The big day. The main event. The culmination of our planning – not that there had been much planning to do, as it were. Still, what planning there was gave me plenty I had to think about it, and think about it I did for days and weeks and months, which left me something of a mess in the final days.
But whatever anxiety and tense nerves imagining and thinking had given me paled in comparison to what at that moment. There I was, staring down the main aisle in the courtroom at the judge, who was standing at a small podium at the far end. Ornate marble ceilings, walls, and even the floor gave our wedding a suitable sense of grandeur.
Even the plain wooden benches flanking either side of the aisle took on an air of majesty, for what little good that did. One would figure if they could spend the money to build the whole damn thing out of marble they could spring for seating that wasn’t thrown together as an afterthought with a nod towards discomfort. The guests seated on the benches wriggled in a manner that communicated a general consent of their thoughts.
Speaking of guests, those who’d shown up for Eralia were on the left side, those who’d attended for me were to the right. Dividing the families up felt a little odd as I thought of marriage as something that was supposed to be about bringing together and uniting and such. We’d just as well give people free reign to go where they pleased, but the various clerks had been insistent in that way clerks who have been doing their job for 30 years will be.
As we’d already been at the courthouse that day for hours already and an elderly woman who you could never quite tell who she was looking at was the last line of defense in the legal system between us and our certificate, we’d given in.
So it was that the owner of the motorcycle shop she worked at and most of its employees were on her side, along with some of her friends – including someone who until today she’d only known through an online forum. They’d traveled halfway across the country to be here, something I couldn’t tell if it was strange, alarming, or touching. Could’ve been I was a smidge jealous none of the people I knew online had wanted to make the trip.
But the real surprise on that side was the duo who had the same raven-black hair as Eralia, the same pointed ears, bushy tail, and swarthy skin tone. She’d sent the invitation as a formality, a token offering for the sake of family. Neither of us expected anyone to respond, much less appear.
Two of her cousins, Asim and Jahi, had taken Eralia up on her offer and made the trek across the globe to be here. They had families of their own they’d wanted to bring, but the costs of international travel meant they had to come alone. Eralia lit up like a sunrise when they’d shown up in the morning, and they’d had a good talk with what time was available before the proceedings had to proceed.
Asim was a strapping young man, in his 20s, and never seemed to stop smiling. He also never seemed to stop wanting to look me dead in the eye. Combined with his odd smile, I got the feeling he disapproved of me, but Eralia dismissed my concerns. He’s just like that, she’d said. Thinks that’s how we do things here, and he’s such a stickler for appearances.
Whereas I didn’t want to give Asim too much attention, it took some effort to avoid giving Jahi too much.
By the graces of genetics, Eralia had been gifted with the sort of build that would make fashion models gape in horror, in contrast to the typical male (and some female, as I discovered following the gaze of one) citizen who might gape for other reasons. And, as if that wasn’t enough, whenever she had stretches where she’d eat too much, it all tended to congregate in areas that were already, by many standards, be agreeable areas, packing more agreement into them until her dieting removed the surplus of agreeableness.
If one took Eralia, shrunk her a bit, then filled out the top just below the shoulders and bottom just above the knees a bit more, you’d have Jahi.
Her accent wasn’t as thick as Asim’s, which made understanding what she was talking about easier, that is to say, I didn’t have to take complete guesses at what was being said. Guesswork when trying to make a good first impression on family-to-be didn’t feel like it’d end terribly well.
Through some deductive reasoning, along with some aid from Eralia, I learned Asim owned two electronics stores and was planning to open a third, much to the approval of his family at large. His wife was expecting their first, again to much approval.
Jahi ran her own business as well – she was a website developer, which I thought to be a good thing, but apparently this was a bad thing as far as her family was concerned. To make it worse, she was unattached, furthering their disapproval. To them, owning a business meant she wouldn’t be able to land herself a husband, seeing as how she wouldn’t be available enough, which I took to mean not being completely reliant on someone else for a home and money.
Not that she particularly cared about or had an interest in being seen and not heard; more than once she hinted at rather enjoying being the predator in the whole relationship dynamic. That trait definitely ran in the family.
Somewhere along the conversation Eralia offered up our house as a place to stay should Jahi ever need it. I tried to assert how that would be a poor idea as gently as I could manage, but was apparently too gentle and got pushed aside like a few ice cubes who fancied themselves icebergs before an oncoming ship.
My only real, tangible hope was any visits would be short indeed unless she somehow landed a work visa.
Working along from Eralia’s side of the courthouse, my end had the usual suspects: Lydia and Steve with Zoe, a handful of other friends and acquaintances I’d made through them, and, of course, Laska. Part of the plans had been to have Laska be one of the witnesses, so she got the aisle seat on the first row. Which also meant she kept sending furtive glances my way and could never quite hold still for any length of time. Sharing the load of anxiety should make things easier to carry, but our burdens were already so overburdened, sharing the load just meant we swapped a few pieces but the overhaul weight shrugged and remained unconvinced it needed to move. This was due in large part to the two unusual suspects, situated a few rows back.
Two people I’d never bothered to invite because they probably wouldn’t want to show up, anyways. Two people I’d never invited because they probably didn’t give a whit about what I did with my life, anyways.
Obviously, I’d been wrong, or they wouldn’t have shown up.
But the question still remained: How did two people I never invited manage to get an invitation? Again, the obvious answer fingered Eralia as the culprit, but, again, that answer in turn asked the question of how the hell she’d managed to get ahold of them.
