No Man's Land

Rating: Not Rated (Mature)

Relationships: Ian/Mickey/Svetlana

Characters: Ian, Mickey, Svetlana, Yevgeny

Tags: Couches, Childhood, POV Multiple, Unreliable Narrator, Past Child Abuse, Non-Linear Narrative, trauma dollhouse

Summary: Ian/Mickey/Svetlana & Yevgeny, picking up the broken pieces, faltering in the aftermath.

Originally posted on the Archive of Our Own on July 23rd, 2021. Complete.

I. The Baby

Yevgeny’s mother sprays her perfume in a misty cloud in the kitchen and walks through it, dabs a little more onto her wrists and neck for good measure, and leaves for work. Yevgeny’s father vomits up his breakfast into the kitchen sink at the scent.

He leaves for a long, long walk around the neighborhood while Yevgeny is fed and changed by the other man who lives in the house. He comes back closer to dinnertime than lunch, no longer looking like he’s on the verge of passing out, and his sister glares at him.

“You can’t expect Ian to take care of the baby all day, for fuck’s sake,” she snaps at him, “why don’t you step the fuck up and be a good father?”

Yevgeny’s father is twenty-one, and his mother just shy of twenty-five. She works during the day and often at night, and when she can’t pass him off to one of her friends to babysit he’s cared for by his father’s friend or his aunt. His father doesn’t touch him. He cannot look at him. Aunt Mandy hates him for it.

Yevgeny doesn't remember any of this, of course; at this time, he is just a child.

Aunt Mandy leaves the house when he is still a toddler. She moves out with her latest boyfriend, says she’s gonna get a job in some city down south. Svetlana does her hair and makeup for her the day she leaves, tells her to stand up straight and sway her hips a little when she walks. Yevgeny’s father pleads with her in the other room, voice in an undertone, saying things like, “...when Terry comes home,” and “fuck you, Mandy, don’t leave me here with her.”

Yevgeny’s aunt tells his father to grow the fuck up. She kisses Yevgeny on the head, and his father’s friend Ian on the cheek, and then she’s whisked away by her boyfriend out the door and out of the terrible house.

No one uses the couch in the living room. It’s a sort of poisoned ground, No Man’s Land, somehow sinister in its mundane innocuity. “Why can’t we sit on it?” Yevgeny asks his mother when he is six years old and indignant. “Your father does not want you,” comes her reply. The absence of the preposition at the end leaves him puzzled.

He asks his father’s friend—“I guess I’m your uncle,” he told you once, “not quite a stepdad,”—why he and Yevgeny’s mother and father can’t just get rid of the couch. Ian looks very tired. “It’s still a perfectly good couch, I guess,” he answers after a moment. “And it’s not our couch, anyway. We’d get in trouble.”

“Who’s couch is it?” Yevgeny asks, and Uncle Ian tells him it belongs to his grandfather.

Here’s what Yevgeny knows about his grandfather:

He’s in prison, and will probably be there for a long time. From what he can gather, his mother, father, and uncle think it’s best that he stay there for as long as possible. Preferably forever.

He’s the father of Yevgeny’s father. Despite this, Yevgeny’s mother is the only one who, if pressed, is likely to talk about him.

Whenever he’s mentioned, Yevgeny’s mother’s English falters, his uncle develops a tic in his jaw, and his father clenches the fist with F-U-C-K tattooed on the knuckles, and then leaves the house for another long, long walk.

II. The Wife

Svetlana does not love her husband.

He does not like her; he is cruel and callous and does not care for her baby. To him she is just another whore, the only difference between her and the girls on thre streat being that he is married to her. She kisses him on the cheek in the morning and he flinches away, so she stops kissing him on the cheek. She tries to hold his hand when Immigration or Family Services come to the house, to show the officials that they are a united front, married for love, and can provide for this little family. She’s trying her best. He lets her hold his hand, but he gets ugly-drunk afterwards, and leaves to camp out on the front porch or at the Alibi for hours at a time.

But then she remembers that day, with her husband’s father, who had a gun in his hand and terrible disgust on his face, and she remembers pulling her dress off and grinding over the naked, terrified boy on the couch, beaten bloody and bruising; and she remembers the other boy, naked and bloody too, gun trained to his head, forced to watch as she fucked his boyfriend into normalcy

She does not like to think about that day. None of them do.

