by Joshua Clarke
When the Sun hung at its highest, Jude could be found stretched out along the roof shingles. Expressionless and pale, he was staring straight into the heart of it. Embracing the white noise of the world. His mind was as empty and unmoving as his milky eyes. He didn’t blink, didn’t break his gaze—not when the summer wind shook through the cottonwoods; not when sirens sounded off and a parade of red firetrucks came racing down the road; not even when the shit of some passing geese came dangerous close to staining his shirtsleeve.
Jude simply stared, and to him, the Sun was staring back.
Its featureless face was impossible to read. Its motives were masked by flaring rays of light. Light that showered down upon him but didn’t warm the skin. He couldn’t stand how smug it had become. All had been well when the Sun simply shined, but then it grew bored, and so judging Jude became its new favorite pastime. Obviously, it never spoke such judgments. Jude knew that would be nonsense. The Sun was just a celestial body of the solar system. Nothing more than an ancient ball of burning gas.
No, it was all the little looks that had him simmering; and despite telling it off time and time again, there were always fresh criticisms come dawn. After years and years of nothing but numbness, Jude had suddenly started feeling the sensation of sunshine when he sometimes turned away. Was he imagining it? Probably maybe, but also possibly not. He had time to find the truth. That was all he had. There was nothing to his name except for plenty of time and perhaps a stone. Somewhere.
Unconsciously, Jude let loose a heavy sigh that had been building in his chest. Aside from Master Moon, only the clouds could check the Sun. On one particularly bright day, he had scaled the backyard’s big maple tree and tried serenading them for a bit of shade; but as common knowledge tells it, clouds are notoriously self-absorbed. Which was a shame because they have such—
The familiar rumble of an engine unfurled from the forest. Jude waited for it to fall from earshot like all the others, but it never did. He split his mind in two, dividing his attention between Sun and sound. The rumbling lingered on, steadily growing louder in its approach. It chugged round the bend, then deliberately started to slow. Could it be that I’ve got a guest? Jude wondered, a bud of excitement beginning to blossom at the thought of seeing someone new.
He had his answer when car tires started rolling over those little gray stones of his gravel drive.
Much like a sleeping bear come spring time, Jude’s body began to stir. “Fine, have it your way, ya stupid sod,” he said with a sigh, his eyes shutting for the first time in hours. Lips pressed into a pout, he rolled onto his elbows and then scrambled to his feet. Resting neatly atop the chimney crown was a butter knife. Jude gave it a grab and grudgingly scraped a tally into the brickwork. For a moment, he forgot all about his new arrival and focused solely on the seventeen tally marks etched into the stone. So many losses, each one bringing a bit of pain to his pride.
Then, it was there. That strange sensation of warmth. Blinking a few too many times, Jude felt his neck begin to burn ever so slightly. “Enough of you!” he called back to the Sun, hurling the butter knife out over the lake. With a distant sploosh it sunk from sight into the lazy blue waters, sending ripples over the Sun’s shimmering reflection.
A car door creaked open, and wearing a wild grin, Jude leapfrogged the chimney stack with childlike ease. He perched himself like a gargoyle on the roof peak and peered over the
edge. “Who do we have here?” he asked aloud, startling the birds in the bushes. Going off his first impression, Jude knew him as nothing special—just some middle-aged man leaning idly against an eyesore: a weatherworn pickup with a loaded bed of logs. Jude had to admit, the man matched the car, which was unfortunate for the man because the car was riddled with rust.
“Come on, this guy,” he muttered, twisting to look at the Sun over his shoulder. “I mean, I’ll take what I can get but throw me a bone here.” The Woodcutter, which Jude figured him to be, had started digging around on the passenger’s side. Muttering obscenities that must have been made up on the spot, he yanked out a backpack and slipped it on. “All right, I’m just gonna say this now. That thing’s either packed with booze or a bong because there is no way that guy is sober. I’d bet my elbows on it if I hadn’t already lost them to that family of racoons that scrounge around in the sewer.” Jude shrugged. “Such is life.”
As though the car was fabricated from fine china, the Woodcutter delicately eased the side door shut. Then step after sluggish step, he moved mechanically up the open drive, grinding gravel stones beneath mud-stained boots. Jude studied this strange behavior through narrowed eyes, his little legs now dangling lazily off the roof rim.
Hanging at the Woodcutter’s side, held firmly in hand, was a well-polished hatchet. Its silver surface gleamed in the afternoon light. At first, he didn’t proceed up the porch steps. Not right away. No, he planted himself before the threshold, sealed his eyes shut, and then quivering, took in a lungful of damp air. To Jude, it looked as though he was breathing in the history of the house. Reliving some memory.
“Alrighty then,” Jude lifted a leg up and started scratching at the back of his head with his foot. “Consider me curious.”
The Woodcutter entered the old bed and breakfast without warning. No need to knock when there isn’t a door. Jude scrambled across the rooftop, his bare feet dancing between branches and bent twigs. On the far end was a hole above the main hall, where years of summer storms and neglect had caused a collapse. Judging the situation, Jude figured an ol’ fashion cannonball was the right jump for the job. He flutter kicked into the air, tucked in his legs, and like a feather without wind to ride, slowly sank. He sank past swarming dust motes, the splintered wood of exposed support beams, the old egg yolk wallpaper that was now peeling and pale. He sank into an empty hall, a hollow house. Once it had even been a home. For some, though never for him. Jude had always been a guest, one that was stuck and seldom wanted.
Crack… crack… crack…
Jude wisped after what was unmistakably the sound of a hatchet against hardwood. He found the Woodcutter, hunched over and hacking at the floorboards, in a corner of what had once been the guest room. Up the went hatchet and down came the crack. Tiny wood fragments flew about the room, clicking against the walls and skipping across the floor. Much of the same went on for minutes more until a final smash shook the room.
The air became thick, and an unsettling silence spread.
“I-I’m… I’m so, so sorry,” the Woodcutter said softly.
Jude shuffled forward.
One… Two… Three… Four…
Biting his bottom lip, he stepped beyond the sobbing Woodcutter, and his eyes began to waver, unable to focus on anything in particular.
And a small boy’s bones.