February 2nd, 2010
Laska and Eralia were still at odds with one another, but string by string little tendrils began linking them together. Sometimes, if one didn’t look too closely, they could be mistaken for mother and daughter – issues of race aside.
Her grades were holding, though the matter of friends at school was still thorny as ever. If there was one saving grace, it was she didn’t mention how much she hated being in class. So either things were improving, or she’d just stopped mentioning it altogether.
In short, our lives were gradually heading to a tomorrow better than yesterday. Hopefully.
But I should’ve known the past wouldn’t stay where it belonged forever. It was something in the back of my mind, a faint tickle I would worry about every now and then, but I always believed it to be something that would never happen.
And then it did.
A phone call from the social services center. We didn’t speak long, didn’t need to – I was just provided the basics and some contact information. In what had to have been less than two minutes, the wraiths of the past had woken and wasted no time clawing at my heart.
For the first time in a long while, I was afraid.
Laska was in her room, but I couldn’t just go up and tell her. Could I? The social worker told me it was my decision to make. I disagreed. Well, I disagreed, but that didn’t mean I had the courage to actually go through with saying it.
So I waited for Eralia to come home from work. The longest, most anxious minutes and hours I’d felt since Laska ran away.
When she did finally get home, my dear, sweet Eralia figured out pretty quickly something was up. I blame the small fact I wasn’t the sort who would greet her at the door when she got home. Wringing my hands probably also didn’t do much to conceal my intent.
“What’s got you so worked up?” She said, slipping off her boots.
I shot a glance up the stairs, looking for any sign of Laska. Probably should’ve waited until we were in a better spot, but bottling it up for as long as I had took everything out of me. “Laska’s mother is dying,” I blurt out in a rush, “Something about liver failure, there’s no transplant available. They expect she only has days to live.”
Eralia gave me the slow blink, the kind accompanied by a “you must be joking” smile. “What?”
“Yes,” I said, forcing myself to take a deep breath after that burst, “The social services people called earlier today. They said it’s my choice to tell Laska or not, but I think she deserves to know.”
“I see,” Eralia said very calmly, walking past me and straight into the kitchen.
“Where are you going?”
There was the sound of cupboard doors and clinking glasses. A minute later Eralia reappeared, bearing two tumblers with a fair bit of whiskey in them. “First off, you need to calm down – you’re so wound up you’re getting me going. Here.”
“I don’t really think this is-“
She cut me off with a stare, holding one of the glasses a little higher. Begrudgingly I accepted the drink and took a sip. Maybe she was right.
“Let’s go to the garage,” Eralia said, peering through the kitchen entryway to the second floor.
So we head out, with me barely remembering to grab a jacket. Inside the garage Eralia turned on the heater and took a long, slow sip. “So. Do you think Laska is going to want to see her dear old mother?”
“I don’t know. I think she has the right to decide that on her own,” I said, pacing with one hand in a pocket and the other keeping my drink close to my chest. “I also think she deserves to know about her biological parents, but…”
“But you’re afraid of what could happen. Can’t say I blame you.” Eralia took another long sip, focusing on the newly uncovered ice cubes. She swirled her glass, watching them tink and slide around in the amber liquid. “That’s one of my fears; some day I’ll get a call about my dad and then I’ll have to decided to keep running or face my past.”
I found her particular word choice told me more about how she felt than anything else. “You’re not the only one,” I said with a dry chuckle. “Though I think I’ve told you I never really had a falling out with my family. Just kind of stopped talking over the years.”
“Aren’t you lucky,” Eralia said with a small grin. “Though seeing as how you have two women in your life with more baggage than entire families put together…”
“You do a good job carrying it.”
“Such a charmer.”
“I learned from the best.”
That remark got me an eyeroll from Eralia. “Anyways, I agree with you, I think Laska deserves to make the call. Given all we’ve been through, I think she’s capable of handling it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I leaning towards, but it doesn’t make it any easier to bring up. I still remember how she used to wake up screaming and crying from her nightmares when I first took her in. I just don’t want her to ever have to go through that kind of pain ever again.”
“So do you or don’t you think she’s capable?”
Chewing on my lip, I realized I meant one thing and said another. “I do and don’t. I’m afraid for her, I guess, I don’t know.”
Eralia stepped in close, lifting the bottom of my glass as encouragement to finish the drink. “Laska’s very lucky to have someone worry about her so much, but she’s fifteen now. Didn’t we go over this after she tried to kill me?”
“Hey, she does regret that you know,” I said, matching her sarcastic smile with one of my own.
“Does she? I still get nervous whenever I see her rummaging around in the kitchen drawers.”
I let out a small sigh after a sip of the fiery liquid. An oil stain on the concrete floor caught my attention and gave me something to fixate on. “I know you’re joking. I think. But, she’s been through so much, I… I just don’t know what she’s ready for.”
Soft fluff tickled my cheek, bringing my head up. “I think she’s ready for whatever you think she’s ready for.”
“That doesn’t exactly help me much,” I said, giving her a mock frown, though I knew what she was really getting at. I pounded the rest of my drink, which proved to be a poor idea as the burning forced a flinch out of me.
Grinning at my failed display of machismo, Eralia finished off her glass without any fanfare.
