The clothes she walked in with sat in a pile on the hardwood floor. She was quick to cover herself with the sheets next to my couch. The only article of clothing she wore was her gold necklace with the leaf trinkets on it. From what I saw before she covered up, her bust shrank two or three cup sizes from when she was bunker-buster Sylvia.
With a mix of confusion, anger, and alcohol I crossed my arms and looked her over. “So, who’re you?”
Her ears flattened against her head at the sound of my voice. Then she blinked hard several times as if to dispel blurs in her vision. “I… I r’lly can ‘splain.” I almost forgot about how many shots she had; it was easily in the double digits. Her half-closed amber eyes, sunken like shining orbs within the black “mask” mark around them, avoided my glare. She elected to stare at the wall next to me.
She shook some dizziness out of her head, which swayed back and forth like a pendulum. “I f’cked up, bu’ gimme a shance, ‘kay? Please.”
My brow furrowed, an ounce of restraint away from hitting her upside the head. “You got ONE shance.” Despite my anger, I was still pretty tipsy.
After taking a moment to gather her thoughts, she stood up. When she was Sylvia, she stood a head taller than me. She shrank so much that she barely reached my chin. The sheets wrapped around her like a toga, her tail sticking out at the bottom.
Still wobbly, she took a deep breath and looked straight at me. “My name’s Jun. You c’n prolly tell, but Imma tanuki. At work, Ah’m Sylvia Mercer. Issa long story. C’n tell you later, ah promise.” Every attempt she made to stand upright sent her leaning in another direction. I wanted to interrupt and ask her questions, but gave her a minute. She struggled to maintain eye contact, but kept a neutral expression. “I’ve had muh eye on you fer awhile. Ev’r since you started working.”
While she spoke, I grabbed the only folding chair in the apartment and sat down facing her. Made sure to open it as loudly as I could. Though my eyesight felt like it lagged behind itself with my own drunkenness, I said sarcastically, “Why~?”
Jun practically flinched at the question, and I could have sworn her cheeks flushed. “Long shtory short…” she rubbed one of her ears between her fingers and looked away, “Uh. This’s prolly kinda sudden—”
She hung her head. “Right.” Jun quickly righted herself.
“Please, just—” I drew a hand across my face and shook my head to get the wobbliness out of my head. “Get t’ the point.”
Shaking some of the drunken cloud out of her head, she steeled herself and stumbled through her next sentence with a red face: “W-wouldyou please go out wi’ me?”
In the wake of her declaration, silence permeated the room until nothing but the sounds of downtown on Friday night were present. The Doppler-effect hum of cars on the nearby freeway dipped in and out of sequence, some people on the sidewalk were having an argument, and a baby in a neighboring building let out a cry. A whisper of a breeze blew my stiff curtains partly open. For the longest time, we stared at each other. On my face, surprise and bewilderment. On hers, sturdy drunken determination.
A puff of laughter burst from between my lips. “Pfff, wait, wait, wait,” I leaned back on the folding chair, put a hand over my drowsy eyes, and drew it down my face. I didn’t expect her to make me smile like that. My thought processes were all over the place thanks to the booze still in me. “’Scuse me?”
As I waited for her to respond, she brought one hand to her forehead and the other to her stomach. Her wobbling worsening with every second and her cheeks turned pale despite keeping the same determined expression. I heard her mumble something to herself and strained to hear what it was.
“Four one five nine two six five…”
She was reciting pi.
On instinct, I rushed over to her, lead her into the bathroom, and kicked the lid of the toilet open. She hunched over and, after a few throaty gags, let loose a torrent of whiskey and stomach acid. I had to look away. Unfortunately the smell still managed to fill the room with honey-scented alcohol.
Grudgingly I turned on the bathroom fan, opened the window wider, and got her a glass of water for when it was over. Though mostly on reflex, I held her hair back and adjusted the sheets she was wearing to make sure she didn’t slip on the tile. While she went at it I managed to sit against the cupboards, upwind of the smell.
