September 1st, 2003
Sunlight and chirping birds welcomed me as my eyes cracked open and I stretched out. Sunlight and birds. I blinked, something was missing. My alarm. Aw hell, not on Laska’s first day of school.
My heart launched into a gallop and I vaulted from the bed straight for my phone – which was also my alarm. Did I forget to set it? Set it to the wrong time? AM and PM looked an awful lot alike when you’re tired. I can’t believe I slept in what kind of parent am I oh it’s only 6:48.
I’d actually woken up almost a half hour early. And, as I did a mental self-evaluation, I wasn’t feeling nearly as tired as usual when I’m forced to get up in the early hours. The surge of adrenaline might’ve had something to do with it. Or maybe it was just the jitters I started feeling last night.
No point in trying to go back to sleep; even if I had more time I don’t think I would have been able to do more than close my eyes. Shuffling out of my room, I checked on Laska. She was sound asleep – I think. Other than a lump in the middle of the blankets I couldn’t see any part of her from the door. It was about then I realized that getting her up and ready was probably going to take longer than I’d anticipated. Taking after dear old dad, she tended to sleep until the late morning.
So I made a few preparations in the hope of saving a bit of time. Shambling downstairs, I laid out a basic breakfast plan – pancakes and sausage. Fast and easy, just what I’d need this morning. Checked through Laska’s bag yet again to make sure she had everything that was on her supply list. Notebooks, pencils, pens, various art supplies, a favorite book to share with the class – Laska had picked a picture book about a little yellow harpy who was picked on because she was so small, but wound up making all the friends when she saved her classmates from a rampaging dragongirl. It was cute, really, if a little unrealistic. Why would they even become friends at the end?
Confident nothing was missing, I went back upstairs to draw a bath. Waiting for the tub to fill in the increasingly steam-filled room, thoughts from last night and previous days bubbled up to the surface of my mind. Thoughts of Laska and school and everything else. Would she make friends, or would she be the yellow bird? Kids were brutal when it came to those who were different – especially when the differences were only skin-deep. Really though, the supposedly mature adults weren’t much better in that regard.
At least she had Zoe, so she probably wouldn’t be too lonely or scared. Hopefully. Maybe I was just worried over nothing. Maybe she’d become the most popular girl in class, or even her school. She was adorable, shy, and everything pointed to her being sharp. Wait, no, the shy, smart people tended to not do well socially. Though that depends on how much has changed since my youth, I suppose.
Well, I’d just have to hope for the best. Journey of a thousand miles and all that. Time to go wake sleeping beauty.
Laska was still little more than a lump under the covers in the middle of her bed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bought her a queen-size bed. The tips of her ears stuck out from the covers, the little black ends nearly cloaked against her dark blue sheets.
“Laaaaska,” I called out, standing at the edge of her bed. “Time to get up for school.”
The tips wriggled.
“I know you’re awake.”
Wriggle wriggle. Then came a little sigh and the lump began to move. Little indigo paws poked up from the sheets and pulled the covers back from her face just enough to expose her eyes.
“I don’t wanna,” Laska muttered, fixing me with a stare.
“Why not? Aren’t you excited to spend the whole day with Zoe? And you’ll meet all sorts of new people,” I said, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
How many times had I said that in the past week? And every time Laska remained unconvinced. I couldn’t very well tell her that she needed to socialize for her mental wellbeing. “Meet people” was about the only way I could figure to reduce that idea down to something she’d understand.
Laska shifted under the sheets and her eyes tightened. “I don’t wanna meet people. I wanna stay with you and Zoe.”
“I’m glad you want to stay with me sweetie, but you’ll also learn new things and have fun,” I said with a chuckle, patting the lump around where I thought her stomach would be.
“But I learn things from you and have fun with you and Zoe,” she said without a moment’s thought or hesitation. Almost like she’d been expecting my response.
“Well, you know, I can only teach you so much. At school you’ll learn much more. Now come on, I already have a bath ready for us.”
The sheets dropped further, revealing all of her curious face. It was probably a little cruel of me to tempt or bribe her like that. But if it was the only way to make her agreeable, what choice did I have?
Sheets flew back and Laska stood up on the bed and tottered over to the edge. “Okay,” she said happily, raising her arms up in a gesture that meant she wanted to be carried. I probably indulged her too much already. But hell, it made her happy, didn’t it?
Planting a kiss on her cheek that made her giggle after hoisting her up, I remembered I forgot to say something. “By the way, good morning sweetie.”
She gave me a kiss back and giggled out a “Morning daddy!”
Moments like these gave me all the reason I needed to get out of bed in the morning. And get Laska out of bed, too.
In the bathroom I set Laska down and she immediately scampered over to the warm water and dipped her paw in it. She turned back to me with a bright smile, then began to shimmy out of her clothes. Usually I just bathed her from the side of the tub, but at her insistence, and her psychiatrist’s recommendation, I took the occasional bath with her. Awkward wasn’t quite sufficient to describe the first time I bathed with her, and truthfully it still made me a little uncomfortable even now.
At least that feeling dwindled once we actually got in the tub and just weren’t standing around. I took up my usual position and began to scrub her. She purred softly and closed her eyes as I worked the shampoo into her hair and rinsed her clean, and would smile and laugh whenever I accidentally tickled her. Though sometimes it was on purpose, but I never admitted it. She also loved it when I cleaned her paws – especially her little squishy paw-toes. Felt more like bathing a cat than a young girl sometimes. Well, technically she was part cat.
