Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Lacy emptied the contents of her wallet into the coffee can, bills and coins. Numb, she walked out of the gas station, leaving the carton of milk on the counter.

  She had nothing left inside. She'd given it all to her son. And that was the greatest heartbreak of all--no matter how spectacular we want our children to be, no matter how perfect we pretend they are, they are bound to disappoint. As it turns out, kids are more like us than we think: damaged, through and through.


  Ervin Peabody, the professor of psychiatry at the college, offered to run a grief session for the entire town of Sterling at the white clapboard church in its center. There was a tiny line item in the daily paper and purple flyers posted at the coffee shop and bank, but that was enough to spread the word. By the time the meeting convened at 7:00 p.m., cars were parked as far as a half mile away; people spilled through the open doors of the church onto the street. The press, which had come en masse to cover the meeting, was turned away by a battalion of Sterling policemen.

  Selena pressed the baby closer against her chest as another wave of townspeople pushed past her. "Did you know it was going to be like this?" she whispered to Jordan.

  He shook his head, eyes roaming over the crowd. He recognized some of the same people who'd come to the arraignment, but also a host of other faces that were new, and that wouldn't have been intimately connected to the high school: the elderly, the college kids, the couples with young babies. They had come because of the ripple effect, because one person's trauma is another's loss of innocence.

  Ervin Peabody sat in the front of the room, beside the police chief and the principal of Sterling High. "Hello," he said, standing up. "We've called this session tonight because we're all still reeling. Nearly overnight, the landscape's changed around us. We may not have all the answers, but we thought it might be beneficial for us to start to talk about what's happened. And maybe more importantly, to listen to each other."

  A man stood up in the second row, holding his jacket in his hands. "I moved here five years ago, because my wife and I wanted to get away from the craziness of New York City. We were starting a family, and were looking for a place that was . . . well, just a little bit kinder and gentler. I mean, when you drive down the street in Sterling you get honked at by people who know you. You go to the bank and the teller remembers your name. There aren't places like that in America anymore, and now . . ." He broke off.

  "And now Sterling's not one either," Ervin finished. "I know how difficult it can be when the image you've had of something doesn't match its reality; when the friend beside you turns into a monster."

  "Monster?" Jordan whispered to Selena.

  "Well, what is he supposed to say? That Peter was a time bomb? That'll make them all feel safe."

  The psychiatrist looked out over the crowd. "I think that the very fact that you're all here tonight shows that Sterling hasn't changed. It may not ever be normal again, as we know it. . . . We're going to have to figure out a new kind of normal."

  A woman raised her hand. "What about the high school? Are our kids going to have to go back inside there?"

  Ervin glanced at the police chief, the principal. "It's still the site of an active investigation," the chief said.

  "We're hoping to finish out the year in a different location," the principal added. "We're in talks with the superintendent's office in Lebanon, to see if we can use one of their empty schools."

  Another woman's voice: "But they're going to have to go back sometime. My daughter's only ten, and she's terrified about walking into that high school, ever. She wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. She thinks there's someone with a gun there, waiting for her."

  "Be happy she's able to have nightmares," a man replied. He was standing next to Jordan, his arms folded, his eyes a livid red. "Go in there every night, when she cries, and hold her and tell her you'll keep her safe. Lie to her, just like I did."

  A murmur rolled through the church, like a ball of yarn being unraveled. That's Mark Ignatio. The father of one of the dead.

  Just like that, a fault line opened up in Sterling--a ravine so deep and bleak that it would not be bridged for many years. There was already a difference in this town, between those who had lost children and those who still had them to worry about.

  "Some of you knew my daughter Courtney," Mark said, pushing away from the wall. "Maybe she babysat for your kids. Or served you a burger at the Steak Shack in the summer. Maybe you'd recognize her by sight, because she was a beautiful, beautiful girl." He turned to the front of the stage. "You want to tell me how I'm supposed to figure out a new kind of normal, Doc? You wouldn't dare suggest that one day, it gets easier. That I'll be able to move past this. That I'll forget my daughter is lying in a grave, while some psychopath is still alive and well." Suddenly the man turned to Jordan. "How can you live with yourself?" he accused. "How the hell can you sleep at night, knowing you're defending that sonofabitch?"

