Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  *

  At the traffic light, Patrick fell asleep. He dreamed that he was running through the halls of the school, hearing gunshots, but every time he turned a corner he found himself hovering in midair--the floor having vanished beneath his feet.

  At a honk, he snapped alert.

  He waved in apology to the car that pulled up alongside him to pass and drove to the state crime lab, where the ballistics tests had been given priority. Like Patrick, these techs had been working around the clock.

  His favorite--and most trusted--technician was a woman named Selma Abernathy, a grandmother of four who knew more about cutting-edge technology than any technogeek. She looked up when Patrick came into the lab and raised a brow. "You've been napping," she accused.

  Patrick shook his head. "Scout's honor."

  "You look too good for someone who's exhausted."

  He grinned. "Selma, you've really got to get over your crush on me."

  She pushed her glasses up on her nose. "Honey, I'm smart enough to fall for someone who doesn't make my life a pain in the ass. You want your results?"

  Patrick followed her over to a table, on which were four guns: two pistols and two sawed-off shotguns. They were tagged: Gun A, Gun B--the two pistols; Gun C and Gun D--the shotguns. He recognized the pistols--they were the ones found in the locker room--one held by Peter Houghton, the other one a short distance away on the tile floor. "First I tested for latent prints," Selma said, and she showed the results to Patrick. "Gun A had a print that matches your suspect. Guns C and D were clean. Gun B had a partial print on it that was inconclusive."

  Selma nodded to the rear of the laboratory, where enormous barrels of water were used for test-firing the guns. She would have test-fired each weapon into the water, Patrick knew. When a bullet was fired, it spun through the barrel of a gun, which caused striations on the metal. As a result, you could tell, by looking at a bullet, exactly which gun it had been fired from. This would help Patrick piece together Peter Houghton's rampage: where he'd stopped to shoot, which weapon he'd used.

  "Gun A was the one primarily used during the shooting, Guns C and D were left in the backpack retrieved at the crime scene. Which is actually a good thing, because they most likely would have done more damage. All of the bullets retrieved from the bodies of victims were fired from Gun A, the first pistol."

  Patrick wondered where Peter Houghton had gotten his armory. And at the same time, he realized that it wasn't hard in Sterling to find someone who hunted or went target shooting at the site of an old dump in the woods.

  "I know, from the gunpowder residue, that Gun B was fired. However, there hasn't been a bullet recovered yet that confirms this."

  "They're still processing--"

  "Let me finish," Selma said. "The other interesting thing about Gun B is that it jammed after that one discharge. When we examined it we found a double-feed of a bullet."

  Patrick crossed his arms. "There's no print on the weapon?" he clarified.

  "There's an inconclusive print on the trigger . . . probably smudged when your suspect dropped it, but I can't say that for certain."

  Patrick nodded and pointed to Gun A. "This is the one he dropped, when I drew down on him in the locker room. So, presumably, it's the last one he fired."

  Selma lifted a bullet with a pair of tweezers. "You're probably right. This was retrieved from Matthew Royston's brain," she said. "And the striations are consistent with a discharge from Gun A."

  The boy in the locker room, the one who'd been found with Josie Cormier.

  The only victim who'd been shot twice.

  "What about the bullet in the kid's stomach?" Patrick asked.

  Selma shook her head. "Went through clean. It could have been fired from either Gun A or Gun B, but we won't know until you bring me a slug."

  Patrick stared at the weapons. "He'd used Gun A all over the rest of the school. I can't imagine what made him switch to the other pistol."

  Selma glanced up at him; he noticed for the first time the dark circles under her eyes, the toll this overnight emergency had taken. "I can't imagine what made him use either of them in the first place."

  *

  Meredith Vieira stared gravely into the camera, having perfected the demeanor for a national tragedy. "Details continue to accumulate in the case of the Sterling shootings," she said. "For more, we go to Ann Curry at the news desk. Ann?"

