Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Peter tossed his mother's letter onto the floor again and stared at the address on the second envelope. He didn't recognize it; it wasn't from Sterling, or even New Hampshire, for that matter. Elena Battista, he read. Elena from Ridgewood, New Jersey.

  He ripped open the envelope and scanned her note.


  I feel like I already know you, because I've been following what happened at the high school. I'm in college now, but I think I know what it was like for you . . . because it was like that for me. In fact, I'm writing my thesis now on the effects of being bullied at school. I know it's presumptuous to think that you'd want to talk to someone like me . . . but I think if I'd known someone like you when I was in high school, my life would have been different, and maybe it's never too late????


  Elena Battista

  Peter tapped the ragged envelope against his thigh. Jordan had specifically told him he was to talk to nobody--that is, except his parents, and Jordan himself. But his parents were useless, and to be honest, it wasn't like Jordan had been holding up his end of the bargain, which involved being physically present often enough for Peter to get whatever was bugging him off his chest.

  Besides. She was a college girl. It was kind of cool to think that a college girl wanted to talk to him; and it wasn't like he was going to tell her anything she didn't already know.

  Peter reached for his commissary form again and checked off the box for a generic greeting card.


  A trial could be split into halves: what happened the day of the event, which was the prosecution's baby; and everything that led up to it, which was what the defense had to present. To that end, Selena busied herself interviewing everyone who had come in contact with their client during the past seventeen years of his life. Two days after Peter's arraignment in superior court, Selena sat down with the principal of Sterling High in his modified elementary school office. Arthur McAllister had a sandy beard and a round belly and teeth that he didn't show when he smiled. He reminded Selena of one of those freaky talking bears that had come onto the market when she was a kid--Teddy Ruxpin--which made it all the more strange when he started answering her questions about anti-bullying policies at the high school. "It's not tolerated," McAllister said, although Selena had expected that party line. "We're completely on top of it."

  "So, if a kid comes to you to complain about being picked on, what are the repercussions for the bully?"

  "One of the things we've found, Selena--can I call you Selena?--is that if the administration intervenes, it makes it worse for the kid who's being bullied." He hesitated. "I know what people are saying about the shooting. How they're comparing it to Columbine and Paducah and the ones that came before them. But I truly believe that it wasn't bullying, per se, that led Peter to do what he did."

  "What he allegedly did," Selena automatically corrected. "Do you keep records of bullying incidents?"

  "If it escalates, and the kids are brought in to me, then yes."

  "Was anyone ever brought to you for bullying Peter Houghton?"

  McAllister stood up and pulled a file out of a cabinet. He began to leaf through it, and then stopped at a page. "Actually, Peter was brought in to see me twice this year. He was put into detention for fighting in the halls."

  "Fighting?" Selena said. "Or fighting back?"


  When Katie Riccobono had plunged a knife into her husband's chest while he was fast asleep--forty-six times--Jordan had called upon Dr. King Wah, a forensic psychiatrist who specialized in battered woman syndrome. It was a specific tangent of post-traumatic stress disorder, one that suggested a woman who'd been repeatedly victimized both mentally and physically might so constantly fear for her life that the line between reality and fantasy blurred, to the point where she felt threatened even when the threat was dormant, or in Joe Riccobono's case, as he lay sleeping off a three-day drinking spree.

  King had won the case for them. In the years that had passed, he'd become one of the foremost experts on battered woman syndrome, and appeared routinely as a witness for the defense all over the country. His fees had skyrocketed; his time now came at a premium.

  Jordan headed to King's Boston office without an appointment, figuring his charm could get him past whatever secretarial gatekeeper the good doctor employed, but he hadn't counted on a near-retirement-age dragon named Ruth. "The doctor's booking six months out," she said, not even bothering to look up at Jordan.

  "But this is a personal call, not a professional one."

  "And I care," Ruth said, in a tone that clearly suggested she didn't.

