This story is by Arlo Sharp and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Daddy, let’s dance,” Major Darrel Chastain’s ten-year-old daughter murmured. She reminded him so much of her mother that it hurt.
“Okay, Jeannie,” he said.
He led her to the dance floor and the two joined the other couples short and tall as they stepped and turned to a slow, dreamy love song. That kind of dancing Chastain could manage, but a vigorous fast number might throw his back out. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.
The father-daughter dance had become an annual tradition at Fort Sullivan Elementary School. Strictly daddies and daughters, no sons or mommas allowed.
The fathers were current service members or veterans, and they wore their dress uniforms. Some looked bored, but the major enjoyed the occasions. In a few short years, Jeannie would prefer to dance with young boys instead of daddy, and the day would come when he’d walk her down the well-known aisle. And he knew he’d cry.
But hopefully he wouldn’t have to worry about that for many years.
“Daddy, see the man all alone over there?” his angel asked. “He’s dressed different than everyone else.”
Chastain looked around to see who she meant. Seated in the farthest corner of the room, the guy wore an old-fashioned, Eisenhower-type army jacket and GI hat. If he’d been on the dance floor earlier, the major would’ve noticed him. Strange that a dad would be there alone, but perhaps his little girl was getting refreshments or visiting the restroom. Not likely anything to worry about.
Chastain turned to his baby doll, looked into her eyes, and was lost. As usual. The child of his middle age, the day the little minx was born she had stolen his heart. And losing his beloved wife that same day had broken it.
The song concluded and the two sat, until the major could build up the energy to hit the floor again. And again. Each time his eyes sought the loner in the corner. Each time the man sat unmoving. Could he have come to the dance by himself? Worrisome if true.
“Daddy,” Jeannie said again, “look at the little girl sitting by the door.”
Chastain gazed at a girl seated in the opposite corner of the room. She must’ve just arrived, as the major didn’t see her when he and his daughter came in. About Jeannie’s age, she wore an old-fashioned dress, the hemline reaching midway between her knees and ankles. And she sported a hair-do many decades out of style.
“She’s so pretty,” Jeannie said, “but she looks sad.”
The major hadn’t noticed that, but females of all ages tended to be more perceptive about such matters. As the song ended, he glanced from the lone girl in one corner to the lone GI in the other.
“Jeannie, go talk to her, see if you can cheer her up,” he said.
“Okay, daddy.” She disengaged from his arms and walked that way.
Girls and women dealt with emotions better than guys, the major reflected. Meanwhile he walked over to greet the man, who sat unmoving, his head in his hands.
The major introduced himself. “Hello, I’m Darrel Chastain.”
The man looked up. Surprising the major, he stood, snapped to attention, and saluted. “Private First-Class Philip O’Dell, sir.”
He’d been trained well. Chastain returned the gesture.
“At ease, friend,” he said, “we’re all equals here.”
“Thank you, sir, but you’re an officer.”
Chastain had taken ROTC in college and spent twenty years working his way up through the ranks from second lieutenant to captain and on to major. He’d recently retired and now did substitute teaching.
“It’s okay,” Chastain assured the man, “but I see you’re not dancing. Where’s your daughter?”
An intrusive question which he immediately regretted.
O’Dell looked crestfallen. “Oh, sir, I hoped she’d be here tonight. I’ve been looking for her a long time.”
What a strange statement. Chastain looked closer at the man’s uniform, with its insignia and ribbons. A military history buff, the major recognized them as vintage World War II decorations.
But the guy couldn’t be a veteran of the big one. He must’ve borrowed his grandfather’s uniform. Or maybe purchased one somewhere.
Jeannie Chastain approached the girl in the opposite corner of the crowded room. Odd that no one else seemed to notice her.
“Hi, I’m Jeannie. What’s your name?”
The lone girl looked up. Unshed tears glimmered in her eyes. Jeannie took a seat beside her.
“I . . .” the girl began, hesitating as if she needed to think about it. “I’m Cynthia.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
The kid smiled. “Thank you.”
“Do you go to school here?” Jeannie asked.
“I did once, but I haven’t been to school for a long time.”
Jeannie wondered at that but didn’t say so. “Where’s your dad?”
The girl burst into tears.
Blinking back her own tears, Jeannie took the girl’s hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“My daddy didn’t come back from the war,” Cynthia said. “At first, they said he was missing in action, but later declared him dead. His body was never found.”
“That’s too bad,” Jeannie said. “My mom died when I was born.”
“By the way, thank you for serving,” Major Chastain said. “Where were you stationed?”
“In France and Belgium mostly,” O’Dell said. “On six June, I went ashore at Utah Beach with the Eighth Infantry Regiment, the Fighting Eagles.”
Fifty-six-year-old General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former president, had led that outfit, Chastain remembered. One of the first and the oldest man to hit the beaches on D-Day, the general earned the Medal of Honor for his valor. Sadly, the old warrior died of a heart attack the following month.
But O’Dell couldn’t have been at Normandy. The man had to be deluded. Or the most brazen liar of all time. But Chastain began to piece things together. A lone man in a uniform from the past, and a little girl dressed in vintage clothing?
The major felt that maybe he should be frightened, but he wasn’t.
He heard footsteps. Glanced around. Saw Jeannie coming toward him, with the oddly-dressed little girl in tow. Private O’Dell noticed them. His mouth dropped open as he stood and spread his arms.
“Cynthia?” he asked, as if doubting the evidence of his eyes.
“Daddy?” the little girl asked.
The two clasped each other and wept. Jeannie also cried, and Chastain barely held his own tears in check.
“C’mon baby, let’s go home,” the GI said to his daughter.
Arms around each other, the two walked toward the exit. They turned and waved goodbye to the Chastains. The major and Jeannie waved back.
As the outer door closed, Jeannie turned to her dad. “Let’s go outside and see where they went.”
Chastain hadn’t thought of that. Father and daughter wove their way around the dancing couples and left the building. But they saw no sign of the two. At the next dance, and every one thereafter, they looked for the pair but never saw them again.
Later on, Major Chastain researched the service record of PFC Philip O’Dell and discovered everything the man had told him was true. O’Dell went missing in action in March, 1945.
Cynthia, Private O’Dell’s only child, never accepted that her father was dead. She looked for him across Europe until her own death early in the twenty-first century.
Chastain speculated on what it all meant. Were the father and daughter restless spirits? Or had the two passed through some sort of time warp, the stuff of science fiction, and wound up here? Or perhaps they’d sought each other up and down the corridors of eternity for countless ages before finally arriving at the same time and place.
In any case, the major gave all the credit to Jeannie, as she’d first noticed them in the dance hall. He wondered if his daughter could’ve inherited some psychic ability from her mom. Somehow, his late wife had known the exact instant of her parents’ deaths in an accident, even though they’d been many miles away at the time.
More than a dozen years later, he’d remember the O’Dells as he walked Jeannie down the aisle to the tune of the bridal chorus. He imagined some alternate reality in which PFC Philip O’Dell did the same for his daughter, and Cynthia lived a long, happy life rather than one filled with sorrow and loss.
Chastain thought the old soldier probably cried.
Just like he did.