The last time I kept track of the clock as much as I did that evening had to have been when Laska ran off. Every time I glanced at the time I had to tell myself it would be fine – Laska would be fine. There was no need or reason to worry so much. Then I’d look again in another five or ten minutes.
Even Eralia had given up on trying to calm me, instead just sighing and rolling her eyes. Wasn’t like I wanted to be so paranoid. It just happened.
There was an hour left, then thirty minutes, fifteen, and five. By that point I had my shoes on and my keys in hand, jingling away. Needed to keep myself at the house; didn’t want to get there too early.
Little surprise that when I let myself free and drove off to pick Laska up, I was already exhausted. Which made keeping my worry in check even more difficult.
I arrived at the theatre a few minutes early, despite my attempted precautions, so I took up a parking spot as close to the entrance as I could find and hunkered down. Listened to music and fiddled on my phone to try and distract myself, but having the time in the corner only made me all too aware of every passing minute.
No sign of Laska emerging from the theatre. But that was fine, perfectly fine. Only a minute over. Teens would be teens, people were people. I remembered Laska wanted to catch a movie as well as play in the arcade, so I looked up the movie listings just in case there was a showing that’d put her a few minutes over or something.
Everything ended a little before or well after our appointed hour. Try as I might to keep my horses under control, they were running all over the place. Just a quick message to Laska to ask where she was, if she’d be out soon. Now that I did know wasn’t excessive – she was five minutes late, after all.
A few people entered and left. Still no Laska. I began to consider venturing in to search for her. Would ten minutes be too soon to go looking?
My fingers tapped on the door handle. It’d been ten minutes; it’d only been ten minutes. I considered calling Eralia, seeing what she thought I should do, but she’d probably just heckle me. Wait – there she was!
I may have been a few rows away, but there was no mistaking my daughter. Even from a distance I could tell she was smiling and laughing with the guy next to her; that must’ve been Dave.
No, I wasn’t… envious at all. Well, okay, I may have been somewhat jealous. But, seeing as how my anxiety had vanished the instant I saw her, I could be glad for her all the same.
Laska checked her pocket, read something on her phone, and looked around. Ah, she probably hadn’t been getting reception inside. I flashed my lights and honked my horn to let her know where I was parked.
She waved and the two of them scampered over.
“Hey dad,” Laska said as she popped the door open.
“Hey sweetie,” I said, doing my best to keep calm and cool, “have a good time?”
“Hi, er, Laska’s dad,” Dave said, his awkward greeting accompanied by the pained face everyone made when they had to introduce themselves to someone they should know.
I kind of wanted to be a bit spiteful and well, dad-like. Well, maybe really wanted to. But Laska’d probably have a fit. “Curtis,” I said with a smile.
Dave snapped his fingers. “Right, that was it – I knew it started with a C.”
Though the light from inside the car and from the flood lamps spilling across the parking lot wasn’t the best, I could still make him out well enough. I remembered him being bulkier, but he had been wearing his leathers last I saw him. A bit on the thin side, buzz-cut, not all that much taller than Laska. In short, he looked like an average, decent kid who’d just gone on what may have been his first teenage date.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, placing my hands on the steering wheel and giving a shrug, “been a while since we met at the track.”
“See, what’d I say?” Laska said, giving Dave’s ribs a gentle prodding.
“You got me…”
Oh did I ever want to ask what they’d been talking about. Instead, I finally took note of the fact they were both lingering over by me. Weren’t Dave’s parents here to pick him up? Wait, was I supposed to give him a ride home?
“Does Dave need a ride home as well?”
The lad in his dark, long-sleeved shirt shook his head, “Oh, no, my folks should be here soon. They just have a habit of always being late,” he said with a short sigh at the end.
“Oh, okay then. Hopefully they won’t be too much longer.”
We all entered a silent limbo, looking to each other to carry the conversation forward. Thing was, there wasn’t much left to talk about.
“Well then, we should probably be getting home then,” I said, a bit guilty at breaking the lovebirds up for the night.
“Yeah, probably,” Laska said, turning to Dave, “We can chat when you get home or something.”
