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“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your daughter, Mr. Sood. I’m just saying all is not right.”
Shaan Sood stared back at the woman who sat across from him—his daughter Misha’s first grade teacher, Miss MacDonald. Next to her sat the school counselor, Mrs. Judd. He should’ve guessed something was wrong when she was present at their biyearly parent-teacher conference. Up to now Miss MacDonald had been telling him how great Misha was doing academically. And now this blanket statement.
Shaan combed his short-cut, dark hair with his fingers as he glanced at Misha, who sat in the neighboring chair with her hands knitted in her lap. He turned back to the teacher. “I’m not sure I understand. You mentioned she’s doing well?”
“Academically.” Miss MacDonald pushed her glasses onto the bridge of her nose. “She’s thriving in math…in reading and writing. She’s above grade level. And socially, she’s great. She’s a good friend to the kids in her classroom, she’s kind, she’s thoughtful…”
A “but” was en route. He could feel it. “But?” Shaan forged ahead.
“Our concern’s based on something we recently noticed about Misha’s emotional outlook. We’re concerned she’s been internalizing some feelings, and we wanted to bring it to your attention.”
Shaan’s heart skipped a beat. “Concerned?” he repeated.
“We understand Misha and you’ve had a year of adjustments, Mr. Sood,” Miss MacDonald continued. “You mentioned you and Misha’s mother are recently divorced?”
“About a year ago,” Shaan acknowledged. A year had gone by since he and his ex-wife Anita Darr, Misha’s mother, had divorced. A year had gone by since he’d first discovered she’d been cheating on him with her protégé. “But we’ve managed to get past it,” he added, considering Misha’s soft brown eyes as she stared back at him. They contrasted her lighter Indian skin that both she and he’d inherited from his mother’s side of the family.
“You’ve also moved some?” Mrs. Judd asked.
Shaan nodded. “Misha and I moved from India back to my hometown of Washington. We were in Bellevue, but we recently bought a house here in the Gig Harbor area.” It had been the perfect choice. He’d wanted a place away from the city life, secluded but not isolated, with open grounds and a small-town feel. Not to mention his pregnant cousin Sahana Sood and her husband, Ryan Mehra, owned an inn a few miles away in Gig Harbor. Shaan and Sahana were close. They’d grown up together as kids, living in the same suburban Lake Sammamish neighborhood. Ryan was Shaan’s best friend from college and one of the few people in the world outside of Sahana that Shaan felt comfortable opening up to. The fact that Ryan had ended up marrying Sahana and settling their home in Gig Harbor was a fact Shaan was happy to capitalize on.
He turned back to the teacher and counselor. “Yeah, we’ve moved around and last year was tough…but we’re doing okay,” he said.
“We Soods are fighters,” Misha chipped in.
Shaan coughed up a laugh. “She’s quoting my mother,” he explained to the two women across the table.
They smiled back at him, exchanging a look before Mrs. Judd spoke again. “Divorces are hard on kids, Mr. Sood. They’re hard on adults. The effects of a divorce can be especially difficult for a child to process.” Mrs. Judd cupped her hands, as if she were holding an invisible pumpkin. “Imagine you’re on an island and the island begins to split into two halves, each one drifting away from the other with you in the middle and the ocean beneath you.”
Shaan skewed his mouth. “That’s a good analogy. And I completely agree. I’ve tried to minimize the hurt for Misha. We’re close, and she and I talk all the time.” He paused to frown. “What was it you saw that was concerning? You said you noticed something?”
“Let me show you proof of what I mean,” Miss MacDonald replied. She leaned over to reach for some papers on her desk.
Shaan tipped closer to Misha. “Proof? What proof did you give her?” he whispered, frowning.
“I don’t know, Daddy,” she said, with a shrug. “I wrote some letters to myself last week in writing class?”
“Oh, kid…” Shaan shook his head playfully. “What’ve I told you about putting things in writing?” He worried on the inside. But he didn’t need to be contagious.
