Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "He was devastated, just like we were. He cried a lot. Spent time in his room."

  "Did your relationship with Peter change after Joey died?"

  "I think it got stronger," Lacy said. "I was so overwhelmed. Peter . . . he let us lean on him."

  "Did he lean on anyone else? Have any intimate relationships?"

  "You mean with girls?"

  "Or boys," Selena said.

  "He was still at that awkward age. I know he'd asked a few girls out, but I don't think anything ever came of it."

  "How were Peter's grades?"

  "He wasn't a straight-A student like his brother," Lacy said, "but he'd get B's and the occasional C. We always told him to just do the best he could."

  "Did he have any learning disabilities?"

  "No."

  "What about outside of school? What did he like to do?" Selena asked.

  "He'd listen to music. Play video games. Like any other teenager."

  "Did you ever listen to his music, or play those games?"

  Lacy let a smile ghost over her face. "I actively tried not to."

  "Did you monitor his Internet use?"

  "He was only supposed to be using it for school projects. We had long talks about chat rooms and how unsafe the Internet can be, but Peter had a good head on his shoulders. We--" She broke off, looking away. "We trusted him."

  "Did you know what he was downloading?"

  "No."

  "What about weapons? Do you know where he got them from?"

  Lacy took a deep breath. "Lewis hunts. He took Peter out with him once, but Peter didn't like it very much. The shotguns are always locked in a gun case--"

  "And Peter knew where the key was."

  "Yes," Lacy murmured.

  "What about the pistols?"

  "We've never had those in our house. I have no idea where they came from."

  "Did you ever check his room? Under the bed, in the closets, that kind of thing?"

  Lacy met her gaze. "We've always respected his privacy. I think it's important for a child to have his own space, and--" She pressed her lips shut.

  "And?"

  "And sometimes when you start looking," Lacy said softly, "you find things you don't really want to see."

  Selena leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. "When did that happen, Lacy?"

  Lacy walked to the window, drawing aside the curtain. "You would have had to know Joey to understand. He was a senior, an honors student, an athlete. And then, a week before graduation, he was killed." She let her hand trail the edge of the fabric. "Someone had to go through his room--pack it up, get rid of the things we didn't want to keep. It took me a while, but finally, I did it. I was going through his drawers when I found the drugs. Just a little powder, in a gum wrapper, and a spoon and a needle. I didn't know it was heroin until I looked it up on the Internet. I flushed it down the toilet and threw the hypodermic out at work." She turned toward Selena, her face red. "I can't believe I'm telling you this. I've never told anyone, not even Lewis. I didn't want him--or anyone--to think anything bad about Joey."

  Lacy sat down on the couch again. "I didn't go into Peter's room on purpose, because I was afraid of what I'd find," she confessed. "I didn't know that it could be even worse."

  "Did you ever interrupt him when he was in his room? Knock on the door, pop your head inside?"

  "Sure. I'd come in to say good night."

  "What was he usually doing?"

  "He was on his computer," Lacy said. "Almost always."

  "Didn't you see what was on the screen?"

  "I don't know. He'd close the file."

  "How did he act when you interrupted him unexpectedly? Did he seem upset? Annoyed? Guilty?"

  "Why does it feel like you're judging him?" Lacy said. "Aren't you supposed to be on our side?"

  Selena met her gaze steadily. "The only way I can thoroughly investigate this case is to ask you the facts, Mrs. Houghton. That's all I'm doing."

  "He was like any other teenager," Lacy said. "He'd suffer while I kissed him good night. He didn't seem embarrassed. He didn't act like he was hiding anything from me. Is that what you want to know?"

  Selena put down her pen. When the subject started getting defensive, it was time to end the interview. But Lacy was still talking, unprompted.

  "I never thought there was any problem," she admitted. "I didn't know Peter was upset. I didn't know he wanted to kill himself. I didn't know any of those things." She began to cry. "All those families out there, I don't know what to say to them. I wish I could tell them that I lost someone, too. I just lost him a long time ago."

