Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
Red Letter, White Rose
Nearly sunset. Almost time.
I’m alone in the park, leaning over the little wooden bridge, gazing into the pond. One sunset above, and one below, and my reflection all trapped in the looking-glass water. And soon it will be spring, I can tell. I can smell it in the air, stirring up memories in my blood, this impending hour of birth and rebirth. But there is no true birth, no more originals. While the temporary wither and fade, only to be forgotten forever beneath the crushing wheel of time, the permanent are reborn, to suffer the same dreams, loves, and hells, again and again and again.
I crouch down, put my hand out to the water, though not to touch it. If I make contact, it may hear my thoughts, read my mind, deny my hopes and my attempts to deny its truths. But truths can be denied. There is always more than one truth. This defines choice, creates freedom, engenders hope.
Choice? Which truth do I choose? Yours, Raven? Or yours, Mother?
No. I stare at my palm, fingers outstretched, casting shadows across the liquid mirror. There is only one truth I can qualify.
Time changes nothing. But time, itself, can be changed, distorted, recreated, retold. Envisioned and recalled, in the exact same heartbeat.
I love you, Raven. I can’t say the words, won’t record them within the boundaries of time, or give them to you as the gifts you believe you deserve—and yet this, also, changes nothing. But my love will never change. It exists outside of time. This is my only hope. All I have to hope for. All I can offer you.
And less than you deserve.
Sighing, I stand up and reach into the pocket of my black cords, feeling for the seven coloured stones. Each carefully chosen for its unique purpose. Seven is a good number. A number for luck. A number for truth. Marking beginnings, and endings.
I take the first one, roll it around on my fingertips, and hold it up to the last of the light. A delicate pink, with flecks of grey at its centre. Heavy and cold, it rests in my hand, as I hold my arm out over the railing.
One, the first, for beginnings, my beginning, my…mother.
I part my fingers, allowing the stone to slide through. It sinks into the water, casting ripples across the surface. With no hesitation, I hold out the second: deep brown and tinged with wisps of red. Not as smooth as the others in my collection.
Two, for the pain I learned from those who could only subvert love, or strangle it. Father. Uncle. Wendy.
This one lands with a loud splash as I hurl it into the water. For a moment it bobs up and down on the surface, before inevitably sinking like the first. The third stone is dark blue, nearly black, enough to remind me of the colour of his hair.
Three, for love, truth, and salvation. Raven. Damien…
Four, for the uncertain future. That which I may yet be powerless to change.
Five, for the certain future. Reunion with Mother, unification with Raven. Hope, purity, despair. Forever.
A tear falls down my cheek, joining the stone below. I can taste the death of winter on my tongue.
Six, for the words I don’t say. For the things I fear and yearn for. The courage I will need, to one day unlock your cage of ice, free you within me, as it’s begun already. The will that flows within the circle, to begin, and to end.
I gaze down at the final stone. Pure white, and the smoothest and roundest of them all. It’s warm in my palm, as though absorbing my spirit, my thoughts, my intentions.
Seven, for finality. Death, destruction, revelation. Forgiveness. To not see, in those final days, my hands stained with blood, but light. Self love. Acceptance. Completion.
A breeze whips around me and stings my eyes. I stretch out my arms, spreading my wings under a seafoam sky. Only in a dream…
I lob the white stone across the water. The moment I hear that last splash, I turn my back on the bridge and the pond and climb back to the road. Too many things to face up there. Wendy’s words. The letter… I haven’t read it, though I can tell he wants me to. All because he won’t. He thinks, by keeping himself from her, that her infatuation will die a natural death. But this is not the nature of my sister. This is not something that can be changed.
Except, I can change it. I will change it. This is the reason I came here, invoked my ritual, created the future. Everything exists inside me. I can no longer afford to think myself worthless. That’s their legacy.
You taught me otherwise, Raven. I have to believe you. This is the nature of faith.
This is the truth that I choose.
The stars might be cold and distant, but they’re closer than you are, here tonight.
We’re lying out back in the overgrown garden, staring at the sky. His head rests on my shoulder, one of his arms drapes over my body, palm lying flat across my tummy. Not looking at the stars just now. He’s looking at me. “Peggy?”
I close my eyes, wanting to deny that intimacy in his voice. Wishing he could hate me, wishing he’d feel nothing. And yet, not wishing for any such thing at all. I wished for otherwise today, standing on the edge of a new evening. Wishes and promises carefully planned, enacted; slowly fulfilled. That was the truth, right there, right then. This, here, is nothing meaningful or new. Only another shade of fear.
“How was Damien this time?” I ask cautiously.
He takes in a breath, his voice breaking as he starts to say, “I don’t—” He rubs at his face, attempting to laugh away my question. “—Good.”
I’m not fooled, but I pretend I am. “Did he mention me?”
