Stay Center

by Shannon J. Curtin

Stay Center by Shannon J. Curtin This is supposed to be 16-year-old Paige Race’s year. Paige knows it, her best friend and teammate Savannah (Van) Raguzzi knows it, and even her coach thinks she’ll earn the league title. But when transfer superstar Keith Nicholson beats out Van for a place on the team, Paige’s plans are, well, shot to hell. And Keith? He just happens to be the same arrogant and annoyingly attractive shooter who beat her last year (and was a giant ass about it).

All Paige wants is to beat Keith for the league championship and keep her friendship with Van as strong as ever, but with Van off the team and in the arms of a sketchy new boyfriend, their once effortless friendship becomes strained. With the pressure mounting, Paige’s dream of competing at the collegiate level becomes a real possibility and a scholarship for the league champion adds even more ferocity to the competition. The more time Paige spends at the range with Keith, the less time she has for Van (not that she notices). Worst of all, the more time she spends with her former rival, the less loathsome she finds him.

When Van doesn’t make it to the winter dance, Paige is forced to make a choice that could cost her the league championship title, her budding romance—even the friendship she’s desperate to save.




Contemporary Fiction / Romance


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Available May 21, 2024

Chapter One

I rest my finger on the trigger of the .22 rifle, barely touching it as I slowly exhale. A puff of warm breath evaporates into the frigid air. The sights of my rifle settle perfectly, creating a thin wisp of white around the black dot of the bullseye. There, at the bottom of the exhalation, at the slim point of complete bodily stillness, I pull the trigger. Bang!

“Perfect shot, Paige,” Coach Bea calls from the spotter’s table a few feet behind me.“Make them all look like that. You have ten minutes left on the clock. Plenty of time.”

I reload, making sure my body stays as still as possible as I lay prone on the shooting mat. The rest of the world disappears as I settle into a rhythm, aligning shot after shot as I send nine more rounds fifty feet downrange. This sport is the one part of my life unaffected by anything or anyone else. It’s just me, my breath, and my rifle. On the firing line, my anxiety falls away. I’m in complete control, and perfection is as achievable as it is necessary. As the last round slices through the paper bullseye, I slowly come back to earth, and my body. I begin to notice my surroundings once again. The soft din of people milling about, the damp metallic scent of the range, and I wince, the now familiar numbness of my left hand. As the buzzer signals the end of the relay, I sit up and shake out the pins and needles-the result of twenty minutes spent motionless in a stiff, fingerless shooting glove.

“Excellent!” Coach says, abandoning the spotting scope to beam at me from the cocoon of her bright pink down-lined coat. Short, blonde, and petite, Coach Bea is a dead ringer for Tinkerbell. The Stay Puft marshmallow man layers of her coat almost swallow her whole.

“So? Am I safe?” I ask, pulling off my safety glasses and ear protection.

“That’s a strong ninety-eight, maybe ninety-nine,” Coach says. “The cut-off for making the team is usually mid-nineties.”

“Don’t even pretend you’re worried, Paige Race!”

My best friend Savannah Raguzzi snaps her gum from the busted leather couch in the back of the room. The raggedy loveseat is only about twenty feet from the firing line in the six-lane range building. Unlike the fancy ranges of other schools in the Pennsylvania high school rifle league, ours isn’t on campus. Instead, we beg the local shooting club for time in their small, drafty building across town.

I offer a weak smile, “Don’t jinx me, Van!”

Every season is a brand-new opportunity, and a strong previous season doesn’t guarantee your spot the next year. We all have to re-earn our place on the team. No one can afford a bad day during try-out week, but I think I’ve managed to dodge a proverbial bullet. Try telling that to my anxiety, though. I swear the only time I am not slightly anxious about school or money or my lack of social standing are the minutes I spend on the firing line.

“Raguzzi, you’re up,” says Coach, “and spit out that gum.”

Van springs to her feet and punches me lightly on the arm. “Junior year is your year! Redemption! Keith Nicholson is going down!” She winks as she shows me the bright blue contraband gum stashed beneath her tongue.

