TAMPA — He was here with her overnight last year. She'd fallen asleep in the bounce house while music blared and kids circled the track.
Army Col. Parker Schenecker had walked until the sun rose in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. This year, he would do it without her.
Saturday night, candles lined the track that his 16-year-old daughter Calyx once ran with her King High School team. Some burned for Calyx and her 13-year-old brother Beau, illuminating their father's journey.
It had been 50 days since the colonel got the news that his two children had been murdered and that his wife had confessed to pulling the trigger.
Almost immediately, he decided how to deal with this: He would tend to the causes that mattered to his children, so as to complete their unfinished legacies. He would dwell on their lives, not their deaths.
On Saturday, the grieving father took his first steps. He took them neither alone nor childless.
A teenage boy, one of Calyx's good friends, sped up when he saw Schenecker walking. Tears streaming on Jacob Gassen's face, he drew the colonel into a tight, close-fisted hug that left the two frozen on the track as the crowd flowed past them.
Jacob and the colonel shared words as they continued to walk, their arms still wrapped around each other. The teen called the colonel's attention to a glow in the sky, a bright disc in space closer to Earth than it had been in 18 years. They gazed up at the super moon.
This is how the evening went, the colonel smiling big under his baseball cap, stretching his arms across groups of two and three kids at a time as they crossed their arms over his, making it unclear at times who was holding up whom.
Schenecker encountered a boy who shook his hand and said, "I just want to tell you your son was an amazing goalie."
He saw his daughter's English teacher, Jeff Halle, one of her favorites. "Here's what I want to do," the colonel told him. "Do you mind hugging another dude?"
The teacher told him he had some artwork Calyx had made. The colonel was familiar with her work and the signature she practiced, a swirl of a C punctuated with the stroke of an X. He thanked the teacher and told Halle that if there was a piece that meant something to him, he should keep it.
The night air grew crisp. The sad music gave way to rock and pop, Frisbee and Twister, and the colonel's presence lightened. He picked up a football and continued to walk, singing a song as it played: "I wanna be a billionaire, so freakin' bad. …"
With every lap, he passed the Harry Potter-themed tent set up by his daughter's friends. The colonel hasn't yet read the series, but he knows he will.
"She told me, 'Dad, nerd is the word.' "
Her words come to him often.
When his friend bragged Saturday that he'd walked 60 laps, Schenecker grinned and said he walked more — "whatever that was, plus one."
He remembered something.
"Calyx would say, 'I love you infinity plus one.'
"Then Beau would say, 'I love you infinity plus two.' "
Early in the night, before everything began, he needed to take a moment, just walk away from the crowd.
But now he let himself become part of it all.
He laughed at boys dressed in drag in the "S'He's so hot" competition.
He refereed dodgeball games, telling kids, "Just have fun, don't cheat, and if you hit the ref, you're out."
As Schenecker walked, a student spotted his football.
"Hey! Wanna play catch?" the boy shouted. The colonel tossed the ball, caught it, and continued to walk.
Into the dawn, he walked, one step at a time.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.