Anton fixed problems. For as long as I'd known him, he'd been cleaning up the messes others made. It wasn't that he was just a nice guy who liked to help people; whoever enlisted his services paid dearly for them. At least that's what I'd heard, anyway.

He was one of the many guys that hung out at my house when I was growing up. He started showing up when he was about thirteen. He'd befriended my brother or something. He found the nice garage my dad keeps and stuck around to help the old man with whatever project he was working on at the time. He didn't stay friends with my brother, but he was sitting at the dinner table most nights because my parents would always invite him to stay.

Anton liked working on cars and playing with mechanical things. He got into lots of fights and could talk his way out of any situation. I'm fairly sure the nicest thing he's ever done for me was to help build a sandcastle the first time he came on one of our family vacations. He was almost fourteen then. I'd just turned nine. Most of the time, Anton chose to ignore me.

Once he'd graduated, my father helped his surrogate son open his own garage. The business really boomed quickly, and Anton was much too busy to hang around our house too much. That isn't to say that he'd forgotten my father's kindness. The man may have always been a pompous asshole who milked the hell out of the capitalistic society we live in, but he certainly wasn't ungrateful.

I guess that may have been why I called him to pick me up. We still spoke occasionally, and I knew him to be a trustworthy individual for the right price. He didn't owe me any favors, so I certainly expected to pay him handsomely for his troubles. I couldn't really afford monetary compensation, but I'd think of something. I certainly couldn't call my brother or father to pick me up from the hospital. That would mean admitting I'd made a mistake; and that was out of the question.

I felt most relieved when his tall form entered the tiny room alone. His dark hair was a bit longer than I remembered, but his eyes were the same icy blue. "Maria," he greeted in his thick Russian accent. He nodded slightly as he said it. I knew he wasn't staring at me because he thought I was attractive. I was in pretty bad shape, and it isn't easy to tear your eyes away from a train wreck. He didn't wince. He didn't ask what happened. He just stared and waited.

I smiled weakly at him. "Thanks, Anton. I owe you." He grunted. I grabbed my bag gingerly and began to walk out the door. Once we'd gotten outside, I let him lead me to his car.

He'd upgraded to something newer than the beat up old Geo Metro he drove as a teen. I didn't bother to look at what he was driving now, but it was shiny and black. The interior was clean and smelled like leather and cigarettes. I resisted the urge to frown. Anton was staring at me. "Yeah?" I questioned.

"Where to?"

I thought a moment. I certainly couldn't go home. He knew that. I wouldn't have called him if I could. And I definitely didn't want to go to the apartment Steve and I were sharing. "Some cheap motel. Doesn't matter," I said finally. I sighed and closed my eyes.

When I opened them, I was laying on an old brown couch. I recognized it as the one Mom had decided to get rid of because the dog had practically ruined it. I sat up and looked around for Anton. I wondered briefly why he'd brought me here, but figured he was either curious as to what had happened or wanted payment sooner than I'd hoped.

"Eat," he commanded as his large hands dropped a bowl of mac and cheese in my lap. At my confused look, he explained that I was skin and bones. I nodded and began to eat. Steve had said I needed to lose weight. I had, and he was still calling me fat. Anton did not seem to agree.

When he was satisfied that I'd eat without his supervision, he switched on the TV. The movie was something horrifying, so I did my best to pay little attention. The remainder of the evening was something of a blur. We watched a good deal of movies and didn't say much. I don't think I'll ever be sure how it happened, but I somehow ended up in bed with Anton.

"How long do you want to stay here?" He asked as we both lay staring at the ceiling. His bed was king size. We weren't even close to touching. I had no fear that he'd try something. If Anton wanted sex, he'd have been very blunt about it.

"I have work in the morning," I answered easily.

"That isn't what I was asking."

"Oh," I muttered quietly.

"How long," he asked again with an impatient edge to his voice, "do you intend to stay with me?"

"When would you like me to leave?"

"That was again not a proper answer."

"I don't know," I answered truthfully.

"Until you look human colored again?"

"That sounds about right."

"And if someone notices you missing?" he asked. I knew he meant Steve.

"Oh well."

"All right, then. Find your own way to work and back. Don't wake me when you leave."

"Good night to you, too." I rolled my back to him and fell asleep much more quickly than I would have expected.

