Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "We hung out on the bench, because we were never put in to play," Derek said. "But no, we weren't really friends until after that, when he stopped hanging out with Josie."

  Selena fumbled her pen. "Josie?"

  "Yeah, Josie Cormier. She goes to the school, too."

  "And she's Peter's friend?"

  "She used to be, like, the only kid he ever hung around with," Derek explained, "but then she became one of the cool kids, and she ditched him." He looked at Selena. "Peter didn't care, really. He said she'd turned into a bitch."

  "Derek!"

  "Sorry, Mom," he said. "But again, it's true."

  "Would you excuse me?" Selena asked.

  She walked out of the kitchen and into the bathroom, where she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed home. "It's me," she said when Jordan answered, and then she hesitated. "Why is it so quiet?"

  "Sam's asleep."

  "You didn't pop in another Wiggles video just to get your discovery read, did you?"

  "Did you call specifically to accuse me of lousy parenting?"

  "No," Selena said. "I called to tell you that Peter and Josie used to be best friends."

  *

  In maximum security, Peter was allowed only one real visitor a week, but certain people didn't count. For example, your lawyer could come and see you as many times as necessary. And--here's the crazy thing--so could reporters. All Peter had to do was sign a little release that said he was willingly making the choice to speak to the media, and Elena Battista was allowed to meet him.

  She was hot. Peter noticed that right away. Instead of wearing some shapeless oversized sweater, she had dressed in a tight blouse with buttons. If he leaned forward, he could even see cleavage.

  She had long, thick curly hair and doe-brown eyes, and Peter found it really hard to believe that she had ever been teased by anyone in high school. But she was sitting in front of him, that much was true, and she could barely look him in the eyes. "I can't believe this," she said, her toes coming right up to the red line that separated them. "I can't believe I'm actually meeting you."

  Peter pretended he heard this all the time. "Yeah," he said. "It's cool that you drove up here."

  "Oh, God, that was the least I could do," Elena said. Peter thought of stories he'd heard, of groupies who'd written to inmates and eventually married them in a prison ceremony. He thought of the correctional officer who'd brought Elena in, and wondered if he was telling everyone else that Peter Houghton had some hot girl visiting him.

  "You don't mind if I take notes, do you?" Elena asked. "For my paper?"

  "That's cool."

  He watched her pull out a pencil and hold the cap in her mouth while she opened her notebook to a fresh page. "So, like I told you, I'm writing about the effects of bullying."

  "How come?"

  "Well, there were times when I was in high school that I thought I'd rather just kill myself than go back to class the next day, because it would be easier. I figured if I was thinking it, there had to be other people thinking it, too . . . and that's where I came up with the idea." She leaned forward--cleavage alert--and met Peter's eyes. "I'm hoping I can get it published in a psychology journal or something."

  "That would be cool." He winced; God, how many times was he going to use the word cool? He probably sounded like a total retard.

  "So, maybe you could start by telling me how often it used to happen. The bullying, I mean."

  "Every day, I guess."

  "What sorts of things did they do?"

  "The usual," Peter said. "Stuffing me into a locker, throwing my books out the bus window." He gave her a litany he'd already given Jordan a thousand times: memories of being elbowed on his way up a staircase, moments where his glasses were ripped off and crushed, slurs pitched like fastballs.

  Elena's eyes melted. "That must have been so hard for you."

  Peter didn't know what to say. He wanted her to stay interested in his story, but not if it meant that she thought he was a total wimp. He shrugged, hoping that was a good enough response.

  She stopped writing. "Peter, can I ask you something?"

  "Sure."

  "Even if it's kind of off topic?"

  Peter nodded.

  "Did you plan to kill them?"

  She was leaning forward again, her lips parted, as if whatever Peter was about to say was some wafer, a communion host that she'd been waiting for her whole life. Peter could hear the footsteps of a guard walking past the doorway behind him, could practically taste Elena's breath through the receiver. He wanted to give her the right answer--sound dangerous enough for her to be intrigued, to want to come back.

