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“Hi. My name is Mark. I am afraid of my father.”

Young boy is holding his smartphone with trembling fingers. This is not a prank or anything – he is, indeed, afraid of his father. He believes he has changed since boy’s mother died.

Mark is a smart boy, despite his young age of 10, soon to be 11, once March comes, so he understands, that losing someone dear can change you. He is not sure, if he, himself did, though, besides frequent tears in the night, when he wakes up from what he considers nightmares. Still, understanding something does not mean it will be accepted just as easily. Thus, Mark sees his father as potentially dangerous. And sometimes blames himself for that.

His mother was sick for quite some time. He thinks it’s been 2, maybe 3 years, since he knew that, but most likely, the illness was going on for longer: parents barely spoke to him about it, guarding him from the truth. In fact, unless mother had to shave her head and wear a wig, he might have never learnt the truth at all.

“Cancer” – they said. He did not know, how a zodiac sign would result in shaving head, especially, when his mother was not born under it. Grown-ups did not bother explaining and simply said that it was something bad. Mark tried searching for some information regarding it in the Internet, but he could not understand much from what he was able to find. He thought that it meant, that he is not smart enough just yet to understand these complicated words and felt a bit down because of that.

Last time Mark saw his mother was in a hospital. Again, nothing was told to him about what is going on, just his grandmother on mother’s side took him to a room with 6 beds. Across the entrance was a window and to the left of it, on one of the beds, his mother laid. He felt uncomfortable when he saw hew grayish-yellowish skin, but Mark was a good boy and did not want to upset his mother and stopped himself from running away.

Mark does not remember much from the discussion during that time. He thinks that mother asked him if he was good, if he had any troubles, he need help with. “I’m good” – he remembers saying. And that were the last words he said to her.

Next day, early in the morning, Mark heard his father talking on the phone in the next room. He heard father end the call and come to Mark’s room, where he was reading. “Mom died” – he said. The words first did not settle in Marks mind. Father went back to the living room where Mark followed. Father just fell face first on the double-bad, he previously shared with his wife. Mark thought, that this is supposed to be act of “grieving”. People are said to cry a lot during the time, but he did not hear any sobbing from his father.

Mark went back to his room and sat on the same place on the sofa, he was previously. He thought to himself: “What does this mean? She is “dead” like, never-ever coming home again?”. For some reason, Mark felt a little bit relieved, and not sad. He did not shed a tear back then.

And neither did he during the funeral. In fact, hi did not feel like anyone felt sad on the day. When his cousin Olga hugged him during the event, he did feel some warmth from her, some caring, but other than that it felt mundane. Maybe just a bit gloomier, than usual, but perhaps it is the weather, he thought.

Following days did not feel much different, too, except for the need to heat up the food, since father was at work. Food was prepared by grandmother, who came in the evening and made dinner specifically for him either then or in the morning. But she did that previously as well, although mainly on weekends.

Then father brought home a woman. Mark was not introduced to her and he did not see her face even: father just asked him to go play on the street and almost shoved him through the door. Mark found this a bit weird but accepted it. Reluctantly: he did not have many friends and spent most of his time on the street simply sitting on the nearby swings. Luckily for him, it was summer vacation and most children were out in the countryside or even abroad, along with their parents. This allowed Mark to enjoy the silence.

In a few days father brough another woman. And then another. And another. At least, Mark thinks, that were different women, since they smelled different. The flow was always the same: they did not talk to him (or much at all), he did not see their faces, so had no way to identify them.

Sitting on the swing, Mark was thinking, that father is behaving strangely. And Mark himself was feeling just as strange: “Is this, what they call loneliness?”. In books they said that death of a family member often brings others closer together, but Mark was not sure, it was the case here. He did not mind father bringing friends over, but why keep him away from them? Soon he started suspecting, that something bad is going on.

Mark started feeling as if some things are missing from the shelves: like some decorative cups or bottles. He was not sure about that, though, since never paid much attention to this stuff, and it was possible they were just moved somewhere else. Besides, these things were not considered “his”.

Then one day, he found some bijouterie on the ironing board. That day father also brought a woman home and Mark was away for 2 hours. When he came back neither father or woman was home, unlike usual, when father was watching TV or playing some PC games. When father returned, Mark asked him, what is this: father just told, that his friend forgot that.

Mark did know that many women, especially those, that came to visit his family before, but he did not remember any of mother’s friends to leave any trinkets behind. He did not remember them taking off anything but their coats, even. He asked father why his friend left it: “That happens some time, nothing to worry about”. Somehow Mark did not believe this. And then he also noticed that a small medal, like a memento of being christened was not present on its regular place behind the glass in the cabinet. He asked about it, too.

Father stood there for a second, with his back to Mark, then turned to his son and said: “Why are you wasting my time on this? I guess, I’ve put it somewhere else, while I was cleaning the place. Just go read or something.” Father lied on the bed and turned on the TV. Mark went back to his room.

Father seemed angry but trying to control himself. His face was red, and speech was strained. And he was lying. Mark knew that he never cleaned at home. Never. But the feeling of guilt for not believing his father started gnawing at him: “I mean, he did change. Perhaps, he started cleaning as well? And I did try to get into stuff, I am not supposed to, so perhaps, that’s what upset him?”. Later that day, or rather night, he saw his first bad dream with his mother in it.

