Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Today there was a girl standing in front of her who wasn't much older than Josie. She was wearing a NASCAR jacket and a black pleated skirt, and had blond hair and acne. Alex had seen kids like her, hanging out in parking lots after the Mall of New Hampshire was closed for the night, spinning 360s in their boyfriends' I-Rocs. She wondered what this girl would have been like if she'd grown up with a judge for a mother. She wondered if, at some point, this girl had played with stuffed animals underneath the kitchen table and read books beneath her covers with a flashlight when she was supposed to be going to bed. It never failed to amaze Alex how, with the brush of a hand, the track of someone's life might veer in a completely different direction.

  The girl had been charged with receiving stolen property--a $500 gold necklace that her boyfriend gave her. Alex looked down at her from the bench. There was a reason it was up so high in a courtroom--it had nothing to do with logistics and everything to do with intimidation. "Are you knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waiving your rights? And you understand that by pleading guilty, you're admitting to the truth of the charge?"

  The girl blinked. "I didn't know it was stolen. I thought it was a present from Hap."

  "If you read the face of the complaint, it says you're charged with knowingly receiving this necklace, knowing it was stolen. If you didn't know it was stolen, you have the right to go to trial. You have the right to mount a defense. You have the right to have me appoint a lawyer to represent you because you are charged with a Class A misdemeanor and this is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. You have a right to have the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. You have the right to see, hear, and question all the witnesses against you. You have the right to have me subpoena into court any evidence and/or witnesses in your favor. You have the right to appeal your decision to the Supreme Court, or the Superior Court for a jury trial de novo if I make an error of law or if you don't agree with my decision. By pleading guilty, you give up these rights."

  The girl swallowed. "Well," she repeated. "I did pawn it."

  "That's not the essence of the charge," Alex explained. "The essence of the charge is that you took that necklace even after you knew it was stolen."

  "But I want to plead guilty," the girl said.

  "You're telling me you didn't do what the charge said you did. You can't plead guilty to something you didn't do."

  In the rear of the courtroom, a woman stood up. She looked like a poorly aged carbon copy of the defendant. "I told her to plead not guilty," the girl's mother said. "She came here today and she was going to do that, but then the prosecutor said she'd get a better deal if she said she was guilty."

  The prosecutor sprung out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box. "I never said that, Your Honor. I told her what the deal on the table was, today, if she was pleading guilty, plain and simple. And that if she pled not guilty instead and went to trial, the deal was off the table and Your Honor would make the decision that you wanted to make."

  Alex tried to imagine what it would be like to be this girl, completely overwhelmed by the massive stature of this legal system, unable to speak its language. She would look at the prosecutor and see Monty Hall. Do you take the money? Or do you choose Door Number One--which might reveal a convertible, or might reveal a chicken?

  This girl had taken the money.

  Alex motioned the prosecutor to approach the bench. "Do you have any evidence from your investigation to prove she knew it was stolen?"

  "Yes, Your Honor." He produced the police report and handed it over. Alex scanned it--there was no way, given what she'd said to the cops and how they'd recorded it, that she hadn't known it was stolen.

  Alex turned to the girl. "Based on the facts of the police report, coupled with the offer of proof, I find that there's a basis for your plea. There's enough evidence here to substantiate the fact that you knew this necklace was stolen, and you took it anyway."

  "I don't . . . I don't understand," the girl said.

  "It means I'll take your plea, if you still want me to. But," Alex added, "first you have to tell me that you're guilty."

  Alex watched the girl's mouth tighten and start to tremble. "Okay," she whispered. "I did it."

  *

  It was one of those incredibly beautiful autumn days, the kind when you drag your feet on the sidewalk in the morning as you walk to school because you cannot believe you have to waste eight hours there. Josie was sitting in math class, staring at the blue of the sky--cerulean, that was a vocabulary word this week, and just saying it made Josie feel like her mouth was full of ice crystals. She could hear the seventh graders playing Capture the Flag in gym class in the recess yard, and the drone of the lawn mower as the custodian moved past their window. A piece of paper was dropped over her shoulder, into her lap. Josie unfolded it, read Peter's note.

  Why do we always have to solve for x? Why can't x do it himself and spare us the HELL!!!!!

  She turned around, giving him a half-smile. Actually, she liked math. She loved knowing that if she worked hard enough, at the end there was going to be an answer that made sense.

  She didn't fit in with the popular crowd at school because she was a straight-A student. Peter was different--he got B's and C's, and once a D. He didn't fit in either, but it wasn't because he was a brain. It was because he was Peter.

  If there was a totem pole of unpopularity, Josie knew she still ranked relatively higher than some. Every now and then she wondered if she hung out with Peter because she enjoyed his company or because being with him made her feel better about herself.

  While the class worked on the review sheet, Mrs. Rasmussin surfed the Internet. It was a schoolwide joke--who could catch her buying a pair of pants from Gap.com, or reading soap opera fansites. One kid swore he'd found her looking at porn one day when he went to her desk to ask a question.

  Josie finished early, as usual, and looked up to see Mrs. Rasmussin at her computer . . . but there were tears streaming down her cheeks, in that strange way that happens when people do not even realize they are crying.