  He smiled, in a way that he hoped was sort of seductive. "Let's just say it needed to stop," Peter answered.

  *

  The magazines in Jordan's dentist's office had the shelf life of plutonium. They were so old that the celebrity bride on the cover now had two babies named for biblical characters, or pieces of fruit; that the president listed as Man of the Year had already left office. To that end, when he stumbled upon the latest issue of Time while awaiting his appointment for a filling, Jordan felt like he'd hit the mother lode.

  HIGH SCHOOL: THE NEWEST FRONT LINE FOR BATTLE? the cover read, and there was a still image of Sterling High from a chopper, kids still streaming out of all the building's orifices. He absently leafed toward the article and its subsections, not expecting to see anything he didn't already know or hadn't already seen in the papers, but one piece caught his eye. "Inside the Mind of a Killer," he read, and he saw the much-used school picture of Peter from his eighth-grade yearbook.

  Then he started to read.

  "Goddamn," he said, and he got to his feet, starting for the door.

  "Mr. McAfee," the secretary said, "the dentist is ready for you."

  "I'll have to reschedule--"

  "Well, you can't take our magazine . . ."

  "Add it to my bill," Jordan snapped, and he hurried downstairs to his car. His cell phone rang just as he turned the key in the ignition--he completely expected it to be Diana Leven, gloating over her good fortune--but instead, it was Selena.

  "Hey, are you done at the dentist? I need you to swing by CVS and grab some diapers on the way home. I ran out."

  "I'm not coming home. I've got bigger problems right now."

  "Honey," Selena said, "there are no bigger problems."

  "I'll explain later," Jordan said, and he turned off his phone, so that even if Diana called, she wouldn't be able to reach him.

  He got to the jail in twenty-six minutes--a personal record--and stormed into the entryway. There, he plastered the magazine up to the plastic that separated him from the CO who was signing him in. "I need to bring this in when I see my client," Jordan said.

  "Well, I'm sorry," the officer said, "but you can't take in anything that's got staples."

  Frustrated, Jordan balanced the magazine against his leg and ripped out the binding staples. "Fine. Can I see my client now?"

  He was brought to the same conference room he always used at the jail, and he paced while he waited for Peter to arrive. When he did, Jordan slammed the magazine down on the table, open to the article. "What the fuck were you thinking?"

  Peter's mouth dropped open. "She . . . she never mentioned that she wrote for Time!" He scanned the pages. "I can't believe it," he murmured.

  Jordan could feel all the blood in his body rushing to his head. Surely, this was how people had strokes. "Do you have any idea how serious the charges against you are? How awful your case is? How much evidence there is against you?" He smacked an open hand on the article. "Do you really think that this makes you look at all sympathetic?"

  Peter scowled. "Well, thanks for the lecture. Maybe if you'd been here to deliver it a few weeks ago we wouldn't be having this discussion at all."

  "Oh, that's priceless," Jordan said. "I don't come by often enough, so you decide to get back at me by talking to the media?"

  "She wasn't t
he media. She was my friend."

  "Guess what," Jordan said. "You don't get to have any friends."

  "So what else is new?" Peter shot back.

  Jordan opened his mouth to yell at Peter again, but couldn't. The truth of the statement struck him, as he remembered Selena's interview earlier this week with Derek Markowitz. Peter's buddies deserted him, or betrayed him, or spilled his secrets for a circulation of millions.

  If he really wanted to do his job right, he couldn't just be an attorney to Peter. He had to be his confidant, and to date, all he'd done was string the kid along, just like everyone else in his life.

  Jordan sat down next to Peter. "Look," he said quietly. "You can't do anything like this again. If anyone contacts you at all, for any reason, you need to tell me. And in return, I'll come to see you more often than I have been. Okay?"

  Peter shrugged his agreement. For a long moment they both sat beside each other, silent, unsure of what came next.

  "So now what?" Peter asked. "Do I have to talk about Joey again? Or prep for that psychiatric interview?"

