July 11th, 2008
Eralia was due over shortly, and with her arrival would mark the first time Laska really accepted another woman into her home. Except for Lydia, of course.
Obviously I was still nervous, but I’d taken some measures to try and make sure everything went smoothly. I figured the best way to ensure this whole ordeal ended in smiles, or at least not tears, was to make this something… happy, rather than a confrontation. Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I felt pretty good about my plan, even if it did cost me a slight amount of money. Small sacrifices and all that.
Walking to the back yard after grabbing a drink, I paused to admire the vigor of youth. “Aren’t you two getting tired yet? You’ve been going at it for over an hour.”
Zoe’s head whipped around at the apex of her jump, bringing an abrupt halt to her attempted aerial summersault. She came down on her back, but with a little help from the trampoline bounced back to her feet. Almost looked like she’d intended for that to happen.
“I can almost do a complete flip!” Zoe boasted, as she came down again and launched herself upwards.
“That’s nothing! Check out what I can do!” Laska shouted.
Launching herself as hard as she could, Laska managed to do the splits mid-air – while grabbing her feet with her paws at the same time. And she held herself like that as she came down. I winced and crossed my legs ever so slightly. Back in the air she rolled backwards and let go, coming down on her hands.
Then promptly faceplanted, went stiff-limbed, and flopped over onto a side.
“Laska!” I shouted, running towards her, “Are you okay?!”
Zoe dropped to all fours besides Laska, prodding at her friend while she rolled back and forth, clutching her face with her paws.
“Let me see, are you hurt anywhere?!”
She spread her digits and peeked out at me, then slowly dropped her paws. That, that wasn’t supposed to happen…”
I let out a sharp sigh of relief, though my pounding heart wasn’t in a hurry to calm down. At least she seemed fine, even if the poor girl’s face was bright red all over – probably equal parts landing on it and embarrassed.
“What was that all about?”
“Tried to do a handstand jump,” she said meekly, rubbing her face all over. “I did it once already, before you came out…”
“Yeah! It was really cool!” Zoe added, her tail wagging furiously.
“You’re really trying things like that already? You’ve only had the thing for a day – maybe take it easy?”
Laska rubbed at her face some more and sighed before flopping onto her back. “I’ll show you, just you watch!” For added effect, she even balled up her paw and shook it at me.
Well, it was good to see she wasn’t hurt and didn’t let her little mishap shake her. Reminded me of her little incident back at the dirt track.
“I’m sure you will. But maybe for now you should take a break and come in. It’s damn hot out,” I said, glancing up at the cloudless sky.
Laska just stared at me with that face of hers that said she really wanted me to see her neat trick and right now. “Oh, and I have some fresh lemonade too.”
Won Zoe over in an instant. The wolf’s attention focused entirely on me. “Really?!” I nodded.
Thump thump thump, went her tail. “Let’s get some, Laska!”
“Okay, fine,” she finally agreed with a roll of her eyes.
Compared to Zoe practically rocketing off the trampoline and into the house – on all fours part of the way – Laska peeled herself off slowly and practically trundled on in.
“See? You’re completely drenched – you needed a break,” I said, wiping a damp lock of hair off her forehead. That earned me a weak smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Inside Zoe downed two glasses in an instant. Open mouth, tip glass, pour in. I questioned if she’d even tasted a drop of it. Also gave me a bit of a pause as my mind wandered to certain implications during her college years. Lydia is going to have her hands full, I just know it. Then again, when doesn’t she have her hands full with Zoe?
“Seems you two are having a lot of fun out there.”
Laska took a much more measured sip before replying. “Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. You should come out with us, dad!”
“Uh, maybe later. Wouldn’t want to slow you kids down.”
“Aw, c’mon. How would you slow us down?”
“Ya!” Zoe piped up, “It’ll be more fun with you!”
Two sets of hopeful, expectant eyes fell on me. “Well…” They could already sense my answer and worked with their little, sad, suspiciously glimmering eyes as best as they could to change it. “…Fine,” I said after a deep breath.
Smiles all around. “I bet you can do all kinds of neat stuff, dad.”
