Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Lewis had been alone in the house, retrieving that message. He had dialed the number before he even realized what he was doing, and thus it was no surprise to find himself actually keeping the rescheduled appointment. He got out of the car, handed his keys to the gas station attendant. "You can wait right inside," the man said. "There's coffee."

  Lewis poured himself a cup, putting in three sugars and lots of milk, the way Peter would have fixed it. He sat down and instead of picking up a worn copy of Newsweek, he thumbed through PC Gamer.

  One, he thought. Two, three.

  On cue, the gas station attendant came into the waiting room. "Mr. Houghton," he said, "the car out there--it's not due for a state inspection until July."

  "I know."

  "But you . . . you made this appointment."

  Lewis nodded. "I don't have that particular car with me right now."

  It was impounded somewhere. Along with Peter's books and computer and journals and God only knew what else.

  The attendant stared at him, the way you do when you realize the conversation you're having has veered from the rational. "Sir," he said, "we can't inspect a car that's not here."

  "No," Lewis said. "Of course not." He put the magazine back down on the coffee table, smoothed its wrinkled cover. Then he rubbed a hand over his forehead. "It's just . . . my son made this appointment," he said. "I wanted to keep it on his behalf."

  The attendant nodded, slowly backing away. "Right . . . so, how about I just leave the car parked outside?"

  "Just so you know," Lewis said softly, "he would have passed inspection."

  *

  Once, when Peter was young, Lacy had sent him to the same sleepaway camp that Joey had gone to and adored. It was somewhere across the river in Vermont, and campers water-skied on Lake Fairlee and took sailing lessons and did overnight canoe trips. Peter had called the first night, begging to be brought home. Although Lacy had been ready to start the car and drive to get him, Lewis had talked her out of it. If he doesn't stick this out, Lewis had said, how will he ever know if he can?

  At the end of two weeks, when Lacy saw Peter again, there were changes in him. He was taller, and he'd put on weight. But there was also something different about his eyes--a light that had been burned to ash, somehow. When Peter looked at her, he seemed guarded, as if he understood that she was no longer an ally.

  Now he was looking at her the same way even as she smiled at him, pretending that there was no glare from the fluorescent light over his head; that she could reach out and touch him instead of staring at him from the other side of the red line that had been drawn on the jail floor. "Do you know what I found in the attic yesterday? That dinosaur you used to love, the one that roared when you pulled its tail. I used to think you'd be carrying it down the aisle at your wedding . . ." Lacy broke off, realizing that there might never be a wedding for Peter, or any aisle outside of a prison walkway, for that matter. "Well," she said, turning up the wattage on her smile. "I put it on your bed."

  Peter stared at her. "Okay."

  "I think my favorite birthday party of yours was the dinosaur one, when we buried those plastic bones in the sandbox and you had to dig for them," Lacy said. "Remember?"

  "I remember nobody showed up."

  "Of course they did--"

  "Five kids, maybe, whose moms had forced them to be there," Peter said. "God. I was six years old. Why are we even talking about this?"

  Because I don't know what else to say, Lacy thought. She looked around the visitation room--there were only a handful of inmates, and the devoted few who still believed in them, caught on opposite sides of that red stripe. In reality, Lacy realized, this dividing line between her and Peter had been there for years. If you kept your chin up, you might even be able to convince yourself there was nothing separating you. It was only when you tried to cross it, like now, that you understood how real a barrier it could be. "Peter," Lacy blurted out, "I'm sorry I didn't pick you up at sleepaway camp, that time."

  He looked at her as if she was crazy. "Um, thanks for that, but I got over it about a hundred years ago."

  "I know. But I can still be sorry." She was sorry about a thousand things, suddenly: that she didn't pay more attention when Peter showed her some new programming skill; that she hadn't bought him another dog after Dozer died; that they did not go back to the Caribbean last winter vacation, because Lacy had wrongly assumed they had all the time in the world.

  "Sorry doesn't change anything."

  "It does for the person who's apologizing."

  Peter groaned. "What the fuck is this? Chicken Soup for the Kid Without a Soul?"