One squeaky-clean Laska later, she did her best to ‘help’ me.‘ Mostly by getting soap in my eyes and scrubbing one spot on my back enough that I’m fairly sure I lost a few layers of skin. It was the thought that counted. So I had to tell myself. If there was one small blessing, it was that Laska hadn’t bothered to ask any questions about our ‘differences.’
Down in the kitchen, along with my now extra-fluffy daughter, I began to prepare breakfast while Laska observed. Closely.
“I wanna help!”
How does a father explain to his dear, beloved daughter that he does not want to eat lumps of flour and bits of eggshell for breakfast? I was regretting the decision for pancakes. At least with the sausage I could use the excuse that she was far too young to be near the range and hot skillets. I looked into her earnest, pure, innocent orange eyes.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, making a wonderfully exaggerated face of surprise and patting the back of my jeans. “I forgot my wallet upstairs. Can you go get it for me?”
“Sure!” she said eagerly, dashing across the kitchen and out into the hall. She loved to help, after all.
I like to think I set a record for least amount of time required to whip up a batch of pancake mix.
“Dad I couldn’t find it,” Laska said, slinking back into the kitchen with ears and tail low.
Lies hurt us all, don’t they? Though the weight on my heart was counterbalanced by the prospect of fluffy pancakes for once. “Oh, thank you for looking Laska. I appreciate it,” I said, carefully leaving out the part where I already had it or that I would need to look for it myself.
“While you looked for me I got everything going. Food will be ready in a minute or two.”
Her good humor returned, much to my relief. Smiles all around as she feasted, stuffing herself full of pancakes and the occasional sausage link. When she could ingest no more, Laska helped me clean up, then tottered off to the living room to watch some morning programming on TV. For a few minutes, anyways.
A chime sounded throughout the house, heralding the arrival of a certain mauve-eyed wolf-girl. I’d nearly forgotten about her. Opening the door, there she was, tail whipping through the air. Along with Lydia.
“Morning,” Lydia said, dressed up smartly in her business attire.
It was the first time I’d seen her in something other than short-shorts and a tank-top or t-shirt. She certainly cleaned up well.
“Morning,” I responded.
Zoe stared intently at me. I knew what she wanted. “Come on in,” I said, standing aside to clear a path.
“Where’s Laska?” Zoe beamed, dashing in the house and somehow removing her shoes mid-stride. “Nevermind! I smell her!”
And in the span of maybe three seconds she’d gone from standing at the door to sliding into the living room.
“Energetic, isn’t she?” I asked Lydia, quirking an eyebrow.
She sighed and shook her head. “Don’t you know it? Little squirt got us up with the rise of dawn. Leapt into our bed to make sure we got up.”
“Sounds like a handful.”
“Hey, wanna trade?” Lydia asked on the sly. There was a sparkle of hope in her eye that made me think she was just the tiniest bit serious.
“Laska’s enough for me,” I said, raising my hands up. “I don’t think I could handle Zoe alone.”
A dull thud came from the living room, followed by girlish laughter. “Hey! Don’t break anything in there!” I shouted, turning my head.
Lydia simply smirked at me.
“See? I’ve had her for five seconds and already she’s causing trouble,” I said with resignation.
“Yes – thank you again, by the way. Makes it so much easier on us to have someone that can take her to school and look after her until one of us gets home,” Lydia said with equal parts relief and appreciation.
“No problem. Figured it’s the least I can do to help out, right?”
Really though, I was doing it more for Laska’s sake than to help Lydia and Steve out in specific, since it more or less guaranteed she’d get to spend a little time almost every day with her friend. I think, however, that my intentions weren’t as guarded as I thought they were.
“That’s very sweet of you. Why,” Lydia said, bringing a hand up to face, “if I wasn’t a married woman I could just eat you up!”
All I could do was nervously look away and hope my blush wasn’t too apparent. Lydia’d figured out I was weak to such overt gestures by about the second day we knew each other. Some days she’d be fine, but others – kind of like now – she’d be merciless in her teasing.
“Haha! Such a cute reaction,” Lydia said with a smirk, then sighed. “Well, I need to get going. I’ll be around to pick up Zoe around four-thirty. Don’t let her get away with too much.”
“Er, right. See you then,” I said, recomposing myself.
Then with a wave she dipped inside her car and drove off, leaving me to deal with the girls for a short while longer.
Back in the living room, the kids were in a heap on the floor. If I didn’t know better I’d swear it was a pair of rambunctious boys rather than two girls. Owing to her size Zoe usually had the upper hand when they wrestled, but sometimes Laska managed to get the better of the wolf. I was a bit worried the first time they really got into it, but Lydia seemed more amused than anything. “So long as no claws come out and no one is crying, what’s the harm?” she had said. True enough, they never hurt each other. Yet. So let girls be girls. Or something to that effect.
“Don’t break anything,” I said as the ball of giggles, paws, tails, and ears rolled across the floor.
For a moment they paused, and both looked at me. Laska had Zoe’s ear in her mouth. A few blinks of acknowledgement is all I received before they went back at it. I flicked on the television and happened upon a show that caught my interest. A new version of a cartoon that I watched when I was a kid, though instead of hand-drawn it was done in CG. Bad CG, but it was amusing nonetheless. Transforming robotgirls that could alternate between their mechanical forms and ‘monster’ versions.
