What If

Page 26


I'm sitting in the frosting tree." I think for a moment, trying to recall exactly where that is.
I'll be right there.
Wait for me, okay?"
"I tried to forget, Cal," Nyelle says barely audibly.
"I really wanted to forget." I don't know what she's talking about, but I can feel her slipping away.
I need to get to her.
"I know.
Stay on the phone with me, okay?" I can't dig the keys out of my jeans pocket fast enough.
"I wanted to leave tonight," she says quietly.
"I didn't really care where.
I just wanted to… go away.
Disappear." Her voice drifts away, like she's lost in her head.
And my nerves are shot, knowing I'm nowhere near her yet.
I turn on the engine and back out of the space in practically the same motion.
I have the phone tucked under my chin as I shift into first.
"What made you stay?" I ask, not sure if that was the right question to ask.
But at this point, my only concern is to keep her talking.
"You," she answers.
It isn't the answer I expect, but it's the one I wanted to hear.
There's a brief silence between us as I pull onto the road, heading toward campus.
"I promised not to leave yet."
"And I don't want you to leave yet," I respond with the faintest smile.
I turn down a road leading toward the park, where I hope to find the tree Nyelle is sitting in.
"You should tell Rae I'm on the drug phone!" Nyelle says with a sudden burst of laughter.
"Yeah, I'll tell her," I reply, the sudden mood change taking me by surprise.
"I'm glad you used it to call me.
Now tell me about this fight.
What happened?" Nyelle breaks out into another fit of laughter, edged with hysteria.
It makes me nervous.
The laughter stops abruptly and then she's yelling into the phone, "Because I want to, so f**k off!"
"Nyelle? What's going on?" I ask, concerned by the hostility in her voice.
I hear a man yelling back in the distance, but I can't make out what he's saying.
"I'd like to see you try, f**ker!" Nyelle hollers and laughs.
"Yeah, I'm still here." I make a rolling stop at an intersection, estimating I'm another five minutes away.
"Everything all right?"
"Just people giving me shit," she responds.
"Like they've never seen someone in a tree before.
Stupid." I can imagine her rolling her eyes.
"What were we talking about?"
"What you were up to tonight.
Where were you-"
"Cal!" Nyelle yells suddenly.
I almost slam on the brakes, thinking she's about to fall out of the tree.
"Cal! I see your truck!" I sink against the seat in relief.
"God, Nyelle.
I thought… Where are you?"
"Can't you see me waving to you?!" I pull the truck along the curb.
"Don't wave.
Hold on to the branch.
I don't want to take you to the emergency room." I jump out of the truck, searching the stark branches of the tree in front of me.
I spot her within the shadows near the top, her arm frantically pumping.
"I see you." I prepare myself for a moment before I say, "I'm comin' up." I end the call, stuff the cell phone in my pocket, and take in the obstacle course of branches before me.
It was easier before when all I had to do was follow her up.
I stick my foot in the V of the trunk and grab ahold of the lowest branch to pull myself up.
"Cal!" Nyelle yells down to me.
"You're here!"
"Yup, I am," I grunt, maneuvering through the thicket of tiny branches that snag my sweater.
I test out another branch that I hope will hold my weight and continue to climb.
When I step onto the final branch, Nyelle throws her arms around my neck, almost knocking me backward.
"I can't believe you're here!" And if my heart wasn't already racing, it is now.
I let go with one hand and gently pat her on the back.
"Yeah, I'm here." I sit on the branch across from her.
"How are you? Are you okay?" Nyelle smiles lazily, her eyes glassy.
"I'm great.
Let's talk.
Cal, we're in our tree!" Wow, she's more intoxicated than I thought.
"We can talk for a minute.
Just don't let go, okay?"
"Okay," Nyelle agrees with an overexaggerated thrust of her head.
"Where were you tonight? Where's your jacket?"
"I was… Oh shit." I grind my teeth together.
"What?" I close my eyes with a groan.
"I left her."
"Who? Wait.
You were on a date?" Nyelle smiles, then chuckles, which leads to a full-on laugh.
She reminds me of Rae when I'm forced to hang up the phone on her.
But I can't hang up on Nyelle, so I wait it out.
"You left your date for me?! Oh, Cal.
I'm sorry.
I suck."
"No, it's okay," I tell her.
"You're worth it.
But we should probably go get her since she's stranded." I sigh, not looking forward to what's about to happen.
"She's going to be pissed."
"What's her name?" Nyelle asks.
"Is she a stripper?" Nyelle laughs.
"No, she's not a stripper," I say with a grin.
"But she's not her, is she? Your what if girl?"
"No, she's not," I answer simply.
"Not even close."
"Then why are you on a date with her?"
"Because I didn't say no." The truth of that is pathetic .
