Without a Trace… Chapter 5

Steve pressed the decline button on the treadmill’s digital display and lowered the track to a five percent grade. Soaked in sweat from a five mile jaunt, he pumped his arms on a six-minute pace. Running made him feel young again. And stronger too, as he inched ever closer to his fiftieth birthday. He’d adjusted to his new phase of life, but not without some lessons learned. What he’d once achieved with a hundred sit-ups a day now took two hundred and fifty. A developed chest demanded a hundred push-ups instead of thirty. It’s a numbers game, he told himself, convinced the effort required to maintain an optimal level of physical fitness increased exponentially with each passing year.

He ran on odd days and swam on evens. Exercising in the early morning gave him energy and a chance to clear his mind.

Ignoring a cramp at mile six, he continued despite the dull throbbing in his shins. In a perfect world, he’d swim every morning at the community center, instead of running. But even at the crack of dawn, the eight-lane facility was always crowded with geriatric water aerobics pursuers and the high school swim team. For a short-term solution, the treadmill made the most sense.

He wiped his face with a hand towel as mile number seven approached. He felt the heat in his face and the taste of sweat on his lips. His back felt itchy. So did his scalp beneath his spiked, brown hair, glistening in the overhead lights. He kept his breathing at a steady cadence, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth in synch with the rhythm of his stride.

Carried by his runner’s high, he slowed his pace to appease the limits of his lower leg endurance. He pondered the essay he’d started the night before. Faced with a challenge he hadn’t tackled since college, he knew if he wanted to teach part-time at the university level, he had to come to terms with putting his thoughts on paper. The initial interview had gone well, and now a few paragraphs of simple prose were all that stood between him and a teaching position at George Washington University. With a military background and a graduate degree in electrical engineering, he had the tools he needed to instruct a class of graduate students. Putting it on paper was another issue. He could write well when he had to, but he dreaded the task, especially when a deadline threatened his chance of success. The Navy had given him strength, knowledge, and leadership experience, yet somehow failed to help him overcome his fear of putting pen to paper and expressing himself in words.

At the end of his run, he did a cool-down session before he stepped away from the treadmill and wiped his face with a towel. A swig of Gatorade from the mini refrigerator in the basement quenched his thirst.

Once upstairs, he heard Sarah’s alarm clock beeping and gave a token knock on her door. He pressed his ear to listen for signs of life. Why he bothered to knock at all, he didn’t know. She’d always ignore him, then oversleep and gripe about taking the bus to school.

Inside his study, he powered up his PC and tried to motivate himself to tackle the essay. It’s not rocket science, he told himself; although at times he wished it were. As a Navy diver, he’d learned the laws of partial pressure and the theories of mixed gas diving, concepts engrained in his brain from the onset of his career. He’d read them, applied them, and even taught them to other men.

“You need a shower,” Leslie announced from the office doorway in her robe and slippers. She kept her arms crossed, partially hiding the Hot Spot Vacations brochure.

Steve sniffed the air. “I had a good run.”

Leslie came in the room and touched his shoulder, blanketed with perspiration. “I can tell.”

Steve rubbed the back of his wife’s well-defined thighs from his cramped position behind his desk. He liked the way her skin felt supple, yet firm to the touch. “What are you hiding?” he asked coyly, his eyes fixated on the paper in her hand.

“Nothing.”

“You’re up to something. I can see it in your eyes.”

Leslie braced for her miserly husband’s response. “We need a vacation. I need a vacation. Someplace away from the cold and the snow and all the traffic.”

“I thought you loved the snow.”

“You know what I mean.”

Steve squeezed her ass gently and smiled. “Sarah’s out cold. We could start a vacation in the shower.”

“I’m serious, Steve. We haven’t been on vacation—I mean a real vacation—since our honeymoon.”

“We can’t afford it right now. Not on one salary.”

“Don’t think about the money. Just close your eyes and imagine us on the beach in Cozumel staring across the water. Warm water. We could swim. We could dive. We could lounge by the pool. No cold, no snow, no traffic…”

“Maybe this spring we can take a drive up to Maine and go sightseeing. We always talked about doing that.”

Leslie puckered her lips, molding her mature, sophisticated face into that of a little girl pouting for a new toy. “It’s too cold this time of year. I want sunshine and warm weather. I want to feel the sand between my toes. Don’t you want to walk on the beach with me and drink daiquiris by the pool?”

Steve leaned back in his chair. “The timing’s bad.”

“The timing is what it is. We’re not getting any younger.”

“What about the money?”

“We can pull from our savings. That’s what it’s for.”

Steve checked his watch and read 6:35 from the digital display. When the asteroid screen saver appeared on his monitor, the hypnotic hail of flying rocks drew his attention away from Leslie’s argument. He’d loved her from the day he met her a decade ago at a boat show in Annapolis she was attending with her ex-husband and six-year-old daughter. He wanted to give in to her idea and tell her he agreed. He wanted a vacation as much as she did, and with Sarah to contend with after school every day, he needed it even more. “What about my essay?”

“Take it with you. The change of scenery might inspire you. You said yourself you wanted a fresh start.”

“I meant in terms of finding a job.”

“And you’re doing that. Now it’s my turn to do something I want.”

Steve grumbled. “If I take this essay on the road, I’ll never finish it.”

“Why?”

“Because most of my attention will be focused on you.”

Leslie smiled. “You mean all of your attention will be focused on me.” She kissed him. “We could rent a Jeep and tour the island. Maybe visit the Mayan ruins.”

Steve took the brochure and examined the fine print at the bottom. The package deal included meals, diving, and a room at a five-star resort on the beach. “What about Sarah?”

“What about her?”

“We’d have to leave her with your folks while we’re gone, assuming they could take her for a week.”

Leslie frowned. “We’re not leaving Sarah with my parents. She’s coming with us.”

“Coming where?” Sarah asked, her eyelids barely open as she entered Steve’s study in her flannel pajamas and wild hair.

“Nowhere,” Leslie answered. “Go back to bed. School’s canceled again.”

Sarah turned away. “Yes,” she mumbled, “there is a God.”

Steve waited for Sarah’s door to shut before he lowered his voice and asked, “What about school? She can’t miss an entire week.”

“Why not? She’s in tenth grade. It’s not like she’s finishing her doctoral thesis. Her homework can wait until she gets back. She needs a break as much as we do.”

“What about your job?”

“I have three weeks of vacation time on the books.”

Steve wrapped his arms around her waist and looked up at her. “You really want this, don’t you?”

“Like you can’t imagine.”

“Then I’ll call the airline and book our flights.”

Leslie grinned from ear to ear, unable to contain her excitement. “I might have already done that. We leave on Monday morning.”

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