Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  The prosecutor was in the middle of his cross-examination. "First, why don't you tell Judge Cormier about the last time you were in court."

  The woman hesitated. "Maybe for a speeding ticket."

  "What else?"

  "I can't remember," she said.

  "Aren't you on probation?" the prosecutor asked.

  "Oh," the woman replied. "That."

  "What are you on probation for?"

  "I can't remember." She looked up at the ceiling, her brow wrinkling in thought. "It begins with an F. F . . . F . . . F . . . felony! That's it!"

  The prosecutor sighed. "Didn't it have to do with a check?"

  Alex looked at her watch, thinking that if she got this woman off the damn stand, she could see if Josie had called in yet. "How about forgery," she interrupted. "That starts with an F."

  "So does fraud," the prosecutor pointed out.

  The woman faced Alex blankly. "I can't remember."

  "I'm calling a one-hour recess," Alex announced. "Court will resume at eleven a.m."

  As soon as she was through the door that took her to her chambers, she stripped off her robes. They felt suffocating today, something that Alex didn't really understand--this was where she had always felt comfortable. Law was a set of rules she understood--a code of behavior where certain actions had certain consequences. She could not say the same of her personal life, where a school that was supposed to be safe turned into a slaughterhouse, where a daughter carved from her own body had become someone Alex no longer understood.

  Okay, if she was going to be honest, that she'd never understood.

  Frustrated, she stood up and walked into her clerk's office. Twice, before the trial began, she'd called on Eleanor for trivial things, hoping that instead of hearing "Yes, Your Honor," the clerk would let down her guard and ask Alex how she was doing, how Josie was doing. That for a half a moment, she wouldn't be a judge to someone, just another parent who'd had the scare of a lifetime.

  "I need a cigarette," Alex said. "I'm going downstairs."

  Eleanor glanced up. "All right, Your Honor."

  Alex, she thought. Alex Alex Alex.

  Outside, Alex sat down on the cement block near the loading zone and lit a cigarette. She drew in deeply, closed her eyes.

  "Those'll kill you, you know."

  "So will old age," Alex replied, and she turned around to see Patrick Ducharme.

  He turned his face up to the sun, squinted. "I wouldn't have expected a judge to have vices."

  "You probably think we sleep under the bench, too."

  Patrick grinned. "Well, that would be just plain silly. There's not enough room for a mattress."

  She held out the pack. "Be my guest."

  "If you want to corrupt me, there are more interesting ways."

  Alex felt her face flame. He hadn't just said that, had he? To a judge? "If you don't smoke, why'd you come out here?"

  "To photosynthesize. When I'm stuck in court all day it ruins my feng shui."

  "People don't have feng shui. Places do."

  "Do you know that for a fact?"

  Alex hesitated. "Well. No."

  "There you go." He turned to her, and for the first time she noticed that he had a white streak in his hair, right at the widow's peak. "You're staring."

  Alex immediately jerked her gaze away.

  "It's all right," Patrick said, laughing. "It's albinism."

  "Albinism?"

  "Yeah, you know. Pale skin, white hair. It's recessive, so I got a skunk streak. I'm one gene away from looking like a rabbit." He faced her, sobering. "How's Josie?"

  She considered putting up that Chinese wall, telling him she didn't want to talk about anything that could compromise her case. But Patrick Ducharme had done the one thing Alex had wished for--he'd treated her like a person instead of a public figure. "She went back to school," Alex confided.

  "I know. I saw her."

  "You . . . Were you there?"

  Patrick shrugged. "Yeah. Just in case."

  "Did anything happen?"

  "No," he said. "It was . . . ordinary."

  The word hung between them. Nothing was going to be ordinary again, and both of them knew it. You could patch up whatever was broken, but if you were the one who had fixed it, you'd always know in your heart where the fault lines lay.

  "Hey," Patrick said, touching her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

  She realized, mortified, that she was crying. Wiping her eyes, Alex moved out of his reach.

  "There's nothing wrong with me," she said, daring Patrick to challenge her.

