A short story written for my high school creative writing class. My teacher wanted to enter it in the school-wide writing competition, but it exceeded the maximum by several pages. This is the story of Seph, of a world and a woman coming back to life. I would love feedback for a rewrite.
He was everything I could have expected in a rambler; layers of sun-bleached dishabille hung slack from his long wiry frame, with a wide-brimmed hat that stooped obstructively over his face. He was lurching up the street, leaning with great dependence on a severed bough that rivaled him in height. I lowered my shotgun curiously, my guard tapering off. The man was obviously crippled—there was a certain authenticity in the tremble of his left leg. He was also getting on in years, and, frankly, there wasn’t much of him left.
“You’re hurt,” I called. With the gun still dormant in my grip I started casually down the street, keeping a steady eye on the old rambler. At my approach, he stopped limping and tilted his chin, swiping the hat from his head and revealing uneven sprigs of starch hair. A smile opened up across his face like a bucket tipping over, inundating his empty visage with an aureate kind of light.
“Nah, honey I’m just old,” he replied pleasantly, swinging his hat around. He glanced at the shotgun I carried, but his mirth didn’t falter. “That gun for me?”
I shrugged. “Only if you ask for it.”
This made the old man laugh—a hoarse, squealing sound that collapsed into an ugly coughing fit. He gave his chest a deliberate pound and chuckled.
“What if I ask for water and a warm place to drink it in?”
I weighed the shotgun uneasily in my hands, saying nothing. I had a perfectly lovely little hovel just around the corner, filled with plenty of water and warmth for two people and probably more, but I couldn’t invite him over so flippantly. A dusty little inkling of hospitality stirred in the back of my mind. Maybe… No. it was strange enough seeing people wander through here day to day, let along in the brutal wintertime.
The old man was laughing again. This time it was a small laugh that bubbled up softly from a joke deep within his chest. He situated the hat on his head again, and held it fast against a quick lash of icy wind. “Oh, I can’t blame you for being guarded.” He grinned, having read my apprehension like a ten-year-old’s treasure map. “Trust is a pretty expensive luxury out here.”
“Then you understand why I can’t welcome you with open arms.”
“What are you doing out here?”
The old man scuffed his walking stick along the pavement and sent a small slab of white ice skittering into a nearby snow burgh. “Coming and going.” He shifted his weight a little, accommodating a new pang in his lame leg. “Mostly going, if I got no more business here.” Testing his steps with the walking stick, the old man hobbled past me, pausing only to tip the brim of his hat at me with archaic chivalry. “You’re smart, girlie. You keep it that way.”
“My name is Seph.”
I craned my head around and caught his eye over my shoulder. “My name,” I insisted tolerantly, “is Seph. Not girlie.”
The old man revolved around his severed bough to face me.
“Seph?” He took my name and swished it around in his mouth, testing the taste of it and eying something far beyond the running banks of snow and ice. “Seph.” He gave a subtle nod as my name passed through the final channels of his judgment, and upon christening me with something other than girlie, he licked his lips thoughtfully and nodded again. “S’a nice name,” he resolved. his knobby fingers danced along the walking stick in a choreography of deliberation, and I noticed a series of chips and pockmarks in the texture of the bark. “Good, sturdy name.”
His eyes batted as through confused. “Mine? You mean my name?”
his brows knifed together slightly. “It is, that it is,” he returned oddly, his voice jittering over the words like they were woven of grainy cloth.
He conjured a rather piercing look from under the wide brim of his hat, and for the first time I was truly able to see the old man’s eyes—sharp soldier’s eyes the color of layered glass.
He studied me.
“You look like a Seph.” He spoke clearly, carefully, steadily pronouncing each syllable as though the fate of the world rested on the tips of his teeth. “Strong and lovely like the earth. What do I look like?”
I cocked my head to the side smartly. “An old man.”
A new smile tickled the corner of his mouth. “Then that’s all I am.”
“Are you still interested in that water?”
“Only if you’ve got it to spare.”