Miss MacDonald laid out a drawing flat between them. “This is what I mean,” she said, pointing at the illustration.
Shaan leaned in to inspect it. It was a picture Misha had drawn of him and her standing on a beach. Next to them was an empty bubble with the words No mom written above it.
Shaan massaged his face thoughtfully, his fingers running into his full beard—the one he sometimes forgot he had, the one he’d inevitably grown when he and Anita had hit rock bottom. “She’s stating a fact,” he said, looking up.
Miss MacDonald nodded and turned the picture over to reveal some writing. “Misha wrote this on the back.”
Shaan breathed in, picking up the paper to read: “I wish I had a mom.”
A knot lodged itself in his gut. He looked up at the teacher. “That’s hard to argue with. Misha’s very self-aware. She’s always been that way.”
“Yes, I’ve spent the past few weeks in their class, just observing her. I agree,” Mrs. Judd said. “She’s not just very self-aware, she’s very aware of other’s emotions and feelings around her. She responds to what she observes.” She then paused. “Does she have any contact with her mother at all?”
Shaan shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” Anita had gladly relinquished her end of the custody, making it perfectly clear she wanted no part in raising Misha.
“I see,” Mrs. Judd said contemplatively. “Maybe what Misha needs is an outlet?”
Miss MacDonald seemed to agree. “Yes, something that’ll allow her to express her emotions.”
“I’ve got her in swim classes, and she’s learning to sketch,” Shaan said.
Mrs. Judd shook her head. “I mean something outside the box whereby she can make an emotional connection as a way to express her feelings.”
Shaan turned to Misha for assistance. “What’s something you can make an emotional connection to?”
“Computers?” She shrugged. “Tyler said he could show me how to hack into someone’s belly button?”
Shaan turned to Miss MacDonald with wide-eyed alarm.
“Tyler’s part of our pullout Youth Scholar Program. He’s heavily into coding,” she explained.
“Scholar, huh?” Shaan frowned. He turned back to Misha. “What else you got?”
She crinkled her lips. “I could connect with a cute puppy?”
“Nope.” Shaan shook his head firmly. “Not going to happen.”
His daughter sighed. “I like riding horses?”
Shaan considered this, while Mrs. Judd began fidgeting in her chair. It was an hour past dismissal, and he imagined the two women had lives outside the classroom to return to. “Well, I think you’ve given us something to think about,” he said.
Miss MacDonald smiled. “It’s nothing to cause you alarm, but we thought you should know Misha was feeling this way.”
“I really appreciate it,” Shaan said with a smile. “If she’s missing having a mother in her life, I want to know.” It was why it had taken him months to make the decision to leave Anita. The fact that she’d fooled around on him had gashed his spirit. But he couldn’t bear the thought of his hurt impacting Misha. He’d swallowed his pride and tried to work through it. But in the end, when Anita had made it clear she’d had no intention of changing her ways, Shaan had been left with no choice but to walk out of their marriage.
They chatted a few extra minutes, following which Mrs. Judd excused herself while Shaan and Misha said their goodbyes to Miss MacDonald.
“Oh, er, Mr. Sood?” Miss MacDonald said just as he turned to leave. “I know this may not be the best time for it, but I was wondering if I could have your autograph?” she said meekly. She pulled a paper and pen from a side drawer, extending it to Shaan. “I’m such a big fan of your Detective Ingrum Singh series. I’ve read all fifteen books,” she added.
Ah, right. It was a fact he sometimes forgot. Outside of being a single dad, Shaan was a best-selling mystery writer. His divorce had set him back, forcing him to take a break from writing, which he hadn’t necessarily wanted to do. He loved his job—he loved writing mysteries. So for the past few months, he’d been working on a new story, hoping a publisher would pick it up, and determined to reclaim his career. He owed it to his fans, to himself, and to Misha to hold on to his zest for life—and the things he loved to do. He smiled at Miss MacDonald, reaching for the paper and pen.
