November 26th, 2007
I was growing weary of this school-day morning routine. Since school started I’d go through at least once a week. Sometimes twice a week.
It’d been easy to find her at first since she’d just go invisible while still in bed or on top of her sheets. But she was quick to figure out how I’d managed to find her and began getting more creative. First behind the curtains, then under the bed or in the closet. The last two never quite worked since she’d have to move her things.
But she’d been getting smarter about it, trying her best to avoid school. She’d been having problems with bullies for a while, starting back towards the end of fourth grade. We had countless meetings and conferences with the staff and parents since then. Sometimes it’d help, but most of the time it barely lasted a week before her tormentors started back up.
Worse yet, Laska had become known as a troublemaker since she’d often finish her work early and then she and Zoe would chatter and gossip and act like you’d expect from bored kids. In comparison, the girl who tormented Laska the most was known as a model, well-behaved student. So the loner, troublemaking kid was accusing the popular ‘good girl’ of being a bully. Little wonder why the staff was so slow to act.
So here I was, left tapping my foot in the middle of her room, thinking of where she might be. Her desk chair was pushed in, so she couldn’t have been there. All the books and other things remained on her shelves. Much to my dismay, the girl’d finally learned that she could hide in plain sight. On one hand I was mildly impressed she’d realized the potential of her invisibility, but on the other there was no chance of me winning this arms-race.
There was the chance that she’d gotten up before me and darted off somewhere else in the house, but that’d require her to actually get up before me. I wasn’t too worried about that ever happening, seeing as how sleep seemed to be one of her favorite hobbies. Well, growing girls and all that. Still, I was beginning to think I’d have to bring up a bag of flour every night to dust the floor, just in case. Not that I wanted to, considering the awful mess I’d have to clean up every day.
As I surveyed her room, I got the impression she was still here. Mainly due to her pajamas that were strewn across her floor – along with the rest of her clothes she never picked up – in the direction of her dresser. Lucky for me, I suppose, that my messy daughter left clothes all over. Unlucky for her seeing as how she essentially left traps everywhere to stumble into.
A shirt near the corner of her dresser moved ever so slightly. Poor thing, undone by her own habits. I looked around me and picked up a pair of her pants. Rocking my head back and forth, I gauged where about I thought she’d be standing and let the pants fly, sending them whirling through the air.
I couldn’t help but grin. Another victory in the on-going battle.
“Must we go through this whenever you don’t feel like going to school?” I asked of the pants floating in the air, draped over nothing.
“Dad! How do you always know where I am?!”
“Oh, I just know. Dad powers and such,” I said casually, crossing my arms in front of my chest.
Laska’s head and paws re-appeared as she tossed the pants that’d landed across her face back down to the ground. “Dad powers don’t let you see infisible things!”
“That’s what you think – and it’s ‘invisible,’ by the way. Now then, can we please drop this game?”
She flashed me a petulant scowl. “Why can’t you just let me skip a day here or there?”
All I could do was sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. This was another part of the routine, the same song and dance we always went through. The only reason I was so tolerant of her behavior was because I knew why she hated going. But, even knowing why, I couldn’t just let her skip whenever she felt like it. This was something she had to get through, something I had to get through. If I started letting her skip whenever, I had no doubt she’d become just like me. There was no way in hell I was going to let that happen.
“Laska,” I began, doing my best to keep a level tone. “School’s important. You learn a lot more than just how to read or work with numbers.”
“Like what?” She shot back, fixing with me a harsh stare.
The venom in her voice surprised me. Usually she just whined some, but that was far more bitter.
“Like socializing and making friends,” I said, taking a seat on her bed.
“How am I going to make friends when everyone hates me?” Laska growled, picking up the pants she’d just tossed to the ground to slip them on.
Sighing, I picked up a shirt from the floor next to her bed and threw it at her. If I had something to be thankful for, it was that she still had the presence of mind to dress herself before she completely dropped her invisibility.
“What? Laska, everyone doesn’t hate you.”
“Yes they do!”
“Fine, everyone but Zoe!”
“Lydia and Steve don’t.”
“Well that’s – they’re different!”
“T-that’s because you’re my dad!”
“I’m pretty sure your teachers don’t.”
Laska sneered at that last one. “Yeah, they just don’t care about me! Not them or any of the kids at school! None of them do!” She screamed, staring angrily at me.
I couldn’t believe she’d actually shouted at me – I damn near hollered right back at her for yelling at me, but I managed to catch myself just as I opened my mouth. Getting into a screaming match with her wasn’t going to fix anything – that was for damn sure.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to calm down. There had to be something big going on for her to get this emotional. “Hey, let’s calm down and have a talk,” I said, patting the bed next to me.
Laska stood defiantly, the tip of her tail flicking back and forth. She was testing my patience, something she’d do whatever she slipped into one of her moods. Seemed like those ‘moods’ were becoming more and more frequent lately. Fortunately I’d figured out an almost-sure-fire way to disarm her.
Swish, swish, went the tip of her tail. I pat next to me again. The uneasiness lasted several long seconds, but she finally relaxed a tiny bit and crawled onto the bed next to me. Good, I was making some progress on defusing her.
