Published in Issue 160, Summer 2018, of Calliope, publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd
An evanescence of sparks, then back to pitch black.
“Damn!” David cautiously pinched the tip of the match to feel whether anything remained of the phosphorus. He was utterly reduced to feel.
Nothing but bare wood. Damn.
He’d fished a stubby candle from his rucksack. If he could light that, he could find and light the kerosene lantern that must be somewhere in this emergency mountain cabin, and light a fire in the stove with the kindling and wood that were surely under the eaves.
And a bonus: People searching for him in the morning would be drawn by the wood smoke drifting down the canyon.
The temperature must be below zero already.
His Scoutmaster, years ago, could light a match with his thumbnail. David never mastered that skill; instead, he carried a waterproof, screw-top plastic tube of matches with three sandpaper strike plates imbedded on its sides. Over years of camping he had replaced the original two dozen waterproof, windproof matches with ordinary kitchen matches.
But there were only three when he unscrewed the case: He hadn’t replaced those used last summer. Now he had only two left. Damn. Worse, the strike plates were worn nearly smooth. His chilblained, numbed thumb and forefinger detected no difference. With his pinky finger, he finally found again the one whose surface seemed most abrasive.
A brief phosphorescence, then darkness. Damn!
He weighed the odds of going out into the night, hiking down the canyon. There would be starlight, but no moon. The pitched mountain stream was narrowed up here to an ice-clogged whisper, not quite frozen solid. The trail would cross and re-cross it, each time a hazard. The ravine must eventually widen into an inhabited prairie valley, but the first ranch house might be miles farther. He was exhausted already. If he fell, he might be unable to get up.
His only hope was here. Even here, his only hope was a fire.
The cold was finding the sweat-damp parts of his body. He yanked his wool jacket down, took out the final match, felt again for the most abrasive strike plate. Do or die.