Set in the far future, Ration is an unflinching take on the ways society can both thrive and go wrong as pressure to survive builds.
All the girls who live in the Apartments are forced to weigh their own hunger against the lives of the others living in the building. When Cynthia is wrongly accused of ordering an "A" ration, she punished by the other girls. Eventually, she is forced to leave the Apartments along with Ms. Glennoc, one of the former managers who has tormented and abused her for years. Together, they encounter a world of even more scarcity, but one filled with politics and intrigue. Cynthia struggles to return to the Apartments and help the girls who are still there.
Forced to reconcile her role in the destruction of these girls with the greater needs of society to find any sustainable source of calories, Ms. Tuttle makes one bad decision after another while she grapples with a mother who is growing more and more impatient with her mistakes. Ration is a dark and forceful book, written in a surprisingly nuanced and accessible way. It combines the darkness and despair of The Road and The Handmaid's Tale, but has notes of charm like Lauren Oliver's Replica.
Cynthia stops eating after the scream finally trails off. The power is still out, and the smell of her B-ration hangs meaty and dense in the still air of her Apartment. She’s cross-legged on the rug in the kitchen, her naked feet white even in the darkness.
A deep glubbing sound burbles in the wall; someone flushes a toilet above her. She swallows and winces as B-ration bits stick to her throat. She waits a moment more, allowing even the biologic gurgle of the building’s plumbing to quiet before she forks another mouthful
from the plastic ration pouch. Third floor, she thinks. Scream is on the third floor, still above, just not far above.
After she finishes the last of her ration, the power hisses to life, the ceiling fan jerks to a spin, the fluorescents in the kitchen click to life, and the little radio she keeps by the bathroom door retches static. Cynthia stands slowly, her stomach begging her for another ration even as it disagrees with what she’s given it.
“That’s what we have,” she says. “Hang on to it.”
The door bangs, a flat palm in the hallway slapping the thin wood. Cynthia freezes, finger covering her mouth.
Cynthia hiccups, belches softly, and sags where she stands. Imeld. Of course, it’s Imeld.
“Cinnie, did you hear that one?”
“Just a second.” Cynthia scuffs her barefoot way to the door, one hand pressed to the flat of her belly. She pulls the sliding latch and chain, stepping away as Imeld slips into the Apartment.
“I’m pretty sure that was on the third floor, right? You heard that one, right?” Imeld takes Cynthia’s hand immediately, her cold fingers like water.
“I heard it,” Cynthia says. She closes the door with her free hand and slides the latch. “I would say the third floor, too.”
Imeld is small, even for the Apartments. Dark hair that riots away from her brown face in startled waves. “I don’t know anyone on the third floor. Well, not really. I know Mei and Shuvo, but …” Imeld pulls her hand away, frowning. She brings her fingers to her nose. “You were eating,” she says.
Cynthia stands motionless. She does not meet Imeld’s eyes, instead studying her friend’s stockinged feet. Imeld is wearing the red pair, one brown heel completely nude and wreathed in worn threads, almost like curled springs. “Yes.”
Imeld does not speak, she doesn’t need to.
“It was a B.”
“Cynthia,” Imeld says, her voice nothing more than a whisper.
Cynthia turns away, pulling her arms to her chest. “What could I do?”
The building hums around them, the newly restored power feeding the other Apartments in the complex. From somewhere above, a television laugh track rolls uninterrupted, a hair dryer hisses next door.
Imeld’s fingers find her hands and pull Cynthia’s arms gently apart. “It’s okay, Cinnie. It’s all right.” Imeld is hugging her, standing on her tiptoes and pulling Cynthia against the sharp angles of her body. “How long was it?”
Cynthia shakes her head; Imeld’s hair smells of government soap and chicory coffee. “I don’t know. Maybe three days.”
“Oh, Cinnie,” Imeld says, and they hold each other for a moment, both cold and glad for the warmth of the other. Without agreeing to, they sit on the little rug in the kitchen, hands still entwined.