“Alright, let’s back up a bit. Why do you think everyone hates you?
“’Cause they all pick on me and call me stuff,” Laska grumbled, pulling her knees up to her chest.
“But it’s not everyone doing it, right? Just a few kids?”
Suddenly the flames of her temper flared up again. “But no one tries to stop them! Some of the other kids even laugh! They don’t care about me! They all just hate me!”
I swallowed hard. Her voice was starting to crack. This was the worst I’d seen from her in a long time.
“Zoe helps you, doesn’t she?”
Her hard expression softened at Zoe’s mention. “Yeah she’s great! But, but then they make fun of her, too…”
At least I’d gotten her to admit she wasn’t completely alone at school. While I knew that Zoe could silence most of the bullies due to her size, they must’ve been growing bolder due to Zoe’s gentle nature – I couldn’t imagine the girl harming a fly. Not to mention that Laska and Zoe weren’t always together.
That left only one feeble resort. “Well, why don’t I try talking to the teachers again?” I said, though part of me knew that’d be a futile effort. Laska knew it too.
“It doesn’t do anything! It never does…”
Laska was cracking, and it wasn’t just her voice. I tried to wrap my arm around her, but she only pushed me away. Tears were beginning to well in her eyes and she stared at me as if begging for an answer.
“What did I ever do to them? Why do they make fun of me because my ears and face and tail are all messed up?! I hate it! I hate them!”
“Why?!” She howled, her eyes shaking, burning tears dripping down her cheeks. “Why do I have to have these, these scars?! Why did she hate me?! Why did she aband-“
Watching her face, listening to her voices and words, seeing her trembling frame – that was it. My heart couldn’t bear anymore, but I couldn’t find anything to say. I threw my arms around my daughter and pulled her tight, tight enough to get it through to her. She struggled for a moment, but whatever facade she was trying to put up crumbled away in just moments. Her little paws wrapped around my waist and she began to sob into my chest.
Children could be so cruel and merciless. No matter what policies were implemented, some things never changed. I stroked and kneaded her ears and hair, letting her cry as much as she wanted.
“You know, Laska,” I began when she’d calmed down some, “I think they’re just jealous of you.”
“Jealous?” She asked after pulling away from me, all while sniffling and desperately trying to wipe away the ribbons of tears from her cheeks.
“Yeah,” I said, plucking a few tissues from a box on her nightstand to clean her nose. “They’re jealous.”
I held up the tissues to her face and dabbed to dry her cheeks and nose. “Well, you’re very clever for one. You’ve told me yourself that you already know almost everything they teach. That’s why you finish your work so fast, isn’t it?”
“T-that’s c-cause you teach me stuff all the time…”
“True, but you learn it quickly! I’m really impressed by how hard you try to figure out something out. I bet those other kids wish they were half as smart as you.”
Laska’s eyes glinted ever so slightly, but the light didn’t last long. “So why don’t they try? Why do they just, just pick on me and call me names like ‘scarface’ and laugh at me?!”
“Well,” I said, moving to scratch behind her ears to help calm her again. “It’s easier to tear someone else down than build yourself up. It’s easier to blame others instead of helping yourself.”
“It’s not fair…”
“You’re right, it isn’t. That’s why you just need to remember that you’re better than them. While they’re trying to make you feel bad so they can feel good, you’re off having fun with Zoe or learning all you can.”
Laska let a brave smile cross her lips, giving her such a soft expression.
“…Plus, they’re also jealous of what a cute little girl you are.”
“What?!”Laska said in protest. “But I have these scars! And my ears, and tail, and this black hair, and, and…”
I held a finger to her lips to shush her, then carefully took her chin in my hand to tilt her head up to face me. I turned her this way and that, as if studying her. “Yup, I still think you’re the cutest girl around. Why, look at that little nose, those rosy cheeks, beautiful orange eyes. Don’t forget those adorably fluffy ears and paws, or how your hair shimmers in the light.”
In turn she touched her face and ears after I let her go, still seemingly disbelieving my words. “But they’re all scarred and tattered…”
“They’re very charming and unique,” I said, poking her nose. “Those other girls? They all look the same. You? Why, I don’t think anyone would ever mistake you for someone else!” I said with a smile and a chuckle.
I did think I was laying it on a bit thick, but it was working. Traces of her warm smile began to appear and she’d stopped trying to put herself down after everything I said.
“You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re my dad,” she said, looking away and fidgeting with her paws.
“What? I assure you every word is one-hundred-percent true. When have I ever lied to you?” I said with a pout, faking hurt at her implication.
Her tail twitched a few times and she shot me a furtive glance. “You mean it?”
“I mean it.”
The smile she’d been holding back finally bloomed, though she did look terribly embarrassed. “You’ve got that lovely smile too,” I said, wiping away the last of her tears.
She wrapped her little arms around me in a hug and I gladly returned it. “You’re the best daughter a father could ask for, Laska. I love you so very much, so please, talk me whenever something is bothering you, okay?”
Laska let out a long sigh, sniffled, and took in an equally deep breath. “…Do I still have to go to school?”
Despite her puffy eyes and red, still-damp face, she had the barest hints of that shit-eating grin of hers. So much for that cute daughter smile, but seeing her gradually return to her old self was good enough for me.
