Jude and Peter
By Hannah Doorenbos
It took the threat of broken kneecaps to get Jude to attend the family dinner his big brother was hosting. Jude hated family gatherings with a passion. He hated the small talk, the awkward pauses, the dumb jokes, the crushing sense of guilt. Somehow, in a family of ten, there was always this lingering silence heavy with words left unsaid. Every interaction with his family was a messy, awkward affair that he tried to avoid to the very best of his ability.
The deepest loves of Jude’s life were poker, blackjack, and slots. He loved the rush of winning, the freedom of a load of cash. He did not, however, love the long string of losses that he had recently been experiencing. When his gambling “buddy” came pounding on the door hard enough to shake a couple of screws loose, Jude knew it was time to come up with some money quickly. This was made more difficult by the fact that Jude found any form of work fairly distasteful.
Fortunately, a simple enough solution soon presented itself when Peter, his older brother, offered the yearly invitation to come to meet with the family. It was the perfect solution. He just had to ask someone for a little money. Or, if family members just happened to leave their wallets lying around, well, who would miss a few dollars that disappeared? It wasn’t ideal, but hey, he had to do what he had to do to avoid getting pounded into dust by his very tall, very muscular “friend.”
As Jude wound his way up the sunlit mountain road, through meadows dotted with wildflowers, he couldn’t help but think about just how much he wanted to be anywhere else. What felt like a ball of sludge started forming and churning in his gut. The closer he got to Boulder Creek, the more it felt like a bad, bad, idea to be going to see his family, especially his brother. After everything that had happened—
No, he could not go down that road. Change of topic. He cranked up the radio, country music blaring through his car. An eagle swooped through the air overhead, soaring away from the mountain. Jude envied it. He turned the music up even louder.
Jude grimaced as he pulled up to the address Peter had given him. It was a trailer with a duct-taped window and broken front steps. The grass was cut neatly, and a fresh coat of paint had been applied to the trim. It looked like someone was trying to keep the place nice, but the trailer was fighting against them.
Jude took a few deep breaths as he tried to paste a smile on his face. Weights seemed to be fixed to his feet, pulling him down into the concrete, as he made his way toward the front door. Before he could even ring the doorbell, Peter came bursting out of the trailer. He leapt down the steps, grinning from ear to ear, and wrapped Jude in a bear hug. He smelled like sap and dirt. Highly uncomfortable, Jude shifted in his grip, but did his best not to pull away. Yep, this was fine, he could be chill. When Peter finally released him, Jude breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“Welcome home, little brother.” Peter ruffled Jude’s wavy hair. “It’s been way too long. I was starting to think you’d never come back.”
“Yeah, too long,” Jude echoed, he hoped convincingly.
“Well, come on in. Mom and Pop are already here; I think Jenny’s on her way too.”
“That’s it?” The family really had completely collapsed.
“Yeah, well, you know how it is.” Peter’s smile fell a bit. “I’m glad you’re here though.” He pounded Jude so hard on the back that his teeth knocked together. “Come see Daisy.” Daisy? Like from high school Daisy? They couldn’t possibly still be together after... after everything. The desire to turn and run was only getting stronger by the minute—but remember, broken kneecaps.
The inside of the trailer, like the outside, had seen better days. In the area where the kitchen met the dining room, there was a long wooden table full of scuffs and stains. Within seconds, Jude realized it was the family table of his childhood. Great. And even worse, at the other end of the table sat his parents. Ugh. His father was just as stone-faced, his mother just as vacant-eyed as he remembered. They both had these pale blue eyes that looked like they were missing something. To his horror, he found himself staring dead into the eyes of his father. Man, the glare was like a gut punch. This was a mistake.
“Jude! I’ve been so excited to meet you,” said a familiar voice.
Jude spun around and found himself facing a short, smiling woman with dark ringlet curls and a round, pregnant stomach. It was Daisy, Peter’s high school girlfriend. Peter was grinning from ear to ear. “This is my lovely wife.” He placed a hand on her stomach. “And our little baby peanut.”
