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Around the Table

1: Put It Together

Kasia Cooke scrunched her face up as her brown eyes stared down at the puzzle pieces on the jet black table top. It fit her puzzle easily, but it seemed so small when her whole family sat at it. Of course, her whole family did not sit there together often enough for her. Her mother was not home most of the time. But, she and her father sat there a lot. He made the table seem small because he was a giant, but it seemed really big to her when it was just her.

Her father liked to tell her the dining room table was younger than she was. She was not sure why. Maybe because she complained it was too big for her. Somehow, it being younger than she was made things better. She would have to take his word for it. She was not sure how old the table was.

As far as her brain was concerned, the table had always been there. So, her father would have told her it was the oldest thing in the apartment and she would have to believe him. Instead, he had gone with the table being just a little younger than she was. It was a way to make her feel better about being the youngest person in the house. She wanted a baby brother or sister. Instead, she got a table. It hardly seemed fair.

But, the table served a purpose and she was putting it to use, as she often did. She probably used the table the most. She did her puzzles on the smooth surface. It was better than the floor, as no one would step on her puzzle or yell at her for the pieces being in the way. There was nothing worse than working hard on a puzzle and then Mommy would wreck it. Wreck and then blame Kasia for having the "damn thing out like that."

Most of the time Kasia did her puzzles with her daddy. He helped her with the hard parts. He was really helpful, unlike the stupid, young table who could not say anything when she did not know where a piece went. Who kept track of the age of a table, anyway? Well, beyond her father. Daddy's so weird. But, she loved him.

Just thinking about him made her smile. He was a fun guy and, again, he was a giant. There was something really great about that, but she was not sure what. It just seemed cool.

Kicking her tiny, bare feet, Kasia looked up, checking for her father. Daddy was usually up by now. She did not know the time, but typically, if she was up, he was up. He made breakfast for her. He made the fun stuff, like pancakes and waffles with smiley faces. If he did not make breakfast, then her mother would make it… maybe. Sometimes, when Daddy slept in, Mommy was supposed to make sure she had breakfast, but Mommy did not always like to cook or even pour cereal. Mommy liked talking on the phone.

When Mommy was supposed to do breakfast, Kasia liked making herself cereal. She was good at it. The cereal was on a high shelf, too far for her four-year-old arms. She would move a chair to get the cereal she liked. It had a clown on it and some of the pieces were marshmallows. She could also use the chair to get her favorite bowl from the dish rack by the sink. The milk was always on the bottom shelf in the fridge and there was a small container, a half gallon she believed her father called it. She was always careful as she poured everything, especially milk. If it was not full, it was even easier to pour. It was not like at Grandma's house with the heavy milk in the clear container. Grandma said that was a full gallon and much too heavy for a little girl. She tried once, and found out Grandma was right.

Thinking about Grandma, Kasia looked up for her mother. Mommy should be out here to go to work and take her to Grandma's house. It was not her favorite time. She loved going to Grandma's, but she did not like getting there. She did not like the car ride with Mommy. Mommy did not talk to her like her father did when they rode in the car. Mommy did not let her listen to her favorite songs on the radio. Mommy just talked on her phone all the time or complained about Grandma, not that Grandma was her favorite person either, even though she liked being with Grandma.

Grandma talked about Mommy just as much as Mommy talked about her. It did not bother Kasia too much, but Grandma also talked about Daddy sometimes. Grandma was not too harsh when she said things about Daddy, but she questioned if he was smart or not because he was with Mommy. Honestly, there were times when she wondered why her daddy was with her mommy and she was four. Daddy was such a great person and Mommy was not. She did not see why Daddy would hang around Mommy.

"Where's Mommy?" Kasia looked up, eyes drifting to the short hallway. Mommy should have come out by now. Well, she thought anyway. She glanced at the clock, but it made no sense to her. She could not tell time. She barely recognized numbers. It just felt like Mommy should be out right now.

She listened for her parents. Sometimes, they had loud talks in the morning. She did not hear anything, which was good. The loud talks scared her. Sometimes, Daddy's voice, which was deep anyway, boomed like thunder. But, most of the time, Mommy was the one who made the walls shake. It was like their talks could bring the whole apartment down around her.

She shook those thoughts away and focused on her puzzle, twisting up her mouth as she tried to figure things out. This puzzle was one of the harder ones, especially since some of the pieces were peeled and it messed up the pictures, but she liked it because it had jungle animals in it. The last time she did this one Daddy helped her, but she might be able to do it herself this time.

It was harder to concentrate on the puzzle than she thought it would be, especially when low noises reached her ears. She could hear her daddy talking. She strained her ears, listening for her mother. Despite listening as hard as she could, she did not hear her mother, only her father. She poked out her lips. What's going on? Maybe Daddy would tell her when he finally came out of his room. Hopefully, he would get breakfast, too. Her little stomach growled and twisted.

