Neil stumbles into the bookstore because the sleet outside is enough to make running difficult if not dangerous. It's the only place on the block with its lights on that isn't a restaurant or bar, and as he doesn't have any money on him, a restaurant or bar probably wouldn't appreciate his patronage very much.
The bookstore is deceptively large on the inside despite a modest storefront. It's deeper than it is wide, and every available space is filled with shelves that are overstuffed with books. Neil makes his way through the nonfiction sections slowly—he's not much of a reader, but the titles jump out at him, books on climate change and American politics with ominous titles and books on world history plastered with the faces of dead dictators and just as dead democratic leaders.
He flees to the fiction section, where little white staff recommendation cards poke out at odd intervals. Most of the recommendation sheets are filled with cramped handwriting boasting about the merits of one book or another—this one has excellent characterizations, that one will make you cry, this other is paradigm-shifting.
But some of the cards are blank, containing only a title and an author. Neil chooses one of these recommended books at random and flips through it, trying to figure out why the employee recommended it, but—nothing. It looks as unremarkable as all the other books on the shelf.
The sleet hasn't lightened up, so Neil makes his way further into the store, down a staircase that leads to a basement filled with used and rare books. It's musty, like the air is rarely disturbed down there, too many shelves packed too closely together, giving Neil easy hiding spaces. Better, there's a section scattered with empty chairs. Neil sits down in one with the book and, despite the fact that he hasn't read a book since his mandatory freshman year American lit seminar, starts to read it.
It's immediately clear why the employee recommended this book. The setting is so perfect it's spooky; Neil buys into the premise after only one or two paragraphs. The characters are secondary to the setting—even the story seems secondary to the setting, some dystopian version of the United States ruled by theocrats who hate Muslims. He checks the publication date: 1985. Even Neil has to laugh at the uncanniness.
His phone rings, shaking him out of the brief reverie the book brought on.
“I told you not to go for a run in this,” Matt says. “Coach is going to murder you if you get hurt.”
“I took refuge in a bookstore,” Neil says.
One of the employees has come down the steps. He's even shorter than Neil, blond, expression as blank as the recommendation card next to the book Neil is now reading, and he's shelving books.
“What's the address? I can come get you,” Matt says.
“That's okay,” Neil says. “See you in a bit.”
“Neil, Coach is going to—”
Neil hangs up. The blond employee is still putting books away, shoving them imprecisely into the already tight shelves. Neil is suddenly certain that this book was his pick.
“Excuse me,” Neil says.
The employee ignores him.
Neil gets out of the chair and walks over. “Excuse me.”
The employee looks at him. Neil must look a mess, dripping melting ice all over the ancient carpet and probably doing damage to the structural integrity of the brand new book he's holding. He probably smells bad, too. Not the best impression to be making.
“Did you recommend this book?”
The employee glances at it, then back at Neil. He's not wearing a name tag.
“Yes,” he says.
“Why did you recommend it?”
“Why do you run when every meteorologist in the northeast says it's going to be the worst nor'easter of the season?”
“It's my job,” Neil says, then quickly amends it to, “I'm an athlete, I mean. Have to stay fit.”
“There are treadmills.”
He goes back to shoving books in shelves.
“It's good,” Neil says. “I don't read much, but I'll be back to buy this.”
“Buy it now,” the employee says.
“I don't have any cash on me.”
He doesn't seem like he's going to say anything else. Neil goes back upstairs to leave.
“Find everything okay?” the guy at the register asks him.
“Can you hold this for me?” Neil says. “I'll be back for it.”
“Sure,” the guy says. “Name?”
“Neil Josten. That's Neil with an e-i.”
The guy asks for Neil's phone number and address, too, though Neil can't think why he'd need it. Neil waves goodbye and calls an Uber.
They play okay, two wins and a loss, which could be worse but could also be better. When they get to Logan, Neil is wrapped up in his parka and several layers of clothing, expecting the worst and getting—the worst. It's more sleet, this time peppered with golfball sized hail, hammering against the roof of Matt's truck.
“I thought you liked this weather,” Matt says.
“I don't like freezing to death or dying in easily avoidable car accidents.”
“Why does everything always have to be about death with you?” Matt says, but he drives slowly nonetheless, and they get home safe and sound. “Look, you've got mail.”
Neil stoops to pick it up, a small rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and addressed to him. It's been years since he had to worry about it, but he's still shaken—who knows who sent him this—until he notices the return address.
“Did you order a book?” Matt says. “I didn't know you could read.”
“Ha ha,” Neil says. “Didn't you practically fail all your gen eds?”
“NCAA athletes get preferential treatment,” Matt says, winking. “Seriously, what is that?”
“I hate when you get cryptic.”
Neil lifts an eyebrow.
