Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Swallowing, she stared at Peter, trying to think of what she could do to spur him to self-defense, which punishment would make him change his behavior, even as it broke her heart to make him do just that. "If this happens again . . . no playdates with Josie for a month."

  She closed her eyes at the ultimatum. It was not the way she liked to parent, but apparently her usual advice--be kind, be polite, be what you want others to be--had done Peter no good. If a threat might make Peter roar, so loud that Drew and all those other awful children slunk away with their tails between their legs, then Lacy would do it.

  She brushed Peter's hair back from his face, watching the play of doubt cloud his features--and why shouldn't it? His mother had certainly never given him a directive like this before. "He's a bully. A jerk, in a tiny package. But he'll grow up to be a bigger jerk, and you--you're going to grow up to be someone incredible." Lacy smiled widely at her son. "One day, Peter, everyone's going to know your name."


  There were two swings out on the playground, and sometimes you had to wait your turn for them. When that happened, Peter would cross his fingers and hope that he got the one that hadn't been swung around the top bar by a fifth grader, making it so that the seat was incredibly high off the ground and hard to get into. He was afraid he would fall off, trying to get on the swing, or, even more embarrassing, not even be able to hike himself up in the first place.

  When he waited with Josie, she always took that swing. She pretended she liked it, but Peter realized she was only pretending she didn't know how much he disliked it.

  Today at recess, they weren't swinging. Instead, they'd twisted the chains round and round until they were as knotted as a throat, and then they'd lift up their feet and go spinning. Peter would sometimes look back at the sky and imagine that he was flying.

  When they stopped, his swing and Josie's staggered against each other and their feet got all tangled. She laughed, and lightly locked their ankles together so that they were connected, a human chain link.

  He turned to her. "I want people to like me," he blurted out.

  Josie tilted her head. "People do like you."

  Peter split his feet, disengaging them. "I meant people," he said, "who aren't you."


  The application to become a judge took Alex two full days to complete, and as she filled it out, a remarkable thing happened: she realized that she did actually want to be a judge. In spite of what she'd said to Whit, in spite of her earlier reservations, she was making the right decision for the right reasons.

  When the Judicial Selection Commission called for an interview, they made it clear that such invitations were not extended to just anybody. That if Alex was being interviewed, she was being seriously considered for the position.

  The job of the commission was to give the governor a short list of candidates. Judicial commission interviews were conducted at the old governor's mansion, Bridges House, in East Concord. They were staggered, and candidates entered through one entrance and left through another, presumably so that no one knew who else was up for the job.

  The twelve members of the commission were lawyers, policemen, executive directors of victim's advocacy organizations. They stared so hard at Alex that she expected her face to burst into flames. It did not help, either, that she had been up half the night with Josie, who'd awakened from a nightmare about a boa constrictor and refused to go back to sleep. Alex didn't know who the other candidates were for this position, but she'd wager that they weren't single moms who'd had to poke the radiator vents with a yardstick at 3:00 a.m. to prove that there weren't any snakes hiding in the dark tunnels.

  "I like the pace," she said carefully, replying to a question. There were answers she was expected to give, she knew. The trick was to somehow imbue the stock phrases and anticipated responses with part of her personality. "I like the pressure of making a quick decision. I'm strong on the rules of evidence. I've been in courtrooms with justices who don't do their homework in advance, and I know I won't function that way." She hesitated, looking around at the men and women, wondering if she should cultivate a persona like most of the other people who applied for judicial positions--and who'd come through the hallowed ranks of the prosecutorial office--or if she should be herself and allow the petticoat hem of her public defender background to peek out.

  Oh, hell.

  "I guess the reason I really want to be a judge is because I love the way a courtroom is an equal opportunity environment. When you come into it, for that brief amount of time, your case is the most important thing in the world, to everyone in that room. The system works for you. It doesn't matter who you are, or where you're from--your treatment will depend on the letter of the law, not on any socioeconomic variables."

  One of the commission members looked down at her notes. "What do you think makes a good judge, Ms. Cormier?"

  Alex felt a bead of sweat run down between her shoulder blades. "Being patient but firm. Being in control but not being arrogant. Knowing the rules of evidence and the rules of a courtroom." She paused. "This is probably not what you're used to hearing, but I think a good judge probably is a whiz at tangrams."

  An older woman from a victim's advocacy group blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

  "Tangrams. I'm a mom. My little girl, she's five. And there's this game she has where you're given a geometric outline of a figure--a boat, a train, a bird--and you somehow construct it from a set of puzzle pieces: triangles and parallelograms--some bigger than others. It's easy for a person with good spatial relations skills, because you really have to think outside the box. And being a judge is like that. You've got all of these competing factors--the parties involved, the victims, law enforcement, society, even precedent--and you somehow have to use them to solve the problem within a given framework."

  In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Alex turned her head and caught a glimpse through a window of the next interviewee arriving through the entrance vestibule. She blinked, certain she'd seen wrong, but you did not forget the silvered curls that you'd once run your fingers through; you did not put out of your mind the geography of cheekbones and jaw you'd traced with your own lips. Logan Rourke--her trial advocacy professor; her old lover; her daughter's father--headed into the building and closed the door.