“Sure, sounds good,” Dave said. He wiped his fidgety hands on his pants and reached out for Laska’s paw, hanging at her side. They made the barest of touches, best as I was able to see in the dim light. “I had a lot of fun tonight.”
“Me too…” Laska may have been wearing a smile, but she seemed to pull her paw back in an awful hurry.
They both lingered and hesitated, like neither of them were sure what they should do or say next. “Well, good night,” Laska finally said, plopped into the car.
With that, Laska shut the door. A wave as we departed capped off their adolescent goodbyes.
I’m not sure what I was expecting on the ride home. Perhaps some idle chatter about what she’d done and what it was like, like two friends sharing a secret. It’d be painful to hear about how blossoming love, but heartwarming all the same.
Instead, Laska pondered her evening as the world streaked by outside her window.
“You seem a little quiet,” I said, once I couldn’t take the awkward silence any longer.
“Hmm? Oh, I guess,” Laska said, chin cupped in her paw.
“Figured you’d be a bit more excited or happy about your date. Maybe even you’d want to talk about it with your dear old dad – but I understand, I’m just a taxi driver these days…”
Laska sighed at me, but she couldn’t conceal her tiny smirk. “Sorry, I just don’t have much to say… Should I?”
“Well, I never really dated much at your age. Or at all. So I can’t really say. Not what you expected your first date would be like?”
Whatever shred of mirth had been there faded away at my question, but it wasn’t sadness that replaced it. More like introspection. “Maybe? I thought dates were supposed to be more, like,” she trailed off and frowned in thought, “close.”
I like to think I understood what she was getting at – the romantic ideal of a date where sparks fly and all the other shit that never happened but we always wished and hoped it did. “Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t.”
“Then how can you tell if you like someone?”
How indeed. Telling Laska I only started liking Eralia because she laid it on so heavy at the outset was probably a bad idea. Or was it? Was telling her I only felt attracted to Eralia because I desperately wanted to wrong?
“That’s something you’ll have to ask and answer yourself,” I said, earning a small scowl of annoyance, “What matters is that you enjoyed yourself. Means you got along, right? So just, keep doing what you’re doing. No need to rush things along.”
“Oh, I see…” Laska’s tail had curled around the armrest and the end was twitching back and forth. That look spelled trouble. “What if I want to rush things along?”
My heart leapt into my throat and all trains of thought ground to a halt. “What?”
“You know… move things forward. Take it to the next level.”
Where did she pick up… The pieces in my mind fell into place. “That’s not funny,” I said flatly.
Seeing as the jig was up and she no longer had to maintain an act, Laska began snickering. “You shoulda seen the look on your face!”
“Yes, haha, very funny, let’s give dad a heart attack.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t pick on me so much,” Laska said, tilting her head in such a way to combined looking down her nose with a sideways glance.
“Eralia started it. And she’s also probably the one who told you to say that, didn’t she?”
Yes, that was like her to play both sides. The jackal was a psychic vampire, feeding off our suffering and anguish. I could just imagine her sitting in the dark, paws steepled together and cackling.
We talked about this and that for the remainder of the drive, which wasn’t very much longer. Surprisingly, Eralia was there to greet us when we walked in.
“So, how’d it go?” She asked, topped to the brim with enthusiasm.
“Fine,” Laska said, torn between politeness and wanting to make a break for her room. Couldn’t say I blamed her.
Eralia wasn’t having any of it, putting herself square in front of the stairs. “Went that badly, huh?”
I was going to change into my pajamas, but stopped halfway up the stairs; I had to see how this would unfold.
“It was fine, what else do you want me to say?”
“Laska, dear, I saw how excited you were to go. Something happened. Or is it something didn’t happen?” Eralia said as she stroked her chin.
Laska bristled at the question. “It. Was. Fine!”
Cutting off any possible response or further interrogation, Laska teleported from the first floor to the second, completely bypassing me. She glanced at me, waiting to see if I’d say something. I just waved her away; she was getting old enough she didn’t need to have that rule looming over her head. Not that I’d tell her explicitly, anyways.
“You sure didn’t waste any time,” I said as I leaned on the banister, gazing upon Eralia from on high.
