January 10th, 2009
“You’re moving in together already?” Lydia asked with arched brows, freezing just before she took a bite.
I was expecting her to be less surprised and more congratulatory, but I suppose it made sense from her point of view; we’d only known each other a relatively short time.
“Yeah. We’ve been talking about it for a little while now, and since my lease is up soon, we decided why not.” Eralia said after chomping down on the last piece of pizza from her plate.
Steve gave me one of those looks of his from across the table; the kind with a sly grin. “You two must be getting along quite well…”
We’d had a chat or three about… things that Eralia and I did. He and Lydia, too. Only when it was just us, of course.
“Well, you know,” I said. “She’s easy to live with.”
“Ah, the sex is that good, then?” Lydia said, never one to let an implication remain as such.
All I could do was laugh nervously and blush. Her direct attacks always left me vulnerable and at a loss for words. And wouldn’t you know it, Eralia and Lydia shared that trait.
“You don’t know the half of it,” my soon-to-be-live-in-girlfriend said, grinning ear-to-ear.
“I need details – don’t be stingy! What’s your secret to keeping things… exciting?” Lydia leaned forward and flicked an eye to Steve.
“Hey now, I’m not as young as I used to be – cut me some slack. The spirit is willing, but the flesh?” Steve sighed like a man twice his years.
“There there,” Lydia pat his hand. “I’m not blaming you or anything. I’m not exactly a spring chicken, either.”
All smiles, Eralia leaned to match Lydia and whispered something in one of those big, swiveling ears of hers. Only took a few words for her grin to spread to Lydia. “Oooh, I like that sound of that…”
Steve and I shared another look. He was either in for the treat of a lifetime or he’d be left half-dead. Not that those two things were mutually exclusive.
“Anyways,” I said after a cough, trying to steer the discussion back on track, “Because her complex only has six month renewals, we thought it’d be a good way to save some money.”
Both Lydia and Eralia were reluctant to drop their current scandalous topic, but I was sure they’d chat about it on their own later. “Yeah, I’m sure you two will be fine. Though I do worry,” Lydia said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Worry about what?”
“Laska. How did she take the news?”
Ah, that. Thinking about it made me cringe, for several reasons. “I haven’t told her yet.”
It wasn’t just Lydia who developed a look of concern and worry; Steve got in on it, too. They seemed a little too worried, actually. “You’re not going to leave her in the dark until Eralia shows up with a moving van, are you?”
“What? Of course not. I plan on telling her tonight when we get back. That’s actually why I wanted to come out tonight – try and get her in a good mood before I spring the news on her.”
“Still, that’s kind of last minute,” Steve said, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“Yes, it is,” Eralia said while looking directly at me. Then she gave me a little poke. “Especially considering we decided on moving in together over two weeks ago. I kept telling him the longer he waits the worse it’ll be.”
As if I didn’t get this enough at home. “I know, I know, and I agree. But it’s hard – Laska’s going through a lot. It’s… difficult for me to find the right time to talk to her.”
Lydia circled the rim of her glass with a finger. “Sounds like you’re afraid of how she’s going to react.”
It wasn’t that I was afraid, it was more like I just didn’t want to stress my girl even more.
“What? Why would you-“
“You are,” Eralia interrupted. “Don’t even try to deny it.”
“I’ll deny it all I want,” I said in a tone that made my annoyance with their persistence clear. “You know as well as I do what she’s going through. I just need to find the right time.”
“There never will be a right time – that’s the problem,” Eralia shot back.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I scoffed. If she knew how Laska was back before we met, I didn’t think she’d be saying things like that.
“There’s such a thing as overly emotional,” Eralia said with a pitying sigh. “She just needs to learn how to get a handle on herself, that’s all.”
“I know, that’s why I’m trying to give her time.”
“Problem is, the time she needs isn’t days or weeks, but months and years,” Eralia said, though her tone changed for the softer and she looked down at her drink.
“Has Laska been avoiding you?” Lydia asked.
“Mostly, yeah. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking anymore.” Understatement of the year.
Never one to let a mood continue to hurtle downwards, Steve chimed in. “Oh, that’s normal. Believe me – Zoe’s a complete mystery these days,” he said with a chuckle that was half despair.
