Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
I place the brush on the dresser, and dart away from the mirror to avoid my own reflection.
Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t be.
The mantra for this evening. For always. And finally, inevitably: Don’t say his name.
I find myself at the window, numb fingers pressed to the glass, my reflection here all a blur. I may have had too much to drink tonight, in the hope of making myself sick. But even my tummy won’t help me now.
A full moon floats adrift in the sky above. Its lonely light spreads shadows around the room, phantom selves sent to torment me. Sometime after two on a Saturday morning, and the world outside my window is dead. Don’t allow it to fool you. This is how it goes when your universe collapses in on itself. You’ve seen it before. Wasn’t it just the same, nine years ago?
No. I don’t want to remember that now. Go away, go away. Raven, where are you?
Two hours, give or take, since Monty and Noriko appeared on the scene of a cheap and nasty bar at the wrong end of Inkerman Street, and dragged me off to my cell. An hour and a half, thereabouts, since they told me, “Raven’s gone, Pegasus.” The only reason, “You saw how things were between him and Wendy.”
Four days. Four nights since we touched, since I tried to tell him, but failed, same as always. After that, I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge either of us, couldn’t bear to speak to him.
Those words keep echoing through my head, terrorising me with their unforeseen finality. You bastard, why didn’t you tell me you were really saying good-bye?
I take a seat on the edge of the bed, and pick up the photo of my mother. She never cried, so I won’t either, but her smile doesn’t hide the sadness, not once you know to look for it. This picture of her, and the dress she wore on that day—these precious things are among the few trinkets I managed to salvage after her death. I never feel as beautiful when I’m draped in her white lace and silk, but it feels right, in this moment, to be wearing it.
“Mama,” I whimper, every bit the child she abandoned. Always, the child abandoned. Four days. Four years. Four years ago, Raven, when I first lost my heart, to you.
Monty and Noriko weren’t the only ones I’d told about my feelings for him. That would be too simple. If they’d been the only ones, no doubt there’d be a ‘they lived happily ever after’ by now, but no. This was all my own stupid fault, for giving any surviving member of my family a chance. A chance to hurt me, all over again.
“I—I think I’m kind of…in love with him.” The words stumbled out of my mouth, but once they did, I knew they were the truth. Poor baby Pegasus; yet another animal caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic.
Wendy’s face lit up with a conspiratorial grin. She hadn’t given up dancing yet, and her hair was longer than mine, framing her face in a curtain of gold. “Really? And what if he doesn’t love you? What if he thinks that boys who like other boys are—?” She made a face, which in polite company maybe roughly translated to ‘freaks’.
It seems laughable to admit that this had never come up in all my daydreams. The question caught me off-guard, led me down into a thick shadow of doubt. But I couldn’t allow my sister to see. Or myself. “Ah, but what if he does?”
She snorted. “You want to be careful of getting too cocky, little brother. Even if you get beyond the gay, what about…what you do?”
My gasp only made her giggle. If he knew what I was, there was no way— Who was I kidding?
No. The voice at the back of my mind was far kinder to me in those days. This is yours. You deserve to be happy, to be loved, just once. Why should Raven not be the one?
He could be the one.
You know it.
“We’ll see.” My sister gave me a final shark-tooth grin, before she put out the light and went off to bed.
Two weeks later, we were at rehearsals. Noriko was doing her best Yoko Ono take on an early Kylie Minogue song, while I tried to program a drum loop for our latest track—one of our first originals—and Monty bounced around the warehouse wiggling his butt and ceremonially stripping off his tie, loafers and suit, since he’d just finished work and had drunk way too much coffee. Any old excuse. We long suspected he had some thing for ‘the singing budgie’.
I remember him teasing me about my secret crush not thirty seconds before the door opened, and my heart froze inside my chest. In walked Wendy, that conspiratorial grin still on her face, hand in hand with Raven. As they stopped beside me, he said hello, but I barely caught a word of it. She was standing on tiptoe to plant a kiss on his neck. Then she turned to wink at me.
