Without a Trace… Chapter 3

With the benefit of an early leave policy and the nod from a generous boss, Leslie Chambers left the parking lot in the federal building on Constitution Avenue in time to see construction workers place orange cones along the center of the right hand lane. The effort slowed traffic in all directions, leaving her with no choice but to stay in the left lane and drive her 2005 Camry two blocks out of her way.

She circled back for an hour, inching her way through snow-covered roads jammed until she found the interstate entrance and a ten-mile stretch of highway resembling a giant parking lot.

The road felt slick beneath the set of new Bridgestones as she merged into traffic, ignoring the hostile stares and occasional obscene gestures from other drivers. In front of her, the driver of an early model F-150 jockeyed for position around slower vehicles while an old Camaro with Maryland plates drifted sideways.

She checked the radio for a traffic report and smacked her hand on the steering wheel. A sea of brake lights swept across all lanes of traffic. The inevitable beltway bog-down had struck again. More than forty miles from home, she tapped the brakes to stop behind a dump truck hauling sand. She stared over the concrete barrier separating the outer loop of the beltway from the inner lanes hugging the perimeter of Washington D.C. and saw every lane of traffic moving in the opposite direction, not fast, but moving. She mumbled obscenities under her breath as an orange VDOT truck plowed a path for the traffic across from her.

She kept her foot on the brake and lowered the sun visor to check her makeup in the vanity mirror. Her button nose beckoned for a little powder and her lipstick looked dry.

She took her compact from her purse and applied a touch-up to look good for Steve. Then she adjusted the vent to blow air at her legs while a Subaru sedan cut between her car and the dump truck in front. She took her foot off the brake and continued in the stop-and-go traffic plaguing the interstate for miles. In her rearview mirror, a young driver in a Lexus 400 flirted with his eyes. Dressed in a purple tie, a black leather jacket and gold necklace, he swayed to the music thumping from a pair of subwoofers in his trunk.

She switched the intermittent wipers from slow to fast while the engine purred beneath the hood. She had plenty of gas and no room to drive. She wanted to lay on the horn and blast her frustration at the cars in front of her, but the effort would prove futile. And for all the noise and anger, she’d still be sitting in the same traffic in the same lane on the same side of the gridlocked road.

A stick of gum from her purse provided a mild distraction. Chewing the sugar-free spearmint erased the aftertaste from her last cup of coffee at work. An attempt at blowing a bubble produced a crack from the gum’s tiny air pocket she’d formed with her tongue. Her legs itched from the pantyhose she wore underneath her wool skirt. Her bra strap chafed her shoulders. Her lower back ached from sitting in the same cramped position.

Tired of negotiating the brake pedal in three-inch heels, she slipped off her dress shoes and worked the pedals in her stockinged feet.

The gum’s flavor disappeared along with what remained of her patience, leaving a bland taste on her tongue and her psyche. She craved something more, something to keep her hands occupied.

Don’t go there

But the seed was planted.

Subdued for the last few months, the once-dormant voice she’d worked so hard to suppress now emerged like an evil twin from somewhere in her subconscious mind; a place where the Marlboro Man liked to hide.

She turned the heat down and cracked a window. The icy air sent a chill through her body, a chill encouraging her to light a cigarette. And as much as she tried to fight the urge, she couldn’t.

She’d weaned herself from the patch two months ago. Six months prior, she’d stopped chewing the nicotine gum her doctor had prescribed for her, on account of how it upset her stomach.

She tapped the steering wheel with her nails. Sitting in traffic for hours was nothing new to her. It was an act she’d performed a thousand times before. But today was different. The stress was worse, and her resistance waned before she rummaged through her purse and dumped the contents on the seat beside her.

The chances of finding a forgotten smoke were bleak at best since she’d trashed her last pack more than a month ago at Steve’s request. He’d gone ballistic about the doctor finding spots on her lungs. They’re not cancerous, she’d argued with him, but she knew he was right. Now none of it mattered as she clung to the notion that at least one cigarette must have fallen out from the pack and hidden itself beneath the clutter from her Gucci bag. Loose change rolled on the floor while she poked at a breath mint case, a tube of lipstick, pens, sunglasses, napkins, and a gold hoop earring she thought she’d lost. She opened the glove compartment for the half pack of cigarettes she’d hidden beneath the owner’s manual. Hiding cigarettes from Steve had been a cat-and-mouse routine since she’d started dating him.

She dug frantically, pawing over napkins, straws, and a tire pressure gauge, until finally, beneath the rubble of yellow Jiffy Lube receipts, she found the hidden soft-pack of Marlboro Lights. She took a deep breath, enjoying the almost religious experience as she stared triumphantly at the pack of cancer sticks. She’d found the Holy Grail; the golden chalice from the belly of a sunken galleon.

She could smell the aroma of fresh tobacco when she poked her fingers inside the pack. Then her eyes told her what her trembling fingers already knew: the pack was empty except for tobacco crumbs and a scrap of rolled notebook paper. She pinched the paper between her fingers and read the note: You’ll thank me later.

“Dammit!” she said out loud.

When traffic finally cleared, she put her foot on the gas pedal and accelerated to thirty-five miles-per-hour. She kept both hands on the wheel and merged near the Silver Spring exit. The Mormon Temple loomed in the distance like a castle on a hilltop, its rising spires indelibly cast against a backdrop of suburban landscape. Then the traffic slowed again, forcing another parade of red tail lights.

