November 11th, 2003
I groaned and blinked.
My eyes took a moment to bring the tiny, fluffy shape into focus.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, still half-asleep.
I glanced out the window, then over at the alarm – still had half an hour before it was due to go off. Laska fidgeted about next to me, shifting back and forth and swishing her tail energetically. Considering she was about as easy to wake as the dead in the mornings, her waking me up was rather suspicious. She was also holding her arms behind her back. Make that very suspicious.
“Okay, so what’s up?” I asked.
“The sky!” She blurt out in a fit of giggles.
I cringed; I knew telling her and Zoe that lame joke was going to come back to haunt me. Since then, every time I asked either of them ‘what’s up’ I got that same damn response.
“You know what I mean,” I said dryly, then stifled a yawn. “This is the first time in the history of ever that you’ve woken up before me.”
“And,” I added, giving her a sidelong glance, “What’re you hiding behind you?”
Her orange eyes twinkled and her grin grew into a toothy smile. “Happy Birthday!” She shouted. Her fluffy little paws raced from behind her back to present a drawing to me, holding it up like it was her greatest pride.
Laska peeked at me from over the top of the paper, watching for my reaction. I kind of just sat there with a confused look on my face until my sleep-fogged mind managed to process what exactly was going on.
“I, well, thank you, sweetie,” I said with a chuckle, slightly embarrassed that I’d forgotten my own birthday.
“D-do you like it?” Laska squeaked out, her trembling paws causing the paper to shake. “I made it just for you…”
Ever since I complimented her art back in school, she’d been in a drawing frenzy. The fridge was just about completely covered and she had all sorts of things hung up in her room. Maybe one day she’d become a talented artist, assuming she kept it up.
“Let’s see,” I said academically, plucking her drawing from shaky paws with one hand and rubbing her head with the other.
I hummed and hmmmed like an art critic studying a masterpiece. Laska’s paws drew up to her face while I appraised her work. The tip of her tail was twitching madly and her eyes were held open wide as they could go.
In her usual masterful way, she’d drawn the two of us together, her paw in my hand – at least that’s what I gathered from the two lines that I assumed to be arms that ended by touching each other. Not one to miss details she’d drawn festive party hats, a table with three legs, a non-Euclidean cake with an indeterminate amount of candles, and finished the whole thing with ‘Happy Birthday Daddy’ written across the top and signed ‘Love Laska.’
“I love it, Laska,” I said, scooping her up with one arm and planting a big kiss on her forehead. “A father couldn’t ask for a better gift from his daughter.”
Happy little giggles spilled out as she nuzzled her cheek against my shoulder and let out all her built-up tension. “Y-you really like it?”
“Of course I do!” I boasted, bringing another bright smile to her face.
“I worked on it all night!”
I was a little suspicious of that claim, but who was I to judge the time required to produce true art?
“Is that right? Well, I’ll have to hang this up,” I said, placing her drawing carefully on the nightstand, still holding the wriggling cheshire with one arm. “But for now, I’ll just have to get back at you for waking me up so early!”
So with a heavy heart I set about my grim task – punishment had to be carried out. That was the rule, after all. In only seconds poor Laska was unable to endure my torture and burst out in raucous laughter as I tickled her with neither mercy nor pity. Truly horrifying, to the point where I couldn’t help but laugh along with her. Such terrible mornings these days.
“Thanks again, I love it,” I said, giving her one last squeeze after several minutes of tickling and play wrestling had torn up my bed. “Anyways, now that we’re both up, how about we take a bath and then I’ll start on making us something to eat?”
“Together?” Laska asked, hope shining in her eyes. Or one eye – her hair had gotten itself in such a mess that it covered half her face.
“I think I could manage that,” I said, throwing my feet off the side of the bed. “Since we’ve got a while, we could probably linger in the bath longer than usual.”
Laska beamed, then vanished for a moment before reappearing, now naked, on the floor.
“Wait, I still need to-“ I began, then sighed and gave up as Laska sprinted from my room, shouting ‘Yay~”
She’d gotten a little more adept at controlling her teleportation powers – she could go from my bed to the floor now – but she still couldn’t quite manage to bring anything with her. Such as her clothes, which lay on my bed just like someone had simply vanished out of them.
“There’s no water!” Laska complained, poking her head back around the corner before I’d even managed to fully stand and stretch.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you before you scampered off. Doesn’t fill itself, you know. Why don’t you draw the bath this morning? You know to check the temperature, right?”
“Right!” She said, looking very determined before dipping out of view.
Honestly, I was surprised Laska remembered my birthday – probably because I don’t remember ever telling her. Either I simply forgot I told her, which was easily a possibility, or she somehow discovered the information on her own. Regardless, even though I was tired as hell, this had been the best morning in many years.
“Could you please drop Zoe off around five?” Lydia asked, doing her best to avoid eye contact. She even went so far as to completely turn herself sideways to me.
She really, really needed to work on her poker face. Admittedly, if it wasn’t for Laska giving me a little reminder this morning, I probably would have thought Lydia was just acting very strangely. This was too much of a coincidence, but I played along.
“Sure, no problem,” I said, craning my neck to try and meet her eyes.
When our eyes met I could she her desperately trying to control her wolfish smirk, but her best wasn’t quite good enough.
“Steve and I are uh, we’ve… need to pick something up and the car will be full…” she mumbled, focusing intently on my mailbox just outside the door.
“I already said I’d do it. It’s no problem, really.”
She blinked and stole a glance at me. “Er, oh. Okay, great! See you at five, then!” She blurted out in a rush, then quickly made for her car.
On second thought, I probably would’ve thought she’d gone completely crazy had I not known that she knew. She could get all girly about the strangest things sometimes. Little mystery as to where Zoe got her personality from.