  The news anchor nodded. "Overnight, investigators have learned that four weapons were brought into Sterling High School, although only two were actually used by the shooter. In addition, there is evidence that Peter Houghton, the suspect in the shootings, was an ardent fan of a hard-core punk band called Death Wish, often posting on fan websites and downloading lyrics onto his personal computer. Lyrics that, in retrospect, have some people wondering what kids should and should not be listening to."

  The green screen behind her shoulder filled with text:

  Black snow falling

  Stone corpse walking

  Bastards laughing

  Gonna blow them all away, on my Judgment Day.

  Bastards don't see

  The bloody beast in me

  The reaper rides for free

  Gonna blow them all away, on my Judgment Day.

  "The Death Wish song 'Judgment Day' includes a frightening foreshadowing of an event that became all too real in Sterling, New Hampshire, yesterday morning," Curry said. "Raven Napalm, lead singer for Death Wish, held a press conference late last night."

  The footage cut to a man with a black Mohawk, gold eye shadow, and five pierced hoops through his lower lip, standing in front of a group of microphones. "We live in a country where American kids are dying because we're sending them overseas to kill people for oil. But when one sad, distraught child who doesn't see the beauty in life goes and wrongly acts on his rage by shooting up a school, people start pointing a finger at heavy metal music. The problem isn't with rock lyrics, it's with the fabric of this society itself."

  Ann Curry's face filled the screen again. "We'll have more on the continuing coverage of the tragedy in Sterling as it unfolds. In national news, the Senate defeated the gun control bill last Wednesday, but Senator Roman Nelson suggests that it's not the last we've seen of that fight. He joins us today from South Dakota. Senator?"

  *

  Peter didn't think he'd slept at all last night, but all the same, he didn't hear the correctional officer coming toward his cell. He startled at the sound of the metal door scraping open.

  "Here," the man said, and he tossed something at Peter. "Put it on."

  He knew that he was going to court today; Jordan McAfee had told him so. He assumed that this was a suit or something. Didn't people always get to wear a suit in court, even if they were coming straight from jail? It was supposed to make them sympathetic. He thought he'd seen that on TV.

  But it wasn't a suit. It was Kevlar, a bulletproof vest.

  *

  In the holding cell beneath the courthouse, Jordan found his client lying on his back on the floor, an arm shielding his eyes. Peter was wearing a bulletproof vest, an unspoken nod to the fact that everyone packing the courtroom that morning wanted to kill him. "Good morning," Jordan said, and Peter sat up.

  "Or not," he murmured.

  Jordan didn't respond. He leaned a little closer to the bars. "Here's the plan. You've been charged with ten counts of first-degree murder and nineteen counts of attempted first-degree murder. I'm going to waive the readings of the complaints--we'll go over them individually some other time. Right now we just have to go in there and enter not-guilty pleas. I don't want you to say a word. If you have any questions, you whisper them to me. You are, for all intents and purposes, mute for the next hour. Understand?"

  Peter stared at him. "Perfectly," he said, sullen. But Jordan was looking at his client's hands.

  They were shaking.

  *

  From the log of items removed from the bedroom of Peter Houghton:

&n
bsp; 1. Dell laptop computer.

  2. Gaming CDs: Doom 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

  3. Three posters from gun manufacturers.

  4. Assorted lengths of pipe.

  5. Books: The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger; On War, Clausewitz; graphic novels by Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.

  6. DVD--Bowling for Columbine.

  7. Yearbook from Sterling Middle School, various faces circled in black marker. One circled face x'd out with words LET LIVE beneath picture. Girl identified in caption as Josie Cormier.

  *

  The girl spoke so softly that the microphone, hanging on a boom over her head like a pinata, had trouble picking up the unraveled threads of her voice. "Mrs. Edgar's classroom is right next to Mr. McCabe's, and sometimes we could hear them moving their chairs around or shouting out answers," she said. "But this time we heard screaming. Mrs. Edgar, she took her desk and shoved it up against the door and told us all to go to the far end of the classroom, near the windows, and sit on the floor. The gunshots, they sounded like popcorn. And then . . ." She stopped and wiped her eyes. "And then there wasn't any more screaming."

