"Wake up, Dad! We're almost there!"
Rance opened one eye, only to find his daughter's enormous brown eyes and cheerful face disconcertingly close to his own – which in itself was odd, considering the twelve or so hours they'd spent off and on in the air. In response, he squeezed the one eye closed again and began emitting rather obvious and obnoxious sleeping noises.
"You're silly, Daddy!" his daughter giggled and patted him affectionately on the cheek. "Now, come on. You need to be ready for when they land the plane."
Glancing past his daughter and out her window, he could see the myriad blues and greens of the Pacific give way to beautiful, white sand beaches and beyond them, the urban sprawl of Honolulu. "Anything for you, pumpkin," he replied, as he returned his seat to its upright position.
"Dad, I'm not a pumpkin." She scrunched up her nose and gave him that annoyed look she inherited from her mother.
He would have laughed if she weren't so darned cute. "Okay, sweet pea," he teased.
"What Sugar Plum? ... Sweetie Pie? ... Honey Bunny? ... Cutie-Patootie?"
She gave him the stare that all females are seemingly born with. And then, following the mandatory pause, she let out the customary theatric sigh.
"My name is Hailey."
She spoke the words slowly and deliberately, as one would to a small child or mentally challenged person.
Rance simply smiled at his daughter, leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Okay, pumpkin."
She tried – she really tried – to give him the stare again but to no avail. Within seconds, she was giggling again.
He knew why, of course. She was excited. Personally, Rance was just thrilled they would be spending the next week soaking up the warmth of the tropics rather than shivering in the winter wonderland that is south-central Illinois in March – but not his little Hailey. No, she was wired with near limitless energy because of something else. To her father, it was a long overdue and welcome sight.
When both sets of her grandparents, who'd generously paid for this spring break trip, offered her the option of going to either Disney World or on one of those fun, kid-friendly cruises – she declined. Nope, she wanted to go see the whales. So, there they were, about to land in Honolulu and, in three days, be on a boat in a channel off the west coast of Maui because evidently it is the absolute best place for seeing whales.
At nearly seven, his daughter knew more about the massive aquatic mammals than most adults. Goodness knows she should, he thought, given her bedroom was a veritable shrine to the beasts. She even had a huge poster of the biggest of them all, the Blue Whale, taped to the ceiling above her bed. The whales she was angling to see this trip, however, were the Humpbacks and she was all set to capture them with her new digital camera. He fully expected to see a photo montage of the boat trip blanketing the wall by her closet within hours of their return home.
For his part, all Rance really wanted at the moment was to find a nice seat in the shade and have someone bring him something cold and refreshing to drink.
At the mere thought of being somewhere other than cooped up in the middle of the plane, the tall, broadly built man stretched his long limbs as best he could. Flying coach was definitely not designed for people his size. Still, as long and cramped as this flight was, it was nothing compared to the one he had to catch back from Baghram about nine months earlier. Thankfully, he was able to quickly hitch a ride out on that C-17. Thirty-nine hours later he was finally home but his body complained about that trip for days, not that he ever did. The reason for the return trip was far, far worse than anything he endured in the air.
The pilot's voice, calling for the flight crew to prepare for landing, brought him back to the present. Just as the flight attendant began her own announcement, Rance glanced over at his daughter. She met his gaze with a huge grin and took his right hand into her two small ones.
The landing itself was uneventful – that is, if you didn't count Hailey's squeal of surprise when the wheels first made contact with the runway. The look on her face was informative, however. There was no fear there, just like at takeoff and on the other connecting flights – only the wide eyed thrill of pure adrenaline. She giggled and bounced repeatedly in her seat. When she looked up at him, Rance smiled and gently squeezed her hand. She smiled back and then turned to see what she could out her window.
Rance, for his part, silently considered what he'd observed – though it was far from being the first time. He'd been quite the daredevil and thrill seeker in his youth. Did that rush he occasionally saw in her eyes mean his daughter might very well follow in his footsteps? He could just imagine what his folks would say if that happened. "What goes around comes around."
He shuddered at the thought.
Still, they set him a good example to follow. "We've never wanted to put that fire out," his dad told him once after a particularly stupid motorcycle stunt he'd pulled as a teenager. "It gives you the passion and drive to live life to the fullest. But we don't want it to burn out of control either. Then you're no good to anyone. Use it. Don't ever let it use you."