“All right, I’ll tell her,” I said, once I’d cleared my throat.
Maybe it was just a sign that I didn’t pay her enough attention. Whenever I came into Laska’s room and lingered longer than needed to drop off or pick something up, she’d stop whatever she was doing and give me one of those wary, impatient looks.
Not like she had much to hide, her room was the same as it always was. A little messy, mostly clothes and the like, but that was the worst of it. Then again, her PC was likely where she kept all her things she didn’t want me to see.
“How’s it going,” I said, forcing myself to look at her for the first time since I entered her room.
Idle chit-chat only served to deepen her suspicions. “Fine…”
“Uh, that’s good. Anything new?”
“Not really.” Laska spun round in a lazy circle on her computer chair.
“Oh, I see.”
Why now, of all times, did I find it so hard to have a conversation with her? Oh, right. I was just delaying the inevitable.
“You know dad,” Laska said, leaning back in her chair and following me with her eyes as she continued to spin, “You’re really not good at hiding it when you wanna say something.”
“It’s that obvious?”
“Yeah. So, uh, what do you want to talk about?”
Well, having her sort of force the issue was kind of nice, though it made me feel less of a father. No time like the present.
“It’s about your mother.”
Laska narrowed her eyes. I met her gaze with my own, doing my best to appear solemn. In short order she went through a range of emotions, ending with her all wound up with tension.
“What about her?” She said, her voice low and terse.
“I got a call earlier. Apparently she’s in the hospital. Liver failure from something or other, I didn’t get the details. She doesn’t have more than a few days, they figure.”
In a way, speaking to her about this was both easier and far more difficult than I could have predicted. Laska turned another half-circle, making a point to focus on her PC, not even glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. Try as she might, however, there was no mistaking how upset she was.
“And it’s up to you if you’d like to visit her in the hospital or not. I didn’t know if I should tell you, but I decided I have no right to make that decision for you.”
She clicked around, typed a few things.
“I’ll understand either choice you make, and I won’t bring it up again unless you want me to.”
The way her ears wiggled meant she was listening intently, even if she pretended otherwise. For a while she kept on pretending, and I kept on standing there not knowing what else I should do or say. It was only when I moved to leave that she slammed a fist on her desk and stood in a rush.
“Who would want to visit that, that bitch!”
From my perspective, one girl wanted to. “I don’t think it’s so much to visit, but more to give closure to a part of your life.”
“It was already closed,” Laska said, her burst of anger already faded. When she trembled I took a step forward and reached out to her, but thought better of it. Sure enough, she only shook for a few moments, taking her balled up fists at her sides and crossing them across her chest. “Wasn’t it?”
She searched me for an answer, one I didn’t rightfully know how to provide. Reaching in I had to think to myself, “What would Eralia say?,” and the answer came with surprising ease.
“Closure usually means you don’t get so worked up when someone mentions it.”
Laska sagged. “I guess. Serves her right,” she said in a muttering whisper, “that woman deserves to die.”
As much as I wanted to share in my daughter’s sentiment, I just couldn’t bring myself to agree. She was reprehensible as a person for what she did, even worse as a mother. It was probably because I hadn’t experienced it first-hand, so I elected not to say anything.
And neither did Laska. Which left us both standing in an awkward silence.
“Well, you don’t need to decide now. Sleep on it, let me know tomorrow,” I said, scratching at the back of my neck. “Oh, and I guess I’ll get started on dinner soon. I’ll yell for you when it’s done.”
She dropped heavily into her chair and turned to her PC, but she was stiff as ever, doing nothing but staring at the screen. Suppose that was my silent cue to leave.
February 3rd, 2010
Given the circumstances, I let Laska stay home from school. With the burden on her mind I couldn’t imagine she’d pay much attention anyways. Besides, if she did agree, I’d rather go to the hospital during the day rather than after picking her up.
Wait, which hospital?
During the call yesterday I sort of assumed when the social worker referred to Laska’s mother being in a hospital, it’d be one in the city. Given ten years had passed, I had no idea if she was still even in the same part of the country.
I began hoping with fingers crossed Laska wouldn’t want to see her mother. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to get her decision as she came trudging down the stairs at an unusually early hour considering I didn’t make her get up. Made me wonder if she just couldn’t sleep.
“Morning,” I said, not caring to put any false cheer into my greeting. “Can I get you anything to eat?”
Stifling a yawn and looking like she’d just spent the night rolling around on her bed non-stop, Laska gave me a long, sleepy stare. “Coffee.”
Coffee? She never drank coffee. Tired indeed. “Sure, I can get you a cup. Should have some flavors you’ll like.”
“Pancakes. And sausage. Please.”
I paused as I stood and gave her a small smirk. “Fine, anything else?”
She tapped the ends of two digits together, looking away but still keeping an eye on me. “Hashbrowns and eggs?”
This must be a result of her not eating much at dinner last night. Ah, if only Laska had woken in time for the breakfast I made for Eralia before she left for work. I was pretty sure the skillet hadn’t even had a chance to dry yet since I put it away.
