Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "I don't want my baby delivered by a woman whose son is a murderer," Janet burst out.

  Lacy felt her feet root on the floor, her breath go so shallow that she might as well have fielded a blow. And hadn't she?

  Priscilla turned crimson. "Mrs. Isinghoff, I think I can speak for the whole of the midwifery team when I say that Lacy is--"

  "It's all right," Lacy murmured. "I understand."

  By now the other nurses and midwives were staring; Lacy knew that they would rally to her defense--tell Janet Isinghoff to find herself another practice, explain that Lacy was one of the best and most seasoned midwives in New Hampshire. But that hardly mattered, really--it wasn't about Janet Isinghoff demanding to have another midwife deliver her child; it was that even after Janet had left, there would be another woman here tomorrow or the next day with the same uneasy request. Who would want the first hands touching her newborn to be the same hands that had held a murderer's when he crossed the street; that had brushed his hair off his forehead when he was sick; that had rocked him to sleep?

  Lacy walked down the hall to the fire door and ran up four flights of stairs. Sometimes, when she'd had a particularly difficult day, Lacy would take refuge on the roof of the hospital. She'd lie on her back and stare up at the sky and pretend, with that view, she could be anywhere on earth.

  A trial was just a formality--Peter would be found guilty. It didn't matter how she tried to convince herself--or Peter--otherwise; the fact was there between them at those horrible jail visits, immense and unmentionable. It reminded Lacy of running into someone you hadn't seen for a while, and finding her bald and missing her eyebrows: you knew she was in the throes of chemotherapy, but pretended you didn't, because it was easier that way for both of you.

  What Lacy would have liked to say, if anyone had given her the podium on which to do it, was that Peter's actions were just as surprising to her--as devastating to her--as they were to anyone else. She'd lost her son, too, that day. Not just physically, to the correctional facility, but personally, because the boy she'd known had disappeared, swallowed by this beast she didn't recognize, capable of acts she could not conceive.

  But what if Janet Isinghoff was right? What if it was something Lacy had said or done . . . or not said or done . . . that had brought Peter to that point? Could you hate your son for what he had done, and still love him for who he had been?

  The door opened, and Lacy spun around. No one ever came up here, but, then again, she rarely left the floor this upset. It wasn't Priscilla, though, or one of her colleagues: Jordan McAfee stood on the threshold, a sheaf of papers in his hand. Lacy closed her eyes. "Perfect."

  "Yes, that's what my wife tells me," he said, coming toward her with a wide smile on his face. "Or maybe it's just what I wish she'd tell me. . . . Your secretary told me you were probably up here, and--Lacy, are you all right?"

  Lacy nodded, and then she shook her head. Jordan took her arm and led her to a folding chair that someone had carted all the way up to the roof. "Bad day?"

  "You could say that," Lacy answered. She tried to keep Jordan from seeing her tears. It was stupid, she knew, but she didn't want Peter's attorney to think she was the kind of person who had to be treated with kid gloves. Then he might not tell her every blunt truth about Peter, and she wanted to hear that, no matter what.

  "I needed you to sign some paperwork . . . but I can come back later . . ."

  "No," Lacy said. "This is . . . fine." It was better than fine, she realized. It was sort of nice to be sitting next to someone who believed in Peter, even if she was paying him to do that. "Can I ask you a professional question?"

  "Sure."

  "Why is it so easy for people to point a finger at someone else?"

  Jordan sank down across from her, on the ledge of the roof, which made Lacy nervous, but, again, she couldn't show it, because she didn't want Jordan to think she was fragile. "People need a scapegoat," he said. "It's human nature. That's the biggest hurdle we have to overcome as defense attorneys, because in spite of being innocent until proven guilty, the very act of an arrest makes people assume guilt. Do you know how many cops have un-arrested someone? I know, it's crazy--I mean, do you think they apologize profusely and make sure that person's family and friends and co-workers all know it was a big mistake, or do they just sort of say, 'My bad,' and take off?" He met her gaze. "I'm sure it's hard, reading the editorials that have already convicted Peter before the trial's even started, but--"

  "It's not Peter," Lacy said quietly. "They're blaming me."

