What If

Page 50


She was downstairs with your mom earlier," she replies.
"Not there?" I shake my head.
I've been in the garage for the past few hours, distracting myself with bike parts to keep from thinking about how f**ked up this whole thing is-Richelle dying of cancer, Nicole becoming Nyelle to deal with it, and it all happening around me without me knowing it.
"Are you coming back to Renfield with us tomorrow?" Rae asks, standing.
"I'm staying here to work," I tell her.
"I think Nyelle's coming with us." I feel my shoulders stiffen.
"She is?"
"I think that's what Maura was talking to her about downstairs.
She offered to help her talk to her parents."
"Where is she, Rae?" I hurry down the stairs.
Not liking that she's disappeared right after she discussed facing her parents.
I need to find her.
"I don't know," she replies, following me after.
My mother left to get food for dinner.
The groceries Nyelle and I bought aren't exactly ideal for family dinners.
I'm hoping Nyelle left with her.
We didn't talk much last night, after all the secrets were torn open.
The three of us passed out on the shag carpet in front of the fire, emotionally inebriated.
And we've each spent today doing whatever we needed to distract ourselves from the pain.
I continue outside and around to the back of the house and stop at the corner when I spot Nyelle behind the cabin, pacing.
She's shaking her head, walking back and forth in a quick strides.
Her hands clench and release as she mutters a blur of words.
"She's still crazy," Rae says from beside me.
"She's not crazy," I defend, hesitating to approach her.
"She's coping."
"Because she's crazy," Rae repeats.
"What do we do?"
"I've got this," I assure her, watching Nyelle continue to get worked up.
"Are you sure? Maybe we should wait for Maura." The concerned tone in Rae's voice makes me grin.
She cares.
And I like it.
"It's okay, Rae. Really. I've got this." I think.
Taking a breath, I walk toward Nyelle, leaving Rae at the corner of the house.
When I get close enough, I ask, "Who do you talk to when you do that?" Nyelle stops in the worn path she's making on the lawn, looking up at me in surprise.
"Oh, hi. What did you say?"
"When you do this, you know, walk back and forth, talking out loud. Who are you talking to?" She smiles uneasily.
"Me mostly. Sometimes Richelle. It's what I do instead of screaming, I guess." I'd figured that's what it was.
"I'm going home to see my parents tomorrow," she informs me, blowing out a quick breath.
"I'm a little nervous."
"Makes sense," I say, getting closer.
"Do you want to see them? You don't have to, you know."
"I know. I don't hate them, Cal. I just don't want to be like them." Her eyes dip when she adds, "Besides, where else do I have to go?" I'm about to tell her to come back with me. And she must know it, because she cuts me off before I can offer.
"We knew this was coming. I told you I had to leave. And I still do. I don't belong at Crenshaw. You know that." I nod, swallowing the bitterness in my mouth.
"Will you go to Harvard?"
"I don't know," Nyelle responds thoughtfully.
"That was always my dad's dream. I'm not sure if it's mine." With a sinking exhale, Nyelle sits on the ground and lies back on the grass. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do anymore."
"Well, you're Nyelle for a reason," I say thoughtfully, lying next to her on the cold, damp ground. I should have known it was going to be miserable down here.
"Because you wanted to start again." "Richelle wanted this life for me. For me to be happy.
That's all she ever wanted." I glance over at her. Her eyes are closed and her lips are trembling.
"I miss her. I miss her so much, Cal. It still hurts, and I don't know what to do without her." Nyelle chokes on a tearful laugh. "God, I don't want to cry anymore." I reach for her hand and hold it tight. Sharing the secrets that've weighed her down all these years hasn't exactly set her free. Nyelle is still lost and still hurting.
And I wish I could be the one to protect her from all the expectations that will keep her from being happy.
"You're not alone," I say quietly. She rolls her head to look at me, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.
"I know." A faint smile emerges. "You and Rae are my best friends. You always have been, even when you didn't know it. And I've missed you guys.
"And I'm so sorry I hurt you," she continues, her voice cracking.
"I never wanted to hurt you, I swear. So… please don't walk away from me, Cal. Things are going to be awful when I go back to Renfield. I know it, but I have to do it. So I need you to be my friend. I can't do this without you."
"Of course," I say, having a hard time forming the words.
I want to sink into the ground and let it swallow me whole.
She wants to be friends.
We were always friends.
But that's not exactly what I had in mind now. And I can't help thinking about what she said about falling backward in the dark. Well, I just landed in a pit of spears, and it f**king hurts. "I'm not going anywhere," I say, squeezing her hand as I redirect my attention to the clouds moving swiftly across the night sky. There aren't any stars to wish on tonight. I could really use a do-over right about now. With that spear jutting through my heart, I assure her, "I'm not walking away. I promise."
