Bernard really did like pizza. He would have even said that he loved it. Pizza was one of the boy's favorite foods (right behind cheeseburgers, or course). There was nothing on this earth he could think of that could ruin such a culinary perfection.
Then how the heck did this place make it taste like crap?
Bernard stared down at his half-eaten slice of pizza—more like one-third, give or take. He refused to eat any more of the cheese-coated cardboard, which was exactly what it tasted like. On the contrary, his sister was happily consuming her dinner, already on slice three. How a tiny six-year-old kid could eat so much was beyond him, and it was beyond anyone else as well. There were just some things in the universe that he would never understand, so Bernard just accepted the mystery for what it was, and left it at that.
Across the table Vixen and Leveret were eating their dinner as well, and had gotten a bit farther in quantity than Bernard, yet much less than Pazi. They didn't exactly find the food very appetizing either.
So far the dinner was quite silent, and after a while the air began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Once again, Vixen was the one to rescue them from their pit of tension. "So Bernard, Pazi," she said. "Why couldn't your mom take you to dinner?"
Both siblings glanced up from their food, and stared for an uneasy two seconds. Vixen frowned, realizing her mistake. "I mean, unless you don't wanna say," she rephrased, trying to fix what she had said. "I—I didn't mean to be rude."
Bernard shook his head. "Nah, it's cool," he assured. He looked down at his pizza slice, deciding whether or not to try and acquire a taste for this sad excuse of a dinner. "She's just working tonight."
Pazi swallowed her mouthful of pizza before she spoke, which was a rare occurrence indeed. "Bernie said Mommy's work is stupid," she told, and then took another bite.
Bernard cringed. "That's not what I meant, Pazi," he said, reprimanding himself for not watching his words.
This time, Pazi didn't bother to clear her mouth. "That's what you said," she mumbled.
Her brother put a hand to his head, and gazed over at his friends. "The bank's been working Mom to death," Bernard informed. "They made her work overtime tonight. I just got kinda mad, that's all."
The two kids nodded in unison, showing that they understood. "Hey, it's alright, Bernie," Leveret said, to which Bernard narrowed his eyes. "We totally get it. Right, Vix?"
Vixen joined back in. "Yeah, for sure," she agreed. "Sometimes crap just happens. But I'm sure it will turn out okay, you know?"
Bernard grinned. "Hope so," he spoke, as he reluctantly held up his pizza slice. "Thanks guys."
His friends smiled back. "No problem, Bernie," Leveret responded.
Bernard found it not the best time to retort, so he let him use his nickname without argument...this time. He lifted the pizza to his mouth and nibbled at the cheesy breading. And immediately grimaced. No, no no no. There was no way to acquire a taste for this. He needed to stop trying to fool himself. Bernard had been trying to trick himself into liking this horrible pizza for, what was it, a year now? Nothing had changed; it was just awful.
"I wish Mommy didn't have to work," Pazi said, surprisingly not muffled by any food in her mouth.
Bernard turned to her, as she stared down at her mostly-eaten pizza. "I know, Pazi," he sympathized. "I wish she didn't have to too."
The little girl looked up at her brother. "Why does she have to work?" she asked, seeming rather upset. Which was certainly strange; Pazi was not one to become easily agitated.
Bernard strained to keep eye contact. "Well, she needs to work to make money," he answered. "And we need money to buy things."
This did nothing to lighten Pazi's attitude. Bernard was quite befuddled. This was very unlike her. "But why does she have to work tonight?" she pressed, her nostrils flared. "We have money. She doesn't haveta work more."
Her brother didn't want to continue this conversation. It was growing into a very uncomfortable subject. "'Cause that's her job," he responded, not liking what he was forced to say. "Someone was sick, and she needed to take their place."
Bernard saddened, seeing his sister so troubled. He didn't like this at all. "Pazi, what's the matter?" he questioned, in a soft tone he rarely used—for such a tone was rarely needed.
