Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  *

  "It's barbecued lasagna," Alex announced after Patrick and Josie had each taken their first bite. "What do you think?"

  "I didn't know you could barbecue lasagna," Josie said slowly. She began to peel the noodles back from the cheese, as if she were scalping it.

  "How's that work, exactly?" Patrick asked, reaching for the pitcher of water to refill his glass.

  "It was regular lasagna. But some of the insides spilled out into the oven, and there was all this smoke . . . and I was going to start over, but then I sort of realized that I was only adding an extra, charcoal sort of flavor into the mix." She beamed. "Ingenious, right? I mean, I looked in all the cookbooks, Josie, and it's never been done before, as far as I can tell."

  "Go figure," Patrick said, and he coughed into his napkin.

  "I actually like cooking," Alex said. "I like taking a recipe and, you know, going off on a tangent to see what happens."

  "Recipes are kind of like laws," Patrick replied. "You might want to try to stick to them, before you commit a felony . . ."

  "I'm not hungry," Josie said suddenly. She pushed her plate away, stood up, and ran upstairs.

  "The trial starts tomorrow," Alex said, by way of explanation. She went after Josie, not even excusing herself first, because she knew Patrick would understand. Josie had slammed the door shut and turned up her music; it would do no good to knock. Alex turned the knob and stepped inside, reaching to the stereo to turn down the volume.

  Josie lay on her bed facedown, the pillow over her head. When Alex sat down on the mattress beside her, she didn't move. "You want to talk about it?" Alex asked.

  "No," Josie said, her voice muffled.

  Alex reached out and yanked the pillow off her head. "Try."

  "It's just--God, Mom--what's wrong with me? It's like the world's started spinning again for everyone else, but I can't even get back on the carousel. Even you two--you both must be thinking like crazy about the trial, too--but here you are, laughing and smiling like you can put what happened and what's going to happen out of your head, when I can't not think about it every waking second." Josie looked up at Alex, her eyes filling with tears. "Everyone's moved on. Everyone but me."

  Alex put her hand on Josie's arm and rubbed it. She could remember delighting in the sheer physical proof of Josie after she was born--that somehow, out of nothing, she'd created this tiny, warm, squirming, flawless creature. She'd spend hours on her bed with Josie beside her, touching her baby's skin, her seed-pearl toes, the pulse of her fontanel. "Once," Alex said, "when I was working as a public defender, a guy in the office threw a Fourth of July party for all the lawyers and their families. I took you, even though you were only about three years old. There were fireworks, and I looked away for a second to see them, and when I turned back you were gone. I started to scream, and someone noticed you--lying at the bottom of the pool."

  Josie sat up, riveted by a story she had never heard before.

  "I dove in and dragged you out and gave you mouth-to-mouth, and you spit up. I couldn't even speak, I was so scared. But you came back fighting and furious at me. You told me you'd been looking for mermaids, and I interrupted you."

  Tucking her knees up under her chin, Josie smiled a little. "Really?"

  Alex nodded. "I said that next time, you had to take me with you."

  "Was there a next time?"

  "Well, you tell me," Alex said, and she hesitated. "You don't need water to feel like you're drowning, do you?"

  When Josie shook her head, the tears spilled over. She shifted, fitting herself into her mother's arms.

  *

  This, Patrick knew, was his downfall. For the second time in his life, he was growing so close to a woman and her child that he forgot he might not really be part of their family. He looked around the table at the detritus of Alex's awful dinner and started clearing the untouched plates.

  The barbecued lasagna had congealed in its serving dish, a blackened brick. He piled the dishes in the sink and began to run warm water, then picked up a sponge and started to scrub.

  "Oh my gosh," Alex said behind him. "You really are the perfect man."

  Patrick turned, his hands still soapy. "Far from it." He reached for a dish towel. "Is Josie--"

  "She's fine. She'll be fine. Or at least we're both going to keep saying that until it's true."

  "I'm sorry, Alex."

  "Who isn't?" She straddled a kitchen chair and rested her cheek on its spine. "I'm going to the trial tomorrow."