“All right, the full course. Growing girls need to eat, after all,” I said, taking enjoyment in the small, honest smile on her face. Sometimes little things could make or break the start of someone’s day, so I hoped this meant we were off to a good start.
Once Laska finished stuffing herself enough her stomach bulged, I figured then was as good a time as any to ask.
“So, did you decide on what you want to do?” I said as I scrubbed the frying pan.
“I think so.” The way her cheeks pulled up and the tightness in her eyes made her inner turmoil all the more obvious.
When she didn’t follow up for a while, I gave her a little prodding. “Well?”
Laska stared at her paws on the table. “I want to go. Like you said last night, I think I need this. I have so many questions,” she looked up at me, “maybe I’ll finally know why…”
“Good, I think you’ve made the right call,” I said, careful to conceal the pang of regret at the fact we might have to do a bit of traveling. And that I would’ve said the same thing no matter her decision. “I’ll call soon as I’m done cleaning up and find out more.”
“All right,” Laska said as she slid out of her chair. “You mean it? That I’ve really made the right choice?”
“I do. You’re right – hopefully you’ll find some answers and some peace.”
“But I’m also kinda scared.”
Taking a break from the dishes I dried off my hands. “I would be too. Confronting the past is never easy, especially when it’s as bad as yours was. Come here,” I said, holding out my arms.
A bit hesitant at first, Laska came around quickly enough and fell into a hug, nuzzling her face against my chest. “It’ll be scary, but when it’s over, you’ll realize you had nothing to be scared of.”
“You really think so?”
She held the hug for a little while longer, ending with a deep sigh as she pulled away. “Thanks… I guess I’ll go wash up, huh?”
“Right. Shouldn’t take too long for me to find out what we need to know. I hope.”
Hurrying with the rest of the dishes I more or less threw them into the cupboards and got on the phone with the social services people. I prayed I wouldn’t get a voice mail box, and much to my relief my prayers were answered. Unfortunately, my second prayer was only kind of answered – her mother wasn’t too far away, but it’d still be a good four or five-hour drive.
I also found out why she was about to die of liver failure.
I thought it a terrible thing, but Laska would probably find it a just and fitting end.
Even more important than that, however, I learned they had managed to contact her father and that if Laska were to go, he would as well. Her real father.
A tightness, a sense of jealousy gripped my heart. Before I hadn’t wanted her to go out of a light-hearted dislike for having to travel, but now, now I genuinely did not want her to go. I mean, I knew she probably hated him just as much, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling she might not hate him.
Worst of all, it was a reminder she was adopted.
So, with a sense of heaviness, I went to deliver the news.
“…It’ll be a bit of a drive, but we can head there today or tomorrow if you want,” I said, standing just inside the door to Laska’s room.
Laska was wrapped in a cloak of contemplative stillness, only half acknowledging I was even speaking to her. “Could we go tomorrow? I don’t really feel like going now. I mean, I want to, but…”
“I know what you mean,” I said, keeping my voice low to match the mood. “That’s fine, we’ll leave around seven or eight in the morning.”
“Okay,” she said, gazing steadily at her paws clasped together in her lap. “So, uh, why is she dying, anyways?”
I struggled to think if there was a way I could reveal her mother’s affliction in a more positive light, but no matter how I approached it the end result was always the same. “Hepatitis.”
“It’s a disease,” I said, picking at a hangnail. “Infects the liver and if not treated can be fatal. Your mother has had it for a while, though no one knew until she was brought in to the ER.”
“Oh. Is it painful? How’d she get it?”
Couldn’t say I blamed her for carrying a grudge like that as long as she did. “It can be. I don’t know much about it, really. The nurse the social worker spoke with said they’re fairly positive she contracted the disease through sharing needles. I guess she had collapsed veins and tracks all over her arms.” I didn’t know why it was so difficult to talk about, it wasn’t like I knew the woman at all, and hell, she’d nearly killed her daughter. But even with all that, or maybe because of, I couldn’t shake the small measure of pity I felt.
“Like, she did drugs?”
Laska gave a silent snort of satisfaction. “She deserves everything she’s getting. I hope she’s suffering.”
“And that’s not at all, though this isn’t about your mother,” I said, leaning against her dresser.
She looked up.
“Your,” I paused, forcing myself to choke down the lump in my throat, “father will be there too.”
Laska’s eyes went wide for a few seconds before returning to their prior coldness. “What, is he there dying too?”
I took a deep breath, then another. “No. I didn’t ask much, but he’s fine. Supposedly he wasn’t going to have anything to do with your mother but since you’re going, he’ll be there.”
“I don’t get it,” Laska said, looking to me for an answer, “why now?”
I assumed she was getting at how come he’d never tried to get ahold of her earlier. Why indeed. “I don’t know. We’ll have to find out tomorrow, if you still want to go. Do you?”
I hoped she’d say no, that she’d changed her mind while she chewed on the latest revelation. Just as I was about to say something like she could wait, or I’d give her some time, she muttered her answer.
“Yeah. I do. I really,” her quiet words rose to a near shout in an awful hurry, “really want to tell that asshole what I think of him!”
Though she didn’t know it, Laska’s little outburst served to reassure my doubts. “I bet he’s just as terrible as Bela.”