Suddenly her face shown anger. "I don't want Mommy to work!" she yelled. "I want her to stay home!" She crossed her arms in a huff, her brow furrowed with rage.
Bernard was shocked; he didn't expect this, not from Pazi. "I—I know," he solaced, trying to stay composed. "I don't want her to either. But she has to."
Pazi's breathing picked up, as she inhaled sharply through her nose. "No!" she shouted, which made Bernard jump. "I don't want her to!"
Her brother didn't know what to do. Pazi had never done this before. "Pazi, please calm down!" he pleaded. But it was apparent that she wouldn't.
"She works every day!" she continued, her expression slowly transforming into grief. "I don't want her to! I miss her!"
Leveret and Vixen watched from across the table, not exactly sure of what was happening either.
"Pazi, you don't understand," Bernard said, as he tried to place his hand on her shoulder. She shook it off, and he knew that it wasn't a sound move. "If she doesn't, we can't stay in our house. Or buy food. Or...or—"
"No!" the little girl screamed again. "I don't want her to!"
Bernard wasn't sure of what had come over him. A strange feeling in his chest, a burning sensation in his cheeks. It was...anger. Toward Pazi. To say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement, but his mind blocked out that fact. She wouldn't understand. She wouldn't even try to understand. Bernard could explain his heart away, but it would all be in vain. Their mother worked day in and day out for one purpose and one purpose only: them. If she didn't practically drown herself in work as she did, they would be living out in the streets. And why Pazi couldn't understand that was what filled the boy with rage. A stormcloud of fury formed in his mind, blocking out his judgement and common sense. In the moment, anger was all he felt, and fire was all he saw.
"Do you want us to lose our house, Pazi?!" he raised his voice to say. "Is that what you want?!"
The little girl stared at her brother...and just stared. As did Vixen and Leveret. Pazi's eyes grew misty in time, and her breath inconsistent. Once the blinding fury subsided, Bernard could see clearly. And realized...he had made a terrible mistake. Pazi was only six years old; she didn't understand because she couldn't. She was way to young to take this information anyway. Try as she might her brain wouldn't allow her to accept it, and it had been whirring out of control. It was too late for Bernard to remember that crucial fact. And too late to take back his words.
"Hey, sis," Bernard attempted, using his soft voice again. "I—I'm sorry. Please, I—"
But she wouldn't have it. She couldn't have it. Suddenly Pazi burst from her seat, sprinting faster than anyone would have expected. Past her brother and away from the table she ran, tears pouring down her face, and whimpers escaping her throat.
"Pazi!" Bernard called after her, but he was much too late. The girl disappeared into the next room, where she knew the restrooms to be. Once around the corridor she hid behind the wall, so that not her brother, nor his friends, nor even the observant Albert, could see her. And there in the corner she curled into a ball, and cried to her heart's content.
Bernard didn't run after her. He barely uttered a word. He turned back to face the table, and just stared down at it for a while. His friends stared back at him, neither knowing what to say. The boy buried his head in his hands. "What did I do?" he spoke. "Why did I say that?"
Leveret attempted to respond. "C'mon, man. It was an honest mistake," he said. "You just...blew up a little. I'm sure she's fine."
Bernard looked up from is hands. His vision blurred, but he wouldn't let himself cry. "I'm not so sure," he opposed. "She's never been this upset. And I've never gotten angry like that before. I—I just don't know what to do."
Vixen was next to try. "It'll be alright," she assured. "This will work out. Just give her a while to think, okay? When she comes back Lev and I'll help you talk to her."
Leveret whipped his head to her, at her saying what he would do. She looked back at him, with a face that seemed to ask, Are you really gonna act like this now? He gave in in the end. "Yeah, for sure," he confirmed. "She might need to be alone for a sec. Don't rush it."
Bernard started to grin, but then just full-on smiled. "Thanks, guys," he said, allowing himself to only sniffle, nothing more. He really had the greatest friends in the world.
"Yo, don't mention it," Leveret said. "We care about that little ball of sunshine too."