Mark would not call it a “nightmare”, but the dream disturbed him, nonetheless. He and his family were at their country house. Mother was also there, but as if in the background, most of the time: her presence was felt and known, but her figure was not visible. Dream was depicting regular routines of Mark in such a setting: play some, bring water into the house, have dinner. Nothing special.

At some point Mark started feeling an urge to relieve himself. Family’s country house did not have any plumbing system, so the toilet was outside: at the corner where fences of the 4 housing areas connected there was a cesspool with wooden “house” built over it, also separated into 4 segments, 1 for each house. It was painted in dark-green and in case of Mark’s family there was a road built of stone plates leading to it.

In the dream Mark’s mother was standing near the toilet-house, keeping the door open and inviting him in with a smile and wave of a hand. It seemed very unnatural to Mark: besides mother looking healthy and almost as happy as he ahs never seen her, she would never be in such a position. Mark was big enough to do away with his needs by himself, after all. His bladder did not care, though.

Reluctantly, Mark went on down the stony road along the flowerbeds with pink, violet, and white peonies, that were getting bleaker and bleaker as closer he was getting to mother. She was cheering him on and even gently pushed him into the cabin when he reached it. She also closed the door behind him, leaving Mark in complete darkness. There was a flat lamp on to his right, though, the one that is turned on by pressing on it, like a button, which he did.

The light was very dim, as if the lamp were running out batteries: Mark could barely see and find the toilet seat, that he put up, baring the hole. In the dim light it was not possible to the bottom, which made it look scarier than it should be. Cold wind gust from the hole did not help Mark either.

There was a knock on the door. Mark thought, that he heard his mother’s voice, but could not make out any words. He readied himself for relief, but nothing came out. He tried to relax, but another knock on the door tensed him back up. This seemed to continue for several minutes: try to relax, then tense up from the knock on the door and incomprehensible whispers from behind it. Mark was ready to cry because of the pressure of his bladder.

He decided to lower the shorts and sit on the toilet. Knocking on the door has ceased, but soon was replaced by rattling of it, as if someone were trying to get it off the hinges. Marked covered his head in fear, which still did not help him to achieve relief. Rattling suddenly stopped and the door opened.

The unexpected moonlight lit the old linoleum and out-of-place mirror standing against the wall and reflecting Mark’s legs daggling from the toilet seat, not reaching the floor. A leg clothed in dark-blue and resin boot stepped on the linoleum. Mark wanted to say, that toilet is busy, but he could not find his own voice. Instead he felt something slimy on his buttocks and tenses up even more. That slimy feeling spread across his thighs, as well as front and started pulling him down. Mark was unable neither to scream, nor to look at what was pulling him. He tried as he could to push against the wood of the seat, but his little arms gave in he got sucked into the darkness just at the time of waking up.

Mark’s need for relief turned out to be one of his physical body, so slowly he walked to the apartment’s restroom passing his sleeping father. There, same as in the dream, he could not relax while standing, as all boys are expected to, so he sat on the toilet. Sweet release and warmth and light of the real-life modern toilet calmed him down a little, even though he still felt some shame for sitting like a girl.

While sitting there, Mark thought that dream was strange. Strange for him, that is. Mark was used to some weird dreams happening now and then, but this was not like that. It was more normal for the most part besides the very ending. Not that scary or threatening, when he though about it, but presence of his mother there and her “pushing” him to what turned danger made him feel very uneasy.

In the future he saw quite a lot of similar dreams. They were normal, sometimes even happy, and pleasant, until he saw his mother. In all of them, she was calling for him, pushing him to do something, go somewhere and if he “followed” something bad always happened to him and he woke up. A few times Mark tried to disobey, and go the other way, do something different, but then his father appeared before him. He always had that same red face as when Mark asked about that christening medal. Father’s arms were always crossed on his chest and same look in his eyes: as if Mark were wasting his time. As if he was a nuisance.

Roughly 3 months had passed since mother’s death. Summer holidays has ended, and September had almost ended. Mark was going to school again and that resulted in him seeing even less of his father. Things still went missing periodically, so Mark assumed, that father was bringing women in while he was at school. Mark did not question that fact, though: he did not want to upset father, he wanted to be “understanding” and “give him some space”. Besides, he did understand what it means to “need space”: he was not alone because he lacked friends, but rather he lacked friends because he preferred to be alone.

Sometimes Mark thought, that perhaps mother dies because of that. Perhaps she understood that Mark wanted to be alone, that it made him more comfortable. Or maybe she thought that this way Mark would be forced to learn to be not just alone, but independent: learn to cook, to clean, and become strong in the long run. On the other hand, this could also be the reason father was upset with Mark: him not wanting friends could be seen as Mark being afraid of having those.

There was some truth to that. Mark had a friend before, but there was that incident, that felt as if Mark was betrayed by him. It was back in 2nd grade, around one and half a year back. Mark was still quite friendly with people and tend to come up to them and start talking about something that was on his mind. That resulted in talking to older boys, some of which could be called “punks”. They used a lot of bad words in their speech, since they though it made them look older and cooler.

One day Mark took a little piece of paper and wrote all the bad words he could remember across appropriate small pictograms representing the organs those words were synonymous with. There were a lot of words, almost 3 dozen of them, and Mark felt very proud of himself:  he thought that this would bring him a lot of respect among his peers.

