Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  There wasn't anyone to talk to. If you even doubted your right to be one of the privileged, popular set, then you didn't belong there. And Matt--well, he'd fallen for the Josie on the surface, like everyone else. In fairy tales, when the mask came off, the handsome prince still loved the girl, no matter what--and that alone would turn her into a princess. But high school didn't work that way. What made her a princess was hooking up with Matt. And in some weird circular logic, what made Matt hook up with her was the very fact that she was one of Sterling High's princesses.

  She couldn't confide in her mother, either. You don't stop being a judge just because you step out of the courthouse, her mother used to say. It was why Alex Cormier never drank more than one glass of wine in public; it was why she never yelled or cried. A trial was a stupid word, considering that an attempt was never good enough: you were supposed to toe the line, period. Many of the accomplishments that Josie's mother was most proud of--Josie's grades, her looks, her acceptance into the "right" crowd--had not been achieved because Josie wanted them so badly herself, but mostly because she was afraid of falling short of perfect.

  Josie wrapped a towel around herself and headed into her bedroom. She pulled a pair of jeans out of her closet and then layered two long-sleeved tees that showed off her chest. She glanced at her clock--if she wasn't going to be late, she'd have to get moving.

  Before leaving her room, though, she hesitated. She sank down onto her bed and rummaged underneath the nightstand for the Ziploc sandwich bag that she'd tacked to the wooden frame. Inside was a stash of Ambien -- pirated one pill at a time from her mother's prescription for insomnia, so she'd never notice. It had taken Josie nearly six months to inconspicuously gather only fifteen pills, but she figured if she washed them down with a fifth of vodka, it would do the trick. It wasn't like she had a strategy, really, to kill herself next Tuesday, or when the snow melted, or anything concrete like that. It was more like a backup plan: When the truth came out, and no one wanted to be around her anymore, it stood to reason Josie wouldn't want to be around herself either.

  She tacked the pills back beneath her nightstand and headed downstairs. As she walked into the kitchen to load up her backpack, she found her chemistry textbook still wide open--and a long-stemmed red rose marking her place.

  Matt was leaning against the refrigerator in the corner; he must have let himself in through the open garage door. Like always, he made her head swim with seasons--his hair was all the colors of autumn; his eyes the bright blue of a winter sky; his smile as wide as any summer sun. He was wearing a baseball hat backward, and a Sterling Varsity Hockey tee over a thermal shirt that Josie had once stolen for a full month and hidden in her underwear drawer, so that when she needed to she could breathe in the scent of him. "Are you still pissed off?" he asked.

  Josie hesitated. "I wasn't the one who was mad."

  Matt pushed away from the refrigerator, coming forward until he could link his arms around Josie's waist. "You know I can't help it."

  A dimple blossomed in his right cheek; Josie could already feel herself softening. "It wasn't that I didn't want to see you. I really did have to study."

  Matt pushed her hair off her face and kissed her. This was exactly why she'd told him not to come over last night--when she was with him, she felt herself evaporating. Sometimes, when he touched her, Josie imagined herself vanishing in a puff of steam.

  He tasted of maple syrup, of apologies. "It's all your fault, you know," he said. "I wouldn't act as crazy if I didn't love you so much."

  At that moment, Josie could not remember the pills she was hoarding in her room; she could not remember crying in the shower; she could not remember anything but what it felt like to be adored. I'm lucky, she told herself, the word streaming like a silver ribbon through her mind. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

  *

  Patrick Ducharme, the sole detective on the Sterling police force, sat on a bench on the far side of the locker room, listening to the patrol officers on the morning shift pick on a rookie with a little extra padding around the middle. "Hey, Fisher," Eddie Odenkirk said, "are you the one who's having the baby, or is it your wife?"

  As the rest of the guys laughed, Patrick took pity on the kid. "It's early, Eddie," he said. "Can't you at least wait to start in until we've all had a cup of coffee?"

  "I would, Captain," Eddie laughed, "but it looks like Fisher already ate all the donuts and--what the hell is that?"

