Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "Jordan?" she said. "Do you ever worry about our kids? I mean . . . you know. Doing what you do . . . and seeing what we see?"

  He rolled onto his back. "Well," he said. "That certainly killed the moment."

  "I'm serious."

  Jordan sighed. "Of course I think about it. I worry about Thomas. And Sam. And whoever else might come along." He came up on an elbow so that he could find her eyes in the dark. "But then I figure that's the reason we had them."

  "How so?"

  He looked over Selena's shoulder, to the blinking green eye of the baby monitor. "Maybe," Jordan said, "they're the ones who'll change the world."

  *

  Whit hadn't really made up Alex's mind for her; that had already been done when she met him for dinner. But he'd been the salve she needed for her wounds, the justification she was afraid to give herself. You'll get another big case, eventually, he had said. You won't get back this moment with Josie.

  She walked into chambers briskly, mostly because she knew that this was the easy part. Divorcing herself from the case, writing the motion to recuse herself--that was not nearly as terrifying as what would happen tomorrow, when she was no longer the judge on the Houghton case.

  When, instead, she had to be a mother.

  Eleanor was nowhere to be found, but she'd left Alex the paperwork on her desk. She sat down and scanned it.

  Jordan McAfee, who yesterday hadn't even opened his mouth at the hearing, was noticing up his intention to call Josie as a witness.

  She felt a fire spark in her belly. It was an emotion Alex didn't even have words for--the animal instinct that came when you realized someone you love has been taken hostage.

  McAfee had committed the grievous sin of dragging Josie into this, and Alex's mind spiraled wildly as she wondered what she could do to get him fired, or even disbarred. Come to think of it, she didn't even really care if retribution came within the confines of the law or outside it. But suddenly, Alex stilled. It wasn't Jordan McAfee she'd chase to the ends of the earth--it was Josie. She'd do anything to keep her daughter from being hurt again.

  Maybe she should thank Jordan McAfee for making her realize that she already had the raw material in her to be a good mother, after all.

  Alex sat down at her laptop and began to type. Her heart was hammering as she walked out to the clerk's desk and handed the sheet of paper to Eleanor; but that was normal, wasn't it, when you were about to leap off a cliff?

  "You need to call Judge Wagner," Alex said.

  *

  It wasn't Patrick who needed the search warrant. But when he heard another officer talking about swinging by the courthouse, he interceded. "I'm headed out that way," he'd said. "I'll do it for you."

  In truth, he hadn't been heading toward the courthouse, at least not until he'd volunteered. And he wasn't such a Samaritan that he'd drive forty miles out of the goodness of his heart. Patrick wanted to go there for one reason only: it was another excuse to see Alex Cormier.

  He pulled into an empty spot and got out of his car, immediately spotting her Honda. This was a good thing; for all he knew, she might not even have been in court today. But then he did a double take as he realized that someone was in the car . . . and that that someone was the judge.

  She wasn't moving, just staring out the windshield. The wipers were on, but it wasn't raining. It looked like she didn't even realize she was crying.

  He felt that same uneasy sway in the pit of his stomach that usually came when he'd reached a crime scene and saw a victim's tears. I'm too late, he thought. Again.

  Patrick approached the car, but the judge must not have seen him coming. When he knocked on the window, she jumped a foot and hurriedly wiped her eyes. He mimed for her to roll down the window. "Everything okay?" he asked.

  "I'm fine."

  "You don't look fine."

  "Then stop looking," she snapped.

  He hooked his fingers over the curl of the car door. "Listen. You want to go somewhere and talk? I'll buy you coffee."

  The judge sighed. "You can't buy me coffee."

  "Well, we can still get some." He stood up and walked around to the passenger door, opened it, slid into the seat beside her.

  "You're on duty," she pointed out.

  "I'm taking my lunch break."

  "At ten in the morning?"

  He reached across the console to the keys, dangling in the ignition, and started the car. "Head out of the parking lot and take a left, all right?"

  "Or what?"

