April 21th, 2003
There I sat in front of the screen. A completed application, just waiting for me to press the submit button. I’d been staring at it for who knows how long, lost in thought. Adoption would mean such massive change, after all. And change is kind of scary – especially for someone who’d been living alone. I’d become rather comfortable with my routine life, even if it wasn’t a very good one.
But, if change was scary, then rejection was even more terrifying. Men like me, that is, men in their early 30s and single, were hardly coveted. It didn’t really matter how much you wanted to help someone out as far as the agency was concerned. They almost always looked for ‘families’ rather than single people. Something about gender balance and availability and all sorts of other criteria.
So I sat and thought and thought and thought some more. I could do nothing and continue to regret choices I never made. Or I could just submit the thing and hope. Though, hope for success or failure? I couldn’t quite tell at the time. And hope was worrying in its own way.
Finally, I think I got tired of my own indecision. I’d pondered the decision for nearly a month and now here I was, on the cusp, but I was still dragging my feet. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to free myself from the torture of endless thoughts. Seconds later a confirmation page appeared, but I didn’t really read it. I shut the monitor off just moments after my click and in a rush made for my bedroom.
Hitting that submit button had given me a surge of adrenaline and left me filled with thoughts of wonder and maybe even amazement. When I calmed down some, I realized that my behavior meant it was the right decision. Probably, anyways. Rolling about one’s bed wasn’t an entirely normal reaction for a grown man, far as I knew.
I checked on the application every day without fail. Sometimes multiple times a day. But, there was never any update on the status; it was always ‘under review.’ As the weeks dragged on, my sense of wonder and optimism grew rather dim. A candle that’d burned bright and strong that was now little more than some melted wax and a short bit of wick.
It would probably be safe to say it was a miracle that the phone rang when it did. Another day or two and I would’ve blown out the flame.
Like lightning I was on the phone, snatching it up after the second ring. It just had to be them. Just had to be.
“Hello?” I asked, holding my breath.
“Hello, is this Curtis Mulner?”
“Y-yes, it is. Who’s calling?”
“This is Mary McFarlan, calling on behalf of the MGC Social Needs Agency.”
Music to my ears. I couldn’t tell you the last time I felt so excited; my heart was practically in my throat.
“Ah, is this about my application?”
“Yes it is. While reviewing potential candidates for a placement, your application came up. Are you still interested?”
“Sure! I mean, yes. Yes I am. Very interested, haha…”
Mary laughed a little under her breath. Laughter was good. I hoped. “Great. Okay then, moving forward we’ll need to conduct an in-person interview. What’s a good time for you?”
“Ah, anytime, really. I’m pretty much wide open.”
I could hear her tacking away on a keyboard for a few seconds, then shuffle some papers about. “Alright then. How about tomorrow, 10:00am?”
“Really? That soon? I mean, sure, that’s fine. I’m available then.”
She laughed again. “Don’t be so nervous, sir. The interview is quite casual. We’ll mostly be going over questions you already answered on the application.”
“Right, right,” I said, adding in some laughter that I’m sure sounded terribly forced. “Well, great. I look forward to meeting with you tomorrow, then.”
“I’ve got you down for 10:00am tomorrow. I look forward to meeting with you then. Have a great rest of your day.”
“Y-you too,” I managed to reply before hanging the phone up.
My heart was racing and my head swam. I’d gone from expecting that they wouldn’t give me the time of day to having in-person interview tomorrow in what amounted to a few minutes. I stumbled over to a chair and sank down into it. Somewhere in my heart I felt a kind of hope I’d never experienced before. It ached and pined as I began to realize that I might be at the precipice of obtaining the one thing I’d wanted more than anything else.
I took in the spartan room around me. Then the dark, empty rooms in the house. The emptiness within myself. I still couldn’t believe that I had actually gone through with it. And then that I was actually chosen for an interview. Someone like me had potential. That thought lingered with me through the rest of the night. I think I was wearing a slight grin the entire time as well.
April 22nd, 2003.
Right on time, the woman from the agency showed. From when I woke up until she arrived I was a bundle of nerves and anxiety. Not that it was particularly unusual for me, especially whenever I had to talk to someone new, but it was particularly stressful today.
Took nearly all my willpower to answer the door like a normal person. What I assumed would be ‘normal,’ anyways. Either my facade had worked or Mary took pity on me and pretended to not notice what a shaking wreck I probably was. I took her pleasant expression as acknowledgement that she wasn’t having second thoughts about this whole interview thing.
“Please, come in.”
“Thank you,” she said, following behind me after I’d closed the door.
“Mind if I set up here?” She asked once we’d reached the living room.
I could see her eyes roam around the room. Didn’t take her long to glance over everything considering what little furnishings I had. Save for a small table and a couch in the middle of the room, it was nearly barren.
“Of course. Sure. Make yourself at home. Or comfortable.”
The corners of her lips pulled up faintly as she popped open the briefcase she’d set on the table. “Thanks.”
“Er, let me grab a chair quick,” I said as I realized that sitting next to her during the interview would likely be a poor idea.
In the short time I’d been gone she managed to lay out a few stacks of papers. One in particular caught my attention. Though inside a folder, I could see the edges of photographs paper clipped to sheets of paper. My heart doubled its beat when I considered that whoever was in that photo was likely the child I was being interviewed for.
In her hands was a clipboard, a pen, and a look of eagerness on her face.
“Ready to begin?”
I put on a brave face. “Yes.”
“Alright, then. Let’s just go over some basics quick. Age 31, never married. Correct?”
“Are you currently seeing anyone?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head.
I wondered which answer she was looking for. Though her last question was on the application, it was probably reasonable to assume one could’ve become involved with another in the few weeks between then and now. For most folks, anyways.
“And you own this house, but are unemployed…? Does anyone help you with payments?”
“I own it, yes, and I’m unemployed – house is fully paid off.”
She nodded her head and made a few marks on the clipboard. I couldn’t get a read on her face, whether or not she liked or disliked my responses. Since she already had all that information, I had to assume she was simply testing how I answered them, rather than with what information.
“Why are you unemployed?”
“Oh, there was an accident – got banged on the head pretty hard at my last job. Injury due to neglect on their part, so I was able to get a pretty nice settlement out of it. Bought this place outright and I live off the returns on investments.”
“Hmm, I see. And are you disabled at all from that accident?”
“Nope…Well, the doctor told me to be extra careful of impact sports and the like, but otherwise I’m fairly healthy.”
Mary hummed a response and tapped the pen to her chin. “So then,” she began, laying her clipboard down on her lap and regarding me with an appraising stare. “Why do you want to adopt a child?”
I was afraid she was going to ask that. Took me nearly a week to figure out a response when I typed it out, and now her she was, asking for a fast, verbal answer. I fidgeted terribly under her gaze as I struggled to marshal my thoughts into something coherent.
“Well. Well, it’s because I want to help someone.”
She shot back instantly. “Why adoption? Why not volunteer work or a charity?”
