Writing Fiction posted December 27, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
A young man explores love and his own reality.

Tales Of The Unknown Man

by SweetStreet00

Carver H. Luther V sat on his back porch, staring out into the lush woods, tugging his jacket from the cold South Dakotan wind that whipped his skin, dreaming of red hair, a brand less, lit cigarette in his hand. He knew that it must have a name; everything did after all. But he couldn’t read the ink imprinted in the cheap, paper carton, the black letters wouldn’t make sense to him. He couldn’t interpret the mess of lines and curves, nor the small label with a skull on it. His fingers twitched nervously, signing his signature into the morning dew. His name, the one thing he was taught. His father would often glare with a look of annoyance and say, "Carver, you don’t need none of that education. All you need is what you’ve had since you were a babe." Carver never needed to ask what he meant. With the name Luther, he was set for life. Being the only son, his future was already set in stone: by his father’s orders he had to inherit his family’s oil business when his father died. He didn’t know how long that would be. When he was little he taught himself how to count to 20, using his fingers and toes as helpers. With that he knew he was 17, his birthday was the 11th , there were 19 black and blue marks under his jacket sleeves from his father’s weekly binges, but everything above that was a mystery. He didn’t know how old his father was, but he assumed that he would inherit the company in less than 20 years.

Carver looked down at the cigarette pack, his little secret. He knew his father wouldn’t care if he smoked, but he would keel over if he knew that what the future family leader was smoking was not worth hundreds from a foreign country, but only 2 quarters at a nearby gas station. He came out one time, a scowl seemingly stitched on, saying, "Carver you can do anything under the sun as long as no one sees you, but if I catch you with those cheap ass cigarettes again, then I’ll shove them down your throat." Carver got the message. He smoked them in secret, in the early mornings before even the servants woke up. And that’s where he was now, soaking his confused thoughts in tobacco and tar. Even before he got his hands on a lighter, he would often sit on the porch before the sun rose. It was an escape to him, watching the forest, knowing he could run away and never be seen again, yet choosing not to. The only choice he had in his life. But even though he never ran, never felt the rush of freedom flow through his veins, just fantasizing that life was enough.

After the brilliant sunrise faded into a deep blue, Carver picked himself off of the porch and stumbled inside, his legs numb from sitting down for so long. As it was every day, no one was home, yet a plate of eggs and a cup of coffee waited for him. He could almost hear his father bellow, "Son these are quail eggs imported straight from Ecuador, so you better eat them up." But Carver couldn’t taste the difference, nor did he know what Ecuador was, so the sentiment had no meaning to him. He ate his food in silence, grimacing at the acrid, burnt coffee. The chef, whatever his name was, could never make a pot of coffee without burning the beans to a crisp. Carver thought about going to him and writing a formal complaint like people on TV do, but it didn’t seem right to do so without even knowing the guy’s name.

Once he was finished, Carver returned outdoors, listening to the leaves rustle in the soft breeze. On days like this, he would usually grab one of his father’s bottles, a large ornate one filled with an amber liquid. He didn’t know what it was, but whenever his father had a particularly stressful day at work, he would pour himself a glass and lock himself in his office, only coming out to rant about how everything was broken, his marriage, his family, his goddamn son’s head. But unlike him, Carver didn’t have an office, a place of silence and contemplation, so he would settle for his porch, the soft hums of insects as his unknowing audience. After a few gulps he would feel a numb emptiness fill his head, pushing away his thoughts of escape. After that he drank until he could imagine the numbness overflow, leaking out of his ears. But if he continued, he would fall asleep, waking up some time later with the feeling of molten lead replacing the comforting nothingness in his mind. But he didn’t have a bottle today, he didn’t know if his father hid them or drained them all. So he sat sober, watching shadows flitter around the trees, thinking terrible thoughts of freedom and happiness.

When the sun was in the center of the sky, like a light bulb on a ceiling, Carver heard footsteps coming from the forest. They were soft, like the wild hares that would bound through, but he recognized them on a personal level. As long as he could remember- 10 years ago was it? - the local grade schools took field trips through these woods, studying the plant and animal life. He would often follow them, pretending if only for a second that he was a student, that he was with his friends mimicking bird calls or sketching leaves. And then he would go to their homes for a play date, small, metal trailers he saw near the gas station. Although they were the size of his bedroom, the tiny homes were castles to him, brimming with happiness and hope. Carver often thought about going up to the houses and rapping on the metal doors, talking to the students instead of being the uninvolved observer. But as they learned math and numbers, Carver smoked on his porch. As they read classic literature, Carver drank. As they learned how to better society, Carver practiced his signature over and over again.   