  "For God's sake, don't you know better than to argue with someone who's wearing a Glock?"

  She looked at him for a long moment. "You couldn't possibly be carjacking me," the judge said, but she started driving, as he'd asked.

  "Remind me to arrest myself later," Patrick said.

  *

  Alex had been raised by her father to give everything her best shot, and apparently, that included falling off the deep end. Why not recuse herself from the biggest trial of her career, ask for administrative leave, and go out for coffee with the detective on the case all in one fell swoop?

  Then again, she told herself, if she hadn't gone out with Patrick Ducharme, she would never have known that the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant opened for business at 10:00 a.m.

  If she hadn't gone out with him, she would have had to drive home and start her life over.

  Everyone at the restaurant seemed to know the detective and didn't mind him going into the kitchen to get Alex her cup of coffee. "What you saw back there," Alex said hesitantly. "You won't . . ."

  "Tell anyone you were having a little breakdown in your car?"

  She looked down at the mug he set in front of her, not even really knowing how to respond. In her experience, the moment you showed you were weak in front of someone, they'd use it against you. "It's hard to be a judge sometimes. People expect you to act like one, even when you've got the flu and feel like crawling up into a ball and dying, or cursing out the cashier who shortchanged you on purpose. There's not a lot of room for mistakes."

  "Your secret's safe," Patrick said. "I won't tell anyone in the law enforcement community that you've actually got emotions."

  Alex took a sip of the coffee, then looked up at him. "Sugar?"

  Patrick folded his arms on the bar and leaned toward her. "Darling?" At her expression, he started to laugh, and then handed her the bowl. "Honestly, it's no big deal. We all have lousy days at work."

  "Do you sit in your car and cry?"

  "Not recently, but I have been known to overturn evidence lockers during fits of frustration." He poured milk into a creamer and set it down. "You know, it's not mutually exclusive."

  "What's not?"

  "Being a judge and being human."

  Alex added the milk to her mug. "Tell that to everyone who wants me to recuse myself."

  "Isn't this the part where you tell me we can't talk about the case?"

  "Yes," Alex said. "Except I'm not on the case anymore. As of noon, it'll be public knowledge."

  He sobered. "Is that why you were upset?"

  "No. I'd already made the decision to leave the case. But then I got word that Josie's on the witness list for the defense."

  "Why?" Patrick said. "She doesn't remember anything. What could she possibly say?"

  "I don't know." Alex glanced up. "But what if it's my fault? What if the lawyer only did that to get me off the case because I was too stubborn to recuse myself when the issue was first raised?" To her great shame, she realized she was starting to cry again, and she stared down at the bar in the hope that Patrick would not notice. "What if she has to get up in front of everyone in court and relive that whole day?" Patrick passed her a cocktail napkin, and she wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually like this."

  "Any mother whose daughter came that close to dying has a right to fall apart at the seams," Patrick said. "Look. I've talked to Josie twice. I know her statement back and forth. It doesn't matter if McAfee puts her on the stand--t
here's nothing she can say that's going to hurt her. The silver lining is that now you don't have to worry about a conflict of interest. Josie needs a good mother right now more than she needs a good judge."

  Alex smiled ruefully. "What a shame she's stuck with me instead."

  "Come on."

  "It's true. My whole life with Josie has been a series of disconnects."

  "Well," Patrick pointed out, "that presumes that at one point, you were connected."

  "Neither of us remembers back that far. You've had better conversations with Josie than I have lately." Alex stared into the mug of coffee. "Everything I say to Josie comes out wrong. She looks at me like I'm from another planet. Like I have no right to act like a concerned parent now because I wasn't acting like one before it happened."

  "Why weren't you?"

  "I was working. Hard," Alex said.

  "Lots of parents work hard--"

  "But I'm good at being a judge. And lousy at being a mother." Alex covered her mouth with her hand, but it was too late to take back the truth, which coiled on the bar in front of her, poisonous. What had she been thinking, confessing that to someone when she could barely admit it to herself? She might as well have drawn a bull's-eye on her Achilles' heel.

