Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  She took a step toward Lacy. "Something still exists as long as there's someone around to remember it, right?"

  Lacy stared at Alex through her tears. "Thank you," she whispered, and left before she broke down completely in front of a woman--a stranger, really--who could do what Lacy couldn't: hold on to the past as if it was something to be treasured, instead of combing it for clues of failure.

  *

  "Josie," her mother said as they were driving home. "They read an email today in court. One that Peter had written to you."

  Josie faced her, stricken. She should have realized this would come out at the trial; how had she been so stupid? "I didn't know Courtney had sent it out. I didn't even see it until after everyone else had."

  "It must have been embarrassing," Alex said.

  "Well, yeah. The whole school knew he had a crush on me."

  Her mother glanced at her. "I meant for Peter."

  Josie thought about Lacy Houghton. Ten years had passed, but Josie had still been surprised by how thin Peter's mom had gotten; how her hair was nearly all gray. She wondered if grief could make time run faster, like a glitch in a clock. It was incredibly depressing, since Josie remembered Peter's mother as someone who never wore a wristwatch, someone who didn't care about the mess if the end result was worthy. When Josie was little and they played over at Peter's, Lacy would make cookies from whatever was left in her cabinet--oatmeal and wheat germ and gummy bears and marshmallows; carob and cornstarch and puffed rice. She once dumped a load of sand in the basement during the winter so that they could make castles. She let them draw on the bread of their sandwiches with food coloring and milk, so that even lunch was a masterpiece. Josie had liked being at Peter's house; it was what she'd always imagined a family felt like.

  Now she looked out the window. "You think this is all my fault, don't you?"

  "No--"

  "Is that what the lawyers said today? That the shooting happened because I didn't like Peter . . . the way he liked me?"

  "No. The lawyers didn't say that at all. Mostly the defense talked about how Peter got teased. How he didn't have many friends." Her mother stopped at a red light and turned, her wrist resting lightly on the steering wheel. "Why did you stop hanging around with Peter, anyway?"

  Being unpopular was a communicable disease. Josie could remember Peter in elementary school, fashioning the tinfoil from his lunch sandwich into a beanie with antennae, and wearing it around the playground to try to pick up radio transmissions from aliens. He hadn't realized that people were making fun of him. He never had.

  She had a sudden flash of him standing in the cafeteria, a statue with his hands trying to cover his groin, his pants pooled around his ankles. She remembered Matt's comment afterward: Objects in mirror are way smaller than they appear.

  Maybe Peter had finally understood what people thought of him.

  "I didn't want to be treated like him," Josie said, answering her mother, when what she really meant was, I wasn't brave enough.

  *

  Going back to jail was like devolution. You had to relinquish the trappings of humanity--your shoes, your suit and tie--and bend over to be strip-searched, probed with a rubber glove by one of the guards. You were given another prison jumpsuit, and flip-flops that were too wide for your feet, so that you looked just like everyone else again and couldn't pretend to yourself that you were better than them.

  Peter lay down on the bunk with his arm flung over his eyes. The inmate beside him, a guy awaiting trial for the rape of a sixty-six-year-old woman, asked him how it had gone in court, but he didn't answer. That was the only freedom he had left, pretty much, and he wanted to keep the truth to himself: that when he'd been put in his cell, he'd actually felt relieved to be back (could he say it?) home.

  Here, no one was staring at him as if he were a growth on a petri dish. No one really looked at him at all.

  Here, no one talked about him as if he were an animal.

  Here, no one blamed him, because they were all in the same boat.

  Jail wasn't all that different from public school, really. The correctional officers were just like the teachers--their job was to keep everyone in place, to feed them, and to make sure nobody got seriously hurt. Beyond that, you were left to your own devices. And like school, jail was an artificial society, with its own hierarchy and rules. If you did any work, it was pointless--cleaning the toilets every morning or pushing a library cart around minimum security wasn't really that different from writing an essay on the definition of civitas or memorizing prime numbers--you weren't going to be using them daily in your real life. And as with high school, the only way to get through jail was to stick it out and do your time.

  Not to mention: Peter wasn't popular in jail, either.

  He thought about the witnesses that Diana Leven had marched or dragged or wheeled to the stand today. Jordan had explained that it was all about sympathy; that the prosecution wanted to present all these ruined lives before they turned to the hard-core evidence; that he would soon have a chance to show how Peter's life had been ruined, too. Peter hardly even cared about that. He'd been more amazed, after seeing those students again, at how little had changed.

  Peter stared up at the woven springs of the upper bunk, blinking fast. Then he rolled toward the wall and stuffed the corner of his pillowcase into his mouth, so no one would be able to hear him cry.

  Even though John Eberhard couldn't call him a fag anymore, much less speak . . .

  Even though Drew Girard would never be the jock that he had been . . .

  Even though Haley Weaver wasn't a knockout . . .

  They were all still part of a group Peter could not, and would never, fit into.

  6:30 A.M., The Day Of

  Peter. Peter?!"

  He rolled over to see his father standing on the threshold of his bedroom.

  "Are you up?"

