Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  Jordan McAfee sat beside his client, who was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles, and was doing everything he could to avoid looking at Alex as she read the charges.

  "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, Justin Friedman. . . .

  "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, Christopher McPhee. . . .

  "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, Grace Murtaugh. . . ."

  The woman with the photo stood up as Alex was reciting the charges. She leaned over the bar, between Peter Houghton and his attorney, and smacked the photograph down so hard that the glass cracked. "Do you remember her?" the woman cried, her voice raw. "Do you remember Grace?"

  McAfee whipped around. Peter ducked his head, keeping his eyes trained on the table in front of him.

  Alex had had disruptive people in her courtroom before, but she could not remember them stealing her breath away. This mother's pain seemed to take up all the empty space in the gallery; heat the emotions of the other spectators to a boiling point.

  Her hands began to tremble; she slipped them underneath the bench so that nobody could see. "Ma'am," Alex said. "I'm going to have to ask you to sit down . . ."

  "Did you look her in the face when you shot her, you bastard?"

  Did you? Alex thought.

  "Your Honor," McAfee called.

  Alex's ability to judge this case impartially had already been challenged by the prosecution. While she didn't have to justify her decisions to anyone, she'd just told the attorneys that she could easily separate her personal and her professional involvement in this case. She'd thought it would be a matter of seeing Josie not as her daughter, specifically, but as one of hundreds present during the shooting. She had not realized that it would actually come down to seeing herself not as a judge, but as another mother.

  You can do this, she told herself. Just remember why you're here. "Bailiffs," Alex murmured, and the two beefy courtroom attendants grabbed the woman by the arms to escort her out of the courtroom.

  "You'll burn in hell," the woman shouted as the television cameras followed her progress down the aisle.

  Alex didn't. She kept her eyes on Peter Houghton, while his attorney's attention was distracted. "Mr. McAfee," she said.

  "Yes, Your Honor?"

  "Please ask your client to hold out his hand."

  "I'm sorry, Judge, but I think there's already been enough prejudicial--"

  "Do it, Counselor."

  McAfee nodded at Peter, who lifted his shackled wrists and opened his fists. Winking in Peter's palm was a shard of broken glass from the picture frame. Blanching, the attorney reached for the glass. "Thank you, Your Honor," he muttered.

  "Any time." Alex looked at the gallery and cleared her throat. "I trust there will be no more outbursts like that, or I'll be forced to close these proceedings to the public."

  She continued reading the charges in a courtroom so quiet you could hear hearts break; you could hear hope fluttering to the rafters on the ceiling. "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, Madeleine Shaw. 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, Edward McCabe.

  "You are charged with attempted first-degree murder, contrary to 630:1-A and 629:1, in that you did commit an act in furtherance of the offense of first-degree murder, to wit, shooting at Emma Alexis.

  "You are charged with possession of firearms on school grounds.

  "Possession of explosive devices.

  "Unlawful use of an explosive device.

  "Receiving stolen goods, to wit, firearms."

  By the time Alex had finished, her voice was hoarse. "Mr. McAfee," she said, "how does your client plead?"

  "Not guilty to all counts, Your Honor."

  A murmur spread virally through the courtroom, something that always happened in the wake of hearing that not-guilty plea, and that always seemed ridiculous to Alex--what was the defendant supposed to do? Say he was guilty?

  "Given the nature of the charges, you are not entitled to bail as a matter of law. You are remanded to the custody of the sheriff."

  Alex dismissed court and headed into chambers. Inside, with the door closed, she paced like an athlete coming off a brutal race. If there was anything she was sure of, it was her ability to judge fairly. But if it had been this hard at the arraignment, how would she function when the prosecution began to actually outline the events of that day?

  "Eleanor," Alex said, pressing the intercom button for her clerk, "clear my schedule for two hours."

  "But you--"

  "Clear it," she snapped. She could still see the faces of those parents in the gallery. What they'd lost was written across their faces, a collective scar.

  Alex stripped off her robe and headed down the back stairs to the parking lot. Instead of stopping for a cigarette, though, she got into her car. She drove straight to the elementary school and parked in the fire lane. There was one news van still in the teachers' parking lot, and Alex panicked, until she realized that the license plates were from New York; that the chance of someone recognizing her without her judicial robes on was unlikely.

  The only person who had a right to ask Alex to recuse herself was Josie, but Alex knew that ultimately her daughter would understand. It was Alex's first big case in superior court. It was modeling healthy behavior for Josie herself, to get on with her life again. Alex tried to ignore the last reason she was fighting to stay on this case--the one that pricked like a thorn, like a splinter, rubbing raw no matter which way she came at it: she had a better chance of learning from the prosecution and the defense what her daughter had endured than she ever would from Josie herself.

  She walked into the main office. "I need to pick up my daughter," Alex said, and the school secretary pushed a clipboard toward her, with information to be filled out. STUDENT, Alex read. TIME OUT. REASON. TIME IN.

  Josie Cormier, she wrote. 10:45 a.m. Orthodontist.

