Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  When Joey was seven and his best friend went over the handlebars of his bike and opened a cut over his forehead, it was Joey who passed out. When a medical show was on television, he had to leave the room. Because of this, he'd never gone hunting with his father, although Lewis had promised his boys that as soon as they turned twelve, they were old enough to come out with him and learn how to shoot.

  It seemed as if Peter had been waiting all fall for this weekend. He had been reading up on the rifle his father was going to let him use--a Winchester Model 94 lever action 30-30 that had been his father's, before the purchase of the bolt-action Remington 721 30.06 he used now to hunt deer. Now, at 4:30 in the morning, Peter could barely believe he was holding it in his hands, the safety carefully locked. He crept through the woods behind his father, his breath crystallizing in the air.

  It had snowed last night--which was why the conditions were perfect for deer hunting. They'd been out yesterday to find fresh scrapes--spots on live trees where a buck had rubbed his antlers and returned to scrape over and over, marking its territory. Now it was just a matter of finding the same spot and checking for fresh tracks, to see if the buck had come through yet.

  The world was different when there was no one in it. Peter tried to match his father's footsteps, setting his boot into the print left behind by his father. He pretended he was in the army, on a guerrilla mission. The enemy was right around the corner. At any moment now, he might be surprised into an exchange of fire.

  "Peter," his father hissed over his shoulder. "Keep your rifle pointed up!"

  They approached the ring of trees where they'd seen the rub. Today, the antler scrapes were fresh, the white flesh of the tree and the pale green strip of peeled bark chafed raw. Peter looked down at his feet. There were three sets of tracks--one much larger than the other two.

  "He's already been through here," Peter's father murmured. "He's probably following the does." Deer in rut weren't as smart as usual--they were so focused on the does they were chasing, they forgot to avoid the humans who might be hunting them.

  Peter and his father walked softly through the woods, following tracks toward the swamp. Suddenly, his father stuck out his hand--a signal to stop. Glancing up, Peter could see two does--one older, one a yearling. His father turned, mouthing, Don't move.

  When the buck stepped out from behind the tree, Peter stopped breathing. It was massive, majestic. Its thick neck supported the weight of a six-point rack. Peter's father nodded imperceptibly at the gun. Go ahead.

  Peter fumbled with the rifle, which felt thirty pounds heavier. He lifted it to his shoulder and got the deer in his sights. His pulse was pounding so hard that the gun kept shaking.

  He could hear his father's instructions as if they were being whispered aloud even now: Shoot underneath the front leg, low on the body. If you hit the heart, you'll kill it instantly. If you miss the heart, you'll get the lungs, so it will run for a hundred yards or so and then drop.

  Then the deer turned and looked at him, eyes trained on Peter's face.

  Peter squeezed the trigger, sending the shot wide.

  On purpose.

  The three deer ducked in unison, unsure of where the danger was. Just as Peter wondered whether or not his father had noticed that he wimped out--or simply assumed Peter was a lousy shot--a second shot rang from his father's rifle. The does bolted away; the buck dropped like a stone.

  Peter stood over the deer, watching blood pump from its heart. "I didn't mean to steal your shot," his father said, "but if you'd reloaded, they would have heard you and run."

  "No," Peter said. He could not tear his eyes from the deer. "It's okay." Then he vomited into the scrub brush.

  He could hear his father doing something behind him, but he wouldn't turn around. Instead Peter stared hard at a patch of snow that had already begun to melt. He felt his father approach. Peter could smell the blood on his hands, the disappointment.

  Peter's father reached out, patting his shoulder. "Next time," he sighed.

  *

  Dolores Keating had transferred to the middle school this year in January. She was one of those kids that slipped by unnoticed--not too pretty, not too smart, not a troublemaker. She sat in front of Peter in French class, her ponytail bobbing up and down as she conjugated verbs out loud.

  One day, as Peter was doing his best not to fall asleep to Madame's recitation of the verb avoir, he noticed that Dolores was sitting in the middle of an ink stain. He thought that was pretty funny, given that she was wearing white pants, and then he realized that it wasn't ink at all.