  Selena folded her arms around the smaller woman. "It's not your fault," she said, words she knew Lacy Houghton needed to hear.

  *

  In a fit of high school irony, the principal of Sterling High had placed the Bible Study Club next door to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. They met Tuesdays, at three-thirty, in Rooms 233 and 234 of the high school. Room 233 was, during the day, Ed McCabe's classroom. One member of the Bible Study Club was the daughter of a local minister, named Grace Murtaugh. She'd been killed in the hallway leading to the gymnasium, shot in front of a water fountain. The leader of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance was still in the hospital: Natalie Zlenko, a yearbook photographer, had come out as a lesbian after her freshman year, when she'd wandered into the GLAAD meeting in Room 233 to see if there was anyone else on this planet like herself.

  "We're not supposed to give out names." Natalie's voice was so faint that Patrick had to lean over the hospital bed to hear her. Natalie's mother hovered at his shoulder. When he'd come in to ask Natalie a few questions, she said that he'd better leave or else she'd call the police. He reminded her that he was the police.

  "I'm not asking for names," Patrick said. "I'm just asking you to help me help a jury understand why this happened."

  Natalie nodded. She closed her eyes.

  "Peter Houghton," Patrick said. "Did he ever attend a meeting?"

  "Once," Natalie said.

  "Did he say or do anything that sticks in your mind?"

  "He didn't say or do anything, period. He showed up the one time, and he never came back."

  "Does that happen often?"

  "Sometimes," Natalie said. "People wouldn't be ready to come out. And sometimes we got jerks who just wanted to know who was gay so that they could make life hell for us in school."

  "In your opinion, did Peter fit into either one of these categories?"

  She was silent for a long time, her eyes still closed. Patrick drew away, thinking that she'd fallen asleep. "Thanks," he said to her mother, just as Natalie spoke again.

  "Peter was getting ragged on long before he ever showed up at that meeting," she said.

  *

  Jordan was on diaper detail while Selena interviewed Lacy Houghton, and Sam was appallingly bad at going to sleep on his own. However, a ten-minute ride in the car could knock the kid out like a prizefighter, so Jordan bundled the baby up and strapped him into the car seat. It wasn't until he put the Saab into reverse that he realized his wheel rims were grinding against the driveway; all four of his tires had been slashed.

  "Fuck," Jordan said, as Sam started to wail again in the backseat. He plucked the baby out, carried him back inside, and tethered him into the Snugli that Selena wore around the house. Then he called the police to report the vandalism.

  Jordan knew he was in trouble when the dispatch officer didn't ask him to spell his last name--he already knew it. "We'll get to it," the officer said. "But first we've got a squirrel up a tree that needs a hand climbing down." The line went dead.

  Could you sue the cops for being unsympathetic bastards?

  Through some miracle--pheromones of stress, probably--Sam fell asleep, but startled, bawling, when the doorbell rang. Jordan yanked the door open to find Selena outside. "You woke up the baby," he accused as she lifted Sam out of the carrier.

  "Then you shouldn't have locked the door. Oh, hi, you sweet man," S
elena cooed. "Has Daddy been a monster the whole time I've been gone?"

  "Someone slashed my tires."

  Selena glanced at him over the baby's head. "Well, you sure know how to win friends and influence people. Let me guess--the cops aren't exactly scrambling to take your report?"

  "Not quite."

  "Comes with the territory, I guess," Selena said. "You're the one who took this case."

  "How about a little spousal understanding?"

  Selena shrugged. "Wasn't in the vows I took. If you want to have a pity party, set the table for one."

  Jordan ran a hand through his hair. "Well, did you at least get anything out of the mother? Like, for example, that Peter had a psychiatric diagnosis?"

  She peeled off her jacket while juggling Sam in one hand and then the other, unbuttoned her blouse, and sat down on the couch to nurse. "No. But he did have a sibling."

  "Really?"

  "Yeah. A dead one, who--prior to being killed by a drunk driver--was the All-American Son."

  Jordan sank down beside her. "I can use this . . ."

