Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Alex followed her into Peter's bedroom, where Lacy threw open the closet doors and checked beneath the bed. From there, they checked the bathroom, Joey's room, and the master bedroom. It wasn't until they went downstairs again that they heard voices coming from the basement. "It's heavy," Josie said.

  Then Peter: "Here. Like this."

  Alex wound down the wooden stairway. Lacy's basement was a one-hundred-year-old root cellar with a dirt floor and cobwebs strung like Christmas decorations. She homed in on the whispers coming from a corner of the basement, and there, behind a stack of boxes and a shelf full of home-canned jelly, was Josie, holding a rifle.

  "Oh my God," Alex breathed, and Josie swung around, pointing the barrel at her.

  Lacy grabbed the gun and pulled it away. "Where did you get this?" she demanded, and only then did Peter and Josie seem to realize that something was wrong.

  "Peter," Josie said. "He had a key."

  "A key?" Alex cried. "To what?"

  "The safe," Lacy murmured. "He must have seen Lewis taking out a rifle when he went hunting last weekend."

  "My daughter has been coming over to your house for how long now, and you've got guns lying around?"

  "They're not lying around," Lacy said. "They're in a locked gun safe."

  "Which your five-year-old can open!"

  "Lewis keeps the bullets--"

  "Where?" Alex demanded. "Or should I just ask Peter?"

  Lacy turned to Peter. "You know better. What on earth made you do this?"

  "I just wanted to show it to her, Mom. She asked."

  Josie lifted a frightened face. "I did not."

  Alex turned. "So now your son's blaming Josie--"

  "Or your daughter's lying," Lacy countered.

  They stared at each other, two friends who had separated along the fault lines of their children. Alex's face was flushed. What if, she kept thinking. What if they'd been five minutes later? What if Josie had been hurt, killed? On the edges of this thought, another one ignited--the answers she'd given the Executive Council weeks before. Who has the right to judge someone else?

  No one, she had said.

  And yet, here she was doing it.

  I am pro-firearms, she had told them.

  Did that make her a hypocrite? Or was she only being a good mother?

  Alex watched Lacy kneel beside her son and that was all it took to trip the switch: Josie's steadfast loyalty to Peter suddenly seemed to only be a weight dragging her down. Maybe it was best for Josie if she started making other friends. Friends who did not get her called to the principal's office and who placed rifles in her hand.

  Alex anchored Josie to her side. "I think we ought to leave."

  "Yes," Lacy agreed, her voice cool. "I think that would be best."

  *

  They were in the frozen-food aisle when Josie began her tantrum. "I don't like peas," she whined.

  "You don't have to eat them." Alex opened up the freezer door, letting the cold air kiss her cheek as she reached for the Green Giant vegetables.

  "I want Oreos."

  "You're not getting Oreos. You already had animal crackers." Josie had been contentious for a week now, ever since the fiasco at Lacy's house. Alex knew she couldn't keep Josie from being with Peter at school during the day, but that didn't mean she had to cultivate the relationship by allowing Josie to invite him over to play afterward.

  Alex hauled a vat of Poland Spring water into her cart, then a bottle of wine. On second thought, she reached for another. "Do you want chicken or hamburger for dinner?"

  "I want tofurkey."

  Alex started laughing. "Where did you hear about tofurkey?"

  "Lacy made it for us for lunch. They're like hot dogs but they're better for you."

  Alex stepped forward as her number was called at the meat counter. "Can I have a half pound of boneless chicken breasts?"

  "How come you get what you want, but I never get what I want?" Josie accused.

  "Believe me, you're not as deprived a child as you'd like to think you are."

  "I want an apple," Josie announced.

  Alex sighed. "Can we just please get through the grocery store without you saying I want again?"

  Before Alex realized what her daughter was doing, Josie kicked out from the seat of the shopping cart, catching Alex hard in the middle. "I hate you!" Josie screamed. "You're the worst mom in the whole world!"

  Alex was uncomfortably aware of the other shoppers looking at her--the old woman feeling melons, the grocery employee with his fists full of fresh broccoli. Why did kids always fall apart in venues where you would be duly measured for your actions? "Josie," she said, smiling through her teeth, "calm down."