You fucking bitch. You knew he meant something to me, so you took him. Just like you always did when we were children.
We’re children still.
Raven playfully pinched me on the cheek. “Hey, Earth to Pegasus? Anybody home?”
I slapped at his hand, hard enough to jar my wrist, and mumbling something along the lines of, “I think I’m going to be sick”, raced into the bathroom with my tail between my legs. Not a heartbeat later, Noriko came after me, and held me in her arms as I shivered and wept. Poor baby Pegasus.
Here in the present, the land of the dead, and there’s no one to hold me. No one to tell me everything will be okay. That’s all right; I’m too old now for lies. I lost you four years ago, Raven. I should be over it already. Should be over you. But whatever disease took hold of me the moment I laid eyes on you refuses to let me go.
If only I’d told it to you, not her, things might have been different.
No, this is pure naivety. You know you’re nothing but a whore. If Wendy didn’t betray you, still he would figure it out all on his own. They can tell, always. You don’t deserve any chances. You never did. Why else would the only person who ever loved you leave you to this?
“Mama,” I whisper again, falling face-first onto the pillow and biting down on it in an attempt to stop my choking sobs. I haven’t cried, not like this, not since the funeral, nine years ago. I remember how they all surrounded me with their pity as I stood by the coffin, words of reverence and finality heavy in the air. I wouldn’t have believed my beautiful mother was inside that wooden box. But the words of the priest made me believe it. And later that night, I learned that my one protector was truly gone, as my uncle made me pay the price for his kinder touches that day.
“Come here, baby boy. I’ve got something that’ll take all your pain away…”
No, stop. Don’t think of that.
But since when did I ever listen to myself?
The gates are open now, and visions flood my mind, memories of hands and tongues and dicks and what that man and too many others to count—what they did to me, while I pretended to be somewhere else, someone else; pretended this was all I deserved. Touching, tearing, beating…raping. Trying to force their way down deep into my soul and break me. I thought they never could, only because I always believed I didn’t have a soul. But I knew different in the moment I met Raven. And in that moment, I learned another kind of pain, a pain so profound it left me terrified, paralysed, unable to confess even to myself that this was what I felt. And so, I doomed myself.
This same pain I feel now.
Four days, and you haven’t even called.
Exhausted, I pull myself up and rub at my eyes. Some part of me hopes he’s coming back, that I have a chance. Better I fear the day the tears do stop, because then I’ll have no more excuses. No more excuses to stay…
The telephone shrieks into life behind me, jolting me out of that not quite numb enough space between living and dying. I can’t imagine who might be calling. At least not while I’m catching my breath. But then the crazy idea strikes, and I leap off the bed and snatch the receiver to my ear. “Raven?”
Straight away, I kick myself. Fool. Why did I have to drink so much?
“Settle, lover boy.” It’s a female voice. Instantly, my heart sinks beneath my toes. I imagine it falling through the floorboards and plummeting to its death in the apartment below. Wendy. Come to gloat again, to rub it in one last time?
“What do you want?” I almost hang up on her. Yes, that’s what I really should do, because eventually I’m going to have to ask.
“I just rang to ask you a favour,” she says, feigning innocence. Ugh. “I need you to look after Damien tomorrow.”
“What?” Of all the possibilities, I never would have guessed. I smell a rat. “Why me? Why not Father? Or Noriko and Monty?”
“It’s too short notice for Daddy. And I’m not leaving my kid with anyone in his family.” She means Raven’s family, of course. Seems like I managed to stop thinking about him for a full thirty seconds. “All my friends have shifts, and I can’t afford a sitter. That leaves you. Don’t give me any bullshit excuses, either. I know it’s not like you’ve got a date or anything.”
I start to mumble something about how low I am on the list of people she deems suitable to look after her child, but she’s already giving instructions. “Pick him up at my place at eleven. Don’t be late, okay? You screw this up and I’m coming after you with an axe.”
