What If

Page 45


Maybe they're just painful possibilities." Her voice sounds so sad, I almost don't recognize it as hers.
Her mask is cracking, and whatever she's been hiding behind it is starting to show.
I'm not sure how to put her back together.
"What do you need me to do?" I ask.
"I'll do anything.
I'm not above freezing to death for you." There's a hint of a laugh, and I know Nyelle is still with me.
"It is a little cold, huh? I didn't really notice."
"Being with you usually means losing feeling in my limbs.
I've come to terms with it." She reaches over and takes hold of my hand.
"But you always feel so warm to me." I squeeze her hand and press it to my lips.
"I needed to feel that," she says softly.
"The butterfly." The word comes out in a whisper.
"What does that mean? That was your wish at the silo, but I didn't understand."
"Holding your hand.
It makes me feel like there's a butterfly beating in my chest.
There's something about it that helps me believe everything's going to be okay."
"Everything is going to be okay," I assure her, wanting to believe it too.
"I know.
I'm sorry," she says, laughing uncomfortably and quickly swiping away a tear that's escaped down her cheek.
"I'm not supposed to be like this.
You shouldn't have to see it."
"Hey." I roll to my side and redirect her attention with a finger under her chin, so she's looking at me.
"You can always show me exactly who you are.
No matter what."
"I'm not sure who that is," she murmurs, pressing her lips into a tight smile to lock the emotion inside.
The forced smile is too much like her mother's.
A disturbed chill runs through me.
"Who do you want to be?" I ask.
Her eyes flicker, troubled by the answer.
I brush my hand on her cheek.
I've never felt so helpless in my entire life.
"I don't know." Her lip trembles and she can't hold back.
"I don't know anymore." I scoot closer and pull her trembling body to my chest, wanting to take it all away.
What would have happened if I'd done something that night I heard her screaming? What if I hadn't walked away? What if I'd gone in her house to help her? What if I'd been the friend she needed? Would she still be lying here, searching for herself in the stars? "You can be anyone you want with me.
And it won't matter, I promise-good, bad or crazy." And it doesn't matter which version of her is looking back at me; she's the same girl.
The girl I've wanted most of my life.
She releases a light, breathy laugh.
"Although I might regret saying that later," I say, hoping to get her to laugh again, and she does.
I lift her chin and brush her lips with a gentle kiss.
"Everything's going to okay," I say again, lying to us both. NICOLE August-Before Senior Year of High School I hang up the phone and lean back in my seat.
Curling my fingers around the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white, I stare out the windshield.
I need to calm down before I can get out of the car.
There are too many people here.
I can't lose it now.
I jump when someone taps on the window.
"Nicole, what are you doing?" Ashley demands.
My jaw clenches at just the sound of her voice.
I turn it off.
The sadness.
The anger.
The frustration.
And smile.
"I'm coming," I say, dropping the phone in my beach bag and opening the door.
"Can't believe we're finally seniors," Heather remarks as we walk along the hot sand, searching for the best place to set up.
Or, as the girls prefer it, the place where the hottest guys are.
"Ooh, I like this view," Ashley announces, dropping her bag in the sand.
I unfold the blanket and Vi helps me spread it as Heather and Ashley survey the landscape of roided bodies.
I pull my tank over my head and toss it on top of my bag.
Just as I'm about to slide my shorts off, a muscled forearm presses into my stomach and I'm swung off the ground.
I yell out in surprise.
"Hey, baby," Kyle murmurs in my ear.
I groan internally, wishing he'd take his hands off me.
He turns me around and kisses me, forcing his tongue in my mouth.
I count the seconds until he's done.
"Hi," I say, smiling up at him.
"What are you guys doing here? I thought it was a girls' day."
"And miss seeing you in a bathing suit? No way." He winks.
I want to gag.
Then he leans in and whispers in my ear, "Besides, you've been away all summer, and I haven't had any time with you." I pull back with wide eyes.
"Don't worry.
I stuck to your story," he drones.
I try to relax, hoping he didn't slip up.
He's supposed to say he and I were in Malibu after I spent four weeks at the ballet program.
I was actually with Richelle and not with him at his family's vacation home.
But I fight to keep our friendship to myself, so I have one genuine thing in my life no one else can touch.
He pulls me tight against him.
"But it's killing me to see you wearing that bikini, knowing I've never seen what's underneath."
"But that's why I let you do whoever you want on campus," I say low in his ear.
"As long as you don't tell, I don't tell." Kyle is worried about his reputation.
He's convinced the guys in our town that we have sex all the time, and in return, I let him have sex with any coed he wants .
