Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  The catharsis ended the moment Alex handed the cashier her credit card and heard Logan Rourke's voice in her mind. Bleeding heart, he'd called her.

  Well. He should know.

  He'd been the first to rip it to pieces.


  All right, Alex thought calmly. This is what it's like to die.

  Another contraction ripped through her, bullets strafing metal.

  Two weeks ago, at her thirty-seven-week visit, Alex and Lacy had talked about pain medication. What are your feelings about it? Lacy had asked, and Alex had made a joke: I think it should be imported from Canada. She'd told Lacy she didn't plan to use pain medication, that she wanted a natural childbirth, that it couldn't possibly hurt that much.

  It did.

  She thought back to all those birthing classes Lacy had forced her to take--the ones where she'd been partnered with Lacy, because everyone else had a husband or boyfriend assisting them. They'd shown pictures of women in labor, women with their rubbery faces and gritted teeth, women making prehistoric noises. Alex had scoffed at this. They are showing the worst-case scenarios, she'd told herself. Different people have different tolerance for pain.

  The next contraction twisted down her spine like a cobra, wrapped itself around her belly, and sank its fangs. Alex fell hard on her knees on the kitchen floor.

  In her classes, she'd learned that prelabor could go on for twelve hours or more.

  By then, if she wasn't dead, she'd shoot herself.


  When Lacy had been a midwife in training, she'd spent months walking around with a little centimeter ruler, measuring. Now, after years on the job, she could eyeball a coffee cup and know that it was nine centimeters across, that the orange beside the phone at the nurses' station was an eight. She withdrew her fingers from between Alex's legs and snapped off the latex glove. "You're two centimeters," she said, and Alex burst into tears.

  "Only two? I can't do this," Alex panted, twisting her spine to get away from the pain. She had tried to hide the discomfort behind the mask of competence that she usually wore, only to realize that in her hurry, she must have left it behind somewhere.

  "I know you're disappointed," Lacy said. "But here's the thing--you're doing fine. We know that when people are fine at two centimeters they will be fine at eight, too. Let's take it one contraction at a time."

  Labor was hard for everyone, Lacy knew, but especially hard for the women who had expectations and lists and plans, because it was never the way you thought it would be. In order to labor well, you had to let your body take over, instead of your mind. You revealed yourself, even the parts you had forgotten about. For someone like Alex, who was so used to being in control, this could be devastating. Success would come only at the expense of losing her cool, at the risk of turning into someone she did not want to be.


  Lacy helped Alex off the bed and guided her toward the whirlpool room. She dimmed the lights, flicked on the instrumental music, and untied Alex's robe. Alex was past the point of modesty; at this moment, Lacy figured she'd disrobe in front of an entire male prison population if it meant the contractions would stop.

  "In you go," Lacy said, letting Alex lean on her as she sank into the whirlpool. There was a Pavlovian response to warm water; sometimes just stepping into the tub could bring down a person's heart rate.

  "Lacy," Alex gasped, "you have to promise . . ."

  "Promise what?"

  "You won't tell her. The baby."

  Lacy reached for Alex's hand. "Tell her what?"

  Alex closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against the lip of the tub. "That at first I didn't want her."

  Before she could even answer, Lacy watched tension grip Alex. "Breathe through this one," she said. Blow the pain away from you, blow it between your hands, picture it as the color red. Come up on your hands and knees. Pour yourself inward, like sand in an hourglass. Go to the beach, Alex. Lie on the sand and see how warm the sun is.

  Lie to yourself until it's true.


  When you're hurting deeply, you go inward. Lacy had seen this a thousand times. Endorphins kick in--the body's natural morphine--and carry you somewhere far away, where the pain can't find you. Once, a client who'd been abused had dissociated so massively that Lacy was worried she would not be able to reach her again and bring her back in time to push. She had wound up singing to the woman in Spanish, a lullaby.

  For three hours now, Alex had regained her composure, thanks to the anesthesiologist who'd given her an epidural. She'd slept for a while; she'd played hearts with Lacy. But now the baby had dropped, and she was starting to bear down. "Why is it hurting again?" she asked, her voice escalating.

