Excerpt from My Cosplay Escape

Please enjoy this sneak peak of my debut novel, My Cosplay Escape: A Rom-Com. Out now in ebook and paperback.

Note to Readers

This is fiction. All of it—the characters, dialogue, events—all fiction. If this resembles reality in any way, it is a coincidence. The end. Okay, moving on to cosplay. My favorite, and probably your favorite, superheroes and heroines are largely trademarked brands, and I respect intellectual property rights. So to write a rom-com including everything I love about cosplay, I had to get creative with my approach. (Really creative. There are so. many. superheroes out there.) Hope it works for you!

Chapter 1

“You can’t work here.”

Before I can tell Brent I have no intention of working at his stupid orthodontist office, he wrinkles his nose and grimaces. “Did you run here from Mom’s house?”

I shove my hands into the front pocket of my sweat-stained hoodie. Sure, we could both use a good wash and rinse, but then I’d have missed my training run this morning. And I had to do laundry. “No. I ran here from Mount Soledad by way of the beach, then bay—”

“That explains the smell.” Brent rises from behind his computer, and I hardly recognize my big brother. He has a surfer’s tan now to match his blond hair, which is weird because last time I checked he hates the beach. Everyone says Brent is the spitting image of Dad, but that’s just because he’s tall. “You do know that bathing before a job interview is standard practice?”

“I don’t want to work here.” Staring into mouth after mouth of crooked teeth is not my jam. Plus, Brent and Jen take type A to weird places. If I push a pen out of place, someone in bubblegum-pink scrubs will come running with a ruler to fix it. Judging by the lingering antiseptic smell, an entire bottle of rubbing alcohol would disappear in the cleanup effort. I know Brent tries to make his practice feel surfer-chill—they heavily analyzed and researched optimum office aesthetics, ask me how I know—but it’s still an orthodontist office. People are still in scrubs. People still call him Dr. Brent and his wife Dr. Jen. I can’t handle it.

“Should have thought about that sooner, Sarah.” Brent shoves a still-warm stack of papers into my hands. He plays the role of exasperated-older-brother-with-the-perfect-life-once-again-inconvenienced-by-screw-up-little-sister with gusto this morning.

“What’s this?” I ask.

Brent swigs some of his bulletproof coffee. “A two-week lifeline.”

I flip through a temp contract, pay agreement, and HR policy. “I’m not working here. I only came by because Mom insisted you needed to see me this morning.”

Brent pinches the bridge of his nose. The glint of his platinum wedding band winks at me. Wedding bands are such a-holes. “Mom also insisted that Jen and I hire you. ‘Where else will she find a job with benefits?’”

That stings a little, knowing that my only family in the world thinks I’m unemployable. Also stings since the job I’m interviewing for at the gym has no benefits. No point in telling Brent any of this. It’d just give him more ammo against me. I drop the packet of hiring papers on Brent’s desk. “You need to square your shoulders the next time you quote Mom. Maybe put a hand on your hip. Her power stance, you know?”

“Sign the papers, Sarah.”

“Why don’t I just tell Mom Dr. Ken and Dr. Barbie wouldn’t hire me?”

 “You’d do that to Jen? You’d pit her against Mom?” He folds his arms across his chest, wrinkling his white lab coat. “She’s been nothing but kind to you.”

I roll my eyes and check my phone. Twenty more minutes until I am due at the gym.

Brent continues on in that same tone he uses to scold his patients who don’t wear their retainers. Stuff about responsibility and brushing after every meal. Flossing, too, probably. And then he lands the final sucker punch. “Come on, Sarah. You’ve had a mother-in-law,” he says.

I deadpan a laugh, but it doesn’t help. I need another run. I need to scream and break something, anything, maybe one of the many stupid surfboards hanging on the walls. But breaking stuff, throwing a bunch of stupid papers back in my brother’s face, and running as hard and as fast as I can until my body is too weak to hold in the anger wouldn’t be very adult. And that’s what I am now. An adult. A responsible, mature adult who is not going to let her past torture her anymore.

Maybe I could do some sprints after my follow-up interview at the gym is over.

Oh, who am I kidding? My eyes are too full of liquid rage to focus on anything but that stack of papers on my brother’s lacquered desk. I push them away with a single finger. “You specify the type of lip gloss your employees can wear?”

There’s a tap at the door, and Brent rises. “Weren’t you supposed to be a business major? Any edge in a competitive industry should be exploited.”

I scoff. “How is lip gloss an edge?”

A spunky-looking redhead in pink scrubs stands in the doorway and chuckles. “Why don’t you show up with blue hair and black lipstick and find out?” She holds out a pair of purple surgical gloves to Brent. “We’re ready for you at station three, Dr. Brent.”

“Thanks, Gwen.” Brent nods at me with long-suffering professionalism. “Gwen, this is my sister, Sarah. She’s going to be covering the front desk next week while Viv is out.”

“No, I’m not,” I say.

Gwen flashes me a quick smile. “I was kidding about the blue hair and lipstick, of course, Dr. Brent. Shall I show Miss Sarah out?” She hands Brent his gloves and waves him out the door.

“So you’re Brent’s kid sister,” Gwen says.

“Yeah. That’s me.” I smile briefly but avoid eye contact. If I don’t look anyone in the eye, I can avoid knowing if they know about the divorce and sob story. I can bypass the pity and sad-puppy eyes and almost feel like a real-life, twenty-two-year-old grown-up.

She leans in and whispers conspiratorially, “I think you should totally show up with blue hair and black lipstick. Create some excitement for all of us.”

“I’m not working here.” For the millionth time. I follow her out of Brent and Jen’s office.

“Viv.” Gwen drums her acrylic nails on the counter and smiles at the brunette behind the reception desk. “I’m gonna show Sarah out and grab my coffee.”

Gwen pulls me along with her to the coffee shop on the corner of Felspar and Cass. “So what’s the deal?” she says as we get in line. “You keep checking your phone.”

“I have a second interview at Fit Gym 24 in fifteen minutes.”

“The one down the street?”

I nod but stay quiet as she buys her coffee along with a scone and a pack of pickles. She offers to buy me a coffee, but I politely decline. Caffeine and I have never gotten along. Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m even here with her. I guess it’s better than awkwardly loitering in front of the gym?

We find a seat outside on the patio, and while you can’t hear the beach from here, you can see bits of the ocean through the cars and buildings, lines of soft blue that push through the clutter of the streetscape.

Ten minutes now until my interview. I should just leave.

“So what do you want?” Gwen says around a mouthful of blueberry scone. “Do you want this job at the gym?”

I want a time machine. I want to erase that one stupid night sophomore year of college and get the life I was supposed to have. But I’ll settle for a free gym membership. I’m definitely not taking a job with Brent and Jen. That would be settling. The forever kind of settling. Just the thought of it turns my stomach.

“I don’t know,” I finally say. “It beats working for my brother.”

Gwen narrows an eye at me. “What did you want to do when you were staring daggers at Dr. Brent?”

She saw that? “That’s a two-way mirror in his office?”

“Ew. Gosh, no.” Gwen laughs. “It’s tinted glass. A two-way mirror would just be creepy.” She laughs again.

And somehow her laugh makes everything okay. I stare out across the street and focus on the blue water hedged by clouds of gray. I smell the dark green jasmine blooming behind us as I inhale deeply, obnoxiously. “My brother brought up a sensitive subject.”

“Your divorce?”

So Gwen did know. Oh, who was I kidding? Everyone knew. For all of San Diego’s size, Pacific Beach itself is a small town. “Yeah. While I was ‘staring daggers’ at my brother, I really wanted to be running sprints. Maybe see if I could get a faster mile down than this morning.”

“I hear that.”

“You’re a runner?” I don’t know why my tone is so hopeful. Goldfish, I sound pathetic. 

“Ew.” Gwen shudders. “No, but I can understand being madder than hell over a breakup.”

I sit up straighter. “I don’t miss my ex—”

“Girl, I know. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t go ten rounds with a punching bag and still want to scream yourself to sleep.” Gwen eats a pickle slice from her snack pack. “You want one? They’re spicy.”

I’m about to shake my head but take one instead. “Thanks.”

Gwen smiles. And while her smile is blindingly white and very straight, I notice her teeth on the bottom are all kinds of crooked. “You and I are gonna be friends,” she says.  “Now, then, what’s the plan? For the interview.”

My tongue burns from the pickle. “I need to land this job and start ASAP, or else I’ll be forced into working for my brother and sister-in-law, where I will single-handedly drive their practice into the ground.”

“You would not,” Gwen says, taking another bite of her scone.

“Nope, but that’s the fear. ‘Sarah screws up everything she touches.’” I smile. I know it’s a joke. I know some things weren’t my fault. I know that I started the whole fudging mess, though.

Gwen licks a crumb from her finger. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.” I should be done with my undergraduate degree by now, not trying to figure out how to restart it.

Gwen nods. “And school?”

I shake my head. “I didn’t finish college.” My lower lip starts to quiver. Maybe I could do lunges after my sprints. Oh goldfish, my eyes brim with tears for the second time this morning.

“Those pickles are spicy, huh?” Gwen scoots the bag toward me. “Have another.”

I all but sob around a mouthful of pickle. “I’m such a loser.”

“Honey, please. When I was twenty-two, I had a bad set of highlights, a perpetual hangover, and not much else.”

“How old are you?”

Gwen looks up pointedly.

“Sorry,” I say, and I catch my lip on my next bite of pickle. “You don’t have to answer. It’s just… you look my age.”

Gwen visibly brightens. “I’m twenty-eight, baby. What I meant was, are you going back to school anytime soon? Do you need to be up-front about needing to work around your classes?”

“Yeah… Um, Tony mentioned that classes wouldn’t be a problem so long as I could work weekends.” How much going back to school will cost, on top of my already-in-default student loans, is a problem. A big, nasty, messy problem. 

“Okay.” Gwen thoughtfully munches a pickle. I hazard a glance up at her, and she is seriously stunning. Like, Greek goddess meets Disney princess meets prom queen. Gwen is exactly the type of girl I’d never have spoken to in high school because my fragile ego and bitchy streak couldn’t handle ever being compared to her. Goldfish, I’m glad I’m not back in high school. “We’ll make sure to get it in writing all the same.” Gwen’s emerald-encased phone buzzes. “We’ve got to move.”

I follow as Gwen marches down a block and stops traffic as she weaves down a side alley. She seems to glow, which is saying something, because the marine layer is still firmly in place this morning. I pull the strings of my hoodie and sigh. Some women just have it. I never quite puzzled out what it was until now. In Gwen’s case, it is a pair of ridiculously pretty blue eyes, an enviable hourglass frame, a confident smile, and piles of auburn hair that I bet outshine new pennies when the sun’s out. Next to her, I am a flat-chested, scrawny, dishwater blonde that could be mistaken for a twelve-year-old boy.

“Do you always wear sweatshirts?” Gwen asks.

“So long as June Gloom is a thing. Everyone expects San Diego to be paradise in the summer. No one remembers that it’s usually foggy, cloudy, and cold until the end of July.”

“Fair point.” Gwen stops short in front of a pair of glass doors. “Take it off.”