It did not. Yes, boys made a few laughs about it, but that’s it. In the end, the paper was sent to the bin. As luck would have it, it did not stay there long. Someway or the other his homeroom teacher found it. Apparently, she asked Mark’s friend whether it was his paper first, but Nikita said, it was Mark’s. He betrayed him.

Obviously, teacher called Mark’s parents and then, back at home, he had some beating. Not with hands, but with a belt against his butt. It was painful to sit for a few days because of it. Mark was not so sure, what he did wrong, exactly: he did not hurt anyone, after all. These were just words. Yes, they were considered “bad”, but they could not harm. At that time, he was reminded of a different episode, that ended in similar incident, further in the past.

In kindergarten children were waking up after a midday nap. Some were making their beds already, while others were stretching out, unwilling to stand and do stuff. Mark was one of the latter. While snuggling in the bed he felt some strange sensation in his unmentionables. Mark could not put a finger on what it was or what it was like, but it was not painful or even itchy, though. He decided to pull down his panties and bring it up closer to the light in order to see that everything was good there. He did not notice anything out of the ordinary and the sensation passed away quite soon, to, so Mark was not bother much by it. Sadly, others were.

That day mother took him home. She was talking with the governess quite a bit longer than usual before finally heading home. Once there, Mark had supper and then mother told him, she wanted to speak with him. She was sitting on the bed on the living room, belt in her hand. She asked Mark why did he show his unmentionables to the girls in kindergarten.

Mark defended, that he did no such thing. Needless to say, mother did not believe him, because some girl asked her parents questions about that thing, that she did not have. In the end, crying Mark was running all over the apartment trying to avoid the belt, but that did not change anything: same as in the incident with paper with bad words he was beaten to a red, sobbing ass, unable to understand, what exactly he did wrong.

Since mother died Mark found himself drawn to those moments for some reason. He knew, there were others, like when he was not able to swallow a pill or when mother was teaching him to break an egg to fry it and he failed, but they somehow did not feel as important to him, unlike the paper and the unmentionables.

“In both case”, Mark thought, “I did not understand what it was, that I did wrong. I still don’t. Maybe I am not that smart, as I sometimes think?” Such train of thought lead Mark to believe, that he may be the reason his mother died. Because she was disappointed at him and hoped, that maybe her death would stir Mark to greatness. Which it did not, and that would explain why father was upset with him, as well. That all made sense to Mark. Although it was a bit tight in his chest, when thought that way. And why he cried after those dreams with mother and father in them, feeling himself as a pathetic worm, unable to do a single thing right.

As he thought that, came last Friday of October. Mark and his grandmother were packing food and some clothes while waiting for father to come home and take them to the country house. Father did come, but not alone: with a woman. She was somewhat similar to mother in her complexion, but as if “improved”, probably due to younger age. She was plump, but not as mother, who should have been considered fat. She had more of an hourglass figure and was a bit shorter than mother, with Mark’s face ending up around her big breasts. She also had dark hair reaching her lower back and wore glasses.

Father introduced her as Valentina and told Mark, that he can call her auntie. Valentina did not approach Mark, did not try to hug or kiss him as some of mother’s women friends did, but she did politely greet him and asked how he was. Mark said that he was fine and did not elaborate anymore: he was weary of the woman, even though she did no seem dangerous or anything. He also appreciated her keeping distance.

Grandmother was not very happy to see this woman as well. She did not argue, did not scream, cry or anything like that, but Mark devised from the tone of her voice, that she was still upset. It looked like this was a sudden addition to the going to country house plan.

Nevertheless, they set out for the trip. At some point they drove into a supermarket to get some food. While adults went shopping, Mark was left alone in the car, gazing into the window aimlessly. He couldn’t say he was that fond of the countryside. He was able to find some way to relax outside, but generally by reading a book till noon and then reading it inside the house, where it was cooler, in case of summer. In autumn, there was not much, that he could do outside due to colder and more windy weather. Furthermore, the only friend he had there, the older girl living across the street, came there even less frequently, leaving him alone for majority of time. Mark thought, that going to countryside to read books in the house was a waste of time and money.

Once adults came back and grandmother sat at the back seat near Mark, he thought she seemed agitated even more, than before. He though, that this maybe the case, when a person could be called a “dark cloud”. He asked her, whether something was wrong, but grandmother absent-mindedly answered with regular “it’s fine”. Mark did not try to push further, presuming this was one of those “adult things”.

When the car got to the country house it was already late and Mark wanted to sleep, since it was past his regular bedtime. As soon as father opened the gate and then the house itself, Mark went up the stairs to the first floor, past the inner porch, kitchen, room grandmother’s room and into the room, which was used by him, father and mother previously. It hosted 3 beds, each near a wall and a small black-and-white TV near the 4th wall. Mark’s bed, or rather an armchair, that could transform into a bed, was to the right from the entrance. Mark put his backpack in the foot of the bed and lied down so to find himself asleep.

In the morning Mark found himself alone in the room, even though he expected his father and Valentina be there as well. He went to the toilet and only saw Valentina checking out the garden beds. It looked as if she was here before and knew her way around. Valentina noticed Marked, wished him good morning, and asked if he slept well. Mark wished good morning back and said, that he did sleep well. He asked where she and father slept and was told, that they used the second floor. There were no beds there but looks like she preferred sleeping on the floor.