"No, Ma, I haven't seen her since last night. I've been calling around and nobody knows where she's at. She's not picking up her phone," Daddy said.

Kasia was not sure what all of that meant. Daddy would tell her if she needed to know. She just had to wait for him. So, she focused on her puzzle. It was hard and being hungry did not help. Her stomach moaned, louder than before, and she put her hands over it, like she was covering it's mouth, which was silly. Stomachs don't got mouths.

She heard the bedroom door open and her father wandered out to the dining room. He mussed her hair, which needed to be done. It was going everywhere and was big. He kissed the top of her head, even though her hair was out and going off in every direction. He had to bend a long way down. Daddy was so tall, he did not fit through doors a lot of times. She wanted to be that tall, if only to give him a real hug one day. She could barely hug Daddy around the bottom of his leg.

"Good morning, my munchkin," he said. He was not dressed, still in his pj's, like she was. It was weird. Usually, he came out ready to go. Instead, he had on a t-shirt and shorts, just like her. He made a show of looking over the table and seeing her pieces spread out. "I see you've got the puzzle going."

"I did. I need help," she said and rubbed her forehead. The puzzle was so hard! The picture on the box did not help at all. None of the shapes went together, at least not that she could see. She knew it could be done, though, so she would keep at it.

He chuckled, his dark brown eyes lighting up as he did so. He always looked at her with such love and she could kind of feel it from his eyes. It was like his eyes were magic. "I'll bet you do, but you need breakfast more. I'm shocked you didn't try to make your own."

She shrugged. "I coulda." She did not chance making her own because of her puzzle. If she poured the milk wrong, it could get all over her puzzle and she knew that never ended well. Plus, tf Mommy came out and saw she made a mess, Mommy would scream at her and she did not like that. It always made her chest hurt.

"I know you could. But, you need breakfast. It'll help your brain think, so you can finish your puzzle. Plus, breakfast helps you grow. You wanna grow up big and strong like Daddy, right?" He grinned at her as he flexed his arm muscles in his t-shirt with no sleeves. His arms were big and he had strong muscles, so he could do things like throw her up high and catch her.

Kasia nodded with enthusiasm. Daddy was the tallest person she had ever seen, even though he told her the basketball men on TV were taller than him. She did not believe him. The TV men were so little.

"Can I has Fruit Loops?" she asked. She had the last of her favorite cereal yesterday and nobody went shopping from what she could remember.

"Always." He grabbed the cereal out of the top cabinet and then grabbed her favorite bowl from the dish rack. There were not many dishes there, most of them piled up in the sink.

She smiled as light danced in her body. Her daddy always made sure she got the cereal she liked. Mommy grabbed whatever she saw first. Grandma always had Cheerios if she wanted cereal. She did not mind those dry, but they were not the best breakfast cereal.

"All right, Munchkin. Let's get the puzzle out of the way, so you can eat without getting milk on the pieces," Daddy said.

Kasia nodded. She did not want to mess her puzzle up like before. Cereal milk spilled on her planets puzzle and now a piece of Venus was stuck to a piece of Jupiter. Another piece was ripped, so now she could not put it together anymore. And, the pieces all smelled bad. Daddy wanted to throw the whole thing away, but she hid the box, not that it mattered. Still, she did not want any other puzzles to end up that way.

She picked up the puzzle while her daddy put the cereal down, putting all the loose pieces back into the box. Her favorite bowl, almost full of rainbow-colored circles. Yay! She dived into the Fruit Loops, eating with her Minnie Mouse spoon. Daddy always remembered it was her favorite while Mommy would give her any spoon. Sometimes, they were not even clean.

Daddy went back to the kitchen and put something in the toaster. She heard his moving stuff around, but then turned her full attention to her breakfast. She enjoyed her cereal as her daddy sat down next to her. He had a bagel and that weird smelling hot, black juice. She wrinkled her nose at it and he laughed.

"I'm going to take you to Grandma's house, okay?" he asked. She would rather that than having Mommy do it.

She nodded and ate a spoonful of cereal, slurping the milk. "Is Mommy still asleep?" Sometimes Mommy slept late and it would just be her and Daddy. That was nice.

He sighed and his shoulders dropped a little. "No, Little Bit. Don't worry about Mommy right now. We gotta get you to Grandma's house. Hopefully, Grandma could do something about your afro puff."

She scrunched her face up. "I don't have an afro puff." She picked at her curly hair, living wild and fancy free.

He grinned at her. "Not yet." Then, he ate half of his bagel in one bite.