  She stood up and walked out of the room without even saying a word to the class about being quiet in her absence.

  The minute she left, Peter tapped on Josie's shoulder. "What's wrong with her?"

  Before Josie could answer, Mrs. Rasmussin returned. Her face was as white as marble, and her lips were pressed together like a seam. "Class," she said, "something terrible has happened."

  *

  In the media center, where the middle school students had been herded, the principal told them what he knew: two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Another one had just crashed into the Pentagon. The south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed.

  The librarian had set up a television so that they could all watch the unfolding coverage. Even though they had been pulled out of class--usually a cause for celebration--it was so quiet in that library that Peter could hear his own heart pounding. He looked around the walls of the room, at the sky outside the windows. This school wasn't a safety zone. Nothing was, no matter what you'd been told.

  Was this what it felt like to be at war?

  Peter stared at the screen. People were sobbing and screaming in New York City, but you could barely see because of the dust and smoke in the air. There were fires everywhere, and the ululations of screaming fire engines and car alarms. It looked nothing like the New York Peter remembered the one time he'd vacationed there with his parents. They'd gone to the top of the Empire State Building and they were planning to have a fancy dinner at Windows on the World, but then Joey had gotten sick from eating too much popcorn and instead they'd headed back to the hotel.

  Mrs. Rasmussin had left school for the day. Her brother was a bond trader in the World Trade Center.

  Had been.

  Josie was sitting next to Peter. Even with a few inches of space separating their chairs, he could feel her shaking. "Peter," she whispered, horrified, "there's people jumping
."

  He couldn't see as well as she could, even with his glasses, but when he squinted he could tell Josie was right. It made his chest hurt to watch, as if his ribs were suddenly a size too small. What kind of person would do that?

  He answered his own question: The kind who doesn't see any other way out.

  "Do you think they could get us here?" Josie whispered.

  Peter glanced at her. He wished he knew what to say to make her feel better, but the truth was, he didn't feel all that great himself and he didn't know if there were even any words in the English language to take away this kind of stunning shock, this understanding that the world isn't the place you thought it was.

  He turned back to the screen so that he didn't have to answer Josie. More people leaped out of the windows of the north tower; then there was a massive roar as if the ground itself were opening its jaws. When the building collapsed, Peter let out the breath he'd been holding--relieved, because now he couldn't see anything at all.

  *

  The switchboards to the schools were completely jammed, and so parents fell into two categories: the ones who didn't want to scare their kids to death by showing up at school and shepherding them into a basement bunker, and those who wanted to ride out this tragedy with their children close at hand.

  Lacy Houghton and Alex Cormier both fell into the latter category, and both arrived at the school simultaneously. They parked beside each other in the bus circle and got out of their cars, and only then recognized each other--they had not seen each other since the day Alex marched her daughter out of Lacy's basement, where the guns were kept. "Is Peter--" Alex began.

  "I don't know. Josie?"

  "I'm here to get her."

  They went into the main office together, and were directed down the hall to the media center. "I can't believe they're letting them watch the news," Lacy said, running beside Alex.

  "They're old enough to understand what's happening," Alex said.

  Lacy shook her head. "I'm not old enough to understand what's happening."

  The media center was spread with students--on chairs, on tables, sprawled on the floor. It took Alex a moment to realize what was so unnatural about the crowd: no one was making a sound. Even the teachers stood with their hands over their mouths, as if they were afraid to let out any of the emotion, because once the floodgates opened, everything else in their path would be swept away.

  In the front of the room was a single television, and every eye was on it. Alex spotted Josie because she had stolen one of Alex's headbands--a leopard print. "Josie," she called, and her daughter whipped around, then nearly climbed over other kids in her effort to reach Alex.

  Josie hit her like a hurricane, all emotion and fury, but Alex knew that somewhere inside was the eye of that storm. And then, like any force of nature, you had to brace yourself for another onslaught before things went back to normal. "Mommy," she sobbed. "Is it over?"

  Alex didn't know what to say. As the parent, she was supposed to have all the answers, but she didn't. She was supposed to be able to keep her daughter safe, but she couldn't promise that either. She had to put on a brave face and tell Josie it was going to be fine, when she really didn't know that herself. Even driving here from court, she had been aware of the fragility of the roads beneath her wheels, of the divider of sky that could so easily be breached. She passed wells and thought about drinking-water contamination; she wondered how far away the closest nuclear power plant was.

  And yet, she had spent years being the judge others expected her to be--someone cool and collected, someone who could reach conclusions without getting hysterical. She could certainly put on that demeanor for her daughter, too.

  "We're fine," Alex said calmly. "It's over." She did not know that even as she spoke, a fourth plane was crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. She did not realize that her fierce grip on Josie contradicted her words.

  Over Josie's shoulder Alex nodded to Lacy Houghton, who was leaving with her two sons in tow. With some shock she realized Peter was tall now, nearly as tall as a man.

  How many years had it been since she'd seen him?