  "Maybe you should try talking to Josie the way you talk to the people who come into your court, then," Patrick suggested.

  "She hates it when I act like a lawyer. Besides, I hardly talk in court. Mostly, I listen."

  "Well, Your Honor," Patrick said. "That might work, too."

  Once, when Josie had been a baby, Alex let her out of her sight long enough for Josie to climb up on a stool. From across the room, Alex watched in terror as Josie's slight weight upset the balance. She couldn't get there fast enough to keep Josie from falling; she didn't want to yell out, because she was afraid that if she startled Josie, that would make her fall, too. So Alex had stood, waiting for an accident to happen.

  But instead, Josie managed to perch herself on the stool; to stand up on its little disc seat; to reach the light switch she'd been heading for all along. Alex watched her flick the lights on and off, watched her face split with a smile every time she realized that her actions could transform the world.

  "Since we're not in court," she said hesitantly, "I'd like it if you called me Alex."

  Patrick smiled. "And I'd like it if you called me Your Majesty King Kamehameha."

  Alex couldn't help herself; she laughed.

  "But if that's too hard to remember, Patrick would be fine." He reached for the coffeepot and poured some into her mug. "Free refills," he said.

  She watched him add sugar and cream, in the same quantities that she'd used for her first cup. He was a detective; his job was to notice details. But Alex thought that probably wasn't what made him such a good cop. It was that he had the capacity to use force, like any other police officer--but instead, he'd trap you with kindness.

  That, Alex knew, was always more deadly.

  *

  It wasn't something he'd put on his resume, but Jordan was especially gifted at cutting the rug to Wiggles songs. His personal favorite was "Hot Potato," but the one that really got Sam jazzed up was "Fruit Salad." While Selena was upstairs taking a hot bath, Jordan put on the DVD--she was opposed to bombarding Sam with media, and didn't want him to be able to spell D-O-R-O-T-H-Y, as in Dinosaur, before he could even write his own name. Selena always wanted Jordan to be doing something else with the baby, like memorizing Shakespeare or solving differential equations--but Jordan was a big believer in letting the television do its job in turning one's brain into porridge . . . at least long enough to get one good, silly tango session out of it.

  Babies were always just the right weight, so that when you finally put them down, you felt like something was missing. "Fruit salad . . . yummy yummy!" Jordan crooned, whirling around until Sam opened his mouth and let a peal of giggles ribbon out.

  The doorbell rang, and Jordan sashayed himself and his tiny partner through the entryway to answer it. Harmonizing--sort of--with Jeff, Murray, Greg, and Anthony in the background, Jordan opened the door. "Let's make some fruit salad today," he sang, and then he saw who was standing on his porch. "Judge Cormier!"

  "Sorry to interrupt."

  He already knew that she'd recused herself from the case--that happy announcement had been passed down this afternoon. "No, that's fine. Come on . . . in." Jordan glanced back at the trail of toys that he and Sam had left in their wake (he had to clean those up before Selena came back downstairs, too). Kicking as many as he could behind the couch, he led the judge into his living room and switched off the DVD.

  "This must be your son."

  "Yeah." Jordan looked down at the baby, who was in the process of deciding whether or not to throw a fit now that the music had been turned off. "Sam."

  She reached out, letting Sam curl his hand around her forefinger. Sam could charm the pants off Hitler, probably, but seeing him only seemed to make Judge Cormier more agitated. "Why did you put my daughter on your witness list?"

  Ah.

  "Because," Jordan said, "Josie and Peter used to be friends, and I may need her as a character witness."

  "They were friends ten years ago. Be honest. You did this to get me off the case."

  Jordan hefted Sam higher on his hip. "Your Honor, with all due respect, I'm not going to allow anyone to try this case for me. Especially not a judge who isn't even involved in it anymore."

  He watched something flare behind her eyes. "Of course not," she said tightly, and then she turned on her heel and walked out.