And on one such journey -7 years ago, maybe?- he saw her. A little girl with fiery hair kept towards the back of the herd of children, taking in every last detail as if this was the last time she would see the forest. He was intrigued by her, no, enamored of her. The way she carried herself, her almost exotic look, all of it fascinated him. She was always alone, just like him, a constant observer of the other children.  He wanted to write a letter to her, like they do in movies, but his illiteracy was a constant obstacle. Carver thought about asking one of the boys in the forest to help him; one of the students he called a friend, but that would mean talking to them, approaching them, making his existence known to them. He would instead draw crude pictures of love and compassion, and hope that when he threw them at her, she would find them. And as he grew taller and the girl grew into a waif-like young woman, he would follow her on her now solo trips to the woods, her red hair hanging loose around her face. Sometimes she would bring a boy with her, and Carver watched as they would hold hands and kiss, wondering what it would be like if he were that boy. He’d probably say, I’ve liked you for a while. And she would understand and say, "Ah thanks Carver. I’ve liked you too." But he wasn’t that boy, he wasn’t in the woods, and he didn’t even know her name, much less what she liked.

Instead he listened in on their conversation: about their futures and something called college. That word struck Carver; they were describing it as a place full of choices, where you could choose your own future. He went home and asked everyone he knew about it: his father, mother and 3 sisters. But only his father was around, the women fleeing from the stone manor the first chance they got. He gave him a few words, tinged with annoyance that he would ask such a thing. So Carver did his own research, snooping on the girl during those conversations. His heart sank when he heard the girl wonder aloud if her test scores were high enough. Tests? Those things schools did? The things he never did at the place he never went. Of course, he thought. Of course these colleges want people who can read and write, people who could help the world, not those who do nothing, yet still come out successful. Not people like him. That night Carver walked into the woods with a bottle, drinking until he vomited out the amber liquid and collapsed into a pile of leaves.      

But this time was different; the girl was all alone, her red hair tied back with a bow, a cigarette in her hand. Carver observed her for a few moments, the way the smoke coming from her mouth danced a waltz with the surrounding air, her white dress flowing in the breeze. It felt unreal, having her so close. Carver stepped into the woods, heart fluttering with excitement. But as he found himself within arms reach of the girl, she turned and began to walk away. Carter muttered under his breath; now that he was this close, he couldn’t just leave. He followed the girl through the woods, like a wolf stalking its prey. He shuddered at the sudden thought, replacing it with a buck with solid gold antlers, chasing a beautiful doe. But he settled for a future tycoon following the love of his life. He stayed a few feet behind her, counting the steps as he went, crawling over rocks and boulders. By the time they’d reached their destination, he counted 4 sets of 20 steps. Carver hoped that one day he would know the actual number.

By the time the girl stopped, Carver’s shirt was torn from branches, his pants splashed with mud. He didn’t even bother looking at his shoes, knowing his father would point out the damage when he got home. The girl stopped in front of a large, stone building. It was familiar to Carver, it was where his oldest sister got married, his nephew baptized, but he couldn’t remember the name. It was just another word to add to the ever-increasing number of things he didn’t know. Still, he walked in, staring at the colorful stained glass windows. It was a church from the looks of it, walls adorned with portraits of men Carver didn’t recognize. The girl sat in the first row, cigarette disposed of outside, a large red book in her hands. A man in white stood in front his voice beckoning them to turn to page something. Carver didn’t know the number, but he knew it had some zeros in it, which meant it was a big number. His father taught him about that, as more zeros on the check meant more money for the company. As the future leader, that small fact and his signature were all he needed to know. He watched the girl read along, her fingers dancing along the parchment, her cherry lips mouthing every word. It reminded him of the woods, with her sucking in every last detail.

Carver didn’t bother opening the book, instead just listening to the man speak, his words smooth like syrup, nothing like his father’s harsh voice. He imagined his father, his thick, greying beard, the constant smell of amber liquid seeping from his mouth, his eyebrows knitted together in disappointment as he looked at his only son. He wondered if this was how people normally spoke, gentle without a care in the world. He wondered if his sense of normality was off, if everyone went to school and chose their life. He thought about it until his head hurt and he had to leave the service early. For the first time, he began to walk away from the girl, but habit made him decide to wait for her. He didn’t know how long it took, but she eventually left the building, hair glistening in the afternoon sun. She walked along the small dirt road, purse in hand, until it slipped, falling into the clay. Carver rushed over, grabbing it before she had the chance to do so. He could imagine her response: thanking him by taking him to a movie or an ice cream cone. Something like that. But as he held the handbag towards the girl, her small, pale fingers wrapped around the fabric, hair falling into her eyes. Without making a sound, she left, leaving Carver alone in the mound of earth.

After that day, the girl was gone. Carver waited outside his porch, listening for the crunch of leaves to signify her arrival, but they never came. Though he refused to believe it, deep inside of him Carver knew what happened. She left for the outside, a world where she could become anyone, a world far away from him. He thought of their first and last interaction, with the girl silently thanking him before walking off. Carver realized that he never knew the girl with hair that burned like the morning sun. He never spoke to her, nor did she notice him. Carver cursed himself for not speaking to her sooner, for not speaking to anyone sooner, as it was too late now. The girl was off to college, a place he’ll never be, a place he was never meant to go to.

That night, Carver sat on his porch, staring up at the stars, trying to count them all. "15 sets of 20", he whispered to himself, his soft voice echoing through the trees. A murmur that was beckoning him to follow, which Carver did, wandering into the woods. Even if it was just for the night, even if his father dragged him back kicking and screaming, he walked away, feeling the rough tree bark against his fingertips. And for the first time in his life, Carver made his own decision.

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