I’d done things my own way for 20 years without so much as a word between them and me, so it wasn’t even that I’d just kept their phone number or whatever hidden away from Eralia.
They’d shown up only minutes before the ceremony was to start, meaning there hadn’t been time for much else aside from awkward introductions, shuffling of feet, and a contest to see who could avoid looking at each other the longest.
The image of my parents in my mind didn’t mesh at all with the reality scratching its cheek and taking far too much interest in some fat pigeons waddling about.
My mother was the sort, that despite being shorter than me, could still look down her nose at me. And my father – he could be sitting and still loom over me when I was standing next to him. Now they were just… elderly, quaint, and affable – at least to everyone but me.
Eralia had tried to build a bridge during those couple minutes, but the bridge, owing to its hasty construction, collapsed and fell into the chasm below. One consolation was the rubble at the bottom gave us something in common to look over and make a few remarks, such as “Well, wasn’t that something?”
Then the bell had rung – metaphorically speaking, of course, as there weren’t any bells in the immediate vicinity – and we were told to come inside, guests sit here, you stand there, and Eralia went to slip into her wedding dress. Lucky her – she got to idle about in her plain clothes while I had to suffer in a suit.
The judge took his place at the podium, flashing a warm smile my way. I adjusted my collar; it’d become stuffy in a hurry.
Da Da Dadum…
A familiar tune struck up and my heart froze by the third note. All the murmuring and conversations died and all eyes turned towards the back of the courtroom and fell on me, until Eralia’s appearance from the side door drew them off.
She’d kept her dress a secret, as she’d wanted a fun surprise for me. Fun, it was: In keeping with our strict adherence to tradition, Eralia strode to my side wrapped up in a pale violet dress. It didn’t so much hug her as hold on a bit, like it couldn’t be bothered for much more. The straps had taken the day off, any frills had been told very clearly to not attend, and the whole thing ended just above her heels, elevated as they were by her footwear.
Every part of me came to a halt.
Fortunately, she gave my breath, heart, and thoughts enough time to get back to work after their break.
She wasn’t so much striding, I noticed, as taking long, alternating, and above all else, slow, steps. Her lips were pressed together in the way they often find themselves when the person to whom they belong is concentrating on something most demanding. In this case, they said she was attempting to not fall off the tight rope and into some nameless abyss. The wobble in her knees nodded its agreement with her lips.
Then I remembered this was Eralia and rushed to meet her halfway.
“Oh god, thank you,” she whispered, putting more than a little weight into her grip on my hand. “Heels were a mistake.”
“A mistake? You look fantastic,” I whispered back.
I replied by way of a smile and a slight nod with my eyes that we should probably get going. With me as her support, Eralia was able to effect something that drifted close to poise.
A few eyes smiled knowing smiles at us, but what did it matter? If my chest swelled any more I’d float away.
Down the aisle we went, paw in hand.
We stopped at the judge. He’d said a few words, and then all of a sudden Laska and Jahi were signing the papers, I’d kissed Eralia, and a pair of rings appeared on our fingers. It was all over in seconds, despite the clocks showing otherwise. They’d obviously colluded on the matter.
So, there we stood. Married.
True, saying the phrase over in my mind kindled flames of excitement, but at the same time I had a bit of an epiphany after the judge made his pronouncement: Not much was going to change, we still loved each other dearly, but now the whole world would know. It’d be a matter of record. A legacy someone could, if they so desired, look up.
It’d be written somewhere and kept for years: On this day, Eralia and Curtis were married.
Made me all tingly.
In our backyard, toasts were made, the buffet set out, and poorly (that is to say, not at all) rehearsed speeches given. Commentary was directed towards my choice of decorations, which consisted of some white lacy things on the bushes, some banner work proclaiming our names, in case people forgot, along with the nature of the event. A few lights for when it got dark, and my phone exploring its career potential as a DJ.
Mingling had commenced, people were enjoying themselves. Things were going well.
Which meant it was time to confront them. But now I had just what I needed to give me the courage to see me through it: A drink, delivered by my loving wife.
“You still haven’t told me how you found them,” I said, taking a sip from the glass. Halfway into the sip fire slid across my tongue, forcing a cough out of me. I stared at the dark brown liquid, as if it’d taken a swing at me. “And what is this, just a cup full of rum?”
“A girl needs her secrets,” Eralia said with a wink, “There’s a splash of cola in there, too.”
“A splash, what, like you were pouring another drink and some happened into my cup?”
“Possibly,” she said, tail giving a hearty swish.
“And how you got my parents’ info doesn’t qualify as a girl’s secret.”
Eralia smirked. “That’s what you think.”
“Please, you can’t just go around declaring everything is classified like the government,” I said, forcing more of the rum and cola, cola being measured in parts-per-million, down my throat and into my stomach wherein, hopefully, the numbing fires would make haste to my brain.
“I’ve annexed you, haven’t I?” Eralia quirked a brow, bringing a corner of her mouth along for the ride.
“It was willing, though maybe I’m having second thoughts after seeing the tyrant’s true colors…”
“Tyrant?” She said, slipping a furred finger under my chin, along with something I suppose was to have been an ‘evil girl’ laugh, “This is nothing. I’ll just have to show you some real tyranny tonight, won’t I?”
To really drive home her threat, she leaned in and nibbled an earlobe. Oh, be still my beating heart.
But, as is the nature of all good things, they’d stayed in one place far too long and decided to pack their bags and depart to someplace else, perhaps somewhere with better scenery.
