November 4, 2021

“24/7,” A Short Story by Sharon L. Dean

“24/7,” A Short Story by Sharon L. Dean

A fog hovers over Market Street, catching the pungent salt air. I inhale deeply as I slip the keycard into the slot and punch in the extra security code. By mid-morning, the chill of New Hampshire’s early morning spring will warm to 70 degrees. Right now I could use a jacket over my sweatshirt. Inside feels warm, though I know the temperature is set for 60 degrees.  

The lights on the security cameras glow. On the far wall, the clock reads 4:05. Its face and hands are large, easy to read from any part of the room even by the people who take off their glasses to exercise. 

All around, posters clutter the legal-pad yellow walls. Bright images of bright runners and skiers and swimmers, the swimmers posed cleverly in front of the rowing machine. The place reeks of illusions. 

I’ll start with the treadmill, pump the pace slowly up until I hit full running speed. I’ll use the leg press, the rowing machine, and the elliptical, maybe the lat pull-down. Five machines, fifteen minutes each. Get out of here before the room swarms with men, sweaty even before they begin their morning workout. Before six o’clock a scattering of women will be warming up with free weights, their music droning in notes I can hear despite their earbuds. In a few years, they’ll be an audiologist’s dream. 

The same man I’ve seen for the last four mornings pants on the elliptical machine. He nods and smiles. I smell his sweat when I walk past him. He’s strictly a cardio man. Only his T-shirt varies. This morning it’s a tie-dye with an image of a guitar on the front. He must be a musician. A tattoo shows above his T-shirt. It looks like the head of an eagle, its beak a bright yellow against his pale skin. His hair is cut short and I can barely see that it’s blond. His face is beardless and his arms are so covered in the whirl of tattoos that no hair shows. Perhaps he’s a bike racer keeping his body shaved against the resistance of the wind. Today, like all week, he wears his gray workout pants. Stylish but loose enough and cool enough for a 4 AM workout.  

The rubberized floor squishes as I walk past the group exercise room. I double check the schedule. I’ve memorized the earliest classes. 6:00, Wake-up Aerobics. 7:30, Sun-up Yoga. 9:00, Step-up Zumba. The cleverness is pitiful. 

Inside the women’s locker room no cameras film us. Film me. Privacy trumps safety. No other women come to WWF this early. Wherever, Whenever Fitness. Of course they use initials. Whoever  thought up such an unimaginative mouthful of a name? 

I lay my gym bag on the bench and punch the key code on my locker. 0505. I’m getting too fond of the number 5. When I think about changing it, the old joke of my childhood plays in my head. Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9. Even a child should figure out that the smaller number can’t eat the bigger one. Daddy eats Mommy. Beats. Big eats small. Everywhere. Always. I push away childhood memories of my father, who was bulky like tattoo man.  

I’m here for a purpose. I pull off my sweatshirt and stuff my gym bag into my locker. After I see that it’s securely locked, I walk to the sinks and check myself in the mirror.  The look’s pretty good. Sports bra slightly lighter than my tanned skin. Definition in the muscles that I’m bulking up. The bronze titanium of my glasses complementing my hair. I check to see that my ponytail is secure in its scrunchie. 

My right sneaker is untied, so I put my foot on top of the bench and tie it. My sneakers are black and grey. Anybody’s shoes beneath anybody’s black workout tights. No pick-up, hook-up outfits at 4 AM in the WWF. 

When I leave the security of the women’s locker room, I see that the man has moved to the treadmill and is using a warm-up speed. I step onto the treadmill next to him and punch in my body weight. 118 lbs. I set it on a slight incline and start at a slow walking pace.  

He’s decided to be friendly today. “You always come this early?” he asks. 

“I like the quiet,” I answer, wondering if he’ll take the hint. He’s not bad looking, but I need to keep my focus. 

“So do I,” he says. “If we’re going to keep meeting like this, I should know your name. I’m Hiram.” 

He looks like he’s going to reach his hand to me. I think a minute and answer, “Rebecca.” I study the controls and push my speed to 4.5. It gets me into a jog. 

Hiram adjusts his speed to match mine. He must have added a steeper incline because I can hear him breathing heavily. I add more speed and again he matches me. 

Neither of us turns on a TV. Neither of us puts in earbuds. Only our breathing breaks the silence. 

Hiram. An old man’s name. Or something out of a Stephen King novel. He sounds New England. Maybe a local. His body’s tall and bulky, but he has no beer belly. I study the taut muscles beneath the tattoos on his right arm and shoulder, then turn my eyes back to the treadmill, hoping he hasn’t noticed. I look at my Fitbit, take the incline back down to level, and pump my speed to 5.5. I’ll go at my maximum pace for five minutes, then slow down. Again he matches me. 

He said he likes the silence. I wonder what he’s escaping? A nagging wife and too many children? I look at his hands. They’re enormous. And ringless. With all his tattoos, I wonder if he works at the Naval Shipyard. If he were a lobsterman, he should be out on the ocean right about now. I imagine that wherever he works, it’s loud. 

I spend my days in silence. I cook in my week by week rental at Hampton Beach. I huddle under a blanket on its shabby couch and read. I carry my easel to the boardwalk and use charcoal to draw faces that could be painted on the ceiling of the Duomo in Florence. Fear. Sin. Rage. The elemental forces of life. 

I slow the treadmill. Hiram reaches into the pocket of his workout pants and pulls out a handkerchief. Tie-dyed like his shirt. He wipes his brow, then folds the tie-dye and wraps it around his forehead. “Catches the sweat,” he says to me. 

