As usual, Fujita-san was in the kitchen when Ami got home from juku (cram school). Fujita-san’s usual routine was to clean the house, serve Ami dinner, and leave. They didn’t wait for Ami’s mother. Now that Ami was older, her mother didn’t bother calling ahead to say she’d be late.
The smell of curry scented the air. Fujita-san never stooped to cooking curry with store-bought roux cubes. She made the sauce from scratch, adding cubed sirloin tips sautéed with shiitake and seasoned with coriander, a touch of fresh ginger, and plenty of chili powder.
Ami called out a customary “Tadaima!” when she stepped into the sunken front foyer (the genkan). She followed the sweet, spicy aroma to the kitchen. Fujita-san cast a cheerful glance over her shoulder. “Ah, Ami Ojô-san.”
The way Fujita-san insisted on calling her “Miss Ami” made her feel like a character in an NHK costume drama. Her mother’s aristocratic roots followed her everywhere, except among her own relatives. Ami would never be anything but her father’s daughter to them.
“How was school today?”
“My homeroom class is getting a new transfer student.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
Ami seriously doubted Fujita-san listened to anything she said during these five-minute conversations. One of these times she was going to answer, “I skipped school and robbed a bank instead. Pack your bags and grab your passport. We’re flying to Brazil.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Fujita-san would say.
Ami sat down at the table. Fujita-san served her like she was eating at a fine restaurant, though not without shaking her head at the portions Ami demanded, wondering aloud where a little thing like her kept her hollow leg.
Ami clapped her hands together and intoned “Itadakimasu!” before digging in. “It’s delicious,” she exclaimed. She never had to prevaricate about the quality of Fujita-san’s cooking.
While Ami ate, Fujita-san tidied up around the kitchen. She ducked into the cloakroom to collect her bag, pausing on her way out to say, “I filled the o-furo.”
“Thank you!” Ami called after her.
Like reciting lines in a play. Some improvising here and there, but no pressing need to concoct meaningless patter on the spur of the moment.
When she’d finished eating, Ami washed the dishes, poured herself a glass of iced tea, and watched the rest of whatever nature program was on NHK’s ETV channel. She turned off the television, turned on the o-furo, and went upstairs to her room to finish her homework.
A car pulled up to the curb outside the house. From the sound of the engine and the wheels on the road, Ami could tell it was a large, expensive model. Her mother’s pint-sized subcompact was parked in the driveway when Ami got home. Her mother always took the train to work.
Ami dimmed the light and cracked open the blinds. From her second-floor window, she could see over the fence into the street. A dark blue Lexus sat there purring like a contented cat. Through the open car window came a pale blue electronic glow, the driver checking his smart phone.
It was past dusk. The darkness made no difference. Ami relaxed and let her eyes open wide. The shadows lightened. The contrast deepened. Details stood out in crisp black and white, except for warm-blooded animals that radiated an eerie infrared glow. Like her hearing, her hair, and her sense of smell, seeing in the dark was one of those talents she kept to herself, because she was pretty sure nobody else had it.
A radiant splotch the approximate size of a basketball squirmed in the front passenger’s seat. A dog, Ami realized and stifled a giggle.
The driver—a trim and prim middle-aged man in a pinstriped suit—patted the dog and opened the car door. He approached the driveway, stopped and turned. Ami followed his gaze.
Her mother came around the corner from the train station. She had her laptop bag slung over her right shoulder, her attaché case in her other hand. Her powder gray pant suit glowed like a radioactive ghost in the glare of the headlights. Ami blinked. Her vision returned to normal.
“Ah, Tokudaiji-san,” said the driver of the Lexus.
“Sekigami,” her mother corrected him.
Her mother insisted that Ami use the family name just as insistently as she stuck to her married name, even though Ami’s parents had been divorced for almost as long as Ami had been alive.
“Sekigami-san,” the man repeated, as if it was all the same to him. He presented his business card. I am Junzô Wada, general counsel for Tokudaiji Real Estate.”
She nodded. “Wada-san.”
Wada-san handed her a manila folder. Ami’s mother hesitated, took the folder, opened it, and glanced at the top document. She looked up, clearly caught off guard by its contents.
