What If


Page 47


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After about fifteen minutes, I stop.
This is useless.
Then I remember… "The lake," I say to Henley, who tilts his head at the sound of my voice.
I get my bearings and head down the slope toward the lake.
I don't know why I didn't think of going there first.
I'm hoping she's instinctively drawn to it or something.
Either way, I have nothing to lose.
I'm about halfway there when I catch movement out of the corner of my eye.
Henley stands at attention, listening.
Then he takes off running.
I should've just let him lead me to her.
I jog after him through the trees and underbrush.
I slow to a walk when I see her in the distance.
Henley is stopped up ahead, waiting for me to follow.
The trees open up, surrounding a large patch of moss carpeting the forest.
And in the middle of that clearing is Nyelle.
And she's… dancing.
I'm afraid to continue.
I don't want her to stop.
The idea that she's spinning around in the middle of the woods seems insane.
But she's so graceful in her movement, it's actually… beautiful.
I move in closer, hoping she won't notice me.
Then I realize she has earbuds clipped to her ears.
And her eyes are closed.
I lean against a tree and watch her sweep her hands in the air, dipping back and extending a leg toward the sky, her bare foot pointed.
I knew she danced.
I never saw her perform.
Seeing this, I wish I had.
She leaps in an arching movement.
Upon touching down, Nyelle lowers to the ground into a seated pose with her legs bent at elegant angles and her arms folded around them.
And then she doesn't move.
I slowly approach her.
She's still bowed over, her head resting on her arms.
Her shoulders shake as she gasps for each breath.
She's crying.
Henley jogs up, sticking his nose in her face.
She raises her head, looking directly at me with tears streaming down her face.
She removes her earbuds without getting up.
Staring into those same blue eyes I memorized so long ago, I ask, "Who's Nyelle Preston?" RICHELLE May-Senior Year of High School "I like it out here," I say, lying back on the blanket, staring up at the stars.
"We probably shouldn't stay out here long.
It's getting cold," Nicole replies, her hands folded on her stomach.
"Nothing seems to matter when I look up at the stars," I continue, not worried about the chill in the air.
"They're full of possibilities, and they can make everything better by just wishing on them."
"I've always thought of them as everything I haven't done and wished I could.
The moments I want back, to do again."
"Your what ifs," I declare.
"Yeah."
"Well, every time you see one streak across the sky, take it back.
Do whatever you wanted to do over again." Nicole lets out a small laugh.
"I'd like that." We lay in silence for a moment.
Nicole has been my best friend for most of my childhood.
Every happy memory is attached to her in some way.
But a part of me always worries about her.
I can't help it.
"Are you happy?" I ask her.
"What?"
"All I ever want is for you to be happy.
You put so much pressure on yourself to be what everyone expects you to be.
I'm afraid that you're not happy."
"I am when I'm with you.
You're the only person who doesn't expect me to act a certain way." She pauses.
"Sometimes I wish I could be everything I'm not.
Spontaneous.
Adventurous.
Just do something because it's fun.
Not care what anyone thinks about how I look.
How I act.
Just be… me."
"I think you should do it," I encourage her, smiling just thinking about Nicole being anything but composed and put together.
"I wish," she breathes.
"That's your first what if," I proclaim.
"The next shooting star we see, you get to do you over again." Nicole laughs.
We lay there for a moment, watching the sky, waiting for that second chance.
"Richelle?"
"Yeah," I respond, still watching for any movement in the sky.
I think I see one, but it's a plane.
"Are you… are you happy?" There's a hesitation in her voice that makes me reach out and grab her hand.
"Today I am." Nicole squeezes my hand.
"Do me a favor?"
"Anything," she answers quickly.
Too quickly.
"I worry about you, you know? How quiet you are.
What must be going on in your head.
Everyone expecting you to be… perfect.
I know you must get sad, and angry, and frustrated.
Just… let it go."
"I can't always scream when everything sucks." I continue to absorb the burning lights above me.
"Then… let the stars take it away and make everything better.
And when the sun comes up, and those stars disappear, they take all the hurt with them."
"Until the next night when they're there to remind me of everything that sucks."
"No, because then they become possibilities again."
"You being all philosophical is confusing." I laugh.
"Yeah.
I don't know if I'm making sense anymore."
"Well, I'll never look at the stars again without thinking of you," Nicole says, holding my hand tight.
"That's not a bad thing." A streak of light passes above us.
We both lift our arms to point at the same time .
"There you go.
You get to be her.
