The Widow’s Birthday
Gabby King Jr.
Celia Lewis was an excellent actor, but everything outside the practice itself, she found it hard to stomach. Schmoozing set her off, the state of the theatre was in general decline, and she was beginning to find her friends frustrating. With age, they had become increasingly sensitive and envious, and it was starting to wear on her. Despite these feelings, here she was getting ready to celebrate her 43rd birthday among them.
As she lightly added blush to her cheeks, she took a deep breath and examined the woman that she had become. At first glance, she was proud of what she saw, a woman who had overcome both tragedy and disturbance in a short period. Two years, and three months to this day, prostate cancer had taken Hugo, her beloved husband. He had given her the joy and wisdom, which she credited for her most positive personality traits. However, he left behind a frightening legacy in her care. At that moment to check if her son was awake, she put her against the wall that bordered their rooms. She crossed her fingers that he was asleep, as he had struggled recently with insomnia. It had been an exciting week for Malcolm, and his energetic outbursts had been on a steady incline, to a point where they had become dangerous, scary even. Her mother was the first to notice that Hugo possessed something unsettling, even at the age of three. He was still young, only ten, but somehow, in some way he had already developed a violent hatred for the world around him, and no matter how hard she tried to love him, Celia was always terrified of her child.
She had lived in fear of her son before she laid eyes on him. He kicked violently in the womb, and his cries reminded her of the squeals of pigs at slaughter. His only redeeming quality was that he had grown into a very handsome boy. He looked older than his age, and was always larger than his peers, not that he ever socialized with them. He was strong, tough, and rooted in the earth, a physical trait that came from his father. Even on his deathbed, Hugo’s physique never withered, as Celia could still feel his great hand clasped around hers, as his life slowly left him. When his eyes glazed over, she knew she had lost her best friend, her emotional rock, and her fearless protector. It wasn’t just the unshakeable trust that she had in her husband, that made her feel safe. It was that she knew he could protect Malcolm when the boy felt ready to hurt her.
On a dark day, Celia felt that she was somewhat responsible for what Malcolm had become. That sickness in his mind, that unpredictable cyclone of rage and danger, was hereditary from her side of the family. Her father killed himself and her mother would attend strangers funerals, to give her an excuse to wail uncontrollably. Celia too struggled with a troubled imagination and was forced to hide a lot of the darkness she kept within her. That’s what made her such a great actor, she could release this energy within her, an energy that was both captivating and terrifying. Malcolm did not have this outlet and was too young to learn how to turn it on and off. He took pleasure in this anger, and it had come to the point that these destructive fits of rage became his only form of expression. There were signs of his temper throughout the house. The dent in the toaster where he had lunged it against the stove after his toast was burnt. The sliding door had also been the victim of his onslaughts, as he had repeatedly smashed his head against it, shattering it to pieces, after it had been jammed. A couple years before his death, Hugo came up with the idea of installing video cameras throughout the house, so they could record this erratic behavior, and once a month, they would review it before the child psychologist, whose only solution was drugging the boy. Celia despised therapy, believing it to do more harm than good, and made the decision to stop seeking treatment for her son, as there had been no signs of progress. That’s what she told herself at least, but truthfully she could no longer pay the doctor’s bills.
Instead, she came up with another solution, one that would provide for the emotional and physical security that had been absent in the house, since her widowhood. She decided to buy a dog, and settled on the gorgeous Canary Mastiff, a breed that was equally protective and affectionate. She had always admired them as a kid, as they were one of the many bookmarked pages in her “Dog Breeds of the World” book, a childhood favorite. Their massive heads and brindle coats gave them the feral quality of an Ice Age carnivore. This was countered by their goofy jowls and droopy eyes, which concealed their brutish qualities, and instead left the right impression of a gentle giant. She also knew that they could be intimidating, which certainly came into consideration when dealing with her son’s behavior. So came dear Lyla, whom Celia cherished and cared for. Celia had become a passionate owner, as well as an enthusiast over the Canary breed. In the last eight months she had successfully obtained her pet establishment license, and much to her delight, Lyla had given birth to a litter of four healthy pups. Celia would spend her days with her canine sister, fawning over the adorable little things, as they bumped away, and stumbled across the floor. Her son, on the other hand, paid very little attention to them, as far as she was concerned.
