Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  A puff of white powder flew into his face.

  He coughed and shook his head. It figured; Joey had been lying.

  Idly, Peter opened up the sugar canister beside it and found himself staring down at a 9-millimeter semiautomatic.

  It was a Glock 17--probably the same one Mr. Weatherhall had carried as a policeman. Peter knew this because he knew about guns--he'd grown up with them. But there was a difference between a hunting rifle or a shotgun and this neat and compact weapon. His father said that anyone who wasn't in active law enforcement and kept a handgun was an idiot; it was more likely to do damage than protect you. The problem with a handgun was that the muzzle was so short that you forgot about holding it away from you for safety's sake; aiming was as simple and nonchalant as pointing your finger.

  Peter touched it. Cold; smooth. Mesmerizing. He brushed the trigger, cupping his hand around the gun; that slight, sleek weight.

  Footsteps.

  Peter jammed the cover back on the canister and whipped around, folding his arms in front of himself. Mr. Weatherhall appeared at the top of the stairs, cradling a red gas can. "All set," he said. "Bring it back full."

  "I will," Peter replied. He left the kitchen and did not look in the general direction of the canister, although it was what he wanted to do, more than anything.

  *

  After school, Matt arrived with chicken soup from a local restaurant and comic books. "What are you doing out of bed?" he asked.

  "You rang the doorbell," Josie said. "I had to answer it, didn't I?"

  He fussed over her as if she had mono or cancer, not just a virus, which is what she'd told him when he called her on his cell from school that morning. Tucking her back into bed, he settled her with the soup in her lap. "This is supposed to cure, like, anything, right?"

  "What about the comics?"

  Matt shrugged. "My mom used to get those for me when I was little and stayed home sick. I don't know. They always sort of made me feel better."

  As he sat down beside her on the bed, Josie picked up one of the comics. Why was Wonder Woman always so bodacious? If you were a 38DD, would you honestly go leaping off buildings and fighting crime without a good jogging bra?

  Thinking of that reminded Josie that she could barely put on her own bra these days, her breasts were so tender. And that made her recall the pregnancy test that she'd wrapped up in paper towels and thrown away outside in the garbage can so her mother wouldn't find it.

  "Drew's planning a shindig this Friday night," Matt said. "His parents are going to Foxwoods for the weekend." Matt frowned. "I hope you're feeling better by then, so you can go. What do you think you've got, anyway?"

  She turned to him and took a deep breath. "It's what I don't have. My period. I'm two weeks late. I took a pregnancy test today."

  "He's already talked to some guy at Sterling College about buying a couple of kegs from a frat. I'm telling you, this party will be off the hook."

  "Did you hear me?"

  Matt smiled at her the way you'd indulge a child who just told you the sky is falling. "I think you're overreacting."

  "It was positive."

  "Stress can do that."

  Josie's jaw dropped. "And what if it's not stress? What if it's, you know, real?"

  "Then we're in it together." Matt leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Baby," he said, "you could never get rid of me."

  *

  A few days later, when it snowed, Peter deliberately drained the snow blower of its gas, and then walked across the street to Mr. Weatherhall's house.

  "Don't tell me you ran out again," he said as he opened the door.

  "I guess my dad didn't get around to filling up our spare tank yet," Peter replied.

  "Gotta make time," Mr. Weatherhall said, but he was already moving into his house, leaving the door wide so Peter could follow. "Gotta stick to a schedule, that's how it's done."

  As they passed the television, Peter glanced at the cast of the Match Game. "Big Bertha is so big," Gene Rayburn was saying, "that instead of skydiving with a parachute, she uses a blank."

  The moment Mr. Weatherhall disappeared downstairs, Peter opened the sugar canister on the kitchen counter. The gun was still inside. Peter reached for it and reminded himself to breathe.

  He covered the canister and put it back exactly where it had been. Then he took the gun and jammed it, nose first, into the waistband of his jeans. His down jacket billowed over the front, so you couldn't see a bulge at all.

  He gingerly slid open the silverware drawer, peeked in the cabinets. It was when he ran his hand along the dusty top of the refrigerator that he felt the smooth body of a second handgun.

