Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Tonight he found himself standing in front of Peter's room, looking at the mess wrought by the police during their search. He thought about righting the remaining books on the shelves, putting away the contents of the desk drawers that had been dumped onto the carpet. On second thought, he gently closed the door.

  Lacy was not in the bedroom, or brushing her teeth. He hesitated, an ear cocked. There was chatter--it sounded like a furtive conversation--coming from the room directly below him.

  He retraced his steps, drawing closer to the voices. Who would Lacy be talking to at nearly midnight?

  The screen of the television glowed green and unearthly in the dark study. Lewis had forgotten there even was a television in that room, it was so infrequently used. He saw the CNN logo and familiar ticker tape of breaking news along the bottom. A thought occurred to him: that ticker tape hadn't existed until 9/11--until people were so scared that they needed to know, without any delay, the facts of the world they inhabited.

  Lacy was kneeling on the carpet, her face turned up to the anchor's. "There is little word yet about how the man who was the shooter secured his weapons, or exactly what those weapons are . . ."

  "Lacy," he said, swallowing. "Lacy, come to bed."

  Lacy did not move, did not give any indication she'd heard him. Lewis passed her, trailing his hand over her shoulder as he went to shut off the television. "Preliminary reports are focusing on two pistols," the anchor confided, just before his image disappeared.

  Lacy turned to him. Her eyes reminded him of the sky you see from airplanes: a boundless gray that could be anywhere, and nowhere, all at once. "They keep calling him a man," she said, "but he's only a boy."

  "Lacy," he repeated, and she stood and moved into his arms, as if this were her invitation to the dance.


  If you listen carefully in a hospital, you can hear the truth. Nurses whisper to one another over your still body when you are pretending to sleep; policemen trade secrets in the hallway; doctors enter your room with another patient's condition on their lips.

  Josie had been making a mental list of the wounded. It seemed she could play six degrees of separation with any of the injured--when she had seen them last; when they had crossed her path; where they had been in proximity to her when they had been shot. There was Drew Girard, who'd grabbed Matt and Josie to tell them that Peter Houghton was shooting up the school. Emma, who'd been sitting three chairs away from Josie in the cafeteria. And Trey MacKenzie, a football player known for his house parties. John Eberhard, who had been eating Josie's French fries that morning. Min Horuka, an exchange student from Tokyo who'd gotten drunk last year out on the ropes course behind the track and then peed into the open window of the principal's car. Natalie Zlenko, who'd been in front of Josie in the cafeteria line. Coach Spears and Miss Ritolli, two former teachers of Josie's. Brady Pryce and Haley Weaver, the golden senior couple.

  There were others that Josie knew only by name--Michael Beach, Steve Babourias, Natalie Phlug, Austin Prokiov, Alyssa Carr, Jared Weiner, Richard Hicks, Jada Knight, Zoe Patterson--strangers with whom, now, she'd be linked forever.

  It was harder to find out the names of the dead. They were whispered about even more quietly, as if their condition were contagious to the rest of the unfortunate souls just taking up space in the hospital beds. Josie had heard rumors: that Mr. McCabe had been killed, and Topher McPhee--the school pot dealer. To hoard crumbs of information, Josie tried to watch television, which was running twenty-four-hour Sterling High Shooting coverage, but inevitably her mother would come into the room and turn it off. All she had gleaned from her forbidden media forays was that there had been ten fatalities.

  Matt was one.

  Every time Josie thought about it, something happened to her body. She stopped breathing. All the words she knew congealed at the bottom of her throat, a boulder blocking the exit from a cave.

  Thanks to the sedatives, so much of this seemed unreal--as if she were walking on the spongy floor of a dream--but the moment she thought of Matt, it became authentic and raw.

  She would never kiss Matt again.

  She would never hear him laugh.

  She would never feel the print of his hand on her waist, or read a note he'd slipped through the furrows of her locker, or feel her heart beat into his hand when he unbuttoned her shirt.