Once Mark returned home, he found father drinking coffee in the kitchen. Father asked if Mark was hungry and suggested some fries. Mark agreed. While brushing his teeth near water dispenser at the entrance to the kitchen, Mark remembered the days, when mother did some fried sandwiches. There was old thing looking like a microwave without front and back with a grill-like thing at its top. Mother used some bread, put a tomato on it, some sausage and cheese. The most important part of it was cheese, obviously. And the way how bread was crusty on the outside, but slightly moist in the inside because of tomato – this was heavenly. Mark knew that he could try doing it himself, but it felt wrong somehow, like some magic would disappear if such a sandwich would be made by him.

While Mark was eating the fries, which should not be considered a healthy breakfast, he realized that he has not seen his grandmother yet. He asked father where she was and got response: “Do not know, perhaps, she went out somewhere, maybe to neighbors”. Two hours later she still has not returned. Mark tried reaching out to nearby neighbors to whom grandmother could go, since there were four of those at most, but neither of them have seen her.

Mark also tried calling grandmother over the phone, but, as was usually the case, she left it in the house, which meant, that he could only wait. And the longer he did – the more worried and even scared he got. Father seemed too calm regarding the matter. Could it be that he did something? It was not a secret for Mark, that father was not fond of grandmother, and she was not pleased with him since mother had died. Mark thought it was a motive enough, but he lacked proof.

Grandmother has not returned even by the next morning, when father woke Mark up and told him to pack up, since they had a long road ahead. Mark attempted to resist: what road? What is father talking about? What about grandmother? Mark argued that they can’t leave her, but father deflected stating, that she is a grown woman and knows how to tend for herself.

Mark did not want to go, and father was forced to grab him by the arm and drag him to the car. Mark was hitting him and screaming to no avail. Once he was pushed into the car and door was slammed, Valentina, who was sitting at the front asked Mark, what was wrong? Once again Mark complained that they can’t just leave grandmother behind. Valentina tried to calm him down, in the end suggesting, that they will not close the house and will leave some food in the fridge. “Why do we have to go now?” – Mark asked. “Your dad says we have a tight schedule and we can’t stay here much longer if we are to be on time” – was the answer. Mark tried to learn where, but was not able to and in the end, had to concede.

Mark watched how Valentina went out of the car and to his father. He seemed annoyed, while she talked to him, but nevertheless opened the house door, that he had just recently closed. They returned to the car and a long and silent drive started. The drive that took almost twelve hours including couple of short stops for toilet and one for food.

At the end of the day they stopped at a nameless motel in a room with 3 placed close to each other. Valentina went to shop to get some food and drinks, while father went in for a shower and Mark was left alone in a place, he found creepy. There was a lot of dust everywhere in the room, some cobwebs here and there in the corners, beds had moldy smell, limited furniture and walls were riddled with some black dots. And no TV even. To get away from it, Mark went outside, but place felt creepy there, as well: barely lit and no people in sight, as if its abandoned. There did not seem to be any structures nearby except for three long one-storied blocks of rooms and a gas-station joined with motel’s reception and a small shop.

The view reminded Mark of some old movie he saw, but he could not put a finger on the name. He thought about “Nightmare on Elm Street”, but that was a different one and Mark did not remember any gas stations or motels there. Although, just remembering this sent a shiver down his spine. Or was it just the October wind? “As long as there will be no creepy dolls” – Mark thought and regretted that right that moment since he noticed a dirty doll near the door to one of the rooms.

Uneasy thoughts keep spinning in Mark’s head. He was smart, so tried not to think of the shadows and what might be there, but troubling events of real life did not allow him to relax and fear kept crawling up his throat. What happened to grandmother? Was she all right? What’s father planning with this trip? Where were they even going? Was Valentina really a good person as she tried to look like? Mark could not answer these questions. But there was something he could do: try contacting authorities.

“If I send them a message, that my father is behaving strange, that he is neglecting disappearance of a person… Wait. Why is he neglecting it? Why did he not report it, even if we are in a hurry to somewhere?”

As Mark thought that, his understanding of what he needs to fear grew stronger. He needed to fear his father. He seemed more suspicious as ever now. He had a motive, he might have had an opportunity and the means while Mark was asleep, as well. Father had a bit of a temper at times, so he could really do something to grandmother.

“I really need to contact police then” – Mark thought. But he did not know where they were. And even if he did, what about evidence? On the other hand, what’s the worse that could happen should he be wrong?

Mark thought very hard at what he could send to police in order to help locate him. Something foolproof. He could not rely on his phone, because the battery could run out. Obviously, he would charge it while in the motel, but how long will it take till next stop, where he could do that again? In the end, Mark came up with only one idea: license plates.

If you would look at the motel reception’s front entrance the living blocks would have been to the left. While all three of them had some parking spaces in front of them, there was also another parking space further to the left. Since their room was third from the left in the most left block, father decided to use that extra parking space.

