The high pitched screaming of Sarah’s alarm clock woke her up with a long stretch. She moaned, feeling as if she hadn’t gotten close to enough sleep during the night - but she couldn’t remember if she had any strange dreams that kept her restless. Anything other than the usual nightmare, at least.
She scanned her bedroom, looking for any sign of movement through the night, but all appeared to be well. With a heavy sigh, she rolled onto her side, and slammed her palm onto the snooze button, silencing the ear-piercing sound of the clock.
Laying on her back, staring at the ceiling, Sarah tried to think back to the night before. She could remember going to sleep, and having a dream about the accident like she did every night, but nothing else.
No time to rest, Sarah. You have a big day today!
With that thought, she rolled out of bed and stomped to her bathroom. A quick shower later, she sat by her dressing table, getting her war paint for the day on. Lexi, her best friend, would be there in twenty minutes to pick her up and drive her to Mr. Takamori’s house in the Hamptons.
As she applied the mascara onto her lashes, her gaze kept drifting to the corner of her bedroom. It was where the smoke always appeared, but never during the daytime. Yet her mind and her eyes kept going back to that spot, as though anticipating its arrival. No, it’s not that. I… want it to come back. Is it? What the fuck, Sarah?
The little black brush slipped out of her hand, leaving a long smudge on her beige shirt, and Sarah cursed out loud at the stain.
With a shake of her head, she darted to her wardrobe and grabbed another shirt just as her phone rang. Swiping to answer, she placed the call on speaker and began unbuttoning her ruined blouse.
“It’s me. I’m just getting us coffee and should be at yours in about ten minutes. You ready to go?” Lexi’s voice was muffled by the loud background voices of the patrons in her local coffee house. Smooth jazz, the hiss of steam, and strangers getting ready to start their day, unburdened by nightmares. Sarah glanced at the clock.
“Hey Lex, yeah, I should be ready. Just have to change quick.”
“It’s not a date, Sarah,” Lexi mocked with a hint of a laugh in her voice, “Mr. Japan is like, seventy. I know he’s rich, but eew!”
Sarah chuckled. “Double espresso with extra sugar. I need the pick-me-up today.”
Lexi placed the order, before coming back on the line. “Are we still on for Friday night?”
Sarah did up the last button on her red blouse and grabbed the phone, taking it off speaker and placing it to her ear. “You bet we are. And Lex, please don’t set me up with some weirdo from your work. The last time was bad enough.”
Lexi laughed. “I won’t, I promise. It’s just going to be the three of us. We can discuss the details in the car. I have the coffee, see you in ten.”
With that, the call ended, and Sarah tossed her phone onto the bed. Her hair still hung in long curly wet blonde strands. Her shoulders slumped and she grabbed for a brush.
Once she was ready, Sarah rolled the all-important plans into a long tube, checked she had her tablet in her handbag and found her apartment keys. The ping of a text coming in told her that Lexi was downstairs.
With one last look around her small home, she unbolted the door and made her way to her friend. The sights and smells of the city street banished the last vestiges of sleep as she opened the front door and stepped out. Typical. Lexi had found a parking space right in front of her building. Anyone else would have been circling the block for hours.
“Hey,” said Lexi once Sarah climbed into the passenger seat. She held out a steaming white coffee cup for her, and Sarah accepted it with a grateful smile.
“Do you know where to go?” Sarah asked, clicking her seatbelt in.
“I know how to get to the Hamptons, but once we get there, you’ll have to direct me to Mr. Japan’s house.”
“His name is Mr. Takamori. And be nice to him, for goodness sake! If he accepts my plans, I’ll be set for life.”
Lexi pulled into the morning traffic, not caring about the cab behind them honking at her, “I don’t see how. It’s just one plan. It’s not even that big. How is that going to set you up for life?”
“He wants me to design a complete rebuild of his summer home. If he likes my design and accepts it, I will have a very rich, very influential man to use as a reference. That is more valuable than gold in my line of work.”
“Well, I think he’d be an idiot not to accept your design. I’ve seen the 3D model you made for him, and I would kill for a summer house like that. It’s stunning and really unique. You worked so hard on it, I’m sure he will love it.”
Sarah placed a hand on her friend’s arm, “Thanks, Lex.”
With a smile, Lexi merged onto the highway taking them out of the city as Sarah took a sip of espresso and savored the strong beverage.
“So,” Lexi finally said, “Jake was talking about trying out this new place on 3rd. It’s some weird fusion place with a club on the roof. It looks nice. I thought we could go there on Friday night.”
Despite all the excuses Sarah had in her head for not going, she couldn’t stand Lexi up like that. She may not like Jake - in fact, she got the proper, old fashioned creeps from him - but Lexi loved him, and she loved Lexi.
“Sounds fun,” Sarah said, trying to put as much enthusiasm into her voice as she could. It was just enough, it seemed, because Lexi kept her eyes on the road.
Lexi and Jake met just over a year ago, and Lexi fell hard and fast for him. From the outside, Sarah could see why. He was a good looking man, with a body to drool over. He must have a really good job that paid well because he never said no to Lexi. If she wanted something, she got it. He was a gentleman to her, always chivalrous and sweet, but something about him made the hairs on the back of Sarah’s neck stand up every time he was around her.
Maybe it was his piercing blue eyes, that always seemed to study her, as though trying to look into her soul. Or how he watched her when Lexi wasn’t looking. Jake never tried anything with Sarah, always keeping his distance, but she sensed that he wanted something from her. That want prickled at her senses, right on the edge of perception.
