Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  *

  Just after three o'clock, Josie rolled over onto her belly, spread her arms wide, and pressed her face into the grass. It looked like she was trying to hold on to the ground, which, she supposed, wasn't all that far from the truth. She breathed in deeply--usually, she smelled nothing but weeds and soil, but every now and then when it had just rained, she got the barest scent of ice and Pert shampoo, as if Matt were still himself just under that surface.

  She gathered the wrapper from her sandwich and her empty water bottle and put them into her backpack, then headed down the winding path to the cemetery gates. There was a car blocking the entrance--only twice this summer had Josie been present when a funeral procession came, and it had made her a little sick to her stomach. She started to walk faster, in the hope that she would be long gone and sitting on her Advance Transit bus before the service began--and then she realized that the car blocking the gates was not a hearse, not even black for that matter. It was the same car that had been parked in their driveway this morning, and Patrick was leaning against it with his arms crossed.

  "What are you doing here?" Josie asked.

  "I could ask you the same thing."

  She shrugged. "It's a free country."

  Josie didn't really have anything against Patrick Ducharme himself. He just made her nervous, on so many counts. She couldn't look at him without thinking of That Day. But now she had to, because he also was her mother's lover (how weird was it to say that?) and in a way, that was even more upsetting. Her mother was on cloud nine, falling in love, while Josie had to sneak off to a graveyard to visit her boyfriend.

  Patrick pushed himself off the car and took a step toward her. "Your mother thinks you're teaching long division right now."

  "Did she tell you to stalk me?" Josie said.

  "I prefer surveillance," Patrick corrected.

  Josie snorted. She didn't want to sound like such a snot, but she couldn't help it. Sarcasm was like a force field; once she turned it off, he might be able to see that she was this close to falling to pieces.

  "Your mother doesn't know I'm here," Patrick said. "I wanted to talk to you."

  "I'm going to miss my bus."

  "Then I'll drive you wherever you want to go," he said, exasperated. "You know, when I'm doing my job, I spend a lot of time wishing I could turn back the clock--get to the rape victim before it happened, stake out the house before the thief comes by. I know what it's like to feel like nothing you do or say is ever going to make things better. And I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night replaying one moment over and over so vividly that you might as well be living it again. In fact, I bet you and I replay the same moment."

  Josie swallowed. In all these months, out of all the well-meaning conversations she'd had with doctors and psychiatrists and even other kids from the school, no one had captured, so succinctly, what it felt like to be her. But she couldn't let Patrick know that--couldn't admit to her weakness, even though she had the feeling that he could spot it all the same. "Don't pretend we have anything in common," Josie said.

  "But we do," Patrick replied. "Your mother." He looked Josie in the eye. "I like her. A lot. And I'd like to know that you're okay with that."

  Josie felt her throat closing. She tried to remember Matt saying that he liked her; she wondered if anyone would ever say it again. "My mother's a big girl. She can make her own decisions about who she f--"

  "Don't," Patrick interrupted.

  "Don't what."

  "Don't say something you're going to wish you hadn't."

  Josie stepped back, her eyes glittering. "If you think that buddying up to me is going to win her over, you're wrong. You're better off with flowers and chocolate. She couldn't care less about me."

  "That's not true."

  "You haven't exactly been around long enough to know, have you?"

  "Josie," Patrick said, "she's crazy about you."

  Josie felt herself choke on the truth, even harder to speak than it was to swallow. "But not as crazy as she is about you. She's happy. She's happy and I . . . I know I should be happy for her . . ."

  "But you're here," Patrick said, gesturing at the cemetery. "And you're alone."

  Josie nodded and burst into tears. She turned away, embarrassed, and then felt Patrick fold his arms around her. He didn't say anything, and for that one moment, she even liked him--any word at all, even a well-meaning one, would have taken up the space where her hurt needed to be. He just let her cry until finally it all stopped, and Josie rested for a moment against his shoulder, wondering if this was only the eye of the storm or its endpoint.

  "I'm a bitch," she whispered. "I'm jealous."