Celia dumped a tin of wet food and leftover sushi (Lyla’s favorite) in the dog’s dish and made her way out the door to celebrate her 43rd year. She never said goodbye to her son, as she knew she would not get any response. As she stepped outside, she could see the light in his window was on, so she suspected that he was still awake. For that he was locked in his room, wide awake, and staring into nothingness. He avoided going downstairs when Lyla was resting. For he feared the dog, knowing that it was his better, and ever since she had the pups, she had been particularly hostile towards him.
For whatever reason Celia, let her old friend Rick Wilson choose the bar, and she predicted it was going to be one that they were all far too old for. Even when they were in theatre school together, Rick always tried to act much younger than he was. Tania Rudolph used to always joke that he was born with a receding hairline and coffee breath. Despite this, Celia had always carried a soft spot for poor Rick, as out of all her actor friends, he was the only one who made an effort to give her husband any attention when he came to parties. Actors have a tendency to be somewhat socially ignorant, and despite their charisma, are terrible conversationalists, outside the topic of themselves. Hugo found it incredibly difficult to tolerate these crowds, as he found this behavior repugnant, but he was comfortable around Rick. Both were born to men of the cloth, and they had distinct similar interests, such as birdwatching and the Beach Boys. Hugo never tried to take up space, and when he listened, it was always genuine, and Ricky was the same, a rarity for an actor. Of all of her friends, he was the most shaken by her husband’s death. He recited a very touching rendition of Wild Swans at Coole at Hugo’s funeral, and it was his best performance since he played Cassius at Stratford, back in the ’99. Celia caught herself, she knew it was not a good idea to fall too deep into memories of the past, especially when it revolved around Hugo’s death. Besides, she was now outside “AlfredPlatz” and didn’t want to enter the festivities with remorse.
Sure enough, Rick was smiling at her when she came in, already with a pint of stout for her in his hand. Celia’s intuition was correct, as she and her fellow thespians were the eldest patrons by at least a decade. The bar was nice enough, but one could tell it existed as a threshold for sloppy one night stands, and the red light bathroom was obviously for the intake of illegal substances. The generosity of Rick was the only highlight of the party, as per usual, a gathering of actors more becomes a competition over who can be the most obnoxious (or self-pitying), and often ends in hurt feelings and bitterness. That creep, Timothy Lawrence, made Celia uncomfortable as usual, as he stared at her across the bar, rubbing the thigh of his girlfriend, a fresh grad from the Concordia acting program, one of the students in his “Emotions Laboratory”. He was going on a silly rant about why having a dramaturg is essential and Celia had to feign a weak bladder, to escape the impressively boring conversation. On her way to the sanitary refuge, Monica Lemieux, a local puppeteer, had taken too many shots of mezcal and was now vomiting all over Allison Malone’s therapy beagle. She had to be carried to her cab, kicking and screaming “I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED!”, while Celia ordered another drink. What finally pushed the birthday girl out the door, was when the consistently odious Andrew Hirsch, broke into good speech and began reciting Jupiter’s monologue from Cymbeline. Not only was it delivered poorly but of all monologues, of all plays, why the hell would this fool pick this one. Celia made an Irish exit but did remember to give Ricky a kiss on the cheek goodbye.
Celia had quit smoking, chain-smoking at least, but she would allow herself to enjoy the bad habit once a month. This night certainly called for one, as she wasn’t just celebrating her birthday, but had also just survived this stressful affair. She lit a Benson Gold and continued to reflect on what her life had become. She had a tendency to depend on nostalgia, and especially after Hugo’s death, her relationship with Montreal changed significantly. She tried everything she could to remind herself of its qualities that made her happy, but in the end, she would always end up resentful of it. She moved here for Hugo, and she still frequented his favorite institutions, in an attempt to feel closer to him after death. She remained in their overpriced Mile End duplex, despite the neighborhood quickly transitioning into a cringe tourist trap. She got her bread from the same Persian bakery, that Hugo swore by, despite her aversion for flatbread. The one tradition she was far from giving up, was dinner with her mother-in-law at L’Express once a month. However, the bone marrow and tartare-de-boeuf did not make up for her gradual distaste of the city. If only she dared to uproot herself and nip off with the same discreet confidence she displayed at her own birthday party. She had booked quite a profitable recurring character in a CBC series last year and had done admirably well on her savings. She could buy a little place in the townships perhaps, or maybe a place by the sea in the Gaspe. She would take Lyla of course, and continue to raise beautiful puppies, giving them to deserving families and lonely people. She might even start keeping ducks, as she always preferred them over chickens. Maybe Rick could visit her once in a while, maybe even he could move there, Lyla was quite fond of him.
