It was Hilda’s birthday. She and Zach were taking the day off, even though it was a Saturday, and spending it however Hilda wanted, which was their tradition when one of them had a birthday. She’d stayed at her sister’s overnight, to enjoy a semblance of a family celebration of a milestone birthday, and Zach was to come by and collect her.
She had an idea that they could smoke a little pot and go to the aquarium. She and some friends did that on her seventeenth birthday, and walking through tunnels surrounded by immersive waves of blue light while high was a life-changing experience for Hilda. There is more to life than meets the eye, her friend Carrie told her on that day. Yes, indeed there was. She couldn’t remember what exactly she learned on that excursion to the aquarium when she turned seventeen, but sometimes that’s how change was. You emerged a different person, and left the shell of your old self behind, forgotten.
But it was past one o’clock, and Zach hadn’t turned up. She phoned him and got the machine. She called and texted his cellphone, and got no reply.
So she hugged her sister and walked a block and a half to the bus stop, and took the city bus to Zach’s apartment. The journey involved a transfer, and a wait, so it took some time. Hilda was tired and slightly irritated as she approached the door to Zach’s flat and both rang the doorbell and knocked.
She thought she heard someone shout “Come in!”, but she could have been mistaken. Anyway, the door was unlocked and she went inside. It smelled like burnt toast. Zach was in the living room, sitting on the floor, leaning against the front of the couch, chanting to himself.
“Oh, great,” said Hilda. “So you started without me.”
Zach grimaced, his eyes closed, and said, “It doesn’t matter. Hilda? It doesn’t matter.”
Hilda sat cross-legged on the floor beside Zach. “What is it? What happened?” She felt his forehead. It was damp, but cool.
“My father died,” said Zach.
“That was two years ago.”
“He died yesterday, and two years ago, and twenty years ago,” Zach said.
Hilda got up and went into the kitchen to make sure all the stovetop burners were turned off and the fridge door was closed. She made a glass of chocolate milk from a syrup and took it to Zach.
He took it from her, but stared at the glass in his hand.
“What did you take?” Hilda asked.
“It isn’t working,” Zach said. “Nothing is enough.”
“It’s ok Zach,” said Hilda.
“No, it’s not.” Zach’s head drooped into his chest. Hilda took the glass of chocolate milk from his hand and put it on the coffee table.
The land line phone rang. Five long rings. Hilda sat with Zach’s left hand between her two hands, in her lap, as she sat on the floor beside him.
There was a pause, as Zach’s message was played to the caller. Hilda couldn’t hear it, but she knew he said, “It’s Zach. I’m not taking this call. But out of my deep respect for you, I will call you back if you leave a message.” Beep.
“Zach? It’s Bernard. Remember? Motorcycle in ditch? Broken mandolin? My friend repaired it, but it took longer than expected because he had to make the damaged parts he couldn’t locate, himself. Don’t worry, he’s an artist. Even your dad wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Anyway I have it here. Come by and pick it up any time.” Pause. “Call me. Bye.”
Zach withdrew his hand from Hilda’s lap. He pushed his unwashed hair out of his face, and reached for the glass of chocolate milk. He looked at Hilda for the first time since she arrived. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Good,” said Hilda.
“Could you do me one small favour?”
“Get me a spoon? I like to drink chocolate milk with a spoon.”
Hilda knew that. She forgot. It was the way Zach drank chocolate milk as a child, savouring it, sip by sip, since it had been such a rare treat.
“Are you all right?” said Hilda.
“I’m not sure,” said Zach after a moment. “I lost words and gravity and the skin that holds me together. But you and Bernard…”
“It’s hard to escape things,” said Hilda. “I’ll get the spoon.”
“We’ll do your birthday,” Zach said.
“Damn right we will,” said Hilda.
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