“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” I urged my sputtering car to make the last few yards into the gas station parking lot. It died about five feet short of the gas pump. I sat there for a long moment, debating how best to fill the tank without looking like an idiot. The pump had a long hose. Maybe it would reach my tank. I climbed out, tossed my hair, and held my head up high as I walked up to the pump, trying to act confident.
I grabbed the nozzle and pulled it towards my gas tank, but the hose ended two feet short. I tugged on it, hoping by some magic it would grow to reach, but all I ended up doing was splashing gas on myself. I snarled, shoved the pump back in the cradle, and shook my shirt, but the fuel had already soaked in, perfuming me with the noxious scent of regular unleaded. I glared at the car, wondering if it would roll the last few feet if I put it in neutral. I climbed back in, moved the gear shift, then got out again, but the car didn’t budge.
Maybe I could push the car without it looking like I was pushing it. I pulled my cellphone out, walked to the back of the car, and leaned against it as I pretended to make a phone call, hoping my weight would nudge it forward. It did. About two inches.
A scream welled up inside me, but I held it in and glanced around at the people filling up around me. Most of them were preoccupied. The guy in front of me was facing away from me, staring at his phone as his gas pumped. Would anyone notice if I gave my car a push? I slipped my phone in my pocket, turned around, planted my hands on my trunk, and shoved with all my might.
My spirits lifted as the car started rolling then seized when it kept going. No, no, no! I hustled around to the driver’s side door and jumped in, but before I got my foot on the brake, my car smacked into the back bumper of the car in front of me with an ominous crunch. The driver whipped around at the impact.
My car shuddered one last time for effect then stopped. My head hit the steering wheel with a clunk, and I closed my eyes and prayed for a reverse button to start the day over. Or maybe the last ten years.
When I looked up, the driver of the car I’d hit was glaring at me. He berated me through the windshield. “What the heck are you doing? Didn’t you see my car sitting here?”
I took a deep breath, climbed out, and felt my body shrivel like a salted slug when I recognized him. Matt Markel. The boyfriend I’d dumped right after graduation so I could pursue my dream of being a star, unimpeded by a small town boyfriend with small-minded aspirations. He’d aged like a male movie star, his broader shoulders and the crinkles around his eyes only making him more handsome, and he was wearing dress clothes and a tie and driving a shiny, new, pearl tone Audi. He’d obviously done a lot better for himself than I had.
His scowl transformed into a look of surprise as he stared at me. “Layla Emerson? Is that you? It has to be; you look exactly the same as you did in high school.”
I wiped my damp palms on my jeans, wishing I was wearing Hollywood clothes instead, and forced myself to make eye contact even though his eyes were moving up and down my body. I resisted the urge to wrap my arms around my middle to hide the gasoline stains. I knew I still had a great figure, but I felt like he could see all my other failures just by looking at me.
“Hi Matt. Good to see you. Sorry about your car. I’ll pay for any damage.”
At my words, he leaned down to look between our bumpers. I winced and crossed my fingers. I couldn’t even pay my premium, let alone the deductible on my car insurance.
He rubbed at a smudge on his bumper then stood back up. “I don’t think it hit hard enough to leave a mark.”
I breathed out a sigh but then tensed up again when he raised an eyebrow at all my personal belongings piled up to the rafters in my car. “Are you moving back to Sweet Bay?”
“Just temporarily. I wanted a break from the drama of Hollywood.” I waved it off like it was a vacation and not a last-ditch effort to salvage my pathetic life. Then I grabbed the gas nozzle and shoved it in my tank. It reached just fine that time.
The pump required payment up front, so I slid my debit card into the slot and typed in my zip code, but it wouldn’t authorize. I frowned and tried it again.
Matt slid his hands in his pockets and gave me a little smirk. “Is that where’ve you been all these years? I thought you went to LA to make a movie, but then I never heard anything about you again. Man, I haven’t thought about you in years. You look good, though.”
I tried not to cringe at the backhanded insult. I thought I’d broken his heart when I left. Had he really gotten over me and never thought about me again?
