Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  He lifted his face to hers. "Do you know what chaos theory is?"

  "I don't give a fuck about chaos theory, Lewis. I care about Peter. Which is more than I can say for--"

  "There's this belief," he interrupted, "that you can explain only the last moment in time, linearly . . . but that everything leading up to it might have come from any series of events. So, you know, a kid skips a stone at the beach, and somewhere across the planet, a tsunami happens." Lewis stood up, his hands in his pockets. "I took him hunting, Lacy. I told him to stick with the sport, even if he didn't like it. I said a thousand things. What if one of them was what made Peter do this?"

  He doubled over, sobbing. As Lacy reached for him, the rain drummed over her shoulders and back.

  "We did the best we could," Lacy said.

  "It wasn't good enough." Lewis jerked his head in the direction of the graves. "Look at this. Look at this."

  Lacy did. Through the driving downpour, with her hair and clothes plastered to her, she took stock of the graveyard and saw the faces of the children who would still be alive, if her own son had never been born.

  Lacy put her hand over her abdomen. The pain cut her in half, like a magician's trick, except she knew she would never really be put back together.

  One of her sons had been doing drugs. The other was a murderer. Had she and Lewis been the wrong parents for the boys they'd had? Or should they never have been parents at all?

  Children didn't make their own mistakes. They plunged into the pits they'd been led to by their parents. She and Lewis had truly believed they were headed the right way, but maybe they should have stopped to ask for directions. Maybe then they would never have had to watch Joey--and then Peter--take that one tragic step and free-fall.

  Lacy remembered holding Joey's grades up against Peter's; telling Peter that maybe he should try out for soccer, because Joey had enjoyed it so much. Acceptance started at home, but so did intolerance. By the time Peter had been excluded at school, Lacy realized, he was used to feeling like an outcast in his own family.

  Lacy squeezed her eyes shut. For the rest of her life, she'd be known as Peter Houghton's mother. At one point, that would have thrilled her--but you had to be careful what you wished for. Taking credit for what a child did well also meant accepting responsibility for what they did wrong. And to Lacy, that meant that instead of making reparations to these victims, she and Lewis needed to start closer to home--with Peter.

  "He needs us," Lacy said. "More than ever."

  Lewis shook his head. "I can't go to see Peter."

  She drew away. "Why?"

  "Because I still think, every day, of the drunk who crashed into Joey's car. I think of how much I wished he'd died instead of Joey; how he deserved to die. The parents of every one of these kids is thinking the same thing about Peter," Lewis said. "And Lacy . . . I don't blame a single one of them."

  Lacy stepped back, shivering. Lewis wadded up the paper cone that had held the flowers and stuffed it into his pocket. The rain fell between them like a curtain, making it impossible for them to see each other clearly.

  *

  Jordan waited at a pizza place near the jail for King Wah to arrive after his psychiatric interview with Peter. He was ten minutes late, and Jordan wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

  King blew through the door on a gust of wind, his raincoat billowing out behind him. He slid into the booth where Jordan was sitting and picked up a slice of pizza on Jordan's plate. "You can do this," he pronounced, and he took a bite. "Psychologically, there isn't a significant difference between the treatment of a victim of bullying over time and the treatment of an adult female in battered woman syndrome. The bottom line for both is post-traumatic stress disorder." He put the crust back on Jordan's plate. "You know what Peter told me?"

  Jordan thought about his client for a moment. "That it sucks being in jail?"

  "Well, they all say that. He told me that he would rather have died than spend another day thinking about what could happen to him at school. Who does that sound like?"

  "Katie Riccobono," Jordan said. "After she decided to give her husband a triple bypass with a steak knife."

  "Katie Riccobono," King corrected, "poster child for battered woman syndrome."

  "So Peter becomes the first example of bullied victim syndrome," Jordan said. "Be honest with me, King. You think a jury is going to identify with a syndrome that doesn't even really exist?"

  "A jury's not made up of battered women, but they've been known to acquit them before. On the other hand, every single member of that jury will have been through high school." He reached for Jordan's Coke and took a sip. "Did you know that a single incident of bullying in childhood can be as traumatic to a person, over time, as a single incident of sexual abuse?"