Heading towards the living room where I could hear the little scamps tussling about as they usually did, there was only one way Lydia could’ve obtained that knowledge. Seems Zoe was no longer the only one who had a penchant for revealing information, though there was little risk of her losing the crown.
Settling down onto the couch, I flicked on the usual morning programming. Their mock fighting came to a screeching halt and they both sat at attention as the theme song to the show began to play. Tails wagging, paws and hands folded neatly into their laps. Of course, neither of them even acknowledged my presence. For all they cared, magic had turned on the TV. One day they’d recognize my power. One day.
Not at all feeling ignored and neglected, I watched along with them until I got my chance – a commercial break. Seizing the opportunity, I began my interrogation of Zoe.
“Hey, Zoe,” I said cheerfully.
The wolf pup just sort of flopped onto her back to look at me, rather than turn around. “Oh, hi!” she said, little wolfish fangs peeking out of her lip. She really didn’t even notice I was there.
“I have a question for you,” I said, leaning forward onto my knees.
She rolled onto her stomach, ears perked straight up as they could be. Laska was glancing between the two of us.
“Your mom asked me to drop you off tonight, but wouldn’t say why. What’s she got planned?” I asked, watching for her reaction.
It was a fairly innocent question, something of a warmup. I guess I’d just forgotten how easily Zoe gave up information and admitted guilt – her face went wide in shock. Based on Laska’s shared expression, no doubt my daughter was the source and Zoe had been the relay to her mother.
“There’s n-no party,” Zoe stuttered.
I couldn’t help but smirk. “I never said anything about a party.”
Laska’s paws shot out to cover her friend’s mouth. “Zoe! Shhh!” She then flashed me a nervous, awkward smile.
“Sorry,” Zoe pleaded to Laska, nearly in tears. “I didn’t mean to!”
In a way, her agony was her best defense. I wasn’t about to make the poor girl actually cry. She confirmed what I had already deduced from Lydia’s odd behavior. Knowing that something was waiting for me when I dropped Zoe off would sate my curiosity. I’d just need to practice my ‘Oh my I’m so surprised!’ face when I got back from dropping them off at school.
While the kids were at school and I had all the time in the world, I found myself ruminating about the past. Excessive introspection had always been sort of a bad habit of mine. My thoughts turned back to the last birthday I’d celebrated. I must’ve been 23 or 24? It’d been sort of a small gathering, like the sort I was expecting from Lydia and Steve. Just a little get together with my remaining friends more than anything else.
I had a good time, but it lacked a few things from before then. Probably because the birthday before then I still had my parents. Once they’d gone the rest of the family grew chilly, I figured they only bothered sending well-wishes to me as a favor to my parents. I wasn’t terribly bothered, but still, not having a ‘home’ I could fall back on was a downer at times.
After my last birthday I wound up drifting apart from the last of my friends. One by one they slowly dropped contact. I never was able to figure out why. Only had myself to blame, really, even if I didn’t know what exactly was to blame.
The finale came when I got hurt at work and was laid up for those months. During that ordeal I lost my first friend – and my last.
But that was then, and this is now. As much as I regretted the past, thinking and wishing I could change things wasn’t going to do anything. I had Laska now; I had to keep myself focused on the now and the present if I wanted to raise her right. Granted I was still searching for what ‘right’ was.
Walking to Lydia’s house in the crisp autumn air, I could feel my excitement building. I tried to put on the air of the respectable, even-keeled adult but there was that childish joy I couldn’t shake. Laska and Zoe were practically orbiting me, leaves crunching under their feet as they ran about – I wanted to join them, but forced myself to herd the kids along.
Though from the time I picked her up from school, Zoe’d refused to speak to me. At first I wondered what I’d done to piss her off, but realized after a little while that it was probably the only way she could think of to avoid letting any more cats out of the bag. Kind of clever, in an odd, Zoe-like way.
“Hello?” Steve’s voice crackled to life on the intercom.
“Hey, it’s Curt. I have something of yours. Would you like it back?”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Ah, something small and furry. Has a big fluffy tail.”
There was a long, drawn-out mock sigh. “I suppose. I mean, I don’t see why we can’t just make ano- Hey! Ow!”
“Yes, don’t mind him – come on up,” Lydia interrupted while Steve complained in the background about the crack on the head she’d given him.
Ah, the joys of marriage, I thought with a chuckle, opening the door when it buzzed.
Zoe dashed in, but Laska stayed close to me, half-pressed against my leg. Of all the grown women she knew, Laska let Lydia get the closest, but that wasn’t saying much. Just being in the same room as Zoe’s mother was enough to put her on edge.
Reaching the stairs to the second floor, I picked Laska up and held her close. “Thanks, sweetie,” I said, kissing her cheek.
Her nervous face faded, leaving only a happy little smile. “For what?”
“Everything,” I replied. Laska didn’t seem to quite understand, but she was thrilled at the attention regardless.
“Hey, what’s up?” Steve said, answering the door remarkably quickly after I knocked.
“Daddy!” Zoe chirped, zipping between us and into his arms.
“How’s my little girl? Have a good day?” He said cheerfully, hoisting the wolf into the air.
“Yup!” Zoe smiled broadly, wrapping her arms around Steve’s neck in a cuddly hug before he set her back down.
“Thanks again for dropping Zoe off,” Steve said, ruffling his daughter’s hair. “Wanna come in for a sec? Grab a drink?”
He was better at this than Lydia was, that’s for sure. I thought about declining just to tease him, but I decided to play along.
“Sure, a drink sounds good.”
As I set Laska down, Zoe whispered something in her ear, then dragged her off into the living room.
“Make yourself at home,” Steve said, then vanished into the living room while I took my shoes off. Okay, maybe he was actually as bad as Lydia was. Who offers someone a drink then completely disregards said drink?
