Marley walked the beach with her father, skipping behind him in his footprints, her five-year-old feet barely filling the space between his heel and arch. Her blonde curls, the same ones that he had once possessed, tickled her cheeks as the autumn wind wrapped itself around the pair. She and her daddy always spent Saturdays together. As a stay-at-home mom, her mother liked a few hours to herself on the weekends. So Saturday morning belonged to Marley and Dad. But this Saturday was different. Her daddy didn’t chase her to where the icy waves lapped at her toes, or help her find seashells alone the shoreline. He walked a few paces ahead of her, hands in his pockets and head pointed towards the sand, while his daughter trailed behind.
“Daddy, did you see all those shells by that rock? There was a purple one there! Can I go look at it?”
Her father stumbled as the girl’s voice broke his silence. “Huh? Sure, honey, let’s take a look,” he murmured as he redirected his path to follow his daughter. He memorized every capricious movement, from the bouncing of her locks to the spry steps of her tiny feet, like a gazelle running through the Serengeti. He would miss her when he left.
They reached her destination and Marley promptly collapsed to her knees in the damp sand, forgetful of her denim pants. It’s a short drive home, thought her father, and I’ll just put the heat on in the car so she doesn’t catch cold. “Daddy, look!” Marley squealed as she thrust a handful of sand and bits of shell towards her father.
“That’s beautiful, baby,” he crooned. He wondered how much she understood of him returning to Iraq. Both he and her mother had given her the news over dinner one night, only after cooking her favorite meal of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese with ketchup. She knew that Daddy was leaving for a long time to do his job, but he would come home to be with her again. The last time he went, she had been nine months old and, though there was little explanation to give her then, he had missed her first steps. He wondered what he would miss this time.
“Daddy,” Marley’s voice contained a note of concern as she wiped her sandy hands on her moist jeans. “Daddy, when you leave, who will take me to the beach?” Her father sighed, but quickly created a small smile.
“Baby girl, I’m sure your mom would love to take you. And when I get back, it’ll be summer time and we can go every week. You’ll even be able to go swimming.” Marley thought this over for a minute, but suddenly her eyes grew wide.
“But Daddy… what happens if you don’t come back?”
Kids, he thought. They always seem to know more than you. He looked at the girl, his only child, small and helpless, and knew why he had to go back. But he had not been ready for this question and all he could do right now was be her father, not her soldier. So he scooped his baby up, just like he had done on the day she was born, and held her tight while he still could.