Trapdoor: a novel by Vixen Phillips
Illumination (The Bottom Of Pandora’s Box)
So much anger. So much blood. Red like the sunset, staining my soul.
I pretend to sleep, in the comfort of his arms. The only safety, the only reality I have left. I don’t know where we’re headed, but he tells me it’s home, and so I believe. But I wonder…
I wonder if he really understands yet. If it’s really had a chance to sink in. That this is all only temporary. That our real home is—
No, not yet. Don’t think. Let me go.
But my mind is not the problem. The wounds go so much deeper than that, so much deeper, you see.
I want him to see, even as I fake sleep. And I want to sleep too, it’s just…my body won’t allow me to succumb to the nightmares that lie in wait to claim me. Not yet.
He wraps his arms around me, while Damien snuggles closer. My hand brushes against the wooden chest. I can’t bring myself to look inside it. In the other stories, Pandora’s box closes before it’s too late. But not in my story. In my version, even with the shadows of death touching my heart, breaking it open to reveal both hope and despair, it’s all for you, Raven.
I dig my nails into his hand, not wanting to hurt him so much as wanting him to feel my own pain. Although, in their way, they’re one and the same. It’s why you are…what you are. Why you’ve treated me the way you do, why we both remain.
My mind keeps crumbling at the edges, seeking escape, a refuge in dreams. But the only sanctuary is where it always has been, right here in his arms.
I don’t want to remember. She made me remember, Raven. Help me.
Little blood-red clouds dissolve into foam as I look on, and I’m standing upon the beach.
I’m nine years old, and watching from the window. She’s so far off, I can barely see her.
But at the very last moment, before her wings spread free, she turns to look at me.
She sees me. She’s…smiling at me.
I open my eyes, gasping for air, as Raven strokes my hair, shushing me. I close my eyes again, remember to breathe.
How dare you, Wendy. How dare you try to take that from me, again. The way she looked that day, so smug, so smug knowing I’d lost and she’d won, that I had nobody left to love and protect me. No guiding light. No nothing.
Mother smiled at me. Mother loved me. How dare you attempt to cheapen that, to remind me of the ways in which I failed, so many times, in the years since her death. The many, long years.
So much anger. If I had my time again, I’d still do what I did—unleash this anger, rid myself of this poison, try to cleanse my soul. Only I would finish it for you, Raven. Just like I promised you. Just like I should have.
I am nobody’s whore. That’s not what you see, when you look at me.
No. We’re a family now, that’s what he said to me. The only promise that might keep it all at bay, until—
I wonder how long, before we reach this place he calls home.
I think I’m going to be sick.
“Wake up, angel.”
A whisper caresses my cheek, and I open my eyes reluctantly. Raven stands over me, cuddling a very sleepy Damien to his chest. I struggle to rise from the seat and nearly sprain my left ankle as it gives way beneath my weight. Right before I fall, he steadies me, propping me against his shoulder for support. I need it, but not because of the prickling in my foot.
“Is this the last stop?” I glance out the window, seeing nothing but a few lights from a mostly deserted street. It’s pitch black outside already. Everybody else seems to be getting off, a tired procession of yawning mouths and creaking bones.
“Nope. Halfway, I think. They stop here for refreshments.” He stares deep into my face, as though trying to will me away from the other pain, before adding, “But this is where we get off.” He leans in closer, kissing my forehead, resting the tip of his nose against mine. “We’re almost home, angel.”
Hearing those words, I allow him to usher me off the coach. The minute I’m outside, the cold night air stings my cheeks, working its way into my bones, shocking me awake. I take hold of the child, snuggling into him for warmth as he murmurs something and tries to go back to sleep, and Raven retrieves the suitcase from the driver.
He turns around to see me shivering, and frowns. “Go on. Inside. Get yourself something to eat. Something for this one, too.”
