Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
The Olive Branch’s front bar swarms with a freak show assortment of south of the Yarra scenesters and west of the Yarra bogans.
I weave through the sweaty throngs of flannel shirts or turtlenecks and tight black jeans, to find Noriko tucked behind a corner table with two glasses of Midori and lemonade, one set aside for me. Ugh. So this would be our first Friday night gig.
As I take up a spot beside her, I catch sight of the clock above the bar. Strange that a hotel should have a clock. It reads five minutes to ten. Five minutes before we’re meant to be on stage. Five minutes to summon the last dregs of inspiration from my threadbare soul. And Raven hasn’t surfaced. I take a sip of my drink, and Noriko smiles at me, hopeful, sad, and knowing. It’s too loud to hear myself think, let alone waste energy on small talk. This isn’t the place I should be. I need to find him, before we go on.
I scull the rest of the glass, then turn from the table. But she grabs at my wrist and tugs me towards her, wide-eyed and worried. I can’t bring myself to pity her. “What?” I mouth, wrenching myself out of her grip.
She shrinks down into her seat, and feigns a sudden interest in her straw. I think I hear her say, “Nothing.”
“Good.” I creep through the tail end of the crowd, and slip behind the curtain backstage.
Here in this quieter dark, I can breathe again. Once my eyes adjust to the low light, I spot Raven, leaning against the far wall, arms folded across his chest, staring off into space. The rhythmical twitch of his jaw is the only external clue to the madness that consumes him. Has been consuming him, ever since that night he tried to leave me. Ever since the day they took his son.
I’m all he has left, and I am not enough. If I was enough, I could save him. I would have saved him already.
But it’s not over yet. This isn’t how it ends. I know you’re the truth. I know you don’t want me to believe, but I can see beyond everything. I’ve touched you, tasted you, hurt you, been hurt by you, and now— And now, I know.
I cross the floor and put my arms around him, though there’s no way to tell if he even notices. His entire body seems made of ice, hard and cold, too afraid to allow any warmth to escape his skin and flow through to me. He still believes himself capable of hurting me.
I’m not afraid. I snuggle into his shoulder, comforted by the scent of cloves that lingers about his skin. Feeling his muscles tauten before he says, “I don’t think I can do this.”
He’s staring down at me, trying so hard to hide it, but I know the sorrow that smoulders within. As long as you feel this, I have hope. I feel it too. Don’t you see?
I catch hold of his fingers, lift them to my face. He whimpers as I take each one into my mouth in turn, licking it, suckling it. His arms reach out to enfold me, absently stroking my hair, until a small cough from the other side of the room interrupts.
Monty lurks near the coffee table, holding a glass in either hand. “Er, thought you might want a drink,” he says, not quite looking at either one of us. “Sound’s playing up, seems we’ve got a ten minute reprieve.”
I stand on tiptoe to nibble at Raven’s ear. “There’s a lot I can do in ten minutes…”
But the way he stiffens only fills me with shame. Of course. It took me far less time than this to drag your life down so low.
At last he turns that gaze on Monty—it’s my turn to be granted a reprieve. “Fuck off,” is all he says.
Monty only shrugs, then puts the glasses down on the table and raises one hand in a mock salute. “Yessir,” he mutters, and disappears through the curtain, back to the maniac circus. Strange we should find such a place to express our souls. Just like the butterfly.
I force myself to move aside and fetch Raven his drink. He takes the glass—an automated response—though a hateful sneer pinches his lips as he stares into its depths. Now his body tenses, and I duck, and a loud smash reverberates behind me. He grabs hold of my left wrist and pulls me up, shoving me against the wall, glaring into my face. “You shouldn’t encourage me,” he whispers hoarsely. Then he leans forward and plants one tender kiss upon my forehead. When I dare to open my eyes, I’m all alone.
Don’t encourage you.
I reach up and touch the spot where he kissed me, still warm beneath my fingertips.
But that’s all I know how to do.
I leave my own glass untouched as I trail out after him, the eternal shadow.