“I didn’t want to,” Cynthia says.
Imeld smiles, lips tight. “Not true. You wanted to eat; we all do.”
“But not …” Cynthia begins.
“But not a B. I guess that’s right. You do and you don’t.”
“You do and you don’t,” Cynthia repeats. Nothing truer, she thinks. Nothing at all truer than that. How long have they known each other? Two years, maybe? Cynthia stopped marking her calendar soon after the two had run into one another in the hallway. Imeld had been the first girl Cynthia had spoken to in over a month. She’d been smiling, a beautiful, full-toothed smile.
“Well,” Imeld says, squeezing Cynthia’s hand, “I think we should see which one it was.”
Cynthia stares. “You mean now?”
“It’s too soon, Imeld. We don’t know if they’re, you know, done yet.”
A girl calls a name down the hallway, the walls break the syllables into a muddy sound and both Cynthia and Imeld jump.
“Barbara,” Imeld says. “That was Barbara.”
“Who was she calling?”
Imeld shrugs and both sit for a long moment, listening.
The building breathes its constant hush, distorted voices, touches of static, the deep belly gurgle of flushing toilets, running taps. It is the dull music of Cynthia’s sleep. It lulls her, and she closes her eyes. So many nights, lying on her thin mattress in the dark. Smelling the sweat of the place, old, harsh soaps, unwashed clothing, even the mattress itself holds the odor of the girls before her. Backs and shoulders carving out the well in the cotton batting she sleeps in. Heels pressing the gentle craters into the seam at the foot. She imagines all of them, all the girls who came before, curled around one another in sleep, holding one another for warmth in the dark and listening to the building whisper its rumors.
“Come back to me,” Imeld says, and Cynthia opens her eyes, her box kitchen flickering into view. The empty refrigerator, silent and warm, the single gas range built into the counter.
Has she ever used either?
“Where did you go?” Imeld asks as she squeezes Cynthia’s hand.
“Sorry,” Cynthia offers. “I guess I’m sleepy.”
Imeld smiles again, a small flash in the fluorescents. “Eating always makes me sleepy, too.”
A twinge, a gentle reminder that Cynthia has chosen a B ration.
“I’m sorry,” Cynthia says.
Imeld answers with another hand squeeze. “I still want to go check,” she says.
Of course she does. It is inevitable. Imeld is everything Cynthia is not: brave, beautiful, willful. She doubts Imeld has ever chosen a B ration, although this is ridiculous. Eventually everyone in the Apartments eats their B. Everyone. “Okay,” Cynthia says.
Imeld does not release her hand; as she stands, she draws Cynthia with her, pulling her close as she opens the latch and slips into the hallway.
The hallway is very wide, entirely too wide. Cynthia has always hated it. She is the tallest girl she knows in the Apartments, and even she, with her arms fully outstretched, can’t touch both sides of the hallway. It would take two of her, and possibly one of Imeld, to create a link
between the walls. A damp, red tongue of a carpet lies stretched loosely in the center of the hallway, threads bleeding from its seams, peeling away and creating rusty drifts that the girls sweep up dutifully on cleaning day. Her feet hate the texture of it, hate the cool slickness and sticky threads. Doors stand opposite of one another the length of the hallway. Twenty per floor, beyond each, an identical Apartment, identical mattresses, identical, unused burners and refrigerators. The stairs create a pivot between each length of hallway, also terribly wide, also tacked with rotting red carpet. Cynthia uses them only when she must, only on cleaning day and bath day. Imeld pulls her along behind, her own bare feet whickering through the carpet’s shed skin.
“Wait,” Cynthia says. She knows Imeld will not wait, but she has to say it, has to protest even with such a small voice.
“Come on,” Imeld says as she pulls, and Cynthia follows, watching her friend patter up the stairs, still connected to her by cold fingers and Imeld’s greater will.
