They reached the comic book shop after a short while. The Comic Shop was the kind of place that only a true comic book fan would frequent, occupying the corner section of the strip mall. When the doors opened, he took in the slightly mildewed smell of old comic books, plastic and PVC. The store was a hodgepodge of mismatched displays and rows of elongated comic book boxes –all over packed like sardines with little hand written tabs denoting “A-F” or other designations. The new comics lined the back walls displayed facing out in stark contrast to the stacks of mismatched boxes.
The store was dotted with a kaleidoscope of characters, all browsing in various levels of interest. The Comic Shop catered to hard corps comic and Manga enthusiasts. The place was just shy of clean, but that was a part of its charm. A person had to love comics if they wanted to be shop there.
The moment Mike entered the store, a hushed lull overtook nearly all activity. She looked sheepishly around, completely aware that all eyes were now turning in her direction. Suddenly, she felt a wave of nervousness overtake her.
They won’t stop staring.
She wanted to turn and walk back out, but she pushed the thought aside. Paris put his hand in the small of her back and gave a very gentle push, urging her into the store.
Leaning over he whispered “They’ll stare even more if you just stand their gawking…”
Mike allowed him to guide her towards the Manga section of the store just off to the right. She was thankful for his help, and allowed him to lead her just a little. To her it felt a little like having someone steady her bicycle while first learning how to ride before letting go. She kept walking after he let his hand fall to his side, thankful for the push. She noted that eyes lingered in her general direction far too long to be considered polite. She sighed heavily, clutching her elbow and looking down towards the floor as she moved through the aisle.
This had to happen sooner or later. I just wish they would stop it makes me uncomfortable. How do girls deal with this?
“Just breathe, Mike. They’ll go back to their comics in a minute.” Paris did his best to sound encouraging, but it wasn’t much help.
Mike seemed lost in her thoughts for a moment until she caught the eye of her favorite Manga. Seven issues had come and gone since the accident, and she realized that she was woefully behind.
Will they have the issues I missed in the back?
She deftly plucked the issue from its perch on the shelf and walked briskly towards the counter. Paris, turned to see her amble up to the desk, aware she had shifted to hurricane mode. The Manga made her forget about the stares. Milo, the well known and often hated front man for the comic shop was leaning silently over the counter, sticking his hand in a bag of Doritos. Looking beyond, he could see that Rick, the short bespectacled proprietor was in the back office doing some paperwork.
Mike plopped the current issue on the counter. “Do you have the back issues of this one, Milo?”
Milo, the comic shop’s eternal front person, was always at the counter. The tall, lanky blonde Goth-surfer type was only seen outside the store for lunch and breaks. She knew from experience that Rick and Milo were old friends during their high school days. Rick took over the shop from his father while it still concentrated mostly on baseball cards and sports collectibles.
Working on at the shop nights and going to school during the day, Rick had managed to graduate from SDSU with a degree in business, while Milo was ALWAYS at the store. It was even speculated he might sleep there. Rick was driven and personable, despite his small stature, and most of the long time customers came here because they knew his work ethic and his vision was going to bring about a lot of change –hopefully starting with Milo. Milo was literally the face of the shop, and while Rick was efficient and friendly, Milo was just a jerk. In his mid to late twenties, he was the type of young man who bullies teens because he couldn’t bully anyone else.
“You know my name?” He asked, surprised at her direct manner.
Oh shit! I forgot that he doesn’t know me like this…
“Uhhh… Paris pointed you out to me. I assumed it was you because you look like you work here.”
Milo looked down his slightly crooked, aquiline nose towards the volume on the counter. Mike noted that he didn’t actually work at his looks –using just the dark eyeliner he managed to darken his entire face. And while his skin seemed sun tanned, it didn’t seem overly so. His light blond hair was a stark contrast, and broke the cool profile of his face with unruly loose curls. He rubbed his chin, looking over at Paris.
“Well, I probably have the last three months, but I’m not sure beyond that. It isn’t a very mainstream series…”
“I like it because the Mangaka didn’t really make the characters too over the top and tries to advance them more by the story and how they react, than resorting to a lot of clichés.”
His eyes widened in surprise. He looked back over at Paris again, who’d found his way back to the new comic rack towards the back, and then back at Mike.
“I thought you were getting this for him…” He pondered.
“What made you think that?”
“Well, I haven’t seen you in here before. I see a lot of girls in here but they’re usually with their boyfriends or brothers or something like that. And they definitely don’t look for Manga.”
