Laska and Me – 2

July 6th, 2003

Laska’s lessons are coming along quite well. I gave her a practice multiplication and division test, and she got nearly every answer correct. It took a few weeks to appear, but her ravenous curiosity about, well, everything is making this such a breeze for me. I was afraid lessons were going to be something I had to force her to sit through, but she’s more than eager – hell, she even asks me to teach her more every day. I’m sure, somewhere, some teacher is very jealous right now.

Not only that, she’s already chewed through the picture books I bought for her and started on illustrated stories meant for kids in fifth and sixth grade. I’ll have to remember to buy her some more the next time I hit the store.

Honestly, watching Laska makes me so proud of her, yet so ashamed of myself. It’s also made me resolve not to let her squander that curiosity and intelligence she’s been gifted. I don’t want her to become someone like me; someone who let their talents rot away to nothingness. I’m worried about her entrance into public schooling, but the psychologist and social worker have been very insistent about it. No matter what they say, I just can’t shake the feeling other kids are going to take advantage of her meekness and physical differences.

Otherwise, it was mostly an uneventful day. Except for one little thing.

“Don’t want to sleep in your own bed?” I asked, peering at Laska as she stood in the doorway to my bedroom.

“No…” She said, holding her stuffed fish close to her chest.

This little exchange was so routine I wondered why I even bothered to say anything. I should just start flipping the covers over as an invitation.

“Why not, sweetie?”

“I don’t wanna be alone,” she said. I knew she’d say that, of course.

“You’re not alone. I’m just down the hall.”

And there’s the sad eyes. No tears tonight, thankfully – I guess she saw fit to spare me considering she turned on the water works last night. Begrudgingly I set my book down on the dresser and pat the sheets next to me. Sad eyes to radiant twinkle in an instant. Laska certainly knew how to manipulate me.

Then she did as she usually did. She broke into a dash across the gap between entryway and bed and dove into the bed. I’d been slick, however, and already made for the side of the bed before she could wrap her furry little paws around me.

“Bathroom,” I said as she looked up in confusion when her outstretched arms found only sheets instead of me.

“Oh, okay,” she responded.

The call of nature answered, I found Laska much the same as when I left her. She hadn’t even attempted to burrow under the covers yet. I then discovered the error of focusing on Laska instead of where I was walking.

A most terrible pain shot up through my leg as my little toe crunched against my very sturdy and solid bed post.

Imagine a man, hopping and stumbling about the room, desperate to not swear in front of his cute little daughter, because said cute little daughter is an information sponge that loves repeating words she heard daddy say. Especially to the psychologist.

Then imagine that he didn’t learn his lesson the first time and hit his toe on the bed a second time.

A snort caught my attention. There was Laska, perched at the end of the bed watching the spectacle with a most amused face. Good to know my suffering brought her joy.

Then she giggled. And just as quickly, her giggle morphed into roaring laughter that had her doubled-over and rolling on the bed. All I could do was stare at her open-mouthed. This was the first time I had ever heard her laugh – sure she’d giggled a little, but nothing like this. It was so vibrant and cute and melodious and everything else I could’ve dreamed of. The sound of joy. Never mind that it was my pain that caused it.

“Oh! S-sorry for laughing at you…” Laska said after a gasp, hanging her head and ears.

Like hell I was letting the moment go.

Free from my shock, and heedless of pain, I dove across the bed, catching Laska with an outstretched arm and giving her a little push to the bed. Without mercy or kindness, I savaged her with tickles, focusing most intently on her delicate ears. Raucous laughter escaped her once again. I joined in with her, releasing her from my grasp. She was quick to turn the tables, pouncing on me and doing her best to tickle me with her fluffy paws.

“Apology accepted,” I said, ensnaring her in my arms and giving her a kiss on the forehead. She beamed and laughed more, squirming in my grasp. I’d stub all my toes – cut them off, even – if it meant I could see her face like that every day.

July 29th, 2003

I had probably been more than a little foolish to think it wouldn’t happen to me. Maybe just because she had been such a dear girl. Laska said ‘no’ to me for the first time.

It’d gotten late out, and Laska was in the backyard. She’d been outside most of the day in the immediate neighborhood, discovering various insects and spiders and other small things that crawled and flew.

“Laska, it’s time to come in,” I said, poking my head out the door.

“No,” she said, not even turning to look at me.

It was like I hadn’t said anything at all. Her disregard caught me completely off guard – I had no idea how to respond.