  Every eye in the room turned to Jordan. Beside him, he could feel Selena press Sam's face against her chest, shielding the baby. Jordan opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't find a single word.

  The sound of boots coming up the aisle distracted him. Patrick Ducharme was headed straight for Mark Ignatio. "I can't imagine the pain you're feeling, Mark," Patrick said, his gaze locked on the grieving man's. "And I know you have every right to come here and be upset. But the way our country works, someone's innocent until they're proven guilty. Mr. McAfee's just doing his job." He clapped his hand on Mark's shoulder and lowered his voice. "Why don't you and I grab a cup of coffee?"

  As Patrick led Mark Ignatio toward the exit, Jordan remembered what he had wanted to say. "I live here, too," he began.

  Mark turned around. "Not for long."


  Alex was not short for Alexandra, like most people assumed. Her father had simply given her the name of the son he would have preferred to have.

  After Alex's mother had died of breast cancer when she was five, her father had raised her. He wasn't the kind of dad who showed her how to ride a bike or to skip stones--instead, he taught her the Latin words for things like faucet and octopus and porcupine; he explained to her the Bill of Rights. She used academics to get his attention: winning spelling bees and geography contests, netting a string of straight A's, getting into every college she applied to.

  She wanted to be just like her father: the kind of man who walked down the street and had storekeepers nod to him in awe: Good afternoon, Judge Cormier. She wanted to hear the change in tone of a receptionist's voice when the woman heard it was Judge Cormier on the line.

  If her father never held her on his lap, never kissed her good night, never told her he loved her--well, it was all part of the persona. From her father, Alex learned that everything could be distilled into facts. Comfort, parenting, love--all of these could be boiled down and explained, rather than experienced. And the law--well, the law supported her father's belief system. Any feelings you had in the context of a courtroom had an explanation. You were given permission to be emotional, in a logical setting. What you felt for your clients was not really what was in your own heart, or so you could pretend, so that no one ever got close enough to hurt you.

  Alex's father had had a stroke when she was a second-year law student. She had sat on the edge of his hospital bed and told him she loved him.

  "Oh, Alex," he'd sighed. "Let's not bother with that."

  She hadn't cried at his funeral, because she knew that's what he would have wanted.

  Had her own father wished, as she did now, that the basis of their relationship had been different? Had he eventually given up hoping, settling for teacher and student instead of parent and child? How long could you march along on a parallel track with your child before you lost any chance of intersecting her life?

  She'd read countless websites about grief and its stages; she'd studied the aftermath of other school shootings. She could do research, but when she tried to connect with Jos
ie, her daughter looked at her as if she'd never seen her before. At other times, Josie burst into tears. Alex didn't know how to combat either outcome. She felt incompetent--and then she'd remember that this wasn't about her, it was about Josie--and she'd feel even more like a failure.

  The great irony hadn't escaped Alex: she was more like her father than he ever might have guessed. She felt comfortable in her courtroom, in a way she did not feel in the confines of her own home. She knew just what to say to a defendant who'd come in with his third DUI charge, but she couldn't sustain a five-minute conversation with her own child.

  Ten days after the shooting at Sterling High, Alex went into Josie's bedroom. It was midafternoon and the curtains were shut tight; Josie was hidden in the cocoon she'd made of her bedcovers. Although her immediate instinct was to snap open the shades and let the sunlight in, Alex lay down on the bed instead. She wrapped her arms around the bundle that was her daughter. "When you were little," Alex said, "sometimes I'd come in here and sleep with you."

  There was a shifting, and the sheets fell away from Josie's face. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face swollen. "Why?"

  She shrugged. "I was never a big fan of thunderstorms."

  "How come I never woke up and found you here?"

