So, I lost Radical Arts for Women this year. But, no one else who got anything last year won this year, so at least I have company. This was my submission, unedited. I also submitted it to a fiction class and am doing some revisions for that. They had some good comments to make, so I'm posting a "before" and "after" up here. Also, I have this work I'm trying to get published by this lesbian publishing company and need someone to critique, like serious critiques. Anyone interested?

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I'm In Love With…

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"Hey Julie," a boy whispered.

"Shut up Michael."

"But Julie…"

"No, it's the middle of algebra. Shut up and let me hear what Ms. Fancher is saying." The girl addressing the boy turned away from him and concentrated on the chalkboard.

"C'mon Bully-Julie-"

The utterance of her cruel nickname was a step too far. Before he could say another word, Julie rounded on the boy and yelled, "Shut up!" The desired effect was immediate.

In fact, the whole class had gone silent; even the teacher's lecture had come to the halt. Julie knew everyone in the class was watching her. "Julie? Michael?" asked Ms. Fancher in an irritated tone. "Is there something you two would like to share with the class?"

"No Ms. Fancher," the two recited in unison.

"Then I trust there will be no more interruptions," she said in a threatening tone before turning back toward the blackboard. As she looked away, Michael leaned forward from his desk positioned behind Julie's and deposited a tightly folded note right in front of her. The movement was seen by Ms. Fancher and the old bat wheeled around on the spot to give the two troublemakers a nasty look. "What was that?" she snapped, spectacles dangling on the edge of her nose.

"Nothing!" said Julie, quickly trying to hide the mysterious note.

"Are you passing notes Julia?"

"No! I-" A wave of panic hit Julie along with a deep sense of anger at being wrongly accused.

"To the front of the class now!" declared the old woman, "and bring that note with you."

Julie tried to aim a kick at Michael as she got up, but missed. "I hate you," she whispered for effect. Michael merely stuck his tongue out at her. She grabbed the note tightly, trying to wad it up into a non-existent ball as she walked up to the front of the class. Julie could hear a few giggles from other students as she reached the front and turned to face the teacher. Ms. Fancher extended a waiting hand, saying nothing, staring hard at Julie. Sighing, Julie handed over the piece of paper. Ms. Fancher looked surprised when she examined it.

"This is addressed to you," she said.

"I know. I was trying to explain." Now was Julie's chance to defend herself. "Michael leaned forward and put it on my desk."

Ms. Fancher raised an eyebrow and stared at the boy. Michael tried to make himself look inconspicuous, but it was impossible with his six-foot frame crammed into the tiny high school desk. "Michael? Did you write the note?" she asked in a weary tone. Julie suspected Ms. Fancher had experienced too many instances like this in her classroom to tolerate them any longer.

The boy shook his head rapidly. "No! I found it here a little after class started. I figured someone got my desk mixed up with Julie's." Ms. Fancher rolled her eyes at him and commenced to scan the classroom.

"Anyone want to fess up?" she asked, holding the note aloft. Julie's face was growing redder and redder the longer she stayed exposed to the entire class. "Very well then," she stated, beginning to unfold the note. "There's always the easy way to find out." Ms. Fancher cleared her throat and peered down through her spectacles at the note. "Dearest Julia…" The introduction caught everyone off guard. Some roared with laughter while others just looked down into their textbooks rather than witness Ms. Fancher's cruelty. Ms. Fancher's eyes widened as she quickly scanned the next two lines. She folded up the note and handing it back to Julia. "Girl, this is a love note," she stated bluntly.

Julia turned crimson as the class echoed with laughter again.

"Who would be sending you a love note?"

"I don't know!" whined Julia. She was on the verge of tears as the students continued laughing at her. Ms. Fancher glared at Michael.

The boy caught her stare and immediately looked mortified. "I didn't send it! That's gross!" he yelled. More laughing. A small tear crawled down Julia's cheek. "Honest!" Michael exclaimed in protest. "You can check the handwriting."

Ms. Fancher thought about the note for a moment. "The hand writing is too neat to be yours and the content too well organized," she stated. Michael sighed with the proof of his innocence revealed. "However, you still passed a note in class, so I insist that you attend the rest of today's class away in the principal's office with Julia."

