Stumbling across her grandparents' living room carpet in pink-and-white-striped pajamas, Claire Michelle Patterson reaches toward one of the piles of photographs strewn around the home and snatches up a large print.
Her pale blue eyes narrow as she absorbs the desert scene. Sitting in front of the fireplace just feet away, Frank and Sharon Patterson slouch slightly, their eyes tracking the toddler. When the room falls silent, their faces hang expressionless, betraying little more than exhaustion.
Claire scans the photo for a moment before settling on a stubble-faced grunt in full camouflage. The corners of her mouth turn up into her cherubic cheeks.
"Da-da," she gurgles, looking up in triumph. The Pattersons pause almost imperceptibly before heaping adulation on the 15-month-old.
"That's right," Sharon Patterson says. "That's Da-da." The smile quickly melts from Sharon's face, and her eyes focus off in the distance.
Claire bounces away undaunted to another stack of photos. Under blond bangs, her eyes widen once more. She calls out again: "Da-da!"
The camouflage-clad grunt is Claire's father, Sgt. Jayton Patterson.
Patterson was killed by a roadside bomb last weekend while his unit was on patrol in northern Iraq, just weeks before the 26-year-old Marine was to come home. His wife, Stephanie, was unpacking dust-laced boxes of desert souvenirs and planning a vacation in the Bahamas when a pair of Marines arrived at her door.
Raised in Southampton County just outside Wakefield, Jayton had rural roots. In a place where homes are left unlocked, where neighbors recognize each other by car and where everyone from the bank to those in the Tasty Treat knows "that Patterson boy," his death has cut deep.
Here, lost troops will never be just pictures.
"They belong to someone out there," said Pam Harrell, whose husband baptized Jayton and later performed his marriage ceremony in the same church. "And we forget that."
Route 460 shadows the James River from Norfolk to Petersburg. It winds through peanut farms and small towns like Ivor, Waverly and Zuni. It cuts through the heart of Wakefield, where a one-mile stretch doubles as the town's business district. A single stoplight slows traffic.
Billboards urge hungry drivers to visit the renowned Virginia Diner, where roasted peanuts are one of the specialties. Under the shadow of the water tower, stores and factories hawk all things peanut -- from oils to cookbooks.
An addition atop the city-limit sign boasts that the town is home to Maralyn "Mad Dog" Hershey, one of the unsuccessful challengers on the second season of "Survivor."
Each spring, Wakefield becomes the center of Virginia's political universe, when generations of lawmakers descend on the town for the annual Shad Planking Festival to chew over bony fish and insider gossip.
During the winter, the town slumbers as some locals track the months by the changing hunting seasons. Frank Patterson was bobcat hunting a week ago Saturday when the Marines arrived in Wakefield.
A search party sprang immediately to life. CB radios crackled, state troopers cruised back roads and game wardens checked popular spots until Frank finally got word that he had to get home.
Jayton's high school basketball coach, Walter Westbrook, was chaperoning a field trip in Chincoteague that night, when one student's cell phone started ringing. After hanging up, the teenage girl turned to Westbrook and told him that Jayton would not be coming home alive.
"People don't understand when they live in a community that has 2,000 kids in nine through 12," Westbrook said. "Here, we've got 225 from pre-school to 12th. It's like a family."
The class of '96 at Tidewater Academy of Wakefield, Jayton's class, boasted a total of 18 students.
"The grapevine in Wakefield works wonders," said Paula Bailey, a librarian at Tidewater Academy, where Jayton spent his final two years of high school. "Around here, you don't talk bad about anybody because you might be talking to their cousin."
In Wakefield, family ties get blurry.
"We all had a special relationship with Jayton," said Harrell, who watched him grow up in the church. "He wasn't just Frank and Sharon's child -- he was all of ours. They shared him with all of us."
Jayton Patterson was part choirboy, part stand-up comic. The teenager who was never shy about his faith carried with him an electricity that you could feel when he walked into a room.