It’s closer to half an hour before we finally make it on stage. I have no real idea how I make it through our reduced set. My fingers find every note like they’ve been trained to, but there’s nothing else behind the mechanical interpretation. No soul.
Towards the end of the last song, I gaze out across the floor. The audience seem apathetic, at best. Why do they bother with any of this? Why not shut themselves in with a six-pack of beer and TV screen?
Not all of them, though. Through the neon rainbow sea of hair dye, thick eyeliner, and face paint, I catch sight of two familiar faces. The hated, and the loved. Wendy’s eyes meet mine mid-gasp, and Damien stares at me, misery emulating his father too perfectly, clutched tightly in her arms.
I have to focus extra hard on my playing not to miss a note. You bitch. What the hell do you think you’re up to? You think you haven’t done enough? Anxiously, I glance at the other side of the stage, but Raven’s focused on his guitar, pretending he hasn’t noticed.
Only I know the difference, as the seemingly endless song finally comes to a close, and he pushes past me to get out from under the spotlight. It’s all I can do not to chase after him as I scamper down the stairs.
On the floor, over by the bar, it would seem Monty and Noriko have beaten me to it already. Raven’s not there, of course, but I can hear them arguing with Wendy from where I stand. Hypocrites. Snarling, I storm towards all three of them, and knock Monty and Noriko aside before I come face to face with my sister. Soeur. I can’t believe I ever called you by that name. That’s never what you were. Mother never wanted you. You were a product of rape, what Father did to her. We both despised you. If Mother was here, she’d show you herself. But now, I am all there is.
I pry Damien loose from her grip, hiding my relief behind his thick mess of hair as he buries his face in my chest. “Peggy,” he whimpers, clinging to me.
“Give him to me!” Wendy shrieks, making the mistake of reaching out, coming too close.
If I sent her to hell, that would still be too close. She deserves complete death, exile to some place where no one can ever remember her.
I catch hold of her wrist, twisting her arm back as far as it can go, until she squeals. She’s wearing more foundation than usual, but not enough to hide a purple bruise that swells around her left eye. “He’s not yours to give,” I say.
“Please,” she begs, going limp in my grasp. “Give him back, or I’ll call the cops.”
I laugh at this tired threat, and shove her away from me towards the bar. She stumbles over a couple of faux goths, who seem none too pleased at the intrusion. They can deal with it later. I’m not finished with her yet. “Go right ahead. Call whatever person you please. I’m sure they’d be intrigued to hear all about your reasons for coming here—or do you think a restraining order works one way only?”
“Goddammit, Pegasus, don’t you get it? This isn’t about you. I need to talk to him.” Then she bursts into tears.
Aided by her show of weakness, I recover quickly, though I remember to loosen my grip on Damien. “You lost, remember?” I say. “You think you have this child, to use as a weapon whenever it suits you, but it’s only a matter of time.”
I take a step back, disgusted by her manipulative attempts at garnering sympathy. “Daddy,” a little angel voice whispers in my ear.
“I know.” Turning aside, I almost walk into Noriko and Monty, who stand behind me, their mouths hanging open. “You may continue,” I tell them, carrying Damien away.
Just outside the curtain, I place him down gently, and ruffle his hair. After this, I can’t stop myself from sweeping him into a loose embrace, murmuring the words, “I missed you, little angel,” in his ear. But when he only trembles and says nothing, I pull back. In slow motion, he touches my face, my hair, my lips. He’s too quiet. What’s wrong?
A horrible sense of déjà vu overwhelms me. This is familiar—why?
Not his father’s eyes. My own.
I cover my mouth, feeling sick. Wendy, what did you do? Why are you really here? More revenge?
Nothing’s worth that.
“Hey, listen,” I say to Damien, very carefully taking hold of the tiny hands. “Daddy’s behind this curtain. He doesn’t know you’re here, so he’s very sad—” it’s a lie, of sorts, but for now it will do “—so we’re going to be really quiet when we go in and act like it’s a surprise, okay? Okay?” He nods quickly, giving me a smile that’s far too anxious and sad to belong to a three year old. I press a finger against my lips before we push aside the curtain.