  "You know, it's wise to keep a spare tank . . ." Mr. Weatherhall's voice floated from the bottom of the basement stairs, accompanied by the percussion of his footsteps. Peter let go of the gun, snapped his hands back to his sides.

  He was sweating by the time Mr. Weatherhall walked into the kitchen. "You all right?" he asked, peering at Peter. "You look a little white around the gills."

  "I stayed up late doing homework. Thanks for the gas. Again."

  "You tell your dad I'm not bailing him out next time," Mr. Weatherhall said, and he waved Peter off from the porch.

  Peter waited until Mr. Weatherhall had closed the door, and then he started to run, kicking up snow in his wake. He left the gas can next to the snow blower and burst into his house. He locked his bedroom door, took the gun from his pants, and sat down.

  It was black and heavy crafted out of alloyed steel. What was really surprising was how fake the Glock looked--like a kid's toy gun--although Peter supposed he ought to be marveling instead at how realistic the toy guns actually were. He racked the slide and released it. He ejected the magazine.

  He closed his eyes and held the gun up to his head. "Bang," he whispered.

  Then he set the gun on his bed and pulled off one of his pillowcases. He wrapped the Glock inside it, rolling it up like a bandage. He slipped the gun between his mattress and his box spring and lay down.

  It would be like that fairy tale, the one with the princess who could feel a bean or a pea or whatever. Except Peter wasn't a prince, and the lump wouldn't keep him up at night.

  In fact, it might make him sleep better.

  *

  In Josie's dream, she was standing in the most beautiful tepee. The walls were made of buttery deerskin, sewed tight with golden thread. Stories had been painted all around her in shades of red, ochre, violet, and blue--tales of hunts and loves and losses. Rich buffalo skins were piled high for cushions; coals glowed like rubies in the firepit. When she looked up, she could see stars falling through the smoke hole.

  Suddenly Josie realized that her feet were sliding; worse, that there was no way to stop this. She glanced down and saw only sky; wondered whether she'd been silly enough to believe she could walk among the clouds, or if the ground beneath her feet had disappeared when she looked away.

  She started to fall. She could feel herself tumbling head over heels; felt the skirt she was wearing balloon and the wind rush between her legs. She didn't want to open her eyes, but she couldn't help peeking: the ground was rushing up at an alarming pace, postage-stamp squares of green and brown and blue that grew larger, more detailed, more realistic.

  There was her school. Her house. The roof over her bedroom. Josie felt herself hurtle toward it and she steeled herself for the inevitable crash. But you never hit the ground in your dreams; you never get to see yourself die. Instead, Josie felt herself splash, her clothes billowing like the sails of a jellyfish as she treaded warm water.

  She woke up, breathless, and realized that she still felt wet. She sat up, lifted up the covers, and saw the pool of blood beneath her.

  After three positive pregnancy tests, after her period was three weeks late--she was miscarrying.

  Thankgodthankgodthankgod. Josie buried her face in the sheets and started to cry.

  *

  Lewis was sitting
at the kitchen table on Saturday morning, reading the latest issue of The Economist and methodically working his way through a whole-wheat waffle, when the phone rang. He glanced at Lacy, who--beside the sink--was technically closer to it, but she held up her hands, dripping with water and soap. "Could you . . . ?"

  He stood up and answered it. "Hello?"

  "Mr. Houghton?"

  "Speaking," Lewis said.

  "This is Tony, from Burnside's. Your hollow-point bullets are in."

  Burnside's was a gun shop; Lewis went there in the fall for his Hoppe's solvent and his ammunition; once or twice he'd been lucky enough to bring a deer in to be weighed. But it was February; deer season was over now. "I didn't order those," Lewis said. "There must be some mistake."

  He hung up the phone and sat down again in front of his waffle. Lacy lifted a large frying pan out of the sink and set it on the drainer to dry. "Who was that?"

  Lewis turned the page in his magazine. "Wrong number," he said.

  *

  Matt had a hockey game in Exeter. Josie went to his home games, but rarely the ones where the team traveled. Today, though, she had asked her mother to borrow the car and drove to the seacoast, leaving early enough to be able to catch him in the locker room beforehand. She poked her head inside the visiting team's locker room and was immediately hit with the reek of all the equipment. Matt stood with his back to her, wearing his chest protector and his padded pants and his skates. He hadn't yet pulled on his jersey.

