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Fractured Souls: Chapter 4

Pavel

I stand in front of the bathroom mirror. Gray jeans and a black T-shirt are lying folded on the counter next to the sink. They disgust me. I don’t recall how long it’s been since I’ve worn jeans, probably more than a decade.

It’s not the garments themselves that are the problem, but rather the memories of digging through heaps of discarded clothes, mostly jeans, trying to find something that fit. Everything was always torn and dirty, and I didn’t have the money for laundry before putting them on. People avoided me when I took the subway, making my shame nearly palpable.

The moment I started earning serious money through underground fights, I traded in my entire secondhand wardrobe for slacks and dress shirts. Eventually, I switched to suits. As time went on, I switched to more upscale clothes and added expensive watches and other accessories. It was all a means to forgetting what I had been for the first twenty years of my life. Trash. Someone from whom people would quickly turn away, ignoring my presence. The funny thing is, even though it has been nearly fifteen years, I can still smell the stench, whether from the clothes or the half-rotten food I dug out of the dumpsters in alleys behind restaurants, that always surrounded me.

I look at my face in the mirror, regarding the small scars scattered across my temples, the bridge of my nose, and my chin. They are faded now, barely noticeable, but I can still recall the fights that left me with each mark. I’m not even sure how many times my nose has been broken. Seven? Probably more.

I was barely eighteen when I started fighting for money. At first, it was a way to put food in my mouth, but as time passed, it transformed into something else. The people who came to watch, who chanted my name . . . they fed the deep yearning I’ve always felt in my soul. The need to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere. The excitement of the crowd as it cheered for me, made me feel less alone.

I’m not exactly sure why I said yes when Yuri approached me after one of my fights and offered me a position in the Bratva. Maybe I wanted to feel closer to my heritage. There weren’t any Russian kids in the foster homes when I was growing up. By the time I aged out of the system, I had almost forgotten my mother tongue. Years with the Bratva helped me regain it, so I have no trouble with the language anymore. But it’s not the same. It no longer feels like my first language, but neither does English.

I trace the more prominent scar on the left side of my jaw with my index finger. No matter how hard I try to hide the past, some reminders, visible or not, will always remain.

Is that why I let Asya stay? Maybe, I recognized a kindred spirit trying to outrun the past and wanted to help. After all, I know how it feels to not have anyone to turn to. But I’m afraid that it’s only part of the reason. My true motivation is much, much more selfish. I’ve been alone all my life and have gotten used to it. It’s the way I function. But after Asya stumbled onto my path, I realized how lonely I’d been and how much I enjoy having her here, in my home. I relish the comfort her presence brings me. Crave it, in fact, so much so that I agreed to hide the reality that she’s alive from her family.

I reach out and pick up the jeans. It’s one of five pairs I ordered online yesterday after I realized the effect suits had on Asya. I can’t keep walking around in my pajamas all day, and I definitely can’t wear them out to the store.

Taking a deep breath, I put on the jeans.

 

Asya

 

At least fifteen bags line the counter in a perfect row. Pasha bought way too much stuff.

When he returned from the store an hour ago, he had to go back to the car twice to bring everything up. After he placed the last bag at the end of the long line, he asked me to put away the groceries he brought and to make lunch. Then, he took his laptop and, saying he has some work to do, disappeared into his bedroom.

I unpack the groceries from the first bag, leaving the things I need for lasagna on the kitchen island and storing the rest. I should have been more specific with my grocery list. I assumed he’d get whatever brand of pasta or tomato sauce he comes across first, but instead, he must have purchased every kind available in the store. There are four different brands of lasagna noodles, three tomato sauces, six types of other pasta, and at least ten varieties of cheeses inside the first few bags.

I pull the cereal boxes from the next three bags and count them. There are twelve different kinds: oats, soya, wheat, some with dried fruit or raisins, one is with honey, others include chocolate, and a couple more with almonds.

I glance over my shoulder at the bedroom door. I hoped Pasha would stay in the kitchen or the living room, but he hasn’t returned. However, even when he’s not in the same room with me, knowing he’s here, makes the dreadful voice in my head retreat.

