Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  *

  Diana Leven, who had left her job as an assistant attorney general in Boston two years ago to join a department that was a little kinder and gentler, walked into the Sterling High gym and stopped beside the body of a boy who had fallen directly on the three-point line after being shot in the neck. The shoes of the crime scene techs squeaked on the shellacked floor as they took photographs and picked up shell casings, zipping them into plastic evidence bags. Directing them was Patrick Ducharme.

  Diana looked around at the sheer volume of evidence--clothing, guns, blood spatter, spent rounds, dropped bookbags, lost sneakers--and realized that she was not the only one with a massive job ahead of her. "What do you know so far?"

  "We think it's a sole shooter. He's in custody," Patrick said. "We don't know for sure whether anyone else was involved. The building's secure."

  "How many dead?"

  "Ten confirmed."

  Diana nodded. "Wounded?"

  "Don't know yet. We've got every ambulance in northern New Hampshire here."

  "What can I do?"

  Patrick turned to her. "Put on a show and get rid of the cameras."

  She started to walk off, but Patrick grabbed her arm. "You want me to talk to him?"

  "The shooter?"

  Patrick nodded.

  "It may be the only chance we have to get to him before he has a lawyer. If you think you can get away from here, do it." Diana hurried out of the gymnasium and downstairs, careful to skirt the work of the policemen and the medics. The minute she walked outside, the media attached themselves to her, their questions stinging like bees. How many victims? What are the names of the dead? Who is the shooter?

  Why?

  Diana took a deep breath and smoothed her dark hair back from her face. This was her least favorite part of the job--being the spokeswoman on camera. Although more vans would arrive as the day went on, right now it was only local New Hampshire media--affiliates for CBS and ABC and FOX. She might as well enjoy the hometown advantage while she could. "My name is Diana Leven, and I'm with the attorney general's office. We can't release any information now because there's an investigation still pending, but we promise to give you details as soon as we can. What I can tell you right now is that this morning, there was a school shooting at Sterling High. It's unclear as to who the perpetrator or perpetrators were. One person has been remanded into custody. There are no formal charges yet."

  A reporter pushed her way to the front of the pack. "How many kids are dead?"

  "We don't have that information yet."

  "How many were hit?"

  "We don't have that information yet," Diana repeated. "We'll keep you posted."

  "When are charges going to be filed?" another journalist shouted.

  "What can you tell the parents who want to know if their kids are okay?"

  Diana pressed her mouth into a firm line and prepared to run the gauntlet. "Thank you very much," she said, not an answer at all.

  *

  Lacy had to park six blocks away from the school; that's how crowded it had become. She took off at a dead run, holding the blankets that the local radio announcers had urged people to bring for the shock victims. I've already lost one son, she thought. I can't lose another.

  The last conversation she had had with Peter had been an argument. It was before he went to bed the previous night, before she'd been called into a delivery. I asked you to take out the trash, she had said. Yesterday. Don't you hear me when I talk to you, Peter?

  Peter had glanced up at her over his computer screen. What?

  What if that turned out to be the final exchange between them?

  Nothing Lacy had seen in nursing school or in her work at a hospital prepared her for the sight she faced when she turned the corner. She processed it in pieces: shattered glass, fire engines, smoke. Blood, sobbing, sirens. She dropped the blankets near an ambulance and swam into a sea of confusion, bobbing along with the other parents in the hope that she might catch her lost child drifting before being overwhelmed by the tide.

  There were children running across the muddy courtyard. None of them had coats on. Lacy watched one lucky mother find her daughter, and she scanned the crowd wildly, looking for Peter, aware that she didn't even know what he was wearing today.

  Snippets of sound floated toward her:

  . . . didn't see him . . .

  . . . Mr. McCabe got shot . . .

  . . . haven't found her yet . . .

  . . . I thought I'd never . . .

  . . . lost my cell phone when . . .

  . . . Peter Houghton was . . .

  Lacy spun around, her eyes focusing on the girl who was speaking--the one who'd been reunited with her mother. "Excuse me," Lacy said. "My son . . . I'm trying to find him. I heard you mention his name--Peter Houghton?"

