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Miriam rolled up the sleeves of her too-large work shirt and stood with her hands on her hips, staring at the towering bookshelf in front of her. Someone had been messing with her carefully alphabetized comic book display. Mir eyed the disaster before her: memoir comics by Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel shoved next to various X-Men trade collections, early volumes of Naruto carelessly shelved beside arty French comics. There was even a copy of a popular kids’ graphic novel stuffed between two copies of From Hell, a bloody retelling of Jack the Ripper. With a sigh, Mir tugged the kids’ comic off the shelf and stared at the cover. A round yellow smiley face stared back, grinning. Smile, said the comic’s title. Mir frowned at it.
“Don’t tell me to smile,” Mir muttered. She placed the comic on a nearby shelf and started pulling out the other mis-shelved comics, stacking them in neat piles. Superhero comics to her right, science fiction and horror comics to her left, slice of life and memoir in the middle.
The bell above the Emporium of Wonders’ front door jangled. Mir looked up, her hands full of the latest run of Uncanny X-Men. A teenage boy about her age was stepping through the door, looking around curiously. Mir beamed her best smile at him.
“Welcome to the Emporium of Wonders, Sandford’s one-stop entertainment shopping spot! If you need help with anything—” Mir glanced down at the piles of comics surrounding her. She was practically walled in.
“Uh, well, just yell if you need help. My boss is in the back, he can give you a hand. Or I’ll find a way, somehow,” she finished, gesturing at the stacks of books. The boy nodded, his gray eyes crinkling in amusement. He stood in the store’s entrance, staring at the displays in front of him. Mir didn’t recognize him, which meant he was probably a tourist. It was only the last weekend in April, early for tourists in Sandford, but Mir knew most of the locals her age. Sandford was a very small town.
“This place is … interesting,” the boy said. Mir followed his gaze around the store. The Emporium of Wonders was technically a bookstore, but recently its owner (and Mir’s boss), Berg, had decided he wanted to sell toys and games alongside the books, so the inventory could most kindly be referred to as a mishmash. One half of the store was bright and gleaming, superhero action figures and limited-edition vinyl toys stacked neatly on clear glass displays. The book section was shabbier—Mir waging her personal war against improperly shelved books—and slightly dusty paintings of lighthouses and seascapes hung along the back wall. The paintings were all by local Sandford artists, those who weren’t quite good enough at painting lighthouses and seascapes to earn a spot at the small galleries down on the waterfront.
“Yep,” said Mir cheerfully. “If there’s a book or action figure or comic you want, we’ve probably got it. We have all kinds of things.”
The boy took a step forward. Instead of heading into the shiny, toy-centric section, he walked toward the wall hung with local artwork. He stopped in front of a painting of a battered boat at sea and peered at it. The boy’s back was to Mir, his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. He was tall, and bent forward at the waist so he could better see the paintings. Curious, Mir stared at the back of his head. Paintings of artfully distressed maritime objects from the Canadian East Coast were popular among a certain kind of Sandford tourist, but this boy didn’t look anything like that demographic.
The boy straightened and quickly stepped to his right, to study another painting. Mir blinked, then tore herself away from staring. These comics wouldn’t alphabetize themselves.
Mir pulled the remaining mis-shelved comics from the bookcase, carefully slipping each book back in its appropriate spot. She lined up the cheerful, brightly colored spines of the kids’ graphic novels, stacked the Hellboy collections in a neat row of black and red, and was just finishing sorting the superhero comics when the boy spoke behind her.
“Is this the TomorrowMen?”
Mir looked up. He was still bent forward, peering intently at a painting of two superheroes, a man and a woman, standing on the edge of a building. The man seemed to shine like a beacon in the painting. He was dressed in red and gold, and his red cape swirled around him, caught by an unseen breeze. His face was bare; he didn’t hide his identity with a mask. The woman was painted with more subtle colors, her costume muted purples and golds. She wore a cat’s-eye mask, and her dark hair swirled upward in a fantastic 1960s updo.
Mir’s mother, Stella, had made the painting.
Mir stood up, rolled down the sleeves on her work shirt, and walked toward the boy.
“Yeah, it’s Skylark and Skybound, the two most powerful TomorrowMen.” Mir felt a twinge of annoyance at his interest in the painting. She remembered the fight she’d had with her mother over it, how she’d yelled that it didn’t make sense for Stella to sell her artwork if she was going to charge so little. Stella could charge hundreds of dollars if she wanted to; she knew that there were TomorrowMen-mad collectors out there, eager to spend real money on original artwork of Skylark and Skybound. But Mir’s mother had remained resolute, stubbornly devoted to her price no matter how much Mir yelled.
“You have a bunch of TomorrowMen stuff here,” the boy said, his arm sweeping back to take in the shiny, toy-infested section of the Emporium of Wonders, “but I wasn’t expecting original art. It’s really cool.”
“Yeah, it is,” said Mir. She did think the painting was cool. She loved how her mother painted, how she mixed her colors and used reds and browns and purples to blend the perfect skin tone. How she edged her figures with the tiniest bit of yellow, like they were radiating light. She wished she could stop fighting with her mother about her art.
