Margot cracked open her eyes, squinting at the morning light. A crystal dangled in the window, a “rainbow maker” she’d called it when she strung it up years ago, throwing colored beams of light over the room with a blinding effect. Slate blue and fiery pink clouds hovered over the mountains, promising a sunny start—if only she’d take it. She shrugged on her robe and shuffled to the bathroom.
At the sink, Margot leaned toward the mirror, inspecting her reflection. Placing her fingers above her brows, she pulled a smidge, smoothing the fine lines, then touched her hairline. A patch of pesky grays clustered above her right temple, threatening a skunk-like streak if she granted them free rein. She sighed, raking her hair into a tangled ponytail, and washed her face.
Charles appeared in the doorway, kissing Margot’s cheek as he handed her a mug of coffee. “Morning.” He pulled off his shirt, moving toward the shower. “Gonna be a hot one.”
It had been warmer than usual, even for California.
“Mom! We need to leave in five!” Noah called from downstairs.
Abandoning her coffee and bracing herself for the heat, Margot slipped on a sundress. She leaned into the puffs of steam drifting from the half-open bathroom door. “Have a good day!”
“Go make us famous!” Charles called over the stream of water.
Margot cringed inwardly. The joke was as old as their relationship, dating back to when she’d been enrolled in film school, when her final project in the student showcase had caught the attention of several industry professionals. Even Margot’s mentor and renowned director, Adwin Masterson, had suggested that, with her creative talent and flair for the craft, fame may have been part of her future.
Following graduation, Adwin introduced Margot to some of the biggest film executives. Her pitches were well received, and at first, she was thrilled. But as the pressure to finish the scripts grew, her creative flow seemed to wither; Margot lost focus. The calls dwindled until finally, her relationship and access to Adwin—and his contacts—melted into her own sunset of domestic life.
Charles didn’t mean anything by the joke. After all, she’d insisted she’d rather start a family than chase fame. So why, instead of contentment, did regret whisper within her? Even with rainbows and a charmed life, Margot wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and hide from the realization that time had passed her by.
Instead, she dropped Noah at school and made her way toward the local bookstore, where the earthy, vanilla scent of ink on paper greeted her, a salve for her harried start to the day. She needed the latest selection for her book club, and a full cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt.
As she browsed the new releases, she recognized his face before she saw his name. With his signature thick-rimmed black glasses and goatee—now gray—Adwin Masterson grinned from the cover of a hardback, The Time is Now emblazoned above his bald head.
Margot’s heart stumbled as she ran her hand over the jacket, smooth and crisp under her fingertips. Tentatively, she picked up the book and gazed at the cover, lost in thought.
“It’s a great read.” Margot startled at a deep voice behind her. An employee, shelving books nearby, smiled. “Harnessing your creativity and all that. He’s local, you know.”
Margot exhaled and nodded. “I know who he is.”
“You should check out the book signing.”
Intrigued and led by an indescribable instinct, Margot clutched The Time is Now and made her way to the register, forgetting all about book club.
Ten minutes later, Margot waited for her order in a neighboring café, where the aroma of freshly ground coffee calmed her. Grateful for the air-conditioned space, she pulled out her phone and searched for upcoming events at the bookstore. Sure enough, Adwin would be there next week, and his bio included a link to his website. She clicked.
As Margot scanned his list of accomplishments, memories of her college days played like a film reel across her mind. She could hear Adwin’s voice booming, just as it had in lecture halls and film sets so many years earlier. “Talent will only get you so far, people!” On impulse, Margot clicked on the “Contact” button, her fingers hovering over the text box.
You may not remember me, but...
It may surprise you to hear from me…
I feel like I have some explaining to do.
“Latte?” The barista had a sunny smile and tumbling, waist-length waves that reminded Margot of a Disney princess. A natural brunette, she had liberal, brassy highlights that striped her hair like a contemporary art project. She slid the brimming latte across the table, a heart expertly swirled in the milky foam, and beamed. “I have a class with that guy.” She nodded towards The Time is Now.
Margot reached for her coffee, her curiosity piqued. “Are you a film studies major?”
“Yep.” A sassy smile brightened the young woman’s face, unjaded by mistakes or age. “I’m still trying to convince my parents I’m the next Steven Spielberg. Everyone says it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, working with Adwin Masterson.”
It is if you take it, Margot thought. Instead, she said, “Could be,” and sipped her latte.
“Are you going to the signing next week? I haven’t read the book yet, but I get off work right before, so it’s perfect timing.”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Margot lied.
“You should go! Get your book signed while you have the chance.”
While you have the chance. The words echoed in Margot’s mind.
“I’m Kaia, by the way. If you need anything else.”
