Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  What if Alex hadn't been late to work that morning? Might she have stayed at the kitchen table with Josie, talking about the things she imagined mothers and daughters discussed but that she never seemed to have the time to? What if she'd taken a better look at Josie when she hurried downstairs, told her to go back to bed and get some rest?

  What if she'd taken Josie on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Punta Cana, San Diego, Fiji--all the places Alex dream-surfed on her computer in chambers and thought about visiting, but never did?

  What if she'd been a prescient enough mother to keep her daughter home from school today?

  There were, of course, hundreds of other parents who'd made the same honest mistake she had. But that was shallow comfort to Alex: none of their children were Josie. None of them, surely, had as much to lose as she did.

  When this is over, Alex promised silently, we will go to the rain forest, or the pyramids, or a beach as white as bone. We will eat grapes from the vine, we will swim with sea turtles, we will walk miles on cobblestone streets. We will laugh and talk and confess. We will.

  At the same time, a small voice in her head was scheduling this paradise. After, it said. Because first, this trial will come to your courtroom.

  It was true: a case like this would be fast-tracked to the docket. Alex was the superior court judge for Grafton County, and would be for the next eight months. Although Josie had been at the scene of the crime, she wasn't technically a victim of the shooter. Had Josie been wounded, Alex would have automatically been removed from the case. But as it stood, there was no legal conflict in Alex's sitting as judge, as long as she could separate her personal feelings as the mother of a high school student from her professional feelings as a justice. This would be her first big trial as a superior court judge, the one that set a tone for the rest of her tenure on the bench.

  Not that she was really thinking about that now.

  Suddenly, Josie stirred. Alex watched consciousness pour into her, reach a high-water mark. "Where am I?"

  Alex combed her fingers through her daughter's hair. "In the hospital."

  "Why?"

  Her hand stilled. "Do you remember anything about today?"

  "Matt came over before school," Josie said, and then she pushed herself upright. "Was there, like, a car accident?"

  Alex hesitated, unsure of what she was supposed to say. Wasn't Josie better off not knowing the truth? What if this was the way her mind was protecting her from whatever she'd witnessed?

  "You're fine," Alex said carefully. "You weren't hurt."

  Josie turned to her, relieved. "What about Matt?"

  *

  Lewis was getting a lawyer. Lacy held that nugget of information to her chest like a hot stone as she rocked back and forth on Peter's bed and waited for him to come home. It's going to be all right, Lewis had promised, although she did not understand how he could make so specious a statement. Clearly this is a mistake, Lewis had said, but he hadn't been down at the high school. He hadn't seen the faces of the students, kids who would never really be kids again.

  There was a part of Lacy that wanted so badly to believe Lewis--to think that somehow, this broken thing might be fixed. But there was another part of her that remembered him waking Peter at four in the morning to go out and sit in a duck blind. Lewis had taught his son how to hunt, never expecting that Peter might find a different kind of prey. Lacy understood hunting as both a sport and an evolutionary claim; she even knew how to make an excellent venison stew and teriyaki goose and enjoyed whatever meal Lewis's hobby put on the table. But right now, she thought, It is his fault, because then it couldn't be hers.

  How could you change a boy's bedding every week and feed him breakfast and drive him to the orthodontist and not know him at all? She'd assumed that if Peter's answers were monosyllabic, it was just because of his age; that any mother would have made the same assumption. Lacy combed through her memories for some red flag, some conversation she might have misread, something overlooked, but all she could recall were a thousand ordinary moments.

  A thousand ordinary moments that some mothers would never get to have again with their own children.

  Tears sprang to her eyes; she wiped them with the back of her hand. Don't think about them, she silently scolded. Right now you have to worry about yourself.

  Had Peter been thinking that, too?

  Swallowing, Lacy walked into her son's room. It was dark, the bed neatly made just as Lacy had left it this morning, but now she saw the poster of a band called Death Wish on the wall and wondered why a boy might hang it up. She opened the closet and saw the empty bottles and electrical tape and torn rags and everything else she had missed the first time around.