“What?” Oh. No. Did Gwen mistake my sad, pathetic desperation for a friend to be sad, pathetic desperation for… more than a friend? I mean, yeah, I was just staring at her and thinking about how gorgeous she is, but it was in an envious, mentor-me-and-my-sad-frizzy-hair-and-combination-skin way.    

“You can’t interview in a sweaty hoodie.”

Before I can say anything, Gwen has my sweatshirt up and off and shoves me through the sliding glass doors of Fit Gym 24. 

“Hey, Sarah,” Tony, the jacked dude behind the check-in desk, calls. He perks up, and a flash of a smile surfaces when Gwen walks in behind me.

Before he has a chance to launch into his membership pitch, Gwen leans against the desk and smiles. Sometime between the sweatshirt and now, she managed to pull out her ponytail, and her red hair hangs in long, loose tendrils around her shoulders. I blink, and for a minute, I imagine bright green tendrils wrapped through it, with tight stippling giving way to gorgeous color shadow. I give myself a little shake. Today is not going to be the day I crack.  

“I’m Tony Morales, club manager.” He holds out his hand to Gwen, and now he can’t hide his smile. What is it about men and redheads?

“You’re hiring my friend and giving her a signing bonus,” Gwen says, flashing her very white teeth.

“Excuse me?” Tony and I both say. Well, actually, I say, “Dude, what the holy fudge?” Okay. Maybe I didn’t say fudge, but I will next time. Too many of my mom’s church friends come to this gym. Like I said, PB is a small town.

Gwen doesn’t take her eyes from Tony. “Sarah, tell this man what you were telling me about your running and sprints.”

I mumble about my distance running, but honestly, I could have been shouting about my insomnia, swearing habits, or long-standing superhero fetishes. Wouldn’t matter. Tony is completely enraptured by Gwen.

If I’m being cruel, I’d say Tony is one of those guys who needs to lay off the supplements, because he is approaching an abnormal BMI, but really, he looks like a Captain Patriotic Man double. Maybe a little browner. Maybe a little stockier. But yeah, a dead ringer for Roy Stevenson after the testosterone injections.

I need to get a handle on my cruel streak.

“See?” Gwen says, pulling away from the counter. “She has the brains and a body that will get people into your club. Let’s talk scheduling. Let’s talk numbers. And make this fast. I need to get back to work.”

By the time Gwen finishes shaking Tony’s hand, I have a job and a small signing bonus with some clause in my contract that prioritizes scheduling around my classes when/if I ever go back to school, Gwen has a free three-month membership, and poor Tony has the most unbelievable, palpable case of instantaneous crush I’ve ever seen.

“We’ll put you on the front desk and Kids Club. Can you start this weekend?” I know he is talking to me, but he’s totally focused on Gwen, and his eyes are electric. They’d take up an entire panel in a comic book—a glossy, overly detailed, close-up splash page with Gwen reflected in his pupils. Maybe even with those visible shock lines radiating from him with vague/not-so-vague hearts floating in the periphery.

“How did you do that?” I murmur as Gwen and I head back to Brent and Jen’s tooth palace. They hate it when I call it that.

Gwen pushes open the building door. A gust of conditioned air catches her hair. My sweat-dried fringe remains plastered to my face.

“How do I thank you?” I ask as we climb the stairs to Brent and Jen’s corner suite.

“Oh, please. You didn’t need me. But here.” She hands me her phone. “Text me funny stories about work, and we’ll call it even.”

As I put in my number, Gwen pulls her hair into a tight ponytail. “What do you think of your new boss?” she asks. “What’s his name?”

I hand back the phone. “Tony?”

“Yeah, Tony. What’d you think?”

“He seems…”

Gwen’s eyes narrow. “Too muscly?”

“Maybe?”

“But nice?”

“Could be.” I nod. “Maybe layered underneath a heavy façade of ‘I can’t be bothered to give two Shirley Temples.’”

Gwen looks at me sideways.

My cheeks burn. “The drinks, I mean. Not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” Although that was one of the movies Mom had on frequent rotation while I was growing up.

Gwen’s smile flickers before she pushes open the office door. “Only one way to find out. I saw him first. We’ll find someone else for you. K?”

Time to quote Hamlet. O, my prophetic soul. Etcetera, etcetera. Except it’s not my soul. It’s Gwen’s soul. And I’m not about to bare my soul to my new friend. “K,” I mumble. 

Chapter 2

If my life were a Jane Austen novel, I’d say Gwen and I became “fast” friends. I’d splay a hand across my collarbone, bat my eyes, and totally seal my fate as an idiot, like Lydia Bennet. Which is hardly fair, because I’ve always thought of myself as a Lizzie. Except everyone thinks of herself as a Lizzie (thank you, Mr. Darcy). So, I am an Elinor. Elinor Dashwood would totally have been a distance runner, too, had Lululemon and Asics been around. She would have pounded out her frustrations on all those miles of gravel walks and muddy country road.

But my life is not Austen. So I’ll just say that in the month since I’ve met Gwen, we’ve become friends. She comes to see me after work at the gym most days. And while I’m not stupid and know that she’s coming mostly for Tony, I don’t mind. It’s been too long since I’ve had a friend, particularly a friend who includes me on any of her guy stuff. Even though I want nothing to do with men for the next two score years, I still like hearing about them. Prince Charming is still a nice idea, even if I don’t believe in him anymore.

Gwen holds on to the counter of the Kids Club desk for a deep quad stretch. “But you do believe in soulmates?”

“I do.” I reach for the stray crayons from under the kids’ table. “But I’m the type of person who’s going to find hers when she’s sixty-five, and he’s forty-three. Not much point looking now. He’s still running around in diapers.”

“He’d be in here.” Gwen gags and shudders, surveying my Kids Club kingdom of broken crayons and foam-covered plastic. “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course not! But I’d not be serious with any guy I’d meet right now. So what’s the point?”

Gwen’s smile turns all sultry and suggestive. She arches a brow, and I toss a foam block at her. She swats the block into the bin. My eyes add blurgits to her actions. “Say you did meet Mr. Right right now?”

“I’d be Shirley Temples out of luck. Because I’m not doing anything even close to dating for the next forty-three years.” It’s one of my rules. I tug the corner of the tumbling mat straight. “How are things going between you and Captain Patriotic Man?”

Gwen’s eyes twinkle. “Slowly. New topic. How is life? I know you live here now.”

It’s not far from the truth. The perk to my employment is a free membership. When I’m not working, I train. Not for any one event or purpose, but because pounding on a treadmill or strapping myself to a rowing machine feels better than being stuck at home in my mom’s office/spare bedroom. Especially now that San Diego schools are out for the summer. The gym is always open. And I’ve come at two a.m. some nights and cried myself silly while rowing in the empty gym, CNN flashing silently above me.

“I’m very popular since I don’t mind working nights or picking up other people’s shifts on weekends.” I look up and stifle a laugh. Tony must have found his courage. “He’s coming over.”

Gwen laughs again, and fudge, but it sounds genuine. I’ve never learned how to do that. Not that I want to learn now. “No flirting” is also one of my rules.

“What’s so funny?” Tony asks.

“Sarah was telling me she sells more memberships when she works the front desk than any other employee.” Gwen winks at me while Tony is busy admiring how her pistachio-colored tank hugs her torso.

I turn red. “I do not.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Tony arches an eyebrow—just for Gwen, no doubt. “She does know half our members by name.”

I don’t know what to do with this conversation. I’ve become a weird subject for Tony and Gwen to get their flirt on. “I think my mom got everyone at the school and her prayer group to join just so she could keep an eye on me.” I forbade—well, implored—her not to get one herself. 

Gwen pulls her arm back in a classic bicep stretch. “You should give her a raise, Tony.”

“Is that so?” He’s nearly pinned Gwen against the Kids Club check-in desk.

Not this again. No way am I going to field a phone call from an irate parent asking what exactly goes on in the Kids Club after she drops her angel off and runs away without saying boo. “Hey, Tony.” I catch Gwen’s gaze and wiggle my eyebrows while Tony is hypnotized by the sight of Gwen grabbing her elbows for a deltoid stretch. “Gwen was asking about the TRX straps. I’m supposed to stay put in the Kids Club. Do you have time to show her—”

“Yeah!” Tony says enthusiastically before correcting himself. “Yeah. This way, Gwen.” Tony holds open the Kids Club door and beams at Gwen, who turns to wrinkle her nose and roll her eyes at me. Still, she goes willingly. Tony, of course, is beside himself.

Two hours later, Gwen finds me. “Sarah, what are you doing next Saturday?”

I’m about to answer that I will be working when she stops me.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re going to Comic-Con with me!”

Bright light and Ben-Day dots flash in my eyes. “What?” My heart starts to race, and I swear my hands are shaking.

A little pigtailed toddler pulls on my leggings. I scoop her up. “What’s going on, girlfriend?”

She pulls a fistful of my hair and screams with delight.

“Okay. Let’s put on PJ Masks. You wanna help?” I hand the TV remote over to the toddler, who runs away, screaming joyously. I, too, feel like screaming, but not from joy. Suppressed inner geek maybe.

“We’re dressing up too,” Gwen says. “I’m going to be a mermaid. You can be one too.”

I hear the flip, flip, flip of pages, and my world starts to segment into panels and speech bubbles.

“What?” I check in another member, actually a mama with a four-year-old and a crawler.

“I don’t like you!” the four-year-old hisses.

“I have candy if you change your mind,” I tell him.

His scrunched-up nose unwrinkles as I press a Starburst into his hand. “One now and one when your mom comes back. If you’re good.”

He runs away, and I rescue Gwen from the chubby crawler, who is using her legs to try to pull himself up. “It’s been a crazy day.” I’m trying to change the subject. I’m trying to stop this train before it derails. Rule number one: No comics. Not again. Not ever.

Gwen is not having it. “So, Comic-Con! We’re going as mermaids.”

Sounds are starting to illustrate themselves into onomatopoeia. Thunk! go the blocks. Crash! go the toy cars. I clutch my stomach, feeling like I am about to faint as my heart hammers into small, yet readable words near my chest. Thump. Thump. Thump. “No. We’re not.” 

“Okay, not mermaids. But I have to be somebody with red hair.” Gwen pulls out her phone, no doubt to scan Pinterest for redheaded heroes. 

I shake the crazy off before it unravels into something weirder. This is real life, and I’m not about to let my demons out of their cage. I’m not revisiting the past. I’m not doing this. “I can’t go to Comic-Con.”

Gwen isn’t listening. She’s smiling at her phone. “Who else has red hair?”

“MJ,” I say without thinking.

Gwen snorts. “He didn’t have red hair. White glove, yes—”

“No, Maybell June, the girl from Cicada-bro,” I say. Images of blue and red spandex, red wigs, and random characters flash through my mind like snippets of a highlight reel. Is the music in the gym too loud today? Or is that just more memories of that fudging awful night sophomore year? I try breathing long and deep, but the smell of rubber tumbling mats and Diaper Genies makes me cough.

Gwen twirls a strand of her hair around her finger. “Yeah, I’d rather be a mermaid. My abs are pretty good. I should get a tan. I bet if we peeled away all your layers, we’d find you wouldn’t need one.” She mumbles something about rock-hard abs, and I blush. No amount of working out can undo what my abs have been through. Not that I don’t try. 