“Oh. My mother’s name. My father’s is Johan,” Laska said, reciting their titles like a curse.
Bela and Johan? I knew Laska’s name was “Love” in another language, but I always figured it was given to her by parents who’d picked it up somewhere and thought it novel. There were multitudes of details, big and small, I didn’t know about Laska’s past. Rather than pry and dig, I always left it alone, figuring she’d tell me one day if she really wanted to.
“Well, tomorrow we’ll find out a lot of things. Oh, and Laska,” I said, closing the distance between us in a sort of meandering way, attempting to cover my intent.
She acknowledged me with a swivel of her ears, but she was busy focusing off at something beyond her wall. “Yeah?”
“I know you’ve got a lot on your mind right now, but never forget I love you more than anything.” Before she had a chance to say anything I delivered a crushing hug, picking her up off the bed. Laska squirmed and protested for a few seconds before submitted to my unyielding dad-hug. She mumbled something into my chest, but I couldn’t make it out.
“What was that?” I asked, finally releasing her.
“Nothing,” she said, for once today displaying a hint of sunshine.
“You know I don’t like it when you do that.”
Laska shuffled away from the edge of the bed, just out of arm’s reach. “And you know I don’t like it when you do… a lot of things.”
Well, if she was in the mood to act saucy I didn’t have much to worry about. I like to think it was all because of my hug.
“I only do it for your own good, you know.”
“How is using the vacuum on me for my own good?” She said with a petulant scowl.
“You wouldn’t move and I had cleaning to do. Besides, you were absolutely full of cat hair.”
That one got her. No words, only that face where she wanted to say something, but had no idea what to say to that. Victory.
“I’m always full of cat hair!” She said, finally managing to find something to blurt out – and threw a pillow at me for good measure.
With dad-like reflexes I snatched it out of the air and whipped it back at her. And hit her clean in the side of the head. Laska toppled over like she’d been shot and sprawled out for effect, eyes closed just a little too tightly for someone who was supposed to be dead. When I didn’t move to check on her, she popped one eye open. “Not even going to make sure I’m okay?”
“What do you mean? You’re obviously fine, or else you wouldn’t be giving me that face.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Sure it is. Besides, if a pillow to the head was enough to take you down, you’d have to live in one of those bubbles.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad… Wouldn’t have to go to school,” Laska said, having rolled onto her back with her arms and legs spread out.
“Living in a bubble means you don’t have to go out, sure, but it also means no one can get in.”
Laska grumbled and sighed. “I guess.”
“All right, well, if you need anything let me know. Get some rest, tomorrow is going to be a long day,” I said, heading out of her room.
February 4th, 2010
The car ride was quiet. Neither of us said much. I’d thought about asking Eralia to come, but decided against it after considering it. As much as I wanted some kind of moment to happen that involved Eralia and Laska bonding or some such, I knew the odds of that happening were remote at best. More likely it’d just put Laska on edge the entire time – even more so, that is.
So for the trip I had some music to keep me company as Laska watched the world pass by from her window. Cityscape to rural farmlands and back again, though our destination was a smaller city than our own.
And kinda run-down. Most of the streets we drove through were places I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around at night. Shops and houses were old and dilapidated, bars were on windows. I could certainly see Laska’s mother becoming an addict in a place like this.
At least the hospital was in a better stretch; wouldn’t have to worry about my car being broken into as much.
Walking towards the lobby, Laska’s paw found my hand and squeezed. Squeezing back calmed her some, but she was in no hurry to show off her teenage independence.
“It’ll be okay,” I said as we slipped past the automatic doors. “I’m right here with you.”
“I know, I just… I’m scared.”
“I know you are. But I think once you see her, you’ll realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I hope so,” she said, walking so close to my side she threatened to trip me up.
Inside, the receptionist directed us to the palliative care wing, room 632.
Our shoes echoed off the white tile floors and walls as we went, then up the elevator and down another hallway. At the end it opened up into a circular structure with a nurse station in the center and rooms situated along the outer wall. A quick glance to either side showed which way we’d need to take.
629, 630, Laska’s paw gripped my hand tighter still.
631, she slowed to a near crawl. I matched her stride, giving her the most confident smile I could manage. “Almost there.”
She did her best to smile in return, but it was a broken thing. Her breaths were fast, no doubt her heart was racing.
The door was open. I peeked inside the room. Two standard hospital beds with a curtain between them, pretty typical stuff. The near bed had some old man who was asleep, so that meant the woman we were looking for was behind the partition.
“Ready?” I asked.
Laska shook her head; she looked on the verge of tears. “No,” she said in a strained whisper.
We’d come so far, and now all that separated ten years of bitter resentment was a door and a curtain. I suppose as the distance narrowed reality began to set in. Though she hesitated, I trusted she’d find her nerve in due time.
As we lingered, the nurse gave us a suspicious glance. “Something I can help you with?”
“Ah, not really,” I said, then remembered the social services person might’ve phoned the hospital. “Actually, do you have anything about visitors for Bela?”
He rummaged through a few papers on the desk and came up with a clipboard. Adjusting the glasses on his wrinkled face, he read over whatever documents were attached. “Ah, you must be Curtis and… Laska, is it?”
