Chapter 20:

The Return of Noriko

My Government-Issued Girlfriend Can't Be This Cute!

The narrow, neighborhood street to my house always radiated nostalgia no matter how many times I strolled through it. Urban, middle-class Japanese homes peered down at me, each nearly identical to one another. 

By my side, an illusion of high schooler Noriko manifested and walked alongside me. Her long, silver hair stretched to the floor and her face still displayed that old, cosmic curiosity of hers before she was touched by darkness—or maybe darkness always resided just beneath her surface.

"One, two, three, four . . ." Noriko's illusion on my left side faded, and was replaced with Asagiri counting her fingers as we traveled home.

"I have six coworkers there," I grumbled, still a bit angry from her tracking me to work today.

"Six? I only saw five people in blue aprons though!"

"It's almost never all seven of us there, since most of us have two days off. A buff guy named Mogami doesn't work Mondays so you didn't see him."

She reached into her purse and pulled out the newspaper again, unfurling then hiding herself behind it. "Yeah, yeah, but plot twist: besides you, I scoped out most of your coworkers too, peeking in and out just like this—super sneaky stuff."

Why? ". . . Actually, I don't think I need to know."

"Glad you asked! After I got bored of watching you, I moved on to your hot manager, Kamikawa. The nickname I'm giving him is Pretty Boy."

"Why are you giving my coworkers nicknames?"

"Well they're your friends; I gotta remember them somehow."

"They have names. They literally wear name tags."

"How do you think I know their names? Dummy."

"You're missing the point, but ok."

Asagiri tucked the newspaper back into her purse and walked slightly ahead of me. "Point is your vagina has too much sand in it. Nicknames are cute, that's that."

"Okay then, what's my nickname?" I replied.


"I regret asking."

She slowed down and gave me a chance to catch up; this was her way of apologizing, so I knew what to do. My hand gingerly wrapped around hers as we interlocked like a true couple once again, and we continued our stroll through the neighborhood.

"You know, you didn't have to wait for me at the train station," I said. "You could've just gone home without me."

Asagiri jingled a set of keys around her other wrist. "Using these bad boys once a day is enough. Besides, it'd be more romantic if you found me waiting for you right after work, right?"

I'd recently given her keys to the house in case she ever wanted to go out while I was at work, along with the chibi keychain Noriko gifted me last month. Asagiri was reluctant to accept the charm but I'd convinced her my close relationship with Noriko remained only in the past.

My brain hatched an erotic reply: "Coming home to you wearing a skimpy apron and telling me 'Do you want dinner, a bath, or me' would be even more romant—"

"You can just wear your uniform in the mirror and tell yourself that," she smugly said.

"It's not like I wanna wear an apron! But they're common uniforms for bookstores!"

"Your manager rocked one pretty good though. Maybe I'll ask if he's single."

Kamikawa is even seducing my girlfriend now . . . "Wait, so you checked on every coworker over there, right?"


I raised a spare finger to itch my cheek. "I don't suppose you noticed any coworkers sneaking glances at me, did you?" Thoughts of Summers invaded my mind.

"Actually, I did see someone."

"H-Huh? I was just joking around!" Probably, maybe.

"Hehe." She dramatically pulled out the lollipop from her mouth. "It was Asada—the loli manager girl."

"Asada? Well that explains it. She was obviously just watching me in case I slack off or something."

"Nuh-uh! I saw her super starry-eyed peeking from around shelves to sneak peeks at you! She's totally in love fam."

"I told you before, I'm not into lolis and she's definitely not into me!"

"She was the first coworker at the scene today, right? Doesn't that mean she'd already been keeping her eye on you?"

"No! That was just her section for the day! It's obvious she'd be around!"

"Then why was she missing when you were missing too?"

"Uh . . ." Actually I'm kinda stumped on that one. "She was probably just doing loli things, I don't know."

"Stareeeeeeeee." My girlfriend eyed me down. "Well, I gave her a cute nickname too if you remember."

