"Tell me a story, Daddy."
B.J., his hand hovering near the light switch, hesitated. After a moment, he sighed and surrendered, taking a seat next to his daughter on the bed. She didn't look the least bit sleepy, and he hoped a story would help get her there. She gazed at him expectantly as he considered what kind of story to tell. She'd heard all the standards far too many times; he needed to come up with something new.
Suddenly inspiration struck. His time at the 4077th provided him with enough stories to last a lifetime… as long as he kept them clean and easy for Erin to understand. He chuckled to himself. Was that even possible? Well, what the heck, it was worth a try.
"Once upon a time, in a place far, far away," he began softly, trying to lull, "there was a small village called Mashland. One of the people living in the village was a tall, dark-haired young man named Sir Ben. He was a happy-go-lucky person and very nice. Everyone loved him, and he loved everyone." B.J. allowed himself a private smile, enjoying that double entendre, even though it hadn't been intentional.
Erin settled deeper into her bedsheets, watching her father with rapt attention. "Sir Ben," she repeated, trying out the name on her tongue.
B.J. nodded and continued. "Anyway, one day, Sir Ben got some bad news that upset him, and around the same time, his good friend Princess Margaret also got some bad news that made her sad. Sir Ben was the kind of guy who felt very deeply for other people, which is something called 'compassion.' He felt bad for himself, certainly, but he also felt bad for Princess Margaret. And he decided he was going to do something that would maybe lift both their spirits."
"What did he do, Daddy?"
"Well, there was this big meeting going on at the time, in a city nearby. And the problem was that the meeting was just dragging on and on, nothing was getting accomplished. Sir Ben wanted the people at the meeting to do what they were supposed to do."
"What were they supposed to be doing?"
B.J. gave this some thought, trying to figure out how to take such an adult concept and whittle it down to child-size portions. "They were supposed to be figuring out how to stop some people from fighting with each other, and that would end a lot of pain and suffering. If they managed to do that, then Sir Ben and Princess Margaret and all the other folks in the nearby village would be happier, too."
Erin made a "tsk" noise. "Well it sounds like those people at the meeting were pretty dumb if they weren't trying to get their job done."
B.J. smiled. Out of the mouths of babes. "Sometimes things seem easier than they are. But yes, I agree with you, they should have been working harder, huh? Anyway, Sir Ben got in his car and drove to the big meeting, and even though he wasn't supposed to be there, he walked right in. He told them, in so many words, what you just said… that they should be doing their job and trying to get the fighting to stop. He gave them a quick lecture and then he high-tailed it out of there, Erin, because just being there was enough to get him in trouble."
She nodded, completely caught up in his story, and to him it seemed that she was no closer to sleep than when he'd started. He carried on, "All of Sir Ben's friends back at the village heard about what he had done. And while it's true that he didn't actually change anything at the meeting—those folks still didn't get much accomplished even after his heartfelt lecture—the good news is that it managed to change things in the village anyway."
"It did? How?"
"Well, it made everyone in the village feel happy and giddy. It just lifted our—their morale, which really meant a lot."
"Princess Margaret too?"
"Yes, her too. Her sad situation didn't change, but she felt better anyway. What Sir Ben did made everyone feel good. I don't know if you can understand this, Erin, but sometimes just trying to help makes things better, even if you don't actually achieve what you'd hoped to." This was probably going over her head, B.J. thought, but maybe she was somehow getting the gist. And, praise be to the gods, were her eyelids actually starting to droop a little? "And that's the moral to this story… at least, that's what I learned from it. You should always try to help when you can, because even if it doesn't work out the way you thought, you've probably still made someone happy. Maybe a whole bunch of people."
Erin nodded again, but she was also clearly starting to nod off. B.J. breathed a sigh of relief. He'd completely improvised that story and there was no way he would've been able to conjure up another on the spur of the moment, had she requested one.
"…And believe it or not, eventually, everyone lived happily ever after," he concluded, watching his daughter's eyes flutter shut. "The end." He pulled her blanket up to her chin. "Good night, Erin. Sleep tight."
"Thanks for the story, Daddy," she managed to murmur in her almost-unconscious state.
"You're very welcome," B.J. whispered as he stood and flicked off the bedroom light. He watched his daughter for a couple of minutes, his heart swelling with love, and then he stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
When he drifted off to sleep a little while later, he dreamt of a village where a horseman was king, where he shared a Swamp with his best friend and did good work alongside dedicated, kindhearted people.
And, because it was a dream, everyone did indeed live happily ever after.