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First Few Pages: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

First Few Pages: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and the cat and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners. 

Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, the cat and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter . . . 

An enthralling tale of books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat, The Cat Who Saved Books is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.

How It All Began

First things first, Grandpa’s gone.

The tale that follows is pretty outrageous, but he knows that one fact is absolutely real.

It’s as real as the sun rising in the morning, and his stomach rumbling with hunger at lunchtime. He’s tried closing his eyes, blocking his ears, pretending he doesn’t know anything, but his grandfather isn’t coming back.

Rintaro Natsuki stands there silent and still in the face of this harsh reality. On the outside, Rintaro seems like a calm, collected young man. But some of the people at the funeral find him eerie. He seems too composed for a high school student who has suddenly lost his closest family member. Sticking to the corner of the funeral parlor, Rintaro’s eyes stay locked on the portrait of his grandpa.

In truth, Rintaro isn’t calm and collected at all. The very idea of death is unfamiliar to him; he can’t make the connection between it and his grandfather, a serene man who seemed to exist in a different realm. He never thought death would come for Grandpa, who relished his simple, almost monotonous lifestyle. As Rintaro looks at him lying there, not breathing, he feels detached, as if he were watching a badly performed play.

Now, lying in his white coffin, his grandfather looks just the same as ever—as if nothing has happened at all; as if any moment he might just get up, mumble “Right then,” light the paraffin heater, and go make his usual cup of tea. It would have felt perfectly normal to Rintaro, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, the old man remains in his casket, his eyes closed and a solemn look on his face.

The chanting of the sutra drones on and mourners pass by in ones and twos, occasionally offering Rintaro their condolences.

First things first, Grandpa’s gone.

Reality gradually begins to take root in Rintaro’s heart. He finally manages to squeeze out a few words.

“This is messed up, Grandpa.”

But there’s no reply.

* * *

Rintaro Natsuki was an ordinary high school student. He was on the short side, pale with rather thick glasses, and rarely spoke. There was no subject at school he particularly excelled at, and he wasn’t good at sports. He was a completely average boy.

Rintaro’s parents had split up when he was just a baby. And when his mother passed away right around the time he started primary school, he went to live with his grandfather. It had been just the two of them ever since. Such living arrangements were a little unusual for your typical high school student, but to Rintaro it was just a normal part of his dull everyday existence.

But now that his grandfather had passed away, too, the story became more complicated. His death had been very sudden.

His grandfather was an early riser, but on that bitterly cold winter morning, he wasn’t in the kitchen like usual. Thinking it strange, Rintaro poked his head into the dim, tatami-matted room where his grandfather slept. The old man was still tucked inside his futon, having already breathed his last. He didn’t look as if he’d been in pain—he seemed to Rintaro more like a sculpture of a person sleeping. In the local doctor’s opinion, he’d most probably suffered a heart attack and died quickly.

“He passed away peacefully.”

If you combined the kanji character for “go” with the one for “live,” you got a strange-looking word meaning “to pass away.” Somehow seeing this word was what had shaken Rintaro the most; it struck him as out of place.

The doctor quickly grasped the difficulty of Rintaro’s family situation, and in no time an aunt from a distant city turned up.

A kindhearted and efficient woman, she dealt with everything from the paperwork related to the death certificate to organizing the funeral and all the other formalities. As he watched her, Rintaro didn’t forget to make sure he looked a bit sad, despite the lingering sense that none of this was real. But no matter how much he thought about it, he just couldn’t bring himself to sob in front of his grandfather’s funeral photo. It felt absurd to him, and it would be a lie. He could just imagine Grandpa grimacing in his casket, telling Rintaro to stop carrying on.

In the end, Rintaro bid farewell to his grandfather in total silence. All he had left now was a concerned aunt . . . and a bookshop.

Natsuki Books was a tiny secondhand bookshop on the edge of town. The shop didn’t lose enough money to be considered a liability, nor did it make enough to be considered a fortune. It wasn’t much of an inheritance.

* * *

“Hey, Natsuki, you’ve got some great books here.”

The male voice came from behind Rintaro. He didn’t turn around.

“Really?” he asked, his eyes fixed on the bookshelves in front of him. The shelves ran from the floor all the way up to the ceiling; they were filled with an impressive number of books.

There was Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Dumas and Stendhal, Faulkner and Hemingway, Golding . . . too many to name. Some of the greatest masterpieces this world has seen—majestic, dignified tomes stared down at Rintaro. They were all seasoned secondhand books, but none of them too used or worn, no doubt thanks to his grandfather’s loving care.

By Rintaro’s feet, the similarly seasoned paraffin heater glowed orange, but despite its best efforts, the shop was drafty. Still, Rintaro knew it wasn’t only the temperature that was making him feel chilly.

“So how much for these two together?”

Rintaro turned his head and squinted at the books being held out to him.

“Thirty-two hundred yen,” he said quietly.

“Your memory’s as sharp as ever.”

The customer was a boy from the same high school, one year ahead of Rintaro, by the name of Ryota Akiba. He was tall and slim with a cheerful expression, and a calm, self-assured air about him that was quite likable. Along with his strong physique, built up by years of basketball training, he had one of the best brains in his year. In addition, he was the son of the local doctor. This was a boy who had a huge number of extracurricular activities—in other words, he was the exact opposite of Rintaro in every way.

“And these are a bargain.”

With that, Akiba began to pile five or six more books next to the register on the desk. Mr. Jack-of-All-Trades was a surprisingly avid reader, and one of Natsuki Books’s regular customers.

“You know, this is a really great shop.”

“Thank you. Please take your time looking around. It’s our closing sale.”