  The girl's eyes rounded, and she sidled closer to her mother. "He's the one who's shooting."

  Everything around Lacy slowed--the pulse of the ambulances, the pace of the running students, the round sounds that fell from the lips of this girl. Maybe she had misheard.

  She glanced up at the girl again, and immediately wished she hadn't. The girl was sobbing. Over her shoulder her mother stared at Lacy with horror, and then carefully pivoted to shield her daughter from view, as if Lacy were a basilisk--as if her very stare could turn you to stone.

  There must be some mistake, please let there be a mistake, she thought, even as she looked around at the carnage and felt Peter's name swell like a sob in her throat.

  Woodenly, she approached the closest policeman. "I'm looking for my son," Lacy said.

  "Lady, you're not the only one. We're doing our best to--"

  Lacy took a deep breath, aware that from this moment on, everything would be different. "His name," she said, "is Peter Houghton."

  *

  Alex's high heel twisted in a crack in the sidewalk, and she went down hard on one knee. Struggling upright again, she grabbed at the arm of a mother who was running past her. "The names of the wounded . . . where are they?"

  "Posted at the hockey rink."

  Alex hurried across the street, which had been blocked off to cars and was now a triage area for the medical personnel loading students into ambulances. When her shoes slowed her down--they were designed for an indoor courthouse, not running around outside--she reached down and stepped out of them, running in her stockings down the wet pavement.

  The hockey rink, which was shared by both the Sterling High School team and the college players, was a five-minute walk from the school. Alex reached it in two minutes and found herself being pushed forward by a throng of parents all determined to see the handwritten lists that had been taped to the door panels, lists of the children who'd been taken to area hospitals. There was no indication of how badly they'd been hurt . . . or worse. Alex read the first three names: Whitaker Obermeyer. Kaitlyn Harvey. Matthew Royston.

  Matt?

  "No," a woman beside her said. She was petite, with the dark darting eyes of a bird and a froth of red hair. "No," she repeated, but this time, the tears had already begun.

  Alex stared at her, unable to offer comfort, out of fear that grief might be contagious. She was suddenly shoved hard from the left and found herself now standing in front of the list of wounded who'd been taken to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

  Alexis, Emma.

  Horuka, Min.

  Pryce, Brady.

  Cormier, Josephine.

  Alex would have fallen if not for the press of anxious parents on either side of her. "Excuse me," she murmured, giving up her place to another frantic mother. She struggled through the growing crowd. "Excuse me," Alex said again, words that were no longer polite discourse, but a plea for absolution.

  *

  "Captain," a desk sergeant said as Patrick walked into the station, and he slid his eyes toward the woman who was waiting across the room, coiled tight with purpose. "That's her."

  Patrick turned. Peter Houghton's mother was t
iny and looked nothing like her son. She had a pile of dark curls twisted on top of her head and secured with a pen. She wore scrubs and a pair of Merrell clogs. He wondered, briefly, if she was a doctor. He thought about the irony of that: First, do no harm.

  She didn't look like a person who'd created a monster, although Patrick realized she might have been caught just as unaware by her son's actions as the rest of the community. "Mrs. Houghton?"

  "I want to see my son."

  "Unfortunately, you can't," Patrick replied. "He's being held in custody."

  "He has a lawyer."

  "Your son is seventeen--legally, an adult. That means that Peter's going to have to invoke his right to an attorney himself."

  "But he might not know . . ." she said, her voice breaking. "He might not know that's what he needs to do."

  Patrick knew that, in a different way, this woman was a victim of her son's actions, too. He had interrogated enough parents of minors to know that the last thing you ever wanted to do was burn a bridge. "Ma'am, we're doing our best to understand what happened today. And honestly, I hope you'll be willing to talk to me later--to help me figure out what Peter was thinking." He hesitated, and then added, "I'm very sorry."

  He let himself into the inner sanctum of the police station with his keys and jogged up the stairs to the booking room with its adjacent lockup. Peter Houghton sat on the floor with his back to the bars, rocking slowly.

  "Peter," Patrick said. "You all right?"

  Slowly, the boy turned his head. He stared at Patrick.

  "You remember me?"