  *

  Diana Leven hadn't expected the gunman to look so young. Peter Houghton was shackled and chained, wearing his orange jumpsuit and bulletproof vest, but he still had the apple cheeks of a boy who hadn't come through the far side of puberty yet, and she would have bet money he didn't have to shave. The glasses, too, upset her. The defense would play that to the hilt, she was certain, claiming some myopia that would have made sharpshooting an impossibility.

  The four cameras that the district court judge had agreed on to represent the networks--ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN--hummed to life like a barbershop quartet as soon as the defendant was led into the room. Since it had gotten so quiet in the room that you could hear the sound of your own doubts, Peter turned immediately toward them. Diana realized that his eyes were not all that different from those of the cameras: dark, blind, empty behind the lenses.

  Jordan McAfee--a lawyer Diana didn't like very much on a personal level but grudgingly admitted was damn good at his job--leaned toward his client the moment Peter reached the defense table. The bailiff stood. "All rise," he bellowed, "the Honorable Charles Albert presiding."

  Judge Albert hustled into the courtroom, his robes whispering. "Be seated," he said. "Peter Houghton," he began, turning to the defendant.

  Jordan McAfee stood. "Your Honor, we waive the reading of the charges. We'd like to enter not-guilty pleas for all of them, and we request that a probable cause hearing be scheduled in ten days."

  This wasn't a surprise to Diana--why would Jordan want the whole world to hear his client being indicted on ten separate counts of first-degree murder? The judge turned to her. "Ms. Leven, the statute requires that a defendant charged with first-degree murder--multiple counts, at that--be held without bail. I assume you have no problem with this."

  Diana hid a smile. Judge Albert, God bless him, had managed to slip in the charges anyway. "That's correct, Your Honor."

  The judge nodded. "Well then, Mr. Houghton. You're remanded back into custody."

  The whole procedure had taken less than five minutes, and the public wouldn't be happy. They wanted blood; they wanted revenge. Diana watched Peter Houghton stumble between the hold of two sheriff's deputies and turn back to his lawyer one last time with a question on his lips that he didn't utter. Then the door closed behind him, and Diana gathered her briefcase and walked out of the courtroom to the cameras.

  She stood in front of a thrust of microphones. "Peter Houghton was just arraigned on ten counts of first-degree murder and nineteen counts of attempted first-degree murder, and various accompanying charges involving illegal possession of explosives and firearms in this recent tragedy. The rules of professional responsibility prevent us from commenting on the evidence at this point, but the community can rest assured that we are prosecuting this case vigorously, that we have been working around the clock with our investigators to make sure that the evidence is collected, preserved, and appropriately handled so that this unspeakable tragedy will not go unanswered." She opened her mouth to continue but realized that there was another voice speaking, just across the hallway, and that reporters were defecting from her impromptu press conference to hear Jordan McAfee instead.

  He stood sober and penitent, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, as he stared right at Diana. "I grieve with the community for its losses, and will represent my client to the fullest. Peter Houghton is a seventeen-year-old boy; he's very scared. And I ask you to please have respect for his family and to remember that this is a matter to be determined in court." Jordan hesitated, ever the showman, and then made eye contact with the crowd. "I ask you to remember that what you see is not always all it seems to be."

  Diana smirked. The reporters--and the people all over the world who would be listening to Jordan's careful speech--would hear his little salvo at the end and believe that he had some fabulous truth up his sleeve--something that would prove his client was not a monster. Diana, however, knew better. She could translate legalese, because she spoke it fluently. When an attorney spun mysterious rhetoric like that, it was because he had nothing else he could use to defend his client.

