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Short Story Competition 2022 School Years 11 to 13 Runner-Up Nicole Zinovev ‘Consumption’

Pic by Johnny Bugeja

Liyah woke up that morning with a pit of vipers in her stomach, as though she could not quite remember the nightmare that had haunted her uneasy sleep. She glanced hazily around her room, feverishly tucking a strand of short, pitch­black hair behind her left ear. Thin rays of golden dawn sunlight slithered in between the slats of her painted wooden shutters, a natural phenomenon which slightly calmed her nerves as it politely asked her to revel in its beauty, in lieu of continuing to pallidly shiver as she was.

Her mood warmed with the sunlight from its exiled reverie, and she made unconscious eye contact with her cat. Royaki, or 'Roya' as she liked to call him, was lying at the foot of her bed, sprawled amid the wrinkles of her sheets. She sensed he had been gazing at her in this way - lazily, through slanted eyes - for some time now, though she had never been able to place his exact emotions in all the fifteen years he had watched her.

Without warning, a wave of dissociation spilled over Liyah, and for a moment she felt a vividly wild vertigo. After what felt like an eternity, she regained her composure, and decided her body was likely just craving some nutrient or other. Making her way out of her alcove and down the soft-carpeted steps, still clutching the polished banister to avoid toppling over her own queasiness, Liyah reached the wideset entrance to her parents' kitchen. She stopped dead in her tracks as she noticed her mother, father, and sister all staring at her mechanically, perfectly motionless in their poker-faced rigidity. As she managed to take a few uncertain steps forward, their heads swivelled round to follow her like spotlights might illuminate the hero of a play.

Cautiously, Liyah uttered a few words:
"Hey, guys? What's up?" she edged.
Receiving no audible or visible response, her anxiety swelled. Extracting her own stare from her robotized relatives, she went to open the fridge, muttering under her breath, "Right. That can't be normal."
The girl opted to stand rather than install herself with her so-called family around the glass table, which seemed to tremble slightly within itself at the handof infinitesimal microseisms apparent only to it. She went to pour milk into her bowl, only for it to slump out in vile, vibrant bruise-coloured chunks.

Murmuring a syllable of distaste, Liyah elected for some dry cereal instead. She chanced a fleeting look at her zombified sister, only to encounter her lingering, deadened stare, her parents' clone. Liyah's serpentine guts began to writhe agonizingly.

"Guys, if this is a joke, I find it very funny, you can stop now", she managed to pronounce.

Slowly, impulsively, they began to simultaneously draw a figure of eight with their right index fingers. Their left hands composed some sort of 'L' shape, moving flawlessly in time with each other. As they completed three circuits of this bizarre dance, they swiftly clapped twice, almost causing Liyah's bones to leap out of their protective covering.

"I am not doing this right now," she established. As briskly as she could endure, she collected her cereal and stumbled out of the vicinity as though in a fever dream. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed these creatures rotate to shadow her, though they did not physically move to pursue her.

Now acutely disturbed, she slackened, reached the landing, and nudged open her bedroom door to identify her feline licking the oil from a lamp she had been painting. Scattering her breakfast all over the floor, she lunged at him, quietly exclaiming, "Roya, no!", and carefully moved the lamp to a higher shelf.

He glowered at her from the corner he had been banished to, and Liyah grunted a muffled "Stupid cat", in his general direction. Out of nowhere, she suddenly doubled over with a piercing headache. Letting out little utterances of agony, she opened her eyes and discerned a perfectly steady Roya, regarding her distress with impeccable tranquillity. As she looked on, she watched as his tail, almost imperceptibly, sprouted into two, just as a beanstalk might. Clutching her temples with a vigour that likely worsened her pain, she collapsed onto her cushioned bed.

"What is happening to me?" she groaned. Her mutilated pet continued to observe her with an impenetrable indifference, and while she became entranced by the apathetic sway of his duplicated, hypnotic tail, she was overcome by an old memory.

When they had all lived in Japan together, her grandfather had told her an old wives-tale that had spooked her greatly as a child, but as she grew older, it became insignificant to her except as a fond memory. She had asked the old man about a picture of her great grandmother and a fox, sitting side-by-side, that they had hung on the wall earlier that day. He explained:

"Many years ago, my mother had a strange rendezvous with the Yokai. The Obake she had met with, specifically a Nogitsune in the form of a fox, became one with her, and took control of her aura. We keep this image with us at all times to warn the generations ahead: beware the fox trickster, who strives for chaos. Beware the badger, the Bake-Danuki, who sings the songs of little boys in kimonos. But most of all, beware the felid Bakeneko, who licks the oil of lamps and has two tails, for he will drain your soul, and morph your universe to unrecognizability."

Liyah's terror now climaxed as the gravity of her position struck her. She began to convulse with spasms of paralysis. The ringing in her ears shrilled to a deafening frequency and the world around her fogged until all she could focus on were the pinpricked yellow orbs of her shapeshifter's eyes. She struggled to fight their lulling vortex, though she knew she would succumb. And succumb she did.
Liyah did not wake up the next morning. The Bakeneko, however, did.

Runner-up: Nicole Zinovev with Consumption. Most of us have the feeling that cats live in their own mysterious world. They appear enigmatic, withdrawn and mesmerising. Our story reflects a particular cat’s impenetrability and disturbing power.

At the beginning Royaki or ‘Roya’ seems just another pet though Liyah admits she has been unable to fathom the cat’s emotions in fifteen years. The morning starts unremarkably, with the sunlight flooding Liyah’s bedroom, the need for breakfast and making her way to the kitchen. Something, however, is not right when we meet Liyah’s family: they are frozen in time, staring mechanically and seemingly hypnotised, and tracing puzzling figures in the air.

A panicky return to her bedroom only compounds the problem. Roya is caught ‘licking the oil from the lamp’ (this is a feature of the Nogitsune) and sporting two tails instead of one. This strange metamorphosis of the tail makes Liyah recall a family story back in Japan of her grandmother and a fox (one of the animal forms the Nogitsune can adopt). We are not warned of the ‘trickster’ who appears in different shapes. Poor Liyah has encountered the ‘felid Bakeneko.’ Liyah is overcome; the Bakeneko survives. This is a strange story which casts a paralysing spell on the reader. Anyone interested in the whole Nogitsune lore should consult the Internet.

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