Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "An independent study."

  "What's that?"

  She lifted a crutch. "It's what you do for credit when you can't play gym. What were you doing here?"

  "I work here now," Peter said, and they both fell silent.

  Logistically, Peter thought, they'd be found sooner or later. The custodian would probably discover them when he was moving his floor buffer upstairs, but if not, the longest they'd have to wait was morning when everyone arrived again. He smiled a little, thinking about what he could truthfully tell Derek: Guess what, I slept with Josie Cormier.

  He opened an iBook and pressed a button, starting a PowerPoint presentation on the screen. Amoebas, blastospheres. Cell division. An embryo. Amazing to think that we all started out like that--microscopic, indistinguishable.

  "How long before they find us?"

  "I don't know."

  "Won't the librarians notice if you don't come back?"

  "My own parents wouldn't notice if I didn't come back."

  "Oh, God . . . what if we run out of air?" Josie banged on the doors with a crutch. "Help!"

  "We're not going to run out of air," Peter said.

  "How do you know that?"

  He didn't, not really. But what else was he going to say?

  "I get freaked out in small spaces," Josie said. "I can't do this."

  "You're claustrophobic?" He wondered how he hadn't known that about Josie. But then again, why should he? It wasn't as though he'd been such an active part of her life for the past six years.

  "I think I'm going to throw up," Josie moaned.

  "Oh, shit," Peter said. "Don't. Just close your eyes, then you won't even realize you're in an elevator."

  Josie closed her eyes, but when she did, she swayed on her crutches.

  "Hang on." Peter took her crutches away, so that she was balancing on one foot. Then he held on to her hands while she sank to the floor, extending her bad leg.

  "How'd you get hurt?" he asked, nodding at the cast.

  "I fell on some ice." She started to cry, and gasp--hyperventilate, Peter guessed, although he'd only seen the word written, not live. You were supposed to breathe into a paper bag, right? Peter searched the elevator for something that would suffice. There was a plastic bag with some documents in it on the AV trolley, but somehow putting that on your head didn't seem particularly brilliant. "Okay," he said, brainstorming, "let's do something to get your mind off where you are."

  "Like what?"

  "Maybe we should play a game," Peter suggested, and he heard the same words repeated in his head, Kurt's voice from the Front Runner. He shook his head to clear it. "Twenty Questions?"

  Josie hesitated. "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

  After six rounds of Twenty Questions, and an hour of geography, Peter was getting thirsty. He also had to pee, and that was really troubling him, because he didn't think he could last until morning and there was absolutely no way he was going to take a whiz with Josie watching. Josie had gotten quiet, but at least she'd stopped shaking. He thought she might be asleep.

  Then she spoke. "Truth or dare," Josie said.

  Peter turned toward her. "Truth."

  "Do you hate me?"

  He ducked his head. "Sometimes."

  "You should," Josie said.

  "Truth or dare?"

  "Truth," Josie said.

  "Do you hate me?"

  "No."

  "Then why," Peter asked, "do you act like you do?"

  She shook her head. "I have to act the way people expect me to act. It's part of the whole . . . thing. If I don't . . ." She picked at the rubber brace of her crutch. "It's complicated. You wouldn't understand."

  "Truth or dare," Peter said.

  Josie grinned. "Dare."

  "Lick the bottom of your own foot."

  She started to laugh. "I can't even walk on the bottom of my own foot," she said, but she bent down and slipped off her loafer, stuck out her tongue. "Truth or dare?"

  "Truth."

  "Chicken," Josie said. "Have you ever been in love?"

  Peter looked at Josie, and thought of how they had once tied a note with their addresses to a helium balloon and let it go in her backyard, certain it would reach Mars. Instead, they had received a letter from a widow who lived two blocks away. "Yeah," he said. "I think so."

  Her eyes widened. "With who?"

  "That wasn't the question. Truth or dare?"

  "Truth," Josie said.

  "What's the last lie you told?"

  The smile faded from Josie's face. "When I told you I slipped on the ice. Matt and I were having a fight and he hit me."