  You could lose track of someone when you blinked, Alex realized. She vowed not to let that happen to her and her daughter. Because when it came down to it, being a judge didn't matter nearly as much as being a mother. When Alex's clerk had told her the news about the World Trade Center, her first thought had not been for her constituents . . . only for Josie.

  For a few weeks, Alex held to her promises. She rearranged her docket so that she was home when Josie got there; she left legal briefs in the office instead of bringing them home to read on weekends; every night, over dinner, they talked--not just chatter, but real conversation: about why To Kill a Mockingbird might very well be the best book ever written; about how you could tell if you'd fallen in love; even about Josie's father. But then, one week, a particularly knotty case had her staying late at the office. And Josie started being able to sleep through the night again, instead of waking up screaming. Part of going back to normal meant erasing the boundaries of what was abnormal, and within a few months, the way Alex had felt on 9/11 was slowly forgotten, like a tide washing out a message she'd once scrawled on the sand.

  *

  Peter hated soccer, but he was on the middle school team. They had an anyone-can-play policy, so that even kids who might not normally make varsity or JV or--who was he kidding? the team, period--could join. It was this--plus his mother's belief that part of fitting in meant being in the crowd to begin with--that led him to a season of afternoon practices where he found himself doing passing drills and running after the ball more often than he returned it; and games twice a week where he warmed middle school soccer field benches all over Grafton County.

  There was only one thing Peter hated more than soccer, and that was getting dressed for it. After school, he'd purposely find something to do at his locker, or a question to ask a teacher, so that he wound up in the locker room after most of his teammates were outside stretching and warming up. Then, in a corner section, Peter would strip without having to listen to anyone make fun of the way his chest sort of caved in at the bottom, or having the elastic of his boxers twisted to give him a wedgie. They called him Peter Homo, instead of Peter Houghton, and even when he was the only one in the locker room he could still hear the slap of their high-fives and the laughter that rolled toward him like an oil slick.

  After practice, he usually was able to do something that ensured he would be the last one in the locker room--picking up the practice balls, asking the coach a question about an upcoming game, even retying his cleats. If he was really lucky, by the time he reached the showers, everyone else would already have left for home. But today, just as practice had ended, a thunderstorm had rolled in. The coach herded all the kids off the field and into the locker room.

  Peter walked slowly into his corner bank of lockers. Several guys were already headed to the showers, towels wrapped around their waists. Drew, for one, and his friend Matt Royston. They were laughing as they walked, punching each other in the arms to see who could land the harder hit.

  Peter turned his back to the other locker sections and skimmed off his uniform, then covered himself quickly with a towel. His heart was pounding. He could already imagine what everyone else saw when they looked at him, because he saw it, too, in the mirror: skin white as the belly of a fish; knobs sticking out of his spine and collarbones. Arms without a single rope of muscle.

  The last thing Peter did was take off his glasses and put them on the shelf of his open locker. It made everything blissfully fuzzy.

  He ducked his head and walked into the shower, pulling off his towel at the last possible minute. Matt and Drew were already soaping themselves up. Peter let the spray hit him in the forehead. He imagined being an adventurer on some wild white river, being pummeled by a waterfall as he was sucked into a vortex.

  When he wiped his eyes and turned around, he could see the blurred edges of the bodies tha
t were Matt and Drew. And the dark patch between their legs--pubic hair.

  Peter didn't have any yet.

  Matt suddenly twisted sideways. "Jesus Christ. Stop looking at my dick."

  "Fucking fag," Drew said.

  Peter immediately turned away. What if it turned out they were right? What if that was the reason his gaze had fallen right there at that moment? Worse, what if he got hard right now, which was happening more and more lately?

  That would mean he was gay, wouldn't it?

  "I wasn't looking at you," Peter blurted. "I can't see anything."

  Drew's laughter bounced against the tile walls of the shower. "Maybe your dick's too small, Mattie."

  Suddenly Matt had Peter by the throat. "I don't have my glasses on," Peter choked out. "That's why."

  Matt let go, shoving Peter against the wall, then stalked out of the shower. He reached over and plucked Peter's towel from a hook, tossing it into the spray. It fell, soaked, to cover the central drain.

  Peter picked it up and wrapped it around his waist. The cotton was sopping wet, and he was crying, but he thought maybe people couldn't tell because the rest of him was dripping, too. Everyone was staring.

  When he was around Josie, he didn't feel anything--didn't want to kiss her or hold her hand or anything like that. He didn't think he felt those things about guys, either; but surely you had to be gay or straight. You couldn't be neither.

  He hurried to the corner bank of lockers and found Matt standing in front of his. Peter squinted, trying to see what Matt was holding, and then he heard it: Matt took his glasses, slammed the locker door on them, and let the mangled frames drop to the floor. "Now you can't look at me," he said, and he walked away.

  Peter knelt down on the floor, trying to pick up the broken pieces of glass. Because he couldn't see, he cut his hand. He sat, cross-legged, with the towel puddled in his lap. He brought his palm closer to his face, until everything was clear.

  *

  In her dream, Alex was walking down Main Street stark naked. She went into the bank and deposited a check. "Your Honor," the teller said, smiling. "Isn't it beautiful out today?"

 
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