Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Lewis stepped back from the blackboard, surveying his handiwork. Someone who was happy would have little need to hope for change. But, conversely, an optimistic person was that way because he wanted to believe in something better than his reality.

  He started wondering if there were exceptions to the rule: if happy people might be hopeful, if the unhappy might have given up any anticipation that things might get better.

  And that made Lewis think of his son.

  He stood in front of the blackboard and started to cry, his hands and his sleeves covered in fine white chalk dust, as if he had become a ghost.

  *

  The office of the Geek Squad, as Patrick affectionately referred to the tech guys who hacked into hard drives to find proof of pornography and downloads from The Anarchist Cookbook, was filled with computers. Not just the one seized from Peter Houghton's room, but also several from Sterling High, including the one from the secretary's main office and another batch from the library.

  "He's good," said Orestes, a tech that Patrick would have sworn was not old enough to have graduated from high school himself. "We're not just talking HTML programming. Guy knew his shit."

  He pulled up a few files from the bowels of Peter's computer, graphics files that didn't make much sense to Patrick until the tech typed a few buttons and suddenly a three-dimensional dragon appeared on the screen and breathed fire at them. "Wow," Patrick said.

  "Yeah. From what I can tell, he actually made up a few computer games, even posted them for gamers on a couple of sites where you can do that and get feedback."

  "Any message boards on those sites?"

  "Dude, give me an iota of credit," Orestes said, and he clicked onto one he'd already flagged. "Peter went by the screen name Death Wish. They're a--"

  "--band," Patrick finished. "I know."

  "They're not just a band," Orestes said with reverence, his fingers flying over the keyboard. "They're the modern voice of the collective human conscience."

  "Tell that to Tipper Gore."

  "Who?"

  Patrick laughed. "She was before your time, I guess."

  "What did you used to listen to when you were a kid?"

  "The cavemen, banging rocks together," Patrick said dryly.

  The screen filled with a series of posts from Death Wish. Most of them were entries about how to enhance a certain graphic or reviews of other games that had been posted on the site. Two quoted lyrics from the band Death Wish. "This is my personal favorite," Orestes said, and he scrolled down.

  From: DeathWish

  To: Hades1991

  This town blows. This weekend there is a craft festival where old bags come to show off the ticky tacky shit they made. They should call it a CRAP festival. I'm gonna hide in the bushes outside the church. Target practice as they cross the street--ten points each! Yee ha!

  Patrick leaned back in the chair. "Well, that doesn't prove anything."

  "Yeah," Orestes said. "Craft festivals do kind of suck. But check this out." He swiveled in his own chair to reach another terminal, set up on a table. "He hacked into the school's secure computer system."

  "To do what? Change his grades?"

  "Nope. The program he wrote broke through the firewalls on the school system at 9:58 a.m."

  "That's when the car bomb went off," Patrick murmured.

  Orestes pivoted the monitor so that Patrick could see. "This was on every single screen on every single computer at the school."

  Patrick stared at the purple background, the flaming red letters that scrolled like a marquee: READY OR NOT . . . HERE I COME.

  *

  Jordan was already sitting at the table of the conference room when Peter Houghton was brought in by a correctional officer. "Thanks," he said to the guard, his eyes on Peter, who immediately canvassed the room, his gaze lighting on the only window. Jordan had seen this over and over in prisoners he'd represented--an ordinary human could so quickly turn into a caged animal. Then again, it was a chicken-and-egg conundrum: were they animals because they were in jail . . . or were they in jail because they were animals?

  "Have a seat," he said, and Peter remained standing.

  Unfazed, Jordan started talking. "I want to lay out the ground rules, Peter," he said. "Everything I say to you is confidential. Everything you say to me is confidential. I can't tell anyone what you say. I can tell you, however, not to talk to the media or the police or anyone else for that matter. If anyone tries to contact you, you contact me immediately--call me collect. As your lawyer, I get to do the talking for you. From now on, I'm your best friend, your mother, your father, your priest. Are we clear on that?"

