/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

Nineteen Minutes

Jodie Picoult

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.... In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge. Sterling is a small, ordinary New Hampshire town where nothing ever happens -- until the day its complacency is shattered by a shocking act of violence. In the aftermath, the town's residents must not only seek justice in order to begin healing but also come to terms with the role they played in the tragedy. For them, the lines between truth and fiction, right and wrong, insider and outsider have been obscured forever. Josie Cormier, the teenage daughter of the judge sitting on the case, could be the state's best witness, but she can't remember what happened in front of her own eyes. And as the trial progresses, fault lines between the high school and the adult community begin to show, destroying the closest of friendships and families. Nineteen Minutes is New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult's most raw, honest, and important novel yet. Told with the straightforward style for which she has become known, it asks simple questions that have no easy answers: Can your own child become a mystery to you? What does it mean to be different in our society? Is it ever okay for a victim to strike back? And who -- if anyone -- has the right to judge someone else?

Nineteen Minutes

Jodi Picoult

Acknowledgments

You know it’s going to be an intriguing paragraph when I first thank the man who came to my house to teach me how to shoot a handgun in a woodpile in my own backyard: Captain Frank Moran. Thanks, too, to his colleague, Lieutenant Michael Evans, for detailed information on firearms, and to police chief Nick Giaccone for the bazillion last-minute email questions about search, seizure, and all things police-oriented. Detective Trooper Claire Demarais gets her own special kudo for being the queen of forensics and for walking Patrick through a crime scene of enormous proportion. I’m fortunate to have many friends and family who happen to also be experts in their fields, who let me share their stories, or who serve as sounding boards: Jane Picoult, Dr. David Toub, Wyatt Fox, Chris Keating, Suzanne Serat, Conrad Farnham, Chris and Karen van Leer. Thanks to Guenther Frankenstein for his family’s generous contribution to the expansion of Hanover’s Howe Library and for the use of his marvelous name. Glen Libby patiently answered my questions about life at the Grafton County Jail, and Ray Fleer, the undersheriff at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, provided me with materials and information about the school shooting at Columbine. Thanks to David Plaut and Jake van Leer for the really bad math joke; Doug Irwin for teaching me the economics of happiness; Kyle van Leer and Axel Hansen for the premise behind Hide-n-Shriek; Luke Hansen for the C++ program; and Ellen Irwin for the popularity chart. I’m grateful, as always, to the team at Atria Books that makes me look so much better than I truly am: Carolyn Reidy, David Brown, Alyson Mazzarelli, Christine DuPlessis, Gary Urda, Jeanne Lee, Lisa Keim, Sarah Branham, and the indefatigable Jodi Lipper. To Judith Curr, thanks for singing my praises without stopping to take a breath. To Camille McDuffie, thank you for making me that rarest of things in publishing: a brand name. To Laura Gross, I raise a wee dram of Highland whiskey and salute you, because I can’t imagine this business without you. To Emily Bestler, well, check out the following page. A very special nod to Judge Jennifer Sargent, without whose input the character of Alex could not have existed. And to Jennifer Sternick, my own personal prosecutor-you’re one of the brightest women I’ve ever met, and you make work way too much fun for our own good (long live King Wah), so it’s clearly your own damn fault that I keep asking you to help again and again. Thanks, as always, to my family-Kyle, Jake, and Sammy-who make sure I remember what’s really important in life; and to my husband, Tim-the reason I’m the luckiest woman on earth. Lastly, I would like to thank a cadre of people who were the heart and soul of this book: the survivors of actual school shootings in America, and those who helped with the emotional aftermath: Betsy Bicknase, Denna O’Connell, Linda Liebl, and the remarkable Kevin Braun-thank you for having the courage to revisit your memories and the grace to let me borrow them. And finally, to the thousands of kids out there who are a little bit different, a little bit scared, a little bit unpopular: this one’s for you.

For Emily Bestler,

the finest editor and fiercest champion a girl could ask for, who makes sure

I put my best foot forward,

every time.

Thanks for your keen eye, your cheerleading,

and most of all, your friendship.

PART ONE

If we don’t change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going.

-CHINESE PROVERB

By the time you read this, I hope to be dead.

You can’t undo something that’s happened; you can’t take back a word that’s already been said out loud. You’ll think about me and wish that you had been able to talk me out of this. You’ll try to figure out what would have been the one right thing to say, to do. I guess I should tell you, Don’t blame yourself; this isn’t your fault, but that would be a lie. We both know that I didn’t get here by myself.

You’ll cry, at my funeral. You’ll say it didn’t have to be this way. You will act like everyone expects you to. But will you miss me?

More importantly-will I miss you?

Does either one of us really want to hear the answer to that question?

March 6, 2007

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn, color your hair, watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.

Nineteen minutes is how long it took the Tennessee Titans to sell out of tickets to the play-offs. It’s the length of a sitcom, minus the commercials. It’s the driving distance from the Vermont border to the town of Sterling, New Hampshire.

In nineteen minutes, you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story to a child or have your oil changed. You can walk a mile. You can sew a hem.

In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world, or you can just jump off it.

In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.

As usual, Alex Cormier was running late. It took thirty-two minutes to drive from her house in Sterling to the superior court in Grafton County, New Hampshire, and that was only if she speeded through Orford. She hurried downstairs in her stockings, carrying her heels and the files she’d brought home with her over the weekend. She twisted her thick copper hair into a knot and anchored it at the base of her neck with bobby pins, transforming herself into the person she needed to be before she left her house.

Alex had been a superior court judge now for thirty-four days. She’d believed that, having proved her mettle as a district court judge for the past five years, this time around the appointment might be easier. But at forty, she was still the youngest judge in the state. She still had to fight to establish herself as a fair justice-her history as a public defender preceded her into her courtroom, and prosecutors assumed she’d side with the defense. When Alex had submitted her name years ago for the bench, it had been with the sincere desire to make sure people in this legal system were innocent until proven guilty. She just never anticipated that, as a judge, she might not be given the same benefit of the doubt.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee drew Alex into the kitchen. Her daughter was hunched over a steaming mug at the kitchen table, poring over a textbook. Josie looked exhausted-her blue eyes were bloodshot; her chestnut hair was a knotty ponytail. “Tell me you haven’t been up all night,” Alex said.

Josie didn’t even glance up. “I haven’t been up all night,” she parroted.

Alex poured herself a cup of coffee and slid into the chair across from her. “Honestly?”

“You asked me to tell you something,” Josie said. “You didn’t ask for the truth.”

Alex frowned. “You shouldn’t be drinking coffee.”

“And you shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes.”

Alex felt her face heat up. “I don’t-”

“Mom,” Josie sighed, “even when you open up the bathroom windows, I can still smell it on the towels.” She glanced up, daring Alex to challenge her other vices.

Alex herself didn’t have any other vices. She didn’t have time for any vices. She would have liked to say that she knew with authority that Josie didn’t have any vices, either, but she would only be making the same inference the rest of the world did when they met Josie: a pretty, popular, straight-A student who knew better than most the consequences of falling off the straight-and-narrow. A girl who was destined for great things. A young woman who was exactly what Alex had hoped her daughter would grow to become.

Josie had once been so proud to have a mother as a judge. Alex could remember Josie broadcasting her career to the tellers at the bank, the baggers in the grocery store, the flight attendants on planes. She’d ask Alex about her cases and her decisions. That had all changed three years ago, when Josie entered high school, and the tunnel of communication between them slowly bricked shut. Alex didn’t necessarily think that Josie was hiding anything more than any other teenager, but it was different: a normal parent might metaphorically judge her child’s friends, whereas Alex could do it legally.

“What’s on the docket today?” Alex said.

“Unit test. What about you?”

“Arraignments,” Alex replied. She squinted across the table, trying to read Josie’s textbook upside down. “Chemistry?”

“Catalysts.” Josie rubbed her temples. “Substances that speed up a reaction, but stay unchanged by it. Like if you’ve got carbon monoxide gas and hydrogen gas and you toss in zinc and chromium oxide, and…what’s the matter?”

“Just having a little flashback of why I got a C in Orgo. Have you had breakfast?”

“Coffee,” Josie said.

“Coffee doesn’t count.”

“It does when you’re in a rush,” Josie pointed out.

Alex weighed the costs of being even five minutes later, or getting another black mark against her in the cosmic good-parenting tally. Shouldn’t a seventeen-year-old be able to take care of herself in the morning? Alex started pulling items out of the refrigerator: eggs, milk, bacon. “I once presided over an involuntary emergency admission at the state mental hospital for a woman who thought she was Emeril. Her husband had her committed when she put a pound of bacon in the blender and chased him around the kitchen with a knife, yelling Bam!”

Josie glanced up from her textbook. “For real?”

“Oh, believe me, I can’t make these things up.” Alex cracked an egg into a skillet. “When I asked her why she’d put a pound of bacon in the blender, she looked at me and said that she and I must just cook differently.”

Josie stood up and leaned against the counter, watching her mother cook. Domesticity wasn’t Alex’s strong point-she didn’t know how to make a pot roast but was proud to have memorized the phone numbers of every pizza place and Chinese restaurant in Sterling that offered free delivery. “Relax,” Alex said dryly. “I think I can do this without setting the house on fire.”

But Josie took the skillet out of her hands and laid the strips of bacon in it, like sailors bunking tightly together. “How come you dress like that?” she asked.

Alex glanced down at her skirt, blouse, and heels and frowned. “Why? Is it too Margaret Thatcher?”

“No, I mean…why do you bother? No one knows what you have on under your robe. You could wear, like, pajama pants. Or that sweater you have from college that’s got holes in the elbows.”

“Whether or not people see it, I’m still expected to dress…well, judiciously.”

A cloud passed over Josie’s face, and she busied herself over the stove, as if Alex had somehow given the wrong answer. Alex stared at her daughter-the bitten half-moon fingernails, the freckle behind her ear, the zigzag part in her hair-and saw instead the toddler who’d wait at the babysitter’s window at sundown, because she knew that was when Alex came to get her. “I’ve never worn pajamas to work,” Alex admitted, “but I do sometimes close the door to chambers and take a nap on the floor.”

A slow, surprised smile played over Josie’s face. She held her mother’s admission as if it were a butterfly lighting on her hand by accident: an event so startling you could not call attention to it without risking its loss. But there were miles to drive and defendants to arraign and chemical equations to interpret, and by the time Josie had set the bacon to drain on a pad of paper toweling, the moment had winged away.

“I still don’t get why I have to eat breakfast if you don’t,” Josie muttered.

“Because you have to be a certain age to earn the right to ruin your own life.” Alex pointed at the scrambled eggs Josie was mixing in the skillet. “Promise me you’ll finish that?”

Josie met her gaze. “Promise.”

“Then I’m headed out.”

