The Best Birthday by David Wiley
David Wiley is an author of science fiction and fantasy stories, choosing to write the stories that he would love to read.
His short fiction has previously been published in Firewords Quarterly and will be featured in an upcoming issue of Mystic Signals as well as an anthology by Uffda Press. David resides in central Iowa with his wife and their cats and spends his time reading, writing, and playing board games.
The Best Birthday
“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen,” Lily said to Arwyn, her new doll, as she carried her through the halls of the house. Lily stopped and held the doll out at arm’s length again, running her fingers through its yellow yarn hair. She wished she had long, blond hair instead of her ugly brown hair that was cropped short but she knew Lady Lavender would never allow her to grow her hair out. She would never let her have a doll, either.
But Lily wasn’t going to tell her about Arwyn because she was a special doll, made for her by her mommy. If Lady Lavender didn’t know about Arwyn she couldn’t get mad and take her away like she did the other ones.
She rounded the corner and started down the stairs, her bare feet slapping upon the cold stone. She could hardly wait to show Arwyn the kitchen. “They have the nicest people down there, but sometimes when Lady Lavender spills on her dress she blames it on them. I don’t like it when she blames things on other people, ‘specially when she did it.”
The stairs spiraled downward, wrapping in a seemingly endless loop. A few candles burned in brackets along the way to cast just enough light to navigate the passage. Most of the stairway was encased in shadows, making it hard to tell if someone was coming up. Even though she was looking ahead, Lily jumped when Lady Lavender stepped in front of her with her pudgy arms crossed over her chest. Her black hair was elegantly braided with ribbons. A dainty silver tiara sat on her head. Her pink dress swelled around her figure, wrinkled and starting to tear. Beneath her chin was a large brown gravy stain. She glared at Lily, tapping her foot and pursing her lips in a tight frown.
“Where do you think you are going?” Lavender said coldly, her goat-like voice echoing. “I need help changing my – what is that?”
Lily gasped and tried to hide her doll from view but she knew it was too late. She was caught and now she knew Lady Lavender would slap her and take the doll for herself. She didn’t want to lose Arwyn. Her mom just gave it to her an hour ago. She had to think fast.
“This is my, um, your doll for your, um, half birthday,” Lily said. Lady Lavender started to frown even more. “I was just, um, giving it a tour of, um, the castle and telling it about, um, how much it will love you.”
Lady Lavender’s face brightened a little and her suspicion seemed to disappear. “Nobody ever thought to get me a half birthday present before,” she said as she peered at the doll. “I’m going to go talk to mother about that. When you show her the kitchen be sure to tell the cooks that they made the gravy too runny today. It ruined my favorite dress and the cost will be taken out of their wages. Don’t forget.” Lady Lavender pushed past Lily, slamming her into the wall as she passed by.
Lily stood still in the stairway for several minutes, idly sucking on the doll’s foot. She expected Lady Lavender to come back any moment and slap her and take Arwyn away, but she never returned. When she finally started to go back down the stairs, her voice had lost some of its previous excitement.
She wasn’t in trouble, but she couldn’t keep Arwyn. She felt like crying and stuck Arwyn’s foot back in her mouth as she plodded into the kitchen. Normally the aroma of roasting meats and baked breads would make her tummy grumble, but she was too distraught to think of food. Sometimes she hated being Lavender’s handmaiden. Sure, she got to play with all of Lavender’s jewelry and fancy toys and live in this big and fancy house, but she could never have anything of her own. All of the toys and clothes belonged to Lady Lavender or her mother.
A tear crept down her cheek as she crossed the kitchen. A tall baker, his hair and clothes covered with flour, wiped his hands on a cloth and then came over to Lily. They all knew who she was and knew that she usually came to scold them. The baker stopped short, a sad expression on his face. He knelt down and motioned for Lily to come closer. She bit down harder on Arwyn’s foot as she walked up to him.
He wiped away the tear from her cheek, leaving a small trail of flour in its place. He reached up and pulled down a hot loaf of bread, breaking it in half. She cried even more, unable to tell this man the mean things that Lady Lavender said. She knew that Lavender was just careless and spilled the gravy herself, but she also knew she couldn’t go back up without doing as she was told.
He held out the bread for her but she didn’t move to take it. She sobbed, Arwyn’s foot falling from her mouth, and then said in a timid voice, “Lady Lavender said her gravy was too runny and it ruined her dress and it will come out of your wages.” The baker didn’t flinch at the news and smiled instead, brushing away another tear from her face.
“Is that what is bothering you, little one?” Lily shook her head. “Can I tell you a secret?” She leaned in close until she could hear his rhythmic breathing. “Between you and me, I think she deserved to ruin the dress for being such a sloppy eater.”
Lily gasped and pulled away from him, thinking he might be trying to trick her. He was smiling at her and winked, holding a finger across his lips. He didn’t seem to be tricking her. A giggle escaped her lips and she looked down at the floor, thinking that the tall man was right. “Was that what made you cry?” he asked and she shook her head. His large forehead filled with lines as he furrowed his eyebrows while thinking. Then he seemed to notice something. “Who do you have here?”
Lily blinked at him and then realized he was talking about Arwyn. She smiled, looking into his kind face. “This is Arwyn and my mommy gave her to me today for my birthday,” she said. Then she remembered Lady Lavender and frowned. “But I didn’t want Lady Lavender to take her away so I told her it was her half birthday present.”
“You don’t want her to have Arwyn, do you?”
Lily shook her head, wishing with all her might that she could keep her new doll. He stood up and looked around for a moment and then leaned in close. “I have an idea,” he said, “but it’ll have to be another secret. You can’t tell anyone.”
“What is it?”
“I get a little lonely down here sometimes, and I could really use a friend to keep me company. How about if Arwyn stays down here with me, and you can come and visit her anytime you want?”
Lily’s eyes grew wide and she smiled at the baker. “I think she would like that.”
“And every time you visit I’ll have a nice loaf of bread for you, too,” he said with a wink. “I’ll trade you and take Arwyn and hide her with me, and you go sit down over there and eat this bread before going back upstairs. How does that sound?”
“You’re the bestest man in the world,” Lily said as she wrapped her arms around the baker. She skipped over to the corner with her bread. She wasn’t going to go to bed hungry and she would get to keep Arywn. This was the best birthday ever.