Fortunately for the both of us, I’d dealt with drunk girls before. The university dorms may as well have had their own lesson plan for all the crap I learned there. Everyone learned places to hide bottles, methods of preventing hangovers, how best to get drunk quick and dirty, and how to deal with the hangover when it actually came. As I got a good look at the tanuki girl, I deduced the hammer would really come down on her head in the morning.
The whole time I sat in there with her, she cried and talked. She cried and talked A lot.
Between heaves and sobs, she cried out, “It wasn’ s’pposed to happen li’e this. I was s’pposed to drink an’ have fun. An’ you were s’pposed to drink an’ have fun. An’ then bam!” Her hands slapped together clumsily. They didn’t even clap; they just kind of flopped into each other. My stomach lurched at the sound of her next go at the bowl. “Ugh. I’d a tried it. I’d a tried askin’ out a guy fer the first time ‘n years. I jus’ needed a push, but noooo. I fucked that all away!”
I guess she wasn’t exactly the sex offender I thought she was— just a girl who drank more than she could handle. One with powerful illusion magic capable of tricking an entire corporation. Still, I had to tell myself to stay on guard. I had no idea who I was dealing with.
When she wiped her chin and leaned back to rest, I asked, “Why me, though? I bet Shylvia could get any guy she— you wan’ed.” I only hoped she wasn’t crazy and took my words the wrong way. After all, she was sort of stalking me for a few weeks. Technically? I think? Did it count as stalking if we talked to each other the whole time?
Jun climbed back over to the bowl, coughed, and spat. “Y’know the girls a’ work? The girls like me?”
I assumed she meant monsters. “What about ‘em?”
“Y’know how people’re getting’ along bretty gud? Well, none of th’ humans were like that at first. Y’know how Scott’s gotta cyclops wife?” She looked at the floor and somehow managed to crack a disgusted smile. “You shoulda seen when we first hired ‘im. He talked soooo much shit ‘bout the girls. Almost every human did. I had to pull some serious fuckin’ magician bullshit— by myself— to get it through their thick stupid skulls that—” She heaved forward and gagged a little, “—that we’re jus’ people.”
I couldn’t picture Scott saying anything negative about monsters to save my life. He was so proud of his family I never would have guessed.
“I mean, do they really think all that crap we did in the fuckin’ Middle Ages c’n fly anymore? O’ course not! My whole gen’ration doesn’ go ‘round pickin’ guys off th’ streets. We hafta work now like everyone else. Sorry an’ all for the crap our great-great-great-great grandmas did, but this’s the modern world. C’n I just have a job an’, like, contriboot? Please?” A sob escaped her as she wiped her chin. “I worked too hard t’ get the company t’ give more monsters work. There still aren’t a lotta companies that hire us at all. When I started, I ‘ad to hide, change m’ name, make a whole diff’rent person. Just to work! I wan’ed t’ be m’self, but I can’ even be m’self at work!”
Jun turned toward me with tear-filled eyes. “When I talked to you th’ first time, I thought you were the same old shit. Jus’ ‘nother guy. Then you met Angela! And you just… talked to her! She asked you your fav’rite color and you were all, ‘Blue, bish. What else ya got?’ I… I wanted that. To talk like that with someone. Di’n’t matter about what— coulda been stupid stuff f’r all I care, like TV or haircuts. I looked for you ev’ry day jus’ to talk to you. Bu-but I di’n’t wan’ you to know Sylvia. I wan’ed you to know me.”
I sat with my back against the cupboards, one hand back to holding up her hair. Her soft sobs itched at my ears as I stared at the wall feeling far more lucid than earlier.
Before I knew it, I started talking, too.
“The university I went to was the first in the city t’ admit monsters. I was prolly just as bad as Scott back then. That harpy girl in my classes I told you ‘bout? She asked me for help a lot. And I acted like I didn’t even hear ‘er.” My stomach sank. I was far from proud of it, having long buried those memories in the back of my mind as if they belonged to someone else. Just recalling them made me want to go find a rock and hide under it.