Alex grabbed her travel mug of coffee. By the time she backed her car out of the garage, her head was already focused on the decision she had to write that afternoon; the number of arraignments the clerk would have stuffed onto her docket; the motions that would have fallen like shadows across her desk between Friday afternoon and this morning. She was caught up in a world far away from home, where at that very moment her daughter scraped the scrambled eggs from the skillet into the trash can without ever taking a single bite.

Sometimes Josie thought of her life as a room with no doors and no windows. It was a sumptuous room, sure-a room half the kids in Sterling High would have given their right arm to enter-but it was also a room from which there really wasn’t an escape. Either Josie was someone she didn’t want to be, or she was someone who nobody wanted.

She lifted her face to the spray of the shower-water she’d made so hot it raised red welts, stole breath, steamed windows. She counted to ten, and then finally ducked away from the stream to stand naked and dripping in front of the mirror. Her face was swollen and scarlet; her hair stuck to her shoulders in thick ropes. She turned sideways, scrutinized her flat belly, and sucked it in a little. She knew what Matt saw when he looked at her, what Courtney and Maddie and Brady and Haley and Drew all saw-she just wished that she could see it, too. The problem was, when Josie looked in the mirror, she noticed what was underneath that raw skin, instead of what had been painted upon it.

She understood how she was supposed to look and supposed to act. She wore her dark hair long and straight; she dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch; she listened to Dashboard Confessional and Death Cab for Cutie. She liked feeling the eyes of other girls in the school when she sat in the cafeteria borrowing Courtney’s makeup. She liked the way teachers already knew her name on the first day of class. She liked having guys stare at her when she walked down the hall with Matt’s arm around her.

But there was a part of her that wondered what would happen if she let them all in on the secret-that some mornings, it was hard to get out of bed and put on someone else’s smile; that she was standing on air, a fake who laughed at all the right jokes and whispered all the right gossip and attracted the right guy, a fake who had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be real…and who, when you got right down to it, didn’t want to remember, because it hurt even more than this.

There wasn’t anyone to talk to. If you even doubted your right to be one of the privileged, popular set, then you didn’t belong there. And Matt-well, he’d fallen for the Josie on the surface, like everyone else. In fairy tales, when the mask came off, the handsome prince still loved the girl, no matter what-and that alone would turn her into a princess. But high school didn’t work that way. What made her a princess was hooking up with Matt. And in some weird circular logic, what made Matt hook up with her was the very fact that she was one of Sterling High’s princesses.

She couldn’t confide in her mother, either. You don’t stop being a judge just because you step out of the courthouse, her mother used to say. It was why Alex Cormier never drank more than one glass of wine in public; it was why she never yelled or cried. A trial was a stupid word, considering that an attempt was never good enough: you were supposed to toe the line, period. Many of the accomplishments that Josie’s mother was most proud of-Josie’s grades, her looks, her acceptance into the “right” crowd-had not been achieved because Josie wanted them so badly herself, but mostly because she was afraid of falling short of perfect.

Josie wrapped a towel around herself and headed into her bedroom. She pulled a pair of jeans out of her closet and then layered two long-sleeved tees that showed off her chest. She glanced at her clock-if she wasn’t going to be late, she’d have to get moving.

Before leaving her room, though, she hesitated. She sank down onto her bed and rummaged underneath the nightstand for the Ziploc sandwich bag that she’d tacked to the wooden frame. Inside was a stash of Ambien-pirated one pill at a time from her mother’s prescription for insomnia, so she’d never notice. It had taken Josie nearly six months to inconspicuously gather only fifteen pills, but she figured if she washed them down with a fifth of vodka, it would do the trick. It wasn’t like she had a strategy, really, to kill herself next Tuesday, or when the snow melted, or anything concrete like that. It was more like a backup plan: When the truth came out, and no one wanted to be around her anymore, it stood to reason Josie wouldn’t want to be around herself either.

She tacked the pills back beneath her nightstand and headed downstairs. As she walked into the kitchen to load up her backpack, she found her chemistry textbook still wide open-and a long-stemmed red rose marking her place.

Matt was leaning against the refrigerator in the corner; he must have let himself in through the open garage door. Like always, he made her head swim with seasons-his hair was all the colors of autumn; his eyes the bright blue of a winter sky; his smile as wide as any summer sun. He was wearing a baseball hat backward, and a Sterling Varsity Hockey tee over a thermal shirt that Josie had once stolen for a full month and hidden in her underwear drawer, so that when she needed to she could breathe in the scent of him. “Are you still pissed off?” he asked.

Josie hesitated. “I wasn’t the one who was mad.”

Matt pushed away from the refrigerator, coming forward until he could link his arms around Josie’s waist. “You know I can’t help it.”

A dimple blossomed in his right cheek; Josie could already feel herself softening. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see you. I really did have to study.”

Matt pushed her hair off her face and kissed her. This was exactly why she’d told him not to come over last night-when she was with him, she felt herself evaporating. Sometimes, when he touched her, Josie imagined herself vanishing in a puff of steam.

He tasted of maple syrup, of apologies. “It’s all your fault, you know,” he said. “I wouldn’t act as crazy if I didn’t love you so much.”

At that moment, Josie could not remember the pills she was hoarding in her room; she could not remember crying in the shower; she could not remember anything but what it felt like to be adored. I’m lucky, she told herself, the word streaming like a silver ribbon through her mind. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Patrick Ducharme, the sole detective on the Sterling police force, sat on a bench on the far side of the locker room, listening to the patrol officers on the morning shift pick on a rookie with a little extra padding around the middle. “Hey, Fisher,” Eddie Odenkirk said, “are you the one who’s having the baby, or is it your wife?”

As the rest of the guys laughed, Patrick took pity on the kid. “It’s early, Eddie,” he said. “Can’t you at least wait to start in until we’ve all had a cup of coffee?”

“I would, Captain,” Eddie laughed, “but it looks like Fisher already ate all the donuts and-what the hell is that?”

Patrick followed Eddie’s gaze downward, to his own feet. He did not, as a matter of course, change in the locker room with the patrol officers, but he’d jogged to the station this morning instead of driving, to work off too much good cooking consumed over the weekend. He’d spent Saturday and Sunday in Maine with the girl who currently held his heart-his goddaughter, a five-and-a-half-year-old named Tara Frost. Her mother, Nina, was Patrick’s oldest friend, and the one love he probably would never get over, although she managed to be doing quite well without him. Over the course of the weekend, Patrick had deliberately lost ten thousand games of Candy Land, had given countless piggyback rides, had had his hair done, and-here was his cardinal mistake-had allowed Tara to put bright pink nail polish on his toes, which Patrick had forgotten to remove.

He glanced down at his feet and curled his toes under. “Chicks think it’s hot,” he said gruffly, as the seven men in the locker room struggled not to snicker at someone who was technically their superior. Patrick yanked his dress socks on, slipped into his loafers, and walked out, still holding his tie. One, he counted. Two, three. On cue, laughter spilled out of the locker room, following him down the hallway.

In his office, Patrick closed the door and peered at himself in the tiny mirror on the back. His black hair was still damp from his shower; his face was flushed from his run. He shimmied the knot of his tie up his neck, fashioning the noose, and then sat down at his desk.

Seventy-two emails had come in over the weekend-and usually anything more than fifty meant he wouldn’t get home before 8:00 p.m. all week. He began to weed through them, adding notes to a devil’s To Do list-one that never got any shorter, no matter how hard he worked.

Today, Patrick had to drive drugs down to the state lab-not a big deal, except that it was a four-hour block of his day that vanished right there. He had a rape case coming to fruition, the perp identified from a college face book and his statements transcribed and ready for the AG’s office. He had a cell phone that had been nabbed out of a car by a homeless guy. He had blood results come back from the lab as a match for a break-in at a jewelry store, and a suppression hearing in superior court, and already on his desk was the first new complaint of the day-a theft of wallets in which the credit cards had been used, leaving a trail for Patrick to trace.

Being a small-town detective required Patrick to be firing on all cylinders, all the time. Unlike cops he knew who worked for city departments, where they had twenty-four hours to solve a case before it was considered cold, Patrick’s job was to take everything that came across his desk-not to cherry-pick for the interesting ones. It was hard to get excited about a bad check case, or a theft that would net the perp a $200 fine when it cost the taxpayers five times that to have Patrick focus on it for a week. But every time he started thinking that his cases weren’t particularly important, he’d find himself face-to-face with a victim: the hysterical mother whose wallet had been stolen; the mom-and-pop jewelry store owners who’d been robbed of their retirement income; the rattled professor who was a victim of identity theft. Hope, Patrick knew, was the exact measure of distance between himself and the person who’d come for help. If Patrick didn’t get involved, if he didn’t give a hundred percent, then that victim was going to be a victim forever-which was why, since Patrick had joined the Sterling police, he had managed to solve every single case.

And yet.

When Patrick was lying in his bed alone and letting his mind sew a seam across the hem of his life, he did not remember the proven successes-only the potential failures. When he walked around the perimeter of a vandalized barn or found the stolen car stripped down and dumped in the woods or handed the tissue to the sobbing girl who’d been date-raped, Patrick couldn’t help but feel that he was too late. He was a detective, but he didn’t detect anything. It fell into his lap, already broken, every time.

It was the first warm day of March, the one where you started to believe that the snow would melt sooner rather than later, and that June was truly just around the corner. Josie sat on the hood of Matt’s Saab in the student parking lot, thinking that it was closer to summer than it was to the start of this school year, that in a scant three months, she would officially be a member of the senior class.

Beside her, Matt leaned against the windshield, his face tipped up to the sun. “Let’s ditch school,” he said. “It’s too nice out to be stuck inside all day.”

“If you ditch, you’ll be benched.”

The state championship tournament in hockey began this afternoon, and Matt played right wing. Sterling had won last year, and they had every expectation of doing it again. “You’re coming to the game,” Matt said, and it wasn’t a question, but a statement.

“Are you going to score?”

Matt smiled wickedly and tugged her on top of him. “Don’t I always?” he said, but he wasn’t talking about hockey anymore, and she felt a blush rise over the collar of her scarf.

Suddenly Josie felt a rain of hail on her back. They both sat up to find Brady Pryce, a football player, walking by hand-in-hand with Haley Weaver, the homecoming queen. Haley tossed a second shower of pennies-Sterling High’s way of wishing an athlete good luck. “Kick ass today, Royston,” Brady called.

Their math teacher was crossing the parking lot, too, with a worn black leather briefcase and a thermos of coffee. “Hey, Mr. McCabe,” Matt called out. “How’d I do on last Friday’s test?”

“Luckily, you’ve got other talents to fall back on, Mr. Royston,” the teacher said as he reached into his pocket. He winked at Josie as he pitched the coins, pennies that fell from the sky onto her shoulders like confetti, like stars coming loose.

It figures, Alex thought as she stuffed the contents of her purse back inside. She had switched handbags and left her pass key at home, which allowed her into the employee entrance at the rear of the superior court. Although she’d pushed the buzzer a million times, no one seemed to be around to let her in.

