Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Lewis had a bigwig economist from London coming to dinner, and in preparation, Lacy had taken the day off work to clean. Although she had no doubts about her prowess as a midwife, the nature of her work meant that toilets didn't get cleaned on a regular basis; that dust bunnies bloomed beneath the furniture. Usually, she didn't care--she thought a house that was lived in was preferential to one that was sterile--unless company was coming over; then pride kicked in. So that morning, she'd gotten up, made breakfast, and had already dusted the living room by the time Peter--a sophomore, then--threw himself angrily into a chair at the kitchen table. "I have no clean underwear," he fumed, although the rule in the house was that when his laundry bin filled, he had to do his own wash--there was so little that Lacy ever asked him to do, she didn't think this one task was unreasonable. Lacy had suggested that he borrow some from his father, but Peter was disgusted by that, and she decided to let him figure it out on his own. She had enough on her plate.

  She usually let Peter's room stand in utter pigsty disarray, but as she passed by that morning, she noticed his laundry bin. Well, she was already home working, and he was at school. She could do this one thing for him. By the time Peter got home that day, Lacy had not only vacuumed and scrubbed the floors, cooked a four-course meal, and cleaned the kitchen--she had also washed, dried, and folded three loads of Peter's laundry. They were piled on the bed, clean clothing that covered the entire six-foot span of the mattress, segregated into pants, shirts, undershorts. All he had to do was set them into his closet, his drawers.

  Peter arrived, sullen and moody, and immediately hurried upstairs to his room and his computer--the place he spent most of his time. Lacy--arm deep in the toilet, at that point, scouring--waited for him to notice what she'd done for him. But instead, she heard him groan. "God! I'm supposed to put all this away?" Then he slammed his bedroom door so loud that the house shook around her.

  Suddenly, Lacy couldn't see straight. She had--of her own volition--done something nice for her son--her ridiculously spoiled son--and this was how he acted in return? She rinsed off the scrubbing gloves and left them in the sink. Then she stomped upstairs to Peter's room and threw open the door. "What is your problem?"

  Peter glared at her. "What's your problem? Look at this mess."

  Something inside Lacy had snapped like a filament, igniting her. "Mess?" she repeated. "I cleaned up the mess. You want to see a mess?" She reached past Peter, knocking over a pile of neatly folded T-shirts. She grabbed his boxer shorts and threw them on the floor. She shoved his pants off the bed, hurled them at his computer, so that his tower of CD-ROMs fell over and the silver disks scattered. "I hate you!" Peter yelled, and without missing a beat, Lacy yelled back, "I hate you, too!" Only then did she realize that she and Peter were now the same height; that she was arguing with a child who stood eye-level with her.

  She backed out of Peter's room, and he slammed the door behind her. Almost immediately, Lacy burst into tears. She hadn't meant it--of course she hadn't. She loved Peter. She just, at that moment, hated what he'd said; what he'd done. When she knocked, he wouldn't answer. "Peter," she said. "Peter, I'm sorry I said that."

  She held her ear to the door, but there was no sound coming from the inside. Lacy had gone back downstairs and finished cleaning the bathroom. She had moved like a zombie through dinner, making conversation with the economist without really knowing what she was saying. Peter had not joined them. She did not see him, in fact, until the next morning, when Lacy went to wake him up and found his room already empty--and spotless. The clothes had been refolded and placed in their drawers. The bed was made. The CDs organized again, in their tower.

  Peter was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal, when Lacy went downstairs. He did not meet her eyes, and she did not meet his--the ground between them was still too tender for that. But she poured him a glass of juice and set it on the table. He said thank you.

  They never spoke of what they'd said to each other, and Lacy had vowed to herself that no matter how frustrating it got, being the parent of a teenage boy, no matter how selfish and self-centered Peter became, she would never again let herself reach a point where she truly, viscerally hated her own son.

  But as the victims of Sterling High told their stories in a courtroom just down the hall from where Lacy sat, she hoped that she wasn't too late.