I wrung my hands together, searching for the words to express my thoughts. Mary didn’t seem to mind my hesitance. “I guess it’s because I know there’s a lot of kids waiting for a home. And I’d like to help one if I could. Give a child a loving home and all that. Shower them with lots of love and all that fun stuff.”
A bit of a laugh escaped my lips, and I then said something I immediately regretted. “It’s…Not fun to lose your childhood because no one really cares for you.”
One of Mary’s eyebrows quirked upwards for a moment. I was sure she instantly figured out I was speaking from experience. And I was just as sure she’d pack up and leave within minutes – not only was I a single man, but now I’d just let slip details of family troubles.
“No, it’s not,” she said with a sigh, making a few more marks on clipboard. “You’ve completed college, correct?”
I was slightly surprised by the question. Not because of its content, but because I took it as a sign she still considered me a potential candidate.
“Yes, I graduated a few years ago with a degree in business.”
Another mark on the clipboard, then a rustle of pages. Mary’s questioning continued on for a while longer, asking bits and pieces of my past and more of my finances and other such things.
“Alright. Good. Now then, I just have a few more questions for you.”
“What’s that?” I asked, cricking my neck.
Mary smirked. “How would you feel about adopting a monmusu child?”
I hadn’t even considered that until this point. I suppose I assumed that a human child would be matched with a human parent, and monmusu children matched with monmusu parents. I wasn’t quite sure why, considering how often the two mingled together in relationships.
“I’d be glad to, just as any other child.”
“And would you mind if it was a girl?”
“Not at all. Though, wouldn’t it be unusual to match a girl with a single man like me?”
Not to denigrate monmusu women, or girls, but their prowess and lust were a fact of life. An enjoyable fact of life for some, agonizing for others.
“A little, yes, but special cases call for special measures.”
Mary nodded, and for the first time she picked up the folder that contained what I assumed to be a dossier. Turned out I was correct. She thumbed through the document, then handed it to me. A few photos were attached to the document. I glanced at them then back at Mary.
“Go ahead, feel free to look through it.”
In each of the photos was a small, young girl. She looked to be a cat species of some sort, and sure enough, the cover page of the document had her species marked as Cheshire. Though, she didn’t look like I thought Cheshires were supposed to. Rather than sporting the broad smile her kind is known for, she looked as if she felt nothing at all. Her orange eyes held no sparkle or childish joy, and her lips hung limp, neither smiling nor frowning. The species was also known for their violet and lavender hair, but this girl had black hair that looked to be run through with indigo highlights.
But those two things weren’t what troubled me the most. The girl’s ears were tattered and torn – her right ear especially. The tip was missing and a great portion was missing near the base. Even more worrisome were the scars across the right side of her face, like she’d had claws raked across her. One scar in particular was deep and long, stretching across the bridge of her nose to her left cheek.
And yet, despite her scarred appearance, she had something very gentle and sweet about her. If she smiled, I thought she’d be the most adorable little thing. But, the question of how I would accomplish that lingered in my mind. A massive knot began to twist inside my guts. Did they really feel I would be suitable for a girl like her?
“This is Laska,” Mary began. “A six year old Cheshire cat.”
“She looks so distant,” I said quietly as I realized the look on Laska’s face reminded me of a thousand-yard stare.
Mary breathed in deep. “Laska came to us a year ago, and at first we placed her with some relatives. Things didn’t go well with them, to put it gently. So she came back to us. Since then, we’ve been searching for a suitable home for her.”
I mumbled some sort of response as I scanned through the dossier. My hunch was far less harsh than reality. I figured she’d been abused, but the extent of what I was reading made me feel honest, actual anger. An emotion that I thought I’d left behind long ago.
“Her mother really ‘punished’ her by cutting her ears?” I said, as if I had to hear myself speak the words to really believe it.
“Yes. Her tail too, though you can’t see it clearly in the photos.” Mary’s tone had gone dead. In the interest of professionalism she was probably suppressing her own emotions.
The more I read the heavier I felt, like I was being filled with lead. Suddenly my problems seemed so insignificant and trivial. “How… Why didn’t the father do anything? What got her away from her mother?”
“We don’t know why the father never called for help. Though from Laska’s own admission he never once harmed her – in fact he was the one who would bandage and try to help her.” Mary tapped her fingers across the clipboard and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, letting out another deep sigh.
“What got her away from her parents were her neighbors. One day the neighbors saw the parents leave the house, but there was loud crying from inside. They called the police, and once the officers arrived and forced their way inside they found Laska. She was balled up in a corner, crying her eyes out and bleeding from her face and neck. That incident is the source of the scars you see in the photo.”
I had no words. All I could do was look at the photos. It was one of those things where you know abuse happens. But it’s always distant, always involving someone else. Now I was front and center, being interviewed to adopt a girl who might not have a single happy memory.
Mary continued. “Her evaluation at the hospital also showed that she was underweight, malnourished, and had several deep bruises across her body. And only four years old…” I could hear the words choking in hers throat.
“So, how, how can I help?”
She cleared her throat. “Laska is absolutely terrified of older women. We’ve been searching for single men who would be capable of providing her with the support she needs. As you can imagine, single men with both the time and money are rather rare.”
“I’ll bet,” I said, glancing through the rest of the file.
Heartache, anger, and something else I couldn’t quite place swirled together inside me. It’d been a long, long time since I felt anything this strongly.
“What do you think of Laska?”
I looked up at Mary and blinked. “What? I, well. She’s…adorable. I mean, I just want to…”
“Hmm, you’re the first one to call her adorable,” Mary said as a faint smile returned to her face.
Well, I knew there had to be other people they interviewed. Still, it seemed odd to me that no one else thought she was cute.
“Yes. So. If you would like, I can arrange for you to meet with her.”
I passed her interview. I couldn’t believe it. Then, for the first time in years, I think I felt joy.
“Yes! I mean, yes. I’d love to! When can be it be arranged?”
I think she smothered a laugh as I nearly shot out of my seat in my excitement. Good thing she wasn’t looking for someone who was perhaps a bit more in-control of their emotions.
“Tomorrow, actually,” she said as she pulled a small notebook from her briefcase.
I wondered just how far in advance she had planned. Maybe she hoped just as much as I did that I’d pass her interview.
“Does 9:00am tomorrow work for you?”
“Yes. That’s fine. Absolutely fine.”
When was the last time I trembled in excitement? I was entirely beside myself with what to do and feel.
“Excellent,” Mary said as she began packing up her briefcase. “We will see you tomorrow morning at nine, then. Here’s my card – ask for me when you enter the lobby and speak with the receptionist.”
After seeing her off, I just sort of walked around my house. Upstairs, downstairs, through the living room and kitchen. I had no idea what to do. Well, I guess it would be more like I wanted to do everything all at once. I would need a bedroom set for her, for starters. Then clothes. What about toys? I forgot to ask what she liked or was interested in. What would she be like?
Would she even like me?
I don’t think I’ve ever looked to a tomorrow with such hope and fear.
April 23rd, 2003
Sleep didn’t come easily. I’d be surprised if I got more than two hours of some actual rest. Good thing my nervousness provided me with enough energy to get ready for my appointment.