His mother was not as eloquent but just as memorable. "Stop being stupid and use the brain God gave you!"
Both were important lessons to learn. Now he'd just have to think of ways to pass them along that hopefully didn't involve an emergency room, x-rays, stitches, and an orthopedic surgeon.
Once the plane came to a complete stop, the stampede of passengers began. Rance waited patiently, exchanging parting pleasantries with the gentleman who'd occupied the seat to his left. Hailey, on the other hand, was itching to go. She fidgeted constantly, tugging on his arm, and repeatedly urging him to get going. Rance, however, ignored it – with a smile, of course. There was no way he was going to try to keep track of her in the thick hustle and bustle of a crowd. When the herd finally thinned out enough, the father stood and made his way to the aisle.
After grabbing their carry-ons from the overhead compartment, he motioned for Hailey to move in front of him. "Come on, Miss Ants-in-the-Pants," he joked.
She, however, was not amused and gave him that annoyed look again. Fortunately, the greeters with the leis in the Arrivals Area soon had her smiling again.
Rance, for his part, however, didn't pay them much attention. Oh, sure, he smiled and made sure he said thank you at the appropriate times but he found himself too distracted by the peculiarities of the airport. For a locale with such a heavy emphasis on tourism, he'd expected Hawaii's primary international gateway to be a modern centerpiece with an inviting, tropical décor. Instead, it was a rather quaint, aging facility with a distinctly 70s look and color scheme. Oh, the civil engineer in him could see where they either had or were renovating it, but that appeared to him to be more of a facelift at this point than anything else. It wasn't bad but it wasn't all that good either.
As they neared baggage claim, though, one of the many large colorful advertisements caught his attention. Suddenly taken with an idea, he stopped short, playfully yanking his daughter back when she kept walking.
Rather than say anything, Rance simply motioned to the display.
Hailey's deep brown eyes, which grew as large as saucers, fixated momentarily on the brightly colored, backlit poster. "Oh, wow," she exclaimed, as she took in all the different images of people learning to surf.
"What do you think?"
"What? You want to take surfing lessons?" she asked, still staring at the pictures.
"I was thinking more along the lines of both of us taking lessons."
Her head spun so fast he thought it might pop off. "Really? Are you serious?"
Hailey squealed with excitement and gave her father an energetic hug, grabbing and squeezing him around the waist. "That would be so cool!"
He couldn't help but smile. "I'll check into it when we get to the hotel."
"Score one for Dad," Rance thought, silently patting himself on the back, as his little girl literally bounced the rest of the way to baggage claim.
Once they retrieved their luggage, the two of them were able to locate their hotel's shuttle without too much difficulty. In a matter of minutes, they were finally on the Queen Liliuokalani Freeway heading for Waikiki.
For Rance it was hard to believe they were actually there – and not just because they'd left behind all that ice and snow. As he took in the beautiful views of ocean, city and tropical island racing by all around him, he found himself overcome with a familiar feeling. The tears had dried up months ago, but this...
At that moment, he felt a gentle tug of the hand his daughter was still holding. Putting on a smile he didn't really feel, he turned back to her, only to see the feeling had found her, as well.
Hailey gave him a sad, little smile and then laid her head against his arm. "I wish she were here, too, Daddy."
It was the perfect day. The blue skies overhead were gorgeous with just a few wisps of cloud. The rhythmic sounds of the crashing surf mixed with the occasional shouts of people out for a day at the beach. And, to top it all off, the waters of Waikiki Bay were a balmy 75 degrees.
Rance was sitting on his surfboard, dangling his legs in those very waters and enjoying the moment among quite a few others doing the same, when his daughter paddled up next to him.
"How ya doin', Pops?"
One eyebrow went up in disbelief. "Pops? Really?"
Sitting up on her own board, Hailey giggled and then shrugged. "Just trying it out," she explained. Her smile diminished and brow furrowed, though, when she got a closer look at her father's face and shoulders. "Hey, Dad? You're starting to get a bit red there."
Rance glanced down at his own shoulders and laughed at the irony. "You're right. Here I've been the one pestering you about sunblock and, just my luck, I'll be the one with the sunburn."