Raven sits in the centre of the floor, knees up, his head resting on his arms, an unlit cigarette dangling from long graceful fingers. He doesn’t look up as I creep forward and drop to my knees beside him. Damien squeezes and tugs on my hand; he won’t have the patience for this game too long. You see? I stop myself from touching the beautiful blue-black hair that drapes across one wrist, hiding the scars he no longer cares to conceal. You’re the saviour of us both. You just don’t realise it yet. Come out from the shadows. I can show you. “I brought you a present.”
Taking that as his cue, Damien burrows in beneath his father’s arms, and now both of them are locked in embrace, some kind of beautiful, living sculpture. I begin to stand, resigned to leaving them be, but I’m being pulled into their hug too, with Raven’s kisses on my neck as his son huddles in between. “You’re an angel,” he tells me. “How can you keep doing this?”
“Destroying your soul?”
“Not my destruction,” he recites, mustering a small smile as he uses my own words against me. “My salvation.”
I swallow hard and find strength enough to return the embrace. “This is just a preview. Soon, my love, it will always be this.”
“Promise me,” he demands, reminding me of his old self as he searches my face for a confirmation of truth.
“I’ve never lied to you,” is all I say. “I never will.”
Good enough. He returns his attention to Damien, rocking him side to side. I frown as I get up, trying not to stare at the odd shading on the child’s leg, just below his cords: one to match the bruise on Wendy’s face. I should leave. Now. I don’t think I want to be around when Raven notices it.
As I know, inevitably, that he must.
How things have changed when I return to the bar. Monty and Noriko sit at a table with Wendy, more than willing to hear out her side of the story. I slink towards them, fixing her with a look that’s fit to kill.
She edges away as I squeeze in right beside her. But after a while, as she rabbits on about all the terrible things her latest excuse for someone else to blame has done to her, and I haven’t made any attempts to kill her, Monty and Noriko drift off into the thinning crowd. Yes, yes, we’re all being very civil—if they can play charades, so can I, dammit. Anyway, I’m only pretending to listen, while I wait for something else to happen. It only takes a little while.
She’s just spoken Raven’s name when her expression morphs from self-absorption into pure fear. I follow her gaze towards the doorway, where a man in a suit loiters on the threshold, staring in our direction. It’s so easy for me to tell. The bruising, the quiet terror… He is the one. He must be.
Now Raven appears from behind the curtain. He kisses Damien, passes him off to Noriko, and makes a bee-line for the new arrival. Halfway across the floor, Wendy flings herself off the stool and leaps into his path. She opens her mouth, and his hands clench into fists, but he forces himself to stay cold and calm. “I’ve got nothing to say to you here. Get the hell away from me.”
After a moment of hesitation, she skulks back to my side. I nod in the direction of the doorway. “Is that a friend of yours? I think Raven’s going to kill him.”
As though hearing my prophecy, the man in the suit turns pale and backs out of the door. Raven lopes after him in hot pursuit.
“Please, you’ve got to stop him,” Wendy sobs, as I slide off the stool. “I can’t have them fighting over me.”
I spare her a moment more of my time, and the coldest glare in my repertoire. “Why would I do that, even if I could? This isn’t about you.” Tucking my scarf into my coat, I push on the door and head out into the misty night.
“I said, are you Jonathan?” Raven’s hoarse voice demands. Next comes a thud. I quicken my pace, turn the corner, round the back of the hotel. That’s where I find them: two shadows—one hunched over on the cobblestones, moaning and panting as steam and blood pours out from his mouth, and the other wiping the sweat from under his nose. I steal in closer. This is just like that night, outside JoJo’s. Raven sticks his hands deep into his pockets, fidgeting with a few coins and a lighter. I crouch down and stare into the man’s face. Knocked around, bloodied, but breathing.