That meant he would "do" her hair. Whenever Daddy did her hair, he always just brushed it into a ponytail on top of her head. He called it an afro puff. He did not even put anything in it. She did not mind. Grandma would put nice smelling stuff in her hair, comb it, and braid or twist it and put pretty barrettes or bobos in it. That would be fine. Grandma might even take her outside afterward.

It was quiet for a moment. Daddy ate his bagel and checked his phone a lot. She was not used to him doing that. The phone was Mommy's thing.

"Where's Mommy?" she asked, kicking her feet in the chair. She ate some more of her cereal. It was starting to get soggy, but she liked it better that way.

He smiled at her, showing off white teeth. "Don't worry about it. What do you want to wear to Grandma's house, regular clothes or princess clothes?"

"Princess clothes!" If Grandma took her out, people would say nice things and call her a princess. Sometimes, they bowed to her and she giggled and they told her how cute she was. She also liked how Grandma always told everyone "you see my cute, princess-baby." Kasia did not even mind being called a baby. Grandma said it with such love, it could only be a good thing. Grandma's friends were even nice enough to give her candy, but they did that with or without princess clothes.

"Okay, so, let's get your princess dress and crown."

Kasia nodded and finished her cereal while Daddy fetched her clothes. When the cereal was all gone, she slurped the milk, enjoying the taste even more after it was flavored with any cereal. Daddy was back quick.

"Belle or Cinderella?" He held up a yellow dress and a blue dress.

"Belle!" She liked Belle more because Belle liked books and Kasia loved it when Daddy read her books. She could not wait until she could read. She would read to him then, and they could tell each other bedtime stories. She stood up in the chair and glanced at her puzzle box. "Help me with the puzzle later?"

He grinned at her once more and threw his shoulders back. "Of course! I can't say no to a princess. Now, arms up!"

Her arms shot up and the dress came down over her little, pink undershirt. Then he tickled her underarm. She giggled and jumped back. Her footing slipped and her heart stopped as she prepared to fall.

"Whoa!" Somehow, Daddy caught her. He was like a superhero. "Let's be careful. I don't want a broken Munchkin."

She nodded as her heart picked back up, going back to normal. She did not want to break. She turned around, allowing Daddy to zip the dress.

"All right, we'll put your bowl in the sink and brush your teeth, so you can go to Grandma's."

"I'm gonna need shoes, Daddy." She wiggled her toes.

Daddy laughed as he dropped to the floor. It had to be a long way down, but somehow he was on the floor a second later. He tilted his head and tapped her toes. "Will you? Are you sure?"

She tittered and stepped back. "Princesses wear shoes, Daddy."

"Do they?"

"Yup! Pretty shoes."

"Do they?"

"You know!"

He stood back up and rubbed his chin with his hand. She often asked him why he did not have hair on his face like other grown up men and he said he shaved it off. Then, he showed her this buzzing thing in the bathroom and cut the hair above his lip off. "Do they?" He made his eyebrow jump.

She frowned. "Yes, Daddy! You know that! I need princess shoes!"

He laughed and held up his hands to give up. "You're absolutely right, but is that how you ask?" He folded his arms across his chest and, even though his eyes danced with mischief, she felt bad for not asking nicely.

She pouted and slid her toe against the wood floor. "No…"

"So, are you going to ask right?"

"Please!" She smiled hard and pressed her hands together.

"Okay!" He rushed her bowl to the sink, even though she could do it. He then grabbed her to get ready, helping her do things she could do, like brush her teeth and put on her shoes. And then it was off to Grandma's house. Kasia waved bye to her puzzle and the table. They might miss her.

-8-8-8-8-

Kasia was ready to do her puzzle with Daddy. It had been on her mind all day. As soon he got her from Grandma's house, it was all she wanted to do and he promised to do it with her on the way home. She climbed onto her chair and reached for the box. Daddy stopped her, putting his giant hand on the box and she looked up at him. It was a strain on her neck, even though he was bent down. Daddy really is a giant.

"Let's eat first and then get to the puzzle, okay?" he asked.

She nodded and her father put down her Happy Meal. Chicken nuggets! She reached in and grabbed the box of nuggets. Daddy helped, taking out the fries, so she did not spill them as she often did. There were apple slices, too, which she liked a lot. Best of all, Daddy let her have Sprite! Usually, she could not have soda. Sometimes, Mommy gave it to her, but then always told her not to tell Daddy or Grandma, so it was probably bad.

"Grandma's house was fun today?" Daddy asked as he stole one of her fries.

Kasia tried to snatch the fry back, but Daddy laughed and gobbled it. He smiled at her and she grabbed the rest of her fries, hiding them in her lap. He laughed even more and then pulled out his own food. His burger seemed so big and she did not know how he could eat the whole thing, but again, he was a giant, so it made sense. Giants always needed giant things in stories.