I know this.
"That's a problem for you, isn't it?" Nyelle teases.
I shrug.
She laughs.
"Well, you should probably go get her.
I can walk back to the dorm." Nyelle begins weaving down through the branches effortlessly, never second-guessing her footing, even in her drunkenness.
What's with this girl and climbing things? "No, I want to hear about your night.
Come with me?" I don't want to leave her alone.
I'm still concerned about how she sounded when she first called me.
Nothing about this feels right.
Besides, this is the first time all week I've seen her.
So I'm not letting her disappear again.
Not tonight anyway.
Nyelle pauses on a branch and tips her head back to look at me.
"Okay." She eventually hops down from the last branch and waits for me to catch up.
"So how did you meet Jade?" Nyelle asks, linking her arm through mine and collapsing against me as I support her to my truck.
How was she able to navigate the tree without killing herself? "At the party you never showed up at," I tell her.
She releases a quick laugh.
"Guess I should've shown up," she says, still smiling.
I smile back.
"So, tell me about this fight.
Where were you?" I ask, opening the passenger door to allow Nyelle to crawl inside.
"At a bar," she answers, scooting all the way to the middle and putting one leg on either side of the stick shift.
"You're twenty-one?"
"Cal! You know how old I am," she says with a shake of her head.
I close the door and pause before walking around the truck, trying to decide if I should take advantage of her drunkenness and ask her whatever I want.
But is this the way I want to find out? Just as I'm opening my door, my phone vibrates.
I look at the screen.
"Shit," I mutter before answering.
So sorry.
I'm on my way back.
It was a…" I look at Nyelle, leaning against the back of the seat, grinning at me with her head lolled to the side.
"It was important." She smiles wider.
"I'll be there in ten minutes." I hang up without allowing Jade to say a word.
I don't need to hear what she has to say.
It doesn't really matter.
I'm looking at the only girl who does.
And she's about to pass out before I can find out what happened to her tonight.
"Nyelle," I coax, climbing in and starting the truck.
"What were you doing in a bar?"
C'mon, Cal." She laughs and shoves my arm clumsily.
"What else would I be doing in a bar?"
"They didn't card you?"
I think they were just happy to have customers." Her head flops to rest against my shoulder, her eyes half open.
"Who did you get in a fight with?"
"Some huuuge guy," she says with a yawn.
"He grabbed my ass, so I punched his face."
"You… punched him in the face?" I'm trying not to laugh, because I can actually picture it in my head and I'm wishing I was there to see it.
I've never punched anyone, but my brothers have been in enough fights that I know it can hurt like hell.
"How's your hand feel?" I try to get a look at it, but it's concealed by the cutoff knit glove.
"I can't feel it," she mutters, her eyes sliding shut.
"But he never saw me coming," she says in a rush of air, like it's taking all of her energy to talk.
Her weight settles into my side, and I can feel her fall asleep.
"I bet," I say with a quiet laugh, glancing down at her face squished against my arm.
I never saw her coming either.
When I pull up in front of the movie theater, Jade is on the curb with her arms crossed, holding my jacket.
And she is pissed.
She opens the passenger door and stops, staring with her mouth open.
"Omigod, seriously?! This was your emergency?" She gets in the truck, tossing my jacket on the floor.
"This is why you left in the middle of our date? For a girl? Why didn't you tell me you were seeing someone?" I pull out of the parking lot, trying to think of the fastest route to her dorm.
"I'm not." She eyes Nyelle like she wants to shove her out of the moving truck.
Then why didn't you just say you didn't want to go on a date with me? I mean, the movies, really? What are we… in middle school?"
"I should have.
I'm sorry." I can't look at her, but I can feel her eyes burning into me.
Nyelle's hand grips my leg, and I cringe.
She's listening.
This night can be over anytime now.
"Are you kidding me? You didn't want to go out with me? Omigod.
This is the worst ever," Jade snaps.
I risk a glance in her direction.
She's seated with her arms tightly crossed and her body shifted against the passenger door.
I pull up in front of her dorm a couple minutes later, and Jade jumps out of the truck before it's come to a complete stop, slamming the door behind her.
Without opening her eyes, Nyelle maneuvers her body so her legs are curled up on the seat, with her head resting on my leg.
"She was grumpy," she mumbles, tucking her hands under my thigh.
I release a breath, looking down at her dark brown hair hanging in front of her face.

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