“That’d be us,” I said, somewhat hopeful they’d be understanding of our particular situation.
“Right, we – and she – were told to expect you and another visitor today,” he said, his eyes skimming further down the page. “Something about an adopted girl visiting her mother, I see…”
Laska had her paws firmly clasped onto my hand, standing close at my side.
“…Not a happy reunion, I take it?”
I squeezed her paw. “Not exactly.”
“Well, take all the time you need. Visiting hours are until 8pm,” he said with an understanding smile as he settled back into his chair.
With that small matter settled, I could turn my attention back towards my trembling daughter. “Well if you want, we can sit down somewhere until you feel a little more comfortable.”
She swallowed heavily. “I don’t think I’ll ever get more comfortable…”
“All right. Want me to lead the way?”
Laska nodded. Suddenly, I wasn’t so confident and almost regret asking, but this was something I had to do for her. The short crossing from the doorway to beyond the other side of the curtain felt like it took hundreds of steps instead of a few dozen. Everything I’d imagined her mother would look like, be like, flashed through my mind in preparation to handle whatever was to come.
None of them came close.
I’d been expecting her to be sort of prepared for us. Anticipating us. Instead, she was looking out the window. The steady beeping of the heart rate monitor. Various IVs and tubes ran into and out of her body.
I was fairly certain Laska weighed more than her mother did, despite the fact her mother was clearly taller; thin was an understatement. What was on that bed was more like a skeleton draped in yellow, waxy skin and bits of matted, dull black fur and hair.
This was a woman that was supposed to be in her early 40s?
Laska let out a quiet gasp.
If it weren’t for the heart rate monitor, I would’ve sworn time had frozen. No one moved or reacted after that gasp. Not until Bela, stiff and mechanical, shifted her attention from the window to us. First me, then Laska. Her yellow eyes were clouded and sunken.
“So, you’ve come,” Bela said, sounding very much like the dying cat she was. Harsh, raspy. There was neither cheer nor regret in her words, just a simple statement.
Waiting for Laska to say something was growing awkward in a hurry, so I jumped in. “I’m Curtis, Laska’s… father. You’re Bela, her biological mother, correct?” It was such an obvious thing to say, but it was something to get the ball rolling on some kind of conversation.
“I don’t care who you are. There was no point in either of you coming,” Bela said with a snort, resuming her sky-watching.
“No point? I think you—“
While I’d like to say I’d never heard Laska speak like that before, I did – just once. Immediately I scanned the room, making sure there weren’t any scalpels or anything lying around.
“You don’t regret anything you did to me, do you?!”
Anger was shaking Laska’s balled up paws as much, or even more so, than fear had.
Bela just kept on looking through the glass. “I regret having you. Should’ve gotten that abortion.”
Why had I expected to meet with a woman on her deathbed seeking forgiveness and solace? That wasn’t at all like the person who’d maim and beat Laska in the first place. And for the first time in a very long while, I was livid.
“How dare you! You put your daughter through hell, abuse the fuck out of her, and then tell her you wish you aborted her?”
“I don’t recall ever asking for you to show up and bother me,” Bela said, deigning to give us her notice. She tried to spit us with a withering stare, but she was so far gone the best she could manage was weary.
Laska laughed once, then twice, despite bitter tears rolling down her cheeks. “I can’t believe I was so stupid to think you’d do something like say you’re sorry.”
“Why act surprised? Your birth was a mistake, so it’s natural you’d never do anything right.”
No, I didn’t need Eralia to hold my hand as I held Laska’s to get through this tough time – now I needed her to keep me from doing something… rash. It was all I could to just clench my jaw so hard my teeth threatened to crack. I could even feel my nostrils flaring.
“You said there was no point?” Laska said, her voice taking on an unsettling sing-song quality, “I disagree. I came here to watch you die in misery, you wretched old cunt.”
“How kind of you.”
Well, one thing was for sure – Laska was no longer scared. No, that wasn’t quite right – she was still afraid, only now she was charged with rage.
“You really have no apologies?” I said, though I already knew the answer.
“Why should I?”
“You ruined her life!”
“She ruined mine.”
Never before I had met someone so cold, so calloused. I wanted to just take Laska and leave, to forget that broken shell of a woman ever existed, but we didn’t come to make pleasantries.
“And how, exactly, did she ruin your life?”
“The same way a child ruins the life of every parent,” Bela said, relaxing into bed and pillow.
Unbelievable. How could a woman like this ever have a child, let alone name her what she did?
“You mean the way you let your life be ruined,” said a new voice, one bearing a slight accent, coming from the doorway.
There stood a man of slight build and baring features marking him a likely suspect for Laska’s father. He was a Cheshire, or at least a werecat, with the same sort of dark, almost-black violet hair and fur Laska had. Well, now I knew why Laska was so small.
“Oh, that voice. The family’s all here now,” Bela said dryly – that is, even more dry than usual.
“Johan?” I said, resting a hand on my daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t said a whole lot, though the sight of her father… her real father, loosened her muscles a tiny bit.
“Yes,” he said, walking towards us as if on glass. He spoke soft and quiet, though it was hard to tell if it was because that was due to his nature or nervousness. “I’m Laska’s father, and you must be… her dad, Curtis.” He moved to stick out a paw, but thought better of it.
