PRW Runner-Up Tour: A Twist of Conscience by Samantha Redstreake Geary
The night calls to me, its breath alive with slippery temptations. I scan the shadows of the cobblestone alley for things that creep and crawl. They dive and dart past pools of light, cast by the flickering glow of midnight torches.
How I longed for the chase. I cursed the mouth of glass, cracked in a teasing grin, too narrow for me to squeeze through.
The moon, bright with its gloating, spills into the tiny room of trinkets, where it lands softly on the sleeping boy.
Oh, how I hate that boy
I remember when it was just Papa and I.
He’d fashion all manner of playthings, his face crinkled in amusement as I tirelessly tore after toys, kicking up clouds of sawdust that coated us from head to toe. Silly jingles filled the air while he tinkered with treasures of his own creation. When night fell, I rested by the hearth near his favorite chair, lulled by the cacophony of clocks. He’d delight me with whimsical tales of wishing stars, high-sea adventures and secret islands, while the scent of burning pine enveloped us in a comforting haze of warmth. As bedtime neared, Papa would pat my head affectionately, ruffle my raven hair, and tell me what a good boy I was.
I remember when I was the only one he loved…
Before the bright-eyed boy came, like a thief in the night, to steal Papa’s affections. Effortlessly, he charmed his way into Papa’s heart and established permanent lodging there. I don’t see the appeal. But to Papa, he’s the sun and the moon.
Resentfully, I watched their playful banter from a distance, restraining myself from snatching the feather right off the boy’s ridiculous cap. The way they rounded our cozy den, legs swinging in a giddy jig, was nauseating.
I tried not to notice the cheerful gleam in Papa’s eyes, just as I tried not to show how wounded I was by his sudden indifference.
Papa would occasionally frown and say something like, “Fig, what’s the matter with you, eh? You’re not jealous are you, ya little rascal?”
I’d glare at him, petulant. Oblivious to his offense, he’d set me down with a hearty chuckle and direct his adorations back to the boy.
My chest ached as I watched him tuck the boy, tenderly, into bed. The pain clawed its way down my throat. He passed by me without a backwards glance, blew out the candles and climbed into bed. Gazing out at the shimmering stars, he whispered an urgent plea to the night sky. He patted my head, reflexively, mumbling, “Wouldn’t it be nice, Fig?” as he drifts off to sleep.
Disappointment bit through my tongue, bitter and sharp. I dragged myself to the window, the cool, crisp air floated in wisps of sweet smelling wisteria that tickled my nose, willing me to follow.
The roots of my sullen mood dug deeper with every passing minute—the silence confirming what my heart already knew. Papa had no tender goodnight wishes for me…
Papa’s tired voice finally called out, “No climbing out the window tonight ya rascal…be a good lad. Get some sleep.”
The once comforting cadence of Papa’s snoring failed to quell the growing seed of betrayal planted by his fervent wish. The full impact of his longing—his need for something more than me—wounded my spirit…
Fragmented starlight filters through the open window, outlining the slender form of the interloper with the silly face and shining blue eyes, evoking an unfamiliar fire within me.
Oh, how I hated the boy
I reach out across the sleeping village, scouring the Cimmerian sky for the offending star and pierce it with a request of my own.
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might,
I wish upon the boy, a most fearsome blight!”
“My, my, what’s gotten into you son?” asks an unfamiliar voice in the shadows.
Startled, I scan the darkness for a shifting silhouette. “Who wants to know?”
“Well son, my friends call me J.C. I was just passing through and noticed your inviting fire, thought it’d be a mighty fine place to stop for a spell.”
The source of the inquiry takes shape. “No one invited you. Go back out on the street where you belong,” I rumble, seizing the vagabond by its tattered coat.
“Hey, what’s going on here!” the intruder screeches. “Now, I say, enough is enough! Unhand me you ruthless brute!”
I peer into its beady eyes, “I said—no one invited you.”
“Now hold on a minute son, I meant no offense. Why don’t we just have a little heart to heart, before you wrinkle my, err, hat—it’s my last one you know.”
Curiosity got the better of me.
Looking slightly worse for wear, he adjusts his hat and stares at me with utter disapproval. “Now, that’s better. Someone like me can’t be too careful,” he mumbles while fidgeting with his overcoat. “I couldn’t help but overhear your, err, bold appeal—I’m not deaf you know.”
“Mind your own business,” I snap, turning away from the nosy vagrant. I pick my way into the gloom.
The intruder follows me, the pitter-patter of his feet grating against my nerves. “I…I can’t imagine you’d really want to wish harm on that innocent boy, wha—what’s his name?”
“Woody,” I reply, because he smells like leaf litter.
“Woody you say?” he asks, gesturing towards the slumbering swindler. “Yep, that fits him, alright. He’s a cute little fellow. Can’t imagine how he made you so sore—”
“Again—not your concern, pest!” I growl, wishing I’d smothered him with his hat when I had the chance.
“J.C., if you please. I’m starting to take offense to your choice of endearment.”
“Right—wouldn’t want to offend a pest,” I rumble.
“Beg your pardon?”
“I said, you’re welcome to stay and rest.”