But Celia was not being real with herself, and perhaps if she was a little less clouded she would come to terms with the true nature of her resentment. It wasn’t Montreal, the acting community, nor the passing of Hugo. It was the closest thing to him that kept her tethered. That child who was probably lying awake in his room, thinking of ways he could break her. Trying his best to remove the barrier she had put upon his window after he had smashed it to pieces. He could very well be out of the house, waiting for her in the darkness, ready to strike with a knife from the kitchen. She trembled at these terrible thoughts, but as she took a drag of her guilt-cigarette, she remembered that Lyla was there. That dog was symbiotic with her master and knew the ways of the child upstairs. She would curl her lip when he got too close, and her ears went back whenever he entered the room. She had yet to bite him, but it was a matter of time. The two were like wild animals, two carnivores impeding upon one another’s territory, and when their paths crossed, trouble was on the way. Celia took the last drag of her cigarette, as she turned the corner, moments away from coming home, and a chill from breezeless air came across her neck.
The lights were on in Celia’s house, and as it was half-past 1, she was rightfully suspicious. As she made her way up the steps, the suspicion turned to fear, and by the time her hand was on the door handle, her body went cold. The clicking of Layla’s paws against the hardwood floors could not be heard, and this also set off Celia, as her beloved mastiff was always ready to greet her, no matter what the time. Celia could sense danger behind the door, and her imagination began to run wild. Images of Malcolm waiting behind the doorway with a baseball bat, ready to strike, drifted through her mind, or perhaps he had done something terrible to Layla. Impossible, she thought to herself, and with her heart in her throat, she made her way back outside to have another cigarette. She looked up at her son’s window and noticed the light was on, and tears of fear began to effortlessly roll down her cheek. She reached into her purse, removing her phone, and dialed 911, but did not call, she just needed to prepare herself.
She finished her cigarette, and made her way back up the stairs, pulling her keys from her pocket, she promptly swung open the door and dropped everything when she saw what awaited her. Layla was there, with that endearing look in her eyes, and her tail wagging nervously. But those beloved jowls, that gave her the innocence that Celia loved, were caked in blood. Celia looked at her dog and asked her what had happened. Layla’s ears perked up understanding her master’s demands and led her over to the back of the kitchen. The kitchen where she had been weaning the pups, the kitchen where Celia had laid beside her, telling the gentle animal her deepest secrets. There in the dog’s bed, all four of pups, their flabby little bodies collapsed over on another deep in sleep. Celia got down with them and counted that they were all there and inspected their fur for blood but could not find any signs of trauma. Layla slinked her way to her bed, sniffing over her brood as she carefully laid herself down, her eyelids opening and closing as she too began to doze off. Celia got herself up, and made her way to the bottom of the stairs, ready to call her son’s name, to see what he had done. Before she could speak, she was again stunned into silence, as she noticed that the stairs were tracked with blood, and in the fresh pools were the unmistakable footprints of Malcolm. She began to tremble again, not wanting to come across either a dead body or a dangerous child, who very well could have been waiting for her at the top of the stairs in silence, with a hammer or a shard of glass in his hand. He had scared her such ways before, as she had woken in the middle of the night, with him standing over her in her bed, with that dull blank stare.
They say in combat, soldiers can harness into untapped adrenaline that awaits them when they know their life is at risk. Such a moment came to Celia, as she stood at the bottom of the stairs. She had completely forgotten about the access she had to the secrets of the house, the eyes that watched over when she was not there. She looked up at one of the many cameras that Hugo had installed years before and exhaled. She went to get her laptop from the living room, as it contained the software that kept all of the house’s footage. She raced to the kitchen and grabbed the half-empty bottle of scotch from its usual home, above the fridge, and gave herself a stiff pour, as she set up the mobile security system. As she sipped, with her eyes locked on the screen, she uploaded the file that would contain the evidence of what had happened in her absence. She fast-forwarded through videos of Layla stealing biscuits from the kitchen counter, and of Malcolm playing games on his computer. She stopped and watched at normal speed when her son got up from the office chair and made his way to the puppies. Layla had left them unattended as she chewed on a pig’s ear in the other room. Celia took another sip, and the snarl of her drink was so satisfying in the present that she decided to glug the whole thing down, as she watched Malcolm playing innocently with the puppies. He was picking each one up and scratching them behind the ears, and he began to smile. She noticed that when her child smiled, he changed, he became his father, he became something that perhaps she could love. However, she crossed her fingers and let out a soft smile, when she saw her dog creeping behind him, ready to lunge.
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