What If


Page 44


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"You never told me what makes you walk away from all the girls you've dated."
"I thought we already had this conversation," I say, not exactly sure what she's looking for.
I walk away because it's what I always do.
And it's easier to do it when there's nothing to lose.
"We did.
Sort of," she says, playing with the zipper on my jacket.
"I just think there's more to it."
"Really?" I respond, not willing to agree or disagree.
I'd rather not be talking about this at all.
But for some reason she keeps bringing it up.
I don't know what she's hoping to learn about me, other than I get out before it starts getting complicated.
"Yeah, I do.
I think when you end things, it isn't just that they're not your what if girl."
"Okay," I say carefully, letting her come to her own conclusions.
So far, she's right.
"You don't have feelings for them, no matter how much you like them." This is starting to get uncomfortable, especially with her sitting under my arm.
When I'm quiet, she leans back so she can see my face, forcing me to remove my arm from behind her.
"You know why you do it, don't you? Why you walk away?" I grip the steering wheel tighter.
"It's not like it's a secret I'm trying to keep from you, Nyelle.
It's that I don't really want to think about these girls, especially since I'm here with you.
You're not one of them.
And I don't want you to ever think you are."
"That's sweet." She leans over and kisses me on the cheek.
"So tell me." I blow out a lungful of air and say, "I don't want to hurt them." She's quiet.
When I glance over at her, a sad smile hangs on her face.
"What?" I ask.
"Why does that upset you?"
"You walk away before you can hurt them," Nyelle says softly.
"So… who hurt you?" I continue to stare straight ahead, not willing to contribute to this conversation anymore.
Because what am I supposed to say… you? You and Richelle crushed me within the same summer, and it's not something I've ever gotten over.
That's not about to come out of my mouth.
So I don't say anything.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, wrapping herself under my arm and laying her head on my chest.
"I don't want to…" She doesn't finish.
But I know where that sentence was going.
"It's okay." I squeeze her against me and kiss the top of her head.
"I'll be fine." We both know how this is going to end.
She's leaving after this week, even though we haven't mentioned it since the night of the painting.
And when she does, it's going to suck.
This isn't where she belongs.
I know that.
But then… where does she belong? As much as I want that answer to be "with me," I know it's not the reality.
I'm running out of time.
There's no avoiding it now.
This is definitely going to suck.
* * * The winding dirt road veers off down a narrower road that ends at the cabin.
I park the rental car next to the garage and turn off the engine.
"Nyelle, we're here," I tell her softly, running a hand along her cheek.
Her eyes blink open and she looks around.
"We're here?"
"Yeah." Henley comes trotting out from behind the cabin, barking and wagging his tail, just as Nyelle opens her door.
I step out of the car as she exclaims, "Henley!" Then falls to her knees to receive him.
He rushes over to her, licking her face.
Nyelle wraps her arms around him, patting his back as he continues to lick her cheek, wagging like crazy.
When she stands, Nyelle is visibly shaken.
She grabs on to the passenger door for balance.
"Hey," I say, jogging around to her.
"Are you okay? What's wrong?" Nyelle shakes her head to dismiss me, tucking loose strands of her ponytail behind her ear.
"I'm fine," she rasps.
She presses her lips together to conceal their trembling as she averts her eyes, scanning the ground.
I reach for her hand, but she quickly pulls it away, turning to shut the door.
She appears disoriented as she keeps her hands pressed against the frame of the door for balance.
"Nyelle? What's going on?" I ask, trying to assess what just happened.
Henley rubs against my leg.
I look down at him, patting the top of his head.
That's when I know… seeing him did this.
Henley stays with Zac while I'm at college, and since Zac knew we were going to be here, he decided to leave Henley behind.
I never expected Nyelle to react like this when she saw him.
Nyelle turns to me, lost behind vacant eyes.
It's like she's not really here.
"Do you remember Henley?" I ask cautiously as she reaches for her backpack.
I never thought she was pretending not to know me, or making an effort not to recall things she should've known.
No one's that talented of an actor.
I just stopped questioning it because I was willing to accept her as she is.
Now… I can't ignore the trembling girl in front of me, accosted once again by a reminder of a past she's somehow forgotten.
I have no idea what to do.
"Sorry.
I'm really tired," she murmurs, running a quivering hand over her hair.
"Do you think we can go in?"
"Yeah, sure," I say, wrapping an arm around her and picking up her bag with the other hand.
She leans in to me as we walk toward the house.
She's still shaking, almost as bad as the night I carried her after swimming in the icy lake .
