“Hi, daddy!” she said brightly.
Mac turned his head and grinned. “My jewel...gimme sugar,” he said holding out a shaky hand.
She ignored the hand and took his face into her small hands. She bent over and kissed every inch of his face until he laughed with sheer joy. “I got loads of stories to tell you, Daddy. Wanna hear them?”she said lifting his boney hand to her cheek and pressing it there.
“Okay, but first...” he glanced up at Payton who shook his head to indicate he had not said a thing. “I gotta tell you something, Honey. You’re gonna be staying with Uncle Payton from now on. He...”
She turned to Payton and smiled. “Oh, that will be wonderful! I’ll take good care of him, Daddy. You’ll see. I can cook and clean for him, do the laundry and we’ll work together at the shop caring for the animals....and I can tell him stories just like I do for you.”
Payton gaped at her his mouth hanging open. “No, I’m supposed to take care of you, Jameel,” he said.
She just giggled and turned back to her father. “He’s so silly, huh, Daddy? It’s the woman that takes care of the man. Men are useless. Ommi said so.”
Mac chuckled and gazed at her trying desperately not to lose it. “You are so like Amal. So beautiful, so amazing.”
Payton wondered if Mac knew how much Jameel was like him, too. Strength in the face of adversity was obviously in the genes.
“We’ll be together soon...Amal and me,” Mac added, his voice husky with emotion now.
“She’ll be so happy, Daddy. Ommi didn’t want to leave you, you know. Allah was calling her and He’s calling you now,” she replied, her smile never wavering.
His eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want to leave you, Baby.”
“I know, Daddy, but it’s all right, you’ll be with Ommi again and I’ll be with Uncle Payton. You’ll always be together and we’ll be together and all so happy.”
“I’ll tell her all about you...tell her how you’ve grown...tell her what a sweet child...no, you’re a lovely young lady now, aren’t you? We’ll always watch over you,” he said tears now leaking out of the corners of his eyes.
“I know you will. Ommi said so. Can I tell you my stories now?”she said climbing into the bed to lay down beside her father.
“Sure, baby,” he replied, kissing the top of her shiny black head.
For the next few hours the life drained slowly out of Mac and Jameel continued to tell her tales, stories of the animals they tended, of her friends, of people she’d never known and some she made up. She lay listening to the last beats of his heart, but refused to cry. She wanted him to see her smiling as he left this world.
“That...was... beautiful... Jameel,” he whispered.
“I love you, Daddy,” she said, kissing his cheek.
“Oh...Jameel...love you so much....so much...”
Payton thought for a moment he should leave them alone, but he simply couldn’t make himself. He couldn’t stop the tears from falling along his cheeks either. How the hell, he marveled, could Jameel keep from shedding one single tear when he knew how very much she loved her dad? Was her faith in the heavenly reward that strong, that unfailing?
He was brought out of his musings when Mac called to him. He grabbed Mac’s limp hand and leaned close so he wouldn’t miss a single word. They were to be Mac’s last ones.
“Thanks, Buddy....Semper fi ....”And Mac breathed his last.
“Semper fi,” Payton repeated before letting out a heart wrenching sob as the heart monitor flat lined. To his surprise Jameel followed suit, finally succumbing to tears. Payton scooped her up and held her close as the nurses and doctors came rushing in.
Little Jameel clung to him for hours weeping miserably. He knew she was making up for lost time, that she had held it all in just for Mac. His admiration for her went through the roof and never ceased.
Payton awoke suddenly but no longer in Jameel’s room. He was in fact down at Sam’s bar although he had to admit he’d never seen it being this quiet, clean and empty.
“Hey, Buddy,” came a very familiar voice out from the shadows.
Payton spun around and gaped open mouthed. “Mac?”
“That’s me. How ya doin’?”he said smirking and looking exactly as he did back during the war, fit and powerful as a grizzly. He even wore his desert-drab fatigues with his t-shirt straining to cover that broad muscled chest.
Payton opened and closed his mouth a few times before remembering how to speak. “What...”
“Just you dreamin’. Don’t freak,” Mac said casually, tossing an oak chair around so he could sit on it backwards, his muscled arms draped over the back. “Sit. We gotta talk.”
As always he obeyed Mac’s every command. He sat down opposite his friend still staring at him in avid fascination. “Mac, you look good.”
He chuckled. “I should. Don’t got my diseased body to drag me down no more. Pays bein’ just spirit.”
