Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
Of Winged Things
There’s a moth trying to beat itself to death against the lightbulb on the ceiling.
And here I am, alone in the bathroom, holding a razor blade at the ready. Guess we all make do in lieu of a moon.
Beneath the mirror, a black feather—a gift, a worthless thing—waits and watches.
And so I remember—why do I always remember?—his screams, and the tears. And because I remember, I won’t ever forgive myself for what I let her do to destroy me. I turn my back on my reflection, turn the blade over on my skin.
At least, tonight—after—I’ll get to see you.
For now, I’m dreaming of wings.
I think I’m beginning to hate her…
Storm’s about to break right on top of me when I throw myself against the green door of the Moondance hotel. So far as I can tell, maybe only twenty people ever thought of this place at the same moment in time. But here I am anyway, seeking sanctuary from the evening’s bite. Like there’s ever any refuge from the black howling winds.
Maybe I’ve always hated her.
Leaves skitter about my feet and stick to the ash-coloured carpet that reeks of stale beer and piss. Caught in the sudden light of the pool tables and the ceiling lamps and the bar and the cigarette machine like another confounded moth, I ignore the glares of several sets of eyes, all trained on me as if I stumbled onto the set of a cowboy film. Stand-off’s broken quick enough though, once the door bangs shut, locking the night out and me in. Now that I’m accounted for—just another punter—they all turn back to their footy scores and recycled pick-up lines and pots of Vic Bitter, and leave me be. I shrug my black velvet jacket part-way off my shoulders, but the shirt underneath still chafes and clings to my skin, where not two hours ago I tried to play Icarus by carving out my own pair of wings. But there’s never been any sun waiting for me. Only her words and the hatred that fuels them, to send me crashing back to earth.
“God, you’re such a fucking try-hard. Why do you always have to wear black? It’s so morbid.”
On my way through to the safer dark of the gig room, a long burst of feedback cuts across the six-string melancholy of some Stone Temple Pilots song. First thing I spy, over in the farthest corner, is good old cousin Monty, flailing about the mixing desk, arguing with a thick-set hirsute creature that all stereotypes point to as being the roadie, their conversation interrupted at random by the crackle of a mic input here, or more six kilohertz blips there. My hand sinks into my pocket, feeling for the ten dollars and bread crumbs in change that’s gotta see me through the next few hours. Guess this won’t be such a convenient time to hit him up for a drink. Well, that’s just great.
“When are you going to give up all this shit? There’s no money in it. It’s fine for your cousin, with his mail-order bride and his mansion up in Camberwell, but do you think this is any way to be some kind of role model, some kind of man? You’re not a teenager anymore, Raven, or—fuck—don’t tell me you think you’ve got actual talent?”
A burst of laughter, and something moves in the shadows at the far end of the bar: the familiar jingle of too many bracelets that accompanies a flirtatious toss of dirty blonde hair. I force myself to swallow, tuck my other hand into my other pocket, drive them both down deep as I lean against the counter. Wendy. Shit, she’s here. Why is she here? She reckoned tonight she was off clubbing.
“Don’t expect me to wait up at home and look after your son while you get wasted and play pretend at being a rock star, all so a bunch of skanky bitches can fawn over you. This isn’t the fifties.”
I clear my throat just loud enough, then steel myself for what comes next. Straight away, her head whips round like a snake’s. Behind her I catch a glimpse of some guy, half in suit and half in shadow, his arm sliding off her bare shoulders. Her diamond eyes dart over my face, before she turns away to murmur something in the suit’s ear. I take this opportunity to fish a clove cigarette out of the pack in my coat pocket and light it up. She doesn’t bother getting off her arse to join me till her new admirer’s got the hint to move on out of the picture. No, seriously, take her. Any offer. Free to good home. Please. But he doesn’t pay me any mind as he saunters off to the men’s.
Hell, I don’t care. Just go anywhere near my son and I’ll kill you where you stand with my bare hands.
Pursing her lips, she slides down from her chair and slinks on over, all razor sharp stilettos and black sparkles, giant pupils telling the story of what she was up to before she changed her plans for the night. The shirt scratches at my skin again as I pull my collar up round my neck. We’ve all got our methods of self destruction, I guess.
“See you made it after all.” I face the bar, noting out of habit the nearly-empty drink in her hand.
She smiles and sips at the pale liquid, twirling the short straw, playing at being a not-so-little girl sucking a lollipop.
I did love her, once. Least I think I did, the way you think you remember pain, but of course you don’t, not really. These days I can only wonder: did she ever look at me like she didn’t want to sink her claws deep into my chest and rip out organs and entrails to feast on?