I shake my head at her theatrics as I pick up my rifle from the firing line, bolt open, barrel safely pointed toward the ceiling. I would never admit it out loud—I’m way too superstitious—but that’s exactly what I hope to do this season: beat Keith Nicholson for the league title and the attention of the Ohio State rifle team and work my ass off to make sure I can dorm with Van, just like we’ve planned.

“You’re pretty peppy for someone who just dropped a six-a-day Mountain Dew habit, Van,” I say with a smirk. I’ve been off caffeine since Halloween in preparation for the season, but Van hasn’t followed suit.

Van’s heavily lined green eyes grow wide in feigned shock. “Lies, coach, she lies! It was never six a day. Five, tops.”

Coach sighs. She’s used to our schtick. “You’re terrible, Raguzzi. Don’t complain to me when your aim is shaky. Your relay is up next.”

Van holds out her fist and I pound it out.

“Shoot straight,” I say.

“Stay center,” answers Van before she turns to take her place on the firing line.

I pull my dark, wavy hair out of my lucky shooting pigtails and fluff it back around my shoulders before weaving through the gun cases, duffle bags, coats, and gloves littering the small swatch of floor behind the firing line. Since the team started five years ago, Coach Bea has amassed gear to fit everyone from the tiniest girl to the most lumbering defensive lineman. Everyone is equal on the shooting line; all that matters is consistency and self-control. And safety, of course.

Before an aspiring new team member is allowed to step foot in the range, they have to spend an entire Saturday in a classroom learning gun safety procedures and signing zero-tolerance policies.

I put my ear protection back on when Coach Bea announces the next round of shooting is about to begin and flop down on the couch to wait for Van. There’s a handful of kids in the range, most of whom I know, and a few people nod to me or say hi. I wave politely back and pull out a textbook, too nervous to strike up a conversation. It’s so much easier to talk to people when Van’s around.

The late afternoon sun throws thin, spindly shadows on my Algebra II notebook through the old double-hung window as the minutes pass. I’m trying to concentrate, but it’s impossible to quiet my brain. The rifle team is the only sport in our high school that makes cuts, and the competition is fierce. Coach only carries twenty kids on the roster. Returners like Van and me have a slightly higher chance of making the team than newbies, but everything comes down to try-out performance and attitude.

I raise my hands above my head, reaching for the sputter of slightly warmer air from the rickety heater. My fingers are still cold from my relay. It’s mid-November and already freezing in the old cinder block range building. The buzzer sounds and the shooters stand up. When she turns around, the look on Van’s face makes my heart sink.

“Let’s get out of here before I stink up this entire place,” she says, ripping off her glove and ear protection and stuffing them into her duffle bag.

“Oh no, what happened?”

“I don’t know. Everything just felt wrong today.” Van sighs with a shrug.

“I’m sure you did fine,” I offer, but it’s more prayer than confident statement. Van’s been my best friend since middle school, and I know her better than anyone. If she doesn’t think she did well, it’s probably worse than I imagine.

While Van moves her gun back to its case, I pick up some of the discarded jackets and slings and stuff them back in their bags. Coach Bea mouths a thank you at me and I shrug it off with a smile. As soon as our gear is packed, we say our goodbyes. We have to clear out of the range so other shooters have the space for the next few hours of tryouts. We walk out into the cold night air toward Van’s beat-up beige Buick, the scent of gunpowder following us out the door.

“Was it really that bad?” I rub my hands together to keep warm as Van climbs into the car from the passenger side and shimmies behind the steering wheel. The driver’s side door has been broken since June. It’s not like Doctor and Mrs. Raguzzi would hesitate to get it taken care of, but Van doesn’t care enough to bring it up to them. She says it’s quirky. The shower in the tiny two-bedroom house my mom and I share has been held together with poster board and duct tape since I was eight, and it’s more annoying than quirky, but I guess it’s easier not to care about broken things when you can afford to fix them.

“I choked,” says Van, resting her forehead on the steering wheel. “I think one of those bullseyes is a seven.”

Oof. A seven is bad. Even for try-outs.

“I’m sure it’ll be enough to make the team. You can’t be the only one who choked.” I hope I sound confident as I climb in after her.

“Whatever.” She shakes her head a few times, as if she can Etch-a-Sketch erase the memory. “Where should we eat? I’m starving.”

