Happy Birthday

Akash stood behind the L-shaped bar at the end of the study. His hand rested on green and white marbled counter-top and he felt the smoothness of the granite. He turned towards an array of drinks. This was his personal collection. No one except him indulged. There was liquor for every occasion. Whiskey, Vodka, Tequila and many more of varying selections and degrees of quality.

Akash decided to start the night with some whiskey. He looked over his selection and stopped at a single-malt that he had purchased from a distillery in Scotland. This was a special purchase bought at the end of his European backpacking trip. Now that was an adventure! Forty days going around Europe where he experienced unique food and culture. That was where he started his collection of liquors. From Tuscan wines to Russian vodka… he had it all.

Akash decided tonight was not a special night. His tongue however desired the sweet taste of his single-malt. ‘Not tonight.’ He assured himself and wrapped his hands around the square body of a ‘Johnny Walker.’ He tilted the bottle slightly. ‘Red… tonight is not even deserving of a Black.’

Akash poured the contents of the bottle in two short glasses. He raised them and eyeballed the level. ‘Is this ok for you?’ Akash asked a figure on the other end of the room.

The figure was Akash’s old college room-mate, Ritesh. Ritesh sat on a cracked leather sofa which rested along a faded red carpet with gold trimmings. He removed his black blazer and pulled out a paper packet and lighter from the breast pocket. He flipped his thumbs in approval at Akash and emptied his packet on the low coffee table. The table had glass top and dark-wooden legs. Underneath was a stack of men’s magazines neatly sorted out by date. He peeled off the hard top and tore open the front cover exposing the silver foil lining.

Akash poured in some water from the mini-refrigerator into the half-filled glasses. The mixture of water turned the whiskey a delectable two shades lighter as three square ice cubes floated away. Akash walked up the faded carpet to the arrangement of chairs and placed the drinks on the table next to the makeshift ashtray. ‘I have an ashtray you know.’ He slid one glass forward with the tips of his fingers.

Ritesh looked to his right and raised his eyebrows. He noticed a bronze sundial ashtray. ‘Oh!’ He said cocking his head back. ‘Let’s just use this instead.’

Akash snickered and raised his glass. He lightly tipped it forward until he met Ritesh’s glass and heard the enticing clink.

Akash reached for the scattered roll of cigarettes on the table. ‘May I?’ He took the butt of the cigarette closest to him and planted it in between his lips.

‘By all means!’ Ritesh ran his fingers through the flint of his lighter until sparks flew.

Akash leaned forward covering the flame with one hand and puffed three times with cigarette still in his mouth. He pulled away and exhaled a deep smoky breath.

Akash took a sip of his drink and tapped on his arm rest. He looked around and swirled his drink silently. He took another sip and this time took pleasure in the cool sting of alcohol in his mouth.

‘Akash?’ Ritesh asked. ‘This is your dad’s study isn’t it?’

Akash smiled. ‘Not any more.’ He pointed to a line of bookshelves on the far left. ‘It started out with grand-dad. He used this place to learn English.’ He took a sip and then pointed at the next glass case below the entrance archway. ‘That is dad’s collection over there. He loved hunting.’

Ritesh started above the glass case of guns and helmets. There was a string of animal heads stuffed and planted on wooden plates. His eyes followed the line downwards to a flock of stuffed birds encased in crystal domes. Finally his head rose at the giant statue of a grizzly bear. ‘Are they real?’

‘They are to scare off salespeople.’ Akash winked.

‘Oh.’ Ritesh stared at the sharp fangs of the bear statue.

Akash blew two smoke rings and then spoke. ‘Dad gave me this study just before I started working with him.’

‘And do you have a collection?’ Ritesh asked.

Akash raised his glass. ‘You’re drinking it.’

Ritesh pulled his drink close to his parted lips and poured the whiskey down his throat.

Akash loved the study not because it was his private place rather it was the noir décor. This was the effect of three generations of men melting in one room. It was all very dark and masculine. The scent of tobacco and alcohol mixed in the air together with old wooden furniture overwhelmed Akash.

‘Not too strong I hope?’ Akash asked. His legs crossed with a whiskey and cigarette on either hand. He looked at peace with himself.

‘It is perfectly fine.’

Akash’s attention was disturbed for a fraction of a second. This fraction however seemed to linger on for more than a moment. Just past the bear statue was a wall of white French doors that bordered the outside garden. It was quite dark outside so Akash could not see anything. He knew that the shadows were out there. He shook his head and returned to his drink.