I took another step outside, narrowing my eyes. “What? What do you mean ‘no’? It’s dark out, you need to get in.”

“No, I don’t wanna.” Again, she didn’t even deign to turn to me. Just kept on doing whatever the hell it was that she was doing.

Forcing my jaw to unclench, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. She had to just be testing me. It was working. Should I just demand that she come in, or attempt to reason with her? None of the books I read through broached the topic of how to deal with such random petulant behavior. Not even an hour ago I had told her she’d need to come in soon and she was fine with it.

“Why not?” I asked, struggling to keep anger out of my voice.

“Because.”

Haha, I laughed to myself bitterly and shook my head. One of those laughs that slips out when all sorts of emotions crash together and the mind can’t figure out which one to display.

“Fine! Fine,” I said.

Right now, I just had to run away. I didn’t want to yell or threaten or plead with her. So I just turned around and went back into the house, slamming the door behind me. I stomped to the living room and dropped heavily onto the couch. And just sat there in the broody darkness. It’d just been a refusal, so why did I get so worked up?

It wasn’t just anger, either. Betrayal, or something akin to it, was mixed in. It was like I’d simply been blown off by the person I cared most deeply for. Guilt followed soon after, as it is wont to do. I just let a five year old get me worked up to the point that I gave up and walked away.

Was I really someone that could be depended on?

I slumped down on the couch. I wasn’t fit to raise a child; not when I acted like a child. For a time, I just wanted my old life back. This responsibility was too heavy for me. It was so comfortable, so easy, to simply hide away from other people and life. I didn’t have to worry or doubt when I lived in the shadows.

My eyes flicked to the phone. I could tell them I simply wasn’t fit. It was too hard. She deserved a better father. Someone else would just love to adopt her and raise her properly. Someone else…

A little cache of memory unlocked itself. Laska had been passed around from home to home before coming to me. I remember reading that in her files. Did she laugh or smile with them? Laughter meant she didn’t hate me. Probably. But did she love me?

Wallowing in my own self-doubt, I almost didn’t hear the faint clack and creak of the back door opening. I sat back upright, and even considered just bolting to avoid having to see her right now. Those thoughts vanished in an instant, however, when I saw a tiny little shadow against the wall. It moved slowly, skulking along as quietly as possible.

The shadow came to a stop just past the entryway to the living room. There it lingered, until Laska was bold enough to peek around the corner. Her glance didn’t last long; soon as her eyes met mine she retreated back around the corner with a surprised ‘nya.’

Was she afraid of me? I guess just sitting in the dark made me appear a far more intimidating figure than I felt. If there was one thing I wanted to avoid more than anything else, it was that I didn’t want Laska to ever fear me.

“I know you’re there Laska, you can come in,” I said, fumbling around to turn on a lamp.

Her head poked around the corner again, followed by the rest of her. She took small, ginger steps into the room, looking down and fidgeting with her paws before pausing a few feet away from me.

“A-are you mad?” she asked, pressing her ears down flat against the sides of her head.

I’d nearly said that no, I wasn’t mad, or that I was fine or whatever. Then I thought, how could I expect her to be honest with me when I wouldn’t be honest with her?

“Laska,” I began, speaking with a measure of despondence. “Yes, I’m upset, but,” I raised a hand to forestall anything from Laska when I saw her mouth open. “But, more with myself than you.”

“Sorry,” she said with hushed words, looking down at her foot-paws.

“Apology accepted. But Laska, If you wanted to stay out, why didn’t you just tell me why?”

She shuffled forward a few more steps. “I dunno…”

In other words, she really was just testing me – that’s what I took away from her answer, at least.

“A-and I came back in because you looked really mad, but you didn’t yell at me, and…”

Leaning forward, I was able to pat her head and give her ears a few scratches. She didn’t wince at my touch, but instead looked up at me. I wondered where she got the idea I was going to scream or shout at her?

“I-I don’t want you to be m-mad at me,” Laska mewled, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Yelling would’ve just made both of us feel bad,” I said, dodging the very obvious truth that we were both feeling pretty terrible. “I can’t promise I will never be mad at you, but I can promise I won’t yell at you. Okay?”

“Okay…” she said, dabbing away the moisture in her eyes with her paws. “C-can I go back outside?”

I sighed, and reluctantly agreed. Watching her mood brighten as she chased things about in the dark buoyed my own spirits a little. Thinking on how quickly I dropped back into my old habits troubled me greatly, however. In the blink of an eye I’d almost given up; but on whom?

