What If

Page 7


"Hook-ups or girlfriends?"
"I've dated all of them."
"All?" I bury my hands in my front pockets again and keep walking with my head down, avoiding the accusatory tone.
"What happened? What was wrong with all of them?"
"Nothing really.
Except for Carly, who ended up being a psycho.
But they're usually really nice.
It's just…" I shrug and attempt to pick up the pace, wanting to get to the Student Union faster so we can stop talking about the girls I've dated.
"Then why did you end things, because I'm assuming you ended it."
"Usually," I say, barely audible.
"So…" Nyelle pushes, not letting the subject drop.
She stops walking just as we're within sight of the doors.
"Tell me.
What happened?" I turn abruptly to face her and blurt, "They weren't who I needed them to be, okay?" She examines me thoughtfully.
"Needed them to be? What is that supposed to mean?" I groan.
"Coming from the girl loaded with cryptic responses? I think I'll leave it at that." I keep walking without bothering to see if she follows.
"Cal, tell me," Nyelle begs from beside me as I search for an empty table.
"Who do you need them to be?" I don't answer her.
I notice a couple of guys sliding out of a booth and walk over to claim the table before anyone else can.
Nyelle sits down across from me as I set my backpack on the bench.
"Are you hungry?" I ask.
"I haven't had breakfast yet." She recognizes my avoidance and urges carefully, "I'm not judging, Cal.
I swear.
I'm interested in understanding why you've left a wreckage of broken hearts across campus." I scoff, and her lips curl up into an innocent smile.
"Tell me, please.
Who are you looking for?"
"I'll be back," I say, needing to stall this interrogation and decide if I'm willing to explain what I meant when I was a little too honest.
I grab a couple breakfast sandwiches and a bottle of water, returning to the table to see her eagerly waiting for me with her chin propped on folded hands.
Against my better judgment, I confess, "I'm looking for the girl I'll regret if I let her go." Nyelle ponders thoughtfully for a moment.
"Your what if girl.
I like it."
"My what?" I ask with a bite of the sandwich in my mouth.
"Your what if girl.
You serial date so you don't regret passing these girls up, in case one of them is her." I shrug.
"I've never really thought about why I date them.
Only why I don't stay with them."
"Has there ever been a girl who got away?" I lean back in the booth and meet her intense gaze.
I hesitate before answering, unable to be completely honest.
Not really."
"Not even from back home? Where are you from, anyway?" It takes all my effort not to choke on the food in my mouth when she asks this.
I'm doing everything I can to think of her as Nyelle Preston and not Nicole Bentley, and then she asks a question that brings it all back, and I can't help wanting to ask her what happened to her.
But what if I scare her off and never see her again? It's already hard enough not knowing when I'll see her.
I don't want to blow it by asking the wrong question too soon.
I have to wait until she's ready to tell me.
"I live in a small town in northern California, outside Sacramento." I can't look at her when I say it.
It feels like I'm the one lying.
You're far from home.
Why would you choose Crenshaw?"
"It's a good school," I say, without really answering the question.
I could tell her I wanted to get away from my family, but I don't.
I like my family.
I could say they specialized in my major, but I still don't have one.
"Truthfully, I was supposed to go to UCLA, but… I changed my mind at the last minute." She smiles like I've revealed something interesting.
"You made a random decision that could affect the rest of your life, just… because?"
"I guess." I shrug.
"Did you serial date in high school too?" I burst out laughing.
If there's anything at all she should remember about me, it's that I was far from the most desirable guy in school.
Sure, I had a few girlfriends over the years, but… I continue to play along.
"No," I answer with a shake of my head.
"I was… a lot different in high school.
I didn't realize how much until I went back home this summer." * * * A red Jeep stops at the end of the driveway, and Craig Mullins pulls himself up by the roll bar and hangs over the top of the door.
"When'd you get home?" he hollers over the music blaring from the stereo.
"A couple hours ago," I yell back.
"We're heading to Carter's.
Wanna come?" I look to Rae sitting next to me on the puke-orange and shit-brown plaid couch just inside her garage.
She shrugs.
"The most happenin' spot in Renfield is the ice cream place.
Pathetic." She pushes off the couch and walks down the driveway toward the Jeep.
I follow her.
"How's my little Rae of sunshine?" Brady asks from the driver's seat as Rae climbs into the back.
She flashes Brady her middle finger.
"As cheerful as ever.
Nice." Craig shoots me an odd look when I slide in next to her.
