What If

Page 2


"They're okay.
And no, I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up." Tess laughs.
"I was hoping we'd have another class together.
You saved me in art history last semester.
I don't think I would've been able to stay awake if you hadn't made up your own commentary for the slides." Tess smiles up at me.
I can see the shy flirtation glimmering in her eyes.
I choose to ignore it.
"I wish you would've let him drive us," Tess complains to her friend.
"It's cold." She wraps her arms around herself with a shiver.
I stop to take off the lined flannel shirt I have on over my T-shirt.
"Thanks." Tess beams, taking it and wrapping it around her shoulders.
Nyelle waits for us with her arms crossed, scanning me with judgment.
I look down at my shirt, thinking maybe it's ripped or stained.
I didn't really inspect it closely when I threw it on earlier.
"Who are you supposed to be?" Nyelle asks, turning abruptly to start walking again.
"A drunk college guy."
"That's original." Her voice is heavy with sarcasm.
"What? You saw another one at the party tonight? I thought I was the only one." Tess giggles.
Nyelle scoffs.
I inspect the shiny metal tucked into her belt.
The weapons are legit.
"Do you know how to use those?"
"Do you want to find out?" she snaps.
"Nyelle!" Tess scolds.
She looks to me apologetically.
She's not usually so unfiltered… Okay, yes, she is.
But I'm sorry anyway."
"You don't have to apologize for me.
Especially when I'm standing right here."
"I'm not offended," I assure Tess, glancing over at Nyelle, whose eyes tighten ever so slightly.
It's too dark to tell what color they are, shadowed by the mask, but they have an exotic shape to them that looks eerily familiar.
"I'm not going to take you up on your offer to demonstrate your weaponry skills, though.
Even if you don't know what you're doing, it would probably hurt.
And pain and I don't get along." The edges of Nyelle's eyes crease slightly, and I'm convinced I got her to smile.
We continue in our bizarre semisilence, with Tess trying to keep warm and Nyelle grumbling.
I try to get a better look at her, but she keeps her head down with her fists clenched tight.
I'm thinking she may be the angriest girl I've ever met.
We finally come to a stop in front of their dorm under a bright orange light.
"Thanks for walking us back," Tess says, a little more deflated when she notices my attention focused on her friend.
She removes the flannel jacket from her shoulders and hands it to me.
"Sure," I reply, smiling quickly before looking back at Nyelle.
"It was nice to meet you."
"We haven't-" she begins.
Her words cut short when our eyes meet.
Everything fades, and I can't look away.
I'm looking into the most incredible blue eyes I've ever seen.
They're the kind of eyes that could keep me standing here like an idiot, staring into them all night.
I know, because I've stared into them before.
"Good night," Tess says.
I blink.
"Good night, Tess," I reply in a rasp.
When I look back, the girl in black is already walking across the lobby.
* * * I've never really looked at an eye for this long before.
There are so many shapes and lines.
The longer I look, the more colors I find.
There's a shade of blue near the center that's so light, it barely looks like a color at all.
Then the colors seem to get darker as they spread out, like a storm parting for a clear sky.
The line around her eye is so dark, it's almost purple, like… midnight.
I swear there's every shade of blue in her eyes, even specks of silver.
Focusing on the different colors keeps me from blinking.
I want to move closer to see them all.
"Richelle, stop that.
You're going to make them blink," I suddenly hear Rae say behind me.
"What? Are you jealous that he's not looking into your eyes?"
"Shut up, Rae!" Richelle huffs as Rae laughs.
Nicole's long, dark lashes flutter shut.
"Cal wins!" Richelle declares.
I lean back and blink a few times.
My eyes are dry from keeping them open for so long.
Nicole looks to me and smiles lightly, her cheeks pink.
"You win." * * * "There's no way it's her," I mutter.
I lean against the bar, which is really a plank of wood set across two stacks of milk crates.
It shifts beneath my weight, because it's not meant to hold people up.
"Dude, what are you talking about?" Eric asks from the other side.
"You've been going on about eyes for the past hour.
You're drunk, and you're not making any sense.
"You don't understand!" I exclaim.
"She has her eyes."
Whatever you say.
There's no way you're driving back to our apartment.
Crash here tonight.
The couch is all yours.
" I nod, blinking heavily.
I stumble to the dark brown couch and collapse.
Eric tosses me a blanket, which lands across my legs.
I leave it there, not bothering to cover up.
I flop my arm across my face and close my eyes.
I try to convince myself that I've imagined it.
I got a glimpse of the ninja's eyes for only a few seconds.
But I swear I was looking into Nicole Bentley's eyes .
