Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  "This weekend. Sorry," he said, although he really wasn't. He walked toward Josie, who looked small and pale. Her hair had been gathered into a neat ponytail, and her hands were folded in her lap. She was studiously avoiding anyone's gaze by focusing on the grain of the wood on the rail of the witness stand.

  "Can you state your name?"

  "Josie Cormier."

  "Where do you live, Josie?"

  "45 East Prescott Street, in Sterling."

  "How old are you?"

  "I'm seventeen," she said.

  Jordan took a step closer, so that only she would be able to hear him. "See?" he murmured. "Piece of cake." He winked at her, and he thought she might even have smiled back the tiniest bit.

  "Where were you on the morning of March 6, 2007?"

  "I was at school."

  "What class did you have first period?"

  "English," Josie said softly.

  "What about second period?"

  "Math."

  "Third period?"

  "I had a study."

  "Where did you spend it?"

  "With my boyfriend," she said. "Matt Royston." She looked sideways, blinking too fast.

  "Where were you and Matt during third period?"

  "We left the cafeteria. We were going to his locker, before the next class."

  "What happened then?"

  Josie looked into her lap. "There was a lot of noise. And people started running. People were screaming about guns, about someone with a gun. A friend of ours, Drew Girard, told us it was Peter."

  She glanced up then, and her eyes locked on Peter's. For a long moment, she just stared at him, and then she closed her eyes and turned away.

  "Did you know what was going on?"

  "No."

  "Did you see anyone shooting?"

  "No."

  "Where did you go?"

  "To the gym. We ran across it, toward the locker room. I knew he was coming closer, because I kept hearing gunshots."

  "Who was with you when you went into the locker room?"

  "I thought Drew and Matt, but when I turned around, I realized that Drew wasn't there. He'd been shot."

  "Did you see Drew getting shot?"

  Josie shook her head. "No."

  "Did you see Peter before you got into the locker room?"

  "No." Her face crumpled, and she wiped at her eyes.

  "Josie," Jordan said, "what happened next?"

  10:16 A.M., The Day Of

  Get down," Matt hissed, and he shoved Josie so that she fell behind the wooden bench.

  It wasn't a good place to hide, but then, nowhere in the locker room was a good place to hide. Matt's plan had been to climb out the window in the shower, and he'd even opened it up, but then they'd heard the shots in the gym and realized they didn't have time to drag the bench over and climb through. They'd boxed themselves in, literally.

  She curled herself into a ball and Matt crouched down in front of her. Her heart thundered against his back, and she kept forgetting to breathe.

  He reached behind him until he found her hand. "If anything happens, Jo," he whispered, "I loved you."

  Josie started to cry. She was going to die; they were all going to die. She thought of a hundred things she hadn't done yet that she so badly wanted to do: go to Australia, swim with dolphins. Learn all the words to "Bohemian Rhapsody." Graduate.

  Get married.

  She wiped her face against the back of Matt's shirt, and then the locker room burst open. Peter stumbled inside, his eyes wild, holding a handgun. His left sneaker was untied, Josie noticed, and then she couldn't believe she noticed. He lifted his gun at Matt, and she couldn't help it; she screamed.

  Maybe it was the noise; maybe it was her voice. It startled Peter, and he dropped his backpack. It slid off his shoulder, and as it did, another gun fell out of an open pocket.

  It skittered across the floor, landing just behind Josie's left foot.

  Do you know how there are moments when the world moves so slowly you can feel your bones shifting, your mind tumbling? When you think that no matter what happens to you for the rest of your life, you will remember every last detail of that one minute forever? Josie watched her hand stretch back, watched her fingers curl around the cold black butt of the gun. Fumbling it, she staggered upright, pointing the gun at Peter.

  Matt backed away toward the showers, under Josie's cover. Peter held his gun steady, still pointing it at Matt, even though Josie was closer. "Josie," he said. "Let me finish this."

  "Shoot him, Josie," Matt said. "Fucking shoot him."

  Peter pulled back the slide of the gun so that a bullet from the clip would cycle into place. Watching him carefully, Josie mimicked his actions.