I slipped into some of my better clothing, thinking I ought to make a good first impression. Was it for the staff, or for Laska? I had to laugh when I thought of it like that; dressing up to meet a girl. Kind of like a date, really. Though the goal at the end was just a touch different from a typical date.
And, like a date, I thought maybe I should bring a small token. I had a hard time deciding, but I figured a little girl like her might like stuffed animals. So, I stopped at a toy store on the way to the agency and picked up a small stuffed fish.
A short jaunt later I found myself giving my name to the receptionist inside the agency and telling her that I was to meet with Mary. With a smile she told me she’d let her know, and that I should take a seat.
I fidgeted with my gift as I waited. It’d seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure. Squeezing the thing and turning it about in my hands, I wondered if getting a fish for a cat would be taken as a speciest thing. Bringing it up to eye level, I stared the fish in the face. Then I began to wonder if Laska would hate it.
“Hi! Good to see you.”
The voice startled the hell out of me and I nearly dropped the stuffed animal. “Y-yes, good to see you too.”
Mary seemed to enjoy my reaction. “Haha, is that for Laska?”
“Er, yeah. Is that a problem?”
“No, just curious. Most people don’t usually bring gifts with them.” Mary’s eyes twinkled. “Anyways, if you’d please come this way.”
She led me through a door in the lobby, down a hallway, and then to well-furnished room.
“Doug? This is Curtis. He’s here about Laska,” Mary said as we entered.
Seated behind a desk was a fairly jovial looking man. He smiled and stood, crossing the distance between us in a few long-legged strides to shake my hand.
“Curtis! Great to meet you. I’m Doug Bauer, director of the agency here.”
“Th-thanks, a pleasure to meet you, too.”
“Come on in, sit down,” he said, gesturing to chairs in front of his desk. He resumed his place as Mary and I sat down in front of him.
“So! Mary here tells me you’re a good match for our little Laska.”
“Er, I am? I mean, yes! I am.”
Like Mary, he didn’t seem terribly concerned with my nervousness. Thank the gods for small miracles. And, like Mary, he began asking a few questions – though not nearly as many as she had.
“Not bad, not bad. A little rough around the edges,” he said with a grin, “but I think you’ll connect with Laska.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Yes – I do. So, how about we introduce you two?”
“S-sure! I’d love to.”
“Good, good. Follow me, please.”
Doug led me back out into the hallway. As he took me to our destination, I noticed that other than his office, the whole facility was kind of like a hospital. Everything was bright and white, but very clinical. It actually seemed to make the place feel rather inhospitable. Even the room he brought me to was the same. Bright, yet empty, save for some utilitarian chairs.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Doug said as he left the room.
With nothing else to do, I plopped down in a chair and waited. My heart thumped heavily in my chest. My hands trembled around the small, stuffed fish. A rather loud clock built into the wall ticked away the seconds. Hearing every tick certainly wasn’t helping my nervousness – it only served to make the wait feel like an eternity.
But, an eternity wasn’t long enough.
The door clacked open, catapulting my heart somewhere up into my throat. Doug walked in, holding the hand – or paw, rather – of a small girl. I’m pretty sure the awkward smile I attempted to plaster on my face at the moment looked more like a snarl than anything else.
That small girl had cute, tattered ears atop her head. Longish, black hair flowed down to her back, and her bangs framed her vibrant, orange eyes. A long, cat-like tail curled around one of her legs. I’d kind of expected her to be in a dress or something girlish. Instead she was wearing a plain t-shirt and knee-length shorts.
Her ears twitched and swiveled slightly as Doug lead Laska into the room, and her eyes turned to focus on me. In contrast to my state, Laska was very calm. Or perhaps it’d be better to say she was emotionless.
“Laska, this is Curtis. Curtis, this is Laska,” Doug said with a remarkably soft tone. “He’s here to talk with you a little.”
“Ah, hello, Laska,” I said with a weak wave. I received a blink in response. At least she never took her eyes off me.
“Go on, have a seat. If either of you need anything, I’ll be right outside.”
Laska walked slowly to a chair as he closed the door behind him. But, rather than sit down, she crouched behind the chair. Her tail uncoiled from her leg and began to swish very slowly across the ground, occasionally wrapped around the chair leg.
“How are you, Laska?”
“I, ah, got this for you. If you’d like it,” I said as I held up the now-moistened fish in her direction. Gripping the thing firmly in my clammy hands probably wasn’t the best idea.
Laska’s eyes darted to the stuffed fish for a moment before settling back on me. Still she never said a word or made a noise. It was agonizing, being stared down by a child.
“So…I’d like to get to know you a little better. You’re six, right?”
She nodded. Finally I’d managed to get a response out of her, however meager. I was also left without much else to ask. Panic was starting to set in.
“Well, what do you like to do? Do you have any friends here?”
The familiar sound of nothing filled the room. Ticking clock excepted. About the only sign from Laska that she was alive rather than being some sort of doll or statue was her tail. Swish, swish.
“Okay, so you don’t want to talk about yourself. That’s fine,” I said, attempting to force laughter. More to calm my nerves than hers. “How about me, then? Would you like to know anything about me?”
“…Right, well why not. If you didn’t want to, you’d say so, right? Ha ha…”
“Well my name is Curtis. Curtis Mulner. I’m…Single, 31, kind of quiet. I like motorsports and games.”
I cringed at my own statement, and had to shut my mouth for a minute to try and collect my thoughts. I stared right back at her while I tried to focus. Her eyes never wavered, nor did she appear to be challenging me. It was more like a sort of muted curiosity.
I tried not to focus too much on her scars or tattered ears. In person I could tell the scars were relatively fresh, and I wondered if they’d ever heal and fade. When my vision wandered over her right ear, it twitched as if on cue. Cute.
“Do you like anything like games or something?”
“…I bet you have a pretty voice. I’d like to hear it.”
That attempt failed as well. Laska was perfectly content to sit and stare at me from behind her cover. Panic was morphing to fear the longer it went on. I began thinking that Doug would come back, shaking his head. He’d tell me that I wasn’t the good match they thought I was. I began thinking he would be correct in stating so.
The clock continued to tick. I could actually start to hear the hum of the fluorescent lights now as well.
Fear gave way to blind desperation in an awful hurry. I’d come this far. I couldn’t bear to have this chance slip away from me after I’d hoped so much. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I failed here.
I wound up just talking about myself. From the car I drove to where I lived. What my degree was, where I had worked. My younger years and my parents. Family and childhood. My regrets and dreams. About all the things I wanted, but never had. Little things most folks take for granted.
I kept talking and talking, spilling my guts to the tiny girl who probably didn’t even understand most of what I was going on about. As ever, she just watched me without making a sound. No matter what I tried, she just wouldn’t respond.
“…Do you hate me?” I said in a whisper. She tilted her head. “It’s okay if you do. Everyone else does.”
Desperation broke into despair, and I found myself tearing up in front of a little girl. “I guess I had my chance, but I blew it. Just like everything else I’ve ever tried. …Sorry.”
