“Laska, you’ve got mail,” I yelled up the stairs.
In the kitchen I flipped through the various envelopes, tossing them onto the table. It was all the usual, save for a postcard addressed to Laska.
A quick glance over my shoulder to make sure she wasn’t coming down just yet. It wasn’t that I wanted to pry, or so I told myself, but seeing as how it was simply a bit of cardstock with a picture on one side and writing on the other…
It’d come from overseas, from Johan. Since that day at the hospital, Laska hadn’t told me much about her contact with him – her real father. A girl was entitled to her privacy, but damned if I wasn’t curious to know more.
Seeing as how Laska was taking her time…
“Hello Laska! How are you? I’m doing well. Travelling with the Red Cross has been great! I get to visit countries all around the world, helping people in need. It’s kind of a pain that I’m so often without an internet connection and e-mail, but at least we still have the mail. It’s also kind of a shame I can’t see the scenic views, like the one on the reverse of this card. I’m actually near the mountain the picture was taken from, but all the beautiful buildings have been levelled. Seeing as how they had been standing until now, that means this must’ve been the worst cyclone in three or four hundred years. Scary! Well, I’m running out of room, so I’ll have to write you again. Love, Johan.”
Huh. I had no idea. When I spoke with him in the hospital he’d mentioned about wanting to become a social worker to help kids like Laska never have to go what she went through. Though, thinking about it, working for the Red Cross was social work. Living the dream after all. Somehow, it made me feel a little guilty. Maybe even a smidge of jealousy.
The sound of footsteps snapped me out of my thoughts and I grabbed some other mail so it wouldn’t look like I’d been reading hers.
“What’d I get?”
“Postcard from Johan,” I said, handing it off to her very nonchalantly.
She turned the card about in her paws, studying it like some kind of mysterious artifact before she settled on reading. I did much the same with our electric bill, hoping to discover the amount due was actually a joke and the real total was hidden elsewhere. Sadly, I had no such luck.
Laska must’ve read over the card three or four times, her face a puzzle of emotions with every pass. Something like anger, sadness, relief, and happiness all in one.
“Ah, nothing really,” Laska said, her voice the kind of whisper reserved for when something actually was wrong.
I just hummed my if-you-say-so dad hum, my way of questioning her without questioning her.
She fidgeted some, doubtless the result of a conflict within her mind. Other than the one day after her ordeal in the hospital with her mother, she’d been fine. That made me worry all the more. Made me wonder what else she was bottling up. Or maybe she really was fine and I was the one who couldn’t move on. Sometimes I wished I could peer inside that head of hers.
“Well, all right.”
She gave me a sort of silent thanks and read the card once more before heading off back to her room. I thought that’d be about the sum of our conversation for the day, so I went up to the office to pay my monthly dues.
I may have gotten slightly sidetracked on internet browsing and maybe a game or two. An hour or so had passed, based on the text message from Eralia asking where I’d disappeared to. Really, she’s downstairs and she sent me a text message.
Just as well, though, considering when I got up to head back down, there was Laska – standing in the doorway. She startled when our eyes met, all paw-wringing and lip-chewing. I had no idea how long she’d been there. Whatever she wanted to say apparently took some self-encouragement. Was it about her father? About me? Both of us?
All I knew was she had something very important to discuss with me. Finally, she could start opening up to me about what she was going through. Amping myself up, I made ready for whatever she had to say about her biological parents.
Though her continued silence and awkwardness meant I had to ignite the process. “You seem kinda nervous. Want to talk about something?”
That did it.
Laska sucked in a breath. “Hey, dad. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, anything,” I said, speaking in a sort of gentle, placating way I’d heard on TV and the movies whenever someone had to be consoled.
“Can you drop me off somewhere tonight?”
Considering how much I’d hyped myself up, I had no idea how to respond to that. My mind was forced to start all over from the beginning.
“Sure, I don’t mind,” I said after a lengthy pause. There had to be something more to this, something she was concealing. “Where at?”
“The CinemaTown theatre,” Laska said, hesitating to gauge my reaction – then she added in a rush, “They’re supposed to have a really nice arcade! So I thought it’d be fun, that’s all!”
Not the smoothest criminal around. What was the big deal with the arcade? Something wasn’t adding up. Not only that, when was the last time she went to one of those? Had to have been a few birthdays ago. Zoe wasn’t really into gaming nearly as much…
My thoughts were interrupted by the thunderous footfalls of someone rushing up the stairs and down the hall. Eralia burst into the room, her full attention locked onto Laska.