Even as I stand, Raven aims another kick between the man’s legs. I grip his arm, keeping it steady. You’re not going to kill him. He’s not worth it.
I take one of his hands in my own. He struggles to focus on me as I examine his fists more closely. Blood. Your blood.
Oh, Raven. I want to take you home.
I lick off the mess and kiss his bruised knuckles. “I can’t let him go back there,” he murmurs, his voice trembling against my ear. “What the hell is she doing to him, Peg?”
I take a deep breath. “I’m taking you home,” is all I say, meeting his sadness with the one thing I have left tonight: determination.
Defeated, he nods, and so I guide him away.
I lie awake, waiting for the dawn. Beside me, Raven slumbers on. Though we never speak of any attempts at intimacy, and barely communicate with words at all, it comforts me to hear his short, shallow breaths, feel the rise and fall of his chest, and know the way he falls asleep with his arm around me and wakes to find it still there. How he kisses me and brushes aside the teardrops, while I resurrect myself from apparitions that are part dream, part nightmare.
But this morning I won’t sleep, though my latest vision is gone. I try to hold him; from within the depths of his slumber, he trembles and twitches against me. What visions haunt your dreams, my love?
Almost six a.m., and the world outside our window remains cloaked in darkness. Not long now, though. Saturday. The day for his first supervised visitation, with Damien.
The morning can start, in a moment. I want to make him breakfast, before we leave. I have to do something. I feel so useless. No—worse than this. I feel as though everything is my fault.
Around the walls, shades of grey begin to pale. I roll off the mattress and put on my robe. Raven moans, still half asleep, patting the spot where I lay beside him. “Mmm…come back to bed, Peggy.”
He looks so snug, beneath the doona. I smile and move to sit near him. After laying a single kiss on his forehead, I begin plucking at stray locks of his hair, curling them around my fingers until he swats me away. “Have you forgotten what day it is?” I ask solemnly.
He opens his eyes, fully awake. One long sigh, and then he says, “There are things you don’t forget, angel.”
I jump as something by Regurgitator blasts out of the tinny speaker on the alarm clock. Taking this as my cue, I leave him to deal with the noise, and get up to fix our coffee.
We arrive a bit after eight. Raven says nothing for the entire journey, but as we shuffle off the tram, his hand grabs for mine, and so we walk the rest of the way. When we turn onto Monty’s street, he pulls me up and says, “I don’t think— Not like this.”
I glance over my shoulder, looking to the familiar blue and grey house. “She’s not here yet,” I tell him. “I’ll wait for you. Right there.” I nod towards the bus shelter on the opposite side of the road. “Go on. Even like this, he’ll know you haven’t forgotten him. Besides, Noriko makes the best coffee, remember?”
I squeeze his hand once, and step aside. He gazes at me, so lost in sadness, until new resolve sets on his face. There are things you don’t forget, angel. Nodding once, he lopes up the driveway and into the house.
With a sigh, I cross the road, and take up my place in the designated spot, huddling deep inside the purple fleecy top I’ve conveniently forgotten to hand over. It’s another reminder. Angel. You always call me by this name, Raven. Mon ange. Only Mother ever called me that, before.
Only Mother told you she loved you, too.
I watch the house and both ends of the street for any signs of my sister, my nemesis. Sure enough, a taxi soon appears on the corner, idling down the street, before it draws to a sharp halt right outside Monty’s. Damien springs out, darting away the moment Wendy tries to grab for his hand. Her shoulders slump as she watches him race inside. Then she turns and crosses the street, coming straight towards me.
I pull out a book from the depths of my top and flick open to a random page, pretending to be engrossed in the story as she takes a seat beside me. Wuthering Heights. It doesn’t matter where I pick up the threads. I dreamed this one already, in early adolescence.
“So you’re going to sit here all day, waiting for lover boy? Aren’t you a good little doggie.”
I knew it wouldn’t take her long to get stuck in. I only blink to turn the page.