Misery loves company? Peas in a pod? Whatever we were, it was comforting to know I wasn’t alone in my tribulations.
“To you, maybe. I know what that girl is thinking, all right,” Lydia said, rolling her eyes. “She has more of a one-track mind than I ever did.”
And leave it to Lydia to make me feel alone again. “What do you mean?”
Whenever Lydia began a sentence with a laugh like that, I always regretted asking. “Just last week she dragged home two boys like they were strays. Poor things.”
“Them? What about me?” Steve’s eyes begged for help.
At least I didn’t have to worry about that. Yet. I couldn’t offer him any help; only my condolences. Soon, maybe tomorrow or maybe in a few months, I’d be lamenting how my daughter was growing up so fast while I cried on Eralia’s shoulder.
Speaking of Eralia, she was still staring at her drink, far too forlorn. I managed to get a little smirk out of her by squeezing her leg, but it left me to wonder what she was thinking about.
“Hard to believe she’s at that age already. Then again, she’s nearly as tall as I am,” I said, attempting to cheer Steve up.
“Who’s as tall as you are?”
Zoe appeared behind me, as if summoned by magic. How such a girl managed to sneak up on us, I’ll never know. “You are,” I replied, having to look up at the great grey dire wolf.
All it took was mere mention that someone was thinking or talking about her, and she flashed a toothy grin and set her tail going like a giant feather duster wielded by a particularly energetic housekeeper.
“Gah! Watch that thing!”
Laska recoiled and ducked away from the fluffy bludgeon, no longer safe in her friend’s shadow.
“Sorry!” Zoe said, grabbing hold of her tail. Even in her grasp, it still tried to wag.
“So what drags you kids to come talk to us old people?” Lydia asked, one eyebrow raised high.
Everyone at the table already knew. We all stared at the dynamic duo, waiting for them to pop the question.
“Can we have some more money?” Laska pleaded.
“Are you really out of tokens already?” I asked.
They nodded in unison.
“We covered them last time…” Lydia said with a little grin and expectant face.
Even if Lydia hadn’t said anything, I was already reaching for my wallet. Pulled out what I hoped would be enough, though I knew it wouldn’t be. The kids could at least look at me instead of the bill in my hand. “Fine, here you go. Try to pace yourselves a little.”
“Yes!” Without further ado the duo scampered off with half-muttered ‘thanks’ over their shoulder and rounded the corner to the arcade. Love you too.
“How much does that make, now?” Eralia said.
“I lost count. Hell, you’re a cheaper date than they are,” I said, brandishing a smirk. After taking refuge behind my drink, that is.
Eralia scowled at me, but it was more cute than anything. It was rare I got the upper hand in these little exchanges, but that just made it all the sweeter. “Are you saying I should’ve had the steak instead of sharing a pizza?”
“Hey now, let’s not get crazy. Would you really order a steak from a place like this?”
She paused to consider what that’d taste like from a place like this and shuddered, but kept up her petulant face. “Good point. You’ll just have to treat me later, then.”
“Sounds like I’ll be grilling tomorrow. As it so happens, I have everything for that marinade you love.”
Her arms may have been crossed defiantly, but her tail gave her away. She tried to look away in a huff, but one eye opened and lingered on me. “You do?”
I’m pretty sure she drooled. “Don’t think that’ll be enough to mollify me,” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. “And wipe that smug look off your face.”
Unable to contain herself any longer, Lydia burst out in a laugh that I could only call wolfish. One of those kinds where you have to hear it to understand. “You two already act like a married couple. I think you’ll get along juuuust fiiine.”
“You’ll have to let us know when you plan on getting hitched,” Steve said, sharing in Lydia’s amusement.
Well, it was somewhat embarrassing but also nice that they approved of us moving in together. Just one of those things that let me know I was doing the right thing – I could only hope the person most important to me felt the same way, though I doubted the reveal would go so smoothly with her.
“Marriage? Maybe,” I said, glancing at Eralia to gauge her reaction. Her tail swished a few times and she dropped her haughty act, seemingly interested in the idea herself.