“Oh, well, that’s more like it. Now then, where was I going— oh yes—you see, you just need to set your principles in order.”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t have those,” I retort smugly, taking a seat near the hearth, its cinders barely burning.
“See! That’s just the problem with the world today!” J.C. shouts, wringing his hands and shaking his head. “People have lost sight of their values.”
“Come again?” I’m honestly not following him. My stomach rumbles in protest, reminding me I missed my late night snack.
“I’m talking about your conscience, son–that small voice inside—the one that tells you right from wrong.”
“Oh. Yeah, I definitely don’t have one of those.”
“Rubbish!” he shouts, startling me to my feet.
“Shhhh!” I swipe at him. “How are you so loud?”
“Everyone has a conscience! It’s up to you to listen to it is all. It’s that simple.” J.C. dusts off his hat and plops it back on his shiny, bald head.
“I don’t listen to anyone but myself.”
“I’ll say! Does the phrase ‘Fearsome Blight’ ring any bells?” he shrills, clearly agitated.
“What about it?” I ask, my patience wearing thin.
“My, my…of all the things to wish for,” he stammers, shaking his head.
A snorting sound shoots off from the bed. Papa fidgets and rolls over, turning his back to the growing debate.
I scowl at him, “Where do you get off passing judgment? You. Don’t. Know. Me,” I say bitterly, barely containing my urge to pommel him.
He smiles sadly, shaking his head, “I’m afraid I do. I’ve seen your kind before. And I’ve had all evening to witness you’re self-centered behavior,” he jabs his funny little walking stick in my direction, “You barely tolerate anything that diverts attention away from you, even that fish over there, for goodness sakes!”
He’s got me there. I do find the fish repugnant. But I take offense to his other ramblings. I have quite a number of redeeming qualities, which I’m fully prepared to point out.
J.C. continues his incessant rambling, “What’s worse, you clearly resent that innocent little fellow for bringing such joy to your Papa. The anger you harbor towards others is damaging to everyone involved, including you,” with pain in his voice he adds, “But, what’s done is done…can’t take it back now…”
I’m starting to dislike him more than the fish. This conversation is both exasperating and fruitless. I’m considering the many pain-inflicting options at my disposal—when I sense it—a slight shift in the air. I hear a faint rustling behind me, near the window.
“Are you listening son? This is very—“
“Oh, would you give it a rest already! I stopped caring what comes out of your mouth five minutes ago. If you have any sense of self preservation, which you’ve clearly lost sight of, you may want to rein it in!”
“Well I never! Don’t you realize I’m trying to—“
“Don’t make me snap off your matchstick legs and shove them in your hat!” I seethe, pinning him with a combative glare.
That got his attention.
I strain my ears, listening intently to what almost sounds like the fluttering of papers in the wind.
Tracking the source of the noise, I silently stalk across the floor, training my eyes on any subtle movement. The thin shafts of moonlight barely penetrate the sea of black inside the room.
Minutes pass without a sound. The darkness conceals a looming threat. I can feel it lurking.
And then I hear it.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” J.C. whispers behind me.
“I see you’ve followed me—against your better judgment—I might add.”
“You’re going to need all the help you can get, son.”
“Imagine my delight.”
Darkness closes in as we venture further into the room, following the peculiar sound.
“You realize what’s happening, don’t you?” he asks, incredulously.
“Nope, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.” I reply, smirking. I’m beginning to dislike him more than the boy.
“It’s your wish, coming for the boy,” he solemnly replies, shaking his head.
“That was fast. I’m impressed.” I was. I thought the stars were so full of wishes, you had to wait in line.
“This is serious!” he shrills, shaking his stick at me.
“Shush!” I swipe at him, knocking his hat onto the floor.
I hear it again. It sounds almost like…chewing. I strain my eyes against the inky cover. Then I see it—whatever “it” is.
“What. Is. That?” I ask, my voice trembling.
“I can’t see anything, son, it’s too dark,” mutters J.C., stomping his feet in frustration.
I reluctantly edge closer.
What grabs my attention first off, is the rather menacing pair of pincers full of sharp teeth. Six stubby legs hold up a translucent-white body that gives off an eerie glow. The creatures’ wings are smoky gray and veined. It’s massive dark head swivels towards me, the spaces where eyes should’ve been were empty and sunken.
I gasp, horrified.
“Oh…it’s all teeth and no eyes,” I whimper, fighting off hysteria.
“Swarmers,” J.C. utters, shocked. “They don’t need eyes…they hunt at night, blindly following a scent trail to their prey,” he murmurs, shaking his head gravely.
I feel a sharp stab in my side.
“You brought the Swarmers here!” yells J.C., jabbing me with his stick.
“Take it easy! Why don’t you wield your mighty sword and smite them?” I quip, swiping at his miniscule weapon. “What’s a Swarmer?”
“A creature that consumes anything in its path, without fail,” he sighs. “It’s hopeless…that boy’s as good as gone.”