Vixen gazed at her friend in disbelief. "'Little ball of sunshine'?" she repeated, as such a thing was very unlike of him to say.
The boy knitted his brow, but continued to smile. "Well she is!" he defended. "You gonna deny it?"
Bernard laughed, halfheartedly, but laughed nonetheless. "Yeah, she really is," he said. And then frowned. "Which...is what makes this really hard."
The girl continued to sob, with her head propped upon her knees. She held her legs in place with her hands, to make sure no one could see her face. And as she sat there she thought. Thought longer and harder than she ever had.
Pazi wanted more than ever to understand. She yearned to know why her mom was away all the time, to comprehend the reason that she worked so much. But she couldn't. Try as she might nothing made sense. And she didn't know why. Pazi understood nothing. Taxes, bills, insurance: none of these things had made their way into her mind quite yet. And who could blame her? She was only six years old; money might as well have grown on trees. Currency and capital were not yet a reality to her, therefore this only seemed to be a scheme to take her mom away from her. So not a lot went through her mind exactly, because nothing, no knowledge, no information, were present. There was nothing to pass through. Only the knowing that she didn't understand, for that alone was all she knew.
Past the sniffles and tears Pazi could hear the pitter-patter of shoes against the checkerboard tile. Customers and employees alike walking to and fro, with quite a hustle she noticed. But the girl didn't find it unusual. She had chosen the room in front of the restrooms as her haven, and the back and leftmost corner as her domain. People made their way into the refuge, rushing either to relieve themselves or their nearly potty-trained kids. No one stopped to check on the child in the corner, to see if she was alright. Although Pazi couldn't have known if anyone had stopped to stare.
After maybe ten minutes of her solitude, curiosity (but mostly boredom) took hold of her. The girl raised her head from her legs, though only barely. Enough to see past her knees, and at the many passersby that hurried into one of the two rooms. It was then that she realized how many people actually did stop and stare.
And also then that she noticed something.
But it didn't notice her.
For so long Pazi had viewed the parents and children in the restaurant zoom by, so it was no wonder that an animatronic suit caught her eye. She recognized the mascot; it was one of the many that roamed the pizzeria. But something about the robot was different. That being, it wasn't a robot at all. Its fluid gait along with its posture, slightly more like that of a human than the usual restricted movement of the animatronics. Though this wasn't strange either. Pazi knew that there were special suits set aside for employees to wear, and this was one those very suits.
The yellow character stepped behind the room's opposite wall, as to remain unseen by the dining hall's inhabitants. And once out of sight, it reached up to its face and removed the headpiece.
Revealing a man.
Quite a sweaty man at that.
He placed a fuzzy hand to his forehead, wiping away the beads that had formed. His breath sounded loudly, as if he had just completed a marathon.
During this time the man's eyes had remained closed, but suddenly they opened. And saw the girl.
His previously shut eyes widened. "Oh no," he uttered, looking down at his headpiece, and then back at Pazi, who had raised her head to see better. "Um, kid," he sputtered, "this isn't what it looks like. I—I, uh..."
The girl smiled, which seemed to surprise the employee. "It's okay," she spoke. "I know they're not real."
The man knitted his brow, for she seemed a bit young to know that. "Oh," he said, and then chuckled. "Alright then!" He was certainly relieved. He had expected her to scream, or even cry, at the sight of one of the animals removing its head. But she didn't. She only smiled, a petite grin that seemed nearly forced. The man's relief disappeared, as he examined Pazi further. He didn't have to inspect for long, nor to notice her red face or tearstained cheeks. All he needed to realize was...this child was sitting in a corner.
"Um, kid," he said, putting the yellow headpiece under his arm. "You okay?"
Pazi gripped her legs more tightly. "No," she squeaked, gazing down at the floor.
The employee frowned. This seemed to be quite a delicate situation. "Well...may I ask what's wrong?" he requested.
The girl lifted her eyes up to him, and stared for a while. "My mommy..." she spoke, and sniffled thereafter. "I...I don't get it..."