“Goddamn,” she muttered under her breath, hiking around the slush puddles so that her alligator heels wouldn’t get ruined-one of the perks of parking in the back was not having to do this. She could cut through the clerk’s office to her chambers, and if the planets were aligned, maybe even onto the bench without causing a delay in the docket.

Although the public entrance of the court had a line twenty people long, the court officers recognized Alex because, unlike the district court circuit, where you bounced from courthouse to courthouse, she would be ensconced here for six months. The officers waved her to the front of the line, but since she was carrying keys and a stainless steel travel thermos and God only knew what else in her purse, she set off the metal detectors.

The alarm was a spotlight; every eye in the lobby turned to see who’d gotten caught. Ducking her head, Alex hurried across the polished tile floor and nearly lost her footing. As she pitched forward, a squat man reached forward to steady her. “Hey, baby,” he said, leering. “I like your shoes.”

Without responding, Alex yanked herself out of his grasp and headed toward the clerk’s office. None of the other superior court judges had to deal with this. Judge Wagner was a nice guy, but with a face that looked like a pumpkin left to rot after Halloween. Judge Gerhardt-a fellow female-had blouses that were older than Alex. When Alex had first come to the bench, she’d thought that being a relatively young, moderately attractive woman was a good thing-a vote against typecasting-but on mornings like this, she wasn’t so sure.

She dumped her purse in chambers, shrugged into her robe, and took five minutes to drink her coffee and review the docket. Each case got its own file, but cases for repeat offenders were rubber-banded together, and sometimes judges wrote Post-it notes to each other inside about the case. Alex opened one and saw a picture of a stick-figure man with bars in front of his face-a signal from Judge Gerhardt that this was the offender’s last chance, and that next time, he should go to jail.

She rang the buzzer to signify to the court officer that she was ready to start, and waited to hear her cue: “All rise, the Honorable Alexandra Cormier presiding.” Walking into a courtroom, to Alex, always felt as if she were stepping onto a stage for the first time at a Broadway opening. You knew there would be people there, you knew their gazes would all be focused on you, but that didn’t prevent you from having a moment when you could not breathe, could not believe you were the one they had come to see.

Alex moved briskly behind the bench and sat down. There were seventy arraignments scheduled for that morning, and the courtroom was packed. The first defendant was called, and he shuffled past the bar with his eyes averted.

“Mr. O’Reilly,” Alex said, and as the man met her gaze she recognized him as the guy from the lobby. He was clearly uncomfortable, now that he realized whom he’d been flirting with. “You’re the gentleman who assisted me earlier, aren’t you?”

He swallowed. “Yes, Your Honor.”

“If you’d known I was the judge, Mr. O’Reilly, would you have said, ‘Hey, baby, I like your shoes’?”

The defendant glanced down, weighing impropriety against honesty. “I guess so, Your Honor,” he said after a moment. “Those are great shoes.”

The entire courtroom went still, anticipating her reaction. Alex smiled broadly. “Mr. O’Reilly,” she said, “I couldn’t agree more.”

Lacy Houghton leaned over the bed railing and put her face right in front of her sobbing patient’s. “You can do this,” she said firmly. “You can do this, and you will.”

After sixteen hours of labor, they were all exhausted-Lacy, the patient, and the father-to-be, who was facing zero-hour with the dawning realization that he was superfluous, that right now, his wife wanted her midwife much more than she wanted him. “I want you to get behind Janine,” Lacy told him, “and brace her back. Janine, I want you to look at me and give me another good push…”

The woman gritted her teeth and bore down, losing all sense of herself in the effort to create someone else. Lacy reached down to feel the baby’s head, to guide it past the seal of skin and quickly loop the cord over its head without ever losing eye contact with her patient. “For the next twenty seconds, your baby is going to be the newest person on this planet,” Lacy said. “Would you like to meet her?”

The answer was a pressured push. A crest of intention, a roar of purpose, a sluice of slick, purpled body that Lacy quickly lifted into the mother’s arms, so that when the infant cried for the first time in this life, she would already be in a position to be comforted.

Her patient started weeping again-tears had a whole different melody, didn’t they, without the pain threaded through them? The new parents bent over their baby, a closed circle. Lacy stepped back and watched. There was plenty of work left for a midwife to do even after the moment of birth, but for right now, she wanted to make eye contact with this little being. Where parents would notice a chin that looked like Aunt Marge’s or a nose that resembled Grandpa’s, Lacy would see instead a gaze wide with wisdom and peace-eight pounds of unadulterated possibility. Newborns reminded her of tiny Buddhas, faces full of divinity. It didn’t last long, though. When Lacy saw these same infants a week later at their regular checkups, they had turned into ordinary-albeit tiny-people. That holiness, somehow, disappeared, and Lacy was always left wondering where in this world it might go.

While his mother was across town delivering the newest resident of Sterling, New Hampshire, Peter Houghton was waking up. His father knocked on the door on his way out to work-Peter’s alarm clock. Downstairs, a bowl and a box of cereal would be waiting for him-his mother remembered to do that even when she got paged at two in the morning. There would be a note from her, too, telling him to have a good day at school, as if it were that simple.

Peter threw back his covers. He moved to his desk, still wearing his pajama bottoms, sat down, and logged onto the Internet.

The words on the message board were blurry. He reached for his glasses-he kept them next to his computer. After he slipped the frames on, he dropped the case onto the keyboard-and suddenly, he was seeing something he’d hoped never to see again.

Peter reached out and hit CONTROL ALT DELETE, but he could still picture it, even after the screen went blank, even after he closed his eyes, even after he started to cry.

In a town the size of Sterling, everyone knew everyone else, and always had. In some ways, this was comforting-like a great big extended family that you sometimes loved and sometimes fell out of favor with. At other times, it haunted Josie: like right now, when she was standing in the cafeteria line behind Natalie Zlenko, a dyke of the first order who, way back in second grade, had invited Josie over to play and had convinced her to pee on the front lawn like a boy. What were you thinking, her mother had said, when she’d come to pick her up and saw them bare-bottomed and squatting over the daffodils. Even now, a decade later, Josie couldn’t look at Natalie Zlenko with her buzz cut and her ever-present SLR camera without wondering if Natalie still thought about that, too.

On Josie’s other side was Courtney Ignatio, the alpha female of Sterling High. With her honey-blond hair hanging over her shoulders like a shawl made of silk and her low-rise jeans mail-ordered from Fred Segal, she’d spawned an entourage of clones. On Courtney’s tray was a bottle of water and a banana. On Josie’s was a platter of French fries. It was second period, and just like her mother had predicted, she was famished.

“Hey,” Courtney said, loud enough for Natalie to overhear. “Can you tell the vagitarian to let us pass?”

Natalie’s cheeks burned with color, and she flattened herself up against the sneeze guard of the salad bar so that Courtney and Josie could slip by. They paid for their food and walked across the cafeteria.

Whenever she came into the cafeteria, Josie felt like a naturalist observing different species in their natural, nonacademic habitat. There were the geeks, bent over their textbooks and laughing at math jokes nobody else even wanted to understand. Behind them were the art freaks, who smoked clove cigarettes on the ropes course behind the school and drew manga comics in the margins of their notes. Near the condiment bar were the skanks, who drank black coffee and waited for the bus that would take them to the technical high school three towns over for their afternoon classes; and the druggies, already strung out by nine o’clock in the morning. There were misfits, too-kids like Natalie and Angela Phlug, fringe friends by default, because nobody else would have them.

And then there was Josie’s posse. They took over two tables, not because there were so many of them, but because they were larger than life: Emma, Maddie, Haley, John, Brady, Trey, Drew. Josie could remember how, when she started hanging around with this group, she’d get everyone’s names confused. They were that interchangeable.

They all sort of looked alike, too-the boys all wearing their maroon home hockey jerseys and their hats backward, bright thatches of hair stuck through the loops at their foreheads like the start of a fire; the girls carbon copies of Courtney, by studious design. Josie slipped inconspicuously into the heart of them, because she looked like Courtney, too. Her tangle of hair had been blown glass-straight; her heels were three inches high, even though there was still snow on the ground. If she appeared the same on the outside, it was that much easier to ignore the fact that she didn’t really know how she felt on the inside.

“Hey,” Maddie said, as Courtney sat down beside her.

“Hey.”

“Did you hear about Fiona Kierland?”

Courtney’s eyes lit up; gossip was as good a catalyst as any chemical. “The one whose boobs are two different sizes?”

“No, that’s Fiona the sophomore. I’m talking about Fiona the freshman.”

“The one who always carries a box of tissues for her allergies?” Josie said, sliding into a seat.

“Or not,” Haley said. “Guess who got sent to rehab for snorting coke.”

“Get out.”

“That’s not even the whole scandal,” Emma added. “Her dealer was the head of the Bible study group that meets after school.”

“Oh my God!” Courtney said.

“Exactly.”

“Hey.” Matt slipped into the chair beside Josie. “What took you so long?”

She turned to him. At this end of the table, the guys were rolling straw wrappers into spitballs and talking about the end of spring skiing. “How long do you think the half-pipe will stay open at Sunapee?” John asked, lobbing a spitball toward a kid one table away who had fallen asleep.

The boy had been in Josie’s Sign Language elective last year. Like her, he was a junior. His arms and legs were skinny and white and splayed like a stickbug; his mouth, as he snored, was wide-open.

“You missed, loser,” Drew said. “If Sunapee closes, Killington’s still good. They have snow until, like, August.” His spitball landed in the boy’s hair.

Derek. The kid’s name was Derek.

Matt glanced at Josie’s French fries. “You’re not going to eat those, are you?”

“I’m starving.”

He pinched the side of her waist, a caliper and a criticism all at once. Josie looked down at the fries. Ten seconds ago, they’d looked golden brown and smelled like heaven; now all she could see was the grease that stained the paper plate.

Matt took a handful and passed the rest to Drew, who threw a spitball that landed in the sleeping boy’s mouth. With a choke and a sputter, Derek startled awake.

“Sweet!” Drew high-fived John.

Derek spat into a napkin and rubbed his mouth hard. He glanced around to see who else had been watching. Josie suddenly remembered a sign from her ASL elective, almost all of which she’d forgotten the moment she’d taken the final. A closed fist moved in a circle over the heart meant I’m sorry.

Matt leaned over and kissed her neck. “Let’s get out of here.” He drew Josie to her feet and then turned to his friends. “Later,” he said.

The gymnasium at Sterling High School was on the second floor, above what would have been a swimming pool if the bond issue had passed when the school was in its planning stages, and what instead became three classrooms that continually resounded with the pounding of sneakered feet and bouncing basketballs. Michael Beach and his best friend, Justin Friedman, two freshmen, sat on the sidelines of the basketball court while their Phys Ed teacher went over the mechanics of dribbling for the hundredth time. It was a wasted exercise-kids in this class were either like Noah James, already an expert, or like Michael and Justin, who were fluent in Elvish but defined home run as what you did after school in order to avoid getting hung up on coat hooks by your underwear. They sat cross-legged and knob-kneed, listening to the rodent’s squeak of Coach Spears’s white sneakers as he hustled from one end of the court to the other.