I remove the key from the hook under the stairs and lead Nyelle up to the door.
She's quiet, her gaze still directed on the ground, dazed.
I unlock the door and flip on the lights, lighting up the large open space.
I climb the stairs to the room I usually stay in and push the door open for her.
"There's a bathroom in here too," I tell her as she slips past me.
"I'll get the rest of the stuff." She nods, and I watch her walk into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
I have a feeling she didn't hear anything I said.
I don't think I can do this.
If she has some sort of psychotic break, even worse than she is now, I won't know how to help her.
I should call my mother… or Rae.
She can explain everything to my mother better than I can.
I walk around the front of the house in search of a spot to make the call.
But the "No Service" message remains lit.
Shit.
Henley follows me back into the cabin as I carry in the rest of our things, along with the couple bags of groceries we stopped to get on the way.
I take my time putting them away, glancing up at the door on the far end of the landing every so often.
My nerves are shot, and I'm fighting to keep my shit together.
But I don't want to leave her up there alone for too long.
I lock up and shut off the lights before slowly ascending the stairs.
I pause outside the door to pull myself together.
I can do this-listen to her, hold her, let her scream into a pillow.
Whatever she needs.
I grab the handle, prepared for full-on female emotions.
But I'm not expecting her to be… sleeping.
I brush the hair out of her face, and watch her sleep with her hand resting on the pillow.
She looks so peaceful, like nothing in the world could be wrong with her.
I wish that were the truth.
Crouching beside her, I run the back of my hand along her cheek.
I can't help but wonder who's going to be looking at me when her eyes open in the morning.
My attention drifts to her hand.
The entire side from her knuckle to her wrist is slashed with tiny white lines.
"What happened to you, Nyelle?" * * * Glass shattering has a very distinct sound.
Even in my drunkenness, I know exactly what I'm hearing.
And it's loud.
"Maybe I don't want to be your perfect little girl anymore." There's so much anger in her voice, and it comes out strained, like she's physically pained to say it.
"Nicole, stop!" Mr.
Bentley's deep voice booms from within the house.
"What do you think you're doing?" I find my feet moving toward the house, but they feel like they're made of cement.
I stumble across their perfectly trimmed lawn.
"Nicole, you're bleeding all over the floor!" Mrs.
Bentley cries.
"Call Dr. Xavier," Mr.
Bentley instructs.
"Tell him to use the back door."
"Did I disappoint you, Daddy?!" Nicole screams, sending ice down my spine.
Suddenly, Mr.
Bentley bursts out of the front door.
The veins along his forehead stick out as he rushes to his car.
Then he sees me, and stops.
"Cal? It's Cal, correct?" I nod, trying so hard to appear sober.
"Is Nicole okay?"
"Oh." He clears his throat.
"Yes, she's perfectly fine.
Just had a bad night, that's all.
We're taking care of her.
Thanks for your concern."
"No problem," I murmur and turn to walk toward the street.
I look back over my shoulder when I reach the sidewalk, and he's still watching me, standing by his car.
"Nicolas?" Mrs.
Bentley calls out.
I can still hear Nicole's hysterical sobs drifting through the dark as I walk away.
* * * As my eyes open, I roll over to find Nyelle's side empty, forcing me up.
With a rush of panic, I'm fully awake.
I listen but don't hear any movement, so I flip back the covers and get out of the bed.
It's just after two in the morning.
Where could she be? She's not in the bathroom.
I open the bedroom door.
The house is pitch-black.
"Nyelle?" I call out.
Nothing.
I turn on the lights as I walk through the house, checking every room, eventually making my way outside.
My heart is racing.
The dream, or memory, still lingers, and it only fuels the panic.
I walk around to the back of the cabin and stop when I see a strange shape in the grass.
When I get closer, I realize it's Nyelle, with Henley.
She's on her back with her hair splayed around her, looking up at the stars.
A hand rests on Henley's head, which is propped on her stomach.
"Nyelle, what are you doing up?" I ask, still trying to recover.
This has seriously been the most stressful night.
She doesn't shift her eyes away from the stars.
"Trying to feel better."
"Can I lie down with you?" I ask cautiously, needing to do the same.
She nods.
My body releases a quick shiver when I lie down on the cool grass.
I'm watching her as she stares intently up at the sky like she's waiting for something to happen.
I'm scanning her face, wondering who it is lying beside me.
"I've never seen so many stars before," she says quietly.
"A sky full of possibilities and pain.
That's such a contradiction.
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