I took the bus to and from the school. Conservative clothes and a good make up job made me look normal to the second graders I taught. While I knew Steve was out of the house, I picked up some clothes and things before returning to Anton's flat. I stopped at the grocery store on the way back. By the time Anton got home, I'd made dinner for the two of us. He looked surprised but didn't say much about it.

We ate our chicken paprikash in silence. I found myself wishing that my cooking skills were as good as my mother's, but at least they were passable. She was just amazing. He did smile when I put a plate of his favorite cookies in front of him after we'd finished the meal. I'd never forget that he liked the peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kisses in the middle; those were always my favorites as well.

It seemed to me that Anton, for some strange and unknown reason, actually enjoyed watching god awful science fiction movies. His favorite was about a volcano that some mad scientist accidentally triggered in New York City. The movie was ironically named Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York. To his credit, the movie is laughably bad.

Halfway through the movie, his phone rang. "Yeah?" he questioned curtly. I wondered if he was even polite to his customers at the shop. He was silent for a few minutes, listening. I watched his handsome face as it slowly became more annoyed. He smirked when he looked over and caught me staring. I blushed and suddenly found Michael Ironside's insane rambling very interesting.

His hand was suddenly drawing patterns on my knee. I stiffened, and I could hear him snort in amusement but he didn't stop. "Would you get to the point, already?" he snapped. There was another minute of silence from Anton, and I could hear the guy on the other end of the line speaking very quickly. He sounded panicked. "Look, man, I'm a little busy. Just tell me what you want and maybe I'll help." He was silent again for a moment while the guy spoke. "No," he said, not even thinking about the offer.

I sighed and tried very hard to keep from listening. The conversation went on for another fifteen minutes or so before Anton finally lost his patience. "Look, Steve, I'm not going to help you. I don't have time to listen to you bitch, either. You don't pay me enough for that. I'm with a girl right now, I'll talk to you later," and then his phone snapped shut. "Sorry," he grunted at me. I wondered briefly if the Steve he had just spoken with was the man I lived with. I decided very quickly that I didn't care.

I bit my lip. I felt quite guilty when he put things that way. I stood. "I should probably go," I muttered. He didn't even look at me, let alone say anything. I wasn't really expecting him to, but I sort of liked Anton and it would have been nice if he had asked me to stay.

My exit wasn't as graceful as I'd have liked; I stubbed my toe on the way to the door. Anton's home wasn't cluttered, but it was very dark. He finally spoke as I was putting my shoes on. "Where are you going to go?"

I froze. I couldn't go to my parents' house looking the way I did. I certainly didn't want to think about what Steve would do when I came home. "I don't know," I muttered. My voice cracked and I hated it. I was stuck. Anton knew it as much as I did.

"The best part of the movie is about to be on. Come watch," he suggested as he patted the couch next to him. I smiled and sat back down. Anton had a very odd way of asking things, I noticed. I was sure he knew when I sat beside him that I wouldn't be leaving that night. I was also sure that he didn't mind.

We had a lot of fun watching terrible movies. I'm usually a snob about them, too. I only like movies with good acting, good writing, and good directing. However, I don't think I've ever enjoyed myself more than I did that night poking fun at the unspeakable crimes committed by the B-movie makers.

It was very late when we stumbled from the couch into bed. I barely remembered to set my alarm, and I think I may have been asleep before my head hit the pillow. It seemed like no time at all had passed when my alarm woke me up. I felt like I'd been hit by a Mack truck and the only thing that kept me from going right back to sleep was the knowledge that it was indeed Friday.

My whole body ached the entire day. By the time four o'clock rolled around, I was ready to go to sleep. Instead, I made dinner for Anton and myself. He strolled in a few hours later and was once again surprised that dinner was waiting for him. I felt oddly pleased with myself at the look on his face.

I woke up far later than usual on Saturday. Anton wasn't even there when I finally rolled out of bed around ten. Having no real work to do, I decided to take care of a few domestic issues I needed to fix eventually. Once the dishes were done and the kitchen was clean, I resolved to clean the rest of the flat and run a few loads of laundry. There wasn't much of mine, so Anton's ended up getting done as well.