“Which is always, right, let me in, it's freezing—”
Neil digs his keys out of his pocket and opens the door. He makes a beeline for his bedroom even as Matt calls, “I'm starving, should we order something?” and unwraps the paper with shaky fingers.
It's the book from the bookstore, and it might be the same copy he was reading. There's a note attached in the handwriting that fills most of the recommendation cards: Andrew loves this one! Good choice – Nicky.
Neil sits down on the edge of his bed. There's water damage on some of the earlier pages, and yeah, that has to have been from his soaked body that day. He flips through to the page he was on, and there's another note there, this time in different writing: you messed up this copy, so we had to toss it. buy two more books to make up for it. It isn't signed, and Neil's no betting man, but he's sure this one is from that other employee, the blond one.
“I'm going out, actually,” Neil calls back, tugging his shoes back on and emerging from his bedroom.
“In this?” Matt casts a dark look out the window. “Who with?”
“Uh—no one, just want to do some shopping.”
“Shopping and reading? I thought I knew you.”
It's a joke—Matt only knows how little he actually knows Neil—but Neil doesn't laugh.
“Text me if you want anything.”
The bookstore is a ten minute drive from Neil and Matt's apartment, and somehow it manages to stay open until eleven every night. Neil parks a couple of blocks away and jogs up to the door.
It's the friendly cashier at the register again, tapping away at a computer but distracted when the bell over the door rings.
“Oh hey!” he says. “Neil Josten! We thought you'd never be back. Is bad weather like your bat signal or something?”
“We?” Neil says.
“Well, okay, I thought you'd be back. Nicky, by the way—you got my note in the book, I assume? Sorry for using your address, I swear we won't share it with anyone. I didn't realize you were, like, a big deal when you showed up here, but then Andrew said Kevin knew you and—”
“Kevin Day?” Neil says. “You know Kevin Day?”
“It's a long story,” Nicky says. He's smiling. “You probably want to thank Andrew. He's the one who bought you the Atwood.”
“Right,” Neil says. “Uh—where is he?”
Nicky's smile is a little knowing, Neil thinks, but he's not sure what Nicky thinks he knows.
“Downstairs. He's generally not on customer service.”
“Yeah, he's not very good at answering questions.”
Nicky's smile goes wider still. Neil decides he doesn't like him, chides himself for being unfair to the poor guy, and turns toward the stairs.
Sure enough, Andrew is down there, most of the way up a step ladder to put some books away.
“Hey,” Neil says.
Andrew glances at him, his face impassive, and then comes down the ladder.
“I wanted to say thanks,” Neil says, holding the water-damaged book up. “For this, I mean. And sorry for getting it wet.”
“I'm surprised,” Andrew says. “I didn't think professional athletes knew how to read.”
Neil forces himself not to smile: this is exactly the type of obnoxiousness he shouldn't be encouraging, especially from strangers.
“I like the book,” Neil says. “I actually bought a Kindle version and read it on my flight to Seattle.” And his flight to San Francisco, and from San Francisco to Chicago, then during the eight hour layover in Chicago before finally finishing it on the flight to Boston. “I don't really read, but I liked this.”
He expects Andrew to give him some bullshit snobbery about ebooks, but Andrew says, “Why?”
“Why did you like it?”
“I don't know. The setting. That feeling of like—displacement, even though they were technically in their own homes. The way the place you've lived your whole life can suddenly turn against you, like the place itself has any agency—like, the way we project that onto places.”
Andrew's blank gaze might betray a flicker of curiosity, but Neil can't be sure.
“I was still going to buy it from you,” Neil says. “Even though I bought the ebook. I just didn't have time to come back before we flew out, so I was going to hold off—but I'm here now, so. Do you have another book I can buy?”
“There are staff recommendations upstairs.”
“I know,” Neil says. “I'm not asking for that. I'm asking you what you think I should read next.”
Andrew pushes past Neil, back up the stairs. Neil follows him, unsure what to expect, but Andrew leads him to the fiction section and tugs out a book that doesn't have a card next to it. Orange cover, white writing.
“A classic,” Andrew says. “Educate yourself.”
“So you are a snob.”
“I work at a bookstore.”
Neil lets himself smile this time. “I'll let you know what I think.”
“I don't care what you think.”
“I'll let you know anyway.”
Neil buys the book, ignores Nicky's smile, and remembers to pick up food on his way home.
“Don't tell me you're turning into a nerd,” Matt says. “We're supposed to be jocks, Josten. And we're pro! We're like the only jocks who won in the Jock v. Nerd battle. It's like us, Brady, and the Mannings. Maybe Crosby, too. And they're all assholes! Come on, dude, you can't let the nerds win.”
“Not everything has to be a fight,” Neil says.
