What If

Page 8


"What's going on?"
"I'm here to help you study!" Nyelle exclaims, jumping up from the bench.
"Wanna go to the library?"
"Uh, sure," Tess replies slowly, obviously surprised by this.
I didn't think you had time."
"Change of plans," Nyelle tells her.
"See you later, Cal.
Thanks for the ride." I nod.
Tess waves bye as they head toward the stairs that lead to the library.
I pull out my accounting assignment, but I can't concentrate.
I keep thinking back to the little information Nyelle shared about herself this morning, wondering if she really was traveling last year.
And what would bring her to Crenshaw? There were only so many coincidences I could accept before I didn't believe in them anymore. RICHELLE August-Before Fourth Grade "Cal and Rae are meeting us at the tree house," I yell back to Nicole as I race across the street.
I'm starting to wonder if she knows how to run.
I stop on the sidewalk and wait for her to catch up.
"Let's pick some flowers first to make it pretty."
"Okay," she answers, tugging at the pair of my shorts she's wearing.
She does that a lot too.
I think she's never worn shorts in her life.
She also borrowed a T-shirt and my mom bought her a pair of sneakers-although she doesn't know that.
She thinks the sneakers are mine too.
My mom didn't want her to feel bad.
I don't know how she's going to run around in gym without sneakers.
Maybe she really doesn't run.
It's weird.
But she's my friend, so I don't care.
I skip through Cal's yard, toward the woods, and start picking the wildflowers.
I really like the white daisies the best, so I get as many of those as I can.
Nicole picks some pink and purple flowers.
It's not easy to break the stems.
Some come right out of the dirt by their roots.
I shrug.
They still look pretty.
"I love flowers," I tell Nicole, sniffing them-except they don't really smell.
"My mom lets me help with her flowers," she tells me.
"She belonged to a garden club where we used to live, and I'd go sometimes.
There were so many beautiful flowers there."
"I think I like wildflowers best," I explain.
"They just grow wherever they want.
No one has to plant them.
And then their seeds blow in the wind, and they find a new place to grow." Nicole stops to think about it and nods.
"I think I like wildflowers best too." I take the flowers from her hand and run into the woods, stopping a couple times for her to catch up.
It's hard waiting, so sometimes I just run back and catch up with her before running ahead again.
She's definitely not in a rush to get anywhere.
When we finally get to the tree house, Rae is sitting on the ground, leaning against the tree, with Cal standing beside her.
"Finally," Rae huffs, standing up.
"Cal, can we go up now?" Then she sees the flowers I'm holding.
"No way.
You are not putting flowers in the tree house.
It's a fort, not a dollhouse." I ignore her and start for the ladder.
She steps in front of me, crossing her arms.
"Come on, Rae.
Get out of the way!" I demand.
She doesn't move.
"Cal, tell her that I can put flowers in the tree house." I turn toward Cal.
He looks to Nicole.
"What do you think?" Nicole looks from me to Rae.
I'm afraid she won't say anything because she doesn't talk much… ever.
"Richelle was excited to pick them for the tree house.
I think it will make her sad if she can't." I smile.
"Rae, let her put the flowers in the tree house," Cal says.
He's used to being the tiebreaker, and usually whatever he decides is what happens.
Otherwise, he doesn't really care what we do-as long as we're not playing house or dolls.
"Come on, Nicole," he says to her.
She walks in front of him, and he waits for her to start climbing before following.
"Fine," Rae grumbles.
"They're going to die anyway."
"And then I'll just pick more," I snap back.
I start up the ladder.
Cal looks down at me and I smile back up at him.
Chapter Five
"Excuse me." I look up and realize there's a line of people trying to get out of the row and I'm still sitting.
The screen of my MacBook is dark.
I have no idea what happened during class because I spent the entire time wondering when I'd see Nyelle again.
And now… it's over.
I'll have to borrow notes from the guy who sits next to me.
"Sorry," I say to the girl shuffling by.
I snap my computer shut and grab my bag.
I'm still thinking about Nyelle as I follow the drove of backpacks through the exit.
I get anxious each time she walks away.
I hate not being able to get ahold of her.
I'm at the mercy of her random appearances, and it sucks.
Last time, it was a week before I saw her again.
I wonder how long it'll be this time.
I push through the double doors into the blinding sunlight.
Now that we're nearing December, the temperatures can fluctuate between arctic and a crisp fall day.
The weather's cooperating today, and I only need a sweatshirt.
It actually feels like Renfield's weather, which reminds me, I should probably check on Rae to see how she's dealing back home.