The next morning, I see them off to Renfield, staying behind with Zac and Henley to earn back the money I've spent on airfare . I still plan on buying that drum set for Rae. Hopefully, I'll be able to get it for her before she goes to Berklee, because I'm convinced she's going.
When I return to Crenshaw at the end of the week, everything seems… quieter. I know it's because Nyelle isn't with me. I enter the apartment, not really wanting to be here without her. But she has to figure out what's best for her right now. And I need to let her do that without any added pressure from me. I don't want to be another person putting an expectation on her. I open the door to my room and I falter, like something inside me just ruptured.
Strewn across my floor are thirty deflated balloons, with "You are loved," tied to each string. I sit down on the edge of my bed, picking up a blue balloon, silently blaming it for making me feel like shit. I take off my jacket and throw it on my desk chair, but it slides off and lands on the floor. When I bend over to pick it up, I notice a yellow piece of paper sticking out of the inside pocket. I actually didn't know I had an inside pocket until now. The paper is worn, like it's been opened and closed a hundred times.
After carefully unfolding it, I find, "Nicole and Richelle's List" and then in parenthesis next to it in another handwriting it says, "Ni-Elle." I laugh.
This is the list. There are little boxes next to each item. I smile wide, having been a witness to most of them.
"Hot Air Balloon Ride" is circled without a check mark.
And there are three question marks next to "Relive the Happiest Day of Your Life." Sitting on the bed, I continue scanning the checked boxes. Then I stop. The paper flutters within my shaking hands when I see the check mark next to: "Fall in Love (with Cal)."
Spring Break-Sophomore Year of College "Hi!" I just about drop the wrench that's in my hand when her voice echoes through the garage. Then I just about drop to my knees when I see her standing in the entrance. Her hair is back to its natural black, pinned in a messy bun at the nape of her neck. And she's wearing a short yellow dress, looking even more gorgeous than she did the first day I saw her, wearing that same shade. She's still the most beautiful girl I've ever seen.
"Hi," I say, clearing my throat, trying to find my voice.
"I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow." I haven't seen Nyelle since she returned to Renfield two months ago. Although we've texted or spoken just about every day, it still hasn't been easy for her.
Being back with her parents, she has to fight the expectations they try to put upon her, so she doesn't become that girl again. I hear the pressure in her voice sometimes when we talk, and I say whatever I can to make sure she doesn't give in.
Rae's probably a better help than I am. She couldn't stand the closed-off version of Nicole and lets her know it whenever she sees Nyelle slipping back into the perfected shell. Although I probably need to give my mother the most credit since she's the one who's introduced Nyelle to a psychologist friend of hers. Her parents have slowly come to terms with calling her Nyelle, since that's the girl she's always wanted to be.
But she did take back Bentley instead of Preston, Richelle's mother's maiden name.
And oddly enough, her parents are backing off on the whole Harvard pressure.
I can only imagine how hard it is for her father since it's been his dream since her conception. I look down at my grease-covered hands and back at the formfitting dress, cursing the world. Nyelle notices the distraught look on my face and laughs. I grab a rag and do my best to wipe my hands clean as Nyelle slowly approaches.
If she gets much closer, there's no way I'm going to be able to keep my hands off her.
"I had this whole thing planned for when you're supposed to arrive tomorrow night," I say when she stops to admire the motorcycle, running her hand along the blue flames on the gas tank. "And you can't do it now?" she questions, taking a few steps closer. I haven't moved. The way the dress hugs her h*ps is too tempting, and I don't trust myself. I look around the garage.
"This wasn't exactly where I wanted to do it."
"Then we can wait until tonight if you want." I wipe the sweat from my hands.
"I don't know if I can wait that long. It's been torture waiting this long."
"Then tell me where we'll be, when I arrive tomorrow night," she requests, closing her eyes.
"What?" I ask, confused.
"I'll picture it in my head," she explains with her eyes still closed.
"I arrive. It's dark. You come out of the cabin, then…" I take a breath, feeling my heart thrumming.
Here goes nothing.
"I take your hand," I begin.
"Ooh, I like this so far."
"I haven't done anything yet," I say with a chuckle.
"You're holding my hand," she counters, lifting her hand for me to take.
"My hands are dirty."
"I don't care about getting dirty," she says, still waiting with her hand extended.
I step closer so that we're only a deep breath apart and take her hand in mine-hoping she doesn't realize that it's shaking.
She smiles.
I stand in front of her, looking into her eyes, which are still closed, trying to imagine the shade of blue they'd be right now if they were open.
"Then we walk to the back of the cabin and lie down on the grass to look at the stars. And it's a cloudless night. There are so many stars it looks like someone scattered confetti all over the sky." She smiles wider.

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