  Some of the other guys noticed her first. "Hey, Royston," a senior said. "I think your fan club president's arrived."

  Matt didn't like it when she showed up before a game. Afterward: well, that was mandatory--he needed someone to celebrate his win. But he'd made it very clear that he didn't have time for Josie when he was getting ready; that he'd only get shit from the guys if she clung that closely; that Coach wanted the team to be alone to focus on their game. Still, she thought that this might be an exception.

  A shadow passed over his face as his team started catcalls.

  Matt, you need help putting on your jock?

  Hey, quick, get the guy a bigger stick . . .

  "Yeah," Matt shot back as he walked across the rubber mats toward Josie. "You just wish you had someone who could suck the chrome off a hood ornament."

  Josie felt her cheeks flame as the entire locker room burst into laughter at her expense, and the rude comments shifted focus from Matt to her. Grasping her by the arm, Matt pulled Josie outside.

  "I told you not to interrupt me before a game," he said.

  "I know. But it was important . . ."

  "This is important," Matt corrected, gesturing around the rink.

  "I'm fine," Josie blurted out.

  "Good."

  She stared at him. "No, Matt. I mean . . . I'm fine. You were right."

  As he realized what Josie was really trying to tell him, he put his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground. His gear caught like armor between them as he kissed her. It made Josie think of knights heading off to battle; of the girls they left behind. "Don't you forget it," Matt said, and he grinned.

  PART TWO

  When you begin a journey of revenge, start by digging two graves: one for your enemy, and one for yourself.

  --CHINESE PROVERB

  Sterling isn't the inner city. You don't find crack dealers on Main Street, or households below the poverty level. The crime rate is virtually nonexistent.

  That's why people are still so shell-shocked.

  They ask, How could this happen here?

  Well. How could it not happen here?

  All it takes is a troubled kid with access to guns.

  You don't have to go to an inner city to find someone who meets those criteria. You only have to open your eyes. The next likely candidate might be upstairs, or sprawled in front of your TV right now. But hey, you just go right on pretending it won't happen here. Tell yourself that you're immune because of where you live or who you are.

  It's easier that way, isn't it?

  Five Months After

  You can tell a lot about people by their habits. For example, Jordan had come across potential jurors who religiously took their cups of coffee to their computers and read the entire New York Times online. There were others whose welcome screen on AOL didn't even include news updates, because they found it too depressing. There were rural people who owned televisions but only got a grainy public broadcasting station because they couldn't afford the money it would take to bring cable lines up their dirt road; and there were others who had bought elaborate satellite systems so that they could catch Japanese soaps or Sister Mary Margaret's Prayer Hour at three in the morning. There were those who watched CNN, and those who watched FOX News.

  It was the sixth hour of individual voir dire, the process by which the jury for Peter's trial would be selected. This involved long days in the courtroom with Diana Leven and Judge Wagner, as the pool of jurors dribbled one by one into the witness seat to be asked a variety of questions by the defense and the prosecution. The goal was to find twelve folks, plus an alternate, who weren't personally affected by the shooting; a jury that could commit to a long trial if necessary, instead of worrying about their home business or who was taking care of their toddlers. A group of people who had not been living and breathing the news about this trial for the past five months--or, as Jordan was affectionately starting to think of them: the blessed few that had been living under a rock.

  It was August, and for the past week the temperatures had climbed to nearly a hundred degrees during the day. To make matters worse, the air-conditioning in the courtroom was on the fritz, and Judge Wagner smelled like mothballs and feet when he sweated.

  Jordan had already taken off his jacket and loosened the top button of his shirt beneath his tie. Even Diana--who he secretly believed had to be some kind of Stepford robot--had twisted her hair up and jammed a pencil into the bun to secure it. "What are we up to?" Judge Wagner asked.

  "Juror number six million seven hundred and thirty thousand," Jordan murmured.

  "Juror number eighty-eight," the clerk announced.