“I know,” Matt says. “It was a joke. Are you having an identity crisis or something?”
That startles a laugh out of Neil—his identity has always been a mess, but Matt doesn't know the half of it.
“I'm just reading a book,” he says. “Normal thing to do.”
“Sure,” Matt says. “Right.”
But he stops asking questions after that.
They're huddled close together on the bench outside the bookstore—Andrew smoking, Neil holding a cigarette in his cupped hands—when Neil says, “You have good taste in books,” and Andrew turns toward him, exhales smoke right into Neil's face, draws Neil toward him with hand at the back of Neil's neck, and says, “Can I kiss you?”
Startled, and then sort of startled by the fact that he isn't really that startled, Neil says, “Yes.”
Andrew hesitates for only a moment, then kisses him, slow at first, careful, like he's not sure Neil really means it, and then when Neil kisses back—earnest and inexperienced, because even though he's old enough to have done this he hasn't wanted to since he was living in Canada and he kissed that girl and almost immediately suffered the repercussions—when Neil kisses back, Andrew's intensity multiplies, less like he's trying to figure Neil out and more like he's on a warfront and Neil's the only person who can keep him there.
Neil goes home after, can't keep his fingers away from his mouth, and tries to figure out what exactly he's just started.
you start, Neil says from a flight to Buffalo.
why do you have brown eyes in pictures from college?
Neil writes a lengthy text recounting hiding from his father and his father's subsequent messy death and sends it before he can lose his nerve, then asks, you could've played professional exy according to kevin. why don't you? and worries his story will have put Andrew off.
because exy is stupid & dedicating your life to a sport is boring
and running a bookstore isn't?
exy's never going to love you back josten
yeah well neither is ernest hemingway
When Neil's in a hotel room in D.C., he receives, where's your mother?
dead, Neil texts back. where's yours?
never had one.
And Andrew does, a few sentences that have Neil thinking Andrew definitely murdered his biological mother for laying hands on his twin. Neil hesitates for only a moment before replying, she probably deserved it.
i hate you, Andrew says, and Neil grins at nothing and no one.
Matt says, “Who are you talking to?” like he could possibly know, and Neil says, “No one. Shouldn't you be Skyping with Dan?”
“Fuck, I always forget to account for time zones when she's in the midwest—” and sprints off to the bathroom with his computer.
When Neil's in Boston again—only a night, strictly on exy hours—Andrew texts, new york's goalie is bad in the box, so you can usually get around him by trying to walk it in
It takes the breath out of Neil's lungs. He scores a hat trick that night.
“Miss me?” Neil says. They're in the basement, just them, Nicky upstairs doing inventory or whatever it is he does during slower hours.
“You destroy books and you're a slow reader,” Andrew says. “Not my favorite customer.”
“Who's your favorite customer?”
Andrew looks bored.
“It's just us down here,” Neil says. “And that ancient copy of Moby Dick, but—”
“Don't read that,” Andrew says. He hooks a hand in the front of Neil's shirt, drawing him close. “You wouldn't like it.”
“Too long anyway,” Neil says. “I'm not a nerd.”
“Keep your hands to yourself,” Andrew says, then, when Neil shoves both his hands in his back pockets, leans forward. “Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Neil says.
Andrew kisses him, all heat, fingers tight enough in Neil's shirt that Neil feels unstable on his feet—or that could just be this, Andrew's mouth against his, only partially hidden in the basement on a beautiful spring day. Andrew comes up for air, or maybe gets distracted by something, and Neil kisses Andrew's neck to see what will happen and is rewarded with Andrew's immediate reaction, head thudding against the bookshelf behind him, eyes sliding shut. Neil makes a mental note of it.
They're cut off, eventually, by Nicky loudly declaring that he's coming downstairs. They're mostly hidden behind bookshelves anyway, and Andrew keeps a hand fisted in Neil's shirt until Nicky leaves, but it's as good an excuse as any to stop.
“I have to get back to practice,” Neil says.
Andrew lets go of him, looks anywhere but at Neil's face.
“Go,” Andrew says. He's breathing heavily, and his hair is disheveled, and Neil has definitely left a mark.
Neil goes, takes a moment upstairs to collect himself, ignores the curious look Nicky sends his way.
“Buying anything today?” Nicky asks.
Neil chooses something at random from the new arrivals list, pays for it, and gets in his car.
Before he drives off, he sends Andrew a text: do you exist outside of that store? lets get dinner while i'm in boston
Neil's finished practice, showered, had dinner, and sat through most of a movie with Matt before he gets a response from Andrew.
ok is all it says, but that's enough to make Neil grin at his phone.
“Seriously,” Matt says, “who are you texting?”
“Guy I like,” Neil says, almost by accident, and appreciates the way the remote control falls out of Matt's hand.