  Jordan hesitated. The only reason he'd come to see Peter was to tear into him for talking to a reporter; if not for that, he wouldn't have come to the jail at all. And he supposed he could ask Peter to recount his childhood or his school history or his feelings about being bullied, but somehow, that didn't seem right either. "Actually, I need some advice," he said. "My wife got me this computer game last Christmas, Agents of Stealth? The thing is, I can't make it past the first level without getting wiped out."

  Peter glanced at him sideways. "Well, are you registering as a Droid or a Regal?"

  Who the hell knew? He hadn't taken the CD out of its box. "A Droid."

  "That's your first mistake. See, you can't enlist in the Pyrhphorus Legion--you need to get appointed to serve. The way to do that is by starting off in the Educationary instead of the Mines. Understand?"

  Jordan glanced down at the article, still spread on the table. His case had just grown immeasurably more difficult, but maybe that was offset by the fact that his relationship with his client had gotten easier. "Yeah," Jordan said. "I'm starting to."

  *

  "You're not going to like this," Eleanor said, handing a document to Alex.

  "Why not?"

  "It's a motion to recuse yourself from the Houghton case. The prosecution strongly requests a hearing."

  A hearing meant that press would be present, the victims would be present, the families would be present. It meant that Alex would be under public scrutiny before this case could go any further. "Well, she's not getting one," Alex said dismissively.

  The clerk hesitated. "I'd think twice about that."

  Alex met her eyes. "You can leave now."

  She waited for Eleanor to close the door behind herself, and then she closed her eyes. She didn't know what to do. It was true that she'd been more rattled during the arraignment than she'd anticipated. It was true, too, that the distance between herself and Josie could be measured by the very parameters of her role as judge. Yet because Alex had steadfastly assumed that she was infallible--because she'd been so sure that she could be a fair justice on this case--she'd gotten herself into a catch-22. It was one thing to recuse yourself before the proceedings started. But if she backed out now, it would make her seem flighty (at best) or inept (at worst). Neither one of those was an adjective she wanted associated with her judicial career.

  If she didn't give Diana Leven the hearing she was requesting, it would look like Alex was hiding. Better to let them voice their positions and be a big girl. Alex pushed a button on her phone. "Eleanor," she said, "schedule it."

  She speared her fingers through her hair and then smoothed it down again. What she needed was a cigarette. She rummaged in her desk drawers but turned up only an empty pack of Merits. "Shoot," she muttered, and then remembered her emergency pack, hidden in the trunk of her car. Grabbing her keys, Alex stood up and left chambers, hurrying down the back staircase to the parking lot.

  She threw open the fire door and heard the sickening crunch as it hit flesh. "Oh my gosh," she cried, reaching for the man who'd doubled over in pain. "Are you all right?"

  Patrick Ducharme straightened, wincing. "Your Honor," he said. "I've got to stop running into you. Literally."

  She frowned. "You shouldn't have been standing next to a fire door."

  "You shouldn't have been flinging it open. So where is it today?" Patrick asked.

  "Where's what?"

  "The fire?" He nodded at another cop, walking to a cruiser parked in the lot.

  Alex took a step backward and folded her arms. "I believe we already had a conversation about, well, conversation."

  "First of all, we're not talking about the case, unless there's some metaphorical thing going on that I don't know about. Second of all, your position on this case seems to be in doubt, at least if you believe the editorial in the Sterling News today."

  "There's an editorial about me today?" Alex said, stunned. "What does it say?"

  "Well, I'd tell you, but that would be talking about the case, wouldn't it?" He grinned and started to walk off.

  "Hang on," Alex said, calling after the detective. When he turned, she glanced around to make sure that they were alone in the parking lot. "Can I ask you something? Off the record?"

  He nodded slowly.

  "Did Josie seem . . . I don't know . . . all right to you, when you talked to her the other day?"

  The detective leaned against the brick wall of the court building. "You certainly know her better than I do."

  "Well . . . sure," Alex said. "I just thought she might say something to you--as a stranger--that she wasn't willing to say to me." She looked down at the ground between them. "Sometimes it's easier that way."