  She could feel the secretary's eyes on her--clearly the woman wanted to know why Judge Cormier was standing in front of her desk instead of at the courthouse presiding over the arraignment that they were all waiting to hear about. "If you could just send Josie out to the car," Alex said, and she walked out of the office.

  Within five minutes, Josie opened the passenger door and slid into the seat. "I don't have braces."

  "I needed to think of an excuse fast," Alex answered. "It was the first one to pop into my head."

  "So why are you really here?"

  Alex watched Josie turn up the volume of the vent. "Do I need a reason to have lunch with my daughter?"

  "It's, like, ten-thirty."

  "Then we're playing hooky."

  "Whatever," Josie said.

  Alex pulled away from the curb. Josie was two feet away from her, but they might as well have been on different continents. Her daughter stared firmly out the window, watching the world go by.

  "Is it over?" Josie asked.

  "The arraignment? Yes."

  "Is that why you came here?"

  How could Alex describe what it had felt like, seeing all of those nameless mothers and fathers in the gallery, without a child between them? If you lost your child, could you still even call yourself a parent?

  What if you'd just been stupid enough to let her slip away?

  Alex drove to the end of a road that overlooked the river. It was racing, the way it always did in the spring. If you didn't know better, if you were looking at a still photo, you might wish you could take a dip. You wouldn't realize, just by glancing, that the water would rob you of
your breath; that you might be swept away.

  "I wanted to see you," Alex confessed. "There were people in my courtroom today . . . people who probably wake up every day now wishing that they'd done this--left in the middle of the day to have lunch with their daughters, instead of telling themselves they could do it some other day." She turned to Josie. "Those people, they didn't get to have any other days."

  Josie picked at a loose white thread, silent long enough for Alex to start mentally kicking herself. So much for her spontaneous foray into primal motherhood. Alex had been rattled by her own emotions during the arraignment; instead of telling herself she was being ridiculous, she'd acted on them. But this was exactly what happened, wasn't it, when you started to sift through the shifting sands of feelings, instead of just feeding facts hand over fist? The hell with putting your heart on your sleeve; it was likely to get ripped off.

  "Hooky," Josie said quietly. "Not lunch."

  Alex sat back, relieved. "Whatever," she joked. She waited until Josie met her gaze. "I want to talk to you about the case."

  "I thought you couldn't."

  "That's sort of what I wanted to talk about. Even if this was the biggest career opportunity in the world, I'd step down if I believed it was going to make things harder for you. You can still come to me anytime and ask me anything you want."

  They both pretended, for a moment, that Josie did this on a regular basis, when in fact it had been years since she'd shared anything in confidence with Alex.

  Josie's glance slanted toward her. "Even about the arraignment?"

  "Even about the arraignment."

  "What did Peter say in court?" Josie asked.

  "Nothing. The lawyer does all the talking."

  "What did he look like?"

  Alex thought for a moment. She had, upon first seeing Peter in his jail jumpsuit, been amazed at how much he'd grown. Although she had seen him over the years--in the back of the classroom during school events, at the copy store where he and Josie had worked together briefly, even driving down Main Street--she still somehow had expected him to be the same little boy who'd played in kindergarten with Josie. Alex considered his orange scrubs, his rubber flip-flops, his shackles. "He looked like a defendant," she said.

  "If he's convicted," Josie asked, "he'll never get out of prison, will he?"

  Alex felt her heart squeeze. Josie was trying not to show it, but how could she not be afraid that something like this would happen again? Then again, how could Alex--as a judge--make a promise to convict Peter before he'd even been tried? Alex felt herself walking the high wire between personal responsibility and professional ethics, trying her damnedest not to fall. "You don't have to worry about that . . ."

  "That's not an answer," Josie said.

  "He'll most likely spend his life there, yes."

  "If he was in prison, would people be allowed to talk to him?"

  Suddenly, Alex couldn't follow Josie's line of logic. "Why? Do you want to talk to him?"

  "I don't know."

  "I can't imagine why you'd want to, after--"

  "I used to be his friend," Josie said.

  "You haven't been Peter's friend in years," Alex answered, but then the tumblers clicked, and she understood why her daughter, who was seemingly terrified about Peter's potential release from prison, might still want to communicate with him after his conviction: remorse. Maybe Josie believed that something she'd done--or hadn't--might have brought Peter to the point where he would have gone and shot his way through Sterling High.

  If Alex didn't understand the concept of a guilty conscience, who would?

  "Honey, there are people looking out for Peter--people whose job it is to look out for him. You don't have to be the one to do it." Alex smiled a little. "You just have to look out for yourself, all right?"

  Josie looked away. "I have a test next period," she said. "Can we go back to school now?"

  Alex drove in silence, because by that time it was too late to make the correction; to tell her daughter that there was someone looking out for her, too; that Josie was not in this alone.

  *

  At two in the morning, when Jordan had been bouncing a wailing, sick infant in his arms for five straight hours, he turned to Selena. "Remind me why we had a child?"

  Selena was sitting at the kitchen table--well, no, actually she was sprawled across it, her head pillowed in her arms. "Because you wanted to pass along the finely tuned genetic blueprint of my bloodline."

  "Frankly, I think all we're passing along is some viral crud."

