This piece was originally inspired by Here’s the Setup, a podcast where the creators pitch an idea for a story, video game, project, or more in five minute episodes. Episode 21, Matches, features a world like ours, except that people have discovered that striking a match will summon a tiny demon who can do the summoner a favor. Both the demons and the favors are small, but what effect would that have over time on us as people and the choices we’d make?
I was really interested in exploring humanity’s potential dependence on the matches in this scenario. In particular, if a match could theoretically only lead to one favor at a time, what would happen when your match supply became limited, and you had to start making tough personal choices? That question became the baseline for this story.
Thanks again to Here’s the Setup for providing the idea!
Ava has been on her own so long, she doesn’t recognize the sound at first. It’s long, low-pitched wail, like what she imagines a moose, or some other large creature, would sound like if it caught its leg in a trap.
For a brief, shining moment, she thinks maybe that’s what happened. And excitement fills her heart, because while moose might not be her first choice, a meal is a meal.
But then something clicks in her brain, and the sounds morph from something vaguely animalistic to something fully human.
She crouches low in the trees, her fingers going to the matchbook in her pocket. She tries to remember how many were left. Three? Maybe two. God, she hopes it’s at least two.
But whoever it is doesn’t come surging through the trees, gun in hand, ready to steal the matches and then shoot her in the throat for good measure. In fact, nothing happens at all.
Ava creeps through the trees toward the source of the sound, the fallen snow and dead leaves crunching under her boots. Her entire body hurts after weeks of sleeping on the rocky ground, and her feet throb from the miles she’s put behind her. She can’t remember the last time she saw a mirror, but she can tell she’s all lean muscle and hard edges now. Her clothes hang loose on her body, and whenever she touches her face, her cheekbones feel sharp enough to cut glass.
She doesn’t know why she’s seeking out another person. At best, another person means another mouth to feed. At worst, it means more blood on her already filthy hands.
It’s information, she thinks. If there’s a threat nearby, she needs to know. But it’s curiosity, too. It’s been weeks since she fled the burning city and disappeared into the mountains, weeks since she’s talked to anyone other than the squirrels and the birds and sometimes herself, just to feel less alone. The moment she realized the cries were human, the need to talk to someone else, anyone else, burned fiercely in her chest, and she knew she couldn’t have changed course even if she’d wanted to.
She finds the source of the noise at the top of the hill. A man is sprawled out on his back on the ground, his bright red coat like a giant drop of blood against the snow. His dark hair is mostly shot through with gray. His leg is twisted at angle that makes bile rise in her throat.
He’s facing away from her, but he uses his good leg to kick out against the ground, trying to turn himself toward the sound of her footsteps. “Oh, thank god! Please, whoever you are, I need help!”
Chills run down her spine. She knows that voice.
“You see, I fell, and I think my leg is broken. Do you have anything, medicine or—or food? I can pay.” His fingers, sweaty and shaking, search his coat for his wallet.
She debates just walking away, melting into the forest like she was never there. Letting him fend for himself. But there’s a part of her, twisted and hard like a broken piece of metal, that won’t let her.
Instead, her feet take her closer, to where he can crane his neck up and see her face.
“Oh, thank you, thank—” he starts to say. But he cuts himself off, recognition dawning in his eyes. His face goes pale.
“Mr. Kellner,” says Ava, taking another step closer. “It’s been a long time.”
“T-too long,” he stammers. He suddenly sounds out of breath. “So good to see you, Ava. How’s your father?”
“He’s dead. Car accident.”
His eyes close, and he swallows hard before answering. “I’m so sorry.”
“Are you?” Ava’s voice is like ice on a frozen lake. “You weren’t sorry when you took his promotion and then had him fired from the factory. Why would you be sorry about this?”
“No, no, it wasn’t like that! I never meant for those things to happen like that, I swear. Actually, in a way I sort of did him a favor, if you think about it,” Kellner babbles. Sweat beads on his forehead. “When the news broke about the matches, and what they could do, well—it was chaos! Everyone bought or stole them off the shelves, and when there weren’t any more, they came for the factories. You wouldn’t believe the violence. Most of our production workers died right on the lines. At least, you know, I helped spare him that much.”
Ava just watches him. She keeps her face expressionless, but inside her anger builds higher and higher, like flames threatening to swallow a building.
“I was up in my office when they came. Knocked the doors clean off their hinges, killed anyone who got in their way. Then loaded up the trucks and drove off. I barely escaped with my life.” He shudders. His fingers clamp down on his injured leg, and his face spasms with pain.
“Really? Because the local news had footage of you grabbing as many boxes as you could carry, loading them into your car, and driving off before the mobs reached the factory.” Her nose is running in the cold air, and she wipes it on her sleeve. “Looks like you must have run into some trouble since then.”
