Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "Unfortunately?"

  He looked down at the table. "I sometimes think it's easier to be the one who's been hurt than the one who couldn't stop it from happening."

  "I was there," Josie said, shaken. "I couldn't stop it."

  "Hey," Patrick said, "it's not your fault."

  She looked up at him then, as if she so badly wished she could believe that, but knew he was wrong. And who was Patrick to tell her otherwise? Every time he envisioned his mad dash to Sterling High, he imagined what would have happened if he'd been at the school when the shooter first arrived. If he'd disarmed the kid before anyone was hurt.

  "I don't remember anything about the shooting," Josie said.

  "Do you remember being in the gym?"

  Josie shook her head.

  "How about running there with Matt?"

  "No. I don't even remember getting up and going to school in the first place. It's like a blank spot in my head that I just skip over."

  Patrick knew, from talking to the shrinks who'd been assigned to work with the victims, that this was perfectly normal. Amnesia was one way for the mind to protect itself from reliving something that would otherwise break you apart. In a way, he wished he could be as lucky as Josie, that he could make what he'd seen vanish.

  "What about Peter Houghton? Did you know him?"

  "Everyone knew who he was."

  "What do you mean?"

  Josie shrugged. "He got noticed."

  "Because he was different from everyone else?"

  Josie thought about this for a moment. "Because he didn't try to fit in."

  "You were dating Matthew Royston?"

  Immediately, tears welled in Josie's eyes. "He liked to be called Matt."

  Patrick reached for a paper napkin and passed it to Josie. "I'm sorry about what happened to him, Josie."

  She ducked her head. "Me too."

  He waited for her to wipe her eyes, blow her nose. "Do you know why Peter might have disliked Matt?"

  "People used to make fun of him," Josie said. "It wasn't just Matt."

  Did you? Patrick thought. He'd looked at the yearbook confiscated from Peter's room--the circles around certain kids who became victims, and others who did not. There were many reasons for this--from the fact that Peter ran out of time to the truth that hunting down thirty people in a school of a thousand was more difficult than he'd imagined. But of all the targets Peter had marked in the yearbook, only Josie's photo had been crossed out, as if he'd changed his mind. Only her face had words printed beneath it, in block letters: LET LIVE.

  "Did you know him personally? Have any classes or anything with him?"

  She looked up. "I used to work with him."

  "Where?"

  "The copy store downtown."

  "Did you two get along?"

  "Sometimes," Josie said. "Not always."

  "Why not?"

  "He lit a fire there once and I ratted him out. He lost his job after that."

  Patrick marked a note down on his pad. Why had Peter made the decision to spare her when he had every reason to hold a grudge?

  "Before that," Patrick asked, "would you say you were friends?"

  Josie pleated the napkin she'd used to dry her tears into a triangle, a smaller one, a smaller one still. "No," she said. "We weren't."

  *

  The woman next to Lacy was wearing a checkered flannel shirt, reeked of cigarettes, and was missing most of her teeth. She took one look at Lacy's skirt and blouse. "Your first time here?" she asked.

  Lacy nodded. They were waiting in a long room, side by side in a row of chairs. In front of their feet ran a red dividing line, and then a second set of chairs. Inmates and visitors sat like mirror images, speaking in shorthand. The woman beside Lacy smiled at her. "You get used to it," she said.

  One parent was allowed to visit Peter every two weeks, for one hour. Lacy had come with a basket full of home-baked muffins and cakes, magazines, books--anything she could think of to help Peter. But the correctional officer who'd signed her in for visitation had confiscated the items. No baked goods. And no reading material, not until it was vetted by the jail staff.

  A man with a shaved head and sleeves of tattoos up and down his arms headed toward Lacy. She shivered--was that a swastika inked onto his forehead? "Hi, Mom," he murmured, and Lacy watched the woman's eyes strip away the tattoos and the bare scalp and the orange jumpsuit to see a little boy catching tadpoles in a mudhole behind their house. Everyone, Lacy thought, is somebody's son.