  At first, Peter didn't recognize her. The girl who was being led up the ramp by a nurse--the girl whose hair had been cropped to fit underneath bandages and whose face was twisted with scar tissue and bone that had been broken and carved away--settled herself inside the witness box in a way that reminded him of fish being introduced to a new tank. They'd swim around the perimeter gingerly, as if they knew they had to assess the dangers of this new place before they could even begin to function.

  "Can you state your name for the record?" the prosecutor asked.

  "Haley," the girl said softly. "Haley Weaver."

  "Last year, you were a senior at Sterling High?"

  Her mouth rounded, flattened. The pink scar that curved like the seam on a baseball over her temple grew darker, an angry red. "Yes," she said. She closed her eyes, and a tear slid down her hollow cheek. "I was the homecoming queen." She bent forward, rocking slightly as she cried.

  Peter's chest hurt, as if it were going to explode. He thought maybe he would just die on the spot and save everyone the trouble of going through this. He was afraid to look up, because if he did he would have to see Haley Weaver again.

  Once, when he was little, he'd been playing with a Nerf football in his parents' bedroom and he knocked over an antique perfume bottle that had belonged to his great-grandmother. It was made out of glass and it broke into pieces. His mother told him she knew it was an accident, and she'd glued it back together. She kept it on her dresser, and every time he passed by he saw the lines. For years, he'd thought that might have been worse than being punished in the first place.

  "Let's take a short recess," Judge Wagner said, and Peter let his head sink down to the defense table, a weight too heavy to bear.


  The witnesses were sequestered by side, prosecution in one room and defense in another. The policemen had their own room, too. Witnesses were not supposed to see each other, but nobody really noticed if you left to go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee or a donut, and Josie had taken to leaving for hours at a time. It was there that she'd run into Haley, who'd been drinking orange juice through a straw. Brady was with her, holding the cup so she could reach it.

  They'd been happy to see Josie, but she was glad when they left. It hurt, physically, to have to smile at Haley and pretend that you weren't staring at the pits and gullies of her face. She'd told Josie that she had already had three operations with a plastic surgeon in New York City who had donated his services.

  Brady never let go of her hand; sometimes he ran his fingers through her hair. It made Josie want to cry, because she knew that when he looked at Haley, he was still able to see her in a way that no one else would again.

  There were others there, too, that Josie hadn't seen since the shooting. Teachers, like Ms. Ritolli and Coach Spears, who came over to say hello. The DJ who ran the radio station at the school, the honors student with the really bad acne. They all cycled through the cafeteria while she sat and nursed a cup of coffee.

  She glanced up when Drew flung himself into a chair across from her. "How come you're not in the room with the rest of us?"

  "I'm on the defense's list." Or, as she was sure everyone in the other room thought of it, the traitors' side.

  "Oh," Drew said, as if he understood, although Josie was sure he didn't. "You ready for this?"

  "I don't have to be ready. They're not actually going to call me."

  "Then why are you here?"

  Before she could answer, Drew waved, and then she realized John Eberhard had arrived. "Dude," Drew said, and John headed toward them. He walked with a limp, she noticed, bu
t he was walking. He leaned down to high-five Drew and when he did, Josie could see the pucker in his scalp where the bullet had entered his head.

  "Where have you been?" Drew asked, making room for John to sit down beside him. "I thought I'd see you around this summer, for sure."

  He nodded at them. "I'm . . . John."

  Drew's smile faded like paint.

  "This . . . is . . ."

  "This is fucking unbelievable," Drew murmured.

  "He can hear you," Josie snapped, and she crouched down in front of John. "Hi, John. I'm Josie."


  "Right. Josie."

  "I'm . . . John," he said.

  John Eberhard had played goalie on the all-star state hockey team since his freshman year. Whenever the team won, the coach had always credited John's reflexes.

  "Shoooo," he said, and he shuffled his foot.

  Josie looked down at the undone Velcro strap of John's sneaker. "There you go," she said, fixing it for him.

  Suddenly she could not stand being here, seeing this. "I've got to get back," Josie said, standing up. As she walked away, blindly turning the corner, she crashed into someone. "Sorry," she murmured, and then heard Patrick's voice.

