Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  He took a few steps and sank down to his knees, mostly because his legs simply gave out from underneath them, and pretended that this was intentional, that he wanted to check out the two bodies at the other end of the room. He was vaguely aware of the shooter being pushed out of the locker room by the other officer, to a waiting cruiser downstairs. He didn't turn to watch the kid go; instead he focused on the body directly in front of him.

  A boy, dressed in a hockey jersey. There was a puddle of blood underneath his side, and a gunshot wound through his forehead. Patrick reached out for a baseball cap that had fallen a few feet away, with the words STERLING HOCKEY embroidered across it. He turned the brim around in his hands, an imperfect circle.

  The girl lying next to him was facedown, blood spreading from beneath her temple. She was barefoot, and on her toenails was bright pink polish--just like the stuff Tara had put on Patrick. It made his heart catch. This girl, just like his goddaughter and her brother and a million other kids in this country, had gotten up today and gone to school never imagining she would be in danger. She trusted all the grown-ups and teachers and principals to keep her safe. It was why these schools, post-9/11, had teachers wearing ID all the time and doors locked during the day--the enemy was always supposed to be an outsider, not the kid who was sitting right next to you.

  Suddenly, the girl shifted. "Help . . . me . . ."

  Patrick knelt beside her. "I'm here," he said, his touch gentle as he assessed her condition. "Everything's all right." He turned her enough to see that the blood was coming from a cut on her scalp, not a gunshot wound, as he'd assumed. He ran his hands over her limbs. He kept murmuring to her, words that did not always make sense, but that let her know that she wasn't alone anymore. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

  "Josie . . ." The girl started to thrash, trying to sit up. Patrick put the bulk of his body strategically between her and the boy's--she'd be in shock already; he didn't need her to go over the edge. She touched her hand to her forehead, and when it came away oily with blood, she panicked. "What . . . happened?"

  He should have stayed there and waited for the medics to come get her. He should have radioed for help. But should hardly seemed to apply anymore, and so Patrick lifted Josie into his arms. He carried her out of the locker room where she'd nearly been killed, hurried down the stairs, and pushed through the front door of the school, as if he might be able to save them both.

  Seventeen Years Before

  There were fourteen people sitting in front of Lacy, if you counted the fact that each of the seven women attending this prenatal class was pregnant. Some of them had come equipped with notebooks and pens, and had spent the past hour and a half writing down recommended dosages of folic acid, the names of teratogens, and suggested diets for a mother-to-be. Two had turned green in the middle of the discussion of a normal birth and had rushed to the bathroom with morning sickness--which, of course, stretched as long as the whole day, and was like saying summertime when you really meant all four seasons of the year.

  She was tired. Only a week back into work after her own maternity leave, it seemed patently unfair that if she wasn't up all night with her own baby, she had to be awake delivering someone else's. Her breasts ached, an uncomfortable reminder that she had to go pump again, so that she'd have milk to leave the sitter tomorrow for Peter.

  And yet, she loved her job too much to give it up entirely. She'd had the grades to get into medical school, and had considered being an OB/GYN, until she realized that she had a profound inability to sit bedside by a patient and not feel her pain. Doctors put a wall up between themselves and their patients; nurses broke it down. She switched into a program that would certify her as a nurse-midwife, that encouraged her to tap into the emotional health of a mother-to-be instead of just her symptomology. Maybe it made some of the doctors at the hospital consider her a flake, but Lacy truly believed that when you asked a patient How do you feel?, what was wrong wasn't nearly as important as what was right.

  She reached past the plastic model of the growing fetus and lifted a bestselling pregnancy guidebook into the air. "How many of you have seen this book before?"

  Seven hands lifted.

  "Okay. Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. If it's already at your house, throw it out. This book will convince you that you are going to bleed out, have seizures, drop dead, or any of a hundred other things that do not happen with normal pregnancies. Believe me, the range of normal is much wider than anything these authors will tell you."

  She glanced in the back, where a woman was holding her side. Cramping? Lacy thought. Ectopic pregnancy?