* * * I'm jolted awake when I roll over and practically fall off the couch.
It takes a second for me to realize where I am.
Then the memories of the previous night start floating to the surface.
Getting dumped.
A ninja.
Strawberry Shortcake.
Nicole's eyes.
Walking to Eric's fraternity.
More drinking.
I sit up slowly, letting the spinning in my head settle before reaching for my boots.
I run my dry tongue along the roof of my mouth, cringing at the awful taste.
"Hey," Eric says hoarsely from the bottom bunk on the other side of the bedroom.
"You have class?"
"It's Sunday," I inform him as I stuff my feet in my boots.
"That's right," he says, rolling over and covering his head with the blanket.
The clock reads after ten in the morning.
I really want to go back to sleep, but I have a paper to write-and a hangover to conquer.
Not necessarily in that order.
I throw on my flannel shirt and find my way out of the fraternity house.
I have to walk a few blocks back to where I parked my truck for the Halloween party last night.
Taking a sobering breath of the cold, crisp air, I start the truck.
The freezing vinyl seeping through my jeans and the chill in the air does little to clear my head.
I need coffee.
* * * I'm in desperate need of caffeine to kick my ass as I wait in line at Bean Buzz.
Especially today.
I lived up to the role of "the drunk college guy" last night.
I don't do it often.
But it was such a messed-up night.
I thank Mel behind the register as she hands me my cup.
I'm half convinced I'm sleepwalking as I head toward the door, my eyes barely open.
I focus on the light coming from the exit and concentrate on moving my body in that direction.
"Cal?" I stretch my eyes wide and inhale deeply through my nose in attempt to focus.
Carly is standing in front of me.
How did she know I'd be here? I never brought her here.
I never bring any girls here.
I picked the most inconvenient coffee shop off campus so I could avoid accidentally running into them.
"Carly, what are you doing here?" I ask, too surprised to be filtered.
"Uh, getting coffee," she answers, holding up the cup.
"Right," I say with a slight nod, feeling like an ass.
"Do you have a second? I was hoping we could talk."
"Uh…" I hesitate.
Right now just standing is a challenge, forget about talking.
"It'll be quick.
I promise."
"Okay." I reluctantly follow her to a table that opens up in front of the large picture window.
I have no idea what I'm walking into.
I'm assuming she wants to apologize for how she ended things last night.
"I think I made a mistake," she says as I lower myself onto the chair.
"I shouldn't have broken up with you." I definitely didn't see this coming.
My stunned silence encourages her to continue.
"I guess I freaked because I'm starting to have feelings for you.
But after you left the party last night, I realized how many douche-wads there are on campus.
You're not like them.
I screwed up, and I want to give us another chance." Shit.
I am not coherent enough for this.
So I stall and take a slow sip of my coffee, looking everywhere but at the girl sitting across from me waiting for an answer.
That's when I see those same damn blue eyes from last night, staring at me from the leather sofa on the far side of the café-without the mask.
"Cal?" Carly calls to me.
"No way," I murmur, transfixed.
"What?" Carly questions, a hint of panic in her voice.
"Sorry." I recover quickly, reluctantly looking away.
"Um, I thought I saw… Never mind." I shake my head and try to focus.
She gave me an out last night.
So I'm taking it.
It's not like it would've lasted much longer anyway, especially if she wanted more from me.
I take a quick breath and say, "Yeah, no.
I can't get back together with you."
"Uh… what?" Carly's eyes narrow.
"Sorry, Carly.
I just can't." I stand and walk away before I can see her reaction.
I really should keep walking out the door.
But I don't.
Instead, I cross the café to the brown leather sofa where the unmasked girl from last night is reading with her feet propped up on the coffee table.
Then I just stand there and stare at her.
She doesn't notice me, and that's probably a good thing because I know I look like a creep hovering above her.
I have no idea what to say because I'm standing in front of Nicole Bentley.
But this girl looks… different.
She doesn't look exactly like the girl who moved into my neighborhood fifteen years ago.
So maybe she's not her.
It doesn't make sense for her to be here.
Except… those are her eyes.
"Nicole?" She doesn't look up.
I'm about to call to her again when someone brushes against my arm.
"Here you go, Nyelle," Tess says, reaching over the coffee table to hand Nicole a mug.
"Hot chocolate with two pumps of mocha and whipped cream.
How can you drink that much sugar in the morning? It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it." Then Tess looks up at me and smiles brightly.

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