1 Chapter 1: The family you don't chose

"There's always a choice, and if there isn't, then you're not looking for it well," Axel repeats to himself and, continuing to kick the empty plastic bottle, walks toward the house. Father's battered pickup truck is on the lawn, which means he is already at home. Axel pauses at the car, on which he knows every scratch by heart, counts the bullet holes, makes sure there are no new ones, exhales, and walks towards the entrance. He is already tired of it all, and he doesn't want to make a row because of being late, but before Axel has time to enter the house, Do, the boy's father, steps out onto the porch.

"Finally," the man exclaims. "I already thought to send the guys for you. Let's go inside. It's time to meet."

"I wasn't particularly eager to get to know your family," an eleven-year-old boy grumbles, leaning against the railing.

"Not mine, but ours," the man joins his eyebrows on the bridge of his nose. "Stop being selfish. Stop thinking only about yourself. You will enter the house, say "Hello" to Inna, and you will not embarrass me with your bad manners."

"I think only of myself?" The boy curls his mouth. "You don't care about me since you think it's normal to bring another woman into the house and demand that I call her mummy!"

"Axel," the man softens. "I never demanded this from you, but you refuse to understand me, to accept the fact that life goes on, that I fell in love with someone other than your mum."

"It is not "love"!" The boy clamps his palms into fists. "Love happens once, and you had it with my mum. Although I'm not sure, considering that only three years after her death, you brought another to our house."

"You are very young," Do squats in front of him, "You do not know that Love happens more than once. You are angry with me, but it's not my fault that your mum left us so early. I would give my life if only she lived, but who asked me? Inna is a wonderful person; she has a huge heart ..."

"Enough! I will say "Hello," but don't expect more from me," the boy growls and reaches for the wooden door, which is the same color as their house. There is not a single tree on this street, which consists entirely of low one-story old residences. Old asphalt, battered in places covered with huge holes, merges with the walls of houses, creating the impression of one solid gray picture.

"Despondency," Axel calls his street and thinks again about the cans of paint, which he and Leo use to paint these gray walls. The next morning, after scandals with neighbors and the cuff from his father, he paints them gray again.

A four-room house from the inside is just as unpleasant to the eye as from the outside - an old shabby wooden floor, creaking doors, and yellowed wallpaper. A small corridor immediately goes into the kitchen, which was once filled with snow-white furniture. If you go straight along the hall - the living room, the walls of which are pasted over in places with unstuck burgundy wallpaper. An old sofa against the wall, a TV, and a low table with one broken leg, instead of which are stacks of books - the room's whole interior.

They don't live in poverty, but they don't look behind the house. Axel's father is the assistant and right-hand man of the head of the A-Card drug cartel, Chan. Their home is under protection, there have never been problems with money, but the absence of a woman in the house makes itself felt. It seems that not so much time has passed after Axel's mother's death, but the whole place seemed to instantly collapse with her departure. All that was left to the two men from the woman are pictures of the eastern Gods on the living room wall, more than twenty snowballs, which the woman collected. They smell like her, still keeping the breathtaking smell, which gets tuck in Axel's lungs every time he breathes in. Axel's mum passed away three years ago from a heart attack and took away the comfort and happiness in her death. Within these walls, one cannot hear laughter or conversations, even when father and son were sitting at the same table.

Every birthday, Axel's mum baked a cake with three types of milk. She made lemonade from kiwi and grapes and decorated the house, repeating that this was the best day of the year because her boy was born. Axel hasn't celebrated birthdays for three years. The night before going to bed, he remembers all his birthdays to not let the rare precious moments with his family fade from memory.

Axel goes to a local school, is in charge of dinner, and often disappears with friends in an abandoned warehouse outside the city. He knows that his father was dating someone for six months, but even though the man began to smile again and came after the meetings happy, he did not think it was so severe. Axel doesn't mind his dad dating a new woman. On the contrary, he couldn't understand why his dad wasn't meeting anyone, but he didn't even think that the woman would live in their house. For Axel, his mum still lives in this house, and nothing about it should change.

Axel pushes the heavy door open and walks straight into the living room, in the middle of which is a beautiful, thirty-year-old woman that doesn't fit into the picture. Axel swallows the lump of resentment in his throat and moves closer. Only now does the little boy notices that a small child is hiding behind the woman, clinging to her leg. Axel unknowingly inhales. A little girl.