  She glanced away from their reunion and saw Peter being led into the visitation room. For a moment her heart caught--he looked too thin, and behind his glasses, his eyes were so empty--but then she tamped down whatever she was feeling and offered him a brilliant smile. She would pretend that it didn't bother her to see her son in a prison jumpsuit; that she hadn't had to sit in the car and fight a panic attack after pulling into the jail lot; that it was perfectly normal to be surrounded by drug dealers and rapists while you asked your son if he was getting enough to eat.

  "Peter," she said, folding him into her arms. It took a moment, but he hugged her back. She pressed her face to his neck, the way she used to when he was a baby, and she thought she would devour him--but he did not smell like her son. For a moment she let herself entertain the pipe dream that this was all a mistake--Peter's not in jail! This is someone else's unfortunate child!--but then she realized what was different. The shampoo and deodorant he had to use here were not what he'd used at home; this Peter smelled sharper, coarser.

  Suddenly there was a tap on her shoulder. "Ma'am," the correctional officer said, "you'll have to let go now."

  If only it was that easy, Lacy thought.

  They sat down on opposite sides of the red line.

  "Are you all right?" she asked.

  "I'm still here."

  The way he said it--as if he'd totally expected otherwise by now--made Lacy shudder. She had a feeling he wasn't talking about being let out on bail, and the alternative--the idea of Peter killing himself--was something she could not hold in her head. She felt her throat funnel tight, and she found herself doing the one thing she'd promised herself she would not do: she started to cry. "Peter," she whispered. "Why?"

  "Did the police come to the house?" Peter asked.

  Lacy nodded--it seemed as if it had happened so long ago.

  "Did they go to my room?"

  "They had a warrant--"

  "They took my things?" Peter exclaimed, the first emotion she'd seen from him. "You let them take my things?"

  "What were you doing with those things?" she whispered. "Those bombs. The guns . . . ?"

  "You wouldn't understand."

  "Then make me, Peter," she said, broken. "Make me understand."

  "I haven't been able to make you understand in seventeen years, Mom. Why should it be any different now?" His face twisted. "I don't even know why you bothered to come."

  "To see you--"

  "Then look at me," Peter cried. "Why won't you fucking look at me?"

  He put his head in his hands, his narrow shoulders rounding with the sound of a sob.

  It came down to this, Lacy realized: You stared at the stranger in front of you and decided, categorically, that this was no longer your son. Or you made the decision to find whatever scraps of your child you still could in what he had become.

  Was that even really a choice, if you were a mother?

  People could argue that monsters weren't born, they were made. People could criticize her parenting skills, point to moments when Lacy had let Peter down by being too lax or too firm, too removed or too smothering. The town of Sterling would analyze to death what she had done to her son--but what about what she would do for him? It was easy to be proud of the kid who got straight A's and who made the winning basket--a kid the world already adored. But true character showed when you could find something to love in a child everyone else hated. What if the things she had or hadn't done for Peter were the wrong criter
ia for measurement? Wasn't it just as telling a mark of motherhood to see how, from this awful moment on, she behaved?

  She reached across the red line until she could embrace Peter. She didn't care if it was allowed or not. The guards could come and pull her off him, but until that happened, Lacy was not planning to let her son go.

  *

  On the surveillance video taken from the cafeteria, students were carrying trays and doing homework and chatting when Peter entered the room holding a handgun. There was a discharge of bullets and a cacophony of screaming. A smoke alarm went off. When everyone started to run, he shot again, and this time two girls fell down. Other students ran right over them in an effort to get away.

  When the only people left in the cafeteria were Peter and the victims, he walked through the rows of tables, surveying his handiwork. He passed by the boy he'd shot who lay in a puddle of blood on top of a book, but he stopped to pick up an iPod that had been left on the table and put the earphones in his ears before turning it off and setting it down again. He turned the page in an open notebook. And then he sat down at one untouched tray and placed the gun on it. He opened a box of Rice Krispies and poured them into a Styrofoam bowl. He added the contents of a milk container and ate all the cereal before standing up again, retrieving his pistol, and exiting the cafeteria.