It was hard to tell from Rintaro’s flat tone if he was serious.

Akiba fell silent for a moment.

“It must have been awful for you,” he began cautiously, “losing your grandfather.”

Akiba swiftly returned his attention to a nearby bookcase and pretended to scour the shelves.

“Seems like just yesterday he was sitting there reading,” he continued, casually. “It was so sudden.”

“Yes, I feel the same way.”

Rintaro sounded as if he was just trying to be polite; even if he did feel the same way, there was no hint of friendliness or sociability in his voice. Akiba didn’t seem particularly bothered. He turned to look at the younger boy, who was still staring at the bookshelves.

“But as soon as he passed away, you stopped coming to school. That’s not cool. Everyone’s worried about you.”

“Who’s ‘everyone’? I can’t think of a single person who would be worried about me.”

“Oh right, you don’t have any friends. Must make life simple. But seriously, your grandpa must be worried sick about you. You’ve probably got him so anxious, his ghost’s still wandering around. How’s he supposed to rest in peace? Your grandpa’s too old to get this much grief.”

His words were harsh, but there was something gentle about the way Akiba spoke them. Because of their shared connection to Natsuki Books, Akiba had a soft spot for the younger boy and his hikikomori shut-in tendencies. Even at school, he’d sometimes stop Rintaro for a quick chat. Now his concern was obvious; Akiba had dropped by the bookshop just to check in on him.

Akiba watched Rintaro, who remained tight-lipped. Eventually, Akiba broke the silence.

“So I guess you’ll be moving.”

“I suppose so,” said Rintaro, without taking his eyes off the bookshelves. “I’m going to move in with my aunt.”

“Where does she live?”

“I don’t know. Before my grandpa died, I’d never met her.”

The tone of Rintaro’s voice never changed; it was impossible to get a read on him.

With a slight shrug of the shoulders, Akiba dropped his gaze to the books he’d put on the counter.

“Is that why you’re having a closing sale?”

“Yes,” Rintaro said. 

“Pity. This bookshop’s collection is one of a kind. These days you rarely come across stuff like a whole set of Proust in hardcover. I finally found those volumes of Romain Rolland’s The Enchanted Soul I was looking for here.”

“Grandpa would be happy to hear that.”

“If only he was here to hear it, it would have made his day! You know, being your friend helped me get my hands on so many great books. And now you’re going to move.”

Akiba’s bluntness was his way of expressing concern. Rintaro didn’t know the right way to respond, so he just stared over at the wall where there was a huge pile of books. Even for a secondhand bookshop, it was amazing that they could stay in business with the kinds of books they carried, most of which were far from the current trend, and many of which were out of print. Akiba’s compliments about the bookshop were not only said to be kind to Rintaro—there was a lot of truth in them.

“When are you moving?” Akiba asked.

“Probably in about a week,” Rintaro replied.

“‘Probably’? Vague as usual!”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t have any choice anyway.”

“I guess not.”

Akiba shrugged again and looked up at the calendar that hung behind the counter.

“Next week’ll be Christmas. That’s rough.”

“I don’t really care about Christmas. Unlike you, I don’t have any special plans.”

“Thanks for reminding me. Yeah, my schedule sure keeps me busy. It’s packed. You know, one of these years I’d really like to try staying up to see Santa Claus on my own watch.”

Akiba cracked up laughing, but Rintaro didn’t.

“Oh really,” he replied quietly.

Akiba pulled a face and sighed.

“I guess if you’re moving, there’s no point in making an effort to go to school, but don’t you think you should leave on a good note? There are people in your class who worry about you, you know.”

He glanced at the pile of printouts and the notebooks on the counter. Akiba hadn’t brought them; a little earlier, Rintaro’s class president had dropped them off.

Her name was Sayo Yuzuki, and she lived nearby. She’d known Rintaro since primary school. She was a strong, no-nonsense type and not particularly close with the silent, hikikomori Rintaro. When she’d turned up at the shop and seen Rintaro staring blankly at the shelves, she let out a pointed sigh.

“You look like you don’t have a care in the world. Guess the hikikomori life’s treating you well, huh? You doing okay?”

Rintaro had shrugged. Sayo frowned, then had turned to Akiba instead.

“Should you really be hanging around here? The basketball club were all looking for you.”

She then turned and strode right out of the shop.

She was completely unafraid to be direct with an older boy. That was typical Sayo Yuzuki; it was her way of showing that she cared. Rintaro admired her for it.

“Your class rep is always so driven,” Akiba remarked. “She must feel responsible for you. She didn’t need to bring you your homework herself . . .”

Though Sayo didn’t live far away, Rintaro realized it still must’ve been a pain to go out of her way when the season was cold enough to see your own breath. 

“You can have those for six thousand yen,” he said, finally getting to his feet. Akiba raised an eyebrow.

“That’s kind of pricey for a closing sale.”

“Ten percent off. Can’t do more than that. These are literary masterpieces that you’re buying.”

“Classic Natsuki,” Akiba said, laughing. He pulled several notes from his wallet and grabbed his scarf and gloves from the counter. As he secured his bag over his shoulder, he added:

“Come to school tomorrow.”

And with his trademark cheerful smile, Akiba left the shop.

Natsuki Books was thrown into silence. Beyond the door the sunset gave off a reddish glow. In the corner, the heater, almost out of paraffin, was beginning to complain.

It was about time to go upstairs and make some dinner. Even when his grandfather had been alive, it had been Rintaro’s job, so it wasn’t a big deal.

And yet, Rintaro remained motionless, staring at the shop door.

The sun sank lower in the sky, the heater gave out, and cold air began to fill the shop. Still, Rintaro didn’t move.

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