  Lacy flinched. "You don't have to swear in order to--"

  "Fuck," Peter sang. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck."

  "I'm not going to sit here and take this--"

  "Yes you are," Peter said. "You know why? Because if you walk out on me, it's just one more thing you've got to be sorry about."

  Lacy was halfway out of her chair, but the truth in Peter's words weighted her back down into the seat. He knew her, it seemed, far better than she had ever known him.

  "Ma," he said softly, his voice edging over that red line. "I didn't mean that."

  She looked up at him, her throat thickening with tears. "I know, Peter."

  "I'm glad you come here." He swallowed. "I mean, you're the only one."

  "Your father--"

  Peter snorted. "I don't know what he's been telling you, but I haven't seen him since that first time he came."

  Lewis wasn't coming to see Peter? That was news to Lacy. Where did he go when he left the house, telling her that he was headed to the jail?

  She imagined Peter, sitting in his cell every other week, waiting for a visit that did not come. Lacy forced a smile--she would get upset on her own time, not Peter's--and immediately changed the topic. "For the arraignment . . . I brought you a nice jacket to wear."

  "Jordan says I don't need it. For the arraignment I just wear these clothes. I won't need the jacket until the trial." Peter smiled a little. "I hope you didn't cut the tags off yet."

  "I didn't buy it. It's Joey's interview blazer."

  Their eyes met. "Oh," Peter murmured. "So that's what you were doing in the attic."

  There was silence as they both remembered Joey coming downstairs in the Brooks Brothers blazer Lacy had gotten him at Filene's Basement in Boston at deep discount. It had been purchased for college interviews; Joey had been setting them up at the time of the accident.

  "Do you ever wish it was me who died," Peter asked, "instead of Joey?"

  Lacy's heart fell like a stone. "Of course not."

  "But then you'd still have Joey," Peter said. "And none of this would have happened."

  She thought of Janet Isinghoff, the woman who had not wanted her as a midwife. Part of growing up was learning not to be quite that honest--learning when it was better to lie, rather than hurt someone with the truth. It was why Lacy came to these visits with a smile stretched like a Halloween mask over her face, when in reality, she wanted to break down sobbing every time she saw Peter being led into the visitation room by a correctional officer. It was why she was talking about camp and stuffed animals--the hallmarks of the son she remembered--instead of discovering who he had become. But Peter had never learned how to say one thing when he meant another. It was one of the reasons he'd been hurt so many times.

  "It would be a happy ending," Peter said.

  Lacy drew in a breath. "Not if you weren't here."

  Peter looked at her for a long moment. "You're lying," he said--not angry, not accusing. Just as if he was stating the facts, in a way that she wasn't.

  "I am not--"

  "You can say it a million times, but that doesn't make it any more true." Peter smiled then, so guileless that Lacy felt it smart like a stripe from a whip. "You might be able to fool Dad, and the cops, and anyone else who'll listen," he said. "You just can't fool another liar."

  *

  By the time
Diana reached the docket board to check which judge was sitting on the Houghton arraignment, Jordan McAfee was already standing there. Diana hated him on principle, because he hadn't ripped two pairs of stockings trying to get them on, because he wasn't having a bad hair day, because he didn't seem to be the least bit ruffled about the fact that half the town of Sterling was on the front steps of the courthouse, demanding blood. "Morning," he said, not even glancing at her.

  Diana didn't answer. Instead, her mouth dropped open as she read the name of the judge sitting on the case. "I think there's a mistake," she said to the clerk.

  The clerk glanced over her shoulder at the docket board. "Judge Cormier's sitting this morning."

  "On the Houghton case? Are you kidding me?"

  The clerk shook her head. "Nope."

  "But her daughter--" Diana snapped her mouth shut, her thoughts reeling. "We need to have a chambers conference with the judge before the arraignment."

  The moment the clerk was gone, Diana faced Jordan. "What the hell is Cormier thinking?"

  *

  It wasn't often that Jordan got to see Diana Leven sweat, and frankly, it was entertaining. To be honest, Jordan had been just as shocked to see Cormier's name on the docket board as the prosecutor had been, but he wasn't about to tell Diana. Not tipping his hand was the only advantage he had right now, because frankly, his case wasn't worth anything.