  Jordan figured it wouldn't do any good to tell Ruth she was looking lovely today, or to grace her with a dumb-blonde joke, or even to play up his successful track record as a defense attorney. "It's a family emergency," he said.

  "Your family is having a psychological emergency," Ruth repeated flatly.

  "Our family," Jordan improvised. "I'm Dr. Wah's brother." When Ruth just stared at him, Jordan added, "Dr. Wah's adopted brother."

  She raised one sharp eyebrow and pressed a button on her phone. A moment later, it rang. "Doctor," she said. "A man who claims to be your brother is here to see you." She hung up the receiver. "He says you can go right in."

  Jordan opened the heavy mahogany door to find King eating a sandwich, his feet crossed on top of his desk. "Jordan McAfee," he said, smiling. "I should have known. So tell me . . . how's Mom doing?"

  "How the hell should I know, she always loved you best," Jordan joked, and he came forward to shake King's hand. "Thanks for seeing me."

  "I had to find out who had enough chutzpah to say he was my brother."

  "'Chutzpah,'" Jordan repeated. "You learn that in Chinese school?"

  "Yeah, Yiddish came right after Abacus 101." He gestured for Jordan to take a seat. "So how's it going?"

  "Good," Jordan said. "I mean, maybe not as good as it's going for you. I can't turn on Court TV without seeing your face on the screen."

  "It's been busy, that's for sure. I've only got ten minutes, in fact, before my next appointment."

  "I know. That's why I took a chance that you'd see me--I want you to evaluate my client."

  "Jordan, man, you know I would, but I'm booking nearly six months out for trial work."

  "This one's different, King. It's multiple murder charges."

  "Murders?" King said. "How many husbands did she kill?"

  "None, and it's not a she. It's a boy. A kid. He was bullied for years, and then turned around and shot up Sterling High School."

  King handed half of his tuna sandwich to Jordan. "All right, little brother," he said. "Let's talk over lunch."


  Josie glanced from the serviceable gray tile floor to the cinder-block walls, from the iron bars that isolated Dispatch from the sitting area to the heavy door with its automatic lock. It was kind of like a jail, and she wondered if the policemen inside ever thought about that irony. But then, as soon as the image of jail popped into her head, Josie thought of Peter and began to panic again. "I don't want to be here," she said, turning to her mother.

  "I know."

  "Why does he even want to talk to me again? I already told him I can't remember anything."

  They had received the letter in the mail; Detective Ducharme had "a few more questions" to ask her. To Josie, that meant he must know something now that he hadn't known the first time he questioned her. Her mother had explained that a second interview was just a way of making sure the prosecution had dotted their i's and crossed their t's; that it really didn't mean anything at all, but that she had to go to the station, all the same. God forbid Josie be the one to screw up the investigation.

  "All you have to do is tell him, again, that you don't remember anything . . . and you'll be all done," her mother said, and she gently put her hand on Josie's knee, which had begun shaking.

  What Josie wanted to do was stand up, burst through the double doors of the police station,
and start running. She wanted to sprint through the parking lot and across the street, over the middle school playing fields and into the woods that edged the town pond, up the mountains that she could sometimes see from her bedroom window if the leaves had fallen from the trees, until she was as high as she could possibly go. And then . . .

  And then maybe she'd just spread her arms and step off the edge of the world.

  What if this was all a setup?

  What if Detective Ducharme already knew . . . everything?

  "Josie," a voice said. "Thanks so much for coming down here."

  She glanced up to see the detective standing in front of them. Her mother got to her feet. Josie tried, honestly she did, but she couldn't find the courage to do it.

  "Judge, I appreciate you bringing your daughter down here."

  "Josie's very upset," her mother said. "She still can't remember anything about that day."

  "I need to hear that from Josie herself." The detective knelt so that he could look into her eyes. He had, Josie realized, nice eyes. A little sad, like a basset hound's. It made her wonder what it would be like to hear all these stories from the wounded and the stunned; if you couldn't help but absorb them by osmosis. "I promise," he said gently. "This won't take long."