August 21st, 2003

Today’s the day, I thought as I rolled out of bed to greet the sunny morning. Well, more like almost noon, based on the clock. Laska’s sixth birthday, and our first together. Hard to believe we’ve been together three months already. Days used to always just sort of drag on, and now it felt like tomorrow came before today had even finished.

Laska was still asleep – in her own bed for once – which gave me time to prepare. Shaved, showered, and began to prepare something for breakfast. It was kind of odd when I thought about; I’d never cooked for myself, nor was I very good. Now here I was, in the habit of cooking two meals a day. I was getting pretty decent at it as well.

“Good mo-afternoon,” I said, hearing a chair dragging across the kitchen tile.

The scent of food was enough to rouse Laska from nearly any sleep, and she always made a bee-line straight for the kitchen.

“What’s for breakfast?” Laska asked.

“Not even a greeting?” I responded, glancing at her with a quirked eyebrow. Despite my efforts, manners weren’t her strongest point. I’d just have to work on her some more.

“Oh, sorry. Good morning,” she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“I’m making salmon scrambled eggs.”

The last of her grogginess faded rather quickly. Her ears wiggled atop her head and she gazed at me with steady , suspicious intensity. “Really?”

“Really,” I responded, tilting the skillet so she could see the ingredients. “Of course, we can’t eat until the table is set…”

A blur of paws and black hair arrives at the dish cabinet, speeds towards the silverware drawer, and then returns to the table in a faint breeze. Food was quite the motivator for the hungry Cheshire. I suppose I was a little worried about broken plates, but it was hard to argue with her speed.

“Table’s set,” Laska chimed in as the final fork fell into place with a clink.

She missed the napkins, but I can let that slide.

“Alright, just need another minute,” I said, watching the hungry cat stare more at the skillet than me.

“So Laska, have any plans today?” I asked in between bites.

“Nmo,” came Laska’s reply. Along with a little bit of egg.

“Swallow before speaking,” I groaned.

“Sowwy.”

Point completely missed. I swear she had to do these things on purpose.

I needed to get her out of the house for a while so I could set things up. I wanted to make it sort of a surprise party, so I stashed the cake, decorations, and her present in the basement. After giving Laska her bath, I played it cool for a few hours, hoping she’d go outside on her own. Given my luck, however, this was shaping up to be one of the rare days she wanted to stay in.

“Aren’t you going outside at all today?” I asked Laska. She was laid out on her bed, reading a book I’d bought her about stars and constellations.

“No,” she responded, shaking her head.

“It’s nice out today, though. Not nearly as hot as it’s been for the past week.”

Laska turned to me, her face full of suspicion. I really, really needed to learn to give her intelligence more credit.

“Why do you want me to go outside?”

She had me on the spot. I had to think fast. What could get her outside? Laska always brought me in things she’d found outside. Usually dead insects or small animals – a bit too cat-like in that regard. I’d told her to stop doing it in the past, and she sort of listened. With those piercing eyes on me, I couldn’t think of anything else to roll with. I’d just have to deal with the consequences later.

“Well,” I began, thinking a silent apology for lying to her, “you know how you always bring me stuff you find outside?”

“…Yeah?”

“One thing I’ve never seen is a, uh, mantis. I’m pretty sure they’re around here. Think you could find one for me?” I said, hoping that she’d never actually attempted to bring me one of said critter in the past.

“Okay,” she said, closing her book and sitting up after a moment’s pause. “But I thought you didn’t want me to bring you things?”

She got me there. “Er, because they’re usually…dead? Yes, that’s it – I’d like to see a live one!” I was a bit proud of my recovery, until it dawned on me that I was using my daughter’s trust in me against her.

“Live one? Okay! I’ll try,” she said with marked enthusiasm, bounding from the bed in a rush. “I can look in the neighood, right?”

“That’s neigh/bor/hood, and yes – just don’t go too far, okay?” I said as she scurried down the hallway towards the front door.

“Okay! I’ll bring you a mandis!”

And then the front door closed. Wait, did she know what a mantis was? Or mandis, as she called it. She was interested in those sorts of things, and she did have picture books that featured them. So maybe. From the picture window in the living room I watched her check our bushes before darting off to one of the neighbor’s yards. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind.