"Wasn't it like 'Carne Asada' or something in Spanish?"

"Yeah it means roast beef, but it's perfect since her family name is Asada anyway."

I could see anticipation oozing from Asagiri’s face, probably eager for me to inquire more. "Okay, what did you nickname everyone else then?"

"Three more nicknames!" She held up three fingers to my face as a passing bicyclist gawked at our dysfunctionality. "The emo-looking dude is Bags for those bags under his eyes, the big booba blondie is FiveHead for her huge forehead, and that cougar Kikuchi is Coochie."

"Somewhere in there is a defamation lawsuit waiting to happen."

“Their parents should send me money for upgrading their kid's names.”

As we turned the corner and neared our home, I noticed someone’s silhouette sitting against our front gate.

"Hmm? Who's that?" Asagiri said, nodding towards the distant person.

My eyes squinted for a clearer view: a woman with short, silver hair and a beer can in hand appeared to be snoozing below our intercom device. Occasional snores escaped her mouth.

What in the living heck . . . “I-I think that’s Noriko.”

"Huh? Noriko?" Asagiri looked shocked. "What's she doing outside our house?"

I quickly pulled out my phone and checked for new texts: nothing. "Guess there's only one way to find out."

We passed a lamppost and soon ended up in front of our modest, modern house. The small gate separated us and our front door by a few meters. Laying against a brick post, Noriko in a blue flannel shirt snoozed soundly, with beer cans dotted around her.

I separated from my girlfriend's hand and kneeled in front of Noriko. "Uhhh, hello?"

"Snore, zzzzz, snore . . ." She stretched a bit before opening her eyes. "Kaaaazuma? Funny seeing you here."

"This is kind of my house," I smiled. "Were you looking for me?"

"Oh yeah!" Noriko lifted up the half empty six-pack of canned beers. "I wanted to surprise visit, but no one was home so I kinda waited out here and drank myself to sleep. Buurrrrrrp."

"Does your husband know you're here?" Asagiri behind me said in a passive aggressive tone.

"Husband?" Noriko blurted. "Oh, uhhh, he's why I'm here! Yeah! We's had a big argument so I don't wanna see him, so here I be." She cracked open and chugged another beer.

"Do you have your phone on you?" I said. "Maybe you should text him where you are at least."

"Don't worry about him! He doesn't exist today!" She brought another can to her lips. "I just need—I just need a break from stuff. Oh Kazuma, you're looking blurry, ugh . . ."

Noriko's head whirled around as her eyes strained to stay open. She started mumbling nonsense, clearly drunk out of her mind.

"Here, I'll get her inside." Asagiri walked by me and gently hoisted Noriko up. "Open up everything for us, would you?"

I took out a set of keys from my pocket. "Yeah hold on."

"Nuhhhh, uh, lemme get a smoke first, won't take long." Noriko reached into her handbag.

"No smoking or drinking around minors!" My 18-year-old girlfriend protested. "You gotta take care of your health anyway."

"Whocareasabouthealth . . . ughh." Her eyes clouded and she partially passed out, hanging her arm with little vigor around Asagiri.

How the mighty have fallen. "Sorry you had to see this side of her. She's not usually like this—er, sometimes."

"It's fine, hurry up. Her tits are half her weight."

I opened the gate and unlocked the front door, giving them a straight path into the house. "Head inside. I'm gonna clean things out here."



Cold water brushed over my hands as I washed off some stickiness. I had just brought in Noriko's collection of beer cans from outside, which coated my fingers with yuckiness. Don't think she's realized I'm not a fan of drinking yet. 

I turned off the kitchen faucet and dried my hands on a nearby towel. Furbolt below was circling around, more energetic than usual.

"Your queen came to visit us," I said. "She's probably upstairs if you wanna see her."

"Nyaa! Nyaa!"

Footsteps descended down the staircase. Furbolt raced out into the living room to investigate, while I poured some orange juice into a glass.

