What If

Page 3


"Hey, Cal."
"Uh, hi," I reply, completely confused.
I glance from Tess to Nicole and back again.
"Um, you're Nyelle?" Maybe I'm still drunk.
Nicole smiles gently.
Nyelle Preston." She reaches out her hand.
"Sorry I was a bitch to you last night." She's looking right at me, waiting for me to take her hand, which is covered by a knit glove with the fingers cut off.
There isn't a single hint of recognition on her face.
"I was a little drunk and wasn't having the best night."
"Yeah, uh, no problem," I say slowly, reaching over and taking her thin hand in mine.
"Nice to meet you." I'm convinced I'm either sleeping, drunk, or in some f**ked-up episode of The Twilight Zone.
I swear I'm staring at the face of Nicole Bentley, the girl I spent way too many hours of my life thinking about.
But she's looking at me like she has no idea who I am.
It's freaking me out.
"I'm sorry, but don't I know-"
"You're such a f**ker! You should have told me there was someone else.
I can't believe I begged you to take me back!" I turn just as Carly thrusts her coffee cup in my direction.
I bow away, but it's too late.
My body clenches in pain as the hot liquid collides with my chest.
Stunned, I watch Carly's blond curls bounce out the door.
Sucking in through clenched teeth, I pull the soaked T-shirt away from my skin.
"Omigod," Tess gasps.
She grabs napkins from the coffee table and begins to frantically blot my shirt.
"Why would she do that? Are you okay?" Mel appears in front of me and hands me a fistful of napkins.
"Do you need anything?"
"My dignity," I mutter.
Nicole laughs.
I'm suddenly wishing I was still passed out on Eric's couch.
"I look like an idiot, don't I?" Nicole smiles.
"Well… kinda.
But she looked like a psycho.
So she wins." Just shoot me already.
"Oh, Cal, I can't believe she did that.
Who was she?"
"An ex," I grumble, taking the napkins from Tess.
"Thanks for your help.
But I'm going to go." I can feel every pair of eyes on me, including the ones that kept me from taking that exit I should've made earlier.
"I'll see you later." I dump the napkins in the trash before I walk out the door.
I look over my shoulder to find the girl who looks like Nicole Bentley still watching me. NICOLE June-Before Fourth Grade I watch the houses go by out the window, wondering when we're going to stop and which one will be ours.
I'm nervous.
I'm not going to know anyone.
What if they don't like me? I flatten the skirt of my yellow dress, trying not to think about it.
Mom says that they'll like me, so I have to believe her because I really want them to.
I had two friends in our old town.
Our moms would visit each other, so it was easy to be friends.
They liked to play with dolls and make believe like I do.
They were my friends at school too.
"Well, here we are," my daddy announces, turning onto the street.
I see the big moving truck in front of a sunshine-yellow house.
It matches my dress, which makes me smile.
"Who's that?" my mom asks, watching a girl with brown hair run toward the car.
"She probably lives next door," my daddy says.
She has on blue polka dot shorts and a white T-shirt.
Her hair is in a ponytail that swings behind her head as she hurries toward us.
"She's very… forward, isn't she?" my mother says, opening the car door.
The girl is standing by the car, breathing fast like she just ran a race.
I can't take my eyes off of her.
I slowly unbuckle my seat belt and open the door.
I'm Richelle.
I live next door in the blue house," she announces without the tiniest bit of fear.
My mouth pops open because she may be the bravest girl I've ever seen.
"Hi, Richelle.
I'm Mrs.
Bentley." My mother reaches back to urge me forward.
I take a slow step and grab my mom's hand, standing close beside her.
"And this is my daughter, Nicole."
"Hi," Richelle says to me with a wave.
Her eyes are big and brown, and she smiles like she's excited to see me.
"Do you want to play?" I look up at my mom, not sure what to do.
I wasn't ready for this.
I know just a few minutes ago I was scared that I wouldn't make friends.
But now I'm not sure I'm ready to leave my parents.
"That's very nice of you, Richelle," my mom says, "but we have a lot of unpacking to do.
Maybe tomorrow would be better.
You're welcome to come by then." Richelle switches her eyes from me to my mom.
She's still waiting for me to answer, but I never say a word.
"Okay," she finally says.
"Bye, Nicole.
See you tomorrow!" Just as I turn toward the house, I notice a boy and a girl across the street on the sidewalk, watching the whole thing.
The boy has brown hair and is wearing black glasses.
And the girl has blond hair that's in a messy braid.
She narrows her eyes at me like she's trying to decide what kind of animal I am or something.
I turn away quickly and walk with my mom into the house, not letting go of her hand until we're safely inside.
Chapter Two
"Wha-tha-no…" Rae is laughing so hard she can't form a single word.
I yank my shirt over my head and wait impatiently for her to calm down .