  "Josie? You all right?"

  She shrugged, and then she shook her head.

  "That makes two of us."

  Patrick was holding a cup of coffee and a donut. "I know," he said. "I'm a walking cliche. You want it?" He held the pastry out to her, and she took it, even though she wasn't hungry. "You coming or going?"

  "Coming," she lied, before she even realized she was doing it.

  "Then keep me company for a few minutes." He led her to a table across the room from Drew and John; she could feel them looking at her, wondering why she might be hanging out with a cop. "I hate the waiting part," Patrick said.

  "At least you're not nervous about testifying."

  "Sure I am."

  "Don't you do this all the time?"

  Patrick nodded. "But that doesn't make it any easier to get up in front of a room full of people. I don't know how your mom does it."

  "So what do you do to get over the stage fright? Imagine the judge in his underwear?"

  "Well, not this judge," Patrick said, and then, realizing what he'd just implied, he blushed deep red.

  "That's probably a good thing," Josie said.

  Patrick reached for the donut and took a bite, then handed it back to her. "I just try to tell myself, when I get out there, that I can't get into trouble telling the truth. Then I let Diana do all the work." He took a sip of his coffee. "You need anything? A drink? More food?"

  "I'm okay."

  "Then I'll walk you back. Come on."

  The room for the defense's witnesses was tiny, because there were so few of them. An Asian man Josie had never seen before was sitting with his back to her, typing away at a laptop. There was a woman inside who hadn't been there when Josie left, but Josie couldn't see her face.

  Patrick paused in front of the door. "How do you think it's going in court?" she asked.

  He hesitated. "It's going."

  She slipped past the bailiff who was babysitting them, heading toward the window seat where she'd been curled before, reading. But at the last minute she sat down at the table in the middle of the room. The woman already seated there had her hands folded in front of her and was staring at absolutely nothing.

  "Mrs. Houghton," Josie murmured.

  Peter's mother turned. "Josie?" She squinted, as if that might bring Josie into better focus.

  "I'm so sorry," Josie whispered.

  Mrs. Houghton nodded. "Well," she said, and then she just stopped, as if the sentence were no more than a cliff to jump from.

  "How are you doing?" Josie immediately wished she could take back her question--how did she think Peter's mother was doing, for God's sake? She was probably using all of her self-control right now to keep from dissolving into foam, blowing off into the atmosphere. Which, Josie realized, meant they had something in common.

  "I wouldn't have expected to see you here," Mrs. Houghton said softly.

  By here she didn't mean the courthouse; she meant this room. With the other meager witnesses who had been tapped to stick up for Peter.

  Josie cleared her throat, to make way for the words she hadn't said for years, the words she still would have been afraid to use in front of nearly anyone else, for fear of the echo. "He's my friend," she said.


  "We started running," Drew said. "It was like this mass exodus. I just wanted to get as far away from the cafeteria as I could, so I headed for the gym. Two of my friends had heard the shots, but they didn't know where they were coming from, so I grabbed them and told them to follow me."

  "Who were they?" Leven asked.

  "Matt Royston," Drew said. "And Josie Cormier."

  At the sound of her daughter's name being spoken aloud, Alex shivered. It made it so . . . real. So immediate. Drew had located Alex in the gallery, and was staring right at her when he said Josie's name.

  "Where did you go?"

  "We figured if we could get to the locker room, we could climb out the window onto the maple tree and we'd be safe."

  "Did you get to the locker room?"

  "Josie and Matt did," Drew said. "But I got shot."

  Alex listened as the prosecutor walked Drew through the extent of his injuries and how they had effectively ended his hockey career. Then she faced him squarely. "Did you know Peter before the day of the shooting?"



  "We were in the same grade. Everyone knows everyone."

  "Were you friends?" Leven asked.

  Alex glanced across the aisle at Lewis Houghton. He was sitting directly behind his son, his eyes fixed straight on the bench. Alex had a flash of him, years ago, opening the front door when she'd gone to pick Josie up from a playdate. Here come da judge, he'd said, and he laughed at his own joke.