  "I always went back to my own bed. I was supposed to be the tough one . . . . I didn't want you to think I was scared of anything."

  "Supermom," Josie whispered.

  "But I'm scared of losing you," Alex said. "I'm scared it's already happened."

  Josie stared at her for a moment. "I'm scared of losing me, too."

  Alex sat up and tucked Josie's hair behind her ear. "Let's get out of here," she suggested.

  Josie froze. "I don't want to go out."

  "Sweetheart, it would be good for you. It's like physical therapy, but for the brain. Go through the motions, the pattern of your everyday life, and eventually you remember how to do it naturally."

  "You don't understand . . ."

  "If you don't try, Jo," she said, "then that means he wins."

  Josie's head snapped up. Alex didn't have to tell her who he was. "Did you guess?" Alex heard herself asking.

  "Guess what?"

  "That he might do this?"

  "Mom, I don't want to--"

  "I keep thinking about him as a little boy," Alex said.

  Josie shook her head. "That was a really long time ago," she murmured. "People change."

  "I know. But sometimes I can still see him handing you that rifle--"

  "We were little," Josie interrupted, her eyes filling with tears. "We were stupid." She pushed back the covers, in a sudden hurry. "I thought you wanted to go somewhere."

  Alex looked at her. A lawyer would press the point. A mother, though, might not.

  Minutes later, Josie was sitting in the passenger seat of the car beside Alex. She buckled the seat belt, then unlatched it, then secured it again. Alex watched her tug on the belt to make sure it would lock up.

  She pointed out the obvious as they drove--that the first daffodils had pushed their brave heads through the snow on the median strip of Main Street; that the Sterling College crew team was training on the Connecticut River, the bows of their boats breaking through the residual ice. That the temperature gauge in the car said it was more than fifty degrees. Alex intentionally took the long route--the one that did not go past the school. Only once did Josie's head turn to look at the scenery, and that was when they passed the police station.

  Alex pulled into a parking spot in front of the diner. The street was filled with lunchtime shoppers and busy pedestrians, carrying boxes to be mailed and talking on cell phones and glancing into store windows. To anyone who didn't know better, it was business as usual in Sterling. "So," Alex said, turning to Josie. "How are we doing?"

  Josie looked down at her hands in her lap. "Okay."

  "It's not as bad as you thought, is it?"

  "Not yet."

  "My daughter the optimist." Alex smiled at her. "You want to split a BLT and a salad?"

  "You haven't even looked at a menu yet," Josie said, and they both got out of the car.

  Suddenly a rusted Dodge Dart ran the light at the head of Main Street, backfiring as it sped away. "Idiot," Alex muttered, "I should get his plate number . . ." She broke off when she realized that Josie had vanished. "Josie!"

  Then Alex saw her daughter, pressed against the sidewalk, where she'd flattened herself. Her face was white, her body trembling.

  Alex knelt beside her. "It was a car. Just a car." She helped Josie to her knees. All around them, people were watching and pretending not to.

  Alex shielded Josie from their view. She had failed again. For someone renowned for her good judgment, she suddenly seemed to be lacking any. She thought of something she'd read on the Internet--how sometimes, when it came to grief, you could take one step forward and then three steps back. She wondered why the Internet did not add that when someone you loved was hurting, it cut you right to the bone, too. "All right," Alex said, her arm anchored tight around Josie's shoulders. "Let's get you back home."


  Patrick had taken to living, eating, and sleeping his case. At the station, he acted cool and in command--he was the point man, after all, for all those investigators--but at home, he questioned every move he made. On his refrigerator were the pictures of the dead; on his bathroom mirror he'd created a dry-erase marker timeline of Peter's day. He sat awake in the middle of the night, writing lists of questions: What was Peter doing at home before leaving for school? What else was on his computer? Where did he learn to shoot? How did he get guns? Where did the anger come from?