The stairs speak as they climb. Bitter old wood, sour creaks chased by the occasional sharp crack. Even from her Apartment, Cynthia can hear when girls moved between floors.
“Have you ever eaten a … B?” Cynthia whispers.
Imeld does not slow her ascent. “That’s a stupid question, Cinnie.”
“Oh,” Cynthia says. They turn the sharp corner on the small landing. A ration pouch lays folded against the stair wall. The large A printed in faded maroon on the tan plastic face of the pouch stops both girls.
“Somebody just left it here,” Imeld says.
“For anyone to see,” Cynthia whispers.
“They wanted us to see.” Imeld lets go of Cynthia’s hand and bends to pluck the ration pouch off the carpet and bring it to her nose. “Oh,” she says and the smell hits Cynthia. Warm spice, meat, ghosts that brought saliva flooding to her tongue.
“Why would they do that?” Cynthia asks.
Imeld opens her mouth to speak and a thin, silver thread of drool slips from her lips. She drops the pouch and wipes her mouth with a palm.
“I,” Imeld begins, and her stomach speaks a high and needy note. She reaches out to Cynthia and steadies herself on her friend’s shoulders.
“Are you all right?”
Imeld waits, her eyes locked on the ration pouch at Cynthia’s feet. Another groan courses through her body, ending in a painfully loud gurgle behind her breastbone.
“How long?” Cynthia asks.
“I had a C four days ago,” Imeld says.
Shame rushes to Cynthia’s face, blood squirms at her temples. “You’re … so much stronger than I am,” she says.
Imeld frowns, her fingers tightening on her friend’s shoulders. “Don’t say that.”
“Please. Just don’t.” Neither girl moves, the fluorescent light bolted crookedly to the stair wall fizzing unhappily.
“Whoever had the A wanted us to know,” Imeld says.
“Why would they?” Cynthia asks. The last time a girl was discovered eating an A, everyone on the second floor gathered outside her door. The girl knew, of course. She could hear them out there, could hear the whisper of their clothing, of their feet. She did not open the door
when the first girl in line knocked. They waited for three hours before the offender had finally opened the door, resigned to her punishment. They held her down in the hallway, rolling up her sleeves to the elbow. Each girl in line stomped once, just once, on one of her outstretched hands. Cynthia had been the one to hold the offender’s right arm, forcing the hand palm down on the floor. She felt bones break after the first bare heel struck just above the wrist. The offender didn’t scream until the fifth heal, tears coursing over the cheek that was not forced against the floor. Cynthia was offered a turn after the line had dwindled to just a few girls, the offender, sobbing weakly against the floor, no longer needed to be held down, her broken hands curled against her chest like bloody bicycle spokes. Cynthia had passed. Imeld had watched from down the hall, she hadn’t even joined the queue.
“Maybe they’re just that mean,” Imeld says. “They want us to know we have to pay.”
“But we always find out,” Cynthia says.
“No. We don’t.” Imeld turns from her, slipping Cynthia’s hand in her own as she does so.
She kicks the ration pouch as they continue their ascent.
The third-floor hallway is much like the second, save the carpet has been worn nearly through. Great holes lay open to the bare wood beneath like terrible, fleshy wounds. There are girls in the hallway, all strangers to Cynthia, all draped in shirts entirely too big and bottoms that pool around their feet like muddy water. Several glance their way. One girl, her red hair fizzing around her sharp face like watercolor, holds a single finger to her lips. “They’re not done yet,” she says, her words too round.
Imeld pulls Cynthia over along the tortured carpet, the redheaded girl falling in beside Cynthia. They stop just behind the greatest concentration of girls in the hallway. Five or six faces, blank and still, all stare into the open door of the Apartment labeled 19.
“They’re still in there,” one of the girls says.
“We know,” the redhead responds.
From the hollow of the Apartment, Cynthia hears a heavy grunt.
“Now be careful, Ms. Glennoc.” A Woman’s voice, warm and richly spiced.