Not long ago I discovered she’d never been married. A rare thing for someone her – our – age, but perhaps oddities like us just happened to come together. Made the prospect all the more exciting to boot.
“As much fun as this is,” Steve said, pushing an empty plate towards the pile of its kin, “We should probably get going here.”
I glanced at my watch. “Yeah, hard to believe it’s been over two hours. Time sure flies, doesn’t it?”
Lydia made an exaggerated sigh and slumped backwards. “It’s not even nine and we’re already calling it a night. What happened to the me from 15 years ago that swore she’d never be a doddering old woman?”
“She got old,” Eralia said, sharing in Lydia’s pain.
“I think Zoe’s the one responsible for that. That’s what I get for losing myself in the heat of the moment…” Lydia gave Steve a rather accusatory stare. @@@@@
“What was I to do, push you off?” Steve shot back with the same sort of expression. “I don’t think I could have even I wanted.”
Listening to those two, I couldn’t help but remember all the similarities with myself and Eralia. Perhaps there was more weight to their marriage joke than I thought.
“Well, the kids should be back soon,” I said, stepping in to prevent them from getting too detailed. “We can leave then.”
“Yeah, with how fast those two have been blowing through money they’ll be back any minute,” Lydia said with a snort. “But since we have a few minutes, let’s go back to that thing we were talking about earlier.”
“What thing?” I asked, suspicious.
“Oh, not you,” Lydia said, waving her paw at me as if to shoo me away.
Eralia was quick on the uptake. “Want to know more about that, do you?”
“Honey, really?” I said, pleading for her to avoid spilling all our… activities to Lydia.
She just gave me a pat for my troubles. “What’re you getting all embarrassed about? Why, that thing you did with your—“
“Right, I’ll go pay our check,” I said in a hurry and bolted from my chair.
“Ah, I’ll come with you,” Steve added, making his own escape.
When we arrived home, I figured there was no time like the present. Best to strike while she was still in a good mood. Though she was reluctant to leave the arcade, she got most of her cheer back when I opted to sit in the back of the car with her and listen to her thrilling stories of adventure.
“Don’t run away just yet,” I said, cutting Laska off as she made a bee line for her room.
The tip of her tail twitched about. “How come?”
“There’s something I want to talk to you about,” I said, not sure if I should have used ‘we’ instead.
“What about?” Laska said, inching backwards towards the stairs.
She paused and looked at me out of one eye. “What about us?”
“That’s exactly what I want to talk to you about, just not in the hallway,” I said after a sigh. How I longed for the days when Laska didn’t question every little thing. “Let’s chat in the living room.”
“Fiiiine,” Laska said with all the energy of someone who’d been sentenced to hard labor.
Eralia had remained silent during my exchange with Laska. “Want me present?” She asked in a hushed tone, to which I replied “Of course.” Considering this whole talk was going to be about Eralia moving in, it was only natural she be around.
And yet, the response she gave me was anything but enthusiastic. “All right,” she said. “Let me grab something from the kitchen first.”
While she did that, Laska had already darted into the living room and made herself comfy – though not in her usual spot. Rather than take up on the couch next to me, she curled up on the chair that was across the table. Must’ve heard us.
“Okay, what do you want?” Laska said, her shortness taking me aback. Already I knew this wasn’t going to be pretty.
“Actually before that,” I said, rubbing my hands together. My gaze met Laska’s and I said nothing for a moment. “Has anything been… bothering you lately? Anything you’d like to talk to me about?”
Her response was immediate; she shook her head and said “No. Why?”
I knew it was a lie, but I couldn’t be mad at her. Sure I could’ve forced the matter or pressed her, but that’d only make her resent me for prying into her life. About the only thing I could do was accept that she wasn’t ready to come to me yet, as much as it pained me.
“You just seem kind of distant lately, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Laska looked away and fidgeted with her shirt.
She glanced at me a few times, but said nothing. Though she did open her mouth, but clamped shut when Eralia walked in. She was carrying a plate with a half-cut-up apple and some peanut butter. Without a word she dropped down on the couch, but seemed to distance herself. Laska just glared at her as she often did.
“Apple?” Eralia asked, offering up the plate in Laska’s direction.
