"Mom, when are you gonna get up? We're really hungry!"
Two small fingers pried my left eyelid apart so I was forced to stare into the eyes of Nick, who had an irritated scowl on his face. I groaned and rubbed my face, unwilling to wake up and start breakfast for my house full of kids. Nick wouldn't give up until I fed him. He was ten now, almost old enough to stay home on alone and make his own damn pancakes in the morning.
"You are such a little pain," I yawned, ruffling his hair. "Go get Jasmine and tell her to set the table up. I'll be down in a few minutes."
Nick leapt off the bed and rushed out the door faster than lightning to go pester his sister. A bit of sunlight had trickled through my window and bathed the sheets, making it practically impossible to get up. There was nothing I loved more than a warm bed on a Monday morning. I snuggled into my covers with a heavy sigh. Mondays also meant the house would be empty until noon, when parents dropped off their kids.
I pulled myself up with immense difficulty and stretched my arms toward the ceiling. It made sense for me to run a daycare in my own home. Ever since I had met Jasmine, I knew my calling was to be with children. And they didn't irritate me; not one bit. I loved having their little feet scampering around the house, chasing the cats or playing tag. It helped keep me from feeling too lonely.
It took me a little while to shower and brush my teeth so I looked presentable to the parents. The house would have to be cleaned and I would need to make sure everyone was set for school by the time they stopped by, so every minute counted.
While I was pulling my hair into a loose ponytail the babies couldn't tug on, I heard one of my kids clearing her throat near the door. I turned to see who it was with a pin in my mouth.
Marie had her arms folded and was glaring at me impatiently. The sight made my heart melt. She reminded me so much of her father. Five years old and she already had an attitude like he did. Per usual with the Gunter family, she had been the one to inherit the ongoing green eye trait, but she had normal brown hair. Our kids barely looked related from all the different eye and hair color combinations.
"Your children are starving," she sniffed.
"Eat Ivan," I suggested, turning back to fix my hair. "He's the smallest."
My daughter stamped her foot indignantly. "Mother, I need food! Today is picture day and I need a full tummy to look my prettiest!"
I rolled my eyes. Luckily, her father only gave her his hair and enormous ego.
We went downstairs (well, I was dragged) to see everyone sitting patiently at the table. Jasmine was finishing putting out silverware while Nick inspected each piece to make sure it was completely clean. I winced at the sight. His fear of blood led him to outright germaphobia.
He perked up when he saw me and helped Marie lead me to the stove, where I sourly began mixing the ingredients they had already lain out. It was heartwarming that they saw me as a chef.
Marie pulled herself up on the counter nearby and neatly flattened her dress. "Is daddy going to come see me today? I put this whole outfit together all by myself." She smiled broadly and clasped her hands in her lap. "And I memorized my times tables, just like he said."
"You're in kindergarten. Can you even add?" Jasmine asked derisively.
Her sister puffed up angrily. "Of COURSE I can add. Daddy taught me that when I was this tall!" She held her hand down a little lower, which would have made her a midget when she was four. "If you're bad at math, one of us has to do well."
"I'm not bad at math, I just don't waste my life agonizing over it."
"I'm terrible at math," Nick interrupted cheerfully.
I poured some of the batter into the pan carefully. "Nick gets the first pancake since he stopped the fight. Let that be a warning to you two."
The girls both looked like they wanted to say something, but opted to keep their mouths shut. It wasn't hard to discipline kids when you could use food as leverage.
"Should we go get the demon spawn?" Jasmine asked a few minutes later.
I flipped the solidified pancake onto a paper plate and handed it down to Nick, who proudly accepted it. He was by far the worst mama's boy I had ever seen. If the girls were arguing, he would always act as a mediator just so I would spoil him in some way. I wondered if I had accidentally trained him like a dog.
Jasmine raised an eyebrow when I ignored her question and started the next pancake. "What? Are you just going to leave him up there forever? He's a baby; they're all difficult."
It was hard to give her a reassuring smile. Babies were tough sometimes; I had learned that much over the past few years. But I had an uncomfortable feeling when I was around my one year old, Viktor. Sort of like how I always felt when—
The doorbell suddenly rang and Marie was off the counter and down the hall before I could blink. Jasmine begrudgingly took over cooking so I could run after her, but she was already curtseying to her father when I arrived. "Look daddy, I'm pretty for my pictures!"