I continued. “In class one day, I picked a fight with her. Ended up calling her a ‘subhuman’ in fron’ of everybody.” Jun’s eyes widened. She looked like I just told her her puppy died. “Th’ professor sorted me out, but if you think I’m some kind of, I dunno, perfect goddamn star child, then stop.” The stench of vomit was getting to me. Or it might have been guilt. As stupid as it might sound, it almost felt like I owed something to all monsters for my behavior. Seeing one of them think so highly of me just made it feel worse.
For some time, Jun carried on her heaving in the bathroom while I got a big bowl for her and wrapped a pillow in a bath towel. Eventually she cleaned herself up and walked out holding the glass of water I left for her. The color still hadn’t come back to her face, and her wavy hair was left disheveled from the ordeal. When she looked at me, I motioned for her to sit on the couch. She wordlessly and clumsily complied.
Before I could say anything, she spoke first. “I was gonna tell you who I was tonight anyway, but I di’n’t mean to jus’ jump on you like that.” Her eyes were a slight red from the tears she shed in the bathroom. “I’m sorry. I’m really real sorry, Lennerd. But couldyou pretend all this di’n’t happened?” Her slur certainly wasn’t getting any better.
A sigh escaped my lips and I looked at the electronic clock on my dresser. 11:12 PM. “We’ll see. Just, you know, j-just sleep it off. We c’n talk tomorrow.” I rummaged through my dresser drawer. I had extra blankets and stuff, but no clothes that fit her besides undershirts. An old Metallica tee would have to do.
“Arms up,” I said. She drowsily complied. Though I got a brief flash of nipple and thigh I was too tired and drunk to care. She also needed help laying down on the bed. Thankfully, she didn’t say anything more to me as I bundled her up in the sheets.
“Need anything?” I asked. However, the night was warm, and she fell asleep before she could answer. I did my best to get cozy in the corner on the floor with some spare sheets and a long pillow at my back.
* * *
Though I planned to sleep in, the sunlight breaking through the curtains was just too much. It broke my slumber a little before nine. The headache didn’t help, either. It was no piledriver, but still quite unwelcome. When I looked around, my stomach sank as the events of the previous night came to the front of my mind.
I made for the fridge and reached for a jar of leftover pickle juice, kept handy for such occasions. Never knew when old friends wanted me to go drinking with them. That, however, was the only edible thing in my kitchen aside from the dreadful cups of noodles and half a bag of pasta. Bow-ties. The noodles were disgusting and a fork that could pick up bow-tie pasta without tearing it asunder didn’t exist. Besides that, I didn’t even have sauce for it.
The girl who turned my weekend upside down lay bundled up on my couch. Looking back, I should have pulled it out into bed-mode.
“Hey,” I whispered, leaning over Jun as I shook her shoulder. She moaned and fidgeted under the sheets, her tail pushing out from under them as she stretched. “I’m going to the store real quick. I’m locking you in, so stay put.” I still had tons of questions for when she woke up, too.
She let out pained moan and brought a hand to her head. Her true trial was only just beginning.
The 7-11 on the corner was a ten-minute round trip. With what little food money I still had I grabbed some eggs, a couple of Gatorades, a few stacks of Saltines, and two cans of chicken noodle soup. Though they were meant to help Jun and myself with our hangovers, they were probably going to be my breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of the weekend. I had to budget like crazy for months, and my food budget for the week was almost empty. My first paycheck last Friday was essentially cleaned out by bills, debt, and rent.
Over and over I told myself, “Just one more week ‘til I can to eat like a real person again. Stick it out, champ.”
The sun was seriously too bright that morning. Why of all days did the sky have to be so clear that the blue hurt my head?
When I got back home I set my bag of hangover antidotes on the counter. When I turned to look at the couch, Jun wasn’t on the couch. My heart skipped a beat. For a moment I thought she ran, but the smell and sounds from the bathroom were hint enough to where she was. Disregarding the nose,, I turned on the burner and started the eggs.