The messy, crazy, unpredictable girl you've always wanted to be." Nicole sighs heavily.
"Girls," my mother calls to us from the back deck of the cabin.
"Come inside.
The last thing you need is to get a cold."
"Isn't that the reason we're here-to get fresh air?" I ask.
"Richelle," my mother says sternly.
"Com-ing!" I reply.
"It's okay," Nicole reassures me.
"It is pretty cold out here." I sit up.
"Ooh! Maybe she'll make us hot chocolate!"
Chapter Twenty-One
"Will you please tell me? Who's Nyelle Preston?" I ask again, after what feels like an hour of us just staring at each other Nyelle pulls her knees up, hugging them as she remains seated on the mossy ground.
"A lie I wanted to be true."
"She seems real to me.
How is she a lie?" Nyelle closes her eyes, her lashes glistening with tears.
I want to touch her.
To hold her.
But then I'm afraid I won't find out what I came here in search of.
Her pained blue eyes rise to meet mine.
"I didn't want my life.
I didn't want to hurt anymore.
So I became the lie I wished for." She looks down and lets out a breath, like she's trying to release the hurt into the air.
She's not making sense.
I'm not sure how much has come back to her.
And how much is still trapped within the lie she's convinced herself to believe.
"Did you recognize me that night, at the Halloween party?"
"Not at first.
You look different," she says, biting at her lip.
"But when I knew it was you, I tried to stay away.
I tried so hard, because you reminded me of everything that I needed to forget.
But each time I saw you, I wanted to see you again.
So, I got to know you like it was the first time."
"Then what happened to Nicole?" I ask.
Somewhere between the cabin and here, I found the nerve to ask every question I've been choking on all this time.
Not saying it's easy watching her bowed over like she wants to fold in on herself and disappear.
But if I'm going to fight for her, she needs to fight for herself too, whoever she is.
Nyelle lays her head on her arm, staring at the moss.
"I wished her away." She draws in a deep breath and sighs sadly.
Her cryptic answers still confuse me.
What if she's been trapped within her lie for so long, she can't find her way out? A raindrop lands on her arm.
I look up at the sky, which has decided that now is the perfect time to open up on us.
Of course.
"Let's go back to the cabin," I suggest, moving closer to help her up.
Nyelle slides on her socks and boots before accepting my hand.
I'm about to start running as the rain picks up.
But Nyelle walks, unfazed.
Which is exactly what I should've expected from her.
The canopy of evergreens shelters us from the brunt of the storm.
But we're still getting wet.
"Why did you wish her away?" I ask after a minute of walking with our eyes on the ground, the silence suffocating me.
Nyelle glances up at me with a curious smile, like she doesn't understand why I'd ask.
"She… The girl I used to be did what everyone expected of her.
She wasn't real and I didn't want to be that girl anymore." She bites at her lip, trying to keep from crying again.
"It's been so hard remembering her.
What I was like.
But I'm not her.
Not anymore."
"Because you started over," I conclude.
"And that's not a bad thing, I guess.
Aren't you happier being Nyelle… being you?" Nyelle stops and turns to me, her eyes glistening.
"Yeah," she breathes.
"I am.
But what if this isn't really who I am? What if I wanted to be Nyelle so bad that I've lost myself along the way?" I reach for her.
The distance between us feels like a canyon, and I can't stand it any longer.
She doesn't resist when I wrap my arms around her.
"I don't think you're lost.
You've just let yourself be who you've always wanted to be.
And that makes you happy," I say into her hair, kissing the top of her head.
"And you've made me happy along with you.
So, as far as I'm concerned, you are… you.
Exactly who you're supposed to be." She peers up at me, wearing a hint of a smile, tears mixed with the rain soaking her face.
"I've missed you."
"I've missed you too," I say, kissing her soft, wet lips.
"Why'd I have to lose you for all those years?" She pulls away, wiping the tears from her cheeks with a shake of her head.
She's not ready for this part yet.
To talk about what hurts.
We start walking again.
I don't want to ask her any more questions.
I can't.
It's taken everything I have to get this much out of her.
My chest feels so tight from the anxiety squeezing it, I'm surprised I'm still breathing.
"I made a promise." Nyelle's whisper barely cuts through the rain.
She stops in front of me at the edge of the forest with the cabin in sight, her hands clenched tight.
"Do you still have to keep the promise?" I ask.
I'm watching the two halves of her being ripped apart as she struggles with what she has to tell me.
Nyelle shakes her head.
"But I've kept it so long, I don't know how to let it go." She covers her face with her hands, sobbing.
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