I love the idea and the character of the little girl - but I was trying to fit it into short story format as per the course I've been doing, and it just wouldn't go. The ending isn't right and I had loads more ideas around this story that I think would make it something a bit more lengthy. Would appreciate any feedback!
Short story homework, unfinished
Josie jumped at the sudden sound. She had been absent-mindedly shuffling along in the queue for over an hour, which wasn’t as long as usual but in the damp November twilight it was long enough.
The human centipede of a queue wriggled and writhed with the fidget of stamping feet. Hungry people sheltered against empty shop fronts for the memory of warmth they once offered. Like every other High Street in the country, it had long since died.
Shop signs had been flipped to ‘closed’ in every window, fancy displays looted by the Revolutionaries. Stark red sale banners still hung like party flags, warnings of a calamity no one had wanted to hear.
A few people in the queue could remember going to those sales, thinking they’d grabbed themselves a bargain. But not Josie Whyte. At the time of the Final Crash she was “knee high to a chromosome” as her scientist dad would joke. Even though he used to be something high up in the government health department, they had to queue like everyone else.
It was starting to get dark. “We’re lucky,” Josie’s dad had told her one day, before he got too weak to queue with her. “This old town still has gas lit lamps. Fancy doing this in the dark?” She shuddered. It looked pretty dark to her as it was. The flickering light cast a damp mud glow over the rows of figures, each with a ghost of their own breath for company.
Most people came alone – it wasn’t worth a whole family catching cold for half a loaf and a tin of condensed milk. Josie wasn’t the only child, but at nine-and-three-quarters she was one of the youngest.
She knew she wouldn’t see the other kids today, because she had got here early especially. Now here she was, next in line. Dad would be pleased.
“Straight there and back now,” he had warned, pressing the tokens firmly into her mitten-clad hands. “I’ll be watching the clock.” He said it cheerfully, but she knew he was worried. It had been weeks since he last had his medicine and his cough was getting worse. Today was Delivery Day. She had to get some medicine, or they would be waiting another month and then who knows what would happen.
The ration station was an old chemist’s. She walked up to the high counter, where a flustered woman in the government issued uniform was counting ration coupons and attacking them noisily with a rubber stamp.
Apparently she couldn’t see Josie, who had to jump up and grip onto the edge of the slippery white counter with both her hands. Her mittens dangled at her sides from the string inside her smock coat. The one thing her mother had knitted her before she died.
“I need my dad’s medicine please.”
“No medicine today, Missy. Can I get ye anything else?”
Josie nearly lost her grip in shock, but pulled herself up again, wide eyes just peaking over the counter at the woman’s smocked breast and the pile of coupons in front of her.
The stamp swooped past Josie’s nose and made her blink as it landed.
She had to speak. She had to do something.
“We saw it. On the ration newsletter. It said today was delivery day?”
The woman put down the rubber stamp and peered at her little customer over her reading glasses.
“And who be the ‘we’, if yous don’t mind me asking?”
“Me and my dad. He’s sick. He needs medicine. It said there was a delivery today. I came early, especially.”
The stamp woman’s expression softened and she glanced up, for the first time that day noticing the cloying mist swirling around the door. Was it getting dark already? She sighed and rubbed her face with her hands.
“Ye came on yus own?”
Two wide eyes nodded. Josie clung on, the tips of her fingers now white and hurting from the effort.
People were shouting from outside.
“What’s the hold up?”
“Get a move on, some of us want to be home before dark.”
“I tell ye what child, I’ll do you a deal,” said the stamp woman, looking at Josie’s whitening knuckles. “But first, come round here, or you’ll do yeself and injury and I don’t need that just before rush hour.”
Relief gushed through Josie’s veins along with the blood to her numb fingers as she let herself drop back down to floor level. Pins and needles flooded into her arms. She made a mental note to ask her dad what pins and needles was, trotted round the counter to the bit where part of it lifted up, mounted a step and came face to face with the stamp woman’s whole body. Most of it was covered with her smock, but Josie could see a nice skirt underneath and proper shoes. She must get paid alright, thought Josie. Everyone else had worn through nearly every pair of boots, and it was not even half way through the winter.
The woman crouched down and took Josie’s hands in hers. Instinctively, Josie withdrew them and clutched the tokens to her chest. The woman laughed.
“Come on now, I’m not going to swizzle ye. I just want to see how much you’ve got.”
She smiled and Josie thought it might be OK.
“Have you got any medicine?”
“You’re a determined one aren’t ye?” She held out her hand. “Show me the money and we’ll see if we can’t help ye, and your pappy too.”
More shouts came from outside and there was scuffling. Josie knew she was pushing her luck already and that if people rushed in the woman would forget all about her and shut up shop to stop the looters getting in.
Slowly, carefully, she held out one hand and uncurled her fingers. The coupons were squashed and damp from being held under her sweaty mittens.
Still looking Josie straight in the face, the woman slowly and carefully picked up the notes.
She thumbed through them. “Ten, twenty, thirty…my! Where’s your pappy live, eh? Wouldn’t I like to know.”
Josie shifted nervously on the spot.
“Can I have the medicine now?”
The woman jumped up without warning, nearly bashing Josie on the chin. She stumbled backwards off the step onto the shop floor, only just keeping her balance. The woman was back behind the counter with her stamp.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
“It’s someone else’s turn now. Race home to pappy now and not say a word, if ye know what’s good for ye.”
Josie stood, dumbstruck, on the pale shop floor, her face ashen in the low energy bulb light.
She ran out into the damp November night, pushing her way through the cold but somehow warm legs of the people scrambling to get through the door, hot tears mingling with the ice cold mist which stung her face. She sobbed. Was it true? Had it really happened? As she ran, visions hung in the fog around her and she batted them away with her flailing arms, to no avail.
Red flapping sale signs were floating down, down, down onto a bed where her coughing father tossed and turned, moaning with pain and despair: “Josie! Josie! My Josie-Jo! What have you done to me?” She couldn’t bear his sad face, his hacking lungs, gasping for breath…she tried to reach out to him but he was drowning under the red banners which fell faster and faster…now they were turning to giant notes like the ones she’d seen in pictures with the Queen’s head on…strange, bodiless hands appeared from every angle clutching and grasping in vain at the notes as they fluttered midair.
Defeated, Josie fell to the ground, the vision evaporating into the mist.
She wept, hearing the brutal STAMP! of the woman as though it was right above her. Somewhere in the distance another victim presented their coupons to be stamped.
“Can I help ye?”