Out in the cold, in the streets, people walked by and tried their best to ignore her. The snow crunched underneath their boots and they watched their phones and hurried to get home. It was dark, the last night of the year.
She tried to get one of the busy corners, but they were occupied by the street urchins, five year-olds with overly snot and attitude, they had pushed her on the wall once already. Her back still hurt.
So, she took a corner where it was windy, she could see the snow blowing sideways in the streetlamps. She could not feel her face, so cold it was, but she didn’t dare go back home without selling her matches.
They were not actual matches, nobody needed those anymore. They were single-use AR experiences, bought and seen once, a novelty of old. Before the endless repeats and the streaming of anything you might wish for at that instant.
She held the memory sticks in her hand. Her gloves didn’t do much, for they were frailed and thin. Her scarf smelled like barf. She had one of her own but the urchins stole it from her, even though it was girly and colourful. The urchin might have had a girlfriend to give it to, she didn’t know. The little match girl found a scarf that blocked a bit of the weather’s bite in the lost and found of the metro, but it smelled like barf, and that was why it had ended up there.
She held the memory sticks, marketed as matches, and she shut her eyes and remembered. The matches contained just another New Year’s Eve VR experience for everyone else, but for her, it was much more.
The recording was of her own house, of her own mother, of her own family. Before the corporation stopped giving work to her father and before they took their home.
Her father, a filmmaker, fell in love with her mother, an aspiring actress. She was kind, sweet, and for the girl, a memory of warmth, a soft, loving hug. Father filmed those experiences and for a time, it was the only income they had. A tiny bit of success in a life of disappointments and debts.
It hurt selling away those matches, but it hurt even more if she stood in the cold. So she spoke to passers-by, she begged. She marketed, in the cold. “Single-use AR experiences! Get them here, only one euro each.”
She sniffled and rubbed her nose, she didn’t feel it at all. She tried to look presentable, but it was hard in the cold.
An old woman stopped. “What is this young girl?” She must have felt nostalgia, remembering decades of old.
“New Year’s Eve, experience a loving family in Augmented Reality. Single-use, ma’am, make sure you appreciate it and take it all in,” the girl smiled, holding a memory stick towards her with one hand and her pay card in the other.
“One euro, you say?” the woman asked.
“Well, why not?” The woman brought out her paycard and tapped it on the paycard. There was a soft gling, and the sale was done.
“Enjoy your New Year’s Eve, ma’am,” the little match girl smiled.
“Will do,” the old woman said, and turned away to leave. She slipped on the frost, and the little girl held her up. “Oh, bless you, young girl.” She left, looking embarrassed.
The little match girl tried to sell more matches, but nobody stopped. One man spoke to her, but he was lewd and only wanted to toy with her. She frowned and rubbed her nose and looked away until he left.
She held her stomach, it growled like a dog. The hunger, the pain, she could bear it, she knew. It wasn’t the first time she’d been this long without a meal. But the cold? It was too much. It did something to her, penetrated her skin, wore down her will.
The little match girl unwrapped her hair, shaking out the snow. She felt wet and the wind froze her neck. She hurried up and wrapped the barfy scarf around her head, mostly over her nose. The smell, it made her want to vomit, but thankfully, there was nothing in her stomach.
She looked around at the houses. It was very late now, foot traffic was slow. People went back home, to their families, to their New Year’s Eve dinners. She could smell the cooked meat, or at least that’s what she thought. Her mouth watered, her stomach growled, her toes hurt from the cold.
She saw people from the windows. Families hugging each other as they gathered, preparing the table. Just like she used to do with her mom.
The little match girl clutched the memory stick in her hand. She bit her lip. Only once, she thought. Why not? Dad would be angry if she used up the merchandise instead of selling it. But no one was here!
She looked around at the empty streets. Cars went by, but every minute that passed it was getting darker, it was getting colder, and it was getting more certain that she wouldn’t sell a thing.
She had only sold one. One lousy match.
She had more.
What harm could it do?
She broke the cap on the memory stick, lifted her sleeve despite the cold and touched it on her skin. It connected. Single-use AR experience.
Her breath caught. There she was, young, smiling, warm. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
How long had it been since she’d seen her mother’s face? Years, for sure.
Her dad didn’t have any recordings of her. It all belonged to the company. Everything, the cameras, the memories, they took it all. And she fell ill and she died, because the public health insurance didn’t cover it all.
Her mom reached out, touched the girl’s cheek. It was warm, she could swear! Warm of touch, cold of wind, the sensation was there.
The girl went weak at the knees.
She fell on the sidewalk, freezing though it was. She didn’t care. She saw her mom again. Crying, she remembered the family dinners, the happy little talks, the smiling faces.
Even her dad was happy. Had he ever been happy? It was weird seeing him like this again, after all this time of misery. Of course, her mom was there. How could he not be?
The little match girl couldn’t bear the cold any more. She went between two condominiums, where the wind was blocked and she could feel her nose. There was a pipe there that brought heat to the upper floor, the wall was marginally warmer, just a few degrees. She put her back to it, trying to touch as much as she could. She had only sold one match, and she had used one up. She didn’t dare go home. Heck, it was as cold as this place. No heating. The windows broken, taped up with black gaffer tape. And there certainly was no family dinner there.
The little girl brought out another match. She bit her lip. One more wouldn’t hurt. She could lie to her dad that the street urchins had broken them, or taken them out of spite. That was plausible. In fact, they had seen them and didn’t even bother to steal them from her, obsolete technology that it was.
It was all they had. Her dad still had the intellectual properties on that, but couldn’t do much else with them. And what was there to do, really? A New-Year’s Experience, single use. Yes, it was nice. Yes, it was calming. People liked it. But you lit it up against your skin, you experienced it once, and it was gone. The DRM wiped it clean, one use only, piracy-proof.
The little girl broke off another match and touched it against her skin. Her cheap implants lit up, showed her the same thing.
Her old house, the Christmas tree, the twinkling lights, the sweets. But, most importantly, her mom hugging her.
That’s all she needed.
Her mom’s smile. And her warmth.
The freezing spot between the two buildings became her old home. Hazy, moving apparitions, like ghosts only she could see. And she saw herself as a child, running around, her parents smiling, touching each other tenderly, being in love.
There was a beeping in the AR experience. “Mommy, mommy, the battery’s dying,” little old her said.
“Yes, go tell daddy, and he can replace it,” her mom said to the child. “Because if the battery dies, all these wonderful things, the warm heater, the delicious meat, the magnificent Christmas tree, it’ll all be gone, and the people watching, will no longer be able to see.”
“Daddy, daddy,” the child said, arms open wide.
He picked her up, gave her a twirl, then showed her how it’s done.
Between two condominiums, leaning up against a wall, sat the poor girl at the cold hour of dawn. With rosy cheeks and a smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last night of the year.
Stiff and cold, she sat there with her matches all spent. Plastic caps all around her, matches clenched tightly in her little fist.
“She wanted to warm herself,” an old man said.
“But how? Oh, poor girl…” the other said.
They did not know that the little match girl for another family night she traded it all.
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