I covered my face in shame; I didn’t want her to see my tears as I began to sob. Trying to hold myself back only made it worse. I really, really hoped Doug or Mary wouldn’t walk in on me as I wept. How long did I sit there, crying? I couldn’t say. The ticks all began to blend together, as if time had lost meaning.
Then I felt it. A tiny tug on my pants. There was only one thing it could be, but I didn’t want to believe it. Lowering my hands slowly, I was greeted by a pair of brilliant orange eyes. Laska’s paw was still holding my pants.
“I don’t hate you,” she spoke in a hushed tone.
I didn’t know what to say as I sniffled and wiped tears from my cheeks. So I said the first thing that popped into my mind.
Something other than her blank-slate expression flashed across her features, but it was so thin and ephemeral and vanished as quickly as it appeared. Was it happiness?
“Does it hurt?” She asked, pointing at my chest with her other paw.
In a move that took me by complete surprise, she climbed up onto my lap. And then she wrapped her tiny arms around me as best as she was able.
“I hurt too,” she mumbled into my chest.
All I could do was return her gesture and hug her back. I finally got her to speak to me, but it devastated me to hear a little girl say those words. I had no idea if I should laugh or cry. So, I did both. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I laughed through my nose. Every tear that dripped off my chin hit one of her ears, causing it to twitch and brush against my jaw.
It was as if a massive weight had lifted from my shoulders. I really couldn’t explain why. Though, a phrase entered my mind as we hugged. One I’d heard a while ago. It didn’t quite fit the situation, but I thought it kind of apt. “Who rescued who?”
After some time, maybe hours, Doug finally checked in on us. Surprise was clear on his face when he saw us hugging – though by that point Laska had actually fallen asleep in my arms and I was just sort of cradling her. Then surprise gave way to delight.
“It seems she’s quite taken with you. Good work.”
“Thanks, I guess,” I said, attempting to swallow my embarrassment. “So, what now?”
He rocked his head back and forth, then looked at the time before smirking at me. “I think we’ve found our dear Laska a new home. She’s never attached to someone that quickly!”
“What? Don’t you have to do like, a bunch of inspections and stuff?”
“Nah, we did all that before we even called you. Background checks, finances. All that stuff. Mary reported back that the inside of your home was well-kept and clean. If a little empty.”
“…Huh. So, no waiting period?” I asked, rather surprised. I had assumed it’d be at least weeks before I could actually adopt Laska.
“If you both consent, we can stay here all night and get all the paperwork completed,” Doug said, leaning against the door frame. “Why not ask her?”
I hesitated. What if she said no? What if she said yes? One answer would be heart wrenching, but the other made me smile when I thought about it. Plus, I’d made it this far. That had to count for something.
“Wake up,” I said softly as I tapped my knee to rouse Laska, still seated on my lap.
It took a few bounces, but she began to stir. Her mouth opened wide in a yawn, revealing her pointed fangs and rough tongue. Eyes blinking sleepily, she looked up at me, then over at Doug.
“Laska, I have a question for you,” I asked.
She laid her head to one side, orange eyes focusing on me – until a lock of her long hair swept down to cover her face. With scrunched eyebrows and a ‘fuff’ she blew the annoyance out of her face. So she was indeed capable of expressing some kind of emotion. I think my smirk only served to heighten her curiosity of the situation.
“Would you… I, er…” I stammered. The words I’d prepared had decided to scatter themselves.
“Laska,” Doug began with a chuckle. “Do you want to stay here, or go with him?”
“Go?” she asked, looking between us.
I swallowed. I had no idea how to phrase my question. How was I supposed to ask a child something like that anyways? So I just blurted out the words as they formed in my mind. “Go home, Laska. My home. Your home. Or our home. If you’d like.”
“What’s ‘home?” Laska asked, tilting her head to the other side.
It took me a moment to realize she was being serious. Doug and I shared a glance, one which said I should explain the meaning of the word.
“Well. Home is where you live. But, it’s also where you feel safe. And loved. And a place you can always come back to when you’re scared or alone.”
The words just sort of tumbled out. A realization dawned on me at that moment that I’d just been living in a house.
Laska’s tail twitched in the air. As ever, she looked at me with an intensity that made me a little uncomfortable, like her eyes could ferret out any deception or secrets I was hiding.
“Home sounds good…” She said.
Doug cleared his throat, drawing her attention. “So do you want to go home with Curtis?”
“Great!” He said, clapping his hands together. “I hope you’re ready, Curtis.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Ready for what?”
“The mountains of paperwork,” he said with a wry smile.
Mountains may have been an understatement. Form after form after form was signed, dated, and placed in a particular spot somewhere on his desk or on the floor. Affidavits, reports, documents to change Laska’s surname, records; everything I could think of and more, they had me sign. No matter how many stacks of paper we went through, they never disappeared – they simply moved around the room.
Somewhat surprisingly, Laska had opted to remain with me through it all. She spent her time idle and quiet, looking over all that I was doing with curious eyes. The entire time her paws gripped the small stuffed fish, keeping it close to her body.
Sometime around the strike of ten she had curled up against my leg and fell asleep. Doug left for a moment to fetch a blanket for the girl, leaving me alone with her for a moment. She let out a soft purr when I scratched behind her ears as she dozed.
Her life prior to coming into mine would be sealed from public record. If only it were that easy to erase the scars. I’d just have to do my best to give her enough happy memories that she couldn’t possibly remember what’d happened in her past. How exactly I’d do that was something of a mystery, but I’d just have to find the answers. I already had some of them, so that was a start.
By the time Doug got back Laska sounded more like a small engine than a Cheshire cat.
“She sounds pretty content,” he said as he kneed down to drape the blanket around her shoulders.
Laska quieted momentarily as she snuggled into the warm thing. Didn’t take long until she was back at full volume. Pulling my hand from her ears was far more difficult than it should have been, especially when she fidgeted and went silent. But, the paperwork would not sign itself.
“How much more do we have?” I groaned, scratching at the back of my neck and stretching my shoulders.
“Not too much. You’ll be out of here by midnight,” he said, somehow sounding as energetic as when I first met him.
He wasn’t too far off the mark. The last sheet was signed just a few minutes after the stroke of 12.
“Congratulations,” Doug said, stretching his arms high into the air. “There are a few more things you’ll have to go over tomorrow. Or today, actually. But, officially, Laska is now your daughter.”
That word bounced around in my head. I found myself repeating it silently as I laid a hand on Laska’s head. Daughter. My daughter. Though no blood was shared between us, I felt something welling within me. Pride. Joy. Satisfaction. I wasn’t sure what to call it – but the word daughter just felt right.
“Thanks,” I said. It was all I could say. All I could think to say.
“Someone will be at your house tomorrow morning to go over the last details. Schooling, psychiatry. That sort of thing,” Doug said as he leaned back. “It’ll probably be Mary. Normally I wouldn’t willingly inflict it on the poor girl, but I think it’d be best for you to get an idea of Laska’s fear firsthand.”
“Alright,” I said with a half-frown, then shook Laska’s shoulder.
She blinked up at me, rubbing an eye with a paw.
“We’re going home now,” I said.
Laska’s ears perked up. “Now?”
“Yes, now,” I responded, standing up from the chair.