“Your wife? And baby?” How had he not known this? “Did you guys stay together the whole time…” Jude realized his mistake as soon as he saw the raw look on Daisy’s face. He trailed off.
“That I was… gone? Yeah, we did,” Peter replied, staring out the window. After a moment he turned back and took Daisy’s hand in his. “I have a wonderful, wonderful wife.” Jude felt like he had swallowed a slug, the trail of slime still lingering in his throat.
Their father cleared his throat in the corner. “I’d like some coffee. Black.”
“Sure, Dad,” Peter replied.
“And make sure it’s Folgers, not that other crap.”
“Yes sir. Mom, Jude, do you want any?” Their mother shook her head as Jude nodded his. “Perfect. Why don’t you sit down? “
He would rather do literally anything else. But broken knee caps. Debts on top of debt. Jude slowly sat down as if he were about to drop into a chair made of lava. If only that coffee had some vodka slipped in.
Jude had been absolutely out of his mind that night. He, Sophie, and some of their friends had been out at the edge of the property, in the collapsing shed full of old, rusted-out equipment. They were all laughing too loudly, too hysterically, about some dumb joke. Sophie was trying to master the art of stomping a beer can into a flat, perfect disk, but she kept losing her balance and stumbling around. Jude was beating at a worn thin punching bag hanging from the rafters in the corner. And he was angrier than he had ever been in his life. Like always, his father had been poking at him, prodding at the broken pieces inside Jude that only a father could find. And, like always, it had sent Jude stalking off with long strides and clenched fists. He hit the bag again and again, arms flailing, without form. His knuckles had started to bleed at some point; he wasn’t sure when.
“You okay there, big brother?” Sophie said, finally noticing Jude’s wild swinging.
“Yeah,” Jude grunted. “Just blowing off some steam.” It came out almost like a growl.
“Okay, okay. Re-lax.” She set back off to can stomping.
Jude’s arms were starting to ache, but his fury wasn’t dying down at all. If anything, something was stirring up the coals inside. This wasn’t freaking working. He dropped his bleeding hands, breathing hard, needing something else. He grabbed the keys to the truck he and Peter shared.
“I’m going out.”
His friends nodded, paying no real attention, but Sophie looked over, concerned. “Where are you going?”
Jude was already halfway out the door. “Wherever I feel like.”
Sophie stumbled after him. “Hey, wait for me.”
It had been about ten minutes of Peter and Daisy’s numerous attempts at starting conversation followed by long, awkward silences, when there was a soft tap-tap at the front door. “Hello?” called a cracked, quiet voice. A voice he never thought he’d hear again. Soph. “Anyone here?”
“Come on in!” Peter said, turning toward the door. And then there they were. Sophie and Jenny. They had both seen better days. Sophie’s red eyes darted from person to person, like a nervous frog taking in a room. Her hair, which had always been bleach blonde and perfectly curled, was now mousy brown and tangled. Jenny’s eyes had deep bags under them. She looked thinner than she used to be. Her clothes swallowed her a bit. They both seemed to notice Jude at the same time. Jenny’s jaw dropped. Soph’s fists clenched. That was a bad sign.
Jenny recovered her ability to speak first. “I’ve missed you, Peter.” Her voice cracked on you. Peter looked down at his little sister, eyebrows furrowed. They seemed to be silently speaking, just through their eyes. Then he wrapped her in a hug. Though stiff at first, Jenny soon melted, and for a second, Jude thought she was about to cry. Even after all this time, Peter seemed to know exactly what people needed. Jude had never understood how he did it; he still didn't understand.
All the while, Sophie looked like she wanted to run straight out the door. As she, Peter, and Jenny walked over to the table, Sophie whispered something in Jenny’s ear. Jenny responded with a sharp look that very clearly said, “No.” Sophie grimaced at the stare. Eyes still darting towards the door, she headed toward the seat farthest from Jude, but found that Jenny had taken it. Her face went pale as she took in the only open seat at the table. Right next to Jude. As she dropped into the chair, she muttered, under her breath, “You’re a monster, Jude.” And he knew she was right.
