"I have no idea," I mutter.
"Maybe we shouldn't…" Too late.
We're standing in front of her, and she's looking at us curiously like she's trying to place us.
I want to turn around, and Rae must sense it because she grabs ahold of my elbow, digging her fingers in.
Bentley," Rae says with a charming smile.
Bentley's eyes twitch, probably trying to decide if she should run away or return the greeting.
"It's me, Raelyn Timmons.
I live on your street.
I was friends with Nicole growing up." Mrs.
Bentley's eyes widen in recognition.
She smiles sweetly.
My, you've had a little makeover.
I barely recognized you." She laughs uncomfortably.
"Yeah, it's a phase I'm going through," Rae replies in a mumble, squeezing my arm a little tighter.
I press my lips together to keep from smiling.
"And you're…" She looks to me, trying to come up with my name.
Bentley says in a surprised tone.
"Well, you've both changed so much over the years."
"I haven't seen Nicole around in a while.
Is she home for Thanksgiving?" Rae asks.
The corners of Mrs.
Bentley's smile tighten ever so slightly.
She's staying in Cambridge with friends for the holiday.
She has a lot of work to do at Harvard.
But we're hoping she'll make it home for Christmas."
"So how is she liking Harvard?" Rae continues with the questions.
I'm studying Mrs.
She maintains the plastic smile that's she's perfected over the years.
Now I know why Nyelle can fake it so well.
"It's kept her very busy, and unfortunately, away from home.
But I know she's doing what she needs to do to make something of herself," she answers stiffly.
"Have you been to see her? Like… in person?" Rae fires as soon as she's done answering.
I want to elbow her to shut it, fearing she's crossing the line.
Bentley eyes us curiously.
Her father and I visited during parents' weekend.
She's getting along quite nicely." Her frozen expression never falters.
"Well, it was lovely to see you two.
I have to hurry home to start prepping for tomorrow.
We're hosting the family this year, and my house is nowhere near ready."
"When is she-"
"Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs.
Bentley." I cut Rae off and smile politely as Nicole's mom pushes her grocery cart past us.
"What are you doing?" I demand, pulling my arm out of Rae's claws.
"You might as well have just called her a liar."
"But she is lying! She thinks she's hiding it with that stupid Barbie smile," Rae grumbles in annoyance.
"Her daughter's at Crenshaw.
She has to know you're at Crenshaw from talking to your mother.
She wouldn't have tried to pull all that Harvard shit with us if she knows where her daughter is."
"So you think they're covering something up?" I ask, continuing toward the bakery.
Rae stops in the aisle, making irritated shoppers walk around us, her face distorted in anger.
Something's not right, Cal." I exhale slowly.
Things just got way more complicated.
* * * Sitting around the mile-long Thanksgiving table, filled with my family, I'm caught up in the buzz of voices, laughter, and bickering-like every holiday in my house.
Across the table, my ten-year-old cousin, Tommy, is daring our eight-year-old cousin, Henry, to eat the mashed potatoes without hands.
Just as Henry bends down to shove his face into the whipped pile, I hear, "Henry David, don't you dare!" The voice rises above the noise from the other end of the table before he's even done anything.
I let out a short laugh and lean back in my chair, soaking in the chaos.
It's comforting in a weird way.
The holidays wouldn't be the same without it.
I wonder what Nyelle's doing right now.
"What are you thinking about?" Rae asks from beside me, unplugging an earbud from her ear.
She claims that listening to music, instead of my younger cousins, keeps her from stabbing someone.
Her family has become an extension of ours over the years.
Although her mother usually has to leave early, preferring the double time of a holiday shift over our Thanksgiving madness.
"My family's insane," I tell her.
"But I couldn't imagine not having this every year," I continue.
"So… what is she doing right now? We know she's not with her family.
So she's probably at Crenshaw… alone."
I was just thinking that," Rae says quietly.
We pick at our food without another word, the weight of that probability robbing us of our appetites.
My mother's loading the dishwasher when I enter with my plate and Rae's.
"Thank you, Cal," she says as she takes them and sets them in open slots.
"Would you mind covering those bowls in plastic wrap and putting them in the fridge?" I take a deep breath to gather my nerve before saying, "Mom, I'd like to get back to school a little early."
"What do you consider early? You're only here for the weekend." I swallow.
"Tomorrow." My mother rolls the rack into the dishwasher.