After I’m done putting away the groceries, I look at the last few bags on the counter. They are big boutique bags with wide ribbon handles. Pasha said he would buy something for me to wear. I expected some sweatpants and a few T-shirts, but the bags in front of me are stacked full of clothes. Should I unpack these? He only mentioned the groceries when he asked me to put away the things he bought. I turn around and move to the kitchen island to prepare the lasagna.

Making lunch while only wearing someone else’s T-shirt and nothing underneath is weird. Especially in a kitchen belonging to a man I don’t really know. Weird, but at the same time liberating. I focus on the task in front of me while a faint melody plays in the back of my mind.

 

Pavel

 

 “No, you can’t bring the buyers to Ural, Sergei,” I say into the phone and sigh.

“Why the hell not? Did you look outside? It’s fucking freezing. My balls are going to fall off if I take them to the unheated warehouse and have to listen to their rambling for more than ten minutes.”

“The last time you conducted a meeting in my club, the cleaning crew spent two hours trying to wash away the blood and brain matter from the VIP booth.”

“That was years ago, Pasha!” he barks. “And you changed the upholstery to dark leather last month. Washing the blood off that is a piece of cake.”

“I said no.”

Mudak,” he mumbles and hangs up.

I shake my head and switch back to the liquor order I’ve been reviewing on my laptop. Since I won’t be heading to the club, I had to take care of the most pressing matters and brief Kostya on the rest. He might be good with numbers, but logistics is not his strong suit. I glance at the time in the corner of the screen and see that it’s just after noon. I should check on Asya again.

I’ve been holed up at the desk in my bedroom for the past three hours, but I’ve been taking peeks at Asya every fifteen minutes to make sure she’s okay. She seemed immersed in cooking lunch, and her relaxed posture said she was enjoying the process. The last time I checked on her, I heard her humming a complicated tune. I expect to find her buzzing around the kitchen this time too, however, she’s nowhere in sight.

“Asya?” I call as I hurry across the living room, but there is no answer.

I pass by the dining table, where plates and salad bowls are set for two. A big tray of lasagna, cut into squares, sits between them. I round the kitchen island and come to a halt. Asya is sitting on the floor with her back pressed to the cupboard, arms wrapped tightly around her legs. She’s staring at the window on the far wall with panic in her eyes.

“Asya?” I crouch next to her and place my hand on the back of her neck. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s . . . snowing,” she whispers, eyes locked onto the scene before her.

“You don’t like snow?” I ask.

“Not anymore,” comes her barely audible answer.

“Asya, give me your eyes, baby.” I brush my thumb down her cheek. “Please.”

She takes a deep breath, then turns her head. There’s such a haunted look in her eyes. Seeing it hits me right in the chest.

“I’m going to pull down the blinds,” I say. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

Quickly closing the blinds in the kitchen, I head to the living room to pull the heavy curtains over the windows there and rush back. Asya hasn’t moved, but now she’s staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles and looks up at me with watery eyes.

I crouch in front of her and cup her face between my palms. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I’m such a spineless person,” she says and presses her lips tightly together.

I lean forward until my face is only inches from hers. “You’re reacting because of the reminders. Your mind is being triggered by various things, but it doesn’t mean you’re weak. Do you understand?”

She sighs and closes her eyes. Something breaks inside me to see her so defeated. I grit my teeth. I need to stay calm for Asya’s sake now, but eventually, I’m going to annihilate the sons of bitches who did this to her.

“Mishka. Look at me.”

Her eyes open.

“You are not weak,” I say. “And you will fight and get better. I promise.”

She watches me for a few moments, then leans forward so her mouth is right next to my ear, sliding out of my hold in the process.

“I killed a man,” she whispers. “That night, I escaped. I killed my client.”

I bite down to hold my rage inside. “Good,” I say through gritted teeth.

“I don’t regret it. I should. But I don’t.” Her arm comes around my neck as she presses her cheek to mine. “Does that make me a bad person?”

“No. You defended yourself from a sexual predator who violated you in the most terrible way. In fact, you did him a favor.”

“A favor?”

“Yes. Because if you hadn’t killed him, I would have. And believe me, whatever you did wouldn’t even come close to what I would have done to him.” I squeeze the back of her neck lightly. “Come show me what you prepared. It’s the first time someone has cooked for me.”

Asya leans back, her face right in front of mine again, and places her hand against my cheek. “Thank you. For everything.”


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