Jude was well aware that he was driving like a reckless idiot, but he didn’t really care. He was drifting around corners, swerving around cars, ignoring every stop light. Wasted Sophie seemed somewhat concerned, but she was having a hard time forming words, so Jude easily ignored her. It was like the rest of the world had faded into black fuzz at the edges of his vision. He hated his father. Wished he were dead. Wondered what it would take to make that happen. But no. Yes. Maybe. He couldn’t. Coward.
Dinner was just as awkward and terrible as Jude expected it to be. It only took until drinks were served for his father to start in on them. “You all look terrible,” he declared, surveying the table.
“Everett,” his mother quietly interjected, but his father paid no attention.
“I don’t know what I did wrong. How I ended up with such a lot of…” He proceeded to list every perceived flaw of fault in all of them. Peter’s small house and prison sentence. Sophie’s appearance. Jenny’s low-paying teaching job. Jude’s worthless and empty life. The mistakes in each and every one of his other six children.
Like a stretching coil, tension built by the second. No one was taking it well. Mother curled inside herself, Daisy scanned each face around the table, and Sophie kept glancing at the glass of wine she had refused earlier. When Jenny, whose fists were clenched, noticed Sophie’s glances, she rested a hand on her younger sister’s shoulder. Jude wanted to fight, to leave, to run. But instead, he stayed frozen, doing nothing. Like he always had.
Jude was still contemplating his own capacity for murder when he whipped onto Main Street. It was late enough that the bars had started to wind down, leaving the street mostly empty. Jude let his lead foot drop heavier and heavier on the pedal. He was going to do it. Sophie had started screaming in the seat next to him, slurring something like, “Stop, stop, stop!” but Jude didn’t hear. Or maybe he didn’t care. Not until he felt the thud of a body hitting the hood of his truck.
Just when Jude thought Jenny was about to start swinging, Soph was going to chug the glass in front of her, or his own head was going to explode, Peter cut in. Quietly, but firmly, “That’s enough, Dad.”
“It’ll be enough when I say it’s enough, I’m not about to be disrespected by a murd—”
“No, Dad. This is my house and I said that’s enough.”
The room lapsed into heavy silence. It wasn’t fair, that Peter had this power. How he was the only one who seemed to be able to stop the old man’s rage. Jude almost hated him for it.
“Is anyone up for a game?” asked Daisy, smiling a bit too hard.
“Definitely!” Jenny replied with the same trying-too-hard smile. “We would love to.” She nudged Soph, who had fallen into almost a trance. “Right, Sophie?’
Sophie seemed to shake herself awake. “Oh, um, yeah. Sure.”
While their father and mother sulked in the corner, the rest of the family started setting up Scrabble. Jude's mind wouldn’t stop spinning. He was a monster, this was all his fault, this was all...
“Peter, can I take a look around?” Look around? In the one other room of this house? What was he saying? But he needed a distraction. And besides, he was here for a reason, and it wasn’t to be tortured by the past.
Despite the absurdity of his question, Peter seemed completely fine with the request. “Sure thing.” He leaned in close and added in a whisper, “And if you just need a couple of minutes to cool down, feel free to hang out in the bedroom. I have my little office desk back there.” Jude nodded. And his heart raced while his stomach dropped. As soon as the bedroom door clicked shut behind him, he set off on the search for Peter’s checkbook.
There was blood on the windshield, and Soph was screaming, and nothing made sense. Jude climbed out of the truck. His legs nearly gave out when he saw the damage. The front of his truck was dented in, spattered with red. And there was a body on the ground. A body. A very still, twisted, bleeding body. He couldn’t think, and Sophie was screaming so loud, and—and—
“Shut up!” he snapped. “Shut up! Stop freaking out, okay? It’s not a big deal!
Sophie got quiet. She clumsily stumbled out of the passenger seat. For a very long moment, she stared at the body. Then, she whispered, “Not a big deal?” She swallowed a gasping breath. “Jude, I think you just killed somebody.”