  The woman was dressed in a black suit, her hair pulled back into a neat, low ponytail. Lacy watched her pinch her waist once again, this time pulling off a small beeper attached to her skirt. She got to her feet. "I . . . um, I'm sorry. I have to go."

  "Can it wait a few minutes?" Lacy asked. "We're just about to go on a tour of the birthing pavilion."

  The woman handed her the paperwork she'd been asked to fill out during this visit. "I have something more pressing to deal with," she said, and she hurried off.

  "Well," Lacy said. "Maybe this is a good time for a bathroom break." As the six remaining women filed out of the room, she glanced down at the forms in her hand. Alexandra Cormier, she read. And she thought: I'm going to have to watch this one.

  *

  The last time Alex had defended Loomis Bronchetti, he had broken into three homes and stolen electronics equipment, which he then tried to fence on the streets of Enfield, New Hampshire. Although Loomis was enterprising enough to dream up this scheme, he failed to realize that in a town as small as Enfield, hot stereo equipment might raise a red flag.

  Apparently, Loomis had escalated his criminal resume last night when he and two friends decided to go after a drug dealer who didn't bring them enough pot. They got high, hog-tied the guy, and threw him in the trunk. Loomis whacked the dealer over the head with a baseball bat, cracking his skull and sending him into convulsions. When he started choking on his own blood, Loomis turned him over so that he could breathe.

  "I can't believe they're charging me with assault," Loomis told Alex through the bars of the holding cell. "I saved the guy's life."

  "Well," Alex said. "We might have been able to use that--if you hadn't been the one who inflicted the injury in the first place."

  "You gotta plead me out for less than a year. I don't want to get sent down to the prison in Concord . . ."

  "You could have been charged with attempted murder, you know."

  Loomis scowled. "I was doing the cops a favor, getting a lowlife like that off the streets."

  The same, Alex knew, could be said for Loomis Bronchetti, if he was convicted and sent to the state prison. But her job was not about judging Loomis. It was about working hard, in spite of her personal opinions about a client. It was about showing one face to Loomis, and knowing she had another one masked away. It was about not letting her feelings interfere with her ability to get Loomis Bronchetti acquitted.

  "Let me see what I can do," she said.

  *

  Lacy understood that all infants were different--tiny little creatures with their own quirks and habits and peeves and desires. But somehow, she'd expected that this second foray into motherhood would produce a child like her first--Joey, a golden boy who would make passersby turn their heads, stop her as she pushed the stroller to tell her what a beautiful child she had. Peter was just as beautiful, but he was definitely a more challenging baby. He'd cry, colicky, and have to be soothed by putting his car seat on the vibrating clothes dryer. He'd be nursing, and suddenly arch away from her.

  It was two in the morning, and Lacy was trying to get Peter to settle back to sleep. Unlike Joey, who fell into slumber like taking a giant step off a cliff, Peter fought it every step of the way. She patted his back and rubbed small circles between his tiny shoulder blades as he hiccuped and wailed. Frankly, she felt like doing that, too. For the past two h
ours, she'd watched the same infomercial on Ginsu knives. She had counted the ticking stripes on the elephantine arm of the sofa until they blurred. She was so exhausted that everything ached. "What's the matter, little man," she sighed. "What can I do to make you happy?"

  Happiness was relative, according to her husband. Although most people laughed when Lacy told them her husband's job involved putting a price on joy, it was simply what economists did--find value for the intangibles in life. Lewis's colleagues at Sterling College had presented papers on the relative push an education could provide, or universal health care, or job satisfaction. Lewis's discipline was no less important, if unorthodox. It made him a popular guest on NPR, on Larry King, at corporate seminars--somehow, number crunching seemed sexier when you began talking about the dollar amount a belly laugh was worth, or a dumb blonde joke, for that matter. Regular sex, for example, was equivalent (happinesswise) to getting a $50,000 raise. However, getting a $50,000 raise wouldn't be nearly as exciting if everyone else was getting a $50,000 raise, too. By the same token, what made you happy once might not make you happy now. Five years ago, Lacy would have given anything for a dozen roses brought home by her husband; now, if he offered her the chance to take a ten-minute nap, she would fall to the ground in paroxysms of delight.