  Peter glared at him. "Crystal."

  "Good. So." Jordan pulled a legal pad out of his briefcase, a pencil. "I imagine you've got a few questions; we can start with those."

  "I hate it here," Peter burst out. "I don't get why I have to stay here."

  Most of Jordan's clients started out quiet and terrified in jail--which quickly gave way to anger and indignation. But at that moment Peter sounded like any other ordinary teenage kid--like Thomas had sounded at his age, when the world apparently revolved around him and Jordan just happened to be living on it as well. However, the lawyer in Jordan trumped the parent in him, and he started to wonder if Peter Houghton truly might not know why he was in jail. Jordan would be the first to tell you insanity defenses rarely worked and were grossly overrated, but maybe Peter could be passed off as the real deal--and that was the key to securing an acquittal. "What do you mean?" he pressed.

  "They're the ones who did this to me, and now I'm the one who's being punished."

  Jordan sat back and crossed his arms. Peter didn't feel remorse for what he'd done, that much was clear. In fact, he considered himself a victim.

  And here was the remarkable thing about being a defense attorney: Jordan didn't really care. There was no room in his line of work for his own personal feelings. He had worked with the scum of the earth before--killers and rapists who fancied themselves martyrs. His job wasn't to believe them or to pass judgment. It was simply to do or say whatever he had to in order to get them free. In spite of what he'd just told Peter, he was not a clergyman or a shrink or a friend to a client. He was simply a spin doctor.

  "Well," Jordan said evenly, "you need to understand the jail's position. To them, you're just a murderer."

  "Then they're all hypocrites," Peter said. "If they saw a roach, they'd step on it, wouldn't they?"

  "Is that how you'd describe what happened at the school?"

  Peter flicked his eyes away. "Do you know that I'm not allowed to read magazines?" he said. "I can't even go into the exercise yard like everyone else."

  "I'm not here to register your complaints."

  "Why are you here?"

  "To help you get out," Jordan said. "And if that's going to happen, then you need to talk to me."

  Peter folded his arms across his chest and glanced from Jordan's collared shirt to his tie to his polished black shoes. "Why? You don't really give a shit about me."

  Jordan stood up and stuffed his notebook into his briefcase. "You know what? You're right. I don't really give a shit about you. I'm just doing my job, because unlike you, I won't have the state paying my room and board for the rest of my life." He started for the door, but was called back by the sound of Peter's voice.

  "Why is everyone so upset that those jerks are dead?"

  Jordan turned slowly, making a mental note that kindness had not worked especially well with Peter, nor had the voice of authority. What had made him respond was pure and simple anger.

  "I mean, people are crying over them . . . and they were assholes. Everyone's saying I ruined their lives, but no one seemed to care when my life was the one being ruined."

  Jordan sat down on the edge of the table. "How?"

  "Where do you want me to start," Peter answered, bitter. "In nursery school, when the teacher would bring out snacks, and one of them would pull out my chair so I'd f
all down and everyone else would crack up? Or in second grade, when they held my head down in the toilet and they flushed it over and over, just because they knew they could? Or that time they beat me up on my way home from school and I needed stitches?"

  Jordan picked up his pad and wrote STITCHES. "Who's they?"

  "A whole bunch of kids," Peter said.

  The ones you wanted to kill? Jordan thought, but he didn't ask. "Why do you think they targeted you?"

  "Because they're dickheads? I don't know. They're like a pack. They have to make someone else feel like shit in order to feel good about themselves."

  "What did you try to do to stop it?"

  Peter snorted. "In case you haven't noticed, Sterling's not exactly a metropolis. Everyone knows everyone. You wind up in high school with the same kids who were in the sandbox in your preschool."

  "Couldn't you stay out of their path?"

  "I had to go to school," Peter said. "You'd be surprised how small it gets when you're there for eight hours every day."

  "So did they do this outside of school, too?"

  "When they could catch me," Peter said. "If I was by myself."