  She was only remembering the half of it, that she knew--as if the shooting had not only split her life into before and after, but also robbed her of certain skills: the ability to last an hour without puddling into tears; the ability to see the color red without feeling queasy; the ability to form a skeleton of the truth from the bare bones of memory. To remember the rest of it, given what had happened, would be nearly obscene.

  So instead, Josie found herself veering drunkenly from the soft-focus moments with Matt to the macabre. She kept thinking of a line from Romeo and Juliet that had freaked her out when they'd studied the play in ninth grade: With worms that are thy chambermaids. Romeo had said it to Juliet's looks-like-dead body in the Capulet crypt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But there were a whole bunch of steps in between that no one ever talked about, and when the nurses were gone in the middle of the night, Josie found herself wondering how long it took for flesh to peel from a skull; what happened to the jelly of eyes; whether Matt had already stopped looking like Matt. And then she'd wake up and find herself screaming, with a dozen doctors and nurses holding her down.

  If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn't be filled?

  The door to her room opened and her mother stepped inside. "So," she said, with a fake smile so wide it divided her entire head like an equator. "You ready?"

  It was only 7:00 a.m., but Josie had already been discharged. She nodded at her mother. Josie sort of hated her right now. She was acting all concerned and worried, but it was too much too late, as if it had taken this shooting for her to wake up to the fact that she had absolutely no relationship with Josie. She kept telling Josie she was here if Josie needed to talk, which was ridiculous. Even if Josie wanted to--which she didn't--her mother was the last person on earth she'd want to confide in. She wouldn't understand--no one would, except for the other kids lying in different rooms in this hospital. This hadn't been just some murder on the street somewhere, which would have been bad enough. This was the worst that could happen, in a place where Josie would have to return, whether she wanted to or not.

  Josie was wearing different clothes than the ones she'd been brought here with, which had mysteriously disappeared. No one was admitting to anything, but Josie assumed they were covered with Matt's blood. In this, they had been right to throw them away: no matter how much bleach was used and how many washings were done, Josie knew she'd be able to see the stains.

  Her head still ached from where she'd struck the floor when she fainted. She'd cut her forehead and narrowly avoided needing stitches, although the doctors had wanted to watch her overnight. (For what? Josie had wondered. A stroke? A blood clot? Suicide?) When Josie stood up, her mother was at her side immediately, an arm anchored around her for support. It reminded Josie of the way that she and Matt sometimes walked down the street in the summer, their hands filed into the back pockets of each other's jeans.

  "Oh, Josie," her mother said, and that was how she realized she'd started to cry again. It happened so often, now, that Josie had lost the capacity to tell when it stopped and started. Her mother offered her a tissue. "You know what? You'll start feeling better when you get home. I promise."

  Well, duh. Josie couldn't start feeling any worse.

  But she managed a grimace, which might have been a smile if you weren't looking too closely, because she knew that's what her mother needed right now. She walked the fifteen steps to the door of her hospital room.

  "You take care, sweetheart," one of the nurses said as Josie passed their pod of desks.

  Another one--
the one Josie had liked the best, who fed her ice chips--smiled. "Don't come back and see us, you hear?"

  Josie moved slowly toward the elevator, which seemed to get farther and farther away each time she glanced up. As she passed by one of the patient rooms she noticed a familiar name on the clipboard outside: HALEY WEAVER.

  Haley was a senior, homecoming queen for the past two years. She and her boyfriend, Brady, were the Brangelina of Sterling High--roles Josie actually had believed she and Matt stood a good chance to inherit after Haley and Brady graduated. Even the wishful thinkers who pined after Brady for his smoky smile and sculpted body had to admit that there was a poetic justice to his dating Haley, the most beautiful girl in the school. With her waterfall of white-blond hair and her clear blue eyes, she had always reminded Josie of a magical fairy--the serene, heavenly creature that floats down to grant someone's wishes.

  There were all sorts of stories that circulated about them: how Brady had given up football scholarships at colleges that didn't have art programs for Haley; how Haley had gotten a tattoo of Brady's initials in a place no one could see; how on their first date, he'd had rose petals spread on the passenger seat of his Honda. Josie, circulating in the same crowd as Haley, knew that most of this was bullshit. Haley herself had admitted, first, that it was a temporary tattoo, and second, that it wasn't rose petals, but a bouquet of lilacs he'd stolen from a neighbor's garden.