I want to lie down. Instead, I plank on the floor of the crawlers’ corner. “Not happening.”

Gwen rolls her eyes. “Yeah, whatever. K. I’m buying tickets.”

A crawler has found me and attempts to use my back as a table. “You can’t just buy tickets for Comic-Con. You have to register first.”

“Fine, I’ll register.”

 My arms shake. “They sell out the day they go live. In March. And they’re not tickets. They’re badges.” I assumed she had tickets when she asked me to go. Though that was clearly a stupid assumption.

Gwen pauses and looks up slowly from her phone. “Holy jeepers, Nightbat. Sarah’s a closet nerd.”

My face is crimson, but I can blame it on the strain of planking with a teething baby trying to climb on top of me. “Am not. Can you give me a hand?”

Gwen hops on the counter instead. She thoughtfully narrows her eyes at me, the hint of a smirk haunting her face. “Name five superheroes who have red hair.”

My exercise buddy has pulled himself into a stand and is slapping my back with howls of laughter. The words come even as I try to stuff them back in. “Admiral Autumn is one of my favorites—”

“Clock is ticking.”

Fine! “Fascination, Dr. Jillian Slate, Batty Nightgirl, Cardinal Flame, Poison Hemlock, Ruby Carmine, Viscountess Incarnadine.” The crazy is out of the cage. And it’s not going back in. I collapse out of my plank with a groan. “There is an unrealistically high representation of redheaded heroines in comics because the colorists needed to punch up their palettes.” 

“Total nerd,” Gwen says with wide eyes and a grin. She laughs in disbelief, and that’s good. I need to be reminded that my love of comics is laughable. “How have we been friends all summer, and you kept this from me? We’re going to Comic-Con.”

My stomach is spasming from my plank. “I don’t have a badge,” I pant.

“Do you have a costume?”

Holy Shirley Temples, Nightbat! You don’t ask the addict if she kept some of her stash for the memories.

I hop to my feet and check to make sure all the Kids Club kiddies are still breathing and still reasonably entertained. “No.” I sink to the floor to clean up a pile of blocks.

Gwen leans back against the counter and inspects her nails. “You gotta stop turning bright pink when you lie.”

A little hand tugs on the hem of my polo. “I went poop!” Evan, a frequent Kids Club flyer, says.

I try not to inhale. Working the Kids Club might permanently damage my ability to smell. “Okay, honey. I’ll call your mama.” I join Gwen at the counter and quickly scroll through the list of sign-ins. “Janet Stephens to the Kids Club, please. Janet Stephens to the Kids Club, please.”

“Why do you even want to go to Comic-Con?” I ask Gwen.

“Tony mentioned it. He said he was going this Saturday and asked if I was going to be there.” She shrugs, but in my comic book brain, her eyes start to shimmer. Faint pink heart bubbles may burst and pop around us. Oh my gosh. Who would have thought comics withdrawal would manifest like this?

Gwen pulls me back to the present with a squeal. “Then he started tittering about how we could meet up outside if I didn’t have a pass. So I told him I was already going with some friends.”

 “Please tell me you didn’t name me.”

“No. First rule of keeping a guy interested is to be vague, silly. I thought everyone knew that.” She flips her hair.

I reflexively tug my tight stub of a ponytail tighter. Holy insecurities, Nightbat. “And I thought everyone knows Comic-Con sells out within seconds.”

A sweaty Janet Stephens shows up and whisks her poopy cherub to the bathroom.

“Oh, please.” Gwen twirls a strand of her hair between her fingers. “There has to be some nerd forum where we post our pictures and say Poison Hemlock and Fem Fantastic want to be your date to Comic-Con, and then the internet breaks with all the desperate, lonely nerds who want to go to nerd prom with the pretty girls.”

I try to smile as I greet another parent, this one a dad, who has no qualms checking out Gwen’s butt. It’s the exact kind of behavior that warrants a pithy line, but I’ve got nothing. 

“Hey?” Gwen asks when we are alone—well, as alone as two women can be in a room full of children. “What’s up?”

My lip wobbles. “I met Daniel—my ex—the last time I cosplayed.”

Gwen forms her lips into a perfect O, but says nothing.

“And after what happened…” I stoop to pick up a crumpled coloring page. “I swore off comics.”

“More of your rules, huh?”

“No more comics—rule number one. No more cosplay—rule number two.” I rub the back of my neck and wince as my eyes dart to the bright LEDs in the ceiling. Comics and cosplay are gateway drugs. One taste, and I’m a goner who has trashed her life worse than a trash panda in the compost bin. “I didn’t trust myself, so I sold off all my costumes before I moved back home…” I trail off, blushing so intensely I must look catastrophically sunburned. Once again, my eyes are focused on the toes of my Asics.

Gwen gently bumps my shoulder with her own. “Hey. I know you have at least one costume left. Add not looking up at the ceiling and then down at your shoes to your list of non-options the next time you have to lie.”

“I never finished my Catstrike costume. You can’t sell incomplete costumes.” And while I did manage to scrape a few bucks together for my collection, not finishing this costume had been such an easy excuse to keep one cosplay skeleton packed away in the suitcases under my mom’s guest bed.

Gwen stretches her quads. “A memento from your badass cosplay days?”

 “I’ve never so much as run my finger over the zipper of that bag.” My voice is a weird mix of forlorn and loathing. 

She straightens. “Let me take you to Comic-Con, and you can wear it just once. It will be your farewell tour.”

“It’s sold out.”

“Challenge accepted. Now come on. Perk up. We’re going to have fun, and I’ll personally make sure you do not end up leaving Comic-Con married or—”

“Pregnant,” I blurt out.  I drop my face into my hands and sink to the floor. Face-palm GIFs have nothing on me right now. “I left my last cosplay misadventure pregnant.”

Gwen slides down beside me.

“It was really stupid. I was really stupid,” I say into my hands. I wince, as I know a barrage of questions are about to tumble out of Gwen’s mouth.

“Hey.” She pulls my head onto her shoulder, solidifying that she is the big sister I never had. “It’s okay.”

It’s not okay. Nothing I do can ever make it okay. “I know.” I tug the twisted seam of my leggings straight. “But I really do not want to talk about this at work.” Or ever. 

Gwen nods. “Okay, but if you ever do—”

I know. “Please don’t say anything to Brent or—”

“Hon, I’m your friend. If I had known, I wouldn’t have even brought up Comic-Con. Or mermaids.”

Oh, Shirley Temples. That’s how it starts. The walking-on-eggshells self-editing that leads to canceled friendships. Things are already getting weird, and I cannot lose my only friend standing over this. “I want to go,” I blurt out.

Gwen blinks. A shower of foam blocks rains down on us, accompanied by a stampede of little feet and giggles.

“Oh, no!” I cry in my exaggerated Kids Club staffer voice, the kind that makes grown adults cringe. “I’m going to get you.”

More giggles and shrieks.   

“You sure?” Gwen asks. She’s scrutinizing my every twitch now.

But I am sure. I’d do anything to keep my new friend. Even break my rules one last time. “Just promise not to leave me alone with any shady guys. Or sperm-bank reps.”

Gwen laughs. She puts an arm around me and gives me an encouraging squeeze. “It’ll be fun. There are only so many chances a woman has to parade around in spandex looking ridiculous and sexy for a crowd.”

“I think you just described the nature of a gym.” I perk up into my promotional pitch voice. “And we are open twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.”

Gwen laughs.

“You have noticed how the moment you walk through those glass doors, everyone gives you the elevator eyes?” I groan. “It’s like you sign some imaginary waiver that you’re okay with everyone checking you out.”

“Come on, you do it too,” she says.

I grin. “I work here. I’m supposed to keep an eye on things.”

Gwen rises to her feet and pulls me up with her. “So I’ll meet you at the convention center?”

I press my palm to my forehead. A run and twenty minutes in the sauna would be nice right about now. “Finding the badges this late will cost a fortune and will be, you know, slightly illegal.”

Gwen puts up her hand and makes shushing sounds. “My crazy idea, my treat. Yes or no, Saire?”

I open and close my mouth. It’s my last chance to say no. I’m supposed to say no. I have rules in place for a reason. I know how I can get carried away with cosplay and/or guys. I’m supposed to be an adult. Comics are for teenagers and boring, middle-aged white guys. They were part of my past, but are not part of my future. The same future that consists of insomnia runs, babysitting kids at a gym, and late-night cross-training, all while doing my best to vanish from functional corners of society. My shoulders hunch and my spine rounds just thinking of it…

But one last hit of cosplay wouldn’t change my future. I’m living in my mom’s office/spare bedroom, for fudge’s sake. It’s Comic-Con, after all. You can’t really say you’re from San Diego if you’ve never been to Comic-Con. 

“You wouldn’t tell anyone it’s me?” The times I’ve had to tell people how I met Daniel… It’s mortifying. A complete joke. “I mean, if my mom found out, I don’t think I’d be let out of the house ever again.”

“You can come in costume, and you’ll just be another crazy in the crowd.”

I try to groan, but it comes out a nervous laugh. “And you wouldn’t ditch me?” The real heart of the matter. I cannot let my friendship with Gwen unravel. 

Gwen crosses her heart. “Friends don’t let friends cosplay alone.”

“Thanks, Gwen.” I inhale, not realizing I was holding my breath. “Sure. I mean, yes. I will meet you there.”

Chapter 3

My mom is a religious zealot. Okay, maybe not a zealot, but she is definitely a church lady. I think it’s what happens when your spouse tragically dies during the evening commute, and you are left to raise two kids on your own. Help has to come from somewhere. May as well be church. And if going to church once a week is good for the soul, finding a way to be there nearly every weekday is even better, right?

Growing up, I thought church was just what everyone did. I thought everyone’s mom took issue with skirts above the knee and sleeveless dresses. I thought everyone’s mom insisted on “clean language” and put her foot down when it came to entertainment in her home that “crossed the line.”  Not that the line was clearly defined. We watched The Sound of Music a lot back in the day.

Brent got more slack. He’s a boy. He needed boyish things. He needed an outlet. He needed role models. Sure, he could go see the new Cicada-bro movie with his friends. Meanwhile, I needed to go change because my shirt was too tight. Meanwhile, I started to read more comics than Brent or his friends ever read combined. Meanwhile, I started putting all the home-economics skills I learned at church to good use amassing my cosplay collection. What Jesus and sewing have in common still escapes me, but I will forever be grateful to Sister Grace Eldrich for teaching me how to staystitch nylon on pleather. At least, I thought I would be forever grateful. Right now, I’m not so sure.

All I can think about is how my life would end if my mom decides she doesn’t need to go to church this Saturday morning for the Book of Revelation study group and instead comes home to find her daughter clad head to toe in the tightest, shiny, black vinyl catsuit imaginable. Besides the fact that Mom doesn’t approve of sexy costumes or masks, there’s also the issue that she doesn’t know the half of what I got up to in my sophomore year. I mean, she knows I got married. She doesn’t know that Daniel got me pregnant before he even knew my name.

“You do remember my name?” I asked that awkward afternoon six weeks later when I told Daniel about the dollar-store-pee-on-a-stick positive.

“Yeah. You’re…” He snapped his fingers, trying to remember. The fact that I had to explain I was Cicada Nymph (you mean the Cicada-bro chick?) should have been a dead giveaway that Daniel was a class-A douchebag.

