What If


Page 40


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"Finally!" she exclaims, like she's made a breakthrough.
"Just be happy, Nicole. No matter what. Be happy."
Chapter Seventeen
"What would you like to do tonight for New Year's?" I ask Nyelle, pouring cereal into a bowl.
"You want to make a big deal out of it?" Nyelle asks, sitting on the arm of the sofa.
I lean against the counter with the bowl in my hand.
"Not a big deal, but I feel like we should do something." Nyelle scans the ceiling, thinking about it.
"Okay.
We'll do something."
"Are you going to tell me what it is? Because the thought of showing up unprepared to whatever you come up with scares the hell out of me.
And for the record, I'm wearing my own clothes." Nyelle laughs.
"Fine.
I'll put away that sequined outfit I had picked out for you."
"You're hilarious, but I have a feeling that this sequined thing exists." Nyelle grins, then pulls her knees up under her chin.
I have no idea how she's balancing on the end of the couch like that, but she looks adorable.
I continue to eat my cereal while her mind goes to work.
"I've got it," she declares when I'm rinsing out the bowl.
"Let's go back to Camp Sunshine."
"I'm not ice diving," I tell her.
She makes a face.
"No.
We'll build a fire.
Make s'mores.
And go tubing on the frozen lake."
"Tubing?"
"You know.
We'll buy a couple of those inflatable, doughnut sleds and slide across the ice." I pause, considering it.
Doesn't sound that crazy.
"Okay.
I'm in." * * * Nyelle holds her inflatable sled in front of her, her cheeks red, as we both stare at the frozen lake.
"Ready?" I nod.
"Set.
Go!" We run along the snow toward the lake's edge.
I hesitate for just a step before throwing my body out onto the ice on top of the tube.
That one moment of sanity gives her the edge she needs to slide out in front of me, stopping about five feet ahead on the frozen lake-that a little more than a month ago we were sinking in.
"I won!" she declares, thrusting her arms into the air.
"Because I suddenly had a clear image of landing face-first on the ice," I claim in defense.
"There was blood.
And a broken nose.
It wasn't pretty." She just shakes her head at me.
"Try pushing me," Nyelle requests, turning over to sit on the doughnut.
I carefully stand on the ice.
With the thin layer of snow blowing across it, it's not too slick.
But I'm not about to try sprinting on it either.
I place my hands behind her on the tube and plant my feet as best I can before giving her a hard shove.
Nyelle yells out like she's taking off on a roller coaster, sailing across the lake.
Not as fast as when she had a running start, or as fast as a roller coaster for that matter, but she still travels a decent distance.
"Now I'll push you," she says, lying on her stomach and using her feet to scoot back to me.
"You're not going to be able to push me," I say, sitting down on the tube.
"I feel bad," she says, bumping into me.
"You were always the one who pushed us on the tire swing.
You almost never got a turn." I know she's slipping up again, talking about our childhood.
Before I allow it to sink in too much, I lean over and kiss her.
In my head I can hear Rae yelling at me for missing the opportunity to interrogate her.
But it's not what I want tonight to be about.
A new year is about starting again, not looking back.
Right? "Race you again?" I challenge, standing up and grabbing the rubber handle of the sled.
"Best two out of three?" she suggests.
"Winner gets…"
"Anything they want," I propose.
She lifts an eyebrow.
"Name it first, so I know what's at stake." My mind is suddenly all over the place, and so are my eyes.
She swats my arm.
"Cal! I knew it was going to be something… naked."
"Of course it is," I say with a laugh, not even about to deny it.
"If I can get anything I want, and one of those things is you naked, then that's easy.
Trying to decide how I want you na**d is the hard part."
"Fine.
Naked it is.
In the shower." She pauses, waiting for my reaction, which is complete stillness.
"In the dark.
And we actually have to wash each other, with shampoo and soap and everything."
"What?" I balk.
"I better win because that sounds almost dangerous.
Besides, what's the point of showering together if I can't see you naked?"
"Well, what's yours then?" she demands, with her arms crossed.
"I'll keep with the same theme, but we take a bath together… with the lights on.
And there's no need for washing, just-"
"Bubbles," she interjects.
I grin, liking that idea.
"I can do bubbles."
"You're on." Nyelle sticks out her hand.
I grin at her competitiveness, taking hold of her hand.
But instead of shaking it, I pull her to me and wrap my arms around her, kissing her.
"That's not fair," she breathes.
"You're trying to make me lose focus."
"I think it's a good strategy," I murmur, running my lips along her neck.
Nyelle pushes back.