“Yeah, about that. You’re just setting yourself up for a world of disappointment.”
“Then I’ll just have you teach you! It’s pretty easy,” Laska said, apparently completely unaware of certain small details, like that a 12 year old Cheshire is far more limber, flexible and less injury prone than an almost 40-year-old man.
Hopefully Eralia would get here soon and save me from certain death.
“Alright, well, I’ll be right out,” I said, but laid a hand on Zoe’s shoulder as the pair got up. “Need to talk to you about something,” I whispered.
“Oh, I need to use the bathroom. I’ll be out in a second, Laska,” Zoe said. Laska shrugged and walked off.
Sometimes I wondered about that wolf. It was easy to write her off as being, well, a little simple, but there were times when she displayed a surprising amount of tact.
Once my daughter was out of ear-shot I turned to the pre-teen wolf who was almost as tall as I was. “Did your mother say anything about what was going to happen today?”
She shook her head. “No, why?”
For a moment I had to think, figuring how to best say it. “Has your mother ever said I’m dating, or trying to date, someone right now?”
“Uh, oh, Mom said something about a woman named Rally!”
“Eralia,” I corrected. “And yes, she’s coming over in a short while.”
“Really? Is she nice?” Zoe asked, tail beating against a kitchen chair.
“Well, I think so. But, well, there’s a bit of an issue. With Laska…”
She cocked her head. “Laska doesn’t like her?”
“Kind of… it’s complicated. You remember how Laska was always afraid of women, right?”
“Right! But I thought she was fine now?”
“She is, for the most part. Look…” I trailed off, pursing my lips. “It’s complicated. Basically I’m kind of using you,” I said with a few hints of guilt. “To try and keep Laska in a good mood. I figure having her best friend around would make things a bit easier.”
“Ooooh… I hope I’m useful!” Zoe said cheerfully. Suddenly, she got a very serious expression, as if deep in thought. It wormed its way through her mind, showing every step on her face. “Wait… is that why you got the trampoline?”
“Pretty much. I’ve also got some other surprises in store, but yeah. Anyways, the reason I’m telling you is that Laska is probably going to be pretty grumpy when Eralia shows up, so… do what you can, and don’t worry if she says… things. Okay?”
“Okay,” Zoe said cheerfully.
“Right,” I said with a grim smile. “Time to get myself killed on that thing.”
Despite their protests that I could go much higher and do all kinds of very cool and impressive feats if I just tried, I kept to some fairly low-key bouncing. In all honesty, the way my knees hurt from that little bit was more depressing to me than it could ever be to those two. Thankfully, before I could get the chance to blow out my knees for good, my pocket began to vibrate. Salvation.
Eralia would be at the house soon; she’d finished loading the trailer from the dealer and was on her way.
“Sorry to cut it short girls, but I need to do a few things quick,” I said, sliding off the destroyer of knees.
“For what?” Zoe asked innocently.
In the second I paused to consider my answer to that, Laska had seized the initiative. “That woman is coming over,” she said bitterly, staring down at her legs. She murmured something else under her breath, but I wasn’t able to understand what she said. Zoe, however, must’ve heard full well considering how her ears and indeed, kind of her whole spirit drooped.
As much as I hated to leave whatever was said unresolved, I’d just ask Zoe later if I thought about it again. I had a few suspicions, but confronting my daughter about it now would only put her in a worse mood. For now I needed to clean up a bit and get a shirt that wasn’t all sweaty.
Didn’t take long after I was done making myself presentable for my phone to ring again and I hurried out to the driveway. Soon as I stepped out I was greeted with a wonderful sight for sore eyes – in multiple ways.
“Well, here you are,” Eralia said with a grin, motioning towards the trailer behind her truck. “Your daughter’s new pony.”
“Nice to see you too,” I replied, mirroring her snarky smirk. “I still can’t help but think a pony would’ve been cheaper… Thanks again for picking them up for me, by the way. Couldn’t believe how much they wanted for delivery.”
“No problem, glad to help out. Just make sure to return the favor sometime,” she said with a wink.
“Yeah yeah,” I said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek.
“You’re going to have to do far better than that” She said, flashing a predatory smile.