“Oh,” I breathe in relief, “is that all? Man, you had me worried there for a minute. I mean, as long as they’re after him…”
Just as my anxiety was starting to dwindle, I notice the gnawing sound getting louder. On closer inspection, I see several Swarmers moving in a line, carrying pieces of something in their pincers. I inch ever so slightly to the side of their assembly line to get a better look at their cargo.
I back up, recoiling with repulsion.
Clenched in their greedy grasp was a single, unmistakable…toe.
“What are they doing?” I ask, feeling a bit sick.
“I tried to tell you. The Swarmers hunt in the dead of night, devouring anything in their path…no stopping it now…” J.C. removes a tiny handkerchief and rubs his eyes.
“Hold up. Are you telling me, those things are…are…eating him?” I ask, not entirely sure I want the answer.
No reply, just a slight nod of his head.
“But, that’s not what I wanted…I just…I just wanted him to disappear,” I say, panicking.
“I reckon it won’t take long before he does just that. They’ll manage it, one piece at a time…till there’s nothing left,” he mutters, nodding towards another toe being carted further down the line of snapping jaws.
We both watch with barely concealed horror, as the swarm overtakes the boy, tugging and pulling at his limp form. A sickeningly sweet smell of rotting vegetation permeates the humid air. The rising chorus of grinding teeth bores a hole in my skull, the sound resonating in my bones.
I’m feeling queasy—and really regretting my latest dietary decisions.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this…nobody deserved this nightmare. “I’ve got to stop this…how do I stop them?” I plead.
“You can’t,” J.C. says solemnly.
Regret washes over me.
I can’t let this happen.
I lunge towards the center of their sinister line, scattering the fiends in all directions. With all my strength, I push further, ripping a jagged hole through their huddled mass until I lose myself in a blur of flashing teeth and stabbing pain. In no time at all, I’m covered in the swarms’ offensive sticky goo. Stinging punctures burn holes through my skin.
J.C. wages his own battle—striking the beasts with his mighty stick and no doubt delivering a fearsome tongue lashing. But no matter how many we take down, a dozen more take its place. There must be hundreds of them.
That’s when I notice the stragglers. With their trail broken, many of them appear to be wandering aimlessly.
They’ve discovered a new path.
They found something more appetizing.
And now, I know how to stop them
I move quickly.
Diverting the tail end of their new trail towards the hearth, I pile more of the tasty snack inside the grate.
Within moments, they all start clamoring towards the enticing scent, leading them straight for me.
“What are you doing?” J.C. asks, hopping over the hearthstone beside me.
“Once they reach the end of the buffet line, I’ll have a nice, toasty dessert for them,” I reply with a wicked grin.
“Say, that’s a swell idea! That oughta do the trick.”
“When I give the word, you strike one of those and toss it in,” I say, indicating a small red box near the grate.
The vermin all gather within the threshold, in a feasting frenzy of gnashing teeth.
“I sure do love an inviting fire,” I signal to J.C.
“An inviting fire is irresistible, son,” J.C. flicks the lit match into the center of the writhing bodies.
In a rush, hundreds of Swarmers are licked clean by the relentless flames. A nefarious cloud of smoke fouls the air. The stench, though abhorrent, is strangely triumphant.
J.C. and I stand over Woody’s ravaged body, assessing the damage. The Swarmers have taken more than a few toes, some digits on his left hand and his right ear.
“It’s not too late?” I sigh, feeling utterly disgusted.
“A lovely thought, but not at all practical,” sobs J.C.
I know he’s right. It’s hopeless. It’s…
All. My. Fault.
I wished this horrible fate.
Papa will never forgive me. I’d give anything to take that wish back…anything…
“Would you look at that,” exclaims J.C., staring wide-eyed out the window.
“What is it now?” I blanch, “I can’t take much more.”
Reluctantly, I follow his gaze. I find myself hypnotized by a dazzling cerulean light suspended against the inky sky.
“As I live and breathe, it’s a fairy.” J.C. whispers in awe, removing his hat.
“Is she looking for a meal too?” I whimper.
“Heavens, no, son! She’s the spirit of the forest.”
A gust of wind blows through the open window, heavy with the scent of fresh rain on dry earth. A shimmering pool bathes the room in luminescent rays of crystal blue light. In the center appears a dazzling woman with long, glistening hair the color of the ocean tide. Wide, translucent wings spread out behind her.
I’ll be damned, it is a fairy.
“Fig, you’ve been a very naughty kitty. Your father would be disappointed in you, I’m afraid,” she chastises, looking towards Papa’s bed. Somehow, Papa slept through the chaos, including the beastie bonfire.
The fairy trains her disapproving glare back to me and scolds, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, Fig. From now on, your to be selfless and kind.“
She walks over to Woody, shaking her head. “Poor little puppet made of pine, I see the termites did their worst,” she murmurs sadly.
“But we showed them, ma’am,” pipes J.C. “You should have seen it! Fig used a trail of sawdust to lure them to the fireplace, and—“
The fairy interrupts, “Well now, cricket, let’s see if we can’t undo the damage—he’ll need all his strength before he can become a real boy.”
“Come again?” I squeak.
“Isn’t that wonderful, Fig! He’ll be fixed up as good as new! He may even be a real boy someday!” J.C. shouts, tossing his hat in the air.
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