It didn’t take me too long to get everything setup. Her cake and presents – a large stuffed fish and a few small things she’d wanted when we went out shipping – adorned a small table in the living room. I decorated with some typical birthday fanfare; balloons, some tinsel I was sure I’d be picking up for weeks, and a silvery banner with ‘Happy 6th Birthday Laska’ printed across it. Unfortunately, there was one major thing missing, but it wasn’t something I could provide for her no matter how much I wanted. I hoped she’d be content with just me.

Since not much time had passed, I thought I’d give Laska some more time outside before calling her in. Partially so she could enjoy herself some more, and partially so she wouldn’t think I’d just tricked her. So I waited around for her. And waited. And waited some more. Well over an hour had passed, and she was usually very good about checking in with me.

Getting worried, I set out to find where Laska had gone. I was regretting not buying her a phone or something so I could simply call her; I made a mental note to buy one tomorrow. Really, I should’ve done it a while ago. Leaving a note on the front door for Laska that said to wait for me because I was out looking for her, I began my search.

She wasn’t in the backyard or front yard, nor in any of the neighbor’s yards. I’d even asked the neighbors if they knew where she was – some of whom I hadn’t spoken with more than one or two times since moving here. One fear was overriding another at this point.

I’d always made sure to tell her not to go further than one block in any direction. I covered the area I’d allowed her several times over, rushing, and even running at points, yelling her name all the while. There was no sign of her.

Was she kidnapped? Did she wander off and get lost? Was she hurt?

Was I a terrible father for letting out on her own? I had to have been, or else she wouldn’t be missing.

My heart raced. My mouth went dry. A massive knot twisted my guts as I struggled to prevent panic from taking over. I ran back to the house to check for her for the fifth or sixth time. Nothing. I yelled her name again. Several times. Nothing.

Think. I had to calm down and think. I’d told her to find me an insect. If she couldn’t find one here, what would she do? She’d keep looking. Wouldn’t she? Come on, I had to know her by now. She would. But where? Wait, wait. A few blocks behind our house, there’s a large, wild field.

Most of the grasses were shin high. Some were knee or even hip length. Wading through the grass, movement near the center of a stand of tall grass caught my eye. A pair of grey, wolfish ears were peeking over the flora, darting back and forth. There. Just a glimpse, but I saw longish black hair and a pair of wider, black ears flash through.

“Laska!” I yelled, running towards the ears.

The grey ears halted and turned in my direction.

Relief washed over me when I got close enough to make out what was lurking within the grass. Laska’s ears came into view, then her hair and face.

“Laska! What the hell are you going out here?!” I shouted, dropping to a knee and pulling her into a brief hug before she could react. “I was so worried!”

Her eyes and face told me she knew she’d messed up. “I-I’m s-sorry,” she began, her tone shot through with a quiver. “I-I couldn’t find-”

“Laska! I was so worried about you,” I said, my voice barely breaking above a strained whisper. “Thank gods you’re safe…”

Before she could say anything else or cry, I snatched her up into another hug. I wanted to yell; I was angry. But Laska wasn’t to blame, not at all.

As I let out a breath into her hair that felt like I’d held it for years, I became keenly aware of the girl to whom the grey ears belonged. She was looking intently at us, her eyes shifting rapidly between Laska’s and mine. A girl with shortish hair that matched her fur and a long, bushy tail. A wolf girl with human hands and feet. And oddly pinkish eyes. Never knew of a wolf with that eye color. Then again, I never heard of a Cheshire with orange eyes before.

“Hi,” she said meekly, waving at me when our eyes met.

I freed Laska from my clutches and gave the wolf a half-wave back. “Uh, hi.”

“Who’s she?” I asked Laska.

The two girls shared a look. “This is Zoe,” she said, gesturing towards the wolf.

“Er, hello Zoe. I’m Laska’s father – Curtis.”

Zoe’s tail began to wag. “Hi Curt!” She chirped enthusiastically.

Laska had shuffled over towards Zoe, and watching the two of them stand together I noticed Zoe had the face of a child Laska’s age, but she was a good half-head taller.

“So, what are you doing out here?” I asked the wolf girl. The swishing intensified.

“I was playin’ and I found Laska,” she responded, pointing at my daughter.

“I was looking for a mantis in the grass and she jumped on me,” Laska said. For someone who was jumped on, she seemed to be rather pleased.

“Jumped?”

“Yeah!” Zoe cut in, “Cats always jump on me from grass. So I did it first!” She held her hands up in little balled fists, looking rather smug and pleased.

“But you failed, ‘cause I dodged,” Laska retorted, ‘like this!”