Pazi couldn't hold back the waterworks, and her fit recommenced once again. The man in the suit cringed; that was what he was specifically trying to prevent. He stepped forward, oblivious to suddenly being seen without a head by the restaurant. "Hey, hey," he whispered, finally reaching the other wall, and becoming concealed once more. "It's alright, kid. Don't cry."
The man knelt beside the girl, still clutching the headpiece under his arm. Pazi, unsurprisingly, didn't stop crying. "My *sniff* my mom—she works all the time, and—and I just miss her..."
She wiped her eyes with the ball of her hand, as she spilled her mind to the man. He scratched his head, but nodded. "Ah," he said. "I understand."
Suddenly Pazi stopped, and looked up at the employee. "You do?" she asked, still sniffling every once in a while.
The man grinned. "Yeah, I do," he repeated. "So you don't get why she works, right?"
The girl's eyes widened. She hadn't even needed to explain anything. "Y—yeah," she affirmed.
As sympathetic as he was, he inhaled through gritted teeth. "Well, that's quite a topic to learn at a young age," he said. "Why don't you just ask your mom about it?"
Pazi gazed downward once more. "She's working now," she told.
The man thought for a moment. "Um, how about your dad?" he suggested.
"I don't have a dad," Pazi said.
He froze in place. ".....oh..."
A silence enveloped the little refuge, for a solid minute or so. "Are you here by yourself?" he continued to attempt.
The girl shook her head, but didn't raise it. "No," she answered. "Bernard came with me."
The man strained his mind. "Your brother?" he guessed, mentally crossing his fingers.
His cognitive superstition must have succeeded, because Pazi nodded.
"Then why not ask him?" the man questioned.
Suddenly the girl's expression changed drastically. "No!" she burst, which startled the man quite. "He made me mad!"
The employee hadn't expected the outburst, but went along with it anyway. "He did?" he said. "What did he do?"
Pazi stayed silent for a moment, trying to remember exactly what Bernard had done. "He...he yelled at me!" she answered loudly. "He is just mean!"
The man nodded, as he grinned to himself. "Yeah, I know what you mean," he said. "Sometimes siblings can be cruel."
Pazi looked up at the employee. With that mere statement, she liked him already. "Yeah!" she agreed. "They're meanies!" But she stopped, as an emerging tear blurred one eye. "But I still don't get it," she confessed, bringing a hand to her face to wipe the tear away. "I don't want Mommy to work. I don't get it."
The man closed his eyes. This conversation was going nowhere fast, but that was no matter to him. He kept his tender and caring demeanor, but his mind was completely focused on something else. An intricate game of cards this was to him, a plan built solely on strategy and smarts. The both of which he obviously possessed the upper hand of. But no one would have be able to tell. This was his specialty, a fact of which many had learned much too late.
"Hey, kid," he spoke, which drew the girl's attention. "I think I know what could help."
Pazi was fully attentive now. "Help?" she repeated. "Help what?"
"Well, help you understand," he said. "If no one else can help, then maybe I can."
Pazi thought over the offer. She had always been warned never to talk to strangers, but here she was, doing just that. This man was the only person that had tried to assist and console her, while everyone else only stared or went on their way. There were exceptions to rules, right? If anyone could be an exception, it was this employee. And sadly, that was a sound enough conclusion for a six year old.
Pazi smiled again, and this one was sincere. "Okay," she said.
The man smiled back. "Okay then!" he spoke, raising himself from the checkered floor. "Follow me."
The girl got up from her haven, and followed the employee to the opposite side of the room, toward a door with no sign upon it, no indication of what it led to whatsoever. But Pazi didn't mind it; she couldn't read anyway. She was just excited to finally be able to understand, and to hang out with her newfound friend.
And the man was excited too. Although anyone would have said it was for an entirely different reason.
So he opened the door, that shown a dimly lit room inside. He gestured for the girl to go first, to which she much obliged. The yellow suited employee chuckled to himself, and closed the door behind him.