  Apparently, he was a judicial candidate as well.

  Alex drew in her breath, even more determined to win this position than she had been a moment ago. "Ms. Cormier?" the older woman said again, and Alex realized she'd missed her question the first time around.

  "Yes. Sorry?"

  "I asked how successful you are when you play tangrams."

  Alex met her gaze. "Ma'am," she said, letting a broad smile escape, "I'm the New Hampshire State Champion."


  At first, the numbers just looked fatter. But then they started to twist a little, and Peter had to either squinch up his face or get closer to see if it was a 3 or an 8. His teacher sent him to the nurse, who smelled like teabags and feet, and she made him look at a chart on the wall.

  His new eyeglasses were light as a feather and had special lenses that wouldn't scratch even if he fell down and they went flying across a sandbox. The frames were made out of wire, too thin, in his opinion, to hold up the curved pieces of glass that made his eyes look like an owl's: oversized, bright, so blue.

  When Peter got his glasses he was amazed. Suddenly, the blur in the distance coagulated into a farm with silos and fields and spots of cows. The letters on the red sign said STOP. There were tiny lines, like the creases on his knuckles, at the corners of his mother's eyes. All superheroes had accessories--Batman's belt, Superman's cape--this was his, and it gave him X-ray vision. He was so excited about having his new glasses that he slept with them.

  It wasn't until he got to school the next day that he understood that with better vision came perfect hearing: Four-eyes; blind as a bat. His glasses were no longer a mark of distinction but only a scar, something else that made hi
m different from everyone else. And that wasn't even the worst of it.

  As the world came into focus, Peter realized how people looked when they glanced at him. As if he were the punch line to a joke.

  And Peter, with his 20/20 vision, cast his eyes downward, so that he wouldn't see.


  "We are subversive parents," Alex whispered to Lacy as they sat with their knees bent high as a grasshopper's at one of the undersize tables during Open School Day. She took the Cuisenaire rods used for math--bright colored unit strips of twos, threes, fours, fives--and fashioned them to spell a curse word.

  "It's all fun and games until someone turns out to be a judge," Lacy chided, and she scattered the word with her hand.

  "Afraid I'm going to get you kicked out of kindergarten?" Alex laughed. "And as for the judge thing, that's about as much of a long shot as me winning the lottery."

  "We'll see," Lacy said.

  The teacher leaned down between them and handed each woman a small piece of paper. "Today I'm inviting all the parents to write down one word that best describes their child. Later, we'll make a love collage out of them."

  Alex glanced at Lacy. "A love collage?"

  "Stop being anti-kindergarten."

  "I'm not. In fact, I think everything you need to know about the law you learn in kindergarten. You know: Don't hit. Don't take what's not yours. Don't kill people. Don't rape them."

  "Oh, yeah, I remember that lesson. Right after snack time," Lacy said.

  "You know what I mean. It's a social contract."

  "What if you wound up on the bench and had to uphold a law you didn't believe in?"

  "First off, that's a big if. And second, I'd do it. I'd feel horrible about it, but I'd do it," Alex said. "You don't want a judge with a personal agenda, believe me."

  Lacy tore the edge of her paper into a fringe. "If you become the job, then when do you get to be you?"

  Alex grinned and pushed the Cuisenaire rods into another four-letter word. "At kindergarten open houses, I guess."

  Suddenly Josie appeared, rosy-cheeked and flushed. "Mommy," she said, tugging on Alex's hand as Peter climbed onto Lacy's lap. "We're all done."

  They had been in the block corner, creating a surprise. Lacy and Alex stood up, letting themselves be led past the book rack and the stacks of tiny carpets and the science table with its rotting pumpkin experiment whose pitted skin and sunken flesh reminded Alex of the face of a prosecutor she knew. "This is our house," Josie announced, pushing open a block that served as the front door. "We're married."

  Lacy nudged Alex. "I always wanted to get along with my in-laws."

  Peter stood at a wooden stove, mixing imaginary food in a plastic pot. Josie put on an oversize lab coat. "Time to go to work. I'll be home for dinner."

  "Okay," Peter said. "We're having meatballs."

  "What's your job?" Alex asked Josie.

  "I'm a judge. I send people to jail all day long and then I come home and eat pisghetti." She walked around the perimeter of the block house and reentered through the front door.

  "Sit down," Peter said. "You're late again."

  Lacy closed her eyes. "Is it just me, or is this like looking into a really unflattering mirror?"

  They watched Josie and Peter put aside their plates and then move to another part of their block house, a smaller square within the square. They lay down inside it. "This is the bed," Josie explained.

  The teacher came up behind Alex and Lacy. "They play house all the time," she said. "Isn't it sweet?"

  Alex watched Peter curl up on his side. Josie spooned against him, wrapping her arm around his waist. She wondered how her daughter had ever formed an image of a couple like this in her mind, given that she'd never even seen her mother go out on a date.

