Every week, the Mainichi Convenience Store got five hundred pork buns.
They came in a large cardboard box with the company's logo, a cartoony pig plush, stamped across it; inside the box, they sat innocently in five-by-five rows.
Tomoko had seen the box earlier today; it was completely full. But it was impossible to deny that somehow, at this very instant, there were only four hundred ninety-nine buns in it.
The empty hole where a pork bun should be stared back at her.
She looked around the large back room. No one was there. No skittering noises from an animal racing for the dumpster, and - she checked - the dumpster itself was closed. What's more, when she checked the dumpster she was out of sight of the boxes, but there was still only one bun missing when she came back.
Had she just misremembered the count, she wondered, looking back down at the almost-full box with her arms crossed. That didn't seem right, though - this had happened regularly over at least the past month.
A box would arrive, sealed, with five hundred pork buns. Tomoko would open the box to confirm the stock, go off to check the other items, and when she came back a pork bun was gone, with no sign anyone had entered or exited.
"...so, we have a very polite thief who really likes pork buns, I guess?" she muttered, throwing up her hands in frustration.
(Shingetsu, standing guiltily in a corner and eating the five hundredth pork bun, winced.)
Tomoko stared down, at the box of buns. It wasn't really worth installing a camera, was it? It was one pork bun, for goodness' sake. Plenty of room in the profit margins for a 125 yen unexpected expense.
(She tried to imagine bringing this up to her shift supervisor. Her apathetic shift supervisor, who was probably going to resign any day now, and had answered her last three procedural questions with a "Dunno. Do what you want.")
"That wouldn't go well," she concluded out loud, chewing on her lip. Guess there wasn't anything she could do about it. Tomoko went about her day with not much more than a mental shrug of acceptance.
After a few weeks, she noticed that a similar phenomenon started occurring with the milk tea. Not the same brand of milk tea, though - the store stocked three, and the missing item varied between brands for several weeks before settling on Coco Milk. That solidified the issue for her: this was a deliberate theft, despite the lack of other traces. She brought this up with other employees.
"Maybe it's a ghost," her coworker suggested sarcastically in response. Tomoko snorted and smacked him with a rolled-up magazine, but the idea apparently stuck. (So did her nickname, "Tomoko the Ghost-Whisperer".)
What kind of ghost likes pork buns and milk tea? she caught herself wondering absently from time to time.
Of course, when she was doing the restocks she didn't - couldn't - see Shingetsu sitting on a box a few feet away. Shingetsu's body didn't even deform the box. But someone had noticed the missing bun, which was more than had happened a few weeks ago.
Tomoko stared at the boxes in the storage room.
The boxes sat there, innocently. Sealed. She hadn't opened them yet.
"...I can't believe I'm doing this," she muttered quietly to herself, opening the boxes (500 pork buns, 300 milk teas) and checking off the contents.
After a solid month of missing pork buns and milk teas, and a resounding failure to act on this petty theft even after she'd brought it to management's attention like a good employee, Tomoko was tired of pretending nothing was going on. At least this way, she would know if something was really happening.
Tomoko carefully took out one pork bun and one milk tea, placing them both in a plastic bag (Mainichi Convenience store brand, of course). She left the bag near the entrance to the locked storage room. If the ghost could get in to steal things from stock boxes, it could take the bag, surely?
Shingetsu took the bag. She could tell it had vanished from human perception the moment her hand touched it. The pork bun still tasted as good as it ever did.
She was halfway through finishing her tea before the implications hit her and nearly made her choke on it.
Someone senses me.
They didn't know she was there - they couldn't, there was no magic to add that extra perceptive edge - but somehow, Tomoko from the convenience store suspected...something.
Suspected something, and reacted with kindness. Shingetsu felt tears - not real tears, surely? nothing was real, not even her - spring to her eyes, as she recalled a conversation she'd had too long ago.
"She didn't know I was there, but she smiled at me."
Shingetsu made sure to dispose of the bottle, the bun wrapper, and the bag appropriately. Recycling was important, even if she had no idea if the plastic would make it to a proper plant or not.
When Tomoko came back, the bag was gone. No footprints and no sign anything was off - there wasn't even a discolored spot where the bag had been.
Tomoko smiled. I guess ghosts do like pork buns and milk tea.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she said to the (seemingly) empty room, "I'm glad you like it! Try our curry bowls, too - they're our most popular item."
As soon as the sentence was out of her mouth, she shook her head. Really. Advertising to a ghost, which doesn't exist and who definitely can't pay for it - what am I even thinking?
(The next month, five hundred pork buns stayed in their proper place. Instead, a curry bowl vanished from the freezer section.)
Eating a curry bowl with a pair of pilfered chopsticks, Shingetsu swore she would find a way to make it up to the other woman. Already whatever power had pulled her from the world, made her imperceptible, was weakening - the first time she stole a pork bun, the world had just reconfigured itself, made it so that there was never a pork bun there in the first place. Magiaconatus couldn't exact punishment on her if it no longer existed - but its power was strong, and took time to fade.
Someday, I'll be able to come back.
Until then, she'd rely on pork buns and curry bowls. Maybe go climb a mountain, or dive to the bottom of the sea.
Nonexistence was tiring, and magical. Eventually she'd run out - and maybe, just maybe, she'd be able to make it back to the real world in time to meet Mangetsu again.