  She remembered being in nursery school with Peter--how other boys would pick up sticks or rocks and run around yelling Hands up. What had she and Peter used the sticks for? She couldn't recall.

  "Josie, for Christ's sake!" Matt was sweating, his eyes wide. "Are you fucking stupid?"

  "Don't talk to her like that," Peter cried.

  "Shut up, asshole," Matt said. "You think she's going to save you?" He turned to Josie. "What are you waiting for? Shoot."

  So she did.

  As the gun fired, it ripped two stripes of her skin from the base of her thumb. Her hands jerked upward, numb, humming. The blood was black on Matt's gray T-shirt. He stood for a moment, shocked, his hand over the wound in his stomach. She saw his mouth close around her name, but she couldn't hear it, her ears were ringing so loudly. Josie? and then he fell to the floor.

  Josie's hand started shaking violently; she wasn't surprised when the gun just fell out of it, as singularly repelled by her grasp as it had been glued to it moments before. "Matt," she cried, running toward him. She pressed her hands against the blood, because that's what you were supposed to do, wasn't it, but he writhed and screamed in agony. Blood began to bubble out of his mouth, trailing down his neck. "Do something," she sobbed, turning to Peter. "Help me."

  Peter walked closer, lifted the gun he was holding, and shot Matt in the head.

  Horrified, she scrambled backward, away from them both. That wasn't what she'd meant; that couldn't have been what she meant.

  She stared at Peter, and she realized that in that one moment, when she hadn't been thinking, she knew exactly what he'd felt as he moved through the school with his backpack and his guns. Every kid in this school played a role: jock, brain, beauty, freak. All Peter had done was what they all secretly dreamed of: be someone, even for just nineteen minutes, who nobody else was allowed to judge.

  "Don't tell," Peter whispered, and Josie realized he was offering her a way out--a deal sealed in blood, a partnership of silence: I won't share your secrets, if you don't share mine.

  Josie nodded slowly, and then her world went black.

  I think a person's life is supposed to be like a DVD. You can see the version everyone else sees, or you can choose the director's cut--the way he wanted you to see it, before everything else got in the way.

  There are menus, probably, so that you can start at the good spots and not have to relive the bad ones. You can measure your life by the number of scenes you've survived, or the minutes you've been stuck there.

  Probably, though, life is more like one of those dumb video surveillance tapes. Grainy, no matter how hard you stare at it. And looped: the same thing, over and over.

  Five Months After

  Alex pushed past the people in the gallery who had erupted in confusion in the wake of Josie's confession. Somewhere in this crowd of people were the Roystons, who had just heard that their son had been shot by her daughter, but she could not think of that right now. She could only see Josie, trapped on that witness stand, while Alex struggled to get past the bar. She was a judge, dammit; she should have been allowed to go there, but two bailiffs were firmly holding her back.

  Wagner was smacking his gavel, although nobody gave a damn. "We'll take a fifteen-minute recess," he ordered, and as a
nother bailiff hauled Peter through a rear door, the judge turned to Josie. "Young lady," he said, "you are still under oath."

  Alex watched Josie being taken through another door, and she called out after her. A moment later, Eleanor was at her side. The clerk took Alex's arm. "Judge, come with me. You're not safe out here right now."

  For the first time she could actively remember, Alex allowed herself to be led.

  *

  Patrick arrived in the courtroom just as it exploded. He saw Josie on the stand, crying desperately; he saw Judge Wagner fighting for control--but most of all, he saw Alex single-mindedly trying to get to her daughter.

  He would have drawn his gun right then and there to help her do it.

  By the time he fought his way down the central aisle of the courtroom, Alex was gone. He caught a glimpse of her as she slipped into a room behind the bench, and he hurdled the bar to follow her but felt someone grab his sleeve. Annoyed, he glanced down to see Diana Leven.

  "What the hell is going on?" he asked.

  "You first."