  It was the most chilling, deliberate thing Patrick had ever seen in his life.

  He looked down at the bowl of ramen noodles he had cooked himself for dinner, and realized he'd lost his appetite. Setting it aside on a stack of old newspapers, he rewound the video and forced himself to watch it again.

  When the phone rang, he picked it up, still distracted by the sight of Peter on his television screen. "Yeah."

  "Well, hello to you, too," Nina Frost said.

  He melted when he heard her voice; old habits died hard. "Sorry. I'm just in the middle of something."

  "I can imagine. It's all over the news. How are you holding up?"

  "Oh, you know," he said, when what he really meant was that he was not sleeping at night; that he saw the faces of the dead whenever he closed his eyes; that his mouth was full of the questions he was certain he'd forgotten to ask.

  "Patrick," she said, because she was his oldest friend and because she knew him better than anyone, including himself, "don't blame yourself."

  He bent his head. "It happened in my town. How can't I?"

  "If you had a videophone, I'd be able to tell if you're wearing your hair shirt or your cape and boots," Nina said.

  "It's not funny."

  "No, it's not," she agreed. "But you must know it's a slam dunk at trial. You have, what? A thousand witnesses?"

  "Something like that."

  Nina grew quiet. Patrick did not have to explain to her--a woman who'd lived with regret as a constant companion--that convicting Peter Houghton was not enough. For Patrick to lay this to rest, he'd have to understand why Peter had done this in the first place.

  So that he could keep it from happening again.

  *

  From an FBI investigatory report, published by special agents in charge of examining school shootings around the globe:

  Among school shooters, we have seen a similarity of family dynamics. Often the shooter will have a turbulent relationship with his parents, or will have parents who accept pathological behavior. There is a lack of intimacy within the family. There are no limits for television or computer use imposed on the shooter, and sometimes there is access to weapons.

  Within the school environment, we found a tendency toward detachment from the learning process on the part of the shooter. The school itself tended to tolerate disrespectful behavior, exhibited inequitable discipline and an inflexible culture--with certain students enjoying prestige given to them by teachers and staff.

  Shooters are more likely to have access to violent movies, television, and video games; to use drugs and alcohol; to have a peer group that exists outside of school and supports their behavior.

  In addition, prior to a violent act, there is evidence of leakage--a clue that something is coming. These hints might take the form of poems, writings, drawings, Internet posts, or threats made in person or in absentia.

  In spite of the commonalities described within, we caution the use of this report to create a checklist that might predict future school shooters. In the hands of the media, this might result in labeling many nonviolent students as potentially lethal. In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the traits on the list.

  *

  Lewis Houghton was a creature of habit. Every morning, he woke up at 5:35 and went for a run on the treadmill in the basement. He showered and he ate a bowl of cornflakes while he scanned the headlines in the paper. He wore the same overcoat, no matter how cold or hot the weather, and he parked in the same spot in the faculty lot.

  He'd once tried to mathematically figure the effect of routine on happiness, but there was an interesting twist to the calculation: The measure of joy brought by the familiar was amplified or reduced by the individual's resistance to change. Or--as Lacy would have said, English, Lewis--for every person like himself who liked the worn grooves of the familiar, there was another person who found it stifling. In those cases, the comfort quotient became a negative number, and doing what came habitually actually detracted from happiness.

  It was that way, he supposed, for Lacy, who wandered around the house as if she'd never seen it before, who couldn't stand the thought of going back to her practice. How can you expect me to think of someone else's child right now? she had argued.

  She kept insisting that they needed to do something, but Lewis didn't know what that was supposed to be. And because he couldn't comfort either his wife or his son, Lewis decided he was left to comfort himself. After sitting at home for five days after Peter's arraignment, one morning he woke up and packed his briefcase, ate his cornflakes, read the paper, and headed off to work.