  Patrick followed Eddie's gaze downward, to his own feet. He did not, as a matter of course, change in the locker room with the patrol officers, but he'd jogged to the station this morning instead of driving, to work off too much good cooking consumed over the weekend. He'd spent Saturday and Sunday in Maine with the girl who currently held his heart--his goddaughter, a five-and-a-half-year-old named Tara Frost. Her mother, Nina, was Patrick's oldest friend, and the one love he probably would never get over, although she managed to be doing quite well without him. Over the course of the weekend, Patrick had deliberately lost ten thousand games of Candy Land, had given countless piggyback rides, had had his hair done, and--here was his cardinal mistake--had allowed Tara to put bright pink nail polish on his toes, which Patrick had forgotten to remove.

  He glanced down at his feet and curled his toes under. "Chicks think it's hot," he said gruffly, as the seven men in the locker room struggled not to snicker at someone who was technically their superior. Patrick yanked his dress socks on, slipped into his loafers, and walked out, still holding his tie. One, he counted. Two, three. On cue, laughter spilled out of the locker room, following him down the hallway.

  In his office, Patrick closed the door and peered at himself in the tiny mirror on the back. His black hair was still damp from his shower; his face was flushed from his run. He shimmied the knot of his tie up his neck, fashioning the noose, and then sat down at his desk.

  Seventy-two emails had come in over the weekend--and usually anything more than fifty meant he wouldn't get home before 8:00 p.m. all week. He began to weed through them, adding notes to a devil's To Do list--one that never got any shorter, no matter how hard he worked.

  Today, Patrick had to drive drugs down to the state lab--not a big deal, except that it was a four-hour block of his day that vanished right there. He had a rape case coming to fruition, the perp identified from a college face book and his statements transcribed and ready for the AG's office. He had a cell phone that had been nabbed out of a car by a homeless guy. He had blood results come back from the lab as a match for a break-in at a jewelry store, and a suppression hearing in superior court, and already on his desk was the first new complaint of the day--a theft of wallets in which the credit cards had been used, leaving a trail for Patrick to trace.

  Being a small-town detective required Patrick to be firing on all cylinders, all the time. Unlike cops he knew who worked for city departments, where they had twenty-four hours to solve a case before it was considered cold, Patrick's job was to take everything that came across his desk--not to cherry-pick for the interesting ones. It was hard to get excited about a bad check case, or a theft that would net the perp a $200 fine when it cost the taxpayers five times that to have Patrick focus on it for a week. But every time he started thinking that his cases weren't particularly important, he'd find himself face-to-face with a victim: the hysterical mother whose wallet had been stolen; the mom-and-pop jewelry store owners who'd been robbed of their retirement income; the rattled professor who was a victim of identity theft. Hope, Patrick knew, was the exact measure of distance between himself and the person who'd come for help. If Patrick didn't get involved, if he didn't give a hundred percent, then that victim was going to be a victim forever--which was why, since Patrick had joined the Sterling police, he had managed to solve every single case.

  And yet.

  When Patrick was lying in his bed alone and letting his mind sew a seam across the hem of his life, he did not remember the proven successes--only the potential failures. When he walked around t
he perimeter of a vandalized barn or found the stolen car stripped down and dumped in the woods or handed the tissue to the sobbing girl who'd been date-raped, Patrick couldn't help but feel that he was too late. He was a detective, but he didn't detect anything. It fell into his lap, already broken, every time.

  *

  It was the first warm day of March, the one where you started to believe that the snow would melt sooner rather than later, and that June was truly just around the corner. Josie sat on the hood of Matt's Saab in the student parking lot, thinking that it was closer to summer than it was to the start of this school year, that in a scant three months, she would officially be a member of the senior class.

  Beside her, Matt leaned against the windshield, his face tipped up to the sun. "Let's ditch school," he said. "It's too nice out to be stuck inside all day."

  "If you ditch, you'll be benched."