I smiled and gave the response I’d heard from a million other failing actors and always rolled my eyes at. Hopefully he wouldn’t see through it as easily as everyone in Hollywood did. “I’ve been focusing on independent films. I think they have more substance than the cookie-cutter movies the big film companies pump out. What about you? What have you been doing?”
“Oh, I’m an accountant at Hinklestein & Schmidt. I married Becca Leeds, and we have two daughters.” He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open to show me a professional photo of him and his perfect family, posing in a meadow wearing matching outfits. Wow, he really had it all.
“Super cute,” I managed to squeeze out around the lump in my throat. I’d barely given a thought to having a family before, so why did I suddenly feel so jealous of his?
The pump still wouldn’t take my card, so I pressed the cash button, and an alert came up telling me to pay inside before I could pump. I sighed and stuck my card in my back pocket.
He gave the picture a sappy smile then put it away. “What about you? Husband? Kids?”
I shook my head and forced a smile. “No, I’ve just been focusing on my career. Maybe later.”
“Well, they’re the best part of my life. I hope you don’t miss out because you’re too busy with your career. I’ve got to get home to them, but it was good to see you again, Layla.” He pulled the nozzle out of his car and placed it in the cradle then put the cap back on his tank and gave me a little wave before climbing in his car. He drove off without looking back. He’d moved on with his life a long time ago, and my return had little effect.
I didn’t expect to come back to fanfare, and I was glad to hear my name wasn’t fodder for the gossip circles, but I never anticipated that Sweet Bay might have forgotten all about me.
After Matt left, I grabbed my purse, walked inside the station, and went up to the counter, sliding my card to the cashier. “The pump didn’t want to take my card.”
The pimply teenager swiped my card, tapped it against his peeling lip while he waited, then handed it back to me. “Sorry. Declined. The machine automatically charges $27 before you pump, so it won’t take your card if you don’t have that much in your account.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded and mortified. Did I really have less than $27 in my bank account? I put my purse down on the counter and rummaged through my wallet, digging out the only bill. I never paid cash for anything, so all I had was $20. I handed the bill to the teenager. “Can you put that on pump 5?”
He took the money and turned towards the register. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I blinked, trying to keep them from falling. “On second thought, I’ll just take $10 in gas.”
He nodded at me like it was no big deal then gave me my change, but I shoved it in my purse and dashed out of there, humiliated. After I pumped my gas, I drove straight to the employment agency. I wasn’t about to go home with no job, no money, and nothing to show for the last ten years of my life.
I’d never been there before; I had no intention of looking for work in Sweet Bay the last time I was there. But I recognized the address. My GPS said the employment agency was on Main Street, at the end of the strip of businesses that made up downtown. I rolled down my window so I could see better, letting in the salty, ocean breeze, and drove slowly, looking at everything.
My heart swelled up in my chest at the familiar sights. It had changed some since I’d last been there, but much of it looked the same. How had nothing aged? Even the red and white awning over Ginny’s General Store, which should’ve been worn and faded by now, was just like it used to be. They must’ve replaced it with an identical one.
The storefronts were bright and clean, with hanging baskets of flowers and cute displays in the windows. The trees planted in the sidewalk were bigger than I remembered, their trunks edging closer to the decorative, wrought iron fence posts protecting them. Metal benches sat between the trees, one every block. Sweet Bay really was a perfect, little town. I hadn’t appreciated it as a child, but now I saw what a gem it was.
I chuckled when I recognized Mrs. Cotlier coming out of the pharmacy. She was old when I was little; she had to be ancient by now. But she looked exactly how I remembered in a floral dress and roller-curled hair with a blue tinge. The scowl on her face told me that complaining was still her favorite pastime. Wonder what had her ire up today?
I found an open parking spot right in front of the agency, which kind of surprised me. I thought people might be filing in there to apply for all the new jobs. I locked my door out of habit but felt a little silly when the loud honk drew several eyes. I guess people in Sweet Bay didn’t bother with that. But almost everything I owned was in my car, and I was a stranger there now.