Her friends give her shit for marrying him, deadbeat white trash who hates her and her kid alike. She rolls her eyes at their ribbing. She can never tell them why she is married, can never tell them that if she divorced him and his father returned from prison, soonafter she would probably get a call to identify his and his boyfriend’s bodies in the morgue. She does not love her husband, but he gave her and her child a home, and she will pretend, for him, if it spares him his father’s rage. She was privy to that rage once; she knows she would do well not to witness it again.

In the house, she skirts around her husband and his boyfriend. She tries not to be noticed when she can help it. She pushes, sometimes, speaks up and threatens to get what you want. New clothes and toys for Yevgeny, money for herself. Her husband gives these things to her when she asks. He does not hit her, or sell her to another man. In these regards, he is as good a husband as any.

Sometimes she longs for home: her sister, her books and clothes, the delight of tasting homemade blinchiki purchased from the woman down the street. But she pushes the longing down. She has a home now, the three of them and the baby: a home built on shaky ground and simmering with shame, but a home nonetheless.

Svetlana doesn’t love her husband, nor his boyfriend, but she could learn to, she thinks.

III. The Husband

So, look, here’s how it goes. Mickey’s living in his childhood home with his wife, Ian, and his goddamn kid, and all he can think about is this: his dad has always been good with kids. Hand him a crying baby off the street and the little sucker will be fast asleep and counting sheep or whatever the fuck faster than you can say, “Hey, why’s that guy holding my baby?” It’s weird, ‘cause like, you wouldn’t exactly look immediately to Terry Milkovich for any baby whispering needs. But it’s God’s honest truth. Little kids just like him.

Back when Mandy was in her terrible twos, and Mickey wasn’t much older, Mandy would get into these awful fits, tearing around the house like a fucking tornado of doom, screaming and kicking and pulling stuff off the shelves and generally just giving everyone else a headache and a half trying to stop her path of utter destruction. But when Mickey’s dad would come home, he’d calm her down fast—scoop her into his lap and kinda bounce her until she was giggling and sucking her thumb.

That’s just the kind of guy he is. Good with kids. Always has been.

And see, that’s the funny part. Not funny like “ha ha,” funny as in “one huge cosmic joke,” y’know? One time when he was still in school, Mickey had to write an essay on irony, on irony as a literary technique with the inclusion of an example of an ironic situation from his own life. He scrawled out a whole freakin’ paragraph about how his dad could stop any baby from crying, but before he could get any farther and get to the fucking point, he felt sick to his stomach, suddenly and violently nauseous, so he tore up the paper and at the last minute turned in a surprisingly detailed illustration of his teacher taking a shit, scribbled on a post-it note, instead. He got an F and a visit to the principal’s office and a note to take home to a parent or guardian to sign.

The kicker is, he tossed the note to Mandy when he got home from school. She could forge signatures better than anybody.

At the christening Mickey passed Yevgeny over to his father, grinning, and despite everything else, all the shit going down with Ian, there was a single moment when he handed the kid over where he thought, Huh, Dad’s gonna be good with him, that’s his fuckin’ grandson and look how sweet a picture that makes. And the funny part is, in his head, he was totally sincere about it, too.

And then the moment was over, just like that, ‘cause he remembered it was Terry he was handing the kid to, and his brain shut up. The grin stayed plastered to his face.

He cares about his dad, okay? He does. Who fuckin’ doesn’t. It’s not like that. Jesus Christ.

There’s a chunk of time missing in his memory; a gap from, say, ballpark ages eight to eleven. He mentions this offhandedly to Ian once, part of some dumb comment, who knows how it fucking came up, but Ian kind of looks at him. And says something like, “Your dad?” And so Mickey’s like, “Pot, meet kettle, c’mon, seriously?” But that only makes Ian look worse, a kind of sick expression on his face, so Mickey shuts up and changes the topic. He knows danger when he sees it, and he knows how to steer far, far clear.

Here’s the truth, no matter how anybody else tries to tell it to you: the first time Svetlana and Mickey fucked was hot, and she was hot, and he fucking loved it, and she writhed underneath him and he fucked her good and hard until they were both shaking and panting and grinning, and he collapsed kind of on top of her on the couch and everything was fucking great.

“How’d you meet?” someone asks him after the wedding, at the reception when he’s got his arm around Svet, shaking hands and accepting congratulations. And Mickey kind of grins, and shakes his head all rueful, and says, “My dad set us up.”

He likes Gallagher, he does, okay? It’s just that Gallagher’s a fucking idiot who thinks that freedom to fuck whoever you wanna fuck, do whatever you wanna do whenever you wanna do it, is the most important thing in the world.

