Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  The producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show handed back the stack of photographs that Yvette had given her. She hadn't known, before today, that there were levels of tragedy, that even if the Oprah show called you to ask you to tell your sad story, they would want to make sure it was sad enough before they let you speak on camera. Yvette hadn't planned to show her pain on television--in fact, her husband was so dead set against it he refused to be here when the producer came to call--but she was determined. She had been listening to the news. And now, she had something to say.

  "Kaitlyn had a beautiful smile," the producer said gently.

  "She does," Yvette replied, then shook her head. "Did."

  "Did she know Peter Houghton?"

  "No. They weren't in the same grade; they wouldn't have had classes together. Kaitlyn's were in the learning center." She pushed her thumb into the edge of the silver portrait frame until it hurt. "All of these people who are going around saying that Peter Houghton had no friends--that Peter Houghton was teased . . . that's not true," she said. "My daughter had no friends. My daughter was teased every single day. My daughter was the one who felt like she was on the fringe, because she was. Peter Houghton wasn't a misfit, like everyone wants to make him out to be. Peter Houghton was just evil."

  Yvette looked down at the glass covering Kaitlyn's portrait. "The grief counselor from the police department told me Kaitlyn died first," she said. "She wanted me to know that Kaitie didn't know what was going on--that she didn't suffer."

  "That must have been some consolation," the producer offered.

  "It was. Until we all started talking to each other and realized that the grief counselor had told the same thing to every one of us with a dead child." Yvette glanced up, tears in her eyes. "The thing is, they couldn't all have been first."

  In the days after the shooting, the families of the victims were showered with donations: money, casseroles, babysitting services, sympathy. Kaitlyn Harvey's father woke up one morning after a light, last springtime snow to find that his driveway had already been shoveled by a Samaritan. Courtney Ignatio's family became the beneficiaries of their local church, whose members signed up to provide food or cleaning services on a different day of the week, a rotating schedule that would take them through June. John Eberhard's mother was presented with a handicapped-accessible van, courtesy of Sterling Ford, to help her son adapt to life as a paraplegic. Everyone wounded at Sterling High received a letter from the president of the United States, crisp White House stationery commending them on their bravery.

  The media--at first a wave as unwelcome as a tsunami--became something ordinary on the streets of Sterling. After days of watching their high-heeled black boots sink into the soft mud of a New England March, they visited the local Farm-Way and bought Merrell clogs and muck boots. They stopped asking the front desk at the Sterling Inn why their cell phones didn't work and instead congregated in the parking lot of the Mobil station, the point of highest elevation in town, where they could get a minimal signal. They hovered in front of the police station and the courthouse and the local coffee shop, waiting for any crumb of information they could call their own.

  Every day in Sterling, there was a different funeral.

  *

  Matthew Royston's memorial service was held in a church that wasn't large enough to hold the grief of its mourners. Classmates and parents and family friends packed into the pews, stood along the walls, spilled out the doors. A contingent of kids from Sterling High had come dressed in green T-shirts with the number 19 on the front--the same one that had graced Matt's hockey jersey.

  Josie and her mother were sitting somewhere in the back, but that didn't keep Josie from feeling that everyone was staring at her. She wasn't sure if that was because they all knew she was Matt's girlfriend or because they could see right through her.

  "Blessed are those who mourn," the pastor read, "for they will be comforted."

  Josie shivered. Was she mourning? Did mourning feel like a hole in the middle of you that got wider and wider every time you tried to plug it up? Or was she incapable of mourning, because that meant remembering, which she couldn't do?

  Her mother leaned closer. "We can leave. You just say the word."

