What If

Page 34


"What's wrong?" She turns from me in attempt to hide her glistening eyes.
What's going on?" I have no idea what just happened.
Nyelle doesn't say anything.
Just presses her lips tight and walks to the other side of the truck.
"Did I say something wrong?" I think over everything I said, but I can't figure out what caused her to pull away from me.
"Can we get some ice cream?" Nyelle asks before slipping into the truck.
I get in and close the door.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" Nyelle shakes her head.
"I just need some ice cream."
Let's get ice cream," I concede, deciding not to push it.
"It makes everything better, right?" She releases a broken laugh.
"Exactly." I'm not sure what triggered the tears she refused to let fall, but Nyelle's back to being her vibrant, carefree self as soon as we pull into the ice cream place, like nothing ever bothered her.
I haven't figured how to get her to tell me all that she doesn't want me to know.
I like everything about Nyelle just as she is-despite the fact that I don't know why she became her.
And I'm not really sure I want to know anymore.
I'd rather just let her be exactly who she needs to be.
* * * The rest of week is over way too fast, and now I'm supposed to be flying to Oregon in the morning to spend Christmas with my family.
"Explain your family to me again," Nyelle requests, sitting next to me with a bowl of popcorn and a box of Goobers.
"Your mom is one of… six?"
"Seven," I correct.
"She's the second oldest.
The way we think of it is there's the uncles, who are two years older and younger than her.
Then the next three are the aunts, who are separated by four years and there's two years between them.
And then there's Zac.
He's the mistake."
"Cal, that's awful," she scolds.
"Well, he is.
He's eleven years younger than my aunt Helen.
He's only a year older than my brother Sean.
There was nothing expected about him."
"And it's his house you're going to tomorrow?"
It was their family vacation home when they were growing up.
But Zac lives there now.
Half of us go there, and the other half goes to my aunt Livia's in Ohio.
We switch it up every year.
There's way too many people to put under one roof."
"I'd love to be a part of a big family," she says, her eyes cast up like she can picture it.
"You can borrow mine anytime you want." Nyelle stuffs a handful of popcorn in her mouth and shakes some Goobers in on top of it.
I cringe.
"That can't taste good."
"It's the best thing next to ice cream and frosting," Nyelle claims.
"Stick out your hand." I reluctantly obey.
She places a few pieces of popcorn and a couple Goobers on my palm.
Skeptical, I dump them in my mouth.
"Hmm," I say, pleasantly surprised.
"Way better than the chocolate-drizzled Fritos.
That was disgusting." Nyelle laughs.
"You're okay with staying at Elaine's? I'll leave you the key if you feel like coming back here."
It's totally fine.
We have some things planned." She clenches her fists and her eyes light up like they do when she can barely contain her excitement.
"She has this attic of antique clothes.
I'm way overdue for a tea party."
"Those words will never come out of my mouth." Nyelle smiles.
"Yeah, you always disappeared when we picked flowers." She stuffs more popcorn in her mouth.
I'm trying not to react.
I'm trying so damn hard to let it slide.
But I can't.
"Do you remem-"
"Are you going to date Micha again? She's waiting for you to call her," Nyelle says, talking over me.
"What?" There's no way I heard her correctly.
She said she asked you to call her," Nyelle repeats.
"Didn't you break up because she thought she was going to transfer? She's not anymore.
So, are you going to call her?"
"No," I say quickly.
"I'm not… What are you doing? Why would you want me to call her?" I'm staring at Nyelle in complete disbelief.
You want me to… date her?"
"I like her," she says with a simple shrug, avoiding the shock covering my face.
I need to clear my head.
I stand up and walk to the refrigerator to get a beer.
After chugging half the can, I ask with my voice coated in anger, "You're okay if I date?"
"I'm leaving, Cal," Nyelle replies, sounding way too calm.
She's doing that thing she does when she removes all emotion from her voice.
She's pulling away.
I feel like I just got sucker punched in the gut, and I'm trying to catch my breath.
I drain the rest of the beer.
"Right," is my only response.
"Want to watch a movie?" she asks, acting completely unaffected.
"Before I eat all the popcorn?"
"Sure," I say flatly and sit back down next to her on the couch.
She's right.
She is leaving.
This, whatever this is between us, is… evidently nothing.
Tell that to whatever it is that's gutting my insides right now.
So when she lies down on the couch, resting her head on my leg, I can't handle it.
But instead of saying something to her, I shift out from under her and stand up.
"I think I'm going to pack.
My flight's pretty early." She looks at me oddly and nods .
Should I leave tonight? I can have Elaine pick me up."
