Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Rational Choice

A Short story written from a prompt shared in a writers group. The prompt - Include the phrase- "find the ration card."

Mish ran, bare feet slapping the cold, hard ground. She ducked and weaved through the crowd; their elegant robes swished over her closely cropped hair. Every now and then she reached out, slipping small hands inside a coat or robe pocket. Sometimes something, most of the time zip, like today. She quickened her pace, empty fingers twitching.
Her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t managed to scrounge any scraps this morning and last night her daily pickings had been snatched by a larger, meaner lowzoner. Stealing from fellow zoners was low-down-dirty-bad. Mish stuck to the markets near Olympus Mons or Bradbury Landing, only taking from those who still had something. She understood times were desperate. She listened to high-talkers in passing as they cursed the Xhang Republic for putting the Mars Settlement Program in a bad position. Wordy words about economics and contracts. Mish knew one thing; Earth was mean and didn’t care if they all died here. The bustling crowd parted and she saw a line of people snaking out from the MSP Ration Office. Her parents were dead so Mish didn’t have a ration card. She saw a woman nearby, fussing over a grubby faced child.
Mish’s stomach growled at her.
She slowed, feet dragging slightly. The family weren’t richly dressed but looked well fed. ‘Some folks try to cheat the system, pretending to be poor when they aren’t,’ she rationalized.
She walked over, casual-like. The kid started crying and the mother got flustered. Perfect. Her hand softly delved inside the woman’s bag. Metal, thin, a card. She clutched it tight, not looking back and ducked behind the market stalls, down a side alley, then crouched, resting against a concrete wall. She waited, turning the ration card over and over in her hand. ‘What if they need it?’

Mish’s hunger pushed her to return. She slipped furtively in near the front of the long queue behind a tall, stooped man, smelling of vinegar.
Ahead of her she heard a sharp cry and an apology, “Sorry, I’ll find the ration card, please wait.”
“Mam, no ration card, no rations…”
“It’s got to be here. I had it right here.”
“There is a line, Mam. Go away, find it, then come back.”
Mish heard the woman sob, “But it was here and now it’s gone… what do I do? Please, we have to have that food.”
Mish recoiled, willing her ears to stop listening.
“Mam, I don’t make exceptions.”

The woman moved aside, shoulders slumped in defeat, her bare-footed child trailing after,  gripping her skirt.

The line moved on.

The Officer looked down, meanly slitted eyes measuring Mish as she passed up the card.
“Where are your guardians?”
“Sick at home, under the weather, spewing mucus, bogged with snot…”
“OK, enough!” the woman snapped, waving an impatient hand and logging the card before handing it back. She pushed a button and the ration draw popped out. Mish hefted the package to her shoulder. 

She ran.

Unable to wait any longer, she stopped in the doorway of an abandoned factory and tore a hole in the brown paper package. Two small, shiny packets fell out. She picked one up and ripped it open, forcing the protein bar inside, into her mouth. It was so chewy it made her jaw ache. She rolled the dense nutty clumps around with her tongue and sucked them. Shoving the other bar in her pocket she looked down at the still full parcel. She heard a child crying and picked up the rations, clutching them tight as people walked past. It was the same woman and her kid, walking down toward the lowzone. Mish felt sick to her stomach and followed. The woman eventually stopped at a block of rundown flats, fumbling with her entry key, cooing “don’t worry, don’t worry,” either to her child or herself. ‘Did it matter?’
Once the woman and her child had gone inside and shut the door, Mish put the remaining rations on the doorstep along with the ration card and pressed the door alarm.
Mish ran. The stolen protein bar felt heavy in her pocket. She’d get by, they probably wouldn’t.

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