It’s not. No point in freedom if you’re not alive to enjoy it. It’s a lesson Mickey’s been taught what seems like a thousand separate times, but it never seems to stick. He just keeps fucking things up.

All this to say: he and Svet and Ian and Yev are all together in this tiny fucking house and he hates it. He hates it. He dances around them and it’s like there’s this huge fucking knot, tendrils of terror in the middle of the goddamn living room or something, the fucking couch, and all he can do is orbit it, kept on tenterhooks, waiting for when he’ll be inevitably sucked in.

No, scratch that, that’s a stupid fucking metaphor, and this is a dumb train of thought anyway. He can’t—he’s not gonna think about this.

Everyone can just shut the fuck up.

IV. The Toy

Svetlana confronted Ian once, in the hallway while Mick was asleep in his bed, arm hanging over the mattress and messy hair spread across Ian’s pillow.

“You listen,” she said, voice low to keep the baby from waking. This was in the early days of this tentative arrangement. “We need to talk.”

“About what?”

“This,” she said. She gestured to him, to herself, in the direction of Mickey in the bedroom. “Baby will grow up. He needs father, mother. I cannot do it alone.”

“He’s all set in both departments,” Ian said shortly. He didn’t have a lot of patience for Svetlana back then. “Got a dad and a mom. I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”

She looked pained. “I am sorry,” she said, “for—situation. Not ideal, for you, for me, for Mickey.”

“Save it,” he said, anger rising. “I’m here for Mickey, not you. Keep your apologies, I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.”

Her pained expression twisted further in on itself. “Not my fault. Terry—”

“We’re not talking about this,” he said. “I’m serious. That’s final.” He thanked his lucky stars Mickey was asleep.

For once, Svetlana didn’t fight him on it. She just fixed Ian in her stare, an uncomfortably long moment passing, then turned back down the hallway and went to her room.

“’Night, Svetlana,” he called, a stab of guilt, once she reached the door. She shook her head.

“Yes. Goodnight.”

Terry gets out of prison when Yev is four. They get an advance warning of maybe two days, and so he and Mick leave. Hide all evidence of him living there, grab their stuff and head to a motel. When Terry comes home Svetlana will tell him Mickey’s out taking care of business, and she won’t mention Ian at all. He and Mickey will figure out where to go from there.

In the end, Terry breaks his parole again, pulls a gun on an unfortunate business associate in a moment of anger and gets tossed back in the slammer. Ian hears the details secondhand, breathes a sigh of relief so deep he can feel it tingle in his toes. He and Mickey spend a day longer than necessary at the motel. When it’s time to go back to the house, he has to force Mickey to leave.

V. The Child

Yevgeny is growing up. It’s not a bad thing. He has friends around the neighborhood; there are plenty of cousins and children who are probably not that related to him but who are called cousins anyway. His mother makes sure he’s read to from his favorite picture books at least a couple nights a week; she often isn’t there to do it, but someone will. Never his father, of course.

He supposes that he loves his father. Children nearly always do.

Sometimes strange people come into the house and inspect it. Yevgeny’s mother always gets anxious during these meetings—she combs his hair and tells him what to say if the strange men and women question him, and she puts on makeup Yevgeny rarely sees her wear. She holds his father’s hand, tight, and makes a show of putting an arm around him and kissing his cheek in front of the men and women. He lets her.

When the people are gone his father sits out on the porch and drinks himself into oblivion. He won’t let Uncle Ian touch him on those days, either.

Yevgeny, his parents, and his uncle aren’t the only ones who live in the house. Yev’s faher’s family comes in often, too, with loud angry words and dirt tracked onto the carpet from the bottom of their boots. Sometimes they take his father away for a few hours or a few days, and he comes back loud and boisterous and tense as a live wire, and Uncle Ian doesn’t talk to him much. Sometimes he comes back bleeding, a bullet in his shoulder or a cracked rib blossoming into bruises on his side.

He finds his parents' wedding pictures when he’s six years old. They’re blurry and faded, corners folded in and crushed where the prints were shoved into the clear album holders. There’s his father, young and unsmiling in his ill-fitting suit, and his mother, oddly gawky and gangling, wearing a wedding dress that only falls to her knees. Barely noticeable maternity bump—if Yev didn’t know to look for it, it’d be invisible. He only knows because his mother told him once, that she was pregnant before she got married. In the picture, she’s wearing a lot of makeup, and her hair’s done up all old-fashioned on top of her head. It looks, frankly, ridiculous.