“I always am, Ms. Tuttle.” Another voice, higher, sharper.
The girls in the hallway draw together; Cynthia’s free hand is taken by the redhead.
“Now there, you see? Not to worry, not to worry at all,” Ms. Tuttle says with a pleasant open mouthed ah for all.
Another grunt and a quick burst flat, staccato sound.
“Oops, indeed. Say you are sorry, Ms. Glennoc.”
“I say better out of me than in me, Ms. Tuttle.”
A sharp sound, flesh against wet flesh followed by a hissing pause.
“Now, say you’re sorry, dear. Right?”
“Yes, Ms. Tuttle. I am really quite sorry.”
The girls fill the open doorway, Imeld at the center of the group, Cynthia just behind. The Apartment is deliciously warm, the heating vents somehow alive and generous. The little kitchen beyond is a mirror of Cynthia’s, the same ragged rug, the same pointless counter, the same blistered paint. The bedroom/toilet room door stands open, the back of a very tall Woman framed in the black doorway. She is wearing a beautiful white blouse, pearls stitched into the shoulders, cuffs kissed with cream lace. Her bottoms are vivid green corded and clutch at her wide hips greedily. But it is her shoes that Cynthia focused on. Black leather flats, real shoes surrounding black stockings that look impossibly thick and richly warm. It is the shoes that always catch her eyes during these rare moments when the Women come.
“Well, we have quite the crowd out here, Ms. Glennoc. Nearly the entirety of floor three, did you know?” Ms. Tuttle, the speaker, turns slowly, red lips parting into a white blade of a smile. Blonde hair curls at her temples, parted at the center of her forehead, framing a smooth face and wide eyes. The flat, blue latex of her gloves diminishes the perfection of her clothing, long fingers caught in clinging surgical wrap.
“They always come out for a show, Ms. Tuttle. Moths to candles and such.” Another grunt issues from the darkness of the bedroom.
“Good evening, girls. You all are looking so very well, aren’t you?” Ms. Tuttle sweeps the group with her eyes, and Cynthia feels the absence of the girls behind her, hears the slap of their feet and the click of their doors closing. Imeld squeezes her hand painfully. None of the remaining girls speak.
“Just cleaning up a bit. You know the drill,” Ms. Tuttle says. She seems to notice her gloves and frowns, thin lines crawling away from corners of her mouth. Another wet sound, fabric and flesh, issues from the room behind Ms. Tuttle. “You’ll want to give Ms. Glennoc
some room, girls,” Ms. Tuttle says, the frown bending her red lips. “She’s none too steady on her feet these days.”
“Is that so, Ms. Tuttle?” Ms. Glennoc says from within the bedroom, annoyance thickening her voice.
“Well, yes, it is. How many times have you dropped her now?”
“A job for one is made simpler still if it is made by two,” Ms. Glennoc says, her form blooming in darkness behind Ms. Tuttle. The other Woman steps aside and Ms. Glennoc shuffles into the little kitchen. She is much taller than the already tall Ms. Tuttle, hard shoulders with a drawn face balanced on a neck corded with sinew and veins. Long, black hair gathered into a braid falling away down her back. She balances the girl from Apartment 19 on her shoulder. Naked and wrapped in many layers of clinging plastic, the girl’s mouth visible as a black O, she curves, boneless, over Ms. Glennoc’s shoulder like a rolled-up rug. The Woman adjusts her burden with a flat grunt, muscles crawling the length of her forearms.
Imeld’s hand crushes Cynthia’s and she tries to pull away. Her friend’s eyes spark, tears immediate and heavy. “Mei, it’s Mei.”
“One side, girly girls. I need to get her there before all her uses are dried up,” Ms. Glennoc’s says, her black brows heavy against her pale face. “We don’t like to waste, do we, Ms. Tuttle?”
“No, we surely do not like waste of any kind. Move aside, girls.” Ms. Tuttle steps forward, shedding her gloves on to the floor of the kitchen. Cynthia imagines the girls of floor three staring at these on cleaning day. They would have to be picked up, but who can do it?