“That I am,” I said, trailing off to silence. I’d intended to say more, to add in how Laska was my daughter now, but the way he addressed me; I didn’t need to.
Our curt greeting over, he turned to Laska, taking in the differences since he’d last seen her. “Ah, hello Laska. Been a while, hasn’t it? You’ve really grown.”
Laska took a deep, long breath. “Yes, it has Johan. Why are you here?”
“To see my child, why else?” He said with a faint, self-deprecating smile.
I was still livid, but seeing at least one of her parents showing a modicum of concern helped calm me down.
“Why now?” Laska asked.
“Because he couldn’t be bothered until now,” Bela said, waving a paw in the air.
In a flash the somber, somewhat sad countenance Johan bore changed to the same sort of thing Laska and I were feeling. He spun on a heel and snapped “Don’t you dare lump me together with you. You may have let spoil your life, but I wanted more.”
“Hey, I tried. I gave birth to her, didn’t I?”
He just shook his head. “Sorry, Laska. Though I’m sure by now you know you shouldn’t put much stock in what that woman says.”
“…Yeah, I guess.”
“So, I’ll tell you right off. I couldn’t see or talk to you for seven years due to a court order.”
Laska looked at her feet. “But it’s been ten.”
Johan padded back and forth, but he never got too close to Laska, always staying out of arm’s reach. “I know. After seven, after never having a chance to explain anything, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should even try to be part of your life again, seeing as you undoubtedly loathe me.”
Bela, as usual, had to pipe up. “See? What do I keep saying, this is all pointless.”
“What’s pointless is never trying,” Johan said, not even bothering to glare at his former wife. Or actually, I couldn’t remember if they were ever married.
I ran a hand through my hair and looked for a place to sit. This was going to be a long day, and I needed to get off my feet. Had a feeling Laska did as well, and Johan seemed decent enough to talk with. Plus, I had one very specific question for him I didn’t want Laska to hear. “If I can interrupt, there’s not enough chairs in here – but there are two out in the hall. Johan?”
He picked up on my lead and followed me out of the room.
“Do you really intend to come back into her life?” I asked once we were out of earshot. There was, perhaps, a bit more venom to my words than I’d intended. Fortunately for me, he either didn’t notice or even found something to grin about. Not that his grin lasted more than a second or two.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I believe it’s up to Laska, if she can ever forgive me. If I can forgive myself.”
He may have been looking in my direction as he spoke, but he wasn’t looking at me. It was more like he was seeing something that existed only in his mind. For as much as I wanted to bust his ass on his noncommittal answer, I understood exactly what he meant. He still loved her, but knew it was one-sided.
I opened my mouth, only to sigh. “Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Come on, let’s get these in the room.”
“Right,” he said, moving as if the burden her bore became a little lighter.
Again walking by the first bed, the old man – now looking at him I noticed he was full human – was still sound asleep. Good, for a moment there I had a pang of guilt we’d woken him and forced him to listen to all our drama.
“There, now we can relax a little,” I said, as I wiggled one chair against the wall, forming a quarter-circle with the bed.
And so the three of us sat. Bela, myself, Laska, and Johan. I sat as people usually sat, Laska balled herself up – and so did Johan, to an extent. Age had limited his flexibility.
Getting off my feet helped take a load off; something about standing always made one more prone to bouts of anger.
“So,” I said with a cough, searching for something to say. “You keep saying Laska ruined your life. Why?”
“Because she did,” Bela said, straight to the point as always. Only difference was, she was starting to lose her indifference.
“If you hated me from the start why did you even have me?” Laska said, her orange eyes gleamed with tears.
“Ask him,” Bela said, pointing with her eyes.
“Even now you still make me do all the work?” Johan said, closing his eyes and forcing himself to take a calming breath. “If I hadn’t come you wouldn’t have said anything, would you?”
Bela shrugged the best she was able.
“Very well. Laska – and you, Curtis – deserve to know this from the beginning. Bela and I were young and in love, foolish as it was. As you can see,” he said, opening his paws wide as if to highlight himself, “I am not the sort most women find attractive. So when Bela took an interest, lust and passion conquered my reason.”
Bela gave a short laugh through her nose. “He was the only one I’d found that let me do him how I wanted.”
“So?” Laska said innocently. Small mercy that Laska didn’t quite pick up on the sexual implications.
“That said, we were not always… careful, and Bela became pregnant. She wished to terminate the pregnancy, I did not.”
“First time he ever stuck up for what he wanted,” Bela said, not at all impressed or proud. If I had to say, she was deeply annoyed by the memory.
Johan slouched over, his paws clasped together between his knees. “At first I nearly went along with it, but a child – I had no idea how much the idea enthralled me until it became reality. I never relented, and finally convinced her it’d be a boon to our relationship. Time went on, we found out it was going to be a girl. So, I came up with a name for how I felt.”
“Stupid name, something you’d name a pet. Laska.”
Laska’s lip twinged in a sort-of snarl at the woman who had given birth to her, but at the same time her watery eyes lingered on her father.