“Yes, you still have to go to school,” I said as fatherly as I could manage, given everything that’d just happened.
“But they’re just going to pick on me…”
Back to the beginning. There was one idea I’d been considering for a while, but it went against most everything I believed in. But, I couldn’t see any other option. First, however, I wanted to make absolutely sure I had the facts. As best as an eleven-year-old girl could deliver them, anyways.
“Laska, whenever they pick on you, you go to the teacher, right?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, letting her shoulders drop. “But they don’t ever really do anything. They usually just tell me to quit making things up ‘cause ‘Susie doesn’t do those things’,” she said, wrinkling her nose as she imitated and mocked the staff with her last few words.
“Even the principal?”
“He just thinks I’m doing it for attention,” Laska snorted, crossing her arms. “He’s a jerk!”
I figured as much. I got that impression from my meetings with him, but he never quite came out and said it. Compared to the old principal this new guy was abysmal. Sometimes it seemed as if he disliked kids.
While I was lost in thought on whether or not to make my suggestion to her, Laska broke the silence.
“Were… you ever picked on in school?”
“Yes, and no,” I said after pausing a moment to consider my response.
Her situation had brought me back to my own childhood, made me think of all I went through. It was all already at the forefront of my mind in a way, but hearing her ask it – and have to give a response, was harder than I thought it’d be.
“Yes and no?” Laska asked, tilting her head.
“Very rarely, yes, but for the most part – no,” I said, shaking my head. “I never stood out to anyone. Enemy or friend. I had a few kids I got along with, but I never had a friend like Zoe.”
I chewed on my lip. It should have been an easy thing to say, considering how long ago it was. I suppose the shame and loneliness were seated far more deeply than I’d realized. Such wounds to the spirit did not heal so quickly, it seemed. But, they were healing, all due to the bright-eyed girl seated next to me.
“I lived a lonely life,” I said reluctantly, as if admitting some great sin. “For a long time.”
Laska looked at me for a moment, then tucked her head under my arm and wrapped her paws around me in another hug. “You’re not lonely now, right?”
It was funny. Just like that, in her little gesture, all the burdens, grievances, and guilt of the past were chased away.
“How could anyone feel lonely with you around?”
A little happy sigh is all I got from her as a response, but I’d take it. It had been quite a hug-filled morning, but it felt good, felt a little uplifting. We both got to vent a little, and I had made my decision to tell her exactly how to handle her bullies. Until the doorbell rang, anyways.
I snapped around to look at the clock – how time flies when you’re consoling your daughter.
“Uh-oh, Zoe’s here. Take a quick shower and get ready, we don’t have much time,” I said, standing up from Laska’s bed.
“Do I have to?”
“Yes, you do.”
Laska twisted her face in a half-scowl. “Fiiiiinnne…”
“Where’s Laska at?” Zoe asked, darting about the living room in search of her prey.
“We got a bit of a late start this morning. She’s still in the bathroom.”
“Oh, okay,” Zoe said, looking remarkably crestfallen. For about half a second until her tail resumed its furious pace. “What’s for breakfast? I’m hungry!”
The girl never missed a beat, nor was she shy about making herself at home. I didn’t go so far as to consider Zoe a second daughter to me, but I did think her something of a sister to Laska. Even if they were entirely different species, builds, and heights. Even if they were closer than most actual sisters.
Seeing them together was amusing; standing at about 5’3”, Zoe was nearly eleven inches taller than Laska despite the fact that they were both the same age and in sixth grade. I had to admit, knowing that Zoe would probably be taller than me in two or three years managed to make me feel a tiny bit smaller.. Conversely, I had an inkling that Laska was doomed to a life of being a short girl.
“Well, since we’re running late I was just going to pick something up on the way to school. Unless you want a bowl of cereal or something,” I said, gesturing towards the kitchen.
“Nah, I’d rather have whatever you two are going to have,” she said happily, her bushy tail beating back and forth like a furious feather duster.
Laska would always be the cutest, but Zoe was a close second. Especially when she smiled in that particular way that let her upper fangs poke out of her lip.
“Alright, well, we haven’t decided yet. We’ll figure something out soon as Laska gets down.”
“Okay,” Zoe said, plopping herself down on the couch.
Yet instead of watching TV she was still fixated on me for some reason. I suppose without Laska around and the familiar sense of routine, I’d become the focus of her attention. It was a rather rare thing that I was ever left alone with Zoe. So I decided to make the most of it.
“How have you been?”
“How have things been at school?”
Either she was purposely stalling me or my attempts at subtlety were too subtle. Not that Zoe was what I’d consider dumb by any stretch, but sometimes…
“Laska’s been talking about how other kids are bullying her more often,” I said, carefully watching the wolf’s reaction.
Sure enough, she bit her lip and drooped her ears. She knew exactly what I was talking about.
“Well, one of the things she told me is that you’ve been sticking up for her, so I’d just like to say thanks. Means a lot to me. I’m sure it means even more to her.”
Most of her nervousness fled, replaced by some kind of inner fire. She sat bolt upright, ears perked up taller than I’d ever seen before. “I’d do anything for Laska! She’s my bestie!”