  Were you friends?

  "No," Drew said.

  "Did you have any problems with him?"

  Drew hesitated. "No."

  "Did you ever get in an argument with him?" Leven asked.

  "We probably had a few words," Drew said.

  "Did you ever make fun of him?"

  "Sometimes. We were just kidding around."

  "Did you ever physically attack him?"

  "When we were younger, I might have pushed him around a little bit."

  Alex looked at Lewis Houghton. His eyes were squeezed shut.

  "Have you done that since you've been in high school?"

  "Yes," Drew admitted.

  "Did you ever threaten Peter with a weapon?"


  "Did you ever threaten to kill him?"

  "No . . . we were, you know. Just being kids."

  "Thank you." She sat down, and Alex watched Jordan McAfee rise.

  He was a good lawyer--better than she would have given him credit for. He put on a fine show--whispering with Peter, putting his hand on the boy's arm when he got upset, taking copious notes on the direct examination and sharing them with his client. He was humanizing Peter, in spite of the fact that the prosecution was making him out to be a monster, in spite of the fact that the defense hadn't even yet begun to have their turn.

  "You had no problems with Peter," McAfee repeated.


  "But he had problems with you, didn't he?"

  Drew didn't respond.

  "Mr. Girard, you're going to have to speak up," Judge Wagner said.

  "Sometimes," Drew conceded.

  "Have you ever stuck your elbow in Peter's chest?"

  Drew's gaze slid sideways. "Maybe. By accident."

  "Ah, yes. It's always easy to find yourself sticking out an elbow when you least expect to . . ."


  McAfee smiled. "In fact, it wasn't an accident, was it, Mr. Girard?"

  At the prosecutor's table, Diana Leven raised her pen and dropped it
on the floor. The noise made Drew glance over, and a muscle flexed in his jaw. "We were just joking around," he said.

  "Ever shove Peter into a locker?"


  "Just joking around?" McAfee said.


  "Okay," he continued. "Did you ever trip him?"

  "I guess."

  "Wait . . . let me guess . . . joke, right?"

  Drew glowered. "Yes."

  "Actually, you've been doing this sort of stuff as a joke to Peter since you were little kids, right?"

  "We just never were friends," Drew said. "He wasn't like us."

  "Who's us?" McAfee asked.

  Drew shrugged. "Matt Royston, Josie Cormier, John Eberhard, Courtney Ignatio. Kids like that. We had all hung out together for years."

  "Did Peter know everyone in that group?"

  "It's a small school, sure."

  "Does Peter know Josie Cormier?"

  In the gallery, Alex drew in her breath.


  "Did you ever see Peter talking to Josie?"

  "I don't know."

  "Well, a month or so before the shooting, when you all were together in the cafeteria, Peter came over to speak to Josie. Can you tell us about that?"

  Alex leaned forward on her chair. She could feel eyes on her, hot as the sun in a desert. She realized, from the direction, that now Lewis Houghton was staring at her.

  "I don't know what they were talking about."

  "But you were there, right?"


  "And Josie's a friend of yours? Not one of the people who hung out with Peter?"

  "Yeah," Drew said. "She's one of us."

  "Do you remember how that conversation in the cafeteria ended?" McAfee asked.

  Drew looked down at the ground.

  "Let me help you, Mr. Girard. It ended with Matt Royston walking behind Peter and pulling his pants down while he was trying to speak to Josie Cormier. Does that sound about right?"


  "The cafeteria was packed with kids that day, wasn't it?"


  "And Matt didn't just pull down Peter's pants . . . he pulled down his underwear too, correct?"

  Drew's mouth twitched. "Yeah."

  "And you saw all of this."


  McAfee turned to the jury. "Let me guess," he said. "Joke, right?"

  The courtroom had gone utterly silent. Drew was glaring at Diana Leven, subliminally begging to be dragged off the witness stand, Alex assumed. This was the first person, other than Peter, who had been offered up for sacrifice.

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