“I’m so excited for you! How come you never said anything?!”
Both Laska and I stared in shock at Eralia with her glittering eyes and wagging tail. Why did she rush up here? How did she even hear us?
Laska’s mouth hung open in shock. “Wha, why were you listening to me?! Besides, I, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You can’t fool me, I know exactly what you’re up to! And I wasn’t listening to you in particular,” Eralia said, pointing to her big, swiveling ears, “I just overhead.”
She overheard us talking normally from the living room. Tiny tendrils of fear coiled around my heart; how much else had that cunning jackal heard over the years and never mentioned? Well, I’d just have to worry about that later.
“Can one of you please tell me what’s going on here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Eralia said, cocking a brow, “Laska’s going on a date.”
Laska staggered back. “It’s not a date!”
“If it’s not a date, why are you getting so red?”
Eralia was merciless in ferreting out the truth. Try as Laska might to pull a reason or excuse from the recesses of her mind, there was no escaping her cheeks.
A date. I had to let that one percolate.
“It’s just, we’re just going to hang out,” Laska said, retreating away into the corner of the room from the crushing gravity looming over her in the form of my girlfriend.
I had no idea what to feel. My little girl was growing up. Or no, this wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had come up. But it was the first time she was going to be alone with a boy. In that way.
My immediate reaction was to tell her no way, but I managed to catch myself. No, acting like that wasn’t going to do either of us any favors. I couldn’t even explain why I felt so protective all of a sudden. just that I was. I was her father, yes, but before that, I was her dad. With that frame of mind, I knew just what to say.
“A girl and a boy going somewhere together, alone… Sounds like a date to me,” I said, sharing a glance with Eralia. “To be young again…”
“Damn it dad!”
Laska fumed, her eyebrows taking on an angle I wouldn’t have thought possible. “Why are you both acting like it’s such a surprise?”
“Because you’re getting so worked up.” Eralia’s smile would’ve been friendly, had it not been for her two fangs poking out. “So come on, spill it – who is it?”
Laska’s lip curled and she let out a snort that was probably supposed to be indignant, but wound up sounding cute. “Why should I tell you?”
“Because I’m your dad,” I said, all very father-like. Laska’s ornery attitude softened. “And I deserve to know what you’re up to. You know, just in case I want to hit the arcade as well.”
Just like that, she shot off another harsh scowl.
As much fun as I was having torturing the girl, I did have to check up. Too much abuse and she’d clam up. I could always make her tell me under the threat of not letting her go unless she told be, but…
“Aw, you know I wouldn’t do that, right?” I said in an attempt to mollify the Laska.
The tapping of her foot and continued glare was a worrisome answer.
“Jokes aside,” I sighed, “I still ask what you and Zoe are up to whenever you guys go out, don’t I? What if something happened?”
“What? No, no, nothing is gonna… happen,” Laska said, then added something under her breath. I couldn’t make it out, but I suspected from the twitch of Eralia’s ears she’d heard.
“You never know, anything can happen – especially to a young couple. Like what if I needed to get in contact with you but you weren’t picking up your phone?”
“Oh, that’s what you meant…”
Meant by what? To add to my confusion, Eralia was none too subtle in her snickering.
“What’re you laughing at?”
“Nothing,” she said, still failing to contain her chortles, “You two are so alike it’s scary.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Our combined response only served to further Eralia’s amusement. “Thanks for proving my point.”
Seemed for every situation she helped straighten out she made another far more convoluted than it had to be. “Anyways,” I said, loud enough to steer the conversation back on course, “We really do need to know.”
“Couldn’t I just like, call you if something happened?” Laska began reaching into her pocket, likely to pull out her phone.
“That’s exactly why we need to know, in case you can’t call us or we can’t call you.”
Her paw stopped and withdrew slowly. I could see on her face she was struggling to think of another way to avoid dropping a name. If only she could put that kind of effort into school.
Didn’t take long until she gave up and slumped over, resigned to her fate.
“Oh, that nice young man from the track?” Eralia said, throwing a sly look my way.
Unlike her, I wasn’t able to instantly recall a face to go with the name. Then again, I had a suspicion he was one of the first kids who came to mind when she galloped in, asking about dates.
“I knew it,” Eralia whispered, giving me a little elbow to the ribs for good measure.