“Curtis, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were avoiding us,” said my mother, who’d managed, along with my father, to just sort of appear from amidst the milling crowd.
The cup was upended and downed in one go. “Couldn’t imagine what’d have given you that idea.”
“Be nice, they’re your parents,” said Eralia, putting on some kind of innocent, good-wife-face and pivoting to my side. If only they knew. Well, if they knew, I don’t think much would change, would it? They’d probably imagine cuffs and – well, it wouldn’t be too far off.
“Thank you, dear,” said my mother, holding one of Eralia’s paws between her hands.
Meanwhile my father was carefully examining the lawn, or possibly his shoes.
There was some smiling between Eralia and my mother, but not much else.
“So, you’re married now,” said my mother in that very matter-of-fact way people bring up the obvious when the weight of silence is crushing the life from them.
“Who’d have thought,” said my father, half under his breath. This was quickly followed by a quiet grunt, owing to the application of an elbow from my mother to his kidney.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” I began, shifting my weight from one leg to the other. “Been nice so far.”
A few details slipped in here and there, such as how we’d met, how long we’d known each other. All the usual bullet points one checks off when the small talk is dying, gasping its last breaths while those in attendance have to look away and wipe away the tears from their cheeks.
Hands all around reached for the proverbial plug to put the patient out of its misery. But, before anyone got a firm hold, someone rushed in and announced a cure.
“Hey dad,” said Laska, “Where’s the—“ She paused once she’d realized who Eralia and I were talking with.
Other than a very brief introduction, owing to time constraints at the court house, Laska and my parents didn’t have much time for chatting.
“Oh, hello… Gerauld and…”
“Virginia,” said my mother.
“Right. Sorry, we didn’t talk much,” said Laska, adopting the smile worn by all those who’ve found themselves suddenly thrust into uncomfortable conversations with unfamiliar family members everywhere.
“It’s fine. Laska, was it?”
“Right,” said Laska, smoothing out wrinkles on her pants only she could see, “That’s me.”
Both my parents turned from Laska to me and Eralia and back again. They already knew she was adopted, but I suppose it was just one of those things everyone did whether or not they were conscious of it.
“Laska. Beautiful name for a beautiful young lady,” said my father, all the wrinkles on his face lining up and giving him the appearance of a doting grandfather ready to give out a handful of hard butterscotch candies. Perhaps while on his rocking chair in the living room.
“Ahah,” Laska laughed nervously, paw reaching up to the largest scar crossing her cheeks and nose automatically. My ally was already being subverted.
“I can’t believe you never told us about her,” said my father.
“After what’d happened, was it wrong of me to think you two wanted to hear from me at all?”
My father rubbed the back of his neck. “For a while, no.”
“What? I’m just bein’ honest. No sense in hiding anything.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to say it like that.”
The old man turned just enough so my mother couldn’t see his face and rolled his eyes.
“We did try to get ahold of you after we’d had… some time to think things over,” said my mother after making sure to shoot father a nasty look, “But by then you’d already moved and your old number didn’t work.”
“Well, I moved pretty quick. Twice, actually,” I said, idly attempting to stuff a free hand into a pocket that didn’t exist on the suit pants. Knew I should’ve changed soon as I got back home.
“How come?” Said my father.
“Would you have wanted to stick around after all that?”
He thought on it for a moment. “Ah.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“We had no idea where you went, if you were even still alive,” said my mother, her voice awash in the particular tone of concern unique to mothers halfway through, “We’d all thought you’d…”
“Virginia,” said my father, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Eralia, who’d been a bastion of neutrality, let slip a few of her thoughts – mostly by giving me a stern look that said: How could you do that to your own mother?
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t thought about it at all, or to any kind of depth. I didn’t come close a few times to going through with it, no. But after a few years of that, I got an idea how to overcome a problem I didn’t have, and to my great surprise, worked. And now here we were.
“Who in their right mind would want to stay around the people who expressed, in no uncertain terms, how much they despised me? My parents and brother, no less! You don’t get to come here after 20 years and play that card.”
The both of them shrank to some size fit only for creatures that did not walk or run so much as scurried. For once it was me who lorded over them.
“We did miss you,” said my father, weakly.
Certain words that were sure to bring vindication boiled up from the dark recesses of my mind and condensed onto the tip of my tongue. Oh, how they’d feel it, how they’d–
“Boy, sounds kinda familiar, huh?” Laska said from behind a wan smile. “Or uh, maybe not,” she added with dry, nervous chuckles.
The certain words evaporated, along with anything else I had to say. Even though her father, that is her real father, never once didn’t love her, her mother took her hatred to the grave.
I think I shrunk down to the same size as my parents. Would’ve been nice to just scurry away into some dark hole and wait for everything to go away.
“How so?” My mother asked.
“It’s a long story,” replied Laska, gazing mostly at her feet.
“They always are,” said my mother, maneuvering to give Laska a squeeze on the shoulder.
“Ain’t that the truth?” Said my father.
I wanted to spit venom at them, let them know what it was like, accuse them of being deceptive even now.
The way the corners of my father’s eyes crinkled along with his understanding smile would be damn hard to fake.
If it was an act, it was a damn good one.
“Look,” I said, pausing to string together the rest, “I’m… not sorry, and I’m not going to forget what happened, but maybe we can move on. Or something.”
“Or something,” my father repeated with a sort of chuckle, “It works both ways, you know.”
“Hey, I left… gracefully. Mostly.”
