This story is by Karen Bellinger and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Tell me a story. Please,” Iris said, tracing her finger along the frame of the photo she cradled in her lap. The young couple gazed back at her, eyes bright. The man circled his arm around the woman’s waist. How Iris wished they could see her through their glass shield, just as she could see them, frozen in time. She touched the woman’s face.
“You can’t have forgotten that you always tell me a story on my birthday.” Iris felt her eyes burning. “You always told me a story on my birthday. Well, until I was four, at least.” The tears began to flow. “Until you left, at least.”
The door slammed open and Iris barely kept hold of the photo as she sprang to her feet.
“Happy birthday, Iris!” The blonde-haired boy tore across the room towards her, holding aloft a rainbow confection of a cake, crowned with ten candles.
“Hey, watch it – you’re going to drop that!” Iris sniffed and wiped her cheeks, relaxing only when Will deposited the cake safely on the side table. “Oh, happy birthday to you too. But Will…” She pointed to the cake. “We are eight today. Not ten. That’s too many candles.” She sighed. “Even you must realize that.”
“That’s one to grow on, Iris.” Nanny Matilda’s voice rang out from the hallway, before she appeared in the doorway. “One for each of you, that is. So ten in all.” She smiled. “Twins are twice as nice, aren’t they? Happy eighth birthday, you two!” She kissed the top of Will’s tousled head as reached one arm to gather Iris to her.
“What good is a birthday without a birthday story?” Iris crossed her arms and ducked out of reach. She ran to the window seat, where she tossed the picture down and threw herself next to it. She looked out onto Park Lane, where the great and the good walked past, oblivious to her anguish. Iris felt so sorry for herself. The tears welled up again.
Nanny Matilda gave Will’s head a brisk rub before she walked to Iris’s side and sank to the floor. She reached one hand to the girl’s thin back.
“I’m sorry, Iris. It must be hard to be without your parents. On any day, really. But on your birthday… well…” She paused, then stood and bent to peck the girl’s cheek before turning and exiting the room. “I’ll be right back,” she said, her voice fading along with her heels as she strode quickly down the hallway.
Will scuffed one toe along the floor, hands deep in his pockets. He glanced at his sister. “Where is that bird of yours, anyway?” he muttered, finally, looking at the empty birdcage in the far corner of the room.
Iris shrugged and settled further into the cushion of the window seat. With one finger, she reached into her skirt pocket to stroke the small feathered body that struggled to break free.
“Did you leave the window open, let him fly off? Just like when he came to you last year on our birthday?” Will asked.
Iris wondered if Will realized how mean his voice sounded. Judging from his hunched posture, she suspected he did. She turned her back as he continued, “You’re always saying I’m the irresponsible one. But remember how angry Nanny was – that you had left our window open like that? It’s Park Lane yes, but central London all the same?”
“If I hadn’t left the window open, Kismet never would have come to me, Will,” Iris said, matter-of-fact.
As if on cue, Kismet burst from Iris’s pocket in an iridescent flutter, chirping and squawking. He alighted on the finial atop his birdcage just as Nanny Matilda charged back into the room, clasping a huge and dusty leather-bound volume in both hands.
“Oh!” she said, nearly dropping the book.
Will and Iris looked at one another and burst out laughing. Then something seemed to dawn on Will.
“Hold on now. Lessons are over for the day, right?” He pointed to the cake. “You said so. You said it was time to celebrate!” His shoulders sagged and his lip quivered.
Iris had scrambled up from the window seat to fetch Kismet. She ran back to the window seat and scootched to one end, patting the empty space beside her.
“You’re going to tell us a story, aren’t you?” Iris lifted her tear-stained face to Nanny Matilda, who nodded and sat down.
“Maybe not as good as what your mother would have told you… but it’s a story.” Nanny Matilda paused and motioned for Will to join them on the window seat.
“I’m sure it’s perfect, Nanny Matilda. Thank you.” Iris snuggled against her, Kismet perched on one finger, the picture of her parents clasped in the other hand, and closed her eyes. Will joined them just as Nanny Matilda opened the book and began to read.