  "He hit you?"

  "It wasn't like that. . . . I said something I shouldn't have, and when he--well, I lost my balance, anyway, and hurt my ankle."

  "Josie--"

  She ducked her head. "No one knows. You won't tell, will you?"

  "No." Peter hesitated. "Why didn't you tell anyone?"

  "That wasn't the question," Josie said, parroting him.

  "I'm asking it now."

  "Then I'll take a dare."

  Peter curled his hands into fists at his sides. "Kiss me," he said.

  She leaned toward him slowly, until her face was too close to be in focus. Her hair fell over Peter's shoulder like a curtain and her eyes closed. She smelled like autumn--like apple cider and slanting sun and the snap of the coming cold. He felt his heart scrambling, caught inside the confines of his own body.

  Josie's lips landed just on the edge of his, almost his cheek and not quite his mouth. "I'm glad I wasn't stuck in here alone," she said shyly, and he tasted the words, sweet as mint on her breath.

  Peter glanced down at his lap and prayed that Josie wouldn't notice that he was hard as a rock. He started to smile so wide that it hurt. It wasn't that he didn't like girls; it was that there was only one right one.

  Just then there was a knock on the metal door. "Anyone in here?"

  "Yes!" Josie cried, struggling to stand with her crutches. "Help!"

  There was a bang and a hammering, the sound of a crowbar breaching a seam. The doors flew open, and Josie hurried out of the elevator. Matt Royston was waiting next to the janitor. "I got worried when you weren't home," he said, and pulled Josie into his embrace.

  But you hit her, Peter thought, and then he remembered that he had made a promise to Josie. He listened to her whoop with surprise as Matt swept her into his arms, carrying her so that she wouldn't have to use her crutches.

  Peter wheeled the iBook and projector back to the library and locked the AV room. It was late now, and he had to walk home, but he almost didn't mind. He decided that the first thing he'd do was erase the circle around Josie's portrait in his yearbook, take her characteristics off the roster of villains in his video game.

  He was mentally reviewing the logistics of that, in terms of programming, when he finally reached home. It took Peter a moment to realize something wasn't right--the lights weren't on in the house, but the cars were there. "Hello?" he called out, wandering from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen. "Anyone here?"

  He found his parents sitting in the dark at the kitchen table. His mother looked up, dazed. It was clear that she'd been crying.

  Peter felt something warm break free in his chest. He'd told Josie his parents wouldn't notice his absence, but that wasn't true at all. Clearly, his parents had been frantic. "I'm fine," Peter told them. "Really."

  His father stood up, blinking back tears, and hauled Peter into his arms. Peter couldn't remember the last time he'd been hugged like this. In spite of the fact that he wanted to seem cool, that he was sixteen years old, he melted against his father's frame and held on tightly. First Josie, and now this? It was turning out to be the best day of Peter's life.

  "It's Joey," his father sobbed. "He's dead."

  Ask a random kid today if she wants to be popular and she'll tell you no, even if the truth is that if she was in a desert dying of thirst and had the choice between a gl
ass of water and instant popularity, she'd probably choose the latter. See, you can't admit to wanting it, because that makes you less cool. To be truly popular, it has to look like it's something you are, when in reality, it's what you make yourself.

  I wonder if anyone works any harder at anything than kids do at being popular. I mean, even air-traffic controllers and the president of the United States take vacations, but look at your average high school student, and you'll see someone who's putting in time twenty-four hours a day, for the entire length of the school year.

  So how do you crack that inner sanctum? Well, here's the catch: it's not up to you. What's important is what everyone else thinks of how you dress, what you eat for lunch, what shows you TiVo, what music is on your iPod.

  I've always sort of wondered, though: If everyone else's opinion is what matters, then do you ever really have one of your own?

  One Month After

  Although the investigative report from Patrick Ducharme had been sitting on Diana's desk since ten days post-shooting, the prosecutor hadn't given it a glance. First she'd had a probable cause hearing to pull together, then, she'd been in front of the grand jury, getting them to hand down an indictment. Only now was she beginning to sift through the analyses of fingerprints, ballistics, and bloodstains, as well as all the original police reports.