"Race you to shore?"
"Nah, you go and I'll follow," he replied with a shake of his head.
Rance watched as his little girl skillfully timed the approaching swell, paddled to match speed and then popped up and rode it all the way in. Graceful – that was the word that kept coming to mind every time he watched her. "Definitely her mother's daughter," he said to himself as he laid out on the board to follow her in.
They were walking up the sand together, carrying their boards, when someone calling Hailey's name caused them to stop. A skinny, dark-haired boy carrying a funboard like Hailey's was dashing towards them. In the distance were his parents, coming at a much slower pace.
Hailey was the one to greet him, once he got closer. "Hey, Anthony."
"Hey," he replied, a little out of breath from his quick jog across the sand. A concerned look crossed his face, however, when the father and daughter resumed their walking. Matching their speed, he asked them with an anxious tone to his voice, "Are you guys done for the day?"
Rance grimaced slightly. His thirty-year-old body was telling him he wasn't eighteen any more. "I pretty much am, at least for now," he answered. "I might be persuaded to let Hailey go back out, if she wants, but only after we get some more sunscreen on her."
The youngster, about his daughter's height but two years older than her, was initially thrilled at the news. His face fell, however, when he realized he'd have to wait a bit. "Oh, okay."
Rance was applying the finishing touches to his daughter when Anthony's parents arrived.
His mother, a slender, statuesque woman with graying hair, greeted the two of them. "Good afternoon, Terrance, Hailey. Do you mind if we join you?"
"Not at all, Silvia," Rance replied, motioning to the empty sand next to them. "Help yourself."
Anthony's father, Tony, was a soft-spoken wiry man with dark thinning hair. Dropping their cooler, he began to set up the umbrella he'd been carrying, while his wife unfolded the chairs. Both physicians from St. Louis in their late 40s, Anthony was their only child and a late surprise at that. Staying in the same hotel, Tony spotted Rance wearing a Cardinals baseball cap the day before at breakfast and just had to stop by and chat with a fellow redbirds fan.
Taking the partially depleted tube from her father, Hailey squeezed some out onto her hands and began rubbing it across his upper back and shoulders. The cool of the cream felt especially good on the areas that had already started to burn.
Seeing her son waiting impatiently for his surfing buddy, Silvia walked over to Hailey and her father. "Here, honey, why don't you let me do that so you and Anthony can go surfing."
"No, that's okay, Dr. Marzano," she responded sweetly, "I've got it." Once satisfied with her dad's back, she walked around and stood between his knees so she could concentrate on his face and ears.
With her so close, Rance couldn't help but observe his daughter's face as she went about her work. He thought her eyes were her best feature. So much like her mother's, they darted to and fro as she applied the sunscreen – first to his ears and then his forehead. A few long strands of dark hair dangled free in the breeze in front of her face – the rest still being held back in a ponytail – but she ignored them. Her skin was already darkening from the sun and he could see the adorable smattering of freckles scattered across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. It was a bit of a large nose, with a noticeable bump, but it fit her face.
As he continued to watch, he saw her self-consciously bite her lower lip – again, just like her mother. Hailey's eyes, which glowed like liquid amber in the bright sun, flickered several times between his own and where she was applying the lotion.
"Daddy, stop that," she whispered.
Amused by her discomfort, Rance closed his eyes with a chuckle. "Here you go, pumpkin. Now you can get my eyelids."
After a considerable pause – during which he could only imagine the look she was giving him – he finally felt her small fingers rub the cool sunblock over his eyes, paying special attention to his eyebrows and reddening cheekbones. Her touch was delicate but after a while he could tell she was applying way too much. Actually, it was Anthony's snickering that gave it away.
Eyes still closed, he growled. "You know I'll get you back for this, right?"
When he playfully lunged at her, she screeched in surprise and backpedaled as fast as she could. Giggling hysterically, she and her partner in crime quickly grabbed their boards and took off like shots for the water.
Rance called after her with a more serious tone to his voice. "Hailey!"
She stopped at the water's edge and shouted back, "I know. Be smart and stay where you can see me." With a smile and wave, the two of them were on their boards and paddling away from shore.