A little bell tinkled when I pushed through the glass door, and a girl I went to high school with glanced up from the front desk in the tiny space. She’d been invisible to me in high school — someone I ignored because she wasn’t popular or beautiful. But now she looked like she had it all together.
She’d traded her baggy, faded tee shirts for a yellow silk blouse and curled her boring, straight, brown hair into soft, shiny waves. She still wasn’t movie star gorgeous, but she looked pretty and put together. And a lot more in control of her life than I was. She had on a gold Pandora bracelet with a small heart charm, but no wedding ring, so at least she didn’t have that on me, too.
A flick of recognition crossed her face, but then she gave me a generic smile like I was a stranger. “Hi, how can I help you?”
“Tessa? Hi, it’s Layla. Layla Emerson? We went to high school together?” My words sounded more like questions the longer I spoke, like even I wasn’t sure who I was.
“Oh, Layla. Hi. What are you doing here? I thought you moved to Hollywood, or something.” She clasped her hands together on the desk in front of her and looked me up and down, judging me, no doubt. What did she think when she saw me? Did I look as out of sorts as I felt?
“Well, I’ve decided to take a break from Hollywood and come back to Sweet Bay. Get back to my roots, you know? I miss the small town life. Hollywood is so…” Competitive? Heartless? Cutthroat? It was all of those things, but I didn’t want to admit that. But Tessa stared at me with raised eyebrows, waiting for me to finish.
“Big.” I shrugged.
She gave me a strange look but didn’t press the issue. “Yeah, I suppose it is. So, you’re here… looking for a job?”
“Yeah, I don’t want to just sit around and do nothing all day. I need something to keep me busy.” And put gas in my car, but I wasn’t about to admit that, either.
I pulled out the chair in front of her desk and sat down, clutching my purse in my lap and curling forward, but then I quickly straightened up and relaxed my hands. One thing I’d learned as an actress was how to adjust my body language to match the role I was trying to play, no matter how I felt inside. I just had to remind myself to pretend this was a role.
“Okay, well, there aren’t a lot of job openings for movie stars, but let’s see what we can find.” She gave the tiniest flick of an eye roll as she turned towards her computer and started clicking.
I looked around at the pale green walls, vinyl flooring doing an unconvincing impression of hardwood, and simple, pressboard furniture. The space wasn’t impressive, but a diffuser in the corner put out a soft mist of lemon grass, and a variety of plants and nature-inspired artwork on the walls made it feel fresh and clean, like a place for new beginnings.
“Let me put some information in the system. You said your last name’s still Emerson, right?”
I nodded, expecting a question about whether I’d ever married, but I guess employers weren’t allowed to ask that.
I rattled off my Hollywood address, and she gave me a blank look. “Do you have a place here in Sweet Bay, or were you going to commute?”
I cringed, feeling like an idiot. “Oh, well, not yet. I guess you can just put down my parents’ address for now.”
I gave her that, and for the first time, I wondered how my parents would respond to my return. When I first left, they were always asking when I’d come for a visit. I came back a few times in the beginning, for holidays, and I spoke to them on the phone occasionally, but I hadn’t seen them in several years. I’d always been too busy chasing after my next role. Would they be glad to have me back, or would they take it as a sign that I’d failed?
“Alright, so what are your qualifications? Do you have a degree?”
“Uh, no, I didn’t go to college. I jumped right into acting.” It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time. I figured my looks alone would get me parts. When the opportunities didn’t immediately materialize, I thought about going to acting school, but that took time and money I didn’t have. Of course, that wouldn’t help me here, so it didn’t matter anymore.
“No degree. Any other certificates? Training? Special skills?” Tessa’s hands hovered over the keyboard, ready to type.
My own drifted back to my purse. I stared at my lap as I carefully smoothed the fringe hanging from the bottom of my woven bag. “Uh, no, not really.”
“Okay, well, are you good with computers? Do you know Outlook, Excel, Access, Quickbooks?” She rattled off names of programs I’d heard of but didn’t know the first thing about.