I hesitate, then gape at the source of the lights. A service station that doubles as a restaurant and a general store. Nothing to enlighten me as to where we are, but I guess I’m on a first name basis with the owners, assuming that’s who ‘Rosemary and Jack’, whose names adorn the front window in fading chipped paint, are. Everything’s so quiet; the only sounds and signs of life come from behind the glass. The coach obscures most of my view, though beyond that, in either direction, distant lights twinkle along the highway it must have travelled. A long and winding road, indeed.
“Oi!” Raven snaps his fingers in front of my face, rousing me from my rambling thoughts and Damien from his sleep. “Inside, I said.”
“What about you?” I ask, patting down my hair and dress as I catch a glimpse of my strange reflection in the glass. For the first time, I kind of wish I’d gone for the blond. And you said this was only to deceive the others. But you were wrong, my sweet.
He laughs, fishing through the pockets of his coat for a cigarette. “Are you kidding? We’ve been on that thing for nearly four hours. I’m dying for a smoke.” A kiss on the cheek, too chaste for my wishes, before he lights up and wanders out into the black void. With no other option, I take in a deep breath and push my way through the door.
After being outside, it’s deafening in here; thirty odd people crowded about tables, relieving themselves of the self-imposed silence of travel. Perhaps I do know where this is. It feels like the ends of the earth.
Damien’s head lolls against my chest, and I decide, rather than to risk waking him, that my best plan of attack is to take a seat in the darkest corner, farthest from the door, and wait for Raven. My nausea hasn’t worn off. Somehow, I doubt it ever will.
I pull up a chair and settle in, gazing around the timber walls. At the other end of the room, a fire crackles beneath all the voices, a constant. I avoid catching the eye of the flame. I’m scared of what I might see, lurking within. Another reflection of myself, in hell.
A tear rolls down my cheek as Damien wriggles in my arms, moving into a comfier sleeping position. He feels warmer than the flames, in any case. Safer.
Now I understand.
We’re a family.
No, it can’t. Not here. Please wait until they leave. Until everyone leaves, and I’m all alone.
But the sleeping child in my arms is a comforting reminder that I’ll never be alone. I press my face against his hair, hiding my sorrow and elation from the world as my body at last allows me to break.
I don’t know when Raven comes in. I don’t hear the ringing of the bell that announced my own entrance. But here he is, holding me in his arms, staring at me, so full of concern, so full of—
You’re free now. Your eyes tell me so. All you need are the wings on your back, an ocean full of mermaid’s tears and starlight. My mother’s eyes were exactly the same, in those final days.
“It’s okay,” he whispers. Tonight, he feels so strong, perhaps because I’m so weak.
Using a thumb, he wipes a trail of mascara off my cheek. “I’m going to get you something to eat. And you,” he adds, ruffling the hair of the child in my arms, who’s wide awake and staring into my face.
I start to protest, only to have him cut me off with a glare. “No. I told you, we’re almost there. But we’ve got a long walk ahead of us, with all this.” He nods at the suitcase and the ominous box. “I can’t carry them, Damien, and you.” Softening somewhat, he touches a thumb to my lip. “Soon as we’re home, I’ll run you a bath. Sit you down by the fire. Kiss away your fears.”
He turns from me a little too quickly and saunters towards the counter. I watch him make small talk with the old man—Jack, I assume, and not Rosemary—before he pays for our meals and returns to the table.
Your feelings embarrass you, Raven. You’re scared to share them with me, in case I use them against you like she did. We both wear her scars. But now, we’re both—
“I’m hungry, Daddy,” Damien whines, as his father takes a seat between us, fidgeting with the glass ashtray, the table’s only centrepiece.
“I know, kittling.” He goes on spinning the glass between his fingertips, creating a hypnotic effect. Damien opens his mouth and turns his attention to a stray lock of my hair, twisting it up into a little ball and sucking on it. All three of us are silent until our meals arrive, and then we eat. Slowly, the other passengers drift away, and the dull growl of the engine outside announces their departure. Raven stares into a black well of coffee, his third cup since we came in, and Damien chews on a straw. I watch them both, a guardian angel, out of practice, but with the instincts still remaining.