Over the past couple of days, I'd come to notice that he tended to arrive home at seven or so. When he strolled in at six, I'd just begun preparing dinner. He actually smiled when he greeted me. "Good evening," I replied with a smile.

He stood there looking awkward for a moment while I sliced vegetables before he turned on his heel and left. He was back in less than two minutes. "Why the fuck did you clean my house?"

I stared at him. His sudden anger and use of expletive shocked me for a second. My reaction was automatic; it was exactly what I'd say to my second graders calling each other retards. "Do you kiss your mother with that potty mouth?"

His mouth hung open. "I… what?"

I put the knife down and turned my whole body to face him. I imagined I didn't look very imposing in sweat pants and a t-shirt, but I put my hands on my hips anyway. "Such language is not necessary nor is it attractive."

"Yeah, whatever." He'd finally recovered. "Why is my house clean?"

I shrugged. "I didn't have anything better to do."

"Right. Any other liberties you took with my belongings that I should know about?" He took a step closer to me. Without noticing I did it, I took a step back. He noticed and smirked.

"Your laundry is washed and folded in two baskets. I didn't put it away."

His palm hit his forehead. "Did you at least pull the papers out of my pockets?" He was talking through his teeth.

"On the table," I responded hesitantly. I wasn't exactly sure why he was angry with me. I'd only helped him out a bit.

He sighed. "Okay. Whatever." He yawned. "What's for dinner, Suzy Homemaker?"

"Stir fry," I answered with a smile. He seemed satisfied with this and left. I heard the TV moments later.

We ate in silence and I avoided him the rest of the night. I didn't exactly want him to know that I was afraid of what he'd do to me when he was angry, but I was pretty sure it was too late for that. I locked myself in his room and graded papers all evening. When I ran out, I went to bed.

Anton came in much later. Steve had made me a light sleeper, and the door opening woke me up. I was also an expert at pretending to be asleep. The floor creaked slightly as he walked toward me. I could feel his breath on my face and I knew he must be kneeling very close. His fingers gently touched a particularly nasty bruise on my cheek. I didn't even flinch. "I'm sorry," he whispered before he moved away. A few moments later, I felt the other side of the bed sink. It was not long before his light snoring filled the room.

Two weeks later, we still had not spoken of the incident. I assumed Anton was getting tired of my presence, so I informed him over dinner that I'd be going back home the next day.

"To that bastard?" he questioned.

I bit my lip. "He called. He said he's sorry and that he's getting anger management help now."

"And you believed him?"

"I have no reason not to."

He sighed and set his fork down loudly. "You know, for a woman as intelligent as you are, you're very dumb."

"What?" I questioned sharply, offended.

"If he hit you once, he'll do it again. What did you do last time? Burn the meatloaf?"

"I don't burn things," I responded curtly.

"Never mind!" He sighed. "Just be careful."

"Yeah, I know."

"If you get into trouble again, don't wait until you're in the hospital to call."

Three months later, everything was fine. Steve and I hadn't gotten into a single fight. I hadn't seen much of Anton. The kids at school were getting excited for Christmas break. Even though they got to be a handful, I couldn't help but smile at such youthful exuberance.

I convinced myself that I was happy with Steve. He'd been sickeningly sweet lately, even going as far as to buy me flowers. I wasn't exactly all that fond of roses, but it was the thought that counted.

My boyfriend finished his anger management classes and things still couldn't be better. The thing about Steve is that I think he's bipolar. After he got out of class, he was arrested for possession of marijuana. They let him off easy since it was his first offense.

Unfortunately, it had been the weed that was keeping him calm. He didn't want to get into trouble again so soon. The obvious solution was to quit, I told him. I was something of a goodie-two shoes in high school and had never smoked the substance in my life. I wouldn't smoke with him, and I thought it was immature, but I resolved to keep from saying anymore.

He did quit, and then he picked up drinking. The man's violent nature came to show through once more and I began to wonder what I'd ever seen in him. However, I still had it in my mind that we could work things out. No relationship worth anything goes smoothly, right? We were simply going through a low point.

In the next few days, there seemed to be more low points than high points. The last straw fell upon the proverbial camel's back on a Friday. It was a week and a half before Christmas. I'd been doing dishes when an empty wine bottle was broken over my shoulder. I stared at Steve for a second. His eyes were bloodshot and he was screaming at me. I couldn't even tell what exactly he was saying. My feet reacted before the rest of me; I bolted out the door and down the street.

