Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  By then the officers had arrived to pull Peter away from the kid, not that he was touching him anyway. They handcuffed him as the other inmates cheered him on. He was dragged down the hall to the superintendent's office.

  He sat hunched in a chair, with a guard watching him breathe, until the superintendent came in. "What was that all about, Peter?"

  "It's my birthday," Peter said. "I just wanted to be alone for it."

  The funny thing, he realized, was that before the shooting, he'd believed that the best thing in the world was being left alone, so nobody could tell him he didn't fit in. But as it turned out--not that he was about to tell the superintendent this--he didn't much like himself, either.

  The superintendent started to talk about disciplinary action; how this could affect him in the event of a conviction, what few privileges were left to be taken away. Peter deliberately tuned him out.

  He thought instead of how angry the rest of the pod would be when this incident cost them television for a week.

  He thought of Jordan's bullied victim syndrome and wondered if he believed it; if anyone would.

  He thought of how nobody who saw him in jail--not his mother, not his lawyer--ever said what they should: that Peter would be imprisoned forever, that he'd die in a cell that looked just like this one.

  He thought of how he would rather end his life with a bullet.

  He thought of how at night, you could hear the wings of bats beating in the cement corners of the jail, and screams. No one was stupid enough to cry.

  *

  At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, when Jordan opened the door, he was still wearing pajama bottoms. "You've got to be kidding," he said.

  Judge Cormier pasted on a smile. "I'm really sorry we got off on the wrong foot," she said. "But you know how it is when it's your child who's in trouble . . . you just can't think straight." She stood arm in arm with the mini-me standing beside her. Josie Cormier, Jordan thought, scrutinizing the girl who was shaking like an aspen leaf. She had chestnut hair that hit her shoulders, and blue eyes that wouldn't meet his.

  "Josie is really scared," the judge said. "I wondered if we could sit down for a minute . . . maybe you could put her at ease about being a witness. Hear whether or not what she knows will even help your case."

  "Jordan? Who is it?"

  He turned around to find Selena standing in the entryway, holding on to Sam. She was wearing flannel pajamas, which might or might not have been one step more formal.

  "Judge Cormier was wondering if we could talk to Josie about her testimony," he said pointedly, trying desperately to telegraph to Selena that he was in deep trouble--since they all knew, with the exception perhaps of Josie, that the only reason he'd noticed up his intent to use her was to get Cormier off the case.

  Jordan turned toward the judge again. "You see, I'm not really at that stage of planning yet."

  "Surely you have some idea of what you're after if you call her as a witness . . . or you wouldn't have put her on the list," Alex pointed out.

  "Why don't you ring my secretary, and make an appointment--"

  "I was thinking of now," Judge Cormier said. "Please. I'm not here as a judge. Just as a mother."

  Selena stepped forward. "You come right on in," she said, using her free arm to circle Josie's shoulders. "You must be Josie, right? This here's Sam."

  Josie smiled shyly at the baby. "Hi, Sam."

  "Baby, why don't you get the judge some coffee or juice?"

  Jordan stared at his wife, wondering what the hell she was up to now. "Right. Why don't you come on in?"

  Thankfully, the house looked nothing like it had the first time Cormier had showed up unannounced: there were no dishes in the sink; no papers cluttered the tables; toys were mysteriously missing. What could Jordan say--his wife was a neat freak. He pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table and offered it to Josie, then did the same for the judge. "How do you take your coffee?" he asked.

  "Oh, we're fine," she said. She reached under the table for her daughter's hand.

  "Sam and I, we're just going into the living room to play," Selena said.

  "Why don't you stay?" He gave her a measured glance, one that begged her not to leave him alone to be eviscerated.

  "You don't need us distracting you," Selena said, and she took the baby away.

  Jordan sat down heavily across from the Cormiers. He was good at thinking on his feet; surely he could suffer through this. "Well," he said, "it really isn't anything to be scared of at all. I was just going to ask you some basic questions about your friendship with Peter."