  "I wouldn't have expected any less."

  "Do you really think McAfee can get him acquitted?"

  Patrick folded the dish towel beside the sink and walked toward Alex. He knelt in front of her chair. "Alex," he said, "that kid walked into the school like he was executing a battle plan. He started in the parking lot and set off a bomb to cause a distraction. He went around to the front of the school and took out a kid on the steps. He went into the cafeteria, shot at a bunch of kids, murdered some of them--and then he sat down and had a bowl of fucking cereal before he continued his killing spree. I don't see how, presented with that kind of evidence, a jury could dismiss the charges."

  Alex stared at him. "Tell me something . . . why was Josie lucky?"

  "Because she's alive."

  "No, I mean, why is she alive? She was in the cafeteria and the locker room. She saw people die all around her. Why didn't Peter shoot her?"

  "I don't know. Things happen that I don't understand all the time. Some of them--well, they're like the shooting. And some of them . . ." He covered Alex's hand with his own where it gripped the chair rail. "Some of them aren't."

  Alex looked up at him, and Patrick was reminded again of how finding her--being with her--was like that first crocus you saw in the snow. Just when you assumed winter would last forever, this unexpected beauty could take you by surprise--and if you did not take your eyes off it, if you kept your focus, the rest of the snow would somehow melt.

  "If I ask you something, will you be honest with me?" Alex asked.

  Patrick nodded.

  "My lasagna wasn't very good, was it?"

  He smiled at her through the slats of the chair. "Don't give up your day job," he said.

  *

  In the middle of the night, when Josie could still not get to sleep, she slipped outside and lay down on the front lawn. She stared up at the sky, which clung so low by this time of the night that she could feel stars pricking her face. Out here, without her bedroom closing in around her, it was almost possible to believe that whatever problems she had were tiny, in the grand scheme of the universe.

  Tomorrow, Peter Houghton was going to be tried for ten murders. Even the thought of it--of that last murder--made Josie sick to her stomach. She could not go watch the trial, as much as she wanted to, because she was on a stupid witness list. Instead, she was sequestered, which was a fancy word for being kept clueless.

  Josie took a deep breath and thought about a social studies class she'd taken in middle school where they'd learned that someone--Eskimos, maybe?--believed stars were holes in the sky where people who'd died could peek through at you. It was supposed to be comforting, but Josie had always found it a little creepy, as if it meant she was being spied on.

  It also made her think of a really dumb joke about a guy walking past a mental institution with a high fence, who hears the patients chanting Ten! Ten! Ten! and goes to peek through a hole in the fence to see what's going on . . . only to get poked in the eye with a stick and hear the patients chant Eleven! Eleven! Eleven!

  Matt had told her that joke.

  Maybe she'd even laughed.

  Here's what the Eskimos don't tell you: Those people on the other side, they have to go out of their way to watch you. But you can see them any old time. All you have to do is close your eyes.

  *

  On the morning of her son's murder trial, Lacy picked a black skirt out of her closet, along with a black blouse and black stockings. She dressed lik
e she was headed to a funeral, but maybe that wasn't so far off the mark. She ripped three pairs of hose because her hands were shaking, and finally decided to go without. By the end of the day her shoes would rub blisters on her feet, and Lacy thought maybe this was a good thing; maybe she could concentrate instead on a pain that made perfect sense.

  She did not know where Lewis was; if he was even going to the trial today. They hadn't really spoken since the day she had tracked him to the graveyard, and he had taken to sleeping in Joey's bedroom. Neither one of them went into Peter's.

  But this morning, she forced herself to turn left instead of right at the landing, and she opened the door of Peter's bedroom. After the police had come, she had put it back in some semblance of order, telling herself that she didn't want Peter to come home to a place that had been ransacked. There were still gaping holes--the desk looked naked without its computer, the bookshelves half empty. She walked up to one and pulled down a paperback. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Peter had been reading it for English class when he was arrested. She wondered if he'd had the time to finish.