“No, we just killed somebody.” It had to be we, he couldn’t be alone in this. “And we’ll take care of it. Okay?” He took a deep breath. Tentatively, he reached down to grab the wrist of the… body. No pulse. Dead for sure. They could do this. They had to. Just step by step. But it had to be both of them. He turned to Sophie and grabbed her by the shoulders. He looked her dead in the eyes. “Sophie,” he said, “you have to help me. This is both of our responsibility.”
“Our responsibility…” Jude wasn’t sure it was a question or a statement. Her eyes were wide and glistening. She was on the fence. Jude had to convince her. He had to.
Jude continued desperately. “He’s already dead. There’s nothing we can do about it now. All we can do is keep this quiet. We have to. If this gets out it will ruin my—our lives.”
She was quiet for a second, “It’ll ruin… your life.” Jude held his breath until… she nodded. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
Unfortunately, Sophie passed out while they were loading the body into the bed of the truck. They were off to a rough start. By the time he had wrestled the body into the bed and Sophie into the back seat, Jude was breathing hard. And he couldn’t slow his breathing down no matter how hard he tried. He didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t think. Breathe. Everything just needed to go away. The lake. The lake. He dropped Sophie back off at the shed where the rest of his friends were blacked-out drunk. Good, they wouldn’t remember any of tonight. He’d tell everyone he didn’t know where the truck was, pretend it was stolen. He’d make Soph keep her mouth shut. All there was left was to make it disappear.
It was only after he had dropped his truck into the lake that the tears came. They came and just didn’t stop. He sobbed the entire walk home.
But at least it was over.
It didn’t take long for Jude to find the checkbook. It was in the right bottom drawer, just like it had been in high school. What was a reasonable amount? How much did he need? How much could he take before Peter would notice? Did it matter if Peter did notice? He knew Peter wouldn’t report him, but how could he do this?
Broken kneecaps. He needed it.
So Jude told himself he had no choice and scribbled down the number. 5,000. Hopefully, Peter had that much in his account. It was done.
As Jude set the pen down, Peter opened the door.
It soon became apparent that it was not over. On Monday morning, before Jude had even had a chance to sit down in homeroom, he was smacked with the news. The mayor’s son had been missing since Friday night. The mayor’s son. Jude hadn’t been able to make himself look at the face. But now he knew. And so did everyone else.
The gossip mill started spinning even faster by lunch when word spread that a witness had come forward. A witness said they had seen a high school boy with curly brown hair in a blue Ford truck on Friday night. A truck splattered in blood that turned onto an old service road by the lake. Kids, parents, even teachers, started looking at Jude differently during school that day. Suspicious, scared. It was a small town; there weren’t many curly-haired teenage boys with blue Ford trucks. And Jude’s habits of regular fights and showing up to school drunk had not done good things for his reputation. He was beginning to see that it would not be long until his poorly designed plan fell apart. He knew that when he got home, questions would be waiting. It'd only be a matter of time until they found the truck. There was no way out. Except... except there was another curly-haired high school boy. One that shared a blue Ford truck with Jude. One that no one would suspect over him, unless…
Before he knew what he was doing, Jude found himself sneaking out the back door of the school and sprinting toward home. It was noon; his father would be gone and Mom would be napping. Peter always forgot his wallet on his nightstand. Jude could make the run home in twenty minutes. This could work.
And it did. Everything went smoothly, perfectly according to plan. And before Jude knew it, he found himself standing right where he had rolled the truck in. Suddenly, what he was about to do hit him like a gut punch. He was sending his brother, the kind, brave, goody-two shoes brother to jail. How could he? But it was him or Peter.
So, he launched the wallet into the lake and went home. It was over.
Peter and Jude locked eyes. “What’re you doing, Jude?” Peter asked, eyebrows raised.
“Oh, I’m just…” Jude could barely bring himself to lie. “I just, well, was looking for, or found, um…” he finished lamely.
“Did you lose something or…?” Peter was giving him an out. Jude didn’t even try. He just sat there in silence, looking back at Peter.
“Gotcha.” Peter’s eyes were shining.