“I like that they’re in their original costumes,” the boy said. He pointed at Skylark’s outfit, a snug bodysuit with tall boots and a waist-length cape. “They’ve had, what, like fifty costumes in the comics over the last forty years? But there’s something perfect about the original costumes. Definitely my favorite.”
“They’re pretty great,” agreed Mir.
The boy turned away from her, hands stuck back in his jacket pockets, and stared at the two figures in the painting.
“I wish they were using these costumes in the movie,” he said.
Mir smiled, grateful. “I wish they were too,” she said. “Have you seen the latest stills from the movie? They got rid of Skybound’s cape.” Mir had seen every leaked image from the upcoming movie, every stolen shot of the actors filming on the streets of New York. She’d cringed at Skylark’s dull gray-and-black costume and Skybound’s cape-less shoulders. They hadn’t looked anything like the characters she knew, the comic-book weirdness and bright colors leached out of them.
“It’s a tragedy,” the boy said, solemnly shaking his head. “He just doesn’t look right without the cape.”
“He doesn’t,” Mir said.
“I keep hoping the filmmakers will change the costumes before the movie comes out,” he said. “It’s not out until next year, so there’s still time.”
The boy smiled at her, and the hairs on the back of Mir’s neck stood up. His smile was wide and gorgeous, and the air around him seemed to brighten because of it.
“Maybe,” Mir said, feeling generous so close to this boy’s smile.
“I don’t normally care about comic book movies, I swear,” the boy laughed. “But I grew up with TomorrowMen comics. They deserve a good movie. Like, Sam Raimi Spider-Man 2 good. Or Superman II good. Those are my favorites.”
“I like Superman II,” Mir agreed.
“Everyone likes Superman II.” Again the boy grinned, catching Mir in the brightness of his smile.
The boy turned back to the painting.
“How much is it?”
“I’m sorry?” Mir asked blankly.
“The painting,” said the boy, pointing up at it. “How much is it?”
Mir stared. “You want to buy it?”
The boy blinked, confused at Mir’s question.
“It’s not for sale?” he asked. “I just thought—y’know, it’s here with all these other paintings and they all seem to be for sale, so I thought maybe it was for sale too. I really like it.”
“It’s for sale,” Mir said, “but it’s not—” Suddenly she realized what she was going to say and got nervous. Who was this boy? She didn’t know anything about him.
“It’s—it’s an original painting, but it’s … unlicensed, I guess? It’s not from Warrick Studios, the TomorrowMen comics publisher…” She trailed off.
Mir and the boy stared at each other, and in a rush she noticed three things about him: one, he was at least four inches taller than her. Two, he had a slightly crooked nose that made him terribly cute; and three, he was dressed expensively. She hadn’t noticed his clothes at first, but now that she was really looking at him, trying to figure out if he was going to cause a problem for Stella, who almost exclusively painted (and sometimes sold) portraits of the TomorrowMen, she saw how well fitted his jacket and jeans were. How they had nice seams and were cut as though someone had made them specifically for his body.
“Hey, what’s your name?” said the boy.
“Mir,” she said.
“Miriam. Mir for short.”
“Cool,” he said. “I’m Weldon, and I think that painting is awesome. Whoever painted it is really great at painting the TomorrowMen, and I’m not going to rat them out to Warrick Studios because something that awesome isn’t piracy, it’s art.”
“Okay, cool,” Mir said, relieved.
“Seriously, Mir,” said Weldon. “It’s completely amazing. You gonna tell me how much you want for it?”
Mir took a deep breath. Here we go, she thought.
“Twenty-eight dollars and seventy cents.”
Weldon’s eyebrows shot up.
“But it’s an original. I mean, whoever painted it must’ve spent hours—”
“Yeah, well.” Mir sighed. “My mo—the artist charges the exact amount of money they spent making the painting. So, canvas, sixteen dollars. Paints, eight dollars. And so on. Because, y’know, they think charging for art is … not cool, I guess.”
“Doing it for love, not money,” Weldon said, nodding seriously. “I admire that.” Mir felt a white-hot flash of annoyance. Of course the boy in the designer jeans would approve of Stella’s pricing system. People who had money always thought it was noble not to care about it.
She unhooked the painting from the wall, sneaking one last look at it as she rang up Weldon’s purchase and slipped the canvas into a paper bag. She’d miss it. It had been comforting to look up at Skylark and Skybound at the end of a long day and imagine there was something powerfully good in the world.
Mir watched Weldon leave the store, the painting tucked under his arm. The car he headed toward was a beat-up Hyundai, not a rich-kid car. Mir felt herself warming to him again when he opened the door to the Hyundai. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Maybe his parents bought his clothes, but he had to work for his car. She liked the idea of him toiling away somewhere to pay for gas, changing the oil on the Hyundai himself to save money.
Another car skidded into the parking lot, tires shrieking in protest. Everything happened very fast: three teenage boys slid from the car, fists clenched, ready for violence. Mir recognized them from her high school, older boys known for getting into fights and cutting class. She’d always tried to avoid them, and eventually they’d stopped coming to school. Mir wasn’t sure if they’d graduated or not. Now, Weldon turned toward the three boys, as though he’d been expecting them. He leaned Stella’s painting against the car and walked straight at them, his step almost jaunty. They all came together in a furious clash.