He shows the picture to his uncle. “Look,” he cries, finding the album absolutely hilarious, “Momndad look so young there, it was their wedding, right?”

Uncle Ian grimaces a little. “Yep.”

“Were you there?”

“Uh-huh. Of course I was.”

Something about his tone makes Yevgeny give the picture a second look. “Aren’t weddings s’posed to be happy?”

“Some are, some aren’t.”

“And theirs wasn’t?”

Uncle Ian gives him a look. “No, it wasn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.”

Seems like people say that a lot, these days. He clutches the album close to his chest and hauls it off to his and his mom’s bedroom.

He catches his mom crying multiple times over the years. Not just normal mom-crying, like at the end of a stressful day or when he’s being, frankly, a little shit and she’s just fed up with it. Crying like pretending she’s not, and hiding it from him, choked little sobs the way she never cries in front of anyone else. Only once does he feel brave enough to talk to her like this, overcoming the sinking feeling in his stomach. When he asks what’s wrong, she says it’s nothing.

“Your father is a good man, Zhenya,” she admits finally, after he sits with her in silence and squeezes her hand in yours. She speaks to him in Russian; it makes his dad upset sometimes, when she does. But it’s the middle of the night and his dad’s asleep. “I worry sometimes that he’ll kick us out of the house, send us away. He won’t. But sometimes I worry.”

Yevgeny frowns at her. “That’s why you’re upset?”

She sniffs a little, wraps her arm around him and pulls him closer. Her chest rises and falls, pressed against him. “Da, mal’chik-zaichik. That’s why.”

Bunny boy. He squirms a little under her arm, snuggles closer. Mom’s being ridiculous. Yev knows his dad would never kick him and his mother out. His grandpa would never let him.

No one at school can say his name. One of his teachers calls him Eugene instead. His mother calls him Zhenya, his uncle calls him Yev like his friends, and his father doesn’t talk to him enough to have given him a nickname.

Once he starts school, starts to get to know the other kids, he begins to get the sense that his family’s a little weird. Not very weird—there are plenty of kids who’ve got families that vary from the one-or-two-good-or-shitty-parents dynamic. But he’s got a mom who loves him, and a dad who doesn’t, but who still sticks around, and he’s got an uncle in name only who his dad loves more than he does Yev’s mother.

This comes up in conversation once when Yevgeny’s a little older, seventh grade or so, with a girl from his class—Zoe—who’s a few inches taller and therefore a few pegs higher up the coolness ladder than him. He mentions his uncle, and she asks him, “Is he your mom’s brother or your dad’s?”

“Uh… neither,” Yev says.

She smirks. “Then he’s not your uncle.”

“Yeah, so? What does that matter?”

“Well, if he’s not related to you, and he’s always hanging around your house, he’s probably fucking your mom.”

Yev snorts. “He’s not fucking my mom.”

“Oh, yeah?” she challenges. “How do you know?”

“’Cause my mom doesn’t even like him that much. He’s closer with my dad. They’re—friends.”

At this point he knows what gay means, and he knows that his dad and uncle are more than just friends, but he also knows that that’s their own private business, and his mom told him that if he tells people a lot about the arrangement she and his dad and uncle have, word might spread around, and certain unnamed bad things might happen. He don’t wanna risk it.

“Friends,” Zoe says. “Right.”

He tilts his chin up; dares her to say more. She doesn’t, just sniffs and turns back to her yogurt cup. After a minute, though, she kind of cocks her head like she’s thinking her words through, and then she says, “Your mom’s a hooker, right?”

“A hooker?”

Zoe scoffs. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what a hooker is.”

“I know what a hooker is. And no, my mom isn’t one.”

“Think you’re wrong.”

“Think I’m not. Where do you get your gossip from, anyway?”

“My older brother knew your dad. He says your dad married a whore.” She’s got this self-righteous smirk on her face and Yev would never, ever punch a girl but right now he’s pretty freakin’ tempted. He doesn’t give Zoe the satisfaction of a reaction, though; just shrugs and turns back to his math homework. Later, he plans to ask his mom about it, what Zoe said, but he chickens out. It just doesn’t seem right, to stand in front of his mother, beautiful and graceful and poised, who kisses his scrapes and makes him borscht, and say words like hooker and whore.

So he doesn’t. But he doesn’t forget, either.

He gets older. Everyone does. And it’s impossible not to collect rage in this house, like dust particles settling unnoticeable on skin.