Marking on the asphalt dedicated six spaces, but their car was the only one there. A streetlamp was supposed to be lighting up the place, but it was mostly dead, only sometimes giving a quick flash of dull light. Mark went up to the back of the car, squatted near it, pointing his smartphone at the plate, waiting for the flash of light. It could be way easier, if his smartphone had a flashlight, which was quite common on other models, but his was a cheap bulky one. It was not fancy, but quite sturdy, which was a good thing, since Mark was a bit clumsy and did drop it periodically. And, thankfully, it had internet.

Finally, a flash of light came down from above and Mark took a picture of the plates. He looked at the resulting photo and once again was pretty disappointed by the quality. Nevertheless, he could recognize the letters and numbers on it, which should be good enough for his purposes. Mark went back the entrance to their room, where a wall lamp was giving light and helped him reduce his eyestrain. Now he needed to think of a text to accompany this photo.

“Hi. My name is Mark. I am afraid of my father.”

All the past, all the memories, all the tribulations collapse into one short and simple thought. As Mark types, it becomes even more apparent to him: that murky feeling, that big slimy hand gripping his tiny heart. It is as if fog has lifted from his eyes. He even thinks that the night does not seem as dark anymore, has more colors, and those colors that were there before are now more vivid, even oversaturated.

As Mark is contemplating his new heightened senses, the door opens, his father standing at the doorstep: “There you are. What are you doing?” Father sees a plate on Mark’s phone and recognizes it as one from his car: “Is this?.. Why are you taking pictures of my car? Give me that!”

Mark tries to hide the phone, but father was faster with grabbing his hand and then taking the phone away. He says that he will be confiscating it for the time-being and will not hear any arguments about this. “Now get inside and eat”.

Mark touches his hand, where father has grabbed him: it hurts and burns from the grip of an adult. Mark knows, that even though his father is not that strong, he could still break his arm quite easily. Ever-growing fear prevents Mark’s heart from calming down. He doubts he will be able to sleep tonight.

Marks goes inside, where Valentina is opening containers with ready-to-serve food on small table, that was previously in the corner of the room, but was now moved to the front of the middle bed. Apparently, she used a microwave to heat them right after buying at the shop. Mark thinks it’s strange, that he did not notice her come in, but then realizes, that she must have returned while he was near the car, where Valentina could miss him due to darkness.

“I’ve heard you like lasagna, so I got one for you. Not sure how good this blast-frozen one is, though” – says Valentina, waving Mark. She notices that Mark looks gloomy and inquires: “What’s wrong, darling?” Mark says that nothing is wrong, but father took his phone. Valentina looks at father, then back at Mark and attempts to find a middle ground: “Well, it’s already late, so not much time for phones either way. Come, eat, then take a shower and sleep. You must be both hungry and tired, right?”

Mark sits on the bed closest to the exit, thinking it’s advantageous he chosen this one, in case something happens in the night. He tries to avoid Valentina’s eyes: somehow the way she looks at him makes him uncomfortable, even though he does not feel any malice from her.

Mark takes a plastic fork and the carton plate filled by what, indeed, loos like lasagna. Its cheese cover is very uneven, especially in the corners, that dried up from heat and rolled up a bit. There is barely enough minced meat between the layers to make it even worth eating. “How is it?” – Valentina asks. Mark can’t say it’s particularly bad or anything. It’s not as good as those lasagnas mother bought sometimes, when they went to country house, and is a far cry from soft, melting texture of a home-baked one, but it’s warm, has enough of tomato and white sauces with the latter being quite good, top, so: “It’s ok” – Mark responds.

“Good” – says Valentina and pats Mark’s head. Mark feels a bit guilty before her and tries to bury his guilt in the food. “How is your food?” – Valentina asks father, seeing as he is struggling with his plastic knife not being sharp enough to properly cut his meat baked with prunes. “Potatoes are a bit dry, but ok. Can’t tell anything about the meat yet: this knife is not suited for it”. Valentina chuckles: “Well, you wanted meat, here you have it. I warned you.”. Then she starts stirring her own dish: chicken teriyaki with rice noodles. She looks at Mark again and asks him: “Do you know how to get the most of teriyaki and noodles?” Mark shakes his head and Valentina responds: “Stir them. Usually teriyaki is just placed on the pillow from noodles, even in restaurants. This way the sauce and chicken and vegetable juices only partially sink into it. But if you stir it, all the noodles will be covered in the sauce. And if you let it stay for a bit or if the noodles are just a little bit overcooked – the dough will absorb the sauce and unfold its previously hidden nuances, making a richer taste.”

Later, Mark lies in bed, thinking back to this meal: for a moment it felt as if they were… Family. Family on an actual road trip. He realizes now, why he feels guilty: Valentina is trying to warm him up to her and it seems to be slowly working, which means, that she may replace mother. But Mark does not want that. He thinks this is wrong: mother can’t be replaced. There is no one who can replace her! But Valentina seems nice.

As such, with guilt pushing out his fears, Mark falls asleep.

Next day comes and so does breakfast made of coffee for adults, coke for Mark and BLT sandwiches for everyone. Unlike yesternight there is absolutely no talking and it, generally, feels slow, even though there is fewer to eat. There is not even a hint of “family feeling”, which makes Mark feel a bit relieved from his guilt.