Anyway. Mom doesn’t know Daniel is a douche. She doesn’t know I miscarried at twenty-four weeks. She knows only that we divorced and that I didn’t take her advice and try marriage counseling with the pastor first. Kinda hard to go to marriage counseling when you’re stuck in Michigan and your husband is thousands of miles away hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and “finding himself.” 

A text from Gwen makes my thigh buzz, pulling me back from my memory lane funk. Gwen: There’s a cosplay contest!

I tug at my cowl. The chin strap bites into my neck just the same. I try to tap out a response with my clawed fingers. Yes, it is cumbersome, but it also feels more natural than it has any right to.

Me: No. Way.

Gwen: Come on, Saire. Don’t bail on me now.

Me: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”

Yeah, I like quoting Hamlet.

Sitting in the back of my Lyft is a reality check of the most humiliating order.  The driver, Tim, keeps glancing at me in the rearview mirror. His eyes nearly pop out of his head, his smile is so wide. I’m a grown woman parading around in a skanky, homemade costume that screams, “Desperate for attention.” This is why I quit cosplaying. And yeah, there was the sex on the bathroom counter with Cicada-bro, who turned out to be the world’s biggest douchebag. One shotgun wedding, quickly followed by a divorce—yeah, it’s a bio for the ages.

Gwen: The villain groups always win.

Gwen sends a GIF of a pouting puppy. I scoff and roll my eyes, and I swear that somewhere I’ve just become a meme.

“Everything okay back there?” Tim asks.

I stare down at my vinyl-clad thighs. The enormous shiny black boots are heavy and sweaty on my legs. They push my knees up to an unnatural angle in the back seat. “Can you turn up the AC?”

Tim pretends to busy himself adjusting vents and whatnot. Clearly, it’s not every day you drive Catstrike, AJ Comics’ sexiest villain and Nightbat’s naughty crush, across town. Thank merciful heavens I am wearing a mask.

I’m not really the praying type, but I find myself begging the cosmos that Tim’s sedan breaks down, pops a tire, or crashes, but our drive downtown to the convention center is uneventful and unimpeded.

We arrive, and Tim swivels in his seat. “I’m happy to drive you around the block again. Or, you know… anywhere.” He adds the last bit too quietly, furiously blushing.

I take back everything I thought about wishing his car would break down and bolt out of his back seat. Not easy to do in platform boots.

The San Diego sunshine glints on my black vinyl corset, and I can smell the ocean all around me. It’s a morning that promises plain, wholesome California fun, and I am a dark-’90s freak fantasy. People are staring. I run a hand across my stomach, but it is no use. I can’t hide anything now. I feel like I’m going to be sick. 

There is a roller coaster, an old, rickety wooden one, at Belmont Park that has just a lap bar to keep you from flying out. And as you climb up to the top of the big drop—click, click, click—you think, Fudge. What have I done?

Then comes the feeling of absolute panic, the one that urges you to start screaming for the emergency exit. You’d rather take the long, creaky service steps down than go through with the rest of the ride. Panic turns to dread. They stopped making wooden coasters for a reason, right? You think, Just let me die.

You’d pull the e-brake if you could. But you can’t. You’re strapped in. Can’t go over. Can’t go under. Must go through.

I used to feel this way about my long runs. I’d panic the day before. The panic would turn to dread as the sun set. Once, I tried putting it off for a day, but that only fed the panic beast. The only real solution was to just do it.

So you do. Not because you want to. But because that’s how you make it stop.

I feel that way now. But then there is something else as I edge closer to the convention doors. You don’t buy a ticket for the roller coaster because you take a perverse pleasure in suffering. You do it because it is fun. All of it—the nerves, the excitement, the rush. You live for it.

 The causeway is littered with cosplayers and conventiongoers. We’re all shuffling toward the main entrance. I tug on my mask—not easy to do with my claws. My phone pings with another text.

Gwen: Stop fidgeting.

“Seriously,” a familiar voice says. “You look amazing. I don’t even recognize you.”

Gwen stands beside me in fishnets, green bustier leotard, and hair that is longer, thicker, and redder than I thought possible. She’s got some intense green makeup going on around her eyes, but no mask.

I give my friend a hug and swear I hear a dozen phones snap a picture. “How’d you know it was me?”

Gwen swipes on a layer of nude lip gloss. “I didn’t until you got my text.”

“Epic costumes, ladies,” a dude with a press badge swinging from his neck says. “Where’d you find them?”

Gwen drops the tube of gloss back down the front of her bustier. Good goldfish, what else is she hiding in there? “Mine’s from this Etsy shop, but Saire is a purist. She made her own.”

The dude whistles low and long, and his eyes linger on my hips as he asks for a picture. Gwen strikes a pose. 

“Thanks, Dr. Hemmel,” he says.

“Who?” Gwen asks, practically dislocating my arm as she pulls me in step beside her.

“Dr. Penelope Rose Hemmel. Poison Hemlock’s alter ego,” I clarify.

Gwen flips her long red hair over her shoulder. “Whatever. We are badass villains. We’re entering the cosplay contest. And we are going to win.”

More people are stopping to pull out their phones.

“Why does winning matter?” I ask, swaying uncomfortably in my boots. 

“Because, Sarah, it is fun.”

A phone flashes, and I cringe. “Fine. I’ll do it if you promise not to say my name all day.”

“Deal. Now quickly, Catstrike. To the nerd cave.”

***

A weird ASMR buzz starts at the back of my scalp as we enter the convention center. Equal parts anticipation and adrenaline. I usually get tingly before my mile sprints. But Comic-Con is different. Today is different. I can feel every single pair of eyes on my black vinyl. “Goldfish,” I whimper. I miss my hoodie. I miss the layers of fabric between my waist and the eyes of so many others. I take big, gulping breaths.

Comic-Con is massive, and the scale of it hits you first in your ears. It is loud. The roar of humanity deafens. I swear, and not of the Shirley Temple variety, but no one hears me. It’s that loud.

Gwen laughs and tugs me into step beside her. “This is amazing. Look at all the nerds!” She has to shout for me to hear her.

“You’re one of them now,” I yell back.

“Don’t be silly. This is just camouflage,” she says, gesturing to her green leotard.

I scoff, and my ankle wobbles in my boot.

Gwen takes my arm, smiles, and waves at an entire group of digital SLR-wearing fanatics. One even carries a separate flash. Gwen pulls me into a pose beside her. “Wearing leopard print doesn’t make you a leopard.”

My vinyl catsuit makes an odd crinkling sound as I walk that I’m sure only I can hear. It was little sensory details like this that got me into cosplay. What does it feel like to smile when wearing a Cicada Nymph face mask? Tight, and it totally squashes your nose flat. Can you really dance with a broadsword down the back of your blue dress? Not comfortably. “There are other places to people-watch,” I shout.

We shuffle past a group of cosplayers. I have to duck to avoid someone’s wings. Queen Cockatoo, I think. The level of extra in these costumes is inspiring. Or it would be if this wasn’t my cosplay farewell.

“Like where?” Gwen’s green fishnets glow in the San Diego sunshine that streams through the walls of windows.

“The beach. The zoo.”

“I’ve been to the beach. I’ve been to the zoo. This is more fun.” Gwen pulls out her badge and waves it in front of security. “Besides. You needed an excuse to wear your catsuit.”

“Not really.” In fact, I was determined never to wear it ever. I pull out my badge for the security check. They’re being really tight this year, checking badges on every floor and hall. “That ship sailed off to China, where it teaches English to all the adorable and Instagram-worthy schoolchildren before it wanders into the mountains, where it will hopefully die of exposure, never to return.” But instead, Daniel’s Instagram posts just keep coming. And always with captions about how hard, but so very important, it is to take time to find your true self, even if it takes you to the other side of the world. You know, in case months spent hiking the PCT wasn’t enough.

Gwen lets out an exasperated moan. “Where is the AC, people? I don’t want to sweat off my glitter.”

Gwen is right. The convention center feels like a greenhouse. We wander the halls until we are in the middle of one of the vending galas, and then it’s worse than ladies’ night at… Well, the theoretical ladies’ nights I envision in my head when I’m too tired to brood or work out.

“Me-ow!”

I turn with clawed hands up and a hiss to a smattering of applause.

“Easy, boys.” Gwen sashays into the fray, and if I don’t follow, I’ll probably never see her again.

“Hemlock! Poison Hemlock, can I get a picture?” a group of Space Monk-dressed boys asks.

Gwen tosses her hair behind her shoulder, and for a moment, I imagine the word flip faintly penciled in around her as emanata radiate off the Space Monks. “How about the two of us?” She drapes herself around the two cutest monks.

“Crowd in, boys.” My voice has become a rough, velvety purr. I arch my back as a Space Monk rests his hand just above my waist. 

We make our way to the main ballroom with the most impressive displays and vendors. “Those Space Monks were definitely not of the pious, entropy-fearing order,” I hiss.

Gwen’s eyes light up at the nearest vendor booth. “Ponies! I need all of them!” She stuffs merch into a conveniently-placed shopping basket. “Why didn’t we dress up as ponies? OMG. There’s a pink one? With red hair?” Gwen is ecstatic. “Next year, we’re coming as ponies.” Gwen shoves her way, merch first, into the crowd of shoppers.

“How did you score badges for this year?” I trace my name on my badge with one clawed finger before sliding it back in my thigh pocket with my phone. 

Gwen smiles and wrinkles her nose. “The internet is a magical place. Particularly when you have a Venmo account ready and waiting.”

“I’m sure your picture didn’t hurt either,” I say, and goldfish, I’m using my Catstrike voice again. 

We edge our way to the front of the queue.

“Do you want a commemorative shopping bag?” the cashier asks, gesturing to the display of reusable totes plastered with images of ponies.

“Honey, of course I do!”

The cashier struggles to fit all of Gwen’s purchases into the bag.

Gwen checks her phone before dropping it down the front of her bustier. “Now what am I supposed to do with all these goodies? I’m not carrying them around all day.”

A Dragon Wolf cosplayer slides up his helmet. “There’s a coat check on the first floor.”

Gwen winks at Dragon Wolf. “Care to show us?”

He grins before a Fascination cosplayer tugs him away.

“I’m not walking back to the front.” I point to my boots. “I can’t.” I haven’t worn heels in years.

“I promised not to leave you alone.” Gwen looks dismayed. She hefts the bag of bulging pony paraphernalia onto her shoulder.

“I’ll be fine.” I shoo her toward the escalators.

“I’ll be right back. Don’t wander too far.”

Not a problem. It is physically impossible to wander far in these boots.

I make it exactly two steps before Cicada-bro and MJ ask for a photo. I make it another couple of feet before a group of preppy wizards stops me for pictures. After that, I am inundated with a group that is either Dr. Leto or Sherlock Holmes. It’s hard to tell, what with the overpowering smell of bodies needing to shower. Holy sweaty socks, Nightbat. I will sign that petition floating around the forums for public showers at all Comic-Con International conventions when this is over. I hope the smell doesn’t linger on me.

Selfie sticks are banned at Comic-Con, but somehow props like faux spears, axes, and any kind of wizarding staff are fair play? Maybe I should have brought my whip after all.  

