This story is by Jenny Johnson and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Conscience Knows Best
They’re watching us.
Ellie stopped her pacing in front of the student apartments where Marcus lived and casually faced the glass door. A gust of chilled air blew against her back, sending her auburn hair flying in her face as dead leaves whirled down the sidewalk. She tugged at the sleeves of her jacket.
“Where are they, Casey?” she breathed to the orange orb that was weaving slowly in and out of her wool scarf. Lighters could communicate telepathically with their consciences. She was still getting the hang of it.
There, by the cafeteria.
Her eyes slid over the reflection in the glass, trying to see the campus cafeteria behind her through the fake spider webs some overzealous decorator had draped across the entry. Casey was right. Their consciences pulsed brightly around their bodies, making them appear to be standing in a breathing rainbow. Not everyone had a visible conscience, and only Lighters could see other Lighters’ consciences. Derek stood in the middle of the group. His conscience burned scarlet.
“Damn you, Tiffany.” She muttered through clenched teeth.
Guess they decided to venture out of their hole tonight. We never should’ve gone to those weird dorm meetings.
How was I supposed to know they had some sort of agenda for Lighters? What do they want? What do we…
Meet him inside and ask to go out another way. Make up something.
“And how do I do that, Casey? I don’t live here; I don’t have a card..!” she broke off as the reflection of a concerned elderly man with a briefcase paused in the glass before sliding out of sight again.
Ellie moved to the side as a pair of students approached. She waited as the one with the yellow sweater presented a card key and opened the door. Ellie followed the pair inside, sliding through the door just as it was about to shut.
Away from prying eyes, she began to pace again. A month ago, she had stepped into her Biology classroom and saw Marcus for the first time. She had tried to find a seat in the front row and thought she recognized some of the Lighters from the dorm meetings. She looked to the middle row instead. The hairs on her neck stood up. Casey reeled around her chest, flashing a red brighter than ever before.
Sit there already, Ellie!
Her limbs felt like dead weight as she seated herself. He wore black jeans and sat hunched over a pad of paper, aimlessly sketching. The hand that held the pen seemed strong, with well-defined knuckles and long fingers. He seemed oblivious to her and she tried to hide just how aware she was of him. They did not speak that day.
They had gotten to know each other over the next few weeks. She wanted to be a journalist; he wanted to be an illustrator. Conversation flowed easily; Marcus felt familiar. Thankfully, he never asked if she was a Lighter. It didn’t seem to matter.
The last time they talked, he invited her to the student art gallery to view some of his recent illustrations that Wednesday evening. As she got ready in her room, Tiffany, her bubbly pink conscience floating around her head, rattled on about the Lighter meeting that evening. Ellie’s thoughts were on Marcus. He was so solemn. He hardly ever smiled.
“Hey, are you listening to me?” Tiffany pouted.
Ellie stopped brushing her hair. “Sorry Tiffany, I’m not going. I’m meeting someone.”
“I knew you didn’t like Derek! So you told him no, then?” Tiffany asked, looking relieved. “Are you with this other guy or something? What color is his conscience when he looks at you? I’ve heard people in love will have a light red conscience!”
“I don’t know. He’s not a Lighter.”
“Oh. Then why do you want to meet him?”
Casey had shrunk and turned a dark purple, flying close to Ellie’s ear.
Remember how they suggested dating “within our own kind”?
“I…I’m just curious.”
Tiffany had laughed. “You don’t have to tell me your secrets!” she had said, eyeing Casey.
Now she was pacing the lobby of his apartment building, wondering how to make her move. Or if it was even appropriate to make a move. She needed a sign.
Snap out of it, here he comes!
“Oh hey, I didn’t know you could get in here,” Marcus said as he approached, tucking a lock of brown hair behind his ear. “I should’ve known you didn’t want to meet out in the wind.” Marcus wore a corduroy blazer and a messenger bag slung across his chest.
“Hi, yes, it is windy today. Can we…do you mind if we go the back way? I’ve never been here before; I’d like to go the scenic route.”
“Yeah…sure. Although I doubt the lobby is very scenic.”
“Shut it, Casey!” Ellie hissed under her breath.
“What was that?” Marcus asked her, brow furrowed.
“Uh, nothing, sorry.”
Ellie and Marcus stood inside a small house that had been converted into a gallery. Large colorful pictures adorned the walls, and tables strewn across the open floor plan displayed more student work. Every now and then the roof would creak as it compressed under gusts of wind. They were the only visitors.
“Marcus, you’re really talented!”
Don’t lay it on too thick. He’ll think you’re just trying to please him.
It’s the truth. Besides, I want to please him.
“Heh, thanks, Ellie. I think I might include this one in my portfolio.”
Marcus leaned in to look closer at his work, his head coming eye level with her elbow. Ellie had a sudden desire to stroke his hair. She looked outside instead, biting her lip.
Casey, am I a freak or something? I can’t stop thinking about him. I dream about him almost every night. That’s gotta be crazy, right?
You don’t have to tell me, I am you! What was with that dream about the airport declaration? You’ve been watching too many rom coms.
It’s Tiffany’s TV, I just watch what she watches. I don’t like confrontation! Casey, please, try to…
“Focus!” Too late, she realized she had said the last word out loud.
“Huh?” Marcus straightened and adjusted his bag, his eyebrow raised as he studied her.
“Oh, I was saying I liked the focus of this one.” Ellie cleared her throat as Casey’s laugh echoed in her head.
“Listen,” Marcus said, rummaging through his bag, “I have something for you. I don’t want you to…I mean, it’s not that great. You seemed interested in that band I was talking about, so I got you some songs.” He pulled out a disk and offered it to her.
Ellie, do something! He’s made you a mix tape, for crying out loud!
He was just about to say he didn’t want me to take it the wrong way. I don’t want to make signs out of nothing.
“I’ll give it a listen sometime.” She said. She could feel her conscience tugging impatiently on the edge of her mind. Casey was right. Now or never. She took a half step closer and flung her arms tightly around Marcus’ shoulders.
“Thanks!” she breathed, holding on for longer than a friend’s hug ought to last. She marveled at how the textured fabric of his blazer sent shocks through her fingers. His body was deliciously warm.
Flashing a cheery red, Casey soared around them. A content humming reverberated within her skull. For a split second, she worried that he could feel it. She swiftly released him.
Her cheeks reddened as she watched him. He was gazing hard at the floor, motionless. Horrified, she quickly turned away.
I guess I have my answer.
Ellie you fool! Look at him again.
She did. Something flickered under the fold of Marcus’ collar. It grew in size as she watched. Her blush grew deeper as she understood.
“Marcus, you have a conscience! I mean, I can see it!” she squeaked.
Marcus looked up at her sheepishly.
“I didn’t want to show you, I mean, sorry, I don’t try to show it to anyone! I waited, I wanted to…had to know if it was genuine. I wanted to know if you would still talk to me if I…well, since you seemed to not want to be around Light…”
Ellie interrupted his stammering. “That means you can see…”
Casey, he’s known this whole time! I must’ve looked so stupid to him.
God, you’re slow.
What does that mean? How long have you known?
Would you please shut up! Do you see it, Ellie? His conscience is light red! I can feel it; it’s more beautiful than we ever could have known.
“Well yeah, you kind of blinded everyone in the room that day,” Marcus said, his lips spreading into a wide smile that made her stomach leap.
Yes Casey, more beautiful than we ever could have known.