"Why do you need to go back so suddenly?" I expected her to question me, and it's the reason I hesitated to ask
But then I think of Nyelle by herself and… I can't stay here.
I scan the kitchen floor, not wanting to lie.
I hate lying to my mother, but I can't tell her the entire truth just yet.
"There's a friend there I'm worried about."
"In what way?" she asks, leaning against the counter with her arms crossed, focusing on me.
"Ready for dessert?" my aunt asks, walking into the kitchen with the last of the serving bowls.
"Not quite yet," my mother responds politely.
"I'll call you once we've finished in here, and we'll get the coffee brewing." Mary looks between us and nods, leaving us alone again.
"Why are you concerned about this friend?" my mother pursues.
"She stayed on campus for the break, so she's alone today, and… I don't think she should be," I answer as honestly as I can.
"Ah." My mother nods.
"This friend's a girl." I avoid her assuming gaze.
"Now I understand." After a moment of consideration, she says, "Okay.
I guess you can go back tomorrow.
You'll be back here in less than a month, so I can't be too upset that you're choosing a girl over your mother.
Go ahead and change your flight." She smiles teasingly.
"Thanks, Mom," I reply with a small smile.
"You know you're the only woman in my life who matters."
"Yeah, right." She laughs lightly, swatting me with the dish towel.
* * * "I've been trying to find a way to make fun of you for doing this," Rae says as she pulls up along the curb at the airport.
"But I can't.
I like that you're going back to be with her."
"But I'm not sure where to find her when I get back."
"Start with the first place you saw her," Rae suggests.
When she sees I'm confused, she says, "Bean Buzz.
Not the party."
"Right." I nod.
"Here." Rae reaches in the backseat for a small bag from RadioShack.
I take it from her and look inside.
"It's a drug phone… for Nyelle, one of those disposable ones like they use in the movies.
We need to be able to get ahold of her."
"I think they call them burner phones, but whatever," I say with a laugh.
"How did you buy this anyway? I mean, you don't exactly have a job other than being your brother's parole officer."
"Yeah, well, I didn't pay for it.
You did," she replies.
"I stole money from your wallet while we were at Brady's last night and went out to buy it this morning at the ass-crack of dawn with all of the Black Friday lunatics." I laugh.
"I didn't know you had it in you."
"Me either," she admits with a smirk.
"I don't know what the hell's going on, or what happened to make her act like she doesn't know who we are, but she shouldn't have to go through it by herself.
Oh, and I went on Brady's Facebook account last night.
Nicole hasn't posted anything since graduation."
"Really?" I can't ignore the bad feeling in my gut.
"Since graduation?" RICHELLE April-Fifth Grade "You have to come see this," I say, excited to show Nicole what we found.
"I'm supposed to leave in a little bit to go to a dinner for my dad," she replies, frowning.
"But they're baby birds in a nest," I explain urgently.
"We can see it from the window of the tree house.
They're so cute." I look at the frilly yellow dress and white shoes she's wearing and know that she really can't come see it.
"Maybe… tomorrow." Nicole runs her hands down the front of her dress, straightening it like she does all the time.
"Well… maybe if I'm careful." She opens her front door and hollers to her mom, "Mama, can I go with Richelle? She wants to show me something and then I'll be right back." Mrs.
Bentley comes to the door.
"I don't know, Nicole.
We have to leave in twenty minutes.
We can't be late for your daddy's dinner."
I promise it will be real quick." Mrs.
Bentley presses her lips together and finally says, "Okay.
Ten minutes, and then I expect you to be right here, ready to go." Nicole smiles brightly.
I hold out my hand for her to take and we skip off toward Cal's house.
"It won't take long," I assure her as we walk through the tall grass.
She parts the blades and steps likes she's balancing on a tightrope.
"Grass won't get you dirty, Nicole."
"But my shoes," she explains, continuing to tiptoe.
If she keeps this up, it's going to take us ten minutes just to get there.
I wait for her at the edge of the woods, trying my hardest to be patient.
When we finally get to the tree, I'm pretty sure our time is up.
But Nicole doesn't seem worried about anything except the dirt touching her shoes.
She's walking like she's trying not to touch the ground at all.
Rae and Cal stick their heads out the door and the side window.
"We just saw the mom feed them.
They ate out of her mouth.
It was so gross and awesome!" Rae yells down.
Nicole waits for me to go first, probably because she has a dress on.
When I get to the top, she's barely halfway up the ladder.
I shake my head, watching her take careful steps on the boards.