I knew Facebook and Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram. I could send a text or an email, but that was the extent of my IT skills. I shook my head after each, the movement eventually making me feel disoriented. Or maybe it was just the culture shock of trying to enter a world so different from the one I’d been inhabiting for the last 12 years.
“Can you type?” She gave me a desperate look.
I perked up at that, and so did Tessa. “I took typing back in high school.” I hadn’t used anything but my thumbs since I got my first cell phone, so I didn’t know how good I’d be at it anymore, but typing was like riding a bike, right? You never really forgot how to do it.
Tessa let out a soft, relieved sigh and added that one, tiny skill to my microscopic list of qualifications. Then she folded her hands on her desk and turned back to look at me. “So, what are you good at, Layla?”
I quickly dropped my eyes and stared at the ground for a long moment then shrugged, and it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, pressing me into the floor.
“Just acting, I guess.” But I wasn’t that good at that, either, was I? If I was, I wouldn’t be there, a 30-year-old has-been. Or more like a never-was.
When I looked up, Tessa was trying her best to hold onto a pained smile. “Why don’t we do a skills assessment test and see where your strengths are, okay?”
“Sure, that sounds good.” Maybe it would uncover some special abilities I didn’t know I had. Hopefully it wouldn’t confirm what I suspected, that I didn’t have anything to offer an employer besides a talent for pretending to be something I wasn’t.
Tessa stood up and moved over to a small desk tucked in the back of the space. It had room for a computer monitor and a mouse but not much else. I hovered behind her as she started up the assessment program. Then she stood up and gestured for me to take the chair. “This should take you about 20 minutes. Take your time; there’s no rush.”
I sat down and took a deep breath of fresh, lemony-scented air then started answering questions. They weren’t too hard, but the process reminded me of the aptitude tests I’d taken in school, and it made me nervous to think about how my score would compare to others. I never thought of myself as dumb, but school wasn’t important to me. I drifted through high school, blinded to everything else by the bright lights of Hollywood.
I was contemplating how an abstract shape would look if I rotated it 90 degrees when a ringing phone knocked me out of my concentration. Tessa answered then listened for a long time as the person on the other end complained. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but the office was so small, I couldn’t help but overhear Tessa’s side of the conversation.
“Hi, sir. I’m sorry to hear that. No, I didn’t tell Leanne that the job included childcare. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”
The voice on the line ranted a bit more. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was obviously upset. Tessa glanced at me with a grimace on her face. I stared at the computer and tried to pretend I was so caught up in my quiz that I was oblivious to the situation.
Tessa turned back around and lowered her voice. “Yes, sir. I understand you have a deadline. Unfortunately, I don’t have any other candidates for the position at this moment.”
I perked up at that and turned to stare at Tessa’s back. What was the job? If he was desperate, maybe he’d consider me. But then I remembered I had almost no practical skills or experience. It didn’t matter how desperate he was; he wouldn’t want someone who couldn’t do the job.
“Yes, sir, I understand the position is entry-level. But I don’t have anyone that would be interested in that position, even at the higher pay rate.”
I couldn’t help myself, I jumped up, knocking my chair backwards. “I’m interested.”
Tessa spun her chair around to look at me then put her hand over the mouthpiece. “I don’t think this would be a good job for you.”
I scowled. She barely knew anything about me. Just because I didn’t know how to use Excel didn’t mean I was totally incompetent. An entry-level job shouldn’t be that hard. “You don’t think I could handle it?”
Tessa made a face I couldn’t quite decipher. “It’s not that, it’s just—”
The voice on the phone barked loud enough for me to hear it. “You have a candidate there who’s interested? Are you trying to sabotage me, Tessa? I know this town doesn’t want the resort, but I thought we agreed to work together on this!”
Tessa pressed the phone against her breast. “The job is at the new resort that Calvin Montgomery is building. You’d be his personal assistant.”
Calvin Montgomery was building the resort? No wonder no one wanted to work there. But I was desperate, and I had a feeling that might be the only job I could get. Was I desperate enough to work for Calvin Montgomery?