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To All the Boys (I thought) I Loved Before

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Julia’s sixteen, and the stolen peach schnapps leaves a sweet, filmy layer across the tip of her tongue. She’s halfway to drunk. They are stretched across the bed on their stomachs, legs dangling from the edge. Shauna’s fingers are inches from her own. A summer breeze slips in through the window, almost undetected. It is the first hour after dark. The air is still warm.

“Your turn,” Shauna says, poking Julia’s bare shoulder. The strap of her tank top slides down. “Truth or Dare.”

They’re four dares in, and Julia has already had to slurp a shock of vodka out of a saucer and flash the neighbor’s cat. “Truth.”

“What’s the deal with you and Quentin?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, are you into him?”

Julia thinks about it. Quentin has those puppy-dog eyes and the floppy hair. The hair especially is nice. She likes the way it falls into his face. And he’s nice, and safe, and practices magic with her even though everyone else thinks it’s dumb.

Maybe she does like him. If she thinks about it, hard, Julia can remember what it feels like when he touches her skin. She can make her hand tingle from the thought of him holding it.

“I don’t know,” Julia says, looking at her friend. The moon is almost full and shines into the room, illuminating Shauna’s cheekbones. “Maybe.”

Shauna laughs and throws a pillow at Julia’s head. “I knew it!” she said. “I knew you two nerds were hot for each other.”

The tingly feeling is gone. Julia grabs the pillow and wraps her arms tightly around it, an anchor between her and the rest of the world.

***

She’s twenty-one, and a nice-looking boy is behind her while they wait for their drinks at the bistro. When he looks at her, she gives him a tight smile.

“I’m James.”

“Julia.”

He won’t stop looking at her. Something odd settles in her stomach, and she glances between the counter. It’s the same barista who’s there every Tuesday, the one with the soft red curls that fall to her shoulders and the freckles across her cheeks. Julia sometimes skips her coffee on other mornings, but never Tuesday. She can’t explain why, except that there’s something about that girl’s smile that lifts her mood for the rest of the day.

“Why don’t I know you?” James asks. “You really seem like someone I should know.”

Julia shrugs. His gaze is so intense that she can feel herself blushing. Her face tingles. “I guess we just haven’t crossed paths before now.”

“Well, we should make sure to change that.” James pulls out his receipt and scribbles a phone number on it. “Call me. We’ll get coffee sometime.”

That night as she lies in bed, Julia tries to pull the image of James to her mind. She can craft the eyes, or the nose, or the lips if she’s really trying, but never all at once. When she tries to put them together, all she can see is a mop of brown hair with no face underneath.

It’s not until their fourth date that she can remember his face without effort. She tells herself this is normal, but she can still remember every freckle on the barista’s face.

There are fourteen of them, six on one cheek and eight on the other.

***

Twenty-three years old and in rehab for magic, all Julia can see when she looks at Richard is a life raft. She follows him as if he can save her.

And it’s paid off.

Tomorrow, they will summon Our Lady Underground. There is dancing and laughing and freedom in Julia’s loft.

“Hey,” Kady says, grabbing her hand. “Come join the fun.”

Her fingers are soft against Julia’s skin, like they had been earlier that day. That touch had been the only thing that kept Julia grounded when they spoke to the hermit. Now, it comforts her the same way.

Maybe it will be okay.

Maybe she’s free.

Kady spins her, and the world goes blurry. She can see the soft outlines of the others, as though through frosted glass. Julia’s heart beats faster. She can feel herself laughing. It’s too much. She lets go of Kady’s hand, still laughing. Presses ice water to her forehead. Soon, retreats to her room.

She is still dizzy.

Finally, when the world is focused again, Richard knocks on the door.

He is a mentor, a teacher. Not a lover. But everything is about to change, and all she can think of is how nice it would feel to have two arms, holding her strong enough to keep the world from spinning.

***

Julia’s twenty-four, and she’s in the wrong timeline, and she’s the only goddamn person in the world who can cast a spell. So she tells Marina to duck and gets ready to fight the intruder, only—

Instead of a curse, it’s a familiar face, and then large hands grabbing her waist and pulling her closer. She needs to run. She needs to explain. Penny’s not supposed to be here, kissing her.

Penny loves Kady, and besides that, he’s dead.

For this version of him to be alive, and kissing her—

She pulls away.

Marina is telling Penny to back off, and Penny is trying to explain, and then it comes:

“She’s my soulmate.”

A feeling of constriction forms in Julia’s stomach, but it must be butterflies, because what she feels in her chest is relief. Finally, an answer. This is why it always felt so wrong with all of the boys she’d loved before. There was someone out there for her, a soulmate she hasn’t gotten to know in her own timeline, but hers nonetheless.

Marina is at her side, protecting her, and Julia is trying to decide if she needs to be protected. Penny is staring so intensely that she has trouble looking directly at him, and isn’t that what all the romance novels said, that love felt like staring into the sun—

Maybe this is it. Maybe the way her stomach dropped when he grabbed her, maybe the heat of his gaze on her face.

Maybe.

***

The world feels like it’s ending, the others have gone to Fillory to murder Bacchus, and Julia and Marina are smoking a joint in the living room of Marina’s high-rise.

“It’s too bad, you know,” Marina says, stretching her legs across the gold chair. “Until you started taking Penny seriously, I figured you were a dyke.”

Julia coughs on the hit she’s just taken. “What?”

“Relax, I’m a lesbian, I’m allowed to say dyke.”

“No, I just—why would you think that? You said you didn’t know me in your timeline.”

Marina rolls her eyes and takes the joint back into her own hands. Her lips are soft and large as she takes a hit. The smoke comes out of her mouth in a perfect stream. “Yeah, but I know you in this one. Or I’ve seen you, anyway, and talked to you, and trust me, you neither look nor talk like a straight girl.”

“Well, I am.”

“Whatever you need to tell yourself. But if you ever realize you were wrong, give me a call.”

Julia can feel her face going warm. She tries to look away from Marina, but her eyes don’t want to move. Suddenly, it’s all too much. Her bones are breaking. She is sinking into an ocean a thousand feet deep.

Marina laughs. “I’ll give you and your gay panic a moment alone together.” She stands, puts out the joint, and returns to her bedroom, hips swaying as she walks.

The bedroom door closes. Julia can’t seem to stop staring at it. What Marina said isn’t true.

It can’t be true.

But the longer Julia looks at the door, the more tempted she is to open it, just to see what will happen when she does.