  "Josie?" Haley whispered now, from inside the room. "Is that you?"

  Josie felt her mother's hand on her arm, restraining her. But then Haley's parents, who were blocking a clear view of the bed, moved away.

  The right half of Haley's face was swathed in bandages; her hair was shaved to the scalp above it. Her nose had been broken, and her one visible eye was completely bloodshot. Josie's mother drew in her breath silently.

  She stepped inside and forced herself to smile.

  "Josie," Haley said. "He killed them. Courtney and Maddie. And then he pointed the gun at me, but Brady stepped in front of it." A tear streaked down the cheek that wasn't bandaged. "You know how people are always saying they'd do that for you?"

  Josie started shaking. She wanted to ask Haley a hundred questions, but her teeth were chattering so hard that she couldn't manage a single word. Haley grabbed on to her hand, and Josie startled. She wanted to pull away. She wanted to pretend she'd never seen Haley Weaver like this.

  "If I ask you something," Haley said, "you'll be honest, won't you?"

  Josie nodded.

  "My face," she whispered. "It's ruined, isn't it?"

  Josie looked Haley in the eye. "No," she said. "It's fine."

  They both knew she wasn't telling the truth.

  Josie said good-bye to Haley and her parents, grabbed on to her mother, and hurried even faster toward the elevators, even though every step felt like a thunderstorm behind her eyes. She suddenly remembered studying the brain in science class--how a steel rod had pierced a man's skull, and he opened up his mouth to speak Portuguese, a language he'd never studied. Maybe it would be like this, now, for Josie. Maybe her native tongue, from here on in, would be a string of lies.


  By the time Patrick returned to Sterling High the next morning, the crimescene detectives had turned the halls of the school into an enormous spiderweb. Based on where the victims had been found, string was taped up--a burst of lines radiating from one spot where Peter Houghton had paused long enough to fire shots before moving on. The lines of string crossed each other at points: a grid of panic, a graph of chaos.

  He stood for a moment in the center of the commotion, watching the techs weave the string across the hallways and between banks of lockers and into doorways. He imagined what it would have been like to start running at the sound of the gunshots, to feel people pushing behind you like a tide, to know that you couldn't move faster than a speeding bullet. To realize too late you were trapped, a spider's prey.

  Patrick picked his way through the web, careful not to disturb the work of the techs. He would use what they did to corroborate the stories of the witnesses. All 1,026 of them.


  The breakfast broadcast of the three local network news stations was devoted to that morning's arraignment of Peter Houghton. Alex stood in front of the television in her bedroom, nursing her cup of coffee and staring at the backdrop behind the eager reporters: her former workplace, the district courthouse.

  She'd settled Josie in her bedroom to sleep the dark, dreamless sleep of the sedated. To be perfectly honest, Alex needed this time alone, too. Who would have guessed that a woman who'd become a master at putting on a public face would find it so emotionally exhausting to hold herself together in front of her daughter?

  She wanted to sit down and get drunk. She wanted to weep, her head buried in her hands, at her good fortune: her daughter was two doors away from her. Later, they would have breakfast together. How many parents in this town were waking up to realize this would never be true again?

  Alex shut off the television. She didn't want to compromise her objectivity as the future judge on this case by listening to what the media had to say.

