Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  They waited at the end of the driveway, and just as Peter had dreamed over and over, the yellow bus rose over the crest of the hill. "One more!" his mother called, and she took a picture of Peter with the bus groaning to a stop behind him. "Joey," she instructed, "take care of your brother." Then she kissed Peter on the forehead. "My big boy," she said, and her mouth pinched tight, the way it did when she was trying not to cry.

  Suddenly Peter felt his stomach turn to ice. What if kindergarten was not as great as he'd imagined? What if his teacher looked like the witch on that TV program that gave him nightmares sometimes? What if he forgot which direction the letter E went and everyone made fun of him?

  With hesitation, he climbed the steps of the school bus. The driver wore an army jacket and had two teeth missing in the front. "There's seats in back," he said, and Peter headed down the aisle, looking for Joey.

  His brother was sitting next to a boy Peter didn't know. Joey glanced at him as he walked by, but didn't say anything.


  He turned and saw Josie patting the empty seat next to her. She had her dark hair in pigtails and was wearing a skirt, even though she hated skirts. "I saved it for you," Josie said.

  He sat down next to her, feeling better already. He was riding inside a bus. And he was sitting next to his best friend in the whole world. "Cool lunch box," Josie said.

  He held it up, to show her the way that you could make Superman look like he was moving if you wiggled it, and just then a hand reached across the aisle. A boy with ape arms and a backward baseball cap grabbed the lunch box out of Peter's grasp. "Hey, freak," he said, "you want to see Superman fly?"

  Before Peter understood what the older boy was doing, he opened a window and hurled Peter's lunch box out of it. Peter stood up, craning his neck around to see out the rear emergency door. His lunch box burst open on the asphalt. His apple rolled across the dotted yellow line of the road and vanished beneath the tire of an oncoming car.

  "Sit down!" the bus driver yelled.

  Peter sank back into his seat. His face felt cold, but his ears were burning. He could hear the boy and his friends laughing, as loud as if it were happening in his own head. Then he felt Josie's hand slide into his. "I've got peanut butter," she whispered. "We can share."


  Alex sat in the conference room at the jail, across from her newest client, Linus Froom. This morning, at 4:00 a.m., he'd dressed in black, pulled a ski mask over his head, and robbed an Irving gas station convenience store at gunpoint. When the police were called in after Linus ran off, they found a cell phone on the ground. It rang while the detective was sitting at his desk. "Dude," the caller said. "This is my cell phone. Do you have it?" The detective said yes, and asked where he'd lost it. "At the Irving station, man. I was there, like, a half hour ago." The detective suggested that they meet at the corner of Route 10 and Route 25A; he'd bring the cell phone.

  Needless to say, Linus Froom showed up, and was arrested for robbery.

  Alex looked at her client across the scarred table. Her daughter was at this moment having juice and cookies or story time or Advanced Crayoning or whatever else the first day of kindergarten consisted of, and she was stuck in a conference room at the county jail with a criminal too stupid to even be good at his craft. "It says here," Alex said, perusing the police report, "that there was some contention when Detective Chisholm read you your rights?"

  Linus lifted his gaze. He was a kid--only nineteen--with acne and a unibrow. "He thought I was dumb as shit."

  "He said this to you?"

  "He asked me if I could read."

  All cops did; they were supposed to have the perp follow along with the Miranda rights. "And your response, apparently, was, 'Hello, fucko, do I look like a moron?'"

  Linus shrugged. "What was I supposed to say?"

  Alex pinched the bridge of her nose. Her days in the public defender's office were an exhausting blur of moments like this: a great amount of energy and time expended on behalf of someone who--a week, a month, a year later--would wind up sitting across from her again. And yet, what else was she qualified to do? This was the world she had chosen to inhabit.

  Her beeper went off. Glancing at the number, she silenced it. "Linus, I think we're going to have to plead this one out."

  She left Linus in the hands of a detention officer and ducked into the office of a secretary at the jail in order to borrow her phone. "Thank God," Alex said when the person picked up on the other end. "You saved me from jumping out a second-story window at the jail."