“I know. It’s just a prelude,” I said coyly, then quickly diverted my attention to the pair of shiny new dirt bikes. “I hope she likes this, or else I’ve got some expensive coat racks for the garage.”
Eralia shot me an annoyed expression, then rolled her eyes.
“Oh, she’s going to be absolutely thrilled to have her own bike. As for having me around, on the other hand…” she said, tapping a furry digit against her cheek.
“It’ll be fine. I know it,” I said, probably more to reassure myself than Eralia. “Might be a little rough at first, but I’m sure she’ll warm up.”
One thought I had at the time, and indeed something that’d been floating through my head all week, was how committed Eralia was to making this work. It still felt kind of strange that someone I’d known so very briefly was willing to put up with so much. Then again, the last time I really dated at all was before I adopted Laska, so maybe it wasn’t that unusual to try and make something work from the get-go.
“Wish I could share your confidence,” Eralia said with a sigh. “That lunch didn’t exactly go so well.”
“Trust me – it was a big step for Laska. I’m sure she can make this next one,” I said, putting on a brave smile.
“Only one way to find out, right?” She said, reaching to give my hand a squeeze.
“Right,” I agreed, taking her paw. “Well, come on in…”
Inside I poured us each a glass of lemonade and we stood in the back room, watching Laska and Zoe for a short while.
“I don’t remember that being here the last time I was over,” Eralia said, letting just a hint of accusation slip into her tone.
“Must’ve missed it, that’s all.”
“Ah, that must be it. Because there’s no father somewhere who is silly enough that’d he try to shower his daughter in gifts in order to buy her off, after all.”
Good thing she had no way of knowing that I’d bought Laska a complete new set of sheets and pillows for her bed as well. Possibly some furniture as well.
“Really, you think there’s someone that’d do something like that?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said, looking at me sideways. “It’s like they don’t realize you can’t just buy your way into a woman’s heart.”
“Perish the thought.”
She studied me hard, but not without a silly smile on her face. “Can’t blame you for trying. Though… I’ve got some ideas for what we can do tonight, once the kids are asleep…”
I took a long sip. “Do you, now? You know our bedroom windows face the backyard, so that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Eralia quickly dropped into a pout and puffed her cheeks out. “Aww…”
“I know. There there,” I said with a few pats on her shoulder.
As fun as this was and as much as I wanted to postpone the inevitable, I couldn’t really justify just standing around and waiting for everything to magically blow over. “Well, time to get this over with,” I said with a deep breath.
“Here’s hoping,” Eralia said, crossing her fingers – a feat which I found rather impressive given her meaty paws.
Though just as I was about to open the back door, I had a thought. “Actually, do you mind going back out front?”
“Hm? How come?”
“Well, I just thought, it might be better if we ask Laska if you can come in. Know what I mean?”
“Mmm, I suppose.”
“Alright. Guess I’ll grab Laska in a second, then.”
With a nod and quick hug Eralia darted from the room, leaving me with a precious few moments to gather my thoughts. If lunch last week was testing the waters, this would be taking a plunge in the deep end.
No time like the present.
“Laska! Zoe! Come on in!” I hollered out the door.
The pair of them snapped to attention. Zoe was all smiles, but Laska – Laska knew exactly what was about to happen. Zoe pushed and prodded at Laska, hurrying her along.
“C’mon, I’ve got a big surprise for you,” I said, but it didn’t matter one wit to my daughter. With all the expediency of someone marching to the gallows, Laska dragged herself inside. “What’re you so grumpy about?” I asked, though I really don’t know why. We both knew. We both knew that the other knew.
“She’s here, isn’t she?” Laska said quietly, but then anger flashed in her voice. “That woman?”
“Yes,” I said uneasily, then cleared my troat. “But that’s not all!” I put as much excitement in my voice as possible. “I’ve got something I know for a fact you’ll love.” For the first time it seemed I had a measure of success. Laska regarded me warily, her tail doing its usual dance of curiosity.
“Oh! I wanna see too! I bet it’s something really awesome!”
Zoe’s tail launched into action, whipping up a storm – right in Laska’s face. “Gah! I told you to watch that thing!” Laska growled, seizing the bushy bludgeon in both paws. “I oughta rip it off!”