She stood with me, keeping the blanket bundled around her tiny frame.
“I’ll walk you two out,” Doug said, his eyes smiling despite the heavy bags under them.
Just outside the door was a small duffel bag. “That’s her clothing and a few other things,” Doug said.
It was rather light. “This is all she has?”
He nodded. All she had was in there. Well, along with the fish still in her paws and the blanket on her shoulders. I had my work cut out for me.
Laska remained quiet as I drove home. Every time I opened my mouth to speak I realized I didn’t know what to say, so I wound up saying nothing at all. So instead I wondered what she was thinking about as she stared out her window into the night. If we were closer to the city center everything would still be bright and bustling, but here there was only the occasional dim building and houses.
“We’re almost home,” I finally said as I pulled into my neighborhood.
Not a word from her, but her eyes gave her away. She was curious. Maybe even excited. I couldn’t wait to show Laska her home, even if it was a bit standard by most, well, standards. As we rolled into the driveway she began to fidget and rock in her seat.
“Aaand we’re here,” I said with a bit of fanfare, grinning as I spoke.
I swung my door open with a flourish, snatching her bag up from the backseat before I exited. Laska simply sat there, watching me with those inquisitive eyes of hers that stayed on me as I circled the car and popped open her door. To my surprise she immediately made for the buckle, not relying on me to undo it for her. Then to my nonsurprise, her fluffy paws weren’t quite able to manipulate the release that was designed with more human hands in mind. She scowled at the thing, letting out an unhappy huff in the process.
Once freed from her constraints, Laska bound from the car with the blanket still firmly cinched around her and fish in paw. She darted behind me, and there she stayed as I walked up the path to the front door.
“Come on in Laska,” I said as I walked inside.
Laska remained cautiously outside the door, looking up at me with her tail swishing madly. What could she be waiting for, I wondered. “Welcome home,” I said after a moment had passed. For a brief moment, I could swear I saw her smile as she hopped inside.
I expected her trepidation to continue inside. I was wrong. She dashed ahead of me eagerly, waiting just inside every room for me. I gave her the tour of the place. Or more like she ran around and I rattled off names as I followed behind her.
“And here is your bedroom,” I said as she looked around a room.
“But nothing is in it,” Laska responded, blinking at me.
“Well, it will be your bedroom. It’s empty now, but tomorrow we’ll go and get you a bed and dresser and whatever else you want. Okay?”
She brushed up against me, and almost without thought I began to scratch her roughed ears. Almost immediately she began to purr softly and lean into me. Felt a little like I’d adopted a cat alongside a daughter. An affectionate cat, anyways.
The last room to show off was mine. “You can sleep here tonight, Laska.”
She blinked at me in response. “I’ll sleep downstairs on the couch. You can have my bed. Okay? Now come on, let’s get you tucked in. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day,” I said as I scooped her up into my arms. She didn’t put up any resistance, in fact, she practically went limp in my arms. Still didn’t say a peep, however.
I tucked her in, laying her new-found blanket atop the sheets. She tugged at it lightly with one paw, holding the fish in the other. And then I found myself wondering what to do. From what I knew, fathers often gave their daughters a kiss on the forehead as they said goodnight. Would that be too much for me to do? Should I hug her instead?
Fortunately Laska made the decision for me. She reached out to me with her paws. “Goodnight, Laska,” I said as I gave her a big squeeze. Her ears twitched and brushed against the bottom of my chin.
“Goodnight,” she replied with a soft voice that would’ve been overpowered by a gentle breeze and closed her eyes.
As I walked out the door I could feel her eyes on my back, though when I turned around her eyes were closed. Either I was paranoid or she was being sneaky.
Downstairs I set myself up on the couch with a pillow and blankets I’d thankfully kept around. I tossed, turned, grumbled, and sighed. Didn’t help there was an illuminated clock that I could see from the kitchen. A friendly reminder that dawn was approaching closer minute by minute. Exactly one hour and 17 minutes after I’d laid out on the couch, I heard my bedroom door creek open.
Rather than do the smart thing – that is, get up and find out what was going on, I instead played dead. Or sleeping, in this case.
Creak, creak, went stairs as soft, fluffy paws descended down them. I never realized how creaky those stairs were. Then I heard a quiet rustle across the hardwood floor. For a cat, she sure was noisy. Considering she’d now walked past both bathrooms, that couldn’t be her purpose. No, she was heading straight for me. I could feel her presence beside me. And yet I remained still. I wasn’t sure what possessed me to act like that.
But I was kind of glad I did. With her idea of caution she pulled herself up onto the couch and nestled up against my chest. I’m pretty sure any person would’ve woken up from having Laska crawl onto them, but I was also pretty sure any decent father would’ve played along. Then I felt her head nuzzle against my arm which, until that point, had been resting on my stomach.
So that was her game. She must’ve seen me struggling to suppress my grin, and failing, like an idiot in the dark. But, since I was pretending to ignore her, she must’ve pretended to ignore me. Even after I raised my arm slightly and she slid underneath.
With her head resting on my chest and my arm around her, I found myself no longer struggling to fall asleep. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I slept so soundly.
April 24th, 2003
One thing I’d neglected to consider was an alarm. This was made very apparent when the first sound of morning was the doorbell. As my muddy mind worked to process the noise and what it meant, I became aware of a weight and warmth on my chest. Laska was still sleeping soundly, sprawled out atop me. Her ear twitched slightly and her tail hung off the side. It would’ve been a little more cute if she wasn’t drooling on me.
My mind brought itself to the present on the second chime. The social worker was here. There was no time to run water through my hair or even change clothes. Or my Laska-drooled shirt. Well, she’d understand. Probably.
“Laska, time to wake up,” I said gently, lifting my arm off her and prodding her ears with a finger.
When that had no effect I blew lightly into her ears, sending them into a twitching frenzy. That got her up.
“Nnn, don’t wanna…” she mumbled, stretching out.
Then she began to knead. My startled surprise fully woke her up. Claws in your flanks are not a good way to greet the morning.
“Sorry!” She squeaked, quickly drawing her paws tight against her chest. “I-I didn’t mean to! I’m s-sorry!”
“It’s fine,” I said with a sigh and reached out to pat her head.
Laska flinched just before my hand touched her. My heart skipped a beat and sank. I had to tell myself I wasn’t the one who made her react like that. Many times. I had to force my hand, frozen mid-air, to move. She flinched again as my fingers brushed against her ear with her eyes clamped shut. It hurt in a way I cannot describe to have a girl – my daughter – afraid of my touch. I nearly wanted to just give up there and tell the woman at the door that this was just too much of a burden for me.
But the agency seemed to think I was capable of raising her. And didn’t Laska flee the comfy confines of the bed to sleep on my chest as I dozed on the couch?
“It’s fine,” I whispered, trailing my hand down her ear to rub her head; more to comfort myself than her at this point.
“…Sorry,” Laska sniffled out, cracking her eyes open when she realized she wasn’t going to be struck.
The door rang again. When I cocked my head to look out the window next to the door, Mary peered inside. She saw me and Laska. I waved. The concern on her face faded, if only partially.
