What If


Page 18


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"Look at the stars with me, Cal." I lie back, and Nyelle threads her arm through mine, pulling herself close to me.
I take a deep breath and try to focus on the sky.
The storm clouds have thinned into wispy strands that weave across the sky, allowing pockets of stars to shine through.
"You found your something to climb," I say.
"But I think I prefer the tree." I fight to keep my attention on the sky and not on the fact that I'm closer to the clouds than I've ever been without being strapped in.
There's no sense in looking down to search for the sanity that I left at the bottom of the ladder.
I'm up here.
With Nyelle.
"I did," she sighs.
"I'm surprised you came all the way up here with me."
"Me too," I say with a short laugh.
"I'm not coming up there!" Rae yells from below.
"Sit here next to me," Eric tells her.
"I brought our friend Jack." Nyelle moves her face close to mine and says so only I can hear her, "She's your best friend, huh?"
"Yeah, she is," I reply, watching the light flicker in her eyes.
"Do you miss her?" Nyelle asks, looking back up at the sky.
I continue to watch her, struck by the hint of emotion in her voice.
"I talk to her just about every day," I say.
"But, yeah, I miss her."
"I'd miss her too," she says in a whisper.
I prop up on my elbow to look down at her.
She glances away, swiping the corner of her eye.
"Come down here with us!" Rae shouts up.
"We brought the sparklers."
"Ready to get off the top of the world?" I ask her, searching her eyes for the emotion that I thought I'd heard.
Nyelle looks up at me and smiles.
"Sure." Eric and Rae are seated on the platform with their legs dangling and arms hung over the middle crossbar, the bottle of Jack Daniel's set between them.
I step down behind them next to Nyelle.
Rae hands us each a sparkler, and Eric passes around the lighter.
Each rod ignites in a shower of sparks.
Nyelle waves hers around in the air, leaving behind a trail of smoke and the ghost of streaking light imprinted in the dark.
Eric and Rae have some sort of sparkler sword fight with theirs.
I lean over the railing and let the sparks rain below like fireflies being set free.
The night echoes with laughter as Rae declares herself victor and Eric demands a rematch.
Nyelle slides along the rail to stand beside me after our sparklers are extinguished, our arms brushing.
She doesn't say anything.
She just stands there staring out into the night.
The stars are becoming brighter as the thin veil of clouds trails away.
A light streaks across the sky.
"Make a wish," I lean over and whisper.
Nyelle closes her eyes, a slow smile emerging.
I'm about to ask what she wants to do over again when her hand slips into mine and she threads our fingers together.
Warmth rushes up my arm.
I squeeze her hand lightly and take in the starlight reflecting in her eyes as she says quietly, "I wished for a butterfly." NICOLE September-Fifth Grade I'm nervous, and my hands feel sweaty.
I'm more nervous than when I have to show my daddy I got less than a hundred on a test.
I'm so nervous, my stomach hurts.
I keep watching out the window until I see Cal running in from the soccer field after they make the first announcement recess is over.
"Miss Hendricks, I'm going to go now, okay?" I've been helping her clean up the art room all recess.
"Thank you for helping, Nicole," she says from the sink where she's rinsing out the paintbrushes.
I grab the rolled-up paper with the blue ribbon tied around it and walk really fast to the doors where they come in from recess and stand to the side so everyone can pass me.
I see Cal.
His hair's all sticking up from running around.
He has a grass stain on his elbow, probably from falling.
And his glasses have slid down to the tip of his nose.
I make sure he sees me and wave him over to underneath the stairs so people won't notice us.
"Hi, Nicole.
How come you weren't at recess?"
"I was helping Miss Hendricks.
And umm… I made this for you." He holds out his hand to accept it, and I almost don't let it go.
"Don't look at it now, okay? I don't want anyone else to see it."
"Okay," he says.
"Thanks." My chest has the butterfly in it again.
"What's that?" Richelle asks.
I don't know where she came from, but she's pointing to the paper in Cal's hand.
I can't say anything.
The butterfly has turned into a hammer, and I press my lips together, wanting her to go away.
"Nicole gave it to me," Cal says.
"Can I see?" she asks, reaching for it.
I want to tell her no.
I want Cal to tell her no.
He opens his mouth, and I hold my breath.
But then she reaches out her hand and he lets her take it.
I want to cry.
Richelle unties the ribbon and lets it fall to the floor as she unrolls the paper.
She looks at it for a long time.
I can feel the tears building up in my eyes.
She rolls it back up and gives it to Cal.
She won't look at me.
I know she's mad when she runs away.
"Cal, I told you not to show it to anyone!" I yell at him.