“She was my friend,” Imeld says and the shock of her voice splits the little group of girls in the doorway. Some simply leave, others step away, their mouths open. Cynthia feels the redhead drop her hand, the cold of the hallway immediately replacing the warmth of skin.
“Well, I am sure she was. Which one are you?” Ms. Tuttle smiles again, reaching out and touching the frizz of Imeld’s hair, plucking at it gently.
“And which Cohort?”
“Floor two, room eleven, Cohort Five,” Imeld says. Her voice cracks on five.
“Oh, I like Five,” Ms. Glennoc says brightly.
“We all like Five,” Ms. Tuttle says as she wipes her hand on the hem of her blouse.
“She was my friend,” Imeld says, and Ms. Tuttle sighs, a soft little puff between impossibly white teeth.
“Yes, I’m sorry, dear. But friends fade. It looks to me that you have a new one anyway.”
She gestures to Cynthia, and Cynthia steps away, trapped only by Imeld’s grip on her hand. “Besides, if you wanted to keep your friend, you should know better than to ask for so many A rations, right? I mean, we all know the rules here, don’t we?”
“You asked for an A?” A voice from the hallway, Cynthia turns, and the redhead peeks from behind her nearly closed door.
“I did not,” Imeld says.
“She didn’t,” Cynthia says, staring at the redhead through the slit of her door. “We’re Floor Two, anyway.”
“Well, there were ten As this week,” Ms. Tuttle says, her voice thick with sympathy.
“Ten. Hungry girlies, I should say.” Ms. Glennoc adjusts her burden again, shifting from foot to foot.
“You should say so, indeed, Ms. Glennoc.” Ms. Tuttle nods.
“I can’t stand here all day, Ms. Tuttle,” Ms. Glennoc says.
“Right. Time to be off, girls.”
Imeld swallows and Cynthia hears the click of dry flesh against dry tongue. “If there were ten …”
“Then we are coming right back, girly. My back will give me hell even if the next one is skin and bone,” Ms. Glennoc says.
Ms. Tuttle steps to her companion, hand raised, and brings her palm across the taller Woman’s face. The sound is like wet cloth against tile. Both Women are still for a moment, Ms. Glennoc holding on to Mei with both hands, her cheek blossoming into an angry red.
“Say sorry, Ms. Glennoc.”
The Women stare at one another and Cynthia wishes for nothing more than to sink through the floor and into her own Apartment, to pull the old rug from the kitchen and wrap herself in it as she lay on her mattress. The thought of the rug causes her to once again find the
dark O of Mie’s mouth through the plastic wrap. She looks away.
“Ms. Tuttle,” Ms. Glennoc begins.
“Make your manners,” Ms. Tuttle says through bared teeth. Again, a moment of silence.
“I say sorry, girlies. I say sorry, Ms. Tuttle. Now, let me by,” the taller Woman says, her voice thick and clotted.
“Good. Let her by now, girls.”
It is perhaps the smell of Ms. Glennoc that forces Cynthia away more than Ms. Tuttle’s order. The Woman smells hot, like black oil baking on raw steel. Both Imeld and Cynthia step away, the rug catching Cynthia’s foot and causing her to stumble. “She took ten As,” a voice
says, the voice leaking from behind a door barely held open. “Ten. That’s two of us.” Ms. Glennoc moves fast, her legs pumping, and her shod feet heavy against the raw wood of the hallway. Ms. Tuttle follows. She stops for a moment, reaching out to Imeld, dropping something small and white into Cynthia’s friend’s hand.
“If things are a little unreasonable, this will help a bit. Off you go.” She pats Imeld’s shoulder, her hand awkward and loose.
The Women retreat to the stairway, Ms. Glennoc bent beneath Mei’s wrapped body. They whisper to one another, Glennoc’s voice hot, Tuttle’s voice bitterly cool. The stairs speak beneath their feet as the Women climb to the final floor.