  Did it look like he was up? Peter grunted and rolled onto his back. He closed his eyes again for a moment and ran through his day. Englishfrenchmathhistorychem. One big long run-on sentence, one class bleeding into the next.

  He sat up, spearing his hands through his hair so that it stood on end. Downstairs, he could hear his father putting away pots and pans from the dishwasher, like some techno-symphony. He'd get his travel mug, pour some coffee, and leave Peter to his own devices.

  Peter's pajama bottoms dragged underneath his heels as he shuffled from the bed to his desk and sat down on the chair. He logged onto the Internet, because he wanted to see if anyone out there had given him more feedback on Hide-n-Shriek. If it was as good as he thought it was, he was going to enter it in some kind of amateur competition. There were kids like him all over the country--all over the world--who would easily pay $39.99 to play a video game where history was rewritten by the losers. Peter imagined how rich he could get off licensing fees. Maybe he could ditch college, like Bill Gates. Maybe one day people would be calling him, pretending that they used to be his friend.

  He squinted, and then reached for his glasses, which he kept next to the keyboard. But because it was freaking six-thirty in the morning, when no one should be expected to have much coordination, he dropped his eyeglass case right on the function keys.

  The screen logging him onto the Net minimized, and instead, his Recycle Bin contents opened on the screen.

  I know you don't think of me.

  And you certainly would never picture us together.

  Peter felt his head start to swim. He punched a finger against the Delete button, but nothing happened.

  Anyway, by myself, I'm nothing special. But with you, I think I could be.

  He tried to restart the computer, but it was frozen. He couldn't breathe; he couldn't move. He couldn't do anything but stare at his own stupidity, right there in black and white.

  His chest hurt, and he thought maybe he was having a heart attack, or maybe that was just what it felt like when the muscle turned to stone. With jerky movements, Peter leaned down for the
cord of his power strip and instead smacked his head on the side of the desk. It brought tears to his eyes, or that's what he told himself.

  He pulled the plug, so that the monitor went black.

  Then he sat back down and realized it hadn't made a difference. He could still see those words, as clear as day, written across the screen. He could feel the give of the keys under his fingers:

  Love, Peter.

  He could hear them all laughing.

  Peter glanced at his computer again. His mother always said that if something bad happened, you could look at it as a failure, or you could look at it as a chance to head in another direction.

  Maybe this had been a sign.

  Peter's breathing was shallow as he emptied his school backpack of textbooks and three-ring binders, his calculator and pencils and crumpled tests he'd gotten back. Reaching beneath his mattress, he felt for the two pistols he'd been saving, just in case.

  When I was little I used to pour salt on slugs. I liked watching them dissolve before my eyes. Cruelty is always sort of fun until you realize that something's getting hurt.

  It would be one thing to be a loser if it meant no one paid attention to you, but in school, it means you're actively sought out. You're the slug, and they're holding all the salt. And they haven't developed a conscience.

  There's a word we learned in social studies: schadenfreude. It's when you enjoy watching someone else suffer. The real question, though, is why? I think part of it is just self-preservation. And part of it is because a group always feels more like a group when it's banded together against an enemy. It doesn't matter if that enemy has never done anything to hurt you--you just have to pretend you hate someone even more than you hate yourself.

  You know why salt works on slugs? Because it dissolves in the water that's part of a slug's skin, so the water inside its body starts to flow out. The slug dehydrates. This works with snails, too. And with leeches. And with people like me.

  With any creature, really, too thin-skinned to stand up for itself.

  Five Months After

  For four hours on the witness stand, Patrick relived the worst day of his life. The signal that had come through on the radio as he was driving; the stream of students running out of the school, as if it were hemorrhaging; the slip of his shoes in an oily pool of blood as he ran through the corridors. The ceiling, falling down around him. The screams for help. The memories that imprinted on his mind but didn't register until later: a boy dying in the arms of his friend beneath the basketball hoop in the gym; the sixteen kids who were found crammed into a custodial closet three hours after the arrest, because they hadn't known that the threat was over; the licorice smell of the Sharpie markers used to write numbers on the foreheads of the wounded, so that they could be identified later.

  That first night, when the only people left in the school were the crime techs, Patrick had walked through the classrooms and the hallways. He felt, sometimes, like the keeper of memories--the one who had to facilitate that invisible transition between the way it used to be and the way it would be from now on. He'd stepped over bloodstains to enter rooms where students had huddled with teachers, waiting to be rescued, their jackets still draped over chairs as if they were about to return at any moment. There were bullet holes chewed into the lockers; yet in the library, some student had both the time and inclination to arrange the media specialist's Gumby and Pokey figures into a compromising position. The fire sprinklers made a sea out of one corridor, but the walls were still plastered with bright posters advertising a spring dance.

  Diana Leven held up a videocassette, the state's exhibit number 522. "Can you identify this, Detective?"

  "Yes, I took it from the main office of Sterling High. It showed footage from a camera posted in the cafeteria on March 6, 2007."

  "Is there an accurate representation on that tape?"

  "Yes."

  "When was the last time you watched it?"

  "The day before this trial started."

  "Has it been altered in any way?"

  "No."

  Diana walked toward the judge. "I ask that this tape be published to the jury," she said, and the same television unit that had been wheeled out earlier in the trial was brought back by a deputy.

