Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
Truth be told, I never was expecting a yes to my question.
Perhaps I can give you a massage.
Which is not so much of a question, come to think of it. It seems I’ll do anything to distract myself from the pins and needles tapping my veins, and the seasick feeling in my tummy. Stage fright. Ridiculous, since this performance only involves a keyboard, not a piano, and it’s our fifth gig already.
I follow Raven behind the black curtain. ‘Backstage’ they call it, but it’s little more than an afterthought, a cell of rotten planks and bare bricks dressed up in posters of bands no one ever heard of, many of them acts that were born and died here. One of them ours: ‘Cardinal Vanity’. It already looks faded. Only two sources of light in the room: the fierce orange glare of a bar heater on the floor, and a dull naked globe above our heads. In every other sense, we’re drowning in shadows. Living the rock’n’roll high life, as Monty put it dryly. That heater’s a new addition, though. There’s one thing about bass playing lawyers from Darwin, they know how to nag about the cold.
Raven flops on the shabby corner sofa and pulls off his jacket—the black velvet one. “Change your mind already?”
Is he taunting me on purpose? Our eyes meet, and I make a beeline for the bottle of wine near his feet. It’s supposed to be for after our set, but who waits so long? In Raven’s case, leaving a bottle of alcohol lying around and then telling him he can’t drink it is like leaving a steak with a German Shepherd, and expecting both to be hanging round the scene of the crime ten minutes later. Anyway, tonight I can’t bear it when he looks at me.
I pour out two glasses, taking my time, my unsteady hands making his share more generous on purpose. Despite my snappy reproach at the bar, I know I can’t handle my alcohol. I’m surprised he’s talking to me, after last time. Last time again, when I made such a fool of myself.
“Poor baby,” is what he always says. And every time, he holds my hair out of the path of the sickness that erupts from my gut and shreds my throat—so much vomit, surely soon there’ll be blood, and then—
But I gave up on thinking I was going to die after the second occasion. Besides, to paraphrase Nick Cave, ‘that really doesn’t suit my style.’
Poor baby. Pegasus, the baby. Because I’m the youngest, everyone always thinks of me as ‘the baby’, someone who can’t look after himself, someone who needs protecting. Sometimes I dare to believe that Raven’s different. That he keeps me here, to look after him. To look after him when he might make a fool of himself by drinking too much and admitting to having any human emotions at all. That stupid, selfish hope is the only reason I allow him to do it, allow him to slowly kill himself, because it’s the only time he needs me around. Selfish is too kind a word for it, whether or not it’s as selfish as some…
“Let me help you out with one of those.”
He’s standing in front of me, reaching for a wine glass. Even under the shadow of that thick fringe, he’s watching me, my face and every twitch; dark blue eyes that almost match the colour of his hair. Damien, his son—angel creature—has those same eyes, just devoid of adult disillusion. I’m careful not to grimace. ‘Disillusion’ seems a little too mild to apply to Raven, somehow.
His fingers brush mine. Just as I’m about to drop the glass, he plucks it out of my hand.
I blink, and it’s already empty.
“Shall we?” He pokes a thumb at the sofa, and we both settle right on the edge, too close to face each other without it being awkward. I take a more reserved sip of my wine, but it’s bitter and doesn’t sit well. So I make do with folding my arms over my tummy and conjuring monstrous faces from the shadows on the floor. I’ve only just noticed our legs are touching, when he pushes himself off the sofa and hovers over me.
He’s changed his mind. Why would he ever want you near him? And even if he did, you can’t. You can’t, because of your sister. Because of their son. And, because of the truth. Because you’re nothing but a—
I blink again, clenching my hands so tightly into fists my nails start to carve those little half-moons in the skin. I’m trying my best to ignore the monsters that have gotten into my head, and at the same time not focus on his crotch, now inconveniently—and conveniently—around eye level. The telltale hotness is rising in my cheeks. At least there’s not enough light to give me away if I’m blushing.
“Pegasus,” he says softly, “you still want to…?”
He trails off into another awkward silence, but once I’m done gathering my thoughts, and locking them up in a steel tower where no one will ever suffer their thorns, I get it together enough to nod. “Of course.”
Taking this as a cue that everything’s okay, he turns around and plonks himself down near my toes.
