What If


Page 6


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Then she'd play with Cal and Rae after lunch.
I tried not to be too sad about it, but I was.
I could hear them laughing, or Richelle and Rae arguing like they do, from my backyard.
I'd try to ignore them and do other stuff so I felt busy.
I'd help my mom stick flowers from our yard in vases, put things away in the house, or get dinner ready for Daddy.
The weekend was the hardest because Cal's family had a cookout.
They invited us, but we had to go visit my grandma.
There aren't any kids where my grandma lives.
Only other old people.
Now that it's finally Monday, I can't wait to see Richelle.
I stand by the trees, waiting for her.
I really want to go over to her house to ask for her to come out, but my mom says it's not polite to invite yourself over.
Even though I'm inviting her to my house.
But my mom still won't let me.
When Richelle finally jumps down her steps, I begin to smile, until she starts walking the other way, toward Cal's house.
She almost trips over her shoelace, so she stops to tie it.
When she looks up, she sees me.
I don't say anything.
She waves.
"Hi, Nicole! Guess what?!" She sprints over to me, her ponytail whipping around.
"The tree house is finally done.
Cal's dad had a bunch of family over this weekend, and the guys helped finish it.
Wanna come see it?" I open my mouth to say yes, because I'm excited to see it too.
But then I look down at my pink dress and white shoes and shut my mouth.
"I… uh." I want to tell her how I'm not supposed to get dirty, that ladies don't belong in the woods.
But I don't want her to think I'm saying she's not a lady.
I don't want to hurt her feelings.
Richelle takes my hand.
"C'mon." She practically drags me to her house.
"I should tell my mom that I'm coming over," I tell her, looking back at my house over my shoulder.
We enter her house, and her mom comes out of the kitchen.
"Hi," she says.
"You must be Nicole.
I'm Mrs.
Nelson, Richelle's mom."
"Hi," I say, folding my hands in front of me.
"Richelle brought me over, but I need to make sure it's okay with my mom first."
"I was actually going over to visit anyway.
I'll let her know you're playing.
Richelle, where will you be?"
"The tree house," she says.
"Um," I say, my heart beating really fast.
"I don't…"
"It's okay," Richelle assures me.
"Mom, Mrs.
Bentley doesn't like Richelle to get dirty.
So I'm going to let her borrow my clothes so she doesn't get in trouble.
Okay?" I can't believe she said that to her mom.
Mrs.
Nelson smiles.
"I understand.
That is a pretty dress.
And the woods aren't the best place for white shoes.
Go ahead." Richelle rushes up the stairs, and I hesitate, looking back at Mrs.
Nelson because I'm still not sure I won't get in trouble.
"I won't tell, okay?" She winks.
I smile.
"Okay." I climb up the stairs just as Richelle yells, "Nicole, are you coming?!"
Chapter Four
I drag my feet to the kitchen, pulling a baseball hat low on my head.
"Man, you look like hell. What did you do last night?" Eric asks, perched on the counter, eating a bowl of cereal.
"I couldn't sleep.
I kept having these crazy dreams," I tell him, trying to hold on to the broken images of the night I heard Nicole screaming at her parents.
It's slowly starting to come back to me, but not enough that I can make any sense out of it yet.
"I need to get to campus to finish my accounting assignment before class."
"Put an extra shot of espresso in your coffee." I cringe.
"The last thing I woke up to was Carly pushing me into a swimming pool–sized cup of scalding coffee.
I think I'll pass."
"Yeah, that's going to last all of five minutes," Eric scoffs.
Then he asks, "So the house is having a party Saturday.
You want on the list?"
"I guess," I mutter, not really caring about my weekend right now.
"I'll see you later." I shove my arms in my jacket and grab my truck keys off the nail in the wall on my way out the door.
Ten minutes later, I'm suddenly aware that I'm driving to Bean Buzz.
I'm on autopilot and don't even realize where I'm going until I'm almost there.
I haven't seen Nyelle in a week.
And it's not because I haven't been looking.
I don't know where this girl goes.
But it's nowhere near where I am.
I'm thinking she's avoiding me.
So the last thing I expect to hear while standing in line for my coffee is, "Hi, Cal.
Any chance I can get a ride with you today?" I'm so tired I think I'm hearing things.
"Cal?" I turn my head and find Nyelle looking at me oddly.
"You okay?" Maybe she's not avoiding me.
"Oh, hey.
Just need coffee," I answer, inching forward in line.
"Uh, yeah, I can give you a ride."
"Great! Thanks," she chirps and flops back down on the leather chair with an oversized coffee mug in her hands.
I step up to the counter.
"Hey, Mel.