  "I wish you were like Peter's mother! I wish I could just go live with them."

  Alex grasped her shoulders, hard enough to make Josie burst into tears. "You listen to me," she said in a heated undertone, and then she caught a distant whisper, and the word judge.

  There had been an article in the local paper about her recent appointment to the district court; it ran with a photo. Alex had felt the spark of recognition when she passed people in the baking aisle and the cereal aisle: Oh, that's her. But right now, she also felt the checks and balances of their stares as they watched her with Josie, waiting for her to act--well--judiciously.

  She relaxed her grasp. "I know you're tired," Alex said, loud enough for the rest of the entire store to hear. "I know you want to go home. But you have to behave when we're out in public."

  Josie blinked through her tears, listening to the Voice of Reason and wondering what this alien creature had done with her real mother, who would have yelled right back at her and told her to cut it out.

  A judge, Alex suddenly realized, doesn't get to be a judge only on the bench. She's still a judge when she goes out to a restaurant or dances at a party or wants to throttle her child in the middle of the produce aisle. Alex had been given a mantle to wear, without realizing that there was a catch: she would never be allowed to take it off.

  If you spent your life concentrating on what everyone else thought of you, would you forget who you really were? What if the face you showed the world turned out to be a mask . . . with nothing beneath it?

  Alex pushed the cart toward the checkout lines. By now, her raging child had turned into a contrite little girl again. She listened to Josie's diminishing hiccups. "There," she said, to comfort herself as much as her daughter. "Isn't that better?"

  *

  Alex's first day on the bench was spent in Keene. No one but her clerk would know officially that it was her first day--attorneys had heard she was new, but weren't sure when she quite started--and yet, she was terrified. She changed her outfit three times, even though no one would see it underneath her robe. She threw up twice before she left for the courthouse.

  She knew how to get to chambers--after all, she'd tried cases here on the other side of the bench a hundred times. The clerk was a thin man named Ishmael who remembered Alex from their previous meetings and hadn't particularly liked her--she'd cracked up after he introduced himself ("Call me Ishmael"). Today, however, he practically fell at her high-heeled feet. "Welcome, Your Honor," he said. "Here's your docket. I'll take you to your chambers, and we'll send a court officer in to get you when we're ready. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

  "No," Alex said. "I'm all set."

  He left her in chambers, which were freezing cold. She adjusted the thermostat and pulled her robe out of her briefcase to dress. There was an adjoining bathroom; Alex stepped inside to scrutinize herself. She looked fair. Commanding.

  And maybe a little like a choirgirl.

  She sat down at the desk and immediately thought of her father. Look at me, Daddy, she thought, although by now he was in a place where he couldn't hear her. She could remember dozens of cases he'd tried; he'd come home and tell her about them over dinner. What she couldn't remember were the moments when he wasn't a judge and was just her father.

&nbs
p; Alex scanned the files she needed for that morning's run of arraignments. Then she looked at her watch. She still had forty-five minutes before court went into session; it was her own damn fault for being so nervous that she'd gotten here too early. She stood up, stretched. She could do cartwheels in this room, it was that big.

  But she wouldn't, because judges didn't do that.

  Tentatively, she opened the door to the hall, and immediately Ishmael materialized. "Your Honor? What can I do for you?"

  "Coffee," Alex said. "That would be nice."

  Ishmael jumped on this request so fast that Alex realized if she asked him to go out and buy a gift for Josie's birthday, he would have it wrapped and on her desk by noon. She followed him into the lounge, one shared by attorneys and other judges, and walked toward the coffeemaker. Immediately, a young attorney fell back. "You go right ahead, Your Honor," she said, giving up her place in line.

  Alex reached for a paper cup. She'd have to remember to bring a mug to leave in chambers. Then again, since her position was a rotating one that would take her through Laconia, Concord, Keene, Nashua, Rochester, Milford, Jaffrey, Peterborough, Grafton, and Coos, depending on what day of the week it was, she'd have to find a lot of coffee mugs. She pushed down on the thermal coffee dispenser, only to have it whistle and hiss--empty. Without even thinking about it, she reached for a filter to make a fresh pot.