Imagine my surprise when they both put their tussle on hold to camp in front of the TV and watched with great interest. They’d gone from a tangled knot to sitting like good, obedient children in just seconds. Well, looking a little closer, Laska was the one that was interested. Zoe was looking more like she was just paying attention because her friend was. Either way I think I had discovered the magic ability of morning shows to bring peace to a household. And maybe got a little into myself.
Sadly, the time to depart had arrived and I had to cut things short. I’d need to download this later – under the pretenses of watching with Laska, of course.
“Sorry kids, time to go.”
“Ah! The end!” Laska gasped, whipping around to shoot me a look of irritation.
“Yeah, sorry, but you need to get to class.”
Soon as I mentioned school, Laska’s face clouded over. “I don’t wanna go.”
There went her good mood. I was hoping our little talk this morning would have been enough.
“Why not? It’ll be fun!” Zoe chimed in happily, throwing her arms around Laska.
“Yeah, you’ll have fun. Or is something else wrong?” I said, walking over and sitting down next to my downcast daughter.
“I’ll be lonely,” she said meekly.
Ah, a continuation of what we were talking about when she was still in bed. “Lonely? Zoe will be there with you, honey. I seem to recall you two are in the same class, right?”
“Ya! I’ll be with you, Laska!” Zoe said happily, hugging and rubbing her cheek to Laska’s.
Laska smiled weakly, but kept her eyes on me. “But you won’t be there.”
“That’s true, but you’ll meet a lot of other people,” I said, scratching her ears.
She sighed and glanced up at me. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, you have to,” I said in my firm, fatherly voice. “You’ll be fine, trust me. Now let’s get a move on or we’re going to be late.”
Laska was fairly quiet during the car ride; it made me a little worried. Not because Laska was always a bright bundle of energy, but rather that she was never this quiet when she was with Zoe. What was I supposed to do? Not have her go to cool? No, I agreed with the psychologist and social workers – she needed to go to school. Laska couldn’t retreat from people if she wanted a chance at being ‘normal.’
Even though I knew it was ‘right,’ I still felt like it was wrong forcing her to do something against her will. These were her precious, formative years, and several of them had already been stolen away already. I just wanted her to be happy, but would a chance at happiness later justify the hard choices now? It felt like I never knew what to do or say during all these perilous moments and decisions. No matter how much I’d been through already, I didn’t seem to be learning from them. I never had an answer to give when something difficult cropped up.
So, as I opened the door in the parking lot to let the kids out I did the one thing I knew I could. When Laska stepped out with a little frown on her face, I just pulled her into a bearhug and gave her a kiss on the forehead at the same time. “Don’t worry Laska – you’ll do great! I know that because I love you very much.”
My sudden hug had taken her completely by surprise, but it was a good surprise for her, I think. Watching in jealous shock, Zoe leapt across the seat and practically flew into Laska with outstretched arms. “I love Laska too!”
The tiny cheshire cat squirmed under our combined love-assault and soon she broke. I may not have had an answer for her, but hearing her laugh made me think maybe I didn’t have to provide one all the time.
Laska nuzzled into my chest and wrapped her furry little paws around me.
“That’s my girl,” I said sweetly, releasing her and giving her a pat on the head.
I then took her paw and Zoe’s hand in mine and walked them towards the front entrance where a teacher was standing. I introduced the kids and told him which class they were in. He flipped through a clipboard, made two checks, and then told the kids where to go to get to their class.
I let go of them, and Laska took a few nervous steps forward, then came to a sudden halt. In a whirl she turned about and darted straight back to me and hugged my leg. “I love you daddy and I’ll miss you,” she said, looking up at me.
I’d be lying if I said one or two tears didn’t manage to force themselves out, but I managed to keep myself mostly under control. “I’ll miss you too, sweetie. Now get going, and I love you too.”
Finally she broke off, scampering off towards the awaiting, and slightly peeved, Zoe. Together they sprinted off inside the school.
“Sweet girl,” the teacher said. “Don’t see that too often.”
“Really? Well, yeah, she is my daughter,” I replied, feeling rather proud all of a sudden.
Back at home, things felt very quiet and alone indeed. It made sense when I considered that for five months I’d been with Laska every day and nearly every hour. Hell, I already missed her and I’d been home for all of a few minutes. Obviously I knew she wasn’t gone for good and I’d be picking her up in the afternoon, but the house still felt empty. It reminded me a lot of what life was like before I adopted her.
Without her around I sort of dipped back into my old habits and schedule. Browsed the internet for a bit, played a few games I hadn’t touched in a while, watched a movie. Mowed the lawn, cleaned the house a bit. Just things to try and keep me occupied, but my thoughts always wandered back to Laska.
How was she doing? Was she making friends? Was her teacher nice? Was she scared and cowering somewhere, or was she bolstered by Zoe and at the forefront of things? At some point I realized that all the things I worried about her getting ‘wrong’ were the very same things I’d screwed up on. In a way the past had come back to haunt me. Missed chances, stupid mistakes. If only I hadn’t been so afraid. I couldn’t let Laska repeat the same things. I couldn’t, but could I guide her?
Mercifully my brooding was ended by the time. They’d be getting out of school soon.
It’s almost funny how much my mood improved as soon as I saw Laska appear. I think the fact that she was actually smiling helped all that much more. When she saw me standing amongst the throng just outside the entrance, she brightened even more. Having someone smile like that when they see you is probably the best thing I can think of to lighten a heavy heart.
“Daddy!” Laska yelled, running over to me.