I called over to the bathroom, “I’m making eggs. If you don’t like scrambled, tough luck.” They were the only style I knew how to make, but she didn’t have to know that. “Either way, it’ll help your hangover.”
Jun stumbled out of the bathroom with a hand on her temple. “Please stop yelling.” The shirt I gave her was too big; the collar nearly slipped off her shoulder. Once I recalled she wasn’t wearing any underwear, the sight of her tail lifting up the shirt behind her gave my imagination plenty to think about. She looked around the room until her eyes fell upon me at the stove.
Then she looked down at her discarded work clothes on the floor. A horrified look on her face, she barely managed to stutter out, “Wha— uh, w-what did I do last night?” Then she moaned in pain and held her head before using her shoulder to support herself against the wall. I couldn’t tell if it was the headache or her imagination running wild about what might have happened the night before.
Ah, I’d been there. Truly a classic.
With the eggs finished, we sat on the couch with our plates and a stack of crackers. I told her what happened after the bar, while she didn’t speak a word. As I went over things, I half-wished I could see the embarrassed face she covered with her hands. There was only silence after I finished. Silence and chewing.
I finished a bite and, though it was difficult to put into words, managed to say, “You, uh, asked if I’d go out with you.”
She ran a hand through her hair and grasped a handful between her fingers in frustration. “I said that out loud?”
“Fuuuuck.” She tucked her legs to her chest and wrapped her tail around her shins, her face buried in her knees. It took some self-control on my part not to look under the shirt. “I’m so sorry all of this happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did.”
As I looked at her, vulnerable and embarrassed out of her mind, I couldn’t help but think how cute she was. I hadn’t ever been good friends with a monster my age before, so I chalked it up to the wonders of new experience.
I swallowed a bite of eggs and opened a Gatorade. “You told me a bit about yourself, too.”
Jun didn’t budge. “Oh, jeez. Like what?”
“How you had to hide who you are just to work, and how you’ve been turning around opinions of monsters at Falling Leaves and stuff.”
She visibly loosened up, as if some of the tension on her shoulders was relieved. “Heh. If that’s all, then I’m fine with that.”
“You’re a terrible drunk, though.”
“That’s just Sylvia, actually.”
“Wait, what? What do you mean?”
After a moment she let go of her legs and sat properly on the couch. She took her sweet time eating a bite of egg before continuing. “So, I really have to get into character when I disguise myself. Before my first interview anywhere, I needed to have my story down pat. Sylvia Mercer, thirty two years old, proud owner of several business degrees, single, raised by a single mother who passed away a decade ago.” Jun sipped her blue-flavored Gatorade. “Eventually I found I couldn’t afford to break character, so I made her a really bad drunk. One time at lunch I told a really bad story of when I, well, Sylvia, was drunk. Nobody at work ever wanted to go drinking with Sylvia after that. It was my plan in the first place, so that was fine. Last night I was just in-character.”
That certainly explained why Angela and Chelsea didn’t want to go. Rolling her reasoning around in my head for a minute, I said, “And the kisses?”
The tanuki coughed and choked on a saltine cracker, nearly knocking her plate off her lap. “Kuh. Ugh, damn it.” She stared at the floor while she drank some blue and recuperated. “That, uh. I’m really sorry about that. Kuh. That was sort of entirely my fault and I’m sorry.”
“You broke character?”
Her hands fidgeted in her lap. “Ahem. Yes.” Though she refused to face me, I could tell her cheeks were red as roses. Good thing she looked away, too, because I might’ve been a bit red as well.
I was honestly flattered. Growing up, no girls were into me enough to come after me like Jun did. I wasn’t a kissless virgin, but it was getting to me how much I was enjoying the attention. Self-esteem and confidence weren’t exactly bursting forth from me. I wasn’t ugly, but I wasn’t particularly handsome either. I worked out, but I wasn’t cut like a lot of the other guys at the gym. Just imagining myself in a relationship with anyone almost put me off of the idea. Maybe it was just so long since my last relationship that I couldn’t imagine myself in a new one?