“Shrieking you were going to stab your brother and sister isn’t graceful, dear,” said my mother in a tone that all mothers possessed when correcting their child, no matter how old they might be.
Eralia and Laska each held me with a Look – complete with capital L.
“Hence the mostly,” I said, sheepishly, then added: “And I didn’t shriek.”
“You definitely shrieked,” said my father.
“Really? Shrieked?” Eralia inquired to my mother, who nodded.
“What? Why is everyone focusing on that?”
“’Cause, you, shrieking?” said Laska, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.
A particular word choice had them in total disbelief, yet the potential fratricide didn’t raise any issues or concerns. I wasn’t sure how to take that.
“Whatever, that’s not important,” I said, “Not that I’m trying to blame or anything, but you guys said some pretty nasty things, too. Like when you–“ Right. shit like that wasn’t going to get me, or us, anywhere. “Er, never mind.”
The response stewing and ready to fire off in my father boiled off in a mist of defeated steam when I came up short.
“Yes, I think it’s best we just move on,” said my mother.
“Actually, speaking of them,” I said, with perhaps a touch of venom, just a touch, really, “Did they not want to come?
While true silence couldn’t be achieved, owing to the commotion of the party happening around us, the effect was still there even if the particular sound of silence wasn’t.
“Not quite so much, no,” my father finally said.
Even without the way my parents gave each other pained expressions, it was obvious details were left out on purpose. I wanted to know, but didn’t at the same time. Eventually I convinced myself that knowing wouldn’t do much good, anyways.
“Hey, I’m – we’re – glad you came,” blurted Eralia, not wanting to give Awkward Pause any more time to linger as it’d already hung around quite long enough and now it was time to go thank you very much don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
“Yeah,” agreed Laska, “It’s kind of, odd, I guess, but still kind of neat to meet my grandparents, I mean, even if you’re not really my grandparents, but… Yeah.”
“It’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance as well, Laska,” said my mother in the sweet voice common to grandmothers everywhere – but only when speaking to their grandchildren – even in cases where they’d just become grandmothers and had no prior experience in the finer points of grandmothering, “I can already tell you’re going to be the best grandchild anyone could ever hope for. See! Look at that smile!”
Laska’s attempt to quell her restless paws just meant the energy went elsewhere and made the rest of her wriggle instead.
Part of me didn’t want to let go of the chance for vindication; part of me wanted to stand triumphant on some hill somewhere and lord over a victory, no matter how pyrrhic. Which, after watching Laska, resulted in most of me deciding it was going to have none of that, donned a hat set at a jaunty angle which meant it was time for business, and stuffed part of me into a cellar somewhere and bricked up the wall.
“We can talk about Aaron and Grace later,” I said, once the mortar had dried, “But yeah, I’m happy you two showed up, and I guess I should be thankful Eralia managed to track you down.”
Eralia’s expression said: I Told You So. Her tail said: I’m happy for you.
It hadn’t occurred to me until just then, when my mother and father stepped in to give me a hug each, I hadn’t actually made any sort of physical contact with my parents in over half my life.
I know, because if we had, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by what I felt. My fingers dug into their clothing.
What an idiot I’d been.
The party went on. We did have to do a bit of mingling with the others, namely Eralia’s family, which makes it sound like I didn’t care for them, but it was more I just had no idea what to say so I wound up being a bystander. Probably for the best, all things considered, especially when they delved into topics of a culture I knew nothing about.
But, as night fell people trickled off until it was just us and our families.
From my understanding, typical honeymoon nights consisted of a certain degree of togetherness between the newlyweds. Instead, we talked with my parents and Eralia’s cousins.
Laska got to share her story with her new-found extended family and received two big hugs from something she was still grappling with – grandparents, and from Eralia’s cousins, who I didn’t know what they’d be in relation to Laska. First cousin, once removed? Or twice? I’d have to figure it out later.
Laska had to excuse herself to bed rather suddenly after the round of hugs, wiping away a few tears of supposed tiredness during her hasty exit.
With just us adults left, we chatted about this and that and many attempts were made to embarrass me, mainly by my father. Eralia relished the opportunity to raise the stakes, which left me in a frozen grimace that was occasionally elbowed in the ribs by a grinning Jahi. I was rather relieved when late was just about to become early and our relatives departed for hotel rooms, but oh, not to worry, they’d be back tomorrow, which was actually today.
We were too tired to partake of any newlywed activities once we hit the bed, not that it mattered too much. Sleep was far more welcomed.
As I drifted off, I realized that, rather than being a day and night about us, the wedding had done more to bring us together with our families. Which, all things considered, had to have been the best possible outcome.
Graduation ceremonies hadn’t changed a whole lot since I’d gone through mine. Lots of people standing or sitting around and an orderly procession from a pool of kids to the stage, where they’d get their diploma, smile and wave, and then be ushered to another pool to do some more standing about.
The last one I’d gone through, I’d been doing all the standing and so the excitement, and perhaps the wear of time on memories, gave me quite a different impression of the flow of time compared to the now.
“How’s it possible for them to take so long to walk single file,” I complained to Eralia, again, and again she sighed and gave me a comforting pat on the hand, also again.
“Just think of it as one of the trials of being a parent.”
“Ah yes, the trial of boredom. How long can one endure before going mad?”
Such was the force of Eralia’s follow-up sigh I felt a breeze on my arm. “Everyone else watching has the decency to put up with it in silence, why can’t you?”
She was right, of course, far as I could tell I was the sole source of complaining in the immediate seating area. Though the fellow next to me did nod in sympathy once or twice.