  "We're not friends," Josie said.

  "Yes, I know that. But you used to be. I'm interested in the first time you met him."

  Josie glanced at Alex. "Around nursery school, or maybe before."

  "Okay. Did you play at your house? His?"

  "Both."

  "Did you have other friends who used to hang out with you?"

  "Not really," Josie said.

  Alex listened, but she couldn't help tuning a lawyer's ear to McAfee's questions. He's got nothing, she thought. This is nothing.

  "When did you two stop hanging around?"

  "Sixth grade," Josie answered. "We just kind of started liking different things."

  "Did you have any contact with Peter after that?"

  Josie shifted in her chair. "Only in the halls and stuff."

  "You worked with him, too, right?"

  Josie looked at her mother again. "Not for very long."

  Both mother and daughter stared at him, anticipatory--which was awfully funny, because Jordan was making this all up as he went. "What about the relationship between Matt and Peter?"

  "They didn't have one," Josie said, but her cheeks went pink.

  "Did Matt do anything to Peter that might have been upsetting?"

  "Maybe."

  "Can you be more specific?"

  She shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together.

  "When was the last time you saw Matt and Peter together?"

  "I don't remember," Josie whispered.

  "Did they fight?"

  Tears clouded her eyes. "I don't know." She turned to her mother and then slowly sank her head down to the table, her face pressed into the curve of her own arm.

  "Honey, why don't you go wait in the other room?" the judge said evenly.

  They both watched Josie sit down on a chair in the living room, wiping her eyes, hunching forward to watch the baby playing on the floor.

  "Look," Judge Cormier sighed. "I'm off the case. I know that's why you put her on the witness list, even if you'd never actually intended to call her. But I'm not questioning that right now. I'm talking to you parent to parent. If I give you an affidavit signed by Josie saying she doesn't remember anything, would you think twice about putting her on the stand?"

  Jordan glanced into the living room. Selena had coaxed Josie onto the floor with her. She was pushing a toy plane toward Sam's feet. When he burst out with the sheer belly laugh that only a baby has, Josie smiled the tiniest bit, too. Selena caught his gaze, raised her brows in a question.

  He'd gotten what he wanted: Cormier's recusal. He could be generous enough to do this for her.

  "All right," he told the judge. "Get me the affidavit."

  *

  "When they say to scald the milk," Josie said, scrubbing another Brillo pad against the blackened bottom of the pot, "I don't think they mean like this."

  Her mother picked up a dish towel. "Well, how was I supposed to know?"

  "Maybe we should start with something easier than pudding," Josie suggested.

  "Like?"

  She smiled. "Toast?"

  Now that her mother was home during the day, she was restless. To that end, she'd taken up cooking--which was a good idea only if you happened to work for the fire department and needed job security. Even when her mother followed the recipe, it didn't turn out the way it was supposed to, and then inevitably Josie would press her for d
etails and find out she'd used baking powder instead of baking soda, or whole wheat flour instead of cornmeal (We didn't have any, she complained).

  At first, Josie had suggested nightly culinary classes out of self-preservation--she really didn't know what to say when her mother plunked a charred brick of meatloaf down with the same dramatic reverence that might have been given to the Holy Grail. As it turned out, though, it was sort of fun. When her mother wasn't acting like she knew it all (because she so totally didn't, when it came to cooking), she actually was pretty amusing to hang out with. It was cool, too, for Josie to feel as if she had control over a situation--any situation, even if it happened to be making chocolate pudding, or scrubbing its final remains from the bottom of a saucepan.

  Tonight, they'd made pizza--which Josie had counted as a success, until her mother had tried to slide the pizza out of the oven and it had folded, halfway, on the coils inside, which meant they had to make grilled cheese as a default dinner. They had salad out of a bag--something her mother couldn't screw up, Josie figured, even if she worked hard at it. But now, thanks to the pudding disaster, there wasn't any dessert.