  "How about harassment--phone calls, letters, threats?" Jordan asked.

  "Online," Peter said. "They'd send me instant messages, saying I was a loser, things like that. And they took an email I wrote and spammed it out to the whole school . . . made it a joke . . ." He looked away, falling silent.

  "Why?"

  "It was . . ." He shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."

  Jordan made a note on his pad. "Did you ever tell anyone about what was going on? Parents? Teachers?"

  "No one gives a crap," Peter said. "They tell you to ignore it. They say they'll be watching out to make sure it doesn't happen, but they never watch." He walked to the window and pressed his palms against the glass. "There was this kid in my first-grade class who had that disease, the one where your spine grows outside your body--"

  "Spina bifida?"

  "Yeah. She had a wheelchair and she couldn't sit up or anything, and before she came to class the teacher told us we had to treat her like she was just like us. The thing is, she wasn't like us, and we all knew it, and she knew it. So we were supposed to lie to her face?" Peter shook his head. "Everyone talks like it's all right to be different, but America's supposed to be this melting pot, and what the hell does that mean? If it's a melting pot, then you're really just trying to make everyone the same, aren't you?"

  Jordan found himself thinking about his son Thomas's transition to middle school. They'd moved from Bainbridge to Salem Falls, a small enough school system that the cliques had already developed thick cellular walls against outsiders. For a while, Thomas had been a chameleon--he'd come home from school and hole up in his room, emerging as a soccer player, a thespian, a "mathlete." It took him several sheddings of his own adolescent skin to find a group of friends who let him be whoever he wanted; and the rest of Thomas's high school career was a fairly peaceful one. But what if he hadn't found that group of friends? What if he'd continued peeling off layers of himself until there was nothing left at his core?

  As if he could read Jordan's mind, Peter suddenly stared at him. "Do you have kids?"

  Jordan did not talk about his personal life with clients. Their relationship existed in the confines of a court, and that was that. The few times in his career when this unwritten rule had been broken had nearly wrecked him personally and professionally. But he met Peter's gaze and said, "Two. A six-month-old baby and a son at Yale."

  "Then you get it," Peter said. "Everyone wants their kid to grow up and go to Harvard or be a quarterback for the Patriots. No one ever looks at their baby and thinks, Oh, I hope my kid grows up and becomes a freak. I hope he gets to school every day and prays he won't catch anyone's attention. But you know what? Kids grow up like that every single day."

  Jordan found himself at a loss for words. There was the finest line between unique and odd, between what made a child grow up to be as well adjusted as Thomas versus unstable, like Peter. Did every teenager have the capacity to fall on one side or the other of that tightrope, and could you identify a single moment that tipped the balance?

  He suddenly thought of Sam this morning, when Jordan was changing his diaper. The baby had grabbed hold of his own toes, fascinated to have located them, and immediately stuffed his foot into his mouth. Look at that, Selena had joked over his shoulder, like father like son. As Jordan had finished dressing Sam, he'd marveled at the mystery life must be for someone that young. Imagine a world that seemed so much bigger than you. Imagine waking up one morning and finding a piece of yourself you didn't even know existed.

  When you don't fit in, you become superhuman. You can feel everyone else's eyes on you, stuck like Velcro. You can hear a whisper about you from a mile away. You can disappear, even when it looks like you're still standing right there. You can scream, and nobody hears a sound.

  You become the mutant who fell into the vat of acid, the Joker who can't remove his mask, the bionic man who's missing all his limbs and none of his heart.

  You are the thing that used to be normal, but that was so long ago, you can't even remember what it was like.

  Six Years Before

  Peter knew he was doomed, the first day of sixth grade, when his mother presented him with a gift over breakfast. "I know how much you wanted one," she said, and she waited for him to open the wrapping paper.

  Inside was a three-ring binder with a graphic of Superman on the cover. And he had wanted one. Three years ago, when that was a cool thing to have.