Giving myself a moment of preparation, I walked towards where everyone else had disappeared. My heart was almost racing in anticipation, despite knowing what was to come. As stupid and adolescent as it sounds, I think that was about when I realized that they were indeed friends – not just ‘friends,’ or people I knew.
“Happy Birthday!” Lydia, Steve, Zoe, and even Laska shouted in unison as I turned the corner. They were all lined up, smiling at me – even had those little cone hats. A few festive decorations hung from the ceiling, including a suspiciously familiar banner. Laska’s name had been covered by a sheet of white paper with my name written on it in crayon.
Despite knowing it was coming, I still smiled and laughed. No rehearsal was needed, I suppose. “You guys! I… you didn’t need to do any of this,” I said, taking slow steps into the room.
Lydia made a show of rolling her eyes, one side of her face hooked into shit-eating grin. “Of course we didn’t /need/ to, but we still wanted to.”
“We almost didn’t, but Laska insisted,” Steve said, glancing down at my daughter. At the mention of her involvement, Laska shuffled behind Zoe to hide her embarrassment.
Steve bent down and whispered something to Zoe, who then broke rank and snatched a fancily-wrapped box from behind the couch. With her cover blown, Laska was forced to stand in the open and resign herself to bashful blushing and paw wringing.
“You really didn’t need to…” I muttered as the wolf pop thrust the box into my hands. Light purple wrapping paper topped with a pastel orange bow. Only one girl would’ve chosen this awful color scheme, I thought as I cast another glance at Laska.
“Go on, sit down,” Steve said, motioning towards the couch.
“Oh!” Lydia gasped, clapping her hands together. “Nearly forgot the cake! Don’t open anything just yet!” She said, dashing through the living room and into the kitchen.
“So this was all Laska’s idea?” I asked, setting the box on the coffee table.
“Yup! Laska told me to tell mom and dad that she really wanted a party for you!” Zoe chimed in, scrambling up onto the couch and practically on top of me.
“But when did… how did you guys get that banner? I had it stored in the basement.”
Steve shrugged. “Who knows? Though Laska is pretty clever,” he said with a wink.
Laska had crept up to the couch and was staring at me, fidgeting with her paws and hair.
“You planned all this for me?”
She nodded, still smiling all bashfully. “Yeah…”
“Well,” I said, snatching her by surprise and setting her on my lap. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to me. And you guys too.”
“Aw, it’s the least we could do. A bit of repayment for helping us out so much with Zoe,” Steve said.
Lydia strode back into the room, setting the cake and plates down on the table. Zoe watched the cake with pointed interest, beating me with her tail at the same time.
“Really? 32 candles?” I groaned.
“Of course, you’re the old man here,” Lydia snickered with an impish smile. “Helps us feel young, you know.”
“Old man? What? Aren’t you 30? I’m barely older than you are!” I said with a cocked eyebrow.
Smile gone. “Ugh, don’t remind me,” Lydia sighed. “Alright, alright you win. You’re not old. Just open your present before the cake burns down, will ya?”
I gave the box a test shake. It wasn’t too large, and kind of light. “Just a little something from us… but it was really my idea. She just went along with it,” he said, holding a hand up to his face as if trying to prevent Lydia from hearing. She simply rolled her eyes.
Shredding the paper off, I popped open the lid of the box. Inside was a large wad of tissue paper. Upon removing said lump of paper, I discovered yet more. And more, and more. Steve and Lydia were highly amused watching me throw paper all over.
“What the hell did you-“ I said, somewhat confused, but stopped short when I discovered an envelope at the bottom. “You couldn’t have just like, handed me this?”
“What’s the fun in that?” Steve said, slapping me on the shoulder.
Sighing, shaking my head, and laughing all at the same time, I opened the envelope – half expecting to find a blank card inside. Well, it was mostly blank – just had ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it, but inside there was a sort of gift certificate. My eyebrows crested somewhere near the moon as I read what the voucher was for.
“Are you two serious?”
It’s true I’d been, well, without company for a long time. I had the money, but was too embarrassed to have to pay for it. I don’t think they realized just how long it’d been, or how I’d been raised in a rural area where this sort of thing was rather frowned upon.
“Hah! We know you’ve had your hands full with Laska,” Steve said, talking like he’d just given me a gift certificate to say, an electronics store. “And haven’t really been able to… so yeah, whenever you want to use it we can watch Laska for a night. Least we could do considering all you’ve helped us with.”
“I uh,” I stammered, feeling a burning on my cheeks.
Lydia furrowed a brow. “What, not what you wanted?”
“It’s not that,” I said with a cough. “Just that, well…” I trailed off. “Thanks,” I muttered quietly.
“Oooh what is it what is it?” Zoe said, struggling to read over my shoulder. Laska didn’t say anything, but she was stretching her neck to try and read the card as well.
“Not a problem,” Steve said cheerfully. “Figured you could use a bit of R&R. Now then, blow out your candles and make a wish!”
Slipping the paper into my wallet, away from young, innocent eyes, I said my thanks once more and turned my attention towards the cake. Birthday wishes, huh? The gift they’d given me made me think of things – of the future. Glancing at Laska, I then closed my eyes, made my wish, and blew out the candles.
December 24th, 2003.
It’d been the cutest thing the first time it happened – Laska managed to climb up the Christmas tree and poked her head out. She was half-covered in tinsel, smiling without a care in the world. One of those perfect photo moments.
The novelty and cuteness had worn rather thin by the time I cleaned up all the pine needles and ornaments she’d shook loose for what had to be the fourth or fifth time since putting the tree up. Not only that, but she’d managed to get herself tangled in the lights twice. How she accomplished that feat was beyond me.
“Daaaaaad! I got stuck again…”
Make that a third time.