They arrived at Mr. Takamori’s estate with five minutes to spare. Lexi waited in the car as Sarah grabbed her designs and made her way to the main entrance of the stunning home. Pale white flagstones described a path between artful rockeries, traced with moss. A pair of cherry trees bowed overhead, framing a doorway of cedar and glass. Sarah’s experienced eye took all this in, and, all unbidden, her mind added up how much it must have cost. The figure was shocking.
An elderly Japanese woman opened the door before Sarah could knock, and greeted her with a bow.
“Good morning,” Sarah said, giving a bow of respect. “Is Mr. Takamori here? I have a meeting with him at nine.”
The old lady moved out of the entrance without a word and gestured for Sarah to come in. The first time she came to this estate, this woman kind of freaked her out, the way she didn’t say a word, but now she was used to it.
She was lead through the house to the back porch overlooking the lake and found Mr. Takamori sitting in a white chair, watching two young boys chase each other on a wide expanse of lawn.
“Good morning, Mr. Takamori,” Sarah said, getting his attention.
He turned to look at her and smiled, “Good morning, Miss Weller.”
He stood and extended a hand to her in greeting. She accepted it with a small bow, having spent hours learning about Japanese culture. Anything to impress the man that could make her career. What had begun as a chore for work had become fascinating, as she learned about the rich history and mythology of her client’s homeland.
“Please, this way,” he said, leading her back into the house and into the sunny open lounge.
“I hope I’m not too early,” she said, wanting to be as polite as she could possibly be.
“Oh no. I have nothing else planned for today. Only to entertain my grandsons. Please, sit.”
They both sat around a low glass coffee table with legs made of what looked like driftwood from the lake. The effect was both rustic and elegant; a hallmark of Japanese design which Sarah had tried to incorporate into her plans.
“Tea?” Mr. Takamori asked, gesturing for the old lady to come over.
“Thank you, that would be lovely.”
“Motto ocha o kudasai,” he instructed the woman, and with a bow, she scurried off to the other end of the lounge.
Sarah focused, wanting this to go as perfectly as she could make it.
“I was able to work up a 3D model of the design for you to look at. It will give you a clearer view of what the house will look like once completed.”
She scratched in her handbag for the tablet and clicked it on as the woman returned with the tea. She set the tray on the coffee table and left without a sound.
“Miss Weller.” Mr. Takamori handed her a stunning cup with blue and white designs and a gold rim. “There is no need to show me this. I have already made my decision.”
Sarah’s heart fell, and she had to swallow down the lump. When a customer wasn’t interested in seeing every detail of the design, they weren’t interested in the design at all. She felt her dream take flight right out of the large glass doors overlooking the lake.
“I see,” she managed to choke out, holding the cup tighter so it didn’t slip out of her hands.
“This is a large project. It will take many months to complete, yes?”
She nodded, not able to meet his eyes, “Yes it is. Projected time for a design of this size is at least eight to ten months, weather allowing.”
She took a sip of the green tea, hating the silence that stretched in the elegant room. Her only hope now was to go back to the small projects that had kept her fed for the last three years. Bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms were fine, but they barely kept the lights on. And they lacked the satisfaction of creating something fresh, something with soul.
“When can you begin?”
Sarah almost choked on the tea, sure that a treacherous drop had shot out of her nose. Mr. Takamori chuckled, and she finally met his eyes.
“What?” She whispered, not wanting to get her hopes up.
“Miss Weller, I knew I wanted your design from the first day you presented it to me. You have worked for months on this project. You have spent weeks learning about my culture, and my home country to make it as close to what I want as possible. I would not have that kind of dedication from any other design firm. So I ask again, how soon can we begin?”
It took a few seconds for Sarah to find her voice.
“Um… As soon as you are ready. The house will need to be vacant, so the movers can come in and take all the furniture into storage, but I would say as soon as next week.”
“Excellent. I will make sure the first half of the funds are transferred to you as soon as the contract is signed, including half of your bonus, and the rest will be paid on completion, yes?”
Sarah nodded, feeling numb. “Yes.”
Mr. Takamori laughed again. “Smile, Miss Weller. Today is a good day.”
At his words, a wide smile spread across her face, making tears form in her eyes.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Takamori.” Sarah stood, extending her free hand out to the man.
Mr. Takamori stood, giving her a small bow before shaking hands with her. “I look forward to working with you, Miss Weller.”
After half an hour of discussing the finer details with Mr. Takamori, Sarah said goodbye and made her way back to the car. Those minutes passed as if in a dream; blurred by a curious mixture of excitement and trepidation. This was real. This was now. After the long walk back down the cherry-tree path, Sarah steadied herself for a moment with one hand on the car door. Set for life.
Lexi sat in the driver’s seat, playing a game on her phone as Sarah sank into the seat beside her.
“And?” Lexi asked without looking away from the screen.
“And… I got it.”
Lexi’s head whipped around to gawk at Sarah with wide eyes and an open mouth.
Sarah nodded and let a tear of joy fall, “Really!”
“Ahhh! Oh my God! Sarah, I am so happy for you!” Lexi’s voice made Sarah’s ears hurt but she didn’t care. The joy, relief, and immense self-pride in achieving what she set out to accomplish was too great.
“We need to celebrate!”
“We will,” Sarah said, wiping her face. “On Friday, remember.”
Lexi started the car. “Oh, you bet we are! This is amazing, Sarah. I am so freaking proud of you!”
Cherry blossoms blew away in the slipstream as Lexi’s Audi narrowly avoided leaving twin strips of rubber across Mr. Takamori’s immaculate driveway, then accelerated off down the tree-lined road toward the city.