  "I think she'd understand."

  Josie drew away from him and wiped her eyes. "Are you going to tell her I come here?"

  "No."

  She glanced up at him, surprised. She would have thought that he'd take her mother's side.

  "You're wrong, you know," Patrick said.

  "About what?"

  "Being alone."

  Josie glanced up the hill. You couldn't see Matt's grave from the gates, but it was still there--just like everything else about That Day. "Ghosts don't count."

  Patrick smiled. "Mothers do."

  *

  What Lewis hated the most was the sound of the metal doors slamming. It hardly mattered that, thirty minutes from now, he'd be able to leave the jail. What was important was that the inmates couldn't. And that one of those inmates was the same boy he'd taught to ride a bike without training wheels; the same boy whose nursery school paperweight was still sitting on Lewis's desk; the same boy he'd watched take his very first breath.

  He knew it would be a shock for Peter to see him--how many months had he told himself that this would be the week he got up the courage to see his son in jail, only to find another errand to run or paper to study? But, as a correctional officer opened up a door and led Peter into the visitation room, Lewis realized that he'd underestimated what a shock it would be for him to see Peter.

  He was bigger. Maybe not taller, but broader--his shoulders filled out his shirt; his arms had thickened with muscle. His skin was translucent, almost blue under this unnatural light. His hands didn't stop moving--they were twitching at his sides and then, when he sat down, on the sides of the chair.

  "Well," Peter said. "What do you know."

  Lewis had rehearsed six or seven speeches, explanations of why he had not been able to bring himself to see his son, but when he saw Peter sitting there, only two words rose to his lips. "I'm sorry."

  Peter's mouth tightened. "For what? Blowing me off for six months?"

  "I was thinking," Lewis admitted, "more like eighteen years."

  Peter sat back in his chair, staring at Lewis. He forced himself to return the stare. Could Peter grant him absolution, even if Lewis still wasn't entirely sure he could return the favor?

  Rubbing a hand down his face, Peter shook his head. Then he started to smile. Lewis felt his bones loosen, his muscles relax. Until this moment, he hadn't really known what to expect from Peter. He could reason with himself all he wanted and assert that an apology would always be accepted; he could remind himself that he was the parent here, the one in charge--but all of that was extremely hard to remember when you were sitting in a visiting room at a jail, with a woman on your left who was trying to play footsie with her lover across that forbidden red line, and a man on your right who was cursing a blue streak.

  The smile on Peter's face hardened, twisted into a sneer. "Fuck you," he spat out. "Fuck you for coming here. You don't give a shit about me. You don't want to tell me you're sorry. You just want to hear yourself say it. You're here for yourself, not me."

  Lewis's head felt as if it were filled with stones. He bent forward, the stalk of his neck unable to bear the weight anymore, until he could rest his forehead in his hands. "I can't do anything, Peter," he whispered. "I can't work, I can't eat. I can't sleep." Then he lifted his face. "The new stude
nts, they're coming onto the college campus right now. I look at them, out my window--they're always pointing at the buildings or down Main Street or listening to the tour guides who take them across the courtyard--and I think of how much I was looking forward to doing those same things with you."

  He had written a paper years ago, after Joey was born, about the exponential increases of happiness--the moments that the quotient changed by leaps and bounds after a triggering incident. What he'd concluded was that the outcome was variable, based not on the event that caused the happiness, but rather the state you were in when it happened. For example, the birth of your child was one thing when you were happily married and planning a family; it was something entirely different when you were sixteen and had gotten a girl knocked up. Cold weather was perfect if you were on a skiing vacation, but disappointing if you happened to be enjoying a week at the beach. A man who was once rich might be deliriously happy with a dollar in the middle of a depression; a gourmet chef would eat worms if stranded on a desert island. A father who'd hoped for a son that was educated and successful and independent might, under different circumstances, simply be happy to have him alive and safe, so that he could tell the boy he'd never stopped loving him.

  "But you know what they say about college," Lewis said, sitting up a little straighter. "It's overrated."