“Ten bucks says I get picked last for a team,” Justin murmured.

“I wish we could get out of class,” Michael commiserated. “Maybe there’ll be a fire drill.”

Justin grinned. “An earthquake.”

“A monsoon.”

“Locusts!”

“A terrorist attack!”

Two sneakers stopped in front of them. Coach Spears glared down, his arms folded. “You two want to tell me what’s so funny about basketball?”

Michael glanced at Justin, then up at the coach. “Absolutely nothing,” he said.

After showering, Lacy Houghton made herself a mug of green tea and wandered peacefully through her house. When the kids had been tiny and she’d been overwhelmed by work and life, Lewis would ask her what he could do to make things better. It had been a great irony for her, given Lewis’s job. A professor at Sterling College, his specialty was the economics of happiness. Yes, it was a real field of study, and yes, he was an expert. He’d taught seminars and written articles and had been interviewed on CNN about measuring the effects of pleasure and good fortune on a monetary scale-and yet he’d been at a loss when it came to figuring out what Lacy would enjoy. Did she want to go out to a nice dinner? Get a pedicure? Take a nap? When she told him what she craved, though, he could not comprehend. She’d wanted to be in her own house, with nobody else in it, and nothing pressing to do.

She opened the door to Peter’s room and set her mug on the dresser so that she could make his bed. What’s the point, Peter would say when she dogged him to do it himself. I just have to mess it up again in a few hours.

For the most part, she didn’t enter Peter’s room unless he was in it. Maybe that was why, at first, she felt there was something wrong about the space, as if an integral part were missing. At first she assumed that it was Peter’s absence that made the room seem a little empty, then she realized that the computer-a steady hum, an ever-ready green screen-had been turned off.

She tugged the sheets up and tucked in the edges; she drew the quilt over them and fluffed the pillows. At the threshold of Peter’s bedroom she paused and smiled: the room looked perfect.

Zoe Patterson was wondering what it was like to kiss a guy who had braces. Not that it was a remote possibility for her anytime in the near future, but she figured it was something she ought to consider before the moment actually caught her off guard. In fact, she wondered what it would be like to kiss a guy, period-even one who wasn’t orthodontically challenged, like her. And honestly, was there any place better than a stupid math class to let your mind wander?

Mr. McCabe, who thought he was the Chris Rock of algebra, was doing his daily stand-up routine. “So, two kids are in the lunch line, when the first kid turns to his friend and says, ‘I have no money! What should I do?’ And his buddy says, ‘2x + 5!’”

Zoe looked up at the clock. She counted along with the second hand until it was 9:50 on the dot and then popped out of her seat to hand Mr. McCabe a pass. “Ah, orthodontia,” he read out loud. “Well, make sure he doesn’t wire your mouth shut, Ms. Patterson. So, the buddy says, ‘2x + 5.’ A binomial. Get it? Buy-no-meal?!”

Zoe hefted her backpack onto her shoulders and walked out of the classroom. She had to meet her mom in front of the school at ten o’clock-parking was killer, so it would be a drive-by pickup. Mid-class, the halls were hollow and resonant; it felt like trudging through the belly of a whale. Zoe detoured into the main office to sign out on the secretary’s clipboard, and then nearly mowed down a kid in her hurry to get outside.

It was warm enough to unzip her jacket and think of summer and soccer camp and what it would be like when her palate expander was finally removed. If you kissed a guy who didn’t have braces, and you pressed too hard, could you cut his gums? Something told Zoe that if you made a guy bleed, you probably wouldn’t be hooking up with him again. What if he had braces, too, like that blond kid from Chicago who’d just transferred and sat in front of her in English (not that she liked him or anything, although he had turned around to hand her back her homework paper and held on to it just a smidgen too long…)? Would they get stuck together like jammed gears and have to be taken to the emergency room at the hospital, and how totally humiliating would that be?

Zoe ran her tongue along the ragged metal fence posts in her mouth. Maybe she could temporarily join a convent.

She sighed and peered down the block to see whether she could make out her mom’s green Explorer from the conga line of passing cars. And just about then, something exploded.

Patrick sat at a red light in his unmarked police car, waiting to turn onto the highway. Beside him, on the passenger seat, was a paper bag with a vial of cocaine inside it. The dealer they’d busted at the high school had admitted it was cocaine, and yet Patrick had to waste half his day taking it to the state lab so that someone in a white coat could tell him what he already knew. He fiddled with the volume button of the dispatch radio just in time to hear the fire department being sent to the high school for an explosion. Probably the boiler; the school was old enough for its internal structure to be falling apart. He tried to remember where the boiler was located in Sterling High, and wondered if they’d be lucky enough to come out of that kind of situation without anyone being hurt.

Shots fired…

The light turned green, but Patrick didn’t move. The discharge of a gun in Sterling was rare enough to have him narrow his attention to the voice on the dispatch radio, waiting for an explanation.

At the high school…Sterling High…

The dispatcher’s voice was getting faster, more intense. Patrick wheeled the car in a U-turn and started toward the school with his lights flashing. Other voices began to transmit in static bursts: officers stating their positions in town; the on-duty supervisor trying to coordinate manpower and calling for mutual aid from Hanover and Lebanon. Their voices knotted and tangled, blocking one another so that everything and nothing was being said at once.

Signal 1000, the dispatcher said. Signal 1000.

In Patrick’s entire career as a detective, he’d only heard that call twice. Once was in Maine, when a deadbeat dad had taken an officer hostage. Once was in Sterling, during a potential bank robbery that turned out to be a false alarm. Signal 1000 meant that everyone, immediately, was to get off the radio and leave it free for dispatch. It meant that what they were dealing with was not routine police business.

It meant life or death.

Chaos was a constellation of students, running out of the school and trampling the injured. A boy holding a handmade sign in an upstairs window that read help us. Two girls hugging each other and sobbing. Chaos was blood melting pink on the snow; it was the drip of parents that turned into a stream and then a raging river, screaming out the names of their missing children. Chaos was a TV camera in your face, not enough ambulances, not enough officers, and no plan for how to react when the world as you knew it went to pieces.

Patrick pulled halfway onto the sidewalk and grabbed his bulletproof vest from the back of the car. Already, adrenaline pulsed through him, making the edges of his vision swim and his senses more acute. He found Chief O’Rourke standing with a megaphone in the middle of the melee. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet,” the chief said. “SOU’s on its way.”

Patrick didn’t give a damn about the Special Operations Unit. By the time the SWAT team got here, a hundred more shots might be fired; a kid might be killed. He drew his gun. “I’m going in.”

“The hell you are. That’s not protocol.”

“There is no fucking protocol for this,” Patrick snapped. “You can fire me later.”

As he raced up the steps to the school, he was vaguely aware of two other patrol officers bucking the chief’s commands and joining him in the fray. Patrick directed them each down a different hallway, and then he himself pushed through the double doors, past students who were shoving each other in an effort to get outside. Fire alarms blared so loudly that Patrick had to strain to hear the gunshots. He grabbed the coat of a boy streaking past him. “Who is it?” he yelled. “Who’s shooting?”

The kid shook his head, speechless, and wrenched away. Patrick watched him run crazily down the hallway, open the door, burst into a rectangle of sunlight.

Students funneled around him, as if he were a stone in a river. Smoke billowed and burned his eyes. Patrick heard another staccato of gunshots, and had to restrain himself from running toward them blindly. “How many of them?” he cried as a girl ran by.

“I…I don’t know…”

The boy beside her turned around and looked at Patrick, torn between offering knowledge and getting the hell out of there. “It’s a kid…he’s shooting everyone…”

That was enough. Patrick pushed against the tide, a salmon swimming upstream. Homework papers were scattered on the floor; shell casings rolled beneath the heels of his shoes. Ceiling tiles had been shot off, and a fine gray dust coated the broken bodies that lay twisted on the floor. Patrick ignored all of this, going against most of his training-running past doors that might hide a perp, disregarding rooms that should have been searched-instead driving forward with his weapon drawn and his heart beating through every inch of his skin. Later, he would remember other sights that he didn’t have time to register right away: the heating duct covers that had been pried loose so that students could hide in the crawl space; the shoes left behind by kids who literally ran out of them; the eerie prescience of crime-scene outlines on the floor outside the biology classrooms, where students had been tracing their own bodies on butcher paper for an assignment.

He ran through hallways that seemed to circle in on each other. “Where?” he would bite out every time he passed a fleeing student-his only tool of navigation. He’d see sprays of blood, and students crumpled on the ground, and he did not let himself look twice. He pounded up the main stairwell, and just as he reached the top, a door cracked open. Patrick whirled, pointing his gun, as a young female teacher fell to her knees with her hands raised. Behind the white oval of her face were twelve others, featureless and frightened. Patrick could smell urine.

He lowered his gun and beckoned her toward the staircase. “Go,” he commanded, but he did not stay long enough to see if they did.

Turning a corner, Patrick slipped on blood and heard another gunshot, this one loud enough to ring his ears. He swept into the open double doors of the gymnasium and scanned the handful of sprawled bodies, the basketball cart overturned and the globes resting against the far wall-but no shooter. He knew, from the overtime detail he’d taken on Friday nights to monitor high school ball games, that he’d reached the far end of Sterling High. Which meant that the shooter was either hiding somewhere here or had doubled back past him when Patrick hadn’t noticed…and could even now have cornered him in this gym.

Patrick spun around to the entrance again to see if that was the case, and then heard another shot. He ran to a door that led out from the gym, one he hadn’t noticed in his first quick visual sweep of the area. It was a locker room, tiled white on the walls and the floor. He glanced down, saw the fanned spray of blood at his feet, and edged his gun around the corner wall.

Two bodies lay unmoving at one end of the locker room. At the other, closer to Patrick, a slight boy crouched beside a bank of lockers. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, crooked on his thin face. He was shivering hard.

“Are you okay?” Patrick whispered. He did not want to speak out loud and give away his position to the shooter.

The boy only blinked at him.

“Where is he?” Patrick mouthed.

The boy pulled a pistol from beneath his thigh and held it up to his own head.

A new rush of heat surged through Patrick. “Don’t fucking move,” he shouted, drawing a bead on the boy. “Drop the gun or I will shoot you.” Sweat broke out down his back and on his forehead, and he could feel his cupped hands shifting on the butt of the gun as he aimed, determined to lace the kid with bullets if he had to.

Patrick let his forefinger brush gently against the trigger just as the boy opened his fingers wide as a starfish. The pistol fell to the floor, skittering across the tile.

Immediately, he pounced. One of the other officers-whom Patrick hadn’t even noticed following him-retrieved the boy’s weapon. Patrick dropped the kid onto his stomach and cuffed him, pressing his knee hard into the boy’s spine. “Are you alone? Who’s with you?”

“Just me,” the boy ground out.