  "How did you get to be Julia Child, anyway?" her mother asked.

  "Julia Child's dead."

  "Nigella Lawson, then."

  Josie shrugged and turned off the water; stripped off the yellow plastic gloves. "I kind of got sick of soup," she said.

  "Didn't I tell you not to turn on the oven when I wasn't home?"

  "Yeah, but I didn't listen to you."

  Once, when Josie was in fifth grade, the students had had to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks. The idea was to craft a design that could withstand the most pressure. She could remember riding in the car across the Connecticut River, and studying the arches and struts and supports of the real bridges, trying her best to copy them. At the end of the unit, two engineers from the Army Corps came in with a machine specially designed to put weight and torque on each bridge, to see which child's was the strongest.

  The parents were invited in for the testing. Josie's mother had been in court, the only mother not present that day. Or so she'd remembered until now, when Josie realized that her mother had been there, for the last ten minutes. She might have missed Josie's bridge test--during which the sticks splintered and groaned, and then burst apart in catastrophic failure--but she'd been there in time to help Josie pick up the pieces.

  The pot was sparkling, silver. The milk carton was half full. "We could start over," Josie suggested.

  When there was no answer, Josie turned around. "I'd like that," her mother answered quietly, but by that time, neither one of them was talking about cooking.

  There was a knock at the door, and that connection between them--evanescent as a butterfly that lands on your hand--broke. "Are you expecting someone?" Josie's mother asked.

  She wasn't, but she went to answer it anyway. When Josie opened the door, she found the detective who'd interviewed her standing there.

  Didn't detectives show up at your door only when you were in serious trouble?

  Breathe, Josie, she told herself, and she noticed he was holding a bottle of wine just as her mother came out to see what was going on.

  "Oh," her mother said. "Patrick."

  Patrick?

  Josie turned and realized her mother was blushing.

  He held out the bottle of wine. "Since this seems to be a bone of contention between us . . ."

  "You know what?" Josie said, uncomfortable. "I'm just, um, going to go study." She'd leave it to her mother to figure out how she was going to do that, since she'd finished her homework before dinner.

  She flew up the stairs, pounding extra hard with her feet so that she wouldn't hear what her mother was saying. In her room, she turned the music on her CD player up to its loudest level, threw herself onto her bed, and stared up at the ceiling.

  Josie had a midnight curfew, not that she was using it at all now. But before, the bargain went like this: Matt would get Josie home by midnight; in return, Josie's mother would disappear like smoke the moment they entered the house, retreating upstairs so that she and Matt could fool around in the living room. She had no idea what her mother's rationale for this was--unless it was that it was safer for Josie to be doing this in her own living room than in a car or under the bleachers. She could remember how they'd come together in the dark, their bodies fusing and their silence measured. Realizing that at any moment her mom might come down for a drink of water or an aspirin only made it that much more exciting.

  At three or four in the morning, when her eyes were blurry and her chin rubbed raw by beard stubble, Josie would kiss Matt good night at the front door. She'd watch his taillights disappear like the glow of a dying cigarette. She'd tiptoe upstairs, past her mother's bedroom, thinking: You don't know me at all.

  *

  "If I won't let you buy me a drink," Alex said, "then what makes you think I'd take a bottle of wine from you?"

  Patrick grinned. "I'm not giving it to you. I'm going to open it, and you might just choose to borrow some."

  As he said this, he was walking into the house, as if he already knew the way. He stepped into the kitchen, sniffed twice--it still smelled of the ashes of pizza crust and incinerated milk--and began to randomly open and close drawers until he found a corkscrew.

  Alex folded her arms, not because she was cold, but because she could not remember feeling this light inside, as if her body housed a second solar system. She watched Patrick remove two wineglasses from a cabinet and pour.

  "To being a civilian," he said, toasting.