  "You gotta be kidding me."

  "Think about it. The common denominator is being humiliated. What's the strongest memory you have from high school?"

  Jordan had to think for a moment before any memory of high school even clouded its way into his mind, much less a salient one. Then he started to grin. "I was in Phys. Ed., and doing a fitness test. Part of it involved climbing a rope that was hung from the ceiling. In high school, I didn't have quite the massive physique I have now--"

  King snorted. "Naturally."

  "--so I was already worried about not making it to the top. As it turned out, that wasn't a problem. It was coming back down, because climbing up with the rope between my legs, I got a massive boner."

  "There you go," King said. "Ask ten people, and half of them won't even be able to remember something concrete from high school--they've blocked it out. The other half will recall an incredibly painful or embarrassing moment. They stick like glue."

  "That is incredibly depressing," Jordan pointed out.

  "Well, most of us grow up and realize that in the grand scheme of life, these incidents are a tiny part of the puzzle."

  "And the ones who don't?"

  King glanced at Jordan. "They turn out like Peter."

  *

  The reason Alex was in Josie's closet in the first place was because Josie had borrowed her black skirt and never returned it, and Alex needed it tonight. She was meeting someone for dinner--Whit Hobart--her former boss, who'd retired from the public defender's office. After today's hearing, where the prosecution had made its motion to have her recused, she needed some advice.

  She'd found the skirt, but she'd also found a trove of treasures. Alex sat on the floor with a box open in her lap. The fringe of Josie's old jazz costume, from lessons she'd taken when she was six or seven, fell into her palm like a whisper. The silk was cool to the touch. It was puddled on top of a faux fur tiger costume that Josie had worn one Halloween and kept for dress-up--Alex's first and last foray into sewing. Halfway through, she'd given up and soldered the fabric together with a hot glue gun. Alex had planned to take Josie trick-or-treating that year, but she'd been a public defender at the time, and one of her clients had been arrested again. Josie had gone out with the neighbor and her children; and that night, when Alex finally got home, Josie had spilled her pillowcase of candy on the bed. You can take half, Josie told her, because you missed all the fun.

  She thumbed through the atlas Josie had made in first grade, coloring every continent and then laminating the pages; she read her report cards. She found a hair elastic and looped it around her wrist. At the bottom of the box was a note, written in the loopy script of a little girl: Deer Mom I love you a lot XOXO.

  Alex let her fingers trace the letters. She wondered why Josie still had this in her possession; why it had never been given to its addressee. Had Josie been waiting, and forgotten? Had she been angry at Alex for something and decided not to give it at all?

  Alex stood, then carefully put the box back where she'd found it. She folded the black skirt over her arm and headed toward her own bedroom. Most parents, she knew, went through their child's things in search of condoms and baggies of pot, to try t
o catch them in the act. For Alex, it was different. For Alex, going through Josie's possessions was a way of holding on to everything she'd missed.

  *

  The sad truth about being single was that Patrick couldn't justify going to all the bother to cook for himself. He ate most of his meals standing over the sink, so what was the point of making a mess with dozens of pots and pans and fresh ingredients? It wasn't as if he was going to turn to himself and say, Patrick, great recipe, where'd you find it?

  He had it down to a science, really. Monday was pizza night. Tuesday, Subway. Wednesday was Chinese; Thursday, soup; and Friday, he got a burger at the bar where he usually grabbed a beer before heading home. Weekends were for leftovers, and there were always plenty. Sometimes, it got downright lonely ordering (was there any sadder phrase in the English language than Pupu platter for one?), but for the most part, his routine had netted him a collection of friends. Sal at the pizza place gave him garlic knots for free, because he was a regular. The Subway guy, whose name Patrick didn't know, would point at him and grin. "Hearty-Italian-turkey-cheese-mayo-olives-extra-pickles-salt-and-pepper," he'd call out, the verbal equivalent of their secret handshake.

