What If

Page 15

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Rae chugs the rest of her beer.
I don't expect her to answer.
She doesn't open up much, not even to me.
I'm pretty sure she started playing drums when we were kids so she could beat the shit out of something.
It's how she copes.
"They split when we were younger.
My brother lived with our dickhead father until he took off, leaving my mother with a mortgage and a shitload of debt on top of having to support us.
So she works doubles at the hospital all the time and we hardly ever see her.
I basically grew up at Cal's house since his mom works from home." Eric looks a little lost.
"And so… how does this Nicole chick fit into all this?"
"Richelle and Nicole lived down the street from us," Rae explains.
She takes in a deep breath.
"Until they left us."
"Come on, Rae.
Richelle moved.
And we don't know everything that went on with Nicole… obviously," I say.
"Maybe we never did."
"Give it up, Cal," Rae says with a shake of her head.
"You need to stop defending her." That's never going to happen.
Not until I know what's really going on. NICOLE August-Before Fifth Grade I walk up to Cal's door and ring the doorbell.
Logan opens it.
"Hi, Nicole.
It's nice to see you.
Cal's out back."
"Thank you, Mrs.
Logan," I respond and continue around the house to the backyard.
Cal's mom called my mom to ask if I could come over.
She said Cal had something he wanted to share with his friends.
When I reach the backyard, my mouth opens into a big, huge smile.
Cal is running around with a yellow puppy chasing after him.
"He's so cute!" I exclaim, not taking my eyes off the fuzzy little thing that keeps trying to bite the rope in Cal's hand.
Cal stops running, and the puppy jumps up on his legs, chomping at the rope.
"Hi, Nicole."
"When did you get him?" I bend down and pet the puppy on the head.
He jumps on my knees and licks at my face.
"Ow." His little claws are sharp.
"Henley, get down," Cal demands, pulling him away.
Did he hurt you?"
"He didn't mean to," I say, kneeling on the ground, making sure my dress covers my legs so he can't scratch me.
"Come here, Henley."
"My dad brought him home today." Cal sits on the ground across from me as we both play with the puppy.
He can't seem to sit still-jumping back and forth and running around us.
"I don't think my mom knew about it, but she says we can keep him.
I'm going to help my dad build a doghouse for him."
"My dad thinks animals are too dirty," I say.
And watching Henley roll in the grass, chasing after a butterfly, I think he's probably right.
But Henley's just so cute.
Cal and I play with Henley for a while before I realize it's just the two of us.
"Where's Rae and Richelle?" I ask, squeaking a plastic frog at the puppy, who isn't quite sure if he wants to bite it or run away from it.
"I don't know.
I called them, but they weren't home." It's not weird being alone with Cal.
He's nicer than a lot of the boys at school.
When Brady and Craig come over, they end up acting kind of dumb, and Cal has to tell them to shut up a lot.
Richelle says they're so immature and no girl will ever want them to be her boyfriend.
I'm not sure I'm ready for a boyfriend.
Richelle says that it's the best thing in the world to have a boyfriend.
You get to tell him secrets.
Hold hands.
Go to the movies together.
And kiss.
I think the only thing I'd like is the movies part, and I already do that with Cal and his friends.
Except none of them is my boyfriend.
I watch Cal for a moment as he runs really fast with Henley chasing after him.
His dark hair is sweaty and sticking to his forehead.
His knees are dirty from rolling on the ground.
His glasses are sliding off his nose like they always do.
Would I want to kiss Cal? I scrunch my nose up at the thought.
"What's wrong?" Cal asks, breathing fast from running.
"Did a bug fly in your mouth?"
No," I say.
"I was just thinking about…" I almost say it.
My cheeks feel hot.
"What? Tell me.
I promise not to tell anyone." I kneel on the ground again where Henley is lying on his back with his paws in the air.
I scratch his belly and laugh at how funny he looks lying this way.
He's breathing fast too.
I can feel his little heart beating.
I don't look at Cal when I ask, "Have you ever kissed a girl?" Henley flops over onto his belly, stretches his tiny jaw into a yawn, and rests his head on his paws.
Cal and I continue petting him.
Cal's hands are dirty, even under his nails.
My mom would make him scrub them all day before sitting down at our dinner table.
I look at my hands, and even though I've been playing too, I was very careful not to get dirty.
Our hands look so different next to each other, moving along the gold fur.
"No," Cal answers.
"I've never kissed a girl.
I don't think I want to yet either."
"Yeah," I agree, without looking at him.
"Kissing's gross." Our hands touch.
We stop petting Henley, who's fallen asleep, but don't take our hands off of his belly.
It rises and falls with his breathing.
I hold my breath and move my hand so it's over Cal's.
