A Birthday Celebration | Teen Ink

A Birthday Celebration

March 29, 2019
By tcgarback SILVER, Boston, Massachusetts
tcgarback SILVER, Boston, Massachusetts
9 articles 0 photos 0 comments

There was water everywhere; the old woman could figure this, at least. But where it had come from—nowhere. Every memory in her troubled head had been sucked up and taken away, leaving amidst the resulting dust a cold and empty canvas.

But now there came one drop of scarlet drifting by. Like the cartoon birth of a bleeding squid, she thought, feeling ridiculous, unable to move, not even a twitch of the lips. It hung directly by her wrinkled nose, possibly wanting a way in. I’m a hungry, hungry shark. I can smell your blood.

Not too long ago, the woman had been waiting patiently for her breakfast, one without a trace of raw bodily fluids, note. Sam—the young nurse she’d seemingly had forever—would be bringing it in soon. Eventually. What was the matter? Did she not respect that her client ate breakfast at the same time—eight o’clock—every day since and that this disruption to routine was severely disorienting?

Sitting at her dining room table, waiting, already ten after; the grandfather clock was never off. This was all the moment held, an eternity of waiting, the reality of the elderly. This, then more, when she glanced gently to her side—at the mirror. It was a large oval pane, enveloped in stunning iron bars that strangled the air with a wickedness to rival Medusa’s snakes. She thought she saw a crack in the bottom right. Naturally, her legs pushed up without hesitation. There could not be any damage done to such a priceless item; no, that would simply just not do; it was the prize of one of London’s finest auctions and, unbeknownst to the old woman and Sam (who had the obligation of cleaning the artifact each evening), worth as much as life itself. You can’t fix a shattered pane, and you can’t fix a broken life, not completely. And fixing isn’t the same thing as scrapping the old for something new.

She fell to the floor, despite Sam’s constant warnings (naggings) to remain seated when unattended. Ninety-nine years was a precious thing to hold. There mustn’t be an incident with one-hundred drawing near. How near is it, though? Sam was the only person in the house to know for sure. Sam was the only person in the house at all, besides the old woman.

She couldn’t cook in her own kitchen, walk around freely, or drive her own car. It had something to do with a common illness in seniors, something that confused her words and took random memories away; at least, that’s what her children reasoned. They told her she wandered off too much and could get into trouble. They even said that she was a scrooge, this feat accomplished in only the most heated circumstances. But the old woman believed (knew, she would insist) that these restrictions and confinements were all just a ploy to get at her fortune. “The nurse is the head of it, see, and everyone wants a slice of my wealth,” she’d say each time Easter or Christmas came around and the whole family was gathered around priceless china and real silverware for golden turkey or glazed ham. “Don’t think I can’t sniff out thieves just because I’m old.”

So, there on the freshly vacuumed Persian rug, the elder waited for help. Tilting her head in an excruciating upward position, she saw something flash in the reflection of the mirror, from the space above her? A burglar! Had Sam checked the alarm system on her way in from the market? It’s finally happening. Why couldn’t the nurse try to be somewhat detail-oriented?

Suddenly, there was a sharp prickling on her head, and the old woman fell unconscious before identifying the source of her pain.

Everything seemed too dark after that. And now she was here in the water, floating and stagnant, swallowed by an icy piercing in all the pores on her frail body. An even more terrible piercing came from her back, but she couldn’t seem to move her hands to tend to it. Eventually, the scarlet drop grew and grew from more drops, and the consequent cloud blocked her view of the nothingness that engulfed her.


Sam was in the kitchen. Like her employer, she didn’t known how she had gotten there. She could remember only helping Mrs. Woodburn to her seat for breakfast at seven-fifty, like always, coming into the kitchen, preparing to bring the food in precisely at eight o’clock…but never getting that far. Her mind had gone misty, so she’d stumbled to the bathroom and sat on the toilet lid. The next instant: nothing.

Sam had blacked out; yes, that’s what happened. And at some point before coming to, she’d made her return to the kitchen. Just like sleepwalking, she thought. What time was it now? She saw the neon digits over the stove: eight-thirty-three. Over half an hour in the dark.

Just another backout. With increasing frequency, her episodes were beginning to amass an unsightly proposition: this nurse needed a nurse. The embarrassing irony of it. But Sam had kept her issues a secret for this long; hell, no one would have employed someone like her in the first place if they’d known precisely how her medical records shaped up. She couldn’t be fit to watch after her own safety, let alone someone else’s.