“They could at least have whole groups graduate at once, or something,” I grumbled one last time before having the courtesy to keep further grumbling to myself.
Without anyone to idly complain to, my thoughts gained the opportunity to meander down memory lane at pace that left plenty of time for the smelling of flowers. I had no doubts Laska would graduate, but I’d hoped she would graduate with honors. All that potential and she only coasted on through with slightly-better-than-average marks. College would probably be different for her; new places, new people, an actual environment of people wanting to learn… for the most part, anyways. These days, kids didn’t have much say in the matter, making the institutions of higher learning more akin to “High School 2: The Debtening.”
Well, for most teens. Laska’d be one of the lucky few who wouldn’t have to worry about finances too much for college. Then again, maybe letting her shoulder some of the burden would help teach her about responsibility. Decisions, decisions…
My meandering thoughts reminded me there would also be partying.
She wasn’t really the type to go to those, was she? Probably not. But Zoe was, and those two were going to be on the same campus, if not the same program. Laska settled on mechanical engineering and Zoe’d picked out an exciting curriculum in the field of “undecided, but probably leaning towards something in the social field with a stern warning not to choose English or communications.” The most noble of studies.
Hopefully if Laska ever followed Zoe to something or other, Zoe would watch over her, ensuring nothing got too out of hand, or as sometimes in her case, paw. Or maybe even Laska’s nature would rub off on the big wolf. Then again, if that was going to happen, it already would have.
Or maybe they’d already rubbed off on each other.
Laska had become more out-going and Zoe had become more fascinated by various niche hobbies usually relegated to the sort who don’t do the whole ‘outside’ thing. And she often, to everyone’s surprise, paused to consider consequences as of late.
A gentle-yet-firm smack on my thigh brought me back to the current events.
“What was that for?”
“They’re just starting up the M’s,” Eralia said. Her paw hovered in the air, menacing and poised to strike my leg again if its owner so desired.
“About time,” I said after a taking a moment to explore other responses, most of which I foresaw ending with another smack.
While the M’s may have started up, the second letter of our family meant Laska would be bringing up the rear of the M-pack. So, more waiting.
From our distant vantage I couldn’t make much out in the sea of students, all wearing their blue dress gowns and caps with the golden tassels. Given how they’d gone through the sections so far I had a pretty good idea of the general area where Laska was at, at least.
They went through the Ma’s, the Mc’s, and so on. Despite the random drudgery, a little something twinged in my chest with every name called that made me wish they’d hurry up all the more.
“They’re good at making you wait, aren’t they?” I said to no one in particular, but made sure it was loud enough she heard it.
Eralia gave me one of those side-long smirks.
“Don’t give me that look. I just want to get this over with, I’m sure Laska feels the same.”
She repeated herself, albeit with an added a twinkle in the eye for emphasis.
“I can’t have a discussion with you when you’re like this, you know.”
She restated her position, now going so far as to have the nerve – The nerve! – to pat my leg with her paw.
“Fine, whatever,” I scoffed, “you’re impossible when you get like that.”
I didn’t bother to listen to her response. No sense in talking with someone who is just trying to get you fired up. Besides, they’d finally gotten to the good part – not only had our vowel come up, but so did the correct consonant that followed.
Laska Mulner, the principle’d said on his microphone. I stood, just like everyone else I’d rolled my eyes at had been doing. Eralia must’ve finished her little tirade as she came up alongside me.
I’d only become aware I was wringing my hands together when Eralia so thoughtfully hooked her elbow through mine and gave a tug.
From the deep blue sea a figure rose, and after some difficulty navigating the packed-in chairs, ambled into one of the aisles leading up to the stage and podium. Laska’s tail poked through a hole cut in the back of the garment, swishing and twitching about this way and that.
Laska mounted the steps, shook hands with the principle, received a rolled up bit of parchment, then turned to face the audience.
I’d asked her what she was planning on saying for her speech, if she’d need any help with the words and all that, but she insisted she knew what she was doing and she’d be fine. I knew she was just being brave, of course.
“It’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Everything will be fine.”
And then the latch on her door clicked into place and I was left to stare down a bit of wood. Teach me to try and be helpful.
So, it was time to hear what she’d planned. Some sage words, no doubt, knowing Laska.
School had been a trying ordeal, especially early on, but she’d managed to pull it – or at the very least, some of it – together towards the end. Laska hadn’t gotten the grades I knew she was capable of, mainly because of how lazy she was with homework, but her test scores saw her through.
And now here she was, ready to leave all this, I thought as I surveyed my surroundings, behind and head for something better – greater, even.
Laska stared out over the audience, starting with her classmates. Her gaze wandered across other kids she’d known for four years, in some way or another, before making its way up through the parents crowded together in the bleachers.
It then dawned on me she was standing before hundreds, if not thousands of people. She was the center of attention, insomuch as it was given by people who didn’t give a whit about her, that is.
Ah, they grow up so fast. And hey, it meant I must’ve done something right. Here my little girl was, facing down a challenge that not so long ago would’ve sent her fleeing.
My heart swelled with fatherly pride. That’s my girl up there!
Laska flicked the golden tassel drooping over the front of her cap to a side. Her mouth opened.
The big moment. No matter what she said, I’d make sure she knew I heard every word and how proud of her I was.
“I just thought I’d like to say,” Laska said, leaning close to the microphone, “I’ve learned something important in the four years I’ve been at this school.”
She smiled. Well, I was pretty sure it was a smile, far away as I was it was difficult to tell.