I knelt down and she ran straight into my arms. “Hi sweetie. Did you have a good day?” I asked, hugging her.
“A little,” she said, wrapping her little paws around my neck. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too,” I said, planting a kiss on her cheek that made her squeal in delight.
I was so wrapped up with Laska I failed to notice poor Zoe standing there. Her tail was wagging slow and low, her ears drooped pathetically.
“Don’t be shy,” I said, motioning for her to join the fray.
Instantly her tail and ears picked up and she zipped into my other arm, leaving me to hug two little darlings at once.
“I had fun too!” Zoe proclaimed, practically forcing her head and ears into my hand.
Laska gasped and gave me a most serious look. She then forcibly placed my other hand atop her head so I could scratch her ears as well. Was it unusual that I thought of these two as jealous pets, vying for attention? Pet one, have to pet the other. At least it makes them a bit easier to handle than purely human kids.
“So what all did you do today?” I asked once I slid into the driver’s seat and made sure they were buckled up.
Laska hummed to herself for a moment. “I met Mr. Hart today, he was nice. Then we all said hello and he asked us to say our names and other stuff.”
Ah, the usual meet and greet. I always hated that – having to talk about myself to people who didn’t give a whit. Probably a little different in second grade, however.
“What other stuff?” I asked, prodding her for more information.
Laska looked down and fidgeted with her paws. Before I could even think to be concerned by my daughter’s response, the one who cannot keep a secret swung into action.
“The teacher had us take a test that had writing and math and stuff on it and it was hard but Laska did the best out of the whole class and he said Laska did a good job and a bunch of other kids asked Laska why she was so smart!”
I think the only reason Zoe stopped when she did was because she ran out of breath. Still, she let out a snort at the end and looked far more proud of Laska than Laska did of herself; she was still looking down, albeit with a little blush now.
“Really? That’s great, Laska! Guess all that studying we did over the summer paid off, huh?”
At last, there’s a smile. “Yeah,” she said quietly, lifting her eyes to meet mine in the mirror.
The rest of the car ride consisted mainly of Zoe chattering about every detail. It was interesting to hear about what went on in schools these days, though it became rather difficult to figure out what the hell she was talking about when she got to the ‘exciting,’ parts, such as snack time. Laska would simply nod along, only speaking when she had something to say about Zoe. It wasn’t so much that Laska was being quiet – it was more like the wolfgirl was just being in incessant chatterbox.
Once we arrived home, Laska was more clingy than usual, following me around the house. Stricken at the prospect of not being involved in something, Zoe tagged along as well. Thus, wherever I went I had a tiny contingent with me at all times. I made them a snack, and we plopped down on the couch together for some delightful afterschool television. Which was still just as bad as I remembered it. At least the morning cartoons weren’t trying to convey some kind of message.
In contrast to the drudgery of the afternoon, time just flew by now that Laska was back. An hour slipped by in the blink of an eye. Before I knew it, it was time for Zoe to depart for the day.
“Everything go well?” Lydia asked, forcing herself to pay no heed to the tiny wolf girl flailing in her grasp. She’d scooped up Zoe more like a sack of potatoes than her daughter when she dashed to meet her mother.
“Yeah, from what I’ve heard everything went well at school. I got an ear full from Zoe already,” I said with a chuckle. “I’m sure you’ll get it as well.”
Lydia laughed and then grinned at the daughter she was carrying like a bedroll under one arm. “I’m sure I will.”
“Come on mom, let me down,” Zoe pleaded, the fight draining from her. She was soundly ignored.
“Thanks again for doing this. I’ll drop her off same time tomorrow morning, okay?”
“Alright, sounds good.”
“And goodbye too you too, Laska,” Lydia said, looking down at the trembling cheshire clinging to my leg.
Laska merely winced.
“Well, I suppose it’s too much to hope for a sudden change, huh?” Lydia said with a bit of disappointment.
By now she had become ‘used’ to Laska’s actions, and just took everything in stride. It was a welcome change from the offended tone I’d come to expect from women whenever Laska took shelter behind me. I gave her a few ear reassuring ear scratches, folding her velvety ear between two fingers and rolling it back and forth.
“If it makes you feel better, she’s allowed you to be closer to her than anyone else.”
Lydia looked at me with a bit of surprise, then turned her eyes back to Laska and smiled. “That so? Guess that means I’m making progress. Anyways, talk to you tomorrow,” she said with a wave, taking a few steps back and then walked off towards her car, still treating Zoe like a package. At least she let her down when she opened the car door.
“Lydia isn’t so bad, is she?” I asked as I closed the front door.
“I-I guess not,” Laska mewled.
Tail twitching in the air, Laska stared hard at the front door for a moment before she allowed herself to separate from my leg.
“Hey, Laska,” I began, “I’m proud of you.”
“What for?” She said, tilting her head.
“You went to school and did well! You were scared, weren’t you?”
I bent down to her eye level and pat her head a few times. “So, how about a treat?”
Laska’s face began to brighten. “What kind of treat?”
“How about icecream?” I responded.
“Really?” She asked, eyes twinkling with hope.
So with a bit of a spring in her step that I hadn’t seen before, we headed outside.
September 2nd, 2003
While I didn’t wake up quite as early as yesterday, I still woke before the alarm went off. So I set about doing the usual. Assuming it could be called ‘usual’ on the second day, anyways. Laska was a little easier to get up at least, though only after I promised to take a bath with her again.