But I was getting ahead of myself. Jun herself was still an unknown factor. And I hated unknown factors.
I decided to break the silence. “So, if you’re such a sad crying drunk, why did you decide on going out for drinks?”
Jun glanced at me, but quickly looked away again. “Well, I had it all planned out: have a few drinks, take you off to the side, switch off Sylvia-mode, and introduce myself. I figured I’d need a bit of a buzz to go through with it.” She turned to me and I could see into her wide dark eyes. The mark around them was actually pretty charming, in kind of a weird way. “Guess I went a bit overboard. I won’t have a drinking contest with you ever again.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You probably had to pay, too. Sorry.”
“Actually, you put it on a credit, so no skin off my nose. I just got a little hangover.”
Jun gritted her teeth and grabbed either side of her head with her hands. “I wouldn’t describe mine as ‘little.’ And I used credit? Ugh! That’s going to mess with that account soooo bad!” Though I knew tanuki were good with money, it somehow made perfect sense for her to worry about her budget. Like a dullahan wearing a helmet, it was just in case.
After we finished our eggs, we both cheered to a shot of pickle juice apiece before grabbing our sports drinks and sitting on the couch. I flipped on the TV. She didn’t care what we watched, so I changed it to a space documentary that was on. As the day continued on into the afternoon, Jun fell asleep. Every few minutes she grumbled in pain from the headache, but that slowly subsided.
Not really feeling with the documentary, I got up and put the soup on the stove.
The Zen I achieved from staring at the pot was quickly interrupted by Jun as she tumbled off the edge of the couch. She moaned in pain on the floor for a few moments before coming into the kitchen, a hand still on her head.
She sniffed the air, her ears perking up, and said under her breath, “Smells good.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “It’s canned soup.”
A silence grew between us as we watched the steam rise from the stove. Jun swayed back and forth with a look of anticipation. I wondered what sort of life she lived if she looked forward to chicken noodle soup. It was nonetheless a surreal feeling to have her stand next to me in the kitchen, watching the only food in the apartment heat up. It almost felt normal despite the abnormal circumstances.
Jun rested her head on my shoulder. “I’ve said it already, but I’m really, really, sorry about last night. I really appreciate all of this.”
Though the contact surprised me, I decided not to shake her off. She still had a headache, after all. “It’s fine.”
“If you say so. But, well,” She trailed off for a moment. I felt her take a deep breath and sigh against my shoulder. “Will you think about it? You know, that whole, uh, dating thing?”
My heart rate quickened. I hoped she wouldn’t bring it up, but she was more straightforward than I thought. I silently pondered the possibilities, my thoughts steadily ordering each other in my mind. On one hand, she lied about her identity, though she (allegedly) had her reasons for that and (allegedly) planned to tell me anyway. She was definitely cute, but I knew next to nothing about her. Because of my time with her at work, she knew plenty about me just from being in the same office. Regardless, was she a good or bad match? I had not a clue. There were still too many unknowns.
“No, I don’t think I will.”
Her ears drooped. “U-um. Oh.”
Refusing a girl with those fuzzy ears only made it harder. “I still barely know your name, and you’ve been lying to me for a month already. You’ve also been lying to tons of other people at work for, what, five years? I’ve had enough liars in my life. I don’t need another one. It’ll take a bit more than an apology to convince me you aren’t lying about everything else, too.” I pulled the pot off the stove and poured the contents into two bowls before handing one off to her.
Jun’s toes clenched against the tile floor of the kitchen at every point I made. “Okay,” she muttered. Her hands trembled as she took the bowl from me.
Make me feel worse, why don’t you? “Besides, I spent my last twenty bucks of my food budget for the week on the stuff for our hangovers. Don’t exactly have the money to date anyone right now.”
She mumbled, “Seventeen dollars and twenty three cents after tax. If it was change for a twenty, you would still have two dollars and seventy seven cents. Enough for a burger and fries off the value menu.”