After my fourth photo op with yet another Nightbat, I have to sit down. My boots send spikes of pain up my ankles and lay waste to my spine. I may never run again. I’ll have to take up swimming, or worse—surfing like Brent. Hours bobbing up and down in the seaweed. Not even breaking a sweat.

“How about a picture, sweetheart?” A jerk grabs my wrist.

I nearly lose my balance as I wrench my hand free. “I’m fine, thanks,” I snarl.

“Come on,” he moans. “Don’t be like that.”

He reaches for my waist this time, but I grab my phone and snap a picture of his sorry mug. The flash makes him blink.

“I said no. Now back off. I’m out of your league, and I’m this close to sharing your picture with security.”

“Sorry,” the idiot slurs, skulking away.

He earned a major eye roll, and again, I hear phones click. People really need to work on their cosplay etiquette.

Calls of approval and questions about the costume follow me as I search for someplace to just chill until Gwen returns. Past Sarah would have been cooler with the attention, maybe even flattered. Oh, who am I kidding? Past Sarah would be enamored of the idea that behind every cowl could be an equally passionate, attractive, kindred überfan searching for a soulmate to validate the importance of comics (for both their artistry and storytelling) and argue over who was the best Nightbat, all while making heart eyes at each other. Now, I can’t stop thinking about facial recognition software that may flag me in my mom’s Facebook feed or if my platform boots are going to permanently throw off my running. I am all too aware of the crazies who come out to cosplay to indulge in any of my cosplay comic book fantasies.  

“Need an escape?”

I turn around, bracing myself for another photo request. Instead, I’m blindsided by a wide smile belonging to a guy in a white T-shirt. I literally sigh out loud, because after posing for a billion Snapchats with a bunch of other cosplayers, a plain old tee is the breath of normal I need.

The guy is probably mid-twenties, in jeans that are as Normal Guy as the shirt. He’s taller than me, but only by about an inch or so, with me in the RuPaul heels. And he is delicious, but not in the overt, Ralph-Winston-sans-red-cape, good-looks way. He has that I-do-yoga-and-am-completely-comfortable-in-my-own-skin type of vibe, but judging by the veins that wrap around his wrists and the muscles I can count in his forearms, he does more than yoga. And that confidence sans costume in this place makes me curious. Interested.

Like a breaking wave that sweeps up the shore, I feel it. The cosplay is taking control. My head cocks. Suddenly, my boots don’t feel so painful. Fudge brownies, are his eyes blue?

“What’ve you got?” I purr. Cosplay all of a sudden feels a lot more fun.

Burst lines, the gorgeous ones that need both ink and a colorist, radiate from his smile.  He proffers a box to me. “Open it.”

I take the box carefully, because of my cosplay claws. It is covered in the type of switches and buttons that would have fit in on an old-school Starship Cruiser set. “Why?” I ask.

He laughs, and that ASMR buzz comes creeping back up my spine. “Most people ask how.”

I shift languidly in my boots. “I’m not most people.”

“Clearly.” His grin turns cheeky for a fleeting moment. His chest swells with a deep inhale. “It’s an escape box. You open it. You get a prize.”

I look past him to see a couple in Mask Master T-shirts and a father-and-son pair, each with a similar box. I lean a shoulder against the obliging pillar. My feet ache. I pass the box back to Handsome T-shirt Guy. “Show me.”

“Too intimidating?” His eyes flash and lips press together. Oooh, this one makes me want to play. Those forearms, that smile. So much confidence without even a whiff of cynicism. “We have a junior version, if you want to wait for that one.”

I stand up straighter and saunter closer. I run my gloved, clawed hand gently down his cheek and chest before pulling away. He doesn’t flinch. “I don’t want to scratch your toy.” My voice has slid into that rough, throaty purr. I sit on top of his table of merch and lean back confidently. “What are the prizes?”

He slides a stack of flyers out of my way. “Have to play to find out.”

The father and son hand back the open puzzle box to White Tee Guy.

“Good fun,” the dad says in a German accent.

I wink at White Tee before turning to the pair. “What’d you win?” I ask.

The dad squints at the paper in his hand. “Buy one, get one coupon to Superhero Escapes. May we have a picture?”

White Tee jumps to his feet to take it. I smile with my lips pressed together, my eyes not leaving this guy. I don’t know why—I mean, maybe I do, he’s easy on the eyes—but there’s something else. My mind stumbles through half-remembered passages of Jane Eyre, memories of my grandma and grandpa playing pinochle, until I land on the memory of my mom sighing over Captain von Trapp all those Sundays from so long ago.

Maybe there was another reason why my mom insisted we watch The Sound of Music so much.

“Thanks for playing, guys. Make sure to check out the Sable Siren raffle inside the Halifax Sisters Studios tent.”

I arch an eyebrow. “Coupons?”

“Some have actual tickets. Others have key chains, pins, even a few T-shirts.” His eyes travel up and down my figure, and I almost kick my feet up and lie down on his table, purring. “Is your suit custom? The fit is…” He trails off.

I put a hand on my hip. “The fit is…?”

His eyes snap up to mine. “It’s all really well done. I mean, I can tell you took inspiration from Nightbat Returns, but you made it your own.” He tosses the escape box back to me. “Go on. Give it a try. If you’re really worried about scratching it, you can take off your gloves.”

I smirk and shift my weight. All my vinyl crinkles and crunches. I hope this guy is standing close enough to hear. “Why stop with gloves?”

He tugs at the neck of his tee and adjusts the lanyard of his vendor’s badge. “Your shoes do look really uncomfortable.” He catches my eye with a playful smile that almost distracts me from the slight blush on his cheeks.

No way. White Tee is a gentleman. 

I look down at the box in my hands and swing my feet. Why not have some fun? I roll onto my back and toss the box up in the air and catch it. “This panel with the flashing flat buttons, it’s a sliding-block puzzle.” I slide the buttons that flash around. “There’s got to be a clue somewhere about the order.” I twist the box, pulling and pushing and looking for instructions. There are two spring-release buttons. I push them together, and a drawer pops open that contains a pair of flimsy red and blue 3-D glasses.

I roll onto my stomach and smirk up at this guy before I position the 3-D glasses around the cowl of my costume. He scoffs, a cute involuntary release of both laughter and disbelief, before running a hand through his hair.

I love cosplay. I’ve missed cosplay. Never in a billion years would I do anything even remotely like this in real life. But here I am, living my dream and shamelessly flirting with a handsome stranger with no reservations. 

White Tee works his vendor space. I’ve amassed a bit of attention, if I do say so myself. Guess the extra hours of hand-stitching last night were a good idea. Not that White Tee is slowed down by any of this. I track him as I fiddle with the puzzle. He gives a couple of hints to the Mask Master fans without coming across as douchey. He chats with a Chupacabra cosplay troupe. He smiles easily. Laughs sincerely. Clearly, he’s done this before. The thought makes me curious but also irritated. What other cosplayers has he ensnared with his wholesome T-shirt and charming smirk of a smile?

Back to business. With the 3-D glasses on, I see a picture is visible in the sliding-block puzzle. A single panel of a vintage Redemption Ring, AJ Comics’ band of most successful superheroes.

“Do you do other cosplay?” White Tee asks as I shift the squares around.

“Hey, Catstrike!”

I look up before taking off the 3-D glasses and recoil at a phone just inches away from my nose.

“Dude.” White Tee is more startled than me, but laughs off the fan with the phone good-naturedly. “You scared me. A little more warning, okay?”

I shift the last square in place, revealing another spring-load button. This one releases the top lid, revealing a keypad.

“What you working on there, Sai—
I look up at Gwen pointedly. “Sabine,” I say.

“Who’s Sabine?” she says, nodding and winking to an impressive Cyborg Queen and Admiral Starship Cruiser gender-bend.

“I am.”

“I thought you were Catstrike.”

White Tee laughs. Gwen perks up. “I like your shirt,” she tells him.

Every hetero woman alive would like his shirt. It pulls across his chest and hugs his torso in all the right ways.

He shrugs. “My Nightbat suit was in the wash.”

Gwen giggles, and I have to tamp down my bitchy streak. I’m no longer the prettiest girl at the booth. I don’t have a connection with this guy. I am a crazy in cosplay who has been embarrassing myself by lounging all over his table. My ego came out to play, but it has to go home now. Bye.  

I straighten to a stand and hand the box to Gwen. “Your turn.”

Gwen frowns at the box I dropped in her hands.

“We need a four-digit code,” I explain.

“When did Magnificent Man first fly?”

“1936. Nightbat was 1939,” I say.

Gwen punches in the codes. But no luck. “Maybe today’s date?” She tries it, but again nothing.

“Need a hint?” White Tee asks without leaning in, without checking out Gwen’s butt or boobs.   

I punch in one last number. 1959.

The lid swings open.

“We won a free T-shirt,” Gwen squeals and seizes the coupon.

I toss the box back to White Tee. I should do something. I should have a snappy parting phrase or a wink and smirk at the ready for a goodbye. My mouth parts. My eyes search him and land one last time on his impossibly normal shirt, before Gwen drags me into the very crowded HS Studio tent.

“What made you guess 1959?” Gwen pauses to flash a peace sign next to a girl who just turned around for a selfie.

“The year the Redemption Ring first came out.” I nod toward the visual vomit of Redemption Ring promotions surrounding us.

 “You knew that? #NerdAlert.” Gwen rummages through the racks of T-shirts. I’d like to say that Gwen is oblivious to all the attention she garners in the shop, but she isn’t. She catches someone’s eye and winks. Clearly, Gwen is the life of the party. And I get this weird pang of déjà vu mixed with something like regret. That used to be me when I cosplayed.  

I slowly slide back a couple of empty hangers on the rack. They make a terrible screech. “You know he probably had the free tees under his table out there.”

“But I like this one.”

She’s found a vintage Conundrum shirt, chartreuse and covered in little black question marks and exclamation points. “I’m sure it’s okay.”

It isn’t, but after five minutes and a tense moment while the cashier checks Gwen’s badge, Gwen and the vintage tee, along with a bag of free swag and a complimentary soda, emerge victorious.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I say. 

“Magnificent Man, eleven o’clock.” Gwen flings her hair over her shoulder, purses her lips, and retrieves her phone. “May we?” she asks in her most sultry supervillain voice. Unfortunately, Magnificent Man is too wholesome to do more than beam at the phone.

“So what does a supervillain do at Comic-Con? Besides shop,” Gwen asks, sipping on her Diet Coke.

My neck aches from twisting, but trying to catch a last glance of White Tee is worth it. He was an eye oasis. A yummy, much-needed break from the crazy all around. But he’s gone. And I can’t pretend anymore that there was a spark of connection. “And walking around posing for pictures with strangers? Wait in line for panels. Collect autographs. Ogle rare and expensive comics. I hear the nachos in Hall H are edible.”

Gwen gags.

“You want to check out the food trucks?” I ask.

“OMG, yes!”

We stop off at the coat check one more time for Gwen to add to her dragon’s hoard and head off toward B Street.

“How are you walking so fast?” My boots send spikes of pain up my ankles and destroy my spine. For reals. I’ll be an invertebrate by the end of the day. All I want to do is sit down.