She stuffed her wallet back in her purse along with the rest of her sundry items, including a wrinkled vacation brochure she’d found on a bulletin board at work. Lured by the sexy marketing, she scanned the one-page flyer from Hot Spot Vacations, which featured Hollywood models posing as tourists on a beach surrounded by palm trees and turquoise water beneath clear, blue skies. The caption read: Come to Mexico, Where a Land of Enchantment Awaits You.

She imagined herself floating in the warm water, basking in sunshine while a tropical breeze swept over her glistening tan. She could almost taste the tequila in her salted margarita. She wanted a vacation. She needed a vacation. She deserved a vacation. Steve could dive, and she could shop. Sarah could park herself by the pool and stay out of trouble.

* * *

Steve climbed the basement steps two at a time and sprang for the kitchen as the smoke detector chirped from the ceiling. He grabbed an oven mitt from the counter and opened the oven to catch a blast of smoke in his face. He swatted the air with the insulated glove, his eyes burning as he tried to salvage the charred remains of a frozen turkey dinner.

He gripped the curled edges of the foil pan and dumped the dinner remnants in the garbage disposal to hide the evidence of his culinary experiment gone wrong, then flicked the hood fan on high.

The smell of burned food brought Sarah downstairs in her baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirt. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Steve said sheepishly.

“You burned dinner again.”

“I tried to save it, but the food was too far gone.”

“Did you set the timer?”

“I never heard it beep.”

“When’s Mom coming home?”

“Soon.”

“Can we get pizza tonight?”

“No.”

“Why not? You cremated what was left of Mom’s turkey.”

Steve retrieved two cans of soup and a box of crackers from the pantry. “We’ll go with plan B.”

“I’m not eating soup and sandwiches two nights in a row.”

Steve took the opener from the kitchen drawer and started on the first can. “I thought you had homework to finish?”

“Not anymore.”

“What about your geometry assignment?”

“I’ve got all day tomorrow.” Sarah watched Steve dump the concentrated soup in a shallow pan barely deep enough to hold it. “You know you have to add water?”

Steve glanced at the directions printed on the side of the can. “I know.”

“Is Mom having dinner with us?”

“Depends on when she gets home.”

Sarah took the eight-ounce ladle from the center drawer and handed it to Steve. “Why can’t we just order pizza?”

“Because pizza costs money.”

“So does soup.”

Steve rinsed the empty Campbell’s can in the sink. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

Sarah pointed to the vacant stove element glowing red beside the smaller burner with the saucepan. “You turned the wrong burner on.”

Steve took three cereal bowls from the cabinet above the dishwasher. “You can set the table.”

“We’re out of napkins.”

Steve pointed to the brass paper towel holder on the kitchen counter. “Use those.”

“We’re out of clean silverware.”

“It’s in the dishwasher.”

Sarah opened the dishwasher and pulled a spoon from the silverware tray. “These are dirty.”

“I thought you ran it last night.”

“No one told me to.”

Steve retrieved three spoons from the silverware holder and washed them individually in the sink. “You have to take more responsibility, Sarah.”

“I’m not your maid.”

“I didn’t say that, but you’re living in a house your mom and I are paying for, and as long as you continue to enjoy a life of luxury I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to help out from time to time.”

Sarah stirred the soup. “I wouldn’t call living in this dump a life of luxury. And I do plenty around here. In case you haven’t noticed, I also go to school full time.”

Steve felt his blood pressure rise. Instead of reciting his speech about how the real world works, he held his tongue and placed folded paper towels on the table. Twenty years in the Navy had taught him about maritime rules and regulations and how to cope with life at sea. He’d been to the bottom of the ocean and back. He’d rescued divers from the brink of death; salvaged crucial wreckage from downed planes; endured six months on a submarine without sunlight or fresh air. Yet everything in his service history paled in comparison to the trials and tribulations of raising a teenage stepdaughter.

Sarah brought the saucepan from the kitchen and placed it on a hot plate in the center of the table. She filled three glasses from the ice dispenser in the side-by-side refrigerator. “Do you think we could look at cars this weekend?”

Steve glanced out the kitchen window at the snowfall behind the screened porch. “Not in this weather.”

“Katey got a new Lexus when she turned sixteen. All my friends drive to school.”

“What’s wrong with the bus?”

Sarah shook her head. “Only freshmen and geeks ride the bus.”

“Why don’t you ride with Katey?”

“Because we’re on different practice schedules.”

“A car’s a lot of responsibility. You have to look at the big picture. Insurance. Gas. Tires. Oil changes.”

“I know, I know… Why do you always make life so difficult?”

“Life is only as difficult as you make it. I’m just trying to point out the obvious.”

“But everyone with a license drives their own car to school.”

“Who drives their own car to school?” Leslie asked as she walked through the foyer from the garage entrance. She dropped her purse on the sofa and hung her coat in the closet by the stairs.

Steve kissed her when she entered the kitchen. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me too. Traffic was a nightmare.”

“There’s soup on the stove if you’re hungry.”

“What happened to the turkey I left you?”

“Steve torched it,” Sarah answered without looking up from the table.

Leslie smiled at Steve. “Did you get any work done?”

“That depends how you define work and done.”

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