1 GEEKING OUT
YOU GUYS,” MY BROTHER’S GIRLFRIEND, Jones, suddenly gasped, staring at her phone with her mouth hanging wide open. “Oh. My. Gosh. Did you know—”
“That the whole cast of Mercury Man will be there, signing autographs?” Frank finished, then pulled off the Garden State Parkway, following the exit for Atlantic City. “Yeah, but unfortunately, it’s a ticketed event. We would have had to get our tickets, like, six months ago. And we didn’t even know each other then!”
Jones beamed at him from the passenger seat (“Girlfriends automatically get shotgun,” Frank had told me with some regret as he’d kicked me out of the seat when we picked up Jones) but
shook her head, her straight black hair, cut just below her chin, barely moving. “I can’t believe we’ve only known each other for a month. Like, was there ever a time we weren’t together? But no . . . I was going to tell you that Breakwater Comics is going to have a booth.” She pressed a button to put her phone to sleep and placed it in her lap. “Tiny little comics store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but they have this amazing website. The owner is almost more like a curator than a straight seller—he finds some amazing stuff.” She let out a satisfied sigh, settling back in the seat and looking straight ahead. “I’m going to check out his booth, like, first thing.”
“After we go by the Hellion booth to get our free comic,” Frank said with a smile. “Remember? They’re only printing it for this convention.”
“Oh my gosh,” Jones replied. “I can’t believe I almost forgot. There’s just so much to get excited about!”
In the backseat, I cleared my throat. “Like lunch!” I put in. “Remember, you guys said we could check out the boardwalk. I want to get some saltwater taffy.”
That might sound a little childish. But saltwater taffy, especially consumed on a boardwalk, just minutes after it was pulled, is freakin’ amazing. That’s a fact.
Jones turned back to me with a slightly surprised look, like she’d forgotten I was there. “Oh, of course, Joe,” she said. “The Comic-Con is in Boardwalk Hall, which is right there. But maybe after we do all the time-sensitive things at the convention.”
What am I doing? I wondered. I waited until she turned around before frowning out at the flat sandy land that bordered the Atlantic City Expressway. How had I, Joe Hardy, Relatively Cool Guy, ended up spending the first Saturday of my spring break driving to a comic book convention in Atlantic City with my older brother and his girlfriend? Surely there were cooler things I could be doing, like—well, anything.
It’s not that I don’t like comics, or, more specifically, comic book movies. I went to see Wonder Woman and Black Panther like everyone else, and I will admit, they were totally awesome. But unlike Frank, I don’t have whole boxes of comic books hidden under my bed, and I can’t spend hours debating with you which Doctor Who was the best or whether the campy Batman television series from the 1960s should be considered “canon” or not.
Know who can, though? Jones.
Jones isn’t bad. I mean, she’s pretty cool. She’s really friendly and never seems to have a problem with my hanging out with them, even if I sigh loudly and roll my eyes every time they start to act mushy. She’s also supersmart. She’s probably smarter than Frank. Jones is homeschooled, which means she helps set her own curriculum and decides what she wants to study. So she has a wealth of knowledge about random, obscure topics, and she can spend hours telling you interesting facts about octopi (that’s more than one octopus, FYI) or the history of Barbados or who assassinated James Garfield (it was this weird guy named Charles Guiteau—look him up).
Yeah, Jones is pretty cool. The thing is—ever since Frank met her at a book signing last month, he and Jones have been inseparable. I wake up on a Saturday morning, and whereas Frank and I used to laze around on the couch watching Netflix until noon, now Jones is there, and she’s brought over some obscure DVD of a Danish movie about a shark person. And she and Frank are, like, making clever little quips to each other about this extremely depressing Danish movie about a shark person, and I’m like, “Hey, wanna watch Stranger Things again?” and Frank is like, “Maybe some other time, Joe,” and then Jones offers me popcorn and I just want to punch something. Or also, like, yell, Don’t you have a home?! which I know is unfair and not the nicest way to treat a cool person like Jones.
See, it’s not usually like this. Usually I’m the person bringing girls around, or bagging on plans with Frank to hang out with a girl I like. Which maybe means I should be more understanding, but also means that I’m just not used to having to share Frank with a girl. And—honestly—I kind of miss the guy. Usually, it’s the Frank and Joe show, all the time, everywhere, with the two of us teaming up to solve mysteries and eat lunch together and make clever in-jokes about Stranger Things on a Saturday morning. So it’s not bad that Frank has found someone he really likes in Jones—I get that.
It’s just . . . different.
But it’s cool. I’ll get used to it. I want to get used to it.
Which was why, when Frank came home a couple of
weeks ago all jazzed that Jones had told him about this Comic-Con (not the huge Comic-Con, but a small, local one) that was happening in Atlantic City, which was within driving distance from our house, I asked if I could tag along.