“Tell me when to stop.” I wipe my hands on my black cords and wriggle my fingers.
“Don’t worry, if you’re really good, you’ll be here all night.” He finds my glass and does me the honour of finishing it for me, then leans into my waiting palms. I draw in a breath too quickly as I make contact with the nape of his neck. His flesh is so soft, so warm, I wasn’t expecting—
What were you expecting? Porcupine spikes?
Holding my breath altogether, I begin kneading either side of the base of his skull, gently to begin with, shifting where I sit so that, should he happen to turn around, there’ll be no evidence that I feel anything a mere friend might consider untoward.
Mere friend. I should consider myself lucky to have this much.
His head droops as I slide my palms down to his shoulder blades. I take my time with unknitting the tension that binds his muscles, then trace waves and spirals to the base of his spine, feeling the bones that poke close beneath the skin. So odd how this is the first time I’ve ever dared to touch him, like this.
Your first time, and your last.
No, stop. Don’t say these things.
He breathes out in a soft moan, and a shiver passes across my belly, into my balls. I look at his neck, shags of blue-black brushing the collar. How would it be to see more than that one tantalising piece of flesh? Even on hot days, he never wears anything that reveals more than neck, face, and hands, and so I make do, like always, by imagining that this is more, that this is all I need. It’s not like I haven’t had plenty of practice in self-deception. That, and deceiving others. It paid for what I call my freedom. Freedom to torture myself twenty-four hours a day with thoughts of this beautiful boy, and what he could never feel for me.
Cautiously, my fingers hook themselves under the black shirt. I’ve given up all hope of being able to hold my breath now; my heart pounds against my ribs, the longing inside me strains for release. Can I be deceiving myself so well, or is this truly the first time I ever wanted this?
I begin to stroke the skin of his back. This, too, is soft and warm. Slowly I make my way up the spine again, taking as much of the shirt with me as I can without actually undressing him. He inhales sharply, and then I reach a spot where the soft skin is interrupted by something hard, prickly, and somehow wet. I frown, trying to lift enough of the shirt to see what it is, but before I can uncover it, he jerks to his feet. Now he glares down at me. Hatred twists his face.
“That’s enough,” he says.
Part of me wants to look away, but I can’t. I don’t understand. No, it’s worse than that. This look of hate is something I do understand, because I’ve seen it before, just never directed at me.
It’s the same way he looks at her.
I blink; my eyes have started to sting. Against all reason, I hate him, too. Yes, Raven, I really do. You bastard. You know exactly how I feel for you, and you set me up, didn’t you? Go ahead: laugh, tease, despise. You think this is real pain? You flatter yourself, same as they all do.
But he’s not laughing. I can’t tell about the rest. “Wait here. I need a drink. Something that doesn’t taste like cat’s piss.” And he’s gone.
I put my hand up to my face to brush aside my tears, but never make it all the way. For what could be thirty seconds or thirty minutes I stare at my fingertips, while the light ticks on and off overhead.
They’re stained red with blood. Raven’s blood.
…something hard, prickly, and somehow wet.
Fresh scars. The reason why he pushed me away? Or just one of many reasons?
Trembling all over, I lean forward and lick the blood off my fingers. Destroying the evidence. It tastes sweet, and vaguely of alcohol, though of course that could be my own contribution. Raven’s blood. Now I have something of Raven inside me.
By the time he returns with ye olde faithful scotch and coke, I’m over fretting about his motives, and my almost ever-present hard-on has returned. Damn.
He takes a seat beside me on the sofa, not as close as before, nor as close as I’d like, but not too far either, considering. At least that terrible expression is gone, replaced by the more familiar air of sadness that usually veils him. I want to steal another touch, but I had my chance and I blew it. So I stare at my fingertips, and the memory of the blood, as I watch him light another clove cigarette from the corner of my eye.
And we are silent.
Finally, he butts it out into a wine glass and turns towards me, though his gaze remains lowered. I want to speak, but no words come.
“Peg,” he says, his voice cracking. A tortured twitch crosses his face. Then, “You weren’t supposed to—”
Our eyes meet. Maybe, just maybe, I’m beginning to understand. I was never ever supposed to see the scars.
His self-inflicted scars?