  He opened his mouth as if he was about to speak, but then snapped it shut. "I'll leave you to your vices, then," he said, and walked back inside.

  It wasn't until Alex was back in chambers that she realized the detective had used the plural. That he'd not only caught her smoking, but also lying.

  *

  There were new rules: All the doors except for the main entrance would be locked after school began, even though a shooter who was a student might already be inside. No backpacks were allowed in classrooms anymore, although a gun could be sneaked in under a coat or in a purse or even in a zippered three-ring binder. Everyone--students and staff--would get ID cards to wear around their necks. It was supposed to make everyone accountable, but Josie couldn't help but wonder if this way, next time, it would be easier to tell who'd been killed.

  The principal got on the loudspeaker during homeroom and welcomed everyone back to Sterling High, even if it wasn't Sterling High. He suggested a moment of silence.

  While other kids in her homeroom bowed their heads, Josie glanced around. She was not the only one who wasn't praying. Some kids were passing notes. A couple were listening to their iPods. A guy was copying someone else's math notes.

  She wondered if they, like her, were afraid to honor the dead, because it made them feel more guilty.

  Josie shifted, banging her knee against the desk. The desks and chairs that had been brought back to this makeshift school were for little children, not high school refugees. As a result, nobody fit. Josie's knees were bent up to her chin. Some kids couldn't even sit at the desks; they had to write with their binders on their laps.

  I am Alice in Wonderland, Josie thought. Watch me fall.

  *

  Jordan waited for his client to sit down across from him in the conference room of the jail. "Tell me about your brother, Peter," he said.

  He scrutinized Peter's face--saw the disappointment flash across it as he realized that Jordan had again unearthed something he'd hoped would stay hidden. "What about him?" Peter replied.

  "You two get along?"

  "I didn't kill him, if that's what you're asking."

  "I wasn't." Jordan shrugged. "I'm just surprised you didn't mention him earlier."

  Peter glared at him. "Like when? When I was supposed to shut up at the arraignment? Or after that, when you came here and told me you were going to do all the talking and I was going to listen?"

  "What was he like?"

  "Look. Joey's dead, which you obviously know. So I don't really get why talking about him is going to help me."

  "What happened to him?" Jordan pressed.

  Peter rubbed his thumbnail against the metal edging of the table. "He got his golden boy straight-A self rammed by a drunk driver."

  "Hard to beat that," Jordan said carefully.

  "What do you mean?"

  "Well, your brother is the perfect kid, right? That's tough enough right there, but then he dies and turns into a saint."

  Jordan had been playing devil's advocate, to see if Peter would take the bait, and sure enough the boy's face transformed. "You can't beat it," Peter said fiercely. "You can't measure up."

  Jordan tapped his pencil on the edge of his briefcase. Had Peter's anger been born of jealousy or loneliness? Or was his massacre a way to turn attention to himself, finally, instead of Joey? How could he formulate a defense that Peter's act was one of desperation, no
t an attempt to one-up his brother's notoriety?

  "Do you miss him?" Jordan asked.

  Peter smirked. "My brother," he said, "my brother, the captain of the baseball team; my brother who placed first in the state in a French competition; my brother who was friends with the principal; my brother, my fabulous brother, used to drop me off a half mile away from the gates of the high school so that he didn't have to be seen driving all the way in with me."

  "How come?"

  "You don't exactly get any perks for hanging around with me, or haven't you noticed yet."

  Jordan had a flash of his car tires, slashed to their metal haunches. "Joey wouldn't stick up for you if you were being bullied?"

  "Are you kidding? Joey was the one to start it."

  "How?"

  Peter walked toward the window in the small room. A mottled flush rose up his neck, as if memory could be burned into the flesh. "He used to tell people I was adopted. That my mother was a crack whore, and that's why my brain was all fucked up. Sometimes he did it right in front of me, and when I'd get pissed off and whale on him he'd just laugh and knock me on my ass and then he'd look back to his friends, as if this was proof of everything he'd been saying in the first place. So, do I miss him?" Peter repeated, and he faced Jordan. "I'm glad he's dead."