Frank, bless him, was like, “Yeah, Joe, that would be awesome!” He seemed genuinely excited, maybe because I have a tendency to fall asleep when he tries to tell me cool stories from his comic books.
And I will admit—I was kind of supposed to be studying for the SAT, which I was going to take for the second time a week from today. According to my parents, this spring break would be an “excellent opportunity to really drill down and study hard.” To drive this point home, my mom went to the library and borrowed approximately 3,684 SAT prep books for me to study. Who even knew you could take out that many books?
Anyway, I don’t love studying. Who does, when it’s a beautiful spring day and the sun is shining?
So here I was. In a car. Headed to Comic-Con with my brother and his girlfriend.
Who were making moony eyes at each other.
“Frank, watch the road!” I yelled.
Frank turned back to the highway just in time to notice a Volkswagen swinging into the lane ahead of him. “Whoa! Where’d he come from? Anyway, Jones, did Harper text you?”
“Who’s Harper?” I asked Jones. “Friend of yours from the Last Names as First Names Club?”
She snorted and shook her head. “Very funny, Joe. No, she’s a girl I know from the InkWorld online community.” She lifted up her phone again and began scrolling through it. “Oh, yeah. She texted about half an hour ago, I forgot I had my phone on silent. She says she can meet us on the boardwalk when we get there—near Sandee’s Frozen Banana Shack. It’s right across from the hall where the convention is.”
I pulled out my phone and Google Mapped it. “Ooh, it’s also right across from the Fiorelli Saltwater Taffy shop,” I said.
“Perfect!” cried Jones, turning around to me with a bright white smile.
“See,” Frank said, pulling off the Atlantic City Expressway, “I can just tell this is going to be an amazing day. There’s something for everybody!”
• • •
“Oh. My. Gosh! I can’t believe it!”
Jones, Frank, and I were wandering through the con-related crowd, around the off-season snack shops and souvenir stands—some open, others closed—when Jones suddenly cried out and took off.
I couldn’t say anything, because my mouth was filled with saltwater taffy. Peanut butter, by the way, is by far the best flavor. But Frank looked at me and nodded in the direction Jones disappeared in, like, Shall we follow her? I nodded back, like sure.
We passed through a big group of middle school girls,
who were all comparing their superhero costumes—most popular component: tinfoil—and emerged to find Jones hugging an older girl. The girl was in her midtwenties, maybe, with a big smile and long, wavy auburn hair tied back with a black-and-white scarf. She was wearing a T-shirt that said I AM WONDER WOMAN, THANKS FOR NOTICING.
She was cute, I couldn’t help but observe.
Jones let the girl go, and the girl—Harper, I was guessing—looked around the boardwalk with a furrowed brow like she was searching for someone. Then she quickly turned back to Jones, all smiles.
Hmm, I thought. Wonder who else she could be looking for?
“It’s so amazing to meet you in person,” she told Jones. “I feel like I know you already! You always make the best comments, and we’ve had all these long private conversations.”
Jones grinned. “You’re like my online sister,” she said. “Which is way better than a real-life sister, because I don’t have to share a bedroom.”
Harper laughed, shaking her head. “That’s so funny,” she said, “because my boyfriend, Matt, always jokes about how he’s sharing me with you and all my online buddies.”
Boyfriend. Well, there it was. Even if I could somehow convince Harper to fall for a teenager, she was taken.
After introducing Frank and me to Harper, Jones gestured to the entrance to the convention hall, teeming with other comic fans, some in costume, some not. “Shall we go?”
she asked. “The earlier we get in, the more free stuff there’ll be for the taking!”
Harper nodded. “Let’s go,” she said.
Frank grabbed Jones’s hand and squeezed it, beaming like Stan Lee himself just called up and asked him out to dinner. “I can’t wait,” he said. “You guys, this is the best day.”
And just like that, a little of my crankiness evaporated.
Even a cool guy like me couldn’t argue with something that made my bro this happy.
• • •
The convention was more fun than I thought it would be. Especially since I didn’t know anyone there and could geek out with my geeking-out crew.
We walked through a whole interactive exhibit one company had put up to promote their new movie, Mercury Man, and even though we hadn’t gotten tickets to the panel discussion, Frank managed to snap up a signed copy of the poster at one dealer’s booth. “I’m going to hang it over my bed,” he announced, his big smile making him look a lot like his twelve-year-old self.
Then we checked out the sellers’ floor, which was huge enough to spend a week in. We strolled lazily along the aisles, splitting up to check out things that interested us and then catching up with one another. Harper was way into indie comics, so she disappeared for a while into this booth that was filled with indies from all over the country. And Jones was a huge TornadoGirl fan, so she spent a long time
talking to a woman who had a booth dedicated to that character. This woman even made her own collages inspired by the series, which Jones thought were really cool.