"You got to be joking!" the boy growls and, turning, walks quickly to the stairs to the attic to his room. A room is too loud a name for a tiny room that smelled of dampness, in which there is nothing but a low bed and a wardrobe with crumpled clothes.

"Well done," Dad bursts in next, and Axel puts a pillow over his face. "Was it difficult for you even to say hello?"

"Was it difficult for you to say that she would bring a rat with her?" The boy sits down on the bed. "What? It turns out, I have not only a new "mum" but also a "sister"?"

"Did you listen?" the man approaches the bed. "As soon as I open my mouth about Inna, you would immediately leave."

"Father, if I don't talk to them, they won't lose much. This is the maximum that I can," tries to even out the voice of the boy and reaches for a faded denim jacket.

"Where are you going?" Do frowns.

"To take a walk," Axel throws and walks out the door.

"We sit down for dinner," the man catches up with him on the stairs.

"Since when do we have dinner?" Axel laughs as he walks past the kitchen Inna is in. The kid sits right on the floor by the open cabinet and fiddles with saucepans.

"Bon appetite," Axel mumbles and slams the door behind him.

"Forgive him. He needs time," Do approaches the woman. He kisses her on the back of the head.

"I understand everything," Inna smiles warmly. "And you don't press on him. It was our choice, not his."

"Neither you nor I am to blame that we met each other so late," the man says, upset. "I loved his mum, but those feelings cannot be compared to what I feel for you," he sits down at the table.

"My sweetie, Rene, run and wash your hands," the woman turns to the child and puts corn porridge on a plate of chicken. "He needs time," Inna sits down opposite her now-husband.

The couple modestly got married in the morning and celebrated it with ice cream in a cafe in the center.

"I'm worried about you," the man puts his hand over hers. "I don't want you to worry. You gave up your family for me; you left your home and your good life."

"Because I love you," the woman smiles. "Now eat. Tomorrow I want to start tidying up the house."

Inna is twenty-nine years old and was born and raised in the neighboring territory. The woman's father was a drug dealer who eventually grew to the right hand of the head of one of the major drug cartels in the Nebo region. Inna grew up well off and protected. At twenty-two, at the insistence of her father, she married a man from the cartel, and two years later, they had a baby girl, Rene. The couple did not get along right away, more and more scandals began to end in beatings, and even the child's birth did not fix it.

Inna did not love her husband. It was mutual, but the woman could not get a divorce; no one, not even her own father, was interested in her opinion. When Rene was three years old, the woman's husband died in a cartel clash, and Inna still remembers the first time she took a deep breath when she heard of his death. The woman returned to her father's house to raise her daughter alone, but fate brought her to Do. Arriving for his boss's negotiations, Do notices a woman walking in the garden with a child and realized what he was missing.

The man began to sneak into another cartel's territory and still caught the woman leaving the store. After an unsuccessful relationship, Inna was afraid to let another man come to her but Do patiently and beautifully courted. After two months of communication, Inna could no longer imagine herself without this man. The father was categorically against his daughter's marriage not only with a man from another cartel but also a "beggar". The Do cartel is inferior in the territory and is considered the most recent among the cartels.

This time Inna disobeyed her father and, despite his threats, took Rene and left her father's house, hearing in the back that she no longer had a father and did not want to see him here.

"With a loved one, even a hut is a paradise," is convinced the woman. She left a large house with servants and a guarantee for a well-fed future in Nebo. Everything will work out; the main thing is that she feels good next to this man.

***

Axel is the last to arrive at the warehouse. His friends are already sitting around a small fire and, passing each other a bottle of heated sour lemonade, discuss their day. Aken, Leo, and Dev have known each other since childhood and go to school with Axel.

Aken is twelve years old and the oldest of the guys. His father shot on the doorstep of their house six years ago, owing to the local cartel. The boy's mum appears at home once a week and, having slept off, disappears again. Like the rest of the neighborhood, Aken knows that she is selling her body, but the "little man" gets into a fight anyway whenever someone insults his mum. He looks after the house and his three-year-old brother Avi, whose father is most likely another one of mum's clients.

Leo is eleven years old. His mum, Lea, became pregnant with him after being sold to some man. She was able to escape from the neighboring territory and settled in A-Card. Apparently, she was not looked for. Lea works at a local hospital and is struggling to make ends meet. Leo's name is only called by friends and mum. For everyone else, he is The Mad or The Madman. Leo got the nickname from the word "mad" (aka. crazy) due to his temper and demeanor in fights.