  The recording was grainy, but still intelligible. In the upper right-hand corner were the lunch ladies, slopping food onto plastic trays as students came through the line one by one, like drops through an intravenous tube. There were tables full of students--Patrick's eye gravitated toward a central one, where Josie was sitting with her boyfriend.

  He was eating her French fries.

  From the left-hand door, a boy entered. He was wearing a blue knapsack, and although you could not see his face, he had the same slight build and stoop to his shoulders that someone who knew Peter Houghton would recognize. He dipped beneath the range of the camera. A shot rang out as a girl slumped backward off one of the cafeteria chairs, a bloodstain flowering on her white shirt.

  Someone screamed, and then everyone was yelling, and there were more shots. Peter reappeared on camera, holding a gun. Students started stampeding, hiding underneath the tables. The soda machine, freckled with bullets, fizzed and sprayed all over the floor. Some students crumpled where they were shot, others who were wounded tried to crawl away. One girl who'd fallen was trampled by the rest of the students and finally lay still. When the only people left in the cafeteria were either dead or wounded, Peter turned in a circle. He moved down an aisle, pausing here and there. He walked up to the table beside Josie's and put his gun down. He opened an untouched box of cereal still on a cafeteria tray, poured the cereal into a plastic bowl, and added milk from a carton. He swallowed five spoonfuls before he stopped eating, took a new clip out of his backpack, loaded it into his gun, and left the cafeteria.

  Diana reached beneath the defense table and pulled out a small plastic bag and handed it to Patrick. "Do you recognize this, Detective Ducharme?"

  The Rice Krispies box. "Yes."

  "Where did you find it?"

  "In the cafeteria," he said. "Sitting on the same table you just saw in the video."

  Patrick let himself look at Alex, sitting in the gallery. Until now, he couldn't--he didn't think he'd be able to do his job well, if he was worrying about how this information and level of detail were affecting her. Now, glancing at her, he could see how pale she'd gotten, how stiff she was in her chair. It took all of his self-control not to walk away from Diana, hop the bar, and kneel down beside her. It's all right, he wanted to say. It's almost over.

  "Detective," Diana said, "when you cornered the defendant in the locker room, what was he holding?"

  "A handgun."

  "Did you see any other weapons around him?"

  "Yes, a second handgun, around ten feet away."

  Diana lifted up a picture that had been enlarged. "Do you recognize this?"

  "It's the locker room where Peter Houghton was apprehended." He pointed to a gun on the floor near the lockers, and then another a short distance away. "This is the weapon he dropped, Gun A," Patrick said, "and this one, Gun B, is the other one that was on the floor."

  About ten feet past that, on the same linear path, was the body of Matt Royston. A wide pool of blood spread beneath his hip, and the top half of his head was missing.

  There were gasps from the jury, but Patrick wasn't paying attention. He was staring right at Alex, who was not looking at Matt's body but at the spot beside it--a streak of blood from Josie's forehead, where she had been found.

  Life was a series of ifs--a very different outcome if you'd only played the lottery last night; if you had picked a different college; if you had invested in stocks instead of bonds; if you had not been taking your kindergartner to his first day of school the morning of 9/11. If just one teacher had stopped a kid, once, from tormenting Peter in the hall. If Peter had put the gun in his mouth, instead of pointing it at someone else. If Josie had been standing in front of Matt, she might have been t
he one buried in the cemetery. If Patrick had been a second later, she still might have been shot. If he hadn't been the detective on this case, he would not have met Alex.

  "Detective, did you collect these weapons?"

  "Yes."

  "Were they tested for fingerprints?"

  "Yes, by the state crime lab."

  "Did the lab find any fingerprints of value on Gun A?"

  "Yes, one, on the grip."

  "Where did they obtain the fingerprints of Peter Houghton?"

  "From the station, when we booked him."

  He walked the jury through the mechanics of fingerprint testing--the comparison of ten loci, the similarity in ridges and whorls, the computer program that verified the prints as a match.

  "Did the lab compare the fingerprint on Gun A to any other person's fingerprints?" Diana asked.

  "Yes, Matt Royston's. They were obtained from his body."

  "When the lab collected the print off the gun's grip and compared it to Matt Royston's fingerprints, were they able to determine whether or not there was a match?"

  "There was no match."

  "And when the lab compared it to Peter Houghton's fingerprints, were they able to determine whether or not there was a match?"

  "Yes," Patrick said. "There was."

  Diana nodded. "What about on Gun B? Any prints?"

  "Just a partial one, on the trigger. Nothing of value."

  "What does that mean, exactly?"

  Patrick turned to the jury. "A print of value in fingerprint typing is one that can be compared to another known print and either excluded or included as a match to that print. People leave fingerprints on items they touch all the time, but not necessarily ones we can use. They might be smudged or too incomplete to be considered forensically valuable."

  "So, Detective, you don't know for a fact who left the fingerprint on Gun B."

  "No."

  "But it could have been Peter Houghton?"

  "Yes."

  "Do you have any evidence that anyone else at Sterling High School was carrying a weapon that day?"

 
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