Ahhhh…. So this is stereotyping….
“Well, that depends on the girl, I guess. You might have better luck with that if the store was a little more girl friendly.”
Milo leaned over the counter, with a look of mild disinterest at her reply. “You’re assuming of course that we want girls to come here.”
His response was irritating in its condescension. Mentally, Mike dug her heels in and prepared for a fight.
“I wonder if you’re running a business here, or a club for wayward boys. Last time that I checked, girls account for sixty five percent of Manga sales –that’s been the trend for years. When I look around, I see that you’ve got what? Maybe four or five serious buyers in here? There should be three times that, but you only get the hard corps buyers because the counter person is an ass…!”
Milo sniffed at her remark, turning his head away in smug defiance of her logic.
Unfazed, Mike continued. “For someone selling books, you seem to read a lot of them just by their covers.”
White hot pokers shot forth from his eyes as he tried to stare her down. Mike looked up at him towering over her and refused to back down. “It’s no wonder girls don’t come in here if you are assuming things like that without even talking to them. If you weren’t so busy being an asshole, you might see that perhaps they don’t come in here because of the attitude of its sales staff.”
Now all eyes were on her again, but this time because she was not backing down from Milo. To most of the boys in the shop, Milo was somewhat an imposing figure because of his age and size advantage, as well as his pseudo-athletic build. For a smallish kid, he was intimidating, and brutish to those he chose to torment. Everyone who shopped there could relate a tale or two of Milo’s ill mannered temperament.
Paris heard the commotion and made his way to her from the back of the comic shop, along with some of the other guys in various states of browsing. Mike’s voice carried an unfamiliar air of feminine confidence that made it stand out against the background noises of the shop. The other patrons were interested to hear the substance of the conversation as most did not attempt to challenge Milo for fear of being expelled from the comic Mecca. Mike barely noticed the gathering, still intent on speaking her mind.
“Does the owner know that you treat people this way? I wonder what they might think seeing your attitude right now. Tsundere only works if people have a reason to like you…”
Paris grabbed her arm gently in protest of her boldness. She pulled free from him without turning back, intent on delivering the coup de grace.
Milo fumed silently behind the counter as the stunned patrons looked on. Apparently, he was so used to being able to act and speak as he liked, that he was unable to respond to her verbal assault. Paris looked around noting that most of the patrons seemed to be in favor of Mike’s argument. Sensing his imminent defeat and subsequent embarrassment at the brazen girl before him, he resorted to the only recourse left available to him.
“Get out of my store. You’re banned from shopping here.” He looked at her with a smugness that defied logic. Paris noted that from the looks of things, he was soundly defeated.
Mike set the book on the counter gently. “That’s fine… It seems that girls aren’t welcome here, so I’ll get my comics somewhere else…”
Paris was amazed. Mike spoke softly when she said it, but her voice carried such presence that everyone took notice. Mike turned slowly for the door, taking him by the hand as she did so. Paris put his own purchase down without complaint. She was airing on the side of courtesy –rather than resort to arguing further –and it was working… As she turned to leave, he heard the grumbles of the other patrons. Most of them put down their bundles as well, some with more than an armful of comics and Manga.
“That’s not really cool, Milo…”
“Bonehead move, Milo…. Later”
“Yeah. Vibe’s just wrong now. Can’t get my mojo working.”
As they left the shop together, he didn’t need to see her to know what look was on her face. Mike was beaming in triumph.
“Let’s hit the one in Chula Vista…” She offered. “It’s not so far away, and the selection’s just as good.”
“What the hell was that just now?”
Rick stuck his head out of the back office, visibly furious at the turn of events that just unfolded.
“I sent her packin’, man! I don’t have to take that kind of shit!”
The diminutive store owner took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose while he contemplated what to say next. He exhaled slowly while trying to wrestle down his ire.
“Look around, Milo… Do you really call what you just did a happy ending?”
Milo looked around at the empty shop and turned back to Rick, shrugging his shoulders. “Dude, chicks are a stain on the image of this shop…” He folded his arms in triumph, pleased with his efforts.
Rick however, was far from pleased. “What fucking world do you live in?! That was a customer you just drove out! Let me hip you to something you moron! Customers pay your salary. Customers keep us in business! Not only did you drive off a new customer, but you somehow managed to piss off the rest of our old customers as well!!!”