Expecting her to just mimic a sort of, well, dodge, I was not prepared for when she vanished and re-appeared a step away. My mouth hung open. “When could you do /that/?”

“Now!” Laska beamed.

In her haughtiness, Laska was not prepared for the second pounce from Zoe. The wolf girl tackled Laska to the ground, pinning her down by the shoulders.

“Got you!” Zoe said triumphantly.

“No fair!”

Well, at least Laska was safe. My heart had mostly settled into a normal heartbeat. I’d never seen Zoe around before. Not like I got out much anyways, but from the sounds of things Laska had never met her before either.

“Hey Zoe,” I asked. The wolf girl released Laska and looked up at me. “Where do you live?”

“Over there,” she said, pointing to an apartment complex at the other end of the field from our house.

It wasn’t an extremely long ways. Maybe half a mile at most, but if Zoe was as young as she looked…

“Do your parents know you’re out there?”

The folded ears and sudden halt of her swishing tail told me all I needed to know. I sighed. “Take it from me, I bet your parents are very worried. Let’s go back. I’ll walk you,” I said.

“F-fine,” she said, hanging her head dejectedly. Well, at least she was agreeable.

“So why did you come out here?” I asked Zoe as we began heading towards her apartment.

“I snuck out,” she said with the tone of a girl who knew she shouldn’t have. Agreeable, but not particularly obedient. I glanced at Laska. Peas in pod.

“Why did you sneak out?”

Zoe ran ahead of us and turned around so that she was walking backwards with her hands clasped behind her back. “’Cause mommy and daddy got me thinking of backyards, but we don’t have one,” she said.

I raised an eyebrow. “How did they get you thinking of backyards?”

Zoe narrowed her eyes and her ears twitched. “They don’t know I can hear so well,” she said in a whisper, as if attempting to keep a secret. Then with a blink her ears were open and clear. “I heard mommy say she wanted daddy to bury his bone in her backyard ‘cause she was feeling hot. Then they closed the door to their room!”

What exactly does a man say to a young girl in these circumstances? All I could do for several awkward seconds was blink as my mind sought a nice, logical framework to place her words into.

“Bury his bone in her backyard?” Laska repeated, tilting her head. She then looked to me with furrowed brows.

This was far, far too much for me to deal with. In my time of great need, I turned to a phrase I heard once. A phrase packed with decades, if not centuries, of wisdom. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“No fair,” Laska pouted. I stood fast.

Zoe hooked her lips into a half-frown. “Mommy and daddy tell me that all the time.”

I bet they do. Especially if she’s got as good of hearing as she claims.

Mercifully neither one pressed me for an answer. They were far too taken with each other, chasing and running about. Occasionally I had to corral the two of them; the notion that it was a bit like herding cats crossed my mind. Well, more like one wolf and one cat, but I still thought it fit.

The entire walk back Laska giggled and smiled more than I’d ever seen before. And there I was, smiling right along with her. This was certainly something far better than I could give her for a birthday present. A thought then crossed my mind. I hoped Zoe’s parents would be willing.

Right about when we reached the parking lot for the apartment, I saw a brown-haired wolf woman and a man appear from the entrance. What fortuitous timing. The woman sniffed at the air a few times, then looked straight at me. One hell of a sense of smell. Or maybe she just caught the movement in her peripheral.

She broke into a run towards me, the man hesitating for a moment before jogging along behind her.

“Ah! Mom! Dad!” Zoe said, ducking behind me with her tail between her legs.

Watching the wolf bear down on me, I just held my arms up. “Uh, hello,” I said as the woman slowed to a halt. About the same time, I realized Laska had backed away and was cowering behind a car.

“Zoe!” she howled, glaring from me to her daughter.

The father gave me a sort of a pitying glance with a look that said: This happens often.

“Get over here right this instant, young lady!”

With a voice like that I could imagine why the young girl was reluctant to leave her safe haven behind me. A follow up growl drew Zoe away from me, and she slinked over to her mother.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to go off on your own like that!”

Though her words were fierce, she was quick to scoop up Zoe in a hug and rub her tails and cover her with kisses. Finally she took notice of me again.

“Did you bring her back?” she asked, her voice light and chipper. How did she manage to switch to that tone after that growl from before?

“Yes, I found her in the field back there,” I said with a glance over my shoulder behind me. “Or rather, she found my daughter, then I found both of them,” I added.

The woman looked from me to the Cheshire cat hiding behind the car, then quirked an eyebrow.