  Statistics aside, Lewis would go down in history as being the economist who'd conceived a mathematical formula for happiness: R/E, or, Reality divided by Expectations. There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations. Once, at a neighborhood dinner party, Lacy had asked him what happened if you had no expectations. You couldn't divide by zero. Did that mean if you just let yourself roll with all of life's punches, you could never be happy? In the car later that night, Lewis had accused her of trying to make him look bad.

  Lacy didn't like to let herself consider whether Lewis and their family were truly happy. You'd think the man who designed the formula would have happiness figured out, but somehow, it didn't work that way. Sometimes she'd recall that old adage--the shoemaker's sons go barefoot--and she'd wonder, What about the children of the man who knows the value of happiness? These days, when Lewis was late at the office, working on another publication deadline, and Lacy was so exhausted she could fall asleep standing up in the hospital elevator, she tried to convince herself it was simply a phase they were stuck in: a baby boot camp that would surely transform one day into contentment and satisfaction and togetherness and all the other parameters Lewis plotted on his computer programs. After all, she had a husband who loved her and two healthy boys and a fulfilling career. Wasn't getting what you wanted all along the very definition of being happy?

  She realized that--miracle of miracles--Peter had fallen asleep on her shoulder, the sweet peach of his cheek pressed against her bare skin. Tiptoeing up the stairs, she gently settled him into his crib and then glanced across the room at the bed where Joey lay. The moon fawned over him like a disciple. She wondered what Peter would be like when he was Joey's age. She wondered if you could get that lucky twice.

  *

  Alex Cormier was younger than Lacy had thought. Twenty-four, but she carried herself with enough confidence to make people think she was a decade older. "So," Lacy said, introducing herself. "How did that pressing matter turn out?"

  Alex blinked at her, then remembered: the birthing pavilion tour she had slipped away from a week ago. "It was plea bargained."

  "You're a lawyer, then?" Lacy said, glancing up from her notes.

  "A public defender." Alex's chin came up a notch, as if she was ready for Lacy to make a deprecating comment about her affiliation with the bad guys.

  "That must be awfully demanding work," Lacy said. "Does your office know you're pregnant?"

  Alex shook her head. "It's not an issue," she said flatly. "I won't be taking a maternity leave."

  "You might change your mind as--"

  "I'm not keeping this baby," Alex announced.

  Lacy sat back in her chair. "All right." It was not her place to judge a mother for the decision to give up a child. "We can talk about different options, then," Lacy said. At eleven weeks, Alex could still terminate the pregnancy if she wished.

  "I was going to have an abortion," Alex said, as if she'd read Lacy's mind. "But I missed my appointment." She glanced up. "Twice."

  Lacy knew you could be solidly pro-choice but unwilling or unable to make that decision for yourself--that's exactly where the choice part kicked in. "Well, then," she said, "I can give you information about adoption, if you haven't already contacted any agencies yourself." She reached into a drawer and pulled out folders--adoption agencies affiliated with a variety of religions, attorneys who specialized in private adoptions. Alex took the pamphlets and held them like a hand of playing cards. "For now, though, we can just focus on you and how you're doing."

  "I'm great," Alex answered smoothly. "I'm not sick, I'm not tired." She looked at her watch. "I am, however, going to be late for an appointment."

  Lacy could tell that Alex was a coper--someone who was used to being in control in all facets of her life. "It's okay to slow down when you're pregnant. Your body might need that."

  "I know how to take care of myself."

  "What about letting someone else do it once in a while?"

  A shadow of irritation crossed over Alex's face. "Look, I don't need a therapy session. Honestly. I appreciate the concern, but--"

  "Does your partner support your decision to give the baby up?" Lacy asked.