  Selena rolled her eyes. "Just for once, could you not be a lawyer and focus instead on being a human? Jordan, this family was in so deep they didn't have a chance. The kid was a powder keg. The parents were dealing with their own grief and were asleep at the wheel. Peter had no one to turn to."

  Jordan glanced up at her, a grin splitting his face. "Excellent," he said. "Our client's just become sympathetic."

  *

  One week after the school shooting at Sterling High, the Mount Lebanon School--a primary grade school that had become an administrative building when the population of students in Lebanon dipped--was outfitted to be the temporary home for high school kids to finish out their school year.

  On the day that classes were beginning again, Josie's mother came into her bedroom. "You don't have to do this," she said. "You can take a few more weeks off, if you want."

  There had been a flurry of phone calls, a pulse of panic that began a few days ago when each student received the written word that school would be starting again. Are you going back? Are you? There were rumors: whose mother wouldn't let them return; who was getting transferred to St. Mary's; who was going to take over Mr. McCabe's class. Josie had not called any of her friends. She was afraid to hear their answers.

  Josie did not want to go back to school. She could not imagine having to walk down a hallway, even one not physically located at Sterling High. She didn't know how the superintendent and the principal expected everyone to act--and they would all be doing that: acting--because to feel anything real would be devastating. And yet there was another part of Josie that understood she had to go back to school; it was where she belonged. The other students at Sterling High were the only ones who really understood what it was like to wake up in the morning and crave those three seconds before you remembered your life wasn't what it used to be; who had forgotten how easy it was to trust that the ground beneath your feet was solid.

  If you were drifting with a thousand other people, could you really still say you were lost?

  "Josie?" her mother said, prompting.

  "It's fine," she lied.

  Her mother left, and Josie started to gather her books. She realized, suddenly, that she'd never taken her science test. Catalysts. She didn't remember anything about them anymore. Mrs. Duplessiers wouldn't be evil enough to hand out the test on their first day back, would she? It wasn't like time had stopped during these three weeks--it had changed completely.

  The last morning she had gone to school, she hadn't been thinking of anything in particular. That test, maybe. Matt. How much homework she'd have that night. Normal things, in other words. A normal day. There had been nothing to set it apart from any other morning at school; so how could Josie be sure that today wouldn't dissolve at the seams, too?

  When Josie reached the kitchen, her mother was wearing a suit--work clothes. It took her by surprise. "You're going back today?" she asked.

  Her mother turned, holding a spatula. "Oh," she answered, faltering. "I just figured that since you were . . . You can always reach me through the clerk, if there's a problem. I swear to God, Josie, I'll be there in less than ten minutes. . . ."

  Josie sank into a chair and closed her eyes. Somehow, it didn't matter that Josie herself was leaving the house for the day--she'd still imagined her mother sitting home waiting for her, just in case. But that was stupid, wasn't it? It had never been like that, so why should now be any different?

  Because, a voice whispered in Josie's head. Everything else is.

  "I've rearranged my schedule so I'll be able to pick you up from school. And if there's any problem--"

  "Yeah. Call the clerk. Whatever."

  Her mother sat down across from her. "Honey, what did you expect?"

  Josie glanced up. "Nothing. I stopped that a long time ago." She stood up. "You're burning your pancakes," she said, and she walked back upstairs to her bedroom.

  She buried her face in her pillow. She didn't know what the hell was wrong with her. It was as if, after, there were two Josies--the little girl who kept hoping it might be a nightmare, might never have happened, and the realist who still hurt so badly she lashed out at anyone who got too close. The thing was, Josie didn't know which persona was going to take over at any given moment. Here was her mother, for God's sake, who couldn't boil water but was now attempting pancakes for Josie before she went back to school. When she was younger, she had imagined living in the kind of house where on the first day of school your mother had a whole spread of eggs and bacon and juice to start the day off right--instead of a lineup of cereal boxes and a paper napkin. Well, she'd gotten what she wished for, hadn't she? A mother who sat at her bedside when she was crying, a mother who had temporarily abandoned the job that defined her to hover over Josie instead. And what did Josie do? She pushed her away. She said, in all the spaces between her words, You never cared about anything that happened in my life when nobody was watching, so don't think you can just start now.