"Leave whenever," I say, walking into my room and closing the door behind me.
As soon as I do, I clench my teeth.
I sounded like a dick and I know it.
I grab my duffel bag out of the closet and start shoving clothes in it, not really paying attention to what I'm selecting.
The sound of the television in the next room kills me.
She has no idea how what she said affected me.
"Cal?" Nyelle's head peeks into the room.
"Are you okay?" Okay, maybe she has some idea.
I nod, lowering my eyes.
"I called Elaine.
She's on her way." She opens the door wider to enter and picks up her backpack from the end of the bed.
I close my eyes, trying to think clearly enough to say the right thing.
"Don't go.
I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
It's okay.
She's not much of a morning person anyway." Nyelle takes the backpack and suitcase into the living room.
I drop my bag on the floor and sit on the end of the bed, running my hands through my hair, desperate to fix this.
To convince her not to leave tonight.
Just as I stand up, Nyelle steps into my room.
We look at each other for a long second.
Her eyes shift to the floor with a saddened sigh.
Then her brow creases.
"What's that?" I turn toward the closet.
There's a folded note and a rolled-up piece of craft paper on the floor.
They must have fallen out when I grabbed my duffel bag off the shelf.
Nyelle bends down to pick them up.
It hits me what she has in her hands right when she unrolls the paper.
"Nyelle, don't-" rushes out at the same time her mouth opens in a silent gasp.
Nyelle looks from the painting to me.
Her eyes flicker with confusion.
She slowly lowers herself to sit on the bed, holding the paper like it might disintegrate between her fingers.
It quivers in her grasp as she looks it over, a deep impression between her brow like she doesn't know what to think or how to react.
With a small exhale, she gently strokes her fingers over our childhood.
I watch as her fingertips brush over the girl with blond hair playing a guitar under the tree, and the girl with the blue ribbon in her hair and the boy wearing black glasses sitting in the treehouse, holding hands.
Then her trembling hand hovers above Richelle, picking flowers in the field.
When she raises her head, I'm taken aback by the pain reflecting in her eyes.
I've never seen someone hurt like this, and I don't know how to save her from it.
I'm tempted to tear the painting from her hands and shred it, to try to stop whatever it is that's making her look like she's shattering on the inside.
"Why'd you keep this?" she asks in a broken whisper, her attention back to the picture she made for me so many years ago.
"I don't know," I answer quietly.
"We had our first fight over this painting," she murmurs, her voice fading, weighed with suffering.
She picks up the letter Richelle wrote to me right before she moved away.
Nyelle closes her eyes and shakes her head, her face distorted in a tortured expression, her lips trembling and her jaw tight.
This is hurting her more than I ever could have anticipated.
And I want to make it stop.
"Nicole?" I say her name quietly.
She keeps her eyes shut without responding.
When she does open her eyes again, the emotions she's been fighting have disappeared.
The pain and confusion possessing her a moment ago have been tucked back behind the mask.
I'm too stunned by the transformation to speak.
It's like Nicole was here for a second, and now she's gone.
A buzzing comes from her pocket.
She removes the small black phone.
"Elaine's here." Nyelle sets the painting and letter on the bed, calm and devoid of emotion.
She makes a move for the door, and I step in front of her.
She refuses to look at me.
"Don't go."
"I have to," she says in a whisper, stepping around me.
I follow her into the living room, my heart pounding in full panic.
If she walks out that door now, I'm going to lose her.
She grabs her jacket and shifts her backpack over a shoulder, rolling her suitcase toward the door.
"Nicole!" She turns, propping the door open.
Her eyes are ice, staring into mine.
"I'm not her.
Not anymore." I'm stunned, frozen in the middle of the living room, watching the door click shut.
Panic pushes me forward and I reach for the door.
But I stop with the door handle in my grasp, unable to turn it.
I rest my forehead against the door, letting her walk away. RICHELLE May-Eighth Grade "So what are you going to do this summer?" I ask Nicole as she sits on the end of my bed, flipping through a magazine.
She slept over last night, like she does the last weekend of every month since I moved to San Francisco.
Her mom brings her here on the train.
Sometimes she's able to talk her mom into coming down more than once.
But that almost never happens.
"I don't know." She shrugs, not looking up.
"Are you still friends with those girls?" I ask, pulling the blanket up on my lap, still tired.
We didn't get much sleep.
We usually don't when Nicole stays over, no matter how many times we're told to go to sleep.

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