“Come on, we’ve got to get up,” I said.
Laska, now fully awake, nodded and hopped off me. A quick self-evaluation once I stood up yielded far more dire results than I’d hoped. I was more or less a shambling wreck. Perfect time to greet a social worker regarding the daughter I’d adopted just yesterday.
“Good morning!” I said, throwing open the door and doing my best to appear cheerful.
“Yes, good morning to you as well,” Mary said, cocking an eyebrow as she took in my appearance.
“Sorry for taking so long to get to the door. I ah, slept on the couch last night and put Laska up in my bed. Forgot about the alarm.”
Mary seemed to accept my explanation. Whether good acceptance of bad, I don’t know. A long sigh can go either way.
“Oh, right! Come on in,” I said after an awkward moment of silence.
However, she remained at the doorway, peering over my shoulder. I followed her gaze behind me. Laska was cowering behind the couch, looking just over the top of the arm at us. Mary leaned in close and began to whisper.
“You may want to explain what’s going on to her.”
I’d completely forgotten.
“Er, right,” I said, leaving Mary at the door.
Laska’s eyes followed me as I knelt down beside her. They practically shook with fear, and looked to me to provide an answer.
“Laska,” I began, meeting her intense stare. “That lady over there and I need to talk about some important things.”
No response, save for a slight tremor.
“Is it okay if she comes in?”
She blinked a little, casting furtive glances over at Mary. “She’s scary,” Laska uttered in a barely audible whisper.
“She may be scary,” I said, making a display of looking over at the not-actually-fearsome-at-all social worker, “but I promise I’ll protect you from her.”
Laska’s little paws fidgeted and wrung. “Really?”
“Really,” I responded. “Remember, this is your home too. What good’s a home if you don’t feel safe? You have my word she won’t do anything to you, but it’s your choice if she can come in or not.”
I wasn’t quite sure if a six-year-old would really be capable of making a decision like that. My experience with children was limited to those I saw at the stores, so I had no idea how one should speak to a child. Or what to expect from them. I’d also realized I basically told her that she could tell Mary to fuck off and then I’d wind up having my meeting with her in the car or something. Too late for takebacks.
“O-okay, if you promise…” Laska said, trailing off meekly.
I was actually rather surprised. Did that mean she trusted me after only a day? There was no way, right? But there wasn’t any other answer I could come to. Was I just that trustworthy, or was she just that desperate to trust someone?
She flinched again when I reached out to her, but she kept her eyes open as I stroked her head. “I promise. You can go to my room if you want to go back to sleep.”
“No…” Laska mumbled, taking hold of my pant leg. So that’s how it was going to be.
“Alright, you can stay with me,” I said, giving her ears a quick scratch.
“It’s quite alright,” Mary said, taking a seat on the hard kitchen chair and spreading her documents about on the coffee table.
Next to me on the couch was Laska, bundled up in a blanket so that only her eyes were visible. The top was tented up as it rested on her ears, wiggling along with said ears. If it wasn’t for her trembling that I felt as she pressed tightly against me, I’d have called it one of the cutest things I’d ever seen.
“Sorry again,” I apologized. “I know those chairs aren’t very comfortable.”
“And like I said, don’t worry about it. Though I do worry about speaking of such…complicated matters with a certain someone around,” Mary said, picking up a folder and thumbing through the documents inside.
“Yeah, sorry. Still, shouldn’t she be allowed to hear about matters regarding her?”
Mary gave me a curious look. “Just remember: She is still a child. Anyways, let’s begin…”
Mary started off discussing Laska’s visits to a child psychologist. They’d be once a week at a nearby office, and last until Laska could conquer her fear of women. Could be a few months, could be a few years. Next came school. As it was April, the school year would be over soon – it was too late to enroll Laska now. And, despite her age, she’d never actually been involved in any education beyond a handful of class sessions at the orphanage. So, they wanted to start her off in first grade. Unfortunately she’d be seven years old in first grade.
“Most kids start first grade when they’re six, right?” I asked, my arm draped around Laska’s sleeping form bundled tight in the blanket.
“Correct. She’ll technically be behind a year.”
I frowned. Schools can bang on about being hard on bullying and whatever else, but I knew better. Her appearance was going to get her into enough trouble. I didn’t want people to think she was slow as well.
“Is there no way to get her into second grade?” I asked.
Another curious look from Mary. She’d given me several so far, but she was good about concealing what exactly had piqued her interested. “Well, before the start of the school year, the school can perform an evaluation to determine if she meets the requirements for second grade.”
“So you’re saying that, for example, I could teach her what she needs to know over the summer?”
“Mmm, yes, you could do that. I happen to have an educational requirement guide for the second grade right here, actually,” Mary said as she shuffled through papers and handed me one.
How convenient. Onto the stack with the others it went. Something then dawned on me.
“Wait, will Laska be attending a ‘normal’ school? Aren’t there are a lot of, well, women at school?”
“Yes – it’ll be a normal elementary school. Fortunately the school in your district here has a high amount of male teachers and special needs staff, so we feel comfortable placing her there. If there are difficulties we’ll look at a special school, but…” She trailed off, her tone indicating she expected me to pick up.
“…But it’ll probably be best to give her a chance at normalcy?”
Mary’s pleased face acted as a gold star for my answer. I fumbled with that word in my head – normal. I’d said it, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I didn’t know what ‘normal’ was. What exactly was normal when it came to raising a daughter? As a single man, at that.
We discussed a few remaining topics. I filled out a few more forms. Compared to last night, this meeting had been wonderfully short. It wasn’t even noon yet.
“Well then, Mr. Mulner, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll keep in touch,” Mary said as she extended her hand to me.
“Thanks,” I replied.
With a final wave and smile she turned and walked to her car, leaving me to figure out what to do about the sleeping bundle laid out on the couch. Two legs were sticking out at an angle I wouldn’t have thought possible for a person, along with a lone, tattered ear. Breakfast or a shower? I desperately needed both. Though breakfast would probably be better called lunch at this point.
“Time to wake up,” I said, shaking the bundle vigorously.
The legs went stiff and stuck out and little claws stuck out from her black-furred paw-toes as they spread. Laska rolled herself into a kneeling position, then sat up and pulled the blanket down around her like a cloak.
“Is… is she gone?”
“Yes, she’s gone.”
Laska let out a breath like she’d been holding it in for hours. Maybe she really was more fearful than I’d thought. For the time being, I figured the best step was to simply move on.
“Are you hungry?” I asked once she’d finished yawning.
“Well, okay then. How about some breakfast? Or lunch. Or whatever. Is there anything you’d like to eat?”
“Anything?” She responded, her ears perking up considerably.
Dangerous waters lay ahead. I had to divert course. “Er, well, how about like pancakes and sausage?”
Laska slumped, but she kept glancing at me. The anxiety of someone who wants to ask something but is too scared.
Back to the treacherous seas. “Or would you rather have something else?” I wondered if it was speciest of me to think she wanted fish.
“Could… could you make eggs, too?” She asked, fidgeting with herself and avoiding eye contact.
