What If


Page 4


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This is stupid.
I guess I'll go without."
"What?! That's just crazy talk," Nicole says.
"If I tell the girl at the counter 'Cal's usual-'"
"Mel," I interrupt.
"Mel will know what that is, right?" I nod.
"Okay.
Wait here," she instructs.
"I'll be right back." I don't wait in that exact spot.
I mean, I feel like an idiot crushed up against the building, hiding from an ex who barely comes up to my shoulders.
So I pace back and forth in the alley next to the coffee shop.
I keep expecting Carly to whip around the corner.
I'm being paranoid.
I know this.
And I'm not proud.
I start thinking again about how much this girl looks like Nicole, except she acts nothing like her.
Nicole never said a word to anyone outside of the elites when we were in high school.
And Nyelle has no issue voicing her opinion.
These girls are too different to be the same.
Unless… something happened to Nicole.
Maybe she was in an accident.
Or hell, perhaps she really was separated at birth.
"Here you go." I spin around quickly, startling Nic-Nyelle.
Shit.
Now I'm getting confused.
"Geez, Cal.
Relax.
I'm unarmed." Then she looks down at the cup of coffee and laughs.
"Well, sorta."
"Thanks," I mumble.
She's making fun of me.
Great.
Nyelle smirks and hands me my cup with a napkin folded on the side.
"Mel asked me to give this to you," she says, before blowing on her hot chocolate.
I unfold the napkin to read, Dignity will not be found in the alley.
Nyelle laughs when I crumple the napkin and glare at the brick wall in offense.
Thanks, Mel.
"Did you read it?"
"Of course," she admits without hesitation.
"If I'm going to be passing a note in the alley, I want to know what it says." Her continued amusement isn't helping with the whole dignity thing.
"I'm going to be late.
Thanks for getting my coffee." I start past her, then pause.
"Do you need a ride anywhere?"
"Nope.
I like to walk."
"We're pretty far from campus."
"I know," she replies, walking with me to my truck.
As I open the door, she asks again, "Are you sure you didn't do anything to her?"
"I swear," I answer, then add after a moment of thought, "I guess I wasn't who she wanted me to be."
"Are we ever?" Nyelle smiles weakly and continues walking down the sidewalk, taking small sips from her cup without looking back.
I watch until she turns the corner, with her last comment stuck in my head.
* * * Over the past week, I've looked for Nyelle everywhere without bumping into her once.
We have a pretty large campus, so it's easy enough to avoid someone.
I know.
I've mastered it over the past year.
But if you look hard enough, you usually find the person you're searching for eventually.
I've even run into Tess a couple of times, but Nyelle's never with her.
"Not hiding in alleys anymore?" I hear beside me as I'm waiting in line for my coffee.
I turn my head to find the girl I've been looking for.
"Hey.
Uh… yeah, I haven't seen her in a while, so I figured it was safe to come back inside." Carly left a voice message and a few drunken texts over the weekend, but she seems to have given up.
I step up in line as Nyelle waits for her order at the end of the counter.
"Good morning, Mel."
"Cal." She greets me in her monotone voice like she does every morning.
She hands me my cup with my name written on it while swiping my card.
"Thanks," I say and walk away.
I'm trying to come up with any excuse to talk to Nyelle, so I say the first dumb thing that comes to mind.
"Haven't seen you this past week."
"I've been… around," she answers evasively.
"Hey!" She eyes the cup in my hand.
"How do you have your order already?"
"I guess because I get the same thing every morning," I answer with a shrug.
Her order is called out and she takes the cup that's handed to her.
I walk beside her toward the door, stealing glances at her like maybe I can figure her out if I look hard enough.
Her dark brown hair is tossed on top of her head, sticking out of a messy bun.
There isn't a trace of makeup on her.
And she's wearing a sweater that's too large for her, hanging low over her h*ps and sliding off her shoulder, exposing the thick strap of a tank top.
She's cut holes for her thumbs to stick through since the sleeves practically cover her fingers.
Her jeans are faded and torn, and her brown boots are scuffed and broken in.
Despite the lack of effort, she's still unmistakably gorgeous, like Nicole, without actually being anything like her.
I don't get it.
"What?" she asks, catching me looking her over.
"You look so much like…" I stop.
I can't bring myself to say it.
What if she really is Nicole? Then that would mean she's lying.
And why would she do that? Unless… she's got something to hide.
Or she has no idea who she is.
"Who?" Nyelle asks as I hold the door open for her.
I hesitate again.
If I call her out on being Nicole, there's a chance I may never see her again.