  Jordan wasn't often surprised, and yet Peter Houghton had shocked him several times already. Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out.

  If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.

  "Peter," Jordan murmured, "did you mean to kill them?"

  Immediately Jordan cursed himself--he'd just asked the one question a defense attorney is never supposed to ask, setting Peter up to admit to premeditation. But instead of answering, Peter threw a question back at him that had just as unsettling an answer. "Well," he said, "what would you have done?"

  *

  Jordan stuffed another bite of vanilla pudding into Sam's mouth and then licked the spoon himself.

  "That's not for you," Selena said.

  "It tastes good. Unlike that pea crap you make him eat."

  "Excuse me for being a good mother." Selena took a wet washcloth and wiped down Sam's mouth, then applied the same treatment to Jordan, who squirmed away from her hand.

  "I am totally screwed," he said. "I can't make Peter sympathetic over losing his brother, because he hated Joey. I don't even have a valid legal defense for him, unless I try for insanity, and it's going to be impossible to prove that with the mountain of evidence the prosecution's got for premeditation."

  Selena turned to him. "You know what the problem is here, don't you?"

  "What?"

  "You think he's guilty."

  "Well, for Christ's sake. So are ninety-nine percent of my clients, and it's never stopped me from getting acquittals before."

  "Right. But deep down, you don't want Peter Houghton to get acquitted."

  Jordan frowned. "That's crap."

  "It's true crap. You're scared of someone like him."

  "He's a kid--"

  "--who freaks you out, just a little bit. Because he wasn't willing to sit down and let the world shit on him anymore, and that's not supposed to happen."

  Jordan looked up at her. "Shooting ten students doesn't make you a hero, Selena."

  "It does to the millions of other kids who wish they'd had the guts to do it," she said flatly.

  "Excellent. You can be the leader of Peter Houghton's fan club."

  "I don't condone what he did, Jordan, but I do see where he's coming from. You were born with six silver spoons up your ass. I mean, honestly, have you ever not been in the elite group? At school, or in court, or wherever? People know you, people look up to you. You're granted passage and you don't even realize that other people never get to walk that way."

  Jordan folded his arms. "Are you about to do your African pride thing again? Because to tell you the truth--"

  "You've never gone down the street and had someone cross it just because you're black. You've never had someone look at you with disgust because you're holding a baby and you forgot to put on your wedding ring. You want to do something about it--take action, scream at them, tell them they're idiots--but you can't. Being on the fringe is the most disempowering feeling, Jordan. You get so used to the world being a certain way, there seems to be no escape from it."

  Jordan smirked. "You took that last part from my closing in the Katie Riccobono case."

  "The battered wife?" Selena shrugged. "Well, even if I did, it fits."

  Suddenly Jordan blinked. He stood up, grabbed his wife, and kissed her. "You are so fucking brilliant."

  "I'm not going to argue, but do tell me why."

  "Battered woman syndrome. It's a valid legal defense. Battered women get stuck in a world that slams them down; eventually they feel so constantly threatened that they take action, and truly believe they're protecting themselves--even if their husbands are fast asleep. That fits Peter Houghton, to a T."

  "Far be it from me to point this out to you, Jordan," Selena said, "but Peter's not female, and he's not married."

  "That's not the point. It's post-traumatic stress disorder. When these women go ballistic and shoot their husbands or slice off their dicks, they aren't thinking about the consequences . . . just about stopping the aggression. That's what Peter's been saying all along--he just wanted it to stop. And this is even better, because I don't have to fight the prosecutor's usual rebuttal about a grown woman being old enough to know what she's doing when she picks up the knife or the gun. Peter's a kid. By definition, he doesn't know what he's doing."

  Monsters didn't grow out of nowhere; a housewife didn't turn into a murderer unless someone turned her into one. The Dr. Frankenstein, in her case, was a controlling husband. And in Peter's case, it was the whole of Sterling High School. Bullies kicked and teased and punched and pinched, all behaviors meant to force someone back where he belonged. It was at the hands of his tormentors that Peter learned how to fight back.