“I should’ve known how things would go when she didn’t bother with a name, went along with my pick while complaining. But I held a naïve hope Bela would come to love our daughter as I had.”
“Like hell. It hurt, she cried from the moment she entered this world and never once stopped. Endlessly fussy as well. An awful child.”
Johan looked up at the gurney, as if he wished he could set the thing ablaze. “Yes, that’s what children do when they’re young. I took care of her while you worked, did everything for her. You barely even saw her, let alone spoke to her. And yet, that never stopped you from hurting her.”
“It wouldn’t be quiet. Always with the noise.”
I remembered the night terrors, the crying, the tears. Never once did Laska annoy me. My mind was completely and utterly blown by the knowledge her own mother could refuse her for so long – no, it wasn’t just refusal. It was so much worse.
Johan slammed a foot to the ground and shot up out of his seat. “She just wanted her mother!”
“You’d think she’d have learned I didn’t want her. Stupid to boot.”
What made this even worse, that woman spoke as if Laska wasn’t even in the room. It was so difficult for me to keep my silence, to let Johan finish his story with so many remarks from Bela.
He laughed bitterly and fell back into the chair, then covered his eyes with a paw. “And to think I stayed with you through all the abuse. Not just of her, but of me as well. I did what I could, but I couldn’t always be there. Sometimes I was too… afraid. Even when it become so unbearable.”
Johan leaned back and let his head roll to a side, meeting Laska’s gaze. “Then the final straw. Left alone and crying, the neighbors took action. Laska was taken from me and I was put in jail for gross neglect.”
“Listen to you bitch; you only got a year. I was stuck in there for three,” Bela said, “some shit that was. Try to set a kid straight and they toss you in prison.”
“Yeah, only a year with no contact with my daughter or anyone else. After I was released I did what I could, but was under a strict restraining order. What I did discover of her treatment at the hands of Bela’s family… I begged and pleaded, but they would not yield. Then I learned she’d been adopted by someone outside her family, and she was no longer bouncing from caretaker to caretaker. I hoped it meant she finally found someone who could give her the love she needed, deserved.”
Bela had no more snarky remarks, Johan had nothing left to say of the past. Emotions of every sort washed across Laska in fits and starts, mixing together to form a face of disbelief, anger, and sorrow. The women that called herself Laska’s mother was much the demon she imagined and remembered, but her father was something else entirely.
It was the worst-case scenario for me.
“Why, why didn’t you do anything?” Laska said, her eyes ravenously searching Johan’s face for an answer that would explain everything, explain why she she suffered for so long.
“I was weak. Scared. An idiot of the worst kind.”
“You let her beat me!” Laska howled, no longer able to contain her tears. “Look at these scars! My ear! My tail!”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“Sorry won’t heal me! Sorry won’t give me a family!”
Words I never wanted to hear, could never bear to hear.
I winced from the weight dropped on me, from the tight grip on my heart. Knowing she was just emotional, very emotional, did nothing to dampen the impact. Or its effects.
Laska caught herself a few seconds later, mouth open in horror. “Dad, I didn’t, that’s not what I—“
It was all I could do to avoid breaking down right then and there. “Is that what you really feel?”
“No! I just meant-” The waterworks threw open all the way and Laska cried like I hadn’t seen in ages. She clambered from her seat to mine, throwing her arms around me and sobbing into my chest. “Dad, I love you, but..”
“But I’m not your real father,” I said, rubbing the back of her head.
“But you’re my dad!” she said between her hics, leaving my shirt a soaking mess in no time. It hurt bad, even with her apology. Knowing she wasn’t my ‘real’ daughter and hearing it from her lips were two different animals.
“Whiny little shit,” Bela said, conveniently giving me a focus for my welling hostility. I couldn’t see much of her from my vantage, and for that I was grateful. Johan, however, was giving me what I could best describe as an affectionate, yet envious face.
To my surprise Laska pulled herself together in only another minute or two, forcing herself away with wet cheeks and a red face. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said, trying in vain to wipe away the evidence of her careless words.
“I know, but…”
“…It hurt me, too.” Laska did her best to put on a good humor, but all she could come up with was a wan smile. Good enough for me.
“You two are something else,” Johan said, propping his chin up on a paw.
For good measure I ruffled Laska’s hair and ears, just the way she hated it. She recoiled, covering her twitching ears with her paws and glowered at me. “It’s been an experience,” I said, tossing a tired grin to Johan.
“I can only imagine.”
“Great, now that you’re all done sharing the past, can you piss off and leave me to die in peace?”
A tempting offer for sure, but there was more I wanted to know – that I was sure Laska wanted to know. “No, not yet. What happened since then? I know you have liver failure from hepatitis, but how?”
Laska’s ire only grew as she took an interest in events that led to the present. I had a feeling her interest was rooted in the hope it had been a long and gruesome path.
“Are you shittin’ me? What good would it do you to know?”
“Not for me, for Laska,” I said, making it a point to avoid using the phrase ‘your daughter.’
The 40-something woman who looked twice her age leveled her sunken eyes at me, at Laska. “It’s exactly as you think. My life was ruined from the moment she was born. Going to jail was just the cherry on top.”
“So what happened when you got out of jail?”