Could I get an extra shot of espresso in my coffee?" She doesn't respond.
Instead she looks at the cup she's holding with my name scrawled on it and back at me with a deadly glare .
"Sorry.
I didn't mean to throw you off."
"Oh, it's no problem, Cal," she says without an ounce of sincerity, dropping my cup in the trash beside her.
She nods to the pickup section of the counter, like she's shunning me.
She's kinda freaking me out.
I step behind a guy in an overcoat and wait for my order.
I can't remember the last time I've had to wait.
And I continue to wait even after the three people who were standing behind me in line pick up their drinks.
Obviously, this is my punishment for not being predictable.
Lesson learned.
When I finally walk away with my cup, Nyelle is standing behind me.
"What took so long?"
"Don't mess with Mel," is my only response.
"Are you ready?"
"Yup," she answers.
I realize she's not carrying anything, unless it's under her coat.
And considering she's wearing a huge down jacket that looks big enough for a pro-linebacker, that's a possibility.
The brown coat falls to her knees and covers her hands completely.
Her arms swish when she walks, reminding me of the full-body snowsuits we wore when we were kids the few times a year it actually snowed in Renfield.
"What have you been up to?" I ask as we get in the truck, trying to sound casual but wanting to know where she keeps disappearing to and why I can't find her.
"I don't know," she says with a shrug.
"I've been doing stuff." She's not going to make this easy for me, I can tell.
"What's your major?" I ask after we pull away.
I'll settle for knowing any information, even if it has to be lame.
"I haven't decided yet."
"Me either," I tell her, then wait to see if she'll contribute.
Nothing.
She's killing me.
"Where'd you go to school last year?" It's hard to believe she could've attended Crenshaw without me seeing her at least once.
She'd be hard to miss.
"I spent the year traveling the world." I have no idea if she's telling the truth.
"The world? Really?" I ask doubtfully.
"Yup." Nyelle reaches deep into the pocket of her jacket without explaining and pulls out a bag of red licorice.
She strips one apart from the pack and offers it to me.
I shake my head.
"Breakfast?"
"Nope.
Just a habit," she replies, sticking the red strand in her mouth.
I give up.
We're not really having a conversation-just a string of incomplete sentences.
And I'm too tired and out of it to translate.
So we drive the rest of the way in silence.
When we reach campus, the caffeine from the coffee is finally kicking in, but I'm already looking forward to the nap I'm planning to take after accounting.
My next class isn't until tonight, so I could potentially sleep all afternoon if I wanted.
Right now, that doesn't sound like a bad idea.
"I'm going to the Union if you want to come," I offer after we park in my assigned spot.
"I have to get the rest of my work done before class."
"I don't have anywhere else to be," Nyelle replies with licorice hanging out of her mouth.
"Then why did you need a ride to campus?" I ask.
"Because I knew you were driving here," she replies, which really isn't an answer.
Why do I keep trying? The cold November air whips around us as we head across campus.
I toss my coffee cup in the trash and stuff my hands in my jacket pockets, cursing myself for forgetting gloves.
"Oh crap," I mutter when I spot Corinne walking in our direction across the courtyard.
Before I can explain, I duck into the entryway of the law library.
Nyelle takes my lead and leans against the arching brick that covers the entrance.
"Is Psycho here, armed with coffee?" she asks in a mocking whisper.
"No," I grumble.
"It's not Carly." Nyelle attempts to peek.
"Please don't." She looks at me, questioning.
"Okay." I realize how stupid I look hiding from another girl, but I can't handle Corinne's overly bubbly enthusiasm right now.
I don't have the energy.
"Another ex?" Nyelle smirks.
I clench my jaw and lower my eyes with a slight nod.
"Wow, Cal.
How many do you have? And how long does it take you to walk across campus if you're hiding in alleys and doorways the entire time?"
"It's not like that, okay?" I attempt to explain.
"Corrine isn't bad.
She's a sweet girl.
But whenever she corners me, I'm stuck listening to her talk about everything she's been doing since the last time I saw her.
I just… was trying to avoid it this morning."
"This is sooo much better," she says, leaning against the building and looking up at me with teasing blue eyes.
"Trust me.
It is." When Corinne finally passes us, I sigh in relief.
"Okay.
We can go."
"Really, how many are there?" Nyelle asks, stepping out into the courtyard.
"And do all their names begin with C?" I know she's enjoying this, but I can't say I am.
I really don't make a habit of hiding from my exes, although I do avoid them when necessary.
Nyelle just happened to be around to see it… twice.
This isn't exactly the impression I wanted to make.
"I don't know," I answer evasively, unable to look at her.
"There's been a few, I guess."
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