“Dude, chill… They always come back…” He said nonchalantly.
This was perhaps too much. Rick turned, setting his paperwork on the counter, so he could turn his full attention to the matter. “Milo, I know this is hard for you to conceptualize because it isn’t your “thing,” but this is my livelihood. I don’t have a trust fund or a rich daddy to pay the bills on my cool condo. You’ve been like this since high school. You have no ambition and no God damned understanding what it takes to keep this place afloat, and that’s just something I can’t afford any longer…”
“What are you saying…?”
“Look, I gave you this job because I knew your old man wasn’t going to foot the bill for your lifestyle if you didn’t have a job of some kind. And at first it was cool… I was doing this cool thing for my friend. But now it’s just sad… And I can’t afford to continue being your front at the expense of my business…. You’re fired, Milo.”
Milo stared on blankly as the words sank in. “So it’s like that, hunh?” He scoffed.
“It is… I’ll make sure to send you your two weeks’ severance. Hell, I’ll even be a stand up guy and give a go on unemployment, should you apply for it. But I can’t carry you anymore.”
For some reason, he couldn’t stop smiling. Watching her talk back to Milo was deeply satisfying. He remembered how most of them at one time or another had crossed the clerk the wrong way and found themselves on the receiving end of his snide comments. It felt good to see Mike get one in and walk out with her head held high. It was almost as if all of them got on in on him. He couldn’t resist a goofy smirk.
Mike turned to look at him, puzzled at his expression. “What?”
“Nothing… It’s just that you were this little dynamo in there! It looked like Milo caught a tiger by the tail. I don’t ever think I’ve seen him so flustered.”
She turned in a huff and walked purposefully back towards the car. “He pissed me off… It’s bad enough to deal with this… I don’t need some idiot treating me like arm candy!”
Paris let out a huge guffaw, doubling over with laughter. Mike turned back to him, tapping her foot impatiently with her arms folded over her. He threw a hand up trying to get her to stop frowning. Mike rolled her eyes, unaffected by his antics.
“Really… Arm Candy… That’s so rich…” He kept laughing.
“You don’t think I’m Arm Candy?” She huffed. “He thought I was just some chippie asking a question for her boyfriend!”
Paris straightened up and did his best to smile sympathetically. “I can see where he might get that idea. –Not that you’re my girlfriend or anything… But you have to understand; how many years have we been coming here?”
“Six years or so.”
“And in all that time, how many pretty girls did we see?”
“That’s not the point… PARIS… The point is that it’s hurtful to be devalued like that. I can’t help the way that I look. I don’t want people judging me for it!”
They’d just about reached the car, when they heard Rick yelling at them both as he exited the store. “Excuse me! …Miss! …Miss!”
Mike turned and stopped as he waited for Rick to catch up to them both. The shopkeeper literally ran across the parking lot, holding a bundle of Manga in hand. She waited patiently for him to stop just in front of her and collect himself.
“Yes?” She asked.
He handed her the bundle of Manga. “Listen… Miss… uhh….”
“Tabitha… but my friends call me Mike.” She took the bundle from him, and examined it. It was the last four issues of the Manga she’d brought to the counter.”
“I’m really sorry about Milo… That was uncalled for… I really hope you’ll come back to the store.”
She handed the bundle of books back to him. “I can’t take these… You don’t know how humiliating it is to be treated like that just because you’re a girl. I won’t shop in any kind of environment like that.”
He didn’t take them. “You won’t have to… I promise. Please understand… Milo and I had been friends since middle school. I thought I was doing right by a friend by keeping him on at the store, but that was a mistake… I fired him.”
Mike turned to Paris, unsure of what to say. Paris took the bundle from her hand and held onto it. “We’ll come back –but only if you add the three issues previous to these. Mike’s been looking for them to catch up…”
“Done…” He conceded. “On one condition…”
“And that is?”
“Nothing serious... I’d just like a girl’s opinion. I heard what you said at the end about girls buying Manga. I knew the numbers were high, but I didn’t realize that they were that high.”
“You can get a lot of Manga at Borders, but they don’t keep back issues like a real comic book shop does.” She smiled, and Paris recognized the expression almost immediately. The smile was Mike’s look of triumph.
“Do you two have a few minutes?” Rick gestured towards the Godfather’s pizza which shared the corner location of the strip mall. “I’ll buy you two some lunch and you can tell me what you’d change about the store to make it a little more popular.”