  He had managed a smile. "Thanks, Mom," he said, and she beamed at him, while he imagined all the ways carrying this totally stupid notebook would be used against him.

  Josie, as usual, had come to his rescue. She told the school custodian that her bike handlebars were all screwed up and that she needed some duct tape to jury-rig it until she got home. In reality, she didn't bike to school--she walked with Peter, who lived a little farther out of town but picked her up along the way. Although they never saw each other outside of school--and hadn't in years, thanks to some blowout fight between his mother and hers that neither of them could really remember the details about--Josie still hung out with Peter. And thank God for that, because no one else really did. They sat together during lunch, they read each other's rough drafts in English, they were always each other's lab partners. Summers were always tough. They could email, and every now and then they saw each other at the town pond, but that was about it. And then, come September, they fell back in step as if they'd never missed a beat. That, Peter figured, was the very definition of a best friend.

  Today, thanks to the Superman binder, they'd started off the year with a crisis. With Josie's help, he'd made a slipcover of sorts from the tape and an old newspaper they stole from the science lab. He could take it off when he was home, she reasoned, so that his mother wouldn't be offended.

  The sixth graders had lunch fourth period, when it was only 11:00 a.m., but by that point it felt like they hadn't eaten in months. Josie bought--her mother's cooking skills, she said, were limited to writing a check to the cafeteria ladies--and Peter stood beside her in the snaking line to pick up a carton of milk. His mother would have packed him a sandwich with the crusts cut off, a bag of carrot sticks, an organic fruit that might or might not be bruised.

  Peter slid his binder onto the cafeteria tray, embarrassed even though it was still covered up by the newspaper. He popped a straw into his milk carton. "You know, it shouldn't make a difference what binder you've got," Josie said. "What do you care what they think?"

  As they headed into the lunchroom, Drew Girard slammed into Peter. "Watch where you're going, retard," Drew said, but it was too late--Peter had already dropped his tray.

  His milk spilled all over his splayed binder, melting the newspaper into a muddy clot and revealing the Superman graphic beneath it.

  Drew started to laugh. "Are you wearing your Undero
os, too, Houghton?"

  "Shut up, Drew."

  "Or what? Will you melt me with your X-ray vision?"

  Mrs. McDonald, the art teacher who was patrolling the lunchroom--and who Josie swore she'd once caught sniffing glue in the supply closet--took a halfhearted step forward. By seventh grade, there were kids like Drew and Matt Royston who were taller than the teachers and had deep voices and were shaving; but there were also kids like Peter, who prayed every night that puberty would hit but hadn't seen any viable signs yet. "Peter, why don't you just go take a seat . . ." Mrs. McDonald sighed. "Drew will bring you another carton of milk."

  Probably poisoned, Peter thought. He started mopping off his binder with a wad of napkins. Even after it dried, it would reek, now. Maybe he could tell his mother that he'd spilled his milk on it at lunch. It was the truth, after all, even if he'd had a little help doing it. And it just might be enough incentive for her to buy him a new, normal notebook, one like everyone else's.

  Inside, Peter was grinning: Drew Girard had actually just done him a favor.

  "Drew," the teacher said. "I meant now."

  As Drew took a step toward the interior of the cafeteria toward the pyramid of milk cartons, Josie stuck out her foot surreptitiously so that he tripped, landing flat on his face. In the lunchroom, other kids started to laugh. That was the way this society worked: you were only at the bottom of the totem pole until you could find someone else to take your place. "Watch out for kryptonite," Josie whispered, just loud enough for Peter to hear.

  *

  The two best things about being a district court judge, in Alex's mind, were, first, being able to address people's problems and make them feel as if they are being listened to, and second, the intellectual challenge. You had so many factors to balance when you were making decisions: the victims, the police, law enforcement, society. And all of them had to be considered in the context of precedent.

  The worst part of the job was that you couldn't give people what they really needed when they came to court: for a defendant--the sentencing that would really offer treatment, instead of a punishment. For a victim--an apology.

 
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