  It was hard enough not having a clue who she was, but here in the Afterward, she couldn't seem to recognize anyone else, either. People who had ignored her for her whole life suddenly knew her by name. Everyone's eyes got soft at the edges when they looked at her. And her mother was the most foreign of all--like one of those corporate addicts who has a near-death experience and becomes a tree-hugger. Josie had expected to have to fight her mother in order to attend Matt's funeral, but to Josie's surprise, her mother had suggested it. The stupid shrink Josie had to see now--probably for the rest of her life--kept talking about closure. Closure, apparently, meant that she was supposed to realize that losing normal was something you got over, like losing a soccer game or a favorite T-shirt. Closure also meant that her mother had morphed into a crazy, overcompensating emotive machine, one who kept asking her if she needed anything (how many cups of herbal tea could a person drink without liquefying?) and trying to act like an ordinary mother, or at least what she imagined an ordinary mother to be. If you really want me to feel better, Josie felt like saying, go back to work. Then they could pretend it was business as usual, and after all, her mother was the one who'd taught Josie how to pretend in the first place.

  In the front of the church was a coffin. Josie knew it wasn't open; rumors had flown about that. It was hard to imagine that Matt was inside that lacquered black box. That he wasn't breathing; that his blood had been drained out and his veins were pumped full of chemicals instead.

  "Friends, as we gather here to remember Matthew Carlton Royston, we are beneath the protective shelter of God's healing love," the pastor said. "We are free to pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares."

  Last year, in ancient world history, they had learned about how the Egyptians prepared their dead. Matt--who studied only when Josie forced him to do it--had been truly fascinated. The way the brain was sucked out through the nose. The possessions that went into a tomb with a pharaoh. The pets that were buried beside him. Josie had been reading the chapter in the textbook out loud, her head cradled on Matt's lap. He'd stopped her by putting his hand on her forehead. "When I go," he said, "I'm going to take you with me."

  The pastor looked out over the congregation. "The death of a loved one can shake us to our very foundations. When the person is so young and so full of potential and skill, the feelings of grief and loss can be even more overwhelming. At times such as this we turn to our friends and family for support, for a shoulder to cry on and for someone to walk that road of pain and anguish with us. We cannot have Matt back, but we can rest easy knowing that he's found the peace in death he was denied here on earth."

  Matt didn't go to church. His parents did, and they tried to make him go, but Josie knew he hated it. He thought it was a waste of a Sunday, and that if God was at all worthy of hanging around with, he'd probably be out riding around with the top down on his Jeep or playing pickup pond hockey instead of sitting in a stuffy building doing responsive reading.

  The pastor moved aside, and Matt's father stood up. Josie knew him, of course--he cracked the worst jokes, silly puns that were never funny. He'd played hockey at UVM until he blew out his knee, and he'd had high hopes for Matt. But overnight, he'd turned hunch-shouldered and sullen, like a husk that used to contain the whole of him. He stood up and talked about the first time he'd taken Matt out to skate, how he'd started out pulling him along on the end of a hockey stick and realized, not much later, that Matt wasn't holding on. In the front row, Matt's mother began crying. Loud, noisy sobs--the kind that splattered against the walls of the church like paint.

  Before Josie realized what she was doing, she'd gotten to her feet. "Josie!" her mother whispered, fierce, beside her--in that instant a flicker of the mother she was accusto
med to, the one who would never make a spectacle of herself. Josie was shaking so hard that her feet did not seem to touch the ground, not as she stepped into the aisle in the black dress she had borrowed from her mother, not as she moved toward Matt's coffin, magnetically drawn to a pole.

  She could feel Matt's father's eyes on her, could hear the whispers of the congregation. She reached the casket, polished to such a gleam that she could see her own face reflected back at her, an imposter.

  "Josie," Mr. Royston said, coming down from the podium to embrace her. "You all right?"

  Josie's throat closed like a rosebud. How could this man, whose son was dead, be asking her that? She felt herself dissolving, and wondered if you could turn into a ghost without dying; if that part of it was only a technicality.

  "Did you want to say something?" Mr. Royston offered. "About Matt?"

  Before she knew what was happening, Matt's father had led her up to the podium. She was vaguely aware of her mother, who'd gotten out of her seat in the pew and was edging her way down toward the front of the church--to do what? Spirit her away? Stop her from making another mistake?

