Tormentor Mine

By: Anna Zaires

Part I





1





5 Years Earlier, North Caucasus Mountains





Peter



* * *



“Papa!” The high-pitched squeal is followed by a patter of little feet as my son propels himself through the doorway, his dark waves bouncing around his glowing face.

Laughing, I catch his small, sturdy body as he launches himself at me. “Miss me, pupsik?"

“Yeah!” His short arms fold around my neck, and I inhale deeply, breathing in his sweet child scent. Though Pasha is almost three, he still smells like milk—like healthy baby and innocence.

I hold him tight and feel the iciness inside me melting as soft, bright warmth floods my chest. It’s painful, like being submerged in hot water after freezing, but it’s a good kind of pain. It makes me feel alive, fills the empty cracks inside me until I can almost believe I’m whole and deserving of my son’s love.

“He did miss you,” Tamila says, entering the hallway. As always, she moves quietly, almost soundlessly, her eyes downcast. She doesn’t look at me directly. From childhood, she’s been trained to avoid eye contact with men, so all I see are her long black lashes as she gazes at the floor. She’s wearing a traditional headscarf that hides her long dark hair, and her gray dress is long and shapeless. However, she still looks beautiful—as beautiful as she did three and a half years ago, when she snuck into my bed to escape marriage to a village elder.

“And I’ve missed you both,” I say as my son pushes at my shoulders, demanding to be free. Grinning, I lower him to the floor, and he immediately grabs my hand and tugs on it.

“Papa, do you want to see my truck? Do you, Papa?”

“I do,” I say, my grin widening as he pulls me toward the living room. “What kind of truck is it?”

“A big one!”

“All right, let’s see it.”

Tamila trails behind us, and I realize I haven’t spoken to her at all yet. Stopping, I turn around and look at my wife. “How are you?”

She peeks up at me through those eyelashes. “I’m good. I’m glad to see you.”

“And I’m glad to see you.” I want to kiss her, but she’ll be embarrassed if I do it in front of Pasha, so I abstain. Instead, I gently touch her cheek, and then I let my son tow me to his truck, which I recognize as the one I sent him from Moscow three weeks ago.

He proudly demonstrates all the features of the toy as I crouch next to him, watching his animated face. He has Tamila’s dark, exotic beauty, right down to the eyelashes, but there’s something of me in him too, though I can’t quite define what.

“He has your fearlessness,” Tamila says quietly, kneeling next to me. “And I think he’s going to be as tall as you, though it’s probably too early to tell.”

I glance at her. She often does this, observing me so closely it’s almost as if she’s reading my mind. Then again, it’s not a stretch to guess what I’m thinking. I did have Pasha’s paternity tested before he was born.

“Papa. Papa.” My son tugs at my hand again. “Play with me.”

I laugh and turn my attention back to him. For the next hour, we play with the truck and a dozen other toys, all of which happen to be some type of car. Pasha is obsessed with toy vehicles, everything from ambulances to race cars. No matter how many other toys I get him, he only plays with those that have wheels.

After playtime, we eat dinner, and Tamila bathes Pasha before bed. I notice that the bathtub is cracked and make a mental note to order a new one. The tiny village of Daryevo is high in the Caucasus Mountains and difficult to get to, so it can’t be a regular delivery from a store, but I have ways of getting things here.

When I mention the idea to Tamila, her eyelashes sweep up, and she gives me a rare direct look, accompanied by a bright smile. “That would be very nice, thank you. I’ve had to mop up the floor almost every evening.”

I smile back at her, and she finishes bathing Pasha. After she dries him and dresses him in his pajamas, I carry him off to bed and read him a story from his favorite book. He falls asleep almost immediately, and I kiss his smooth forehead, my heart squeezing with a powerful emotion.

It’s love. I recognize it, even though I’ve never felt it before—even though a man like me has no right to feel it. None of the things I’ve done matter here, in this little village in Dagestan.

When I’m with my son, the blood on my hands doesn’t burn my soul.

Careful not to wake Pasha, I get up and quietly exit the tiny room that serves as his bedroom. Tamila is already waiting for me in our bedroom, so I strip off my clothes and join her in bed, making love to her as tenderly as I can.

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