“Yes,” Wada-san said with well-oiled affability. “The papers are in order. Your family only wants what is best for your daughter. It stands to reason that we should put aside any obstacles that might hinder achievement of our mutual interests.”
What’s best for me? Ami wondered to herself. The way he said it sounded more like whatever was good for the Tokudaiji clan was good for him.
Her mother nodded, more cautiously this time. She opened the folder again as if to confirm the veracity of what she’d read the first time.
“Please, examine the file at length. Everything should be in order. But feel free to contact me if you have any questions.”
“That I will.”
They bowed to each other. Her mother continued onto the house. Wada-san got into his car. Ami was about to run downstairs to meet her at the door when she caught a glint of light from outside the window, the hum of a different engine. The new arrival parked out of view, hidden behind the foliage. Wada-san got out of his Lexus in a determined fashion and met the driver as soon as he opened the car door.
“Now, now, Harada-san,” Wada-san said, as if calming a fractious child. “You shouldn’t be here. Conflict of interest and all. There’s no forcing things like this. Patience, patience. She’ll come around.”
The front door opened and closed. Ami heard her mother taking off her shoes in the genkan. Outside, the car’s cooling fan kicked on. On top of the hum of the engine, even craning her ears, she couldn’t make out what the men were saying. The issue quickly resolved itself and the cars drove off.
Ami hurried down the stairs. “O-kaeri!” she called out.
“Tadaima,” her mother answered, and not in her long-day-at-the-office voice. She was beaming when Ami got to the kitchen.
“What?” Ami said, unprepared for such ebullience at this late hour.
Her mother bounced up and down like a little girl on her birthday. She held out the manila folder. “Your trust fund!”
“My what?” And then, “I have a trust fund?”
“Your grandfather set it up to pay for veterinary school.”
Now Ami was the one who shrieked like a little girl. Completely forgetting about the mysterious Harada-san, she ran over to her mother and stared at the magical manuscript. The document was crammed with legal fine print. The gist of it was that funds would be held in trust until Ami graduated from high school and then disbursed as a full-tuition scholarship.
Scholarship was the only word that mattered.
Ami knew—though her mother would never say—that a big reason she worked such long hours was to pay for Ami’s education. A scholarship would take a huge load off her mother’s shoulders.
“But why?” Ami asked.
Her mother said with a little toss of her head, “Oh, your grandparents must have finally figured out what a bright grandchild they have.”
Ami rolled her eyes. “No, really.” On a good day, her grandfather might bring himself to acknowledge that she existed.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.” Her mother smiled. “One of the Tokudaiji subsidiaries here in Osaka needs help getting some properties appraised. I guess this is a thank-you in advance.”
Her mother was an assessor in the Osaka City Finance Bureau. She shook her finger and said in a pretend scolding voice, “So no more excuses. You’d better study extra hard for your exams.”
Ami grinned. Count on her mother to work that perennial bit of advice into the conversation. She placed a saucer and teacup on the table along with a package of senbei crackers. “I can heat up some of Fujita-san’s curry,” she offered as her mother sat down.
Her mother sipped at the tea. “That’s okay. I ate at the office.” She put down the cup and rested her chin in her hand. “How was school today?”
“The same-old, same-old.” Ami nibbled at a senbei cracker. “The o-furo’s heated up.”
“You go first. I need to get started on these appraisals.”
Ami paused at the sink to rinse out her tea cup. “Well, don’t stay up too late.”
“Yes, dear,” her mother said, the sparkle still in her eyes, the smile bright on her face. She was rarely in such a good mood at the end of the day.
Ami sank down in the steaming water of the o-furo with a luxurious groan of contentment. Life was so much better when money wasn’t a freaking annoying part of the equation.
Now that she finally had a future, she truly wanted to be her own girl and not give a damn about what anybody thought of her. Like the rumors of a new student transferring in—who’d gotten kicked out of Omiya High for fighting a boy. If true, that’d sure shake things up a bit.
Ami pulled a strand of her hair around in front of her eyes. She should stop dyeing her hair. That’d upset the same-old.
“Yeah, fat chance I’ll ever have the guts,” she confessed to herself, indulging in a melodramatic sigh that came out in a stream of bubbles.