  Suddenly, Lacy stopped. She could fix this herself. She could fix this for both of them. She ran downstairs to the kitchen and ripped three large black thirty-three-gallon trash bags free from their coil before hurrying back to Peter's room. She started in the closet, shoving packages of shoelaces, sugar, potassium nitrate fertilizer, and--my God, were these pipes?--into the first bag. She did not have a plan about what she would do with all these things, but she would get them out of her house.

  When the doorbell rang, Lacy sighed with relief, expecting Lewis--although, if she'd been thinking clearly, she would have realized that Lewis would have simply let himself in. She abandoned her haul and went downstairs to find a policeman holding a slim blue folder. "Mrs. Houghton?" the officer said.

  What could they possibly want? They already had her son.

  "We've got a search warrant." He handed her the paperwork and pushed past her, followed by five other policemen. "Jackson and Walhorne, you head up to the boy's room. Rodriguez, the basement. Tewes and Gilchrist, start with the first floor, and everyone, let's make sure you cover the answering machines and all computer equipment . . ." Then he noticed Lacy still standing there, stricken. "Mrs. Houghton, you'll have to leave the premises."

  The policeman escorted her to her own front hallway. Numb, Lacy followed. What would they think when they reached Peter's room and found that trash bag? Would they blame Peter? Or Lacy, for enabling him?

  Did they already?

  A rush of cold air hit Lacy in the face as the front door opened. "For how long?"

  The officer shrugged. "Till we're done," he said, and he left her out in the cold.

  *

  Jordan McAfee had been an attorney for nearly twenty years and truly believed he had seen and heard it all, until now, when he and his wife, Selena, stood in front of the television set watching CNN's coverage of the school shooting at Sterling High. "It's like Columbine," Selena said. "In our backyard."

  "Except right now," Jordan murmured, "there's someone to blame who's still alive." He glanced down at the baby in his wife's arms, a blue-eyed, coffee-colored mixture of his own WASP genes and Selena's never-ending limbs and ebony skin, and he reached for the remote to turn down the volume, just in case his son was taking any of this in subconsciously.

  Jordan knew Sterling High. It was just down the street from his barber and two blocks away from the room over the bank he rented as his law office. He had represented a few students who'd been busted with pot in their glove compartments or who got caught drinking underage at the college in town. Selena, who was not only his wife but also his investigator, had gone into the school to talk to kids from time to time about a case.

  They hadn't lived here very long. His son Thomas--the only good thing to come out of his lousy first marriage--graduated from high school in Salem Falls and was now a sophomore at Yale, where Jordan spent $40,000 a year to hear that he had narrowed down his career plans to becoming either a performance artist, an art historian, or a professional clown. Jordan had finally asked Selena to marry him, and after she'd gotten pregnant, they'd moved to Sterling--because the school district had such a good reputation.

  Go figure.

  When the telephone rang and Jordan--who didn't want to watch the coverage but couldn't tear his eyes away fro
m it either--made no motion to answer it, Selena dumped the baby in his arms and reached for the receiver. "Hey," she said. "How's it going?"

  Jordan glanced up and raised his brows.

  Thomas, Selena mouthed. "Yeah, hang on, he's right here."

  He took the phone from Selena. "What the hell is going on?" Thomas asked. "Sterling High's all over MSNBC.com."

  "I don't know any more than you do," Jordan said. "It's pandemonium."

  "I know some kids there. We competed against them in track and field. It's just--it's not real."

  Jordan could still hear ambulance sirens in the distance. "It's real," he said. There was a click on the line--call-waiting. "Hang on, I have to take this."

  "Is this Mr. McAfee?"

  "Yes . . ."

  "I, um, understand that you're an attorney. I got your name from Stuart McBride over at Sterling College . . ."

  On the television, a list of the names of the known dead began to scroll, with yearbook pictures. "You know, I'm on the other line," Jordan said. "Could I take down your name and number, and get back to you?"

  "I was wondering if you'd represent my son," the caller said. "He's the boy who . . . the one from the high school who . . ." The voice stumbled, and then broke. "They say my son's the one who did it."