And me? Well, I found a lot more exciting stuff than I expected to. I got lost for a while in this graphic novel booth, poring over books based on characters I’d never heard of before. It was crazy how deep they got, how dark some of them were. I ended up buying three to check out later.
“Having fun?” Harper asked me with a grin when I caught up to her outside the graphic novel booth.
“I am,” I admitted. “Kind of more than I expected to.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I remember my first convention. I thought I’d find maybe a couple things I was into, but the whole thing was just amazing. It was like this portal into a world I’d never known existed, but where I wanted to disappear.”
I wouldn’t go that far, I almost said, but clutching my bag of graphic novels, I had to admit I didn’t know. Maybe I would get way into the comics-geek lifestyle. Maybe next year, it’d be me in a tinfoil costume!
But probably not.
As we walked down the aisle to catch up with Jones and Frank, who were talking to what looked like a droid, Harper glanced to the side and suddenly flinched. She stopped and turned back, staring at whatever had spooked her and looking for a second like she was going to duck down another aisle. But then her expression smoothed out, and she stood
up to her full height again, striding casually back over to me like nothing happened.
“Um, you okay?” I asked, looking pointedly from her to the direction where whatever spooked her was.
She shook her head and let out a little chuckle, which sounded (to my trained detective ear) a little fake. “Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “It’s going to sound stupid. I’m crazy afraid of mice, and I thought I saw something scurrying along the floor.”
Except you were looking at something person-height off the ground, I thought, not at the floor.
I almost said something, but then I wondered if I was the one being weird. Solving mysteries all the time can make you turn everything into a mystery. Maybe Harper was scared of something, or someone. Or maybe she just thought she saw an ex-boyfriend and didn’t want to talk about it. Really, that was the more likely option.
“There’s Frank and Jones,” I said, nodding at a booth just ahead of us. “Should we catch up?”
“Sure,” said Harper, and began hurrying toward them. I sped up too, but then Harper paused to look at some vintage Batman stuff the vendor next to the droid-guy was selling. I kept going, because Frank had turned around and was waving me over.
“Can you believe this?” he asked, gesturing to the shiny silver robot, which looked like it was watching Frank with a polite expression.
“Is this your friend?” the robot asked in an electronic voice. There was a musical beeping sound. “Based on the similarities in your facial features, I predict that he is your brother.”
Frank laughed. “Oh my gosh, yes!” He looked at Jones, who was standing just on the other side of the robot, watching the whole scene, giggling with delight. “This is Joe.”
“Joe . . . Hardy,” the robot said, turning its flashlight eyes on me. They dimmed, then slowly lit back up, like it was taking me in. “Approximately . . . sixteen years old?”
Now I was weirded out. “Frank, did you tell it that?”
Frank shook his head. “No. Well, I told him our names. But he figures everything else out himself, because he’s been programmed with top-of-the-line facial recognition software.”
I glanced at the robot, which was still facing me, its eyes fully lit now. Then I moved away, frowning at Frank. “It kinda creeps me out.”
Frank laughed. “Why?” he asked. “He’s just a harmless robot.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. “Maybe its job is to collect data and sell it to marketing companies or something.”
Jones raised her eyebrows. “That’s a very valid concern, Joe, but I don’t think we have anything to fear from FriendBot here. Sometimes people just use technology for fun!” Then she frowned, looking behind me. “Where’s Harper?”
“She was—” I moved even farther from the robot, gesturing to the booth where Harper had paused to look at the Batman stuff. “Huh. That’s weird. She stopped right there. . . .” I scanned the other booths nearby but still couldn’t find her. In fact, now I didn’t see her on the aisle at all.
Frank said good-bye to FriendBot, and then we all moved away from the booth into the aisle. “Maybe she had to use the restroom or something?”
“I guess . . . ,” Jones began, but she was cut off by a youngish guy with a blue-dyed buzz cut wearing a military jacket, who suddenly materialized in front of us.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but did I see you earlier with a girl about so high”—he indicated about five foot nine—“with long reddish hair and pink lipstick?”
Frank expression’s turned suspicious, but if Jones had any concerns about this guy, she didn’t show it. “Yeah, I think that’s my friend Harper,” she said. “Have you seen her? We seem to have lost her.”
The guy smiled, shaking his head. “I was going to ask you the same thing. See, I was hoping to introduce myself. Well, we’ve been talking online for a long time but I’ve never met her in person. We both post on this online comics forum called—”
“InkWorld?” Jones asked, excitedly reaching out to touch the guy’s arm. “Omigosh, who are you? My username is JonestheAvenger!”
“Oh, wow!” The guy’s eyes lit with recognition. “We
comment on each other’s posts all the time! I’m ComiczVon. I mean, Von. Von is my real-life name.”
