"Seven," he says.
"We have three graduation parties to hit tonight."
"Three?" I reply in shock.
"Yeah, I gotta go.
My family just got here," Brady says before hanging up.
I pause in the driveway when I think I see a glimpse of red in the woods.
I squint to focus through my glasses.
There's movement farther in, near the tree house.
I don't know what keeps me walking in that direction, but I do.
Henley comes bounding out of nowhere, his tail wagging and his tongue lolling out of his mouth.
"Hey, boy," I say, bending to scratch his head.
When I stand up, I look toward the woods again, and I can definitely see someone, but whoever's there is still too far away to make out.
Let's see who's out there." I wonder for a moment if it's Rae, but I know she hasn't been in these woods since we were younger.
Or maybe it's one of the neighborhood kids come to check out the tree house.
Considering how old it is, and that it was one of my dad's projects, it's probably not the safest idea.
We should seriously take the thing down before someone does fall… again.
The last person I expect to find is Nicole.
As soon as I see the red ribbon in her hair, Henley takes off running.
"Henley!" I yell instinctively.
My voice turns her head in my direction, her hair falling away from her face.
Henley sticks his nose in her face, demanding attention.
She scratches his head as he licks her face, releasing a laugh within a sob.
Henley settles down next to where Nicole is seated on the leaf-strewn ground, with her legs straight in front of her and her back pressed against the tree.
I slowly walk toward her, afraid to say the wrong thing.
So I don't say anything.
I just silently lower myself to the ground on the other side of Henley, whose head is resting on Nicole's knee as she strokes his back.
Leaning against the bark, I set my hand on his golden fur as well.
I watch her thin, pale hand move along his coat without looking up at her.
But I can hear her sobs.
Glancing out of the corner of my eye, I notice the bouquet of wildflowers grasped tightly in her fist.
Her arm is pressed against her stomach as if she's holding herself.
Nicole's hair is a sheet of black, concealing her face, but the spasms in her back reveal each gasping sob.
Neither one of us says a word.
We just sit against the tree, petting Henley.
And then I feel her cool hand brush my skin, and I stop moving.
She sets her hand on top of mine and curls her fingers around it.
I look up, but she's not looking at me.
Her focus is on the flowers.
I give her hand a gentle squeeze.
I still don't know what to say, especially considering we haven't said a thing to each other in five years.
I want to ask her what's wrong.
I want to make her feel better, to take away whatever it is that's hurting her.
But I fail to do anything at all other than hold her hand-until she releases it.
She stands up and straightens her red skirt before walking way.
I notice she forgot the flowers on the ground next to the tree.
But I don't call to her.
All I do is watch her disappear.
* * * I just let her walk away without a word, and then I never saw her again.
I only heard her screaming at her parents that night.
And I still can't remember the details.
So this is the last image I have of Nicole, until Nyelle.
I slide my hands on either side of Nyelle's face.
Her eyes shine and her cheeks are red and raw from the tears.
"He had a hard life.
And you were one of the best things to happen to him." I lower my mouth to hers and press against it, holding the kiss for a long breath before pulling away.
"Thank you," she whispers, resting her cheek on my chest and wrapping her arms around me tightly.
"He's been waiting to go for a long time.
I knew this was coming.
But it still sucks." She releases a drawn breath.
"Yeah, it does," I say into her hair.
I hold her until she eases away.
When she looks up at me, I stroke her damp cheeks with my thumbs to dry her tears.
"What can I do to make you feel better? Ice cream? Marshmallows? Chips? A hot shower in the dark?" She laughs lightly.
"I'll be okay." She stands and starts for the bedroom.
I jump up.
I don't want her to go in there.
"How about we go away?" I say in a rush.
"What?" Nyelle turns around.
"Let's get out of Crenshaw," I suggest, my pulse thrumming.
"Where do you want to go?" I grin at the intrigue reflecting in her eyes.
My uncle's cabin.
He's going hiking this weekend.
We'll have the place to ourselves.
And… there isn't any snow." She laughs.
"A cabin in the woods, just the two of us for a weekend?"
"Or the rest of the week," I offer.
"Up to you.
He won't care.
And I can work for him in the garage while I'm there.
I could use the money." Nyelle bites her lower lip in thought.
Then she slowly smiles and says, "Okay.
Let's spend the rest of the week in Oregon." She reaches for my bedroom door, but I rush to intercept her.
