The Spicy Omega
Read at Watashi wa Sugoi Desu!
Chapter 4 (Karasawa POV)
After the gardening club’s activities ended, I headed to the main gate to leave school. It was much later than usual because of the repairs to the greenhouse today.
The gardening club I was a part of had been given the authority to manage a rather impressive plastic greenhouse. A few years ago, a member of the gardening club was so enthusiastic that he built the greenhouse at his own funds in a humble corner of the school grounds slightly behind the building. The greenhouse was quite solid for amateur work, and even after the member graduated, the greenhouse has been passed on from generation to generation in the gardening club and was still being used albeit with repeated repairs and reinforcements. The gardening club at our high school was quite fortunate to be able to grow plants in the greenhouse that could not normally be planted in flower beds. In spring, the club members all ate the strawberries that we had grown. While not as sweet as the store-bought ones, their plain, rustic feeling and the unevenness of the berries we had grown with our two hands made them dear to us. Their taste brought us a calm, satisfied feeling.
Sometimes I hear from classmates who are only acquaintances that I must be an extra-spicy food freak, but that was definitely not the case. I actively avoided extra spicy food. I liked spicy to medium spicy, and I absolutely refused to eat anything that looked like a dish that had been covered in chili sauce. That was not to say I didn’t eat anything sweet at all; I was a big fan of sweet fruits. But when it came to sweets, I’d eat things with cream only about once a year, and I hadn’t eaten red bean paste1 for years. I wasn’t a big fan of honey either. I didn’t like the sticky and viscous feeling inside my mouth.2
As I walked along thinking about this, I saw a tall figure leaning against the main gate.
“Ah, you’re here at last.”
As Amami got up from leaning against the brick wall and approached me, I looked him over. Amami had club activities today too, and the track and field club that he was a part of usually stayed back later than the gardening club, so there weren’t many opportunities for us to go home together.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
“You had gardening club activities unusually late today. I thought if I waited, I could go home with you, Karasawa.”
Seeing Amami’s bright smile as dusk slowly approached, I felt that he truly was a great friend. It was a bit of a shame that the kind words he spoke and his protagonist-like figure were only directed at me and Kijima, but at least that was something he decided for himself.
“My bad, did I make you wait?”
“I was just waiting because I wanted to. More importantly, do you want to go on a short detour? ”
“Won’t the school counsellor be making their rounds looking for people who shouldn’t be loitering around?”
“It’s not far. Is it still a problem?”
“I didn’t say that. Let’s go.”
I patted him a little on the shoulder and started walking. Even though he should be tired from club activities, Amami didn’t seem tired at all. He still had the stamina to take a detour after waiting for me to arrive. I jogged every morning to maintain my muscle strength, but I still didn’t have that much energy. Was it the difference in our base stamina?
“Where are we going? ”
“Do you know the public library behind the school?”
“There’s a second-hand bookstore near it.”
“I see. I haven’t been on that side much. I’ll let you lead the way.”
We walked along the road together. There were few pedestrians, let alone students on the street, possibly because it was neither in the direction of the train station nor downtown. I had been attending this high school for more than two years, but surprisingly, I didn’t know what kind of shops there were around the school. I liked to visit second-hand bookstores, even though I only entered them to browse around. I was often troubled by the fact that after flipping through a book I was interested in, my eyeballs would bug out when I saw the price tag on the back cover, and I couldn’t afford to buy them. Even though I couldn’t afford anything, I liked the atmosphere of the shops themselves, with all the books from ages past piled high, and I liked the novel feeling of encountering something old. The slightly dusty air that pervaded all old bookstores was also calming.
But not once had I seen Amami read a book. Perhaps because Kijima had no fondness for reading (he should read more books), the three of us never talked about novels or literature when we were lazing around together, and I thought that the two of them never opened any books other than textbooks.
“Do you read books, Amami? ”
“Yep, I read. That said, it’s about one book a month, or three at most. What about you, Karasawa? ”
“It’s the same for me. What kinds of books do you read? ”
“Various kinds. I usually go to the bookstore and pick one of the popular books at the storefront.”
“I see. Then did you read that book that came out last month? ”
I was excited to have something in common to talk about for the first time. I was happy to be able to talk about books with a friend, even though I wasn’t much of a book lover myself. We talked about everything from literature that had won famous awards, to tearjerker novels that had been adapted into films and made us cry, from translated books from other languages, to sequels of fantasy novels that were popular when we were children. We even spoke of the times that I bought a book because I was attracted by the cover and the synopsis, only to be deceived by a story that was completely different from the cover. The books that Amami had read were slightly different from my own, but there were some overlaps, and the topic of conversation changed rapidly as we exchanged information and our impressions.
“Oops, I almost missed it. It’s this one.”
Amami suddenly stopped and looked up at the small second-hand bookstore. The storefront was packed to the brim with books, and it seemed that they had already given up on an attractive display. One section of books had been stacked in a messy flat pile, one on top of the other, reminiscent of a towering building.
“Amazing, this is…”
“I knew you would like it. Let’s go in.”
Encouraged by Amami, I stepped into the store. It was a chaotic space, and I had to be careful not to kick any books while walking around. Even if there were great works of literature or books I would adore, I wondered how many hours it would take for me to find them beneath the chaos.
The shop was U-shaped, with the checkout counter seemingly pushed into the wall on the street side. While I could sense the presence of the shopkeeper, I couldn’t see them unless I went around to the front due to the tower of books stacked up next to the counter. I wondered if they had any concerns about shoplifting… I browsed the store, standing on my tiptoes, bending over, or squatting and craning my neck in different directions as I walked around. I felt like I was at an amusement park attraction or something. Amami seemed to be browsing around as he pleased too, and soon he had disappeared into some corner inside.