  Diana frowned. "Didn't you expect her to--"

  The clerk reappeared. Jordan got a kick out of Eleanor; she cut him slack in the superior courthouse and even laughed at the dumb-blonde jokes he saved for her, whereas most clerks had a terminal case of self-importance. "Her Honor will see you now," Eleanor said.

  As Jordan followed the clerk into chambers, he leaned down and whispered the punch line he'd been getting at, before Leven so rudely interrupted his joke with her arrival. "So her husband looks at the box and says, 'Honey, it's not a puzzle . . . it's some Frosted Flakes!'"

  Eleanor snickered, and Diana scowled. "What's that, some kind of code?"

  "Yeah, Diana. It's secret defense attorney language for: Whatever you do, don't tell the prosecutor what I'm saying."

  "I wouldn't be surprised," Diana murmured, and then they were in chambers.

  Judge Cormier was already in her robe, ready to start the arraignment. Her arms were folded; she was leaning against her desk. "All right, Counselors, we have a lot of people in the courtroom waiting. What's the problem?"

  Diana glanced at Jordan, but he just raised his eyebrows. If she wanted to poke at the hornet's nest, that was just fine, but he'd be standing far away when it happened. Let Cormier hold a grudge against the prosecution, not the defense.

  "Judge," Diana said hesitantly, "it's my understanding that your daughter was in the school at the time of the shooting. In fact, we've interviewed her."

  Jordan had to give Cormier credit--she somehow managed to stare Diana down as if the prosecutor hadn't just presented a valid and disturbing fact, but had said something absolutely ludicrous instead. Like the punch line of a dumb-blonde joke, for example. "I'm quite aware of that," the judge said. "There were a thousand children in the school at the time of the shooting."

  "Of course, Your Honor. I just . . . I wanted to ask before we got out there in front of everyone whether the court was planning to just handle the arraignment, or if you're planning to sit during the whole case?"

  Jordan looked at Diana, wondering why she was so dead sure that Cormier shouldn't be sitting on this case. What did she know about Josie Cormier that he didn't?

  "As I said, there were thousands of kids in that school. Some of their parents are police officers, some work here at the superior court. One even works in your office, Ms. Leven."

  "Yes, Your Honor . . . but that particular attorney isn't handling this case."

  The judge stared at her, calm. "Are you calling my daughter as a witness, Ms. Leven?"

  Diana hesitated. "No, Your Honor."

  "Well, I've read my daughter's statement, Counselor, and I don't see any reason that we can't proceed."

  Jordan ran through what he knew so far:

  Peter had asked about Josie's welfare.

  Josie was present during the shooting.

  Josie's yearbook photo, in the discovery, was the only one that had been marked with the words LET LIVE.

  But according to her mother, whatever she told the police wouldn't affect the case. According to Diana, nothing Josie knew was important enough to make her a witness for the prosecution.

  He dropped his gaze, his mind replaying these facts over and over like a loop of videotape.

  One that just didn't make sense.

  *

  The former elementary school that was serving as the physical location for Sterling High did not have a cafeteria--little kids ate in their classrooms, at their desks. But somehow this was considered unhealthy for teenagers, so the library had been turned into a makeshift cafeteria. There were no books or shelves there anymore, but the carpet still had ABC's sprinkled into its weave, and a poster of the Cat in the Hat still hung beside the double doors.

  Josie no longer sat with her friends in the cafeteria. It just didn't feel right--as if some critical mass were missing, and they were likely to be split apart like an atom under pressure. Instead, she sequestered herself in a corner of the library where there were carpeted risers, where she liked to imagine a teacher reading aloud to her kindergartners.