“Oh, er, right. I did come into some matches, it’s true. Was living the good life too, at least for a while. But I was attacked one night while I was asleep, and they took them all.” He looks at her with dismay. “They left me with nothing.”
“How tragic.” Ava’s voice drips with sarcasm.
“It’s a nightmare out there, Ava. Most people have fled the cities. Denver’s a ghost town.”
“Fled from what? The demons?”
“No!” He looks stunned. “The foreign armies.”
Ava frowns. She’s not actually sure how much time has passed since she found her father’s wrecked truck on the side of the highway. She was never quite sure why, but a group of vandals had been certain he was carrying matches, and they’d run him off the road. After she’d taken care of them and pilfered their matches, she’d fled into the mountains, her wounds still fresh and blood sticky in her hair. Maybe it happened three weeks ago? Maybe four? She’s lost track of time out here, and her phone died in the first couple of days. “What foreign armies?”
“It’s all falling apart. Someone lights a match down the hall from a world leader, and suddenly that leader’s drinking poisoned wine. Members of the governments are slipping and falling to their deaths, tripping on inconveniently-placed sharp objects, or just plain getting shot while the demons distract the guards. Vehicles filled with soldiers mysteriously lose their wheels or go over cliffs. The coups are constant. It’s why I came up here.”
Ava hesitates. She knows better than to trust information from this man, but he’s the only source of information she has. “What about the coal mining towns up in these mountains? I heard a few people were heading that way.”
He bites his lip against the pain, shakes his head. “I just came from up the mountain. Gone, all of them, probably weeks ago. Chaos took them over, or refugees overwhelmed ‘em. Not much left, I’m afraid.”
Ava’s shoulders sink. She finds a nearby fallen log and sits down heavily, her bones heavy with exhaustion. “Not a lot of options left for us.”
“Afraid not, dear.” He props himself up on his elbows, his eyes clenched in pain. “Now, do you have any medical supplies, or maybe some food? Seems there’s no one left on this mountainside but me and you.” He laughs, but there’s no mirth in it.
Ava pulls her matchbook out of her pocket. Instantly Kellner’s face brightens. “Wonderful! You can strike those and summon us some help. Have the little demons build me a splint from the fallen branches, maybe? Ooh, and have them bring us some dinner, and some painkillers? Wherever’s closest, whatever they can find,” he adds, as though he’s worrying about troubling the demons.
She flips the lid of the matchbook back, revealing a single match.
“Oh, just one left. One’s good, sure. Yes, that’ll do just fine,” he says, not bothering to hide his disappointment. “Nourishment is our most immediate need, I suppose. Go ahead.”
But Ava’s not listening to him. She’s looking hard at the one match in the book.
One match could mean one meal, or one more night of warmth in a shelter she doesn’t have to spend half the night building herself. It could be one more weapon she could use to defend herself. One tank of gas, if she can make it to the next gas station on foot and find an abandoned vehicle.
She tells herself not to think it, that it would be a waste. That getting emotional out here, in an unforgiving place like this, means maybe you don’t survive. But none of that stops the thought from flashing through her mind:
One match, one tiny pair of demon hands clamping like a bear trap around Kellner’s throat. One chance at revenge.
Kellner seems to sense what she’s thinking. “Come on now, Ava. Let’s hurry up and get ourselves situated before dark, don’t you think?” His voice quivers. His words echo in the cold air, bouncing off the trees and melting together, until it sounds like a group of Kellners are all vying for her attention.
One more meal. And then what about tomorrow? She doesn’t think he’s lying about the mountain towns going under. He has no reason to, not when he could bargain directions in exchange for help.
“Ava, please,” urges Kellner. His skin has a gone sickly shade of gray. “You don’t have to use the match. Let’s just talk some more.”
The man who took her father’s job just to get ahead, plunging her family into years of poverty they never fully recovered from. Of course it would be the two of them on this mountaintop. She’s not sure if she wants to laugh at the universe or scream curse words at the sky until she’s blue in the face.
Even if you overlook what he did to her family before the demons started appearing, Kellner is a liar, that much is abundantly clear to her. He certainly skimmed over his side of the story. How many people got hurt when he stole the matches from the factory? The news had said the doors were locked with employees sealed inside until the mobs arrived. How many people did he leave to die? How many deaths has he caused since then?
The world doesn’t need men like him. Not that it sounds like there’s going to be a world for much longer, anyway.
Ava removes the match from the book, holds it up to her eyes. The tiny match head reminds her of a cherry, the kind she and her father used to pick in the orchard every summer when the sun was high and the air was hot. He’d take a day off work and they’d fill an entire bag full. Then they’d bake the cherries into pies, and they’d eat the extras afterward by the handful until their stomachs were bursting and the tartness brought laughing tears to their eyes.
“Ava, I’m sorry,” Kellner begs.
She looks him in the eyes. Her anger is cold now, but sharper, like liquid steel. “I know you are.”
She strikes the match.