And I just got her back, well… sort of .
"No one," I recover quickly as she walks past me.
"Forget it." I bump into someone as I exit.
I look down to find Carly.
Before I realize what's happening, a stinging slap lands across my cheek.
"Holy hell, Carly! What was that for?!"
"You are just like the rest of them.
I can't believe I was so stupid." I've had enough.
She's been making my life miserable for the past week, and this time, I know I didn't deserve it.
So as she's about to turn away, I raise my voice.
"You ended things, Carly.
You did, so you could hook up with another guy.
So just… leave me alone!" Carly's eyes grow wide with shock, and her face flushes.
She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out.
Finally, she says, "Don't worry.
I will." Before storming off, she adds, "But I'm keeping the Cal sweatshirt." I shake my head in amused disbelief.
I think she got the point.
"Well, that was entertaining." Nyelle laughs.
She begins to walk away.
Unsure of when I'll see her again, I quickly call after her, "Need a ride?" Nyelle hesitates, and just when I think she's about to accept, she shakes her head.
"No thanks.
I'll walk.
But maybe I'll see you tomorrow." She smiles and starts down the sidewalk.
* * * "She slapped you?" Rae laughs.
"Seriously?"
"Rae," I say sternly into the phone, quieting her.
"You're not listening.
I think-I'm almost positive anyway-this girl is Nicole."
"What is with you lately?" Rae asks.
"You've been weird about Nicole for a while now.
You need to stop obsessing.
I'm starting to become embarrassed for you."
"I'm not obsessing.
And this has nothing to do with her ditching us in eighth grade, Rae.
There's something really messed up going on.
And I don't know what it is.
This girl looks so much like Nicole Bentley, it's crazy.
But she acts nothing like her.
She doesn't even talk like her.
I'm really starting to think she was in an accident or something.
Head trauma can cause amnesia and alter your personality."
"You've watched way too much House," Rae accuses.
"We live in a small town.
Don't you think someone would've said something? You know the vipers would've been all over any rumors about Nicole." Rae's right.
And after watching them carry on like she never existed this past summer, I know they have no idea Nicole's here, or how much she's changed.
They would've said something.
"Check her Facebook status.
See when she posted last," I say.
"I'm not friends with her, remember? On Facebook or anywhere else."
"Right." I'm not either.
While we're still on the phone, I click open Facebook on my laptop and type in "Nicole Bentley." There's a picture of her, smiling brightly and wearing a pair of sunglasses.
I click on her page, and the cover picture is Harvard's crest.
She has more than a thousand friends, but all of her pictures and posts are private.
"Cal, you still there?" Rae asks.
"The girls should be here soon for band practice."
"Huh? Yeah, uh, go ahead," I tell her as I type in Nyelle Preston.
"I'll talk to you later." I still have the phone tucked under my chin when I get the results.
There's only a Noelle Preston-who doesn't look anything like the girl at Crenshaw.
I set my phone down on the desk, staring at the screen without focusing on the words.
What happened to Nicole to force her to become Nyelle Preston? I keep circling back to the night that I can't remember. RICHELLE Day After Nicole Moves In I shovel the last bite of pancake into my mouth and jump up to put my plate in the sink.
"Where are you going in such a rush?" my mom asks.
"To see if the new girl can play," I tell her, practically running for the door.
"Richelle, it's early.
You might want to give them time to eat breakfast."
"I'm done.
Maybe she is too," I holler back and push the screen door open.
"Bye, Mom!" I run across my lawn and stop at the little trees between my house and hers.
I poke my head through and listen.
I don't hear anything.
I step closer to the edge of the driveway, and I hear, "Did you put all your clothes in the dresser?" They're awake.
I jump over the flowers planted on the edge of the driveway and hop up the front steps.
I push the doorbell and wait.
But waiting is hard.
So I push the doorbell again.
Mrs.
Bentley opens the door.
"Well, good morning, Richelle.
Aren't you prompt?"
"Can Nicole come out to play?" I ask.
I've been dying for this day all summer, ever since I knew someone was moving in next door and that they had a kid going into fourth grade too.
Cal was hoping for a boy since he's the only boy on our street who's our age.
But I'm happy she's a girl.
Nicole pokes her head around her mom.
"Hi, Nicole!" I say.
She steps forward and I grab her hand.
"Want to come play with me?" I pull her out the door and down the steps before she can answer.
"Nicole, please be careful.
And be home for lunch," her mom calls to her.
When we reach the sidewalk, I let go of her hand.

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