  Josie started to imagine what it would feel like when the door to the conference room closed; how questions could build up like the pressure inside a champagne bottle. She wondered what hurt more: not remembering what had happened, no matter how hard you tried to will it to the front of your mind, or recalling every last, awful moment.

  Out of the corner of her eye, Josie saw her mother sit back down. "Aren't you coming in with me?"

  The last time the detective had talked to her, her mother had pulled the same excuse--she was the judge, she couldn't possibly sit in on the police interview. But then they'd had that conversation after the arraignment; her mother had gone out of her way to let Josie know that acting like a judge on this case would not be mutually exclusive to acting like a mother. Or in other words: Josie had been stupid enough to think that things between them might have started to change.

  Her mother's mouth opened and closed, like a fish out of water. Did I make you uncomfortable? Josie thought, the words rising like welts in her mind. Welcome to the club.

  "You want a cup of coffee?" the detective said, and then he shook his head. "Or a Coke. I don't know, do kids your age drink coffee yet, or am I dangling a vice right in front of you because I'm too stupid to know better?"

  "I like coffee," Josie said. She avoided her mother's gaze as Detective Ducharme led her into the inner sanctum of the police station.

  They went into a conference room and the detective poured her a mug of coffee. "Milk? Sugar?"

  "Sugar," Josie said. She took two packets from the bowl and added them to the mug. Then she glanced around--at the Formica table, the fluorescent lights, the normalness of the room.


  "What what?" Josie said.

  "What's the matter?"

  "I was just thinking that this doesn't look like the kind of place where you'd beat a confession out of someone."

  "Depends on whether you've got one to be beaten out of you," the detective said. When Josie blanched, he laughed. "I'm just joking. Honestly, the only time I beat confessions out of people is when I'm playing a cop on TV."

  "You play a cop on TV?"

  He sighed. "Never mind." He reached over to a tape recorder in the center of the table. "I'm going to record this, just like before . . . mostly because I'm too dumb to remember it all correctly." The detective pressed the button and sat down across from Josie. "Do people tell you all the time that you look like your mom?"

  "Um, never." She tilted her head. "Is that what you brought me down to ask me?"

  He smiled. "No."

  "I don't look like her, anyway."

  "Sure you do. It's your eyes."

  Josie looked down at the table. "Mine are a totally different color than hers."

  "I wasn't talking about the color," the detective said. "Josie, tell me again what you saw the day of the shootings at Sterling High."

  Underneath the table, Josie gripped her hands together. She dug the nails of one hand into the palm of the other, so that something hurt more than the words he was making her say. "I had a science test. I'd studied really late for it, and I was thinking about it when I woke up in the morning. That's all I know. I already told you, I can't even remember being in school that day."

  "Do you remember what made you pass out in the locker room?"

  Josie closed her eyes. She could picture the locker room--the tile floor, the gray lockers, the orphan sock stuffed in a corner of the shower. And then, everything went red as anger. Red as blood.

  "No," Josie said, but tears had cut her voice into lace. "I don't even know why thinking about it makes me cry." She hated being seen like this; she hated being like this; most of all she hated not knowing when it would happen: a shift of the wind, a turn of the tide. Josie took the tissue the detective offered. "Please," she whispered, "can I just go now?"

  There was a moment of hesitation, and Josie could feel the weight of the detective's pity falling over her like a net, one that only held on to her words, while the rest--the shame, the anger, the fear--seeped right through. "Sure, Josie," he said. "You can go."


  Alex was pretending to read the Town of Sterling Annual Report when Josie suddenly burst out of the secured door into the police station's waiting area. She was crying hard, and Patrick Ducharme was nowhere in sight. I'll kill him, Alex thought rationally, calmly, after I take care of my daughter.