“Ray’s Diner? I could go for a burger. I’ll buy you a feel-better milkshake. I still have some birthday cash left.”

Van cracks a smile.

“Yes, please. Chocolate peanut butter meltdown. A big one.”

Van revs the engine as a green diesel truck comes to a stop at the edge of the gravel parking lot. As we pass, I glance inside, but the passenger seat is empty.

“Who’s that?”

“Who cares,” says Van. “Probably some freshy getting dropped off by his daddy.”

“Nah, it’s got to be an upperclassman.” When you live in a town as small as Brunswick, you know what everyone drives, and I’ve never seen this truck before.

“So, someone got a big stupid truck. Big deal,” Van scoffs.

“Uh oh, here we go. Hangry Van is coming out.”

I make a show of tightening my seat belt as Van speeds down the tree-lined road.

“That’s right. You better buckle up,” Van teases back.

The opening notes of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” hum through the speakers, and I grin at Van. This is the first song we ever sang together, terribly off-key on Van’s karaoke machine, after Ali Winter made me cry in seventh grade. Van turns up the volume. As we cross over the bridge back to the center of town, Taylor Swift’s voice is almost completely obscured, relegated to back up on her own track.


* * *


The next morning, I sit bleary-eyed at the faded yellow table in our small eat-in kitchen and wait for my phone to turn on. Coach always posts the official team list at the crack of dawn, and it’s the only morning all year I don’t need to use my ear-splitting retro alarm clock. Mom refuses to let me keep my phone in my room at night because, as she says, “teenagers and two a.m. texts do not mix.” It’s super lame, but my phone is so ancient it charges better when it’s off anyway, so I don’t mind so much.

I click open the email gadget and exhale a silent prayer while I scan over the list: Juan, Nate, and ugh, Ali. I was hoping I’d get lucky and not have to deal with her this year, why that girl hates me so much I’ll never know. Then I spot my name. I breathe a little easier for a millisecond, but right beneath my name is the one name burned into my memory since last season.

Keith Nicholson.

It can’t be him. There’s no way. It has to be some other Keith Nicholson, some freshman with the unfortunate luck to share their not-really-that-uncommon name with my nemesis. I read through the rest of the list, a mix of familiar and new names, but one is glaringly missing. My heart sinks. There’s no Raguzzi. I text Van immediately.


Hey. Did you see the email?




I can’t believe you didn’t make it. I’m so sorry. (Are you ok?)


It’s fine.

It definitely isn’t fine. I mean, I know there’s no guarantee, but still. It seems so unfair.


What am I going to do without you?!


Did you see who else made it?


Ugh, I know. Ali. Again. I will never be rid of her.

Another season of backhanded compliments and watching Ali Winter pretend to be sweet, now without Van to keep me sane. Awesome. Van and I have always been a set at practice and at matches. We barely interacted with the rest of the team. We never needed to since we had each other. With Van gone, who will I hang out with now?


And your old pal Keith Nicholson. Emerson’s Keith Nicholson.

My stomach sinks. Shit.


No way. How do you know it’s him?


Brenden told me. He said there was a new kid from Emerson in his gym class. Sometimes my brother is good for something.

I sit back so hard my chair skids across the floor, the noise amplified by the early morning hour. I cringe in anticipation.

“Paige!” shouts my mom from her bedroom, “I just got to bed!”

There it is. I knew it was too loud.

“Sorry!” I say. And I am. My mom’s been working a lot of doubles at the hospital lately and I know she’s exhausted. I’m also slightly annoyed. It’s not my fault there’s a nursing shortage. And she’s not the one whose entire life just got upended by a singular email. My world is slowly collapsing in on itself. My best friend, the girl I’ve been shooting alongside since freshman year, the entire reason I started shooting in the first place, didn’t even make the team. Instead, Keith Nicholson, the unsportsmanlike asshole extraordinaire who barely beat me last year, decided to leave his fancy school to slum it in Brunswick and take the spot on the team that should have been Van’s. I get to start my junior season shooting on the same team as my biggest rival...without my best friend to back me up. A seed of worry and sadness starts to bud in my stomach. The season hasn’t even started and in a way, it feels like it’s already over.


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