Jones laughed. “And my real-life name is Jones. This is my boyfriend, Frank, and his brother, Joe.”
Von looked at each of us, nodding.
Jones sighed. “I wish I could introduce you to Harper,” she said, “but we seem to have lost her.”
“Yeah, what a bummer,” Von agreed, looking down at his shoes. “I really . . . I would have liked to meet her. Anyway, can I give you my card to give to her? I’m a comic-book dealer, and I live right nearby. Maybe we could meet up before she leaves.”
“That would be fun,” Jones said enthusiastically, taking the guy’s card. “Have you had a good convention?”
“Really good,” Von said. “Yeah, it was great to meet you. I have to run now, I have to meet up with a vendor, but maybe I’ll see you again?” He gestured to the card.
“Sounds good,” Jones replied. “Enjoy the rest of the con!”
The guy darted off down the aisle, and Frank, Jones, and I all looked at one another, like What do we do now?
“I guess we could just keep looking at booths for a while,” Frank suggested. “Harper might turn up again. And if not, at least we’ll get to see more.”
Jones and I agreed, and the three of us continued our slow-and-casual walk up and down the aisles, pausing to look at things, separating and meeting up again. But something was nagging at me, keeping me from getting really
interested in anything I saw. What happened to Harper? I couldn’t help but think of the fear on her face when she saw whatever it was she saw earlier, the thing she claimed was a mouse.
After another half hour or so, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker. The convention was closing in fifteen minutes. It would open again tomorrow at ten, but we’d only bought tickets for today.
Frank groaned, but Jones shrugged. “We should probably be heading back anyway,” she said, but her eyes were darting all over the convention floor—still looking for Harper, I figured. “We’ve seen about everything there was to see. This was fun!”
But her voice was missing some of the enthusiasm she’d had that morning. I had the feeling we were all wondering what happened to Harper. Even if she’d just wandered off and gotten involved in something else—wasn’t she even going to say good-bye?
We slowly made our way to the exit, pausing to use the restrooms and watch the trailer for a new science fiction series debuting next fall. We walked out the door onto the nearly dark boardwalk, which was gusty and cold, despite it supposedly being spring. March in the Northeast is the worst.
“Does anybody remember where—?” Frank began, but before he could finish, a purple-coated auburn-haired figure dove out from behind a lemonade stand and tackled us.
“You guys!” Harper cried. “I am so, so sorry I lost you. I
had to take a call from my boyfriend, Matt—he’s a worrier. So I went outside for some privacy, but when I came back, you guys were gone. I couldn’t find you.”
That seemed a little weird, because the three of us had stayed in the same aisle for a while, waiting for her. I suddenly remembered the way Harper had looked around the boardwalk when we’d first met her—skittish, almost, like she was afraid someone might see her. I thought of Von, and the card he’d given Jones. Had Harper ducked out to avoid him, maybe?
Was someone after her?
But before I could think on that too much, Jones pulled the card out of her pocket and pushed it at Harper. “Omigod, you will not believe who I just met—ComiczVon from InkWorld! He was totally nice, and he just missed you—he really wanted to say hi. So he gave me this card.”
Harper reached out and took it, looking down at the information with a thoughtful expression that I couldn’t quite read. Was it scared? Or just curious?
“Maybe we could meet up with him for dinner!” Jones went on, clearly excited. “I’m starving, actually. I heard there’s a good Mexican place one town over. We could give Von a call, tell him to meet us there?”
Now Harper’s face changed. For just a second, she seemed to pale. But at just that moment, the lights on the boardwalk came on, casting blue light on everything. Had she really turned pale, or was it just the changing light?
“You know,” she said, her expression turning back to its usual friendly self, “I’m actually kind of beat. Is that awful, to be this antisocial? But I would like to keep hanging out with you guys—and maybe get something to eat.” She slipped the card into her pocket. “I can send Von a note tomorrow. Maybe we could meet up before I leave.”
Jones nodded. “Sure, no problem! We could all get Mexican, just the four of us?”
“I have an even better idea.” Harper’s eyes sparkled in the bluish light. “I rented a place for the night—just a UrMotel apartment a couple towns over. It’s actually pretty great, it’s on the beach, and it has a TV and stuff.” She smiled. “What if we just go there and order a pizza? We can relax, hang out, and chill for a while.”
“That sounds great,” I said, maybe a little too quickly. But honestly, she had me at “pizza.” My stomach let out an enthusiastic growl.
Jones chuckled. “Well, Joe is in,” she said, smiling at Frank. “What do you think?”
“Sounds good to me,” he said. “We’ll need to get on the road in a couple hours, but it sounds like the perfect end to a perfect day.”
And surprisingly, I totally agreed with my brother.