  He was thinking of the equation for happiness as he headed to the office. One of the tenets of his breakthrough--H = R/E, or happiness equals reality divided by expectation--was based on the universal truth that you always had some expectation for what was to come. In other words, E was always a real number, since you could not divide by zero. But recently, he wondered about the truth of that. Math could only take a man so far. In the middle of the night, when he was wide awake and staring up at the ceiling, knowing that his wife lay beside him pretending to be asleep and doing the very same thing, Lewis had come to believe that you might be conditioned to expect absolutely nothing from one's life. That way, when you lost your first son, you didn't grieve. When your second son was jailed for a massacre, you were not shattered. You could divide by zero; it felt like a canyon where your heart used to be.

  As soon as he set foot on the campus, Lewis felt better. Here, he was not the father of the shooter and never had been. He was Lewis Houghton, professor of economics. Here, he was still at the top of his game; he didn't have to look at the body of his research and wonder at what point it had begun to unravel.

  Lewis had just pulled a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase that morning when the chair of the econ department poked his head through the open doorway. Hugh Macquarie was a big man--Huge Andhairy is what the college students called him behind his back--who had taken over the position with gusto. "Houghton? What are you doing here?"

  "Last I checked, the college was still paying me to work," Lewis said, trying to make a joke. He couldn't make jokes, never had been able to do so. His timing was off; he gave away punch lines by accident.

  Hugh walked into the room. "My God, Lewis, I don't know what to say." He hesitated.

  Lewis didn't blame Hugh. He barely knew what to say himself. There were Hallmark cards for bereavement, for loss of a beloved pet, for getting laid off from a job, but no one seemed to have the right words of comfort for someone whose son had just killed ten people.

  "I thought about calling you at home
. Lisa even wanted to bring a casserole or something. How's Lacy holding up?"

  Lewis pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "Oh," he said. "You know. We're trying to keep things as normal as possible."

  When he said this, he pictured his life as a graph. Normal was a line that stretched on and on, teasing its way closer to an axis but never really reaching it.

  Hugh sat down in the chair across from Lewis's desk--the same chair that was sometimes filled by a student who needed a tutorial in microeconomics. "Lewis, take some time off," he said.

  "Thanks, Hugh. I appreciate that." Lewis glanced at an equation on the far blackboard that he'd been puzzling out. "Right now, though, I really need to be here. It keeps me from thinking about being there." Reaching for some chalk, Lewis began to print across the board, a long and lovely stream of numbers that calmed him inside.

  He knew that there was a difference between something that makes you happy and something that doesn't make you unhappy. The trick was convincing yourself these were one and the same.

  Hugh put his hand on Lewis's arm, stilling it mid-equation. "Maybe I said that wrong. We need you to take time off."

  Lewis stared at him. "Oh. Um. I see," he said, although he didn't. If Lewis was willing to segregate his work life from his home life, why couldn't Sterling College do the same?

  Unless.

  Had that been his mistake in the first place? If you were uncertain in the decisions you made as a father, could you patch over your insecurities with the confidence you had as a professional? Or would the fix always be flimsy, a paper wall that couldn't bear weight?

  "It's just for a bit," Hugh said. "It's what's best."

  For whom? Lewis thought, but he remained silent until he heard Hugh close the door behind himself on his way out.

  When the chairman was gone, Lewis lifted the chalk again. He stared at the equations until they melded together, and then he began to scrawl furiously, a composer with a symphony moving too fast for his fingers. Why hadn't he realized this before? Everyone knew that if you divided reality by expectation, you got a happiness quotient. But when you inverted the equation--expectation divided by reality--you didn't get the opposite of happiness. What you got, Lewis realized, was hope.

  Pure logic: Assuming reality was constant, expectation had to be greater than reality to create optimism. On the other hand, a pessimist was someone with expectations lower than reality, a fraction of diminishing returns. The human condition meant that this number approached zero without reaching it--you never really completely gave up hope; it might come flooding back at any provocation.

 
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