"Richelle! Please don't be mad." I run after her, but there's a teacher in the hall making sure we go to class .
* * * After school, when my homework is finished, I sit outside on my front steps, waiting for Richelle to come out.
I feel like I wait for a very long time.
Finally, her door opens and she walks over to stand right in front of me.
"My mom told me I need to express my feelings, so I don't hold things on the inside.
And I want to tell you that you weren't a very good friend today.
I told you I really like Cal.
I told you I wanted him to be my boyfriend.
And what you did wasn't very nice." I blink back the tears and squeeze my folded hands in my lap.
"I'm sorry."
"Nicole, did you kiss him?" I pick my head up.
"No.
I didn't.
I swear.
He's just my friend, Richelle.
I promise.
I didn't mean to make you mad."
"You promise you just want to be friends with him?"
"Yes," I answer, but it hurts my heart a little because I know that's not really true.
I don't want Cal to be my boyfriend, because I don't want to kiss him.
But I really did want to hold his hand again.
"Okay.
I don't want to be mad at you anymore," she finally says.
"Good.
I don't want you to be mad at me ever again," I respond, and I really mean it.
"I promise that I will never like Cal more than a friend." This was the first fight I've ever had with Richelle, and it hurt so bad I don't ever want to feel this way again.
Richelle sits next to me on the step and takes my hand.
It doesn't give me the butterfly in my chest like when Cal holds it, but it does make me feel better-like the sun, all nice and warm.
"Richelle, why isn't Cal your boyfriend like you wanted?"
"You told me he said he wasn't ready to kiss a girl.
He can't be my boyfriend until he wants to kiss me.
But I want to be the first girl he ever kisses.
And I don't want him to want to kiss another girl except me… ever."
"Oh," I respond, my heart feeling a little heavy.
"Let's go to my house," Richelle says, jumping up from the stairs and pulling me after her.
"I have a surprise to show you."
Chapter Nine
"Why are you stopping here?" I ask when Brady pulls his Jeep up to the curb.
"Dude, your house isn't that far.
Get out," Brady demands.
"I have to pick up Rae from Nina's.
She needs rescuing, and you're too drunk to stand, so it's up to me to save her."
"I can come-"
"No.
You need to go fall on your face in your bed.
I'll see you tomorrow." Reluctantly, I get out of his Jeep.
"Hey," Brady calls, getting my attention.
"We f**king graduated!" he hollers with his fist in the air as he drives away.
I laugh and watch him speed off down the street.
My lids are heavy and everything is moving a little more slowly than it should.
I concentrate on my steps along the sidewalk.
There's a dinging in my head.
I try to shake it out, but it keeps chiming.
That's when I notice Mr.
Bentley's Lincoln in the driveway with the door open.
That's such an annoying noise.
"You need to calm down." Mr.
Bentley's low voice carries out of the house through the open window.
"Getting this upset isn't going to make things better."
"Don't touch me!" Nicole screams at him.
I've stopped walking.
I can't see anything from where I'm standing behind the car in the driveway.
But it's hard for me to focus anyway.
I sigh.
"Overreacting just a little, Nicole," I mumble.
"Kyle's a douche.
You're better off without him." Who am I talking to? I shake my head.
I'm about to start toward my house again when the sound of shattering glass turns me back around.
I jolt awake with the echoes of breaking glass still in my head.
Blinking, I slowly ease out of the night after graduation and return to the confines of the plane taking us back home for the holiday break.
"You okay?" Rae asks, eyeing me carefully.
"Yeah," I reply.
The fragmented memory fades with the dream.
I still don't know what really happened that night.
Rae goes back to reading the issue of Rolling Stone spread on her tray table.
I press my forehead against the window and watch the clouds pass below us.
I grin, reminded of Nyelle.
She disappeared again.
We didn't see her after that night at the silo.
I'd say I was used to it, but I'm not.
"She kind of reminds me of Richelle," Rae says.
"The way she gets excited about the dumbest things." I let out a small laugh at the comparison.
"Yeah, I guess." Rae didn't want to talk about Nyelle after we dropped her off Saturday night.
I didn't push it.
I knew she'd talk when she was ready.
"But she's not the girl we grew up with." I scrunch my brow together in confusion.
"You don't think she's Nicole?"
"I'm saying that whoever she is now is not Nicole.
She looks a lot like her.
If she didn't have the same laugh, I might be convinced of the separated-at-birth theory.
But other than that, there's nothing left of the girl we knew-not the bitch or the princess." Her voice is deflated.
"I think we need to tell someone.
Maura will know-"
"No," I say adamantly.
"Don't say anything to my mother."
"What?" Rae stares at me like she didn't hear me right.
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