  Suddenly, Selena sat up. "Hey," she whispered. "He's asleep."

  "Thank God. Get him off me."

  "Like hell I will--that's the most comfortable he's been all day."

  Jordan glowered at her and sank into the chair across from her, his hands still cupped around his sleeping son. "He's not the only one."

  "Are we talking about your case again? Because to be honest, Jordan, I'm so damn tired that I need clues, here, if we're going to shift topics . . ."

  "I just can't figure out why she hasn't recused herself. When the prosecution brought up her daughter, Cormier dismissed it . . . and more importantly, so did Leven."

  Selena yawned and stood up. "You're looking a gift horse in the mouth, baby. Cormier's got to be a better judge for you than Wagner."

  "But something's rubbing me the wrong way about this."

  Selena smiled at him indulgently. "Got a little diaper rash, huh?"

  "Even if her kid doesn't remember anything now, that doesn't mean she's not going to. And how is Cormier going to remain impartial, knowing that her daughter's boyfriend was blown away by my client while she stood there watching?"

  "Well, you could make a motion to get her off the case," Selena said. "Or you could wait for Diana to do that instead."

  Jordan glanced up at her.

  "If I were you, I'd keep my mouth shut."

  He reached out, snagging the sash of her robe so that it unraveled. "When do I ever keep my mouth shut?"

  Selena laughed. "There's always a first time," she said.

  *

  Each tier in maximum security had four cells, six feet by eight feet. Inside the cell was a bunk bed and a toilet. It had taken Peter three days to be able to take a dump while the correctional officers were walking past, without his bowels seizing up, but--and this was how he knew he was getting used to being here--now he could probably crap on command.

  At one end of the maximum-security catwalk was a small television. Because there was only room for one chair in front of the TV, the guy who'd been in the longest got to sit down. Everyone else stood behind him, like hoboes in a soup line, to watch. There were not a lot of programs the inmates could agree upon. Mostly it was MTV, although they always turned on Jerry Springer. Peter figured that was because no matter how much you'd screwed up in your life, you liked knowing that there were people out there even more stupid than you.

  If anyone on the tier did something wrong--not even Peter, but for example an asshole like Satan Jones (Satan not being his real name; that was Gaylord, but if you mentioned it even in a whisper he'd go for your jugular), who had drawn a caricature of two of the COs doing the horizontal hora on the wall of his cell--everyone lost the television privilege for the week. Which left the other end of the catwalk to mosey on down toward: a shower with a plastic curtain, and the phone, where you could call collect for a dollar a minute, and every few seconds you'd hear This call has originated at the Grafton County Department of Corrections, just in case you had been lucky enough to forget.

  Peter was doing sit-ups, which he hated. He hated all exercise, really. But the alternative was sitting around and getting soft enough for everyone to think they could pick on you, or going outside during his exercise hour. He went, a couple of times--not to shoot hoops or to jog or even make secret deals near the fence for the drugs or cigarettes that got smuggled into jail, but just to be outside and breathing in air that hadn't already been breathed by the o
ther inmates in this place. Unfortunately, from the exercise yard you could see the river. You'd think that was a bonus, but in fact, it was the most awful tease. Sometimes the wind blew so that Peter could even smell it--the soil along the edge, the frigid water--and it nearly broke him to know that he couldn't just walk down there and take off his shoes and socks and wade in, swim, fucking drown himself if he wanted to. After that, he stopped going outdoors at all.

  Peter finished his hundredth sit-up--the irony was that after a month, he was so much stronger that he could probably have kicked Matt Royston's and Drew Girard's asses simultaneously--and sat down on his bunk with the commissary form. Once a week, you got to go shopping for things like mouthwash and paper, with the prices jacked up ridiculously high. Peter remembered going to St. John one year with his family; in the grocery store, cornflakes cost, like, ten dollars, because they were such a rare commodity. It wasn't like shampoo was a rare commodity, but in jail, you were at the mercy of the administration, which meant they could charge $3.25 for a bottle of Pert, or $16 for a box fan. Your other alternative was to hope that an inmate who left for the state prison would will you his belongings, but to Peter, that felt a little like being a vulture.

  "Houghton," a correctional officer said, his heavy boots ringing down the metal catwalk, "you've got mail."

  Two envelopes zoomed into the cell and slid underneath Peter's bunk. He reached for them, scraping his fingernails against the cement floor. The first letter was from his mother, which he was almost expecting. Peter got mail from his mother at least three or four times a week. The letters were usually about stupid things like editorials in the local paper or how well her spider plants were doing. He'd thought, for a while, that she was writing in code--something he needed to know, something transcendent and inspirational--but then he started to realize that she was just writing to fill up space. That's when he stopped opening mail from his mother. He didn't feel bad about this, really. The reason his mother wrote to him, Peter knew, wasn't so that he'd read the letters. It was so that she could tell herself she'd written them.

  He didn't really blame his parents for being clueless. First of all, he'd had plenty of practice with that particular condition. Second, the only people who understood him, really, were the ones who had been at the high school that day, and they weren't exactly jamming his mailbox with missives.

 
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