  Today, when they'd arrived at school, the television cameras were already waiting. You had to walk right through them to get to the front door. They'd dribbled away over the past week--no doubt there was some tragedy somewhere else for these reporters to cover--but returned in full force to report on the arraignment. Josie had wondered how they were going to hightail it from the school all the way north to the courthouse in time. She wondered how many times in the course of her high school career they would come back. On the last day of school? At the anniversary of the shooting? At graduation? She imagined the People magazine article that would be written in a decade about the survivors of the Sterling High massacre--"Where Are They Now?" Would John Eberhard be playing hockey again, or even walking? Would Courtney's parents have moved out of Sterling? Where would Josie be?

  And Peter?

  Her mother was the judge at his trial. Even if she didn't talk about it with Josie--legally, she couldn't--it wasn't as if Josie didn't know. Josie was caught somewhere between utter relief, knowing her mom would be sitting on the case, and absolute terror. On the one hand, she knew her mother would start piecing together the events of that day, and that meant Josie wouldn't have to talk about it herself. On the other hand, once her mother did start piecing together the events of that day, what else would she figure out?

  Drew walked into the library, tossing an orange up in the air and catching it repeatedly in his fist. He glanced around at the pods of students, settled in small groups on the carpet with their hot lunch trays balanced on their knees like the bows of crickets, and then spotted Josie. "What's up?" he asked, sitting down beside her.

  "Not much."

  "Did the jackals get you?"

  He was talking about the television reporters. "I sort of ran past them."

  "I wish they'd all just go fuck themselves," Drew said.

  Josie leaned her head against the wall. "I wish it would all just go back to normal."

  "Maybe after the trial." Drew turned to her. "Is it weird, you know, with your mom and all?"

  "We don't talk about it. We don't talk about anything, really." She picked up her bottled water and took a sip, so that Drew wouldn't realize that her hand was shaking.

  "He's not crazy."

  "Who?"

  "Peter Houghton. I saw his eyes that day. He knew exactly what the hell he was doing."

  "Drew, shut up," Josie sighed.

  "Well, it's true. Doesn't matter what some hotshot fucking lawyer says to try to get him off the hook."

  "I think that's something the
jury gets to decide, not you."

  "Jesus Christ, Josie," he said. "Of all people, I wouldn't think you'd want to defend him."

  "I'm not defending him. I'm just telling you how the legal system works."

  "Well, thanks, Marcia Clark. But somehow you give less of a damn about that when you're the one with a slug being pulled out of your shoulder. Or when your best friend--or your boyfriend--is bleeding to death in front of--" He broke off abruptly as Josie fumbled her bottle of water, soaking herself and Drew.

  "Sorry," she said, mopping up the mess with a napkin.

  Drew sighed. "Me, too. I guess I'm a little freaked out, with the cameras and everything." He tore off a piece of the damp napkin and stuck it in his mouth, then tossed the spitball at the back of an overweight boy who carried the tuba in the school marching band.

  Oh my God, Josie thought. Nothing's changed at all. Drew tore off another piece of napkin and rolled it in his palm. "Stop it," Josie said.

  "What?" Drew shrugged. "You're the one who wanted to go back to normal."

  *

  There were four television cameras in the courtroom: ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN; plus reporters from Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Associated Press. The media had met with Alex last week in chambers, so that she could decide who would be represented in the courtroom while the others waited outside on the steps of the courthouse. She was aware of the tiny red lights on the cameras that indicated they were recording; of the scratch of pens on paper as the reporters wrote down her words verbatim. Peter Houghton had become infamous, and as a result of that, Alex would now have her fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe sixty, Alex thought. It would take her that long to simply read through all the charges.

  "Mr. Houghton," Alex said, "you are charged with, on March 6, 2007, a count of first-degree murder, contrary to 631:1-A, in that you purposely caused the death of another, to wit, Courtney Ignatio. You are charged with, on March 6, 2007, a count of first-degree murder, contrary to 631:1-A, in that you purposely caused the death of another, to wit . . ." She glanced down at the name. "Matthew Royston."

  The words were routine, something Alex could do in her sleep. But she focused on them, on keeping her voice measured and even, on giving weight to the name of each dead child. The gallery was packed full, and Alex could recognize the parents of these students, and some students themselves. One mother, a woman Alex did not know by sight or name, sat in the front row behind the defense table, clutching an 8 x 10 photo of a smiling girl.

 
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