  Peter nodded.

  "How'd you like a cup of coffee or something?"

  A hesitation, and then Peter nodded again.

  Patrick summoned the sergeant to open Peter's cell and led him to the kitchen. He'd already arranged to have a camcorder running, so that if it came down to it, he could get Peter's verbal consent to his rights on tape and then get him to talk. Inside, he invited Peter to take a seat at the scarred table, and he poured two cups of coffee. He didn't ask Peter how he liked it--just added sugar and milk and set it in front of the boy.

  Patrick sat down, too. He hadn't gotten a good look at the boy before--adrenaline will do that to your vision--but now he stared. Peter Houghton was slight, pale, with wire-rimmed glasses and freckles. One of his front teeth was crooked, and his Adam's apple looked fist-sized. His knuckles were knotty and chapped. He was crying quietly, and it might have been enough to engender sympathy had he not been wearing a T-shirt splattered with the blood of other students.

  "You feel all right, Peter?" Patrick asked. "You hungry?"

  The boy shook his head.

  "Can I get you anything else?"

  Peter put his head down on the table. "I want my mom," he whispered.

  Patrick looked at the part in the boy's hair. Had he brushed it that morning, thinking, Today's the day I'm going to kill ten students? "I'd like to talk about what happened today. Would you be willing to do that?"

  Peter didn't answer.

  "If you explain it to me," Patrick urged, "maybe I can explain it to everyone else."

  Peter lifted his face, crying in earnest now. Patrick knew this wasn't going to go anywhere; he sighed, pushing away from the table. "All right," he said. "Let's go."

  Patrick led Peter back to the holding cell and watched him curl up on the floor on his side, facing the cement wall. He knelt behind the boy, one last-ditch attempt. "Help me help you," he said, but Peter just shook his head and continued to cry.

  It wasn't until Patrick had stepped out of the cell and turned the key in the lock that he heard Peter speak again. "They started it," he whispered.

  *

  Dr. Guenther Frankenstein had worked as the state medical examiner for six years, which was exactly how long he'd held the Mr. Universe title in the early 1970s, before he traded in his barbells for a scalpel--or as he liked to put it, went from building bodies to taking them apart. His muscles were still formidable, and visible enough beneath his jacket to stop the onslaught of any monster jokes incurred by his last name. Patrick liked Guenther--how could you not admire a guy who could lift three times his body weight and yet also know, just by eyeballing a liver, roughly how many grams it would weigh?

  Every now and then Patrick and Guenther would grab a few beers together, consuming enough alcohol for the former bodybuilder to tell him stories of women offering to oil him up before a competition or good anecdotes about Arnold, before he became political. Today, however, Patrick and Guenther did not joke around, and they did not talk about the past. They were overwhelmed by the present as they moved silently through the halls, cataloguing the dead.

  Patrick met Guenther at the school after his abortive interview with Peter Houghton. The prosecutor had only shrugged when Patrick told her Peter hadn't been willing or able to talk. "We have hundreds of witnesses saying he killed ten people," Diana had said. "Arrest him."

  Guenther crouched down beside the body of the sixth casualty. She had been shot in the girls' bathroom, and her body was sprawled facedown in front of the sinks. Patrick turned to the principal, Arthur McAllister, who'd agreed to accompany them for identification. "Kaitlyn Harvey," the principal said, his voice haunted. "Special-needs kid . . . sweet girl."

  Guenther and Patrick looked at each other. The principal did not just identify the bodies; he also gave a little one-or two-sentence eulogy each time. Patrick supposed that the man couldn't help himself--unlike Patrick and Guenther, he wasn't used to dealing with tragedy in the course of his normal occupation.

  Patrick had tried to retrace Peter's footsteps, from the front hallway to the cafeteria (Victims 1 and 2: Courtney Ignatio and Maddie Shaw), to the stairwell outside it (Victim 3: Whit Obermeyer), to the boys' bathroom (Victim 4: Topher McPhee), through another hallway (Victim 5: Grace Murtaugh), into the girls' bathroom (Victim 6: Kaitlyn Harvey). Now, as he led the team upstairs, he took a left into the first classroom, trailing a smeared line of blood to a spot near the chalkboard where the body of the only adult victim lay . . . and beside him, a young man with his hand pressed tight over the bullet wound in the man's belly. "Ben?" McAllister said. "What are you still doing here?"

