Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  King Wah shook his head. "No, but any other psychiatrist would have done the same."

  Diana just raised a brow. "Any psychiatrist who stood to make two thousand bucks a day," she said, and even before Jordan objected she withdrew her remark. "You said that Peter was suffering from suicide ideation."

  "Yes."

  "So he wanted to kill himself?"

  "Yes. That's very common for patients with PTSD."

  "Detective Ducharme has testified that there were one hundred sixteen bullet casings found in the high school that morning. Another thirty unspent rounds were found on Peter's person, and another fifty-two unspent rounds were found in the backpack he was carrying, along with two guns he didn't use. So, do the math for me, Doctor. How many bullets are we talking about?"

  "One hundred and ninety-eight."

  Diana faced him. "In a span of nineteen minutes, Peter had two hundred chances to kill himself, instead of every other student he encountered at Sterling High. Is that right, Doctor?"

  "Yes. But there is an extremely fine line between a suicide and a homicide. Many depressed people who have made the decision to shoot themselves choose, at the last moment, to shoot someone else instead."

  Diana frowned. "I thought Peter was in a dissociated state," she said. "I thought he was incapable of making choices."

  "He was. He was pulling the trigger without any thought of consequence or knowledge of what he was doing."

  "Either that, or it was a tissue-paper line he felt like crossing, right?"

  Jordan stood up. "Objection. She's bullying my witness."

  "Oh, for God's sake, Jordan," Diana snapped, "you can't use your defense on me."

  "Counselors," the judge warned.

  "You also testified, Doctor, that this dissociative state of Peter's ended when Detective Ducharme began to ask him questions at the police station, correct?"

  "Yes."

  "Would it be fair to say that you based this assumption on the fact that at that moment, Peter started to respond in an appropriate manner, given the situation he was in?"

  "Yes."

  "Then how do you explain how, hours earlier, when three officers pointed a gun at Peter and told him to drop his weapon, he was able to do what they asked?"

  Dr. Wah hesitated. "Well."

  "Isn't that an appropriate response, when three policemen have their weapons drawn and pointed at you?"

  "He put the gun down," the psychiatrist said, "because even on a subliminal level, he understood that otherwise, he was going to be shot."

  "But Doctor," Diana said. "I thought you told us that Peter wanted to die."

  She sat back down, satisfied that Jordan could do nothing on redirect that would damage the headway she'd made. "Dr. Wah," he said, "you spent a lot of time with Peter, didn't you?"

  "Unlike some doctors in my field," he said pointedly, "I actually believe in meeting the client you're going to be talking about in court."

  "Why is this important?"

  "To build a rapport," the psychiatrist said. "To foster a relationship between doctor and patient."

  "Would you take everything a patient told you at face value?"

  "Certainly not, especially under these circumstances."

  "In fact, there are many ways to corroborate a client's story, aren't there?"

  "Of course. In Peter's case, I spoke with his parents. There were instances in the school records where bullying was mentioned--although there was no response from the administration. The police package I received supported Peter's statement about his email being sent out to several hundred members of the school community."

  "Did you find any corroborative points that helped you diagnose the dissociative state Peter went into on March sixth?" Jordan asked.

  "Yes. Although the police investigation stated that Peter had created a list of target victims, there were far more people shot who were not on the list . . . who were, in fact, students he didn't even know by name."

  "Why is that important?"

  "Because it tells me that at the time he was shooting, he wasn't targeting individual students. He was merely going through the motions."

  "Thank you, Doctor," Jordan said, and he nodded to Diana.

  She looked at the psychiatrist. "Peter told you he had been humiliated in the cafeteria," she said. "Did he mention any other specific places?"

  "The playground. The school bus. The boys' bathroom and the locker room."

  "When Peter started shooting at Sterling High, did he go into the principal's office?"

  "Not that I'm aware of."

  "How about the library?"

  "No."

  "The staff lounge?"

  Dr. Wah shook his head. "No."

  "The art studio?"

  "I don't believe so."