  "That's how an epidural works. If we dose it up, you can't push."

  "I can't have a baby," Alex blurted out. "I'm not ready."

  "Well," Lacy said. "Maybe we ought to talk about that."

  "What was I thinking? Logan was right; I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm not a mother, I'm a lawyer. I don't have a boyfriend, I don't have a dog . . . I don't even have a houseplant I haven't killed. I'm not even sure how to put on a diaper."

  "The little cartoon characters go on the front," Lacy said. She took Alex's hand and brought it down between her legs, to where the baby was crowning.

  Alex jerked her hand away. "Is that . . ."


  "It's coming?"

  "Ready or not."

  Another contraction started. "Oh, Alex, I can see the eyebrows . . ." Lacy eased the baby out of the birth canal, keeping the head flexed. "I know how much it burns . . . there's her chin . . . beautiful . . ." Lacy wiped off the baby's face, suctioned the mouth. She flipped the cord over the baby's neck and looked up at her friend. "Alex," she said, "let's do this together."

  Lacy guided Alex's shaking hands to cup the infant's head. "Stay like that; I'm going to push down to get the shoulder . . ."

  As the baby sluiced into Alex's hands, Lacy let go. Sobbing, relieved, Alex brought the small, squirming body against her chest. As always, Lacy was taken by how available a newborn is--how present. She rubbed the small of the baby's back and watched the newborn's hazy blue eyes focus first on her mother. "Alex," Lacy said. "She's all yours."

  Nobody wants to admit to this, but bad things will keep on happening. Maybe that's because it's all a chain, and a long time ago someone did the first bad thing, and that led someone else to do another bad thing, and so on. You know, like that game where you whisper a sentence into someone's ear, and that person whispers it to someone else, and it all comes out wrong in the end.

  But then again, maybe bad things happen because it's the only way we can keep remembering what good is supposed to look like.

  Hours After

  Once, at a bar, Patrick's best friend, Nina, had asked what the worst thing he'd ever seen was. He'd answered truthfully--back when he was in Maine, and a guy had committed suicide by tying himself with wire to the train tracks; the train had literally cleaved him in two. There had been blood and body parts everywhere; seasoned officers reached the crime scene and started throwing up in the scrub brush. Patrick had walked away to gain his composure and found himself staring down at the man's severed head, the mouth still round with a silent scream.

  That was no longer the worst thing Patrick had ever seen.

  There were still students streaming out of Sterling High as teams of EMTs began canvassing the building to take care of the wounded. Dozens of kids had minor cuts and bruises from the mass exodus, scores were hyperventilating or hysterical, and even more were in shock. But Patrick's first priority was taking care of the shooting victims, who lay sprawled on the floor from the cafeteria to the gymnasium, a bloody trail that chronicled the shooter's movements.

  The fire alarms were still ringing, and the safety sprinklers had created a running river in the hallway. Beneath the spray, two EMTs bent over a girl who'd been shot in the right shoulder. "Let's get her on a sled," the medic sai

  Patrick knew her, he realized, and a shudder went through his body. She worked at the video store in town. Last weekend, when he'd rented Dirty Harry, she'd told him that he still had a late charge of $3.40. He saw her every Friday night when he rented a DVD, but he'd never asked her name. Why the hell hadn't he asked?

  As the girl whimpered, the medic took the Sharpie marker he was holding and wrote "9" on her forehead. "We don't have IDs on all of the wounded," he told Patrick. "So we've started numbering them." As the student was shifted onto a backboard, Patrick reached across her for a yellow plastic shock blanket--one every officer carried in the back of his cruiser. He ripped it into quarters, glanced at the number on the girl's forehead, and wrote a matching "9" on one of the squares. "Leave this in her place," he instructed. "That way we can figure out who she is later, and where she was found."

  An EMT stuck his head around the corner. "Hitchcock says all the beds are taken. We've got kids lined up on the front lawn waiting, but the ambulances have nowhere to go."

  "What about APD?"

