The most common question I get, as a writer, is “where do you get your ideas?” I suppose that many writers would say the same thing.
In the case of my Christmas story Matches, the inspiration came from two places—the wonderful, yet often poignant, fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the plight of the homeless.
My Matches is my humble homage to Andersen’s heartbreakingly beautiful tale The Little Match Girl. If you’ve never read it, I suggest you do, and have a box of Kleenex handy. It’s beautiful, tragic, and utterly amazing.
And…I have a passion for the homeless. I do volunteer work here in Seattle with homeless youth and I know just how easily it can be to fall into this space most of us would rather not believe is there. There’s such a flimsy curtain between being secure and homelessness that it’s frightening—and that’s what I tried to show in my story. All it took for my main character, Anderson, to go from security and a home was a lost job and a couple of missed rent checks.
With those things in mind, I wanted to create a story that reminded us of our gifts this holiday season and the misfortune of those who are all around us who aren’t as lucky as we are.
While my story, like Hans Christian Andersen’s, could be deemed tragic, I think it has a rather beautiful—and happy—ending. I hope you’ll read it for yourself and see if you don’t agree.
Blurb: A poignant gay twist on the beloved Hans Christian Andersen classic, “The Little Match Girl”…
Christmas Eve should be a night filled with magic and love. But for Anderson, down on his luck and homeless in Chicago’s frigid chill, it’s a fight for survival. Whether he’s sleeping on the el, or holed up in an abandoned car, all he really has are his memories to keep him warm: memories of a time when he loved a man named Welk and the world was perfect. When Anderson finds a book of discarded matches on the sidewalk, he pockets them. Later, trying to keep the cold at bay hunkered down in a church entryway, Anderson discovers the matches are the key to bringing his memories of Welk, happiness, and security to life. Within their flames, visions dance and perhaps a reunion with the man he loved most.
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Excerpt: There were lots of people walking past him right this very minute, many weighted down with shopping bags from Macy’s or Nordstrom. Surely they could spare a dollar or two so he could ride the el and get out of the cold.
But not one of them saw him. Not one of them would give him so much as a moment’s eye contact to open the door, so he could ask the question.
He could root through a trashcan or Dumpster, hoping to find a CTA transit pass someone had discarded with money still on it. But what were the odds?
Another train rumbled overheard. Anderson shook with the chill. It must be close to zero out here, he thought. And the snow is coming down heavier.
Anderson headed north, walking up Michigan Avenue. He turned right and took metal stairs down to Grand Avenue, where he knew there was a subway stop. At least he could get out of the cold and the snow, which was coming down now so heavily, Anderson could barely see where he was going. Perhaps someone in the station would be kind enough to give him a Christmas present of a train ride.
Anderson made his way down the stairs into the Grand Avenue subway station, the mildew smell of the station rising up as he descended. A rush of commuters passed him going up; a train must have just discharged them. People edged by, giving him as wide a berth as possible. Just as he neared the bottom, a young woman with short black hair, wearing a down coat trimmed in fur, stumbled on the concrete stairs. She dropped her purse and its contents spilled out. Anderson paused and spotted the makeup, the few dollar bills—and a CTA transit card. A part of him told him to grab it and run, that she could well afford another one. If there was enough money stored on the card, it could get him through a good part of the winter.
But no matter how cold it got, no matter how much snow fell, no matter how well the woman could afford to buy another card, Anderson couldn’t do it. He just didn’t have it in him to steal.
He reached down to help her gather her things and she recoiled, gasping at the sight of him and scooting back and away. “That’s okay!” she said, quickly lowering her gaze to hurriedly pick up the things she had dropped.
It hurt Anderson to see the fear and disgust in her eyes.
In the station, Anderson didn’t know what to do. To access the platform, you had to have a card. Sure, he could jump the turnstiles and risk getting arrested; he had seen it done. Some got away with it, more didn’t.
Like stealing the woman on the stair’s transit pass, it simply wasn’t within Anderson to do something criminal.
Among the straggling commuters, Anderson spied an old woman who looked kindly. Perhaps she would take pity on him. With her upsweep of gray hair, her sensible wool coat, rubber boots, and hand-crocheted scarf, she appeared kindly, reminding Anderson of his own late grandmother. There was something lively and warm in her pale blue eyes.
Anderson stepped in front of her and smiled. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
The woman stopped, regarding him.
“I hate to ask, but I need to get on the train and, honestly, I don’t have a dime to my name.” Anderson thought for a moment and came up with a small white lie. “I need to get to the south side, where my family is.” He smiled again. “It’s Christmas.”
The woman didn’t say anything.
“Do you think you could spare a couple dollars so I could ride?” Anderson gnawed at his lower lip, hating the position circumstance and the economy had put him in.
“Get the hell out of my way,” the woman said quietly, edging by him. She called over her shoulder, “Get a job, why don’t you?”
Anderson was taken aback by the coldness and the almost-hatred in her voice. It was so unexpected and so unnecessarily cruel.
Anderson felt the bright sting of tears at the corner of his eyes. His shoulders slumped. He was about to turn and leave the station when a young guy, about his own age, came up to him. Once upon a time, Anderson would have thought he was cute, and if he had opened the door a little, Anderson might have flirted with him. But now his only reaction was—what now?
“What a bitch,” the man said, his gaze roaming over to where the old woman was mounting the stairs. He reached into the pocket of his worn denim jacket that looked too thin for the weather and pulled out a transit card. He held it out to Anderson. “Take it. There’s only one ride left on there. I wish I could give you more, but I’m pretty strapped myself.”
Tentatively, Anderson reached for the card. “Are you sure you can spare this?”
“I wouldn’t have offered it to you if I couldn’t.” He wiggled the hand holding the card. “Go on.”
Anderson took it, wondering if some guardian angel, or even Welk, was looking out for him.
“It’s nothin’. Merry Christmas.”
Anderson swallowed hard, feeling a lump in his throat. “Merry Christmas to you too.”
The guy turned and headed up the stairs, out into the snow.
And Anderson moved toward the turnstiles.
The card worked.
Author Bio: Rick R. Reed is all about exploring the romantic entanglements of gay men in contemporary, realistic settings. While his stories often contain elements of suspense, mystery and the paranormal, his focus ultimately returns to the power of love. He is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and short stories. He is a three-time EPIC eBook Award winner (for Caregiver, Orientation and The Blue Moon Cafe). Raining Men and Caregiver have both won the Rainbow Award for gay fiction. Lambda Literary Review has called him, “a writer that doesn’t disappoint.” Rick lives in Seattle with his husband and a very spoiled Boston terrier. He is forever “at work on another novel.”
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