  She watched Lacy lean against the block cubby and write, on her small slip of paper, TENDER. That did describe Peter--he was tender, almost to the point of being raw. It took someone like Josie--curled around him like a shell--to protect him.

  Alex reached for a pencil and smoothed out the piece of paper. Adjectives tumbled through her mind--there were so many for her daughter: dynamic, loyal, bright, breathtaking--but she found herself forming different letters.

  Mine, she wrote.


  This time when the lunch box hit the pavement, it broke wide across its hinges and the car behind the school bus ran right over his tuna fish sandwich and his bag of Doritos. The bus driver, as usual, didn't notice. The fifth-grade boys were so good at doing this by now that the window was opened and closed before you could even yell for them to stop. Peter felt his eyes welling with tears as the boys high-fived each other. He could hear his mother's voice in his head--this was the moment where he was supposed to stick up for himself!--but his mother did not realize that would only make it worse.

  "Oh, Peter," Josie sighed as he sat down again beside her.

  He stared down at his mittens. "I don't think I can go to your house on Friday."

  "How come?"

  "Because my mom said she'll punish me if I lose my lunch box again."

  "That's not fair," Josie said.

  Peter shrugged. "Nothing is."


  No one was more surprised than Alex when the governor of New Hampshire officially picked her from a short list of three candidates for a district court judicial position. Although it made sense that Jeanne Shaheen--a young, Democratic female governor--would want to appoint a young, Democratic female judge, Alex was still a little light-headed over the news when she went for her interview.

  The governor was younger than Alex had expected, and prettier. Which is exactly what most people will think about me if I'm on the bench, she thought. She sat down and slipped her hands under her thighs to keep them from shaking.

  "If I nominate you," the governor said, "is there anything I should know?"

  "You mean skeletons in my closet?"

  Shaheen nodded. What it really came down to, for a gubernatorial appointee, was whether or not that nominee would in some way reflect poorly on the governor herself. Shaheen was trying to cross her t's and dot her i's before making an official decision, and for that, Alex could only admire her. "Is anyone going to come to your Executive Council hearing and oppose your nomination?" the governor asked.

  "That depends. Are you giving out furloughs at the state prison?"

  Shaheen laughed. "I take it that's where your disgruntled clients have ended up."

  "That's exactly why they're disgruntled."

  The governor stood up and shook Alex's hand. "I think we'll get along well," she said.


  Maine and New Hampshire were the only two states left in the country with an Executive Council--a group that acted as a direct check on the governor's power. For Alex, this meant that in the month between her nomination and her confirmation hearing, she had to do whatever she could to placate five Republican men before they put her through the wringer.

  She called them weekly, asking if they had any questions they needed answered. She also had to arrange for witnesses to appear on her behalf at the confirmation hearing. After years in the public defender's office, this should have been simple, but the Executive Council did not want to hear from lawyers. They wanted to hear from the community where Alex worked and lived--from her first-grade teacher to a state trooper who liked her in spite of her allegiance to the Dark Side. The tricky part was that Alex had to call in all her favors to get these people to prepare and testify, but she also had to make it clear that if she did get confirmed as a judge, she could give them nothing in return.

  And then, finally, it was Alex's turn to take the hot seat. She sat in the Executive Council office in the State House, fielding questions that ranged from What was the last book you read? to Who has the burden of proof in abuse and neglect cases? Most of the questions were substantive and academic, until she was thrown a curve.

  Ms. Cormier, who has the right to judge someone else?

" she said. "That depends on whether you're judging in a moral sense or a legal sense. Morally, no one has the right to judge anyone else. But legally, it's not a right--it's a responsibility."

  Following up on that, what is your position on firearms?

  Alex hesitated. She was not a fan of guns. She didn't let Josie watch anything on television that showed violence. She knew what happened when you put a gun in the hand of a troubled kid, or an angry husband, or a battered wife--she'd defended those clients too many times to dismiss that kind of catalytic reaction.

  And yet.

  She was in New Hampshire, a conservative state, in front of a group of Republicans who were terrified she would turn out to be a left-wing loose cannon. She would be presiding over communities where hunting was not only revered but necessary.

  Alex took a sip of water. "Legally," she said, "I am pro-firearms."


  "It's crazy," Alex said as she stood in Lacy's kitchen. "You go to these robe sites online, and the models are all linebackers with breasts. The public perception of a female judge is one that looks like Bea Arthur." She leaned into the hallway and yelled up the stairs. "Josie! I'm counting to ten and then we're leaving!"

  "Are there choices?"

  "Yeah, black . . . or black." Alex folded her arms. "You can get cotton and polyester or just polyester. You can get bell sleeves or gathered sleeves. They're all hideous. What I really want is something with a waist."

  "Guess Vera Wang doesn't do judicial," Lacy said.

  "Not quite." She stuck her head into the hallway again. "Josie! Now!"

  Lacy put down the dish towel she had been using to dry a pan and followed Alex into the hall. "Peter! Josie's mother has to get home!" When there was no response from the children, Lacy headed upstairs. "They're probably hiding."

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