  "In fact, Peter went from the cafeteria, to the bathrooms, to the gym, to the locker room. He went methodically from one venue where he'd been bullied to the next, right?"

  "It seems so."

  "You said he was going through the motions, Doctor," Diana said. "But wouldn't you call that a plan?"

  *

  When Peter got back to the jail that night, the detention officer who took him to his cell handed him a letter. "You missed mail call," he said, and Peter couldn't speak, so unaccustomed was he to that concentrated a dose of kindness.

  He sat down with his back to the wall on the lower bunk and surveyed the envelope. He was a little nervous, now, about mail--he had been since Jordan reamed him for talking to that reporter. But this envelope wasn't typed, like that one had been. This letter was handwritten, with little puffy circles floating over the i's like clouds.

  He ripped it open and unfolded the letter inside. It smelled like oranges.

  Dear Peter,

  You don't know me by name, but I was number 9. That's how I left the school, with a big magic marker label on my forehead. You tried to kill me.

  I am not at your trial, so don't try to find me in the crowd. I couldn't stand being in that town anymore, so my parents moved a month ago. I start school in a week here in Minnesota, and already people have heard about me. They only know me as a victim from Sterling High. I don't have interests, I don't have a personality, I don't even have a history, except the one you gave me.

  I had a 4.0 average but I don't care very much about grades anymore. What's the point. I used to have all these dreams, but now I don't know if I'll go to college, since I still can't sleep through the night. I can't deal with people who sneak up behind me either, or doors that slam really loud, or fireworks. I've been in therapy long enough to tell you one thing: I'm never going to set foot in Sterling again.

  You shot me in the back. The doctors said I was lucky--that if I'd sneezed or turned to look at you I would be in a wheelchair now. Instead, I just have to deal with the people who stare when I forget and put on a tank top--anyone can see the scars from the bullet and the chest tubes and the stitches. I don't care--they used to stare at the zits on my face; now they just have another place to focus their attention.

  I've thought about you a lot. I think you should go to jail. It's fair, and this wasn't, and there's a kind of balance in that.

  I was in your French class, did you know that? I sat in the row by the window, second from the back. You always seemed sort of mysterious, and I liked your smile.

  I would have liked to be your friend.

  Sincerely,

  Angela Phlug

  Peter folded the letter and slipped it inside his pillowcase. Ten minutes later, he took it out again. He read it all night long, over and over, until the sun rose; until he did not need to see the words to recite it by heart.

  *

  Lacy had dressed for her son. Although it was nearly eighty-five degrees outside, she was wearing a sweater she had dug out of a box in the attic, a pink angora one that Peter had liked to stroke like a kitten when he was tiny. Around her wrist was a bracelet Peter had made her in fourth grade by rolling up tiny bits of magazines into splas
hy colored beads. She had on a gray patterned skirt that Peter had laughed at once, saying it looked like a computer's motherboard, and wasn't that sort of fitting. And her hair was braided neatly, because she remembered how the tail had brushed Peter's face the last time she'd kissed him good night.

  She'd made a promise to herself. No matter how hard this got, no matter how much she had to sob her way through the questions, she would not take her eyes off Peter. He would be, she decided, like the pictures of white beaches that birthing mothers sometimes brought in as a focal point. His face would force her to concentrate, even though her pulse was skittish and her heart was off a beat; she would show Peter that there was still someone steadfastly watching over him.

  As Jordan McAfee called her to the stand, the strangest thing happened. She walked in with the bailiff, but instead of marching toward the tiny wooden balcony where the witness was to sit, her body moved of its own accord in the other direction. Diana Leven knew where she was heading before Lacy did herself--she stood up to object, but then decided against it. Lacy's step was quick, her arms flat at her sides, until she was positioned in front of the defense table. She knelt down beside Peter, so that his face was the only thing she could see in her range of vision. Then she reached out with her left hand and she touched his face.