  This being a Wednesday, he was at the Golden Dragon, waiting for his take-out order to be filled. He watched May ferry it into the kitchen (where on earth did someone buy a wok that big, he always wondered) and turned his attention to the television over the bar, where the Sox game was just beginning. A woman was sitting alone, tearing a fringe around the edge of a cocktail napkin as she waited for the bartender to bring her her drink.

  She had her back to him, but Patrick was a detective, and there were certain things he could figure out just from this side of her. Like the fact that she had a great ass, for one, and that her hair needed to be taken out of that librarian's bun so that it could wave around her shoulders. He watched the bartender (a Korean named Spike, which always struck Patrick as funny after the first Tsingtao) opening up a bottle of pinot noir, and he filed away this information, too: she was classy. Nothing with a little paper umbrella in it, not for her.

  He sidled up behind the woman and handed Spike a twenty. "My treat," Patrick said.

  She turned, and for a fraction of a second, Patrick stood rooted to the spot, wondering how this mystery woman could possibly have Judge Cormier's face.

  It reminded Patrick of being in high school and seeing a friend's mom from a distance across a parking lot and automatically checking her out as a Potential Hot Babe until he realized who it actually was. The judge plucked the twenty-dollar bill out of Spike's hand and gave it back to Patrick. "You can't buy me a drink," she said, and she pulled some cash out of her pocketbook and handed it to the bartender.

  Patrick sat down on the stool beside her. "Well, then," he said. "You can buy me one."

  "I don't think so." She glanced around the restaurant. "I really don't think we ought to be seen talking."

  "The only witnesses are the koi in the pond by the cash register. I think you're safe," Patrick said. "Besides, we're just talking. We're not talking about the case. You do still remember how to make conversation outside a courtroom, don't you?"

  She picked up her glass of wine. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

  Patrick lowered his voice. "I'm running a drug bust on the Chinese mafia. They import raw opium in the sugar packets."

  Her eyes widened. "Honestly?"

  "No. And would I tell you if it were true?" He smiled. "I'm just waiting for my take-out order. What about you?"

  "I'm waiting for someone."

  He didn't realize, until she'd said it, that he'd been enjoying her company. He got a kick out of flustering her, which, truthfully, wasn't really all that hard. Judge Cormier reminded him of the Great and Powerful Oz: all bluster and bells and whistles, but when you pulled back the curtain, she was just an ordinary woman.

  Who happened to have a great ass.

  He felt heat rise to his face. "Happy family," Patrick said.

  "Excuse me?"

  "That's what I ordered. I was just trying to help you out with that casual conversation thing again."

  "You only got one dish? No one goes to a Chinese restaurant and only gets one dish."

  "Well, not all of us have growing kids at home."

  She traced the lip of her wineglass with one finger. "You don't have any?"

  "Never married."

  "Why not?"

  Patrick shook his head, smiling faintly. "I'm not getting into that."

  "Boy," the judge said. "She must have done a job on you."

  His jaw dropped open. Was he really that easy to read?

  "Guess you haven't cornered the market on those amazing detective skills," she said, laughing. "Except we call it women's intuition."

  "Yeah, that'll get you your gold shield in no time." He glanced at her ringless hand. "Why aren't you married?"

  The judge repeated his own answer. "I'm not getting into that."

  She sipped her wine in silence for a moment, and Patrick tapped his fingers on the wood of the bar. "She was already married," he admitted.

  The judge set her glass down, empty. "So was he," she confessed, and when Patrick turned to her, she looked him right in the eye.

  Hers were the pale gray that made you think of nightfall and silver bullets and the edge of winter. The color that filled the sky before it was torn in half by lightning.

  Patrick had never noticed this before, and suddenly he realized why. "You're not wearing glasses."

  "I sure am glad to know Sterling's got someone as sharp as you protecting and serving them."

  "You usually wear glasses."

  "Only when I'm working. I need them to read."

  And when I usually see you, you're working.

  That was why he hadn't noticed before that Alex Cormier was attractive: before this, when they crossed paths, she was in full buttoned-up judge mode. She had not been curled over the bar like a hothouse flower. She had not been quite so . . . human.