“Her big moment,” Eralia said in a hushed whisper.
If not her hushed voice, then her whapping tail gave her away.
“And that is,” Laska went on, still all smiles, “I learned that yes, it is possible to hate a group of people this much. I mean, every day, just when I thought there was no way I could despise any of you any more, I found out just how wrong I was!”
Laska was still smiling.
Everyone was silent.
Eralia’s tail fell still.
“Really, this has been a nightmare I thought I’d never wake up from. Like–“
The principle, his mind confirming that yes, his ears really did hear the right words and that yes, they meant what he thought they meant but there was no way because who would say that for their graduation speech, lurched into action and attempted to push her away from the podium and microphone.
She snatched the microphone from its stand and whirled around to the front of the podium. “Hey now, see, that’s what I’m talking about! Can’t a girl say how she really feels?”
“Young lady! That is not appropriate!”
“And why not?”
They stared at each other across the narrow gulf.
Two other teachers had rushed in to wrangle Laska; one attempted to haul her down from the stage, but she pulled her leg free from their grasp.
“Institution for free thought and learning my ass! Can’t even handle a little criticism?”
By now certain elements in the graduating class had been swept up, or rather allowed themselves to be swept up, and stood in solidarity, clapping wildly and yelling agreements and so on. Fairly certain I heard more than a few “Fuck school!” remarks.
Later on, I’d suspected they didn’t quite get the point.
“Stop that right this instant! Behave yourself!”
The rowdy crowd grew rowdier still. Nothing to get a bunch of teens fired up like a bit of anarchy. Wasn’t hard to picture how many felt just like Laska did, but none of them had the… Courage? Audacity? Insanity? Stupidity? I couldn’t decide which, to do what she’d done.
“Whatever, I’m out of here!”
And, with that, Laska threw off her robe and hat – sending the later spinning through the air – and vanished from sight. Or rather, vanished as much as her shorts and shirt allowed her to vanish.
A single, horrifying thought dominated my brain. No, she wouldn’t–
In the span of seconds the bits of clothing found themselves on the stage floor. The bit of paper, the prize for four years of sweat, maybe some blood, and a whole lot of tears, danced through the air, as if carried aloft by a gust of wind that only touched it. It flew off the side of the stage, across the athletic field, and disappeared from sight among a gathering of trees.
My hands, so eager to clap, fell limp to my sides.
None of the parents breathed a word.
“Wow,” said Eralia, slow and flat.
“Did you put her up to that?” I asked, calmly, my senses and brain still engaged in deliberation about what was relayed between the two.
“No. Or, well, I mean, I told her this was her last chance to make a mark, leave an impression. That sort of thing.”
A murmur rose up around us. I could pick out a few words. Some were horrified, some amused, and others wanted to plow on and get it over with. Down on the field the principle fought to regain control of the more rebellious students. Some of said students followed the path laid before them and shirked their trappings ahead of schedule.
Without the concealing garb, I could pick out Zoe as being among those who had made a decision.
“Oh, look,” Eralia said in the same sort of deadpan I was thinking in, “She’s become a role model.”
“You always did say she could be someone others looked up to.”
We both let out a long, nostril-flaring exhale. “Well, we should probably head back home,” I said as I stood.
“Probably. She won’t have a key on her.”
“I was thinking more I’m going to need a stiff drink before I have to deal with this mess. There’s going to be calls.”
We shuffled our way to the stairs at the edge of the stands, mumbling our pardons to those still in shock and perhaps a bit of awe.
“Lydia or the school,” Eralia asked, “Which is going to be worse?”
“School. At least the principle will only chew my head off figuratively.”
About an hour after we got home, the front door opened and no one walked in, and then no one mumbled thanks, stamped up the stairs and into Laska’s room, and then reappeared in the living room where Eralia and I were waiting.
“Crazy graduation, huh?” said Laska, beaming.
Everything in me unwound at once. “What the hell was that?!”
“My graduation speech,” said Laska, carefully.
“Your gradu- Yes, I gathered that much. You know what I’m talking about, don’t play cute with me.”
Laska fluttered her eyelashes. “But I’m always cute!”
This was definitely something she picked up from Eralia. Angry glares at my wife were met with the sort of expression that confirmed my silent accusation.
“They could revoke your diploma for that little stunt,” said Eralia, bouncing a leg idly from her position on the arm of the couch.
And just like that, Laska’s façade didn’t just melt away, but rather flash boiled. “Wha- They wouldn’t!”
“She’s right,” I chimed in. Actually, I had no idea if Eralia was or not. Sounded like it could be true, so why not.
“At the very least, I imagine you’ll have to give them an apology,” said Eralia.
“An apology? For saying what I really thought? It’s not even like I swore or anything!”
Eralia shrugged. “That’s life. And don’t even try to play innocent. You knew exactly what’d happen.”
“So? It shouldn’t be such a big deal. Why does everyone have to say the same boring shit about how they liked it or they’d miss it. What a load of shit.”
“You know,” I chimed in, “I am impressed by one thing.”
“You made yourself quite the center of attention up there. Gave a speech in front of a thousand people you knew would stir the shit, then ran off… naked…”
Laska furrowed her brow, as if this was all new information and necessitated processing. The reversal of her brow from its lowest setting to highest signaled her conclusion. “I, uh, guess… so? Huh…”
“See? What’d I tell ya?” said Eralia, smacking the arm of the couch in triumphant vindication, “When you don’t have to think about what you’re saying, it’s easy! Like I tried telling you when you had to give that presentation in English.”
