What If

Page 17

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Rae follows after her.
I watch her, looking for some hint on her face as to what they talked about for so long.
She sits on at the end of the couch wearing the most frustrating grin.
What the hell? I sit on the other side of the couch and make eye contact.
I widen my eyes, silently begging for any assurance at all.
She continues to wear a tilted grin.
I want to strangle her.
I raise my hands in frustration and she smiles wider, torturing me.
We're interrupted when Nyelle bounces down on the cushion between us, kicking off her shoes and crossing her legs.
"God, I love Doritos.
Except they make your breath smell for hours after."
"Truth." Eric agrees with a dramatic nod of his head.
"Oh! I remember why you dumped Liza!" Rae exclaims suddenly, making everyone turn toward her.
"She wanted you to meet her parents.
So you ended it." Eric starts laughing.
That's right." It comes back to me too.
"We'd only been dating a month.
I wasn't ready to meet her parents."
"But couldn't you have told her that instead of dumping her?" Nyelle asks, brushing the Dorito crumbs off her jeans.
"Maybe she would've understood."
"Yeah, right," Rae scoffs.
"Cal does not have the awkward conversations.
He totally walks away from any kind of confrontation.
Seriously, he'll go out of his way by miles to avoid it."
"Yeah, I know," Nyelle says, smirking.
I suddenly find the stain on the couch worthy of my attention when Rae starts laughing.
This conversation needs to end now.
"So why do you walk away? Are you afraid of hurting their feelings or something?" Nyelle asks.
And just to make it worse, Eric chimes in.
"Cal is that laid-back, let-the-world-happen-to-me kind of guy.
That's how he gets the ladies.
They always approach him because he comes off as the nice guy.
I don't think he's ever hit on a girl.
So the dude's never had to experience rejection."
"What are you talking about?" I interject, feeling the need to defend myself, even if he is telling the truth.
"Who was the last girl you asked out?" Rae challenges.
I look to Nyelle out of the corner of my eye, because technically it was her.
"No, you didn't," she says, reading my mind.
"You were supercasual about it, making it sound like a bunch of you were going out."
"He asked you out?" Rae gawks.
Nyelle shakes her head.
He didn't." Eric raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, What the hell is wrong with you? Unable to listen to them analyze me any longer, I stand up and walk to the fridge.
"Anyone need a drink?" I grab a beer.
Eric raises his hand, so I toss him the can.
"Do you have Coke?" Nyelle asks.
"Me too," Rae adds.
I take out the cans of soda along with another beer and hand them off to the girls.
Rae mixes hers with Jack Daniel's, and Nyelle takes a huge gulp and swishes it around in her mouth.
"Are you gargling with Coke?" Eric laughs.
"Rinsing out the Doritos from my teeth," she explains after swallowing.
Then she shifts on the cushion to examine Rae.
"What?" Rae demands, tightening her eyes.
"Can I touch your hair?" Nyelle requests, holding her hand above Rae's head, waiting for permission.
"Are you drunk?" Rae asks.
"I don't really like to drink," Nyelle replies.
"It makes me angry."
"And you don't want to see her when she's angry," I note with a shake of my head, thinking back to the guy pinned up against the house with the blade under his chin.
"Does she turn green and rip through her clothes?" Eric says, laughing hysterically at his own joke.
Rae laughs too.
I grin.
"Fine, go ahead," Rae finally says with a dramatic sigh when she realizes Nyelle's still waiting for an answer.
Nyelle's eyes light up and a smile erupts on her face as she gently brushes her hand along the buzzed pink hair.
"It's so soft," Nyelle says in awe.
"You know, Rae, you're amazing."
"Why?" Rae asks cautiously.
"You're so secure with who you are.
Come on, you started your own punk band! I just… I'm going to give you a hug now." Before Rae can respond, Nyelle wraps her arms around her and pulls her in for quick, tight hug.
Rae's eyes widen with shock.
"You make me happy." Then Nyelle sits back against the couch, squeezes her hands, and asks excitedly, "Okay.
What do we do now?" No one moves.
We just stare at her.
"What was that?" I mutter.
"I think it's the gummy bears," Rae murmurs.
"I have fireworks," Eric blurts.
"We can blow stuff up!" Nyelle exclaims, clapping her hands together.
"Well… they're sparklers," Eric adds.
"Which aren't fireworks, you idiot." Rae rolls her eyes.
"Is there something we can climb?" Nyelle asks with a crazed look in her eye.
I think she's definitely had too much sugar.
"Umm… there's the barn," Eric suggests.
"Nyelle, that's not a good idea," I implore, but it's too late.
She's off the couch with her shoes on her feet, walking out the door, holding her jacket… and my truck keys.
I collapse against the back of the couch.