“Oh, I know,” I said with a chuckle. “But sometimes it’s hard to stick up for someone when they’re getting picked on. Takes courage.”
“That’s ‘cause Mom told me-“ Zoe began, but instantly clammed up – even going so far as to cover her mouth with her hands.
“What did she say?” I asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Uhh, mom said it was a secret.”
I hated doing such things, I really did, but the wolf let out a bit too much. Not like I had to torture her or anything, just a little temptation. Wordlessly I walked to the kitchen and returned with a favorite of Zoe’s: beef jerky.
Those bright mauve eyes of hers followed me, or rather my hands, as I walked back.
“How about a trade?” I asked, holding up the jerky.
It was so direct, and really, so terrible of me. Zoe had probably been proud of managing to keep her secret for who knows how long, and here I was, wresting it from her by exploiting her biggest weakness.
“B-but mom said…”
“It’ll be our little secret. No one will know you told me,” I said with a wink. “Besides, I’m just worried about Laska.”
Little Zoe struggled mightily, but it was for naught. I could practically count down the seconds until her will crumbled away until all that left was pure longing for her coveted treat.
“Mom — Mom said that Laska needs someone to help her,” Zoe said quietly, ears laid flat on her head as if giving a confessional.
“She said that Laska is really strong, but she doesn’t know it, and that I had to stand for her ‘till she could stand on her own. I didn’t really get what she was talking about and mom laughed at me, but then she just said that I need to be her friend. That’s easy, ‘cause we’re already friends!”
A bit of life came back to her as she spoke, and by the end her ears were again pert and focused – along with her eyes – on me. Those sounded like Lydia’s words, alright, at least when she was in her motherly sort of mood. The way Zoe said them also roused a deep emotion within me. Something like pride.
She’s strong, but doesn’t know it. I never really thought about it like that.
“That’s, well, Laska certainly is lucky to have a friend like you,” I said, tossing the jerky to Zoe.
The wolf snagged it out of the air and immediately gobbled it down, losing all traces of her regret at spilling what was supposed to have been a secret.
“I’m glad she can count on you,” I said as she licked every morsel from her fingers.
Zoe flashed me her toothy smile in return. “I count on Laska too! She helps me with all the hard stuff in class!”
I had to fight down the urge to remind her that having Laska do all the work and give her the answers wasn’t exactly ‘helping.’ More like ‘doing.’ ‘Cheating,’ even.
“That’s… great. Just… try not to accept too much help.”
Her snaggle-toothed grin grew wider, only now it was accompanied by the dull thump of a bushy tail beating on my couch cushions.
“Isn’t Laska done yet?” Zoe asked.
Which made me realize that Laska’d yet to make any sort of appearance. Nor could I hear the shower running. A quick glance at my watch revealed that we’d need to leave in just a few minutes.
“Wait here for a sec,” I said to Zoe as I turned to check on my daughter. But then my dad sense tingled. “You know what? Follow me.”
“How come?” Zoe asked as she popped up and scampered over to me.
“Fairly certain I’ll need you,” I said.
Zoe just tilted her head at me, but followed along as I went upstairs. Sure enough, the bathroom had was empty and Laska wasn’t in her room. I’d hoped that after our talk she’d be more agreeable, but of course it wouldn’t be that easy. Fortunately I had my special little helper to sniff out Laska.
“Zoe, can you do me a favor?”
“Great. Alright, Laska’s hiding somewhere – I need you to find her. Can you do that for me?”
She hesitated for a moment, casting a furtive glance towards my office.
“How come she’s hiding?”
One day she’d learn to control her tells. But today was not that day.
“It’s a game she likes to play, but right now we don’t have time,” I said, giving Zoe a tiny scritch behind the ear. “And the sooner we find her, the sooner we can eat.”
Whatever inner conflict she had was quickly dominated by one side. I did feel a bit bad about using food to coerce her. Twice in one day at that.
Sure enough, Zoe made a bee line straight for the office. Soon as we hit the doorway Zoe glanced around, sniffed the air a few times, and then ran with her arms out-stretched towards a corner of the room.
“Found you Laska!”
Her arms wrapped around nothingness, but then the nothingness turned into my scowling daughter.
“Zoe! How could you!”
“How could I what? There’s no time for hiding! We gotta go eat!” Zoe said energetically, licking Laska’s face for good measure. “Oh, and good morning Laska!”
Laska and I shared one of those wordless looks. I narrowed an eye. Laska pleaded silently. I pressed my lips into a thin line. Laska hung her head in defeat.
“Good morning, Zoe,” Laska said with all the enthusiasm of someone sentenced to the gallows.
“Right,” I said with a clap of my hands. “So hurry up and get dressed, we need to get going.”
One wouldn’t think such a small girl was capable of such a big sigh, but Laska was always one to exceed expectations. “Okay…”
I glanced at the two of them in the rear view mirror, munching happily on the breakfast sandwiches I’d picked up. We’d be at school soon, so I wanted to drop my suggestion to Laska I’d have to do it then. But I still wasn’t sure it was a good idea, for many reasons. Laska wasn’t a rough and tough boy that had to scrap to show he wasn’t a push over. She was my sweet, tiny, delicate flower.