  Dorian Gray had a portrait that grew old and evil while he remained young and innocent-looking. Maybe the quiet, reserved mother who would testify for her son had a portrait somewhere that was ravaged with guilt, twisted with pain. Maybe the woman in that picture was allowed to cry and scream, to break down, to grab her son's shoulders and say What have you done?

  She startled at the sound of someone opening the door. Lewis stood on the threshold, wearing the suit that he kept for conferences and college graduations. He was holding a blue silk tie in his hand and did not speak.

  Lacy took the tie out of Lewis's hand and walked behind him. She noosed it around his neck, gently pulled the knot into place, and flipped down the collar. As she did, Lewis reached for her hand and didn't let go.

  There weren't words, really, for moments like this--when you realized that you'd lost one child and the other was slipping out of your reach. Still holding Lacy's hand, Lewis led her out of Peter's room. He closed the door behind them.

  *

  At 6:00 a.m., when Jordan crept downstairs to read through his notes in preparation for the trial, he found a single place setting at the table: a bowl, a spoon, and a box of Cocoa Krispies--the meal he always used to kick off a battle. Grinning--Selena must have gotten up in the middle of the night to do this, since they'd headed up to bed together last night--he sat down and poured himself a healthy serving, then went into the fridge for the milk.

  A Post-it note had been stuck to the carton. GOOD LUCK.

  Just as Jordan sat down to eat, the telephone rang. He grabbed it--Selena and the baby were still asleep. "Hello?"

  "Dad?"

  "Thomas," he said. "What are you doing up at this hour?"

  "Well, um, I sort of didn't go to bed yet."

  Jordan smiled. "Ah, to be young and collegiate again."

  "Anyway, I just called to wish you luck. It starts today, right?"

  He looked down at his cereal and suddenly remembered the footage taken by the cafeteria video camera at Sterling High: Peter sitting down, just like this, to have a bowl of cereal, dead students flanking him. Jordan pushed the bowl away. "Yes," he said. "It does."

  *

  The correctional officer opened up Peter's cell and handed him a stack of folded clothes. "Time for the ball, Cinderella," he said.

  Peter waited until he left. He knew his mother had bought these for him; she'd even left the tags on so that he could see they hadn't come from Joey's closet. They were preppy, the kind of clothes he imagined were worn to polo matches--not that he'd ever actually been to one to see.

  Peter stripped out of his jumpsuit and pulled on the boxer shorts, the socks. He sat down on his bunk to pull up his trousers, which were a little tight at the waist. He buttoned the shirt wrong the first time and had to do it over. He didn't know how to do his tie right. He rolled it up and stuffed it into his pocket so that Jordan could help him.

  There wasn't a mirror in his cell, but Peter imagined he looked ordinary now. If you beamed him from this jail into a crowded New York street or into the stands of a football game, people probably wouldn't glance twice at him; wouldn't realize that underneath all that washed wool and Egyptian cotton was someone they'd never imagine. Or in other words, after all this, nothing had changed.

  He was about to leave the cell when he realized he had not been given a bulletproof vest, as he had for the arraignment. It probably wasn't because he was any less hated now; more likely, it had been an oversight. He started to ask the guard about it, but then snapped his mouth shut.

  Maybe, for the first time in his life, Peter had gotten lucky.

  *

  Alex dressed like she was going to work, which she was, except not as a judge. She wondered what it would be like to sit in court in the role of civilian. She wondered if the grieving mother from the arraignment would be there.

  She knew it was going to be hard to listen to this trial, and to understand all over again how close she had come to losing Josie. Alex was through pretending that she was listening only because it was her job; she was listening because she had to. One day Josie would remember and would need someone to hold her upright; and since Alex hadn't been there the first time to protect Josie, she'd bear witness now.

  She hurried downstairs and found Josie sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in a skirt and blouse. "I'm going," she announced.

  It was deja vu--this was exactly what had happened the day of Peter's arraignment, except that seemed so long ago, and she and Josie had both been very different people back then. Today, she was on the defense's witness list, but she hadn't been served with a subpoena, which meant that she didn't actually have to be in the courthouse at all during the trial.