His hand is warm, and it's softer than I thought it would be.
I curl my fingers between his and he squeezes them gently.
I keep my eyes on our hands, afraid to look at him, but I'm smiling.
My heart is beating like a butterfly is flapping inside my chest.
I may not be ready to kiss a boy, but I do like holding Cal's hand.
Chapter Eight
"Are you sure they're coming?" Rae asks, pressing against the frame that separates the living room from the kitchen, allowing two girls to squeeze between us.
"I'm not sure of anything when it comes to Nyelle," I confess.
"But Tess's text said they were on their way."
"Yeah, but that was like an hour ago," Rae notes, tipping the beer bottle into her mouth.
I shrug.
"Nyelle likes to walk.
It might take them a while."
"They're walking from campus?" Rae says.
"What is she, crazy?" I grin without answering.
I'm about to ask where Eric disappeared to when Nyelle enters through the back door.
"She's here." Rae turns to look, but she's too short to see over the crowd in the kitchen.
Nyelle's wearing her hair down, the way I like it, wild waves falling over her shoulders.
The top of her head is sprinkled with snow, and her cheeks and the tip of her nose are red from walking in the cold.
Her blue eyes sparkle as she searches the crowd.
She stops when she sees me.
I wait to see how she reacts when she sees me.
When she smiles, I release my breath and smile back.
Tess waves to me while mouthing an apology and rolling her eyes toward Nyelle.
The smile on Nyelle's face falters.
She's too far away for me to see what's happening.
My eyes dart around the kitchen, trying to figure out which guy said something to her.
"Nyelle!" Tess yells.
I look back just as the door slams shut.
"I'll be right back," I tell Rae.
I push through the crowded kitchen and find Tess outside on the back steps.
"Nyelle, what are you doing? I'm freezing from walking all the way here, and I really need to warm up.
Please come inside with me." Nyelle isn't listening.
She's pacing back and forth in the small yard, grumbling under her breath.
"Tess, go ahead in and wait with Rae.
She's the one with bright pink hair.
You can't miss her." When she hesitates, I assure her, "We'll be right there." Tess sighs and says, "Nyelle, I'm going inside.
Don't leave without me." Then she goes back into the house, muting the music and voices with the closing of the door.
Nyelle continues pacing with her fists clenched by her sides, mumbling incoherently.
Every so often I pick up a word, mostly swearing.
I can't make sense of it.
"What the f**k?!" she blurts.
Then she rants about other nonsensical things, with an, "I can't do this," thrown in there.
"Nyelle? What happened?" She stops abruptly, biting her lip.
She looks up at me with wide, frantic eyes, appearing confused.
I know I am.
I shiver as the cold wind gusts through the button-down I'm wearing.
"It's cold.
And snowing.
Just come in for a little while to warm up.
Then I'll take you anywhere you want to go.
Even if it's to roll down a hill with you." Nyelle takes a deep breath to collect herself, then smiles ever so slightly.
"It is snowing, isn't it?" She tilts her head up toward the sky, watching the flakes float down onto her face.
I'm met with a rush of warm air when the door opens and Rae comes out.
"Is she catching snowflakes on her tongue?" Nyelle has her mouth open and her tongue sticking out, letting the crystals drift down and soak into her tongue.
I smile.
She is."
"What the…?" Nyelle lifts her head and her eyes steady on Rae.
With a deep breath, she says boldly, "Hi.
I'm Nyelle.
I go to school with Cal."
"Hi," Rae falters.
"I'm Rae.
Cal's friend from back home."
"Nice to meet you," Nyelle replies with an exaggerated smile.
"Now let's go rage." She thrusts her fist halfheartedly in the air and unenthusiastically hollers, "Woo-hoo," before marching between us into the house.
Rae turns her head up toward me with her mouth agape.
"Holy shit, Cal.
What just happened? And who was that? Because that girl looks a hell of a lot like Nicole Bentley." I release a breathy laugh.
"That… all of that, was Nyelle Preston," I say and follow after her into the house.
Tess is waiting for us inside the door, but Nyelle is halfway through the kitchen, heading toward the living room.
I start in that direction, then look back to Rae and Tess.
"Go ahead," Rae encourages.
"We'll get drinks and meet you in a sec." I nod and excuse myself through the crowd of people drinking and talking.
Nyelle is leaning against the back of the couch when I finally reach her.
"Hey." I stand across from her, close enough to touch her.
When she looks up at me with a weak smile, I'm tempted to.
But I don't.
"Are you okay?" She unzips her jacket and pulls it off, stuffing it between her knees.
Underneath is a large orange and red sweater that hangs off her.
She's cut holes in the sleeves for her thumbs to stick out, like she did her other sweater.
And then it hits me… I've never seen her hands.

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