He asks his dad one day, curious and angry at the same time, because no one ever seems to want to tell him, and it’s like they’re all in on some secret he’s never allowed to find out about. It seems as good a place to start as any. So Yevgeny asks him: “What happened between you and Mom?”

His dad’s chainsmoking at the kitchen table, butts scattered around him. Looks like he missed the ashtray more than a few times. He kind of snorts at the question, trying to be dismissive. But Yev’s had a long time to get good at reading his parents. He sees his dad’s knuckles whiten, the F-U-C-K U--U-P tattoos standing out dark, like stains, against his skin. “You don’t wanna know.”

“Do you love her?” Yev asks.

His dad just looks at him. It’s an answer in itself.

“Then why do you live with her? Why are you still here?” And God, Yev’s sixteen and he kind of hates him in this moment, hates him for giving that look, hates him for the stub of a cigarette dangling between his fingers and the stench of smoke thick around the house.

Mickey’s face doesn’t change. He just sighs. “I’m tellin’ you, kid. Give it a fuckin’ break. Some things are adult problems, just… just don’t give your mom grief about it.”

Yev hates him, but he’s never made his father snap, and he doesn’t want to start now. He’s got the feeling Mickey would take after his own father, from the few stories you’ve heard. He leaves his dad to his cigarettes.

There’s no real list of the things Yev knows about his family, but the pieces are all there, simmering in his mind. They fall together when he’s seventeen. It happens that it’s the same day his grandfather is released once again from prison on parole, for the first time in thirteen years. But Yev doesn’t know that yet.

Of all the unfair cosmic occurrences in this shithole of a universe, this one strikes him as the most supremely unfair: the answer to all his questions hits him in the middle of a history test, and he’s got forty minutes left to answer the multiple-choice section before he can spend a second of energy on what he’s just realized. It’s all he can do to keep his focus on the test before the bell rings and he can dash to the bathroom for a moment to breathe.

He knows he’s right. He knows he is.

He calls his mom—for years he didn’t ask her about her past, but it’s time to break the rule. He needs to know for sure. She picks up on the third ring, voice cheerful. “Hi, rebyonok, how is your day going?”

He doesn’t give her a chance. “Dad didn’t have a choice in marrying you, did he,” he says, heart pounding, “and he didn’t have a choice about me being born—about having sex with you, either.” Fuck. Fuck, fuck, holy fucking fuck.

Silence. Just the sound of his mother breathing over the line. Then:

“You can never tell,” she chokes out, and the last shred of hope that maybe he was wrong fizzles out and dies. “You must never say a word. To your father, no one. Promise me, Zhenya.”

“Did you—did you do that to him?”

She lets out a terrible sound, quiet and choking. “No choice—your grandfather had gun—said to make him do with—with woman...” English fails her.

“He forced you? To—to have sex with Dad?” She doesn’t answer; there’s only her gasps of breath coming out tinnily into his ear, but it’s confirmation enough.

“Promise me, Zhenyushka,” she pleads finally, “never tell.”

“I promise,” Yev says, but he’s already a million miles away. They were right. Holy fuck, were they right. He really didn’t want to know.

The world doesn’t end; instead, after school he walks home. The house will be empty; his mother is out with friends for the weekend and his father is on a trip with his brothers, probably kneecapping some poor motherfucker or burying a body. Uncle Ian is visiting his family. The idea of staying alone in the empty house, the house where that terrible thing happened, for one more instant makes him want to throw up. He considers sleeping over at a friend’s house, or running away to god knows where, just to get away from the weight of this twisted fucking legacy he’s just inherited.

But in the end, he doesn’t run away. His mother told him to go home after school, so he does.

Except: the house is not empty.

His grandfather lies on the couch, dozing, hat over his eyes and hands folded on his belly. His grandfather, who taught his own son the meaning of the word fear, who was released from prison just hours ago. Yevgeny is seventeen. He has grown up under this roof, just like his father before him, and the terrible dread that has seeped into every crack in this house now has a name, and its name is Terry Milkovich.

He does not think, he doesn’t need to. The truth is, he is full of seventeen-year-old rage, and he has the key to the gun cabinet. It only takes him a few practiced, silent steps.

“Hey, pops,” Yevgeny calls, to see him startle out of sleep, eyes widening, and then he kills his grandfather lying on the living room couch with one perfect shot, click click boom, bullet splitting through skin and skull, striking right between his eyes.