  Jordan thought of the last time he'd represented a teenage boy. Like this one, Chris Harte had been found holding a smoking gun.

  "Will you . . . will you take his case?"

  Jordan forgot about Thomas, waiting. He forgot about Chris Harte and how the case had nearly turned him inside out. Instead he looked at Selena and the baby in her arms. Sam twisted, grabbing at her earring. This boy--the one who had walked into Sterling High this morning and committed a massacre--was someone's son. And in spite of a town that would be reeling for years, and media coverage that had already reached the point of saturation, he deserved a fair trial.

  "Yes," Jordan said. "I will."

  *

  Finally--after the bomb squad had dismantled the pipe bomb in Peter Houghton's car; after one hundred and sixteen shell casings had been found scattered in the school from fired bullets; after the accident recon guys had begun to measure the evidence and the location of the bodies so that they could produce a scale diagram of the scene; after the crime techs had taken the first of hundreds of snapshots that they would put into indexed photobooks--Patrick called everyone together into the auditorium of the school and stood on the stage in the near darkness. "What we have is a massive amount of information," he told the crowd assembled before him. "There's going to be a lot of pressure on us to do this fast, and to do this right. I want everyone back here in twenty-four hours, so that we can see where we're at."

  People began to disperse. At the next meeting, Patrick would be given the completed photobooks, all evidence not being sent to the lab, and all lab submissions. In twenty-four hours, he'd be buried so far underneath the avalanche he wouldn't know which way was up.

  While the others headed back to various parts of the building to complete the work that would take them all night and the next day, Patrick walked out to his car. It had stopped raining. Patrick planned to go back to the station to review the evidence that had been seized from the Houghtons' home, and he wanted to talk to the parents, if they were still willing. But he found himself pointing his car instead toward the medical center, and he pulled into the parking lot. He walked into the emergency entrance and flashed his badge. "Look," he said to the nurse, "I know you had a lot of kids come through here today. But one of the first was a girl named Josie. I'm trying to find her."

  The nurse fluttered her hands over her computer keyboard. "Josie who?"

  "That's the thing," Patrick admitted. "I don't know."

  The screen swam with a flurry of information, and the nurse tapped her finger against the glass. "Cormier. She's up on the fourth floor, Room 422."

  Patrick thanked her and took the elevator upstairs. Cormier. The name sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. It was common enough, he figured--maybe he'd read it in the paper or seen it on a television show. He slipped past the nurses' desk and followed the numbers down the hall. The door to Josie's room was ajar. The girl sat up in bed, wrapped in shadows, talking to a figure that stood beside her.

  Patrick knocked softly and stepped into the room. Josie stared at him blankly; the woman beside her turned around.

  Cormier, Patrick realized. As in Judge Cormier. He'd been called to testify in her courtroom a few times before she became a superior court judge; he'd gone to her for warrants as a last resort--after all, she came from a public defender's background, which in Patrick's mind meant that even if she now was scrupulously fair, she still had once played for the other side.

  "Your Honor," he said. "I didn't realize Josie was your daughter." He approached the bed. "How are you doing?"

  Josie stared at him. "Do I know you?"

  "I'm the one who carried you out--" He stopped as the judge put her hand on his arm and drew him out of Josie's range of hearing.

  "She doesn't remember anything that happened," the judge whispered. "She thinks for some reason that she was in a car accident . . . and I . . ." Her voice trailed off. "I haven't been able to tell her the truth."

  Patrick understood--when you loved someone, you didn't want to be the one who brought their world crashing down. "Would you like me to do it?"

  The judge hesitated, and then nodded gratefully. Patrick faced Josie again. "You all right?"

  "My head hurts. The doctors said I have a concussion and have to stay overnight." She looked up at him. "I guess I ought to thank you for rescuing me." Suddenly, a flicker of intention crossed her face. "Do you know what happened to Matt? The guy who was in the car with me?"