  "Dolores has her period!" he cried out loud, out of sheer shock. In a house full of males--with the exception of his mother, of course--menstruation was one of those great mysteries about women, like how do they put on mascara without poking out their eyes and how can they hook a bra behind themselves, without seeing what they're doing?

  Everyone in the class turned, and Dolores's face went as scarlet as her pants. Madame ushered her into the hall, suggesting she go to the nurse. On the seat in front of Peter was a small red puddle of blood. Madame called the custodian, but by then, the class was out of control--whispers raging like a brush fire about how much blood there was, how Dolores was now one of the girls that everyone knew had her period.

  "Keating's bleeding," Peter said to the kid sitting next to him, whose eyes lit up.

  "Keating's bleeding," the boy repeated, and the chant went around the room. Keating's bleeding. Keating's bleeding. Across the room, Peter caught Josie's eye--Josie, who'd started to wear makeup lately. She was singing along with the rest of them.

  Belonging felt like helium; Peter felt himself swell inside. He'd been the one to start this; by drawing a line around Dolores, he'd become part of the inner circle.

  At lunch that day, he was sitting with Josie when Drew Girard and Matt Royston came over with their trays. "We heard that you saw it happen," Drew said, and they sat down so that Peter could tell them the details. He began embellishing--a teaspoon of blood became a cup; the stain on her white pants grew from a modest spot to a Rorschach blot of enormous proportion. They called over their friends--some who were kids on Peter's soccer team, yet hadn't spoken to him all year. "Tell them, too, it's hilarious," Matt said, and he smiled at Peter as if Peter were one of them.

  Dolores stayed out of school. Peter knew that it wouldn't have made any difference if she was gone for a month or more--the memories of sixth graders were steel traps, and for the rest of her high school career, Dolores would always be remembered as the girl who got her period in French class and bled all over the seat.

  The morning that she came back, she stepped off the bus and was immediately flanked by Drew and Matt. "For a woman," they said, drawing out the words, "you sure don't have any boobs." She pushed away from them, and Peter didn't see her again until French class.

  Someone--he really didn't know who--had come up with a plan. Madame was always late to class; she had to come from the other end of the school. So before the bell rang, everyone would walk up to Dolores's desk and hand her a tampon they'd been given by Courtney Ignatio, who'd pilfered a box from her mother.

  Drew was first. As he set the tampon on her desk he said, "I think you might have dropped this." Six tampons later, the bell still hadn't rung, and Madame wasn't in the room yet. Peter walked up, holding the wrapped tube in his fist, ready to drop it--and noticed Dolores was crying.

  It wasn't loud, and it was barely even visible. But as Peter reached out with the tampon, he suddenly realized that this was what it looked like from the other side, when he was being put through hell.

  Peter crushed the tampon in his fist. "Stop," he said softly, and then he turned around to the next three students waiting in line to humiliate Dolores. "Just stop already."

  "What's your problem, homo?" Drew asked.

  "It's not funny anymore."

  Maybe it was never funny. It was just that it hadn't been him, and that was good enough.

  Th
e boy behind him shoved Peter out of the way and flicked his tampon so that it bounced off Dolores's head, rolled underneath Peter's seat. And then it was Josie's turn.

  She looked at Dolores, and then she looked at Peter. "Don't," he murmured.

  Josie pressed her lips together and let the tampon roll from her outstretched fingers onto Dolores's desk. "Oops," she said, and when Matt Royston laughed, she went to stand beside him.

  *

  Peter was lying in wait. Although Josie hadn't been walking with him for a few weeks now, he knew what she was doing after school--usually strolling into town to get an iced tea with Courtney & Co. and then window-shopping. Sometimes he stood back at a distance and watched her the way you'd stare at a butterfly that you'd only known as a caterpillar, wondering how the hell change could be that dramatic.

  He waited until she'd left the other girls, and then he followed her down the street that led to her house. When he caught up to her and grabbed her arm, she shrieked.

  "God!" she said. "Peter, why don't you just scare me to death!"