Finally, he leans back and slides the cup across to the far side of the table. “Time to go?” I ask.
With a sigh and a stretch, he nods. “I should fetch some supplies while we’re here. Doubt there’ll be much in the way of food up there, and we’ll need breakfast for the morning.”
“If there is a morning,” I mutter, before I can stop myself.
As we stand, he turns on me. “There’s always a morning, Pegasus. You taught me that.”
He takes care of the shopping, which I carry, along with Damien, out the door. That leaves him with the suitcase, and the box. As we step outside, the cold hits me full-force. The coach is gone, so there’s no more windbreak, and I can actually see what there is of this town. No wonder it’s so dark. A huge mountain range towers over us, ominous and omniscient, blacker than the sky.
He lights another cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke and frost into the air. I smell the crispness of the cloves, the freshness of the night, eucalyptus and snow, maybe. We’re a long way from the ocean. This is what you wanted, isn’t it.
This is what I want, too.
The night seems as endless as the winding dirt road we follow off the highway, heading deeper into a forest. So many stars, reminding me of that night at his mother’s house. Every so often, when we stop to rest, I ask him about them again, allowing the simplest of touches and his voice to keep me whole. Damien seems content to dream in my arms. Such precious life I carry. So this is what it means.
Not a single car overtakes us for the entire journey. If there are any houses out here, they’re far enough from the road to remain hidden.
Just as my arms and legs are about to give out, he pulls off the road onto a hidden track that weaves its way uphill. In the distance, maybe a few hundred metres, I can make out a log cabin snug among the trees, moonlight reflecting off the windows.
The most tender of kisses falls upon my lips. “Welcome home,” he tells me, frozen tears glittering on his cheeks.
We turn on all the lights one by one, illuminating a trail for Damien to explore the entire house. He discovers a new burst of energy, and small footsteps thump up and down the hall, as Raven collapses into a chair in the living room and I wander off in search of the bathroom.
In a tiny room at the end of the house, I stand in front of the mirror, gazing numbly at my reflection. A wild-eyed, too pale, brown-haired girl stares out at me, one brow raised defiantly as if asking me why I’m so afraid. So afraid of myself and how like my mother I actually am.
Then I make the mistake of looking down at my hands. The visions of the blood, the familiar nightmares, come rolling back in one greeny-red wave of disgust. I empty my tummy of the toasted cheese and tomato sandwich and the salad and the hot chocolate that comprised my only meal for the day in a neat little pile in the sink. As I run the tap, tears flood my vision, and the idea strikes me that perhaps I can cleanse myself by simpler means, that the stains only run skin deep.
I scrub at my hands under the steaming hot water, wanting to burn away the flesh, scrape it off, rid myself of everything.
Until Raven’s touch on my shoulder jerks me awake, I don’t realise the liquid’s scalding my skin. Cursing a little too loudly since Damien’s right here in his arms, I spring back from the basin, nursing my hands and hiding my tears, pretending I can’t feel only because I can’t face the truth. I can’t ask him, even though I want to—
Why not? You already know…
What? What do I already know? That I’m nothing but a whore?
Laughter. Wendy’s laughter. My mind’s up to its old tricks. The voice is my sister’s, but the sentiment belongs to—
“Pegasus,” Raven whispers, turning off the tap and forcing me to meet his gaze. “You okay?”
Looking at me from his father’s arms with his father’s eyes, Damien tugs on my hair. “Read me story, Peggy-sis!”
I start to shake. I don’t know if it’s spread to the outside yet, but I can feel it, building up within. Raven, please make it stop, please help me…
“I can’t.” I almost choke on the whisper, clutching my arms tight against my chest and backing away until I’m huddled in a corner, with no place left to go.