Of course she knew. “Okay, but who is… Oh.”
All the bits came together in my head and I was finally able to put a face to the name. It’d been a month ago, but I did remember he seemed nice enough. Guess they exchanged e-mails or something when Eralia dragged me off.
So that was why she’d done that.
“Yeah, him,” Laska said, eyeing the door like a cornered animal. “We’re probably just gonna watch a movie and play games and stuff.”
“That’s adorable,” Eralia said, resting a cheek against her palm.
That was one way of looking at it, I guess. I had still had other notions. My mind wandered back to the last time the whole subject of dates and romance came up. How’d I ever agree to that when I felt the way I did now?
“Sounds like a fun time,” I said, forcing myself to be at least a little enthusiastic.
Laska gave me an awkward smile. I returned her awkwardness with a helping of my own. Which left Eralia, who just sighed like an exhausted teacher tired of the same two students who never seemed to learn.
“Are you two going to get something to eat before or after?” Eralia said, keeping this mess rolling along.
“Oh, uh, maybe after? Or should we eat before?”
“It doesn’t matter, though there’s a couple decent places to eat around there. Tell you what, I’ll give you kids some extra cash so you don’t have to eat fast food.”
Some of the tension bled out of Laska. “Really?”
“Sure, it’s a special occasion, after all.”
“Honey, you don’t have to…”
Eralia shook her head. “I insist. A little favor between us girls…”
Generosity or some kind of plot? With Eralia, both were just as possible.
“Thanks,” Laska said, gazing at her feet for a few seconds. “So yeah, can you drop me off at six?”
Not like I had a choice anymore. I still hadn’t agreed to anything, yet somehow we’d reached a point where I had. Was probably for the best. I steeled my heart. “Sure, though what time am I picking you up?”
“How about 11?” Laska winced soon as she asked. Likely due to me frowning even before she’d finished saying ‘eleven.’
It wasn’t like it was a school night. But she was still young, a teenager. Still a child. But was she still a kid? If someone had asked me just hours ago if I would have an issue with Laska staying out until 11 with, say, Zoe, I would have said no. She was smart, she could handle herself. If anything, it was Dave who had to worry.
So why did I still feel so conflicted?
As I thought about it, I noticed something. Or rather, the lack of something. Eralia was just as silent as I was during the lull. Normally she’d fill in the gaps or say what I couldn’t decide.
I had to say something.
“Ten thirty,” I blurted out. “No later.”
A compromise. Laska mulled it over. I expected her to shoot back immediately and be angry about a curfew or lack of trust. Instead, all her nervousness melted away and she positively beamed. “Thanks, dad!”
“…Yeah, no problem,” I said, desperately trying to figure out if I’d won or lost the negotiation. Eralia had gone silent, appraising me. Wasn’t until Laska darted out of the room after giving me a hug then she gave my shoulder a little pat.
“…I can’t tell if you’re serious or not.”
She shrugged her shoulders turned around, pausing mid-stride. “You two are growing up so fast.”
I still couldn’t tell.
A little after I tried to talk with Laska about Dave. The things he liked and so on. Every question was like pulling teeth, and every answer was a variation of “I dunno.” Eventually I just gave up and dropped the interrogation before I had to break out the water board.
As the time ticked by and the hour grew new, my anxiety doubled over with every minute. By the time we left, I felt like I was the one going on a first date.
Especially when I noticed Laska had taken care to dress up a little. Nothing too fancy, which wasn’t surprising she didn’t have any ‘fancy’ clothes, but she was a notch above her usual with a wrinkle-free blouse, sleeves rolled with precision. Instead of her usual shorts or jeans, she’d dug out a pair of slacks I didn’t even know she had.
This was the real thing, then. I didn’t know what to say, not until I pulled in front of the theatre complex.
“Have a good time, and stay safe. Call me if anything happens – I mean it,” I said, struggling to force myself to look at her rather than beyond her and out the window.
“Nothing won’t, and I will.”
“Really, don’t be afraid.”
“Right, I won’t.”
“Got your money?”
Laska rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yeah.”
“And your phone?”
“Sorry, I just worry…”
“I know..,” Laska said, glancing out the window as she fidgeted with her belt.
I forced myself to take a breath. “I’ll see you later tonight, then.”
And with that, Laska returned my smile, thanked me, and scampered from the car. On the way home, all I could think was somehow, in some way, I’d lost a little part of her.