I stared at her in bewilderment. “Where the hell did that come from? Did you read the receipt or something?”
As if she didn’t know what I was talking about at first, she suddenly grew wide-eyed and sputtered, “N-no! Nevermind! I was just, uh, going over the stuff in my head and the usual price for them at a convenience store in this area a-and— uh, b-before I started at Falling Leaves I was sort of in a similar money situation to yours, so— uh—”
The poor girl sweat bullets and wouldn’t quit talking until I put up a hand to stop her. Her face was beet red, her tail twitched nervously between her ankles, and she decided to do nothing but stare at her soup. Never before had I seen a monster so flustered. Weren’t they supposed to be huge flirts? I imagined a monster would have ignored my rejection or tore my pants off by the time the soup was done.
“Just calm down and put that soup in your mouth.”
She stood rigid, her tail sticking straight behind her. “Right.” Clearly she knew not how to calm down, though I did understand her nervousness.
As I got my own bowl I added, “As soon as you’re done with that I’d like you to go.”
“Uh,” she started, only to stop for a moment and start again. “I-I don’t feel well enough to get home on my own. Would you mind letting me stay until I feel better?”
Was it another lie to keep hanging out with me? She still looked like a mess either way. In the first place, you just can’t fake the kind of vomiting she did last night.
I figured she’d feel better after the soup, anyway. “Fine.” Sitting down next to her, I turned on the TV and started flipping through channels. Usually I had a different routine for weekends and didn’t know what was worth watching at ten in the morning. Eventually I settled on some documentary about freight pilots.
Minutes later, as we got sucked into the show the way people often do, Jun mumbled, “Thank you.”
* * *
Several documentaries later Jun started digging through Sylvia’s dainty black purse. In my mind it was still difficult to remember that they were the same person. I almost stopped her from going through it because, hey, that purse “belonged” to Sylvia. Although, it was definitely a mistake to lend her just a clean shirt and boxers. Putting aside her being a liar, stranger, and monster, she was the first half-naked woman to set foot in the apartment since I moved into it. I had to look away while she crouched down and gathered up Sylvia’s discarded clothes.
“Would you mind looking away for a second?” Jun said.
“I already am, but why?”
She showed me a small plastic bag with a stack of pristinely preserved leaves inside. “I need to ‘change.’”
An eyebrow raised involuntarily. “Then use the bathroom.”
With sigh she looked away. “Right.”
Usually the first option would have been to use the bathroom to change, rather than doing it in the middle of a room with mixed company. I wondered if that was her own, passive, method of flirting. It certainly got me thinking about undressing, clothes scattered on the floor, and other unsavory things. Unfortunately I was letting my three-years-dry dick do the talking; the brain was busy with a headache.
Not long after she closed the bathroom door did she come out again. A cloud of wispy smoke billowed through the door while Jun emerged wearing a full outfit. A light brown tank top with a subtle vine pattern along the front hugged her waist. Covered slightly by the top was a white skirt that reached down to her knees with matching white sandals. Atop her head was a round gray cabbie hat.
She damn near made my heart stop.
Meanwhile, I still had on the clothes I wore to work the day before, which somehow made me feel underdressed. I understood that she needed clothes for when she left, but I assumed she didn’t disguise herself as Sylvia again so that nobody would see her leave my apartment. How considerate of her.
One thing bothered me, though. “Where are your ears and tail?” Her ‘mask’ was gone, too. She looked just like a regular human girl.
Jun bit her lip for a moment and looked away. “It’s just safer like this around here.” Before I could say anything else, she gathered up her Sylvia clothes and tucked them under her arm. “Again, I’m very sorry about how things turned out. I hope you can, um, l-look past this and, uh—”
I waved a hand for her to stop. “Sorry, but could you find a way to make up for your terrible first impression later? It’s my day off, and I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
Thinking for a moment, Jun nodded her head and made for the door in quick strides. I followed. The harsh sunlight that burst through the doorway made me squint as she made her exit.