“It’s okay.” He’s reaching out to me like I’m some frightened animal, trying to gain my trust. Trying to take what’s already been given, over and over again. “Why don’t you read him something? Take your mind off things.”
It’s like I’m watching myself from some other plane, watching this pretty girl fly at him with grief and claws, snatching back and destroying those gifts I expended so much energy in setting free. Watching on as her words and the tone of her voice make the little boy cry; the look on Raven’s face. Hurt, and something much worse. Disappointment.
Clutching his son close, he turns his back on his other creation. “I’m going to go tuck him in,” he mutters, and leaves the bathroom, switching off the light.
The darkness draws me into my body and pulls down the shutters. Now I feel her pain, her regret, these tears that belong to this pretty girl. Why did you do that to him? This isn’t how it’s meant to be.
Is that how you see yourself?
You think he wants you like he wanted Wendy, and so, you play her role.
Feeling nauseous all over again, I struggle out of the room and pad down the hall. Most of the lights are off now. Only one sliver filters through a crack in a partly opened door. I creep towards it, seeking shelter, forgiveness, warmth.
From inside, I can hear Damien’s voice. Between the gap, I watch Raven tuck him in, denying him a story, wiping away the tears. Damien. Crying. Because of me.
No amount of scrubbing or burning will work. Wendy, you poisoned me down to my soul.
“I don’t like it when you fight, Daddy.”
Raven hangs his head. “We weren’t fighting, kittling. Go to sleep, okay?”
But he doesn’t fool me and he doesn’t fool his son. “You were so fighting. Like with Mama. Why did Peggy-sis yell at me, Daddy?”
“He didn’t yell at you, Day. He yelled at me.”
I back away from the door, so I can’t see how the light and shadow play across his face when he turns from the little angel.
He sighs, and fragments of my soul crumble into dust. “Cos I’m an arsehole, apparently. Get some sleep. It’ll all be better in the morning.”
Will it? The door jerks open and we’re suddenly face to face. A shiver trips across my heart as he grabs hold of my arm and drags me by the wrist, all the way down the hall. Once we’re outside, he throws me against the verandah railing, knocking the air out of my lungs. If you hurt me, Raven, that will help me. Only don’t come too close. Don’t want you infected, too.
He whirls me around to face him again. But he’s not going to hurt me; I can see that in his eyes. For a moment the world spins, my mind the axis. “Never,” he snarls, “in front of my son. Do you understand me?”
I look at the space between us, the shadows slowly settling on the wooden palings. Now my whole body shakes with laughter, where there should be tears.
I don’t want to take her place. No, you promised me. “My son.” I spit the words in his face. “What happened to ‘We’re a family’?” My shoulders slump, as the short-lived hysterics die out. “She won, didn’t she. After all this…” Now the tears come, when I want them the least.
“Pegasus.” He whispers my name and lays his palms against my cheeks. You confuse me, Raven.
No. I confuse myself.
“It’s over,” he murmurs, drawing me so close I can feel him shaking, too. “She’s not here anymore. Not in you, not in me…not in our son. Come to bed. It’s been such a long day, for all of us.”
He lifts me in his arms, cradling me like a second child. Without another word, he carries me inside.
We enter the room right next to Damien’s. A four-poster bed takes up most of the floor, in front of an open fireplace. He lays me down upon the mattress, though as he lights the kindling I keep watching him. Just him. This is all I need. All I want. Feelings and truths, always growing beneath the poison, the hurt, the blood.
Make love to me, Raven.
He steps back with a shy smile, seeing me staring at him so intently. Once he realises, though, he comes to sit beside me. He runs his fingers gently through my hair, then takes off my boots and stockings. I listen to his heart, beating steadily, his warm breath on my neck, while the ice slowly melts around us. I’m no longer afraid to look into the flames.