I know she feels trapped there .
But she'll be here soon enough.
I pull out my phone but hesitate when I notice the wavy brown hair bouncing next to me.
Nyelle's walking alongside me.
Where'd she come from? "Hi."
"Hey," she responds casually.
"Two days in a row.
That's… unexpected," I say.
"Are you keeping track of when you see me? Aw, Cal.
I'm flattered." She's teasing me, and now I wish I hadn't mentioned it.
I'm about to cross the street when she takes a left.
"Where are you going?" I know she would've kept going if I hadn't said something.
Nyelle pauses and turns around.
People continue to pass between us, making it difficult to see her.
"The Frosting Tree.
Wanna come?"
"Sure," I answer warily.
I've never heard of it.
I cut through the steady stream of pedestrians and continue walking with Nyelle as she leads us away from campus.
She's wearing the big brown jacket again, despite the warm day.
"Aren't you hot in that jacket?"
"I'm not wearing anything underneath it," she replies flatly.
My eyes widen.
She laughs.
"Wow, Cal.
I was only kidding.
I need this jacket, and I'm wearing a tank top underneath.
But thanks for your concern." I press my lips together and nod.
We cross a street that takes us off campus and into a residential neighborhood.
I don't spot anything that resembles a store or a restaurant.
"Where is this place?" I ask when we cut down another street.
"Not too much farther," she explains.
"When's your next class?"
"In about an hour." I follow her down another street.
"Here we are." Across from us is a large park with a baseball diamond, basketball court and playground.
I'm trying to figure out where the Frosting Tree is when she walks in the direction of a bench.
Maybe she changed her mind.
I'm about to sit on the bench when she approaches the tree behind it.
She sticks her foot into a deep V where the main branches split and grabs ahold of the branch above her head to hoist herself up.
My mouth opens, but nothing comes out.
Nyelle continues to climb up another five feet before looking down.
"Are you coming?"
"You want me to climb a tree?"
"You don't have to, but I am.
Besides, when was the last time you climbed a tree?"
"Uh, not since I was a kid.
And where we… I'm from, they're mostly huge evergreens.
Not too climbable."
"C'mon," she encourages one more time.
"Climb a tree with me." I look around to see if anyone's watching.
This is crazy.
But I follow after her anyway, up the tree.
Nyelle picks a thick branch toward the top to sit on, and I choose a sturdy-looking one across from her, keeping hold of the limb above me.
I never thought I had an issue with heights, but the fact that I can't see the ground through the crisscross of branches and that we're higher than the power lines is making my palms a little sweaty.
"I like it up here," Nyelle says with a deep breath, like she's at the peak of a mountain, taking in the view.
She has her back against the bark, with one leg resting on the branch and the other dangling.
"This is a great place to think."
"How often do you do this?" I ask, eyeing a group of kids approaching the tree, dribbling a basketball.
They continue to the court without noticing we're above them.
"Think? Only when I need to," she replies sarcastically.
"Nice," I respond.
"No, how often do you climb this tree?"
"This is my first time."
"You've never been here before? But you seemed to know where you were going." This girl continues to confuse me.
"I knew there was a park over here," she explains.
"So I figured there would be a frosting tree too.
The perfect tree to sit and… reflect on life."
"Another first for you, huh? This on the list too?" She nods.
"Why do you call it the frosting tree?" I ask.
She thrusts her arm, elbow-deep, into her jacket pocket and pulls out a tub of vanilla frosting.
"I like to have something sweet while I'm thinking."
"Of course you do.
I should've known." I shake my head with a laugh.
"And that's why you're wearing the huge jacket-to carry your groceries.
What else do you have in there?"
"What else do you want?" she responds with a smart-ass grin.
She pops off the plastic cover and peels back the foil before dipping a finger in and removing a huge glob of white frosting that she plops into her mouth.
She tilts the container toward me.
I hold up my hand.
"I'm all set."
"Try it," she insists.
"It'll make being up in this tree so much better." I hesitate another second before giving in, scooping out a conservative helping.
When I put it in my mouth, Nyelle notices my expression.
"Good, right?" I nod.
"You were right.
The tree makes so much sense now."
"I love frosting," she says dreamily, ignoring my sarcasm.
She scoops out another helping.
"What could you eat every day without getting sick of it?" After swallowing down another fingerful, I answer, "Cereal.
I'm convinced I could eat it for every meal."
"You're such a guy." Nyelle laughs.


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