  "Alex!" The voice came from behind them. The man was spiffy, in a good suit and wingtips, with just enough gray hair at his temples to look distinguished. He had lawyer written all over him. He was no doubt rich and divorced; the kind of guy who would sit up at night and talk about penal code before making love; the kind of guy who slept on his side of the bed instead of with his arms wrapped so tight around her that even after falling asleep, they stayed tangled.

  Jesus Christ, Patrick thought, looking down at the ground. Where did that come from?

  What did he care who Alex Cormier dated, even if the guy was practically old enough to be her father?

  "Whit," she said, "I'm so glad you could come." She kissed him on the cheek and then, still holding his hand, turned to Patrick. "Whit, this is Detective Patrick Ducharme. Patrick, Whit Hobart."

  The man had a good handshake, which only pissed Patrick off even more. Patrick waited to see what else the judge was going to say about him by way of introduction. But then, what options did she have? Patrick wasn't an old friend. He wasn't someone she'd met sitting at the bar. She couldn't even say that they were both involved with the Houghton trial, because in that case, he shouldn't have been talking to her.

  Which, Patrick realized, is what she'd been trying to tell him all along.

  May appeared from the kitchen, holding a paper bag folded and neatly stapled. "Here you go, Pat," she said. "We see you next week, okay?"

  He could feel the judge staring. "Happy family," she said, offering a consolation prize, the smallest of smiles.

  "Nice seeing you, Your Honor," Patrick said politely. He threw the door of the restaurant open so hard that it banged on its hinges against the outside wall. He was halfway to his car when he realized he wasn't even really hungry anymore.

  *

  The lead story on the local news at 11:00 p.m. was the hearing at the superior court to get Judge Cormier removed from the case. Jordan and Selena sat in bed in the dark, each with a bowl of cereal balanced on
their stomachs, watching the tearful mother of a paraplegic girl cry into the television camera. "No one's speaking for our children," she said. "If this case gets messed up because of some legal snafu . . . well, they aren't strong enough to go through it twice."

  "Neither's Peter," Jordan pointed out.

  Selena put down her spoon. "Cormier's gonna sit on that case if she has to crawl her way to the bench."

  "Well, I can't very well get someone to gilhooly her kneecaps, can I?"

  "Let's look at the bright side," Selena said. "Nothing in Josie's statement can hurt Peter."

  "My God, you're right." Jordan sat up so quickly that he sloshed milk onto the quilt. He set his bowl on the nightstand. "It's brilliant."

  "What is?"

  "Diana's not calling Josie as a witness for the prosecution, because she's got nothing they can use. But there's nothing to stop me from calling her as a witness for the defense."

  "Are you kidding? You're going to put the judge's daughter on your witness list?"

  "Why not? She used to be Peter's friend. He's got precious few of them. It's all in good faith."

  "You wouldn't really--"

  "Nah, I'm sure I'll never use her. But the prosecutor doesn't need to know that." He grinned at Diana. "And incidentally . . . neither does the judge."

  Selena set her bowl aside, too. "If you put Josie on your witness list . . . Cormier has to step down."

  "Exactly."

  Selena reached forward, bracketing his face with her palms to plant a kiss on his lips. "You're awfully good."

  "What was that?"

  "You heard me the first time."

  "I know," Jordan grinned, "but I wouldn't mind hearing it again."

  The quilt slipped down as he wrapped his arms around her. "Greedy li'l thing, aren't you," Selena murmured.

  "Isn't that what made you fall in love with me?"

  Selena laughed. "Well, it wasn't your charm and grace, honey."

  Jordan leaned over her, kissing Selena until--he hoped--she had forgotten she was in the throes of making fun of him. "Let's have another baby," he whispered.

  "I'm still nursing the first one!"

  "Then let's practice having another one."

  There was no one in the world quite like his wife, Jordan thought--statuesque and stunning, smarter than he was (not that he'd ever admit it to her face), and so perfectly attuned to him that he nearly had to concede his skepticism and believe that psychics truly did walk among us. He buried his face in the spot he loved best on Selena: the part where the nape of her neck ran into her shoulder, where her skin was the color of maple syrup and tasted even sweeter.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]