Dev is the youngest of his friends at nine years old, but he is the same height as Aken and is larger despite his age. Dev's real name is Noah. When he was five years old, an explosion occurred in the house due to a gas leak. The parents and the elder brother of the child died. Dev was sitting on the stairs in the yard at that moment and received burns on his hands and face. Half of the little boy's face is covered with scars and wounds; a lot of money is needed for plastic surgery. The boy, accustomed to his appearance, lives with his grandfather. Dev is short for Devil. Everyone calls him that—all, except for three guys who accepted him and consider him their friend.

The Vita is an anarchic land. The peninsula is divided into six territories, each of which is controlled by a specific cartel. In the west, the arm is bordered by two other former cocaine-producing states, in the southeast - with the largest territory and central market. It is washed by the ocean's waters and the gulf. Vita is a transit route, and the peninsula's geographic location makes it an ideal destination for drug traffickers. The largest cartel in the region is Mortem, followed in territory and sphere of influence by The Snakes, Nebo, Sirius, The V, and A-Card cartels. The cartels themselves control the order in their regions; there are no police or law enforcement agencies.

Each cartel makes monthly contributions to the Confederation, headquartered in Mortem. The Confederation, which has representatives from each cartel, maintains order in the territories but intervenes only insignificant conflicts. Initially, the Confederation was created as a body that will unite the regions and recreate the once-powerful republic. In the modern world, only a small number of territories have succeeded in creating a state and declaring the rule of law. Vita was supposed to be next, but for fifteen years now, it has not been possible to agree with the territories' representatives. Everyone wants to receive the status of a manager. The Confederation has its own well-trained army and its own lands in each region. The current President of the Confederation is one of the former bosses of Mortem, and that is why, most often in conflicts, the Confederation takes the side of the first cartel.

Some cartels refused to pay and recalled their representatives. Still, immediately after that, they usually lost customers abruptly, or the goods simply did not reach them, so the remaining five are not yet at risk. The Confederation does not interfere with the cartels' governance in its territories and does not arbitrate in disputes. Wars between cartels claim a thousand lives every year; the last battle between Mortem and the now-defunct cartel led to unification and was three years ago.

Drugs have become the primary source of income for the population. In territories where more than ten thousand people die in showdowns of cartels a year, there is a constant shortage of doctors, so education is mandatory. Gifted children get free college opportunities to work in hospitals and cartel-owned institutions. All men who have reached the age of majority go to drug cartels themselves or are recruited by the cartels as a living force.

Women, who belong to the ruling families, bear special marks and are protected. This saves them from being kidnapped and sold to brothels or at auctions. For the kidnapping of a woman who is under protection – the kidnaper must be killed. For the kidnapping of a woman without a particular label - the kidnapper goes unpunished.

The birth of a girl in a family is a tragedy for both parents and the girl herself. Some girls disfigure their faces, some are forced to hide their gender all their lives, and some, unable to withstand life in fear, commit suicide. Women are a living commodity, the demand for which, given that women's fertility is falling, only rising. Inna fears for Rene, even though she is still a child, but hopes that Do, as the right hand of A-Card's head, can protect her.

***

"Well, did you meet the new mum?" Leo turns the fire up and groans as he gets a bottle cap thrown in his forehead. "Don't get excited; you know I'm joking."

"Don't joke like that." sitting down next to Aken, Axel buries potatoes in the coals. "Now it turns out that I have a sibling. A girl."

"Fuck it," Leo blurts out.

"What? Did your dad go nuts, bringing here a girl?" Aken frowns at him.

"Not my problem," Axel shrugs. "This kid will grow up, but I'm not going to protect her; she is not my sister."

"I feel sorry for the kid," Leo sighs. "They are absolutely crazy. My neighbor was stolen right from school last week. Would kill the scums."

After hanging out with the guys, Axel returns home and immediately notices that his father's pickup truck is not in the yard; apparently, he is back at work. The boy nods to the two cartel guys at the door and walks inside. Inna and the baby seem to be asleep - the house is quiet. Axel rises to his room and, despite the night's smells like fire and guns, falls to sleep.

In the morning, the boy hastily takes a shower, goes to the kitchen for a sandwich, and sees the breakfast set on the table. Axel ignores Inna, walks over to the refrigerator, grabs a banana, and moves to the door.

"You should eat…" The woman says timidly.

