Without a Trace… Chapter 2

Steve Chambers sat at his computer and stared out the window of his second-floor study while snowflakes cascaded through the barren branches of an overgrown oak tree in his neighbor’s yard. Beyond the tree, a cloud of condensation brewed from the dual exhaust pipes on his neighbor’s yellow Mustang convertible. The baritone sound from the small-block V-8 reminded Steve of the ’68 Cobra Jet he’d driven in college before “emissions control”became a four-letter word.

He didn’t envy his neighbor so much as wonder how a single dad could afford all the toys in his garage and put two kids into college on a government salary.

He bumped the mouse to deactivate the asteroid field streaking toward him from the center of his PC screen. He tapped the space bar with his thumb and focused his attention on the word “essay” centered in twelve-point Arial along the top of the blank page. White space filled the screen. The same white space that had lingered there for more than an hour while he watched the snow blanket his neighbor’s yard.

He ran his hand through his light brown hair. A touch of salt and pepper above his neatly trimmed sideburns betrayed his age. His mother’s side had blessed him with a warm smile, which he imparted to his wife Leslie every night when she returned from work. From his father’s side, he inherited chestnut-brown eyes, soft and comforting at times, yet commanding in the presence of the men in his former naval unit.

He rested his wrists on the foam pad in front of the keyboard and pounded the keys with his fingertips. His thoughts poured from a stream of consciousness, bantering about in his head while the muscles in his fingers worked frantically to keep up. Tired of waiting for the perfect opening to present itself, he brainstormed random sentences, drawing on previous experiences with the hope of adding value to his essay.

He’d been alone in his study since breakfast, procrastinating by reorganizing the file folders in his cabinet. He’d sorted mail, paid bills, and reviewed a portion of last year’s tax return to check for hidden exemptions he might have missed. Anything to distract him from sitting in front of the computer and engaging in the final phase of his interview process.

With Leslie at work and his stepdaughter in school, he had the house to himself. The quiet time brought peace of mind and gave him the opportunity to collect his thoughts without distraction from the teenage menace disguised as a high school sweetheart.

He’d interviewed twice for a teaching position at George Washington University. Now his fate teetered on the outcome of a single essay, an essay he’d spent days mulling over in his head, waiting for the perfect words to jump out and plant themselves on paper.

His stomach rumbled from a light breakfast and a morning workout that had depleted his mental energy.

He got up from his swivel chair and stretched his arms. A head rush met with momentary blindness. Spending hours hunched over the computer had left his muscles tighter than after spending a night in a submarine rack.

He touched the half-scale reproduction of a U.S. Navy Mark V diving helmet he kept on an antique credenza. Decommissioned from service in 1979, the copper helmet with its hinged faceplate had been a gift from Leslie at a surprise retirement party the year before. He picked it up and blew dust off a section of copper tubing protruding from the back. The simple design of the awkward device had proved its mettle in 1939 when Navy divers employed the Mark V to rescue thirty-three crewmen stranded aboard the U.S.S. Squalus submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the foyer downstairs, sneakers chirped on the hardwood floor, followed by someone bounding up the stairs toward the bedroom across the hall.

Steve rubbed his forehead as Lady Gaga blared from his stepdaughter’s room. He knocked on Sarah’s door. “Could you turn it down a notch?” He knocked again, more forcefully this time. “Sarah, turn it down!”

The music stopped. The door swung open. At five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds, Sarah’s frame almost disappeared against the stocky build of her six-foot, three-inch stepfather. “Don’t go postal on me,” she pleaded.

Steve pointed to the headphones on the dresser beside a high school tennis trophy and an eight-by-ten photo of the varsity gymnastics team. He’d purchased a new iPod for Sarah’s sixteenth birthday under the mistaken assumption his message would get across. He knew a car would have met with less resistance, but he couldn’t justify spending money on a teenage driver with a license still warm from the laminating machine. “Are your headphones broken?”

Sarah grabbed the headset. “They hurt my ears.”

“How would you know?”

“I’ve worn them.”

“When?”

Sarah put the headset on and rolled her eyes. She inspected her ruby red fingernails to avoid her stepfather’s gaze.

“Did school get out early?” Steve asked.

“No. I just cut class to come home and spend quality time with you.”

Steve shook his head at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess with braces. He could see her bed wasn’t made and her desk was in disarray—both minor issues in the grand scheme of life, but acts of defiance nonetheless. “Why do you always take a sarcastic tone with me?”

“I’m not sarcastic. You just ask stupid questions.”

“Did you have practice today?”

“It was cancelled.”

“Did you bring the trash cans in?”

“Mom said I didn’t have to.”

“I asked you to grab those this morning.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m busy.”

Steve pointed to the cigarette lighter partially hidden behind a box of pink tissues on Sarah’s nightstand. “Don’t let your mom catch you smoking.”

* * *

Sarah dialed down the attitude. She could tell by Steve’s expression he had the advantage again. She hated that about him—the way he could see through her deceptions. “When’s Mom coming home?”

“Soon.”

Not soon enough, Sarah thought. “Katey invited me to stay at her place tonight.”

“You better ask your mom.”

“But I have to call Katey with an answer in five minutes.”

“Then she’ll have to wait,” Steve countered. “Besides, you have school tomorrow.”

Sarah pointed to the television on her wall. A news reporter stood knee-deep in snow. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

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