By Andrew Rodgers
There would be other opportunities.
At least, that’s what Melissa kept telling herself to keep the dark thoughts at bay. If things didn’t work out this time… well, could they even stay together? What little money they’d started with was gone, and the remaining options weren’t great. There were distant relatives and friends, but it seemed unfair to burden them. Parents weren’t an option. They were even more distant.
Melissa gripped the chipped coffee mug tighter and sipped her chamomile tea, now lukewarm. After a moment, she caught herself tapping her foot under the table. Nervous energy surged throughout the room. The late afternoon rain drummed steadily on the fiberglass roof. The floor below vibrated from the strain of the bilge pump keeping their rented houseboat afloat. Even the walls seemed anxious, packed with vibrant canvases exploding with colors and shapes. Nearly everywhere was motion. Noise. Turmoil. As always, though, Bailey was an island of calm.
As if on cue, Bailey’s collar jingled as he lifted his head and looked toward the door. With ears perked, he listened for a familiar sound in the distance.
It’s too soon, Melissa thought. Kellie needed time to make a sale.
Bailey sniffed the air, put his head back down on the rug, shifted his paws and sighed.
The light outside dimmed and Melissa shivered as the storm grew stronger. Most of the neighbors would soon move back to their condos in Florida for the winter. She and Kellie would be the last ones on the lake. Again. But only if they could raise the money for rent, she reminded herself.
Melissa turned on a nearby lamp. It was a battered garage sale find, like nearly everything else they owned. Except for their brushes and paints, that is—those were the only luxuries they’d indulged.
Melissa studied her hands. Rough and dirty. Unpretty. To some, at least. Cadmium lemon paint stained the creases of her knuckles and the crevices around her fingernails. Fortunately, Kellie never seemed to mind.
A smell caught Melissa’s attention. She moved quickly to the propane stove and got on her hands and knees to look underneath. Sure enough, the pilot light was out again. One of these days they weren’t going to catch it in time.
Melissa stood and scanned the kitchen counter. She found the matchbook under a small stack of unopened bills. She needed something else, though. In the tiny fridge, behind the milk, she found the half-eaten cupcake and plucked out the pink candle, shaped like a four. The blue zero candle had gone into the garbage almost immediately.
For the next few minutes, Melissa fumbled with the lit candle, lying on the floor, stretching as far as she could reach under the stove. Why were these vintage stoves so difficult? Eventually, the pilot light’s flicker returned. The houseboat didn’t explode. She breathed a sigh of relief, blew out the candle, and tossed it into the sink.
On his rug, Bailey sighed again.
This is ridiculous, Melissa thought. But there was nothing she could do. She could only wait.
The two had argued the night before. Maybe it was time to split. Kellie, ever the optimist, insisted things would get better, that their lucky break was just on the horizon. They’d started this journey excited, passionate even. But after all these months, with the rejections mounting and not a single painting sold, not even the portrait of the cow that everyone loved, Melissa found it hard to be enthusiastic about anything.
Her thoughts drifted to the duffle bag tucked under the bed she shared with Kellie. Over the past few days, she’d mentally packed it a dozen times. There wasn’t much left worth anything, though. Just some clothes and cosmetics, a laptop with a cracked screen, and some brushes.
Melissa didn’t even have a phone anymore. She’d been texting Kellie while walking along the slip when it fell out of her hand and into the water. For weeks, they shared just the one phone. Aside from each another, who would they call anyway?
The real question was what would happen to Bailey. He’d grown so used to them, and they to him. He’d simply wandered in the front door one day in the middle of summer, knocked over a tray of drinks and curled up for a nap.
Melissa walked over to rub Bailey’s ears and run her fingers along the fur on his back. It was slick with the oils of a lake dog who didn’t like baths but loved to swim.
Reaching to rub her own forehead, Melissa realized she hadn’t showered for a few days. Maybe she should wash her hair.
Then, through the sound of the rain, Melissa heard the slam of a car door. Bailey heard it too and lifted his head. Moments later, they both heard the familiar footsteps on the wooden planks outside. Bailey stood up, tail wagging. Melissa’s heart sank. It was still too soon. Kellie hadn’t made the sale. The rich collector who professed a love for “emerging art” didn’t like their work. It had been the last chance. Now they would drift apart and build new lives elsewhere.
The steps grew louder, quicker. The houseboat shook slightly as Kellie stepped onto the deck. Melissa held her breath. The door flew open.
Melissa knew immediately. Drenched from the storm and out of breath, Kellie’s broad smile and shining wet face said everything.
Tears welled in Melissa’s eyes. She rushed to Kellie. The two embraced while Bailey rubbed against their legs. They sobbed together, celebrating. It had all been worth it. Everything would change. But now, finally, on their terms.
* * *
Andrew Rodgers is a writer and filmmaker in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Our State, SOMA, and the Chicago Tribune. His film “Crooked Candy” premiered at the New York Film Festival and played more than 30 festivals worldwide.
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