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” he said as he signed his name before turning it in.
“Will you have any new books out in the future?” she asked, connecting her hands in front of her as she stood before him looking hopeful.
“If I do, will you promise to buy a bunch of copies?” Shaan asked.
She laughed. “Oh, I promise.”
“Then it’s a done deal,” Shaan said, extending his hand to her to shake.
He could tell she was blushing as she shook it. But he remained immune to her reaction as their hands now pulled away. He’d made it his prerogative to be that way since the divorce. The latter had taught him to stay cautious. Outside of the few casual dates he’d been on in the past year, he hadn’t taken a serious plunge into a relationship for fear of hurting Misha again. He intended to keep things that way.
It was close to five in the evening when Shaan and Misha walked out of Miss MacDonald’s first-grade classroom at Harbor Elementary School. “Are you tired, kiddo?”
“I’m okay,” Misha replied as they began walking toward the parking lot.
“So, you don’t want a piggyback ride, then?” Shaan tried to clarify.
Her mouth opened with surprise. “No, I’m tired, I’m tired… I want a piggyback ride!”
He laughed and got down on one knee so Misha could hop onto his back. “You ready? Because I’m about to run for it.”
Misha’s hands coil around his neck a little tighter than before. “Ready!”
Shaan began running toward their car, with Misha laughing, clinging on to him. Of course life wasn’t perfect, he realized. The divorce had been a train wreck which he and Misha had survived—but not unscathed. The conversation with Miss MacDonald and Mrs. Judd was proof of that fact. Shaan knew he and Misha needed to talk about her feelings. But nothing in life, Shaan believed, could be achieved with a grumpy attitude—especially so in the case of a thirty-three-year-old man trying to single-handedly parent his seven-year-old daughter.
Shaan and Misha headed to their favorite burger place in Gig Harbor. It was a chilly fall night, but they decided to brave the weather, settling with their burgers, fries, and milkshakes into one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables.
“This is so good,” Misha said, biting into her burger.
“I know, right?” Shaan said. He was starving, and the first bite of food had a warming effect on his taste buds.
He watched Misha as she slipped the lid off her milkshake and picked up a fry to dunk in it. “Is that wise?” he asked her, wincing.
She appeared solid. “It’s called creativity, Shaan.”
He laughed, conceding the point. He loved how she called him by his name sometimes. He loved that their relationship was strong enough to support her confidence in being able to do that. He picked up a fry. Mirroring his daughter, he slipped the lip off his milkshake and dipped the fry in before eating it. He grimaced. “Creativity’s overrated,” he said, offering Misha a hearty laugh.
“Do you like Miss MacDonald, Daddy?” she asked him after a pause.
Shaan nodded, fist against his full mouth. “She’s sweet, isn’t she?”
“Yeah. I think she likes you,” Misha said.
“She is sweet.” He was repeating himself. But that was purely because he could feel himself wading into deep water.
“She used to have a boyfriend. But they broke up,” Misha added, biting into her burger and leaving an extended ketchup smile on either side of her mouth. “I heard her saying so to another teacher during math.”
Shaan handed her a napkin, which she accepted. “You weren’t eavesdropping, were you, kid?”
“I wasn’t, Daddy. She was standing really close to me when she said it.”
“All right, but still, maybe next time you should just focus on your work,” Shaan countered.
“I was done with my work,” Misha said with a shrug. “And the extra worksheet.”
Shaan considered his sprout with a raised brow. She had an answer to everything, this one.
“Do you think you’ll have a girlfriend again?” she asked him. “Wasn’t Mama your girlfriend, and then you married her?”
Painful. Yet it was the perfect segue into the topic he wanted to talk about with Misha—her inner feelings about wanting a mother. He nodded. “We dated, Mama and I, and we got married and I followed her back to India.”