“There’s a sweet spot when it comes to heels. I could walk all day in these.” Gwen stops in front of the first open table we find and pushes me into a chair. “You want kimchi?”

“Yes, and I wouldn’t say no to sushi.” I scramble to fish out my debit card.

Gwen snorts. “Hon, please. It’s on me.” 

After lunch, and an unfortunate run-in with a Union-Tribune photographer, who I desperately hope will not publish my picture in Sunday’s paper, it’s time to meet up with Tony.

“You swear you won’t tell him it’s me?” I ask Gwen.

“Cross my heart.” She lets out an ear-piercing squeal when she sees him.

Gwen launches herself into Tony’s arms. She must know what she’s talking about with the heels, because she’s running, not just walking, when Tony catches her. He’s obviously a little overwhelmed by Gwen’s splendor. And obviously tickled. “Tony—I mean, Nightbat, this is my friend. Catstrike.” Gwen is beaming.

“Hey,” Tony says. Thank every single last goldfish, he doesn’t start rasping in a fake Nightbat voice. “Good to meet you. Thanks for bringing Gwen.”

“Don’t mention it,” I mutter.

“So what have you girls been up to so far?”

“Shopping, sushi, making new friends. Speaking of which…” Gwen strains onto her tiptoes and waves frantically.

I cycle through recognition, embarrassment, and shock as the white-tee guy approaches. I frantically look for somewhere, anywhere to hide. Fudge it, I’m going to dive into the crowd and run.

Gwen instinctively grabs my arm. “Hey,” she says. “We were just talking about you.”

White Tee pauses like there could not be more flattering words before breaking into a friendly smile. “I’m glad you waved me down. I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself earlier. I’m Adam. Adam West McKinney.”

Shirley Temples. He looks even better than I remembered.

“You want a picture, honey?” Gwen asks Adam. She’s touched up her makeup and looks incredible. I’m sure Adam would beg for her number if she weren’t hanging on Tony.

“Would you take one of me and Catstrike?” Adam hands his phone over to Gwen, who fumbles for a moment before she gets us in focus.

Adam stands by my side, but unlike half the other guys at this convention, he refrains from draping an arm around my shoulders.

“You going to come back tomorrow?” he asks.

I turn from the unblinking eye of his phone to him. I lean in close. Because he is yummy and because I like that he comes to these in his own skin with nothing to hide. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

He thanks Gwen and swipes through the pictures on his phone. “You photograph well.” 

I step away from his side. Part of me, the stupid part who forgot how I became married then divorced, wished I could have stayed there a little longer. “Is that surprising?”

“A lot of cosplay looks amazing in person but doesn’t translate in photos.” He slides his phone into his pocket. “Do you do other cosplay?” 

This guy has me fighting my cosplay urges hard. “I did. Not anymore. Nice to meet you, Adam.” I roll my shoulders back. “Come on, Hemlock,” I say. “Let’s check out Hall H and plan our cosplay victory.”

“Well, clearly, we should just make out onstage. Right, Tony?”

I blanch. Nightbat Tony stops moving.

Gwen laughs and sidles away from Tony to slip an arm through mine. “Don’t worry. You’re not my type.” She turns and gives Tony a wink. “But seriously, if we work the sexual-tension angle, I think we’d have a shot.” Gwen’s voice drops. “What did the hottie in the tight white T-shirt want?”

I stumble in my heels and bump into a Tournament of Crowns, no, a Robotman Tournament of Crowns cosplayer. He scowls at me until he sees Gwen.

I imagine the sound effects grind and grate hanging descriptively near Nightbat Tony’s clenched jaw as Gwen and I flank this impressive cosplayer who’s utilized both carbon fiber armor and genuine fur in his costume. “Feel free to bump into me at any time, ladies,” he says.

We wander through the tables of artists. We pose for more pictures. I nerd out at the AJ Comics exhibition. They have Jane Lee originals, from Numb, no less. I ogle. I lose my Shirley Temples.

“If you’re into Jane Lee, she’s supposedly going to be on a panel later,” Tony says.

I whimper. “Are you serious?” All my Comic-Con dreams are coming true. Cosplay is awesome. Trying on a sexy, confident, badass character and escaping for those fleeting moments is awesome. Jane Lee’s panel is awesome. Even the contest, being up onstage and knowing that it doesn’t matter for a second that I live with my mom, is awesome.

***

We don’t win. Two girls dressed as Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham do. Ironically, they made out onstage.

Gwen and Tony are stuck in a huge line at coat check as I stare at my phone and hail a Lyft. Comic-Con is over and so is my turn at being the sexy, badass villain.

Tall stripes of white and blue flood my peripheral vision. “Congratulations.”

It’s Adam. He’s pulled a blue button-down over his white T-shirt. Maybe his eyes are gray. “We didn’t win,” I say. We didn’t even place. I’m not a sore loser. I’m just sore from the heels and the corset that compressed my rib cage all day. My mood has nothing to do with this being the end of Comic-Con and the end of my cosplaying.

“You were a crowd favorite.” He pulls out his phone and shows me his IG feed. “#Catstrike. That’s you. That’s you again. You and Poison Hemlock. Oh, and you again. Let’s search #Comic-Con. You’re the third hit. How about #cosplay?” He holds out his phone, and my face is studded all over his feed.

“What do you want, Adam?”

The hall is deafening, and he leans in closer. “I have a proposition.”

You’ve gotta be kidding. I guess Adam isn’t a gentleman after all. I fold my arms across my chest, my claws sticking out menacingly. They’ve snagged on all my stuff today, but right now, I’m glad I’m still wearing them.

“Have you been to an escape room?” Adam asks.

Gwen props an arm on my shoulder. “She hasn’t, but she’s a poor example. Keep pitching. This is fun.” I think Gwen found a drink somewhere before the contest. She’s been even more outgoing than I thought possible.  

“Name two things Millennials and Gen Z have in common,” he says. “They’re bored, and they love superheroes. I provide them entertainment via my superhero-themed escape rooms.”

“Adult entertainment?”

“No. No!” Adam tugs on the collar of his shirt. “Hear me out. Every single Millennial in this room has a superhero fantasy.”

“Ew.”

“Let me finish.”

“Yeah, Saire—Sabine. Let the man finish.” Gwen sways a little.

“They have a superhero fantasy. And Gen Z is the same. They want to be Nightbat for a night. Ralph Winston with the Magnificent Man suit ready to go. Robotman. Catstrike. Huh? They want this.” He gestures to the throng of conventiongoers all around us. “They want access to this. That’s it. No one is being a jackass in here. No one is asking to sleep with you—”

Gwen snorts. “We did get some shouted proposals.”

Nightbat Tony, no longer wearing the mask and still carrying Gwen’s hoard of shopping, manages to sweep Gwen up and off her feet. “Marry me, Hemlock!”

“Exactly!’ Gwen giggles. They disappear in a crush of sugary-sweet PDA. Just me and Adam now. Well, and a few hundred strangers.

“Cosplay is growing. You’re very good at it.” His cheeks color as he stares down at my boots. “You haven’t broken character once all day.”

“And you’ve been watching? Like, all day?” I’m done. I can’t flirt in cosplay. I can’t flirt out of cosplay. That’s the way it should be. Has to be. I’m walking toward the exit, leaving my fantasies behind at the convention center, where they can be corralled in lost and found for all eternity.

Adam jogs a step to catch up. “You’ve been to Disneyland? You took a picture with a princess, right? It’s the same idea. I bring the superheroes and supervillains to a fun, interactive, immersive escape room experience. My patrons get a piece of their fantasy, some bragging rights to the fastest times and pictures to post to their IG feed.”

“What’s your superhero fantasy?”

“Me?” Adam’s eyes go wide, and somehow I get the sense I’ve missed something embarrassingly obvious. Maybe it’s just been an epically long day, and his chill façade has worn through. In any case, he shakes it off and lands on his feet before I can figure it out. “I want a piece of the industry,” he says. “I think I could make enough to pay my student loans. Look, Sabine. May I call you Sabine? You spent hours making this costume. You clearly love being in this character’s skin. Wouldn’t it be nice to get paid to do that?”

A Dark Morph Angel with feathered wings jostles me closer to Adam.

I put one of my gloved hands, complete with wired claws, on his chest to steady myself. He tries to steady me but overcompensates. And now I’ve got my other hand around his neck.  It’s either that or fall. But ooh, maybe there is not much of a difference.

Chapter 4

Adam smells really nice. Nicer than any man should after working a convention all day. The air inside the convention center must be compressed with sweat and stale nacho cheese. I’m sure the smell is permanently stuck to me, but not to this guy. This guy… He’s exactly the type of clean-cut man that Mom would pick out of a church lineup for a family dinner invitation because you need more friends, Sarah.

Conventiongoers and cosplayers continue to shuffle past us to the exit. Sweat drips down my back. I feel uncomfortably clammy. The crowd clearly has conspired to push us closer. Now when I close my eyes, it will be too easy to imagine a casual—no, comfortable—hand resting on my lower back.

He’s waiting for an answer, but I’ve temporarily lost my mind and am enjoying the pressure of his skin against my vinyl. I close my eyes, inviting the fantasy in, but instead, that idea of Mom inviting him to a family dinner IRL has taken hold. He’d say no. Everyone says no when they connect the dots of my last two years. The whack chick who gets married at twenty-one and divorced at twenty-two and now lives with her mom—yeah, something is obviously very wrong with her. Steer clear of the sad, little crazy-pants. Don’t make eye contact. Move along now.

I don’t live up to the cosplay IRL.

I try to catch my breath. “I’ll pass.” I nimbly duck and jostle my way through the crowded exit until I’m outside in the limitless ocean air.

Adrenaline shocks and seizes my tired body as arms and legs wrap around me from behind. “Catstrike!” Gwen sings out. “Where have you been? Nightbat and I are gonna get out of here. Save Abandum City. Wanna come?”

Gwen is too tipsy to scold. I gently but firmly unwrap her from my torso, like she is a Kids Clubber. “You’re a villain,” I say. “You don’t save Abandum.” Seriously, what this woman doesn’t know about comics.

Gwen smirks. “Then I’ll enjoy frustrating Nightbat’s plans and every other part of him.”

Ew.

Gwen pulls me aside. “It’s Tony,” she whispers with a giggle.

“You sure?” I steady my friend. “Maybe you should ask him to put his mask back on.”

“Please.” Gwen snorts. “This isn’t my first rodeo.” She sloppily twists a lock of hair in her fingers but pulls too hard and tangles it. “Ow. You wanna come?”

“And risk being identified by my boss? No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” She digs the key out of her bustier and hands it to me. “You can change at my place. Help yourself to a hoodie.”

“Text me?”

“You know it.” She gives me a quick kiss, which makes a few of the departing attendees cheer. “Enjoy your last few minutes of nerd ball. Don’t leave a glass slipper or anything behind.”

“You mean a sharp claw?”

“Sure.”

Tony pulls up, and the two of them drive away.

“Hey, Catstrike! Say meow!” A dude with a selfie stick jumps in front of me.

I raise a single eyebrow and deadpan, “Meow.”

“Classic!”

A yellow Camaro appears with a Lyft light in the window.  I check the license plate against my app. “Are you my Lyft?” I ask.

A goateed man with a midlife-crisis stud in his ear reluctantly reaches for his phone. “Catstrike and Poison Hemlock?”

“Hemlock made other plans.”

I reach to open the door, but the driver takes one look at my clawed fingers and screams, “Watch the paint job!”

“I got it,” says a recognizable voice. Adam—Adam West McKinney—opens the car door. “I’m taking Poison Hemlock’s place.”

“Just make sure your girlfriend doesn’t scratch the leather.”

My shoulders tense. “I’m not his girlfriend.” I slide into the car, my vinyl crackling against the leather.

“Whatever. Same destination, sweetheart?”

“Please, and thank you,” I continue in my rough monotone. I’m not about to slip into anything genuine in front of Adam. Or Camaro Dude. 

The driver puts the car in gear. “Pacific Beach it is.”

Adam smiles. “So you’re a local. That’s great.”

My eyes narrow. “What do you want?”

“I want you in my escape room. New characters mean repeat business.”

As we drive farther away from cosplay mecca, I begin to feel more and more uncomfortable. “Cosplay isn’t something a girl does in real life.”

“Not even for a paycheck?”

“People do all kinds of stupid things for money that they regret in the morning.” Like take a friend’s dare and say exactly what you think to a guy dressed as Cicada-bro at a party. The memories of that stupid night are swirling too close to the surface. Especially now that cosplay and I are over for good.

“You had fun. I know you did. I had fun watching you have fun.”

“This is getting uncomfortable,” Camaro Dude mutters.

I scoff in frustration and also in disbelief. Really? I have to take heat from my Lyft driver?  “Cosplay only works for Comic-Con. It’s just weird outside of it. I’m weird outside of it.”

“You look weirder than weird. You look plain stupid,” Camaro Dude says.

I barrel on before Adam can defend me. Not that I want him to or think he would. I don’t.  “I have a real life. If people in my real life saw me like this…” Mom would force me to go with her to Bible study. Brent would make some awful joke about me getting married again. It would be open season on my terrible life choices and only a matter of time before Mom found out about my miscarriage. I’d never be trusted again. I’d turn into Mom’s pet human. She might even make an IG account featuring tearful and public discussions about lost sheep and shepherds, replete with photographic evidence of my rehabilitation. I shudder. “No one would take me seriously. This is a stunt that’s only okay for one day during Comic-Con. Nice girls don’t get a pass to dress up like this even for Halloween.”

“I could give you that pass.”

“You’re not listening,” I say with more than exasperation in my voice.

“He’s really not,” Camaro Dude agrees. Again, I try to ignore his commentary. Momentum is important. 

“I don’t want a pass,” I say. “I’m an adult. Adults don’t do this outside of Comic-Con.” Particularly if she is a loser who lives in her mom’s office/spare bedroom.

Adam grows quiet. “Even if no one knew your true identity? If you were only ever Catstrike at my escape room?”

“Yeah, but you’d know.” And the thought of this man ever seeing me for what I really am—a sad little divorcée whose life stopped before it ever even started—that is even worse than my mother spotting me in costume in the Union-Tribune. Oh gosh. I hope the Union-Tribune doesn’t pick my picture for its article.

“Let’s say I didn’t,” Adam says. He’s tactfully staring out the window. Streetlamp reflections squirm in the water of Mission Bay below us. “Let’s say there was a clause in our business agreement that kept your true identity a secret. You could write your conditions. What’s your number?”

Camaro Dude snorts. “Smooth.”

I stare at the back of his shaved head and then refocus on Adam. “Seriously?”

“Right,” Adam says, pulling out a business card and a very sleek-looking titanium pen. “This is my number. This is my Fem Fantastic’s number. She’s one of my managers—my best manager. Call her. She will vouch for my character and operation. It’s nothing but good, clean, superhero fun.”

I pinch the card between my thumb and forefinger. “I doubt that.”

“Yeah, me too,” Camaro Dude says. “Anyone can carry around business cards.” He swivels in his seat at the next red light. “But where did you get yours printed, man? I was thinking of getting some.”

I indulge in a momentary fantasy of scratching swears into the pristine leather seats with my fake claws.

Adam goes on, “You can give me a call. We can work out a Venmo account for payment. I swear I’ll never ask who you are, or ask you to take off your mask.” His face flinches as if he’s just forgotten something. For a moment, I feel his eyes bore into the back of my gloved left hand. “You’re not worried because you’re married or something? I mean—” He’s floundering, rubbing the back of his neck. “My Cardinal Flame is engaged, if it makes you feel any better. She and her fiancé would be happy to talk…” His face is flushed. “Hey, man. Can you stop the car here?”

Our driver gives us some serious stink eye but pulls over.

Adam scribbles a second number on the card. “Give them a call.” He slides out of the car.  “Offer stands. Let me know.”

Chapter 5

I don’t know what I would have done if Gwen hadn’t given me her key. What was I thinking? That I’d just walk back into Mom’s house dressed as Catstrike? I was lucky to time my exit when I left for Comic-Con this morning. I didn’t even think about how I would get home.

I borrow a hoodie, Lululemon top, and a pair of sweats from Gwen, shove my cosplay costume into the very back of her closet, and run home in the dark in her sneakers that are two sizes too big. No part of my run feels great after a day in boots, but maybe that’s the point. My face burns with the memory of my arms draped around Adam. How they lingered. How I lingered. Shirley Temples, what is wrong with me? You don’t get fresh with a random stranger when you’re in cosplay. That way lies listing slightly-used wedding gifts on eBay to pay rent, while your husband plans one campout after another with his best friends Tiffany and Charlotte. It’s temporary insanity that I never want to repeat.

And I would repeat it if I were dressed up again, and Adam were there. I mean the flirting, not the doomed marriage, but that’s the problem. Flirting is a gateway drug. Just like comics and cosplay are a gateway drug. Hence my rules that will keep me far from guys like Adam with their charming confidence, winning smiles, and jaws so yummy you want to exfoliate your face on the stubble.

I need more rules. More running. That’s my fourth rule. More running. Always running. 

I’m out of my mind, and I’ll run until my senses are restored, and I’m too tired to remember that Adam’s middle name is West and that he has a dimple in his right cheek and eyes the same blue as the ocean before dawn.

You know what? I think I need to sprint the last mile.

***

It’s past one a.m. when I get home. If there were crickets in our corner of San Diego County, they’d be chirping. Instead, I have the sound of next door’s sprinklers ratcheting up and spraying the drought tolerance out of every square inch of the neighbors’ back lawn. Irrigation aside, the air seeping in through my mom’s little house feels quiet and sleepy. I might actually sleep until morning.

I creep into my mom’s office/spare bedroom. Everyone has a place in their house where they dump the crap they don’t know what to do with. My mom’s is her office/spare bedroom. I fit right in with the homemade teacher-appreciation Pinterest gifts, old curriculum books, and filing cabinet.

I jump out of my skin when I see Mom’s face lit up with the blue glow of her Mac. 

“Mom! What are you doing up this late?”

“Playing solitaire. Trolling Twitter for Russian bots.” She looks up at me, and I know I’m in for it. “Waiting for you.”

I shove my pile of laundry across the floor and stretch.

My mom fixes me with her twenty-five-years-of-teaching stare over the frames of her glasses. “We need to talk, Sarah.”

I groan and touch my head down to my knees in a deep stretch.

“Where were you?” Mom demands.

“Can we please talk tomorrow?” The run was a mistake. My feet and my spine will never be the same after a day in those absurd boots. I am not just sore. I am deformed.

“If you’re going to live in my house, you’re going to tell me.” Mom’s mouth is set into a thin line. Her day-old lipstick has bled into the whisper-thin lines around her lips.

“I was out for a run,” I mutter.

“You’ve been out for a run since this morning? I get home with the shopping, looking forward to spending one of my summer Saturdays with my little girl, and you’re not here. No note. No phone call. Am I supposed to just watch Mississippi Bake-Off by myself?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I thought I texted.”

“Where were you?”

“I was…” I hesitate. No way am I going to tell her I was at Comic-Con. The questions wouldn’t stop, and then after we rehashed my irresponsibility yet again, she’d drag me to her therapist, and we’d sit on a too-small-couch and talk about trust for ninety minutes, followed by goals—all of them pointing directly to Bible study and other new hobbies, like spin class, with my mom and her Bible study friends. Pet human in tow. “I was at the gym. I was working.”

“It wasn’t on the calendar.” Mom taps the dry-erase board above her computer. She insists my shifts be put in writing. It’s the fifth-grade teacher in her.

“Someone called at the last minute, and I forgot.”

She narrows her eyes at me.

“I worked a double shift, and then I ran home,” I say, kicking off Gwen’s shoes.

“I don’t like you running alone at all hours of the night.” She sounds exasperated.

I tug my knee up to my chin and close my eyes as my back adjusts. “I can outrun anyone.”

“It stops. Right now. Do you hear me? I’m not staying up all night praying that my daughter isn’t dead in a ditch somewhere because some DUI diva can’t be bothered to slow down.”

“Mom!”

She hands me a trifolded piece of paper. “This came today.”

Oh no. My student loan statement shakes in my sweaty hand. “You opened my mail?”

“My last name and address were on the envelope. Excuse me for making an honest mistake. When were you going to tell me you defaulted on your loan?”

I reach around the stack of boxes in the closet and grab my fluffy winter robe. Yes, it is July, but it is one of the only clean items hanging in my closet—Mom’s closet.

“You need to do laundry.”

 I try to close the closet door, but Daniel’s boxes are in the way.

“And when are you going to do something about those boxes?”

I pause. Mom is almost hysterical. She’s definitely more of a morning person. Unlike me. It’s another source of contention that she’d love to talk about with me and her therapist.

I inhale, quietly and slowly, before turning around. “Mom, I’m sorry. You’re right. I should have texted. I should have added the shift I was picking up to the calendar.”

“And the loan?”

“I’m picking up extra shifts at the gym, aren’t I?” True, but I’m also going to Comic-Con and pretending that I’m a different person, a caricature of a sexy, confident woman, which I’ll never be. “And I’ll do laundry in the morning. I’ll be here till noon, and we can watch all the Bake-Offs you want while I fold—”

Mom puts a hand on her hip and stares at me.

Oh, right. “Never mind. You have church.”

“Yes.” Mom jabs the power button of her computer. “And an extra shift here and there.” She shakes her head. “It’s not enough, Sarah. You’re barely making enough to cover your credit card payments.”

I really need a better place to keep my statements than my mom’s desk. I sigh and plunge my hands into the pocket of my borrowed hoodie. Adam’s business card brushes against my fingers. “I know. I’m working on it.”

“And the boxes?”

I stare at the three carboard boxes monopolizing the real estate of the office/spare bedroom closet. “Yeah. The boxes too.”

Chapter 6

Sure, there are divorced men who sell all their earthly possessions (save what can fit in the super-expensive backpack they registered for at REI while their fiancées are too busy addressing wedding invitations to notice) and take to the wide-open road and find themselves on the Pacific Crest Trail, where they manage to rescue the world’s most pathetic-looking dog that suffers from anxiety, depression, and hip dysplasia. While hiking, and staying at the occasional spa, they post buttloads of pics with novella-length captions about how they found themselves, and really, it was the dog who rescued them. Then they decide to teach English in China with the dog and plaster their adventures, which consist of clubbing, eating, and being worshiped by all the adorable schoolchildren. Don’t get me started on the gorgeous “friends” who pop up in their feeds and drape themselves across the divorced men and all the little IG squares with an abundance of beauty, grace, and flawless skin.