I take in a breath. Raven’s son. She’s asking me to look after Raven’s son. Her son. She can still rub it in, the bitch. She can still remind me that she stole my wish, wherever he is. That’s what this is all about. Not to mention, she probably already has some other poor fool teed up. I know she wasn’t always faithful. Why should she be? Another thing I could never bring myself to tell him.
“Hey!” Even through the distance of the telephone receiver, her voice burrows beneath my skin. “You got all that?”
“Sure, sure.” Anything to distract my tongue from speaking the words. But she’s hanging up. You have to know, and if she won’t tell you…
If it’s bad enough, she’ll tell you, all right.
My voice breaks as I call out her name, hoarse from all the crying and drinking I’ve done tonight.
“What?” From the caution in her tone, she obviously knows what I’m going to say. Feeling put on the spot, I can’t find the right way to phrase the question. But why be afraid, when there’s nothing left to lose?
“Why did Raven leave?”
There it is. I can’t do anything more. So she’ll either tell me, or she’ll hang up, or she’ll advise me to go and get fucked. Most of our conversations go the way of the second or third option. But if it’s bad enough…
“Wendy!” I spit her name into the silence at the other end of the line.
She makes me wait. And then she says, “You won, Pegasus.” Her final words: “Don’t be late.”
She hangs up on me first, like always. I put the phone down and move over to the dresser, working up the courage to steal a glimpse of myself in the mirror… Not yet. I take off the dress, fold it up in white crepe paper, and stow it away in its white box in the wardrobe. Then I change into my pyjamas. All this while trying to get my mind around what she said.
You won, Pegasus.
All night, through waking and dreaming, these terrible three words echo inside me. It’s far worse than I imagined. She was supposed to break my heart and spirit all over again, dammit, leave me with nothing to hope for. But no, she had to say it. And in a first between me and my sister, I don’t doubt it’s the truth.
You won, Pegasus.
What the fuck does that mean? What does it mean, now?
The alarm clock crashes in on my sleep at nine-thirty in the morning. I beat it into submission, then roll over on my back, straight into the path of the sun that streams in through the open curtains. Groaning, I cover my face with one hand. My tongue feels like I spent the night in intimate positions with a dozen furry kittens; meanwhile, inside my brain, it’s as though every drop of moisture evaporated.
Water. Even as I think of it, something else begins pushing itself up from the recesses of my mind. Something I’m supposed to remember. Something else I don’t want to remember. I stagger into the bathroom, find an empty glass, and turn on the tap. It takes three refills before any memories start to trickle in. I have to be at Wendy’s at eleven. Shit. I have to pick up Damien. Raven’s son. Raven. I have to find out where Raven is.
You won, Pegasus.
Then where do I pick up my prize, dammit?
I begin to laugh as I turn on the shower taps, scaring myself with the unfamiliar sound. What is that supposed to be? You’re…happy? Me? Why is that?
Because now that it’s finally morning, the shadows are beginning to fade, the shadows that have been covering my mind and my soul. Now that they’re gone, I can almost start to see the way, and it’s different from the one they’d convinced me was all I could have.
Raven. For the first time in five days, thinking of his face, his touch, his scent, brings me nothing but a smile. It’s enough.
I arrive at Wendy’s two minutes before eleven. It takes a minute extra to work up enough courage to cross the broken boards of the front step. I’m a stranger to this terrace house, never welcomed within. Besides, seeing my sister and Raven in action was a torture I’d never been willing to handle.
Now you don’t have to handle it.
I hum snatches of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ under my breath as I knock on the metal screen. Soon I hear footsteps thumping towards me, the latch unbolted, and the door thrown wide. Wendy looks very pissed off and sounds very out of breath, so I smile at her as she leers at me. “You’re late!”
I shrug, something inside me determined to play this as cool as the Cheshire Cat. “Whatever.”
“Damien!” she hollers, not taking her eyes off me. I’m glad I’m wearing sunglasses; gives me an extra layer of protection from her glare. She won’t invite me in, but this doesn’t matter. Once I have Damien, there’s no longer anything here that I want.
“Peggy-sis!” As soon as he sees me, he springs into my arms, before his mother has a chance to grab him.