When Rance turned around, however, both Silvia and her husband erupted in laughter.
"Hold still! Hold still!" she cried. "I have got to get a picture of this!"
Moments later, several images of Rance with bright, white circles around his eyes were consigned to digital memory. Being the good sport he was and knowing she'd like to have a memento of her handiwork, too, Rance asked Tony if he would take a few with Hailey's camera – which he did.
"That is one little girl who loves her daddy."
Rance had been relaxing on his lounge chair, quietly watching all the surfers making their runs, when he spotted his daughter sitting on her board waving to him. She was making sure he could see her. He was waving back when Silvia spoke, her voice filled with warmth.
Glancing her way, Rance responded to the good doctor's observation with a gentle grin.
"I imagine you're sick of people telling you about how sorry they are to hear about your wife."
His smile faltered a bit but acknowledged the truth of her statement with a nod.
"Anthony told us about it last night."
He shrugged. "That's fine. It was a lot worse in the month or so after she died. But I like to think I've gotten better about it now."
"Is she a lot like her?" Tony asked, joining the conversation.
Rance looked back out toward the ocean and his daughter. "Yes and no," he replied after a bit of thought. "She has her mother's eyes and an incredible array of her mannerisms, but Hailey is definitely her own girl. Not nearly as stubborn – thank God!" he added with a laugh. "Melissa, at times, would drive me absolutely crazy, but she had such a kind heart." He watched as Hailey was clearly giving pointers to a receptive but frazzled Anthony. "Which is something else she passed along to her daughter."
"Have those similarities made it difficult for the two of you after your wife died?"
"No – just the opposite, really," he answered, turning back to face her.
Melissa and he had encountered their fair share of Silvia's oncologist colleagues during their many fruitless trips to St. Louis, but sadly not her. Looking in her pale blue eyes, Rance could sense the empathy in them and he felt a sharp pang of regret. His wife would have really liked her.
"When I look at Hailey, I don't see so much what I've lost as what I've been given to keep. Plus, ever since I got back from Afghanistan nine months ago, she's tried to be my shelter in the storm, just as I've tried to be hers."
"You were in Afghanistan?" Tony asked. "The closest I ever got was Landstuhl, but one of the doctors in our orthopedic practice just got back from a three month tour – in Kandahar, I think. How long were you there?"
"Sixteen months. I was into my second tour when Melissa was told she was terminal. The Army discharged me to the Reserves and I got home as quick as I could. Three months later she was gone."
"Wow, so Hailey was – what – four or five when you left?" Silvia asked, running the numbers in her head.
"Yeah, it was a little strained the first few days I was back but we were fortunate. With the resources I had available to me over there, I was able to video conference with her and Melissa nearly every other week, so she knew who I was."
Tony's face registered surprise at the explanation. "That's pretty unusual. What did you do over there?"
"I was a Construction Management Engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers," Rance replied, trying to keep his answer as simple as possible. "You name it, I probably had a hand in building it. The last project I was on was a water treatment plant west of Kabul."
He had been sharing a few of his funnier stories from working with Afghan civilians – especially the ones involving his translator and good friend, Shakil – when he heard someone speak behind him.
"So, how's my girl doing?"
Rance turned in the direction of the cheery voice, only to see a familiar face. It was their surfing instructor from the previous morning, Cindy Timms. She and her husband actually owned the surfing school, but she liked to get out and teach a few classes every so often. A very gregarious woman with a trim figure and sun-bleached hair, he would have never believed she was nearly sixty if she hadn't told him. Standing next to her was a stocky older gentleman who appeared to have a good dose of Hawaiian ancestry. Rance suspected he was the previously unmet husband and, judging from the open expression on his face, appeared to be about as good natured as she was.
"Hi Cindy," Rance responded, standing up quickly. "Hailey's having a blast. In fact, she's out there right now with one of your other students, Anthony Marzano. These are his folks, Tom and Silvia."
"Of course," she nodded, "from the class on Saturday. Good to see you folks again. How does Anthony like surfing?"
"Oh, he loves it – especially now that he's got Terrance's daughter, Hailey, as a surfing buddy." Silvia looked over at Rance with an enormous smile on her face. "All he wants to do now is come to the beach!"