  The state championship tournament in hockey began this afternoon, and Matt played right wing. Sterling had won last year, and they had every expectation of doing it again. "You're coming to the game," Matt said, and it wasn't a question, but a statement.

  "Are you going to score?"

  Matt smiled wickedly and tugged her on top of him. "Don't I always?" he said, but he wasn't talking about hockey anymore, and she felt a blush rise over the collar of her scarf.

  Suddenly Josie felt a rain of hail on her back. They both sat up to find Brady Pryce, a football player, walking by hand-in-hand with Haley Weaver, the homecoming queen. Haley tossed a second shower of pennies--Sterling High's way of wishing an athlete good luck. "Kick ass today, Royston," Brady called.

  Their math teacher was crossing the parking lot, too, with a worn black leather briefcase and a thermos of coffee. "Hey, Mr. McCabe," Matt called out. "How'd I do on last Friday's test?"

  "Luckily, you've got other talents to fall back on, Mr. Royston," the teacher said as he reached into his pocket. He winked at Josie as he pitched the coins, pennies that fell from the sky onto her shoulders like confetti, like stars coming loose.

  *

  It figures, Alex thought as she stuffed the contents of her purse back inside. She had switched handbags and left her pass key at home, which allowed her into the employee entrance at the rear of the superior court. Although she'd pushed the buzzer a million times, no one seemed to be around to let her in.

  "Goddamn," she muttered under her breath, hiking around the slush puddles so that her alligator heels wouldn't get ruined--one of the perks of parking in the back was not having to do this. She could cut through the clerk's office to her chambers, and if the planets were aligned, maybe even onto the bench without causing a delay in the docket.

  Although the public entrance of the court had a line twenty people long, the court officers recognized Alex because, unlike the district court circuit, where you bounced from courthouse to courthouse, she would be ensconced here for six months. The officers waved her to the front of the line, but since she was carrying keys and a stainless steel travel thermos and God only knew what else in her purse, she set off the metal detectors.

  The alarm was a spotlight; every eye in the lobby turned to see who'd gotten caught. Ducking her head, Alex hurried across the polished tile floor and nearly lost her footing. As she pitched forward, a squat man reached forward to steady her. "Hey, baby," he said, leering. "I like your shoes."

  Without responding, Alex yanked herself out of his grasp and headed toward the clerk's office. None of the other superior court judges had to deal with this. Judge Wagner was a nice guy, but with a face that looked like a pumpkin left to rot after Halloween. Judge Gerhardt--a fellow female--had blouses that were older than Alex. When Alex had first come to the bench, she'd thought that being a relatively young, moderately attractive woman was a good thing--a vote against typecasting--but on mornings like this, she wasn't so sure.

  She dumped her purse in chambers, shrugged into her robe, and took five minutes to drink her coffee and review the docket. Each case got its own file, but cases for repeat offenders were rubber-banded together, and sometimes judges wrote Post-it notes to each other inside about the case. Alex opened one and saw a picture of a stick-figure man with bars in front of his face--a signal from Judge Gerhardt that this was the offender's last chance, and that next time, he should go to jail.

  She rang the buzzer to signify to the court officer that she was ready to start, and waited to hear her cue: "All rise, the Honorable Alexandra Cormier presiding." Walking into a courtroom, to Alex, always felt as if she were stepping onto a stage for the first time at a Broadway opening. You knew there would be people there, you knew their gazes would all be focused on you, but that didn't prevent you from having a moment when you could not breathe, could not believe you were the one they had come to see.

  Alex moved briskly behind the bench and sat down. There were seventy arraignments scheduled for that morning, and the courtroom was packed. The first defendant was called, and he shuffled past the bar with his eyes averted.

  "Mr. O'Reilly," Alex said, and as the man met her gaze she recognized him as the guy from the lobby. He was clearly uncomfortable, now that he realized whom he'd been flirting with. "You're the gentleman who assisted me earlier, aren't you?"

  He swallowed. "Yes, Your Honor."

  "If you'd known I was the judge, Mr. O'Reilly, would you have said, 'Hey, baby, I like your shoes'?"