Patrick’s head was spinning and his pulse was a military tattoo, but he could vaguely hear the other officer calling this information in over the radio: “Sterling, we have one in custody; we don’t have knowledge of anyone else.”

Just as seamlessly as it had started, it was over-at least as much as something like this could be considered over. Patrick didn’t know if there were booby traps or bombs in the school; he didn’t know how many casualties there were; he didn’t know how many wounded Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Alice Peck Day Hospital could take; he didn’t know how to go about processing a crime scene this massive. The target had been taken out, but at what irreplaceable cost? Patrick’s entire body began to shake, knowing that for so many students and parents and citizens today, he had once again been too late.

He took a few steps and sank down to his knees, mostly because his legs simply gave out from underneath them, and pretended that this was intentional, that he wanted to check out the two bodies at the other end of the room. He was vaguely aware of the shooter being pushed out of the locker room by the other officer, to a waiting cruiser downstairs. He didn’t turn to watch the kid go; instead he focused on the body directly in front of him.

A boy, dressed in a hockey jersey. There was a puddle of blood underneath his side, and a gunshot wound through his forehead. Patrick reached out for a baseball cap that had fallen a few feet away, with the words STERLING HOCKEY embroidered across it. He turned the brim around in his hands, an imperfect circle.

The girl lying next to him was facedown, blood spreading from beneath her temple. She was barefoot, and on her toenails was bright pink polish-just like the stuff Tara had put on Patrick. It made his heart catch. This girl, just like his goddaughter and her brother and a million other kids in this country, had gotten up today and gone to school never imagining she would be in danger. She trusted all the grown-ups and teachers and principals to keep her safe. It was why these schools, post-9/11, had teachers wearing ID all the time and doors locked during the day-the enemy was always supposed to be an outsider, not the kid who was sitting right next to you.

Suddenly, the girl shifted. “Help…me…”

Patrick knelt beside her. “I’m here,” he said, his touch gentle as he assessed her condition. “Everything’s all right.” He turned her enough to see that the blood was coming from a cut on her scalp, not a gunshot wound, as he’d assumed. He ran his hands over her limbs. He kept murmuring to her, words that did not always make sense, but that let her know that she wasn’t alone anymore. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Josie…” The girl started to thrash, trying to sit up. Patrick put the bulk of his body strategically between her and the boy’s-she’d be in shock already; he didn’t need her to go over the edge. She touched her hand to her forehead, and when it came away oily with blood, she panicked. “What…happened?”

He should have stayed there and waited for the medics to come get her. He should have radioed for help. But should hardly seemed to apply anymore, and so Patrick lifted Josie into his arms. He carried her out of the locker room where she’d nearly been killed, hurried down the stairs, and pushed through the front door of the school, as if he might be able to save them both.

Seventeen Years Before

There were fourteen people sitting in front of Lacy, if you counted the fact that each of the seven women attending this prenatal class was pregnant. Some of them had come equipped with notebooks and pens, and had spent the past hour and a half writing down recommended dosages of folic acid, the names of teratogens, and suggested diets for a mother-to-be. Two had turned green in the middle of the discussion of a normal birth and had rushed to the bathroom with morning sickness-which, of course, stretched as long as the whole day, and was like saying summertime when you really meant all four seasons of the year.

She was tired. Only a week back into work after her own maternity leave, it seemed patently unfair that if she wasn’t up all night with her own baby, she had to be awake delivering someone else’s. Her breasts ached, an uncomfortable reminder that she had to go pump again, so that she’d have milk to leave the sitter tomorrow for Peter.

And yet, she loved her job too much to give it up entirely. She’d had the grades to get into medical school, and had considered being an OB/GYN, until she realized that she had a profound inability to sit bedside by a patient and not feel her pain. Doctors put a wall up between themselves and their patients; nurses broke it down. She switched into a program that would certify her as a nurse-midwife, that encouraged her to tap into the emotional health of a mother-to-be instead of just her symptomology. Maybe it made some of the doctors at the hospital consider her a flake, but Lacy truly believed that when you asked a patient How do you feel?, what was wrong wasn’t nearly as important as what was right.

She reached past the plastic model of the growing fetus and lifted a best-selling pregnancy guidebook into the air. “How many of you have seen this book before?”

Seven hands lifted.

“Okay. Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. If it’s already at your house, throw it out. This book will convince you that you are going to bleed out, have seizures, drop dead, or any of a hundred other things that do not happen with normal pregnancies. Believe me, the range of normal is much wider than anything these authors will tell you.”

She glanced in the back, where a woman was holding her side. Cramping? Lacy thought. Ectopic pregnancy?

The woman was dressed in a black suit, her hair pulled back into a neat, low ponytail. Lacy watched her pinch her waist once again, this time pulling off a small beeper attached to her skirt. She got to her feet. “I…um, I’m sorry. I have to go.”

“Can it wait a few minutes?” Lacy asked. “We’re just about to go on a tour of the birthing pavilion.”

The woman handed her the paperwork she’d been asked to fill out during this visit. “I have something more pressing to deal with,” she said, and she hurried off.

“Well,” Lacy said. “Maybe this is a good time for a bathroom break.” As the six remaining women filed out of the room, she glanced down at the forms in her hand. Alexandra Cormier, she read. And she thought: I’m going to have to watch this one.

The last time Alex had defended Loomis Bronchetti, he had broken into three homes and stolen electronics equipment, which he then tried to fence on the streets of Enfield, New Hampshire. Although Loomis was enterprising enough to dream up this scheme, he failed to realize that in a town as small as Enfield, hot stereo equipment might raise a red flag.

Apparently, Loomis had escalated his criminal résumé last night when he and two friends decided to go after a drug dealer who didn’t bring them enough pot. They got high, hog-tied the guy, and threw him in the trunk. Loomis whacked the dealer over the head with a baseball bat, cracking his skull and sending him into convulsions. When he started choking on his own blood, Loomis turned him over so that he could breathe.

“I can’t believe they’re charging me with assault,” Loomis told Alex through the bars of the holding cell. “I saved the guy’s life.”

“Well,” Alex said. “We might have been able to use that-if you hadn’t been the one who inflicted the injury in the first place.”

“You gotta plead me out for less than a year. I don’t want to get sent down to the prison in Concord…”

“You could have been charged with attempted murder, you know.”

Loomis scowled. “I was doing the cops a favor, getting a lowlife like that off the streets.”

The same, Alex knew, could be said for Loomis Bronchetti, if he was convicted and sent to the state prison. But her job was not about judging Loomis. It was about working hard, in spite of her personal opinions about a client. It was about showing one face to Loomis, and knowing she had another one masked away. It was about not letting her feelings interfere with her ability to get Loomis Bronchetti acquitted.

“Let me see what I can do,” she said.

Lacy understood that all infants were different-tiny little creatures with their own quirks and habits and peeves and desires. But somehow, she’d expected that this second foray into motherhood would produce a child like her first-Joey, a golden boy who would make passersby turn their heads, stop her as she pushed the stroller to tell her what a beautiful child she had. Peter was just as beautiful, but he was definitely a more challenging baby. He’d cry, colicky, and have to be soothed by putting his car seat on the vibrating clothes dryer. He’d be nursing, and suddenly arch away from her.

It was two in the morning, and Lacy was trying to get Peter to settle back to sleep. Unlike Joey, who fell into slumber like taking a giant step off a cliff, Peter fought it every step of the way. She patted his back and rubbed small circles between his tiny shoulder blades as he hiccuped and wailed. Frankly, she felt like doing that, too. For the past two hours, she’d watched the same infomercial on Ginsu knives. She had counted the ticking stripes on the elephantine arm of the sofa until they blurred. She was so exhausted that everything ached. “What’s the matter, little man,” she sighed. “What can I do to make you happy?”

Happiness was relative, according to her husband. Although most people laughed when Lacy told them her husband’s job involved putting a price on joy, it was simply what economists did-find value for the intangibles in life. Lewis’s colleagues at Sterling College had presented papers on the relative push an education could provide, or universal health care, or job satisfaction. Lewis’s discipline was no less important, if unorthodox. It made him a popular guest on NPR, on Larry King, at corporate seminars-somehow, number crunching seemed sexier when you began talking about the dollar amount a belly laugh was worth, or a dumb blonde joke, for that matter. Regular sex, for example, was equivalent (happinesswise) to getting a $50,000 raise. However, getting a $50,000 raise wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if everyone else was getting a $50,000 raise, too. By the same token, what made you happy once might not make you happy now. Five years ago, Lacy would have given anything for a dozen roses brought home by her husband; now, if he offered her the chance to take a ten-minute nap, she would fall to the ground in paroxysms of delight.

Statistics aside, Lewis would go down in history as being the economist who’d conceived a mathematical formula for happiness: R/E, or, Reality divided by Expectations. There were two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations. Once, at a neighborhood dinner party, Lacy had asked him what happened if you had no expectations. You couldn’t divide by zero. Did that mean if you just let yourself roll with all of life’s punches, you could never be happy? In the car later that night, Lewis had accused her of trying to make him look bad.

Lacy didn’t like to let herself consider whether Lewis and their family were truly happy. You’d think the man who designed the formula would have happiness figured out, but somehow, it didn’t work that way. Sometimes she’d recall that old adage-the shoemaker’s sons go barefoot-and she’d wonder, What about the children of the man who knows the value of happiness? These days, when Lewis was late at the office, working on another publication deadline, and Lacy was so exhausted she could fall asleep standing up in the hospital elevator, she tried to convince herself it was simply a phase they were stuck in: a baby boot camp that would surely transform one day into contentment and satisfaction and togetherness and all the other parameters Lewis plotted on his computer programs. After all, she had a husband who loved her and two healthy boys and a fulfilling career. Wasn’t getting what you wanted all along the very definition of being happy?

She realized that-miracle of miracles-Peter had fallen asleep on her shoulder, the sweet peach of his cheek pressed against her bare skin. Tiptoeing up the stairs, she gently settled him into his crib and then glanced across the room at the bed where Joey lay. The moon fawned over him like a disciple. She wondered what Peter would be like when he was Joey’s age. She wondered if you could get that lucky twice.

Alex Cormier was younger than Lacy had thought. Twenty-four, but she carried herself with enough confidence to make people think she was a decade older. “So,” Lacy said, introducing herself. “How did that pressing matter turn out?”

Alex blinked at her, then remembered: the birthing pavilion tour she had slipped away from a week ago. “It was plea bargained.”

“You’re a lawyer, then?” Lacy said, glancing up from her notes.

“A public defender.” Alex’s chin came up a notch, as if she was ready for Lacy to make a deprecating comment about her affiliation with the bad guys.

“That must be awfully demanding work,” Lacy said. “Does your office know you’re pregnant?”

Alex shook her head. “It’s not an issue,” she said flatly. “I won’t be taking a maternity leave.”

“You might change your mind as-”

“I’m not keeping this baby,” Alex announced.

Lacy sat back in her chair. “All right.” It was not her place to judge a mother for the decision to give up a child. “We can talk about different options, then,” Lacy said. At eleven weeks, Alex could still terminate the pregnancy if she wished.