"That's not fair!" both of them yelled.

"What did I do?" demanded Julia. "I didn't pass any stupid note!"

"Yeah, and I was trying to return a lost item to the rightful owner," said Michael. "I was trying to be a Good Sumerian."

"That's 'Samaritan' dumbass," whispered a boy to Michael.

Ms. Fancher looked like she had blown a fuse with the sudden eruption of chaos in her classroom. "That is it!" she shrieked. The noise stopped. "Julia and Michael, head to the principal's office now for disruptive behavior in class!"

Julia wanted to argue the verdict more, but her words died in her throat as Ms. Fancher glared at her. Feeling dejected, she and Michael made their way out of the class. Once in the hall, Michael looked down at the note clutched by Julia. "So who sent it to you?" he asked. Julia shrugged in response. "You don't want to look at it?" he asked.

"Why do you care?" asked Julia.

"I want to know who would be crazy enough to send you a love letter," he declared. "You aren't exactly the lovable type." Michael winced as some horrible thought ran through his head.

"Well, you're an asshole," Julia muttered. As they walked down the hall, Julia turned on a different path that led to an exit. She wanted to be outside.

"Where are you going Bully-Julie?" Michael called after her.

"Away," she called back, not wanting to talk to him anymore. She shoved the school door open as hard as possible. It swung back and hit her in the forehead. "Owe!" She screamed. She was angry. She wanted to swear a lot and make the pain go away, but instead stumbled out into the warm spring air and ran to her tree. Julia had always gone to the same tree during lunch or break time in school. It was a tall, old ponderosa pine with a trunk so large she could barely interlock her fingers if she wrapped her arms around it. The bark had turned smooth, so it did not itch her back to lie against it, and brushfires from centuries ago had hollowed out a small shelter for her to sit in.

In her hideout, Julia finally felt secure enough to pry the note from her own trembling grasp and examine it. There was her name on the very front, written in red pen with big, loopy letters. She began unfolding the crumpled wad, smoothing it out on her jean-covered leg. Eventually she had the paper in a readable form, despite the damage she had done to it. Drawing in a shaky breath, Julia began to read.

The note caught her off guard. It was sweet, compassionate, and caring. It made Julia want to cry and laugh. Someone actually felt this way about her? Someone had a crush on mean old Bully-Julie? In a hurry to see who harbored such feelings for her, she skipped to the very end, where it was not signed at all. "What?" Julia said aloud, feeling disappointment sinking in. She scanned the note for a clue, a hint of some sort that would at least give her a vague sense of who this person was.

Her search left her even more disappointed. "Typical," she huffed, folding up the note and jamming it into her pocket. Soon enough, the school bell rang, signifying the end of class and the end of the day. Julia wearily lifted herself from her shelter and ventured forth into the pit of hell once more to retrieve her backpack. In some strange act of mercy, her locker was removed from most of the hallway traffic. Julia preferred quiet to the obnoxious shrieks of her fellow students. As she fiddled with the lock, she saw someone approach her.

"Hey Julia," greeted Sylvie, the girl who had a locker next to her. "How are you today?" Something about her attitude was always heartwarming. Sylvie was the shy girl who was nice to everyone. It was also worth noting that she never used Julia's nickname.

"Okay," said Julia.

"Just okay?" she asked, a hint of curiosity in her voice.

Julia finally forced the lock open and freed her backpack from its dungeon. She thought about explaining the note to Sylvie, but before she could a rough looking boy with spiky blonde hair came running over to the two, laughing slightly. "Julie!" he cried. "You have to tell me which fag sent you a love letter! I bet he's a masochist. He'd have to be to want you."

"Shut up Ken," Julie growled, wishing he would go away. The heat returned to her cheeks once more.

"Yeah, you're just being a dick because no girl in her right mind would send you a love letter," said Sylvie. The comment threw both teenagers off balance. It was so unlike Sylvie to say such long and provocative sentences in the company of two or more people, let alone ones that included the word "dick".

"Whatever," he said, looking slightly hurt. "You don't have to be a bitch. I was just trying to see if Michael was lying or not." And with that, he left. Julie was relieved to have the boy gone. She could feel a slight resentment building up at her love letter. What if it was just a cruel prank? The whole school was probably laughing, imagining her pining over some invisible lover who she had no idea was really interested in her. Julia felt ashamed that she almost fell for it.