“Oh, and that guy he beat up in the alley? That was Jeff, not Jonathan. Jeff’s much worse. You couldn’t imagine. Then again, that’s right, maybe you could.”
My hands twitch. I turn the page again, even though it’s not time. Does she want me to hurt her?
There’s a long silence, and then she rubs her palms together, breathing on her fingers. “Fuck, it’s cold out here. Look, do you want to go for a coffee, or what?” I’m about to turn another page, far more calmly, when she says, “Don’t think I don’t know I made a big mistake by throwing him out on your doorstep. But I’m going to get him back.”
I slide the book closed and tuck my hands deep into the fleecy pockets. Staring straight ahead, I say, “You make it sound like you actually have a choice in any of this. You lost, remember?”
She’s silent a moment. Then she shakes her head, pity on her face, pity for me. “You really believe that, don’t you. You really believe he—what? Loves you? You believe in love? God, you’re so fucking naive. Why do you think he came to me first? What does that tell you, huh?”
I smile without warmth. “That we were both whores, for a little while.” I close my eyes, leaning against the pebble wall of the bus shelter. From dreams a memory resurfaces: her lifeless form in my hands, the pulse ebbing away beneath my fingertips, my grip loosening around her throat. “You’re going to die, Wendy.”
“Are you trying to threaten me?”
“No. I don’t need to threaten you. It’s simply the truth. A truth. You’re going to die, before your time.”
She cackles wildly, but the minute I brush my fingers against the bruise on her cheek, her laughter falters. Without getting up, she skittles across the seat to be further away from me.
“You thought they loved you,” I murmur sadly. “My mother didn’t love you. And neither does Raven. You always knew that, didn’t you. It’s why you always tried to take everything from me.” I smile at her, as though absolving her of sin, even if I’m no priest. “I never played your games of deceit. I never needed to, no matter what you did. But you’re not the truth, ma soeur. Some day soon, you’ll be gone, and no one will remember you. Not even your son. Who will be left to blame? Only you.”
Her face scrunches up with rage. As she aims a slap at my face, I grab hold of her wrist, but this time place it back into her lap. Now she stares at me, wide-eyed, understanding nothing. “Are you insane?”
I laugh at the simplicity of her question. “If that makes it easier for you, then yes. I am insane.”
She stands over me and spits at my feet. “He’s mine,” she insists, her spite recalling memories of our childhood. “And Damien’s mine, too. They don’t belong to you. They don’t love you. You’ve got nothing. I’ll take them from you, I’ll take everything from you!”
I smile, waving a hand dismissively. “As I already told you, you’re assuming you ever had a choice.” A chill runs down my spine, even as I say, “Get over it. Life is too short. Especially yours.”
With a snarl, she spins on her heel and stomps off down the street. I wait until she’s out of sight before I fold my legs to my chest and lower my head, trying to hide myself much too late.
The angry blare of a car horn is the only signal that alerts me to Raven’s approach—it’s already sunset; all this time I’ve been somewhere else, fallen into a daze. He’s crossing the road, coming towards me, head down, hands buried in his pockets.
He takes hold of my fingers, my skin a tell-tale blotchy purple and blue. “You waited here for me all day?”
“More or less.” I shrug. “Where else would I go?”
His only response is to nod, mostly at the ground. Then, “I want to go home with you, but…I don’t know where I’m supposed to be. I don’t know what’s going to happen anymore.” He lifts my chin, so I can’t hide the tears. “Pegasus?”
Don’t you dare apologise. I don’t think I could bear it.
I grab for his palm, and press it against my icy cheek. “I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to save you, and Damien, too. You always said I was your angel. That’s what angels do, is it not?”
He holds me tight. I twine my fingers through his, and lead us on through silence and darkness. Home to our one small corner of the earth, our only shelter in a world that seems intent on exiling us both.