Ritesh move around restlessly in his seat. He hardly touched his drink or the cigarettes on the table. He moved a stray hair and tucked it behind his earlobe. His hair used to be jet-black now little gray strands started from his side-burns. This was neatly cropped despite the length. His nose was long and sharp with a slight crook at the tip which made him look like a parrot.

Akash sensed something wrong with Ritesh. He placed his drink on the table and rubbed his unshaven beard. It had been a week since he shaved but he loved rough appearance. His skin was light and his eyes were lighter. This complemented his oval face and it made him look dignified.

Ritesh pulled on his tie and it hung loosely as he unbuttoned his shirt collar. He rolled up his sleeves and let out a sigh. His stomach bulged slightly and pushed out the pearly white buttons on his shirt. ‘Don’t you get bored?’ Ritesh asked.

‘Bored with what Ritesh?’ Akash took a deep breath on the butt his cigarette. He wondered what was on Ritesh’s mind. His father always told him to control his emotions and let others speak.

‘I mean with all of this!’ Ritesh wet his fingertips with the cold sweat of the glass. He rubbed the tip of the glass in a continuous circle and created a light tune.

Akash leaned back on the brown leather chair. ‘What do you mean?’ He raised his hands slightly, careful not to spill any whiskey on the antique furniture. ‘I have a grand house. All the money that I need to buy anything I wanted.’ All which was earned and belonged to Akash’s father. In reality he had not done anything to earn his riches. He was lucky in life.

‘Yet you buy a liquor collection?’ Ritesh stopped his haunting music.

‘What is wrong with that?’ Akash asked.

‘Well your grand-dad bought books to learn to speak with the British when they were here.’ Ritesh took a big gulp of his drink and hissed. ‘And your dad got this hunting equipment.’ He pointed at the glass case of rifles and hunting gear. ‘I am thinking to protect the family from pillagers and rowdy people.’

Akash thought for a moment. He tried to remember stories his dad used to tell him about firing off a few shots in the middle of the night to scare away unwanted trespassers. ‘Shadows.’ His father used to say… he used to scare away the shadows.

‘What is your liquor collection for?’

Akash bit his upper lip and watched as the melted ice swam in whiskey. This seemed to calm him down, but Ritesh was on a rampage and Akash knew he would have to deal with it.

‘Here you are drinking with me on a Friday night at…’ Ritesh twisted his head towards the large grandfather clock at the nearby corner. ‘At ten fifty P.M.’

Akash extended his plump hand. ‘Hey come on now! What is with all of this talk?’

‘What are you doing with your life man?!? You hate your dad. Here you are drinking with someone whose birthday you forgot!’
‘Today is your birthday?’ Akash asked with a sharp mocking tone.

‘That is not the point! The point is you are not living the life buddy!’ Ritesh shook his head and took a cigarette from the table. His fingers shook as it took him three attempts before lighting the tip.

Akash leaned close. He placed his glass on the table and listened to Ritesh’s deep breathing. Ritesh’s breaths were shallow and he struggled to exhale. ‘And what about you?’ Akash asked.

‘What about me?’ Held the smoke in for a second.

‘You could have been a great artist! A painter just like your dad… what are you doing now?’

Ritesh mumbled under his breath.

Akash cupped his hand around his ear mocking Ritesh ‘Sorry I did not hear you.’

‘Nothing alright!’

‘And why is that?’ Akash asked.

‘I didn’t want to be like dad.’

‘Actually you were too lazy to be like your dad isn’t it?’ Akash’s eyes smiled at Ritesh.

‘Shut up! Stop with this nonsense!’ Ritesh finished his drink and wiped his mouth.

‘You’re dry.’ Akash replied stubbing his cigarette in the makeshift ashtray.

‘What did you say?’ Ritesh ditched his half-smoked cigarette next to Akash’s and exhaled a spray of smoke from his nostrils. He looked like an enraged bull.

Akash pointed at Ritesh’s empty drink. ‘You’re dry why don’t you get another peg.’

Ritesh walked to the bar.

Akash leaned back onto his chair. He looked at his dad’s collection and wondered about what Ritesh had said. It was unwanted and filled with anger but there was some truth to it. Grand-dad and dad had their collections as stern reminders of the legacy they built. The liquor collection was a luxury it did not create any sense of amazement from anybody.

Ritesh spoke from the bar. ‘Listen Akash I am sorry for what I said. I was supposed to meet Jasmine tonight but then she cancelled.’