In high school, Jayton played baseball, basketball and football but picked up the nickname "Bible boy" when he started a nondenominational youth group called the Logos Society. Gathering among other students in the lunchroom, Jayton and the other members would hash over biblical lessons.
"As an adolescent, you don't go out on a limb like that," said his English teacher, Loretta Hellyer. Jayton endured the gentle ribbing with his trademark smile.
"They weren't being hurtful or anything like that," Hellyer said, "but he wasn't ashamed of it."
Hiding his faith was never an option for Jayton. He had a certain air.
"If people had a problem in school, they'd go talk to him," said Virginia State Trooper Mark Chitwood, who graduated in the same class. "It didn't matter what it was or what he had going on, he was kind of like a minister like that."
Jayton gravitated to it. He spoke frequently at Millfield Baptist Church in Southampton County and developed a great rapport with the church's pastor, the Rev. Mike Harrell.
"He had an endeavor. He was setting out to find out how he fit into the big scheme of things," said Harrell, now a chaplain for inmates at Southampton Correctional Center. "Most people just live day to day. He was searching for his destiny."
After high school, Jayton studied the Scriptures at Bluefield College and later Liberty University -- a pair of Christian bastions of higher learning.
In the late spring of 1999, Jayton was asked to a senior prom. He accepted but became enamored with his date's best friend, another Wakefield local, Stephanie Bays.
"He just kept coming over here, and we didn't know him from Adam," said Stephanie's father, Rodney Bays. "But you keep hanging around Jayton, he'd rub off on you."
When Stephanie's grandparents brought the family together for their 50th wedding anniversary, Jayton stood up and serenaded them with a Britney Spears song. Another time, he pulled his father-in-law on stage at a dingy karaoke bar to sing "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." Shaky at first, the duet gathered steam.
"A pair of old ladies started throwing dollar bills at him," Rodney Bays recalled.
Once while they were dating, Jayton planned a night on the town for Stephanie, then dressed up for it in her younger sister's Tweety Bird sweatshirt.
"The sad part is he thought he looked good in that," Stephanie's mother, Debbie, recalled.
At his going-away party last spring, Jayton ripped off all his clothes and went running toward the center of Wakefield.
"Off he went," Rodney Bays said. "He didn't care."
Stephanie, who graduated from Suffolk Central in 1998, did not know Jayton in school, didn't know the "Bible boy." When they met, he was waiting to head off to boot camp. Jayton and Stephanie dated off and on for five years, but once they met, it was clear to everyone around them that Stephanie was the focus of Jayton's attention.
They married in 2003, on the day after Valentine's Day, in Millfield Baptist Chuch. They'd wanted to get married on the holiday but waited a day -- the next day was a Saturday -- so friends and relatives from out of town could attend.
Claire was born in October. For her first Christmas, Jayton bought her a white Michael Vick jersey to match his. Then he pulled it on over her brand-new Christmas outfit.
"It was like a dress," Stephanie said. "It went down past her knees."
Sometimes, when baby-sitting duty rolled around, Jayton would sing uncensored Marine cadences to Claire to calm her fussy ways.
The Marine Corps was a culture that Jayton adored -- an ethos that brought maturity.
"He needed structure, like myself," said Chitwood, a childhood friend who grew up riding three-wheelers and hunting with Jayton.
The two were supposed to go through boot camp together, but Chitwood opted out of the Marines to pursue a job with the Virginia State Police. Trooper Chitwood said the Marines gave Jayton a solid base.
"He had benefits and a place to make a life."
But the decision shocked others, even though both of Jayton's grandfathers served in the Navy.
"It was out of the blue," Sharon Patterson said. " 'Fulfillment' was the word he used."
During his first four years in the Marines, Jayton served on a special detail at the White House. Traveling with the president, he toured the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and got a firsthand look at the burning hole in the Pentagon.
The searing images pushed Jayton to continue.