“Huh? Oh, sure! Guess I forgot about those.”
Orange eyes snapped to me before she looked away again. “Thanks…” she said quietly.
What would the fatherly thing to do in this situation be? “Want to help? Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Her actions belied the quiet slowness of her words. Blanket off and paws on the floor in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t expected her to be so eager. Laska trailed me into the kitchen and watched most intently as I pulled out various mixing bowls, whisks, and ingredients.
“Do you like to cook?” I asked. Then immediately felt stupid.
“I don’t know,” Laska replied, standing on her tip-toes to look over the counter top.
“Well, let’s find out, shall we?”
“Okay,” she answered, her tail swishing energetically.
I quickly came to a realization that all fathers have at some point. Laska’s ‘help’ had proven to have quite the opposite effect. What should have been 15 or 20 minutes of prep and cooking turned into an ordeal like nothing else. Flour got to places I didn’t know flour could go. A gallon of milk was depleted in no time. Eggs. Oh, the eggs. What I could salvage turned into scrambled eggs. There wasn’t much else I could do. Mercifully I was able to spare the loss of sausage by virtue of the frying pan. Too dangerous, I warned. She’d need to be older.
After about an hour or so, a meal was completed. Laska’s pancakes were the real masterpiece. They featured a crunchy, suspiciously egg-shell-like filling along with delightful pockets of flour that would burst open when chewed. I had to make sure to smile and make satisfied noises with every bite. Sometimes lies are necessary.
Yet, despite all the horrors wrought in the kitchen, I believe that’s the first time I ever had fun cooking. It’d always been a means to an end. Now I got to enjoy the journey a little. I even saw Laska crack a little grin or two, though her eyes gave it away more than her face. Plus, mindful of her school situation, I took the opportunity to try and teach her fractions using measuring cups. I think I was a little successful.
Of course, the whole thing had left us particularly messy. Laska was covered from ears to tail in flour. I may have accidentally dropped the sack on her while retrieving it from the shelf. It was a little surprisingly when she didn’t teleport to dodge it; her abilities must not appear until later.
“Do you want to take a shower before or after me?” I asked Laska. It seemed innocent enough – a yes or no question that left little room for surprises. I still didn’t understand what being a father meant.
Laska’s head tilted to one side. That seemed to be her default mannerism whenever something confused her. Confused about why she was confused, I became markedly less confused when I remembered her age. My jaw shifted side to side as I was confronted by a most unexpected situation.
“You want me to give you a bath, don’t you?” I asked in a tone that suggested I already knew the answer.
I really, really did not want to go through with this. But what choice did I have? Throw her in the tub and lock the door until she came out sparkling clean? No, she was my daughter. It’d only been a day, but she felt fine with me giving her a bath. Either that or she was just that ignorant and why am I thinking about this I’m supposed to be a father!
“Alright, run and grab a change of clothes. I’ll start the water. Okay?”
“Okay!” She said enthusiastically, making a dash for the stairs.
Were kids supposed to be that excited about bath time? I thought most parents struggled to get their children to bathe. Not only that, she was part cat.
Honestly, things weren’t as difficult as I imagined they would be. I thought it’d be awkward considering she was a little girl and I was a grown man. Well, it was a little awkward, but I got over it pretty quick. It may have been me chanting ‘She’s my daughter’ in my head constantly, or it may have been that it was the first time since meeting her that I got a close look at her. While washing her hair I could make out every nick, cut, and tear on her ears. Her tail was worse off than I initially thought as well. The scars on her face ran deep; deep enough that they would probably never fade no matter how old she got.
I couldn’t say if that made me more angry or sad.
But, her physical wounds aside, Laska seemed to enjoy bath time. She nuzzled into my hands as I scrubbed and massaged the soap into her fur and hair, and even began to purr a little.
“Alright,” I said, having rinsed the last of the soap from her long hair. “All nice and clean now.”
Laska just sat there and looked at me.
“Er, time to get out now. I need to get cleaned up before we head out,” I said, making my point a little more clear.
“I don’t wanna,” she pouted, wet ears going flat on her head.
“I like it…” she said, quiet enough that I wouldn’t have heard her had I not been so close.
“Well,” I began, thinking fast on a way to get her out of her own will. “If you stay in the water much longer you’ll shrivel up…”
“Yes, like a raisin. You’ll look just like a big, furry raisin. But if you want to stay…”
Since she had paws instead of hands and the like I didn’t actually know what would happen. Her fur probably wouldn’t hid her pruniness anyways.
Laska looked at said paws, then at me. I simply gave her a look that said if she wanted to be a raisin, it was her choice. She opted not to chance that possibility and skittered out of the tub, right into the towel I had waiting for her.
I dried her off, she clothed herself, then I took a fast shower after chasing her from the bathroom, much to her dismay. When I opened the bathroom door Laska tumbled backwards, but made no effort to sit up. She just stared up at me from her position on her back and blinked.
“Well, you ready to go shopping?” I asked, peering down at her.
“For what?” Her ears twitched and her tail swished, despite being partially trapped underneath her.
“Your bedroom set, clothes. Maybe some other stuff.”
Furniture and clothes shopping was about as exciting as one could imagine. Trudging through the stores with Laska in tow, then struggling to walk whenever she latched onto me because a grown woman got near. That was a fun thing to explain to the saleswomen that Laska was deathly afraid of them for no reason other than their gender. I got a few suspicious, or even hostile, looks from that. Probably thought I’d had a messy divorce or something and told my dear daughter what demons women were.
Laska had no opinion on anything, really. Well, except dresses. She was most adamant about not wearing a dress or skirts. Otherwise picking out her outfits and bedroom set fell to me, a man as far removed from fashion and what girls like as could be imagined. Eventually I settled on a range of shorts, pants, and shirts for clothing. For her room, I purchased a nice oaken bedroom set with deep purple bedding to match her hair. She seemed content, and maybe even liked, what I’d picked out for her. Mission complete.
“Well Laska, what do you want to do now?” I asked, tossing her new clothes into the wash.
By the time we got back dusk had fallen. Normally this is about the time I’d plop down in front of my PC and do whatever. But, looking at Laska as she perched herself atop the folding table, I figured those days were going to be far and few in between for a long while.
“You dunno? There’s nothing you want to do?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Her tail was far too energetic. There was certainly something she wanted. Laska drummed her paws across the table. She shot me a quick glance.
“Don’t be shy.”
“I want to go outside,” she said slowly.
“Outside? That’s fine,” I responded, struggling to avoid sounding sarcastic. “What do you want to do outside?”
“I-I just want to go outside,” she repeated, scooping up her tail in her paws to get it to stop twitching about. Even still, the tip was flicking back and forth.
“Okay, so let’s go outside,” I said, starting up the washer.
Upstairs, I waited for her. “You lead,” I said.
She hesitated, looking between the doors that led to the front and backyard. She opted for the backyard after a bit of internal decision making that happened to show on her face as a series of various animations.
Once in the backyard, I sat down on the patio and just watched her. She ambled into the grass and then just sort of began to look around. I’d nearly asked if she wanted to play catch or something, but decided to remain quiet. After a few minutes of her slowly stalking through the grass, she leapt into the air and clapped her paws around something.