  Jordan nodded, as if he'd expected this.

  "He didn't do this because of how we raised him. He did it in spite of that," Lacy said. "You have a baby, don't you?"

  "Yes. Sam."

  "What if he turns out to be someone you never thought he'd be?"

  "Lacy--"

  "Like, what if Sam tells you he's gay?"

  Jordan shrugged. "So what?"

  "And if he decided to convert to Islam?"

  "That's his choice."

  "What if he became a suicide bomber?"

  Jordan paused. "I really don't want to think about something like that, Lacy."

  "No," she said, facing him. "Neither did I."

  *

  Philip O'Shea and Ed McCabe had been together for almost two years. Patrick stared at the photos on the fireplace mantel--the two men with their arms slung around each other, with a backdrop of the Canadian Rockies; a corn palace; the Eiffel Tower. "We liked to get away," Philip said as he brought out a glass of iced tea and handed it to Patrick. "Sometimes, for Ed, it was easier to get away than it was to stay here."

  "Why was that?"

  Philip shrugged. He was a tall, thin man with freckles that appeared when his face flushed with emotion. "Ed hadn't told everyone about . . . his lifestyle. And to be perfectly honest, keeping secrets in a small town is a bitch."

  "Mr. O'Shea--"

  "Philip. Please."

  Patrick nodded. "I wonder if Ed ever mentioned Peter Houghton's name to you."

  "He taught him, you know."

  "Yeah. I meant . . . well, beyond that."

  Philip led him to a screened porch, a set of wicker chairs. Every room he'd seen in the house looked like it had just been host to a magazine photo shoot: the pillows on the couches were tilted at a forty-five-degree angle; there were vases with glass beads in them; the plants were all lush and green. Patrick thought back to his own living room, where today he'd found a piece of toast stuffed between his sofa cushions that had what could really only be called penicillin growing on top of it by now. It might have been a ridiculous stereotype, but this home had Martha Stewart written all over it, whereas Patrick's looked more like a crack house.

  "Ed talked to Peter," Philip said. "Or at least, he tried to."

  "About what?"

  "Being a bit of a lost soul, I think. Teens are always trying to fit in. If you don't fit into the popular crowd, you try the athletic crowd. If that doesn't work, you go to the drama crowd . . . or to the druggies," he said. "Ed thought that Peter might be trying out the gay and lesbian crowd."

  "So Peter came to talk to Ed about being gay?"

  "Oh, no. Ed sought Peter out. We all remember what it was like to be figuring out what was different about us, when we were his age. Worried to death that some other kid who was gay was going to come on to you and blow your cover."

  "Do you think Peter might have been worried about Ed blowing his cover?"

  "I sincerely doubt it, especially in Peter's case."

  "Why?"

  Philip smiled at Patrick. "You've heard of gaydar?"

  Patrick felt himself coloring. It was like being in the presence of an African-American who made a racist joke, simply because he could. "I guess."

  "Gay people don't come clearly marked--it's not like having a different color skin or a physical disability. You learn to pick up on mannerisms, or looks that last just a little too long. You get pretty good at figuring out if someone's g
ay, or just staring at you because you are."

  Before he realized what he was doing, Patrick had leaned a little farther away from Philip, who started to laugh. "You can relax. Your vibe clearly says you bat for the other team." He looked up at Patrick. "And so does Peter Houghton."

  "I don't understand . . ."

  "Peter may have been confused about his sexuality, but it was crystal clear to Ed," Philip said. "That boy is straight."

  *

  Peter burst through the door of the conference room, bristling. "How come you haven't come to see me?"

  Jordan looked up from the notes he was making on a pad. He noticed, absently, that Peter had put on some weight--and apparently some muscle. "I've been busy."

  "Well, I'm stuck here all by myself."

  "Yeah, and I'm busting my ass to make sure that isn't a permanent condition," Jordan replied. "Sit down."

  Peter slumped into a chair, scowling. "What if I don't feel like talking to you today? Clearly, you don't always feel like talking to me."

  "Peter, how about we drop the bullshit so I can do my job?"

  "Like I care if you can do your job."