The old bag should have been throwing a fit in the dining room by now, slamming his flabby arms onto the long table, suited for fifteen guests, accustomed to one. Tan cupboards stood like guards on the room’s perimeter, feigning the atmosphere of company and soaking up the weary light that poured through the tall windows; they revealed the wide front drive and the distant spiked gates. Alas, even the vast diamond chandelier a yard above the woman’s grey hair couldn’t make up for the soundlessness of an empty house.

Sam certainly heard only pure silence, a hint the elder was sleeping. Or, God willing, dead. Sam was in the will, she knew; the Woodburn descendants who hired her promised a small share in order to seal her employment. It wasn’t easy finding a nurse to work in such isolation—and for such a miser.  

The lamb was burning. Big black breaths escaped the oven as Sam took it out and set it down on the counter. Always lamb, Sam thought in her agitation. Such a peculiar dish to insist on eating every day. Maybe the woman wouldn’t notice the difference if she scraped the carbonated crust off. That dowager showed no appreciation for Sam’s hard word, anyway. That’s how the rich were, and that was why Sam didn’t think they deserved to know about her blackouts. The Woodburns, a bitter bunch. They’ll give you a piece of the will, but only with a few pieces of their mind.

She brought a hand to bounce over her mouth as she leaned across the chopping board and sighed groggily. All night awake with that thing and her dementia. And that wasn’t so much as the tip of the iceberg making up this lonely, working-class lifestyle.

Five months; that was how long she’d been sweating for the crone. Sam should’ve known from the beginning that it was a mistake. The fits, the storming out of the house, the moaning in the night, the dead stares at every bath, the biting afterwards when getting her in bed. She looked at Sam with devious, silent eyes. And how could Sam care for a lunatic when she herself was even crazier? Put that out of your mind. Mrs. Woodburn’s birthday was tonight, and she needed to get to her party in time, over at some ballroom the descendants had rented. The venue was in the nearest, ten miles off.

For a hundred years that witch had poisoned the earth, spitting onto it with diamond saliva and praying a servant could grow from the consequent mud. They said that monsters brood in darkness. Sam knew better.

Not to say that they couldn’t, of course. Sam’s upbringing had been a loveless one, and here she was, loving nothing, loved by no one, least of all herself. Being born from a carpenter and an alcoholic sculptor—waiting for her muse “to shine its wisdom”—didn’t open many doors, in spite of how many her father had installed over his career.

With the medical world accelerating feverishly, she had a chance to make a decent living (or so she thought) and pass through her years with enough peace to satisfy…what exactly? The mediocrity of capitalism’s shit-list?

The problem was that she never liked cleaning up after other people. But she’d never gotten the opportunity to do something that appealed to her. So here she was, filling the void in the system, clocking in, clocking out. Maybe she should have risked it all to be a singer, or a painter. That ship’s sailed, she thought. And crashed and burned. And here I am, lost at sea.

Her career had really all gone downhill, or down a steeper one, with that old woman. She made everything worse. And lonelier. Bad enough to lose her previous client to a fatal trip down the stairs. The loss had really shaken Sam up, filled her with guilt for letting the lady out of her sight. And all because of a blackout. Bad enough, it was all bad enough back then. And now, here she was. Worse than ever. She hadn’t had blackouts as a kid; at least, they hadn’t occurred often enough to really notice. It all came down to her servitude, the weight of the wealthy over her head, their whipping paddles bejeweled in rubies to camouflage the blood from her ass. “We don’t see any trouble here,” they’d claim to the judge or the cops or whoever had caught them. No one ever did.

There wasn’t a single other caretaker on the property, save the once-a-month cleaners and landscapers. Sam knew her declining mental state was a direct result of the lifestyle she currently endured. Mrs. Woodburn was expected to pass away soon, with some luck, and that would present a brief reprieve. Certainly with the joy of the funeral, for one thing.

The sole benefit to this occupation was the pay, a short league above the average, for Mrs. Woodburn’s husband had sold his coal company just before he dropped dead, leaving the wife to recede from society into the country while her children made successful lives for themselves at Ivy leagues for icy hearts and New York high-rises for low-blowing tykes. They asserted their intellectual and fiscal superiority as the centerpiece of every seasonal visit.

Wiping her tears of exhaust away and taking a breath to brace herself for the oncoming rebuke, Sam picked up the plate and walked into the dining room.