“I never perspire,” I say as I walk to the leg press. The rubber flooring is soft beneath my feet. WWF is new. In a few months, the floor’s gray will be dotted with sweat. I sit at the leg press and cut back the weight from 220 to 120 pounds. I wonder if Hiram has used it. He’s next to me again, this time on the fly machine. I watch him set the weights. He’s humming. I think it’s “The Street Where You Live.” I smell the sweat that glistens on his face. He winks and watches my legs press in, out. 

When Hiram sees me finish, he stops his flies and asks if I want to use the machine. His polite voice is definitely New England. Maine or upstate New Hampshire. This time he moves away from me and sets up on the rowing machine. I imagine him rowing into the poster and diving naked into the water, his tattoos moving like fish. 

I finish my leg presses, then stand at the lat pulldown. I take out the pin and put it into the slot for 50 pounds. I count out twenty reps, then push to 55 pounds, and end at 60 before I reach my limit. I decide to skip the elliptical and wait for Hiram to finish with the rowing machine. He takes a mock bow and starts on free weights. He looks like he could bench press 300 pounds. 

I strap my feet into the rowing machine, set the tension at 2 and begin. The rhythm is nice. One in-breath back, one out-breath forward. Legs straight back, legs bent forward. The swimmers on the poster move closer and farther away with the rhythm of my rowing. When I finish, I walk past Hiram. He sees me glance at the camera. 

“Good to have security cameras, isn’t it?” he says. 

“It makes me feel safe,” I lie. The adrenaline that’s kicked in isn’t from exercise. 

“How about we go to a safe coffee shop and have breakfast? There’s a good one on Ceres Street. We can walk.” 

I hesitate before I say, “Yes. I’ll shower and meet you at the front door.” 

“Great,” he says. “Rebecca Whoever.” 

As I go into the women’s locker room, I smile. I get my gym bag and pull out my sweatshirt. I slip it over my head, put on gloves, and wipe down the locker the way I dutifully wiped down the machines when I finished on them. I return with my bag to the fitness room. The swimmers still swim. The runners still run. The skiers stay in their perfectly angled crouch. I smile at the camera near the men’s locker room. The weight rack sits to the right of the door. I pick up a 10 pound weight and push open the door to the men’s room.   

Hiram’s standing at the sink shaving. He smiles at me through the mirror. Before he has time to turn, I hit him on the base of his spine. I hear it crack. He turns and lurches toward me, his face a study in fear, pain, anger, shock.  

“Too late,” I say out loud as I bring the weight down on his chest. “That’s two,” I say, then count the others, “three, four, five,” all driven onto the face that looks like my father’s. 

I leave the weight on the floor next to him. No fingerprints, but it wouldn’t matter. Rebecca Landry, deceased in 2010, might be in the system, but I’m not. I step back into the fitness room and smile at the camera again. I open the door just as two women are about to push in their key cards. 

“Good morning,” I say. “It’s nice and quiet in there still.” 

“Thanks,” they answer. “Have a nice day. It’s a beautiful morning.” 

“That it is,” I say as I breathe in the salt air. 

If I hadn’t done Maine already, I’d head there and spend a day on the beach. Instead, I get into my car and drive to Hampton. The beach is empty except for a couple of early risers walking dogs. I turn right onto Ocean Boulevard and drive along the beachfront past the Ashworth Hotel until I hit D Street.  

Inside my room, I pull what I need from the cabinet. Scissors, blue hair dye, a pair of drugstore glasses, their adjustment so minimal I won’t notice much distortion when I have them on. I love my options in this era of multicolored hair. When I’ve cut my hair short, I bag the cuttings then dye what’s left. I put the hair and a few pieces of generic clothing into my backpack.  

I drive the rental car to Odiorne State Park. The only things moving here are the ocean and the gulls. I open my backpack and toss the hair and the dye into the Atlantic. I drive the car into Portsmouth and park it near the water at Strawberry Banke. I leave a purse on the seat. Inside are a few dollars, Rebecca’s driver’s license, the slip from the rental car. I get out of the car and take my new identity from my backpack, counting how many drivers’ licenses are left. Four. Enough for the rest of New England. Maine and New Hampshire are done. Next, Vermont where I’ll be Martha O’Hara. A little Irish for my complexion but the hair will mask that and the rest is close enough. 5 feet 5 inches, 121 pounds. Vision correction. I start walking toward the bus station. It’s three miles but I feel good after a morning like this. 

Martha O’Hara will take the bus to Boston, rent a car in the anonymity of the city, and head to Bennington, Vermont. I like the sound of Bennington Body Works. Exercise Safely. Any day. Any time.  

***

24/7

Sharon L. Dean grew up in Massachusetts where she was immersed in the literature of New England. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived and taught in before moving to Oregon. Although she has given up writing scholarly books that require footnotes, she incorporates much of her academic research as background in her mysteries. She is the author of three Susan Warner mysteries and of a literary novel titled Leaving Freedom. Her new series features librarian and reluctant sleuth Deborah Strong. In The Barn, Deborah solves a thirty-year-old cold case. The Wicked Bible, scheduled for an October 2021 release by Encircle Publications, brings Deborah to a college campus and a search for who stole a Bible and a letter from the library’s archives. The third in the series, Calderwood Cove, forthcoming in 2022, will bring her to the coast of Maine and a murder.

24/7
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