“Aw mom, I don’t want this!” Ilana protested as her mother handed her the learning uniform. She was supposed to wear it every day, complete with the white, clean T-shirt and cotton skirt, but Ilana had decided not to wear it from the very first day of learning. She got her family a deduction from their rations for that, but that didn’t stop Ilana. Eventually, no one really cared anymore, so she had been wearing with the white shirt black, faded leggings that had become too small. But now, her mother insisted she wear her learning uniform. As if on cue, leader Rebecca’s monotonous but sharp and strong voice rang through the city’s speakers.
“An announcement for all those who pick their careers today. You are all to wear your learning uniforms for the draw. Anyone who does not follow will have their rations reduced to half. That is all.”
“See, Ilana, unless you want to miss supper for the week, just wear it! The only thing you’ll do in this skirt is pick a slip of paper from a bag.”
Ilana relented and picked up the crumpled skirt and glared at the general direction of the speaker. “Look away,” she snapped at her mother since there wasn’t exactly a concealed space to change, and then instantly felt sorry and apologized. She slipped her legs in and jumped back on her bed.
“Mom, what if I get some kind of boring job? I’ll die if I get something like library helper. Helen became a library helper last year and she said you only see books, all day, every day! All I want is, oh, anything outdoors, or substitute! It’s the best thing ever! Different jobs to take over every day... Except if I have to substitute for library helper! Eww!”
“You’ll be fine, Ilana. You’ll be fine. Why don’t you go a bit early for the morning switch? You’ll have some time to catch up with Vanessa before everyone else comes out at 7o’clock. In fact, let’s all go a bit early today. Dear! Let’s switch!” Ilana’s mother called out to her husband.
They hurriedly gathered their flimsy windbreakers and walked out, then separated with a goodbye and good luck for the day. Ilana skipped along the narrow, straight and gray pathway. She turned left to find her group’s waiting line. She crept along for the right timing, then sprung up and slapped her friend on the back.
“Hey, Vanessa! You ready for today?” She shouted. Vanessa spun around instantly, about to scream, when she saw Ilana.
“Oh my god! Ilana! You have to stop doing that! If you get caught doing that to random people in front of a lawguard, they’ll put you down for something stupid like... I don’t know... Society disruption?”
“Come on, Vanessa. You’re not a random person. Besides, you know most of the lawguards aren’t that strict.” Ilana said with a smile, but then Vanessa looked from side to side and, checking that no one was overhearing their conversation, lowered her voice and whispered.
“You know the new lawguard that came last week? He put Claire’s father into labor camp for two weeks, apparently because he ‘whistled noisily among the streets, making few passers frown, then spat on the street. Goes under crime of disorder- leading act, first rate.’”
“What? Claire’s dad? That’s crazy!”
“Not to them it’s not. To them, the law’s the law and no one can get by.”
“Them? Not all of them are like that! Well, most of them aren’t, except for that one crazy lawguard!” Ilana was practically shouting by now.
“Shh! For goodness’ sake, Ilana! What if a lawguard hears you?”
“Vanessa, you know lawguards aren’t out yet, at least not around here, in this corner.”
“Ilana, haven’t you heard? Leader Rebecca wrote another law. She said too many islanders are getting away with breaking the rules as long as lawguards aren’t around. If anyone finds a neighbor breaking the law, from now on, they’re to report to the government. The ‘criminal’ will be punished, and the reporter gets to choose between double ration or an afternoon off work.”
“My friends won’t betray me just for some scraps of food or some rest!”
“Yeah? Ilana, do you really think so? People aren’t so... pure. Everyone’s clouded with stress and greed. Life is what made people selfish, and it’s not a dreamland. We should be feeling lucky that we’ve survived the war at all! And even such a clueless person like you should know about all the government’s doing to protect us.”
At this, Ilana looked down, became silent and did not answer for a while. Her cheerful laugh was replaced by a serious look. Her lips parted as if to say something, hesitated, then closed again. Her eyes came up to meet Vanessa’s, and she answered.
“Vanessa, have you ever doubted... all... this? How we’re living like slaves to the government? They beat us into order. The life of every islander is work, work, and work until you die. And what do we get? A tiny fraction of the things we produce?”
Vanessa’s shocked eyes grew wider as she listened, almost looking scared. Her mouth gaped open, and she shoved Ilana back. She spoke fiercely, with a hush.
“Ilana, you’re crazy. You’re just crazy. You... You’re going to get yourself killed! To doubt the government after all they’re doing to protect us from the outside world? After all they’re doing to keep us alive? After all those years they’ve provided food, a place to live in, clothes,... Life?”
“What are they protecting us from, though? What’s outside that it’s so dangerous even to go there? I bet there’s more space to cram us into, at least! They said everything outside is waste from The War and not a single living soul is out there! Besides, where does all the stuff we produce go? We only eat, what, ten percent of everything? Where does the rest go? And why can’t they tell us about the government if all they do is so nice? Let them brag more about the angelic things that go on in there!”
Vanessa’s eyes shuffled from side to side, then finally fixed on Ilana. Shock was in her eyes as they nearly burst into tears at her friend’s sudden change in attitude. She started shaking her head, trembling, muttering. After a few steps backward, she turned her back and ran away with a final mumble- “You’re crazy.”
And then Ilana was left alone, on the gray, narrow street, watching as her friend disappeared around the corner. In a few minutes, it would be morning switch, and C.G.W.sch-22, Dana, would be here along with everyone else. Including Vanessa, who would have no choice but to follow. But that thought didn’t stop her from feeling that she had just poured out everything in her mind, expecting her friend to fill it again with warm reassurances or even some backbite at the government, but finding it empty instead.