  His skin was still as smooth as a child's, warm to the touch. When she cupped his cheek, his lashes fanned over her thumb. She had visited her son weekly in the jail, but there had always been a line between them. This--the feeling of him underneath her own hands, vital and real--was the kind of gift you had to take out of its box every now and then, hold aloft, marvel at, so you didn't forget that it was still in your possession. Lacy remembered the moment Peter had first been placed in her arms, still slick with vernix and blood, his raw, red mouth round with a newborn's cry, his arms and legs splayed in this suddenly infinite space. Leaning forward, she did now the same thing she'd done the first time she'd met her son: closed her eyes, winged a prayer, and kissed his forehead.

  A bailiff touched her shoulder. "Ma'am," he began.

  Lacy shrugged him off and got to her feet. She walked to the witness box and unhooked the latch of the gate, let herself inside.

  Jordan McAfee approached her, holding a box of Kleenex. He turned his back so that the jury could not see him speaking. "You okay?" he whispered. Lacy nodded, faced Peter, and offered up a smile like a sacrifice.

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

  "Lacy Houghton."

  "Where do you live?"

  "1616 Goldenrod Lane, Sterling, New Hampshire."

  "Who lives with you?"

  "My husband, Lewis," Lacy said. "And my son, Peter."

  "Do you have any other children, Ms. Houghton?"

  "I had a son, Joseph, but he was killed by a drunk driver last year."

  "Can you tell us," Jordan McAfee said, "when you first became aware that something had happened at Sterling High School on March sixth?"

  "I was on call overnight at the hospital. I'm a midwife. After I had finished delivering a baby that morning. I went out to the nurses' station, and they were all gathered around the radio. There had been an explosion at the high school."

  "What did you do when you heard?"

  "I told someone to cover for me, and I drove to the school. I needed to make sure that Peter was all right."

  "How did Peter usually get to school?"

  "He drove," Lacy said. "He has a car."

  "Ms. Houghton, tell me about your relationship with Peter."

  Lacy smiled. "He's my baby. I had two sons, but Peter was the one who was always quieter, more sensitive. He always needed a little more encouragement."

  "Were you two close when he was growing up?"

  "Absolutely."

  "How was Peter's relationship with his brother?"

  "It was fine . . ."

  "And his father?"

  Lacy hesitated. She could feel Lewis in the room as surely as if he were beside her, and she thought about him walking in the rain through the cemetery. "I think that Lewis had a tighter bond with Joey, while Peter and I have more in common."

  "Did Peter ever tell you about the problems he had with other kids?"

  "Yes."

  "Objection," the prosecutor said. "Hearsay."

  "I'm going to overrule it for now," the judge answered. "But be careful where you're going, Mr. McAfee."

  Jordan turned to her again. "Why do you think Peter had problems with those kids?"

  "He'd get picked on because he wasn't like them. He wasn't very athletic. He didn't like to play cops and robbers. He was artistic and creative and thoughtful, and kids made fun of him for that."

  "What did you do?"

  "I tried," Lacy admitted, "to toughen him up." As she spoke she directed her words at Peter, and hoped he could read it as an apology. "What does any mother do when she sees her child being teased by someone else? I told Peter I loved him; that kids like that didn't know anything. I told him that he was amazing and compassionate and kind and smart, all the things we want adults to be. I knew that all the attributes he was teased for, at age five, were going to work in his favor by the time he was thirty-five . . . but I couldn't get him there overnight. You can't fast-forward your child's life, no matter how much you want to."

  "When did Peter start high school, Ms. Houghton?"

  "In the fall of 2004."

  "Was Peter still being picked on there?"

  "Worse than ever," Lacy said. "I even asked his brother to keep an eye out for him."

  Jordan walked toward her. "Tell me about Joey."

  "Everybody liked Joey. He was smart, an excellent athlete. He could relate just as easily to adults as he could to kids his own age. He . . . well, he cut a swath through that school."

  "You must have been very proud of him."