"Rae, focus," I demand, examining the red blotches on my chest.
"You really picked a good one this time," Rae says, still laughing.
I wish I could've seen that."
"Great," I grumble.
"But that's not the point.
Nicole Bentley is here, at Crenshaw."
"And now I think you're delusional," she says, slowly sobering from her fit of laughter.
"Nicole got into Harvard.
Unless she flunked out, which we know she'd never do, she wouldn't choose Crenshaw… ever.
It's in the middle-of-nowhere upstate New York.
There's no way she'd be there."
"Then she was separated at birth from her identical twin, because I swear to you, I saw her.
Besides, do we know she's really at Harvard? No one's seen or heard from her since graduation."
"I know she got in.
I saw her acceptance letter, along with everyone in the entire school.
She wouldn't shut up about it." She sighs heavily.
"It can't be Nicole.
And I'll tell you the same thing when I come visit you next month.
I think you've convinced yourself that this girl, who looks kinda like Nicole, is her.
And it better not snow this time.
I can't deal with the snow."
You'll see when you get here." I realize there's no use in trying to convince her.
"Cal, did you even ask her if she's Nicole?" Rae asks.
"Uh… I tried," I reply slowly.
"We were interrupted by the coffee, remember?" This sets Rae off in hysterics again.
I hang up on her.
I toss the phone on my bed and walk into the bathroom to dig around in the cabinet for a tube of ointment that claims to be for burns.
I have no idea how old it is since it was here before we moved in, but I'm hoping it'll help.
I gently dab the clear gel on my tender skin.
Returning to my room, I sit on the edge of my bed and run my hands over my face, trying to picture the girl in the coffee shop again.
There's definitely something different about her.
Her face looks like Nicole, but… not.
Nicole Bentley was always flawlessly put together, like she'd just stepped out of a magazine.
The girl calling herself Nyelle doesn't seem to care what she looks like, wearing her brown hair wavy, like she's just stepped out of a shower and let it do whatever it wanted-a sexy mess.
Nicole is a perfectly wrapped present tied in a nice neat bow.
And Nyelle is wrapping paper strewn across the floor on Christmas morning.
Maybe Nyelle isn't Nicole.
I try to compare them again, putting them side by side in my head.
But it's hard, because I haven't seen Nicole since graduation.
I still can't remember what happened that night.
I was drunk… Okay, I was wasted.
But I know I heard her screaming at her parents inside their house.
"You can't make it go away by pretending nothing happened.
Because then you might as well erase me too, Daddy." What the hell happened that night? And what would've happened if I hadn't walked away? * * * I don't see Nicole-or Nyelle, or whoever she is-the next day.
Or the day after.
But I do have a couple of close calls with Carly at Bean Buzz.
As I pull up to the coffee shop on Wednesday morning, I wonder if I'm pushing my luck.
She's left a couple ranting voice mails on my phone.
I deleted them after listening to the first ten seconds.
She's crazy.
And I don't do crazy.
The girls I usually date are the nice girls.
The kind guys take home to meet their mothers.
Except I don't stay with them long enough for it to get that serious.
Just as I approach the large picture window with Bean Buzz arched across it in large white font, I notice Carly's curly blond hair inside.
I slam my back up against the building, hoping she didn't see me.
I do not want to deal with an overly emotional girl this morning.
I tentatively look back up.
Carly's staring out the glass.
I quickly press my head back against the brick.
"Shit." I remain flattened against the building, trying to decide my next move.
There's always a chance she's not waiting for me.
I glance up as she cups her hands on the glass, scouring the sidewalk.
Yeah, I doubt it.
"Who are we hiding from?" I turn with a start.
Nicole is leaning against the chipped brick, with a dark brown knit cap pulled low on her brow.
Her hair is sticking out from under it, flowing over the shoulders of a thick navy blue sweater.
Her nose is red from the cold, and clouds of air pass through her lips as she grins up at me.
Despite the differences, I still see Nicole looking back at me.
"Is Psycho looking for you or something?"
"Uh, it appears that way," I fumble, looking away when I feel like I've been staring at her too long.
"I guess she's still pretty pissed." She peeks up and laughs when she finds Carly posted in front of the window.
"What did you do to her?"
"She broke up with me, and I wouldn't take her back."
"Are you sure you didn't run over her cat too?" Nicole snickers.
"Probably should've.
I hate that cat," I mutter.
She smiles bigger.
I'm going to be late for class." I check the time on my phone.
"Forget it.
I can't keep standing out here hoping she'll leave.

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