Surprisingly, there was not a speck of dust on the stacks of books piled high. I stared swiftly at the spines of the books that had caught my eye, and picked one up. It was a lot heavier than I remembered.
It was a fantasy novel that I had read over and over since childhood to the point of wearing through the spine. Originally published abroad, I had read it so much that at one point I could recite its contents by heart. I even bought a dictionary in hope of reading the original one day, but I never got around to it. It had been published more than half a century ago, so I had thought it was out of print and would probably never be imported to Japan. It had been several years since I had given up on it, and I had no idea that I would find it in a place like this. I flipped through the book and was gradually surprised to find that the pages were in as good condition as the cover. Holding the cover carefully, I scrutinised it and finally looked at the price tag on the back cover with trepidation.
Well, that was expected…
There, on a handwritten sticker, was a price slightly higher than three months of my pocket money. This was a book that was difficult to obtain even in the country it was originally published in. The one in my hand had crossed the seas, transcending beyond time to arrive in Japan. If anything, the price was a steal. I gently returned the book to its original spot.
I headed toward the back of the store, my gaze following the spines of the books lining the shelves while whimsically flipping through illustrated plant encyclopaedias. Amami too was similarly looking around the store. He had nothing in his hands.
“It’s not good to be out too late. Let’s go home.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
When I called out to him in a hushed voice, Amami nodded and rehooked the bag on his shoulder.
“Didn’t find any book you liked?”
“I see. If it’s fine with you, let’s come back sometime.”
I could have talked about that book, but I felt awkward at the thought of complaining to Amami about the price and how I couldn’t afford it. I knew he wasn’t the type to laugh at such things, but my petty pride got in the way. Amami didn’t care about my indecisive attitude and with a big smile on his face, pushed me from the back just like when we had entered the store. I carefully stepped out of the store and unconsciously took a deep breath. I didn’t even realise that I’d been holding it.
“Did you ever come here before, Amami? ”
“Nope, this was my first time. I happened to see it when I stopped by the library and thought I’d come back next time, so I checked it out.”
Amami’s tone seemed a little bashful, and it made me feel self-conscious as well. I wondered if he had planned this out with the intention of coming with me but dismissed the thought as me overthinking it. We were heading to the station at a leisurely pace, but a shout from Amami stopped me.
“I’m sorry, Karasawa! I forgot something at the bookstore just now, so just go on ahead.”
“Ok, got it. I’ll take my time walking, so if you make it in time, let’s meet up again and go back together.”
“Thanks, again, I’m sorry.”
Amami ran back down the road in a panic. Thinking it was unusual for Amami, who was always on top of things, I checked the notifications on my phone as I dawdled along just as I had promised. There was a message from Kijima with an excuse saying that he had left his textbook at school and couldn’t do his prep work, so he needed me to show him my notes tomorrow. Just as I closed the app, thinking it would be a hassle to reply, an out-of-breath Amami came back running. He was surprisingly fast, just as expected of someone in the track and field club.
“That was fast. Did you find what you forgot?”
“Yeah… it was… there… hah…”
“You didn’t have to run so hard to catch up.”
Dumbfounded, I chuckled, and Amami too laughed along while catching his breath. Then. he held out something. It was something bulky inside a paper bag. I reflexively accepted it, and my eyes widened at the weight. Was that what Amami had forgotten? Why was he giving that to me? I looked at Amami suspiciously.
When I opened the bag, which was only taped up in one place, and took out the contents, it was a book. It was the very book I had been looking at earlier and had given up on buying after looking at the price.
“…You’re kidding me.”
“You seemed like you wanted it. So I got it for you.”
“Nonono, it’s too expensive! It isn’t something you can casually give away to someone!”
“But you wanted it, didn’t you? This book.”
To be frank, I wanted it more than anything. To the point that now that I had the actual thing in my hands, I couldn’t even think about parting with it. The world of the story that I had once been so passionate about, that I could recite from memory, resurfaced in my heart, and my brain began calculating its cost.
“H-…How about I pay you back… in ten installments…?”
“No need. This is a present for you, Karasawa. I didn’t lend you the money.”
“That’s worse! I didn’t do anything to deserve such an expensive gift!”
“I just wanted to get you a present. It’s not a big deal?”
I was hit by a sudden urge to strangle Amami, hearing him speak so nonchalantly. The fact that he could throw something that expensive over to a casual acquaintance was something completely beyond my understanding. Was this how all alphas were, or was Amami a special case? I had recently begun to understand his habits and knew that arguing with him at a time like this wouldn’t solve anything. If I’m being pushed around, I’ll push back.
“I understand. If that’s what you want, I have an idea too. -Let’s call it ‘Karasawa’s maid-for-a-day contract’.”
“I’ll give you one day when I’ll do whatever you want, whether it be taking over your cleaning duty, carrying your things, or massaging your shoulders. I’ll listen to whatever you want and that work will be your payment for this book. How about that? ”
“…Anything? Anything I say?”
“Huh. Ye…Yeah! A man never goes back on his word! ”
When he suddenly leaned close to me to confirm, I nodded, taken aback. Amami’s expression seemed extreme. While I added in haste that I would not do anything that would break the law, I did not know whether Amami had heard it or not, as he began walking on the road towards the station once again, muttering something under his breath.
Had I accidentally agreed to something outrageous with this promise? It felt like I had, but I didn’t see a way to go back on my promise now.