"So are you ready to go?" asked Sylvie. Julia was jarred from her dark thoughts as the girl next to her slammed both their lockers shut.

"Uh, yeah," she responded weakly. Sylvie and Julia had walked home together ever since Sylvie moved into a house across the street from her. That was back in the middle of their freshman year of high school. They were both nearing the end of their junior year now.

The two set out from the school and down the familiar path that wound through the city park. Tall trees and thick foliage inhabited every free space. The plants came up to Julia's knees in the full lushness of spring. The two followed a thin deer run that ended right behind their neighborhood. It ran through glades, ponds, creeks, and many other natural wonders of wildlife. "So how was your day?" asked Sylvie when they began their trek.

"Good enough," she responded shortly.

"What does that mean?"

Julia absently kicked the dirt path before. "I got some dumb love letter in my last class," she confessed. "I think Michael and Kenny are pulling another prank with it."

"That's not true!" exclaimed Sylvie. The two were struggling past some branches that had grown right across their path that spring.

"How do you know?" shot back Julia, pushing aside a branch so forcefully that it snapped.

"I don't," she said defensively. "But how hard is it to believe that someone cares about you?" The two finally pushed aside the last branch and came to a small creek. Julia sighed and plopped down on a large, smooth river stone. Moss adorned the sides, and she played with it absently after shouldering off her backpack

"I'm the school joke, Sylvie," she said. "Ever since I beat up Collin in middle school, and even before that, I was always the outsider. Why wouldn't they miss another opportunity to ridicule me?" Julia tried to hold back tears forcing their way out her eyes. She was angry, overwhelmed, tired, and so many other things all at once.

"I think someone that really likes you sent the letter," said Sylvie, kneeling down in front of her friend. "I bet they care about you so much that they are just too scared to confess who they are."

Julia gave a sniff, repressing the overwhelming depression. "I hope you're right," she said. Julia got to her feet, hoisting up her backpack and wiping away a stray tear. "Let's get out of here." As they walked side by side, Julia felt a strange warmth spreading through her. It made the tips of her fingers tingle and she felt as if a balloon inside her chest was filling up all the extra space. It made her breath come short.

The two girls finished their walk home, Julia filling in Sylvie about the rest of the fiasco with the note. When Julia went her separate way into the haven of her own home she dashed up the stairs of the house into her room. Frantically, she pulled the offending note from her pocket and opened a desk drawer. She shoved it as far into the back she could before piling on random sheets of paper to disguise it. With her work done, she rammed the drawer shut and set out to forget she had ever received the damn thing.

This plan, however, proved impossible to execute when the next morning she found another folded note lying in her school locker, her name adorning it in loopy handwriting. With a growl, she pulled the note from the locker and stared at it hatefully. She opened it forcefully, not even bothering to read the words as she shredded the note into tiny bits. As Julia dumped the new-made confetti into a garbage can, she heard the collective laughter of students. She looked up to see Michael, Ken, and a few others gathered together across the hall. They glanced over at her, smiling uncontrollably and holding in laughter. Julia blushed, trying to push aside her embarrassment as she walked over to the other kids.

Michael and Ken looked over at her with stupid grins while she stood in front of them, glaring. "Hi Julie," Michael said innocently. "How are you and your new boyfriend? I hear 'nobody' is a pretty nice guy." The two snorted with laughter at the awful joke.

"Look guys," she started, "I know you all have been sending me the notes as a prank. I don't think it's funny and I wish you would stop."

Michael and Ken looked confused while the other kids around them just giggled. "Julie, we didn't send you any false love notes," said Michael. "I'm not that mean."

"Yeah, but someone might be," Ken added in. "We should thank whoever it is for a good laugh." They were back to smiling in that stupid way that made Julia burn with hate. She wanted to wipe those smiles away, to show them that she was a serious human being standing before them who had feelings as well.

"Dude, what if it's Collin getting revenge for when she beat him up?" asked Michael. They laughed.