In the middle of dressing, I made my way down to the living room and ascertained the situation. There was Laska, wriggling about upside down, a fresh patch of needles on the floor and strings of lights wrapped around her limbs.
“How many times do I have to tell you to stay away from the tree?” I said with a sigh. “Why can’t you climb the ones outside or something?”
“ ‘Cause they’re not all sparkly and blinky,” she said, letting her paws dangle towards the ground.
I crossed my arms across my chest. “Well, how do you intend to get yourself out of this mess?”
Laska pointed at me.
I figured as much. As I walked over to Laska, I got an idea to try and get her to free herself. “You know, you can get out of this quite easily.”
“Yes, really,” I said.
“Just teleport, of course. You’ve been getting better at it, haven’t you?”
“But I’m upside down,” she said meekly. “I don’t wanna fall.”
“You won’t fall – I’ll catch you.”
“But I’m scared…”
“Good thing I have the solution for that, then,” I said. I had just the right ‘encouragement’ in mind. Fortunately for me, her precarious position had given me the perfect opportunity.
“S-stop, t-that tickles,” she complained, struggling to fight back laughter as I poked and tickled her exposed tummy.
I gave her a sly grin. “I know.”
She gave a valiant effort at resistance, but her resolve broke after only seconds. In a fit of giggles she blinked forward, escaping the grasp of the tree, the lights, and, as usual, her clothes. And she was still upside down. One day she’d learn, or so I hoped.
“See, was that so hard?” I asked, catching and righting her nearly instantly after she ported forward.
“Yes!” She pouted, puffing her cheeks.
“Well, if it was hard then you made it look easy,” I said as I set her down and pulled her clothes from the tree then handed them to her.
Pouty to prideful in the blink of an eye. “Really? Well…”
I kind of felt like I ought to be punishing her or something for getting into the tree yet again, but it was Christmas. Besides, she was usually a little angel, so what’s a bit of mischief? She was probably a bit bored as well, considering Zoe and her family had left to visit relatives for the holidays.
And speaking of Christmas. “Now that you’re done being a handful, are you ready to go?”
Laska turned to me, her shirt covering her head save for a pair of fluffy ears that poked out of the neck. They swiveled to focus on me, as if she were using them to see. “Go where?”
“Really? You were so eager this morning and now you’ve forgotten?”
“Oh!” She exclaimed, pulling her shirt all the way down. “Santa!”
“Yup, if you want to meet her we need to get going. Who knows how long she’ll be there…” I said, making a point to check the time on my phone.
Laska let out a gasp and moved at double speed to put her pants and socks on. “Okay dad let’s go!” She said, bounding from the living room towards the hallway.
I still couldn’t believe her enthusiasm for Santa. Laska had her moments of energy, but she was usually somewhat reserved. Further, I couldn’t believe she’d never heard of Santa until I mentioned her at the beginning of December. I was explaining who Santa was as I was getting her ready for bed one night, and the topic both confused and interested her.
“Why would someone just give away all that stuff?”
“Because she can, and it’s her way to reward all the good boys and girls of the world,” I said, pulling Laska’s sheets up to cover her.
Her ears drooped and a tightness gripped her eyes. “Does that mean I was a bad girl?”
I froze for a moment, suddenly very regretful of my choice of words. “No, no – not at all, sweetie,” I said, brushing her cheek with my hand. “You’re the best daughter anyone could ask for.”
A small smile bloomed on her face for a moment, then wilted into a morose frown. Laska shifted underneath the sheets, curling her paws around the edges and drawing them up so that nothing but her eyes were exposed. “Then how come I never got anything?” She said in a choked whisper.
“Because…” I trailed off, trying to answer immediately. Laska searched me for an answer, on the verge of breaking down into tears. “Because they were jealous,” I managed to say.
“Yes, jealous. Because you were such a good girl and Santa brought you all kinds of gifts every year, it made them jealous because they were bad people who never got anything,” I said, speaking sternly. “In fact, Santa is so good-natured and giving that she can’t even imagine someone would want to steal a little girl’s presents.”
“Oh,” is all Laska managed to say before she dropped into thought for a short while. “Does Santa bring you stuff?”
“Nah,” I replied with a small shrug, “Not anymore. Santa knows I’m all grown up now. She needs to focus on the kids, you know.”
I was glad for the change of topic. Ever since her vivid nightmare or night terror or whatever one would call it, she couldn’t shake the idea that she was a ‘bad’ girl. To her it made perfect sense – she was beat because she had done something wrong, not because her mother was a crazed bitch.
“So she’s busy?”
I nodded. “Very. She has so many kids to deliver presents to, us adults get left behind,” I said with a laugh, rubbing Laska’s ears. Despite her right ear being a tattered, scared mess, she enjoyed it being scratched the most.
Laska wiggled underneath the sheets, getting herself more comfortable and even smiling a little. Seemed I’d successfully defused a situation for once instead of just making it worse.
Thinking about it, I decided to use the chance and try to get some valuable information from her. “Is there anything you want Santa to bring you?”
She shook her head.
“I dunno,” she said. “Do I have to ask Santa or does she know?”
“You have to ask, sweetie. She can do a lot of things, but she can’t read minds.”
Laska sighed, then stared at me wordlessly. Just as I was about to kiss her goodnight, she suddenly blurt out “Can I meet her?”
“Er, well, you can, but she’s… a grown woman, you know.”
“But you said she’s really nice and she gives stuff to people for being good,” Laska said in a rush.
“Er, well, that’s true… Alright, tell you what – when you know what you want for Christmas, let me know and then we can go visit Santa. Okay?”
Little did I imagine I would find myself at the mall waiting to visit Santa on Christmas Eve. But a promise is a promise.
“This many people want to see Santa?” Laska remarked, looking around from atop my shoulders.