They hit the road once more a little shy from ten in the morning and in roughly six hours reach their destination, which to Mark looks like a holiday house, but there are elderly people all over the place. Younger people he can spot along the way seem to be nurses or doctors. Mark is surprised by that, because the place looks gorgeous to his eyes, more of a place for young people to hike and have picnics. It is stated in a forest area, with tall trees even along the entrance road, which snakes with middle-sized rocks as if paved in middle-ages, but falls into a recently modern eight-stored building, which looks slightly dull in this picture despite having some balconies. Mark thinks, that a palace, like one of those he had seen in other parks, would suit this place much better. To the left of the main building he sees some terraces and roads circling them, while to the right there is a couple of smaller buildings, possibly technical ones, since mark sees some trucks near them.

The car is left near the entrance to the forest and they all walk up to the main building. Stones paving the road are not comfortable to walk on for Mark due to his small feet and short stride, so he is lagging a bit behind the adults. Getting closer to the building realization that it is quite huge is sinking into Mark’s mind: while eight stores does not sound like much, they look taller than usual. The building is also very wide: its sides were covered by trees but getting closer allows Mark to see and estimate its length as, at least, two hundred meters. It’s not visible from where he is standing, but Mark thinks that this building may be pretty wide as well.

The walls are seemingly made of small gravel-like rocks, but Mark knows that this is, more likely, a decoration. The wood of the main doors is not: it is thick and looks heavy, almost menacing. Luckily for Mark, who doubts he could even push such a door, one of the leaves of the double door is open. Inside Mark finds high roof, that makes the whole reception look gigantic and two receptionist girls – almost like midgets. The room, while spacious, is quite dull: grey marble-like walls, floor is also grey but with slightly different texture, there are a few couches covered in dark red worn out textile and reception-desk made of thick dark wood.

While father and Valentina come up to talk to receptionists, Mark thinks he smells something good, coming from the right. In the far-right corner near a plant Mark sees a doorway and goes there. To the right he sees a wall filled with doors with numbers on them, to the left – staircase leading both up and down the floor, probably, to basement. To the right of the stairs there is an elevator and another wall with doors with numbers. Mark thinks the tasty smell comes from further down this hall of doors and follows it.

Down the hall and to the left finds a niche: a room with wide entrance, big windows covered with white curtains, some plants on the windowsills. There are four couches forming half a circle with a journal table separating them into two pairs. Across them is a TV Set, but at first Mark does not pay much attention, since on the journal table he spies a plate with some pies. Hesitantly he comes closer to it and one of the two old ladies sitting and watching the TV notices him: “Oh dear, you nearly scared me. What bring you down here?”

Mark tells everything as is: he smelled something good and was looking for its source. The grey-haired bespectacled lady laughs: “Indeed, they made some pies today and the smell still lingers. Come, eat some, if you want. These ones are with beef, and these ones are with cabbage and egg. There were some with strawberry jam, but our sweet-toothed Vera here seems to be eating the last one”. Mark looks at the second lady: she is skinny with curlers in her hair and eating a pie with red filling: “Shush, let me watch the news in silence. When I eat, I’m deaf and dumb, remember? So, eat and keep quiet”.

Mark takes a pie with beef and sits on the couch where the first lady was sitting. While eating he glances on the TV Screen and sees familiar site, so starts to pay attention. Quite soon he half-whishes he did not do that: the familiar site he saw a moment ago turns out to, indeed, be the fire creek near his father’s country house. On the news they say that an old woman was found, supposedly drowned in the fire pond, from which the creek originates.

Heartbeat through the roof: Mark understands perfectly well, what that means. He nearly drops the pie but manages to hold on to it despite the pounding in his ears. He finishes the pie, thanks the ladies, and walks out of the room, but instead of going back to reception, he goes the opposite direction. There after a left turn he sees the “Exit” sign and follows it.

Mark does not pay much attention where he is going: the most important thing for him right now is to get away as far away as possible. To “get lost” even. He does not have his phone and doubts anyone will believe what he says. If anything, people will believe his father who will convince them with “he’s a child, probably, watched some horror movie, don’t pay attention to this”. If he hides somewhere for long enough, perhaps he can wait it out first and then try reaching out police.

Books were one of the few hobbies Mark had and he read a lot of them. He understands that what some of them said has to be taken with a grain of salt, if not a pound, but he did pick up some information, that may help him survive in the woods. First, he needs to find a place to hide, some shelter, then there is water, preferably a stream, something to make a fire with to boil that water, a food source. Mark doubts he will be able to kill a hare or squirrel if he finds one and eating raw meat may not be a good idea, too, so he would prefer to find some berry bushes.

Having walked for some time, Mark decides to stop and listen: to find water source you can use your ears to locate it by sound. Unfortunately, Mark does hear anything but wind in the trees and some birds chirping in the distance. He remembers, though, that wind does tend to blow from water to shore, so he decided to go against the wind. The wind is chilly but, thankfully, Mark has his sturdy windbreaker on, which helps to preserve his warmth. He would not mind his face staying out of the wind, too, but nothing can be done except of moving on, following his gut. And his gut does not disappoint.

A wetland area stands before his eyes. The autumn sun, shining through the leaves, makes the green so vivid and lively, that Mark reaches out to his pocket only to get reminded, that he does not have his smartphone with him. The swamp is full of small pool of stagnate water, but has some elevated pieces of earth as well, where he can stand firmly, even though still wet. Long in the distance Mark sees what looks like a bigger body of water, perhaps some lake, but he realizes, that it will be a challenge to get there through this swamp.

