Her head turned. She paused a moment, her eyes registering. A smile quickly slid across her face.
Seconds later, 9-year-old Trista Sarles-Redfield was up from the reading mat in her Dunedin Elementary classroom and wrapping her arms around her father, Army Maj. Jerry Bud Redfield, while her fourth-grade teacher, classmates and camera-ready reporters and school personnel looked on.
Home early from a yearlong tour in Afghanistan, Jerry surprised Trista at school Thursday morning.
The 37-year-old Army infantry officer and Afghanistan/Pakistan leadership liaison hugged the girl close before handing her a half-dozen roses. Pink, her favorite color.
"I missed you," Trista said, unearthing her face from his embrace to look up at him.
Trista had been expecting her dad home Friday. But in between the weekly phone calls, monthly Skype video chats and regular letters, Jerry had been devising a plan to surprise both Trista and her mother, Amanda Redfield.
The plan was partially derailed when an emergency prevented a friend from picking him up at Tampa International Airport about 11 p.m. Wednesday. Jerry had to call Amanda for a ride.
His wife and mother-in-law, now both in on the secret, sneaked him into their Clearwater home, past their cat and two dogs, while Trista slept.
For nearly two hours Thursday morning, Jerry hid in his bedroom closet with a book while Trista flitted about the house getting ready for school.
Hours later, Amanda watched Trista fight back tears during the reunion with the man who has formed a strong bond with Trista over the last five years, even though he is not her biological father. A "devastated" Trista had cried for three months after her father left, Amanda said, and each day after that asked when he'd return.
"He's not a talkative person at all, but when it comes to those two, they talk all the time," said Amanda, 35. "They have their own little secrets and codes for things. The only thing she asked Santa for was her daddy and we had to explain that would make him AWOL — it's breaking the law."
Amanda hung back Thursday while Jerry and Trista headed to the school cafeteria for an early lunch.
After all, the duo had a long list of activities to plan: Going to the movies. Playing the board game Risk. Taking Trista, who grew 4 inches while her father was away, for her first roller-coaster ride on SheiKra — something she refused to do without daddy.
With roughly 16 months before his next deployment, Redfield said he's looking forward to one thing the most: "Seeing her grow up."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org.