What If

Page 16


I know this is a weird thought.
But the realization comes out of nowhere, and now I'm staring at the tips of her fingers, which are barely sticking out of her sweater.
Why have I never seen her hands? "Yeah, I'm fine," Nyelle responds.
"How are you?" When I don't answer, she waves her hidden hand in front of my face, snapping me out of it.
"Oh, uh, I'm great."
"I didn't know you had a friend visiting from home," she says, resting her hands beside her h*ps on the couch.
"I didn't get to see you this week to tell you," I say, trying not to look at her hands.
"How long is she going to be here?" Nyelle asks, searching the crowd in the kitchen.
I study her darting eyes.
She still seems… riled.
Did someone say something to her to piss her off? Or is this about Rae? Did she recognize her? Is that really what the backyard was all about? "We fly back home together on Wednesday for Thanksgiving break."
"Oh," is her only response.
She draws in a deep breath, like she's still trying to calm down.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Before she can answer, Eric comes up beside me and claps a hand on my shoulder.
"Hey, I'm Eric," he says without waiting for an introduction.
He's staring.
I can understand why he's staring, but I'm tempted to elbow him in the ribs to make him stop.
"Eric, this is Nyelle."
"Oh! Lake Girl!" he exclaims with a laugh.
Nyelle smiles.
"You told him about the Titanic?" I nod.
"That was completely my fault," Nyelle tells him.
"Yeah, well, guys do stupid things for a girl when we want to get laid." Eric laughs.
"You wanted to get laid?" Nyelle gawks at me.
"What? Me?! Not in the boat, no," I fumble.
This time I do elbow Eric, and he fights to hide the pain with a short cough as his face reddens.
It would make my life so much easier if he'd think before he spoke.
The guy has no filter.
"Yeah, well, we did get practically naked," Nyelle adds, looking me in the eye with a playful grin.
"You did? Hey, you didn't tell me that part," Eric complains.
"No, I didn't," I respond, still connected with Nyelle.
"Don't look now, but Liza's at your five o'clock," Eric whispers loudly so we can all hear him.
"Oh, I liked Liza," Rae says, sneaking in beside me with Tess next to her.
Tess passes Nyelle a drink, and Rae hands me a beer.
"Thanks," I reply, taking it from her.
I catch Liza's eye and she smiles.
I liked Liza too.
She's pretty, intelligent, funny, but… "Hi, Cal.
Eric." She greets us with a nod, then looks to everyone else, waiting to be introduced.
"Hi, Liza.
This is Nyelle, Tess and Rae."
"Oh, you're Rae!" she says excitedly.
Then pauses and tightens her eyes.
"I'm sorry, but I guess I always thought you'd be… taller.
Maybe it's the way Cal always talked about you; he made you sound…"
"Badass?" Eric offers.
Liza laughs.
"How's your brother?" Rae asks her.
Liza's brother was in a serious car accident at the end of last semester.
Maybe that's why we broke up.
She had to go home to be with her family.
I think about it.
That's not it.
That happened after I ended things.
"Wow, you do tell her everything, huh?" Liza teases me.
"Um, he's good.
Fully recovered.
Thanks." She glances up at me and smiles.
"Well, it was good to see you, Cal.
Have fun tonight, guys." Then she disappears back in the direction she came from.
"I remember her," Eric adds.
"I liked her too."
"She's another of your broken hearts?" Nyelle confirms.
"You know!" Rae exclaims, instantly bonding with Nyelle over my relationship failures.
I should've seen this coming.
"I told you he'd break your heart," Nyelle leans over and whispers loudly to Tess.
Tess's eyes grow wide and her mouth drops open in shock.
"No, no, no." Rae shakes her head.
"Don't go there, Tess.
You seem like a really nice girl.
Stay away from him.
He's relationship challenged.
Really." Tess chokes.
Her face is turning redder by the second.
"Tess, let's go get you a drink," Eric offers gently, taking her by the hand.
"I have one," she says quietly, holding up her cup.
"Well, then, let's just move into the other room until your face returns to the color it's supposed to be." I want to apologize.
But I know it'll only make things worse because she won't know if I'm apologizing because it's true, or because they just called her out on liking me and I can't reciprocate.
Either way, it's better that she walk away.
"I'm trying to remember the excuse you used when you broke up with Liza," Rae says, concentrating.
"What was it?"
"My question is: Do you regret it?" Nyelle asks.
"No," I answer without hesitation.
She grins.
Rae looks between us suspiciously.
When her focus lingers on Nyelle a little too long, I nudge her to make her stop.
Nyelle doesn't notice.
She's too busy digging gummy bears out of her front pocket.
"Want one?" she offers us with her sweater-covered palm held out .