"Eric, really?"
"What did I do?" he questions, completely confused.
Did she just take off for the barn?"
"Yeah," I sigh, standing up and grabbing my jacket.
"And you two better hurry up or she'll leave without you." When I step out in the snow-dusted night, I find Nyelle behind the wheel of the truck, waiting.
This is not a good idea.
But I can tell there's no talking her out of it as she grips the steering wheel in anticipation.
"Scoot over.
I'm driving," I tell her when I open the driver's side door.
"But I haven't had anything to drink," she remarks.
"And I've maybe had a beer," I reply.
"Besides, do you even know where we're going?" I hesitate, because I'm suddenly afraid to know the answer.
"Have you been… to the barn?"
"You've been to the barn?" Eric exclaims in shock, holding the passenger door open for Rae.
"What are you guys talking about?" Nyelle asks.
"I've never been there, but you're the one who mentioned it, Eric."
"It's still snowing!" Rae complains, interrupting talk of the barn.
"Why does it always have to snow when I come here?!" She slides in next to Nyelle, and Eric climbs in after her.
Nyelle moves closer to me so we can all fit.
My pulse picks up pace when her thigh presses against mine.
And then I'm finding breathing challenging when I reach between her legs for the stick shift.
If you hate snow, why are you coming to school here next year?" Eric questions.
Rae glances at me and shrugs.
"You have this strange hold over the women in your life, huh?" Nyelle whispers close.
I can feel her breath on my neck and swallow hard.
"Where are we going exactly?" Nyelle asks.
"To have sex," Eric says with a stupid grin on his face.
"Shut up, Eric," I threaten, suddenly feeling the need to crack the window and let some cool air in.
"Someone make sense.
Now, please," Rae demands.
"The barn is on this abandoned property just outside town.
And as a rite of passage, couples from Crenshaw go out there and…" I let the words trail off, hoping they pick up on the rest.
"Have sex," Eric says.
So now they definitely get it if they didn't before.
"I guess the walls and beams are carved with the initials of everyone who's been there."
"That's where we're going?" Rae asks, sounding horrified.
"Who thought this was such a great idea?" We all look at Eric.
"Hey! I was just thinking out loud," Eric defends.
"I didn't know we'd really go there.
I don't even know where it is."
"But you do," Nyelle says from beside me.
I can't look at her.
I remain focused on the road.
"Cal?" Rae says.
"Are we going to find your initials on the wall?" Fuck.
"No," I answer quietly.
Not because I've never been out there, only because we never made it out of my truck.
But there's no way in hell I'm about to volunteer that information.
I can feel their eyes on me, and I refuse to look at them, steering us through the back roads of Crenshaw to where the houses start thinning out and large expanses of woods and farmland take over.
"I'm not going in there," Rae declares.
"Do you want me to turn around?" I ask.
"No," Nyelle says.
"Keep going." I risk a glance at Nyelle.
She's wearing an amused grin.
Maybe I should say something to clear up the image she probably has of me.
But I don't.
What would I say? A few minutes later, I pull down the long driveway of the abandoned farmhouse.
The dirt road splits, and I stay to the right toward the dark wooden barn and the rusted white silo standing beside it.
"It stopped snowing," Nyelle announces as we get out of the truck.
Then she pauses in front of the truck, her gaze directed to top of the silo.
A brilliant smile erupts on her face.
"Oh no," I say.
"Don't even think about it." Too late.
Nyelle is already walking toward the silo.
"Where's she going?" Rae asks from beside me.
"She's not going to…"
"Yeah, she is," I answer.
I blow out whatever common sense I have left and proceed after her.
"No way, Cal," Rae says urgently.
"Are you insane?" I don't look back for fear of losing my nerve.
I remain focused on making sure nothing happens to Nyelle-it keeps me from thinking too much about what could happen to me.
She's my courage.
If it weren't for her, there's no way I'd be holding on to the rungs of a ladder, climbing up a silo that has more rust than paint streaking its sides.
"C'mon, Rae," Eric reassures her.
"I've got your back.
Let's go."
"I can't believe I'm doing this," I hear her say in the distance.
I concentrate on my hands, unable to look down.
Nyelle doesn't hesitate when we reach the grated platform.
She reaches for the ladder leading to the top of the dome just as I open my mouth to stop her.
My hands are shaking by the time I'm sitting next to her.
I've convinced myself it's adrenaline, and I'm going with that.
Nyelle's out of breath, but still wearing the kid-on-Christmas-morning smile.
"This is amazing," she says, lying back with a hand behind her head.

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