  "You forgot, there are bars," Whit Hobart said, laughing. "I used to think maybe they'd been installed not to keep the prisoners in, but to prevent their public defenders from running away when they realize how bad their cases are."

  Whit had been Alex's boss when she'd joined the NH public defender's office, but he had retired nine months ago. A legend in his own right, Whit had become the father she'd never had--one who, unlike her own, had praise for her instead of criticism. She wished Whit were here, now, instead of in some golf community on the seacoast. He'd take her out to lunch and tell her stories that made her realize every public defender had clients--and cases--like Linus. And then he'd somehow leave her with the bill and a renewed drive to get up and fight all over again.

  "What are you doing up?" Alex said. "Early tee time?"

  "Nah, damn gardener woke me with the leaf blower. What am I missing?"

  "Nothing, really. Except the office isn't the same without you. There's a certain . . . energy missing."

  "Energy? You're not becoming some New Age crystal-reading hack, are you, Al?"

  Alex grinned. "No--"

  "Good. Because that's why I'm calling: I've got a job for you."

  "I already have a job. In fact, I have enough work for two jobs."

  "Three district courts in the area are posting a vacancy in the Bar News. You really ought to put your name in, Alex."

  "To be a judge?" She started to laugh. "Whit, what are you smoking these days?"

  "You'd be good at it, Alex. You're a fine decision maker. You're even-tempered. You don't let your emotions get in the way of your work. You have the defense perspective, so you understand the litigants. And you've always been an excellent trial attorney." He hesitated. "Plus, it's not too often that New Hampshire has a Democratic female governor picking a judge."

  "Thanks for the vote of confidence," Alex said, "but I am so not the right person for that job."

  She knew, too, because her father had been a superior court justice. Alex could remember swinging around in his swivel chair, counting paper clips, running her thumbnail along the green felt surface of his spotless blotter to make a hatch-marked grid. She'd pick up the phone and talk to the dial tone. She'd pretend. And then inevitably her father would come in and berate her for disturbing a pencil or a file or--God forbid--himself.

  On her belt, her beeper began to vibrate again. "Listen, I have to get to court. Maybe we can do lunch next week."

  "Judges' hours are regular," Whit added. "What time does Josie get home from school?"


  "Think about it," he said, and then he hung up.


  "Peter," his mother sighed, "how could you possibly lose it again?" She skirted around his father, who was pouring himself a cup of coffee, and fished through the dark bowels of the pantry for a brown paper lunch sack.

  Peter hated those sacks. The banana never could quite fit in, and the sandwich always got crushed. But what else was he supposed to do?

  "What did he lose?" his father asked.

  "His lunch box. For the third time this month." His mother began to fill the brown bag--fruit and juice pack on the bottom, sandwich floating on top. She glanced at Peter, who was not eating his breakfast, but vivisecting his paper napkin with a knife. He had, so far, made the letters H and T. "If you procrastinate, you're going to miss the bus."

  "You've got to start being responsible," his father said.

>   When his father spoke, Peter pictured the words like smoke. They clouded up the room for a moment, but before you knew it, they'd be gone.

  "For God's sake, Lewis, he's five."

  "I don't remember Joey losing his lunch box three times during the first month of school."

  Peter sometimes watched his father playing soccer in the backyard with Joey. Their legs pumped like crazy pistons and gears--forward, backward, forward--as if they were doing a dance together with the ball caught between them. When Peter tried to join them, he got tangled up in his own frustration. The last time, he'd scored against himself by accident.

  He looked over his shoulder at his parents. "I'm not Joey," he said, and even though nobody answered, he could hear the reply: We know.


  "Attorney Cormier?" Alex glanced up to find a former client standing in front of her desk, beaming from ear to ear.

  It took her a moment to place him. Teddy MacDougal or MacDonald, something like that. She remembered the charge: simple assault domestic violence. He and his wife had gotten drunk and gone after each other. Alex had gotten him acquitted.

  "I got somethin' for ya," Teddy said.

