What If


Page 5


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She pushes down the skirt of her blue dress like she's trying to make it flatter.
She has a matching blue bow in her hair.
She looks like she's going to a birthday party with her shiny black shoes on.
"Where'd you come from?" I ask her, heading down the street toward Cal's and Rae's houses.
Just then, I see Cal coming out his front door.
"Cal!" I run across the street.
When I reach the sidewalk, I realize Nicole isn't next to me anymore.
I turn around and yell to her, "C'mon, Nicole! We're going to play in the woods." Nicole continues to walk, not run.
She must be afraid of slipping in her shiny shoes.
"Did Phil finish it yet?" Rae hollers to Cal, cutting across her yard.
Nicole finally catches up, and we meet up with Cal and Rae between their two houses.
"No." Cal sighs.
"It takes him forever to get anything done."
"God, we're never going to have a tree house," Rae complains, like she always does.
"We can still play back there," I say.
"Oh, this is Cal and Rae," I tell Nicole, who is standing a couple steps behind me, looking at the ground.
"Hi," Cal says.
She looks up at him and quickly looks down again.
How could she be afraid of Cal? There's nothing scary about him.
"Hey," Rae says.
Rae, on the other hand, is definitely scary, but you don't really find that out until you get to know her.
On the outside, she looks like she should be selling lemonade to the neighborhood, with her blond braid and freckles speckled across her face.
But once you get to know her, you realize she'd rather dump lemonade over your head than to serve it to you.
"What are we going to play today?" I ask, excited to have someone new with us, even though she doesn't talk.
"Let's catch bugs and make our own bug zoo," Rae suggests.
"Or bug circus!" I exclaim, picturing butterflies flying through hoops as I dance around an arena.
"Let's go!" I start running toward the woods, cutting through the tall grass where the wildflowers grow.
Then I stop when I see something hop in front of me.
I get down on my hands and knees and look for it.
"What is it?" Cal asks.
"Ssshh." I'm concentrating on the grasshopper that's landed on a tall blade of grass.
As fast as I can, I cup my hands around it.
I can feel it jumping around.
It tickles.
I squeal and open my hands, dropping it in the grass.
"Why'd you do that?" Rae asks.
"You let it go."
"It felt funny," I answer, doing a jittery dance, thinking about how it tickled my hand.
Someone laughs.
I look up and find Nicole giggling.
It's the first sound I've heard from her, and it makes me laugh too.
Chapter Three
I wait around the coffee shop the next morning, hoping Nyelle will show up.
I leave when I can't wait any longer without being late for sociology.
I'm swearing under my breath as I stalk across campus, taking the most direct route to Stewart Hall.
Dr.
Tenor likes to embarrass late arrivals, and I'd rather not be today's victim.
I'm jogging down the slope behind the Student Union.
Before I start climbing up the other side, I stop.
A girl is rolling down the hill.
I watch as she tumbles down the steep incline in a blur of hair and blue, dragging a green scarf behind her.
She comes to a stop on her back on the flat ground between the two hills, with her arms flopped out beside her.
Then she just lies there.
I'm too shocked to move at first.
This isn't something I see every day… or ever.
When she doesn't make an attempt to get up, I slowly approach her.
She doesn't notice me.
Her electric-blue eyes are still directed up at the sky.
"Nyelle?" She blinks at the sound of my voice, focuses on me, and then smiles so wide I can see her bottom teeth.
"Cal!" Not sure what to say to a girl who just voluntarily rolled down a hill, I ask, "Need help up?"
"Not yet.
I'm dancing."
"What?" She's not making any sense.
I'm beginning to suspect the head trauma theory may not be far off.
Or maybe she's drunk.
Her eyes return to the sky again, and she inhales deeply, still wearing the vibrant smile.
"I've wanted to do that for so long."
"Um, okay," I say, offering her my hand.
She grabs ahold with a cutoff knit glove and hoists herself off the dying grass.
She doesn't brush off the dried blades clinging to her sweater… and everywhere else.
"You have a little something," I say, reaching for the grass stuck in her hair.
She shakes her head wildly, her hair whipping around under the brown woven hat.
It doesn't help, but she doesn't seem to care.
Which is nothing like the girl I used to know.
"Where are you going?"
"Class.
And I'm late," I say, dreading going.
"I'll walk with you," she offers, heading back up the hill she just rolled down.
I catch up to her.
"So do you have a thing for rolling down hills?"
"Nope.
That was my first."
"Really?" I question, amused by her answer.
"So what made you do it?"
"It was on the list." She says this like it makes perfect sense and I should understand.