"I don't want that for our people here," he told his father shortly after the attacks.
On the ground in Iraq, Jayton continued to be a study in contrasts. He quoted from the Bible, inspired and consoled his unit, which was made up primarily of 19- and 20-year-olds.
Jayton watched Marines around him bleed and die in the street fight for control of Fallujah.
His battlefield bravery earned him a commendation for hunting down a roving group of insurgents firing mortars.
His lucky black-and-white scarf came from the first Iraqi he killed in combat.
"He used to complain about the media," Frank said. "They don't show the schools being built and the grocery stores going up and the water being turned on."
He was proud to be a Marine, proud that he was making a difference.
"It's not that he liked being there," Sharon said. "But he had to be there."
After Jayton deployed, Stephanie and the Pattersons packed boxes full of magazines, powdered lemonade and Pringles, guessing what he might need or want. It took a few months before Jayton broke down and told Stephanie not to send any more peanut butter crackers in her care packages.
"Honey," he said. "I'm not trying to be mean, but you're sending me the same ones we get in our MREs."
Eventually, Stephanie got better at packing for the desert, winning kudos for her battlefield-friendly Thanksgiving dinner of turkey jerky and potato chips.
Then, early last fall, one of the Pattersons' neighbors got pupils at Southampton Elementary School to put together a care package for Jayton. Later, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders wrote him letters.
"We live in such a isolated world," Jane Stephenson said. "I just felt like my children needed to be involved."
Jayton wrote back to all 49 pupils. Soon, the whole school started sending over goodies -- even a tiny Christmas tree. That same tree, surrounded by mortars and rifles, turns up in one of the photos that Jayton sent home.
His combat address was posted on the community bulletin board at Millfield Baptist Church along with a care-package most-wanted list -- baby wipes, beef jerky and AA batteries.
Jayton wrote a pair of letters to the entire congregation, thanking members for the "godliness armor" that he drew from their thoughts and prayers. The support snowballed. One day, Jayton got 13 packages. "He said it was like Christmas," Frank Patterson said.
In the days since word arrived of Jayton's death, the community that once reached across oceans to help Jayton has reached out to his family. Friends flocked to the Patterson home, where the family gave up on a visitors log after about 200 people dropped by in the first 24 hours, including seven preachers.
"Good kitchen help, telephone help and the maid brigade has arrived," Sharon said, cuddling close to Claire. "You don't realize that you don't have time to do anything, like answer the phone."
One neighbor brought over an extra refrigerator for the heaps of comfort food that have continued to flood in. It's plugged in and sitting on the back steps, and the kitchen counter is never lacking for fried chicken or ham biscuits.
Across town, relatives fight for couch space at the Bays home, where a revolving door of Jayton's and Stephanie's friends means limited parking in the driveway. Inside, Jayton stories come bubbling out.
"When I'm here by myself, that's when it's the worst," Stephanie said.
She's seldom alone. The outreach extends well past the two homes. When Stephanie went to pick up some medication, the pharmacist refused to take her money. "They just said they were so sorry," she said.
On Friday, as the family shuttled to Norfolk to pick up Jayton's casket, the Patterson van got a flat tire a few minutes from home. In less than five minutes, neighbors had two cars idling next to the disabled van. "They said, 'Don't worry about it -- we'll have the tire fixed when you get home,' " Frank said.
At Millfield Baptist Church, a group of parishioners spent a day last week setting up for Monday's funeral. Expecting a crush, they wired closed-circuit television into the parish hall so more people could say goodbye to Jayton.
On the community bulletin board at Millfield Baptist Church, someone scribbled a tiny note next to Jayton's combat address a couple of weeks ago.
"Don't send any more mail to Jayton," it read. "Coming Home!"
At Southampton Elementary, Stephenson's pupils won't get the reunion that they'd hoped for with the Marine who wrote to each of them.
"That'll never happen," Stephenson said. "They're going to see him going home, rather than coming home."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun