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CHAPTER 1
DORITO CASSEROLE MAN

ELLE COKER WAS NOT A CREEP. She did spend her summer break in the back of grocery stores Reading older men's minds. But it wasn't creepy mind Reading; she was nineteen, had it all figured out, and just needed a rich middle-aged man to get her life started.

 

Let’s start over. It’s really not what you think.

 

Okay. A good place to begin would be a moment when Elle entered a grocery store, like Tap’s Grocery in Sorsbury, where she lived over summer break. 

 

(She lived in Sorsbury, not Tap’s Grocery, and she'd actually lived there most of her life, but her scholarship to GJC required her to live on campus in Greenville, the larger companion city to Sorsbury, so she’d moved there for the last two semesters.) 

 

When Elle entered a grocery store, it was all about her hair. Everyone's Readings saw nothing but orange. It was to the point that Elle was experimenting with headscarves, but in a small Texas town like Sorsbury, you got funny looks if you experimented with headscarves. Even more than if you were a redhead. So bare-headed was best.

 

The main thing was, for Elle, a grocery store was the easiest place to hide. Once everyone had seen her hair and gotten over it, she faded into the background while the true priority took over: grocery lists.  They were everywhere – they were the reason she didn’t hate Reading in the grocery store. Everyone’s minds stayed focused on their lists and recipes and thinking of what they had at home. It was easy to avoid Reading things that Elle didn’t want to see. Out in the ordinary world, making eye contact with someone could mean finding out they’d buried their pet dog earlier that day – or it could mean seeing herself as they saw her walking past, mirror-Elle in a stranger’s eyes, with every flaw and failure highlighted for her to see. Not stuff she wanted to deal with. But in Tap’s Grocery (or Walmart on Sundays, when the owner took his soccer-aged kids to church), she Read puddings and sandwiches and grocery budgets. And that was all.

 

So Elle visited Tap’s on Thursdays, when the store closed a little early because the owner's son had a soccer game, and he didn't trust the high schoolers he hired to lock up properly –  the owner, not the son, although Elle had run into him once (the son) and Read that he (the son) didn't trust the high schoolers, either –  and people were doing their weekend shopping. They had until seven.

 

Weekend shopping, for someone like Elle, who had the inside scoop on every passing mind, was like a window to the soul. You could see moms stocking up on snacks, people dieting considering a weekend splurge, college students trying to remember if the apples back home in the fridge had started to rot yet. And the men –  the ones Elle was after, though not in a creepy way, as previously mentioned –  shopped for beer, Frito pie, and pastries.

 

The pastries were crucial. This was why Elle settled in the back left corner of Tap’s, where the high schooler with a hairnet picked his nose over the cheese and thought about whether his pimple would dissipate before the friendly volleyball game that night, which the girl he liked would be attending with her ex-boyfriend. 

 

The pastries. 

 

They were varied and reheatable; they were dusted, glazed, stuffed, and swirled. Each package had a label on it with the same logo, and the bold, green “R” was echoed on the stack of business cards Elle carried into the back of Tap’s.

 

 With permission, of course. Mom had spoken to the owner.

 

What Elle did not have permission to do was what she did as a man approached the pastries with apple pie in his eyes. 

 

Ollie Blaese was a man who checked all the boxes. When he approached the deli around six-thirty that Thursday (“The store will be closing in thirty minutes,” an employee over the loudspeaker reminded everyone), Elle Read a Dorito casserole in his future, and an unhappy one at that. He’d eaten out too much, wanted a home-cooked meal, and hadn’t had the time to learn how to make his own food during his medical school residency.

 

Medical school?

 

Money. Big budget. Elle readied her business cards.

 

Elle shopped for budgets in the store like Ollie was shopping for Doritos. It was a necessary ingredient in her Solidify Elle’s Future Casserole:

 

Add one Mom, one little sister, and a Dad recently out of the picture.

 

Stir in Mom’s abandonment of a perfectly fine career at the bank to start up her own specialty German deli in the middle of a land filled with tacos and fried chicken.

 

Sprinkle with the fact that Mom used little sister’s college funds to start the business. 

 

Give it a hefty stir, then toss in a dash of Elle really wanting to leave Sorsbury, but the way things were going, she would be leaving Ericka (little sister) to end up homeless or working at a grocery store to pay off Mom’s debts.

 

Add a man with a stable career who’s looking for love. Looking for someone just like Mom. Such men are available in most local grocery stores. 

 

Bake at 350 for thirty minutes. Or something. Elle wasn’t sure what you did with a Dorito casserole.  

 

“If you like those, you should check out the shop,” she said to Ollie, and she handed him the card. 

 

Ollie straightened and squinted at her through square-rimmed glasses. He still had all his hair, and his face wasn’t bad, and it got better as he smiled.

 

“There’s a shop?” he asked.

 

“Yep. Relish, started by Helda Coker, a local.” Mom wanted people to call her by her maiden name, but Elle wasn’t doing that yet. “Authentic German cuisine, right here in Sorsbury.”

 

“Really?” he asked, delightedly. “I’ve been looking for a place since I went to Germany last year. It’s closed down of course, so I can’t go back anytime soon…. I will absolutely try this place out. Does she do more than desserts?”

 

“All kinds of things,” Elle promised. “Sandwiches and Wienerschnitzel and…”

 

“That’s unbelievable!” he cut her off. “That I haven’t heard of it, I mean,” he added hurriedly. “I’ll be sure to try it out.”

 

“The store will be closing in fifteen minutes,” an employee reminded them. 

 

“You won’t be sorry,” Elle told the enthusiastic Ollie Blaese. “Helda Coker’s the best the South has to offer.”

 

She believed it, too. The deli was amazing.

 

Helda Sieben? Not so much.

 

Ollie left, clutching his card and some strudel, and after waiting an appropriate amount of time (“Five minutes. Please make your final purchases now.”), Elle followed him out into the rapidly chilling summer evening.

THANKS FOR READING!

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