  He had worked out what he was going to ask her in his mind, because words didn't come easily to him, and he knew that he had to practice them more than others would; but when he had Josie this close, after everything that had happened, every question felt like a slap. Instead, he sank onto the curb, spearing his hands through his hair. "Why?" he asked.

  She sat down next to him, folding her arms over her knees. "I'm not doing it to hurt you."

  "You're such a fake with them."

  "I'm just not the way I am with you," Josie said.

  "Like I said: fake."

  "There's different kinds of real."

  Peter scoffed. "If that's what those jerks are teaching you, it's bullshit."

  "They're not teaching me anything," Josie argued. "I'm there because I like them. They're fun and funny and when I'm with them--" She broke off abruptly.

  "What?" Peter prompted.

  Josie looked him in the eye. "When I'm with them," she said, "people like me."

  Peter guessed change could be that dramatic: in an instant, you could go from wanting to kill someone to wanting to kill yourself.

  "I won't let them make fun of you anymore," Josie promised. "That's a silver lining, right?"

  Peter didn't respond. This wasn't about him.

  "I just . . . I just can't really hang out with you right now," Josie explained.

  He lifted his face. "Can't?"

  Josie stood up, backing away from him. "I'll see you around, Peter," she said, and she walked out of his life.

  You can feel people staring; it's like heat that rises from the pavement during summer, like a poker in the small of your back. You don't have to hear a whisper, either, to know that it's about you.

  I used to stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom to see what they were staring at. I wanted to know what made their heads turn, what it was about me that was so incredibly different. At first I couldn't tell. I mean, I was just me.

  Then one day, when I looked in the mirror, I understood. I looked into my own eyes and I hated myself, maybe as much as all of them did.

  That was the day I started to believe they might be right.

  Ten Days After

  Josie waited until she could no longer hear the television in her mother's bedroom--Leno, not Letterman--and then rolled onto her side to watch the LED acrobatics of the digital clock. When it was 2:00 a.m., she decided it was safe, and she pulled back her covers and got out of bed.

  She knew how to sneak downstairs. She'd done it a couple of times before, meeting Matt outside in the backyard. One night, he'd texted her on her cell--1/2 2 C U now. She had gone out to him in her pajamas, and for a moment when he touched her she actually thought she would slip through his fingers.

  There was only one landing where the floorboards creaked, and Josie knew enough to step over it. Downstairs, she rummaged through the stack of DVDs for the one she wanted--the one she didn't want to be caught viewing. Then she turned on the television, muting the sound so low she had to sit right on top of the screen and its built-in speakers to hear.

  The first person shown was Courtney. She held up her hand, blocking whoever had been videotaping. She was laughing, though; her long hair falling over her features like a screen of silk. Offscreen, Brady Pryce's voice: Give us something for Girls Gone Wild, Court. The camera fuzzed out for a moment, and then there was a close-up of a birthday cake. HAPPY SWEET SIXTEEN, JOSIE. A run of faces, including Haley Weaver's, singing to her.

  Josie paused the DVD. There was Courtney, and Haley, and Maddie, and John, and Drew. She touched her finger to each of their foreheads, getting a tiny electric shock each time.

  At her birthday party, they'd had a barbecue at Storrs Pond. There were hot dogs and hamburgers and sweet corn. They had forgotten the ketchup and someone had to drive back into town to buy some at a mini-mart. Courtney's card had been signed BFF, best friends forever, even though Josie knew she'd written the same thing on Maddie's card a month earlier.

  By the time the screen fuzzed out again and her own face came on, Josie was crying. She knew what was coming; she remembered this part. The camera panned back and there was Matt, his arms around her as she sat on his lap on the sand. He had taken off his shirt, and Josie remembered that his skin had been warm where it pressed up against hers.

  How could you be so alive one moment, and then have everything stop--not just your heart and your lungs, but the way you smiled slowly, the left side of your mouth curling before the right; and the pitch of your voice; and the habit you had of tugging at your hair when you were doing your math homework?