“Thanks,” the man said with a grin. “I always tell her Zoe is fine, but…” he stopped after the woman shot him an evil glare.

Shifting from menacing stare that could halt an army to happy mother, she turned back to me. “Yes – thank you. I’m Lydia, by the way.”

“Steve,” the man said.

“Curtis,” I said with a nod, then shook their hands in turn.

“She’s your daughter…?” Lydia said once she was close in, dropping her voice to a whisper. At least she had tact.

“It’s…A long story. But ah, to keep it short, Laska’s afraid of women.”

Lydia’s brow knit together and she looked back towards Steve.

“Laska?” Steve said questioningly.

My daughter perked up at her name, peeking around the side of the car to look for the source of the voice.

“Is he your father?”

“Y-yes,” Laska said, never tearing her eyes off Lydia.

Zoe’s parents shared another glance. Can’t say I blamed them. I shifted over to the car, and as soon as she felt I was close enough to keep her safe Laska bolted behind me, clinging to my leg. I gave her ears a few scritches. At least she wasn’t trembling in fear like she would before. Nice to know the psychologist visits were having some kind of positive effect.

Satisfied that I wasn’t in the business of abducting children, Steve knelt down beside Zoe. “So why did you run off this time?”

“’Cause you two talk about yards all the time, and I hate being stuck inside,” Zoe said as she squirmed out of Lydia’s grasp.

“Yards?” Lydia inquired.

I gave a silent apology to the parents. It made me wonder what it feels like to have your child blurt out your secrets. No doubt I’d discover that sensation soon enough. Joys of fatherhood and all that.

“Ya! Daddy’s always burying stuff in your backyard! But we don’t even have a backyard!”

Lydia turned a very nice shade of crimson. Steve covered his face with a hand. The wolf woman looked to me with pursed lips. I shrugged, but couldn’t quite smother the stupid smirk I felt tugging on my cheeks.

She coughed into her hand. “A-anyways, thank you again for escorting her back to us. Do you live around here? I’ve never seen either of you before.”

“Kind of. I live in the houses clear on the other side of the field,” I replied.

“Oh yeah? Is Laska going to West Elementary?” Steve chimed in.

Zoe had dashed away from Lydia and Steve over to Laska and me, then grabbed her paw and started dragging her away.

I watched them for a moment, wondering what was going on. “Er, yeah, pretty sure. It’ll be her first year there, though.”

“Hmm, that so? What grade?”

Laska hadn’t taken her entrance test yet, but I knew she’d be fine. “Second grade.”

“Really? Same as Zoe, then,” Lydia said.

So they were the same age. Some coincidences are too good to pass up, I thought, turning to them again. Zoe had dragged Laska to a playground set, and now they were busy crawling around everything. And, now that the youngsters were out of earshot, I decided to lay my cards on the table.

“I adopted Laska in April,” I blurted out.

“What? Really?” Steve asked with raised eyebrows. Lydia simply blinked.

I let out a deep sigh. “Yeah. To expand a little on what I said earlier, Laska was abused by her biological mother and developed a phobia or something of women. Fortunately she’s fine with girls her age.”

“How…Horrible,” Lydia said, looking down at the ground for a moment. Her face turned back up, her face scrunched in concern. “So that means you don’t have a wife or girlfriend?”

“No. It’s just me. Not that I mind,” I said, turning to watch my daughter.

Lydia chewed on her lip. “Raising a child alone can’t be easy,” she said, then shared in my look towards Laska. “Especially a monmusu girl like her.”

“I make do,” I replied as jovially as I could manage. I knew what she was getting at, but hopefully that would be a long ways off. A length of silence descended as the three of us watched the kids. I attempted to speak a few times, but kept getting shy about it every time. Finally, yelling at myself in my head, I forced out my words.

“Could I make a request?” I asked, clearing my throat beforehand.

“What’s that?” Lydia asked.

“Well. Today’s Laska’s 6th birthday. And since she’s new to this area,” I responded, hesitatingly slightly at the end.

“And she doesn’t have any friends?” Steve finished my words.

“Until now, it would seem,” Lydia said, smirking at me.

I was more than a little glad I didn’t have to explain it. But I still had to ask. I certainly felt stupid getting all embarrassed asking when Lydia and Steve had already proven to be pretty easy-going people.

“Would it be okay for Zoe to come over for Laska’s birthday party?” I asked, feeling more like I was asking my own mom if it was okay for a friend to come over.

“We don’t have anything planned for the rest of the day, do we?” Steve asked.