“I’ll bet,” Payton mumbled.
Mac grinned but then grew serious. “So....you and my Jameel.”
Payton’s eyes widened and he gulped. “She’s doing real good. Graduated from....”
“I know all that. I know all in fact. So?”Mac asked, unconsciously flexing his biceps.
“So?”Payton asked, watching the muscles rippling and recalling all too clearly how easily he could knock a guy, any guy of any size, into a coma.
“You being smart with me?” Mac asked, looking rather menacing.
“No, Sir,” Payton said on automatic, reverting instantly back to the scared, fresh-into-the-Marines eighteen year old.
That made Mac laugh. “You kill me, Kid, which is saying something being I’m dead. I mean what are you gonna do about it?”
“About what?” Payton asked genuinely baffled.
“You know, I don’t think I want my Jameel with a guy this dumb.”
“But you told me to take care of her and I have. I tried to do my best,” he said, a pleading note in his voice.
“Yeah, ya have. You did your best being a sorta dad to her. That’s not what she needs, not no more.”
Payton’s jaw clenched. “Yeah, I know. She’s all grown up. Bet she’ll be wanting to... I don’t know...get outta the sticks or something,” he said sadly, his shoulders actually drooping a bit as he thought of being left alone.
“You really are an idiot,” Mac said shaking his head in wonder.
“Well, if you can’t see it, I ain’t gonna tell ya.” Mac then stood up, strode behind the bar pouring himself a full glass of Jack Daniels and tossing it back as if it were water.
“Tell me what?”
Instead of answering Mac put his hand into the pocket of his pants, withdrew a coin and went to the jukebox. He dropped the coin in, pushed a button and out came an old Trisha Yearwood song. “...she’s in love with the boy...and even if she has to run away...she’s gonna marry that boy some day...” the song went.
“See if that don’t enlighten ya some. Gotta fly. Amal and me’s gonna do some...well, you don’t gotta know ‘bout that.” Mac grinned devilishly. Walking out the door into the sunlight he was gone.
He awoke suddenly and stared into Jameel’s luminous grey-blue eyes. He was back in her room, back in her bed and in her arms. She was way too close. He sat up pulling himself away from her. Unfortunately she still clung to him. “I...fell asleep,” he muttered stupidly. “Sorry.”
“Yes, but you were also mumbling,” she said pushing his hair out of his eyes with the sweetest smile on her face. “Were you dreaming about Daddy?”
He gaped. “How..how did you know that?”
“You said, Mac, you know I don’t like Trisha Yearwood. What does that mean?”she asked giggling and scooting closer to him.
He stared at her remembering perfectly. “Uh...yeah,” he said understanding the song now. Jameel must be in love with some guy she met at school no doubt and Mac was trying to let him know. But why? What could he do about it? Then he realized Mac probably just wanted Payton to see if this dude, whoever he was, was worthy of Jameel. What a laugh! Could anyone be good enough? Not to him, certainly.
“Payton, what is it? Why do you look so...did the dream upset you?”she asked, her delicate hand caressing his cheek.
“No, it’s...no,” he said pulling himself out of her reach and standing up. “I should go. You need your sleep.”
She knelt on the bed looking crestfallen. “Will you never see me as anything but a child?”she asked, the merest pout on her lips.
He stared at her incredulous. Well, wasn’t that exactly the problem? If only he hadn’t stopped seeing her as a little girl then he wouldn’t be feel like a crap, now would he? But he couldn’t exactly tell her that. Instead he had to suck it up and tell her to go, to seek her fortune and be happy too. Damn, but he didn’t think he could do that.
“Payton, what is it?”
He looked up and grimaced. “Your dad told me you’re in love?”
“He told you that?” she said obviously surprised but pleased too. She jumped up and threw her arms around him. “He is watching over us, isn’t he? I knew it!”
“Yeah, me too,” Payton said holding her indecently close. He was now positive he couldn’t do this. He simply couldn’t let her go, especially into the arms of some unknown creep but he had to. Semper Fi kept ringing in his ears. “You know I love you so much, Jameel...”
“I love you too, Payton, so much,” she talked over him, squeezing him breathless.
She was not helping. “And you know that I only want the best for you, just like Mac. I’m talking for him when I say...you gotta do whatever will make you happy. I just hope he’s worthy of you.”
She released him and frowned at him. “Who is?”she asked in confusion.