The two of them at the table made the table seem the right size. It was not too big and not too small. They could sit next to each other and the table was not crowded with stuff, even when Daddy put napkins in the middle, in case they both needed them. Her puzzle box was on the far end, where Mommy would have sat if she was there.

"So, Grandma's house? I see she did your hair." Daddy nodded toward her head.

"Yeah, she said you was lazy for that," Kasia replied. Grandma made her hair nice and shiny and then put box braids and pretty barrettes in her hair. If she shook her head, which she had done all day, the barrettes twirled and clicked together when they hit each other. It was like a display. She tried to show Grandma's but Grandma was too busy. Grandma also spent most of the day on the phone when she wanted to watch cartoons with Grandma. They did not even go out. It was pretty boring.

"Oh, believe me, I know." Daddy blew out a breath before taking a huge bite. He made noises when he chewed, like he was gobbling a big wad of sticky gum.

She wiggled in her seat and looked away. She was not sure if she should tell Daddy. She did not want him to be mad, too. "Grandma was on the phone and mad."

Daddy's shoulders dropped, like someone let the air out of him like he was a balloon. "Did Grandma tell you why she was on the phone?" His eyes got sad.

"Nah-uh." Kasia shook her head and then dunked a chicken nugget in the sweet-sour sauce.

He put his burger down in the box. "Well, Grandma has been helping Daddy try to find Mommy."

Kasia scrunched up her face. "Mommy's lost?" How could Mommy be lost? "Grown-ups can get lost? Don't they know where everything is, though?" Grown-ups knew everything. That was why they were in charge.

He smiled, but his eyes were still so sad. She jumped out of her chair, spilling all of her fries, but they did not matter. She crawled into Daddy's lap and threw her arms around him, holding him tight, doing her best to make him feel better. He sniffled.

"It's okay, Daddy," she said with a squeeze. Daddy should not cry. Daddy always made things better, so he did not have to cry. "If Mommy's lost, you can find her, like you find the right puzzle pieces."

He sniffled again and pulled back to smile at her, but his eyes were watery. She wiped his cheek and he grabbed her hand. He kissed her knuckles and hugged her back.

"You are such an awesome little munchkin, you know that, Kay?" Daddy said.

Kasia grinned, always happy to be complimented by her father. "And you're awesome, you know that, Daddy?"

"I'm glad you think so." He booped her nose.

"Nope. Know so." She booped his nose in return.

He laughed and then sniffled. "I just want you to remember no matter what happens, Kasia, you're awesome. Never let anyone or anything tell you otherwise."

She nodded, even though she did not totally get what he meant. But, awesome was a good thing. Daddy always said she was awesome with a smile and sometimes gave her a high-five. It always felt nice.

"Are you okay now, Daddy?" Kasia asked.

"I'm okay as long as I have you." Daddy gave her a big hug, the kind that made her feel like a noisy plushie because she always squeaked when he did. He laughed, sounding happy now.

"Daddy!" She groaned. "You gonna break me!"

"Oh, no! I would never break my munchkin! I love her too much!" He squeezed her a little tighter.

"Daddy!" She wiggled, trying to get away.

"Okay, okay. Finish your nuggets." He leaned over with her in her arms and placed her back in her seat. He then grabbed a handful of his own fries and put them in her nugget box.

"Thanks!" She bit her nugget again and ate some fries.

Daddy sighed as he picked up his burger. "So, little bit…" He bit his burger, but it seemed like he still wanted to say something. He chewed a lot before he started talking again. "What do you think if it was just you and me?"

Her face scrunched up. "Like right now?"

"Yeah, just like right now. Just you and me."

Kasia poked out her lips. "But, where would Mommy be?"

He took a deep breath. "Well…" He put his burger down again and looked directly at her. "Mommy isn't coming home."

She nodded. Sometimes, they did not see Mommy for a while. "When she's back?"

"That's just it." He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I'm not sure when she'll be back. I just want you to know that I'll do my best to take care of you and I know you'll take care of me and we'll be awesome, okay?"

Kasia was not sure what that meant. It sounded serious, but Daddy would be there, so it should be okay. Daddy made things okay. "Okay." She nodded.

He smiled, but it was sad again. "All right. Fist bump?" He held up his big fist and she leaned over to knock her knuckles to his. Then they blew it up, hands went up, fingers wiggled as they fell away from each other. She loved making the explosion sound as she spread her fingers and pulled her hand back.

"We got each other, Munchkin," Daddy said.

"Yup!" Things were always good when they had each other. "Can we do the puzzle now?"

He laughed. "We gotta finish eating first, but of course."

-8-8-8-8-

Next time: years have passed and Kasia questions her awesomeness, along with some other things.