I think she tried to cross her arms in defiance, but after a short struggle to even raise them she gave up.
“If I may,” Johan said, earning a scornful glare from Bela, “but I can’t tell you how it happened personally.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“Or else what?” Johan clipped off a mocking laugh.
Competitor he may be, or that I viewed him as, it still felt rewarding to hear openly defy someone like her, after all she’d done to him. In many respects, what he went through – is still going through – was and is far worse than the loneliness I endured. I can’t even imagine how many pieces my heart would shatter into if Laska was ever taken from me.
Bela had nothing to say. Johan took it as his win. “After I got out, I stayed with one of the few friends I’d managed to keep. I was a wreck – thinner than I am now,” he said, pausing for a moment, “suicidal. But one thing kept me going, even when I learned of the restraining order.”
The hate in Laska’s eyes as she looked at her true father had diminished from when she first spoke of him. Try as I might, I couldn’t blame her. She always believed no one had ever loved her when she was so very young.
“Yes, Laska, it was the hope I’d one day meet you again. So I soldiered on, did research, did what I could to learn how you were doing, but information was difficult to come across. Bela, on the other hand—“
“Don’t you dare.”
He smirked. “—Through friends of friends and the like, I learned what she was up to after her release. You know, in prison people that abuse children are not treated well. I got off easy, really, since my sentence was for neglect rather than abuse, and a few other fathers there sympathized with me. Bela, on the other hand—“
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Make me, you cunt. As I was saying, Bela apparently had been the victim of quite a lot. Beatings were the best of it, from what I heard.”
The greatest surprise to me was that I felt the tiniest bit of pity for Bela. Yeah she may have been an unrepentant bitch, but I couldn’t help but feel that kind of treatment, that kind of experience, only kept the cycle of abuse going. Laska, on the other hand, enjoyed the news greatly.
“How did it feel?” Laska said, her voice harsh with spite.
Bela, annoyed with the revelation of her treatment as she was, didn’t miss a beat in driving home her love. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Johan kept things moving along. “And so, like so many fairy tale endings, Bela spun into a life of drugs and prostitution.” Laska wasn’t the only one who took to those events with glee; Johan was positively dripping with smug satisfaction. “A fitting end.”
For all her scorn, Bela could do nothing except smolder and take refuge in the sky.
“Yeah,” Laska said in a sort-of-murmur. “But what about you? What’ve you been doing?”
Johan shifted, crossing one leg over the other. “Same as anyone else: Living and working. Since then I’ve remained single.”
“Loser then, loser still.”
Leave it to Bela to always find something to say. I was looking forward to abandoning the room and her more and more.
“Because shooting up heroine and killing yourself makes you a great person?” Johan sneered. “Nevermind her, I’ve remained single due to my own choice.”
“Oh,” Laska said, seemingly a little let down.
Made me wonder what she was thinking or hoping for. Johan and Laska turned to my daughter’s past and what she’d been up to. I kept quiet for the most part, though some parts of the stories forced me to say something – usually the really embarrassing or tender moments. Once they caught up on school, friends, hobbies, and just how she was doing, the small talk began to peter out.
“Well, I suppose it’s about that time, isn’t it?” Johan said, nodding towards the window. It wasn’t quite dusk, but it was getting there – we’d been in the hospital for several hours.
“Yeah,” I said, standing and stretching out. Laska did much the same, but unlike me she wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
“Come on, let’s talk on the way out,” he said, waving Laska onward.
So the three of us went, leaving the room. Not a word was spoken to Bela. I’d expected Laska to say one last thing, one parting insult, but there was nothing. Maybe it was because the old crone had given up with her remarks not even halfway into Laska’s story, or maybe it was because she felt ignoring Bela was the cruelest thing she could do. No matter the reason, I had to pause and turn.
As always, she was looking out.
Out and down the hall and into the elevator bits of small talk continued. Towards the exit we went, and then, just before we departed the blindingly-white halls, Johan stopped. From his wallet he produced a business card and handed it to Laska.
“I don’t know how you feel about me now, and I don’t have any right to say the things I feel right now. If you want to talk again, my phone and e-mail address are on there.”
Laska flipped it over in her paws, inspecting every detail thoroughly. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Yeah, I know,” Johan said. He lingered, and for a moment I thought he was going to drop down and give Laska a hug. His knee never made more than a quiver.
The least I could do, I thought, was to shake his paw. “I found our meeting… informative,” I said, giving his arm a solid pump.
“For me as well. I’m glad to know Laska is in loving hands. It’s all I could have ever asked for.”
And that was that. Johan waved goodbye, to which Laska finally found her voice and mewled a goodbye. He went one direction, we went another.
We hopped into the car and set off for home. In no time at all the hospital had vanished from sight, along with the person confined there. Out of sight, but not exactly out of mind.
“Think you’ll call him?”
Laska was slow to respond, not that I could blame her. Countless thoughts had to be swimming in her head. “I don’t know.”
“Do you still hate him?” It was a selfish thing of me to ask, I knew it was before I even asked.
“…I don’t know.”
A couple hours weren’t going to erase the years like that, but she definitely viewed him in a new light. What did that spell for me?
Much as it did in the morning, silence filled the rest of the ride home.