I forgot to switch off the heater this morning but remembered to close the window, so the loft has quite the tropical feel when we crawl inside. Raven goes straight to work, making coffee and hunting through the fridge for something fast and edible. I fold up on the floor, kicking away my shoes, and peeling off my top layer of clothing. He emerges from the kitchen, first with two cups, then a bowl of noodles. I offer to warm it up, but he puts a firm hand on my shoulder. “Too hungry.”
He passes me a fork, then sets the bowl down between us and helps himself. With a patient sigh, I join in. We finish off all the noodles even before our coffee cools off enough to drink. At last, he strips off his black woollen pullover and lays it beside the bowl. “You must get sick of my fashion sense,” he says, with a small smile. Bemused, I shake my head, but he’s already changing the subject. “Maybe I should run you a bath? Get the chill out of those bones.” His gaze darts across me, then back to the pullover. Strange, he seems so shy tonight.
Some winged thing inside me does a fluttery leap.
“Perhaps,” I agree, waiting until our eyes next meet before I lean forward and kiss him. Soon after, we’re on the floor, me on top of him, pulling his t-shirt up over his ribcage, revealing the scars again. I lift it over his head, then start on the zip and the button of his cargo pants, and last of all his underwear and socks, just to complete the effect. My breath comes fast and heavy as I take in his naked form, lying beneath me, glowing in the moonlight. Is this what I feel for you? This…love?
He gazes at me, searching my face, questioning, but not afraid. There’s a sadness to my smile as he pulls out my hair tie. Then I take off my own t-shirt and gather him into my arms. Our pulses meld together, too jittery, too fast, as the warmth of the room presses in on us, a third heartbeat. I lean forward again to kiss his lips, my tongue exploring his mouth deeper and deeper, my hands stroking his chest, tweaking his hardened nipples, and brushing against his tummy.
The moment I place my palm over his new erection, he breaks the kiss. “No. You don’t want this.”
No? I slide down the length of his torso, and start to kiss a path along the soft skin of his thighs, teasing his balls with a few strands of my fringe, pushing him back to the floor with one hand. I nibble and lick my way up his dick, drooling over it, exhaling a warm breath, tormenting him sweetly. My intent is to move up to his belly and down again, but he grabs my shoulders and forces me level with his glare. My smile dies altogether, leaving only shadows to play with my heart. “What’s the matter?”
I sit up, facing the heater instead. I take a sip of my coffee, though it’s gone cold during my unexpected—and apparently undesired—display of passion. Am I not allowed to want to give myself to you now?
You’re assuming you ever had a choice. Tears sting my eyes as those words return to haunt and mock me. Is this how it is? Do you want her still, after all she’s done?
All I’ve done.
“You—you don’t have to stay, you don’t have to pretend, if I’m not the one to make you happy,” I manage to choke out. My voice sounds so pathetic, so small.
He remains on the floor, silent. He’s watching me, but I can’t read his expression. I thought—I thought I’d begun to understand you, but this? What is this?
Faith. I wrap my arms around myself to contain my shivering.
Finally, he says, “I’m not faking it for you, Peg. It’s—not that, okay?”
Sure. Whatever. “So—?” I press anyway, unable to help myself.
He shrugs. “You never— You never say it.” When my only response is a twitch, he finds himself forced to elaborate. “You’ve never once told me you…love me.”
My shivers spread to within as I glare at him, showing just enough pain to make him flinch. Good. “Just because I never say it doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. This is the whole basis of faith.”
“I don’t believe in faith.” He raises himself up on his elbows. Is he ready to walk again?
No, not this time. Not this time when I’ve done nothing wrong. When you’ve done nothing wrong.
I pounce on him and pin him to the floor by his wrists. You will not run from me, not like this. You need to see the truth. “That’s not the truth.”
A shaky sigh escapes his lips, but he can’t escape me. Drawing in a deep breath, I gather the last of my courage about me. “There’s only one way to show you,” I whisper, brushing the hair off his face. Strange that we should be so frightened now. But no more.
This stops. Tonight.
One last kiss, before I tell him, “This is all I have, Raven.
Next Chapter: 13.RAVEN: Little Deaths/Garden Of Eden