  He sighed. "I spent the night at Sterling High, trying to check Josie's statement. It didn't make sense--if Matt had fired at Peter, there should have been physical evidence of destruction in the wall behind him. I assumed that she was lying again--that Peter had been the one to shoot Matt unprovoked. Once I figured out where that first bullet hit, I used a laser to see where it could have ricocheted--and then I understood why we didn't find it the first time around." Digging in his coat, he extracted an evidence bag with a slug inside. "The fire department helped me dig it out of a maple tree outside the window in the shower stall. I drove it straight to the lab for testing--and stood over them all night with a whip until they agreed to do the work on the spot. Not only was the bullet fired from Gun B, it's got blood and tissue on it that types to Matt Royston. The thing is, when you reverse the angle of that bullet--when you stand in the tree and ricochet the laser off the tile where it struck, to see where the shot originated from--you don't get anywhere close to where Peter was standing. It was--"

  The prosecutor sighed wearily. "Josie just confessed to shooting Matt Royston."

  "Well," Patrick said, handing the evidence bag to Diana, "she's finally telling the truth."

  *

  Jordan leaned against the bars of the holding cell. "Did you forget to tell me about this?"

  "No," Peter said.

  He turned. "You know, if you'd mentioned this at the beginning, your case could have had a very different outcome."

  Peter was lying on the bench in the cell, his hands behind his head. To Jordan's shock, he was smiling. "She was my friend again," Peter explained. "You don't break a promise to a friend."

  *

  Alex sat in the dark of the conference room where defendants were usually brought during breaks, and realized that her daughter now would qualify. There would be another trial, and this time Josie would be at the center of it.

  "Why?" she asked.

  She could make out the silver edge of Josie's profile. "Because you told me to tell the truth."

  "What is the truth?"

  "I loved Matt. And I hated him. I hated myself for loving him, but if I wasn't with him, I wasn't anyone anymore."

  "I don't understand . . ."

  "How could you? You're perfect." Josie shook her head. "The rest of us, we're all like Peter. Some of us just do a better job of hiding it. What's the difference between spending your life trying to be invisible, or pretending to be the person you think everyone wants you to be? Either way, you're faking."

  Alex thought of all the parties she'd ever gone to where the first question she was asked was What do you do? as if that were enough to define you. Nobody ever asked you who you really were, because that changed. You might be a judge or a mother or a dreamer. You might be a loner or a visionary or a pessimist. You might be the victim, and you might be the bully. You could be the parent, and also the child. You might wound one day and heal the next.

  I'm not perfect, Alex thought, and maybe that was the first step toward becoming that way.

  "What's going to happen to me?" Josie asked, the same question she'd asked a day ago, when Alex thought herself qualified to give answers.

  "What's going to happen to us," Alex corrected.

  A smile chased over Josie's face, gone almost as quickly as it had come. "I asked you first."

  The door to the conference room opened, spilling light from the corridor, silhouetting whatever came next. Alex reached for her daughter's hand and took a deep breath. "Let's go see," she said.

  *

  Peter was convicted of eight first-degree murders and two second-degree murders. The jury decided that in the case of Matt Royston and Courtney Ignatio, he had not been acting with premeditation and deliberation. He'd been provoked.

  After the verdict was handed down, Jordan met with Peter in the holding cell. He'd be brought back to the jail only until the sentencing hearing; then he would be transferred to the state prison in Concord. Serving out eight consecutive murder sentences, he would not leave it alive.

  "You okay?" Jordan asked, putting his hand on Peter's shoulder.

  "Yeah." He shrugged. "I sort of knew it was going to happen."

  "But they heard you. That's why they came back with manslaughter for two of the counts."

  "I guess I should say thanks for trying." He smiled crookedly at Jordan. "Have a good life."

  "I'll come see you, if I get down to Concord," Jordan said.

  He looked at Peter. In the six months since this case had fallen into his lap, his client had grown up. Peter was as tall as Jordan now. He probably weighed a little more. He had a deeper voice, a shadow of beard on his jaw. Jordan marveled that he hadn't noticed these things until now.

  "Well," Jordan said. "I'm sorry it didn't work out the way I'd hoped."

  "Me, too."