He opens his mouth, but before either of us can say anything more the curtain spasms, and an excited cry of “Daddy!” echoes around the walls. I stand up, my head buzzing, as Damien clomps across the floorboards and launches himself into his father’s lap. Raven becomes a completely different person in the presence of his son. I could never hope to make him so happy. At least my sister could give him this much.
Two other figures emerge from behind the curtain, Monty and his girlfriend, Noriko. I can’t help noticing her straight away. Perhaps a week ago, her hair was fluoro pink. Tonight it’s a rather pleasing shade of grass-green.
“You like?” she asks, fluttering her henna-tattooed fingers against a geisha girl face, all made up for the stage. A smile and a nod is the best I can do, but it seems to be enough.
“So, lover boy, hope we weren’t interrupting anything?” Monty waltzes over to lean against my shoulder, grinning conspiratorially. I slap his hand away, less of the playfulness than when I do it to Raven. Not that there’s much of me left to out, but we all have a right to our secrets. Even when they’re strangling us.
The curtain rips aside, and a shrill voice blasts across the room, “What the hell is he doing here?”
I don’t need to look to know who it is. Raven instinctively clutches Damien tighter, and the little boy, sweetly oblivious to anything else, continues to play with his father’s necklace, the silver Maltese cross on a black velvet choker, a birthday present from me. “Bonsoir, ma soeur,” I mutter under my breath.
“God, chill out Wendy,” Noriko says, turning in the direction of the doorway and throwing out her hands in disbelief. “We came there, and okaasan was sneezing all over the place. She was afraid he’d get sick. Besides, he wanted to come. Hence—” she spreads her arms wide ”—we’re here.”
My sister surges forward, her horror-shop painted doll face all pursed lips and narrowed eyes. “Maybe it’s fine for gooks to have their brats crawling around in a shit-hole like this, but some of us have standards. Why don’t you bugger off back to your own third-world country if you want to raise a pig.”
“Whoa,” says Monty, stepping away from me. “Not cool.”
But Noriko holds up her hand to him, then forces out a smile for Wendy. “Actually, ‘gook’ is for Vietnamese. I’m Japanese. So if you want to be the good racist girl, you should say ‘nip’. Anyway, last time I looked, Sydney wasn’t a third-world country.”
I have to stifle a smile. Noriko doesn’t like Wendy one bit, though she does a good job of hiding it.
“Seriously, he’ll be fine. I only need to be on stage for four songs. The rest of the time, I can look after him for you, easy.”
Wendy grunts and rolls her eyes, then stomps over to the sofa. After trying to stare Raven down without success, she gives up and grabs for the child instead, slapping at them both and yelling until Raven at last lets go. By this time, Damien’s beginning to cry. I remember how it feels to be the one caught in the middle, and I hate her all the more for doing that to Raven’s son.
“Yeah, right,” she snaps. “Thanks for being so bloody useless, all of you. I’ll take him home myself.” Not even bothering to pick him up, she starts to drag him across the floor, towards the curtain. When Monty and Noriko take a step forward, she reels around and jabs a finger in Noriko’s face. “I’m not having my son in a place like this. Don’t you dare dictate to me what’s right and what’s not. You’re not a mother, so you wouldn’t know!”
I wince, seeing how these words dig in. Noriko adores children, but isn’t able to have any of her own. Another of life’s little ironies. As Raven once put it so eloquently, ‘if God really does exist, my bet is he’s one sadistic fucker.’
He’s standing beside me now, close enough for me to feel him shaking. Damien looks up at us, sniffing in hope. “I want to stay with you, Daddy. Want to watch Daddy play music.”
Raven kneels beside him, reaches for a tiny hand and grasps it in his own. He’s just about to give it a kiss when Wendy wrenches the child away again. “Daddy doesn’t play music. He plays with his cock. You’re going home. Now!”
Raven’s on his feet again in an instant, his hands hardened into fists, jaw set firm, and a sneer on his lips. “Don’t talk that way in front of my son.” Remembering the phone call, I want to grab for his hands as a warning, but that would be too obvious. After a moment he lowers his head, takes a big breath, and tries to calm himself. “Please, Wendy. There’s hardly anyone out there. You and Noriko can keep an eye on him between you while I’m up there. Let him stay, for the first set at least. Hell, the first song. He really wants to.”
So now he’s begging her, and I hate her for this, too. Even Damien waits expectantly on her answer. But I know my sister. I know what she’s going to say before she’s even opened her big fat mouth.