“You took ten As,” a girl steps from her doorway, her brown face twisted, her own teeth visible.
“She did, I heard Ms. Tuttle say so.” The redhead slips from her own doorway. Within a moment the hall is filled with girls.
“We’re from floor two,” Cynthia says. “We’re not from three.”
“Maybe they changed the rules,” a girl says. Her eyes wide, poisoned.
“They would have told us,” Imeld says as she glances into her palm.
The redhead holds up her hand. “I smell it!” she says, triumph in her voice. A short girl with a flat face grabs the redhead’s wrist. She brings the girl’s fingers to her nose. “I do, too.” A hiss moves through the hallway and Cynthia reaches out for Imeld.
“That was a B, Cinnie had a B. A floor two B. Nothing from floor three.”
“I smell it,” the redhead says again as she stares at Cynthia, “I held your hand and I smelled it on you.”
“I had a B,” Cynthia says, her voice shivering in her throat.
“She admits it,” a girl says.
“She said a B,” Imeld shouts, and the girls flinch in unison.
“A B is just as bad,” the flat face girl says. Cynthia can see blue veins running the length of the girl’s thin neck.
“Which one did it?” A voice from the back, fingers are pointed.
“You know what’s coming,” a girl says.
“You smelled a B, just a B ration. We’re from floor two, don’t be so stupid.” Imeld points at the redhead and the redhead seizes her hand. She sniffs violently at Imeld before Cynthia’s friend can pull her hand free.
“I don’t smell anything on that one,” the redhead says. The hall grows silent and the girls turn to Cynthia.
“It takes 25 Bs,” she says, tears breaking her voice. “I just had one. I just had one,” she says, and the girls move. They are not fast, they don’t need to be. Imeld tries to shout, tries to pull them away, but just like the girl who hid behind her door, Cynthia knows what will happen.
It’s the same on every floor. It’s the same anywhere.
They push her down, a girl sitting on her back, another holding her right hand against the floor. A third girl struggles with Cynthia’s left hand, Imeld desperately trying to hold her back.
“Don’t fight, okay?” she says to Imeld. The girls might hurt her, too, might kill her if she keeps fighting them. “You hold me, okay? Will you let her hold me?”
The girls of floor three look to one another and finally the redhead nods. Imeld is crying but she holds Cynthia’s left elbow down, her fingers gentle and cool.
“Everybody gets a turn,” the redhead says. The girls begin to form their queue.
“Eat this,” Imeld says, pressing something to Cynthia’s lips. “Ms. Tuttle, she gave …”
The first girl in the queue, the girl with the flat face, misses Cynthia’s hand, her heel instead crushing Cynthia’s thumb.
Pain, so much at once. Cynthia remembers the girl she held down in the hallway of floor two, remembers how the girl was silent for so long. She can hear herself screaming and feels Imeld’s fingers in her mouth.
Bitterness blossoms on her tongue. Slowly, lightning courses down her throat. What was it? What did Ms. Tuttle give Imeld?
The next blow is muted, still bright, still liquid red, but the bones that break do so at a distance. After the seventh heel, she is gone somewhere dark, somewhere crimson.
Cody T Luff’s forthcoming novel, Ration, will be released by Apex Book Company in 2019. Cody’s stories have appeared in Pilgrimage, Cirque, KYSO Flash, Menda City Review, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, and others. He is fiction winner of the 2016 Montana Book Festival Regional Emerging Writers Contest. He served as editor of an anthology of short fiction with twelve contributors titled Soul’s Road.
Cody teaches at Portland Community College and works as a story editor. He completed an intensive MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Cody grew up listening to stories in his grandfather’s barber shop as he shined shoes, stories told to him at bedsides and on front porches, deep in his father’s favorite woods, and in the cabs of pickup trucks on lonely dirt roads. Cody’s work explores those things both small and wondrous that move the soul, whether they be deeply real or strikingly surreal.