“…Right,” Laska said after some additional processing time.
Not wanting to be left out of all the excitement, my phone rang.
“Lydia,” I said solemnly, then added “She’s going to be furious you put Zoe up to it, you know.”
“I didn’t put her up to anything! I never even told Zoe what I was gonna do!”
“Please, you knew she’d run off like you did,” I said, allowing the phone to ring a few more times.
“…Maybe a little,” Laska tapped the paw pads at the ends of her fingers together.
“Just so you know, if Lydia tries to kill me I’m using you as a human shield– Oh hi Lydia, what’s up?”
I prepared for the worst, but instead got something close to the best. Turns out, Lydia wasn’t angry at me, nor even Laska. Well, a little miffed, but not angry. Zoe got a good scolding, though, poor girl. Apparently Lydia had respect for what Laska did, but not so much for Zoe who’d simply run off in pursuit in freedom without first making a statement.
Just when you think you know someone.
“Huh, how about that,” said Laska once I’d gotten off the phone with Lydia.
“Lucky break. Just pretend she’s pissed and you’re my sweet little girl who wants to defend her dad from the mean old wolf for a day or something.”
“But I defend you from Eralia all the time already.”
“Not a wolf,” said Eralia, flatly. “And I’d love to see you try to fight me off, girly.”
“Anytime! Like when we-“ Laska drew up short, hesitated, then turned to me.
When she spoke again, she’d managed to work the saddest kitty face into her voice. “We’re still going to the go-kart track for my graduation party, right?”
There was that fatherly part inside me that said she needed to be punished, but I had to wonder what it was I’d be punishing her for, especially as I was mostly positive she hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Yeah, we are,” I said after the internal deliberation ruled in favor of going.
The room appreciably brightened from Laska’s smile. For a few seconds, anyways, until the clouds rolled in. “Do you think Lydia will let Zoe go?”
“I don’t know, didn’t ask. But I thought you two were still…” I trailed off, looking to Eralia for some gentle way of phrasing it.
“Ohhh, oh, no, we’re fine now,” Laska chimed in, swishing her paws through the air in front of her, “We worked things out. And a couple other things.”
I mentally chalked up the days in my head since they’d had their last spat. They’d been on touchy terms for weeks, maybe months, then had some kind of argument that left Zoe storming out of the house and Laska angry as I’d ever seen her. Now less than a week later, they were friends again.
I chalked it up to the miracles and trials of youth and was content to leave it at that.
“Other things?” Eralia asked, stealing the unspoken question away from me. “You two have been bickering forever and now things are fine? What happened? And before you try to run off, I’ll have you know I haven’t bothered you once before about this, and oh how I worry about my daughter, agonizing every night about her…”
Laska sighed. “You’re playing the mom-guilt-trip card way too much, you know.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Eralia, unable to suppress the amusement written all over her face in bright neon colors, “But do go on.”
“Well, it was…” Laska looked at me, rubbed one arm, looked at the floor, did some more rubbing, and generally twisted about in place, “A phase, I guess?”
“A phase? Like, you and her was a phase?” I said.
“Experimentation,” Eralia weighed in.
Laska nodded hesitantly, while also avoiding any sort of eye contact.
“I see? So does that mean…?”
“Maybe?” Laska said with the meekest of shrugs possible.
Considering everything we went through the first time around this came up, I felt like it ought to be a revelation with all the fanfare, gasps, and shocked expressions that always tag along with revelations. This particular one, however, rode alone and was quite happy to just get on with business and depart soon as its business was over.
“Oh,” I said, for lack of anything else to say.
“Yeah,” Laska agreed.
I cleared my throat. “Well, in regards to the go-kart trip, you’ll have to talk to Lydia about that. Best call her now while she’s still in a good mood.”
Laska sprung into action and dialed up Lydia. Cases were stated. Pleads plead. Had to admit, her tenacity was inspiring; If I ever found myself being held by the police or about to be put in jail, Laska would be my first call for rescue.
And then the moment came, the phone slid into Laska’s pocket with the sound of a gong also being slid into a pocket.
Rays of light pierced the clouds. Zoe’d be going with us.
The alarm went off, heralding the arrival of 7:30 in the morning, or something close to it – It was one of those new types that woke one up with soft music, starting out almost inaudible and working its way up, rather than one of the deals that went off like, well, an alarm as soon as the time arrived. It may have intended to be a gentler means of waking up, but it was still getting up before the body, mind, and probably spirit were ready.
Eralia continued to doze, snorting once or twice as I departed the comfy confines of the bed and blankets. An onrush of cool air at her backside saw her rolling over, blankets in paw, to form something akin to a burrito made from a middle-aged jackal woman and cotton sheets.
So much for her help this morning.
I made my way downstairs, walking the ambling walk of those still drifting between this world and one of dreams. The first days after summer break were always like this.
“Oh, hey dad. Morning.”
This, however, was new.
“I thought your first class wasn’t until 9:30 today,” I said, once my internal processes had confirmed that yes, Laska was not just awake, but ready for the day.
“Oh, it isn’t. Just… well, couldn’t sleep so I figured I may as well get ready and stuff. You know how it is sometimes,” she added with a nervous chuckle. “What’re you doing up?”
There was a bowl of cereal in one paw and a glass of orange juice in the other.
“Well, thought I’d get up early and surprise you with a breakfast. But if you’re good with cereal…”
The spoon in the bowl clinked. Her tail twitched. “Well, I can’t really put it back in the box…”
“It’s fine,” I said with a tired smile, “So, what do you want?”