  His words surprised Peter. "All those parents forking over forty thousand a year," Peter said, smiling faintly. "And here I am, getting the most out of your tax dollar."

  "What more could an economist ask for?" Lewis joked, although this wasn't funny; never would be funny. And he realized that this was a sort of happiness, too: you would say anything--do anything--to keep your son smiling like that, as if there was something to still smile about, even if every word felt like you were swallowing glass.

  *

  Patrick's feet were crossed on the prosecutor's desk, as Diana Leven scanned the reports that had come from ballistics days after the shooting, in preparation for his testimony at the trial. "There were two shotguns, which were never used," Patrick explained, "and two matching handguns--Glock 17s--that were registered to a neighbor across the street. A retired cop."

  Diana glanced up over the papers. "Lovely."

  "Yeah. Well, you know cops. What's the point of putting the gun in a locked cabinet when you have to get at it quickly? Anyway, Gun A is the one that was fired around most of the school--the striations on the bullets we recovered match it. Gun B was fired--ballistics told us that--but there hasn't been a bullet recovered that matches its barrel. That gun was found jammed, on the floor of the locker room. Houghton was still holding Gun A when he was apprehended."

  Diana leaned back in her chair, her fingers steepled in front of her chest. "McAfee's going to ask you why Houghton would have pulled out Gun B at all in the locker room, if Gun A had worked so splendidly up till that point."

  Patrick shrugged. "He might have used it to shoot Royston in the belly, and then when it jammed, switched back to Gun A. Or then again, it might be even simpler than that. Since the bullet from Gun B wasn't recovered, it's possible it was the very first shot fired. The slug could be lodged in the fiberglass insulation in the cafeteria, for all we know. It jammed, the kid switched to Gun A and stuffed the jammed gun in his pocket . . . and then at the end of his killing spree, he either discarded it or dropped it by accident."

  "Or. I hate that word. It's two letters long and stuffed to the gills with reasonable doubt--"

  She broke off as there was a knock at the door, and her secretary stuck her head inside. "Your two o'clock's here."

  Diana turned to him. "I'm preparing Drew Girard for testifying. Why don't you stay for this one?"

  Patrick moved to a chair on the side of the room to give Drew the spot across from the prosecutor. The boy entered with a soft knock. "Ms. Leven?"

  Diana came around her desk. "Drew. Thanks for coming in." She gestured at Patrick. "You remember Detective Ducharme?"

  Drew nodded at him. Patrick surveyed the boy's pressed pants, his collared shirt, his manners on display. This was not the cocky, big-man-on-campus hockey star, as he had been painted by students during Patrick's investigations, but then again, Drew had watched his best friend get killed; he'd been shot himself in the shoulder. Whatever world he had lorded over was gone now.

  "Drew," Diana said, "we brought you in here because you got a subpoena, and that means you're going to be testifying sometime next week. We'll let you know when, for sure, as we get closer . . . but for now, I wanted to make sure you weren't nervous about going to court. Today, we'll go over some of the things you'll be asked, and how the procedure works. If you have any questions, we can cover those as well. Okay?"

  "Yes, ma'am."

  Patrick leaned forward. "How's the shoulder?"

  Drew swiveled to face him, unconsciously flexing that body part. "I still have to do physical therapy and stuff, but it's a lot better. Except . . ." His voice trailed off.

  "Except what?" Diana asked.

  "I'll miss hockey season this whole year."

  Diana met Patrick's eye; this was sympathy for a witness. "Do you think you'll be able to play again, eventually?"

  Drew flushed. "The doctors say no, but I think they're wrong." He hesitated. "I'm a senior this year, and I was sort of counting on an athletic scholarship for college."

  There was an uncomfortable silence, as no one acknowledged either Drew's courage or the truth. "So, Drew," Diana said. "When we get into court, I'll start by asking your name, where you live, if you were in school that day."

  "Okay."

  "Let's try it out a bit, all right? When you got to school that morning, what was your first class?"

  Drew sat up a little straighter. "American History."

  "And second period?"