This is neither hell, nor the ends of the earth. It’s only the beginning. And hell, my hell, exists within. Only you can end it.
I sigh, falling onto the bed, staring up at the shadows that dance to the music of the fire. He lies cautiously beside me, his thumb tracing spirals over my forehead. Whatever he sees in me now, he doesn’t look afraid. Or disappointed.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, reaching up to stroke his cheek, but he shakes his head, refuting my apology. Taking my hand in his, he turns over my palm and kisses it. Raven…
You still make me shiver with such a touch.
“I love you,” he tells me, words that make me shiver, too.
I push myself off the bed and stand over him, waiting for bravery or foolishness to allow me to speak the words. Waiting for faith.
No. That’s always been here. I can see myself, just as the dream shows me, floating in the ocean, all the blood washed away by the tears of the sea. Your kisses, making me—
Making me clean. Raven…
“What?” he asks, trying not to look worried as I don’t say anything.
“Show me,” I whisper.
Briefly, he frowns, not understanding. Slowly, I allow myself to smile.
Now he understands. As do I.
It’s not too late.
He pulls me down onto the carpet in front of the fire, watching me tear open the button of his jeans and struggle with his zip. I don’t feel sick anymore. More of the poison’s being expelled with every breath I take.
I strip off my underwear, willing my body to follow my mind where it will. “Yes?”
He laughs nervously as I sit above him, playing with his silken skin, the softness of his belly, the hardness of his—
“You don’t need to do this,” he tells me. “Any of it. Before, it was different. Wanting to be close, but afraid of—afraid of everything.”
“Before, it was different for me, too,” I remind him, leaning forward to give him a kiss, brown tresses falling over midnight blue. “And it’s still different. You’re not like the others. I know this now. I think I’ve known forever. You can touch me, if you want. I belong to you.”
He raises a brow, and I sense his disbelief. “Selling your soul to me?”
I pluck the little knife out of my heart. It’s the best you can do? It’s always been too late for selling. “Giving it to you. This way it’s worth so much more, don’t you think?”
He looks at me long and hard, and I can see the internal struggle to trust my words as the truth. What did she do to you? I can take all of that away. This is my ocean, my heart, my song.
“Surrendering yourself, then?”
I smile at him. Foolish boy, always trying to run. But I won’t ever let you. Where would you go? “That’s right,” I whisper, trailing a pattern of little kisses across his neck, up his chin, both leading and being drawn by him into a deeper kiss. Slowly, his tongue creeps over my lips, into my mouth, tasting me, touching me, his fingers working at the straps on my dress and pulling it down towards my tummy, pushing up the skivvy as he runs his palms over my bare skin, teasing my nipples. Raven…
It’s been so long. I want—
I want you. And I’m not afraid. There are so many worse things to be afraid of than this.
We break apart from the kiss, so he can strip off the last of his clothing, revealing the scars to me again. I lean down and lick at them, tracing each one lovingly, memorising its pattern, texture and taste beneath my tongue. Memorising him. His hands run over the curves of my arse, and a little moan escapes his lips as he finds the hole and gently presses against it, testing me, teasing me, before sliding a finger all the way in.
I kiss the tears off his cheeks, not needing to ask why he’s crying.
“Tell me you want me,” he begs, and I smile. My mind wants to fly free. Only you have that key.
“I want you,” I whisper, even as he rolls us over so I’m lying underneath him. I wish my desire could swallow you whole. I wish you could come all the way inside, dive in and escape with me.
“I’m a little afraid,” he confesses, pouring out the clear liquid from an exotically shaped blue bottle we found on the mantelpiece, moistening his palm, and his penis.
I lick at a drop of blood that trickles down his neck, and recall Mother’s words from my dream, from every dream. “No need to be afraid. You already surrendered your soul to me too, remember?”
“No, not that way. I’m scared…of hurting you again. Like I always do.”
Oh, Raven. “This isn’t it. You can’t hurt me. The only ones who can do that—they’re gone. The circle is complete.”