“The guy you’re in love with, of course,”he said through clenched teeth.
She blinked up at him for several second then burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?”he asked.
“You just don’t get it, do you? Daddy’s right. You are clueless,” she said giving him a condescending shake of the head.
“No, I’m not. I get the song, the message in it. You’re in love with the boy. What more is there to it?” he said all annoyed now. He didn’t much care for being called a clueless idiot twice, even if one of those times was by a ghost in a dream.
She stared at him a slight crease between her eyebrows. “Is it cuz I’m not blonde? You can tell me the truth, Payton. Enough guys have told me that. They don’t like....” She flipped her long, dark braid over her shoulder as if that would finish the thought.
He took a step forward but stopped himself before doing something truly stupid and reaching out for her. “You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever known, Jameel. This man you’re in love with he must have told you this,” he said, looking now as serious as death.
“Yes, he has but only very recently,” she retorted, her Mona-Lisa smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Though he didn’t really want to know he knew Mac would expect him to ask. It’s what a father would do, after all. “So...how long you been in love?”he asked frowning. Jamming his hands into his front pockets he hoped that would be enough to prevent him grabbing her and never letting go.
“Long time,” she replied, her expression all innocence. “I told Daddy.”
Payton’s jaw dropped. “You... you told Mac? When?”
“Before he died, of course,” she said, her smile widening.
“You...so, you’ve known this boy all this time?” he asked, incredulous. “And you’ve been in love with him?”
“Oh, yes,” she returned sounding supremely unconcerned. “I told Daddy I was gonna married that boy, just like the song says. He laughed but he said I had to wait for the right time. I was too young at only eleven, you know.”
He gulped trying to come to grips with all this. “Your dad knew him then?”
“Oh, yes. One of his best friends in fact,”she said tilting her head to peer up at him.
“Seriously?” he shouted. He search his memory for a guy at the shop who showed any romantic interest for Jameel. Drawing a blank he merely looked his confusion. “Then...do I know him?”
“I hope so...hard to tell,” she said, a mischievous grin on her face now.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”he asked, now feeling hurt she hadn’t confided in him.
She shrugged. “I was waiting just like Daddy told me.” She stood up and walked to her dressing table. She opened her jewelry box and extracted two rings, her parents matching wedding bands.
Payton recognized the rings and a ten pound stone seemed to drop into his stomach. She wasn’t just in love. She was planning on marrying this faceless dude. “For what are you waiting, Jameel? You’re hardly eleven anymore,” he said sadly.
“Well, for you actually,” she said coming up to him and taking his left hand out of his pocket she slipped her father’s ring on his finger. “A bit big on you but he wanted you to have it.”
“For me? Why?”
“Because you were his very best friend and you promised to care for me forever. Semper Fidelis, remember?”she said softly.
As if he could forget Semper Fi! But what the hell did that have to do with.... His thoughts drifted as he gazed longingly into her eyes. They glowed with something he had seen many times before but never quite understood. She lifted his hand to her cheek, pressed it there then kissed the palm before smiling up at him. His heart skipped a beat and a light bulb finally lit in his head. He gaped at her unable–or perhaps unwilling– to believe it until she actually confirmed it. “What are you saying, Jameel?”he asked, his voice a mere whisper now.
She smiled, put her arms around his neck and kissed him. He got his answer and gave her his by pulling her to him, crushing her against him and promising himself he’d never let go.
“Well, as last!” Amal said happily, as she watched from somewhere behind Spitty the camel.
“Never knew he was that dense,” Mac said shaking his head in derision.
“It was your fault. You told him to care for Jameel like a daughter. What did you expect? He follows your every command to the letter. Semper Fi, forever faithful,” she retorted rolling her luminous smokey grey eyes to the ceiling.
“Yeah, you’re right. But turned out okay in the end,” he replied grinning down at the two who still clung to each other. “I’m thinking I don’t gotta see more of this. Let’s say you and me go picking wildflowers like we used to, huh?” he gave her a devilish smirk which told her wildflowers were the last thing on his mind.
Amal smiled and casting one last look at her dear child she nodded and grasped Mac’s proffered hand. Jameel would be happy all the rest of her days, she knew, as her mother had been. It was like that when you were lucky enough to marry a true and faithful Marine. Semper Fidelis wasn’t just for wartime after all. It wasn’t even just for the Marines.