“I was going to have an abortion,” Alex said, as if she’d read Lacy’s mind. “But I missed my appointment.” She glanced up. “Twice.”

Lacy knew you could be solidly pro-choice but unwilling or unable to make that decision for yourself-that’s exactly where the choice part kicked in. “Well, then,” she said, “I can give you information about adoption, if you haven’t already contacted any agencies yourself.” She reached into a drawer and pulled out folders-adoption agencies affiliated with a variety of religions, attorneys who specialized in private adoptions. Alex took the pamphlets and held them like a hand of playing cards. “For now, though, we can just focus on you and how you’re doing.”

“I’m great,” Alex answered smoothly. “I’m not sick, I’m not tired.” She looked at her watch. “I am, however, going to be late for an appointment.”

Lacy could tell that Alex was a coper-someone who was used to being in control in all facets of her life. “It’s okay to slow down when you’re pregnant. Your body might need that.”

“I know how to take care of myself.”

“What about letting someone else do it once in a while?”

A shadow of irritation crossed over Alex’s face. “Look, I don’t need a therapy session. Honestly. I appreciate the concern, but-”

“Does your partner support your decision to give the baby up?” Lacy asked.

Alex turned her face away for a moment. Before Lacy could find the right words to draw her back, however, Alex did it herself. “There is no partner,” she said coolly.

The last time Alex’s body had taken over, had done what her mind told her not to do, she had conceived this baby. It had started innocently enough-Logan Rourke, her trial advocacy professor, calling her into his office to tell her that she commanded the courtroom with competence; Logan saying that no juror would be able to take his eyes off her-and that neither could he. Alex had thought Logan was Clarence Darrow and F. Lee Bailey and God rolled up into one. Prestige and power could make a man so attractive it took one’s breath away; it turned Logan into what she’d been looking for her whole life.

She believed him when he told her he hadn’t seen a student with as quick a mind as Alex in his ten years of teaching. She believed him when he told her that his marriage was over in all but name. And she believed him the night he drove her home from the campus, framed her face between his hands, and told her she was the reason he got up in the morning.

Law was a study of detail and fact, not emotion. Alex’s cardinal mistake had been forgetting this when she became involved with Logan. She found herself postponing plans, waiting for his call, which sometimes came and sometimes didn’t. She pretended that she did not see him flirting with the first-year law students who looked at him the way she used to. And when she got pregnant, she convinced herself that they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together.

Logan had told her to get rid of it. She’d scheduled an abortion, only to forget to write the date and time on her calendar. She rescheduled, but realized too late that her appointment conflicted with a final exam. After that, she’d gone to Logan. It’s a sign, she’d said.

Maybe, he told her, but it doesn’t mean what you’re thinking. Be reasonable, Logan had said. A single mother will never make it as a trial attorney. She’d have to choose between her career and this baby.

What he really meant was that she’d have to choose between having the baby and having him.

The woman looked familiar from behind, in that way that people sometimes do when you see them out of context: your grocery clerk standing in line at the bank, your postman sitting across the aisle of the movie theater. Alex stared for another second, and then realized it was the infant throwing her off. She strode across the hallway of the courthouse toward the town clerk, where Lacy Houghton stood paying a parking ticket.

“Need a lawyer?” Alex asked.

Lacy looked up, the baby carrier balanced in the crook of her arm. It took a moment to place the face-she hadn’t seen Alex since her initial visit nearly a month ago. “Oh, hello!” she said, smiling.

“What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“Oh, I’m posting bail for my ex…” Lacy waited for Alex’s eyes to widen, and then laughed. “Just kidding. I got a parking ticket.”

Alex found herself staring down at the face of Lacy’s son. He wore a blue cap that tied underneath his chin, and his cheeks spilled over the edges of the fleece. He had a runny nose, and when he noticed Alex looking at him, he offered her a cavernous smile.

“Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?” Lacy said.

She slapped ten dollars down on top of her parking ticket and fed it through the open mouth of the payment window, then hefted the baby bucket a little higher into the crook of her arm and walked out of the court building to a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. Lacy stopped to give a ten-dollar bill to a bum sitting outside the courthouse, and Alex rolled her eyes-she’d actually seen this particular fellow heading over to the closest bar yesterday when she left work.

In the coffee shop, Alex watched Lacy effortlessly unpeel layers of clothing from her baby and lift him out of his seat onto her lap. As she talked, she draped a blanket over her shoulder and started to nurse Peter. “Is it hard?” Alex blurted out.

“Nursing?”

“Not just that,” Alex said. “Everything.”

“It’s definitely an acquired skill.” Lacy lifted the baby onto her shoulder. His booted feet kicked against her chest, as if he was already trying to put distance between them. “Compared to your day job, motherhood is probably a piece of cake.”

It made Alex think, immediately, of Logan Rourke, who had laughed at her when she said she was taking a job with the public defender’s office. You won’t last a week, he’d told her. You’re too soft for that.

She sometimes wondered if she was a good public defender because of skill or because she had been so determined to show Logan that he was wrong. In any case, Alex had cultivated a persona on the job, one that was there to give offenders an equal voice in the legal system, without letting clients get under her skin.

She’d already made that mistake with Logan.

“Did you get a chance to contact any of the adoption agencies?” Lacy asked.

Alex had not even taken the pamphlets she’d been given. For all she knew, they were still sitting on the counter of the examination room.

“I put in a few calls,” Alex lied. She had it on her To Do list at work. It was just that something else always got in the way.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Lacy said, and Alex nodded slowly-she did not like personal questions. “What made you decide to give the baby up?”

Had she ever really made that decision? Or had it been made for her?

“This isn’t a good time,” Alex said.

Lacy laughed. “I don’t know if it’s ever a good time to have a baby. Your life certainly gets turned upside down.”

Alex stared at her. “I like my life right side up.”

Lacy fussed with her baby’s shirt for a moment. “In a way, what you and I do isn’t really all that different.”

“The recidivism rate is probably about the same,” Alex said.

“No…I meant that we both see people when they’re at their most raw. That’s what I love about midwifery. You see how strong someone is, in the face of a really painful situation.” She glanced up at Alex. “Isn’t it amazing how, when you strip away everything, people are so much alike?”

Alex thought of the defendants that had paraded through her professional life. They all blurred together in her mind. But was that because, as Lacy said, we were all similar? Or was it because Alex had become an expert at not looking too closely?

She watched Lacy settle the baby on her knee. His hands smacked the table, and he made little gurgling noises. Suddenly Lacy stood up, thrusting the baby toward Alex so that she had to hold him or risk having him tumble onto the floor. “Here, hang on to Peter. I just have to run into the bathroom.”

Alex panicked. Wait, she thought. I don’t know what I’m doing. The baby’s legs kicked, like a cartoon character who’d run off a cliff.

Awkwardly, Alex sat him down on her lap. He was heavier than she would have imagined, and his skin felt like damp velvet. “Peter,” she said formally. “I’m Alex.”

The baby reached for her coffee cup, and she lurched forward to push it out of reach. Peter’s face pinched tight as a lime, and he started to cry.

The screams were shattering, decibel-rich, cataclysmic. “Stop,” Alex begged, as people around her started to stare. She stood up, patting Peter’s back the way Lacy had, wishing he would run out of steam or contract laryngitis or just simply have mercy on her utter inexperience. Alex-who always had the perfect witty comeback, who could be thrown into a hellish legal situation and land on her feet every time without even breaking a sweat-found herself completely at a loss.

She sat down and held Peter beneath his armpits. By now, he’d turned tomato-red, his skin so angry and dark that his soft fuzz of hair glowed like platinum. “Listen,” she said. “I may not be what you want right now, but I’m all you’ve got.”

On a final hiccup, the baby quieted. He stared into Alex’s eyes, as if he was trying to place her.

Relieved, Alex settled him into the sling of her arm and sat a little taller. She glanced down at the top of the baby’s head, at the translucent pulse beneath his fontanelle.

When she relaxed her grip on the baby, he relaxed, too. Was it that easy?

Alex traced her finger over the soft spot on Peter’s head. She knew the biology behind it: the plates of the skull shifted enough to make giving birth easier; they fused together by the time the baby was a toddler. It was a vulnerability we were all born with, one that literally grew into an adult’s hardheadedness.

“Sorry,” Lacy said, breezing back to the table. “Thanks for that.”

Alex thrust the baby out toward her as if she were being burned.

The patient had been transferred from a thirty-hour home birth. A firm believer in natural medicine, she’d had limited prenatal care, no amnio, no sonograms, and yet newborns had a way of getting what they wanted and needed when it came time to arrive in the world. Lacy laid her hands on the woman’s trembling belly like a faith healer. Six pounds, she thought, bottom up here, head down here. A doctor poked his head through the door. “How’s it going in here?”

“Tell the intensive-care nursery we’re at thirty-five weeks,” she said, “but everything seems to be fine.” As the doctor backed away, she settled herself between the woman’s legs. “I know this has been going on for what seems like forever,” she said. “But if you can work with me for just one more hour, you’ll have this baby.”

As she directed the woman’s husband to get behind his wife, holding her upright as she began to push, Lacy felt her pager vibrate at the waistline of her sea-blue scrubs. Who the hell could it be? She was already on call; her secretary knew she was assisting at a birth.

“Will you excuse me?” she said, leaving the labor nurse in the room to fill in while she walked to the nurses’ desk and borrowed a telephone. “What’s going on?” Lacy asked when her secretary picked up.

“One of your patients, insisting to see you.”

“I’m a little busy,” Lacy said pointedly.

“She said she’ll wait. For however long it takes.”

“Who is it?”

“Alex Cormier,” the secretary replied.

Normally, Lacy would have told her secretary to have the patient see one of the other midwives in the practice. But there was still something elusive about Alex Cormier, something she couldn’t put her finger on-something that wasn’t quite right. “All right,” Lacy said. “But tell her it might be hours.”

She hung up the phone and hurried back into the birthing room, where she reached between the patient’s legs to check her dilation. “Apparently, all you needed was for me to leave,” she joked. “You’re ten centimeters. The next time you feel like pushing…go to town.”

Ten minutes later, Lacy delivered a three-pound baby girl. As the parents marveled over her, Lacy turned to the labor nurse, silently communicating with her eyes. Something had gone terribly wrong.

“She’s so tiny,” the father said. “Is there…is she okay?”

Lacy hesitated, because she didn’t really know the answer. A fibroid? she wondered. All she knew for certain was that there was a lot more inside that woman than a three-pound infant. And that any moment now, her patient was going to start to bleed.

But when Lacy reached up to grab the patient’s belly and press down on her uterus, she froze. “Did anyone tell you you were having twins?”

The father went ashen. “There’s two in there?”

Lacy grinned. Twins, she could handle. Twins-well, that was a bonus, not some horrible medical disaster. “Well. Only one now.”

The man crouched down beside his wife and kissed her forehead, delighted. “Did you hear that, Terri? Twins.”