“Yeah, everyone wants to tell Santa what they want for Christmas,” I said, making a mental note of how little we’d moved in the half hour we were there. By my estimate there were at least 50 people ahead of us and everyone took at least two minutes.
“How does Santa bring everyone in the whole world stuff in one night?”
“Like you can teleport, right? Santa can do that too, only really fast and really far,” I said, hoping Laska would buy it. If not, I could always go the ‘helper’ route.
Plan B was not required, much to my relief.
Laska leaned far forward, looking at me upside-down. “So what kind of stuff can Santa bring?”
“Er, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her when you meet her. Didn’t you say you already knew what you wanted?”
Hopefully it would be something I could get for her. All December I’d been wracking my mind thinking of something to get Laska, but I couldn’t figure out what she wanted; she never really asked for anything. The couple things she did ask me about were hardly the sorts of things you’d get someone for Christmas.
Laska hummed and rocked back and forth. “I do, buuut…”
She giggled. “It’s a secret!”
I sighed. So much for being able to plan ahead.
The line crept forward inch by slow inch. Sometimes a baby or child would cry. A toddler manticore in line had given me a little kiss on the cheek with her tail and giggled. I think Laska tried to braid my hair at some point, and she was starting to become a handful as she shifted all over the place, hanging and dangling from me in various ways that resulted in me nearly dropping her more than once. Admittedly I thought about not catching her once to see if she’d teleport before she smacked the ground. Just a thought, though.
I would’ve set her on the ground, but riding on my shoulders was about the only thing I found that allowed her to deal with women. For some reason she didn’t get nearly as scared when she was ‘taller’ than them – I discovered that by chance a while ago when we were at a store. In fact, sometimes she even got a little bit aggressive and dare I say haughty, as if lording over them. Unless an Oni or other tall girl came around, then that facade dropped pretty quick.
An hour and a half of boredom and contemplation of dropping my daughter later, we were nearly at Santa’s village or castle or whatever they called it. Hard to tell – in fact, it looked more like some kind of cave than anything. I had no idea who’d be playing Santa, which made Laska’s endless questions difficult. I guessed on Santa being a P’orc when I considered that Santa’s elves were all actual elves – and one fairy. Though on second thought that was probably a little racist and clichéd of me.
“I’m hungry,” Laska groaned, somehow hanging around my neck like a fur muffler.
“We’re almost there sweetie. When we’re done we can go get something to eat, okay?”
Laska squirmed about, flicking her ears against my cheek. “How much longer?”
“Not too much, just one family in front of us now.” No sooner than I spoke than one of the elves guided the centaurs in front of us into the cave-home-thing.
“See? We’re next.”
“Really?” Laska asked, perking up and shifting around so she was sitting upright on my shoulders once again.
“Yup. Remember to be on your best behavior.”
A few minutes later, it was our turn. I couldn’t walk through the door with Laska on my shoulders, so I had to set her down. I was prepared for the worst – a scared stiff cheshire clinging to my leg and trembling in pure terror. What I got instead was a happy squeal from Laska as she dashed inside, completely oblivious to the elf woman who ushered her in.
Apparently I’d been standing there stupefied for a while as the same elf grabbed my arm and dragged me forward. “What’re you waiting for?” she whispered. “Get in there.”
“Er, right,” I said, chasing after my daughter.
Quick as can be, Laska was already at Santa’s feet, or rather, claws. I wasn’t sure which was more incredible – Laska approaching Santa, or the fact that Santa was a Red Dragon. Apparently they’d used the chair, or rather throne, from her horde or something. Can’t remember the last time I saw Santa in a claw-foot golden throne that was festooned with those most favorite of holiday decorations – skulls. The red Christmas lights in the eye sockets were a nice touch.
“Are you really Santa?!” Laska squeaked, every part of her bursting with excitement.
The hulking Dragon – or Santa, rather – peered down at Laska. Rather than one large ‘Santa Hat’ she had two smaller horn-cozy deals. The bulky, fluffy outfit she wore was cut just above her knees and elbows to make room for her impressive claws and scaled limbs. Best of all, however, were her wings. They’d been wrapped in silver, red, and green garland for that extra bit of Christmas spirit.
She had a prideful, regal face – more like a queen than some mall worker. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, she smiled. Instead of a nice, warm, motherly smiled, it looked like she was eyeing a tasty little morsel that’d wandered into her lair.
Laska didn’t seem to mind, or maybe she just didn’t notice.
“Why, yes I am, little lady!” The dragon spoke clearly, confidently – more befitting a ruler or commander than a mall Santa.
Whirling around to face me, Laska pointed at the dragon. “Dad it’s Santa!”
“Yes it is,” I replied nervously, a little uncomfortable with being put on the spot. The dragon woman and her elves had the courtesy to simply smile along.
“Are you really nice and give all the good kids stuff and fly around the world?!” Laska said excitedly, inching up towards the dragon’s feet.
Laska’s head didn’t even come up to the dragon’s knee; she was massive and yet Laska didn’t care at all. The hulking draconian woman’s amiable expression faltered for a moment as her eyes played over my daughter’s scars. Such reactions were an everyday occurrence, and though I knew nothing ill was meant – it was just a reaction of shock or surprise – it never got any easier. Hopefully as she grew older they’d fade, though it was generally agreed that they’d be a permanent feature of her face.
“Heard nothing but good things, have you?” Santa said, recovering nearly instantly from her surprise. “Yes, I fly around the world and leave presents for all the good children!”
She gestured wide with her arms, spreading her wings for added majesty. Laska was simply star struck, staring up in awe. The dragon then lowered her arms down, gesturing for Laska to come closer. “Come! Sit on Santa’s lap and tell me your desires, little one,” she said with her particular boisterous flair.
Laska reciprocated the gesture, allowing herself to be picked up and sat upon the dragon’s lap.