“No!” Zoe panicked, snatching her own tail out of Laska’s paws and clutching it close to her chest. The fluffy tip obscured most of her face, leaving only her pink eyes to peek out. “Don’t be jealous of my fluffy tail…”
“W-what? I’m not! I like my tail just fine!”
Huh. Well, learned something new about my daughter. Tail envy. Who would’ve thought? Any other time I would’ve loved to tease her about it. At the least I could stash away that tidbit for later use.
“Alright you two,” I said in my fatherly voice. “There will be no removal of tails. Now come on, you’re going to love this, Laska.”
“If you say so…”
“C’mon, it’s out in the driveway.”
Ushering the two of them out, I stood in front of the front door and motioned for Laska to go first. “Go on, take a look.”
She looked from the door to me and back again, then tentatively reached out for the knob. Her paw trembled slightly and she swallowed just as the door opened with a click. Here it was – the big moment of the night! My heart thumped heavily, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
“Huh? Who’s truck is…wait, are those…” Laska’s head snapped to me as if spring-loaded. With every blink her eyes got wider. “Are those ours? They are, aren’t they?!”
I nodded a fatherly nod with a big, dumb smile on my face. “Yup!”
In a flash Laska was out the door, likely already at the trailer. I supposed I could forgive her for using her powers in the house just this once. Zoe scampered off on all fours to chase after her friend, leaving me to plod along slowly behind them. Just as the thought came to me that Laska had made no mention of a certain woman, there was a quiet cough to my side. Eralia had taken a spot against the wall, hiding in plain sight as it were.
“Hey, how come-“
She silenced me with a paw to my lips and a sad smile. “Good news before the bad, right?”
I always thought it was better to get the good news last, but I wasn’t about to argue that with her at the time. Laska was excitedly pouring over the bikes, specifically the smaller of the two.
“Dad! When’d you get these?!”
“Oh! I want one too! But mom says they’re too dangerous,” Zoe said sulkily, looking back towards me. As she did, her attention fell to the strange woman at my side. Right – this was the first time Zoe had seen her. It was obvious she’d ask it. “Is that Eralia?”
Laska’s excitement died and vanished with the breeze. Stiff and slow, her gaze came around, following Zoe’s innocent question. Like video played back in slow motion I watched her smile melt off when her eyes locked onto Eralia. She didn’t say a word, instead only returned her attention to the pair of dirt bikes. I couldn’t tell if that was a good or bad sign.
“Yes, that’s me,” Eralia said with forced cheer, hoisting herself off the wall. “You must be… Zoe? Laska’s friend, right?”
“Yup! That’s me!” Zoe said, approaching the new person with a tiny measure of caution. She sniffed at the air around Eralia, tail wagging. For a moment I wanted to scold her, but then I realized I’d never seen her do that before, even with complete strangers. At any rate, I was fairly sure whatever it was she was doing was considered poor manners. Before I could say anything, she stopped and smiled, tail beating even harder. “Pleased to meet you!” She said, sweeping up Eralia in a crushing embrace before she could even think of dodging out of the way.
The shorter, older woman grimaced and strained against the hulking wolf’s grip, but she quickly learned there was no escape and let herself go limp.
“Bad Zoe! Put her down! Mind your manners!”
She purposefully ignored me, instead rubbing her cheek against my date’s a few times before finally letting her free. No longer constricted, Eralia sucked in a deep breath and staggered backwards. “P-pleased to meet you too,” she laughed nervously, shooting a glance my way. In hindsight I probably should’ve warned her.
“You’re a nice person, I know it,” Zoe added, all smiles.
Eralia seemed unsure how to respond to the sudden pass of judgment. “Thanks?”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“She smells like good people.”
We shared a shrug, though Eralia gave me a look that meant I’d be giving her some kind of answer later. Well, at least if this was some kind of crazy character test, it meant she was fine in Zoe’s books. That was one step closer, though by no means the most difficult hurdle. Laska’s friend was one thing, Laska herself was another.