Bloody and frozen, I pounded frantically on Anton's door at one in the morning. He lived a few miles away from Steve. It had taken well over an hour for me to get there. The cold Boston air had frozen my tears to my cheeks nearly as fast as they fell. I knew I must look terrible, and I beat on the door as though my life depended on it.

Anton took his sweet time sauntering over and opening the door, but the look that crossed his face when he saw me let me know immediately that he regretted it. He reached up and grabbed my elbow, leading me into the spacious flat. He certainly did not look happy.

"Hey," I said and smiled weakly as he sat me down on a chair in the well-lit kitchen.

"Take off your shirt," he commanded. Apparently, he didn't care to bother with pleasantries.

"Not hey works, too," I muttered and struggled to get my shirt off.

"Fuck it," he grumbled and pulled out a pocket knife. He was careful of my shoulder while he sliced my t-shirt to shreds.

"Language," I grumbled.

"Shut up." He sighed and tossed the bloody mess of cloth into the trash. Anton growled in a way that seemed almost feral as he dug through drawers in search of something. When the last of them slammed shut, he walked back to me. "This is going to hurt, Maria." I noticed that his accent seemed thicker when he was angry.

I yelped as he began to pull the shards of glass from my tender skin. He ignored my strangled cries and held me still. It was clear to me that he was not a man accustomed to being gentle. He was, however, trying. I wasn't exactly sure that it was possible to rip glass from flesh delicately. The man cursed vehemently as he worked. I could not help but feel ashamed. Tears welled in my eyes from more than just the pain Steve had caused me.

"I'm sorry," I offered. He grunted. "And thanks." He didn't even dignify that with a response.

When Anton was satisfied that every last piece of glass had been pulled from my shoulder, he set to work cleaning my wounds. He was kind enough to do so gently, and to bandage it carefully. Once he'd finished, however, he pulled me to my feet with none of the soothing touch he'd shown moments before. His blue eyes were bright with burning rage. "When I said," he began slowly, "to not wait to call on my services until you are in the hospital, I did not mean to wait until you should be in a hospital."

I could not bring myself to respond. My face was hot with embarrassment and wet with tears. My nose was beginning to feel stuffy and my throat felt tight. I let out a strangled sob and fixed my eyes on the patterns printed on the linoleum. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Anton's hand reach up toward my face. It was only instinct to flinch away from him, I knew all too well the way angry men touched women.

He sighed deeply and took my hand in his much larger one instead. "Marianne," he whispered, sounding bitter and regretful. I looked at him. My eyes were so wide I was certain he could see the whites around the irises. "I will not strike you," he said sternly. It was all I could do to nod. "I'm sorry for my… colorful choice of words," he offered awkwardly. I smiled a bit; he was clearly at a loss for words. "Wanna watch that volcano movie?" My giggle could not have sounded attractive as it was mixed with a sob, but I stood anyway. He seemed grateful that there was no need to continue the previous conversation.

We held hands through the entire movie. Something about Anton made me want to be closer to him. Even when he was as angry as he was tonight, his presence comforted me. Deep down, I knew that he was the type of man I should be in a relationship with. I wished more than anything at that moment for him to take me in his arms and promise to chase all the demons away. However, Anton was not the type of man to chase away demons without some sort of reimbursement. I didn't even know whether or not he had a girlfriend. I was unfortunately confident that he was the cause of the butterflies in my stomach.

Though the night had been long and I hadn't had a chance to sleep much lately, I did not feel all that tired. My shoulder ached continuously throughout the movie. I wished I had some sort of painkillers. Anton doubtlessly had something strong, but he didn't offer me any and I felt as though I was already being a burden. I could be tough, too.

I felt a tug on my arm and looked at Anton. "It's late," he was saying, "let's get to bed." The anger had faded from his voice over the past few hours. For that, at least, I was grateful. I nodded and allowed him to escort me to his bedroom.

I didn't bother looking for another shirt, electing to sleep in my bra. The sweatpants I'd been wearing all day were a comfortable enough substitute for pajama pants. I was forced to lie facing Anton when I crawled into my side of the bed; my shoulder would not allow me to lie even on my back. He rolled over to face me. I could see his face faintly once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light. "Thank you," I said awkwardly with a soft smile.