  "Well, you should," Jordan said. "Seeing as you're the beneficiary." At the end of this, Jordan thought, I will be either reviled or canonized. "I want to talk about the explosives," he said. "Where would a person get something like that?"

  "At www.boom.com," Peter answered.

  Jordan just stared at him.

  "Well, it's not all that far from the truth," Peter said. "I mean, The Anarchist Cookbook is online. So are about ten thousand recipes for Molotov cocktails."

  "They didn't find a Molotov cocktail at the school. They found plastic explosives with a blasting cap and a timing device."

  "Yeah," Peter said. "Well."

  "Say I wanted to make a bomb with stuff I had lying around the house. What would I use?"

  Peter shrugged. "Newspaper. Fertilizer--like Green Thumb, the chemical stuff. Cotton. And some diesel fuel, but you'd probably have to get that at a gas station, so it wouldn't technically be in your house."

  Jordan watched him count off the ingredients. There was a matter-of-factness to Peter's voice that was chilling, but even more unsettling was the tone threaded through his words: this was something Peter had been proud of.

  "You've done this kind of thing before."

  "The first time I built one, I just did it to see if I could." Peter's voice grew more animated. "I did some more after that. The kind you throw and run like hell."

  "What made this one different?"

  "The ingredients, for one. You have to get the potassium chlorate from bleach, which isn't easy, but it's kind of like doing a chemistry lab. My dad came into the kitchen when I was filtering out the crystals," Peter said. "That's what I told him I was doing--extra credit."

  "Jesus."

  "Anyway, after you've got that, all you need is Vaseline, which we keep under the bathroom sink, and the gas you'd find in a camp stove, and the kind of wax you use to can pickles. I was kind of freaked out about using a blasting cap," Peter said. "I mean, I'd never really done anything that big before. But you know, when I started to come up with the whole plan--"

  "Stop," Jordan interrupted. "Just stop right there."

  "You're the one who asked in the first place," Peter said, stung.

  "But that's an answer I can't hear. My job is to get you acquitted, and I can't lie in front of the jury. On the other hand, I can't lie about the things I don't know. And right now, I can honestly say that you did not plan in advance what happened that day. I'd like to keep it that way, and if you have any sense of self-preservation, you should, too."

  Peter walked to the window. The glass was fuzzy, scratched after all these years. From what? Jordan wondered. Inmates clawing to get out? Peter wouldn't be able to see that the snow had all melted by now; that the first crocuses had choked their way out of the soil. Maybe it was better that way.

  "I've been going to church," Peter announced.

  Jordan wasn't much for organized religion, but he didn't begrudge others their chosen comforts. "That's great."

  "I'm doing it because they let me leave my cell to go to services," Peter said. "Not because I've found Jesus or anything."

  "Okay." He wondered what this had to do with explosives or, for that matter, anything else regarding Peter's defense. Frankly, Jordan didn't have time to have a philosophical discussion with Peter about the nature of God--he had to meet Selena in two hours to go over potential defense witnesses--but something kept him from cutting Peter off.

  Peter turned. "Do you believe in hell?"

  "Yeah. It's full of defense attorneys. Just ask any prosecutor."

  "No, seriously," Peter said. "I bet I'm headed there."

  Jordan forced a smile. "I don't lay odds on bets I can't collect on."

  "Father Moreno, he's the priest who leads the church services here? He says that if you accept Jesus and repent, you get excused . . . like religion is just some giant freebie hall pass that gets you out of anything and everything. But see, that can't be right . . . because Father Moreno also says that every life is worth something . . . and what about the ten kids who died?"

  Jordan knew better, but he still heard himself asking Peter a question. "Why did you phrase it that way?"

  "What way?"

  "The ten kids who died. As if it was a natural progression."

  Peter's brow wrinkled. "Because it was."

  "How?"

  "It's like those explosives, I guess. Once you light the fuse, either you destroy the bomb before it goes off . . . or the bomb destroys everything else."

  Jordan stood up and took a step toward his client. "Who struck the match, Peter?"

  Peter lifted his face. "Who didn't?"