Through this whole little scene, Laska never flinched, never even moved. She just stared hard at the machine that was to be hers. Other than a slight swish of her tail or movement of her ears, she was as still as stone. Things were already in motion, so I figured I may as well try to keep things rolling.
“Laska, why don’t you come say hello to Eralia?”
She turned slightly, glancing at me from the corner of her eye, then went back to staring at whatever she found so very interesting. I sighed, flashing Eralia an uneasy smile. She gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. I began to walk over towards my daughter, but just a few steps away she finally spoke up.
“Is this supposed to make me like her?” She spoke with a surprising calm, level tone, yet the way she ended on ‘her’ made her feelings on the matter so very obvious.
“Well, not quite,” I said, unsure of how to continue. I wasn’t expecting her to suddenly fall in love with Eralia – not by a long shot – but if I could prevent a melt-down, that’d be another huge point of progress. “I was planning on this for a while, but seeing as how we don’t have a truck or trailer, I kept putting it off. But since Eralia was able, she brought them over for us – she’ll even let us borrow the trailer when we need it.”
By that point I’d closed the gap with my daughter and bent down to her level, resting my hands and chin on the side of the trailer like she was. “I don’t have our gear yet, though. I was hoping we could go tomorrow to get you fitted. That way we’ll have all our own stuff. We’ll be able to go pretty much anywhere and ride to our heart’s content. Pretty cool, right?”
I think I got a twinge of a smile out of her, but that was about it. “It’ll be just us, right?” Laska asked, still staring forward.
“If you want, sure, it’ll be just us – father and daughter.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
For a long while after, there was nothing but silence – save for some murmuring between Zoe and Eralia. I wondered how long I should let things sit like this, and I wondered what was going through my daughter’s mind. Finally, after a long stretch of silent, awkward minutes, I decided to spur things onward.
“Well, want to help me put these in the garage for now?”
Not that there was a whole lot of talking during that, either. Other than me telling Laska what to hold or open as we stored the bikes safely in the garage, there wasn’t exactly much discussion. Once everything was put away, I did get an idea.
“You know, you haven’t even sat on it. Want to?”
Finally. Finally I got a reaction out of her that didn’t make it seem like she was some kind of forlorn slave. “…Yeah.”
“Well, go for it. It’s yours, after all,” I said encouragingly.
She looked over the bike for a moment, then placed a paw on one of the pegs as if testing to see if it’d topple over on her. Satisfied all was well, she hoisted herself up in one fluid motion.
“Well, go on, act like you’re going to really ride,” I said with a smile, looking ride and rider over together.
She reached out for the grips, lightly brushing them with the tips of her paws before taking them in earnest. A few wiggles here and there until she got a nice, comfy position and she looked up at me.
“Not bad,” I said appraisingly. “It’s a little big for you, but that’s good. Means it’s something you can grow into.”
“Yeah, it does feel kinda big,” Laska commented, looking over the controls, though I had a feeling she was just paraphrasing what I’d said.
“Get used to it now and it’ll be great when you’re bigger. Plus, I’m told it’s lighter than that one you used at the track. Should make it easier to handle.”
“Oh yeah?” Laska said, finally letting an honest smile appear. “I can’t wait to try it!”
“I know,” I said with a smirk, tussling her ears and hair. “We’ll definitely get out someplace next week once we get some gear, alright?”
“…Just the two of us, right?”
So much for her smile. I sighed. “Of course, sweetie. Just the two of us – wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyways, let’s head back in. We’re keeping them waiting.”
“…Alright,” Laska said grimly, hopping off the machine.
She followed behind me as I walked out the side door. Not a moment after Eralia came into view again did I feel a paw grab onto my pants and a face bury into my side. Even at this distance I could read the pain in Eralia’s expression, though she was quick to mask it by jumping into some kind of conversation with Zoe. Being so overtly hated by someone must be hard, even if they’re still a child – or maybe it’s worse because they’re a child.
“Dad, I really don’t like her,” Laska mumbled into my shirt.
I stroked her ears and hair reassuringly. “How come, sweetie?”
“I just don’t, okay!”