Margot smiled in thanks and, relieved at the silence, sank into The Time is Now in the cool quiet of the café.
Nearly two hours later, while Margot began the fourth chapter, a resounding voice shattered the peace. “Kaia! Word on the street says you make the best cappuccino this side of the mountains.”
The familiarity of that baritone lurched through Margot’s stomach, a voice from a bygone life. From her table in the corner, she peeked over her shoulder as a cool sheen of sweat broke out on her forehead. Like a phantom from her past, Adwin stood at the counter, chatting with Kaia.
Margot looked away, panic rising. What were the chances Kaia would try to make an introduction? She snapped her book shut and crammed it in her bag, yanking the strap over her shoulder. Adwin sat at a table near the door, scrolling his phone while Kaia packed espresso and frothed milk. Margot pulled her sunglasses over her eyes and moved quickly.
As Margot neared the door, Kaia moved toward Adwin’s table, cappuccino in hand. Spotting Margot, she said, “Hey! I was just looking to see if you were still here! Guess who—”
Margot zipped past Kaia. “Gotta run!” Just as Adwin looked up, Margot slipped behind him and out the door, leaving Kaia, cappuccino still in hand, watching her with a confused expression. Outside, the heat swallowed Margot as quickly and efficiently as the decades had passed her by, and she was damp with sweat by the time she reached her car.
For the next week, the sun’s gaze was unrelenting, baking the land like a hot film set and leaving a haze of heat in its overnight wake. By the evening of the book signing, oven-like winds—sundowners—rolled down the mountainside, shaking trees so that their leaves rippled and branches bent in all directions. The forecast promised relief by morning, a break in the hovering, sluggish heat, but the winds were the worst at night. Fire weather. More often than not, the winds blew in and out with little damage, but as Margot and every other Californian knew, the risk was real.
As Margot stepped into the parking lot of the bookstore, a gust of hot air raced in at her back, plastering the fabric of her dress against her thighs and whipping her hair into a fluffy nest. Scurrying towards the entrance, she spotted Adwin chatting with a group of students inside. Despite the heat, a chill of unease spread through her, and she remained outside, smoothing her hair. She considered turning around, realizing that she could be back in her car, heading home in just a minute or two.
“You came!” Kaia, her painted hair piled high on her head, smiled as she held open the door.
Margot had forgotten about Kaia, and her heart sank as she forced a smile. “Fancy meeting you here!” she joked, catching the door and stepping in behind the young woman. As Margot entered, another blast of wind ripped through the parking lot, howling as it pressed against the store's windows, slamming the door shut behind her with a thunderous clap that resonated over the inside of the bookstore.
Heat rose to Margot’s cheeks as every set of eyes turned toward the noise. Panicking, she scanned the sea of faces, of customers browsing while others lined up to get their signed copies of The Time is Now, her eyes finally landing on the table where Adwin sat, pen in hand, staring straight at her. Paralysis swept over Margot as his eyes flashed with recognition. She met his eyes momentarily until, inflamed with humiliation, she looked away.
Adwin watched Margot, even as the shock of the moment dissolved, customers murmuring and returning to their conversations. Finally, he turned to the next person in line, a hint of a smile on his lips.
An hour later, after Kaia had set off with a group of students, Margot still hadn’t worked up the courage to get her book signed, pretending to browse instead. As she was about to slip out, Adwin’s voice, deep and calm, stopped her. “I thought I saw a ghost tonight.”
The pounding of her heart filled her chest and inner ears, a hammering so strong she was certain he could hear it too. Inhaling deeply, she turned to face him, attempting a casual tone. “I was here last week, and I saw your book—”
Adwin erupted in a thunderous laugh, opening his arms wide. “Margot! It’s great to see you!”
Confused, she offered a cautious smile.
“I’m done here. How about a cappuccino next door? We can catch up,” he said.
Ten minutes later, Margot sat across from Adwin in the café, at the same table where she had read his book, decaf cappuccinos steaming in front of them. Through the broad glass windows, the trees whipped around in a silent frenzy.
“It’s lovely to see you again, Margot,” Adwin said, warmth twinkling in his eyes.
Her heart, which had slowed on the walk to the café, began to thud once more. “It’s been a long time,” Margot said, then added, “I loved your book.”
“Thank you. But I want to hear about you! How in the world have you been?”
She took a deep breath. “Well… I’m married. I have a son. Life is good.”
He nodded, his fingers steepled, waiting for more.
The silence stretched until Margot, her voice barely above a whisper, looked at her hands and said, “Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve made much of myself.” She breathed deeply, tears pricking at her eyes. “And I guess I’ve always wanted to say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I blew it.” She managed a small, sad smile.