She was, wasn’t she?
Looking back at them again in the mirror, the scene I witnessed and the image in my mind didn’t quite mesh. The Laska swatting at Zoe and doing her best to deflect counterstrikes wasn’t entirely aligned with the tiny little girl I met all those years ago. It wasn’t just this, either – Laska was never one to shy away from adventure or danger. That’s how she met Zoe, after all.
Maybe I was just trying to rationalize things. Or maybe I was trying to make myself think I was just rationalizing.
At some point I realized I was descending into some sort of indecisive madness and had to mentally slap myself back to reality. It was the point of no return, and it was an option.
“Yeah, dad?” She said, struggling to ward off Zoe’s advances onto her side of the car.
“Zoe, pretend not to hear this,” I added, gaining the wolf pup’s attention.
She just tilted her head in confusion, which also served to halt her invasion of Laska’s space.
“Anyways, Laska, remember what we talked about this morning?”
“Well, I was thinking, have you tried being direct with those kids?”
“You know, direct. When they make fun of you, tell them to stop.”
“But I do all the time! And then they just get worse…” Laska grumbled.
“What’d you say that girl’s name was? Susie?”
“I hate her!”
“Yeah, I hate her too!” Zoe chimed in.
“Okay, so you both hate her. Good to know.”
I couldn’t believe I was about to say this. I was a pacifist at heart, I really was.
“So walk up to Susie, and tell her to stop. And if she doesn’t, just, well, pop her one.”
Laska’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Pop her one?”
“You know, just punch her.”
I said it. Told my little princess to get in a fight. My little princess that wrestled with a dire wolf nearly daily and could even manage to hold her own at times.
“What? Dad, are you serious? We’re not supposed to fight! You even told me to never hit people!”
“You’re not supposed to bully people, either,” I said, meeting Laska’s incredulous stare in the mirror. “I, look, I’m not saying to go and bust her up, but if you feel it’s the only thing that’ll get her off your back…”
“But we’d get in trouble!” Zoe blurt out, looking rather anxious.
Lydia was going to kill me. If Laska got in a fight it was all but guaranteed Zoe would leap into the thick of things. The thought of that angry wolf mother when she figured out I was the cause of a fight sent a chill down my spine. Almost made me want to just walk in to school and slug little Susie myself. Jail time or Lydia’s wrath? Tough choice.
“I’ll be the one getting in trouble. You two would just get slaps on the wrist.”
“So sometimes hitting people is okay?” Laska asked, her brows furrowed in confusion.
“It’s… look. It’s not okay, except when it is. You never, ever start a fight just because. It’s defense. You’re defending yourself. It’s like, sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. And it’s always a last resort, when you can’t do anything else.”
My rambling, loosely connected words weren’t exactly aiding Laska’s understanding.
“It’s not okay, but it is?”
“I think he means ‘cause the teachers won’t make them we stop, we hafta!” Zoe said, looking to me for confirmation.
“That’s right,” I said, slightly amazed by Zoe’s comprehension. “And really, really only when you can’t do anything else.”
Laska thought for a moment, then smacked a balled up paw into her other palm. “Okay, I think I get it now…”
The only thing surprising about being called to the school was how long it’d taken them to actually call me.
I’d waited through the morning and early afternoon, ready to head down to her school at a moment’s notice. The entire day I was wracked by ambivalence. I still held that there were always solutions other than violence – I just hadn’t been thorough enough on reaching some kind of resolution through the school. Yet, despite that, I dearly wanted Laska to show those around her that she was capable of fighting back, without teachers or parents.
There was also the question of how could I encourage her to do something that’d easily get her hurt, but then, she was already being hurt. At least bruises and cuts would heal easily enough in time. Even if she lost her fight, it’d show she wasn’t going to just lay down and take it.
After a long, torturous day and just a scant few minutes before I normally left to pick up the girls, the phone rang and put an end to my worries. Really, to have waited so long Laska must’ve actually listened when I said it was a last resort.
Down at the school office, I asked the secretary where Laska was being held, and he directed me to one of the rooms. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I opened the door; probably my daughter with a black eye and other bruises. Maybe some tattered clothing.
Instead, she was just kind of bored and had a bandage on her arm.
“Oh, hi dad,” Laska said sheepishly as I walked in.
“Hey sweetie,” I said after letting out a long breath. She was whole, and perhaps best of all she didn’t seem like she relished whatever happened.
“Got into a fight, huh? Couldn’t have imagined how that happened.”
Some of her sheepishness faded into a sly grin. “Yeah…”
“So, what happened?”
“That’s exactly what we’re here to discuss, Mr. Mulner,” came a voice from the doorway.
There stood the principal with his face scrunched into a mask of disapproval.
“As you are already aware, your daughter,” he paused to glance at Laska. She scowled right back at him. “Started an altercation with several students.”
“I didn’t start anything!”
“So you’ve said,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Come along, please, the other parents were called before you and are now waiting for us.”
Without waiting for so much as a response from me he turned about on his heel and walked from the room, tie fluttering as he went.
“You heard him,” I said with a sigh. “Let’s get this over with.”