I was really beginning to like the old man. He had an agreeable sort of quirkiness about him. As I bound up his gimpy leg—I wasn’t sure if it would heal, but at least he’d be more comfortable—he told me about how he had come up from the southern barrens, his sights set on any of a number of rumored settlements in the north.
“Supposed to be good land,” he mused. “Good land with bundles of good people living on it. Got names like Antebellum and Haven Heights.” He held the water I’d given him away from his face and leered at it, like he was drunk and strange permutations were starting to form down the side of the glass. “Sounds too good to be true, if you ask me,” he said flatly.
“I’ve never heard of any places like that,” I lied crookedly, shaking my head. “Do you really think they exist?”
The man’s eyes glanced off of me and hooked onto a window across the room. He sipped soundlessly from the lip of his glass, and drummed an indiscriminant rhythm on the walking stick, which he kept leaning across his stomach as an item of comfort. “Only one way to find out.”
“I guess so…” I gave the bandages one last tug, then snipped them free of the roll and proceeded to tuck them accordingly. “More water?”
The man didn’t respond.
His glass-colored eyes were softly roaming over the countenance of the room; open, bare, and a bit lopsided from its slightly vaulted ceiling. The room was lit sparingly by the dying flames of an unimposing fireplace. Great nests of sinewy cobwebs dripped from the walls like catacomb niter, and our own shadows fidgeted across the faceless white walls as a deathly chill laced the wisps of heat wafting from the hearth. I blamed it on the massive double-pane window dominating the far wall—which I had boarded up to the best of my ability, but the chill had a cool, otherworldly flavor to it. I think the old man noticed this.
“How long you been out here, Seph?”
I wanted the question to feel more random, but it slid effortlessly into the preordained grooves of our conversations, and I felt myself being drawn right along with it, the answer puffing out of my mouth with the rest of my breath, “Four years.”
“Ever tried leaving?”
“Never wanted to.”
The old man polished off the last sliver of water in his glass and set it on the floor. Those glass-colored eyes held me curiously. “The loneliness is that nice, huh?”
“It’s not lonely, it’s quiet. It’s comfortable.”
“Comfortable,” the man snorted. He grinned from the side of his mouth. “You really think you’re comfortable out in the middle of nowhere? All by your lonesome? Nah, Seph. What you really are is stuck. Stuck like winter.”
“I’m nothing like the winter,” I defended. “Winter is cold and bitter and dead.”
“And you aren’t?”
My mouth fell open. I floundered, speechless, as my impression of the old man was torn up like bad carpet to reveal the ugly, gluey ridges of the foundation beneath.
In my silence, the old man lifted his walking stick and prodded it in the direction of the double-pane window, where, through a long gap in the boards, we could see the calcified landscape. “It’s nearly April out there, Seph. Doesn’t look like it, though. Looks like winter. Feels like winter. The winter is stuck on the land, and you’re stuck on the winter. You’re stuck on the cold and the bitterness. You’re stuck on death.” There was no edge to his voice, and the steady, knowledgeable look on his face was unnerving. “Don’t you think it’s about time we moved on to spring, Seph? Forgot this darkness and found some fresh air? Why not come up north with me? We’ll find you a real home. Real comfort.”
I felt a nerve snap like overtaxed twine. “Get out.”
“Don’t begrudge me the truths I speak…”
“Seph, I don’t know what the wars did to you, but do you really want to wallow in it for the rest of your—”
I screamed my throat raw, and didn’t wait around to watch the man wobble out of my house. I knew he’d leave. He was too wise to stay. I wrapped myself in the small shadows of another room and tried to stopper the guilt that kept rising up like hot bile. I had just kicked an injured old man out into the cold…all for telling me something I didn’t want to hear.
When I returned to the main room, he was definitely gone, but I was quick to realize that he had left his walking stick behind. By accident or intention, I couldn’t decide, and I didn’t necessarily care. I was too busy wondering how far he could have possibly gone without it. Not far. Not on that leg of his. I really couldn’t imagine the old man hoisting himself up and wandering off without that stick, but it was even harder to come up with a reason for him to deliberately leave it behind. If you’re gonna make the poor bastard walk, he may as well have his stick, quipped a nasty voice in my head. I sighed to myself. I had to return it.