  Patrick turned to the boy. "You're not an EMT?"

  "I . . . no . . ."

  "You told me you were an EMT!"

  "I said I'd had medical training!"

  "Ben's an Eagle Scout," the principal said.

  "I couldn't leave Mr. McCabe. I . . . applied pressure, and it's working, see? The blood's stopped."

  Guenther gently removed the boy's bloody hand from his teacher's stomach. "That's because he's gone, son."

  Ben's face crumpled. "But I . . . I . . ."

  "You did the best you could," Guenther assured him.

  Patrick turned to the principal. "Why don't you take Ben outside . . . maybe let one of the doctors take a look at him?" Shock, he mouthed over the boy's head.

  As they left the classroom, Ben grasped the principal's sleeve, leaving a bright red handprint behind. "Jesus," Patrick said, running a hand down his face.

  Guenther stood up. "Come on. Let's just get this over with."

  They walked toward the gymnasium, where Guenther certified the deaths of two more students--a black boy and a white one--and then into the locker room where Patrick had ultimately cornered Peter Houghton. Guenther examined the body of the boy Patrick had seen earlier, the kid in the hockey jersey whose cap had been blown off his head by a bullet. Meanwhile, Patrick walked into the abutting shower room and glanced out the window. The reporters were still there, but most of the wounded had been dealt with. There was only one waiting ambulance, instead of seven.

  It had started to rain. By the next morning, the bloodstains on the pavement outside the school would be pale; this day might never have happened.

  "This is interesting," Guenther said.

  Patrick closed the window against the weather. "Why? Is he deader than the rest of them?"

  "Yeah.
He's the only victim that's been shot twice. Once in the gut, once in the head." Guenther looked at him. "How many guns did you find on the shooter?"

  "One in his hand, one on the floor here, two in his backpack."

  "Nothing like a little backup plan."

  "Tell me about it," Patrick said. "Can you tell which bullet was fired first?"

  "No. My educated guess, though, would be the one in the belly . . . since it was the slug to the brain that killed him." Guenther knelt beside the body. "Maybe he hated this kid most of all."

  The door of the locker room flew open, revealing a street cop soaked by the sudden downpour. "Captain?" he said. "We just found the makings of another pipe bomb in Peter Houghton's car."

  *

  When Josie was younger, Alex had a recurring nightmare about being on a plane when it went into a nosedive. She could feel the spin of gravity, the pressure that held her back in her chair; she saw purses and coats and carry-on luggage burst out of the overhead compartments to fall into the aisle. I have to get to my cell phone, Alex had thought, intent on leaving Josie a message on the answering machine that she could carry around forever, digital proof that Alex loved her and was thinking of her at the end. But even after Alex had grabbed her phone from her purse and turned it on, it took too long. She'd hit the ground when the phone was still searching for a signal.

  She'd awaken shaking and sweaty, even as she dismissed the dream: she rarely traveled apart from Josie; she certainly didn't take flights for her job. She'd throw back the covers and head to the bathroom and splash water on her face, but it didn't stop her from thinking: I was too late.

  Now, as she sat in the quiet dark of a hospital room where her daughter was sleeping off the effects of a sedative given to her by the admitting doctor, Alex felt the same way.

  This is what Alex had managed to learn: Josie had fainted during the shooting. She had a cut on her forehead decorated with a butterfly bandage, and a mild concussion. The doctors wanted to keep her overnight for observation, to be safe.

  Safe had a whole new definition now.

  Alex had also learned, from the unending news coverage, the names of the dead. One of whom was Matthew Royston.

  Matt.

  What if Josie had been with her boyfriend when he was shot?

  Josie had been unconscious the whole time Alex had been here. She was small and still under the faded hospital sheets; the tie at the neck of her hospital johnny had come unraveled. From time to time, her right hand twitched. Alex reached out now and grasped it. Wake up, she thought. Prove to me you're okay.

 
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