Everything was following course until the little wolfish chatterbox spilled the beans on what I assumed was supposed to be a secret.
We were watching the same show as yesterday when Zoe dropped her little tidbit. “Mom’s birthday is today!
I had to pause for a second. “What? Really? How old is she?”
Zoe frowned and looked like she was concentrating very hard. “30!” She finally said, most pleased with herself for accomplishing whatever mental gymnastics she had to perform.
I had no idea. Neither Steve or Lydia had even hinted at a birthday, though now I know why Steve asked me if I could watch Zoe until late tonight when he dropped her off this morning. Last minute scheduling problem at work, huh?
Curious about why neither of them had said anything about it, I needled their daughter for more information. Not that it was particularly difficult to get her to speak.
“Oh yeah? Do you know if they’re having a party or something?” I inquired, touching the wolfgirl’s fluffy tail.
The wolfgirl startled at the sudden touch, then flashed a toothy grin. “Daddy told me he’s gonna cook dinner and make a cake. I wanted some too but he said it was important that it was just him and mommy.”
Suspicion confirmed. As Zoe might say, lots of bones were going to be buried. Or just one several times.
“Why’s it important they’re alone?” Zoe asked, tilting her head.
Laska looked at me as well. How did these things always come back to me?
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I said flatly. Such a good, fatherly response.
They both scowled at me. “That’s not fair!” Zoe protested, crossing her arms in a huff.
“Ya that’s not fair,” Laska agreed, glancing at Zoe and then mirroring her action.
“Too bad,” I said, standing up suddenly and turning off the television. “Oh look at that, time to leave for school! Grab your things and let’s roll!” I said, walking briskly out of the room.
Being overwhelmed by two young girls didn’t do much for my ego, but I gotta take what I can get.
Once I’d dropped the kids off at school, I thought about what to do. I wanted to get Lydia a small gift, but I had no idea what to get. What little I knew about her was that she was athletic and liked parkour and running and such, but what exactly would I get her that related to those hobbies? Unable to decide, I wound up just picking up a card.
After I picked up the kids, I got Laska to sign it as well. I left a little note that ended with “You can thank Zoe for telling me. Happy 30th birthday!”
And, sure enough, I had Zoe until well after evening fell. I didn’t mind at all, and Laska certainly loved having her friend around for more time. In a manner of speaking, allowing Lydia and Steve to be alone away from their daughter that can hear everything was probably the best gift I could offer up.
Steve wasn’t surprised in the least when I handed him the card along with his daughter.
“Zoe?” he asked.
“Yup,” I responded.
“Mmm,” he nodded.
I couldn’t contain my wry smile any longer. “Enjoy your time together?”
Steve fought mightily to contain his grin. He lost. “Several times, in fact. Quite loudly at that.”
“What was loud?” Zoe demanded, forcing herself between us. The ultimate test. What would he say, I wondered.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
Knowing that other people said the same thing made me was probably a lot more comforting than it had any right to be.
Steve and I exchanged a few more thinly-veiled allusions before Lydia called to ask where he was. With a wave and knowing nod, he departed with Zoe in tow. Now that I thought about it, that was probably the first time I’d ever had ‘guy’ talk with Steve. Usually whenever we spoke Lydia was around as well.
A bit later Lydia called to thank me for the card and gave double thanks for watching Zoe as long as I did.
September 20th, 2003
I wish I could say that today had been a typical Saturday. For the most part, it was. Laska and I studied together and played around for a while. She did her own thing and I did mine. Just the sort of every day experiences of life. Really, I couldn’t ask for more – simply having my daughter around made every day special.
Nor was the night anything unusual. Just a cool September evening.
“Goodnight Laska. I love you,” I said after I’d tucked her into bed and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
Laska yawned and smiled sweetly. “Goodnight daddy, I love you too.”
Returning her smile I flicked off the light and walked out of her room; I felt so, I don’t know, content?
In only a few months she’d gained a smile that could melt anyone’s heart. I really thought that her past was getting left far, far behind. Even the psychologist said she was coming along far better than he’d hoped. He congratulated me on being so supportive, but I always told him it was her own strength that saw her through. I was just kind of there, lending a helping hand.
As I sat down at my PC to play a game or two, I allowed myself to think that, perhaps, I was helping her recovery along. Maybe I was a better father than I thought. I soon learned that such hubris was not to be tolerated.
The sound wasn’t particular loud, yet it pierced me through and instantly dropped my heart. My daughter was crying. Panic urged my feet and legs; in a flash I was in Laska’s room.
She had balled herself into a corner on her bed, cradling her head in her paws. Her entire body shook and trembled. “Stop! Stop! It hurts! I’m sorry!” She wailed, thrashing her head side to side. “I’ll be good, I’ll be good!”
I did the worst thing possible. I did nothing. I stood there, absolutely frozen. I hadn’t even turned on the light. I just stood there and watched the most agonizing thing I had ever seen.
“H-help me! Stop mommy! It hurts!”
Her tiny frame heaved as she yelled and screamed, reliving her haunted memories.
“Please stop…” she sobbed.
My heart couldn’t take it any longer; it wrested control of my body from my frozen mind, still reeling from what I was hearing and seeing in the darkened room. I dove onto Laska’s bed and shook her with all my might, hoping to wake her from the terror that had gripped her. “Laska! Laska, it’s alright!”
“Nooo!” She shrieked, flinching and wincing when I touched her, pulling herself into an even tighter ball.