“I said get up, you little shit. We’re leaving.”
Damien starts to wail. Noriko turns away, her face in one hand. Monty retires to the sofa and stares blankly at the wine bottle. Only Raven and I remain where we are, although I can feel him shaking worse than before.
She’s still dragging Damien along, my sister—pushing him out in front of her until he falls over and scrapes his knee. Now he’s screaming. Terrible screams. My coward self wants me to cover my ears, but in a show of its true form, all I can do is close my eyes. Of course it won’t help. The memories find me through my self-imposed dark, guided by the bloodcurdling yells. Until a loud slap startles me awake again.
I open my eyes. The screaming’s stopped. Damien sits on the floor, crying and rubbing his bottom as though this was the last thing in the world he ever expected. Funny how it always comes as such a shock. Funny too how it hurts to fight the overwhelming urge to pick him up and comfort him, tell him everything will be all right and nothing will ever hurt him again. Exactly like I want to with his father. Even though it would only make the reality worse. Even though I know it’s all a lie.
Raven’s less of a coward than me. He rushes to his son, not allowing thought to cloud his instinct, but Wendy pounces and blocks him. “Are you happy? Look at what you did.”
“Yes, you. If you were a real father to him, this would never be an issue. If you were at home with me instead of spending every waking hour in dives like this—”
Her yelling sets Damien off again, though at least it distracts Raven from what she just said. He tries to weave past her, but I know my sister. I can see it coming.
But this time, just this once, I know I can stop it.
Before I even know what’s happened, Noriko’s face drifts into focus mere inches away from mine. I’m propped up on the floor against the sofa, and when she dabs at my face with a wet tissue, pain floods through my nose. She reaches for another tissue; turns out there’s a pile of them heaped around us, all covered with blood. My left nostril stings, but I suppose they’d be making more of a fuss if anything was broken.
I risk a cautious glance around the rest of the room. Wendy and Damien are gone. Monty remains on the sofa, his palm rubbing my shoulder. And Raven leans against the wall in the farthest corner, ankle-deep in shredded posters. As I keep watching, he throws a half-hearted punch at one of the wooden boards. I hope he doesn’t damage his hands, those beautiful hands that play his guitar so well. That don’t quite protect his son, and have never touched me.
The red-rimmed eyes and blotchy cheeks are what make it real the most; I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a tear out of him. “Fucking bitch,” he mutters, pulling at his hair, but all the fight’s left him by the time he comes to sit beside us.
“What—” Argh. My voice sounds weird. My lips hurt, too. I lick them, try to block out the pain, start all over. “What just happened?”
He cocks his head at me, raising a brow. “Wendy. She knocked you out. She took my son. She left.”
KO’d by a blonde in possession of the temperament of a Jerry Springer guest. That can only make a good impression, yes? “Well, my sister has always been efficient.”
“You want to tell me why you decided to get in the way of me and her fist?”
I manage a laugh, lick at my lips again. Oh, there might be more than one answer to that question. Which do you want? “Because if she’d hit you, you would have hit her back,” I say. “In front of your son. And they would have taken him from you. For always. You know how she is.” At least it’s not a lie. Just not the complete truth. I won’t ever allow them to take away your son, because that would destroy you, and you are the only one I’ve ever—
A knock on the wall behind the curtain denies my confession, even to myself, and a gruff voice yells, “Sound check’s on!” The roadie.
“Be there in two!” Monty calls, then stands, stretches tall, and takes Noriko’s arm in his own. “Buy my bijin a drink?”
Laughing at his Japanese, she skips out alongside him.
“Can you do it?”
Raven stands above me, offering his hand. I nod, but need him to help me up. There’s a moment when he doesn’t let me go where I fall against him, smelling cloves, alcohol, and something else—pure Raven. One of his arms around my shoulder, the other squeezing my waist. Finally touching me.
But when I see the concern in his face—concern wasted for me—I give it up. “I can do it.” Mustering all the masculinity I can, I push away from him, though I do stumble through the curtain on my way out of the room.
Behind me, I hear him sigh and mutter, “God knows how much longer I can.” And wish that for once I hadn’t been close enough to overhear.
Next Chapter: 03.RAVEN: Cracks In The Ice