  Alex turned her face away for a moment. Before Lacy could find the right words to draw her back, however, Alex did it herself. "There is no partner," she said coolly.

  *

  The last time Alex's body had taken over, had done what her mind told her not to do, she had conceived this baby. It had started innocently enough--Logan Rourke, her trial advocacy professor, calling her into his office to tell her that she commanded the courtroom with competence; Logan saying that no juror would be able to take his eyes off her--and that neither could he. Alex had thought Logan was Clarence Darrow and F. Lee Bailey and God rolled up into one. Prestige and power could make a man so attractive it took one's breath away; it turned Logan into what she'd been looking for her whole life.

  She believed him when he told her he hadn't seen a student with as quick a mind as Alex in his ten years of teaching. She believed him when he told her that his marriage was over in all but name. And she believed him the night he drove her home from the campus, framed her face between his hands, and told her she was the reason he got up in the morning.

  Law was a study of detail and fact, not emotion. Alex's cardinal mistake had been forgetting this when she became involved with Logan. She found herself postponing plans, waiting for his call, which sometimes came and sometimes didn't. She pretended that she did not see him flirting with the first-year law students who looked at him the way she used to. And when she got pregnant, she convinced herself that they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together.

  Logan had told her to get rid of it. She'd scheduled an abortion, only to forget to write the date and time on her calendar. She rescheduled, but realized too late that her appointment conflicted with a final exam. After that, she'd gone to Logan. It's a sign, she'd said.

  Maybe, he told her, but it doesn't mean what you're thinking. Be reasonable, Logan had said. A single mother will never make it as a trial attorney. She'd have to choose between her career and this baby.

  What he really meant was that she'd have to choose between having the baby and having him.

  *

  The woman looked familiar from behind, in that way that people sometimes do when you see them out of context: your grocery clerk standing in line at the bank, your postman sitting across the aisle of the movie theater. Alex stared for another second, and then realized it was the infant throwing her off. She strode across the hallway of the courthouse toward the town clerk, where Lacy Houghton stood paying a parking ticket.

  "Need a lawyer?
" Alex asked.

  Lacy looked up, the baby carrier balanced in the crook of her arm. It took a moment to place the face--she hadn't seen Alex since her initial visit nearly a month ago. "Oh, hello!" she said, smiling.

  "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"

  "Oh, I'm posting bail for my ex . . ." Lacy waited for Alex's eyes to widen, and then laughed. "Just kidding. I got a parking ticket."

  Alex found herself staring down at the face of Lacy's son. He wore a blue cap that tied underneath his chin, and his cheeks spilled over the edges of the fleece. He had a runny nose, and when he noticed Alex looking at him, he offered her a cavernous smile.

  "Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?" Lacy said.

  She slapped ten dollars down on top of her parking ticket and fed it through the open mouth of the payment window, then hefted the baby bucket a little higher into the crook of her arm and walked out of the court building to a Dunkin' Donuts across the street. Lacy stopped to give a ten-dollar bill to a bum sitting outside the courthouse, and Alex rolled her eyes--she'd actually seen this particular fellow heading over to the closest bar yesterday when she left work.

  In the coffee shop, Alex watched Lacy effortlessly unpeel layers of clothing from her baby and lift him out of his seat onto her lap. As she talked, she draped a blanket over her shoulder and started to nurse Peter. "Is it hard?" Alex blurted out.

  "Nursing?"

  "Not just that," Alex said. "Everything."

  "It's definitely an acquired skill." Lacy lifted the baby onto her shoulder. His booted feet kicked against her chest, as if he was already trying to put distance between them. "Compared to your day job, motherhood is probably a piece of cake."

  It made Alex think, immediately, of Logan Rourke, who had laughed at her when she said she was taking a job with the public defender's office. You won't last a week, he'd told her. You're too soft for that.

  She sometimes wondered if she was a good public defender because of skill or because she had been so determined to show Logan that he was wrong. In any case, Alex had cultivated a persona on the job, one that was there to give offenders an equal voice in the legal system, without letting clients get under her skin.

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