  "They're full, too."

  "Then call Concord and tell them we've got buses coming in," Patrick ordered. From the corner of his eye he saw an EMT he knew--an old-timer planning to retire in three months--walk away from a body and sink into a crouch, sobbing. Patrick grabbed the sleeve of a passing officer. "Jarvis, I need your help . . ."

  "But you just assigned me to the gym, Captain."

  Patrick had divided up the responding officers and the major crimes unit of the state police so that each part of the high school had its own team of first responders. Now he handed Jarvis the remaining pieces of the plastic shock blanket and a black marker. "Forget the gym. I want you to do a circuit of the whole school and check in with the EMTs. Anyone who's numbered gets a numbered blanket left in place when they're transported."

  "I have one bleeding out in the girls' room," a voice called.

  "I'm on it," an EMT said, picking up a bag of supplies and hurrying away.

  Make sure you haven't forgotten anything, Patrick told himself. You only get to do this once. His head felt like it was made of glass, too heavy and too thin-walled to handle the weight of so much information. He could not be everywhere at once; he could not talk fast enough or think quickly enough to dispatch his men where they needed to be. He had no fucking idea how to process a nightmare this massive, and yet he had to pretend that he did, because everyone else was looking to him to be in charge.

  The double doors of the cafeteria swung shut behind him. By now, the team working this room had assessed and transported the injured; only the bodies remained behind. The cinder-block walls were chipped where bullets had pierced or grazed them. A vending machine--glass shattered, bottles pierced--dribbled Sprite and Coke and Dasani onto the linoleum floor. One of the crime techs was photographing evidence: abandoned bookbags and purses and textbooks. He snapped each item close-up, then at a distance with a little yellow tented evidence marker to record its placement in relation to the rest of the scene. Another officer examined blood-spatter patterns. A third and a fourth were pointing to a spot in the upper right corner of the ceiling. "Captain," one of them said, "looks like we've got a video."

  "Where's the recorder?"

  The officer shrugged. "Principal's office?"

  "Go find out," Patrick said.

  He walked down the main aisle of the cafeteria. It looked, at first glance, like a science fiction movie: everyone had been in the middle of eating and chatting and joking around with friends, and then in the blink of an eye, all the humans were abducted by aliens, leaving only the artifacts behind. What would an anthropologist say about the student body of Sterling High, based on the Wonder-bread sandwiches scarred by only one bite; the tub of Cherry Bomb lip gloss with a fingerprint still skimming the surface; the salt-and-pepper composition notebooks filled with study sheets on Aztec civilization and margin notes about the current one: I luv Zach S!!! Mr. Keifer is a Nazi!!!

  Patrick's knee bumped one of the tables, and a loose handful of grapes scattered like gasps. One bounced against the shoulder of a boy slumped over his binder, his blood soaking into the college-ruled paper. The boy's hand still held tight to his eyeglasses. Had he been cleaning them when Peter Houghton arrived for his rampage? Had he taken them off because he didn't want to see?

  Patrick stepped over the bodies of two girls who lay sprawled on the floor like mirror twins, their miniskirts hiked high on their thighs and their eyes still open. Walking into the kitchen area, he surveyed the troughs of graying peas and carrots and the runny slop of chicken pot pie; the explosion of salt and pepper packets that dotted the floor like confetti. The shiny metallic helmets of the Yoplait yogurts--strawberry and mixed berry and key lime and peach--which were still miraculously aligned in four neat rows near the cash register, an unflinching, tiny army. One worn plastic tray, with a dish of Jell-O and a napkin on it, waiting to be served the rest of the meal.

  Suddenly, Patrick heard a noise. Could he have been wrong--could they all have missed a second shooter? Could his team be canvassing the school for survivors . . . and still be at risk themselves?

  He drew his gun and crept into the bowels of the kitchen, past racks with monstrous cans of tomato sauce and green beans and processed nacho cheese, past massive rolls of plastic wrap and Sysco tinfoil, to the refrigerated room where meats and produce were stored. Patrick kicked open the door, and cold air spilled over his legs. "Freeze," he yelled, and for the briefest moment, before he remembered everything else, he nearly smiled.