"I'll get our bags
Why don't you… get your things from the bathroom?" Nyelle eyes me suspiciously.
"Are you hiding something in there?"
"It doesn't matter," I answer evasively.
"Let me pack a bag, and we'll leave."
"Right now?" she questions, still scrutinizing me.
Why not? We'll catch the next flight out, even if we have to fly standby and take a couple layovers to get there."
"You know you're being weird right now, right?" I nod.
But it'll make sense later.
I promise." Nyelle keeps her narrowed eyes on me as she slowly walks to the bathroom, like she's worried I've lost my mind.
Which is very possible.
"Okay." When she's safely behind the bathroom door, I slip into my room to pack. NICOLE May-Junior Year of High School "Can you believe he just told me like it was no big deal?" Richelle screams into her pillow as I rub her back, trying to calm her down.
Her face is red and damp with tears when she lifts it from the pillow.
I want to say I'm sorry.
I want to tell her that Lily doesn't mean anything to Cal.
They already broke up.
I want to tell her anything that will make her feel better.
But more than that, I wish I was screaming into that pillow alongside her.
"I'm being such a girl.
I know it," she says, sniffling.
"But it hurts.
And I don't know how to make it stop."
"I know," I console.
And I do.
My chest felt like it was being crushed when I found out.
And then when I arrived and saw Richelle's face, it only made it worse.
So I try to be the best friend that she needs and not the heartbroken girl I am, and listen to her cry as she spills her hurt on her pillow.
Richelle inhales, trying to calm her stuttering breaths.
She eases herself up to sit, holding the pillow to her chest.
"Do you know what hurts the most?" I wait.
"That he didn't even hesitate to tell me.
He obviously thinks of me as just a friend.
I know I told him that's what I wanted when I broke up with him.
But I didn't mean it.
I just couldn't tell him…"
"I know," I say when her voice cracks.
"You love him and he doesn't know it."
"What if he could never feel that way about me?" She sniffles, crushed.
"I don't know what to do.
Maybe I shouldn't talk to him anymore.
It hurts too much.
"Richelle, you're hurting right now.
But you can't stop talking to him."
"Why not? You have."
"Because of me," she interrupts.
I was going say, that's my choice.
Don't let him go like I did." Because I regret it every day.
"You've packed enough sugar to last a month," I remark as Nyelle tries to zip her backpack around the bag of marshmallows sticking out of the top.
"You said we'll be in the middle of nowhere," she says, smiling proudly when she's finally able to close the bulging bag.
"And that's all you're planning to eat?" I ask, throwing my duffel bag over my shoulder.
"Besides, I was going to stop by a store on our way to the cabin."
"Now you don't have to," she gloats, putting on her jacket.
I laugh, waiting for her by the door.
"Yeah, I do.
I can't eat like you.
I need something that grows out of the ground every once in a while." Nyelle rolls her carry-on behind her down the hall.
"Will your uncle be there when we get in?"
He's leaving this afternoon to meet up with the guys he's climbing with.
I called and told him we're coming, though.
He's leaving the light on." We step outside into the instant freeze.
I start the truck, shivering, wishing I'd let it heat up.
"You never told me what you did for him." Nyelle cuddles up close to my side to get warm.
I pull out of the parking lot and wrap my arm around her shoulder.
"He custom designs and rebuilds motorcycles." I don't notice until after we're driving away that Nyelle's gawking at me.
And motorcycles? Really?" I eye her curiously.
"I don't get it."
"That's kinda hot."
"I don't ride them," I clarify.
"And I don't have a single tattoo.
There's nothing really badass about me.
I just happen to know how to use a socket wrench."
"Don't ruin this for me," Nyelle says.
"Let me hold on to this image for just a minute longer." She closes her eyes with a grin.
"What's so sexy about a guy on a motorcycle anyway?" Truth.
My mother would kill me if I ever rode any of the bikes I help construct.
Her uncle died in a crash when she was young, and she won't let any of us even consider riding.
Even my brothers are afraid to go against that rule.
"I don't know.
It just is.
Unless he's a cocky douche.
Or three hundred pounds.
That's just… Ew." She exaggerates a shiver.
"That didn't really explain anything," I say with a smile.
"But I guess it's a good thing I will never be a three-hundred-pound cocky douche riding a motorcycle."
"It is a good thing." Nyelle reaches over and turns down the radio.
"Cal?" she asks, leaning in so her head is resting on my chest.
"Yes?" I'm wary of her careful tone.