The market’s parking lot is as jammed as it always is on weekdays. The only spot I can find is that one blank area between spaces at the corner of the lot that isn’t actually supposed to be parked in but no one will really get upset if you park there.
Otto’s isn’t a big store by any means, but they manage to cram a surprising quantity and variety of goods into their little space, and they attract a huge customer base as a result. Big enough that it made sense to install two sets of doors on the tiny shop. As per usual, the more southerly set of doors has been staked out by a cadre of white-robed pamphleteers from the Church of The Divine trying to raise awareness for their G-rated play about the little broccoli stalk that could, while the black-clad folks from the Church of The Fallen God have claimed the northern set as the soapbox from which they will promote a cupcake and anal sex centered lifestyle. The enmity permeating the air between the two groups is dwarfed in intensity only by the enmity they both have directed at the members of the local branch of the Sabbath cult patrolling the parking lot, eagerly reminding everyone they see of how natural it is to have a little sister fetish.
“Free sample, Onii-chan?”
A giddy little waif of a nekomata starts giving me the hard sell the second I step out of the car. She smiles spritely at me over the top of the tray of cookies she’s holding out, at least twice as wide as she is, dirt-smudged cheeks the same color of pink as the ribbons she has in her hair.
“My parents told me to never take candy from strangers.”
“I promise we didn’t put anything funny in them.”
“Well I’m trying to watch my waistline anyway, so I’ll pass…”
Oh dear. That’s a very large paw on my shoulder.
“Ah reckin’ yaoughtta reconsider ‘at there course of ack-shun, slim-jim.”
The enormous dire wolf who’s got my shoulder in a death grip spins me around to direct my gaze into the brassy buttons on the chest of her Knights of the Demon Lord fatigues.
“Tha littlun ‘ere been workin’ real hard on ‘er cookie recipe all week an’ it’d be an awful shame if’n ya din’ try it dontcha think?”
She grins wickedly at me, displaying a mouthful of deadly looking teeth complemented by a pair of artery-puncturing fangs, one its natural white color and the other plated with a gold crown.
“So yer gon’ be real obligin’ and tell her jus’ how good a job she did aintcha boy?”
The twin-tailed Sabbath cultist peeks in between us and holds up her box of cookies again.
“Try the ones with the strawberry jam in the middle.” She smiles, leaning forward eagerly.
I take my time choosing which cookie to eat, but none of them really leap out at me as less likely than any other to turn the rest of my week into a horny, tentacle-filled haze, so I just pluck out the biggest one. May as well get the most bang for my potential trip to the toxicology clinic.
“How is it?” she says almost immediately after I take a bite, scrunched up into a tentatively-hopeful ball of pure energy.
The dire wolf frowns.
The backwoods militiawoman smiles and nods quietly while the Sabbath cultist somehow manages to jump for joy without sending the rest of her samples flying. She then turns to babble cheerily at her massive guardian, leaving me free to head into the store. I swear, if the deli here wasn’t so good I’d do all my shopping at the gas station.
“Welcome to Otto’s, please let us know if we can help you find anything.”
As per usual I only have the vaguest semblance of an idea as to what I want, so I decline the greeter’s offer of assistance off-hand before starting an ambling circuit of the store. Let’s see now…
I need paper towels. Only one roll left. Some dried pasta would be good to have around. Gotta pick up some soap and dishwashing liquid too, and I used up the last of my packing materials on that junk I need to drop off at the post office later.
How did I manage to make it from one end of the store to the other without passing a single item I actually need? Where are they keeping all this stuff?
Never an employee around when you need one. My focus shifts from finding my groceries to finding someone who can do it for me. I find them in the canned soup isle; a lone black-haired kikimora in a long dress, with her back to me, sweeping the floor with martial efficiency, her charcoal-colored feather duster of a tail tapping across the ground behind her to help her navigate.
“Stupid…clumsy…messes everywhere…can’t keep…”
She mutters irritably to herself as she works.
“Every time I turn around…”
She keeps muttering and keeps scouring the floor of a mess only her slightly-neurotic eyes can see.
The ash-grey tip of her tail chances upon my leg as she draws closer. She doesn’t look up from her work, just redirects herself around me.
The tiny harpy at last manages to pry her eyes away from her broom for a moment. A frill-cuffed sleeve makes its way up to the collar of her dress, pinching and tugging out some perceived imperfection, before she speaks.
“Yes?” asks a voice that could slice through granite.
“Uh, I think the floor’s clean enough.”
She snorts derisively and flicks her ponytail off her shoulder. Her salt-and-pepper feathered ears wiggle just once with barely-contained irritation.
“Sure, if you want to raise livestock in here.”
“Don’t be obtuse. Just look at it.”
I do. The floor in this aisle is gleaming several orders of magnitude brighter than the floor in the rest of the store.
“Look is there something you want?”
Who hired this girl?
“I was hoping I could get a little help finding my groceries. I need some new envelopes, paper towels, soap…”
“SOAP? I know just what you need. Come this way.”
The little kikimora grabs me by the wrist with a grip that makes the dire wolf out in the parking lot look like a spineless milquetoast and hauls me off toward the back of the store. I glimpse a few blurred outlines of what are probably the other things on my list along the way, but soap apparently supersedes all of them in importance.
“Here,” she says when we stop, reaching out to pick a red and white box off the shelf, “This right here would be just perfect for you. The perfumes in it mesh perfectly with your natural scent.”
She suddenly claps her hand over my forehead.
“Hmmm. Maybe something with a moisturizer would actually be better…”
“Try this instead. It’s got one quarter moisturizing cream.”
“You know, this one is made with shea butter. That might be more your speed.”
“Could I actually just get a box of Ivory Soap please? You know, the cheap stuff?”
The kikimora gives me a knowing smile, for some reason.
“Oh, a fan of the classics I see.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
The kikimora hardly has to look at the shelf before she finds the product I’m after and deposits it in my basket.
“There you go. What else was it you needed?”
The rest of the shopping trip passes by at a blistering pace. The little kikimora knows exactly where everything is, which brands are best, which are cheapest, and nearly everything else worth knowing about the store.
“Thanks for all your help Miss, uh, what was your name?”
“Thanks Casey. Your manager had better watch out, you’re gunning for his job.”
“Hmm? Oh no, I don’t work here.”
“I don’t work here.”
“Why were you sweeping up the place then?”
She frowns and looks at me like I’m a complete dunce.
“Because it was a damned mess of course.”
For the second time today, I’m at a complete loss for words.
“…Okay. Still, thanks.”
“I guess I’ll see you around then.”
I give her a quick wave and head for the exit. She curtsies in return, then picks her broom up and heads back toward the aisle whose messiness torments her so.
“This whole damn town is nuts.” I say to myself as I dodge a dark priest’s pamphlet and make for my car, at last remembering why it is I never leave the house.