  The wine was rich and full; like velvet; like autumn. Alex closed her eyes. She would have liked to hold on to this moment, drag it wider and fuller, until it covered up so many others that had come before.

  "So, how is it?" Patrick asked. "Being unemployed?"

  She thought for a moment. "I made a grilled cheese sandwich today without burning the pan."

  "I hope you framed it."

  "Nah, I left that to the prosecution." She smiled at her own little inside joke, and then felt it dissolve on the tails of her thoughts as she imagined Diana Leven's face. "Do you ever feel guilty?" Alex asked.

  "Why?"

  "Because for a half a second, you've almost forgotten everything that happened."

  Patrick put down his wineglass. "Sometimes, when I'm going through the evidence and I see a fingerprint or a photo or a shoe that belonged to one of the kids who died, I take a little more time to look at it. It's crazy, but it seems like someone ought to, so that they're remembered an extra minute or two." He looked up at her. "When someone dies, their lives aren't the ones that stop at that moment, you know?"

  Alex lifted her glass of wine and drained it. "Tell me how you found her."

  "Who?"

  "Josie. That day."

  Patrick met her gaze, and Alex knew he was weighing her right to know what her daughter had experienced against his wish to save her from a truth that would cut her to the quick. "She was in the locker room," he began quietly. "And I thought . . . I thought she was dead, too, because she was covered in blood, facedown next to Matt Royston. But then she moved and--" His voice broke. "It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."

  "You know you're a hero, don't you?"

  Patrick shook his head. "I'm a coward. The only reason I ran into that building was because if I didn't, I'd have nightmares for the rest of my life."

  Alex shivered. "I have nightmares, and I wasn't even there."

  He took away her wineglass and studied her palm, as if he were going to read her the line of her life. "Maybe you should try not sleeping," Patrick said.

  His skin smelled of evergreen and spearmint, this close. Alex could feel her heart pounding through the tips of her fingers. She imagined he could feel it, too.

  She didn't know what was going to happen next--what was supposed to happen next--but it would be random, unpredictable, uncomfortable. She was getting ready to push away from him when
Patrick's hands anchored her in place. "Stop being such a judge, Alex," he whispered, and he kissed her.

  When feeling came back, in a storm of color and force and sensation, the most you could do was hold on to the person beside you and hope you could weather it. Alex closed her eyes and expected the worst--but it wasn't a bad thing; it was just a different thing. A messier one, a more complicated one. She hesitated, and then she kissed Patrick back, willing to concede that you might have to lose control before you could find what you'd been missing.

  The Month Before

  When you love someone, there's a pattern to the way you come together. You might not even realize it, but your bodies are choreographed: a touch on the hip, a stroke of the hair. A staccato kiss, break away, a longer one, his hand slipping under your shirt. It's a routine, but not in the boring sense of the word. It's just the way you've learned to fit, and it's why, when you've been with one guy for a long time, your teeth do not scrape together when you kiss; you do not bump noses or elbows.

  Matt and Josie had a pattern. When they started making out, he'd lean in and look at her as if he couldn't possibly see any other part of the world. It was hypnotism, she realized, because after a while she sort of felt that way, too. Then he'd kiss her, so slowly that there was hardly pressure on her mouth, until she was the one pushing against him for more. He worked his way down her body, from mouth to neck, from neck to breasts, and then his fingers would do a search-and-rescue mission below the waistband of her jeans. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, and then Matt would roll off her and take the condom out of his wallet so they could have sex.

  Not that Josie minded any of it. If she was going to be honest, she liked the pattern. It felt like a roller coaster--going up that hill, knowing what was coming next on track and knowing, too, that she couldn't do anything to stop it.

  They were in her living room, in the dark, with the television on for background noise. Matt had already peeled off her clothes, and now he was leaning over her like a tidal wave, pulling down his boxers. He sprang free and settled between Josie's legs.

  "Hey," she said, as he tried to push into her. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

  "Aw, Jo. Just once, I don't want there to be anything between us."

 
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