  Peter held out his hand, and Jordan embraced him instead. "Take care."

  He started out of the cell, and then Peter called him back. He was holding out the eyeglasses Jordan had brought him for the trial. "These are yours," Peter said.

  "Hang on to them. You have more use for them."

  Peter tucked the glasses into the front pocket of Jordan's jacket. "I kind of like knowing you're taking care of them," he said. "And there isn't all that much I really want to see."

  Jordan nodded. He walked out of the holding cell and said good-bye to the deputies. Then he headed toward the lobby, where Selena was waiting.

  As he approached her, he put on Peter's glasses. "What's up with those?" she asked.

  "I kind of like them."

  "You have perfect vision," Selena pointed out.

  Jordan considered the way the lenses made the world curve in at the ends, so that he had to move more gingerly through it. "Not always," he said.

  *

  In the weeks after the trial, Lewis began fooling around with numbers. He'd done some preliminary research and entered it into STATA to see what kinds of patterns emerged. And--here was the interesting thing--it had absolutely nothing to do with happiness. Instead, he'd started looking at the communities where school shootings had occurred in the past and spinning them out to the present, to see how a single act of violence might affect economic stability. Or in other words--once the world was pulled out from beneath your feet, did you ever get to stand on firm ground again?

  He was teaching again at Sterling College--basic microeconomics. Classes had only just begun in late September, and Lewis found himself slipping easily into the lecture circuit. When he was talking about Keynesian models and widgets and competition, it was routine--so effortless that he could almost make himself believe this was any other freshman survey course he'd taught in the past, before Peter had been convicted.

  Lewis taught by walking up and down the aisles--a necessary evil, now that the campus had gone WiFi and students would play online poker or IM each other while he lectured--which was how he happened to come across the kids in the b
ack. Two football players were taking turns squeezing a sports-top water bottle so that the stream arced upward and sprayed onto the back of another kid's neck. The boy, two rows forward, kept turning around to see who was squirting water at him, but by then, the jocks were looking up at the graphs on the screen in the front of the hall, their faces as smooth as choirboys'.

  "Now," Lewis said, not missing a beat, "who can tell me what happens if you set the price above point A on the graph?" He plucked the water bottle out of the hands of one of the jocks. "Thank you, Mr. Graves. I was getting thirsty."

  The boy two rows ahead raised his hand like an arrow, and Lewis nodded at him. "No one would want to buy the widget for that much money," he said. "So demand would fall, and that means the price would have to drop, or they'd wind up with a whole boatload of extras in the warehouse."

  "Excellent," Lewis said, and he glanced up at the clock. "All right, guys, on Monday we'll be covering the next chapter in Mankiw. And don't be surprised if there's a surprise quiz."

  "If you told us, it's not a surprise," a girl pointed out.

  Lewis smiled. "Oops."

  He stood by the chair of the boy who'd given the right answer. He was stuffing his notebook into his backpack, which was already so crammed with papers that the zipper wouldn't close. His hair was too long, and his T-shirt had a picture of Einstein's face on it. "Nice work today."

  "Thanks." The boy shifted from one foot to the other; Lewis could tell that he wasn't quite sure what to say next. He thrust out his hand. "Um, nice to meet you. I mean, you've already met us all, but not, like, personally."

  "Right. What's your name again?"

  "Peter. Peter Granford."

  Lewis opened up his mouth to speak, but then just shook his head.

  "What?" The boy ducked his head. "You just, uh, looked like you were going to say something important."

  Lewis looked at this namesake, at the way he stood with his shoulders rounded, as if he did not deserve so much space in this world. He felt that familiar pain that fell like a hammer on his breastbone whenever he thought of Peter, of a life that would be lost to prison. He wished he'd taken more time to look at Peter when Peter was right in front of his eyes, because now he would be forced to compensate with imperfect memories or--even worse--to find his son in the faces of strangers.

  Lewis reached deep inside and unraveled the smile that he saved for moments like this, when there was absolutely nothing to be happy about. "It was important," he said. "You remind me of someone I used to know."

 
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