Liev was leaning against the doorframe in the casual manner he always did, both eyes focused intently on Marie while she twirled around, trying to impress him. He hadn't changed much since we had been living together. Like he and my mother had said: you couldn't cure a psychopath. All you could do was try to tame them, like Adel did to Nikolai. Unfortunately, that was her undoing.
He smiled crookedly and leaned down to pick her up, careful to avoid wrinkling her dress. Marie looked positively overjoyed, immediately flinging herself across his shoulder to hug him. She was a little obsessed.
"You look beautiful," he murmured into her ear. "Why don't you go eat breakfast? You have school soon."
Her eyes widened at the memory trigger. As soon as he put her back down, she scurried out to the dining room and started yelling at Jasmine to make her a gigantic pancake.
"Who does she remind you of?" I asked to break the ensuing silence.
Liev shrugged. "No one in particular. Is the other one here?"
"He's upstairs sleeping as far as I know." I threw my hands up and shook my head. "I knew Marie was pure luck. Viktor is not normal."
My husband shut the door behind him and gestured for me to lead the way. He stayed away from the house for the most part. His visits were few and far between, to protect both me and Marie from living the life he had with Adel and Nikolai. It surprised me at first that he could bear to be away from us like that. He wasn't nearly as possessive and selfish as he used to be.
At the same time, I knew he was still sticking to his old ways. It was useless to try and quell the beast inside him, so he fed his problem to keep from torturing me like Nikolai had done to Adel. The longer he stayed away from us, the better control he could get. He'd stay for a week and vanish for a year.
We quietly entered Viktor's baby blue room and approached his crib. He was sleeping peacefully with a thumb jammed in his mouth. Liev glanced at me for permission, then reached down to touch his black hair.
Viktor's blue eyes snapped open.
"Oh my," Liev said. "That is a little frightening."
The baby stared up at us blankly, never blinking. It wasn't unusual for him to do. He seemed too aware for a child; a little too interested in what was going on around him. He gazed around the room slowly, then his eyes locked onto his father. An eerie smile spread across his face and he reached his arms toward him. Liev didn't budge.
"See what I mean?" I whispered as I accepted Viktor's demand for attention. "Babies don't do that. He acts like you."
"Viktor is a bit strange, but nothing to worry about. I know my kind. He's just going to be intelligent like all the other men in my family." Liev offered his son his index finger, which he happily accepted and began to gnaw. "See? Just a bit of curiosity. Don't go calling your mother to have him put away."
We stood in the room and talked quietly for several more minutes about our children and how my career was panning out. Liev worked as a hitman to keep himself under the radar, and would occasionally send me or the kids money to help out. He hadn't become pontiff like he planned, but a new president was appointed who was working to repair the damaged world economy.
When it seemed like Viktor fell asleep, I lowered him back in his crib and left with Liev behind me. But at the door, my husband turned to see his son one last time.
Viktor was sitting up next to the cages of his crib, holding them like he was in prison and staring with a wide smile at Liev. It was so disturbing that I couldn't bear to watch and tried to pull my husband away.
"He's challenging me," Liev breathed. "But why?"
Our baby's smile morphed into a toothy sneer. "Da da," he slurred, reaching a hand between the bars. "Da. Da." His little fingers wriggled desperately in the air. But when Liev refused to move, Viktor's grin drooped into an angry scowl. He withdrew his arm and shakily pulled himself to his feet.
"Can we just go?" I begged. "This feels like a damn horror movie."
Viktor glared at his father with eyes that could melt steel. When I looked up to see Liev appearing genuinely worried, I knew we had a serious problem.
"This is beyond abnormal," he said, now starting to push me from the room. "Don't come back up here. I'll take care of him. And make sure Marie stays very far away." His eyes were pinned to Viktor as he finally kicked me out completely. "This one is damaged."
"Damaged?" I echoed. "What the hell does that mean? He might be like you, but we can still put him in therapy to help. He's just a baby."
But my rationalizations fell upon deaf ears. Liev told me to go downstairs and "tend to the children" while he sat with Viktor. I stood in shock after the door closed.
What could possibly scare a psychopath?