As Anton tended to do, he grunted in response. We stared at one another for a while. He was the first to move. "Close your eyes," he whispered. I obeyed and felt his large and callused hands play gently with my hair. His tender touch made me relax much more rapidly than I would have otherwise. Before long, I felt myself drifting in and out of sleep. I don't know how much time passed before he next spoke, but it seemed like forever. "Maria?"

"Hmm?" I questioned back sleepily.

"Why do you stay with him?"

My eyes shot open and I nearly sat up. Anton's hands continued to entangle themselves in my hair. Some part of me felt guilty for acting this way with another man when I was still Steve's woman. "I don't know," I muttered. With my good hand I massaged my own temples. My eyes were closed once again the next time I opened my mouth. "Maybe I love him." I glanced at him to gauge his response.

The look on his face told me he didn't believe that I loved Steve for a second. "That would be stupid of you."

I shook my head and sighed. "He says I deserve it."

"In what fucked up world does a woman deserve to live in fear of her domestic partner?"

"He only acts this way sometimes. Steve says that he only does it because of the blank look on my face. I look like a robot and he wants to beat some sort of feeling into me." I was choking on my own words. Tears were rolling down my face and I coughed.

Anton kissed my damp cheek softly. I briefly wondered when he'd become so gentle. "That's just untrue."

"Thanks." I bit my lip and sighed. Silence fell over us for a moment. The only sound was that of my awkward breathing and sniffling. "The things he says hurt more than the things he does."

His arms were around me instantly, rubbing my back. He kissed my temple and growled. "I won't allow you to go back again. He does not deserve a woman like you, Marianne."

"You're so sweet, Anton." I bit my lip again. My mouth was dry and I felt very awkward.

"Hardly. But I do care too much about you to let you live with a monster like that dickless son of a bitch."

I gasped. "Language," I reminded weakly.

"No. That sick fuck gets some sort of pleasure from causing harm to those weaker than him." Despite the angry tone in his voice, Anton's hands on my body never caused me anything other than comfort.

I didn't know how to respond, so I nuzzled my head under his chin. "Okay." The man was surprisingly cuddly for an angry Russian. I'd never seen Anton act this way before and wondered what was happening between us. I knew Steve would kill me if he found out about it, but I couldn't bring myself to feel guilty. "Steve's going to kill me for lying with you."

The man beside me pulled away from me far enough to place a chaste kiss on my forehead. I couldn't help but smile. "I could take him. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, you're no longer with him."

I frowned, not exactly sure what point he was trying to make. Was Anton implying that he would be comfortable with Steve assuming we were sleeping together? I bit my lower lip before forcing myself to yawn. I was not tired, but I certainly didn't have the mental capacity to figure out what Anton wanted from me at such an hour. "Good night," I whispered through my yawn. My eyes closed and I tried very hard to be asleep, or at least look like I was.

His hand snaked up my back and tangled itself in my hair as he rubbed the back of my neck gently. It was quite an effort to keep my breath shallow with him so close. At least half an hour passed before he did anything else. His lips pressed softly to my forehead. "Goddamnit woman," he was whispering, "Why do you have to be so fucking amazing?" I was relieved that his chin was resting on the top of my head so he couldn't see the smile on my face. "What I wouldn't do to have you to come home to every day."

My eyes shot open. My eyelashes must have tickled is throat because he pulled away and stared at me. His expression said "oh shit" for him. That faded when he saw the bright smile on my face. "Does that mean I can stay?" I whispered knowingly.

He chuckled and leaned over to kiss my lips. He was much more passionate about kissing than Steve ever was. I felt blood rush to my cheeks as I wondered if he was as passionate in bed as his kisses hinted. I knew I was grinning like an idiot while I returned his affections. I wasn't sure when the last time I'd been so happy was, but it was certainly long before Steve's chapped lips had ever touched mine.

Maybe I was cheating, but it certainly didn't seem that way. Steve was no longer in my life and for that much I was grateful. Anton was right: that bastard didn't deserve me. I'd missed playing Suzy Homemaker for someone who appreciated my efforts, even if he never actually said something about it.