  Josie stared out at a landscape of faces she recognized and did not really know at all. She loved him, they were all thinking. She was with him when he died. Her breath caught like a moth in the cage of her lungs.

  But what would she say? The truth?

  Josie felt her lips twist, her face crumple. She started to sob, so hard that the wooden floorboards of the church bowed and creaked; so hard that even in that sealed casket, Josie was sure Matt could hear her. "I'm sorry," she choked out--to him, to Mr. Royston, to anyone who would listen. "Oh, God. I'm so sorry."

  She did not notice her mother climbing the steps to the podium, wrapping an arm around Josie, leading her behind the altar to a little vestibule used by the organist. She didn't protest when her mother handed her Kleenex and rubbed her back. She didn't even mind when her mother tucked her hair back behind her ears, the way she used to when Josie was so small, she could barely remember the gesture. "Everyone must think I'm an idiot," Josie said.

  "No, they think you miss Matt." Her mother hesitated. "I know you believe this was your fault."

  Josie's heart was pounding so hard, it moved the thin chiffon fabric of the dress.

  "Sweetheart," her mother said, "you couldn't have saved him."

  Josie reached for another tissue, and pretended that her mother understood.

  *

  Maximum security meant Peter did not have a roommate. He did not get recreation time. His food was brought to him three times a day in his cell. His reading material was restricted by the correctional officers. And because the staff still believed he might be suicidal, his room consisted of a toilet and a bench--no sheets, no mattress, nothing that might be fashioned into a means of checking out of this world.

  There were four hundred and fifteen cinder blocks on the back wall of his cell; he'd counted. Twice. Since then, he'd taken the time to stare right at the camera that was watching him. Peter wondered who was at the other end of that camera. He pictured a bunch of COs clustered around a crummy TV monitor, poking each other and cracking up when Peter had to go to the bathroom. Or, in other words, yet another group of people who'd find a way to make fun of him.

  The camera had a red light on it, a power indicator, and a single lens that shimmered like a rainbow. There was a rubber bumper around the lens that looked like an eyelid. It struck Peter that even if he wasn't suicidal, a few weeks of this and he would be.

  It did not get dark in jail, just dim. That hardly mattered, since there was nothing to do but sleep anyway. Peter lay on the bench, wondering if you lost your hearing if you never had to use it; if the power of speech worked the same way. He remembered learning in one of his social studies classes that in the Old West, when Native Americans were thrown into jail, they sometimes dropped dead. The theory was that someone so used to the freedom of space couldn't handle the confinement, but Peter had another interpretation. When the only company you had was yourself, and when you didn't want to socialize, there was only one way to leave the room.

  One of the COs had just come through, doing his security sweep--a heavy-booted run past the cells--when Peter heard it:

  I know what you did.

  Holy shit, Peter thought. I've already started to go crazy.

  Everyone knows.

  Peter swung his feet to the cement floor and stared at the camera, but it wasn't giving up any secrets.

  The voice sounded like wind passing over snow--bleak, a whisper. "To your right," it said, and Peter slowly got to his feet and walked to a corner of the cell.

  "Who . . . who's there?" he said.

  "It's about fucking time. I thought you were never going to stop wailing."

  Peter tried to see through the bars, but couldn't. "You heard me crying?"

  "Fucking baby," the voice said. "Grow the fuck up."

  "Who are you?"

  "You can call me Carnivore, like everyone else."

  Peter swallowed. "What did you do?"

  "Nothing they said I did," Carnivore answered. "How long?"

  "How long what?"

  "How long till your trial?"

  Peter didn't know. It was the one question he had forgotten to ask Jordan McAfee, probably because he was afraid to hear the answer.

  "Mine's next week," Carnivore said before Peter could reply.

  The metal door of the cell felt like ice against his temple. "How long have you been here?" Peter asked.

  "Ten months," Carnivore answered.