  *

  Ask a random kid today if she wants to be popular and she'll tell you no, even if the truth is that if she was in a desert dying of thirst and had the choice between a glass of water and instant popularity, she'd probably choose the latter.

  *

  As soon as she heard the knock, Josie took her notebook and shoved it between the mattress and the box spring, which had to be the world's lamest hiding spot.

  Her mother stepped inside the bedroom, and for a second, Josie couldn't put her finger on what wasn't quite right. Then she figured it out: it wasn't dark out yet. Usually by the time her mother got home from court, it was dinnertime--but now it was only 3:45; Josie had barely gotten home from school.

  "I have to talk to you," her mother said, sitting down beside her on the comforter. "I took myself off the case today."

  Josie stared at her. In her whole life, she'd never known her mother to back down from any legal challenge; plus, hadn't they just had a conversation about the fact that she wasn't recusing herself?

  She felt that sick sinking that came when the teacher called on her and she hadn't been paying attention. What had her mother found out that she hadn't known days ago?

  "What happened?" Josie asked, and she hoped her mother wasn't paying attention enough to hear the way her voice was jumping all over the place.

  "Well, that's the other thing I need to talk to you about," her mother said. "The defense put you on their witness list. They may ask you to go to court."

  "What?" Josie cried, and for just one moment, everything stopped: her breath, her heart, her courage. "I can't go to court, Mom," she said. "Don't make me. Please . . ."

  Her mother reached out for her, which was a good thing, because Josie was certain that at any second, she was going to simply vanish. Sublimation, she thought, the act of going from solid to vapor. And then she realized that this term was one she'd studied for the science test she'd never had because of everything else that had happened.

  "I've been talking to the detective, and I know you don't remember anything. The only reason you're even on that list is because you used to be friends with Peter a long, long time ago."

  Josie drew back. "Do you swear that I won't have to go to court?"

  Her mother hesitated. "Honey, I can't--"

  "You have to!"

  "What if we go talk to the defense attorney?" her mother said.

  "What good
would that do?"

  "Well, if he sees how upset this is making you, he might think twice about using you as a witness at all."

  Josie lay down on her bed. For a few moments, her mother stroked her hair. Josie thought she heard her whisper I'm sorry, and then she got up and closed the door behind her.

  "Matt," Josie whispered, as if he could hear her; as if he could answer.

  Matt. She drew in his name like oxygen and imagined it breaking into a thousand tiny pieces, funneling into her red blood cells, beating through her heart.

  *

  Peter snapped a pencil in half and stuck the eraser end into his corn bread. "Happy birthday to me," he sang under his breath. He didn't finish the song; what was the point when you already knew where it was heading?

  "Hey, Houghton," a correctional officer said, "we got a present for you."

  Standing behind him was a kid not much older than Peter. He was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet and he had snot running down his nose. The officer led him into the cell. "Make sure you share your cake," the officer said.

  Peter sat down on the lower bunk, just to let this kid know exactly who was in charge. The boy stood with his arms crossed tight around the blanket he'd been given, staring down at the ground. He reached up and pushed his glasses up his nose, and that's when Peter realized there was something, well, wrong with him. He had that glassy-eyed, gum-lipped look of a special-needs kid.

  Peter realized why they'd stuck the kid in his cell instead of anyone else's: they figured Peter would be least likely to fuck with him.

  He felt his hands ball into fists. "Hey, you," Peter said.

  The boy swiveled his head toward Peter. "I have a dog," he said. "Do you have a dog?"

  Peter pictured the correctional officers watching this comedy through their little video hookups, expecting Peter to put up with this shit.

  Expecting something of him, period.

  He reached forward and plucked the glasses off the kid's nose. They were Coke-bottle-thick, with black plastic frames. The boy started to shriek, grabbing at his own face. His scream sounded like an air horn.

  Peter put the glasses down on the floor and stomped on them, but in his rubber flip-flops that didn't do much damage. So he picked them up and smashed them into the bars of the cell until the glass shattered.

 
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