What If

Page 25


Please let tonight go okay.
My mother rushes to the door as it clicks open.
"Good evening, darling," she greets him, taking his jacket and briefcase as she does every night.
I stand in the dining room by Richelle in anticipation.
I don't look at her as I wait for him to enter.
My father is an intimidating man in his height alone.
I don't think I look like him, although people say I have his eyes.
I hope not.
When he looks at me sometimes, I feel… cold.
I don't want anyone to ever feel that way when I look at them.
"Good evening, Daddy," I greet him, waiting for him to take his seat at the end of the table before approaching and kissing him on the cheek.
"How are my girls?" he asks as he does every night, but there are no answers, because he doesn't really expect them.
My mother and I pull out our chairs and sit.
Richelle follows our lead.
I keep my eyes on my father, afraid to see Richelle's reaction.
I know this is nothing like her family dinners, and I'm so afraid of what she's thinking.
My father's attention falls on Richelle.
"So, you're Richelle," he says in his deep voice that I swear sounds like thunder.
"It's nice to have you over for dinner."
"Thank you," Richelle says.
Her words turn my head.
There isn't a hint of timidness in her voice.
She sounds just like she always does-no fear.
Her eyes connect with mine, and she smiles slightly, almost like she's trying to tell me everything's going to be okay.
Richelle reaches for her fork, but my mother subtly covers her hand to stop her.
Confusion appears on Richelle's face for a split second.
My mother reaches out to take my hand, and I place my other in my father's large, expectant hand.
I know Richelle is looking at me, or at least it feels that way, but I'm focused on my father.
"Thank you for all you do to put the food on our table, for all the hours you work to make our lives comfortable.
We are grateful for everything you do for us." My father lifts his head as my mother concludes and says, "You're welcome." I'm holding my breath.
Richelle is frozen.
I want to slink under the table.
I wish I could erase the stunned look on her face.
I didn't realize just how different my family dinners were until recently, after eating over at Richelle's and Cal's houses.
We wait for my father to fill his plate before serving ourselves.
"Nicole," he says.
My chest can't pull in air.
I had hoped he wouldn't talk about it tonight.
Not in front of Richelle.
"Yes, Daddy," I say, connecting with the icy blue eyes that send a chill down my spine.
"What happened with your history exam? An eighty-nine? That's not acceptable." The chicken in my mouth is tasteless.
"I tried my best," I answer.
"You didn't," he responds.
His voice has no indication of just how disappointed he is in me.
It's never his voice.
It's always his eyes.
And I'm too afraid to look into them now.
"I got an eighty-two," Richelle announces, like she's proud.
"It was a really hard test.
I mean, I think the highest grade was a ninety-one." My father is silent.
I can't swallow.
"Interesting," my father says.
Now he knows that I wasn't the best.
Disappointing my father is the last thing I ever want to do.
The rest of the meal is eaten in the most awful silence.
I stare at my plate, afraid to face the eyes looking at me, because I know they all are.
"Would you mind if Nicole comes over to my house for a little bit after dinner?" Richelle asks.
"I need… help with math.
And she's the best in our class." I glance at her real quick and she grins.
We're not in the same math class.
I'm in the highest level class, and Richelle hates math.
"For just a short time," my father agrees.
"She has to study for history tonight."
"Great!" Richelle exclaims.
My mother's fork scrapes her plate.
"I mean… thank you." After my father withdraws into his office, we're allowed to leave the table.
We bring our plates into the kitchen.
"You girls go ahead over to Richelle's," my mother tells us in her fake, sweet voice.
I know she wants tonight to be over as much as I do.
"Are you sure, Mama?" I ask, feeling guilty leaving her with the mess.
Come back in twenty minutes," she tells me.
"Then go straight to your room to study, okay?" I nod.
Richelle grabs my hand, practically dragging me to the door.
She picks up our jackets but doesn't even give us time to put them on.
"Richelle…" But we're out the front door and cutting between the small evergreens before I can finish my thought.
"Mom! I'm back," Richelle yells as she opens the door.
"How was-" Mrs.
Nelson begins, looking up from the computer on her lap.
Her eyes widen.
"Yup," Richelle responds, continuing to drag me through the house and into the kitchen.
"Hi, Nicole," Mrs.
Nelson calls to me as we rush by her.
"Um… hi, Mrs.
Nelson," I reply over my shoulder.
Richelle drops our jackets on a chair at the kitchen table, opens the freezer, and pulls out a tub of chocolate ice cream with marshmallow swirl .