“Pancakes! No, wait, an omelet – or no, pancakes – but I do want an omelet, oh and some sausage, and maybe hashbrowns– “
“Well, we can just make a little of everything. Provided you help, that is.”
“Okay!” she said quickly, “I guess I can help out,” and then did an about face and scampered back into the kitchen wherein there were sounds of cereal finding its way through the garbage disposal, doubtless forlorn over being not eaten.
By the time I’d managed my way after her, half of what we’d need had already appeared on the countertops.
“Hungry, are we?”
“No… Yes, a little. Maybe.”
“And to think you normally eat light in the mornings. When you bother to eat at all, anyways.”
There was some more clattering of dishes and things, and the muffled reply of Laska, who was partially in the fridge to reach the eggs that’d sought a safe hiding spot in the far reaches behind various left-overs and mostly empty containers.
“I dunno, I’m just hungry, I guess.”
“Nerves’ve got your appetite worked up, huh?”
Laska extracted herself, bearing three eggs in each paw and a jug of milk hanging precariously from a digit. “Yeah, I guess, which is funny because I wasn’t very hungry last night.”
“Not like there’s much to say we haven’t already talked about already,” I said, taking a few of the eggs. “You’ll like it, at least once you get into the classes you want to take.”
Laska’s eyes began their long trek from one side to the next, accompanied by the faint sound of flaring nostrils. “Ugh, I know. Wish I didn’t have to take so many of those bullshit classes first. I mean, what good does sociology do for me? Nothing! That’s what.”
“Makes you well-rounded, so I hear.”
Crack crack, whisk whisk. I often thought of getting an electric mixer, but not like it took much time to de-lump the batter.
Laska had her own bowl, into which three eggs vanished, sans shells. Other ingredients followed.
“More like it’s an excuse for them to charge for classes no one would ever take otherwise,” she said with a snort.
At least when she got worked up over this particular well-treaded topic, it pushed her anxieties into a closet and locked the door. So we went on for several minutes, going through the lines we’d gone through just days before and some days before then, like we were rehearsing a script.
Sausage sizzled, pancakes took shape, and omelets rolled up intact. For the most part.
Movement at the doorway caught my eye. I was surprised it took her as long as it did for her nose to wake her up and guide her still mostly asleep body towards the source of the delicious aromas.
“Morning wife,” I said, to which Eralia replied first with a slow blink of bleary eyes and a stifled yawn.
Her second reply was: “Good morning husband, daughter,” in the barely audible tones of someone who isn’t entirely sure they’re awake.
“Why do you two always do that?”
“Greet each other like that! Wife? Husband?”
“Dunno,” I said as I reached for a third plate from the cupboards. “Just a thing, I suppose.”
In a family that consisted of myself, an adopted daughter who was a teenage Cheshire Cat, and my lovely Anubis wife, with all our particular… quirks – “That’s weird?”
“You’re weird,” Eralia said, having woken up enough to be on the lookout for such opportunities.
“You’re weirder.” Despite the commentary, Laska was automatically divvying up the portions across three plates.
“You’re both weird.”
Eralia sauntered up from behind, sort of leaned against my shoulder, and poked my cheek with a paw pad. “And don’t you forget it.”
The conversation then veered towards why we were up, which resulted in an extended rehearsal session and featured Laska’s magic trick: Making not only her own plate of food but most of ours disappear.
“Since you two cooked, I guess I’ll get the dishes,” said Eralia, then added, “Oh, isn’t it about time for you to leave?”
The only other way I could’ve imagined it was possible for Laska to lurch upright like that is if she’d been electrocuted. “I completely lost track! I- oh, I guess I don’t have to rush,” she said, sliding her phone back into her pocket.
“Well, can’t hurt to be a few minutes early on your first couple days.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. So, uh, right.” Laska nodded to herself, marched upstairs to grab her backpack, and re-appeared downstairs.
She stared at the door.
“No, I don’t think so…”
“Keys, phone, books, schedule?” I asked, to which Laska’s paws followed along to make sure everything was there. Her helmet and gloves were already laid out on the small table in the hallway.
“Best way to beat it is by just doing it.”
Based on the way her face contorted, she knew I was right, but was engaged in a battle with herself over if it was actually right.
“Yeah. Okay, I’m off,” she said, once the war had reached its conclusion, bag on her back, helmet under an arm, and gloves in paw.
“See you in a few hours,” I said.
“Yeah. See you.”
“Love you, ride safe.”
“Love you!” Eralia added in a shout from the kitchen.
Laska softened, going from something like pasta fresh out of the box to pasta that’d been in the water a minute or two. “Love you guys too. Bye!”
I watched her from the stoop as she geared up, mounted her motorcycle, and rode off across the driveway and into the street. One last wave and moments later she disappeared down the road.
I couldn’t bring myself to stop watching or close the door. Until this point, this moment, it’d been just another school day morning. Something that’d been happening for over a decade – something that’d continue for another four years, at least – and yet, it wasn’t until now that it struck me.
Eralia snuck up behind me and wrapped her paws around my neck. “There she goes, huh?”
“Yup. My little girl is on her way to her first day of college. College. You know, I remember when she was only this tall…”
She had the grace to not say anything, but wiped a line of wetness off my cheek all the same.
“She’s all grown up now, isn’t she?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Eralia said to the accompaniment of soft laughter, “She’ll always be your little girl.”