Laska begrudgingly stood and tagged along behind me as I followed the principal to another, larger office. I’d expected maybe two or three other kids and their parents – imagine my surprise when there were five others, plus Zoe and Lydia. No sooner did I walk in the room than her ruby eyes locked onto me. I rose my hand in a silent, half-hearted greeting, then forced myself to break eye contact.
Based on Laska’s descriptions I figured out which one was Susie, with her smug, punchable face – though based on the tissue stuffed in her nostrils and odd look to her nose, I wasn’t the only one to hold that opinion. Her parents had that same insufferable air about them, as if they were better than everyone else in the room.
The other girls had obviously been in the scuffle as well, though they all had pretty minor scrapes or bruises. Some of the parents were fuming, others appeared bored and just wanted to leave.
Stealing a glance towards Lydia, I noticed Zoe’s shirt sleeves and capri legs were torn apart. I took it to mean that she’d partially transformed herself, which leant a bit of credibility to this being a two versus five brawl. Other than her torn clothing, Zoe was remarkably spotless.
As Laska took a seat at the conference table, I stood behind her and gave her paw a squeeze. “Five, huh?” I asked in a whisper.
“Yeah, and we won!” She hissed back, her eyes wide with enthusiasm.
I shouldn’t have been proud, but I sure as hell was.
The meeting began with introductions of the kids and their parents, along with a dry explanation courtesy of the principal regarding the details of what happened. As I thought, everyone except Susie had no real damage.
And, as I thought, the way he detailed the events made it seem like he was trying to push Laska and Zoe as the instigators. Supposedly they’d approached the other group of girls and begun name calling and taunting as if spoiling for a fight. When the others wouldn’t go for it, Laska and Zoe simply attacked them.
That’s about when my daughter had enough. Though if she hadn’t said anything just then, I would have.
“That’s not true at all!” Laska shouted, slamming her paws down on the desk. “They kept picking on me all day! They wouldn’t stop even when I asked them to stop! They’re the ones who started it!”
“So why didn’t you go to a teacher?” asked the principal, folding his arms in front of his chest.
“I did! I told you! She just told me to quit making stuff up!”
“Did you try going to someone else?”
This time I answered, if only to calm my own fraying patience. “Look, we have talked to many people many, many times,” I said, gripping the back of Laska’s chair tightly. “I believe if you bothered to actually look into this you’d see that this has been an on-going issue, going back to previous years.”
“Yes, I am aware of the length of this supposed issue. However, that does not give your daughter the right to assault another student.”
Deep breaths, I just had to take deep breaths. Across from me, Lydia had been remarkably calm and patiently listened to everything said. The business suit she wore gave her a sort of dignified air. As with me, however, her patience was being pushed to its limits. Every so often I saw the corners of her lips pull back in a momentary snarl.
“But no one would help me!” Laska yelled, then pointed at Susie. “She’s been picking on me forever! I did what a girl had to do!”
“That’s a lie! I-I was just with my friends when she and that beast-” Smug little Susie said, gesturing from Laska to Zoe.
She didn’t get a chance to finish whatever lie she was trying to weave.
Several things happened all at once as that word – ‘beast’ – tumbled from her mouths: Her father and mother’s eyes went wide. Most everyone else’s brows crested high. Zoe drooped, her ears, head, tail, and spirit all falling as low as I’d ever seen. Lydia shot to her feet and slammed the table with her fist with a thunderous crack, her eyes spitting the haughty Cheshire family with pure rage.
I’d known Lydia for many years, and over the course of our friendship I’d seen her get mad or upset before, but this – this was the first time I’d seen her pissed. She may have been one of the shortest women in the room, but in that instant she became a giant. I may have inadvertently shrunk against the wall.
“You dare call MY daughter that?!” Lydia growled, her usual light and airy voice rumbled with a baritone I’d never have thought possible from her.
Her other hand shot forward, thrusting a finger straight at Susie and her family. “Who in the FUCK do you think you are?”
“Now hold on-“ Susie’s father attempted to say, holding his hands up.
Lydia cut him off with a withering stare and leaned forward onto the table. “Don’t give me any bullshit. Only a little cunt like your child would say that so easily!”
The mother’s mouth simply opened in shock and the father stood dumbstruck. I probably shouldn’t have been as amused as I was, but seeing them left speechless by Lydia was too good.
“See here!” The principal said, in what I assume was supposed to be a commanding voice.
He succeeded in drawing the wolf’s ire to himself and quickly shrank under her burning eyes. Couldn’t say I blamed him. Lydia seemed about to snap off a few choice words to the principal, but kept herself in check. Muscles in her jaw bunched and she grit her teeth while staring at him silently. Only after a few deep breaths through her nose did she open her mouth again.
“This is a farce. If that doesn’t prove she’s been provoking my daughter and Laska, I don’t know what will. I’m leaving.”
“What? We’re still in the middle of this meeting!”
The principal had already fallen off Lydia’s mental radar and slipped completely underneath her notice. In the fastest change of emotion I’d ever seen, Lydia went from boiling rage to sweet, gentle mother the instant she laid a hand on Zoe’s head.
“Come on pumpkin, let’s go.”