  *

  Josie now thought of her friends as the ones who had been left behind. Haley Weaver had been sent to Boston for plastic surgery; John Eberhard was in some rehab place reading Hop on Pop and learning how to drink from a straw; Matt and Courtney and Maddie were gone forever. That left Josie and Drew and Emma and Brady: a posse that had dwindled to such a degree that you could barely call them a posse at all anymore.

  They were in Emma's basement, watching a DVD. That was about the extent of their social life these days, because Drew and Brady were still in bandages and casts and besides, even if none of them wanted to say it out loud, going anywhere they used to go reminded them of who was missing.

  Brady had brought the movie--Josie couldn't even remember the name, but it was one of those movies that had come out after American Pie, hoping to make the same killing at the box office by taking naked girls and daredevil guys and what Hollywood imagined teenage life to be like, and tossing them together like some sort of cosmic salad. Right now, a car chase filled the screen. The main character was screaming across a drawbridge that was slowly opening.

  Josie knew he was going to make it across. First off, this was a comedy. Second, nobody had the guts to kill off the main character before the story was over. Third, her physics teacher had used this very movie to prove, scientifically, that given the speed of the car and the trajectory of the vectors, the actor could indeed jump the bridge--but only if the wind wasn't blowing.

  Josie also knew that the person in the car wasn't real, wasn't even the actor playing the role, but a stuntman who had done this a thousand times. And yet, even as she watched the action unrolling on the television screen, she saw something entirely different: the car's fender, striking the far side of the open bridge. The twist of metal turning in midair, slapping against the water, sinking.

  Grown-ups were always saying that teenagers drove too fast or got high or didn't use condoms because they thought they were invincible. But the truth was that at any moment, you could die. Brady could have a stroke on the football field, like those young college athletes who suddenly dropped dead. Emma could be hit by lightning. Drew might walk into an ordinary high school on an extraordinary day.

  Josie
stood up. "I need some air," she murmured, and she hurried up the basement stairs and out the front door of Emma's house. She sat down on the porch and looked at the sky, at two stars that were hitched at the elbows. You weren't invincible when you were a teenager. You were just stupid.

  She heard the door open and close with a gasp. "Hey," Drew said, coming to sit beside her. "You okay?"

  "I'm great." Josie pasted on a smile. It felt gummy, like wallpaper that hadn't been smoothed right. But she had gotten so good at this--faking it--that it was second nature. Who would have thought that she'd inherited something from her mother after all?

  Drew reached down for a blade of grass and began splitting it into hairs with his thumb. "I say the same thing when that bonehead school shrink calls me down to ask me how I'm doing."

  "I didn't know he calls you down, too."

  "I think he calls all of us who were, you know, close . . ."

  He didn't finish his sentence: Close to the ones who didn't make it? Close to dying that day? Close to finishing ourselves off?

  "Do you think anyone ever tells the shrink anything worthwhile?" Josie asked.

  "Doubt it. He wasn't there that day. It's not like he really gets it."

  "Does anyone?"

  "You. Me. Those guys downstairs," Drew said. "Welcome to the club no one wants to join. You're a member for life."

  Josie didn't mean to, but Drew's words and the stupid guy in the movie trying to jump the bridge and the way the stars were pricking at her skin, like inoculations for a terminal disease, suddenly made her start to cry. Drew reached around her, wrapping his one good arm around her, and she leaned into him. She closed her eyes and pressed her face into the flannel of his shirt. It felt so familiar, as if she'd come home to her own bed after years of circumnavigating the globe, to find that the mattress still somehow melted around the curve and weight of her. And yet--the fabric of the shirt didn't smell like it used to. The boy holding her wasn't quite the same size, the same shape, the same boy.

  "I don't think I can do this," Josie whispered.

  Immediately, Drew pulled away from her. His face was flushed, and he could not look Josie in the eye. "I didn't mean it like that. You and Matt . . ." His voice went flat. "Well, I know you're still his."

  Josie looked up at the sky. She nodded at him, as if that was what she had meant in the first place.

  *

  It all began when the service station left a message on the answering machine. Peter had missed his car inspection appointment. Did he want to reschedule?

 
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