“It’s a Tuesday night. In May. In Melbourne.” She sneers. “Might as well be a ghost town out there. So I thought I’d come by and keep you safe from all your groupies instead.” With another laugh, she finishes off her drink and slides it across the counter, then leans into me. I fight the instinct to push her away. Boys are supposed to go out with girls—
“So where are they, Raven? All your fans, all your admirers?”
—give them children, get married. Two outta three ain’t bad, isn’t that what the song says?
“Still, I suppose it must be a relief, really. You’d have no idea what to do with a woman anymore, would you?” Her right hand crosses the counter, reaches down and gropes clumsily at my pants, and tugs hard at the limpness between my legs. It’s no surprise to either of us when her taunting gets no reaction beyond a shudder. I sigh and let myself glance over at the door on my left. Not that I’m seeking an exit—
“I’m the only one that’d have you.”
—cos there is no exit. But one in the cage is always lonely. I figured he’d be here already.
Change the subject. “Did you get Damien off to Noriko’s okay?”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes. In the end. Wouldn’t stop bawling till we got there. I hope you feel like the big man for that.”
I grit my teeth. As though I’m the one who threw our three-year-old against a wall for wanting to come see Daddy’s gig. I try not to dwell on the amount of money in my pocket versus how much I’d need to get so drunk I might be able to forget that scene. At least he’ll be safe, for tonight.
“Another drink?” I hate myself for making the offer. You’re so fucking chivalrous, Raven.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” she hisses, mindful to dig the nails in deep as she pushes herself away from me. Pulling up a sequinned spaghetti strap, she spins on her stilettos, and stomps off in the direction of the front bar.
“Fuck you.” I spit the words in the direction of her long departed shadow, but tonight I’m surprised—and relieved—that she let me off so easily. We both know every question she throws in my face is only an alias for the real one, the big one, the one she really wants to ask.
Why don’t you just leave?
Another burst of feedback, and the radio song cross-fades into Shirley Manson, so captivating with her post-goth homage to loss and waiting. I feel for the feather in my pocket, and I can breathe again.
A hovering bartender finds me, one of the regulars who knows me by poison if not by name. Scotch and coke’s the usual good-to-go, but Jack Daniels does the rounds on this stormy Fitzroy Tuesday. Money’s good for four more, once I’ve paid for this one. I slam the glass down empty before the coins even hit the till. No point pretending; when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Why don’t I just leave? But there’s only one reason, of course. A three-year-old reason. And the minute I leave, the minute I push it, she’ll take him from me forever. My son. To her, he’s nothing more than a ransom note, to me he’s my angel, my saviour. Funny thing, perspectives.
I’m just about to raise my hand to call for another drink, when the door I’ve been watching on and off slams against the wall. Hard raindrops and an icy wind hit me in the face, forcing me to squint. Someone staggers up the steps, buffeted by the storm. “Shut the farking door!” a voice roars from the other bar, as a great gust tears through the building. And right as if it was granting a wish, a last puff of air shoves the silhouette in: this skinny boy all cloaked in black and silver and violet, shown up under the light.
I can’t help smiling as the door bangs closed behind him and he dumps the great black coffin case loudly to the floor. You always did know how to make an entrance, Pegasus. Gets a few stares from the punters every time, that thing does. So it should, when it holds something precious. Twenty odd kilos of vintage 80s plastic and analogue circuitry, the Jupiter synth, and his only other reason for ever finding his way into and through a place like this.
“Hey,” I say, hands in my pockets again as I shuffle on over.
“Hey yourself,” he answers, voice soft and husky. He stoops to drape his damp wool coat over the keyboard’s case, and in the moment before he straightens up, I get a glimpse of the little tattoo that bears his namesake, spreading its wings across his naked shoulder blade. Here under this light, the feathers look grey. Wrong colour for you, Peg.
I reach into my pocket, pull out the feather, and hand it over. It’s gone a little limp since I took it from the bathroom, but even in this light, we can still make out its indigo gleam. He smiles as he takes it from me, tucks it into his lilac braid, and says, “It’s very pretty. This is one of yours, yes?”
I look away, from him to the keyboard and back again. Then, sure enough, out come those five magic words: the ones we’ve rehearsed so well between us so many other times, guaranteed to break any awkward silence. He asks me, “Do you want a drink?”
I open my mouth to say yes, close it again. Don’t be a dick. Watching him squeeze the last drops of rain from his hair, I find a convenient way to change the subject. “Please tell me you didn’t get the tram here.”
“Not tonight. Lenny dropped me off, after work.”