  She knew there would be critics--people who said that because her daughter went to Sterling High School, Alex should be removed from the case. If Josie had been shot, she would have quickly agreed. If Josie had even still been friendly with Peter Houghton, Alex would have recused herself. But as it stood, Alex's judgment was compromised no more than that of any other justice who lived in the area, or who knew a child who attended the school, or who was the parent of a teenager. It happened all the time to North Country justices: someone you knew would inevitably wind up in your courtroom. When Alex was rotating as a district court judge, she'd faced defendants she'd known on a personal level: her mailman caught with pot in his car; a domestic disturbance between her mechanic and his wife. As long as the dispute didn't involve Alex personally, it was perfectly legal--in fact, mandatory--for her to try the case. In those scenarios, you simply took yourself out of the equation. You became the judge and nothing more. The shooting, as Alex saw it, was the same set of circumstances, ratcheted up a notch. In fact, she'd argue that in a case with the massive media coverage this one had, it would take someone with a defense background--like Alex's--to truly be impartial to the shooter. And the more she thought about it, the more firmly convinced Alex became that justice couldn't be done without her involvement, the more ludicrous it seemed to suggest she was not the best judge for the job.

  She took another sip of her coffee and tiptoed from her bedroom to Josie's. But the door stood wide open, and her daughter was not inside.

  "Josie?" Alex called, panicking. "Josie, are you all right?"

  "Down here," Josie said, and Alex felt the knot inside her unravel again. She walked downstairs to find Josie sitting at the kitchen table.

  She was dressed in a skirt and tights and a black sweater. Her hair was still damp from a shower, and she had tried to cover the bandage on her forehead with a swath of bangs. She looked up at Alex. "Do I look all right?"

  "For what?" Alex asked, dumbfounded. She couldn't be expecting to go to school, could she? The doctors had told Alex that Josie might never remember the shooting, but could she erase the fact that it had ever happened from her mind, too?

  "The arraignment," Josie said.

  "Sweetheart, there is no way you're going near that courthouse today."

  "I have to."

  "You're not going," Alex said flatly.

  Josie looked as if she were unraveling at the seams. "Why not?"

  Alex opened her mouth to answer, but couldn't. This wasn't logic; it was gut instinct: she didn't want her daughter to relive this experience. "Because I said so," she finally replied.

  "That's not an answer," Josie accused.

  "I know what the media will do if they see you at the courthouse today," Alex said. "I know that nothing's going to happen at that arraignment that's going to be a surprise to anyone. And I know that I don't wan
t to let you out of my sight right now."

  "Then come with me."

  Alex shook her head. "I can't, Josie," she said softly. "This is going to be my case." She watched Josie pale, and realized that until that moment, Josie hadn't considered this. The trial, by default, would put an even thicker wall between them. As a judge, there would be information she couldn't share with her daughter, confidences she couldn't keep. While Josie was struggling to move past this tragedy, Alex would be knee-deep in it. Why had she put so much thought into judging this case, and so little into how it would affect her own daughter? Josie didn't give a damn if her mother was a fair judge right now. She only wanted--needed--a mother, and motherhood, unlike the law, was something that had never come easily to Alex.

  Out of the blue, she thought of Lacy Houghton--a mother who was in a whole different level of hell right now--who would have simply taken Josie's hand and sat with her and somehow made it seem sympathetic, instead of contrived. But Alex, who had never been the June Cleaver type, had to reach back years to find some moment of connection, something she and Josie had done once before that might work again now to hold them together. "Why don't you go upstairs and change, and we'll make pancakes. You used to like that."

  "Yeah, when I was five . . ."

  "Chocolate chip cookies, then."

  Josie blinked at Alex. "Are you on crack?"

  Alex sounded ridiculous even to herself, but she was desperate to show Josie that she could and would take care of her, and that her job came second. She stood up, opening cabinets until she found a Scrabble game. "Well, then, how about this?" Alex said, holding out the box. "I bet you can't beat me."

  Josie pushed past her. "You win," she said woodenly, and then she walked away.


  The student who was being interviewed by the CBS affiliate out of Nashua remembered Peter Houghton from a ninth-grade English class. "We had to write a story with a first-person narrator, and we could pick anyone," the boy said. "Peter did the voice of John Hinckley. From the things he said, you think he's looking out from hell, but then at the end you find out it's heaven. It freaked out our teacher. She had the principal look at the paper and everything." The boy hesitated, scratching his thumb along the seam of his jeans. "Peter told them it was poetic license, and an unreliable narrator--which we'd been studying, also." He glanced up at the camera. "I think he got an A."

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