Laska’s answer came cold as the night air. “No.”
The plate drooped for a second, but Eralia set it down and popped a slice of apple into her mouth.
“Now that we’re all here…” I began. “I’d like to talk about us.”
Laska shifted about in her seat and crossed her legs together. “What about us?”
With no better way I could think of, I elected for the direct approach. Laying my hand on Eralia’s paw, I told Laska the news. “Well, we’ve been talking. I’d like Eralia to move in with us – she’d live here full-time instead of coming and going.”
“…What?” Laska scoot up to the edge of her seat.
“It isn’t a sure thing yet, because I wanted to ask you,” I said, stressing the point. “You’re part of this family and this is your home. I said I’d always ask you, remember?”
Laska’s gaze shifted between Eralia and me several times in short succession. She cracked a half smile like it was some kind of joke, but it faded when neither of us responded in kind. “What? Why? Why does she need to be here all the time?”
“A couple of reasons. It’d be cheaper, more convenient for us… and really, because we want to. We love each other,” I said, interlocking fingers with Eralia. Eralia smiled, though her attention was on Laska rather than me.
I waited several long seconds for Laska’s response, but it never came. She just stared with an increasingly wide set of eyes.
All at once like someone cut her strings, she slumped and short, mirthless laugh spilled from her throat. “So that’s it, then.”
“Yes?” I said, not knowing what to expect from my daughter.
She slid off the chair and stood, but refused to look my way. “Oh, okay. I get it now.”
“Get what? Laska, what’s wrong?”
Her small frame trembled and she sucked in a sharp breath; the kind that always heralded the beginning of tears. Eyes full of untold pain flicked to me, wetness streaked down her cheeks. “You don’t love me anymore, do you?” Her voice was nothing more than an agonized, hoarse whisper.
And I, I was left confounded. All the progress we’d made, all the talks we’d had – Before me was the Laska that I thought had grown past all that.
“What are you talking about? Of course I love you!” I rushed to Laska to give her a reassuring hug, the sort of thing that always worked, but… She pushed me away.
“Liar!” She screamed, her whole body shaking.
Like a knife to my heart. “Why, why would you ever say that…?”
“Because you just said you love her!” Laska shrieked, pointing straight at Eralia.
“What the hell are you going on about? Damn it Laska, just because I love Eralia doesn’t mean I can’t love you.” I had to act fast, even if I didn’t know how I should act.
Laska barked one, short incredulous laugh even as tears rolled off her chin. “Bullshit! That’s not how it works! You only keep me around because you have to, don’t you?!”
Overwhelmed and confused would be putting it mildly. Every accusation she hurled at me pushed the knife in deeper. “What in the fuck are you talking about? Why would I want to get rid of you? Do you even know what you’re saying?”
“Because I’m shit at school?! That’s the only time you ever talk to me anymore! Laska, how is school, Laska, are you doing well in school, Laska, how was your test! That’s all it fucking is anymore!”
It hurt, more than I could have ever imagined. I tried, but did I not try enough? Was this my fault? “But you won’t ever talk to me…”
She either ignored me, or didn’t hear my weak protest. Over and over she rubbed her cheeks, trying in vain to wipe away her sorrows. But the more she tried to hide herself, the more she wept. “I, I was so happy before! But then… Why?! Aren’t I pretty enough? D-do you hate my scars as much as everyone else?! I thought you were different! But then you brought home that WHORE!”
Through the venom and sorrow and things I didn’t understand, I began to think about something I always dismissed as foolish and impossible.
“I had to put on a happy face as you two… as you two,” Laska said, her voice a crackling squeak. “It hurts so much! I’ve tried to be a good girl, to be good in school and act like you wanted me to! But I’m too stupid! I’m too ugly, and, and, the more I tried, the more you ignored me!”
I tried to respond with force, to get some fucking control over the situation. “I tried to talk to you! I really did! But you always shut me out!”
“You always brought up her!” Laska said, full of contempt and thrust a furred finger at Eralia, who until now had been silent, eating her fruit. “Like you were teasing me, taunting me with how great she was!”