Daniel didn’t sell all his earthly possessions. A lot of them he just couldn’t be bothered with. “I’ll get them when I come back,” he told me. “I just can’t deal with this right now.”

So I got to deal with it. I agreed to hang on to his random stuff—three full XL boxes that make it impossible for me to close the closet door.

It was the least I could do, right?

Bright morning sunshine streams through the kitchen window, making my mom’s robust potted herbs chartreuse and glowy. I have half a mind to tell these herbs to fudge off as I wait for my comfort wellness tea to cool. Instead, I scroll through Daniel’s Instagram feed. Mom stormed off to bed with threats of calling Brent after church to talk about dental hygienist school. Yay for picking up a morning shift at the gym. My thumb hovers over Daniel’s stories before I remember that he’ll see my views. I hit the home button of my screen.

I’m not stalking. My ex’s Instagram is public. I’m not pining either. Daniel is a douchebag. But I am bitter. And sad. It’s desperate to want to have something I can put on Instagram to show that I, too, can be a successful, fully-realized individual, even if I am not flanked by adorable children and gorgeous members of the opposite sex everywhere I go. But that’s where I am. Contemplating muttering obscenities at the cheerful herbs in my mom’s kitchen and looking to prove I’m not a pathetic cliché of a Gen Z.   

I open up the photos on my phone, but there are no pictures, no evidence, of my cosplay and epic day at Comic-Con. I have nothing to post. The last photo I took was of where I parked my mom’s car for my shift at the gym two weeks ago. My last post was of a nebulous ocean before dawn.

I’m a social media ghost who badly needs someone else to haunt.

I do a search for #SDCC #Catstrike and feel my face glow red. My picture is everywhere. Adam was right. I was popular. The details in my costume translate in the photos, but damn, so does my runner’s body.

After everything that happened with Daniel, I did my best to avoid mirrors. I took to hoodies the same way I took to running. No one says, OMG, are you pregnant, or did you just get fat? when you are wearing a hoodie. No one pays any attention to your shape in a hoodie. It is the ultimate camouflage. But good gracious—my shape has changed. I don’t even recognize me in the pictures. And it isn’t just the figure-hugging costume. My face, my expressions—I never look that confident or sexy IRL.

I fish Adam’s business card out of the pocket of my hoodie, punch in the number for his Fem Fantastic cosplayer, and compose a text:

Hi Stacey aka Fem Fantastic. Sorry to be random, but Adam gave me your number. I have some questions about his business, which frankly seems too good to be true. Would you be willing to meet me for a coffee and chat off the record? Sincerely…

Signing my real name seems way too risky, but signing as Catstrike feels like a commitment to the cosplay that I’m not ready to make in broad daylight. I need a step removed.   So I use her alter ego:

Sincerely, Not Sabine Kennedy

***

And so here I am a few days later, in my favorite old Padres hoodie at the student union Starbucks on the SDSU campus, waiting with a venti licoricey tea.

“Sabine?”

I look up, and a tall, athletic brunette in jeans and a perfect gray tee smiles down benevolently at me. I’d told her to look for a girl in a Padres hoodie. “Sorry, are you Sabine Kennedy?”

I wince. Goldfish, this is embarrassing. “Yeah.”

“Hey. I’m Stacey Frances.” She shakes my hand and gives me a wink. “Or should I say Agatha King?” She sets her coffee on the table and takes a seat. “Are you a student here?”

“Um, well, I applied.” Once upon a time, when I was still in high school. I tug the strings of my hoodie. The location was Stacey’s idea. Something about study sessions and a looming philosophy final.  “How about you?”

“Yeah. I’m a civics major. Captain of the swim team.” This chick may look like Fem Fantastic’s alter ego, Agatha King, but she’s serving me AJ Comics’ vintage Mary Sue heroine—confident, open, no-nonsense. I immediately respect her.

“That makes sense,” I say. Stacey is warrior princess levels of #goals.

“How about you?” She sizes me up. 

“I like to run,” I say quietly.

“Of course.” She smiles wide, and her teeth rival Brent and Jen’s best work. “And you like to cosplay.”

I duck my head, checking to see if anyone in the Starbucks is eavesdropping. Man-Bun in the back corner is tied up with his phone. The baristas are bickering over the lyrics of the latest Taylor Swift single.

“Girl, it’s nothing to be that shy about,” Stacey says.

“It’s not like some sleazy sex ring, is it?” I ask.

Stacey Frances, aka Agatha King, aka Fem Fantastic laughs. Loud. Hard. “No. Everything is completely aboveboard, even down to the character licensing. It really is just photo ops and typical escape room operation.”

I’m a dork, but I had to get that one out of the way. Fudge goes down in college. I can’t be stupid about it. On to my next burning question. “Do people recognize you? I mean, you don’t wear a mask.”

“Not really. I mean, sometimes you get that vague, I-think-I’ve-seen-you-somewhere-before look, but that’s happened only a handful of times.” Stacey blows on her coffee and smiles. “It was honestly a lot of fun when it did.”

Fun? Maybe if you’re a goddess secure in your captain-of-the-swim-team status. Or maybe the security came from a happy, healthy relationship. The image of Adam and Stacey as a couple flashes in my mind. I don’t know what my reasoning is—maybe I’m trying to drown out the image—but I swallow way too much hot tea and spit half of it back in my cup.

“You okay?” Stacey asks.

“Yeah.” My tongue is pulsing with its own heartbeat, and from now on, everything will taste like hot licorice. “Does your boyfriend—”

“Girlfriend,” Stacey corrects.

I apologize. I can and will do better with my assumptions.

Stacey smiles into her coffee. “It’s okay.”

I pick at the cuffs of my hoodie. “She doesn’t mind?”

“Nope. Teases me a bit when I put on the costume. She’s into different fandoms.”

“And the customers are respectful? No inappropriate touching… or unmasking?”

Stacey looks thoughtfully at me, and I have to physically stop myself from squirming. “Adam has a lot of waivers before people can play. He also has been known to hire some pretty impressive security, who are not in costume.” A crease forms on Stacey’s perfect brow. “It’s easy to spot the potential troublemakers, and they get tighter leashes.”

“But you get hit on?” Goldfish, what is wrong with me? I sound like a creep. I stare into my tea.

Stacey laughs. “Where have you been cosplaying?”

“Adam saw me at Comic-Con. That’s the only time I’ve cosplayed.” Not true. Not true by a million billion times.

“People are pretty shy of gorgeous women towering over them while they’re trying to escape from rooms. I say my scripted lines. I pose for pictures. I get paid a lot of money.”

“How much money?”

“More now that I’m a manager, but let’s see.” Stacey grabs a napkin and scribbles. “My first weekend cosplaying paid for a semester’s worth of books.”

She shows me the figure, and my eyes bulge. “Is Adam a good…” My cheeks redden as I search for the right word. My internal autofill makes my blush spread to my neck. “Boss?”

“He’s a go-getter. Total professional. Sometimes a little aggressive when it comes to bookings. I worked every weekend winter semester. He respected my swim schedule, but if I wasn’t in the pool, I was in my blue skirt and red bustier. Well, unless I was in the leotard.”

“You wear different costumes?” I can’t keep the dread out of my voice. Last thing I need is an excuse to invest in more cosplay.

“Yeah. Adam has the standard version, and then he has the vintage camp version that is more family friendly.” Stacey’s expression softens. “He’s more than willing to buy the costumes, but then he wants a deposit, and it was just easier to get my own. I’m guessing you have just the one?”

She must have misread the panic in my eyes. Still, I shake my head slightly.

“You do have a Catstrike costume?” she whispers.

I nod. “Inspired by Nightbat Returns,” I mutter.

Stacey bites her lower lip, probably to suppress her smile. “What’s wrong with that?”

“I grew up with a mother who would tell me to change if my skirt was above my knee, and my cardigan was too tight.” I press my lips together. “She doesn’t know I cosplay. I don’t want to find out what would happen if she did.” Would she blame me for Daniel being a total douche? Or worse, would she blame me for my miscarriage?

“I get it. I wouldn’t exactly want to walk out in that.” Stacey brushes her hair back with a grin. “I mean, I would. Lots of fun, very kinky, but I don’t think I’d want just anyone to know about that side of me.”

“It’s mortifying,” I say. My entire story really is. Start to finish. Cooking up the idea of cosplaying as Cicada Nymph in a minidress and red wig to beat back boredom sophomore year.  Agreeing to a doomed marriage that never had a spark of love in it. Accepting I am a pathetic loser and swearing off cosplay forever, only to do it again because my one friend in the world wants to go, and I don’t want to lose that friendship. Potentially gleaning a side hustle from it. And considering it only because the man offering is… what? Confident? Articulate? Intriguing?

“How did Adam find you?” I ask.

“He was recruiting at the pool. Everyone knows swimmers have the best bodies.” She eyes my hoodie. “Do you cross-train? You have great shoulders.”

How can she tell when I’m wearing a hoodie? “I row sometimes.” I leave out the part that it is on a machine.

“Right. Adam pitched his business, and someone outed me. Told him I’d dressed up as Fem Fantastic for Halloween. He got me and Frankie. Vlad and Hector too. They’re polo players. Sweet guys.”

“So everyone knows everyone?” Oh no.

“I mean, now we do. Adam poached Christian, Mike, and Jessica from a drama club.” Stacey smiled widely. “It’s cool that we’re getting a Catstrike. I mean, if you sign on. Adam’s been looking for one for ages. Don’t know why he’s been so picky about it. Frankie and Vanessa have volunteered before, but he likes to rotate them as Cardinal Flame, Fair Play, and Poison Hemlock. Fem Fantastic, too, on the nights when I have a swim meet.”

“What about the guys?”

“Christian and Mike usually play the villains. Sometimes they do Burst and Emerald Broadsword. I think once Adam asked Mike to play Fledgling, but he threatened to quit. Vlad and Hector rotate between Nightbat and Magnificent Man and some of the lesser-known heroes.”

“Like Soar? Cyborg-man? Black Morph?” I ask.

Stacey stares at me. “Yeah. It can be a lot of fun. Everyone loves it. Adam’s a cool guy. Eye for talent too. I never would have picked me or Frankie out as Fem Fantastic or Poison Hemlock, but we kill it every time.”

“If I do this, you won’t ever mention that we met in real life? I mean… you wouldn’t tell Adam about me? What I look like?” I get that Adam doesn’t know me, and doesn’t know my past. But I know me. I know I don’t live up to the cosplay, and for whatever reason, I’d rather not have Adam clued in to that sad little detail.

Stacey’s brow furrows. She takes a swig of her coffee. “I’m the last person in the world who’d ever out another girl in any way.” She flips over her phone. “I’ve got to run. I’ve got a study date. It was nice to meet you, Not Really Sabine. I hope I see you at work sometime. It’s a good hustle, especially if you’re going to be going here in the fall.” She winks and leaves.

End of excerpt, but you can read on in ebook format right now. Paperbacks are available right now here.

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