He nods slowly. Yes, we’re safe from them here.
“Please...” In my mind I’m already willing him not to stop me, as I reach down and gently take hold of him, helping to ease him inside. Then I return to watching his face, forcing my entire body to relax. He’s not going to hurt you. He wouldn’t.
I gasp at the sensation of him being inside me, spreading a shiver across my heart. His own body reflects this, his face buried in my neck, his breath coming in ragged sobs, his arms shaking as he holds me close. I run my hands over his skin, drawing my nails across his flesh, my fingers slipping as his blood stains them wet.
I close my eyes; inside my mind, the ocean’s crashing into the sunset. Both sky and wave disintegrate, reforming into one great spiral of grey and red. It sucks me down beneath its depths, and I don’t fight it. Do I dare to drown, this time?
Further down, into the indigo void, the moon is a warped echo, little more. Its silver craters shiver into fragments as I swim right on through its reflection. All the way along a dimly lit tunnel, these moon-shards glow brighter than starlight, stuck to my skin, cradled within my ribcage in place of a heart. And here, just ahead of me, a silhouette lurks, taking on a new form even as I look. Black wings flare and spread to absorb all light, and all possibility. Raven…
My eyes snap open. I can hear myself panting, crying, moaning. His wet palm is still cupped around my now limp dick, as he sobs helplessly against me. My heart… I have no strength for words. All I can do is hold him close, returning to my body gradually. Where have I been, where did I go? Inside your mind, your dreams, your soul?
He looks into my face, tears and blood staining his cheeks and chin. Sometimes real, sometimes imagined; I can’t tell anymore. My beautiful angel.
He voices the words one more time, and this time they remain, as the curtain closes. “This is forever, Pegasus.”
We lie awake on the silken sheets for what seems an eternity, and still this night refuses to end. He cuddles me protectively, as though fearful of sleep. I don’t blame him. We two are the same.
So I listen to the sound of his breathing in the dark, and the whispers of the trees at the windows, and I watch the shadows play across the walls while I inhale the sweet smell of his sweat and feel our fluids intermingling, tickling my flesh.
This is forever.
I know. Strange how it all feels so fragile, these walls that define humanity and reality, now that I know. Now that I know I am right.
He sighs and rolls over, pulling me into a snug fit against his body, nuzzling against my ear. The fire died out not long ago, leaving us half-naked above the sheets, revealing ourselves to the moonlight. So pretty, the shadows it paints upon our skin. Who would have thought?
Will you miss this, too? When the time comes, will you refuse to lead, or refuse to follow?
This is forever.
This is forever. I smile. Behind me, he clears his throat, but then I feel him hesitate.
“What?” I venture, my voice sounding so loud in the long dark.
“You need to see…what’s in that box.”
I pull him even closer, refusing to allow our red thread to snap. Not tonight. Not yet. But soon. “I’ll look. Tomorrow, I promise. After the new dawn…”
“I wish you knew—what it means— It’s you who saved me from hell, Peg. I’m so sorry, that everything…” He trails off.
“Then save me back,” I tell him, before I can stop myself.
With a heartfelt sigh, he says, “Angel, if I can’t save you, there’s no point to anything.”
It’s not enough yet, though. “Promise me,” I whisper, as he kisses my neck.
A branch outside scrapes the side of the house, and the room falls into complete shadow as a cloud sweeps over the moon. It’s still dark, when at last the words come.
“I promise you.”
Little blood-red clouds dissolve into foam as I look on…
I’m standing upon the beach.
I’m nine years old.
She’s so far off, I can barely see her.
But at the very last moment, before her wings spread free, she turns to look at me.
She haunts my dreams until dawn, her face in my mind much too clear to be that of a still-frame memory.
She sees me. She’s…
Smiling at me.
Next Chapter: 19.RAVEN: Nonsolitaire (Pandora II)