  "I hope you didn't buy me anything," she answered, and she meant it--this was a man from the North Country who was so poor that the floor of his house was literally dirt and he stocked his freezer with the spoils of his own hunting. Alex was not a fan of hunting, but she understood that for some of her clients--like Teddy--it was not about sport, but survival. Which was exactly why a conviction for him would have been so devastating: it would have cost him his firearms.

  "I didn't buy it. Promise." Teddy grinned. "It's in my truck. Come on out."

  "Can't you bring it in here?"

  "Oh, no. No, can't do that."

  Oh, excellent, Alex thought. What could he possibly have in his truck that he can't bring in? She followed Teddy out to the parking lot and in the back of his pickup truck saw a huge, dead bear.

  "This is for your freeza'," he said.

  "Teddy, this is enormous. You could eat it all winter."

  "Damn right. But I thoughta you."

  "Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. But I don't, um, eat meat. And I wouldn't want it to go to waste." She touched his arm. "I really want you to have it."

  Teddy squinted into the sun. "All right." He nodded at Alex, climbed into the cab of his truck, and bounced out of the parking lot as the bear thumped against the walls of the pickup bed.


  She turned to find her secretary standing in the doorway.

  "A call from your daughter's school just came in," the secretary said. "Josie got sent to the principal's office."

  Josie? In trouble at school? "For what?" Alex asked.

  "She beat the crap out of a boy on the playground."

  Alex started toward her car. "Tell them I'm on my way."


  On the ride home, Alex stole glances at her daughter in the rearview mirror. Josie had gone to school this morning in a white cardigan and khaki pants; now that cardigan was streaked with dirt. There were twigs in her hair, which had fallen from its ponytail. The elbow of her sweater had a hole in it; her lip was still bleeding. And--here was the amazing thing--apparently, she'd fared better than the little boy she'd gone after.

  "Come on," Alex said, leading Josie upstairs to the bathroom. There, she peeled off her daughter's shirt, washed her cuts, and covered them with Neosporin and Band-Aids. She sat down in front of Josie, on the bathmat that looked like it was made of Cookie Monster skin. "You want to talk about it?"

  Josie's lower lip quivered, and she started to cry. "It's Peter," she said. "Drew picks on him all the time and Peter gets hurt, so today I wanted it to be the other way around."

  "Aren't there teachers on the playground?"


  "Well, you should have told them that Peter was getting teased. Beating up Drew only makes you just as bad as him in the first place."

  "We went to the aides," Josie complained. "They told Drew and the other kids to leave Peter alone, but they never listen."

  "So," Alex said, "you did what you thought was the best thing at the time?"

  "Yeah. For Peter."

  "Imagine if you always did that. Let's say you decided that you liked someone else's coat better than yours, so you took it."

  "That would be stealing," Josie said.

  "Exactly. That's why there are rules. You can't break the rules, not even when it seems like everyone else is doing it. Because if you do--if we all do--then the whole world becomes a very scary place. One where coats get stolen and people get beat up on the playground. Instead of doing the best thing, we sometimes have to settle for the rightest thing."

  "What's the difference?"

  "The best thing is what you think should be done. The rightest thing is what needs to be done--when you think not just of you and how you feel, but also the extra stuff--who else is involved, and what's happened before, and what the rules say." She glanced at Josie. "Why didn't Peter fight?"

  "He thought he'd get in trouble."

  "I rest my case," Alex said.

  Josie's eyelashes were spiked with tears. "Are you mad at me?"

  Alex hesitated. "I'm angry at the aides for not paying attention when Peter was getting teased. And I'm not thrilled that you punched a boy in the nose. But I'm proud of you for wanting to defend your friend." She kissed Josie on the forehead. "Go get some clothes that don't have holes in them, Wonder Woman."

  When Josie scrambled off into her bedroom, Alex remained sitting on the bathroom floor. It struck her that dispensing justice was really more about being present and engaged than anything else--unlike those aides on the playground, for example. You could be firm without being bossy; you could make it a point to know the rules; you could take all evidence into consideration before coming to a conclusion.

  Being a good judge, Alex realized, was not all that different from being a good mother.