His wife did not take her eyes off her tiny newborn daughter. “That’s nice,” she said calmly. “But I’m not pushing a second one out.”

Lacy laughed. “Oh, I think I might be able to get you to change your mind.”

Forty minutes later, Lacy left the happy family-with their twin daughters-and headed down the hallway to the staff restroom, where she splashed water on her face and changed into a fresh pair of scrubs. She took the stairs up to the midwifery office and glanced at the collection of women, sitting with their arms balanced on bellies of all sizes, like moons in different stages. One rose, red-eyed and unsteady, as if she’d been pulled upright magnetically by Lacy’s arrival. “Alex,” she said, remembering only in that instant that she had another patient waiting. “Why don’t you come with me.”

She led Alex into an empty examination room and sat down across from her in a chair. At that moment Lacy noticed that Alex’s sweater was on backward. It was a pale blue crewneck-you could barely even tell, except that the tag had flapped out along the curve of her neck. And it was certainly something that might happen to anyone in a rush, anyone upset…but probably not Alex Cormier.

“There’s been bleeding,” Alex said, her voice even. “Not a lot, but. Um. Some.”

Taking a cue from Alex herself, Lacy kept her own response calm. “Why don’t we check anyway?”

Lacy led Alex down the hallway to fetal ultrasound. She charmed a tech into letting them cut the patient line, and once she had Alex lying down on the table, she turned on the machine. She moved the transducer across Alex’s abdomen. At sixteen weeks, the fetus looked like a baby-tiny, skeletal, but startlingly perfect. “Do you see that?” Lacy asked, pointing to a blinking cursor, a tiny black-and-white drumbeat. “That’s the baby’s heart.”

Alex turned her face away, but not before Lacy saw a tear streak down her cheek. “The baby’s fine,” she said. “And it’s perfectly normal to have some staining or spotting. It’s not anything you did that caused it; there’s nothing you can do to make it stop.”

“I thought I was having a miscarriage.”

“Once you see a normal baby, like we just did, the chance of miscarrying is less than one percent. Let me put that another way-your chance of carrying a normal baby to term is ninety-nine percent.”

Alex nodded, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. “Good.”

Lacy hesitated. “It’s not my place to say this, really. But for someone who doesn’t want this baby, Alex, you seem awfully relieved to know she’s all right.”

“I don’t-I can’t-”

Lacy glanced at the ultrasound screen, where Alex’s baby was frozen in a moment of time. “Just think about it,” she said.

I already have a family, Logan Rourke said later that day when Alex told him she planned to keep the baby. I don’t need another one.

That night, Alex had an exorcism of sorts. She filled up her Weber grill with charcoal and lit a fire, then roasted every assignment she’d turned in to Logan Rourke. She had no photos of the two of them, no sweet notes-in retrospect, she realized how careful he’d been, how easily he could be erased from her life.

This baby, she decided, would be hers alone. She sat, watching the flames, and thought of the space it would take up inside her. She imagined her organs moving aside, skin stretching. She pictured her heart shrinking, tiny as a beach stone, to make room. She did not consider whether she was having this baby to prove that she hadn’t imagined her relationship with Logan Rourke, or to upset him as much as he had upset her. As any skilled trial attorney knows, you never ask the witness a question to which you do not know the answer.

Five weeks later, Lacy was no longer just Alex’s midwife. She was also her confidante, her best friend, her sounding board. Although Lacy didn’t normally socialize with her clients, for Alex she’d broken the rules. She told herself it was because Alex-who had now decided to keep this baby-really needed a support system, and there wasn’t anyone else she felt comfortable with.

It was the only reason, Lacy decided, she’d agreed to go out with Alex’s colleagues this evening. Even the prospect of a Girls’ Night Out, without babies, lost its luster in this company. Lacy should have realized two back-to-back root canals would have been preferable to dinner with a bunch of lawyers. They all liked to hear themselves talk, that was clear. She let the conversation flow around her, as if she were a stone in a river, and she kept refilling her wineglass with Coke from a pitcher.

The restaurant was some Italian place with very bad red sauce and a chef who went heavy on the garlic. She wondered if, in Italy, there were American restaurants.

Alex was in the middle of a heated discussion about some trial that had gone to jury. Lacy heard terms being tossed and fielded around the table: FLSA, Singh v. Jutla, incentives. A florid woman sitting to Lacy’s right shook her head. “It’s sending a message,” she said. “If you award damages for work that’s illegal, you’re sanctioning a company to be above the law.”

Alex laughed. “Sita, I’m just going to take this moment to remind you that you’re the only prosecutor at the table and there’s no way in hell you’re going to win this one.”

“We’re all biased. We need an objective observer.” Sita smiled at Lacy. “What’s your opinion on aliens?”

Maybe she should have paid more attention to the conversation-apparently it had taken a turn for the interesting while Lacy was woolgathering. “Well, I’m certainly not an expert, but I did finish a book a little while ago about Area 51 and the cover-up by the government. It went into specific detail about cattle mutilation-I find it very suspicious when a cow in Nevada winds up missing its kidneys and the incision doesn’t show any trauma to tissue or blood loss. I had a cat once that I think was abducted by aliens. She went missing for exactly four weeks-to the minute-and when she came back, she had triangle patterns burned out on the fur on her back, sort of like a crop circle.” Lacy hesitated. “But without the wheat.”

Everyone at the table stared at her, silent. A woman with a pinhole of a mouth and a sleek blond bob blinked at Lacy. “We were talking about illegal aliens.”

Lacy felt heat creep up her neck. “Oh,” she said. “Right.”

“Well, if you ask me,” Alex said, drawing attention in her own direction, “Lacy ought to be heading up the Department of Labor instead of Elaine Chao. She’s certainly got more experience…”

Everyone broke up in laughter, as Lacy watched. Alex, she realized, could fit anywhere. Here, or with Lacy’s family at dinner, or in a courtroom, or probably at tea with the queen. She was a chameleon.

It struck Lacy that she didn’t really know what color a chameleon was before it started changing.

There was a moment at each prenatal exam when Lacy channeled her inner faith healer: laying her hands on the patient’s belly and divining, just from the lay of the land, in which direction the baby lay. It always reminded her of those Halloween funhouses she took Joey to visit-you’d stick your hand behind a curtain and feel a bowl of cold spaghetti intestines, or a gelatin brain. It wasn’t an exact science, but basically, there were two hard parts on a fetus: the head and the bottom. If you rocked the baby’s head, it would twist on the stem of its spine. If you rocked the baby’s bottom, it swayed. Moving the head moved only the head; moving the bottom moved the whole baby.

She let her hands trail over the island of Alex’s belly and helped her sit up. “The good news is that the baby’s doing fine,” Lacy said. “The bad news is that right now, she’s upside down. Breech.”

Alex froze. “I’m going to need a C-section?”

“We’ve got eight weeks before it comes to that. There’s a lot we can do to try to turn the baby beforehand.”

“Like what?”

“Moxibustion.” She sat down across from Lacy. “I’ll give you the name of an acupuncturist. She’ll take a little stick of mugwort and hold it up to your little pinky. She’ll do the same thing on the other side. It won’t hurt, but it’ll be uncomfortably warm. Once you learn how to do it at home, if you start now chances are fairly good that the baby will turn in one to two weeks’ time.”

“Poking myself with a stick is going to make it flip?”

“Well, not necessarily. That’s why I also want you to set an ironing board up against the couch, to make an inclined plane. You should lie on it, head down, three times a day for fifteen minutes.”

“Jeez, Lacy. Are you sure you don’t want me to wear a crystal, too?”

“Believe me, any of those are considerably more comfortable than having a doctor do a version to turn the baby…or recuperating from a C-section.”

Alex folded her hands over her belly. “I don’t hold much faith in old wives’ tales.”

Lacy shrugged. “Luckily, you’re not the one who’s breech.”

You weren’t supposed to give your clients rides to court, but in Nadya Saranoff’s case, Alex had made an exception. Nadya’s husband had been abusive and had left her for another woman. He wouldn’t pay child support for their two boys, although he was making a decent living and Nadya’s job at Subway paid $5.25 an hour. She’d complained to the state, but justice worked too slow, so she’d gone to Wal-Mart and shoplifted a pair of pants and a white shirt for her five-year-old, who was starting school the following week and who had outgrown all of his clothing.

Nadya had pled guilty. Because she couldn’t afford a fine, she was given a thirty-day jail sentence deferred-which, as Alex was explaining to her now, meant that she wouldn’t have to go for a year. “If you go to jail,” she said, as they stood outside the ladies’ room in the courthouse, “your boys are going to suffer greatly. I know you felt desperate, but there’s always another option. A church. Or a Salvation Army.”

Nadya wiped her eyes. “I couldn’t get to the church or the Salvation Army. I haven’t got a car.”

Right. It was why Alex had brought her to court in the first place.

Alex steeled herself against sympathy as Nadya ducked into the bathroom. Her job had been to get Nadya a good deal, which she had, considering this was the woman’s second shoplifting offense. The first one had been at a drugstore; she’d pinched some Children’s Tylenol.

She thought of her own baby, the one who had her lying upside down on an ironing board and sticking torturous little daggers against her pinky toes every night, in the hopes that it would change position. What sort of disadvantage would it be to come into this world backward?

When ten minutes had passed and Nadya had not come out of the bathroom, Alex knocked on the door. “Nadya?” She found her client in front of the sinks, sobbing. “Nadya, what’s wrong?”

Her client ducked her head, mortified. “I just got my period, and I can’t afford a tampon.”

Alex reached for her purse, rummaging for a quarter to feed to the dispenser on the wall. But as the cardboard tube rolled out of the machine, something inside her snapped, and she understood that although this case had been settled, it wasn’t over yet. “Meet me out front,” she ordered. “I’m getting the car.”

She drove Nadya to Wal-Mart-the scene of her crime-and tossed three supersized Tampax boxes into a cart. “What else do you need?”

“Underwear,” Nadya whispered. “That was my last pair.”

Alex wheeled up and down the aisles, buying T-shirts and socks and panties and pajamas for Nadya; pants and coats and hats and gloves for her boys; boxes of Goldfish crackers and saltines and canned soup and pasta and Devil Dogs. Desperate, she did what she had to do at that moment, although it was exactly what the public defender’s office counseled their lawyers not to; but she was entirely rational and aware that she had never done this for a client and never would do it again. She spent eight hundred dollars in the very store that had pressed charges against Nadya, because it was easier to fix what was wrong than to picture her own child arriving into a world Alex herself could sometimes not stomach.

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…”

“Yeah.”

“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 said.

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.

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 tiny 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.

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 from 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 photo-books-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 photo-books, 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.

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.

“Peter!”

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?”

“Whit-”

“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.

“Alex!”

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?”

“Aides.”

“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.

“What?”

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 young 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.

Swallowing, she stared at Peter, trying to think of what she could do to spur him to self-defense, which punishment would make him change his behavior, even as it broke her heart to make him do just that. “If this happens again…no playdates with Josie for a month.”