Luckily, he sees an old half-destroyed hut, or rather two of its walls and even those are ramshackle, riddled with small holes. Luckily, portion of the wooden floor is above water and relatively dry, although as moldy as pieces lying here and there in the water and mud. Dilapidated wood will not be good for fire, but Mark sees something that will suit that need and even more: patches of cattail.

He saw quite a few of those along the fire creek near country house and they felt mundane to them, so much the bigger was his surprise, that it could be used not only as firewood or construction material, but even food. They say Cossacks used since long time ago, ate it raw or cooked, made flour and even soups. Mark feels incredibly lucky with how things are turning out.

While he is not an athletic boy and almost falls into the water a few times while collecting cattails for bedding and fire, Mark is fairly good in beadwork, which helps me make a sort of a cup out of some cattail leaves. He is not sure it will hold the water long enough but will only have one way learn it: by trying. For now, he sits on the cattail bedding behind the moldy wall, tired from walking and working. The wind is blowing past the shorter wall of the hut, but he sits low enough, so that it does not bother him at all besides some whistling. Thinking about how he will build a fire and something to hold the cup above it, in order to boil water, Mark dozes off.

When Mark opens his eyes again it is much colder and wind is blowing towards him, pushing cattails to the wall. The sun has started setting lining the clouds with red. The swamp still has abundance of light, but it is much harder to discern mud from water puddles unless wind ripples the latter. For a moment Mark sits there contemplating what he needs to do next, but his thoughts are interrupted by someone calling his name in the distance.

Mark strains his hearing: the voice seems to belong to his father. He hopes that the voice will continue moving in some other direction, but, as luck would have it, - father is getting louder and louder, as he gets closer to Mark’s hideout. In fact, Mark hears a branch crack under father’s boot just a dozen or so meters away. Mark tries to stand up, but cattails, that piled up on him from the wind, rustle loudly and freeze him in place.

“Is that you, Mark?” – father asks, looking in the direction of the hut, not seeing any movement. Mark stays still, scared to even breath. “Come on out, boy. We have places to be.” Hearing no response father takes a few careful yet squishy steps trying to see where exactly Mark is sitting, while talking to him: “Don’t make me come and get you. I am not angry yet, but if I’ll muddle my boots and pants any more – I will be. Come out there, it’s getting dark already.”

“I won’t!” – Mark cries. “Why not?” – asks father stopping in place. “You killed her! I saw it on TV!”. Mark hears father making a heavy sigh and then after some silence a long monologue:

“Why would you want to complicate things like this? You both! Is this hereditary on your mother’s side? I planned everything so perfectly: move the old hag to a nursing home and you to cadet corps far from home, but close enough to avoid potential suspicions and hearsay. You would have been living your life there peacefully, I would be doing my thing, finally free from all the obligations, all the pressure of “you must”. But no. You just can’t accept that this is the best for all of us. I tried talking to the old hag, explain to her, that I’ve already made all the arrangements, but she decided to even start hitting me, making me push her away and right into the fire creek. I tried to help her, I did, but she was so heavy, so I just decided to take the opportunity and drown her instead. Of course, I had to waste like thirty minutes now to apologize to the nursing home staff, that she was not able to come because she ran off, but, at least, I would not have to pay them anything now for pushing the deal forward. But then comes you, you little dung, and runs away for now reason. You do understand that cadet corps is great? Such organizations turn a boy into a man! You will be healthy, strong, you will be able to protect your friends, wife, children… Your country! This is your duty as a future man! And they teach you a lot of useful stuff, even sewing. But no, you had to assume, that I killed the hag. Well, yes, you are right, but now… What am I to do with you?”

While father is laying himself out, Mark is able to slowly, in order to reduce noise, remove the cattails from himself and peek into one of the holes in the rotten wood. A shiver comes down his spine, making him shudder: father takes out a gun from behind his back and under the wind-jacket. Mark remembers this gun.

In their apartment, in Mark’s room there is a door to a small storeroom, which is filled with father’s stuff, mainly relating to his hunting and fishing hobbies. There is a swamp-green metal box acting as a safe. Mark never knew what was in it, until one day father was doing something in the room and went out of it to take a call. In a hurry, he did not close the box, so Mark decided to look inside. All he saw were boxes, though, and he was disappointed, while his father was worried: “Wow, kiddo, get out of there, it’s dangerous”.

“Why? What is dangerous?” – Mark asked. “Move away,” – father said as he squeezed in back into the storeroom. He pottered in the box for a few moments then came out with a black metal slab in his hand: “This is a gun, Mark. Here, take it, it’s on safety”. Mark took the gun in his hand and nearly dropped it how heavy it was. He barely managed to raise it with two hands and father gently pushed pointed him away: “Don’t point it at people. Even if it’s on safety and not loaded. You do not point it at someone unless you want to actually kill that person.”