"Excellent! That's what I like to hear!" Cindy clapped her hands lightly in delight. In short order, though, she turned back to Rance. "So, Terrance, where exactly are they out there?" She paused and then glanced at the three of them apologetically. "Oh, excuse me, everyone. This is my husband, Hector Timms. Hector, this is Terrance Steiger and, of course, the Marzanos."
Rance reached out and shook Hector's hand. "Hector, pleased to meet you."
Cindy turned toward the water. "So, where is the little grommet?"
More than a little curious but still willing to wait, Rance walked with the two of them down to the water's edge, and then pointed straight out and a little to their left. "See the big sailboat out there? She and Anthony – he's got a red shirt on – are just to the right of it, outside the impact zone, and closer to us."
"Oh, I see them. Honey, do you see her?" Her voice was filled with excitement.
"I do," her husband replied.
Rance was surprised to see Hector with binoculars. What was going on here?
Peering back out at the water, it was pretty obvious that Hailey was setting up for the next wave. She had sent Anthony on the one prior and he was doing an admirable job trying to stay on his board. Moving out of his line so she wouldn't accidentally hit the boy if he fell, Rance watched as his young daughter deftly stood and caught her wave.
"Wow! That pop up was a thing of beauty!" the big man exclaimed. "How long's she been surfing?"
"This is her second day."
"Incredible. She transitioned perfectly with no pearling. Her head's up. No wobble in her stance." He chuckled loudly. "No fear in this one. The girl is smooth." He paused a bit to watch before continuing his commentary. "I like that she's a goofy foot. She's even doing a little carving on the face of the wave. Nice. Technique's rough, but that's to be expected. Unbelievable."
Once Hailey finished her run, Hector turned to Rance with a contemplative look on his face. "How old is she?"
"She'll be seven next week."
"Hmm. Tall for her age. I would have thought she was at least eight, if not nine – but I can see where she gets that from," he added in with a smile. "She's good – real good."
"All right now," his wife demanded with her hand held out flat and a smirk on her face, "pay up!"
Hector laughed, pulling out his wallet and passing her $20.
"So, what's this all about?" Rance asked, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.
Cindy reached up and patted him on the arm. "You've got a real special little girl there, Terrance," she offered sweetly. "And my silly husband thought I was exaggerating."
"I really should know better than to do that," Hector admitted, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's just that kids who pick up surfing as quickly and as beautifully as Hailey obviously has, are pretty rare."
"Very," replied the large Hawaiian with a knowing smile on his face. "I've been surfing since I was five; went pro when I was seventeen; and have coached all levels of surfers, from kooks to the pros, for over thirty years. In all that time, I have only known six, maybe seven, take to the board as quickly and naturally as your daughter."
At this point a clearly pleased Cindy chimed in. "Even Chrissie Moran – a local girl who's number one in the world right now – didn't develop the poise and vision your girl has until she was eleven and had been surfing for a year."
"So, how does Hailey compare to the six or seven you mentioned?"
"She's younger; she's a girl, and she's a haole, no less!" Hector's face was split by a huge smile. "You sure she's not part Hawaiian?"
Rance laughed. "Nope. Pretty much just German – though there is a little Cherokee on her mother's side, as I recall."
"One of life's little mysteries, to be sure," Cindy snickered, patting him on the arm again.
"So ... now what?" the taller man asked, as he watched his daughter and Anthony gather up their boards and walk toward them.
"Just ride the wave and see where it takes you," Hector replied cryptically.
Rance turned and gave the other man a confused look. "What do you mean?"
"Your Hailey's young and it's pretty obvious she's incredibly gifted physically," he replied. "Maybe surfing will be her thing. Then again, maybe not. Just hang loose and help her as she goes. Maybe she'll choose to ride a different wave, like snowboarding, rock climbing, or even a team sport like soccer or volleyball. Who knows?" Hector shrugged and then gestured to Hailey as she drew near. "One thing I do know, though."
"Once she finds her passion," he murmured quietly and with a nod, "she'll be good – damn good."
Rance couldn't help but nod in agreement.
Hailey, board under arm, stopped in front of her dad, a confused expression on her face. "What's this about a dam? I thought we were going to see the Humpbacks tomorrow."