  Patrick sat down on the edge of the hospital bed. "Josie," he said gently, "you weren't in a car accident. There was an incident at your school--a student came in and started shooting people."

  Josie shook her head, trying to dislodge the words.

  "Matt was one of the victims."

  Her eyes filled with tears. "Is he okay?"

  Patrick looked down at the soft waffle weave of the blanket between them. "I'm sorry."

  "No," Josie said. "No. You're lying to me." She struck out at Patrick, clipping him across the face and chest. The judge rushed forward, trying to hold her daughter back, but Josie was wild--shrieking, crying, clawing, drawing the attention of the nursing staff down the hall. Two of them flew into the room on white wings, shooing out Patrick and Judge Cormier, while they administered a sedative to Josie.

  In the hallway, Patrick leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Jesus Christ. Was this what he'd have to put every one of his witnesses through? He was about to apologize to the judge for upsetting Josie when she turned on him just like her daughter had. "What the hell do you think you're doing, telling her about Matt!"

  "You asked me to," Patrick bristled.

  "To tell her about the school," the judge qualified. "Not to tell her her boyfriend's dead!"

  "You know damn well Josie would have found out sooner or--"

  "Later," the judge interrupted. "Much later."

  The nurses appeared in the doorway. "She's sleeping now," one of them whispered. "We'll be back in to check on her."

  They both waited until the nurses were out of hearing range. "Look," Patrick said tightly. "Today I saw kids who'd been shot in the head, kids who will never walk again, kids who died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your daughter . . . she's in shock . . . but she's one of the lucky ones."

  His words hit her, a solid slap. For just a moment, when Patrick looked at the judge, she no longer seemed furious. Her gray eyes were heavy with all the scenarios that, thankfully, had not come to pass; her mouth softened with relief. And then, just as suddenly, her features smoothed, impassive. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually like this. It's just . . . been a really awful day."

  Patrick tried, but he could see no trace left of the emotion
that had, for a moment, broken her. Seamless. That's what she was.

  "I know you were only trying to do your job," the judge said.

  "I would like to talk to Josie . . . but that's not why I came. I'm here because she was the first one . . . well, I just needed to know she was all right." He offered Judge Cormier the smallest of smiles, the kind that can start a heart to breaking. "Take care of her," Patrick said, and then he turned and walked down the hall, aware of the heat of her gaze on his back, and how much it felt like the touch of a hand.

  Twelve Years Before

  On his first day of kindergarten, Peter Houghton woke up at 4:32 a.m. He padded into his parents' room and asked if it was time yet to take the school bus. For as long as he could remember, he'd watched his brother Joey get on the bus, and it was a mystery of dynamic proportion: the way the sun bounced off its snub yellow nose, the door that hinged like the jaw of a dragon, the dramatic sigh when it came to a stop. Peter had a Matchbox car that looked just like the bus Joey rode on twice a day--the same bus that now he was going to get to ride on, too.

  His mother told him to go back to sleep until it was morning, but he couldn't. Instead, he got dressed in the special clothes his mother had bought for his first day of school and he lay back down in bed to wait. He was the first one downstairs for breakfast, and his mother made chocolate chip pancakes--his favorite. She kissed him on the cheek and took a picture of him sitting at the breakfast table, and then another one when he was dressed in his coat and had his empty knapsack on his back, like the shell of a turtle. "I can't believe my baby is going to school," his mother said.

  Joey, who was in first grade this year, told him to stop acting stupid. "It's just school," he said. "Big deal."

  Peter's mother finished buttoning his coat. "It was a big deal to you once, too," she said. Then she told Peter she had a surprise for him. She went into the kitchen and reappeared with a Superman lunch box. Superman was reaching forward, as if he were trying to break out of the metal. His whole body stuck out from the background the tiniest bit, like the letters on books blind people read. Peter liked thinking that even if he couldn't see, he would be able to tell that this was his lunch box. He took it from his mother and hugged her. He heard the thud of a piece of fruit rolling, the crinkle of wax paper, and he imagined the insides of his lunch, like mysterious organs.

 
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