Mark previously saw guns in movies and some games for older children and grown-ups, but, at the moment, had little idea how this hunk of metal can kill someone, so he asked father how it does that. Father explained that there are consumables called “bullets”, they are loaded into the gun’s chamber. The gun father had was semi-automatic, so you had to use its “slide” to do that: “You pull back this thing until you hear a specific click, which means, that bullet got into the chamber. Then you point it at where you want to shoot. In order to aim you need to align the front and rear thingies you see here and here. They are called “sights”. With this one you make it, so their tops are on the same horizontal line and the front sight is right in the middle of the rear one’s “horns”. Then, when ready, you pull the trigger here, then this thing, called “hammer” will hit the bullet chamber igniting it, making a small explosion, that will propel the bullet through the chamber and into your target. In the end, it’s not exactly, the gun that kills, but rather the bullet, that will pierce through whatever it can, depending on bullet, gun distance and lots of other factors.”

It has been five, maybe even six years since that day. Today Mark knows that it does not matter if gun or bullet kills. What matters is that if his father pulled the gun, he wants to kill Mark. Mark is thinking really hard to find a way to avoid that. Some way to distract father and run away? But will he be able to outrun the bullet?

“What am I to do with you? You have been a naughty boy lately despite me trying to do what is best for you. I am sure Valentina will be disappointed by you. She says she really likes you and yet you ruin her day like this. Are you okay with that? Are you sure you want to upset such a nice lady?”

“I don’t,” – says Mark as he steps out of his hideout. He really does not want to upset Valentina, but that is not why he is doing that. He is unsure if it is visible, how his legs are shaking from fear as he tries to overcome it. He is smart enough to know, that he is not a superhero and not even a regular hero from the movies, but he does not see any other option. He stands looking at his father, but not straight into his eyes – a bit lower, as he does, when he feels guilty. But he is not feeling any guilt, only determination, to use the rocks, he hides behind his back. Father smiles: “Finally. Now come here. Talk to me, what’s wrong?”

“This,” – says Mark as he throws one of the rocks, smaller one, to the right of his father’s head, making him turn his head that way. Mark knows, that as a kid he won’t be able to tackle a grown-up man that easily, but he is distracted and if Mark runs at him at full speed, his little legs are capable of, then there is, at least, a chance. And he takes it, running just a little bit and then lunging at father’s stomach, pushing him down to the ground.

When doing this leap of faith, Mark takes another gamble as well: he knows from books that closing his eyes during a fight is a bad thing, but it is exactly what he does and plays right into his hand. Already confused father gets muddy water into his eyes, which further obstructs his view and gives Mark precious seconds to take the bigger stone he has with both hands and hit his father’s left arm just below the wrist. Father grunts and drops the gun.

Mark takes muddied gun and runs back to the wall of the hut. Gun is still heavy for his small hands, putting him off balance and making him trip over one of the tussocks right into the mud, face first. “What the hell are you doing?” – Mark hears his father saying, but he does not care. He hastily crawls to the hut, back against the wall and points the gun at father.

The man stands up grunting and cursing, trying to get the mud off him. He leans over trying to clean his eyes. Finally, being able to see, he notices the gun being pointed at him: “Wow, kiddo. What are you doing?” He steps forward raising his hands on the level of his chest, but Mark commands him not to move. “Come on, you do not even know how to use that thing… Put it down.”

“What is he saying? Does he not even remember, how he explained this thing to me?” – thinks Mark as he takes the safety off and pulls the slide, which provides a lot of resistance, forcing Mark to use all of his little might, that he can muster. He holds the gun with both of his hands and points it at father. He knows that he will not be able to properly aim through the sights, but at this distance, perhaps, he will not need to.

“Come on. Don’t be like that,” – says father once more taking a step toward the boy. “I said stop!” – Mark shouts. He is surprised how calm his voice sound despite his innards turning inside out right now. He sees as father’s expression changes: it is not so calm with a fake smile now, but rather serious, on the edge of angry. “Put the gun down, right now. Put. It. Down. Do it or I’ll scree your head off, you ingrate,” – says father as he takes the next step.

Mark closes his eyes, pulls the trigger and nearly goes deaf from the boom, as he gets pushed into the wall. The recoil raises his hands so hard and fast he nearly hits himself in the jaw. Mark opens his eyes and sees father clamping his hand against his left side, dark blood oozing through fingers. He is opening his mouth, but Mark’s ears are still ringing, so he cannot hear what he is saying. But he assumes, that he gets the gist.

Father looks at Mark again, continuing cursing: his face is warped not only in pain and anger, but pure hatred. He starts moving towards the boy again and Marks starts to try to use the gun’s slide. His hands feel wadded, as if wrapped in cotton candy. He is finally able to pull the slide, though, point the gun, close his eyes, and shoot again.

Once Mark opens his eyes, he sees his father standing on his knees, gasping for air and holding a new hole closer to the right and a bit higher than the earlier one. Red-brownish liquid is oozing from it. Father tries to move closer to Mark but falls under his own weight right into the mud, less than a meter away from the boy.

Mark seems unable to find enough air, as if it’s him who was shut in the stomach. He feels almost paralyzed: a few moments ago he felt the weight of the gun pulling his arms, the humidity of the wall, the nastiness of the mud against his legs, warmth of his own pee, but now he feels numb.

In less than ten minutes Valentina and a couple of the nursing house staff find him. Valentina rushes to the shocked boy, while the staff – to his father. The woman tries to hug him by the shoulders and asks, what happened. The only thing Mark is able to say, almost catatonically, is: “It was not me. It was the bullet.”