So much for that. It was remarkably rare that she actually said she didn’t like her, and here I was hoping she’d finally tell me why rather than me having to guess at it. Trying to pry it out of her wasn’t going to do any good, so as much as I hated to let the moment pass, I had to.
“If you say so,” I said with a sigh. “But I know you’ve got some reason, and I wish you’d tell me.”
I began walking towards Eralia with Laska in tow, still clinging dearly to me.
“I hate her…”
“Hate’s a strong word,” I said, giving her another pat. “Not one to throw around so lightly, especially with someone you barely know.”
“I’m sure you hate people too,” Laska said with a certain, distinct brattiness.
“Actually, I don’t.”
Laska, of course, didn’t really believe me, but she didn’t keep questioning either. She just fell into silence once again, keeping herself in contact. When we got to the front door with Eralia and Zoe, Laska had detatched herself, though she still seemed to be lost in thought.
“Laska! You got the coolest thing ever! I’ve never been on a dirtbike, can I sit on it?!”
“Huh? Oh, sure,” Laska said, roused from her thoughts.
So far, the one thing that surprised me the most was Laska’s anger, or lack thereof. Compared to the lunch fiasco she was remarkably mellow, or maybe morose would be more apt. But, as I usually did, I thought too soon.
“You guys can go play in a minute, but first,” I said, halting the duo in their tracks before they could escape on me. “May Eralia come inside?”
Laska leveled a glare at her. Seemed she’d been bottling up her wrath for a direct confrontation. Undaunted, Eralia simply repeated what I’d asked. “It’s your home as much as your father’s, so I’d like your permission,” she asked pleasantly.
At times I felt like I made too many concessions to Laska, and honestly I didn’t know if this was one of them. Was I being too wishy-washy, too meek in handling her and this whole issue, or was letting her feel like she had some kind of say in it just the thing? How long would Eralia go along with this, playing second fiddle to my daughter? I can’t imagine she was thrilled with all this. But, really, all those questions hinged on Laska’s answer.
“I said okay at the restaurant, didn’t I?” Laska grumbled, staring down at the ground.
“So you’re fine with it, then?” I asked, hope elevating my voice.
“Do whatever you want! I don’t care!” Laska shouted angrily, then immediately did an about-face and teleported to the garage. “C’mon Zoe!”
The young wolf blinked. With a quick little hand wave I shooed her off, and she set off dashing for Laska. The two of them slipped inside, leaving us to ourselves once again.
“That went well?” I said, rubbing at my chin.
“Not exactly, but it’s a start,” Eralia sighed.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand why she doesn’t like you so much.”
There was a twinkle in her eye, just before she leaned back and stared up into the dusky sky. “A maiden’s heart is a complicated thing.”
I rolled my eyes at her saccharine, girlish tone. “What do you know about a maiden’s heart?”
She swatted my shoulder and puffed out her cheeks. “I’ll have you know I was a maiden once.”
“And how many years ago was that?” I said with a wry grin.
“Hmph. What cheek,” she said dryly, crossing her paws. “I go through all this trouble for you and this is the thanks I get.”
Suddenly I realized I may have gone a bit too far. “Ah, sorry…”
“As well you should be,” she said with one eye closed. Then her tail began to swish. “How do you plan on apologizing?”
Just as quickly I realized she got me right where she wanted. Alas, it was too late to pull out now. “Well, I haven’t started dinner yet, and I know how much you like steak…”
The remainder of the evening saw Laska doing her best to avoid me, worryingly so. If it wasn’t for Zoe practically dragging her down out of her room later on, I know she’d have completely skipped dinner. Laska was still strictly on non-speaking terms with Eralia, going so far as to even avoid mentioning her name. “Her” or “That woman” were her chosen names. Even called her “Thief” once. Though there was one kind of curious thing that happened when Laska and I ran into each other in the hallway. Out of nowhere she started rubbing her cheeks and neck against me. When I asked why she said she was just making sure “She” knew. Quite unusual.
Still, all things considered it was progress. I knew, of course, that things wouldn’t be able to continue like this, in some kind of hostile truce where Laska barely tolerated Eralia’s presence. Something would have to give or maybe, just maybe, my daughter would come around to like Eralia.