  I can't live without you, Matt used to say, and now Josie realized he wouldn't have to.

  She couldn't stop sobbing, so Josie pushed her fist into her mouth to keep herself from making noise. She watched Matt on the screen the way you might study an animal you had never seen before, if you had to memorize it and tell the world later what you'd found. Matt's hand splayed across her bare stomach, grazed the edge of her bikini top. She watched herself push him away, blush. "Not here," her voice said, a funny voice, a voice that didn't sound like Josie to her own ears. You never did, when you heard yourself on tape.

  "Then let's go somewhere else," Matt said.

  Josie ruched up the edge of her pajama top, until she could reach underneath. She spread her own hand across her belly. She edged her thumb up, like Matt had, to the curve of her breast. She tried to pretend it was him.

  He had given her a gold locket for that birthday, one she hadn't taken off since that day nearly six months ago. Josie was wearing it on the DVD. She remembered that when she'd looked at it in the mirror, Matt's thumbprint had been on the back, left behind after he clasped it around her neck. That had seemed so intimate, and for a few days, she had done everything she could to keep it from rubbing off.

  On the night that Josie had met Matt out in her own backyard, beneath the moon, he'd laughed at her pajamas, printed all over with pictures of Nancy Drew. What were you doing when I texted you? he asked.

  Sleeping. Why did you have to see me in the middle of the night?

  To make sure you were dreaming about me, he said.

  On the DVD, someone called out Matt's name. He turned, grinning. His teeth were wolf's teeth, Josie thought. Sharp, impossibly white. He stamped a kiss on Josie's mouth. "Be right back," he said.

  Be right back.

  She pressed Pause again, just as Matt stood up. Then she reached around her neck and ripped the locket off its thin gold chain. She unzipped one of the couch cushions and pushed the necklace deep inside the stuffing.

  She turned off the television. She pretended that Matt would be suspended like that forever, inches away from Josie so that she could still reach out and grab him, even though she knew that the DVD would reset itself even before she left the room.

  *

  Lacy had known they were out of milk; that morning, as she and Lewis sat like zombies at the kitche
n table, she had brought it up:

  I hear it's going to rain again.

  We're out of milk.

  Have you heard from Peter's lawyer?

  It devastated Lacy to know that she could not visit Peter again for another week--jail rules. It killed her to know Lewis hadn't been there to see him at all yet. How was she supposed to go through the motions of an ordinary day, knowing that her son was sitting in a cell less than twenty miles away?

  There was a point where the events of your life became a tsunami; Lacy knew, because she'd been washed away once before by grief. When that happened, you would find yourself days later on unfamiliar ground, rootless. The only other choice you had was to move to higher ground while you still could.

  Which is why Lacy found herself at a gas station buying a carton of milk, although all gut instinct told her to crawl under the covers and sleep. This was not as easy as it seemed: to get the milk, she had to first back out of her garage with reporters slapping the car windows and blocking her path. She had to elude the news van that followed her to the highway. As a result, she found herself paying for the milk at a service station in Purmort, New Hampshire--one she rarely frequented.

  "That's $2.59," the cashier said.

  Lacy opened her wallet and extracted three dollar bills. Then she noticed the small, hand-lettered display at the register. Memorial Fund for the Victims of Sterling High, the sign read, and there was a coffee can to hold the donations.

  She started shaking.

  "I know," the cashier sympathized. "It's just tragic, isn't it?"

  Lacy's heart was pounding so fiercely she was certain the clerk would hear it.

  "You've got to wonder about the parents, don't you? I mean, how could they not have known?"

  Lacy nodded, afraid that even the sound of her voice would ruin her anonymity. It was almost too easy to agree: Had there ever been a more awful child? A worse mother?

  It was simple to say that behind every terrible child stood a terrible parent, but what about the ones who had done the best they could? What about the ones, like Lacy, who had loved unconditionally, protected ferociously, cherished mightily--and still had raised a murderer?

  I didn't know, Lacy wanted to say. It's not my fault.

  But she stayed silent because--truth be told--she wasn't quite sure she believed that.

 
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