“Didn’t really talk. Not much, not to me.”
He touches his lips to my cheek, melting the ice. I slowly open my eyes. “Then what did he say?”
Swearing under his breath, he sits up and glares at me. I look at him a moment, making a brief study of his passion and pain. Then I’m back to gazing at the stars. And after all, why not? They’re made with the same essence, and burn with the same intensity. The same distant light, that reminds me of places I long to be.
“Please don’t be so cold,” he murmurs.
I hug myself, then sit up, too. “That’s not how it is. It’s only…a disguise, what happens, when we—” When we what? I can’t go on.
When we come too close. When we know the truth. When we just want to be held, even as the walls of the world come crumbling down. When we’re too scared to ask, even for that.
He’s already drifting away; I can see it in his face. I put out a hand, lay it on his shoulder, and rub the base of his neck, like the night we first touched—
I’m so lost in memories of black velvet against my fingertips that it startles me when he speaks again. “What do you dream about?”
“Huh?” my mouth shoots back, before my mind actually registers the question.
He laughs softly, then grabs hold of my hand, squeezing my fingers together until it hurts. “You were screaming this morning, when I woke up. Screaming in your sleep.” He lowers his head, ashamed, and releases his grip. “Do you still dream about what they did to you?” He sniffs. “Or about me, and what I do to you? You sounded hurt, and afraid. But I didn’t know what you wanted me to do, what you needed me to do, so I—I made out I was asleep. And I left you, crying and alone, till the alarm went off and you hid your tears, and we pretended everything was fine.”
I touch my fingertips to his. “It was only a dream,” I whisper. “An answer I’ve been seeking. A future I can’t avoid. Something done against my will. But not like in the past. Necessary deaths. The path to salvation. Yours, and my own.”
“I don’t understand,” he says, sounding helpless in the dark.
“It doesn’t matter. Understanding will come. Even if only in the final days.”
I can see him turning that thought over in his mind, trying to unravel an interpretation to fit in with his darkest fears, his limited understanding of himself, the person he believes himself to be. “Are you going to leave me?”
I smile, tenderly kissing his forehead. “If I do, I’ll always come back to you. Remember this.”
“Is that how it ends?”
“We go home,” is all I can bring myself to say. Slowly his arms go around me: a loose embrace, tightening to leave me feeling warm and protected, no longer so alone. I begin to forget the dream.
I’m somewhere else, nearly asleep, when he speaks again, so softly I almost miss it. “Peg, I think Damien— I think she might be hurting him. In ways that I can’t see.”
“Like me, the ways I was hurt?” I ask carefully.
He sniffs again, then nods quickly. “Yeah.”
I reach for his wrist, holding him steady, pretending not to notice the tears. He turns from me, back to the sky, cold but no longer so distant. We go home, Raven. Like stars in the night. Soon…
She won’t be able to hurt him anymore, by then.
“A shooting star,” he murmurs.
I look up, following his gaze. Too late to catch a glimpse of anything. “So, did you make a wish?”
“Yes… Yes, I did.”
“I wished you’d read the letter.”
My heart sinks deeper into my chest. I don’t want to read her words. I don’t need any confirmation. I don’t even need any justification.
“It’s not something— I did try. But I could never bring myself to do it. It would be like going back…”
No, Raven. That doesn’t make it all right to ask such a thing of me.
I look at him, and the familiar sense of impending doom steals across my consciousness. The three of us—you, me, Damien… We are all we have, in the entire universe. Too much for her to want to take. Too much for any of them to escape retribution. “When will we leave for your son?” I ask.
A twinge of pain crosses his face. “I don’t know. I can’t seem to find a way through this dark, not anymore.”
I run my fingers over his cheek, an invitation to kiss my hand. Time stands still within me, as I give him my vow. “Then I will be your guiding light. A white rose, shining illumination and truth, on into the night. A rose that never dies.”
He focuses on my hand, fallen into his lap. “There’s something else... A wish I made, before tonight.”
“Anything,” I whisper, before I can stop myself. No doubt I’ll regret it, soon enough.
“Something else you never told me.” He looks at me, defiant and cruel. “Your real name.”
I bite my lip and look away. Why ask me for this, of every possible thing? Why feel the need to remind me of more words, more things I can’t bring myself to say? Snarling, I rip my hand from his and push myself to my feet, intending to storm off.
“Pegasus!” he calls from behind me, his surprise to my reaction the only reason I hesitate. Maybe it’s not your fault, Raven. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you. Not when you asked for the name my father, my uncle, my sister all used on me to inflict their pain, transmit their disease, their—
“Hey,” he says, more gently.