“Do you like giving stuff away?” Laska inquired, her ears carefully pivoting to focus intently on the dragon.
“Of course! Nothing brings me greater joy than seeing the happy faces of kids like you,” the dragon boasted, poking Laska’s nose with the tip of a claw.
Laska wrinkled her nose then touched the same spot with her paw and rubbed a few times. With her paw still on her nose, she asked that most troublesome of questions: “Why?”
The dragon rubbed her chin a few times in contemplative thought and she gave a ‘hmmm’ before speaking. “What’s your name?”
“Cute name,” said the dragon, glancing up at me before she returned her warm smile to the girl on her lap. “Well Laska, have you ever given something to someone, or done something that they didn’t ask you to do?”
“Yeah…” Laska said, nodding slowly.
“And how do you think it made that someone feel?”
Laska looked down at her lap and fidgeted. “I dunno. Happy?”
“And how did it make you feel, my dear?”
“It made me feel happy,” said Laska as a bashful smile spread on her lips.
“That’s right!” The dragon exclaimed. “It’s fun because seeing other people happy makes us happy. Giving also lets people know we care for them and love them.”
Laska seemed to weigh her words carefully with her usual ‘thinking’ motions. While Laska was considering her response, one of the elves glanced at her watch and then whispered in the dragon’s ear. We had already been an audience to Santa for a few minutes now, no doubt they were anxious to get us moving.
“So, Laska, what is it you want for Christmas?” The dragon asked.
Somewhat startled by the new question, Laska first looked over at me. She then stood up on the dragon’s leg and cupped her paws to the sides of her mouth. Santa lowered an ear and nodded her head as Laska whispered her secret. Made me wonder why she was being so secretive – what could she possibly want that she felt she had to hide it from me? Moreover, how would I even get her what she wanted if I didn’t know?
“That’s all you want?” Santa asked, quirking an eyebrow.
Laska nodded, stealing another glance towards me.
“It shall be done!” The dragon said, again making a show of spreading her arms and wings.
I was a little jealous of how she’d managed to make Laska smile so brightly. It was also my cue to do something other than stand around. One of the elves indicated towards the exit and another ushered Laska off Santa’s lap. As I passed in front of the dragon, she stopped me with a claw on my shoulder. Making sure Laska wasn’t watching, or listening, she leaned over and spoke in a low voice.
“She wants a dress.”
“What? A dress?” I responded, suddenly very confused.
“Yes. I’m guessing she only has ‘boy’ clothes?”
I tapped a finger on my cheek while I thought about her wardrobe. “I guess? She’s never wanted dresses whenever I’ve taken her clothes shopping.”
The dragon gave a short snort. “Just do it,” she said, giving me a gentle shove forward, followed by a loud “Merry Christmas!” as another family entered from behind.
Back out in the mall proper, amidst Laska’s happy chattering about how awesome and cool Santa was, I had two thoughts. First, why did Laska feel like she couldn’t ask me for a dress, and second, how was I going to buy Laska’s gift while Laska was with me? My lack of planning and foresight certainly had managed to get a sizeable amount of my ass between its teeth.
“Are you listening?” Laska said in a huff, crossing her arms.
“Er, sure, sweetie. You really liked Santa, huh?” I said, hoping it was the right thing.
She wiggled her ears. “Yea!”
Situation defused. One of them, anyways. Looking around the mall at all the shops, I wondered what exactly could be done. I couldn’t very well leave her alone here while I wandered into a store. Couldn’t drive back home and leave her there, either. Wasn’t any daycare open that’d watch her for an hour or two. No, of course not. It was Christmas Eve, after all.
How fortuitous for me that I caught the eye of one of the elves. She gave a faint smile and waved when our eyes met. An idea percolated into my mind; hopefully she would be agreeable. I motioned for her to come over as I half-listened to Laska’s lengthy speech about how she wanted wings and horns because Santa had them.
“Could you do me a huge favor?” I asked the elf woman in a hushed whisper.
Good thing for me that she understood I was being covert for a reason. “Sure, what’s that?” she said, leaning in close.
I shot Laska a furtive glance – she was still blissfully unaware of what I was pulling. “I’m an idiot,” I began, much to the woman’s confusion. “I waited until now to try and figure out what my daughter here wants. So now I know, but I can’t exactly take her into a store with me while I buy her present.”
Elves managed the smug look so very well. It’s like their default expression. “And you want me to…?”
“If I give you my card, could you buy her a few dresses? I uh, don’t know what she wants, so I’ll leave the choice to you. Please?” I asked, pleading as hard as possible with my eyes.
She peeked over my shoulder at Laska, making that same face as everyone else. Surprise mixed with pity is how I’d describe it, but her eyes lingered for a moment longer than usual as she looked my daughter up and down. “I think I can find something,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t think Santa will mind if I leave for a bit to make a little girl happy.
“Thank you so much!” I said, handing her my credit card. “I’ll be here – take your time.”
She began to turn around, but came to a stop. “Oh, how much do you want to spend?”
“Doesn’t really matter,” I remarked. “Just not too crazy, I guess?”
“Got it,” she said, promptly heading off down one of the corridors.
Unfortunately I’d neglected Laska too long, and she got suspicious.
“Who was that?” She said, looking at me with such accusing eyes. Almost like she was jealous.
“Oh, just one of Santa’s helpers. Just had a question about how they do… things.”
Laska tilted her head. “Things?”
I’d managed to dig myself a nice hole. Fortunately, as I let my eyes wander, I discovered a means of escape. “You know… oh, hey! A cotton candy stall. You want one? I want one. Let’s go get some!”
She turned around to follow where I was pointing, her tail twitching back and forth. “Really? Yaay~” She said, scurrying forward. Her little dash was cut short when a woman crossed in front of her, sending Laska skittering back to me with her tail between her legs. Brushing up against my leg, she held her arms out to me and spoke with her eyes. Scooping her up and setting her on my shoulders, we went and bought some wonderfully overpriced fluffy sugar in a paper cone.