"No, thanks," I respond, taking a swig of the shit beer in my hand.
Rae picks one up and bites its head off before tossing the rest in her mouth.
"I think we should go back to your place," Rae announces after chugging the rest of her beer.
"This party's lame.
We could do so much better on our own.
Let's pick up some Jack on the way.
Nyelle, wanna come back to Cal's?" Nyelle hesitates, then focuses on me as if she's waiting for some sort of assurance.
I raise my brow in encouragement and she replies, "Sure." Rae cuts through the kitchen, pockets a couple more beers, and hollers to Eric and Tess, "We're out of here.
Let's go." Effortlessly parting the crowd, she struts to the back door.
Nyelle looks after Rae and smiles.
"I like her." I laugh.
Me too." * * * I'm leaning against the kitchen counter, staring at the bathroom door, waiting for Nyelle and Rae to come out.
They've been in there since Eric left to bring Tess back to the dorms.
That was twenty minutes ago.
"No way!" I hear Nyelle shout through the door.
Rae laughs.
"Seriously, it's true!" I'm afraid to know what they're talking about.
The door opens, and Eric walks in.
Where are the girls?" I direct my eyes toward the bathroom just as a burst of laughter filters through.
"What are they doing in there?" he asks, standing next to me with his arms crossed to watch the door.
I shrug.
"Who knows.
What do girls do in the bathroom together anyway?"
"Talk about guys," Eric replies.
"Except Rae doesn't like guys.
Which means they're probably talking about you." I stiffen.
"What?" I've been worried that Rae's drunk enough to let something slip.
Or bitter enough to unleash the grudge she's been holding all these years.
But the laughter doesn't sound hostile, which makes me paranoid that they are talking about me.
"Oh, and I don't understand why you don't like Tess.
She's a cool girl," he continues.
"I got her number.
But would that mean I'm getting your sloppy seconds?"
"That doesn't even make sense! There's nothing sloppy about Tess, and it's not seconds because I never asked her out.
She's great, but I'm not interested in dating her."
"Because you want her roommate," he says, nodding toward the bathroom.
"Why didn't you tell me Lake Girl was f**king hot?" Nyelle's hysterical laughter moves my feet toward the door.
I knock.
"Hey, are you two coming out?"
"I already did our freshman year, remember?" Rae hollers back.
Nyelle laughs.
"You were there.
It was f**king funny.
I thought Brady was going to have a heart attack."
"Yeah, I was there," I respond with a sigh.
"Come out of the bathroom.
You've been in there for over a half hour." * * * "So I was hoping to talk to you about something," Rae says to me as we're waiting for Brady and Craig to show up.
They called a while ago and said they were riding their bikes over.
They also said they scored a bottle of vodka from Craig's parents' liquor cabinet.
If it's the same bottle we drank from last summer, then I know it's half water, so it's not that big of a score.
"Yeah, what's up?" I respond, not looking up from the video game on my phone.
"Cal." Her voice is serious and stern.
It's the voice she uses with her brother when he's in deep shit.
I close the gaming app and give her my full attention.
Rae opens her mouth, then closes it.
She's nervous, and Rae is never nervous about anything.
"Are you pregnant?" I blurt.
"No!" She punches me in the arm.
"I'm not pregnant, you loser.
"I know you missed me!" Brady yells, rolling up the driveway on his bike.
Rae sinks back into the couch and closes her eyes.
I know she won't tell me now.
"Come on, my Rae of sunshine.
Tell me how much you missed me."
"Not even a little," she grumbles.
"You'll come around," he says with a wink.
Craig pulls out a bottle of Jack Daniel's, not vodka.
Rae stands up abruptly, opens the bottle, and takes a huge swig, then coughs from the burn.
I never will, Brady." She coughs again and then clears her throat.
"Because I don't like dicks." Then she takes another shot straight from the bottle.
"Easy there," Craig warns, holding his hand out to take the liquor back.
"That's kinda harsh," Brady says, feigning heartbreak.
"You're not listening.
Dicks." We freeze.
Brady with a hand over his heart.
We stare at her.
It's silent until I utter, "Makes sense that you're not pregnant." * * * "We'll be right out!" Rae yells back.
I groan in frustration and rest my head on the doorframe.
Behind me, I hear Eric tear open a bag of chips.
The door opens.
"You have chips!" Nyelle exclaims.
She walks right past me without a glance and straight to Eric.
I stare at her.
"You heard him open that bag? You mean that's all I had to do to get you to come out?" Nyelle laughs and scoops out a handful of Doritos.

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