My Government-Issued Girlfriend Can't Be This Cute!
"Excuse me, sir?"
I was finishing up sorting a new batch of game guides into my busy bookstore's shelves when a hand tugged on my apron.
"Hmmm?" I looked down. A little boy wearing shorts and a green t-shirt held a piece of paper. Puzzled eyes and something in a customer's hands were the classic signals of someone about to ask a question.
"This manga," he pointed to the lined paper in his hand, "please tell me where to find it. It wasn't with the other manga."
"Oh, let me see." I accepted and read over the paper. Sloppy handwriting made it difficult to distinguish certain words, but I was good enough at my job to guess what he wanted. "Basketful of Fruits? Volume 1 Right?"
"Yeah! That one! I checked every shelf back there but couldn't find it!" He motioned to our area of boy's manga across the room from us. A division aisle separated two gendered halves of the manga section.
"Ah, you wouldn't find it in boy's manga. Since this is a girl's manga, you'd have to check the girl's manga area for it," I gently said.
"There's a difference? Well, she's a girl so I guess she'd be into girl stuff."
"Yeah. This is a birthday gift for a friend from school. I saved up all my allowance to buy her something I heard other girls liked."
Ahhh, youth. "That's really sweet of you. I'm sure she'll appreciate it."
The boy's face blushed pink as his feet fidgeted. "It's j-just a gift. It's not like I like her or anything."
"Who knows, she might be really pretty when you two grow up."
"She is already pretty though . . ."
"Well there's your answer, lad." I had to resist the urge to pat him on the back. "Come on, I'll help you find your manga."
I led the way as we traveled across the bookstore. Multitudes of customers hailing from various genders, ages, and ethnicities roamed about. Our store sold a variety of books, but we'd recently begun a shift more towards graphic and cultural novels. All seven employees were in charge of their own sections which reflected unique backroom stock to maintain.
We passed by Mogami—my bodybuilder coworker—who oversaw foreign comics and general magazines. He busily loaded up a small cart with bad selling, American comics set to be returned. Well, that's what happens when your entire industry gets woke and too political.
Adjacent to Mogami's area was a myriad of shelves dedicated to girl's manga, one of our larger sections. Glittery, feminine book spines competed for our attention as me and the kid entered the first aisle.
I had an idea of where Basketful of Fruits was already, but I couldn't let this good opportunity slide away . . .
"Hey, Summers!" I said to the coworker tidying up her shelves.
The blonde, big-breasted girl wearing a blue apron turned in my direction. Bridget Summers was in charge of girl's manga, though she was only slightly more familiar with the category than me. She was born in America to an American dad and inherited all his western genes. Sky-blue eyes enticed me from the moment I first saw her, and Summers' forehead was so large I wanted to rub it and see if I could see my future.
"Oh, Nishikata. Do you need something?" She spoke with a Texan accent, a symptom of having lived in America through early childhood, before her Japanese mother convinced the family to move here.
"Yeah, sorry to bother but can you help this guy find a manga he's looking for?" I looked down towards my little friend, who seemed enamored by Summer's beauty.
Paws off, pal! I'm waiting for her to reject me a third time! Stick to kiddies!
"No problem!" she replied to my question. "What's he looking for?"
"Ummm, Basketful of Fruits," the boy sheepishly said. "It's for a friend."
"My! That's a really popular one! Here, follow me and I'll show where they all are."
The kid looked like he just won the lottery as they both walked around the corner. Enjoy it while it lasts! I'll be right here waiting for her!
Normally, it wasn't proper work etiquette to socialize with coworkers on the clock, but I felt ballsy today. Summers was the first woman I fancied after the fallout with Noriko, and even after several rejections, still deemed it worth a try. As much as I disliked the idea of "cheating" on Asagiri, even she encouraged me on multiple occasions to find a real girlfriend before our contract expires. Not like our fake relationship would last forever after all.
Summers in the distance returned and headed towards me, a small person right behind her. Huh? The kid came back? I craned my neck for a better view.
"Nishikata? What are you doing here?" My black-haired, loli assistant manager yelled from behind Summers.
Abort! Abort! "Oh, Asada! J-Just who I was looking for!"
Her eyes reeked of suspicion as she reached me. "Is that so? What did you need?"
"Ummm, just wanted to check how you were doing? You seemed off this morning." She indeed looked a bit tired earlier.
A quick blush spread across her face as she used oversized sleeves to hide herself. "S-Stupid. You're the last person I want worrying about me."
"I mean you worried about me a few weeks ago, so I'm returning the favor."
"I'm fine!" she cutely barked. "Why are you still here?"
Summers, who towered nearby her, tapped on Asada's shoulder. "Erm, it's true he was looking for you. He asked me where you were before I had to assist a customer."
"Hah? Well whatever, get back to work! No small chatting!" Asada stomped past us and returned to her section across the room.
I sighed in relief. "Wow, I owe you big time. Thanks for vouching for me."