"I let her sleep in my bed," Asagiri said as she walked into the kitchen. "She's probably going to be knocked out for a while."

"Oh? First time she's actually passed out."

"Something like this happened before?"

I took a sip of my orange juice. "The details would probably bore you."

"No, as your girlfriend I think I'm entitled to know stuff like that." She leaned onto the marble countertop, giving a peek into her cleavage.

"You're sounding kinda jealous right now."

"Just tell me, idiot."

I looked out onto the wooden patio where me and Noriko caught up last month. Really, what was going through her mind? In fact, what's been going through her mind all these years later?

"After we got into a fight, we didn't talk to or see each other for like six years," I said. "Then randomly last year, she called and asked if I wanted to meet up again. At first I was kinda relieved, like we were finally ready to put the past behind us, but when we met again I could tell she was a completely different person."

"How so?"

Images of death obsessed Noriko flooded into my mind, alongside her contrasting personalities she selectively showcased. In retrospect even this new, laid-back mentality of hers was an upgrade over her previous self. But what brought upon such change? Did her husband have something to do with it? Was it just her way of moving on from old ideologies? I had even more questions than Asagiri.

Just as I prepared to reply, my phone in my pocket vibrated. I slipped out and read the new text message—that was from Noriko.

Huh? Isn't she knocked out? It was one simple sentence, but carried a peculiar air of animosity:

'Don't tell her what transpired in our pasts,' it simply read.

Did she guess we'd chat about her right now? Or is she listening in from the stairwell . . .? A miasma of uncertainty swept over me, just like when old Noriko would try proselytizing me to DeLightful ideals.

Or just like when Mai tried warning me about all this.

"Who was the text from?" Asagiri asked.

I rammed the phone back in my pocket. "S-Some coworker just asking if I could cover their shift tomorrow, yeah."

She stared in my direction, as if trying to see through me. "Okay. Well answer my last question then."

"About Noriko?" I stammered. "Ehhh, I exaggerated a bit so don't worry about it. She just picked up smoking and drinking while we kept distant."

A look of forlorn disappointment streaked across her face. "Okay Nishikata, okay. I trust you, so should I trust you not to mount Noriko while I go shower?"

"Don't see why not?"

She sighed and started heading for the stairwell. "Just . . . remember you can be open to me about anything. Please."

Why do you make it so hard to lie to you? I'm starting to hate myself. "Yeah. I'll cook something for us while you shower. Take your time."

With a final nod, Asagiri disappeared into the living room and went upstairs.

I waited for silence and then the sound of a shower running. There was something I needed to see.

My feet crept up the stairwell, careful to avoid making any creaks. I felt alien in my own home, as if I was an intruder. But what was I guilty of? Wanting to learn the truth? To witness it with my own eyes? All I desired was a conclusion.

Noriko. Why return into my life just to show me you're married and a drunkard now? Why ghost me a second time months after we started chatting again? And why reappear just when my government-issued girlfriend moved in?

Was the old Noriko still buried somewhere deep within? Or was she truly expulsed that day on the bridge?

I slowly turned the doorknob to Asagiri's room where Noriko slumbered. Drawn curtains blanketed the small room in darkness, but I still made out an angelic face sleeping on my girlfriend's bed.

Noriko was likely awake, and probably already realized I was here.

Even after everything we endured seven years ago, and all the isolation I suffered from her sudden disappearance and reappearance, entombed emotions within me still whispered their lingering feelings for her. I loved Noriko back then, and I was willing to sacrifice everything to save her from herself.

Did I really succeed though?

From the doorway, my eyes traveled up her left hand, glazing over the diamond-studded ring around her finger. I raised my gaze up her arm, over her shoulder, and finally reached her still head on the pillow.

Almost everything about her changed in those seven years, but the same face I fell in love with didn't. Was I seeing the old Noriko though, or another incarnation? I leaned into the room to make sure.

And then her eyes opened.