If his younger brother or any of the elites found out that he's never even seen me without a shirt on, other than at the beach, he would never live it down.
I can't believe he hasn't broken it off with me yet.
I've been waiting for it for the past year, ever since he went off to college.
But then again, he has a sweet deal.
He has this stupid-ass reputation in his hometown of being… whatever it is he claims to be.
And he gets to live up the single life on campus.
"Where's Waldo!" Neil hollers.
I clamp my teeth shut as he goes up for a pass and runs into Cal, knocking him to the ground.
"Oh, sorry, man.
Didn't see you there." The guys around us laugh obnoxiously.
"Then maybe you should take your head out of your ass," Rae snaps, getting in his face, but she really only reaches his chest.
I press my lips together to keep from laughing.
Craig helps Cal off the ground.
I watch him brush himself off and adjust his glasses.
He looks… taller.
But he's still skinny, which really doesn't matter.
I'm surrounded by guys with killer bodies-they're still ass**les.
He looks over at me, and for a moment I can't look away.
In those few seconds, I'm silently screaming that I'm sorry Neil's a douche.
I'm sorry I'm not hanging with them in Rae's garage, listening to music and drinking on that ugly couch she moved up from the basement.
I'm sorry that I don't cheer loud enough for him at the basketball games when he gets to play for, like, five minutes.
I'm just… sorry.
I break our connection and sit down on the blanket.
"Don't you think so, Nicole?" Heather asks.
"Huh? Oh, yeah," I respond, having learned that's the only way to ever respond.
Just agree.
* * * I drive home, exhausted and numb, wishing I could scream at the top of my lungs.
But, unfortunately, Kyle manipulated a ride out of me, so I have to keep wearing this ill-fitting smile.
"Pick you up for that party later?" he confirms when I pull up in front of his house.
"Sounds great," I respond with fake enthusiasm.
He leans over and paws me, kissing me aggressively.
I let him, reminding myself to keep my eyes shut until he's done.
"Babe, it's your senior year," he says, pulling back, out of breath.
"Don't you think it's about time we had sex?"
"Maybe," I tell him, smiling sweetly.
"I just want it to happen naturally, you know? When it's the right moment." Now get the f**k out of my car! "Of course," he agrees.
"I'll see you later." When I walk into my house, I have nothing left holding me together.
"Why can't I go to San Francisco this weekend?" I demand as my mother folds laundry.
She straightens, surprised by my assertive tone.
A tone I've never used with her before.
"Excuse me?"
"I was supposed to see Richelle this weekend," I explain, trying to collect myself.
"But you called and said I had to stay home.
"We're attending a company dinner with your father tomorrow night.
He needs our support," she explains.
I close my eyes, trying to stay wrapped up in the pretty packaging.
"You know why it's important that I see her," I say slowly.
"This is our weekend.
I can't miss it."
"Well, your father is more important." I fall apart.
"Sitting next to you and Daddy, smiling like some cheap plastic doll while he kisses ass for three hours is not important.
He will not get promoted.
He will not get that raise.
He will stay in that middle management position he's been in for the past four years, although we have to pretend like he's the ruler of the universe every time he walks through that door.
He's not! "I don't know why you let him treat you like his slave-dressing, cleaning, and cooking for him.
Always perfect.
Never wanting to disappoint.
Well, maybe I don't give a shit anymore!" I'm trembling in my rage.
My mother blinks at me like I'm a kitten she finds adorable.
I want to shake her.
I want to unplug her from the program that keeps her from being human.
"Are you done?" I flinch.
The emotionlessness of her words feels like a slap.
"Your father and I are partners in this marriage.
I support him by keeping the house clean and preparing his dinner each night, creating a calm and respectful setting where he can feel loved and appreciated.
And he puts up with the disappointment of being overlooked in spite of all he gives to that company year after year.
Even moving here to fill a position he was overqualified for, so that we can have this life.
Saving for a college he was never able to attend, just so you can have every advantage he didn't.
So you will be at this dinner.
You will be respectful.
And you will not disappoint him.
Do you understand?" Defeated, I slip on the perfect daughter mask and nod numbly.
"I understand."
Chapter Twenty
The sun shining through the windows wakes me the next morning.
I rub my eyes and stretch, debating whether I should cover my head and fall back to sleep.
I roll over.
Nyelle's awake, watching me.
"Good morning," she says quietly, offering a small smile.
I groan, wrapping my arm around her waist and rolling her on her side so her back's pressed against me.

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