  During the day, however, he plowed through the massive amount of information to be processed, and the even more massive amount of information to be gleaned. Now, Joan McCabe sat across from him. She had cried her way through the last box of Kleenex at the station, and was now wadding paper towels up in her fist. "I'm sorry," she said to Patrick. "I thought this would get easier the more I do it."

  "I don't think that's how it works," he said gently. "I do appreciate you taking the time to speak to me about your brother."

  Ed McCabe had been the only teacher killed in the shooting. His classroom had been at the top of the stairs, en route to the gymnasium; he'd had the bad fortune to come out and try to stop what was happening. According to school records, Peter had had McCabe as a math teacher in tenth grade. He'd gotten B's. No one else could remember his not getting along with McCabe that year; most of the other students hadn't even recalled Peter being in the class.

  "There's really nothing else I can tell you," Joan said. "Maybe Philip remembers something."

  "Your husband?"

  Joan looked up at him. "No. That's Ed's partner."

  Patrick leaned back in his chair. "Partner. As in--"

  "Ed was gay," Joan said.

  It might be something, but then again, it might not. For all Patrick knew, Ed McCabe--who'd been just a hapless victim a half hour ago--could have been the reason Peter started shooting.

  "No one at the school knew," Joan said. "I think he was afraid of backlash. He told people in town that Philip was his old college roommate."

  Another victim--one who was still alive--was Natalie Zlenko. She'd been shot in the side and had to have her liver resected. Patrick thought he remembered seeing her name listed as president of the GLAAD club at Sterling High. She'd been one of the first people shot; McCabe had been one of the last.

  Maybe Peter Houghton was homophobic.

  Patrick handed Joan his card. "I'd really like to talk to Philip," he said.


  Lacy Houghton set a teapot and a plate of celery in front of Selena. "I don't have any milk. I went to buy some, but . . ." Her voice trailed off, and Selena tried to fill in the blanks.

  "I really appreciate you talking to me," Selena said. "Whatever you can tell me, we'll use to help Peter."

  Lacy nodded. "Anything," she said. "Anything you want to know."

  "Well, let's start with the easy stuff. Where was he born?"

  "Right at Dartmouth-Hitchcock," Lacy said.

  "Normal delivery?"

  "Totally. No complications." She smiled a little. "I used to walk three miles every day when I was pregnant. Lewis thought I'd wind up delivering in someone's driveway."

  "Did you nurse him? Was he a good eater?"

  "I'm sorry, I don't see why . . ."

  "Because we have to see if there might be a brain disorder," Selena said matter-of-factly. "An organic problem."

  "Oh," Lacy said faintly. "Yes. I nursed him. He's always been healthy. A little smaller than other kids his age, but neither Lewis nor I are very big people."

  "How was his social development as a child?"

  "He didn't have a lot of friends," Lacy said. "Not like Joey."


  "Peter's older brother. Peter is a year younger, and much quieter. He got teased because of his size, and because he wasn't as good an athlete as Joey...."

  "What kind of relationship does Peter have with Joey?"

  Lacy looked down at her knotted hands. "Joey died a year ago. He was killed in a car accident, by a drunk driver."

  Selena stopped writing. "I'm so sorry."

  "Yes," Lacy said. "Me, too."

  Selena leaned back slightly in her chair. It was crazy, she knew, but just in case misfortune was contagious, she did not want to get too close. She thought of Sam, how she'd left him sleeping this morning in his crib. During the night he'd kicked off a sock; his toes were plump as early peas; it was all she could do not to taste his caramel skin. So much of the language of love was like that: you devoured someone with your eyes, you drank in the sight of him, you swallowed him whole. Love was sustenance, broken down and beating through your bloodstream.

  She turned back to Lacy. "Did Peter get along with Joey?"

  "Oh, Peter adored his big brother."

  "He told you that?"

  Lacy shrugged. "He didn't have to. He'd be at all of Joey's football games, and cheering just as loud as the rest of us. When he got to the high school, everyone expected great things of him, because he was Joey's little brother."

  Which could be, Selena knew, just as much a source of frustration as it was of pride. "How did Peter react to Joey's death?"

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