  "Your Honor, you don't have to do that," the attorney said, clearly embarrassed on Alex's behalf. She took the filter out of her hand and started to make the coffee.

  Alex stared at the lawyer. She wondered if anyone would ever call her Alex again, or if she should just have her name officially changed to Your Honor. She wondered if anyone would have the guts to tell her if she had toilet paper hanging off her shoe as she walked down the hall, or if she had spinach in her teeth. It was a strange feeling to be scrutinized so carefully and to know all the same that no one would ever dare to tell her to her face that something was wrong.

  The lawyer brought her the maiden cup of fresh coffee. "I wasn't sure how you liked it, Your Honor," she said, offering sugar and creamer cups.

  "This is fine," Alex said, but as she reached for the cup, her bell sleeve caught the edge of the Styrofoam, and the coffee spilled.

  Smooth, Alex, she thought.

  "Oh, gosh," the lawyer said. "I'm sorry!"

  Why are you sorry, Alex wondered, when it was my fault? The girl was already setting out napkins to clean up the mess, so Alex stripped off her gown to clean it. For one giddy moment she thought about not stopping there--disrobing completely, down to her bra and panties, and parading through the courthouse like the Emperor in the fairy tale. Isn't my gown beautiful? she'd say, and she would listen to everyone answer: Oh, yes, Your Honor.

  She rinsed the sleeve off in the sink and wrung it dry. Then, still carrying her robe, she started back to chambers. But the thought of sitting there for another half hour, alone, was too depressing, so instead Alex began to wander the halls of the Keene courthouse. She took turns she'd never taken before and wound up at a basement door that led to a loading zone.

  Outside, she found a woman dressed in the green jumpsuit of a groundskeeper, smoking a cigarette. The air was full of winter, and frost glittered on the asphalt like broken glass. Alex wrapped her arms around herself--it was quite possibly even colder out here than in chambers--and nodded at the stranger. "Hi," she said.

  "Hey." The woman exhaled a stream of smoke. "I haven't seen you around here before. What's your name?"

  "Alex."

  "I'm Liz. I'm the whole property maintenance department." She grinned. "So where do you work in the courthouse?"

  Alex fumbled in her pocket for a box of Tic Tacs--not that she wanted or needed a mint, but because she wanted to buy some time before this conversation came to a screeching halt. "Um," she said, "I'm the judge."

  Immediately, Liz's face fell, and she stepped back, uncomfortable.

  "You know, I hate telling you that, because it was so nice the way you just struck up a conversation with me. No one else around here will do that and it's . . . well, it's a little lonely." Alex hesitated. "Could you maybe forget that I'm the judge?"

  Liz ground out the cigarette beneath her boot. "Depends."

  Alex nodded. She turned the small plastic box of mints over in her palm; they rattled like music. "You want a Tic Tac?"

  After a moment, Liz held out her hand. "Sure, Alex," she said, and she smiled.

  *

  Peter had taken to wandering his own home like a ghost. He was grounded, which had something to do with the fact that Josie didn't come over anymore, even though they used to see each other after school three or four times a week. Joey didn't want to play with him--he was always off at soccer practice or playing a computer game where you had to drive really fast around a racetrack that was bent like a paper clip--which meant that Peter, officially, had nothing to do.

  One evening after dinner, he heard rustling in the basement. He hadn't been down there since his mother had found him with Josie and the gun, but now he was drawn like a moth to the light over his father's workbench. His father sat on a stool in front of it, holding the very gun that had gotten Peter into so much trouble.

  "Aren't you supposed to be getting ready for bed?" his father asked.

  "I'm not tired." He watched his father's hands run down the swan neck of the rifle.

  "Pretty, isn't it? It's a Remington 721. A thirty-ought-six." Peter's father turned to him. "Want to help me clean it?"

  Peter instinctively glanced toward the stairs, where his mother was washing dishes from dinner.

  "The way I figure it, Peter, if you're so interested in guns, you need to learn how to respect them. Better safe than sorry, right? Even your mom can't argue with that." He cradled the gun in his lap. "A gun is a very, very dangerous thing, but what makes it so dangerous is that most people don't really understand how it works. And once you do, it's just a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver, and it doesn't do anything unless you know how to pick it up and use it correctly. You understand?"