She recoiled from my touch. My daughter was afraid of me. I felt like I’d betrayed her somehow, like she couldn’t trust me anymore. Round and round went my thoughts, telling me Laska hated me. I screamed in my mind at myself that she was simply not all there, that it was a nightmare she was having. It wasn’t me that she was terrified of.
Again I moved while my thoughts were paralyzed by indecision and doubt. I’m not sure how or why, but I’m thankful for whatever force compelled me. Fumbling about in the dark, I managed to switch her nightstand lamp on and lifted her up, forcing her to look at me.
Laska blinked, then met my stare. She seemed disoriented – distant, like she was trying to figure out who I was. Her cheeks were drenched in tears. She studied my face for a moment, and then revelation swept over her, accompanied by a new tide of tears. With a wail she collapsed onto me, wrapping her arms around my waist and sobbed into my stomach.
“Daddy!” She howled, gripping me with all the strength should could summon. “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” she went on and on, like saying it would chase her nightmares away.
I held her as tightly as I could, as if she would slip away if I relented for one second. “It’s okay,” I whispered time and again, alternating between rubbing her head and scratching her ears. “I’m here for you, Laska, it’ll be okay.”
She cried and cried and cried. I probably would have cried too had I not been so utterly determined to stay strong. I had to be strong. Long after my shirt was soaked through, Laska managed to find her voice.
“I was so scared,” she said in a harsh, choked whisper.
I kissed the top of her head. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I said, trying to be as reassuring as I could. “You’re safe here.”
Her tears still flowed, but her grip on me loosened. As gently as I could manage, I tilted her head up. A child should not have that look in her eye. That look of consuming terror and hopelessness.
“Did you have a nightmare?” I asked, knowing full well of the answer. I hoped that maybe she would be willing to talk to me about it.
She nodded her head. “Yeah…”
“What was it about?”
She buried her face in my chest. “Mom and dad.” Her paws tightened around me. “I don’t want to be hit again…”
The tears returned. “It hurts,” she said again. I knew she wasn’t talking about the physical pain.
Letting out a long breath that had caught in my throat from the moment I saw her wailing, I gave her a tight squeeze. “They can’t hurt you now, Laska. You’re safe with someone who loves you very very much. I love you dearly, Laska. You know that, right?”
“B-but I’m a bad girl,” she said in such a tiny, pathetic voice. “That’s why she hit me…”
I couldn’t hold back anymore. I was so, so scared and frustrated and angry and what was wrong with her mother. “Laska, no, you’re not!” I said, my own hot tears trickling onto her head. “If you were a bad girl would I love and care about you so much? Not just me either, Laska. Zoe and Lydia and Steve love you!”
“R-really? T-then why did mom hate me so much?”
“Because she was stupid! She couldn’t see what a treasure she had! I don’t know why, I don’t know who wouldn’t love you. I love you so much.”
Laska remained silent for a moment, save for a hiccup. Slowly she climbed forward, bit by bit, until she was entirely nestled against me, sitting atop my lap and cradled in my arms.
“You mean so much to me,” I began on a whim. Maybe it was just to break up the silence. Maybe it was just to calm my own mind. “You’ve given meaning to my life,” I said quietly. “I wouldn’t give you up for the world.”
Her breathing began to even out and slow down as she calmed. So too did my own, and then for some reason I just laughed when I thought about some of the things we’d done together.
“What are you laughing about?” Laska asked, drying her face and sniffling.
“Well, remember the first night we were together, when you crawled on my chest?” I asked, pausing to take a deep breath and chuckle again. “I was awake when you did that, you know.”
“Yes, I was. I thought it was so cute I didn’t want you to run off if I let you know I was awake.”
“…I was lonely,” Laska said, tucking against me even more tightly.
“I know. So was I.” I realized then that Laska was keenly aware of what ‘lonely’ meant. She knew it by the age of five. “But I’m not lonely anymore,” I continued, sighing out into her hair. One of her ears twitched from the rush of wind. “How about you?”
“…No,” she said; a little note of happiness had crept back into her voice.
I finally managed to smile, and I continued to talk about ‘old’ stories for a while, playing up the amusing moments. Occasionally Laska would respond with a little ‘yeah’ or a tiny, barely-there laugh. The more I talked the more I could feel her relax. Then a notion gripped me, and I did something I never imagined I’d do. I sang a lullaby. I only knew one, but it’d do.
“Now it’s the time to say good night; good night, sleep tight. Now the sun turns out his light; good night, sleep tight. Dream sweet dreams for me, dream sweet dreams for you…”
To anyone else I’m sure they would have said I couldn’t sing for shit. But who cares about them?
Laska purred softly as I sang to her and rocked her gently in my arms. That was the only compliment I needed. So I continued to sing, repeating the verses who knows how many times. Soon she was completely relaxed and her purring trailed off as she fell asleep, curled up in my arms.
I was left in an awkward position, but it was a small price to pay. I managed to lean back against the wall, careful to avoid disturbing Laska. Couldn’t turn off the light from where I was, but I’d deal. I hoped and prayed I did the right thing. Said the right things. This was the first time I’d seen her cry and wail so terribly, so afraid. Then again, so was I.
October 10th, 2003
Today I had my first lengthy meeting with Laska’s teacher. We’d discussed things weekly on the phone and often via e-mail, but he wanted us to meet in-person this week. He said he just wanted a face to go with the name and voice. Fair enough; I was curious to meet him as well.