Except I don't.
When she notices I'm waiting for her to continue, she exclaims with a laugh, "And it was fun! C'mon, Cal .
Haven't you ever had the urge to do something just for the fun of it?"
"Probably." I hesitate.
"I just can't remember when."
"Really? That's sad." She truly sounds sorry for me.
"You'll have to do it with me next time." I laugh.
"Uh, I'm not sure about that." We reach the top of the hill and enter the building where my class has already started.
I pause in the corridor, about to thank her for the escort, when I hear, "Hey, gorgeous," behind me.
I know he's not talking to me.
Nyelle's eyes narrow as three guys walk by us.
"Fuck off." Her words take them, and me, by surprise.
I'm not sure who said it, or what he ever did to offend her, but he'll probably never call her gorgeous again.
They whip their heads around.
"Bitch." I feel like I should defend her, but the malicious grin on Nyelle's face keeps me silent.
I let them walk out the door without interfering.
"Do you know them?" I ask her, trying to understand what just happened.
"No," she responds shortly, still staring at the door.
"Then what was that about?"
"They know nothing about me," she says between her teeth.
"O-kay," I say with a slight shake of my head, confused by the extreme mood change.
They seriously pissed her off.
But then I consider who I'm dealing with and what I saw the night of the Halloween party and laugh to myself.
"What?" she asks, turning her attention back to me.
"I've wondered where she went."
"Who?" Nyelle asks, studying me carefully.
"The girl under the mask."
"Which one?" She smirks.
Her answer steadies me.
I know she's being cryptic.
This isn't the first time.
Yet it keeps throwing me off because all I can think about is what she isn't saying.
She turns to walk away.
"Bye, Cal."
"Nyelle," I call to her, before she can get too far.
She faces me, walking backward.
"Do you have plans this weekend? Can I call you?" I hope the request doesn't sound as desperate as it feels, but I can't let her walk away without knowing I'll see her again.
"I don't have a phone," she replies with a small smile.
"I'll see you.
I promise." I push through the door to the lecture hall, smiling at the image of her, littered with grass from her hat down to the edge of her sweater, stuck in my head.
"Well, thank you for making time for us, Mr.
Logan!" bellows throughout the room.
Every head turns my way.
Shit.
I nod apologetically and duck into the back row, taking the first empty seat I find.
I end up only half paying attention to the lecture, thinking back to the girl who is not who she appears to be.
Whoever she is, I like her.
She's unexpected, and yeah, maybe a little extreme.
So different from the perfectionist who refused to talk to me in high school.
Regardless of how much I like the transformation, no one changes that drastically.
Not without a reason. NICOLE The Week After Moving "Nicole, you are a mess," my mom scolds when I come back into the house after spending the afternoon running around in the woods, lifting rocks and rolling logs over to find bugs.
I couldn't touch them; neither could Richelle.
We'd just find them, scream, and make Rae and Cal pick them up and put them in the buckets.
I look down at my blue dress and notice the smear of dirt from all the times I ran my hands down the front of it.
And my black shoes are covered in dirt too.
"You are a little girl," she continues.
"You should not be getting dirty! Does Richelle not like playing with dolls? Where did you go?" I fold my hands and duck my head.
"I'm sorry, Momma.
She was, um, showing me where these really pretty flowers were behind Cal's house." I've never lied to my mom before.
But I'm afraid she'll take my friends away if she thinks they're too messy.
"Who's Cal? You're not playing with a boy, are you?" She makes it sound like playing with a boy will make me sick or something.
I shake my head.
I don't think I can get away with telling another lie out loud.
"Go clean up and change before your father gets home¸" she instructs me.
"He will be very upset if he sees you like this.
And we're supposed to make him happy, not disappointed in us."
"Okay, Momma," I respond, taking my shoes off so I don't track dirt all the way to my room.
* * * The next morning I'm in our backyard, setting up the pink table for a tea party, when Richelle comes running over.
I don't think she knows how to walk.
She's always running.
"What are you doing?" she asks as I set the cup on the saucer.
"Playing," I answer, straightening the chair like my mom does at our dinner table.
"Do you want to play with us?" she asks.
"Not today," I answer.
I don't want to tell her that my mom told me I couldn't get dirty.
That I needed to act like a lady.
And that means I shouldn't play in the woods.
"Well, can I play with you?" I look up in surprise.
"You want to have a tea party with me?"
"Sure!" she answers excitedly.
"Wait.
I'll go put on a dress too." And she runs off, cutting between the small Christmas trees, toward her house.
* * * Richelle came over every morning for the week.
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