She’s five years old and it’s one of those rare, warm days in London. For once the weather is good. The breeze is light and the normally muggy air is for once, not so humid. Sunlight peeks through the clouds above and casts a soft glow on the streets of London below. Despite the circumstances, Hershel can’t help but feel his spirits rise. Fall has just begun, but the worst of the weather is still a little ways off.
They’re sitting across from one another at a small table in the corner of the cafe’s patio. Katrielle sits opposite him, she is five years old and barely tall enough to rest her elbows on the little metal table even with the aid of the phonebooks the cafe has provided for her.
“He didn’t even believe me,” she says sourly. Her little face is scrunched up in frustration. “He said I was a liar and that no one should trust me. That I make it all up for attention.”
She gives a small shuttering sigh, her tiny frame trembling. “What if no one ever believes me again? What if they won’t talk to me or play with me?”
He can see her mind is starting to run away with her, her expression has turned frantic.
“I believe you, Katrielle,” Hershel says kindly.
“I truly do…” he trails off for a moment and then adds, his tone a little sterner, “but that doesn't excuse your behavior today.”
Katrielle huffs and crosses her arms, clearly hurt but the slight reprimand. The band-aid on her cheek has begun to peel off and Hershel reaches forward to press it back in place. She lets him touch, though there is a slight shudder when their skin meets. He sighs softly, and cups her chin in one hand. She’s nibbling her lip, and her eyes are looking down at the table. Gently he turns her face this way and that, taking in the darkening bruises on her cheeks and forehead and small cuts on her chin.
“You didn't have to hit him,” Hershel says softly as he releases the child from his hold. “You had other options. You know that.”
Katrielle’s eyebrows narrow then and Hershel suppresses another deep sigh. He opens his mouth to say something else, but is interrupted as the waitress returns to their table, a fresh pot of tea in hand and two cups with matching saucers. She places one in front of them with a smile either not noticing the tension between them or choosing to ignore it he’s unsure. She pours them each a cup and then offers chilled milk in a small saucer and sugar.
Hershel prefers his tea straight and Katrielle is a child so she’s quick to ask for three cubes of sugar and a little bit of milk. The whole exchange only takes a few minutes but it feels so much longer because despite her smile for the stranger, Hershel can clearly see the hurt in her eyes.
He knows he shouldn’t feel guilty after all she’d acted rashly and gotten herself in quite a bit of trouble and yet he can’t help but feel sorry for the child. Beneath it all, he knows she means well.
Once their tea is to their liking, the waitress pops off again with a promise that their food will be out shortly. When she’s out of sight, Katrielle’s attention goes to her tea. She sips it slowly and softly, every so often sneaking a small peak at Hershel over the rim of her cup, willing him to speak.
“Why didn’t you go to one of your teachers for help? Surely they could of done something?” he adds finally, and Katrielle deflates.
“I wasn’t thinking,” she says softly, “I was just mad.”
Hershel gives her a small, kind smile and replies, “I know.”
The day had started off simply enough. Katrielle had been her usual self that morning, dressing quickly for school. Though she wasn't the most studious and not the best at paying attention, she’d made some good friends already despite it being her first year in a real school. Every afternoon when he’d come to collect her, she’d recount her day, usually with excitement.
But today had been different. He’d only dropped her off for two and a half hours when he received a call from his office phone at the university. Katrielle was alright but not only had she been in a fight, but she’d been the one to initiate it resulting in a weeks suspension.
After a silent car ride where Katrielle had refused to elaborate on the incident, Hershel had decided that going straight home might not be the best idea. So instead he'd decided they should have lunch out.
The waitress’ first appearance seemed to have calmed her down and once she darted back out with the menus, Katrielle had gathered her composure and been ready to talk. She’d been out in the yard with some girls and had spotted a squirrel who she’d spoken to. This hadn't surprised Hershel. The talent seemed to come and go where she could understand some animals and not others. Hershel wasn’t sure if her conversations were legitimate (as they had been with Luke) or just a child’s game, but he hadn’t pushed the matter as it had seemed innocent enough.
But, apparently, a young boy from her class had decided this was strange and begun to pick on her, calling her names and telling her she was odd. Katrielle had responded not with her words or by walking away as Hershel had taught, but instead by sending her small, chubby fist straight into the kid’s nose. They'd brawled for a bit until the teacher’s aid had broken them up and sent them inside for the admin to deal with.
The waitress returns with their sandwiches and despite Katrielle’s visible frustration with her father’s lack of defense for her actions, she waits to eat until he takes the first bite.
They chew in silence for a bit as Hershel tries to decide what to say next. Finally, before he could settle on the next course of conversation, Katrielle puts her half-eaten sandwich aside and says, “I’m really sorry they had to call you in. I know you were busy.”
Hershel swallows his food, waits for her to offer more and when she doesn’t replies, “That’s not why I’m upset with you. You are my first priority Katrielle and if you need me, I will be there for you.”
She smiles as he says that and he offers her one in return.
She take a sip of her tea, her eyes wide and alight with hope.
“Still,” he continues, “That’s not the way for you to act and you know it.”
Her expression grows cloudy again, but she nods anyway.
“And you will have to be punished and you will give an apology.”
She nods again.
“But,” he adds and lifts one finger to emphasis the point, “That doesn’t completely mean you are in the wrong. No one has the right to treat you badly, Katrielle. You’re smart and competent. You know right from wrong, I know you do.”
Her eyes cast down again, towards the uneaten half of her sandwich.
“However, that boy was wrong too. The situation wasn’t handled ideally, but I do commend you for standing up for yourself. That’s something you should always do.”
“Really?” she asks, her attention on him again. A rush of wind flows then and send her small brunette curls flying.
Hershel sets his plates aside and reaches across to gather his daughter's hand in his own. They’re small and soft and warms. Gently he squeezes her hands and he squeezes back.
“I will always support you, Katrielle. Please understand that.”
Hershel swallows as she squeezes his hands again. “I love you,” he says so quietly she almost doesn’t hear, “You’re so important to me.”
She tries to blink back tears, her already rosy cheeks growing even hotter.
“I love you too.”
She awakens in a dark room. It’s practically silent apart from the snores coming from Sherl who lays curled up on the edge of her bed. In the dim moonlight that seeps in through her blinds, Katrielle can just about make out her hands as she holds them out in front of her.
The feeling is fading now, her father’s touch all those years ago no longer feels as real as it had only seconds before.
She fights back the urge to cry, but the tears well up anyway despite her protests. Quietly they slip down her cheeks, her throat painfully dry as she tries to swallow the accompanying hiccups.
How long had it been since her father had last held her hand? When had he last said I love you?
She falls back into the pillows and curls up beneath the thin sheets. Her face is wet, her cheeks raw at the thought of all the words she hadn't been able to say and all the days she hadn't been able to share with him.
Katrielle closes her eyes and tries to persuade herself to fall asleep and return, but it’s been too long. The memory is once again just out of reach.