Today's Reading

Neil's supposed to be in West Virginia. Not Grand Junction. It's just like him to show up 'today'. I should drive to the football stadium and wait on Martin with my mom. Neil would understand. He's witnessed more than one of Mom's panic episodes. Instead, I arrive back inside and accept a fist bump from my coach as his wordless and semi-unenthusiastic encouragement for a long practice today.

We step into the bustling kitchen and the aroma is threefold: onions, barbecue, and bacon. 'Heaven will smell like this', I think. I say to Parson, "The Walther Cup is three weeks away. What's he doing here?"

Neil, like me, is a Three-Position Air Rifler. The Walther is a major tournament. Even though he's already made the Olympic team, I can't believe his university coach doesn't have him on the range this weekend.

"You'll have to ask him," Parson says with a coy wink, eating up this reunion. My coach is of the opinion that I shoot better when I'm not distracted, and I've been quite distracted since Neil and I broke up.

"Parse, don't start," I say, weaving around the delivery boxes on the floor. "Hey, speaking of people being in unexpected places, why were you on the range today instead of at school? You weren't supposed to be here until four."

I shrug. My day was a doozy long before Mom melted down and my ex came home for the weekend. Knowing he won't get an answer, Parson leads me through the swinging door and out into the crowded room. I don't recognize any of the diners. They must be out-of-towners because everyone from Grand Junction is headed to the football game.

Neil's slumped in a booth in the corner, his right hand in his lap, his left sliding a saltshaker back and forth across the knotted pine. My phone buzzes against my thigh, begging me to answer Mom. I weave in and around the tables, reaching him before he notices. His eyes are locked on the saltshaker. I clear my throat. He lifts his chin, and the expression in his eyes is so sad I almost throw my arms around him. Instead, I say, "You didn't mention you were coming in this weekend."

"Oh, I promised Astrid," he says, attempting a weak smile, his jaw locked.

I want to ask what's wrong or if maybe he's in pain, but since I might be the cause of the injury, I keep my mouth shut.

Eight hours is a long way to come for a marching band solo, but he's always been a great big brother. He'll need a shower before the game. Phew. I can smell the dirt and sweat from here. There's mud ground into the skin of his forearms and water lines on his pants from where he's been wading through the marsh. When I look closer, dried crimson lines the creases of his hands and hides under his nail beds.

"You look like a hobo," I tease. "I mean, you should maybe Clorox the blood off your coveralls before you head to the game. Or at least wash your hands."

He almost grins and then looks up for the first time. "You could do with a shower too, Michaels. How long have you been on the range today? Fifteen hours?"

Neil's use of my last name makes us smile. We both glance toward the bar, where my coach and Neil's former coach stands, pouring himself a drink. We watch a vibrant tension fill his handsome face. Probably there because of us. Or more specifically, me. He needs me at my best, and I'm far from it. He catches Neil and me watching him and gives me an encouraging nod. A nod that means something between a coach and athlete. 'Do what you need to do here so you can do what you have to do on the range.' I translate the particulars: 'Get back with Neil or get over him.'

Parson's not much on feelings.

He's a man in need of results. If results require feelings, he'll muster them. Otherwise, he wants performance. My ability to understand this makes us a great team. And it's how he managed to build this restaurant when he was so young. To this day, Parson's Landing is the only establishment in the country where you can order two bacon-wrapped quail grilled to perfection or deep- fried water moccasin tenders in a velouté sauce. A fancy magazine wrote an article recently titled "Parson's Landing: Where Camouflage Meets Culture." Around here people say 'bougie rednecks' with pride. On the range when I miss, Parson yells, "Luce, focus. I want you on the cover of 'Magnolia Magazine' with the headline 'Farmhouse Olympian Strikes Gold.'"

"He hasn't changed a bit," Neil says. "He misses coaching you."

Neil starts to say something and then stops.

"Well," I say, turning back to the booth, thinking Mom is going to kill me if I don't answer her soon.

"Well," Neil repeats.

There's a long pause. Long enough I have to think of what to do with my hands. "Astrid's going to be great tonight," I say, trying to find a natural way to exit.

"She always is."


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