  Peter didn't, but he wasn't about to tell his father. He was about to learn how to use a real rifle! None of those idiot kids in his class, the ones who were such jerks, could say that.

  "First thing we have to do is open the bolt, like this, to make sure there aren't any bullets in it. Look in the magazine, right down there. See any?" Peter shook his head. "Now check again. You can never check too many times. Now, there's a little button under the receiver--just in front of the trigger guard--push that and you can remove the bolt completely."

  Peter watched his father take off the big silver ratchet that attached the butt of the rifle to the barrel, just like that. He reached onto his workbench for a bottle of solvent--Hoppes #9, Peter read--and spilled a little bit on a rag. "There's nothing like hunting, Peter," his father said. "To be out in the woods when the rest of the world is still sleeping . . . to see that deer raise its head and stare right at you . . ." He held the rag away from him--the smell made Peter's head swim--and started to rub the bolt with it. "Here," Peter's father said. "Why don't you do this?"

  Peter's jaw dropped--he was being told to hold the rifle, after what had happened with Josie? Maybe it was because his father was here to supervise, or maybe this was a trick and he was going to get punished for wanting to hold it again. Tentative, he reached for it--surprised, as he had been before, at how incredibly heavy it was. On Joey's computer game, Big Buck Hunter, the characters swung their rifles around as if they were feather-light.

  It wasn't a trick. His father wanted him to help, for real. Peter watched him reach for another tin--gun oil--and dribble some onto a clean rag. "We wipe down the bolt and put a drop on the firing pin. . . . You want to know how a gun works, Peter? Come over here." He pointed out the firing pin, a teensy circle inside the circle of the bolt. "Inside the bolt, where you can't see it, there's a big spring. When you pull the trigger, it releases the spring, which hits this firi
ng pin and pushes it out just the tiniest bit--" He held his thumb and forefinger apart just a fraction of an inch, for illustration. "That firing pin hits the center of a brass bullet . . . and dents a little silver button called the primer. The dent sets off the charge, which is gunpowder inside the brass casing. You've seen a bullet--how it gets thinner and thinner at the end? That skinny part holds the actual bullet, and when the gunpowder goes off, it creates pressure behind the bullet and pushes it from behind."

  Peter's father took the bolt out of his hands, wiped it with oil, and set it aside. "Now look into the barrel." He pointed the gun as if he were going to shoot at a lightbulb on the ceiling. "What do you see?"

  Peter peeked into the open barrel from behind. "It's like the noodles Mom makes for lunch."

  "Yeah, I guess it is. Rotini? Is that what they're called? The twists in the barrel are like a screw. As the bullet gets pushed out, these grooves make the bullet turn. Kind of like when you throw a football and put some spin on it."

  Peter had tried to do that in the backyard with his father and Joey, but his hand was too small or the football was too big and when he tried to make a pass, mostly it just crashed at his own feet.

  "If the bullet comes out spinning, it can fly straight without wobbling." His father began to fiddle with a long rod that had a loop of wire on the end. Sticking a patch into the loop, he dipped it in solvent. "The gunpowder leaves gunk inside the barrel, though," he said. "And that's what we have to clean off."

  Peter watched his father jam the rod into the barrel, up and down, like he was churning butter. He put on a clean patch and ran it through the barrel again, and then another, until they didn't come out streaked black anymore. "When I was your age, my father showed me how to do this, too." He threw the patch out in the trash. "One day, you and I will go hunting."

  Peter couldn't contain himself at the very thought of this. He--who couldn't throw a football or dribble a soccer ball or even swim very well--was going to go hunting with his father? He loved the thought of leaving Joey at home. He wondered how long he'd have to wait for this outing--how it would feel to be doing something with his father that was just theirs.

  "Ah," his father said. "Now, look down the barrel again."

  Peter grabbed the gun backward, looking down through the muzzle, the barrel of the gun pressed up against his face near his eye. "Jesus, Peter!" his father said, taking it out of his hands. "Not like that! You've got it backward!" He turned the gun so that the barrel was facing away from Peter. "Even though the bolt's way over there--and it's safe--you don't ever look down the muzzle of a rifle. You don't point a gun at something you don't want to kill."

 
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