Mir was already clawing her way over the store counter, screeching at Berg to call the police. This was a fight that meant business. She skidded through the front door and stopped short, trying to figure out what to do.
Weldon’s hands blurred as he swung. Mir could tell he would lose; three to one wasn’t a fair fight and the other boys were bigger than him. The group came in close, then went down in a pile of arms and legs. One of the boys ended up crouched on top of Weldon, pummeling him. Weldon twisted, his arms curled protectively over his face. It occurred to Mir as she scrambled toward the little utility shed next to the Emporium of Wonders that Weldon’s nose might not have been originally so crooked, but had been smashed into its particular shape through violence.
Mir saw Weldon wiggle out from under his assailant and wrap his arms around the boy’s torso, heaving him off the ground. The force of the lift propelled the pair onto the hood of the Hyundai. As the other two boys charged the car, Mir caught them full in the face with a torrent of water from the garden hose. They staggered backward, hands held up against the water.
The boy on the hood of the Hyundai grabbed a fistful of Weldon’s collar and bent his head back. Mir turned and hit both of them with the water from the hose, and they slid down the car, drenched. Weldon’s attacker was on his feet first, face murderous. He wheeled toward Mir. Someone was screaming “Stopstopstopstopstop!!” and Mir realized with surprise that it was her.
The boy came at her. Mir saw his angry hands reaching for her—and he jerked up short as Weldon grabbed his legs from behind.
Sirens wailed in the distance, and the three boys’ heads snapped up. The one snared by Weldon kicked backward and wrestled free. Another boy grabbed the car keys off the ground and swung into the Hyundai. The two cars peeled out of the Emporium of Wonders parking lot, tires blowing smoke. Stella’s painting thumped softly on the pavement.
Mir shut off the hose. It suddenly seemed very quiet.
Weldon was still on the ground. He rolled onto his side and stared up at Mir. His eye was swelling, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. He grinned a shining, gorgeous smile.
“The police—the police are coming,” Mir said. Her hands, still clutching the hose, were shaking.
“Oh, that’s not so good. I’m not really keen on talking to them,” Weldon said.
Mir stared at him.
Still on the ground, Weldon stared dreamily toward where the two cars had sped off.
“Because I kind of stole that Hyundai.”
The police car skidded into the Emporium of Wonders’ parking lot, two officers hopping out of the vehicle with barely disguised glee. Not much happened in Sandford, and Mir could tell the officers were delighted at the chance to use their siren.
“You gonna tell the police?” said Weldon, pushing himself onto his hands and knees. Mir looked down at the back of his head. She remembered him wrapping his arms around the legs of the boy charging at her.
“They got their car back, didn’t they?” Mir said, nodding in the direction the three boys had driven off. She tossed the garden hose away, then bent and picked up her mother’s painting, inspecting it for damage. To her relief, Mir saw the brown paper she’d wrapped it in had protected it when it had hit the pavement. She tucked the painting under her arm and reached out her free hand to help Weldon up. He wobbled when he stood, his hand flailing briefly, then settling onto her shoulder for balance. She moved her hand under his elbow, ready to grab him if he fell. The hand on her shoulder was very warm, she noted absently.
“What happened here?”
One of the police officers was attempting to loom over them. He wasn’t particularly tall, which made the looming seem more like rude crowding. Mir fought the urge to roll her eyes. She’d seen this officer before, napping in his cruiser on one of Sandford’s sparsely traveled back roads. Now he looked as excited as a kid on his birthday. The other officer, a woman Mir didn’t recognize, had her notepad out, pencil poised over a blank page.
“A fight,” said Weldon. He wobbled again as he pointed toward the Emporium of Wonders. “I bought something in that store, and when I came out three guys pulled into the parking lot. We … exchanged some words.”
Mir stood next to Weldon, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He looked directly at the police officers when he talked, his face open and earnest. Except for the occasional wobble, his hand tightening not-unpleasantly on Mir’s shoulder, he seemed completely relaxed. She was amazed at his calm, as though he hadn’t been nearly beaten to a pulp by three other boys and wasn’t currently lying to the police.
When Weldon was done telling his story, the two cops turned to confer with each other. Weldon, no longer wobbling but still with his hand on Mir’s shoulder, reached for the painting.
“Here,” he said. “I’ll hold it.”
“I don’t mind,” said Mir, but handed the painting over anyway.
“Oh,” said the male officer, looking flustered as he riffled through his notes, “we never got your name.”
“Weldon Warrick,” said Weldon. The officer’s eyebrows climbed his forehead.
“Weldon … Warrick,” repeated the police officer. His partner glanced sideways at him, uncomprehending.
Mir froze. An icy hand didn’t so much clutch at her heart as punch it.
“Yeah,” said Weldon, half smiling. “That Warrick.”
Warrick Studios, thought Mir. Publisher of the TomorrowMen comics. I just saved the ass of the TomorrowMen heir.
Copyright © 2019 by Faith Erin Hicks