  The defendant glanced down, weighing impropriety against honesty. "I guess so, Your Honor," he said after a moment. "Those are great shoes."

  The entire courtroom went still, anticipating her reaction. Alex smiled broadly. "Mr. O'Reilly," she said, "I couldn't agree more."

  *

  Lacy Houghton leaned over the bed railing and put her face right in front of her sobbing patient's. "You can do this," she said firmly. "You can do this, and you will."

  After sixteen hours of labor, they were all exhausted--Lacy, the patient, and the father-to-be, who was facing zero-hour with the dawning realization that he was superfluous, that right now, his wife wanted her midwife much more than she wanted him. "I want you to get behind Janine," Lacy told him, "and brace her back. Janine, I want you to look at me and give me another good push . . ."

  The woman gritted her teeth and bore down, losing all sense of herself in the effort to create someone else. Lacy reached down to feel the baby's head, to guide it past the seal of skin and quickly loop the cord over its head without ever losing eye contact with her patient. "For the next twenty seconds, your baby is going to be the newest person on this planet," Lacy said. "Would you like to meet her?"

  The answer was a pressured push. A crest of intention, a roar of purpose, a sluice of slick, purpled body that Lacy quickly lifted into the mother's arms, so that when the infant cried for the first time in this life, she would already be in a position to be comforted.

  Her patient started weeping again--tears had a whole different melody, didn't they, without the pain threaded through them? The new parents bent over their baby, a closed circle. Lacy stepped back and watched. There was plenty of work left for a midwife to do even after the moment of birth, but for right now, she wanted to make eye contact with this little being. Where parents would notice a chin that looked like Aunt Marge's or a nose that resembled Grandpa's, Lacy would see instead a gaze wide with wisdom and peace--eight pounds of unadulterated possibility. Newborns reminded her of tiny Buddhas, faces full of divinity. It didn't last long, though. When Lacy saw these same infants a week later at their regular checkups, they had turned into ordinary--albeit tiny--people. That holiness, somehow, disappeared, and Lacy was always left wondering where in this world it might go.

  *

  While his mother was across town delivering the newest resident of Sterling, New Hampshire, Peter Houghton was waking up. His father knocked on the door on his way out to work--Peter's alarm clock. Downstairs, a bowl and a box of cereal would be waiting for him--his mother remembered to do that even when she got paged at two in the morning. There
would be a note from her, too, telling him to have a good day at school, as if it were that simple.

  Peter threw back his covers. He moved to his desk, still wearing his pajama bottoms, sat down, and logged onto the Internet.

  The words on the message board were blurry. He reached for his glasses--he kept them next to his computer. After he slipped the frames on, he dropped the case onto the keyboard--and suddenly, he was seeing something he'd hoped never to see again.

  Peter reached out and hit CONTROL ALT DELETE, but he could still picture it, even after the screen went blank, even after he closed his eyes, even after he started to cry.

  *

  In a town the size of Sterling, everyone knew everyone else, and always had. In some ways, this was comforting--like a great big extended family that you sometimes loved and sometimes fell out of favor with. At other times, it haunted Josie: like right now, when she was standing in the cafeteria line behind Natalie Zlenko, a dyke of the first order who, way back in second grade, had invited Josie over to play and had convinced her to pee on the front lawn like a boy. What were you thinking, her mother had said, when she'd come to pick her up and saw them bare-bottomed and squatting over the daffodils. Even now, a decade later, Josie couldn't look at Natalie Zlenko with her buzz cut and her ever-present SLR camera without wondering if Natalie still thought about that, too.

  On Josie's other side was Courtney Ignatio, the alpha female of Sterling High. With her honey-blond hair hanging over her shoulders like a shawl made of silk and her low-rise jeans mail-ordered from Fred Segal, she'd spawned an entourage of clones. On Courtney's tray was a bottle of water and a banana. On Josie's was a platter of French fries. It was second period, and just like her mother had predicted, she was famished.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]