Laska went on about Santa and asked me all sorts of questions while I waited for the elf to return. And waited. I checked my phone over and over, wondering just how long it took to buy dresses. Clothes shopping with Laska usually took ten minutes tops, and that was buying her basically new everything considering she was growing like a weed.
After nearly 45 minutes the Elf returned, holding a plain white clothing box that’d been taped shut. I thanked her again and offered her a bit of money in exchange, but she waved it away, saying that it was her pleasure.
“What’s that?” Laska asked, staring intently at the box as the elf woman walked back to Santa’s cave-village-thing. “Why’d she give it to you?”
“It’s… a gift she gave me.”
The tip of her tail flicked back and forth. “How come you’re not opening it?”
Why did children ask so many questions? I always encouraged Laska’s inquisitive, curious nature, but it sure could be a pain in the ass sometimes. “Because I’m going to wait for Christmas. It’s a Christmas gift, after all.”
I let out a sigh of relief and counted my lucky stars that I’d managed to get Laska what she wanted on Christmas Eve of all times. Next year I was going to have to plan far in advance, and maybe be a little more forceful about asking Laska what she wanted. If it hadn’t been for that elf I’m not sure what I would have done. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to see why parents said this time of the year was so stressful.
Back at home I tucked the box safely away from certain prying eyes and curious paws – I’d wrap it after Laska went to bed. It wasn’t too late yet, and I wanted to spend the night with her before she went to sleep.
“Hey Laska,” I asked, poking into her room. “Want to watch a movie?”
“What movie?” She asked, flicking through the channels on her TV.
“An old favorite of mine: “It’s a great life,” I said, plopping down on the bed next to her.
She wiggled her ears. “What’s it about?”
“Well,” I began, “It’s about an angel who helps a guy who’s depressed by showing him what life would have been like had he never existed.”
“Really? Sounds neat. Okay, let’s watch it!” Laska said in a rush.
I think she would have agreed to anything, really, which gave me a nice feeling of warmth knowing she just wanted to spend time with me.
“Alright, I’ll be back in a minute. We’ll watch in your room, how about that?”
I slipped off her bed and head downstairs to fetch the movie and a little extra surprise. After a short detour to the kitchen, I brought up mugs of hot cocoa dotted with marshmallows, much to Laska’s delight.
Laska bundled herself up in the blankets and cuddled up against me as we watched and sipped our drinks. The movie was rather old and in black and white, but I loved it anyways. Laska was curious as to what happened to the colors, but I assured nothing was wrong. It’s just how things were done back in those days.
When we’d finished the hot mugs, Laska curled up with her head in my lap. Almost without thought I began to knead and stroke her velvety ears. In the way only cats – and I suppose Cheshires – can pull off, she practically melted and began to purr softly. Though she did also pick up a somewhat troublesome habit of kneading whenever she got tired. Fortunately I didn’t care too much about little holes and snags in my sweatpants.
While I think she’d intended to watch the whole movie with me, she nodded off before halfway. Even asleep she still purred like she was the happiest girl in the whole world – which made me feel like the happiest father in the world. Sometimes I worried that I doted on her too much, but what good is a daughter if I can’t spoil her rotten
The movie made me wonder what Laska’s life would be like right now if I wasn’t around. I think, for the first time, I imagined that she couldn’t possibly be happier than she is now. I considered what she’d be like if she was still stuck at that orphanage right now. If she was adopted by someone who couldn’t shower her with love. I’d done the right thing, I think.
The credits began to roll while I mulled and pondered, bringing back to reality. So too did I roll Laska off my lap and carefully cover her in blanket, bundling her up snug and warm. Fortunately for me she was a sound sleeper, so I didn’t have to worry too much about her waking up. Slipping out and closing her door, I went downstairs to wrap her presents.
The elf had purchased three dresses, each one remarkably different .The first was a standard white sun dress with almost nothing in the way of frills and simple loops. Second was a light purple number that would probably match well to her hair and fur color. It was also a bit longer; I imagined it would go down to her shins or ankles. Last was a surprising pick – a semi-formal black dress that was embroidered with dark purple paw prints along the hem.
Wrapping each of the dresses, I realized I was giving my daughter clothes on Christmas. The very thing all kids hated – I know I did, and everyone else I’d ever known. But she did ask for them, so I guess it didn’t feel quite as bad. Still, I’d wanted her to ask for something that would have been a little more memorable or something. Well, I’d just have to wait and see and hope she liked the dresses.
December 25th, 2003
10:18. I knew I set my alarm for 8:30, and yet it never sounded. Seems the grey skies and flurries had kept the sun from waking me up. Not like we needed more snow, but a fresh coating over all the partially-melted and lumpy bits made for better Christmas scenery.
Ambling out of my room, I’d expected Laska to be up and making noise. Maybe watching TV or something in her room, maybe downstairs shaking her gifts. Instead all was silent. She wasn’t in her room at all, so my first thought was that she’d gotten up, went downstairs in her excitement, but fell asleep again when I wasn’t getting up.
So down the stairs I went and rounded the corner into the living room. Imagine my surprise, and then confusion, when I saw a large box sitting next to the tree. I sort of just stood there, wondering if I’d actually gotten Laska something else and then just forgot about it. No, I had to remind myself, I wasn’t quite that old yet. Senility was a ways off.
Approaching the box, I noticed the wrapping was… poor would be the nicest way to describe it. Not that I was a master of gift wrapping, but this was something else. Then, upon closer inspection, I realized that it was actually two boxes. A larger box was fit over the top of a smaller one to serve as the lid. Quite inventive, really.