"What the hell happened to your hair, Logan? Did you start your own boy band or something?" I don't bother answering, pushing back the hair hanging in front of my eyes .
I didn't plan to grow it out.
I've always kept it short.
My senior year it was basically buzzed.
But I just haven't bothered getting it cut since leaving for Crenshaw, so now it's a flipped-out mess.
"Working for your uncle this summer?" Brady asks, driving out of the neighborhood.
"Yeah," I answer.
"What are you guys up to?"
"Same as every summer." Craig turns around to talk to us.
"Landscaping for Parker's dad and drinking beers at the lake.
Dude, you look… different."
"Uh, okay," I reply dismissively.
"Rae, heard about your chick band," he adds.
"Playing any gigs yet?"
"We're still working on material," she tells him.
"Well, you can play at any party I throw this summer," Brady says, looking at us in the rearview mirror.
"Yeah, if we want to play for crickets," Rae scoffs.
"Hey! I throw killer parties."
"Any party in Renfield is a good party," Craig says with a laugh.
"This town's too small for everyone not to show up." Ten minutes later, we're pulling into the dirt parking lot of Carter's Ice Cream.
This was the place everyone wanted to work in high school.
The most popular kids got their friends hired here each summer.
So basically… I never worked here.
It's crowded, as it usually is this time of year.
As we approach, I'm trying to prepare myself for the high school reunion that's about to happen.
"Save the picnic table," Rae says as a group leaves.
"I'll get you a cone." Brady sits on top of the table next to me while Rae and Craig stand in the long line.
"Have any epic hook-ups?" Brady asks.
I'm too distracted by the miles of tan skin walking straight toward us to answer.
I feel like I'm watching one of those women's razor commercials, boasting smooth, touchable skin.
It even seems like they're walking in slow motion.
Except for Neil Talbert trailing behind them, who might as well be dragging his knuckles.
My eyes flick from face to face.
Something isn't right.
Nicole's not with them.
"Hey, Brady," Heather says as she approaches.
"Who's this?" She scans me up and down, not attempting to be subtle about it.
"Uh, this is Cal, Heather," Brady tells her like she's crazy.
"Cal Logan." She tilts her head, confused.
"He graduated with us," Brady adds in disbelief.
I run a hand through my hair to sweep it out of my face, trying not to appear as awkward as I feel.
I don't think I remember you," Ashley says from beside her, gliding her eyes over me as well.
Heather dismisses her comment with a flip of her hair.
"You definitely need to come to the party at Gosland's End tonight."
"Where's Waldo!" Neil bellows as he comes up behind Ashley, grabbing her ass.
She jumps and swats his arm.
"Keep your hands off me, Neil," she says in disgust.
Then she redirects her attention to me.
"That's you? Well, you've… grown up." Her suggestive tone makes me wonder what the hell is happening.
The first three years of high school, I was a good five inches shorter, wore round, black-rimmed glasses, and was scrawny and smaller than everyone.
Neil used to ask, "Where's Waldo?" wherever he saw me, and it eventually caught on.
That stupid-ass saying followed me to every party in high school.
It wasn't funny then, and it sure as hell isn't funny now.
I've never hit anyone, but I've always wanted to punch that smug look off his face.
"Waldo, what happened to you? You've packed on some muscle.
You roidin' or something?" Talbert asks.
"Stop being a douche, Talbert," Craig says, returning to our table and handing Brady a milk shake.
"We all know you're the only one with the roid issues.
We've seen how small your dick is and that ain't natural."
"Fuck you, Mullins." Talbert takes a step toward him with his fists clenched.
"Don't start acting like a man now, Neil." Vi laughs.
"You know he'll kick your ass." He shoots her a glowering look and walks off.
Vi rolls her eyes.
Everyone knows they tolerate him only because Nicole dated Kyle for the last three years of high school.
Except… Nicole isn't here now.
* * * Because I'm pretty sure she's sitting across from me pretending to be someone else.
"Where'd you go?" Nyelle asks, pulling me out of the memory.
I want to ask her the same question.
"Just thinking," I answer dismissively.
Nyelle suddenly shoots her arm in the air and waves frantically.
I turn to see whose attention she's trying to get as Tess pushes through the double glass doors.
She smiles when she sees us.
"She likes you, you know," Nyelle says quietly, leaning across the table.
"I know," I respond, watching Tess weave her way through the Union.
"Don't let her be another of your victims," she warns.
"I'll hurt you." I turn around, and Nyelle's eyes steady on mine.
She's serious.
"Wasn't planning on it," I assure her, not backing down from her stare.
"Hey, guys," Tess greets us, breaking our silent showdown.

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