  "English."

  "Where did you go after English class?"

  "I had third period free, and most people with free periods hang out in the caf."

  "Is that where you went?"

  "Yeah."

  "Was anyone with you?" Diana continued.

  "I went down by myself, but when I got there, I hung out with a bunch of people." He looked at Patrick. "Friends."

  "How long were you in the cafeteria?"

  "I don't know, a half hour, maybe?"

  Diana nodded. "What happened then?"

  Drew looked down at his pants and drew his thumb along the crease. Patrick noticed that his hand was shaking. "We were all just, you know, talking . . . and then I heard this really big boom."

  "Could you tell where the sound was coming from?"

  "No. I didn't know what it was."

  "Did you see anything?"

  "No."

  "So," Diana asked, "what did you do when you heard it?"

  "I made a joke," Drew said. "I said it was probably the school lunch, igniting or something. Oh, finally, that radioactive mac and cheese."

  "Did you stay in the cafeteria after the boom?"

  "Yeah."

  "And then?"

  Drew looked down at his hands. "There was this sound like firecrackers. Before anyone could figure out what it was, Peter came into the cafeteria. He was carrying a knapsack and holding a gun, and he started shooting."

  Diana held up her hand. "I'm going to stop you there for a moment, Drew. . . . When you're on the stand, and you say that, I'll ask you to look at the defendant and identify him for the record. Got it?"

  "Yes."

  Patrick realized that he was not just seeing the shooting the way he'd have seen any other crime. He wasn't even visualizing it playing out as a prequel to the chilling cafeteria videotape he'd watched. He was imagining Josie--one of Drew's friends--sitting at a long table, hearing those firecrackers, not imagining in the least what came next.

  "How long have you known Peter?" Diana asked.

  "We both grew up in Sterling. We've been in the same school, like, forever."

  "Were you friends?" Drew shook his head. "Enemies?"

&
nbsp; "No," he said. "Not really enemies."

  "Ever have any problems with him?"

  Drew glanced up. "No."

  "Did you ever bully him?"

  "No, ma'am," he said.

  Patrick felt his hands curl into fists. He knew, from interviewing hundreds of kids, that Drew Girard had stuffed Peter Houghton into lockers; had tripped him while he was walking down the stairs; had thrown spitballs into his hair. None of that condoned what Peter had done . . . but still. There was a kid rotting in jail; there were ten people decomposing in graves; there were dozens in rehab and corrective surgery; there were hundreds--like Josie--who still could not get through the day without bursting into tears; there were parents--like Alex--who trusted Diana to get justice done on their behalf. And this little asshole was lying through his teeth.

  Diana looked up from her notes and stared at Drew. "So if you get asked under oath whether you've ever picked on Peter, what's your answer going to be?"

  Drew looked up at her, the bravado fading just enough for Patrick to realize he was scared to death that they knew something more than they were admitting to him. Diana glanced at Patrick and threw down her pen. That was all the invitation he needed--he was out of his chair in an instant, his hand grabbing Drew Girard's throat. "Listen, you little fuck," Patrick said, "don't screw this up. We know what you did to Peter Houghton. We know you were sitting front and center. There are ten dead victims, and eighteen more who are never going to have the lives they thought they would, and there are so many families in this community that are never going to stop grieving that I can't even count them. I don't know what your game plan is here--if you want to play the choirboy to protect your reputation, or if you're just scared to tell the truth--but believe me, if you get on that witness stand and you lie about your actions in the past, I will make sure you wind up in jail for obstruction of justice."

  He let go of Drew and turned away, staring out the window in Diana's office. He had no authority to arrest Drew for anything--even if the kid did perjure himself--much less send him to jail, but Drew would never know that. And maybe it was enough to scare him into behaving. Taking a deep breath, Patrick bent down and picked up the pen Diana had dropped and handed it to her.

  "Let me ask you again, Drew," she said smoothly. "Did you ever bully Peter Houghton?"

  Drew glanced at Patrick and swallowed. Then he opened his mouth and started to speak.

 
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