Laska’s staggered, stumbling steps had taken her close to the table, within arm’s reach of me and Eralia.
“That’s not at all what I was-“
“It’s her fault, isn’t it?” Laska laughed a strange, cold laugh. “She’s the problem here, isn’t she? Well, don’t you have anything to say for yourself, bitch?”
“Laska! That is enough!”
Eralia folded her paws and took a slow breath. She spoke slow and calm, looking straight at my daughter. “Did you expect he’d see you as something other than his daughter all of a sudden? While you frittered about and played the tragic heroine? This is no one’s fault but your own.”
Laska stood dumbstruck and open mouthed. “You knew. You knew but you did it anyways.”
“What you’re doing isn’t healthy,” said, the eye of calm in the storm raging around her. “I was hoping you would come to realize that on your own.”
Every muscle, every fiber of Laska’s being pulled taut.
“You thieving fucking bitch! I HATE you!”
Her body exploded into action. Her paw grasped the knife on the plate. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you I’ll kill you! You stole my daddy!”
Eralia’s calm face broke as Laska’s paw rose high.
I sprang into action as the knife came down.
Steel kissed flesh and warmth blossomed on my arm.
For hours or minutes or seconds, no one moved. No one said anything. Blood flowed and dripped, spreading crimson on Eralia’s pants.
The knife fell from Laska’s paw, clattering against the table and coming to a rest on the carpet.
“What did I do?” She staggered backwards and fell onto the floor. “I, I… hurt him….”
I knew I’d been stabbed. Maybe cut. By my daughter. Who tried to stab my girlfriend. I don’t know what I should have felt right then. Perhaps I should have felt like the victim, yet, I could only feel pity for Laska.
“Are you okay?! You’re bleeding!” Eralia said, for the first time I could ever recall there was panic in her voice.
“I’m okay,” I said, “It’s not very deep.”
My only concern at that moment was for the two most important women in my life, with Laska foremost. “Laska, please, calm down. I’m fine.”
I sat up and got a good look at the wound on my arm. She must’ve pulled herself at the last moment; it wasn’t too bad. A butterfly or two and I’d be fine.
“I’m….” Laska said, her face frozen into a mask of horror and shock. “No wonder no one loves me… I’m a monster… I’m the one who deserves to…”
Her eyes swam down towards the ground, to the knife. She stared at it, taking labored breaths. I’d thought that was the end of it.
Until again the knife was in her paw. Only, the edge was pointed inward. Her other wrist was extended.
I failed to stop her. It took me far, far too long to realize her intent, and I had sank too deep into the couch.
“No!” Laska shrieked and sobbed, “Let me go!”
Eralia held Laska’s paw firm, having slapped the knife from her grasp. I don’t know how she moved so fast, or why she saved someone who’d just tried to kill her. “How could you even think of doing that to yourself? To your father?!”
“No one cares!” Laska wailed, all the strength escaping her body.
“I care, damn it!” I yelled right next to her, flying to wrap her into a hug. “Never! Never never ever do that! Damn it, Laska! I love you so much, you have no idea how much you scared me! What do I need to do to get it through that thick head of yours?!”
She squirmed and tried to escape, but she could have just teleported. “Let me go!” She said, this time with less force. And again and again, each time quieter than the last until she fell silent and went limp in my arms. “I’m never going to let you go.”
So for a long, long time, like how I used to when she had her nightmares, I held Laska. She buried her face into my chest and just wept, while Eralia – bless her mindful heart – taped a gauze pad to my arm.
After who knows how much time had passed, Laska murmured “I love you.”
And then repeated herself, growing louder every time. “I love you I love you I love you!”
“I love you too,” I said, kissing her ear.
She forced herself away from my chest and looked up at me, snot running down her face to compliment her tears and red-ringed eyes. “You don’t understand…”
“I think I do,” I said after holding my breath for an extra beat or two. I shared a look with Eralia.
I prepared myself to have a talk the likes of which I never dreamed of having with Laska.
“I love you,” she repeated again with a few sniffs and a distant, lonesome smile. “No wonder you replaced me…”
Before I could say anything, she laughed bitterly and teleported out of my arms to near the window. “I’m awful. I, I don’t deserve someone like you… I love you dad, so much – so much it hurts. But, I just, I can’t…”
“Laska, what are you—“
For a split second I saw her out the window, and then she was gone.