Some life returned to the tall wolf pup at her mother’s touch, sending her tail into a slow sway as she stood. “Okay, mom.”
“You can’t leave!”
Lydia didn’t even look back towards the principal. Instead she just slammed the door shut as she left.
Her departure did little to relieve the icy chill that hung in the air. No one said a word for at least a full minute. Looking around the room, I had a difficult time figuring out how everyone took what’d just happened. There was shock, disbelief, and even another amused face from a succubus mother who hadn’t really said anything so far. The one common thread was that most eyes turned towards the family whose daughter dropped a racial epithet like it was nothing.
“At least we know where the child gets it from,” Susie’s mother said, acting so very insulted.
“That we do,” mumbled a centaur mother next to me.
I smirked, letting our eyes meet for a brief moment. Most likely the others here were entertaining the same thought.
The principal coughed loudly. “Yes, well then. Getting back to the matter at hand…”
“Dad, can we go too?” Laska asked, tugging on my shirt sleeve. Either she hadn’t heard him or didn’t care.
Neither did I. “Yeah, sure sweetie. Nothing left to talk about here.”
Laska hopped out of her chair and I took her paw, but the principal moved to block us.
“Where do you think you’re going? I haven’t said you could leave.”
“Home. And you didn’t tell Lydia she could leave, either,” I said with a shit-eating grin.
He glared at me. “I’ll be having-“
“Yes – we’d like to leave as well. Kids get into fights all the time, what’s the big deal?” a lamia mother said. “I’m surprised those two took all those comments for so long.”
She then turned to me. “I apologize for my daughter – I’ll be sure to discuss this at length with her when we get home.”
The little lamia did her best to hide away from her mother’s stern look, but there was no use. I nodded my thanks for the mother.
I’d expected the principal to remain steadfast in his attempts to pin the blame on my daughter, but perhaps he realized there was a reason why no one besides one family seemed intent on putting Laska at fault.
“Fine. Everyone is free to go. However, Laska still has an automatic three day suspension for instigating a fight. After that’s served she’s free to come back to school.”
“However,” he said, turning to the Cheshire family. “I will need to discuss something with you three once we’re alone.”
“Looks like you got a few days off after all,” I said as I slid into the driver’s seat. “But don’t you go thinking this is going to be a vacation.”
“I knoooow,” Laska said as she fumbled with the buckle for her seat. She clearly believed it would, in fact, be a vacation. And it probably would be.
“Anyways, now that we’re alone, I want you to tell me exactly what happened.”
Laska fidgeted some, tapping the ends of her paws together. “Well, like I was saying back there, they were picking on me all day long. Like they always do, because they’re cunts.”
Thanks, Lydia. Laska learned a new word today, and I have you to thank for that.
“Hey! Watch your language. Just because you heard Aunt Lydia say something doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to,” I said sternly.
My words had the opposite effect. As usually happened.
“Why? What does ‘cunt’ mean, anyways?” Laska asked, tilting her head and swiveling her ears to focus on me. “Hey, ‘cunt’ is fun to say! Cunt cunt cunt! Susie’s a cunt!”
I rubbed at my forehead, massaging my temple with my fingertips. “Just, you know how we don’t say some things because they can make people very mad or offend them? Like what just happened with Aunt Lydia? That’s one of those words.”
Lydia’s rage was enough to convince Laska that she should reconsider her choice of descriptive words. “Okaaay…”
“Thanks,” I said with a sigh. “So, going back – what happened?”
Laska’s devilishness faded as quickly as it appeared. “All day long they’d been calling me the same stuff as always, but then in afternoon recess they turned on Zoe when she told them to shut up. They called her stuff like she’s a big dumb animal, a stupid giant, and that she was a freak and that there was no way Lydia was her real mom.”
As she spoke her spirit fell and her anger rose.
“And it made me so mad! Zoe is my best friend and she’s so nice! She looked really hurt, like, more than usual when they started saying things. So I told them to shut up, really loudly. I yelled at them for being so mean, but then…”
Laska hung her head and went quiet.
“Then what, honey?” I asked, reaching over to rub her head and scratch her ears. Laska gave me a brave smile, but it was clear whatever they said weighed heavily on her.
“They, they said that I had no right to talk ‘cause I was, was a stray cat, and my mom, a-abandoned me,” she said in a whisper, nearly on the verge of tears. “They said that you had to take me in ‘cause my real family didn’t want me…”
I pursed my lips and took a deep breath. Somehow they found out that Laska was adopted. She’d never mentioned being taunted because she was adopted, but I doubted today was the first time it’d ever been used against her. I wondered how long they’d mocked her with that, and how much it must’ve eaten at her.
“Laska,” I said, scratching her ears just the way she liked it best. “You know that I love you very much, right?”
She nodded silently, looking at me with watery, orange eyes.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I’ve always loved you from the moment I saw you – saw your picture, even. You know the first word I used to describe you was ‘adorable?’”
“Really,” I said with a chuckle. “The folks at the agency found it rather amusing. Apparently that’s how they knew we’d be a match.”
A lone tear trailed down her cheek. I wiped it away, which brought a bit of warmth back to her face.