"He deserved it!" fumed Julia. "Collin kept calling me a dyke!" This statement only made everyone else around her get more ridiculous in their behavior. She just wanted all of them to sober up and quit acting like asses, but was having no effect. Instead of making the situation worse, she stormed off to the library. At least there everyone had to be quiet.

By the time Julia settled into a small corner where no one would find her, the first class of the day had started. She pulled a book from her backpack and began to read, letting herself get lost in some fantastic adventure that took place in a nonexistent realm. She attempted to block out the painful memories of Collin running about, yelling, "Julie's a dyke! Julie's a dyke!" and she did not even know what the word meant back then, just that it was a bad one. She yelled back at the boy to shut up over and over, threatened to tell teacher, and when none of that worked she leapt forward with all her might and began pounded the snot-nosed little punk into a pulp.

Julia drew away from the memory forcefully, making herself concentrate on the book in front of her. Those sort of thoughts made her grind her teeth, which her mom told her was not good for her.

As she slipped deeper and deeper into the waters of her imagination, it came as somewhat of a start when someone yelped, "Julia!" The name sounded murky, far off, and it yanked her from her mind like a trout being pulled from a river. When all the world came back into focus, there stood Sylvie, slight and meek, her delicate blonde hair flowing over her shoulders. "I didn't think you had a free period in the morning." She looked startled, almost frightened, clutching a writing pad defensively to her chest.

"I don't," mumbled Julia. "I'm skipping class."

"But why?" asked Sylvie. She sat down gently next to her wounded friend and let Julia tell her tale. At the end of it, Sylvie gave her an irritated look. "And you didn't even read the note? You just shredded it up?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Julia, "So what?"

Sylvie merely got up with a huff. "You're impossible, Julia," she declared, stomping off to some other corner of the library, leaving the poor girl alone and extremely confused.

"What has her panties in a twist?" she asked to no one in particular. 'She shouldn't even give a damn if I read the note or not,' Julia thought. Her emotions were clashing together. There was a clamor inside her head. She wished that she had never received the first stupid love note. Something inside Julia broke. She was left weak, unguarded, and her raw emotions flooded her every thought. She got up and took her stuff from the library. She exited the school and broke out in a sprint to the forest that marked the border. She ran until she could run no more, tree roots tripping her, twigs scratching her legs. She was panting, exhausted, but her feelings still burned inside of her. Julia flung her backpack against a small aspen tree. When nothing happened to it, she ran forward and kicked it as hard as she could.

This only caused Julia to yell, "Ow, damn that hurt!" and hop about on one foot. With the pain resonating in her big toe, she forgot her rage momentarily and felt all her energy siphon away. Julia leaned against a tree, exhausted. "Do I really deserve this?" she yelled to no one in particular. "Is this how the all-powerful deities of the world get their sick kicks?" No one answered. Julia was alone, completely alone. No one wanted to be friends with her. Not Sylvie, not anybody else. They all wanted to toy with her, to see how far they could push her until she would snap. Well, the damned love letters had finally crossed that line.

With this chilling thought, Julia looked around herself and realized that she truly had no idea where she was. The forest surroundings were a mystery and there was nothing to indicate where she might be. Sighing, Julia shouldered her backpack and looked for the path she must have left running here. She eventually found her footprints and began walking back in the direction of the school. The forest floor was strewn with freshly grown moss and dead leaves newly exposed by melted snow. It seemed to bounce under Julia's heavy step. Broken tree branches and muddy gashes in the ground marked where she had rampaged away from the school. Julia slowly realized that she had run a very far distance from the school as the minutes began to pile up on her hike back. It took her a whole hour to break free of the woods and into the school grounds.

As Julia was walking back, she instinctively set out for her special tree. The large ponderosa rose above everything else in the distance, the morning sun filling its pine needles with golden flakes. A small figure slowly appeared next to the tree. It was a young woman, her body haloed in sunlight. She carried something over to the tree, set it down, and walked away. Julia approached silently, attempting to make her presence unknown. When she was closer she realized the retreating figure was Sylvie. Looking down at the tree, Julia could see something tucked into the hollowed out area where she always sat. She bent down and picked it up, that strange balloon feeling returning to her chest.

It was a folded note, her name written in loopy handwriting across it.