Should you, or shouldn’t you?
Yes, or no.
It wasn’t a hard question. Did you really see flour? The question rolled round and around in your mind like an uneven marble rolling this way and that way and then lurching to another random direction. If you reported the old woman—for what? Having an extra bag of flour? If you reported her, you would receive extra rations for yourself. But if you didn’t report your neighbor, then you would be disappointing your Eternal Mother. And you didn’t want to do that. The thought of Loraine being angry with you was almost more than you could bear. And you never knew who was watching.
You stared up at the ceiling, laying on your back with one hand behind your head. Bitterness is a large and filthy dog, and he slept beside you fitfully. He kicked you with his dirty paws, and you went over the facts one more time. Everyone in West Sixty-One received ration tickets once a week. The ration tickets were based on age, height, gender, and family marital status. You could exchange the tickets at the market for rations, usually corn and beans, sometimes rice. Less often flour. So why did your neighbor, a small, elderly woman, barely over five foot nothing, have two full sacks of flour in her basket?
You had met your neighbor on the road home from the market that afternoon. The old woman had smiled and nodded, and tried to lay her shawl over her basket casually, but the twin flour bags had peeked out. It didn’t help that she had glanced over her shoulder as she hobbled home and closed the door quickly behind her. Like she was hiding something. Like someone was watching. Bitterness eyed you with his hungry yellow eyes.
Your stomach grumbled. How would your old neighbor even get extra flour? The question was bitter in your mind. You couldn’t even get extra flour—an unmarried, middle-aged, five foot four female, you got so little each week. Extra would go a long way. Part of you wanted to turn the old woman in just out of spite and bake a large, decadent loaf of bread with your reward. That would teach the ragged old crone to steal. You could almost smell the freshly baked bread, almost taste its flesh, the hard crust, the soft insides. You licked your lips and smiled. Fresh bread would be lovely right now. Bitterness licked his jaws.
But Loraine demanded love. Loyalty. Honor. And sacrifice. You knew that this was a test of your love and loyalty to your Eternal Mother. And it was a severe test. But it shouldn’t be. The idea that you hesitated to turn in your neighbor to the local Peace Official was almost as disturbing to you as the fact that your neighbor had extra flour. Why was this so hard?
You turned over onto your side and held your empty belly. You had enough to eat, you had eaten a meal today, and you would eat a meal tomorrow. You just didn’t have so much food as to be wasteful. That’s what the rations were for—to prevent waste. Being wasteful was a terrible thing. Waste had caused a great war long ago that had almost destroyed your country. Wasn’t your neighbor being wasteful, and wasn’t it your duty to report her? And bitterness was a fat and well-fed animal.
Part of you wanted to turn her in. More than a part of you, all of you wanted to report the old woman for adjustment and claim your reward. Your stomach yowled, and you decided.
A knock on the door. You grumbled. Bitterness was keeping you warm in bed, and you didn’t want to face the cold, but you got up and wrapped a blanket around yourself, leaving bitterness to lick his fangs. The photo of Loraine watched you as you padded across the room to the door.
You opened the door to emptiness. Outside the air smelled of smoke and pine. Fires on a cold night. The wind swirled around your ankles and bare feet like icy water. The houses on your street were dark. Fires long died, candles blown out for sleeping, lights extinguished. One house, the house next to you, the old woman’s house, glowed red around the edges of the curtains, like a hidden fire burning.
Smoke rose from the chimney.
Annoyed, you turned to close the door but saw it before you did.
At your feet lay a package wrapped in cloth. It was warm in your hands, almost hot. You lifted it to your face.
Silently, bitterness slipped out the open door and into the night. You turned to your neighbor’s house, but the curtain shifted as if someone had pulled the fabric tight, and the hidden light disappeared.