Eralia’s lips bunched to a corner of her mouth and her ears followed Laska all the way into her room. “Not the reaction I was expecting. Did it not go well?”
“No, I think it went well, just not in the way she was expecting. Probably,” I said was I waltzed back down the stairs.
She gave me the look that said she knew I knew a juicy detail or two, but wasn’t going to tell her. “Maybe I should try talking to her about it later…”
“Just let it go,” I said, taking her by the shoulders and guiding her away from the stairs, “if she wants to tell us all about it, she will.”
Eralia tried to say something further, but I silenced her with a peck on the lips. Well, it silenced her long enough to get her mind onto a different topic.
“Look at you, finally figured out how to handle me, did you?” She said, twirling out of my grasp and towards the sofa.
“Figured I’d try something new.”
“Don’t get too confident it’ll always work…”
After driving Laska around as much as I had, and after three more dates, I couldn’t wait until the day she could finally drive herself. Wouldn’t be too much longer until she could get her learner’s permit, and then only a short time more until her full license I could retire from being a chauffer.
It’d also save me the annoyance of having her give me the same answer every time I picked her up. For someone who was eager to go out on her dates every time, she was never the same when it came time to come home. Reminded me, in a way of how she started school for a while. All smiles for the first while, but then all downcast once she couldn’t ignore reality anymore.
That said, I didn’t doubt she enjoyed herself. I figured she was just figuring things out in the way teenagers did when it came to the tricky topic of romance and sex – by beating a square peg into the round hole until it finally gave in.
Eralia, on the other hand, was deeply suspicious. She wouldn’t tell me what of, just that Laska was hiding something.
Tonight would be Laska’s fourth date. Should I have known the exact number? Well, it was momentous for me, since I didn’t have to drive her somewhere. And, it was also a double-date for double the excitement. Zoe would be bringing along a new crush on their adventure to the go-kart track. Lydia would drop them off and pick them up, since she would be heading that way for a company dinner followed by drinks or some such.
I found it odd Laska, Zoe, and Dave decided to kill time at my house instead of Zoe’s while they waited for the new-comer, but whatever. Eralia kept trying to corner the poor werewolf, but she was saved several times by a vigilant Laska.
Otherwise they did their own thing and I did mine. But, for some reason the three of them poured into the basement while I was in the middle of laundry.
“Hey kids,” I said as I performed the task of sorting out coloreds and whites.
Laska paused at the foot of the stairs, almost as if she were surprised to see me. “Oh, hey dad.” The other two chattered behind her and finally the procession proceeded and they filled into the basement.
Laska made for a pile of junk that at one point had been organized many years ago. “I think it’s over here.”
Zoe and Dave gave me a short greeting each before returning to the more important matter at hand.
“In here?” Dave said, standing before the imposing conglomeration of who knows what, half the mass on various shelves and the other half supported by the first.
“Yeah, should be…”
I tried to think of what was over there they’d be interested in. If I remembered right, it was largely a collection of Laska stuff accumulated over the years.
Zoe stood back and observed Laska and Dave rifling through the mess – or maybe supervised – but she was far from idle with that massive, grey-furred tail of hers swishing about. Faster and faster until whatever energy filling her could no longer be contained. “You two are adorable together!”
“We are?” The pair said in unison.
“Maybe I should go to the bike track sometime if there’s a bunch of cute guys around…”
When faced with a hungry predator over a foot taller than him, Dave did the smart thing – one step away from the fluffy giant and two to the side, thus placing him safely behind Laska.
Either Laska missed what’d just happened or she simply didn’t care. “That’s what I’ve been trying to get you to do forever; it’s so much fun.”
“But I dunno how to ride a bike, and just hangin’ around all day seems like it’d be boring.”
”So learn? And just hanging around means you can prowl around,” Laska said, one paw planted on her hip.
“I guess I could tag along one day,” said Zoe, her big ears flattening across her head for a moment, “but that’s a long time to sit around if I don’t like it.”
“So why not learn to ride? Like Laska suggested?” said Dave, having to look up rather far to see eye-to-eye with the wolf. Not that it was unusual for most people – I had no official numbers, but she couldn’t be more than a couple inches shy of seven feet.