I stifle a sob, barely. You’re not the only one in possession of things you want to forget. And these are the things I need to forget, so that one day I might have a chance to say those more cherished words. Please don’t make me remember any more. For you to think of me like that, I couldn’t bear—
“I will not read your letter,” I say, and return inside, slamming the stairwell door behind me.
All night, I watch him from my chair by the window, lying alone in the garden, contemplating the universe. Sometime before dawn, with my eyelids heavy and my conscious mind sinking, I make the most reluctant promise.
I will read your letter.
You’ve done everything for me. It is only right, that I do the one thing you won’t.
Raven, my love. Yes, love.
You don’t deserve it. You’ve never been good to me. But I forgive you, for everything you did to me, even that horrible night. I would have given you what you wanted, until you said his name. His name. Never mine.
But it doesn’t matter why you chose to be with him. You have to wake up to the truth. I deserve that much from you. I can‘t keep dealing with all the bad things in my life anymore. It’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to do this on my own.
All the men I’ve been with, trying to get you to notice me. They’re not who I want. I’m so tired, and I’m afraid of them, Raven. Sometimes I let them hurt Damien, hoping it would hurt you too. I wish I could take back those things I said in court. But it’s too late now anyway.
The one you beat up that night, do you know what he did? Do you care? I didn’t help him, but I watched. I didn’t stop him. I was too afraid to make him stop.
You see? Now you have to come home to me. This is where you belong. If you hadn’t run off, none of this would have happened to your son.
If you ignore this letter, the truth will come out. That you never loved either of us. And I don’t know how to tell our child, on top of everything else, that his father doesn’t love him.
Yours forever and always,
I sit on the bed, trembling. Somehow holding onto that godawful letter, disgust and futility and sadness and murderous hate tearing up my mind like a razor blade whirlwind.
I want to be sick.
You couldn’t read this, Raven. You couldn’t face the truth. Her truth. Her lies. Her disgusting confession, her—
I can’t control my shaking. I don’t care to, come to that. I’m not sure I can even feel myself breathing; something hot and heavy presses down on my chest when I try to inhale.
I didn’t help him, but I watched. I didn’t stop him.
You bitch. You worthless, pitiless bitch. I will rip out your heart and spit on it; in the dream I didn’t enjoy it, but now I will—I will—
A soft knock sounds at the door. Not a moment later the handle turns, and Raven steps into the room, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and the frost from his bones and muttering something about good morning.
He stops mid-mumble when I launch myself off the bed and charge across the carpet towards him. For a long time, I just glare at him, but that’s no good. I need to get rid of some of this poison, before I self-destruct. I reach out a hand, and he starts to back away, right into the wall. I shove my fingers into the pockets of his cargo pants and rip out a cigarette lighter. His eyes focus on the letter mere seconds before I condemn it to the fires of hell.
In silence, we watch it burn. I stamp out the last embers with my socked feet, until I begin to remember things about myself other than this all-consuming contempt. Drained of what strength I had, I collapse forward into his arms. “Remind me of what it means. To have faith, the need for faith,” I murmur. I don’t imagine he can hear me.
As soon as I can stand again, he loosens his hold. “What did the letter say?” he asks.
Revulsion flickers through my body. She, unable to stop her son’s tormentor; him, unwilling to read about it. What a perfect pair you two make. You should be with her. You should leave here; go. She wants you, I don’t want you, I don’t—
“Why didn’t you read it?” I scream at him, pushing him off. “You couldn’t read it, could you? Because that would mean you might have to care. And you don’t care about anything. Least of all your son!”
I want to die the instant the words leave my mouth. I’m no better than she is, after all.
I’m nobody. Please let me go.
The minute my body answers my prayer, I shove him aside, rip open the door, and escape down the stairs, tripping over my own feet in my haste to be nowhere.
Déjà vu, déjà vu...
The memory of his expression—not sorrow, not anger, just acceptance—follows me all the way down.
I stand at the bottom of the stairwell, staring down at my naked feet. So, now I’m up for braving the rainy St Kilda streets without any shoes. Stupid, stupid, stupid…
The least stupid of all the things I’ve done today.
My shaking hands fumble with the doorknob. But even as my fingers scrabble at the latch, the door’s already opening inwards. A great shadow blocks my path. I stumble away from it, backwards, into the foyer.
Not now. Any time—preferably never—but not now.
I think that wish for my heart to stop beating has finally come true, as my father folds up his umbrella and steps in beside me, brushing at the rain on his tailored suit. A perfect copy of the one he wore to my mother’s funeral.
I bet you think I’ve forgotten. But I will never forget.
“Hello, Jaime,” he says, and beneath that cold smile all the hatred I ever felt freezes to an icy panic in my veins. I keep backing away from him, along the ground floor corridor. Of course the neighbours are watching; I can see them out of the corner of my eye. All three doors open wide enough to peek, not to help.