  "I know I can't go in, but Patrick's sequestered, too, isn't he?"

  The last time Josie had asked to go to court, Alex had flatly refused. This time, though, she sat down across from Josie. "Do you have any idea what it's going to be like? There are going to be cameras, lots of them. And kids in wheelchairs. And angry parents. And Peter."

  Josie's gaze fell into her lap like a stone. "You're trying to keep me from going again."

  "No, I'm trying to keep you from getting hurt."

  "I didn't get hurt," Josie said. "That's why I have to go."

  Five months ago, Alex had made this decision for her daughter. Now she knew that Josie deserved to speak for herself. "I'll meet you in the car," she said calmly. She held this mask until Josie closed the door behind herself, and then bolted upstairs to the bathroom and got sick.

  She was afraid that reliving the shooting, even from a distance, would rattle Josie past the point of recovery. But mostly she worried that for the second time, she would be powerless to keep her daughter from being hurt.

  Alex rested her forehead against the cool porcelain lip of the bathtub. Then, standing, she brushed her teeth and splashed her face with water. She hurried to the car, where her daughter was already waiting.

  *

  Because the sitter was late, Jordan and Selena found themselves fighting the crowd on the courtroom steps. Selena had been expecting it--and still wasn't entirely prepared for the hordes of reporters, the television vans, the spectators holding up their camera phones to capture a snapshot of the melee.

  Jordan was playing the villain today--the vast majority of the onlookers were from Sterling, and since Peter would be transported to the court via underground tunnel, Jordan was their fall guy. "How do you sleep at night?" a woman shouted as Jordan hurried up the steps past her. Another held up a sign: There's still a death penalty in NH.

  "Ooh boy," Jordan said under his breath. "This is gonna be a fun one."

  "You'll be fine," Selena replied.

  But he had stopped moving. There was a man standing on the steps holding up a piece of posterboard with two large mounted photos--one of a girl, one of a pretty woman. Kaitlyn Harvey, Selena realized, recognizing
the face. And her mother. At the top of the display were two words: NINETEEN MINUTES.

  Jordan met the man's gaze. Selena knew what he was thinking--that this could be him, that he had just as much to lose. "I'm sorry," Jordan murmured, and Selena looped her arm through his and pulled him up the stairs again.

  There was a different crowd up here, though. They wore startling yellow shirts with BVA printed across the chest, and they were chanting: "Peter, you are not alone. Peter, you are not alone."

  Jordan leaned closer to her. "What the fuck is this?"

  "The Bullied Victims of America."

  "You must be joking," Jordan said. "They exist?"

  "You better believe it," Selena said.

  Jordan started to smile for the first time since they'd started driving to court. "And you found them for us?"

  Selena squeezed his arm. "You can thank me later," she said.

  *

  His client looked like he was going to faint. Jordan nodded at the deputy who let him into the holding cell where Peter was being kept at the courthouse, and then sat down. "Breathe," he commanded.

  Peter nodded and filled up his lungs. He was shaking. Jordan had expected this, had seen it at the start of every trial he'd ever been a part of. Even the most hardened criminal suddenly panicked when he realized that this was the day his life was on the line. "I've got something for you," Jordan said, and he took a pair of glasses out of his pocket.

  They were thick and tortoiseshell, Coke-bottle glasses, very different from the thin wire ones Peter usually wore. "I don't," Peter said, and then his voice cracked. "I don't need new ones."

  "Well, take them anyway."

  "Why?"

  "Because everyone will notice these on your face," Jordan said. "I want you to look like someone who could never in a million years see well enough to shoot ten people."

  Peter's hands curled around the metal edge of the bench. "Jordan? What's going to happen to me?"

  There were some clients you had to lie to, just so that they'd get through the trial. But at this point, Jordan thought he owed Peter the truth. "I don't know, Peter. You haven't got a great case, because of all the evidence against you. The likelihood of you being acquitted is slim, but I'm still going to do whatever I can for you. Okay?" Peter nodded. "All I want you to do is try to be quiet out there. Look pathetic."

 
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