  It was a man this time, wearing khaki pants and a short-sleeved shirt. He had thinning hair, boat shoes, and a wedding band. Jordan noted all of this on his pad.

  Diana stood up and introduced herself, then began asking her litany of questions. The answers would determine if a potential juror could be dismissed for cause--if they had a kid, for example, who'd been killed at Sterling High and couldn't be impartial. If not, Diana could choose to use one of her peremptory strikes. Both she and Jordan had fifteen opportunities to dismiss a potential juror out of gut instinct. So far, Diana had used one of hers against a short, bald, quiet software developer. Jordan had dismissed a former Navy SEAL.

  "What do you do for work, Mr. Alstrop?" Diana asked.

  "I'm an architect."

  "You're married?"

  "For twenty years, this October."

  "Do you have any children?"

  "Two, a fourteen-year-old boy and a nineteen-year-old girl."

  "Do they go to public high school?"

  "Well, my son does. My daughter's in college. Princeton," he said proudly.

  "Do you know anything about this case?"

  Saying he did, Jordan knew, wouldn't exclude him. It was what he believed or didn't believe, in spite of what the media had said.

  "Well, only what I read in the papers," Alstrop said, and Jordan closed his eyes.

  "Do you read a certain newspaper daily?"

  "I used to get the Union Leader," he said, "but the editorials drove me crazy. I try to read the main section of The New York Times now, at least."

  Jordan considered this. The Union Leader was a notoriously conservative paper, The New York Times a liberal one.

  "What about television?" Diana asked. "Any shows you particularly like?"

  You probably didn't want a juror who watched ten hours of Court TV per day. You also didn't w
ant the guy who savored Pee-wee Herman marathons.

  "60 Minutes," Alstrop replied. "And The Simpsons."

  Now that, Jordan thought, was a normal guy. He got to his feet as Diana turned the questioning over to him. "What do you remember reading about this case?" he asked.

  Alstrop shrugged. "There was a shooting at the high school and one of the students was charged."

  "Did you know any of the students?"

  "No."

  "Do you know anyone who works at Sterling High?"

  Alstrop shook his head. "No."

  "Have you talked to anyone involved in this case?"

  "No."

  Jordan walked up to the witness stand. "There's a rule in this state that says you can take a right on red, if you stop first at the red light. You familiar with it?"

  "Sure," Alstrop said.

  "What if the judge told you that you can't turn right on red--that you must stay stopped until the light goes green again, even if there's a sign in front of you that specifically says RIGHT TURN ON RED. What would you do?"

  Alstrop looked at Judge Wagner. "I guess I'd do what he said."

  Jordan smiled to himself. He didn't give a damn about Alstrop's driving habits--that setup and question was a way to weed out the people who couldn't see past convention. There would be information in this trial that wasn't necessarily intuitive, and he needed people on a jury who were open-minded enough to understand that rules weren't always what you thought they were, who could listen to the new regulations and follow them accordingly.

  When he finished his questioning, he and Diana walked toward the bench. "Is there any reason to dismiss this juror for cause?" Judge Wagner asked.

  "No, Your Honor," Diana said, and Jordan shook his head.

  "So?"

  Diana nodded. Jordan glanced at the man, still sitting on the witness stand. "This one works for me," he said.

  *

  When Alex woke up, she pretended not to. Instead, she kept her eyes nearly closed so that she could stare at the man sprawled on the other side of her bed. This relationship--four months old now--was still a mystery to her, as much as the constellation of freckles on Patrick's shoulders, the valley of his spine, the startling contrast of his black hair against a white sheet. It seemed that he had invaded her life by osmosis: she'd find his shirt mixed in with her laundry; she'd smell his shampoo on her pillowcase; she would pick up the phone, thinking to call him, and he'd already be on the line. Alex had been single for so long; she was practical, resolute, and set in her ways (oh, who was she kidding . . . those were all just euphemisms for what she really was: stubborn)--she would have guessed that this sudden attack on her privacy would be unnerving. Instead, though, she found herself feeling disoriented when Patrick wasn't around, like the sailor who's just landed after months at sea and who still feels the ocean rolling beneath him even when it isn't there.

 
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