I don’t want your help. I don’t need your help. But he can’t be here. He’s never come here before.
Of all things, I didn’t dream of this. I will myself to be dreaming now, that this time Raven won’t pretend to be asleep when I wake screaming, that this time he’ll hold me instead, unravelling time, whispering reassurances.
I can fool myself with many things. But my mind refuses to believe in this.
“What are you doing here…Father?” Even by speaking to this man, I’m giving him something he wants and craves. An opportunity to hurt me.
He grimaces, hanging his umbrella from the nearby coat stand, before turning to me, his hands folded above his thighs. “Oh, you needn’t worry. It’s a simple enough matter. Personally, I disagree and feel she could do better—so much better—but it seems your sister has decided to take this Raven character back into her home, and her life. I’m merely here to ensure that my princess gets what she wants. Minus your constant interference.”
I can only gape at him. He smirks before continuing on. “You were always your mother’s favourite. She loved you more than she ever loved me, until I finally succeeded in pulling you both apart, for good. Wendy is my daughter—our daughter—but you… You never belonged to me. You were merely the product of some…fling, some high-spirited, meaningless affair. And yet, for nine long years, you did your best to destroy my happiness. She refused to have you aborted. By the time I knew the truth, it was much too late.
“But I am an old man now, blessed with the benefit of hindsight and experience. True, you may have destroyed my happiness. But I will personally ensure you do not destroy that of my daughter, with your sinner’s ways and your debauched…lifestyle choices.”
I struggle to keep him in focus, as his words go ricocheting about my head. You never belonged to me.
I am not your son.
For all that you did to me, I never even belonged to you.
You think you separated Mother and I? You think you can waltz in here and take Raven from me, too? I laugh in his face. I feel like I’m running off an electric shock, but whatever I am, it’s five steps beyond being afraid. “Blessed with experience, Father?” I spit the word at him, pleased when he flinches. “You speak of sin, only because you know nothing of love. But I know it. I know Raven loves me.”
His face turns red, and my instincts scream at me to run. Instead, I lean against the stair rails, forcing myself to stand my ground. “There is no love in such an accursed union,” he says between his teeth. “‘If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.’”
Really, Father? We’re reduced to quoting Leviticus? All right, if such is your wish. It takes two to play the game of damnation versus faith. I look him right in the eye, focusing all my mind and will. “‘He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?’” I take a breath, and proclaim proudly, “James 4:11.” Via my mother.
I’m still smiling at him triumphantly, even as I watch his arm curve back, right before he strikes me…hard.
I crash to the floor. My vision folds in on itself in a violent wave of static, dragging me under. I fight to hold onto any one thought that might keep me on this side of reality.
You are not my father.
Out of breath, I struggle to raise my head. Pain stabs at my left temple. All around me, I can hear doors closing, one by one by one, latches and bolts and chains drawn and snipped. None of them will bear a willing witness to the truth. Am I the only one left?
His black leather shoes swim in and out of focus in front of my face. “How dare you,” he growls. “You’re still nothing but a whore.”
I laugh, but no sound comes. It’s probably the truth. I test out the phrase in my mind. I am nothing but a whore.
Oh, God, it hurts. I pull my hands away from my forehead. They’re covered with blood. My blood.
They shall surely be put to death…
I’m merely here to ensure that my princess gets what she wants.
Now I understand. You’re going to kill me for it. And why should it matter? I’m not your son. I’m nothing…nothing but a whore, just like you said. And yet—
At once, Raven’s voice enters my mind, dulling the pain, filling me with the memory of the night he lay beneath me, gave me everything, his torment, his love, his soul…
Every time I look at you, it hurts me. This is love. This is the truth…of love. You’ve never seen this before?
Am I too late? Another memory flashes before my eyes, that of my mother holding me tight, protecting me while the man I called my father hit her again and again.
Yes, Raven, I have seen this before, but—
Understanding. This is what comes too late.
I look up at my father. The expression of detachment on his hard face only confirms my belief: he’s going to kill me. This stranger, this shadow, this person who draws my blood and pain yet has no right to lay claim to either of them.
I have to escape. I have to make it back to Raven. I already left him with so much of my hurt. I have to return to my one true salvation. I will not die here. My life belongs only to one. You have no right to take it.
I fight against passing out as I roll across the floor and stumble to my feet. Once I can stand, I begin to run, although now it really is like a dream, and I flee across the carpet in slow motion, falling to my knees on the stairs before finally picking up speed. I can make it.
Raven, forgive me. Please. And I will still be your guiding light. A white rose, shining illumination and truth, on into the night. A rose that never dies.
All the way up the stairs, laughter follows me, ominous and threatening. As though I’m still a child on the run. Like nothing ever changes.
Next Chapter: 15.RAVEN: Lost In The Darkness Before The Dawn