Just eat it," Richelle demands with all seriousness, removing a spoon from the drawer and thrusting both at me.
I take the ice cream and the spoon, not knowing what she expects me to do.
"Go ahead," she encourages.
"Take a bite." I've never eaten straight out of the carton before.
She stares at me in anticipation.
I scrape the spoon over the surface and put it in my mouth.
I close my eyes with a sigh, letting the sweetness melt over my tongue.
I take another spoonful.
Richelle joins me and we eat in silence for a moment.
"Better?" I nod.
"Ice cream makes everything better.
Even dinner with your father."
Chapter Eleven
"She never went to Harvard," Rae says over the phone.
I'm walking across campus, running late again because I waited for Nyelle too long at Bean Buzz, like I've done for the last three days.
Three days.
And I haven't seen her.
Considering I want to see her every day, if feels like three months.
I don't think I'll ever get used to this.
"What do you mean?" I ask, narrowly dodging a girl who cuts in front of me, texting.
"Well, I did something I never do and actually talked to people.
I started to ask around about her.
I found out from Nina and Courtney that Nicole never enrolled last year."
"How do they know?"
"They go to Boston University, and when they went to visit last year, they convinced a guy who works in housing to look her up.
He told them that she was never assigned a dorm.
Freshmen stay on campus, so…"
"She said she was traveling.
Maybe she was," I say, trying to find a path of logic in all of this.
"Or she was locked up in a padded room in some hospital."
"Rae," I say sternly, wanting her to stop questioning Nyelle's sanity.
"I'm just sayin'," she defends.
"Cal, I like her, remember? I don't want her to be crazy.
I just haven't ruled it out yet."
"Cal!" I stop short, about to slam into the petite brunette standing in front of me.
"Uh, Rae, I have to call you back." I hang up without waiting for a response.
I need to get this over with or else I'll be late… again.
"Uh, hey, Jade.
How are you?"
"I thought you were going to text me when you got back," she says, trying to sound casual, but there's nothing casual about the accusation.
"Oh, yeah, uh… I've had a busy week," I say, willing a way out of this.
"So, are we going out this weekend?" Her eyes flutter in expectation.
"Sure," I blurt without thinking.
I shouldn't have said that.
Now I'm stuck.
"How about… Friday night?"
I'm in Fredericks Dorm.
Text me what time, okay?"
"Okay, I will," I reply.
"I'm late for class.
I'll see you Friday." She reaches up, expecting a hug that I return awkwardly.
"I can't wait," she whispers in my ear before releasing me and continuing on her way.
That's not how that was supposed to go.
* * * Jade reaches for my hand in the dark.
I unwillingly wrap my fingers around hers.
My back stiffens when she leans her head against my shoulder.
I shouldn't be here with Jade.
She's not the one whose hand I want to be holding, or whose head I want on my arm.
But because I was put on the spot and didn't have the balls to reject her to her face, I'm sitting with her in a crowded movie theater-and the rolling credits can't come soon enough.
Jade wasn't impressed when she found out we were going to the movies.
It's the worst possible place for a first date.
There's no talking.
No chance for intimacy.
No interest in getting to know each other.
I'm hoping it's a dead giveaway that this won't go beyond tonight.
But this girl is determined to make the most of it, or… can't take a hint.
I silently groan when she runs a thumb over my hand.
My phone vibrates in my pocket and I shoot out of my seat.
Jade pops her head up in surprise.
"Everything okay?"
"Sorry, I've got to take this," I blurt, without knowing who's calling.
Her eyes widen and I hear some guy demanding I sit down.
I instantly feel like an ass**le.
"I'll be right back." I start up the aisle, checking my screen to see who I should be thanking for interrupting my date.
My stomach drops.
She swore she'd never use the phone.
Assuming the worst, I answer before I'm through the doors to the lobby.
"Cal!" she yells way too loudly on the other end of the phone.
"I got in a fight.
You should have seen it.
I punched him!" She laughs hysterically.
She's drunk.
"You punched someone? Are you okay?" I'm standing in the middle of the lobby.
A little kid bumps into my legs, spilling popcorn on my shoes.
There's silence.
"Nyelle? Can you hear me?" I head for the doors.
There's a heavy breath.
"Um… I don't know if I'm okay." Her voice is suddenly so somber, I falter in my steps.
"Cal, can you come get me?"
"Yeah," I answer automatically, practically at my truck.
"Where are you?"
"I don't know," she answers quietly.
"I'm sitting in a tree.

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