Shaan was a Washingtonian at heart, born and raised in the Emerald City. He’d gone to school here, and college after that. He’d been a creature of habit. The kind of person who stuck with the things he loved. This was probably why he’d surprised both himself and his family when he’d decided to marry Anita and move countries to be with her. It was unlike him. He’d jumped—and he’d crashed and burned.
Shaan watched as Misha dipped another fry into her milkshake. “I know things haven’t exactly been easy, Misha…you know, with Mama and me…the divorce?”
“I felt like we were doing okay, you and me. But I don’t know if I’ve been checking on you enough to see if you’re really okay.” He paused. “Are you doing okay?”
Misha’s gaze rose up to meet his. “Sometimes I miss having a mom.”
The words felt like a punch to his stomach. But he generated a smile. “That’s fair.”
“Do you miss having a wife?” she now asked him.
Shaan scratched his beard, wondering if he should answer honestly or practically. He settled on a combo. “I miss it, yeah. Sometimes it’s nice to have a companion you can share your feelings with.”
“Hold hands with?” Misha added.
He nodded. “But relationships take work…especially grown-up ones. And sometimes, no matter how hard you work on a relationship, things don’t work out.”
“My friend Benny’s dad fixes cars. He takes broken ones and makes them look brand new. Benny says he has a whole shop for it,” Misha said. “Can’t you fix things with Mama?”
Shaan’s gut was coiled into a knot. He shook his head. “Some things are too broken to fix, kiddo.”
Misha stared down at her half-eaten burger. “Why didn’t she want me?” she asked, after a few seconds of silence.
Shaan gazed back at her, remembering the hours he’d spent on the phone with Anita, trying to convince her to at least call their daughter, even if she didn’t want any part in raising her. Anita had been willing the first few months, but it had been more damaging than not. She’d promise to call Misha every night but almost never had. When she had, she’d chat hurriedly for a couple of minutes before hanging up. It had been painful to watch for Shaan, how Misha had waited by the phone for her mother to call only to be disappointed time and time again. The principled man in him pushed for brutal honesty. But the single dad in him knew that might not be the way to go. This was the kind of truth that would sink, not save, Misha.
“She did want you,” Shaan said. “But Mama needed time to figure things out after the divorce.”
Misha’s eyes narrowed. “But you wanted me, right?”
His heart thawed, and he smiled. “I’ll always want you, kid. Even if you don’t want me.”
A smile flickered on her lips. “I’m sorry I made that picture, Daddy. I won’t make any more pictures like that.”
Shaan shook his head firmly. “I don’t ever want you to think you can’t express your emotions, Misha. In fact, I’m glad Miss MacDonald showed me that picture. I’m glad you drew it. Sometimes grown-ups need to read the signs to understand how their kids are doing. If their kids are happy…or unhappy.” He paused to smile at her. “You got it?”
“Got it.” Misha nodded.
“And I think your teacher’s right,” Shaan said. “Maybe we should find a way for you to express your emotions…give you an outlet. What about horseback riding?” he asked. “You mentioned that at the meeting. You like horses, don’t you?”
“Maybe we could try that?” he said. “And if you hate it after you’ve given it your best shot, we’ll stop and try something else. Whatever it takes to keep you happy.”
She began to open her mouth, but Shaan reached over and flicked her nose with a fry.
“Other than getting a puppy,” he added quickly.
“Awh!” Misha sighed, twisting a fry. She looked up at him again. “Do you think you’ll ever have another wife?”
Shaan picked up a fry to eat, shaking his head. “I don’t think so, kiddo. No.”
“What if you meet a princess?” she asked, challenging him with the idea.
A smile teased his lips. “A princess, huh?”
“A human princess,” Misha bolstered. “Will you marry her?”
He sighed. “Well, I can’t pass up on a human princess, can I?”
“That would be wrong,” she agreed ruefully.
“All right, if I meet a human princess, I’ll marry her.”
A smile touched her eyes. “It’s a deal, Shaan.”
End of Excerpt