  Peter imagined sitting in this cell for ten straight months. He thought about all the times he'd count those stupid cinder blocks, all the pisses that the guards would get to watch on their little television set.

  "You killed kids, right? You know what happens in this jail to guys who kill kids?"

  Peter didn't respond. He was roughly the same age as everyone at Sterling High; it wasn't like he'd gone into a nursery school. And it wasn't like he hadn't had a good reason.

  He didn't want to talk about this anymore. "How come you didn't get bail?"

  Carnivore scoffed. "Because they say I raped some waitress, and then stabbed her."

  Did everyone in this jail think they were innocent? All this time Peter had spent lying on that bench, convincing himself that he was nothing like anyone else in the Grafton County Jail--and as it turned out, that was a lie.

  Did he sound like this to Jordan?

  "You still there?" Carnivore asked.

  Peter lay back down on his bench without saying another word. He turned his face to the wall, and he pretended not to hear as the man next to him tried over and over to make a connection.

  *

  The first thing that struck Patrick, again, was how much younger Judge Cormier looked when she wasn't on the bench. She answered the door in jeans and a ponytail, wiping her hands on a dish towel. Josie stood just behind her, her face washed by the same vacant stare he'd seen a dozen times over, now, in other victims he'd interviewed. Josie was a vital piece in the puzzle, the only one who had seen Peter kill Matthew Royston. But unlike those victims, Josie had a mother who knew the intricacies of the legal system.

  "Judge Cormier," he said. "Josie. Thanks for letting me come over."

  The judge stared at him. "This is a waste of time. Josie doesn't remember anything."

  "With all due respect, Judge, it's my job to hear that from Josie herself."

  He steeled himself for an argument, but she stepped back to let him inside. Patrick let his eyes roam the foyer--the antique table with a spider plant spilling over its surface, the tasteful landscapes that hung on the walls. So this was how a judge lived. His own place was a pit stop, a haven of laundry and old newspapers and food long past its expiration date, where he'd go for a few hours between his stints at the office.

  He turned to Josie. "How's the head?"

  "It still hurts," she said, so softly that Patrick had to strain to hear her.
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  He turned to the judge again. "Is there a room where we could go talk for a few minutes?"

  She led them into the kitchen, which looked like just the kind of kitchen Patrick sometimes thought about when he imagined where he should have been by now. There were cherry cabinets and lots of sun streaming through the bay window and a bowl of bananas on the counter. He sat down across from Josie, expecting the judge to pull up a chair beside her daughter, but to his surprise she remained standing. "If you need me," she said, "I'll be upstairs."

  Josie looked up, pained. "Can't you just stay?"

  For a moment, Patrick saw something light in the judge's eyes--want? regret?--but it vanished before he could put a name to it. "You know I can't," she said gently.

  Patrick didn't have any kids of his own, but he was pretty damn sure that if one of his had come this close to dying, he'd have a hard time letting her out of his sight. He did not know exactly what was going on between the mother and daughter, but he knew better than to get in the middle of it.

  "I'm sure Detective Ducharme will make this utterly painless," the judge said.

  It was part wish, part warning. Patrick nodded at her. A good cop did whatever he could to protect and serve, but when it was someone you knew who was robbed or threatened or hurt, the stakes changed. You'd make a few more phone calls; you'd shuffle your responsibilities so that one took priority. Patrick had experienced that, to a greater degree, years ago with his friend Nina and her son. He didn't know Josie Cormier personally, but her mother was in the field of law enforcement--Christ, she was at its top level--and for this, her daughter deserved to be treated with kid gloves.

  He watched Alex walk up the stairs, and then he took a pad and pencil out of his coat pocket. "So," he said. "How are you doing?"

  "Look, you don't have to pretend you care."

  "I'm not pretending," Patrick said.

  "I don't even get why you're here. It's not like anything anyone says to you is going to make those kids less dead."

  "That's true," Patrick agreed, "but before we can try Peter Houghton we need to know exactly what happened. And unfortunately, I wasn't there."

 
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