“That was a big jump!” I say, while he plays horsey with my braid. Before I can say another word, Wendy shoves an overnight bag at me. A little toy rabbit sticks out the top, one of its ears poking me in the nose. I almost drop the backpack. Mr. Rabbit. My Mr. Rabbit, that she stole from me, all those years ago? What was that saying, about what goes around—?
“Wipe that stupid fucking grin off your face,” she snaps. “Just make sure he’s home before bedtime.” She starts to turn away. Damien’s bedtime is at seven-thirty. Public transport permitting, Raven was always at the hotel by eight.
Not this time you don’t, Wendy. “Tomorrow morning.”
She stops in her tracks. “What?”
“I said, I’ll bring him back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, you will, will you? And why’s that?”
As if he’s able to read my mind, Damien calls out, “Daddy! Peggy-sis, I wanna see Daddy.”
Shooting me a look that might have the power to kill if only I cared, she gets up in my face, her voice low. “You don’t know where he is. Nobody does. If you don’t have my son here by seven, I’m calling the cops.”
“You’re calling the cops?” I give her a patient smile. “Oh, I don’t think so. After all, I do have three witnesses—none of whom like you very much—to an assault. You remember this, yes?”
Her eyes widen, but she’s quick to smother her rage. “Fine! I could do with a night off from the little brat, anyway. Tomorrow morning. No later than ten, you got that?”
I shrug again, the cat who got the cream. “Fine.”
“Fine!” she echoes, and slams the door in my face.
I walk very quickly, Damien on one hip, his backpack slung across my shoulder, until I find a tram stop bench to collapse on. He crawls off my lap and leans against me, playing with my hair more gently. As I put my head in my hands, I’m painfully aware of how my fingers are trembling. I can’t believe what I just did. Or what I said. Can’t believe I’m doing this when I have no idea where Raven is, when all I have as an assurance that he even cares is the word of my sister—my sister, of all people.
“What’s wrong, Peggy-sis?” Damien asks in a sweet husky voice, wiping clumsily at my face. There are tears on my cheeks again. Serves me right for still believing.
He’s watching me cautiously with Raven’s eyes, and I can’t help but smile at him. “Nothing. I’m okay.” With a sniff, I wipe away the last of my tears, looking again at the little toy rabbit poking out of the bag. Dimly remembering the day that my mother gave it to me. Until now, all I could remember was the day Wendy took it. Something’s changing. It has to be.
“We go see Daddy?”
I sigh, running my fingers through a strand of hair that pokes loose from my braid. “I want us to. But I’m not sure where Daddy is.”
“Uncy Monty knows,” he says, bouncing beside me. “Uncy Monty knows everything!”
I can’t help laughing. It’s probably true. And Monty doesn’t work on a Saturday. “All right. Let’s go find out.”
As if even the gods of public transport are on our side, a number 72 tram is already trundling up the road.
“Are you insane?” Monty yells at me, as I take a seat on the suede settee, and Damien makes a bee-line for the fairy ring of giant mushroom candles in a corner of their living room. “Don’t touch those!”
Noriko flies in from the kitchen, sweeping the child protectively off the floor, shooting her partner a look as she does so. “You don’t think he gets enough yelling at home?”
Monty holds up his hands in a peace offering. I take this opportunity to answer him. “Maybe. You’ve known me long enough to figure that one out.”
With a sigh, he rakes his hands through his hair, making it stand on end.
“Tell me,” I say again.
“I did!” he insists, stomping one foot. “I swear, I don’t know where Raven is. You think I wouldn’t tell you, if I actually—?”
“Montgomery,” Noriko interrupts, and I glance up hopefully. When she uses his full name, that means business.
He shoots her a pleading look, so well-rehearsed that I almost feel sorry for him. But I’ve already spent too many nights alone, feeling sorry for myself. “I was advised not to let on.”
“Stop being such a lawyer. You want me to tell him? Better yet, you should drive them.”
“It’s hours away!”