This was all about a girl? Akash tapped on his glass. His ruby-encrusted gold ring signaled his disappointment in morse code. ‘It is about a girl then?’ He paused to remember Jasmine Dutta an old sweetheart of his. She gave him a call the other day. She had the prettiest twinkle in her eye and a smile that was small and sweet. He remembered how hard his knees shook whenever she was around. ‘This Jasmine… is she the same one from college?’

‘Uhmm…yes.’ Ritesh sat down.

‘The same one who I dated throughout college?’ Akash’s eyes widened.

‘I didn’t think you would mind.’ Ritesh tightened the knot on his navy stripped tie.

Akash did not mind. He did not mind when she cheated on him with her professor. ‘Didn’t you go out with her when I left?’

‘Well…’ Ritesh locked his fingers together by the knuckles and played with his thumbs.

Akash got his answer. His body burned up and he wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or Ritesh’s outburst, maybe it was or the hesitant confession of his old friend. Nonetheless his mind moved at a rapid pace that his eye twitched at what he was thinking. The problem was unwrapped for him but the solution was his and it stared at him in the face. It was so clear and simple. His mind danced and all he could think of was Ritesh and Jasmine laughing behind his back.

‘So let us see now… both of us have felt heart-broken by Jasmine right?’

‘She hasn’t left me…’ Ritesh lifted his head and met Akash’s twitching stare.

‘But you feel bad right?’

‘I suppose so.’ Ritesh took a sip of his drink.

‘And we are living boring lives spurned by the shadows of our fathers right?’

‘Hmmm…’ Ritesh drank some more.

‘Well then let us spice things up a little!’ Akash threw his arms in the air. ‘Let us celebrate!’

‘Aren’t we celebrating my birthday?’

‘No! No! Where is the fun in that? You can celebrate your birthday every-year but this!’ Akash stuck his finger on the glass table. ‘This Ritesh is the moment when the both of us have truly come together as friends!’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You said you’re bored right?’ Akash pushed himself up from his seat.

‘I said you are boring.’ Ritesh smiled. His thin lips tightly pressed against one another.

Akash became lightheaded but everything was crystal clear. He knew what he had to do. He had to start a new collection. ‘See I never listen that is why you ended up with Jasmine… She did say I was always chasing ghosts.’ A collection of ghosts.

‘Hold on! I…’

Akash raised his hand and waved it across the air. ‘I don’t want to listen to it!’ He grabbed a couple of shot glasses and a bottle of tequila from the bar. ‘Party!’

‘Excuse me?’

‘You really don’t listen do you? How does Jasmine put up with you?’

‘She doesn’t’

‘Oh yes sorry… my brother in despair.’ Akash moved his hips and danced back towards the table. ‘We are drinking our sorrows and to make things easier we are playing a little game!’

Ritesh’s raised his eyebrows. ‘Game? What game?’

‘Seriously are you drunk already?’ Akash set the two glasses on the table and twisted the tequila bottle cap open.

‘No!’

‘A drinking game!’ Akash poured the tequila in the two shot glasses. ‘When it is your turn to drink you have to take your shot. If not then there will be a penalty.’

‘I don’t know Akash I still have a drink.’ Ritesh raised his whiskey filled glass.

‘Finish it!’ Akash walked over to the glass case filled with guns and pulled on the tiny handle. It was locked and the doors parted no more than a close lipped kiss. He felt his hand through the top wooden panel of the case. Akash wiped away the powder smooth dust stopped at a thin solid object. It felt round at the top and had jagged teeth down a tiny shaft. It was the gun case key that his dad had hidden.

He stuck the iron key into the opening of the wooden case. Turned it a quarter of a rotation clockwise and pulled the frame open. He looked at the guns and grinned. Akash longed to open this case for many years but he was always held back. Tonight was different, tonight was special. Even the sweet single malt would not do justice to the special night that was about to unfold. Thanks to Ritesh, Akash felt different. He felt like a changed man, he felt liberated.

Akash ran his fingers loosely against the guns. There were a couple of rifles, a shotgun and several handguns. He stopped at a nice revolver. It was dull black more like grayish black. He thought this is what they called gun-metal but he wasn’t sure. He did not know anything about guns except that this was loaded with six bullets. Akash snickered and carried the revolver to the table.

Ritesh finished his whiskey and stared at the revolver that sat on the table between him and Akash. ‘What is this?’

‘That my friend is what we call a gun. You see it was developed when…’

‘I know what a gun is! What is it doing here?’

‘It’s for our game.’ A little game of chance!

‘Are we playing Russian Roulette?’ Ritesh asked.