But Mrs. Woodburn was not where Sam had left her—in the chair by that damn mirror. From the table, one could always see within it the back porch and all its emptiness. The pane never helped to keep Sam calm in the night, when Mrs. Woodburn was having one of her tantrums. The way those iron bars strangled the air…it made her woozy.

Sam had recently gotten so frightened by the mirror that one night, hearing a mouse scurrying by and thinking it to be the mirror’s angry spirit, she had kicked a small crack in the bottom right edge. Hopefully the old woman hadn’t noticed; she’d be pissed passed all that’s good and holy.

Mrs. Woodburn wouldn’t let Sam take the mirror down. She didn’t let Sam change anything about the house. “It’s a matter of taste, dear,” the old woman put it. The mirror would stay. And so would Sam’s unease, for what she hated of the mirror was only what she hated of her own reflection and having to see it—or narrowly avoid making eye contact with it—every meal.

However, now there was no reflection to be seen at all but through the shards on the hardwood. With a choked gasp, Sam dropped her plate. She didn’t hear it smash, dotting her plain white shoes in oil, slapping the juices and crackling the crunchy meat. The crusty scars of skin and charred, chalky bone.

The girl rushed to the remains, gripping her hands into tiny fists. The b**** had run off again. Nothing good happened when Mrs. Woodburn was left alone for long. Unless it wasn’t an escape.

They better have fixed the security system last weekend, she thought, afraid to fully consider the suspicion. The old woman wasn’t even aware it had broken. Sam knew the fact would freak her out; she constantly whined about robbers, and this would only feed the fire. “Did you check the alarms before going to sleep?” she’d say. “Did you check when you came in after running those errands?”

Quickly trying to comprehend the mess, Sam hopped about and noticed that the back sliding door was open, letting in the foggy morning light and cold, pre-winter breeze. She stepped out from within, feeling the house slip away like a headache pressed with ice. “Mrs. Woodburn!” she shouted into the wind, “You can’t be running out again. It’s too cold to be pulling these tricks.” Nothing called back.

Sam repositioned her feet uneasily, heard a tiny crackle. She looked down and tilted her foot away. Shiny, sparkling specks there on the porch’s boards. She bit her lip and looked ahead.

Stretching across the lawn, bordered by plump hedges and scattered with rose trellises on mulch paths, into the musty woods: a trail of shining mirror fragments. Who in the world could have done this? It’s a game from the devil. And all because I can’t keep my head up and running. Or maybe my blackout’s precisely what kept me from accidentally encountering this…criminal? Intruder? The shards reflected the dizzy overcast back at her in uneven patterns. Are they waiting at the end of the path for me? Will the last piece of glass be saved for my throat? She could just call the police. But then the blame game would rise up. Mrs. Woodburn kidnapped under an incompetent nurse’s watch—right before the celebration of one hundred years. So long, small fortune from the will.

No, Sam had to follow the trail and fix this herself. Going back inside, she took a knife from the kitchen’s collection and slid it under her sleeve. The biggest one was already gone, but she didn’t notice.

The last time Mrs. Woodburn had escaped, if that could somehow still be what was going on here, Sam called the grandson for help, as he was a young and sturdy man too polite to ridicule the nurse. He found the old woman while driving in from town; his mom was on her way to the shops, presumably. That next morning, Mrs. Woodburn demanded the nurse be fired for her so-called mental and verbal abuse.

Sam was beginning to feel positive that Mrs. Woodburn had conceived this whole thing herself. That woman might very well be capable of more deceit than anyone had ever thought, even with her dementia.

The trail proceeded into the woods, into its black denseness, where in the near distance one could barely make out the sight of a small pond, its ancient fountain. The stone formed a horned cherub. Its nose was broken off, and its color had grown green from a lack of landscaper attention. A triangular hole through the angel’s forehead, an injury of origin unknown, spurted half air, half water. This exit had somehow intercepted the intended internal flow of water to that now-abandoned pair of pursed lips. How sad, Sam wondered, for something so innocent and beautiful to fall to such ruin. It was never meant to be happy, not being born stuck to one place. And here it will stand until its destroyed, a hole in its head, green as a goblin, deformed and forever young. Only one more week and the men would be back to shut the pipeline off. Sam always thought it unnecessary to keep the fountain running at any time of the year. Maybe it had never been innocent. It’s got horns, after all.

The cold must have been playing with her mind, for Sam suddenly thought that the water coming from the fountain was…a different color than algae.