  She stood up, went downstairs, and picked up the phone. Whit answered on the third ring. "Okay," she said. "Tell me what I have to do."


  The chair was too small beneath Lacy's bottom; her knees did not fit under the desk; the colors on the walls were too bright. The teacher who sat across from her was so young that Lacy wondered if she could go home and drink a glass of wine without breaking any laws. "Mrs. Houghton," the teacher said, "I wish I could give you a better explanation, but the fact is, some kids are simply magnets for teasing. Other children see a weakness, and they exploit it."

  "What's Peter's weakness?" she asked.

  The teacher smiled. "I don't see it as a weakness. He's sensitive, and he's sweet. But that means he's far less likely to be running around with the other boys playing police chase than he is to be coloring in a corner with Josie. The other children in the class notice."

  Lacy remembered being in elementary school, not that much older than Peter, and raising chicks from an incubator. The six eggs had hatched, but one of the chicks was born with a gnarled leg. It was always the last to the feed tray and the water trough, and it was scrawnier and more tentative than its siblings. One day, while the class watched in horror, the maimed chick was pecked to death by the others.

  "The behavior of these other boys is not being tolerated," the teacher assured Lacy. "When we see it, we immediately send the child to the principal." She opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, and then snapped it shut.


  The teacher looked down at the desk. "It's just that, unfortunately, that response can have the opposite effect. The boys identify Peter as the reason they're in trouble, and that perpetuates the cycle of violence."

  Lacy felt her face growing hot. "What are you doing, personally, to make sure this doesn't happen again?"

  She expected the teacher to talk about a time-out chair, or some retributive punishment that would be handed out if Peter was again taunted by the in crowd. But instead, the yo
ung woman said, "I'm showing Peter how to stand up for himself. If someone cuts him in the lunch line, or if he's teased, to say something in return instead of just accepting it."

  Lacy blinked at her. "I . . . I can't believe I'm hearing this. So if he gets shoved, he's supposed to shove back? When his food gets knocked on the floor, he should reciprocate?"

  "Of course not--"

  "You're telling me that for Peter to feel safe in school, he's going to have to start acting like the boys who do this to him?"

  "No, I'm telling you about the reality of grade school," the teacher corrected. "Look, Mrs. Houghton. I can tell you what you want to hear. I can say that Peter is a wonderful child, which he is. I can tell you that the school will teach tolerance and will discipline the boys who've been making Peter's life so miserable, and that this will be enough to stop it. But the sad fact is that if Peter wants it to end, he's going to have to be part of the solution."

  Lacy looked down at her hands. They looked gargantuan on the surface of the tiny pupil's desk. "Thank you. For your honesty." She stood up carefully, because that is how it's best to move in a world where you no longer fit.

  She let herself out of the kindergarten classroom. Peter was waiting on a small wooden bench beneath the cubbies in the hall. It was her job as Peter's mother to smooth the road in front of him so that he wouldn't falter. But what if she couldn't bulldoze on his behalf all the time? Is that what the teacher had been trying to tell her?

  She squatted down in front of Peter and reached for his hands. "You know I love you, right?" Lacy said.

  Peter nodded.

  "You know I only want what's best for you."

  "Yes," Peter said.

  "I know about the lunch boxes. I know what's been going on with Drew. I heard about Josie punching him. I know the kinds of things he says to you." Lacy felt her eyes fill with tears. "The next time it happens, you have to stick up for yourself. You have to, Peter, or I . . . I'm going to have to punish you."

  Life wasn't fair. Lacy had been passed over for promotions, no matter how hard she'd worked. She'd seen mothers who'd taken meticulous care of themselves deliver stillborns, while crack addicts had healthy infants. She'd seen fourteen-year-olds dying of ovarian cancer before they ever got a chance to really live. You couldn't fight the injustice of fate; you could only suffer it and hope that one day it might be different. But somehow, it was even more difficult to stomach on behalf of your child. It tore Lacy apart to have to be the one to pull back that curtain of innocence, so that Peter would see that no matter how much she loved him--no matter how much she had wanted this world to be perfect for him--it would always fall short.

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