Lydia thought for a moment, then shook her head. I could feel my spirits rising already. “No. Or tomorrow. So, sure. Assuming she wants to, anyways.”

Tomorrow, I thought. Took me a moment to realize she was talking about a sleepover. I think.

“Hey Zoe,” Lydia yelled.

Despite being on a swing, the little grey wolf’s ears perked up and focused in on Lydia no matter how much Zoe moved. “Yeah mom?”

Lydia glanced over at me for a second and whispered. “Does Laska know…?” I shook my head. “Do you want to go over to Laska’s house for a sleep over?” She resumed yelling.

Then Lydia looked startled and turned to me. “Er, that’s okay, right?”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure Laska would love it.”

“What? Really?!” Zoe shouted, hurling herself off the swing at full rise and landing on all fours in the sand.

That was at least a eight or nine foot flight, I thought inwardly. And she doesn’t appear phased by it in the slightest. Unfortunately, as children often do, Laska attempted it. There was nothing I could do as I watched her awkwardly slide off the swing. Then promptly face-plant into the sand. There’s that sinking feeling again. I began with a start towards my fallen daughter.

But, with a little help from Zoe she got up. Her face was reddened, but she didn’t seem like she was going to cry. In fact, she was looking happier than ever. I had no idea what to feel. Scared? Relieved? I think a little of everything had coursed through me so far.

“Zoe can come over?” Laska said, shaking the sand out of her fur. Like nothing had happened .

“Er, yeah,” I responded.

Laska and Zoe both yipped their delight and scurried back over, until Laska remembered Lydia and ground to a halt. Zoe was rather confused at her friend’s sudden halt and look of fear as she looked her mother. “What’s wrong?”

Laska simply shook her head and planted herself firmly.

“I guess I’ll go get a bag for her, huh?” Steve asked, scratching the back of his head at the same time.

Lydia looked over her shoulder at him. “If you would, dear.”

“Alright, be back in a jiff.”

“Anyways,” Lydia asked, turning back to me. “What’s your address and phone number?”

I had completely forgotten. Here I was, expecting people I had known for not even an hour to entrust me with their daughter without even letting them know where I lived. The inner me hung his head, knowing I wouldn’t have thought to ask if the roles had been reversed and Laska was going to someone else’s house.

Our contact information exchanged, Lydia dialed my number to verify that my phone rang. “Good,” she quipped, looking very pleased. “You don’t mind that we don’t have a gift or anything, do you?”

“Not at all. I’m just, well, very happy Laska has someone besides me for her party now,” I said.

Lydia smiled warmly. “I’m sure she’ll be happy too. Zoe seems to have become rather smitten with your Laska,” she said.

Laska was taken with Zoe as well, I mused. Had to be fate, or just some sort of goddess of mercy smiling on Laska today. Chance, fate, or divine intervention. Whatever it was, it gave me hope that she’d get over her past.

“Remember to behave yourself, okay?” Lydia asked Zoe after handing her the overnight bag. “And call me if she acts up,” she then asked of me in the same breath.

“Okay,” Zoe and I said in unison.

Surprisingly, despite Lydia being so close, Laska was still clinging to my leg. Granted it wasn’t the bravest display I’d seen, but she’d never allowed a woman to get that close to her before. Still wouldn’t say a word or do anything besides hide her face.

“Alright. See you tomorrow Zoe. Have fun!” Lydia said.

“Take good care of her,” Steve said.

I nodded. “I will.”

Then, as I herded the children back in the direction of my house, Lydia and Steve shared a little look. Relishing the rare moment when Zoe wasn’t around, huh? I was still kind of surprised they agreed to leave their daughter in my care so easily. They obviously trusted me, but I couldn’t say why.

“This is your house?” Zoe chirped as we came up to the fence that ran around our yard.

“Yup,” I answered.

“Cool! You have a yard! You have two yards! Is one of them a backyard?” Zoe took off in front of us, wagging her tail so fiercely I wondered if it’d break off. Never seen someone get so excited over a bunch of grass that you had to mow or the neighbors complained.

“Yeah, this one,” I said, gesturing to the yard we were walking past.

Stealing a glance at Laska, she seemed to puff with pride. Or something similar to it. “It is cool!” she chimed in.

Just as we were about to enter the front door, I remembered my little surprise. “Hey Laska, could I talk to Zoe alone for a second?” I asked her.

Both girls cocked their heads at me. “Why?” they said as one.