Listening in on the kids was fascinating, but I was quickly running out of laundry. I could only stretch sorting and putting things into the washer so far before it became apparent what I was up to.
“My folks say it’s too expensive,” Zoe pouted.
Ain’t that the truth. If it wasn’t for Eralia, bless her sadistic, black, lovable heart, I wouldn’t have been able to take Laska to the track nearly as often.
But then again, maybe I could.
With the wolf sulky and sagged, she no longer was quite so intimidating. Dave apparently had the same idea, considering he decided he no longer needed his Cheshire shield in order to give Zoe a little pat on the shoulder. “Ah, yeah. It can be. It’d be great with the three of us.”
“I know, right? Maybe…” Laska said, her eyes drifting towards me. I knew that look. That was my cue to and escape up the stairs with the laundry before she could finish.
In the living room Eralia was glued to whatever show was on the television, but in light of recent events, I wondered how much she’d heard.
“I’m beginning to think Laska is getting a little spoiled,” I said, taking a seat next to Eralia. She didn’t react much, only giving me a slight nod to show she’d heard me. “And I can’t figure out how she’s getting that way. It’s almost like someone has been buying her motorcycles and computers and dates for the past year or two.”
Mirroring Zoe’s earlier display, Eralia puffed out her cheeks. “Aw, just let me dote on her a little. It’s not like I can have any kids of my own.”
“I still think it’d be best if she had to pay for her dates out of her allowance.”
Far more sullen than she had any right to be, Eralia let out a deep sigh. “All right, I won’t finance her little love adventures anymore.”
“Thanks,” I said, though given her display, I assumed she’d just be fronting cash on the sly in the future. I’d just have to bust her in the act and use it as leverage against her.
Which got me thinking, that was a very Eralia-like idea.
A short while later the kids scampered off to Zoe’s house to meet up with her date before Lydia was to take them out. I never did get his name, but it wasn’t all that important; I’d learn it at some point anyways.
About an hour after that, the phone rang. Curiously, Lydia was calling.
“Hey Lydia, what’s up?” I said, drawing the attention of Eralia. “Something the matter?”
“No? Well, yes, actually. We’re out at a company dinner right now and we had to leave in a hurry. I think we might’ve left the door unlocked. Can you tell Zoe to go home and check?”
There was a delay in my response as I processed what she’d said several times over, in case I’d misheard. “What? Aren’t the kids with you?”
Eralia went on full-alert, mouthing for me to tell her what Lydia was saying. I could hear Lydia and Steve talking to each other in the background. “Zoe told me she was going to hang out with Laska at your house tonight.”
I stood straight up so fast Eralia recoiled and blinked. “They told me you were dropping them off for their date tonight!”
“Date? What date? They’re not with you?”
Lydia’s voice took on a panicked tone, and I’m sure mine did as well. “So where the hell are they?”
“Damn good question, let me try calling Laska, I’ll call you right back.”
“Right, let me try Zoe.”
I snapped the phone away form my ear, hung up, and dialed. Rang once, twice, four times, then voice mail. I tried again, ended the same. Sent a text message or three, asking where she was. No immediate response. Lydia called me again.
“Any luck with Zoe? Laska isn’t answering,” I said, staring out the window towards Lydia’s apartment.
“No, nothing. Leave it to that girl to ruin our dinner… When I get my hands on her—“
Eralia muscled in on the conversation, squeezing up next to me. “They lied about what they were doing?”
“Yes, Lydia had no idea she was supposed to be taking them somewhere,” I said, wavering somewhere between worry and anger.
“So where they hell are they?” Steve’s voice shot through the phone, asking the question on all our minds.
I thought for a moment – they were kids with cash, but without a car. “Let’s check Lydia’s place, they might be there.”
Eralia gave me an odd look, the kind with her brows knit together. “Why would they be there?”
“I don’t know, they’re teenagers. And it’s a start. Either way, the door should be open.”
“Yeah, Zoe does dumb shit like that all the time. I’ll keep my phone next to me. Let me know what you find,” Lydia said, or more like growled.
Slipping my shoes on, grabbing my keys – one thought, one question dwelled as I stormed to the car with Eralia right behind: Why did Laska lie to me?