“You know all those things I said this morning?”
Laska sniffled. “Y-you mean how I’m cute and smart and stuff?”
“Yes – I meant every word. You’re an incredible girl, Laska. It wasn’t that you weren’t good enough for your mother and father, but that they weren’t good enough for you. Your mother did those… your mother didn’t deserve someone like you,” I said, holding her cheek in my palm.
“I want you to always remember that I loved you from the very beginning. Everything that you are. I saw your picture and I thought to myself ‘She’s perfect!’ How many other kids can say they’re exactly what their parents wanted?”
She smiled weakly and nuzzled into my hand, holding it against her face with her paws.
“I couldn’t imagine having anyone else as my daughter. You mean the world to me, Laska. Never forget that. I’ll always love you, and do anything I can for you.”
Laska continued to nuzzle my hand and smile with her eyes closed. Finally, after she’d calmed down, she let go of my hand. “Love you too, dad.”
I felt like I may have been spoiling her a little, or a lot, but I meant every word. If I had to gush to get her to be happy with herself, then so be it.
“So how about we get to the good part of the story?” I asked with a smirk, making sure to ruffle her hair and ears.
“Ah! I hate it when you rub me the wrong way!”
My grin spread. Not that I was struggling to contain it. “I know.”
“See, you’re smiling too,” I said , placing a finger to her lips.
Instantly she tried to frown at me, but failed horribly as the corners of her lips still twisted up. The end effect was that she’d inadvertently put on a very cat-like smile, much to my amusement. I thought about poking some more fun at her, but decided it’d be best to let it slide.
“So, the good parts?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
Laska nodded to herself and with a snort she began. “Right! Okay, so, that cunt – I mean, Susie, said all that stuff to Zoe and me…”
Just let it slide, I told myself.
“…And I got so mad and upset, and then I remembered what you said about a last resort,” Laska said as an inner fire burned in her eyes. It was hard for me to believe that’d just been in tears.
She then balled up her paws into fists and brought them up to her face in what I imagined was supposed to be some kind of fighting stance. “So I just – pow!” She said excitedly, striking out with her right paw. “Right on her stupid nose! Then she just kind of fell down…”
Wouldn’t have thought Laska capable of dropping someone out in a single punch. Though she did probably break the other girl’s nose, which is probably not something a sixth grade Cheshire is used to dealing with. Two secret congratulations for Laska – one for taking someone out before they could strike back, and two for not breaking her knuckles in the process.
“She started to cry and then her friends tried to get us! That snake girl hit my legs with her tail and knocked me over, but then Zoe made her paws all big and fluffy and she socked her in the back of the head!”
Laska was pantomiming the fight, making all sorts of expressions and waving her arms around as she went on.
“I tried to get up but that stupid cat bit me! Right here!” Laska said, rubbing at her bandage.
“What, she actually bit you?” I asked in disbelief. “And she had the gall to call Zoe what she did?”
“I know, right?! So I punched her in the ear to get her off and got to my feet just as a harpy tried to swoop at Zoe!”
“What’d you do then?” I asked, perhaps a little too excited about my daughter’s first school brawl. “Zoe didn’t look like she got hurt at all.”
“That’s ‘cause I teleported! I tried running, but then teleported ‘cause I knew I couldn’t reach her! I didn’t know if it would work, but it did! I appeared right next to her with my foot already out like this!” Laska rolled back in her seat as best she could manage while being buckled in and kicked up into the air.
“I was like ‘Ya!’ and kicked her right outta the air! But then I kept going and fell right on the succubutt-“
“Succubus,” I corrected her.
“Succubust,” Laska said immediately after.
Whatever, she was doing it on purpose now. Her eyes glinted, waiting for me to try to correct her again. When I didn’t bite she looked just a little disappointed and continued to tell her tale that was maybe a little tall.
“So I fell right on her just as Zoe got that centaur girl in a headlock! I don’t know what that blue-skinned girl was trying to do but I stopped her. Stopped the succubutt with my butt!”
Laska’s tail wiggled energetically as she reached the end of her story.
Even if she was fibbing a little, I was very impressed – not that I could admit it to Laska. The two of them had managed to fend off Susie’s gang in what sounded like a couple seconds. Other than getting bit, neither of them had a scratch.
“Then after that you guys got caught by a teacher?”
“Yeah,” Laska said with a scowl. “She ruined our fun.”
“Well, I’m glad you stood up for yourself. But you better thank Zoe for jumping in to help you.”
“I already did, and we’re best friends. I’d help her any time!”
There was no questioning her on that one. Both of them would probably jump into the depths of hell to save the other. Wolves were known for their loyalty, and it made me wonder if that kind devotion inspired others to give as much back as the got. Hell, Laska would probably fight me if I picked on Zoe.
It was also nice to know that, as odd as it may sound, Laska threw the first punch and not Zoe. Lydia was much more likely to not do anything to the pup since she acted in defense of her friend. Unfortunately, I was still likely to get an earful if word got out that I encouraged my daughter to respond with force.
“You can start by apologizing to her and Lydia for getting Zoe suspended when we get home,” I said in an attempt to be a least a little parent-like regarding this whole thing.
“Do I have to?”