‘You know that would not be a bad idea… except for the fact that this is completely blank. No bullets at all.’ No bullets after he would be through with it.

‘Are you sure?’ Ritesh stretched to reach for the gun.

Akash stopped him and smiled. ‘Don’t you trust me?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Then let us start.’ Akash placed a shot glass in front of Ritesh and held the body of the gun and spun it. The brown swirl wobbled between the barrel and the butt as it spun on the glass surface. It picked up speed and Akash started feeling giddy. He rubbed his hands and couldn’t stop snickering. He looked at Ritesh and squeezed his knee.

The brown swirl slowed down and was returning its original colors, separating the grey metal and the brown wood. It pointed daringly between the two friends. Akash had never felt more alive in his life. He was filled with excitement and nervousness rolled up in a ball of yarn being played with a sharp clawed cat.

The swirl stopped and it pointed at the tall grizzly bear. Akash looked at his dad’s pet and once again saw shadows running past the garden.

‘What was that?’ Ritesh asked.

‘The stuffed bear? Didn’t you see it earlier?’

‘Outside!’ Ritesh pointed frantically at the white French doors.

Akash squinted his eyes. ‘There is nothing outside.’

Ritesh kept a moment of silence. ‘What do we do now?’

‘We drink!’ Akash picked up his shot glass.

‘But it did not point to anyone.’

‘So just drink!’

They both drank their shots and coughed as the stinging alcohol burned their throats. Akash refilled the glasses and as soon as he set the bottle down Ritesh spun the gun.

‘Hey!’

‘I think I will have better luck if I did the honors.’ Ritesh tapped his fingernails at the edge of the table.

The annoying rapping pounded on Akash’s ears so much that he heard the rapid throbbing of his heart. The beating grew louder as every second passed. Akash licked his upper lip and felt the rough edges of his teeth. He licked it again and this time he bit his tongue. The combination of the sharp pain and the excited beating of his heart made Akash uneasy. He started rocking back and forth in his seat and muttered ‘collection of ghosts.’

The gun bounced wildly between Akash and then Ritesh and then Akash once more. Akash screamed at each nervous drop.

Ritesh spread out his arms and bowed close to the table and he blew short staggered breaths at the pistol.

The revolver slowed down almost to a complete stop. It pointed at the stuffed bear and then finally stopped at Ritesh.

‘Not again!’ Ritesh screamed as he saw the barrel pointed at him.

‘Drink up!’ Akash rubbed his hands.

‘Wait!’

‘You spun the gun not me.’

Ritesh grumbled and drank his shot.

The game continued for some time. The bottle had nearly emptied. Akash was getting a bit of a buzz but he knew that he still had fewer shots than Ritesh although not by much.

‘Akash I am bored of this. Look at the clock it’s almost midnight. We should go somewhere and party.’

‘I think you’re right. Let’s make this more interesting.’

‘Guuuuuuurls?’ Ritesh askedslurrily.

‘Let us finish the bottle first.’ Akash refilled the glasses. ‘But since we are near the end of this…what do you say we raise the stakes a little?’

‘Ok what are the stakes?’

‘Well if I don’t drink my shot then you can do what you want. Slap me or anything.’

‘Hmm ok.’ Ritesh slapped Akash hard.

‘Hey! What is that for?’ Akash held his hand to his burning red cheek.

‘I was practicing.’ Ritesh laughed.

The gun spun around and it stopped at Akash.

Ritesh slapped him hard.

‘Hey!’ Akash screamed.

‘You didn’t take your shot.’

‘You didn’t give me time to take it!’

‘My turn!’ Ritesh’s hand was shaky and he grabbed more of the butt than the barrel.

The gun spun unevenly sliding across the table like a top. Akash and Ritesh sat at the edge of their seats and watched as the barrel teased them. The gun spun wildly against Akash’s high pitched scream until it finally pointed at Ritesh.

Ritesh looked at his shot glass filled to the brim with the light-yellowish liquid. He moved his fingers close to the table. ‘Nope, you can slap me.’

‘Well I did say I could do anything to you right?’ Akash grinned. Not the forced annoyed smile that greeted Ritesh but one of absolute and pure joy.

‘Yes sir! Go ahead slap me… but be gentle.’

Akash looked over the grand-father clock. It was ten minutes to midnight. It was almost time for a new day… a new beginning.

Ritesh swayed in his seat.