  In the high chair, Sam started to fuss. Selena pulled him out and into her arms. "No one's ever done this," she said. "There is no bullied victim syndrome."

  Jordan reached for Sam's jar of vanilla custard and scraped out the leftovers with his forefinger. "There is now," he said, and he savored the last of the sweet.

  *

  Patrick sat at his office computer in the dark, moving a cursor through the video game created by Peter Houghton.

  You started by picking a character--one of three boys: the spelling bee champ, the math genius, the computer nerd. One was small and thin, with acne. One wore glasses. One was grossly overweight.

  You did not come equipped with a weapon. Instead, you had to go to various rooms of the school and use your wits: the teachers' lounge had vodka, to make hand grenades. The boiler room had a bazooka. The science lab had burning acid. The English classroom had heavy books. The math room had compasses for stabbing and metal rulers for slicing. The computer room had wires, for garrotes. The wood shop had chain saws. The home arts class had blenders and knitting needles. The art room had a kiln. You could combine materials to make combo assault weapons: flaming bullets from the bazooka and vodka, acid daggers from the chemicals and compasses, snares from the computer wires and the heavy books.

  Patrick maneuvered the cursor through hallways and up staircases, through locker rooms and into the janitor's office. It struck him, as he was turning virtual corners, that he'd walked this map before. It was the floor plan of Sterling High.

  The object of the game was to aim for the jocks, the bullies, and the popular kids. Each was worth a certain amount of points. Kill two at once, you got triple the points. However, you could be wounded, too. You might be sucker-punched, slammed into a wall, shoved in a locker.

  If you accrued 100,000 points, you got a shotgun. If you reached 500,000 points, you received a machine gun. Cross a milli
on, and you'd find yourself straddling a nuclear missile.

  Patrick watched a virtual door fly open. Freeze, his speakers cried, and a phalanx of policemen in SWAT jackets stormed onto the screen. He positioned his hand on the arrow keys again, readying himself. Twice now, he'd gotten this far and had been killed or had killed himself--which meant losing.

  This time, though, he raised his virtual machine gun and watched the officers fall in a spray of bright blood.

  CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE WON HIDE-N-SHRIEK! the screen read. DO YOU WANT TO PLAY AGAIN?

  *

  On the tenth day after the shooting at Sterling High, Jordan sat in his Volvo in the parking lot of the district courthouse. As he'd expected, there were white news vans everywhere, their satellites pointed to the sky like the faces of sunflowers. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the Wiggles CD, which was doing its effortless job of keeping Sam from throwing a fit in the backseat.

  Selena had already slipped into the court undeterred--no one in the media would recognize her as anyone connected to this case. As she approached the car again, Jordan got out and took the piece of paper she offered him. "Great," he said.

  "See you later." She bent down to unbuckle Sam from the car seat as Jordan headed into the courthouse. As soon as one reporter saw him, there was a domino effect--flashbulbs burst like a string of fireworks; microphones were thrust in front of him. He pushed them away with one outstretched arm, muttered "No comment," and hustled inside.

  Peter had already been brought to the holding cell of the sheriff's office, awaiting his appearance in court. He was pacing in a small circle, talking to himself, when Jordan was brought into the cell. "So today's the day," Peter said, a little nervous, a little breathless.

  "Funny you should mention that," Jordan said. "Do you remember why we're here today?"

  "Is this some kind of test?"

  Jordan just stared at him.

  "A probable cause hearing," Peter said. "That's what you told me last week."

  "Well. What I didn't tell you is that we're going to waive it."

  "Waive it?" Peter said. "What does that mean?"

  "It means we fold before the hand's even played," Jordan replied. He handed Peter the piece of paper Selena had brought him in the car. "Sign it."

  Peter shook his head. "I want a new lawyer."

  "Anyone worth their salt is going to tell you the same thing--"

 
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