"Mm! No problem!" Summers smiled sincerely. "Let's talk later though, 'k?"
Taking my shot. "Maybe wanna chat over coffee or something sometime then . . . ?"
"I-I'll think about it." She started sorting manga. "But gotta get back to work now."
"Oh, right! Yeah! See you around later then!" My hand awkwardly waved goodbye as I left her aisle and returned to my section.
So is that rejection number 3 or is there a blip of hope for me? Whatever the case, I still had boat loads of stuff to do.
Another pile of game guides to my side had torn or missing shrink wrap that needed replacing. Almost every book in our store was shrink wrapped, especially erotic stuff. We didn't sell doujins, but apparently BL alone helped the store stay afloat through tough times.
I reached down to add a book to the pile when someone's shoes beside me caught my attention. An old man with a white mustache holding a phone stood silent as he waited for me to meet his empty eyes.
Oh? Another person needs help? Guess it's part of the j—
He was dressed formally, much too formally for a shopping trip. A cream-colored suit lined his body while an elegant, pearly tie streamed down his chest. He smiled and tipped the tip of his white fedora towards me.
"Good evening, young man. I would like to inquire if your store carries this book?" He invited me to hold his phone.
"Oh, s-sure." I hastily grabbed the contraption, careful to avoid looking at his eyes. A single listing from Bamazon displayed a self-help book titled Cardinal's Guidelines for Welcoming Death into Life.
"My apologies." I handed his phone back. "We don't carry any literature that we consider propaganda."
"Propaganda? Is that denomination not exceeding its utility? All the Guidelines entail are a pragmatic approach to self-improvement."
"I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can direct you to one of my managers if you'd like to raise a complaint."
"Never mind that," he said, gazing at my nametag. "Tell me Nishikata, do you have any strong opinions on the concept of death?"
"Can't say I do. Now if you'd excuse me, I should get back to—"
The old man inched closer to me. "You know, they say the fear of death is what pushes everything towards evolution. But that implies death is more cudgel than blessing, a blessing that acts as a guiding light for us all."
I tried backing away. "I'm sorry, I really have no interest in the topic, so—"
"Pareidolia is seeing the familiar in the unfamiliar. We've evolved to the point of fearing the unknown, but that's superfluous. Death is guaranteed for everyone, so why fear it? Live alongside death. It grants only respite, whether alive or dead! Embrace death now so you're ready when your time eventually comes!"
Breaths started rushing out of me. My chest couldn't constrain rapid hyperventilating as I tried desperately to brainstorm any excuse to leave. Do I even need one?
"L-Listen man, I don't want any problems. Please just—"
"You do yourself a disservice by hiding from death's light. Make things easier, practice by just looking up at the infinite sky. Feel a force greater than you or I, something that expands forevermore. Madonna, Cardinal, and the other founders only sought to spread truth and—"
A towering figure lumbered into view down the aisle. Aoto Mogami's hands curled into fists as he made his way over to us, a fierce expression etched across his face.
"I'm sorry, we don't allow solicitation within the store," Mogami said. Veins on his muscular arms popped, likely under massive stress of being held back. Virulent eyes exerting pure animosity pierced the old man. "Please leave."
"Ah." The senior removed his white fedora and brought it to his chest. "That look of yours is humbling; it is not unlike my own before I saw the light. Everyone in this world has been wronged in some way, some more than others. Death can grant reprieve from all your anguish, and you need not actually perish, only embrace a flicker of fire that will ignite the DeLightful within you!"
The old man sighed and put on his fedora again, angling it downwards. "Death comes for everyone whether they're ready or not, Mogami. I feel our light is already shining down on you—you need only be nudged in the right direction. Seek us out when you desire absolution from oblivion."
As a small scene gathered outside the aisle, the senior strolled by Asada who had just ran over. Her annoyed eyes watched him walk out the store.
Is it over? My weak knees buckled, and my ass plopped onto the floor. I couldn't stop myself from trembling.
"Nishikata! Hey! Are you ok?" Asada sprinted over. "What happened?"
"I'm fine," I coarsely whispered. "J-Just need to rest a bit."
She looked up towards Mogami. "Help get him to the backroom; explain things when you get back."
"Right." He hoisted my left arm around his neck and helped me stand up. "Come on, let's get you that rest bro."
"T-Thanks . . ."
I could feel everyone's stares pounding into my back as we lumbered away from the scene. What were they thinking? That I was pitiful? That I couldn't stand up for myself literally and figuratively? It wasn't the first time something like this happened while at work, but I was grateful Mogami read the situation.
Why did he react so strongly to the DeLightful though?
"You'll be alright man, sorry I didn't come quicker," Mogami said as we entered the backroom. He helped me into a chair. "Chill here while I talk to Asada and Kamikawa."
I wanted to say something—to thank him—but by the time I collected myself he was already out the door.
And once again, just like before, just like always, I was alone.
The familiar silence was more comforting than deafening.