I arrived at Laska’s school a little later than usual, after all the other kids had gone home. Laska was looking bored at what I assumed was her desk, but as soon as I walked it was like a switch had been flipped.
“Daddy!” She said happily, rushing over to greet me.
“Hey sweetie, how’s it going? Where’s Mr. Hart?” I asked, resting my hand on head while she clung to my leg.
“He said he would be back in a few minutes,” Laska said, then began to purr as I stroked her ears.
“Oh? He trusts you enough to leave you alone?”
Laska nodded. I wasn’t sure if I should be proud of that or he was just a bit of a negligent teacher. I settled on proud, because, after all, Laska was indeed a very good, trustworthy girl.
With a minute or five to kill, I decided to do what every parent does – find the stuff their kid had done and say how much better it is than everyone else’s. Glancing around, the room was well-adorned with all manner of things – art, posters, educational guides – typical classroom stuff. Along one wall were drawings done by the kids.
“Which one of these is yours?” I asked Laska
Laska pointed out one towards the end and hanging low. “That one,” she said quietly.
She’d motioned to a poster that was resplendent in color, but it was hardly something that could be called cheerful. Nor was it particularly sad. I’m not sure what exactly I’d call it, but I was moved in a way no other art has ever accomplished.
Two figures that I assumed to represent Laska and me were in the middle, in some sort of building while it was raining outside. I could tell it was supposed to be Laska since she’d made sure to draw the scars on the face with a bright red, and picked a brilliant blue to represent tears. Yet, despite the tears, she’d drawn a smile. I figured the other person was me, since it was much taller and looked like it was shielding the scarred girl – plus she’d captured my likeness so very well. On the far side of the image was a more typical-looking cheshire cat with long claws extending from her fingertips and a very nasty look on her face.
Then, above the two of us she had written “Daddy saved me.” I don’t think it’s possible for me to explain what I felt. The best I can do is to say that I felt warm and appreciated. In a simple child’s drawing Laska had allayed many of my doubts. Many of my fears.
“What, what did Mr. Hart ask you to draw?” I asked, struggling to force my emotions down.
Laska looked up at me. “Something that happened over the summer.” She began to fidget and looked at me with a deal of uncertainty and worry. “Do you like it?”
I knelt down and gave her a hug. “I love it. And thank you for making this.”
She let herself relax in my arms and began to purr loudly, nuzzling her face against my shoulder. Despite how quiet she could be at times, Laska really knew how to let you know she loved you.
[ http://i.imgur.com/KYKOscC.jpg – image courtesy of less ]
My eyes wandered around the rest of the room, and I wondered what else she might’ve done that could be hanging around. Breaking our hug, I began to wander around the room with Laska in tow. She sported a goofy little grin, but didn’t say anything. I’d probably made her as happy as she’d made me.
Unfortunately I didn’t get far; my exploration of the room was cut short by a deep voice that boomed from behind. “Ah hello! You must be Mr. Mulner.”
“Er, Mr. Hart?” I asked, trying my best to conceal my start as I turned around.
I’d never actually met him before – only spoken over the phone. I didn’t imagine he would be quite so large. Or be a lizardman. Hard to imagine that towering giant of a man being a second grade teacher, but he did have a remarkably gentle face. Definitely the look of the kindly grandfather, despite the scales that crawled up his neck and braced his jawline.
“Glad to finally meet you, Mr. Mulner,” he said, striding into the room towards me.
“Please, just call me Curt.”
“Fair enough, and please – call me Walter.”
We shook hands, or rather my hand in his massive claw, before he settled down behind his desk and motioned for Laska and me to pull up a seat. I didn’t realize at first, but as soon as Walter appeared Laska went silent. It didn’t look like she was afraid of him, but more like she just wasn’t comfortable.
“So, what do you think of the classroom?” Walter asked, folding his clawed hands together and smiling as he spoke.
I glanced around with my eyes quickly then shrugged. “Not bad, I guess? I don’t really know what to compare it against.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a grin. “Well, let’s get down to business then, shall we? Now then, I just want to let you know that Laska isn’t in any sort of trouble. In fact, she’s been a great student,” he said, turning to her and smiling. “I really do love having her in my class.”
A little grin spread on Laska’s lips, but she didn’t say anything and kept looking down. Shy may be shy, but not immune to flattery, huh?
“That’s good to hear. Glad to know she’s not a little hellraiser.”
Walter’s smile turned into a wry smirk. “Laska and Zoe do get into some mischief, but for the most part they’re harmless.”
“Oh? So they’re thick as thieves in class too?”
“Indeed they are. They mesh together quite well… but,” he began, his tone markedly softer, more concerned. “It is only Laska and Zoe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Laska’s been having some difficulty getting along with others,” he said, careful to avoid sounding like he was admonishing her. “I don’t mean that there’s any quarrelling or anything, but it worries me.”
Laska’s grin had vanished, replaced by a nervous frown. Her eyes darted to me occasionally, but I couldn’t make our what she wanted. If I had to guess, it’d be that she didn’t want me to hear about this.
Walter sighed. “The first week or two Laska was fairly cheerful and got along with her classmates quite well. Then, about three weeks ago, she began to ignore almost everyone except for Zoe.”
Three weeks ago? I was worried about that. Laska had a few more similar nightmares since then, but they weren’t quite as severe as that first night. Her reaction to women like Lydia had worsened, but I’d hoped that was the only consequence. She’d remained the same sweet girl to me and Zoe, so this was something unexpected. I hung my head for a moment, then turned to my daughter.