  Suddenly, Josie heard the roar of an engine pulling into the driveway. Matt, she thought, before she could stop herself; and by then, every nerve in her body was stretched to the point of pain. Somehow, she hadn't really thought about how she would physically be transported to school--Matt had always picked her up en route. Her mother, of course, would have driven her. But Josie wondered why she hadn't worked through these logistics earlier. Because she was afraid to? Didn't want to?

  From her bedroom window she watched Drew Girard get out of his battered Volvo. By the time she reached the front door to open it, her mother had come out of the kitchen, too. She held the smoke detector in her hand, popped off its plastic snap on the ceiling.

  Drew stood in a shaft of sunlight, shading his eyes with his free hand. His other arm was still in a sling. "I should have called."

  "That's okay," Josie said. She felt dizzy. She realized that, in the background, the birds had come back from wherever they went in the winter.

  Drew looked from Josie to her mother. "I thought maybe, you know, you might need a ride."

  Suddenly Matt was standing there with them; Josie could feel his fingers on her back.

  "Thanks," her mother said, "but I'm going to take Josie in today."

  The monster in Josie uncoiled. "I'd rather go with Drew," she said, grabbing her backpack off the newel post of the banister. "I'll see you at pickup." Without turning around to see her mother's face, Josie ran to the car, which gleamed like a sanctuary.

  Inside, she waited for Drew to turn over the ignition and pull out of the driveway. "Are your parents like that?" Josie asked, closing her eyes as they sped down the street. "Like you can't breathe?"

  Drew glanced at her. "Yeah."

  "Have you talked to anyone?"

  "Like the police?"

  Josie shook her head. "Like us."

  He downshifted. "I went over to the hospital to see John a couple of times," Drew said. "He couldn't remember m
y name. He can't remember the words for things like forks or hairbrushes or stairs. I kind of sat there and told him stupid things--who'd won the last few Bruins games, things like that--but the whole time I was wondering if he even knows he can't walk anymore." At a stoplight, Drew turned to her. "Why not me?"

  "What?"

  "How come we got to be the lucky ones?"

  Josie didn't know what to say to that. She looked out the window, pretending to be fascinated by a dog that was pulling its owner, instead of the other way around.

  Drew pulled into the parking lot of the Mount Lebanon School. Beside the building was a playground--this had been an elementary school, after all, and even once it became administrative, neighborhood kids would still come to use the monkey bars and the swings. In front of the school's main doors stood the principal and a line of parents, calling out the names of students and encouraging them as they walked inside.

  "I have something for you," Drew said, and he reached behind his seat and held out a baseball cap--one Josie recognized. Whatever embroidery had once been on it had long since unraveled; the brim was frayed and curled tight as a fiddlehead. He handed it to Josie, who ran a finger gently along the inside seam.

  "He left it in my car," Drew explained. "I was going to give it to his parents . . . after. But then I kind of thought you might want it instead."

  Josie nodded, as tears rose along the watermark of her throat.

  Drew bent his head against the wheel. It took Josie a moment to realize that he was crying, too.

  She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. "Thank you," Josie managed, and she settled Matt's baseball cap onto her head. She opened the passenger door and reached for her knapsack, but instead of heading toward the school she walked through the rusted gates onto the playground. She strode into the middle of the sandbox and stared at her shoe prints, wondered how much wind or weather it would take to make them disappear.

  *

  Twice Alex had excused herself from the courtroom to call Josie's cell, even though she knew Josie kept it turned off during classroom hours. The message she left both times was the same:

  It's me. I just wanted to know how you were holding up.

  Alex told her clerk, Eleanor, that if Josie called back, she was to be disturbed. No matter what.

  She was relieved to be back at work, but had to force herself to pay attention to the case in front of her. There was a defendant on the stand who claimed to have no experience with the criminal justice system. "I don't understand the court process," the woman said, turning to Alex. "Can I go now?"

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