"Oh! Really? That's how it's going to be?" She stomps back to the snow-covered beach and takes off her scarf, followed by her jacket .
When she yanks her sweater over her head, she pauses to see if she has my attention, which she definitely does.
And then she slowly peels her tank top off, revealing a black lace bra and a whole lot of flesh.
I exhale slowly.
"You're evil." She smirks with her hands on her hips.
"Bring it." I smile, taking in every inch she's unveiled.
I should tell her to put her clothes back on.
It's about twenty degrees out here.
But I'm enjoying this way too much to be practical.
"Wow, boobs make guys dumb," she says with a roll of her eyes.
"I'm not arguing," I say, still admiring the view.
"Stop staring and get over here," she demands, picking up her sled.
I shake my head, trying to regain my composure.
"First win doesn't count," I tell her when I step on land.
"Best two out of three, starting now."
"Deal." * * * Nyelle hugs herself, shivering.
"You must be freezing," I observe, tossing some wood on the fire to help warm her up.
"And do you know what will make me warm? A nice hot shower, in the dark," she gloats.
"You got lucky," I claim, shifting the logs.
"No, I had a good strategy," she boasts.
"You kept tripping over yourself trying to watch me run."
"Can you blame me? And for the record, this showering in the dark thing is going to be a disaster.
It still doesn't make sense to me." Nyelle pops her head through the hole of her sweater, suddenly looking serious.
She opens her mouth, then closes it.
I stop messing with the fire, giving her my full attention.
"Would you still be attracted to me if you couldn't see me?" The question comes out of nowhere.
"I'm not sure how to answer that."
"Forget it." She zips up her coat and wraps the scarf around her neck.
"How's the fire coming?"
"Come stand by it.
It'll warm you up," I say, studying her carefully.
She tries to smile, but I know there's something more to that question.
I've seen the way she reacts to anyone who calls attention to her looks.
Hell, she punched a guy in the face-granted, he did grab her ass, but still.
I have yet to comment on how attracted I am to her.
Every time the thought reaches my mouth, I silence it.
For some reason it offends her, so I don't tell her.
* * * Sitting next to each other on our tubes with blankets on our laps, we roast marshmallows on sticks we found in the woods-that I then carved into proper marshmallow spears.
Rolling the marshmallow over in the fire, I keep thinking about Nyelle's question.
And wonder why the way she looks upsets her so much.
She was friends with three of the most superficial girls in high school.
Their whole world revolved around appearances.
So why did she choose them? * * * "Cal!" Rae hollers to me as I'm walking down the sidewalk.
"Where are you going?" I wait for her to catch up.
"To Nicole's.
She's supposed to be back, but I haven't seen her yet."
"Where was she all summer again?"
"I don't remember," I reply.
"Some ballet thing, I think." Just as we're about to walk up the driveway, the front door opens and out come three laughing girls, all dressed up.
On either side of Nicole are Ashley Kinsley and Victoria North.
I know them because their older brothers are friends with my brothers.
They don't go to McDermott with us.
They're in the other middle school, Canton.
But the way they're dressed-short skirts, hair curled, lots of makeup-they look like they're trying to be high schoolers.
"Hey, Nicole," I say, when she doesn't see Rae and me standing behind her mom's car.
"Who are they?" Victoria asks.
She inspects us with a disgusted look on her face.
I push my glasses up the bridge of my nose and ignore her.
Nicole shrugs without looking at us.
"Nicole?" I call to her again, not understanding why she's being weird.
Ashley's nose scrunches like she smells something gross.
"Are they your friends?"
"Not anymore," Nicole answers quietly.
She still won't look at us.
"What the hell?" Rae demands.
"Nicole, are you serious?" Nicole gets in the front seat of the car and closes the door without responding.
What's going on? Why is she acting like we don't exist? This doesn't make sense.
Rae whips around and storms off down the sidewalk.
She gets to the next house and turns back.
"Cal! Are you coming?" Mrs.
Bentley steps out of the house, locking the door behind her.
"Hello, Cal.
Did Nicole introduce you to her new friends from the ballet program she attended this summer?"
"Uh, yeah," I say.
I don't know why I lie, but I know how important it is to Nicole's parents that she's polite, and despite how she's acting, I don't want to get her in trouble.
"Well, I'm taking them to the mall.
I'm sure we'll see you again," she says, smiling in that weird way she does.
"Okay," I reply automatically.
I turn slowly and walk toward my house.
Rae is already in her garage, beating the heck out of her drums.
* * * Nicole never spoke to us again, and I still have no idea why.
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