“Laska, do you want to say anything?” I asked gently, hoping to avoid speaking for her. She shook her head and gave me a pleading look.
“You don’t want me to tell him what happened?”
This time she nodded. Walter raised an eyebrow and gave me a look that said he would want an explanation later. Clearing his throat, he began on a different topic.
“Right, the other thing I wanted to talk about was Laska’s performance in her school work.”
“Is there something wrong with her grades? I thought she was doing fairly well,” I said, still keeping my eye on Laska. She’d relaxed somewhat as the topic changed, but still seemed very uncomfortable. Her tail twitched erratically and she kept wringing her paws together.
“No, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite,” Walter said, leaning forward. “She is doing very, very well. Completes handouts before I even have a chance to explain how to work them. Or even begin the lesson.”
He smirked and shook his head. “If only more parents would teach their children a few things over the summer vacation.”
“Well, I had a bunch of free time and such…” I said with a chuckle.
Walter waved away my explanation. “Yes, I was just hoping,” he said with a sigh. “I understand not all parents are able. That aside, the reason I brought it up was because I think Laska would be comfortable, academically speaking, in a third or even fourth grade class.”
“Yes,” he began, looking at Laska with an almost pained expression. “She’s a bright kid and I think she’d do well, but…”
“…but you’re worried about her ability to make friends?”
Walter leaned back in his chair and nodded; his expression probably mirrored mine. If I kept Laska in her current class she’d at least have Zoe, but there would be no challenge in her school work. She’d get bored, or worse, eventually. This was becoming too familiar for comfort. But, despite my familiarity, I had no idea what the correct answer would be.
“I don’t wanna leave Zoe,” Laska said in a forced whisper, staring intently at her paws as she wrung them together. “I don’t wanna be alone.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t need to make a decision anytime soon,” Walter said, covering for my delayed response. “So you two can talk it out as much as you want.”
“Thanks,” I said with a sigh.
Then I noticed a twinkle to his eyes. “Though, if you want, I can try to sneak Laska some worksheets that would be a bit more difficult for her to solve. Would give her a challenge.”
“Really? That’d be great,” I said, but then was suddenly mindful of my daughter. “Er, is that something you’d like, Laska? Harder work?”
Her tail began to swish in wide, slow arcs. “Okay,” she said, lifting her eyes to meet mine.
Not exactly the enthusiastic response I’d hoped for, but I’d take it. Walter seemed pleased as well. I have to admit, I was happy Laska had a teacher that seemed to really care for her well-being. These days all you hear about are kids that ‘slip through the cracks’ and teachers ‘teaching to the test.’ Well, not that it was a new phenomenon.
“Good,” he said with a satisfied clap of his claws. “I’ll see what I can get from the other teachers. Now then, I would like to speak with you alone for a minute, Curt.” He leaned forward again and motioned with his head that I should ask.
“Er, okay. Laska dear, could you please go out into the hallway?” I asked, adding “Please” when she failed to respond.
Her tail twitched a few more times and she regarded me more than a little suspiciously. Slowly she stood up and shuffled off to the door, looking over her shoulder at me.
“I’ll only be a minute Laska, then we’ll go do something after this, okay?”
Her ear twitched. “Okay,” she said quietly.
Now that I thought about it, ever since Walter showed up she’d been extremely quiet – even for her. Once she’d left the room and closed the door behind her, her teacher sighed.
“That’s about how quiet she is all day,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “What happened to her?”
With a small measure of reluctance I explained the nightmares she’d been having. He already knew about her past abuse and that she was adopted, but apparently the psychologist hadn’t contacted him about these latest events. The entire time he kept his face passive, only showing a reaction when I finished.
He looked down at his claws that he had folded together atop his desk, chewing and pursing his lips before letting out a sigh. “As one father to another, I can’t even begin to imagine how you feel,” he said in a hushed tone and reached across his desk to lay a claw on my shoulder. “I knew it had to have been bad based on the scars, but that’s…”
I nodded and smiled weakly.
“I’ll do everything I can to help her out. And, in my personal opinion, I think it would be best for her to remain in a class where she at least has a friend.”
“Yeah, I think so too. You’ll try to give her something more challenging?”
“I will. Unfortunately there’s a limit to what I can do, thanks to the administration,” he said, rolling his eyes. “They’re strict about everything. One-size-fits-all education and all that.”
“Thanks – anything is better than nothing. I’m glad she has a teacher that cares,” I said, smiling as I stood.
Walter shared in my smile. “And I’m glad she has a parent that actually cares about their child more than their child’s grades.”
We shared a handshake, or rather, more like his claw engulfed my hand and he shook me up and down like a rag. “I’ll keep in contact to let you know how she’s doing,” he said as he released me from his vice-like grip.
I nodded, tested my shoulder to make sure it hadn’t dislocated, and said my thanks again. Out in the hallway Laska was curled up on the floor near the door, but stood almost immediately once she heard me. Now that no one was around, she looked positively bright. She asked about what we’d talked about, to which I successfully dodged her question by asking her if she wanted to go eat at her favorite place.
The rest of the evening neither of us mentioned anything that was going on at school, but it was all I could think about. Ultimately I think the best decision would be to keep her with at least her one friend when I considered how difficult it was for her to make new friends. Maybe if she was able to open up more I’d be willing to have her skip a few grades. Only time will tell, I suppose.