  "Josie," she said, as Josie ran past her out of the building, toward the parking lot. Alex hurried after her, finally catching up to Josie in front of their car. She wrapped her arms around Josie's waist and felt her buckle. "Leave me alone," Josie sobbed.

  "Josie, honey, what did he say to you? Talk to me."

  "I can't talk to you! You don't understand. None of you understand." Josie backed away. "The people who do, they're all dead."

  Alex hesitated, unsure of the right move. She could fold Josie tighter into an embrace and let her cry. Or she could make her see that no matter how upset she was, it was something she had the resources to handle. Sort of like an Allen charge, Alex realized--the instruction a judge would give to a jury that wasn't getting anywhere in its deliberations, which basically reminded them of their duty as American citizens, and assured them that they could and would come to a consensus.

  It had always worked for her in court.

  "I know this is hard, Josie, but you're stronger than you think, and--"

  Josie shoved her hard, breaking away. "Stop talking to me like that!"

  "Like what?"

  "Like I'm some fucking witness or lawyer you're trying to impress!"

  "Your Honor. Sorry to interrupt."

  Alex wheeled around to find Patrick Ducharme standing two feet behind them, listening to every single word. Her cheeks reddened; this was exactly the kind of behavior you didn't put on public display when you were a judge. He'd probably go back into the police station and send out a mass email to the entire force: Guess what I just overheard.

  "Your daughter," he said. "She forgot her sweatshirt."

  Pink and hooded, it was folded neatly over his arm. He handed it to Josie. But then, instead of backing away, he put his hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Josie," he said, meeting her gaze as if they were the only two people in this world. "We're going to make this okay."

  Alex expected Josie to snap at him, too, but instead Josie went calm under his touch. She nodded, as if she believed this for the first time since the shooting had occurred.

  Alex felt something rise inside her--relief, she realized, that her daughter had finally reached out for the slightest bit of hope. And regret, bitter as any almond, because she had not been the one to put the peace back into her daughter's face.

  Josie wiped her eyes with the slee
ve of her sweatshirt. "You all right?" Ducharme asked.

  "I guess."

  "Good." The detective nodded in Alex's direction. "Judge."

  "Thank you," she murmured, as he turned and started back to the police station.

  Alex heard the slam of the car door as Josie slipped into the passenger seat, but she watched Patrick Ducharme until he disappeared from sight. I wish it had been me, Alex thought, and she deliberately kept herself from filling in the rest of that sentence.


  Like Peter, Derek Markowitz was a computer whiz. Like Peter, he hadn't been blessed with muscles and height or, for that matter, any gifts of puberty. He had hair that stuck up in small tufts, as if it had been planted. He wore his shirt tucked into his pants at all times, and he had never been popular.

  Unlike Peter, he hadn't gone to school one day and killed ten people.

  Selena sat at the Markowitzes' kitchen table, while Dee Dee Markowitz watched her like a hawk. She was there to interview Derek in the hope that he could be a witness for the defense--but to be perfectly honest, the information Derek had given her so far made him a much better candidate for the prosecution.

  "What if it's all my fault?" Derek was saying. "I mean, I'm the only one who was given a clue. If I'd been listening harder, maybe I could have stopped him. I could have told someone else. But instead, I figured he was joking around."

  "I don't think anyone would have done any differently in your situation," Selena said gently, and she meant it. "The Peter you knew wasn't the one who went to the school that day."

  "Yeah," Derek said, and he nodded to himself.

  "Are you about finished?" Dee Dee asked, stepping forward. "Derek's got a violin lesson."

  "Almost, Mrs. Markowitz. I just wanted to ask Derek about the Peter he did know. How'd you two meet?"

  "We were both on a soccer team together in sixth grade," Derek said, "and we both sucked."


  "Sorry, Mom, but it's true." He glanced up at Selena. "Then again, none of those jocks could write HTML code if their lives depended on it."

  Selena smiled. "Yeah, well, count me in the ranks of the technologically impaired. So you two got to be friends while you were on the team?"

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