  She'd spent the morning poring over the logistics of the shooting and mentally organizing her opening statement along the same path of destruction Peter Houghton had followed, tracking his movements from victim to victim. The first to be shot was Zoe Patterson, on the school steps. Alyssa Carr, Angela Phlug, Maddie Shaw. Courtney Ignatio. Haley Weaver and Brady Pryce. Lucia Ritolli, Grace Murtaugh.

  Drew Girard.

  Matt Royston.

  More.

  Diana took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. A book of the dead, a map of the wounded. And those were only the ones whose injuries had been serious enough to involve a hospital stay--there were scores of kids who had been treated and released, hundreds whose scars were buried too deep to see.

  Diana did not have children--hell, in her position, the men she met were either felons, which was awful, or defense attorneys, which was worse. She did, however, have a three-year-old nephew, who'd been reprimanded in his nursery school for pointing his finger at a classmate and saying, "Bang, you're dead." When her sister called up indignant and spouting about the Bill of Rights, had Diana thought that her nephew was going to grow up to become a psychopath? Not for a moment. He was just a kid, playing around.

  Had the Houghtons thought that, too?

  Diana looked down at the list of names in front of her. Her job was to connect these dots, but what truly needed to be done was to draw a line long before this: the tipping point where Peter Houghton's mind had shifted, subtly, from what if to when.

  Her eye fell on another list--one from the hospital. Cormier, Josie. According to the medical records, the girl--seventeen--had been admitted overnight for observation after a fainting spell, and had a laceration on the scalp. Her mother's signature was at the bottom of the consent form for blood tests--Alex Cormier.

  It couldn't be.

  Diana sat back in her chair. You'd never want to be the one to ask a judge to recuse herself. You might as well announce that you doubted her ability to be impartial, and since Diana would be in her court numerous times in the future, it just wasn't a smart career move. But Judge Cormier surely knew that she couldn't address this case fairly, not with a daughter who was a witness. Granted, Josie hadn't been shot, but she'd been hurt during the shooting. Judge Cormier would recuse herself, certainly. Which meant there was nothing to worry about.

  Diana turned her attention back to the discovery spread across her desk, reading until the letters blurred on the page, until Josie Cormier was just another name.

  *

  On her way home from the courthouse, Alex passed the makeshift memorial that had been erected for the victims of Sterling High. There were ten white wooden crosses, even though one of the dead children--Justin Friedman--had been Jewish. The crosses were nowhere near the school, but instead on a stretch of Route 10 where there was only floodplain for the Connecticut River. In the days after the shooting, there might be any number of mourners standing by the crosses, adding to the individual piles of photos and Beanie Babies and bouquets.

  Alex felt herself pulling her car off the road, onto the shoulder. She didn't know why she was stopping now, why she hadn't stopped before. Her heels sank into the spongy grass. She crossed her arms and stepped up to the markers.

  They were in no particular order, and the name of each dead student was carved into the crosspiece of the wood. Most of the students Alex did not know, but Courtney Ignatio and Maddie Shaw had crosses beside each other. The flowers that had been left behind at the markers had wilted, their green tissue wrappers rotting into the ground. Alex knelt down, fingering a faded poem that was tacked to Courtney's memorial.

  Courtney and Maddie had come for a sleepover several times. Alex remembered finding the girls in the kitchen, eating raw cookie dough instead of baking it, their bodies fluid as waves as they moved around each other. She could remember being jealous of them--to be so young, to know you hadn't yet made a mistake that would change your life. Now Alex flushed with chagrin: at least she had a life to be changed.

  It was at Matt Royston's cross, however, that Alex started to cry. Propped against the white wooden base was a framed photograph, one that had been enclosed in a plastic bag to keep the elements from ruining it. There was Matt, his eyes bright, his arm hooked around Josie's neck.

  Josie wasn't looking at the camera. She was staring at Matt, as if she couldn't see anything else.

