Thursday," Jack suggested. "It's the first game of the season, the players usually linger afterward and talk to their family and friends and stuff."

"That's a good idea," Julia said. "Have either of you ever been to a game here?"

Jack laughed.

"Yeah, I don't know if you noticed, Julia," Megan said, "but we aren't really sports people."

"Okay, okay," Julia said. "I get it."

"But," Megan said, "I would definitely go with you if you want, if you need the emotional support."

Jack nodded in agreement.
"I would appreciate that," Julia said. "Thanks, guys."

Thursday came quickly, and at 6:30, Julia met Megan and Jack at the front of the school, and the trio headed to the soccer stadium. It was cold, but Julia could feel the excitement. Based on the crowd, it looked like basically the entire school had turned out.

"I told you it was a big deal," Megan said in response to Julia's amazed expression.

"I can see that," was Julia's only response.

Despite being eager for the game to be over so she could talk to Will, Julia couldn't help being impressed by the game that unfolded. She didn't know really anything about soccer, but from what she knew about sports in general, the Redwater team was good. Very good. She tried to look at all the different players, but her eyes kept being drawn to Will. He was so laid back most of the time, Julia was surprised to see him to focused on the game and what was happening around him.

The Redwater team won easily. Keeping her eye on Will, Julia was once again surprised to see him, instead of celebrating madly like the rest of his team, remain subdued, shaking hands and high fiving people but keeping a mellow behavior.

"Go wait outside the locker room," Megan urged her. "Try and catch him before the mob does."

"Good luck," Jack said.

"Thanks, guys," Julia said. "I'll text you if anything goes horribly wrong."

"Don't think like that," Megan urged. "It'll be fine. Now, go!"

Julia headed out of the stands and inside toward the boys' locker room. She stood on the opposite side of the door that the players would head to after they came back out—she wanted to draw as little attention as possible, especially since Jacob would be coming out of those doors. Julia was just wondering how she would be able to get Will away from his teammates when the door of the locker room opened and the team came rushing out in groups of two or three. She was right in her assumption, they all headed in the opposite direction of her and no one noticed her. She watched intently for Will, but as the stream of boys weakened and eventually stopped, Julia worried that she had missed him in the crowd.

Julia had nothing to worry about, though, because just as she was about to head back to Megan and Jack, the door opened again and Will came out, alone. He didn't notice her and started walking in the same direction as his teammates.

"Will," Julia said.

Will stopped and turned around. "What?" he asked.

Julia walked over to him. He was freshly showered but looked tired. "Look, I want to talk to you," she said uneasily.

"About what?" Will asked. "I think you made your feelings perfectly clear last time we spoke." He sounded bitter.

"I know," Julia said. "And I was wrong. Look, I know I haven't been fair to you. And you don't have to forgive me, I don't expect you to. I just want you to know why. It doesn't have to be now. Just sometime soon. Let me tell you why." These last words she said almost pleadingly.

Will looked her up and down. "Honestly, I didn't really want to go back out there," he said. "You free now?"
Julia nodded.

Will jerked his head in the direction of the parking lot. "Come on, my parents are away again. It'll be quiet in my house."

"Thank you, Will," Julia said quietly. Smiling to herself, she followed him to the parking lot.