  She could feel Patrick's eyes on her, but she couldn't quite muster the courage to meet them. "Can I tell you something? Off the record?"

  Alex nodded.

  "Before I took this job, I used to work in Maine. And I had a case that wasn't just a case, if you know what I mean."

  Alex did. She found herself listening in his voice for a note she hadn't heard before--a low one that resonated with anguish, like a tuning fork that never stopped its vibration. "There was a woman there who meant everything to me, and she had a little boy who meant everything to her. And when he was hurt, in a way a kid never should be, I moved heaven and earth to work that case, because I thought no one could possibly do a better job than I could. No one could possibly care more about the outcome." He looked directly at Alex. "I was so sure I could separate how I felt about what had happened from how I had to do my job."

  Alex swallowed, dry as dust. "And did you?"

  "No. Because when you love someone, no matter what you tell yourself, it stops being a job."

  "What does it become?"

  Patrick thought for a moment. "Revenge."

  *

  One morning, when Lewis had told Lacy he was headed to visit Peter at the jail, she got in her car and followed him. In the days since Peter had confessed that his father didn't come to see him, through the arraignment and afterward, Lacy had kept this secret hidden. She spoke less and less to Lewis, because she feared that once she opened her mouth, it would escape like a hurricane.

  Lacy was careful to keep one car between hers and Lewis's. It made her think of a lifetime ago, when they had been dating, and she would follow Lewis to his apartment or he would follow her. They'd play games with each other, waving the rear windshield wiper like a dog wags its tail, flashing headlights in Morse code.

  He drove north, as if he was going to the jail, and for a moment Lacy had a crisis of doubt: would Peter have lied to her, for some reason? She didn't think so. But then again, she hadn't thought Lewis would, either.

  It started to rain just as they reached the green in Lyme Center. Lewis signaled and turned into a small parking lot with a bank, an artist's studio, a flower shop. She couldn't pull in behind him--he'd recognize her car right
away--so instead she drove into the lot of the hardware store next door and parked behind the building.

  Maybe he needs the ATM, Lacy thought, but she got out of her car and hid behind the oil tanks to watch Lewis enter a floral shop, and leave five minutes later with a bouquet of pink roses.

  All the breath left her body. Was he having an affair? She had never considered the possibility that things could get even worse, that their small family unit could fracture further.

  Lacy stumbled into her car and managed to follow Lewis. It was true, she had been obsessed with Peter's trial. And maybe she had been guilty of not listening to Lewis when he needed to talk, because nothing he had to say about economics seminars or publications or current events really seemed to matter anymore, not when her son was sitting in jail. But Lewis? She'd always imagined herself as the free spirit in their union; she'd seen him as the anchor. Security was a mirage; being tied down hardly counted when the other end of the rope had unraveled.

  She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Lewis would tell her, of course, that it was only sex, not love. That it didn't mean anything. He would say that there were all sorts of ways that people dealt with grief, with a hole in the heart.

  Lewis put on his blinker again and turned right--this time, into a cemetery.

  A slow burn started inside Lacy's chest. Well, this was just sick. Was this where he met her?

  Lewis got out of the car, carrying his roses but no umbrella. The rain was coming down harder now, but Lacy was intent on seeing this through to the end. She stayed just far enough behind, following him to a newer section of the cemetery, the one with the freshest graves. There weren't even headstones yet; the plots looked like a patchwork: brown earth against the green of the clipped lawn.

  At the first grave, Lewis knelt and placed a rose on the soil. Then he moved to another one, doing the same. And another, and another, until his hair was dripping into his face; until his shirt was soaked through; until he'd left behind ten flowers.

  Lacy came up behind him as he was placing the last rose. "I know you're there," he said, although he didn't turn around.

  She could barely speak: the understanding that Lewis was not, in fact, cheating on her had been tempered by the knowledge of what he was actually spending his time doing these days. She couldn't tell if she was crying anymore, or if the sky was doing it for her. "How dare you come here," she accused, "and not visit your own son?"

 
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