“For what it’s worth,” I said, making her about-face immediately. Her expectant eyes almost made me want to ask her to stay. “Be careful on your way home. And drink a lot of water or your headache will come back.”
Though it took a moment to register for her, she smiled. “For what it’s worth, thank you. I will.” With a bit of a curtsy, she turned and left down the walkway. I went back inside and latched the door.
As I headed for my dresser for a new set of clothes and a towel I caught a scent that I didn’t notice before. It must have been there the whole time, but I was used to it until the door opened. Was that the smell of pomegranates? Must have been some kind of perfume. Dating aside, I hadn’t known the touch or scent of a woman for too long. It was nice, actually. Really nice.
My half-chub dick agreed.
“Damn it,” I mumbled to myself. With that, I headed for the shower with intent of cleansing myself of both filth and stress.
* * *
It felt a bit redundant to shower before going to the gym, so I let the workout sweat stay as I went outside. The feeling of leftover sweat was liberating in the already-hot evening heat. Although, it was due to that heat that I left the gym early. An hour or so of exercise time every week was all I felt I needed, anyway. Figured I could use a little manly musk while walking downtown, too.
I jay-walked through diesel and burning rubber to a store with “Starshine Vinyl” emblazoned across the front window in big colorful letters. With a jingle the old wooden door swung open, letting a gust of cigarette-tinted air rush outside. The familiar old carpet, littered with dents from nearly a dozen rickety folding tables and tall shelves, felt more like soft tile as I stepped inside. Each table held boxes of old records, while the front desk extended from the front to the back of the long shop along the right side.
In the back I saw a dreadlock-laden head bob around some shelves. Soon a bright face appeared from among them.
“Hey, man!” the young man called with a wave.
I waved back, though with much less vigor. “’Sup, Manni?”
As he made his way through the maze of tables and— very few— customers, he never lost that big smile on his face. Ever excited to see anyone come into his shop, the spring in his step always managed to impress me. “How’ve ya been? How’s the job?”
I cracked a smile. “It’s a job.”
“I hear that, man.”
“How ‘bout you?”
He shrugged. “Same shit, different day. But hey, what can I do for you? Got some new stuff in on the New Shelf if you wanna look.”
“I’m good,” I said with a shrug. “Just browsing today.”
Manni clapped his hands and smiled. “Right on, man. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Thanks, I will.”
Moving into my new apartment brought me to a new neighborhood, and therefore to Starshine for my vinyl fix. It wasn’t the cleanest place, but it had pretty much every record I could ask for within reason. Whenever I could afford it I swung by to pick up a record. I didn’t have the cash to buy one at the moment, but Manni let customers reserve stuff for later when they could afford them.
I ran a hand along the elderly paper sleeves of a row of records. Some were frayed and yellowed while others were surprisingly well-preserved or put in new sleeves. There was no way to know what was what without pulling it halfway out of the pile. All I knew about the table in front of me was that they were all classical.
Pulling one at random from the pile, the cover told me it was a compilation of works by Frederick Chopin. I didn’t have anything by the guy yet. Might as well have made it a short trip. Tucking it under my arm I headed for the register where Manni was waiting.
“Done already?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. Could you just add it to my pile?”
Manni gave me a sidelong look and took the record from me. Setting it down on the back counter with the rest of the vinyl I reserved, he said, “You plan on buying any of this soon? I’m dealing with a Leaning Tower of Lennard back here. Can’t sit on these forever.”
My skin bristled with embarrassment. “Yeah, I know. I can pick them up soon. I have cash flow now, so I’ll pick it all up next week if I can.” I looked at the pile of two dozen record sleeves. “Maybe half. Or a third.”
Manni laughed louder than appropriate. “Come on man, I’m just ridin’ ya. Take all the time you want. I prolly have two or three copies of all these in the back.”
He leaned on the glass counter. “You okay, though? You look out of it.”
“Well, kinda had a bad hangover this morning.”
“Sucks, man. Wild night, though?”