As the two brothers stared at each other, Jude realized two things. One: Peter knew about what he was doing with the check. Two: Peter knew about everything else. Jude wasn’t sure how Peter knew what he had done. He wasn’t sure how he knew that Peter knew or how long Peter had known. But he was certain. Certain that Peter knew that Jude was the reason his life had been destroyed. Jude was the reason Peter and his wife were stuck in this shack of a home. That their soon-to-arrive child would have no room to run or breathe when the cold months trapped them inside.
Jude had to get out, right that very moment. Without a word, he was on his feet, pushing past Peter and out the bedroom door. He cut through the living room so fast he barely heard Jenny say, “What’s wrong?” As he started to shut the front door behind him, he suddenly met resistance. Sophie had grabbed the door handle. She stepped outside after him.
“Where are you going?” she asked, voice low and full of thorns.
“I’m leaving.” He went to step towards his car, but Soph was holding onto his wrist.
“No, you’re not. You’re not about to show up here, after everything you did, and then bolt.”
It was a despicable thing to do, Jude agreed, but somehow he found himself saying, “That I did? I think you mean what we did. You were in that car too! You didn’t tell anyone it was me. You said nothing when they arrested Peter. Or sentenced him. You didn’t want anyone to know what you had done either, you’re just as…”
“I did it to protect you, okay! And it’s ruined everything. You’ve ruined everything.” Silent tears were sliding down her face. Both Jenny and Peter had followed them outside and were watching, looking worried. Sophie didn’t stop. “I’ve barely been able to make it a day…” She cleared her throat. “It’s wrecked me. And wrecked Jenny, who you left to pick up all the pieces when you abandoned us. And Peter. What you did to him. This is all your fault. How can you even stand yourself?”
She was right. It was his fault alone. Jude had nothing to defend himself. He was just left standing there, ripped raw.
Peter barely said anything at the trial. He just stood there, silent and sad. Jude almost hated him for that sincere, teary-eyed expression he was making. The whole town had been shocked. Peter was always the golden boy, ready to be a shoulder to cry on, rescue a cat from the creek, play with the neighborhood kids. No one had expected it to be him. Their mother hadn’t stopped crying in weeks, muttering to herself, “My boy, my precious boy.”
When the judge read the sentence, the whole crowd sat in silence. As the sheriff went to lead him away, Peter turned back to look at the family and said, “I love you.” He looked Jude straight in the face and said, “You’re the oldest now. Look out for them, okay?” Jude should have nodded. Instead, he left home that night and didn’t look back.
Soph was visibly shaking. In seconds, Jenny crossed the yard and wrapped her arms around the girl. Sophie collapsed into the hug. Jude watched for a second, then turned back to the car, check burning in his pocket. He steeled himself. What’s done was done. Nobody went to stop him.
What did stop him, however, was the drooping tire that met him as he rounded the driver's side. This was the last straw. “Crap, crap, crap.” He kicked the car, hard, and immediately regretted it. Pain shot up through his big toe, up to his shin, and into his knee. Crap. Falling back into the dirt, he clutched his foot, fat, bitter tears burning down his face. Like a freaking angry toddler.
“You okay, little brother?”
Jude looked up to see Peter standing above him. He cowered, half-expecting a boot to come flying down toward his face. Peter knew. Had known. How?
“Hey, relax.” Peter held his hands up, palms open. Glimpsing the tire, he frowned. “Hmm, that’s not good.” Peter stared for a second. Suddenly, he walked off. To where, Jude didn’t know. He wiped at his eyes hard. Fricking tears. How was he the one crying right now?
When Peter came back with a tire patch and air compressor. Jude’s stomach dropped. He watched, silently, as Peter got down on his knees, in the dust, and started patching the tire. How could… how? Jude wanted to cry again. When the work was done, Peter stood up, and walked over to Jude. Grabbing him by his forearms, Peter pulled Jude to his feet. “There we go.” Jude tried to say something, anything, but his mouth couldn’t form words.
They stood in silence for a moment. Then, “You could come back. You could tear up that check and come inside.” Peter’s eyes were wet. “I would help you. You could come home.” He could. Peter would forgive him, Jude believed that. But they both knew what he would choose.
Jude climbed in the car, tore out of the driveway, and cranked up the radio. Peter stood and watched his brother leave.