Hauling myself to my feet I ran as hard as I could to the door and threw it open. Without heed or care, I shouted Laska’s name as loud as I could.
“Laska! Come back! Laska, please, I love you – just come back!”
A neighbor’s light flicked on, but nothing other than the blowing of frigid wings answered back. Again and again I yelled, running all over the neighborhood, yelling her name. Nothing. The only trace I could find were a few paw prints in the snow in my yard before they vanished into the street.
Bolting back inside, I found Eralia standing, staring out the window.
“Why aren’t you doing anything?! Laska’s run away!”
Eralia kept looking out the window. “Yes, and I’m the reason.”
What a fucking mess. Every fucking emotion I had was in a fight to lead the way; somehow all of them were winning.
“No, just – fuck it all,” I yelled, smashing my foot into the wall. The new hole only made me want to bash the shit out of something else, but I settled for biting my lip. Eralia winced, but said nothing about my tantrum.
I had to calm down. Calm down and think. Think and act.
The nice woman on the end of the line was pleasant – far too pleasant considering I just told her my precious daughter had run away. She seemed to think Laska would return and while she would advise patrols of a run away, she couldn’t file an official report until 24 hours had passed and fuck the police what a bunch of useless shits.
Lydia and Steve and Zoe rushed over to help look for her. I called everyone else I knew, telling them to keep an eye out for Laska. Even people I barely knew. I think I contacted more people that night that I had in the entire previous year.
But when I was done calling and yelling and pleading, when I hung up the phone for the last time, my strength failed me. I would’ve slid down to the floor, but a pair of paws refused to let me.
“What do I do?” I asked, more to myself than her. “She’s… gone.”
“For starters,” Eralia said, “You’re not going to get anywhere running yourself ragged.”
Zoe leapt in and together they helped guide me to the couch.
Anger depleted, nothing was left to hold up the walls in my mind. I couldn’t help it anymore. “What should I do,” I repeated, covering my face so no one could see me cry.
“Let’s think,” Lydia said in that tone only a mother could manage. “If you were Laska, where would you go?”
“I don’t know! I… don’t know anything about her anymore,” I sobbed. “Did I ever?”
Eralia forced my hands away from my face and made me look up at her – at our friends. “You do, you always have. How were you to know she felt that way about you?”
“But, you knew. How could I not?”
“That’s because…” Eralia said, then made a difficult face. “I’ll tell you – both of you – once we find Laska. Just, trust me on this, okay?”
“How are we going to do that?”
“I know Laska really good!” Zoe chimed in, rattling off a list of their favorite hang outs. Even Lydia and Steve added a few things, including the ‘secret’ spots Zoe had blabbed about. Plus, there was the fact that she left without a coat.
Imagining her wandering around outside without a jacket did little to ease the knot in my gut.
“We’ll find her,” Steve reassured me, patting me on the shoulder.
Eralia nodded. “You have two wolves and a jackal here, after all. We’ll track her down in no time.”
Slowly, but surely, I found my strength and resolve return. We’d find her.
As we all filed out to begin our search, I stopped Eralia. There was something on my mind, about her and Laska. Eralia had known my daughter half a year. She’d been nearly stabbed and had some rather… unkind words hurled her way.
“You know, I won’t blame you if you don’t want to help – or you decide to break things off after this,” I said, fully expecting her to leap at the opportunity. Expected, but hoped she wouldn’t.
“I think that maybe this can still work,” she said with a warm, if unsure smirk. “I do care about her, even if she hates me.”
“Can I ask why?” That was nice for someone – anyone. Too nice, almost.
Eralia shrugged. “What can I say? I know what she’s going through. I know how stressful it is.”
I wanted to ask more, but remembered she said she’d tell me when we found Laska. With no other choice, I had to accept it as it was. “Thanks. I love you.”
She giggled and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Love you, too. We’ll find her,” she added before she hopped in her truck and drove off.
Steeling myself against the chill, I took off on foot towards the field where Laska had run away from me all those years ago.