Slowly she opened her paws, and I saw a little green light fly away, illuminating her face as it took off. Had she wanted to go outside for that reason? Or…No. She bent over and snatched another one from the air. This time when she opened her paws it crawled around in her fur, blinking its dull light. I couldn’t help but grin; how long ago had it been since I pursued fireflies? Had to have been over two decades.
“Want me to get a jar?” I asked.
Laska whirled in place. “No!”
I blinked. That was the loudest she’d ever spoken. Granted it was more of a normal voice, but quite loud for Laska. She stiffened, then hung her head. “S-sorry, I d-didn’t mean to yell…”
“I wouldn’t really call that ‘yelling’,” I said, keeping my tone light.
No avail. Laska made herself appear so small; she wrapped her arms and tail around herself and laid her ears flat. Though her face was heavily shadowed, her eyes shone clear as day. And they were filled with anxiety. She was afraid of expressing herself. At least, that’s what I figured was going on.
I walked over to her in the grass, then kneeled down so I was at her eye level. She flinched a little and shut one eye when I lifted a hand. Then they both opened when I snatched a firefly from the air. Mimicking her actions, I opened my hand and let it crawl in my palm for a few moments before it took flight. She eyed me curiously, some of the tension in her bleeding off as I caught and released a second one.
“Laska,” I said, flashing the warmest smile I could manage. Which probably was still chilly by conventional standards. “Why don’t you want to put the fireflies in a jar?”
“…’cause it’s mean,” she mumbled, staring down into the grass.
Well, she had a point. It was kind of mean, and apparently something she felt quite strongly about. “Well, there you go. Nothing to be afraid of in telling me that, right?”
She looked back up to me. There’s the usual head tilt.
“Laska. You can say whatever you want. You can tell me if you don’t like something. Or if you really like something. You can agree or disagree with me, and even yell if you feel you must.” I said, snatching and released a third firefly. “You can tell me whatever you want without worrying about whether or not I’ll… hurt you, because I love you, Laska.”
I said it without really thinking. And instantly felt very nervous. It was true, of course, and I already thought of her as my daughter. Still, it was a huge step for me. It’d been a very long time since I last uttered those words. Chewing on my lip, I snatched another firefly from the air to appear nonchalant.
“Really?” She asked, fidgeting with her shirt.
“Really,” I replied.
“Okay,” she said with a small measure of enthusiasm, her eyes wandering across my face and then back to the sky.
Did she really understand what I meant? I guess I’d just have to wait and see. And hope a little. Laska took a few steps away from me, then twirled on the spot and dashed away across the lawn. At the far end I saw a green light wink on, only to be snatched up by a paw from the bounding Cheshire. Where did that surge of energy come from? Maybe she really did understand what I meant.
Though her landing didn’t quite work. She stumbled as she landed, falling over onto her back. I got an idea of how fast adrenaline works when I realized she wasn’t getting back up immediately. Within seconds I was scrambling to my feet and jogging over to her, heart beating quickly. Any other circumstance and I wouldn’t have thought a thing of someone falling from a short jump into some grass.
Laska’s eyes shifted to meet mine as I came into her vision. She was simply spread out on her back, looking up into the sky. Just as quickly as it sped up, my heart began to slow.
“Having fun?” I asked.
Her eyes returned to the heavens. “Yeah,” she said.
Not the most convincing answer I’ve ever heard. I flopped down alongside her, gazing up into the sky. Other than the occasional breeze that caused the trees to rustle and the chirp of crickets, all was quiet. Glancing from star to star, I picked up on the few constellations I could remember. Stealing a glance at Laska, I wondered if she knew about them. Only one way to find out.
Pointing to a certain part of the sky, I asked “Do you know what those are?”
“What, what are?” Laska replied. I felt her tail brush across my leg.
“The little twinkling points of light in the sky.”
She hummed to herself. “Stars?” she said, sounding more like she was asking a question than giving an answer.
“Correct, those are stars,” I said, checking to see if her eyes were following along with where my finger was pointing. “See those stars? Imagine a line connects them.”
“What should it look like?”
“Whatever you think it should look like. What do you see?”
Laska hesitated, bringing her paws together across her chest and fidgeting. She gave me something of a worried glance. Which was worrying all on its own.
“It looks like a pot?” She finally said.
“Good answer,” I responded with as happy of a tone as I could muster and gave her head a few pats.
As quickly as it’d come her anxiety faded. I had no idea what level a six year old should’ve been at when it came to looking at stars, but I was proud of her regardless. “That is called the Big Dipper, because well, like you said it looks like a pot.”
Scanning the sky, I spotted something else. “How about that?” I asked, tracing a pattern in the sky.
“It looks kind of like a person,” Laska finally said after a few periods of hmms and umms.
“Right again,” I said, giving her a few more pats. She closed her eyes happily and shifted upwards to press against my hand. “That’s called Orion. The huntsman or something as well. Orion there is holding a bow.”
Guess there are some things she doesn’t know. “Ah, it’s a… thing. It’s made of wood and curved and used for hunting and I’ll show you a picture later, okay?”
“…Okay. Do all the stars have names?”
“Hm? Yeah, like that’s the North Star, that’s Alpha Centauri, and…Well there are a lot. Most stars have numbers and letters for names, though.”
“How come? Are there really that many?”
Two questions in a row from Laska. I was impressed. She was coming out of her shell pretty quick. Or was it? Either way I was happy that we were having an actual conversation.
“There are more stars than I can count,” I said, holding my hand up and spreading my fingers.
“Really,” I responded, dropping my arm and hand to rub Laska’s ears. I sometimes felt like I was treating her like a cat, but she did enjoy it. So, why not?
We chatted about counting and the stars some more, until a deep night had settled in and the temperature was getting uncomfortably chilly. Every time I asked if she wanted to go in she would refuse, even though I could see her beginning to shiver. She was quite adamant about wanting to stay outside at that. Finally I had to drag her in, though it was more like I scooped her up and carried her in. I expected her to resist, but she threw her arms around my neck as soon as I brought her up to chest height.
Unfortunately as the furniture place wasn’t able to deliver today, it meant I had to wrap Laska up in my bed again.
“I don’t want to sleep alone,” Laska said as I began to head for the door after tucking her in.
I kind of figured that was going to happen. I was conflicted over whether or not to indulge her.
“How come?” I asked.
Her paws gripped the ends of the sheets tightly and brought them close to her face so that only her eyes and ears were visible. “I’m scared,” she said softly; a faint quiver shaking her words.
Like any father could say no to that.
“Alright, just let me change, okay?”
It was a little awkward at first to be in the same bed as Laska. I chalked it up to just never being close with someone before, and had to keep reminding myself that children slept with their parents all the time. Even though she’d snuck onto the couch with me last night, this still felt different, somehow. At least, until she snuggled up against me. Her little paws clung to my chest and she nuzzled her face against my side.
Then it just sort of felt natural. Like I was protecting her, like she was depending on me. It’s difficult for me to describe, but it was just… right.