  Somehow, it seemed safer to fall apart here in front of a makeshift memorial than at home, where Josie might hear her crying. No matter how cool and collected she had been--for Josie's sake--the one person she could not fool was herself. She might pick up her daily routine like a missed stitch, she might tell herself that Josie was one of the lucky ones, but when she was alone in the shower, or caught in the interstitial space between waking and sleep, Alex would find herself shaking uncontrollably, the way you do when you've swerved to avoid an accident and have to pull to the side of the road to make sure you are really, truly all in one piece.

  Life was what happened when all the what-if's didn't, when what you dreamed or hoped or--in this case--feared might come to pass passed by instead. Alex had spent enough nights thinking of good fortune, of how it was thin as a veil, how seamlessly you might stream from one side to the other. This could easily have been Josie's cross she was kneeling before, Josie's memorial that hosted this photo. A twitch of the shooter's hand, a fallen footstep, a bullet's ricochet--and everything might have been different.

  Alex got to her feet and took a fortifying breath. As she headed back to her car, she saw the narrow hole where an eleventh cross had been. After the ten had been erected, someone had added one with Peter Houghton's name on it. Night after night that extra cross had been taken down or vandalized. There had been editorials in the paper over it: Did Peter Houghton deserve a cross, when he was still very much alive? Was putting up a memorial for him a tragedy or a travesty? Eventually, whoever had carved Peter's cross decided to leave well enough alone and stopped replacing it every day.

  As Alex slipped inside her car again, she wondered how--until she'd come here for herself--she had managed to forget that someone, at some point, considered Peter Houghton to be a victim, too.

  *

  Since That Day, as Lacy had taken to calling it, she'd delivered three babies. Each time, although the birth was uneventful and the delivery easy, something had gone wrong. Not for the mother, but for the midwife. When Lacy stepped into a delivery room, she felt poisonous, too negative to be the one to welcome another human being to this world. She had smiled her way through the births and had offered the new mothers the support and the medical care that they needed, but the moment she'd sent them on t
heir way, cutting that last umbilical cord between hospital and home, Lacy knew she was giving them the wrong advice. Instead of easy platitudes like Let them eat when they want to eat and You can't hold a baby too much, she should have been telling them the truth: This child you've been waiting for is not who you imagine him to be. You're strangers now; you'll be strangers years from now.

  Years ago, she used to lie in bed and imagine what her life would have been like had she not been a mother. She'd picture Joey bringing her a bouquet of dandelion weeds and clover; Peter falling asleep against her chest with the tail of her braid still clutched in his hand. She relived the clenching fist of labor pains, and the mantra she'd used to get through them: When this is done, imagine what you'll have. Motherhood had painted the colors of Lacy's world a bit brighter; had swelled her to the seams with the belief that her life could not possibly be more complete. What she hadn't realized was that sometimes when your vision was that sharp and true, it could cut you. That only if you'd felt such fullness could you really understand the ache of being empty.

  She had not told her patients--God, she hadn't even told Lewis--but these days, when she lay in bed and imagined what her life would have been like had she not been a mother, she found herself sucking on one bitter word: easier.

  Today Lacy was doing office visits; she'd gone through five patients and was about to move on to her sixth. Janet Isinghoff, she read, scanning the folder. Although she was another midwife's patient, the policy of the group was to have each woman see all of the midwives, since you never knew who'd be on call when you delivered.

  Janet Isinghoff was thirty-three years old, primigravid, with a family history of diabetes. She had been hospitalized once before for appendicitis, had mild asthma, and was generally healthy. She was also standing in the door of the examination room, clutching her hospital johnny shut as she argued heatedly with Priscilla, the OB nurse.

  "I don't care," Janet was saying. "If it comes down to that, I'll just go to a different hospital."

  "But that's not the way our practice works," Priscilla explained.

  Lacy smiled. "Anything I can do here?"

  Priscilla turned, putting herself between Lacy and the patient. "It's nothing."

  "Didn't sound like nothing," Lacy replied.

 
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