He wanders to the bar. With a grunt, I pick up the case and coat and haul them over behind our stools. Seeing I’ve got company, the bartender adds another glass and fills this one with Midori and lemonade. As Pegasus pulls out a note to pay for both drinks, I assuage my guilt by sneaking a straw into his. It’s kind of our running joke. He spots the straw right away, of course, and snatches at it, blow-piping drops of cold liquid onto my cheek. His lip twitches, but this time he’s not smiling at me.
“I can handle my alcohol, you know.”
I blink. Why so defensive all of a sudden? After more than four years with his sister, I’ve gotta remind myself to go in search of a reason. Doesn’t take me long. Idiot. Last time we sat in a bar together, he spent most of the night till closing with his head submerged in a toilet. That one was my fault. And all the ones before. The longer I sit in a pub, the harder I find it to leave. Maybe that doesn’t make me an alcoholic, but I almost always keep Pegasus along, partly so I can look after him, partly so he can look after me, or so the story goes. Knowing that last time I didn’t keep my part of the bargain doesn’t leave much of a sting for the poisoned coke.
I light up another cigarette. Hands are shaking. He’s watching my every move, silver eyes that remind me too much of Damien, innocent and yet all-seeing. It’s only in this way that I can bring myself to believe he’s even remotely related to Wendy. And as for my son, he’s got nothing of her inside him, not that I could ever see. But Pegasus… It’s easier to imagine him as—
Jesus. I start to cough. In a reflex action, he puts out a hand, rubbing and patting me on the back and leaning right in, as though fearful I might choke. “Are you okay?”
Don’t go there. Eyes watering, the best I can do is manage a nod.
“Maybe you should quit smoking.” Amused, not judging.
“Maybe I’m just pissed.” Could be true. Hands haven’t stopped shaking. Strange thoughts and chain smoking; lack of inhibition and nicotine. Could be just the normal me.
“You? Already?” With a sad smile, he shakes his head. “Not unless you’ve been holed up here for a week, my friend.”
Friend. I dare a glance at his face, mostly at his lips, but I’ve got a different reason for why I can’t look at his sister and I can’t look at him. “I never ate today. Always kicks in harder on an empty stomach. You know that.” My skin twitches as his hand runs down my spine.
“Is she here?”
I make a grumbling sound we can both interpret as a yes, and then he says, “She rang me at work, maybe half an hour before I left.”
I throw back most of my drink, follow it with a long drag on the clove, try and figure out the way their conversation might’ve gone from the wariness in his voice. “Yeah?” Well, blood is thicker than water. But shit, Pegasus, I thought you were on my side.
“Yes.” He finally remembers his own glass, and twirls it around on the coaster. For a while, the sight of the ice cubes floating about in nuclear green mesmerises us both, till at last he picks it up to take a swig. “You know she blames me for leading you astray. For encouraging you.”
“Someone’s gotta do it.” Ain’t that the truth. Far more than he’ll ever realise, if I can help it.
“Maybe. Maybe not, if it means making so much trouble for you both.” The touch of his arm on mine is so soft I almost miss it. “I don’t want you to lose Damien,” he murmurs close to my ear. There it is, like he’s read my mind: I am on your side, Raven. At least, that’s what I hear behind the words. Maybe I really am drunk, after all. I make an awkward show of noticing his hand, resting on mine. As though to distract us both, he stretches, kittenish, and begins to rub at my shoulders. I open my mouth, close it again, while he continues to knead the muscles around my neck. Relax. It’s really kind of nice. Cruel, in its way. But nice.
“Hmm, you’re tense.”
You reckon? I bite back a laugh.
“Why don’t we go backstage for a bit? Perhaps I can give you a massage, before the others find us.”
Only problem there is it’s starting to feel so good, the way his fingers go about undoing the knots in my shoulders, that I don’t want to move. He works his way down now, down and down, and where his knuckles press hard along my spine, the wings I made myself break the skin in bursts of cold fire, unfolding in a gleaming mess of bloody feathers and sticky bones, no longer a mockery of what I meant for them to be. Pain’s got a meaning here…
As my unwinged self, I finish off the drink, then push myself off the chair. I’m determined not to look at him till I can trust myself. “Sure.”
Biting back a smile, he folds his arms across his chest. “Sure,” he echoes with a laugh, and makes a move for the corner opposite the mixing desk. I turn to join him and almost trip over the keyboard case.
Love. The word catches me off guard, ricocheting around my head like a butterfly shut up in a jar. I hurry to deposit the coffin and his coat beside the drum riser, then follow him behind the black curtain backstage.
Next Chapter: 02.PEGASUS: Bleeding Hearts