The final touch was a paper tag affixed to the top, complete with some very familiar handwriting: “For daddy.”
I sighed and laughed, wearing a stupid grin that wouldn’t go away. She was such a sweet girl; guess her little chat with Santa yesterday had left a lasting impression. But, given that she had no money, I was most curious as to what exactly was in the box. Not wanting to open it without her around, I searched the house for the missing girl.
In the basement I discovered where she’d obtained the boxes. At least she piled everything that had been inside them neatly on the floor rather than throwing it all out in a heap. She wasn’t in either of the bathrooms, nor in the backroom or outside. Funnily enough, I wasn’t worried in the least that I couldn’t find her. In fact, I still had my stupid grin plastered on – I think from the moment I laid eyes on the box I knew what was going on.
A few test shakes and pokes revealed the gift’s weightiness, but there was no movement from inside. Then, carefully and slowly, I lifted the lid up and off. My little grin grew ten sizes when I saw what was inside. A gift that would keep on giving, a gift that would love me as much as I loved her. A gift that marked a turn for the better in my life – and hers as well.
Curled up into a furry little ball, Laska had indeed fallen asleep waiting for me. She’d also completely covered herself in red ribbon, and I think there was something that was supposed to be a bow.
With her cover gone, the brightness of the day roused her from her slumber. She stretched out as much as she was able in the box, then looked up at me with sleepy eyes. She blinked a few times in confusion, then in something between dawning horror and surprise.
“Ah! Morn-Happy-Merry Christmas!” Laska stammered, bolting upright in the box, practically jumping with outstretched arms.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” I chuckled, hoisting Laska up into my arms and giving her a great big bear hug. “How’d you know just what to get me?!”
Laska wiggled, squirmed, and giggled in my mighty dad-hug that lasted for at least a full minute before I released her from my titan-grip, perhaps now with a slightly misaligned spine.
“I knew you’d like it!” Laska squeaked, looking positively delighted.
“That was very sweet of you,” I said softly as I sat down on the floor. “What gave you the idea?”
Laska kicked at the ground and held her paws behind her.“ ‘Cause Santa said giving stuff makes people feel good.”
I thought I’d told her that before, but I guess hearing it from a fancily-dressed dragon who claims to be Santa leaves a greater impression.
“Well, she’s right, you’ve made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time,” I said, ruffling her hair and ears. “But, I mean, where’d you get the idea to wrap yourself up?”
Laska beamed brightly as she spoke. “I heard that if a girl loves a man she should give herself to him! And I love daddy!”
I started in disbelief for just a moment, then began laughing my ass off. Laska’s smile wiped off, replaced by a look of terrible concern.
“W-what’s so funny?!”
I couldn’t even answer her I was laughing so hard. It really shouldn’t have been that funny – really shouldn’t have – but for some reason it’d been the absolute funniest thing I’d heard in who knows how long.
Her concern gave way to annoyance and she pounced at me, knocking me over. “Daddy! Tell me!” She complained, staring at me with her face inches from mine, sitting on my chest.
Finally I managed to control myself long enough to wipe away the tears from the corners of my eyes and snatch her in a surprise hug. “Ohhh, it’s just something I thought about,” I said, sighing out the last of my laughter, then planted a kiss on her cheek. “I love you too, Laska.”
Happy purring from atop my chest let me know I’d successfully mollified her. She hugged me back, purring like a tiny engine. “Aren’t you going to open me?” She said, so very innocently.
I laughed again, though it was more one of those born from the incredibly juxtaposition of something so lewd said with such unknowing innocence.
“With pleasure,” I said, unravelling the ribbon and doing my best to keep a straight face.
She’d managed to wrap herself up pretty good, but thankfully her innocence meant she’d just worn the ribbon over her pajamas. Didn’t have anything too awkward to deal with.
“Did you see what Santa got for you?” I said, patting her head once I’d completely de-ribboned the girl.
Her eyes flashed open in shock. “I forgot!” She said, turned on her heel, then scurried over to the presents.
They’d definitely been moved, but didn’t look like she did more than shake them. Now, however, she plunged into them. Claws made short work of the paper, shredding the wrapping off the box in just seconds. Made me wonder why I even bothered wrapping the things in the first place. Here was the moment of truth – did she actually want dresses for Christmas?
She was holding up the first dress – the plain white one. The silence and the way her tail held still was rather worrying, but it only lasted a second or two. In a gasp of joy she shimmied into the dress, then whirled about to face me. The dress looked a bit odd over her PJs, but it fit her quite well.
“Look what Santa got me!”
“That’s great! It’s a good look for you!” I said, so very relieved it really was what she wanted.
Laska giggled and twirled around in a circle, then looked down at herself and pat the fabric. The entire time she had this toothy little smile.
“I didn’t know you wanted a dress. How come you never said anything?”
She looked down and fidgeted with the hem of the dress. “ ‘Cause you always get me shorts and stuff.”
“Oh Laska,” I said with a sigh, “I thought that was because you didn’t like girly clothing. Look, whenever we go shopping for clothes I just buy the same stuff because you never tell me what you like or don’t like. You need to start pointing out stuff you want, okay?”
Her smile returned in full force. “Okay!”
She thoroughly enjoyed her other two dresses as well, particularly the black one with the paw prints. Sadly it wasn’t exactly dress-wearing weather and wouldn’t be for a while, but she’d probably be satisfied wearing them around the house or something on a day when we weren’t going anywhere.
As was the case for the rest of Christmas Day. After our bath she wore her white dress around the house, and that’s when I discovered that there was definitely a certain ‘way’ to wear a dress. A way that Laska was completely unfamiliar with. Somehow, at least once or twice an hour, she’d manage to flip her dress up over her head or just completely expose herself. And, of course, she didn’t care in the slightest. Spats seem like a pretty good idea, now that I think about it.