  *

  At noon, the governor of New Hampshire held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol building in Concord. On his lapel he was wearing a loop of maroon and white ribbon, the school colors of Sterling High, which had sprouted up at gas station cash registers and Wal-Mart counters and were being sold for $1 each, the proceeds going to support the Sterling Victims Fund. One of his minions had driven twenty-seven miles to get one, because the governor planned to throw his hat into the Democratic primary in 2008 and knew this was a perfect media moment during which he could portray compassion at its strongest. Yes, he felt for the citizens of Sterling, and especially those poor parents of the dead, but there was also a calculated part of him that knew a man who could shepherd a state through one of the most tragic school shooting incidents in America would be seen as a strong leader. "Today, all of this country grieves with New Hampshire," he said. "Today, all of us feel the pain that Sterling feels. They are all our children."

  He glanced up. "I've been up to Sterling, and I've spoken to the investigators who are working hard, round the clock, to understand what happened yesterday. I've spent time with some of the families of the victims, and at the hospital with the brave survivors. Part of our past and part of our future disappeared in this tragedy," the governor said as he looked solemnly into the cameras. "What we all need, now, is to focus on the future."

  *

  It took Josie less than a morning to learn the magic words: when she wanted her mother to leave her alone, when she was sick of her mother watching her like a hawk, all she had to do was say that she needed a nap. Then, her mother would back off, completely unaware of the fact that her whole face relaxed the minute Josie let her off the hook, and that only then could Josie recognize her.

  Upstairs, in her room, Josie sat in the dark with her shades drawn and her hands folded in her lap. It was broad daylight, but you'd never know it. People had figured out all sorts of ways to make things seem different than they truly were. A room could be turned into an artificial night. Botox transformed people's faces into something they weren't. TiVo let you think you could freeze time, or at least reorder it to your own liking. An arraignment at a courthouse fit like a Band-Aid over a wound that really needed a tourniquet.

  Fumbling in the dark, Josie reached underneath the frame of her bed for the plastic bag she'd stashed--her supply of sleeping pills. She was no better than any of the other stupid people in this world who thought if they pretended hard enough, they could make it so. She'd thought that death could be an answer, because she was too immature to realize it was the biggest question of all.

  Yesterday, she hadn't known what patterns blood could make when it sprayed on a whitewashed wall. She hadn't understood that life left a person's lungs f
irst, and their eyes last. She had pictured suicide as a final statement, a fuck you to the people who hadn't understood how hard it was for her to be the Josie they wanted her to be. She'd somehow thought that if she killed herself, she'd be able to watch everyone else's reaction; that she'd get the last laugh. Until yesterday, she hadn't really understood. Dead was dead. When you died, you did not get to come back and see what you were missing. You didn't get to apologize. You didn't get a second chance.

  Death wasn't something you could control. In fact, it would always have the upper hand.

  She ripped the plastic bag open into her palm and stuffed five of the pills into her mouth. She walked into the bathroom and ran the tap, stuck her head close to the faucet until the pills were swimming in the fishbowl of her bulging cheeks.

  Swallow, she told herself.

  But instead, Josie fell in front of the toilet and spit the pills out. She emptied the rest of the pills, still clutched in her fist. She flushed before she could think twice.

  Her mother came upstairs because she heard the sobbing. It had seeped through the grout of the tile and the soffits and the plaster that made up the ceiling downstairs. It would, in fact, become as much of this household as the bricks and the mortar, although neither of the women realized it yet. Josie's mother burst into the bedroom and sank down beside her daughter in the attached bathroom. "What can I do, baby?" she whispered, running her hands up and down Josie's shoulders and back, as if the answer were a visible tattoo instead of a scar on the heart.

  *

  Yvette Harvey sat on a couch holding her daughter's eighth-grade graduation photo, taken two years, six months, and four days before she died. Kaitlyn's hair had grown out, but you could still see the easy lopsided smile, the moon face that was part and parcel of Down syndrome.

  What would have happened if she hadn't chosen to mainstream Kaitlyn in middle school? If she'd sent her to a school for kids who had disabilities? Were those kids any less angry, less likely to have bred a killer?

 
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