  A middle-aged Latina lunch lady, wearing a hair net that crawled over her forehead like a spiderweb, inched out from behind a rack of prepackaged bags of salad mix. Her hands were raised; she was shivering. "No me tire," she sobbed.

  Patrick lowered his weapon and took off his jacket, sliding it over the woman's shoulders. "It's over," he soothed, although he knew this was not really true. For him, for Peter Houghton, for all of Sterling . . . it was only just beginning.


  "Let me get this straight, Mrs. Calloway," Alex said. "You are charged with driving recklessly and causing serious bodily injury while reaching down to aid a fish?"

  The defendant, a fifty-four-year-old woman sporting a bad perm and an even worse pantsuit, nodded. "That's correct, Your Honor."

  Alex leaned her elbows on the bench. "I've got to hear this."

  The woman looked at her attorney. "Mrs. Calloway was coming home from the pet store with a silver arowana," the lawyer said.

  "That's a fifty-five-dollar tropical fish, Judge," the defendant interjected.

  "The plastic bag rolled off the passenger seat and popped. Mrs. Calloway reached down for the fish and that's when . . . the unfortunate incident occurred."

  "By unfortunate incident," Alex clarified, looking at her file, "you mean hitting a pedestrian."

  "Yes, Your Honor."

  Alex turned to the defendant. "How's the fish?"

  Mrs. Calloway smiled. "Wonderful," she said. "I named it Crash."

  From the corner of her eye, Alex saw a bailiff enter the courtroom and whisper to the clerk, who looked at Alex and nodded. He scrawled something on a piece of paper, and the bailiff walked it up to the bench.

  Shots fired at Sterling High, she read.

  Alex went still as stone. Josie. "Court's adjourned," she whispered, and then she ran.


  John Eberhard gritted his teeth and concentrated on moving just one more inch forward. He could not see, with all the blood running down his face, and his left side was completely useless. He couldn't hear, either--his ears still rang with the blast of the gun. Still, he had managed to crawl from the upstairs hallway where Peter Houghton had shot him into an art supply room.

  He thought about the practices where Coach made them skate from goal line to goal line, faster and then faster still, until the players were gasping for breath and spitting onto the ice. He thought about how, when you felt you had nothing left to give, you
'd find just one iota more. He dragged himself another foot, digging his elbow against the floor.

  When John reached the metal shelving that held clay and paint and beads and wire, he tried to push himself upright, but a blinding pain speared his head. Minutes later--or was it hours?--he regained consciousness. He didn't know if it was safe to check outside the closet yet. He was flat on his back, and something cold was drifting across his face. Wind. Coming through a crack in the seal of the window.

  A window.

  John thought of Courtney Ignatio: how she'd been sitting across from him at the cafeteria table when the glass wall behind her burst; how suddenly there had been a flower blooming in the middle of her chest, bright as a poppy. He thought of how a hundred screams, all at once, had braided into a rope of sound. He remembered teachers poking their heads out of their classrooms like gophers, and the looks on their faces when they heard the shots.

  John pulled himself up on the shelves, one-handed, fighting the black buzz that told him he was going to faint again. By the time he was upright, leaning against the metal frame, he was shuddering. His vision was so blurred that when he took a can of paint and hurled it, he had to choose between two windows.

  The glass shattered. Jackknifed on the ledge, he could see fire trucks and ambulances. Reporters and parents pushing at police tape. Clusters of sobbing students. Broken bodies, spaced like railroad ties on the snow. EMTs bringing out more of them.

  Help, John Eberhard tried to scream, but he couldn't form the word. He couldn't form any words--not Look, not Stop, not even his own name.

  "Hey," someone called. "There's a kid up there!"

  Sobbing by now, John tried to wave, but his arm wouldn't work.

  People were starting to point. "Stay put," a fireman yelled, and John tried to nod. But his body no longer belonged to him, and before he realized what had happened, that small movement pitched him out the window to land on the concrete two stories below.

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