His eyes were kind but, like a spotlight, gave her nowhere to hide. “You don’t owe me an apology, Margot.”
Unsure how to respond, confusion spread across her face.
He continued. “You think you’re the first student of mine with talent? I can open a few doors for folks like you, sure. But it’s your journey, not mine.”
Margot was unconvinced. Wistful, she said, “Sometimes I wish I could rewind.”
“And what would you do differently?” He sat back, his eyes resting on hers.
She laughed a little, then looked into her cup, where a small island of milky foam floated on the espresso sea. Return all those calls from agents? Finish a screenplay? Anything but nothing. Embarrassed, she shook her head, brushing away the foolish thoughts.
He narrowed his eyes, weighing his words. “I had a thought. Every year I use your short as an exemplar for students beginning their final projects. I can answer most of their questions, but not all.” He watched her face, trying to gauge her reaction. “What would you think of coming in as a guest speaker? You could talk about your process. We’ll do a screening, then a quick Q and A? The students would love it.” He paused, resting his arms on the table and leaning in. “You might, as well.”
It was a bold proposal, and her heart fluttered at the prospect of seeing her work on a big screen again. For a moment, her mind spun with memories of lighting choices, camera angles, and the editing process. Even better, to discuss it all with eager film students at the outset of their creative journeys made her heart run with possibility.
Just as quickly, the image soured, as Margot realized that, inevitably, someone would ask what she had worked on since graduating. She grimaced. “Don’t you think that ship has sailed?”
He gazed at her, silence settling again. Finally, he shrugged. “If you say so.”
Exposed and uncomfortable, Margot changed the subject to the local film festival and Oscar contenders, lightening the mood while they finished their coffee. As the café neared closing, Margot reached into her bag and fished out The Time is Now and a pen. “After all this, I don’t have my signed copy yet.”
On the title page, Adwin scrawled a note: Sail your own ship. He signed underneath, the bold, artistic loops of his signature just as she remembered. Before letting go, he caught her eye. “Invitation’s open.” As they parted, Margot’s heart felt lighter, yet not as free as she had hoped.
The wind rattled through the seams of her car as she drove home, much like the state of her mind. She craved a shower and a good night’s sleep. Instead, Margot found Charles in front of the television in a darkened living room, an eerie blue glow cast over his face and concern etching his forehead. “There’s a fire in the mountains,” he said.
No. Margot, shoes still on, dropped onto the sofa next to him, clutching her purse in her lap.
“It’s about thirty miles out. It’s these sundowners. If they turn our way, we may have to evacuate. We should probably have everything ready.”
Drained, Margot set her purse aside and moved toward the garage. A weight settled in her as she went to find the evacuation bags.
In the garage, as she scanned the shelving, a bin labeled “college” caught Margot’s eye. She stared, registering and willing herself to ignore it. Spotting the bags, she pulled them down, turned to walk away, then looked back. Barely believing—yet knowing—what she’d find inside, she set the bags aside and opened the bin.
Inside, her cap and gown were neatly folded over reams of essays and class notes, on top of which sat a document as neatly bound as the day she submitted it: the screenplay for her final project. “Hello, old friend,” Margot whispered, lifting it from the bin.
In the hours that followed, with the bags set by the door, currents of oven-like air ripped over the land, now carrying the pungent tinge of smoke. Urging Noah and Charles to sleep while they could, Margot monitored the fire. At many moments, evacuation seemed inevitable, only for the winds to change direction and the danger to recede suddenly.
As the burn area grew, Margot pulled out her screenplay. While she read, her grief for a lost life finally surfaced, trickling in tiny rivers down her cheeks. Each scene unearthed fresh pain over wasted opportunities, yet she could not bring herself to set the script aside. For the rest of the night, she kept one eye and much of her heart on her screenplay, and the other on the disaster that streamed from the television screen.
By dawn, the winds, like demons finally admitting defeat, surrendered with a few half-hearted gusts, before disappearing as suddenly as they had arrived. A stillness replaced the chaos that had tunneled through the night, and a gentle current of air soothed the land, allowing the flames to be contained and the snowy ash to blow away.
The storm had passed. Margot set her papers aside and pushed open a window. Streaks of pink and orange lined the horizon, announcing a new start. Reclining on the couch, she closed her eyes and relished the cool breeze whispering through the screen and caressing her face. Light poured over the mountains, the fiery colors blending into a deep, clear blue, and Margot’s heart eased, lifting with the sun as it rose in the sky. She drifted off, ready to embrace her dreams.
Maria Hanley began writing a few years ago. Her work has been published on Discretionary Love and placed second in the 2021 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition for memoir vignettes. She lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, three sons, and two cats. Follow Maria on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MHanleyWriter