  "I was. But I think that because of Joey, teachers and students had a certain sort of idea in mind for a Houghton boy, before Peter even arrived. And when he did get there, and people realized he wasn't like Joey, it only made things worse for him." She watched Peter's face transform as she spoke, like the change of a season. Why hadn't she taken the time before, when she had it, to tell Peter that she understood? That she knew Joey had cast such a wide shadow, it was hard to find the sunlight?

  "How old was Peter when Joey died?"

  "It was at the end of his sophomore year."

  "That must have been devastating for the family," Jordan said.

  "It was."

  "What did you do to help Peter deal with his grief?"

  Lacy glanced down at her lap. "I wasn't in any shape to help Peter. I had a very hard time helping myself."

  "What about your husband? Was he a resource for Peter then?"

  "I think we were both just trying to make it through one day at a time.... If anything, Peter was the one who was holding the family together."

  "Mrs. Houghton, did Peter ever say that he wanted to hurt people at school?"

  Lacy's throat tightened. "No."

  "Was there ever anything in Peter's personality that led you to believe he was capable of an act like this?"

  "When you look into your baby's eyes," Lacy said softly, "you see everything you hope they can be . . . not everything you wish they won't become."

  "Did you ever find any plans or notes to indicate that Peter was plotting this event?"

  A tear coursed down her cheek. "No."

  Jordan softened his voice. "Did you look, Mrs. Houghton?"

  She thought back to the moment she'd cleared out Joey's desk; how she'd stood over the toilet and flushed the drugs she'd found hidden in his drawer. "No," Lacy confessed. "I didn't. I thought I was helping him. After Joey died, all I wanted to do was keep Peter close. I didn't want to invade his privacy; I didn't want to fight with him; I didn't want anyone else to ever hurt him. I just wanted him to be a child forever." She glanced up, crying harder now. "But you can't do that, if you're a parent. Because part of your job
is letting them grow up."

  There was a clatter in the gallery as a man in the back stood up, nearly upending a television camera. Lacy had never seen him before. He had thinning black hair and a mustache; his eyes were on fire. "Guess what," he spat out. "My daughter Maddie is never going to grow up." He pointed at a woman beside him, and then further forward on a bench. "Neither is her daughter. Or his son. You goddamned bitch. If you'd done your job better, I could still be doing my job."

  The judge began to smack his gavel. "Sir," he said. "Sir, I have to ask you to--"

  "Your son's a monster. He's a fucking monster," the man yelled, as two bailiffs reached his seat and grabbed him by the upper arms, dragging him out of the courtroom.

  Once, Lacy had been present at the birth of an infant that was missing half its heart. The family had known that their child would not live; they chose to carry through with the pregnancy, in the hope that they could have a few brief moments on this earth with her before she was gone for good. Lacy had stood in a corner of the room as the parents held their daughter. She didn't study their faces; she just couldn't. Instead, she focused on the medical needs of that newborn. She watched it, still and frost-blue, move one tiny fist in slow motion, like an astronaut navigating space. Then, one by one, her fingers unfurled and she let go.

  Lacy thought of those miniature fingers, of slipping away. She turned to Peter. I'm so sorry, she mouthed silently. Then she covered her face with her hands and sobbed.

  *

  Once the judge had called for a recess and the jury had filed out, Jordan moved toward the bench. "Judge, the defense asks to be heard," he said. "We'd like to move for a mistrial."

  Even with his back to her, he could feel Diana rolling her eyes. "How convenient."

  "Well, Mr. McAfee," the judge said, "on what grounds?"

  The grounds that I've got absolutely nothing better to salvage my case, Jordan thought. "Your Honor, there's been an incredibly emotional outburst from the father of a victim in front of the jury. There's no way that kind of speech can be ignored, and there's no instruction you can give them that will unring that bell."

  "Is that all, Counselor?"

  "No," Jordan said. "Prior to this, the jury may not have known that family members of the victims were sitting in the gallery. Now they do--and they also know that every move they make is being watched by those same people. That's a tremendous amount of pressure to put on a jury in a case that's already extremely emotional and highly publicized. How are they supposed to put aside the expectations of these family members and do their jobs fairly and impartially?"

 
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