I decided to attempt The Little Match Girl with a zombie apocalypse twist, after Chuck Wendig’s challenge last week. Fairytales, so delightful. So here it is.
Chloe was down to the last three boxes of matches. It was only three boxes, but Chloe knew that three boxes was not the same as no boxes to her father. Those boxes were the difference between a pat on the head and yet another beating. She didn’t have much flesh left on her now to cushion those blows, not since Father had lost his job and there had been so little to eat. He always smelt like brew now. And he was always angry.
Chloe was the eldest and the one fairest of face. He never hit that, said it was her best hope. But the fog rumbled in off the river, and in the dark and the cold, no one looked at her or stopped for a moment to buy. She’d tailed after several gentlemen who had the tang of pipe smoke about their persons. A woman who was clearly the head of a household had brusquely brushed her aside.
Pulling her rags tightly about her, Chloe snuck into the dark corner of a crumbling step and sat, her big owl-like eyes watching the square, the little pools of streetlights reflected in them. The stone’s chill stole into her bones, shaking them pitifully. Chloe toyed with one of the matchboxes. If she said she lost some of the money, would her father be as angry? She’d be better just not to go home.
With her shaking fingers, she lit a match, enjoying the dancing of the light on the end of the stick. It warmed the tips, and the light made her remember her grandmother, who had held her on her knee and knitted her clothes. She missed her. Chloe felt sleepy and surprisingly warm.
The light flickered and suddenly she could see her grandmother sitting by the fire. And that willowy figure, her hand on Grandmother’s shoulder. They turned to her, and she could see their faces that she’d imagined so many times since they’d left her life. The kindnesses, the softness Her mother held out her hand, inviting her in.
With a soft sigh, the flame extinguished. Chloe’s hands shook badly and it took her many tries to light another. She tucked herself further into the corner, behind the archway of the building, watching the match light.
“Mama,” she breathed through her blue lips.
The match dropped and went out on the cold stone, the bright light gone from Chloe’s little corner.
Under the cover of the fog, no one noticed the small body wavering through the streets. Many of the good people of Copenhaegen were warm in their beds. Her step was unsteady, halting and shuffling. She wended her way through slick cobbled streets, slipping and falling along the way. The small injuries did not seem to bother her, and she would just get slowly up again.
Eventually, she returned to the slums, where the houses were falling down, untended, their minimal comfort and protection reviled. What use was it to rebuild that which was already decaying.
Down a small back alley, the air heady with the stench of human and animal piss, she came to a battered and incomplete wooden door. It creaked as it opened and the little figure crossed the threshold. Heavy steps charged to the door and an equally heavy hand slammed against her, buckling her to the floor.
“Wherrre have you been?” His words were slurred, his eyes glazed. He towered over her but dragged her by the arm to the main room, slamming the door so that the whole structure shuddered.
He pulled her in and shook her. “You didn’t sell all them matches, did you?” The remaining boxes dropped on the floor, the open box spilling across the stone floor.
“Three?” The strain of his anger made his voice high-pitched. “And you opened one. What good is that?”
He backhanded her, and she crumpled against the wall. Her hand scrabbled unseeing against the floor, her hands clasping the thin sticks. With a barely coordinated movement, she lit a match. The growl from the corner as her father saw the flame was not fast enough for her toss of the match. As she repeated the movement, he was dragging her up by her hair and the next match dropped to the floor.
It was then he looked at his little girl, at the blue lips and the deadened eyes. At the hand that could be made of ice holding on to his wrist.
Her voice was like the whistle of the wind through a chink in the bricks. “Hello Father. I’m home.”
She swung across to his arm, and the sound of her hair ripping from her scalp was like a ripping wet towel. Her teeth sunk in, and he dropped her. She slithered away out of his vision.
Smoke was rising from the wall paper, too long dry and peeling. The edges were blackening, cinders were floating past his eyes. He heard the children coming bleary-eyed down the stairs.
“Outside!” He ordered, ignoring that their nightgowns were so thin and their feet uncovered. The two little girls held hands and did as commanded. They knew better than not to.
The man stumbled around in the smoking house, shoving furniture out of the way, and muttering angrily. His arm throbbed and he could feel a trickle of blood down his arm. The smoke was getting thicker, and he felt unsteady. He crashed into a wall and started coughing. He went towards the door. Damn the girl. She’d bit him. She was no good to him anymore, not selling all the matches.
He was trying to remember where the door was, when a small hand clamped around his ankle.
“Don’t leave me Father.”
He looked down. At her smile, filled with blood, gap-toothed where he’d knocked out some of her teeth, her hair and some scalp hanging askew. Her cold, dark eyes looked up at him. He tried to kick her off, but he was getting sluggish and tired. He stumbled and fell. He scrabbled on the floor, but he was too drunk and the fumes were too thick.
As he coughed and the fire took hold in the old timbers of the house, his head turned. He could just make out her silhouette, a dark shape through the smoke ringed by the flickering of flames. It was just then he heard her voice, as his eyelids grew heavy and fluttered closed.
“Oh Father. For the first time in so long, I’m warm…”