Noriko puts Damien down. With a cooing noise, he promptly scuttles back to the candles. She folds her arms across her chest and sticks her nose in the air. “You take them there, or I don’t talk to you again. And you know what else I don’t do for you again?”
I can’t help but laugh. Reading between the lines, I’m guessing she just pulled out the big guns. Beyond this, I don’t want to know. Instead I pick up Damien, and the bag, and smile and wave, all sweetness and light. “I’ll wait in the car.”
Moments later a very sulky Montgomery de Winter joins us, and the sounds of Queen fill our ears as the engine starts, and we’re on our way, heading west out of the city, ever deeper into the spiral I still fear as my doom.
In just under four hours time, we turn off the Princes highway, onto a gravel road that winds its way down as far as the eye can see to a breathtaking expanse of unoccupied beach. I wake Damien and pull him onto my lap to take a better look. “Wow!” he breathes, with the awed enthusiasm only a three-year-old can muster. We’re almost driving on sand when the car veers left onto a grassy track. A few hundred metres later, we come to a complete stop, outside an old two storey bluestone house. No other signs of humanity for miles and miles. My shaking returns.
“Well,” says Monty, stretching. “This is it. Thought I might duck into that little pub on the highway and grab myself a room and a meal. But I can come in, if you need me to.”
I open my mouth, close it again. This is it, all right. The moment of truth. What if it isn’t a truth I can handle? What if he’s gone off to that little pub? What if Wendy lied, and there’s someone else? What if he doesn’t want me here at all?
“You don’t have to,” I manage to say, and open the car door.
Damien leaps out and darts about in circles. I grab the bag and crawl out stiffly. The wind is so cold here, driven by the waves that crash against the beach; it feels like they’re coming up beneath my feet. From among a row of pines on a distant hill, a magpie warbles at the first signs of sunset. I shiver. Trust my courage to fail me now.
“See you tomorrow, then,” Monty calls, shooting me a rueful smile as he revs the engine. “I’ll pick you up around five. We’ve both got to be back by ten, remember, so no sleeping in.”
Sleep. You’re assuming I even make it past the gate, let alone the front door. “Sure.” He sounds the horn once, before reversing up the track and cruising off up the gravel road.
“Damien!” I call. I won’t give my legs a chance to run in the other direction, or my fickle mind a chance to change. Not that I know what I’d do, stuck out here all by myself. Go for a swim and keep going, I suppose. Or swan dive off the pier. Like mother, like son.
He comes running over, and I pick him up, grabbing him too tight as I walk through the gate to Raven’s mother’s house.
Raven’s mother. I smile at the thought of Raven having a mother, someone he can turn to, for protection. I’m going to meet the woman who brought the tormentor of my soul into the world. What the hell am I going to say?
No time to think of that. Damien’s already poking at the doorbell, and I hug him even tighter until he wiggles in my arms.
But nothing happens. Maybe no one will answer. I shake my head as the wooden door frame starts to blur. No, I can’t lose it here. I have to look after Raven’s little angel. He’s not going to hurt me, not while I’m standing here holding this precious thing, this child whom I already love more than his own mother does.
Stop rambling. Stop thinking. Just be.
At last, the door opens wide. So does my mouth. I try to recite one of the speeches I spent all that time in the car preparing, but my mind’s run empty. The woman who stands in front of me, apart from her age and the white hair that frames her pale face—well, there’s no mistaking who she is. “Yes?” she asks, in a voice softened by years of illness.
Then, together, we both glance down at Damien. He looks up into the woman’s face, into the eyes that are his father’s and his own, and gurgles appreciatively. Tears stain her powdered cheeks as she whisks him out of my arms with a strength I didn’t expect, holding him to her heart and sobbing, “Oh, my grandson, my darling little Damien.” From somewhere in the distance, I hear more footsteps, fading out and in. My vision blurs again, only now no tricks of breathing or blinking will fix it. Since I don’t have the responsibility of holding the child, my body’s decided to let me go. At last…
Just enough time to recognise Raven’s voice. I think I catch a smile instead of a star, before darkness takes me.
Next Chapter: 05.RAVEN: Angel Visions