Akash rubbed his hands together and felt the friction induced warmth spread. He snickered at the thought of starting his new collection. He would start a new collection tonight! No… Not a collection but a treasure! The shadows would not approve but they would not control him anymore. Ritesh was right it was time for him to be daring and it was time for him to do what he wanted. To be remembered by everyone else. Akash took the gun from the table and rubbed the rough grooves of the handle with his palm. He held it firmly and pointed the barrel at Ritesh.

Ritesh with eyes half-opened jumped from his seat and stood up like a soldier called in attention. ‘Hey! What are you doing?’

‘I told you I can do what I want.’ Akash rose slowly.

‘Put that away! You can hurt someone with that!’ Ritesh swatted aimlessly at the gun.

‘I told you there are no bullets in this thing.’

Ritesh circled around the table. ‘Akash I’m warning you.’

‘Let me prove it to you.’ Akash turned and faced his bar. This collection was now old and he needed space for a new one. He took a deep breath took his aim and exhaled the trapped air from his lungs. He pulled on the trigger and watched as the hammer snapped. ‘Bang!’ The Red Label whiskey bottle blew up in little pieces.

‘Good God! I told you to be careful!’

‘Hmmm… well then there was one bullet in it only. I don’t think there is another.’ Akash knew there was five more.

‘Hey! Hey! You aren’t sure are you Akash?’

‘Well… I am fairly sure.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ Ritesh asked.

‘You told me that I was living a boring life. So why not do something … I don’t know… fun?’ Akash snickered. ‘This is fun isn’t it?’

‘You are going to kill me out of boredom?!?’

‘No… Maybe… Why would I do that? Come on this is fun! Tell you what I will shoot you in the arm. That should be ok right? Anyways only one bullet the rest is empty.’

Ritesh wagged a finger at Akash. ‘This isn’t funny! Put the gun down…Now!’

‘Let me prove to you again that there are no bullets.’ Akash looked at the big Grizzly bear leaning up against the pillar. He stared at the gaping mouth and sharp fangs. He heard ghe deep voice of his father screaming against his ear. Akash grinned and lifted the gun. He mumbled. ‘Good bye dad.’ ‘Bang!’ The impact tipped the large statue over. Akash laughed. ‘Oops! Sorry. Maybe third time is the charm.’ Akash counted four more bullets.

Ritesh’s arms trembled. He took a step back and then another. His head scanned the surrounding on his sides ‘Akash…please.’ The French doors bounced slightly at the contact with Ritesh’s back.

‘No where to go now.’ Akash said with one hand held the handle with finger ready at the trigger. The other supported the butt. His balance was perfect. The aim was deadly and a shot from this range would definitely kill Ritesh instantly. Akash thought about this for a moment, a shot to the head could ruin the skull…if he collected skulls, he hadn’t decided yet. He could shoot at Ritesh’s chest but then there would be a lot of blood on the floor…very messy to clean up.

Ritesh turned and pulled on the lever of the French door. It was locked tight. He shook the handle and pounded on the glass while screaming. ‘Help!’ His hands searched the doors from top to bottom, he moved to his left at another set of French doors.

Akash smiled as he watched Ritesh trying to save his life like a caged rat. He dropped his hand by an inch and aimed at what he thought would be Ritesh’s lungs.

‘Dooong! Dooong!’ The clock struck midnight. Twelve loud tolls in twelve seconds.

Ritesh parted the door open and ran out to the garden.

Akash quickly followed him and set the gun beside the glass encasement of a robin. He jogged out of the study and watched as Ritesh stumbled on a loose tile on the grass.

The shadows appeared, but they did not come for Akash.]. A group of people dressed in party wear. Pink, blue, fuchsia and even yellow. All of Ritesh’s friends from school including Jasmine Dutta.

Jasmine was holding up a white cake with a number thirty candle lit at the wick. She handed the cake over to a guy in red pants and knelt beside Ritesh, cupping his face in her hands. ‘What happened?’

Akash walked forward parting a pair of identical twins that he reminded himself to chat up later. He helped Ritesh on his feet and turned to Jasmine. ‘We were…’ He glanced over at Ritesh. ‘We were just playing a little game.’

Ritesh’s was trembling and his arms bled a dry red from his fall. His shirt was torn and his pants were wet from the crotch and all the way down his left leg.

Akash smiled, he smiled not for Ritesh, not for the reunion with old friends or an ex-lover. Akash smiled for his new collection, for his new treasure. A treasure trove of fear that no one will ever forget and it was this Ritesh. His best friend trembling in his shoes was first of many to come. He hugged Ritesh and whispered. ‘Happy Birthday.’

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