“Just…Please, Laska?” I said, flashing a saccharine smile. There’s that suspicious face again. But at least she agreed and took a few steps away as I squat down to face level with Zoe.

“Can you keep a secret?” I whispered.

Her ears flopped back and forth from her nod. I had a notion that she could not, in fact, keep a secret. Hopefully she could hold it in about a minute.

“It’s Laska’s birthday and I have a surprise inside,” I murmured into her ear, stealing a glance at Laska. Her paws were crossed in front of her chest. When did she learn how to do that?

“Really?!” Zoe shouted. Then gasped. Then covered her mouth and squeaked “Really?” between her fingers.

“Yes, so I want you to cover her eyes as we walk in and pull them off when I say, okay?”

“Okay!”

Soon as I started to stand she dashed over to Laska. “Laska! There’s something really cool waiting!”

That lasted all of five seconds. If that. I guess I’ll take it.

“Like what?”

“It’s a-“ Zoe began, but halted. Her tail stood straight out and poofed. “It’s a secret!” She started over.

“But I gotta do this,” she said, covering Laska’s eyes with her hands.

“W-what are you doing?” Laska asked timidly, swiping at Zoe’s hands with her paws.

“It’s for the secret!”

The wolf girl gave me the most exaggerated wink I’ve ever seen. I didn’t mean now, I thought with a sigh and opened the door.

Zoe guided Laska inside and into the living room. Soon as she saw the decorations and cake you would have sworn it was Zoe’s birthday instead. I thought she was kind of hyper when we first met, but it seemed strived to always outdo herself.

Taking my place next to the table, I suddenly felt very nervous. Too late to hesitate now. I gave Zoe a nod, and the wolf dropped her hands.

“Happy Birthday Laska,” Zoe and I shouted, her timing slightly behind mine.

Laska didn’t do much of anything for a moment. Fear crept into my heart. But then she blinked, and tilted her head at me. Her ears wiggled and her tail swished, curling around her leg. “Birthday?”

No, I thought. Did they really deny Laska this? Did she really not know?

“Yea! Your birthday! You get cake and presents and people are nice to you and it’s fun!” Zoe yipped excitedly, throwing her hands into the air.

“Why?”

My daughter’s question seemed to suck all the joy from the wolf. She lowered her arms slowly and seemed to be utterly stumped by the question. To her, birthdays were a thing that everyone knew.

“Well, because you’re a year older now, Laska,” I began, putting forth my best ‘dad’ voice. “It’s something special. A day just for you. A day to have fun with people you love.” The dad voice didn’t last too long before cracking.

Laska approached the table and gripped the edge with her paws. Her eyes went wide in amazement as they played over the cake and the garishly wrapped boxes and fish I’d put a ribbon on.

“This is all for me?” she said, looking up at me.

“Yes – just for you.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Why?” she asked again, tilting her head.

A half-sigh, half-laugh escaped. I knew she wasn’t doing it to be a troublemaker. She genuinely didn’t understand. Her ‘real’ parents had never bothered. Not once.

“Because I love you, Laska,” I said, crouching down to eye-level with her.

Laska looked down. Her ears drooped down to the sides of her head. I was worried I’d said something to upset her. Did she not love me back? That thought scared me even more than when she had gone missing.

“You mean it?” She asked, taking a few shuffling steps towards me.

“What? Of course I do! I’ll even say it again – I love you, Laska. You’re very special to me,” I said, staring into her eyes.

Step by step she came closer until she was well within arm’s reach. She seemed very nervous about something, but before I could figure out what she threw her paws around my neck. “I love you too, daddy.”

That was the first time she’d ever said those words. Both that she loved me, and that she called me daddy. All the self-doubt in my heart vanished. I fought back tears, but that battle was lost before it even began. I hugged her right back, and cried into her ears. Five little words from a little scarred girl had made me the happiest man in the world.

“I want hugs too!” Zoe protested, then pounced on us.

All I could do was laugh at the brazen display. I kissed the top of Laska’s head and threw an arm around the wolf girl to bring her into the fold. I didn’t care, I knew that this moment with my daughter wouldn’t be the last.

After who knows how long, I stood up, wiping away my tears. Snorting and sniffling, I looked down at Laska. Turns out she’d been squeezing out a few of her own silent drops. Even with wet cheeks, she gave me the most earnest smile I’d ever seen.

“Alright,” I said, forcing my eyes open and enthusiasm into my voice. “Who wants cake?”

“Meee!” Zoe shouted, tail wagging furiously

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