The hideous expenditure had been installed when the Woodburns first built the estate, decades ago. Sam believed it had once been beautiful, maybe—definitely pretty. But now the pond was grown over with animal-doings and moss. So much for landscapers; if only Sam could get away with doing so little.

She came to the end of the trail at the pond’s edge, and it was in this moment that she saw what it’d been leading to all along. The smell of mildew and…what is that other odor? Sam asked. And then it came to her: Corpse.

The old woman’s birthday would have been tonight. She would have surpassed all others in her community with the big one-zero-zero. But such a forecast was no longer to be, and that was as pungent now as the air in the woods.

Mrs. Woodburn floated on her stomach, skin swollen with water and olive slime. Just like a sponge, Sam remarked. A large knife protruded from the woman’s back.

So she was dead. But the horror was not held here alone. Above the body was that gurgling jet. Blood.

As she readjusted her feet, Sam realized that Mrs. Woodburn couldn’t have done this. Don’t turn around. She bent down instead, picked up one of the mirror’s shards, and stared into it, trying to spy on what might be behind her back. Instead, she was taken by her own image.

A grin. That’s the final move in the game. Reflection. She hadn’t seen her face this clearly in years.

It was funny, the dried specks and blotches of scarlet drawn across her cheeks, the nape of her neck, caught in her hair. The missing time from her blackout rushed in. One stab in the old hag’s back in case the anesthesia wore off and she woke before drowning—all this bloodshed from one or two stabs? How many stabs had it been?

Now that the game was over, no winners could be had. There were no winners in such slavery. Two b****es caught in each other’s webs. The pond here wasn’t just the end of this old woman’s life and this game; it was the end of Sam’s life, too. Prison was not a way to live—if they didn’t send her to the electric chair, that is.

If this is what happens when I blackout, maybe my last client hadn’t fallen down the stairs on accident. With two clients dead in so short a span of time and under such strange conditions, this murder scene could never be passed on the excuse of an intruder, let alone an accident. Time to give it all up.

The nurse let her body lean backwards toward the water, arms wide and loose. Drowning couldn’t be too hard. It was just like falling, letting go. It would be easy.

Sam felt her shoulders smack the surface as something slipped from her pocket, and before the rotting filth closed over her vision, she saw that it was her syringe, emptied just a little while ago, she guessed. It floated up, up, up, all of its magic spent, the little there had been, only enough to knock the old woman out for the trip to fountain. She’d likely woken while bleeding out, face under water, lungs straining. Mrs. Woodburn couldn’t have suffered for long. A damn shame. But she might have died at a loss for words, dull and dazed.

Indeed, the elder was currently at peace, suspended in the water just a few feet from Sam. Her open eyes still held the rusty water, but no thoughts lingered. She could not dwell on the events of the hour, nor those to come in the evening, at which point her children would have left the venue to investigate the estate when Sam hadn’t picked up the phone. They’d be calling the cops and commenting to one another what a waste it was, what with the first-rate catering and floral decorations and extended family guests who’d taken the long drive. No one to sing “Happy Birthday” to, nor to give presents to, nor to start a fight on the family fortune. Mrs. Woodburn’s big night could never happen, and the cake would be tossed, the balloons stuck with pins, the streamers torn from the walls.

Sam, sinking deeper than the corpse, pushing bubbles from her mouth, thought through all these things, those which Mrs. Woodburn didn’t have the privilege to think through. Sam felt death creep closer, the muck saturating her clothes, cooling her skin, lighting up every nerve across her body, back and thighs and scalp and toes. Quite clever, she thought, that trail of glass. I bet it felt good shattering the mirror to pieces. Wish I was able to remember doing it. I wish I could pull everything from my blackout, to enjoy all the fun. Sam smiled weakly and looked straight up as her back pressed against the floor of the fountain. She could just make out a fuzzy streak of scarlet springing limply from the cherub’s head, into the grey air.

The author's comments:

“A Birthday Celebration” is a psychological suspense piece concerning a bitter, old widow and her mentally ill nurse. This piece highlights the treacherous divide between working class youth and old-money elite.


Tom is currently studying writing, literature, and publishing in New England. His writing has been printed in Generic and Guage magazines, was recognized by the National Committee of Teachers of English, and received several top accolades through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He's a Reader for Emerson Review and has been an associate editor, associate copyeditor, design associate, and marketing associate for Wilde Press.

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