"I'll eat. Banana," the boy snaps and, already leaving the threshold, notices swarming at the door of the living room. Eyes don't deceive him; Axel rushes to the door and jerks the baby off the floor and takes one of mum's "snowballs" away from her. The kid starts crying out loud, frightened, and Axel hands her over to Inna, who runs up.

"Don't you dare ever touch what belongs to my mum," the boy hisses to the crying toddler. Rene goes quiet, afraid that her tears anger the boy even more, and, sobbing, says: "You are bad."

"Touch them again, and you'll see how bad I can be," Axel snarls, and Rene, frightened, buries her face in mum's chest.

"Axel!" shouts the father who came out of the bedroom, but the boy, ignoring him, goes to the exit.

***

Axel hates school and only comes here to avoid hearing his father scream again. He has not yet spoken to his father, but he has no plans to continue his study. Axel doesn't understand what the difference is if he works for the cartel with or without education. He is convinced that future doctors or teachers need school, and he knows how to count money. He walks into the classroom and, plopping down on a chair, looks through the window at some kids. The lesson flies by quickly because Axel goes through the next level in the game on the phone. Immediately after, he runs to the backyard, where their "gang" is already waiting for him.

The seven most reckless guys of the school call themselves "Beasts" and are a headache for teachers. The gang also includes three boys who live on the same street with Axel and students in the same class. Axel became the unofficial leader after beating up a high school student two years ago. He takes a can of half-drunk Pepsi from Aken, takes a sip, and hands it to Leo.

"Mum said come over for quesadilla dinner tonight," Leo says. "Take Avi too. Mum is not on duty today; she will stay with him."

"Thanks," Aken grumbles. When the boy is not at home, Avi is watched over by neighbors, whom Aken pays with money from the sale of stolen parts. Aken is happy that Avi can be left with Lea because she cooks for the baby, bathes, and launders his clothes.

***

Axel spends the day with Leo and returns home by 8 pm. The boy approaches the house and, hearing the barking of the dog, goes to the backyard. Right on the ground sits a child smeared with mud and fearful eyes, and two men stand nearby, guarding the house and finding the child's fear funny. Axel's first thought is to turn around and go to his room, let the kid's mother, who for some reason is nowhere to be seen, deal with the child herself. But Rene, who is afraid to move because of the dog standing next to her, immediately reaches out to him when she sees her brother. Axel sighs and walks over to the baby.

"She's afraid; what the hell are you laughing at?" Axel asks the guards angrily.

"It's a mongrel; we teach her courage," and the guys giggle. Axel silently bends over to the child and, lifting her in his arms, keeping her at a distance, walks into the house.

"Don't you dare touch me, you're covered in mud," boy's mouth wrinkled in disgust, "Where is your mum?"

"She's bathing," the child sobs, "and she told me to sit with them, and they called the dog…"

He puts the child in the middle of the bathtub, turns on the tap, and goes to the exit.

"Where are you going?" Rene asks, surprised.

"To my room. You wash off the dirt and stay at home."

"But I don't know how to swim," the little girl prepares to whimper.

"Not my problem," the boy grimaces and, leaving the bathroom, goes to his room. The boy strips off his jeans and pulls on sweatpants, and collapses onto the bed. He lies on the bed and tosses the ball when the door creaks open, and he hears the clatter of feet.

"Don't come in without knocking," Axel says sternly.

"Sorry," the child mutters.

"What do you want?"

"Can you turn on the light in my bedroom?"

"Do it yourself ... oh yeah, you're a gnome," Axel grins and reluctantly gets up, trudges downstairs. He goes to his father's bedroom and fulfills the child's request.

"I don't take those balls anymore," the girl says quietly.

"Fine," the boy nods approvingly. "Your mum drowned in the bathroom?" Axel looks at the baby. "I was kidding," corrects, seeing Rene's eyes fill with tears.

In the morning, Axel wakes up with Inna screaming as she calls her daughter for breakfast. The boy barely blinks his eyes, and the first thing he sees is the back of a child sitting next to him on the bed and playing with his phone.

"What the …" the boy swears.

"You can't swear," grumbles the little girl and turns to him. "You know my name is Rene, and I am 5," the kid spreads all the fingers on one hand.

"My name is Axel, and if you don't get out of my room right now, I'll tie you to a post in the yard, and that dog will come back and eat you." The next thing Axel sees is Rene screeching out of the room on all legs and screaming all over the house.

Little does he know who he is talking to...

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