Without really thinking about it, I donned all of the effects I reserved for the occasional long trek—a heavy brown duster, hiking boots and a worn-out slouch hat, along with a shoulder bag carrying canteens of water and dried fruit, which I didn’t like the taste of, but at least the seeds were still good. I didn’t plan on being gone that long. I told myself I just really liked the duster and the hat…and the bag…well, perhaps giving the old man some supplies would help make up for my behavior. That was all. I plucked up my shotgun and strung some ammunition across my chest. Of course I was coming back. The house might have been cold and solitary, but it was where I belonged.
I passed through the ridges of ice and snow, maneuvering the stick at my side and listening to the rhythmic thump it made against the frozen ground. I was just starting to lose feeling in my skin when I saw him.
He seemed to be doing pretty well for a cripple who had hiked the best part of a mile without his crutch. He rested on a dry slab of rock with his face aimed skyward and his hat in his lap like he was waiting for the 2:15 bus. I approached him quietly, holding the stick in both hands. After an uncomfortable minute of standing unnoticed, I shuffled my feet just to make some noise.
“You…forgot this,” I said blandly, half-offering the stick in his direction.
The man peered at me from the corner of his eye, then resumed his observation of the clouds. “Oh, I didn’t forget it,” he replied easily. “I meant to leave it.”
I wrung the walking stick awkwardly, staring from its rough bark to the weird old rambler. “Well what the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
The man chuckled much the same way he had when we met, and looked directly at me with those cool, glass eyes, which were twinkling in amusement. “It’s a walking stick, Seph. You walk with it.”
I curled my mouth to one side, puzzled. “But…I don’t need it. I can walk just fine.”
“Then how come you been stationary for so long?”
I had nothing for that one. My mouth opened automatically, by there were no words prepared. Something in my turned over at his words, like the engine of an old car, and there was a sudden bloom of clarity that disinfected everything the man had said to me before.
“You ever sit down so long your legs get stiff?”
I blinked. “…What?”
“I mean, it’s the damndest thing, isn’t it? You sit down for a quick break, just want get your strength back, right? Next thing you know, it’s been four years and you’ve forgotten how it feels to walk.”
My eyebrows had been drawing up in concern until that last sentence nailed me like a blow to the gut. I was suddenly very aware of the walking stick in my hands—my grip on it had tightened considerably.
“Yeah,” the old man continued nonchalantly, “sometimes you need help getting back up. ‘specially when you get to be my age.” He chortled, tossing me a smile. I had completely forgotten about the provisions in my bag, about my intention of tossing them at the man and retreating back into the dismal hole I called home. That place isn’t home, I thought defiantly, astounded at how I ever could have believed otherwise. It’s not home at all.
“Well, thanks for bringing me back my stick, Seph.” The old man returned the hat to his head and stood up with a grunt. I scurried over and handed off the walking stick before he could take a single shaky step toward me. he leaned on it gratefully. “Oh, and while you’re here, I figure I may as well ask one more time…” The layered glass of his eyes was clearer than ever when he captured my gaze. “You sure you don’t wanna head up north?”
His offer sounded different in the open air of the barrens. Somehow, without the catacomb-niter cobwebs, faceless walls and deathly chill of the hovel it sounded more…possible. More desirable. Not even desirable—necessary. Like stretching your legs after a long rest…
I never wanted to see that damn hovel again.
Without a word, I walked past the man, and when he didn’t follow, I watched him over my shoulder and nudged my head at the vista ahead. “Antebellum sounds nice.”
Aureate light poured across the old man’s features again, and, with the aid of his walking stick, he sauntered up beside me. “I bet it is. …Would you look at that?”
I followed the gesture of his stick and saw, with a spark of long-forgotten warmth in my heart, a single violet crocus that had muscled its way up through the snow.
“It looks like spring is finally here,” I crooned, crouching down and stroking the downy petals with an affection I had long since abandoned. When the old man said nothing, I twisted around to see what he was doing. He was standing there with an odd bemusement on his face.
“Seph…” His eyes were set intently on the crocus. “That’s short for Persephone, isn’t it?”