“Not really. Just got in a drinking contest with, uh, someone. She ended up being a terrible drunk.”
Manni let out a laugh, showing off some perfect white teeth. “You finally back in the game?”
My stomach dropped at the prospect. “Not even. She got drunk as hell and was all over me, though.”
“Did you at least fuck ‘er?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Man, don’t give me that look. I know tons of guys who’d love to be in that situation with a cute girl.” He paused. “Wait, she was cute, right?”
Opening my mouth to say something to the contrary, I stopped. “Well, uh, actually yeah. She was damn cute.” Ears and tail notwithstanding. Or did those features help? Probably some ancient tanuki method of seduction.
“You look pissed, though. Did she steal something?”
“Was she just crazy, then?”
“Don’t know. But when we met she basically pretended to be someone else.”
“What? What’s up with that?”
“I know, right? Long story short, she blew her cover, threw up, crashed at my place, and… was actually really apologetic about everything this morning.” As I thought through the scenario, it didn’t seem that bad in hindsight. Weird. “She asked if I’d go out with her, but fuck that.”
Manni clapped his hands together and shrugged. “Hey, don’t argue with a girl who wants to fuck you, I always say. Give the girl a chance. If you date her and don’t like her, fine. Pfff, I mean, whether you like her or not you’ll still probably get your dick wet, right?”
He had a point, in a really selfish sleazebag kind of way. “I’ll think about it.” With that, I headed for the door. “Nice talking to you, Manni. I’ll see you next week. Might even have enough to buy that whole stack of vinyl.”
“Yeah, sounds good, man. Take care!”
Through no fault of my own, I wondered what Jun would’ve thought of the store.
* * *
The setting sun spread an orange light over the face of my apartment building. The swaying palm trees cast prickling shadows over the parking lot as I headed for the stairs. Sweat from the heat permeated my shirt all the way through, making it downright uncomfortable to head up to my room. At least I went outside for once that day. If I stayed inside until nightfall I would’ve kicked myself.
As I trudged down the outdoor hall of doors I noticed a paper bag sitting at my front door. The walk leading up to it built some anticipation; I didn’t know anyone who would just leave things at my place without telling me first. Cautiously I approached it.
It was filled with groceries. A small carton of milk, dry pasta, sauce, a box of Cheerio’s, a bunch of bananas, some luncheon meat, and a loaf of bread. Tied to the side of the milk and meat with string was an ice pack in a plastic bag. A white ribbon tied the handle loops together and held in place a small piece of paper with my name on it.
I crouched in front of the bag, snatched the paper up, and opened it. Inside was a sort of letter:
I’m very sorry we had to meet under such compromising circumstances. There is a little of everything in the bag, though I don’t know what you are used to eating. I hope this makes up for what happened, if only a little.
If possible, I would like to try meeting you properly. Every Friday evening at 7 PM I will try to go to the pub I took you to last night. I honestly want to get to know you more and tell you more about myself as well. There is no rush to decide. I hope to see you there.
The overly formal writing made me cringe, and for a minute I stared at both the letter and the bag of food. It didn’t look like my door or window were tampered with, nor did the lock show any signs of a break-in. The bag had no labels on it that I could tell, so there was no guessing where the food came from besides the manufacturers.
I reread the letter. It seemed sincere, though it wasn’t exactly easy to discern that just from the writing. Pretty handwriting, though.
With a sigh, I picked up the bag in one arm and unlocked the door with the other. Regardless of whether her intensions were genuine, food was food. And I didn’t have much left until payday. Crumbling the little letter in my hand I walked up to the trash bin in the corner of the kitchen.
Before I could toss it in, I stopped. The paper sat jagged against the palm of my hand, corners jutting out between my fingers. Releasing it from my grasp, I opened it up again and read through it for a third time. My friend’s words echoed into my head, “Give the girl a chance.”
“I must be out of my mind,” I mumbled, stuffing the paper into my pocket.
Regardless, I called up a friend to help check if any of the food was laced with roofies.