She closed her eyes at the ultimatum. It was not the way she liked to parent, but apparently her usual advice-be kind, be polite, be what you want others to be-had done Peter no good. If a threat might make Peter roar, so loud that Drew and all those other awful children slunk away with their tails between their legs, then Lacy would do it.

She brushed Peter’s hair back from his face, watching the play of doubt cloud his features-and why shouldn’t it? His mother had certainly never given him a directive like this before. “He’s a bully. A jerk, in a tiny package. But he’ll grow up to be a bigger jerk, and you-you’re going to grow up to be someone incredible.” Lacy smiled widely at her son. “One day, Peter, everyone’s going to know your name.”

There were two swings out on the playground, and sometimes you had to wait your turn for them. When that happened, Peter would cross his fingers and hope that he got the one that hadn’t been swung around the top bar by a fifth grader, making it so that the seat was incredibly high off the ground and hard to get into. He was afraid he would fall off, trying to get on the swing, or, even more embarrassing, not even be able to hike himself up in the first place.

When he waited with Josie, she always took that swing. She pretended she liked it, but Peter realized she was only pretending she didn’t know how much he disliked it.

Today at recess, they weren’t swinging. Instead, they’d twisted the chains round and round until they were as knotted as a throat, and then they’d lift up their feet and go spinning. Peter would sometimes look back at the sky and imagine that he was flying.

When they stopped, his swing and Josie’s staggered against each other and their feet got all tangled. She laughed, and lightly locked their ankles together so that they were connected, a human chain link.

He turned to her. “I want people to like me,” he blurted out.

Josie tilted her head. “People do like you.”

Peter split his feet, disengaging them. “I meant people,” he said, “who aren’t you.”

The application to become a judge took Alex two full days to complete, and as she filled it out, a remarkable thing happened: she realized that she did actually want to be a judge. In spite of what she’d said to Whit, in spite of her earlier reservations, she was making the right decision for the right reasons.

When the Judicial Selection Commission called for an interview, they made it clear that such invitations were not extended to just anybody. That if Alex was being interviewed, she was being seriously considered for the position. The job of the commission was to give the governor a short list of candidates. Judicial commission interviews were conducted at the old governor’s mansion, Bridges House, in East Concord. They were staggered, and candidates entered through one entrance and left through another, presumably so that no one knew who else was up for the job.

The twelve members of the commission were lawyers, policemen, executive directors of victim’s advocacy organizations. They stared so hard at Alex that she expected her face to burst into flames. It did not help, either, that she had been up half the night with Josie, who’d awakened from a nightmare about a boa constrictor and refused to go back to sleep. Alex didn’t know who the other candidates were for this position, but she’d wager that they weren’t single moms who’d had to poke the radiator vents with a yardstick at 3:00 a.m. to prove that there weren’t any snakes hiding in the dark tunnels.

“I like the pace,” she said carefully, replying to a question. There were answers she was expected to give, she knew. The trick was to somehow imbue the stock phrases and anticipated responses with part of her personality. “I like the pressure of making a quick decision. I’m strong on the rules of evidence. I’ve been in courtrooms with justices who don’t do their homework in advance, and I know I won’t function that way.” She hesitated, looking around at the men and women, wondering if she should cultivate a persona like most of the other people who applied for judicial positions-and who’d come through the hallowed ranks of the prosecutorial office-or if she should be herself and allow the petticoat hem of her public defender background to peek out.

Oh, hell.

“I guess the reason I really want to be a judge is because I love the way a courtroom is an equal opportunity environment. When you come into it, for that brief amount of time, your case is the most important thing in the world, to everyone in that room. The system works for you. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from-your treatment will depend on the letter of the law, not on any socioeconomic variables.”

One of the commission members looked down at her notes. “What do you think makes a good judge, Ms. Cormier?”

Alex felt a bead of sweat run down between her shoulder blades. “Being patient but firm. Being in control but not being arrogant. Knowing the rules of evidence and the rules of a courtroom.” She paused. “This is probably not what you’re used to hearing, but I think a good judge probably is a whiz at tangrams.”

An older woman from a victim’s advocacy group blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Tangrams. I’m a mom. My little girl, she’s five. And there’s this game she has where you’re given a geometric outline of a figure-a boat, a train, a bird-and you somehow construct it from a set of puzzle pieces: triangles and parallelograms-some bigger than others. It’s easy for a person with good spatial relations skills, because you really have to think outside the box. And being a judge is like that. You’ve got all of these competing factors-the parties involved, the victims, law enforcement, society, even precedent-and you somehow have to use them to solve the problem within a given framework.”

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Alex turned her head and caught a glimpse through a window of the next interviewee arriving through the entrance vestibule. She blinked, certain she’d seen wrong, but you did not forget the silvered curls that you’d once run your fingers through; you did not put out of your mind the geography of cheekbones and jaw you’d traced with your own lips. Logan Rourke-her trial advocacy professor; her old lover; her daughter’s father-headed into the building and closed the door.

Apparently, he was a judicial candidate as well.

Alex drew in her breath, even more determined to win this position than she had been a moment ago. “Ms. Cormier?” the older woman said again, and Alex realized she’d missed her question the first time around.

“Yes. Sorry?”

“I asked how successful you are when you play tangrams.”

Alex met her gaze. “Ma’am,” she said, letting a broad smile escape, “I’m the New Hampshire State Champion.”

At first, the numbers just looked fatter. But then they started to twist a little, and Peter had to either squinch up his face or get closer to see if it was a 3 or an 8. His teacher sent him to the nurse, who smelled like teabags and feet, and she made him look at a chart on the wall.

His new eyeglasses were light as a feather and had special lenses that wouldn’t scratch even if he fell down and they went flying across a sandbox. The frames were made out of wire, too thin, in his opinion, to hold up the curved pieces of glass that made his eyes look like an owl’s: oversized, bright, so blue.

When Peter got his glasses he was amazed. Suddenly, the blur in the distance coagulated into a farm with silos and fields and spots of cows. The letters on the red sign said STOP. There were tiny lines, like the creases on his knuckles, at the corners of his mother’s eyes. All superheroes had accessories-Batman’s belt, Superman’s cape-this was his, and it gave him X-ray vision. He was so excited about having his new glasses that he slept with them.

It wasn’t until he got to school the next day that he understood that with better vision came perfect hearing: Four-eyes; blind as a bat. His glasses were no longer a mark of distinction but only a scar, something else that made him different from everyone else. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

As the world came into focus, Peter realized how people looked when they glanced at him. As if he were the punch line to a joke.

And Peter, with his 20/20 vision, cast his eyes downward, so that he wouldn’t see.

“We are subversive parents,” Alex whispered to Lacy as they sat with their knees bent high as a grasshopper’s at one of the undersize tables during Open School Day. She took the Cuisenaire rods used for math-bright colored unit strips of twos, threes, fours, fives-and fashioned them to spell a curse word.

“It’s all fun and games until someone turns out to be a judge,” Lacy chided, and she scattered the word with her hand.

“Afraid I’m going to get you kicked out of kindergarten?” Alex laughed. “And as for the judge thing, that’s about as much of a long shot as me winning the lottery.”

“We’ll see,” Lacy said.

The teacher leaned down between them and handed each woman a small piece of paper. “Today I’m inviting all the parents to write down one word that best describes their child. Later, we’ll make a love collage out of them.”

Alex glanced at Lacy. “A love collage?”

“Stop being anti-kindergarten.”

“I’m not. In fact, I think everything you need to know about the law you learn in kindergarten. You know: Don’t hit. Don’t take what’s not yours. Don’t kill people. Don’t rape them.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that lesson. Right after snack time,” Lacy said.

“You know what I mean. It’s a social contract.”

“What if you wound up on the bench and had to uphold a law you didn’t believe in?”

“First off, that’s a big if. And second, I’d do it. I’d feel horrible about it, but I’d do it,” Alex said. “You don’t want a judge with a personal agenda, believe me.”

Lacy tore the edge of her paper into a fringe. “If you become the job, then when do you get to be you?”

Alex grinned and pushed the Cuisenaire rods into another four-letter word. “At kindergarten open houses, I guess.”

Suddenly Josie appeared, rosy-cheeked and flushed. “Mommy,” she said, tugging on Alex’s hand as Peter climbed onto Lacy’s lap. “We’re all done.”

They had been in the block corner, creating a surprise. Lacy and Alex stood up, letting themselves be led past the book rack and the stacks of tiny carpets and the science table with its rotting pumpkin experiment whose pitted skin and sunken flesh reminded Alex of the face of a prosecutor she knew. “This is our house,” Josie announced, pushing open a block that served as the front door. “We’re married.”

Lacy nudged Alex. “I always wanted to get along with my in-laws.”

Peter stood at a wooden stove, mixing imaginary food in a plastic pot. Josie put on an oversize lab coat. “Time to go to work. I’ll be home for dinner.”

“Okay,” Peter said. “We’re having meatballs.”

“What’s your job?” Alex asked Josie.

“I’m a judge. I send people to jail all day long and then I come home and eat pisghetti.” She walked around the perimeter of the block house and reentered through the front door.

“Sit down,” Peter said. “You’re late again.”

Lacy closed her eyes. “Is it just me, or is this like looking into a really unflattering mirror?”

They watched Josie and Peter put aside their plates and then move to another part of their block house, a smaller square within the square. They lay down inside it. “This is the bed,” Josie explained.

The teacher came up behind Alex and Lacy. “They play house all the time,” she said. “Isn’t it sweet?”

Alex watched Peter curl up on his side. Josie spooned against him, wrapping her arm around his waist. She wondered how her daughter had ever formed an image of a couple like this in her mind, given that she’d never even seen her mother go out on a date.

She watched Lacy lean against the block cubby and write, on her small slip of paper, tender. That did describe Peter-he was tender, almost to the point of being raw. It took someone like Josie-curled around him like a shell-to protect him.

Alex reached for a pencil and smoothed out the piece of paper. Adjectives tumbled through her mind-there were so many for her daughter: dynamic, loyal, bright, breathtaking-but she found herself forming different letters.

Mine, she wrote.

This time when the lunch box hit the pavement, it broke wide across its hinges and the car behind the school bus ran right over his tuna fish sandwich and his bag of Doritos. The bus driver, as usual, didn’t notice. The fifth-grade boys were so good at doing this by now that the window was opened and closed before you could even yell for them to stop. Peter felt his eyes welling with tears as the boys high-fived each other. He could hear his mother’s voice in his head-this was the moment where he was supposed to stick up for himself!-but his mother did not realize that would only make it worse.

“Oh, Peter,” Josie sighed as he sat down again beside her.

He stared down at his mittens. “I don’t think I can go to your house on Friday.”

“How come?”

“Because my mom said she’ll punish me if I lose my lunch box again.”

“That’s not fair,” Josie said.

Peter shrugged. “Nothing is.”

No one was more surprised than Alex when the governor of New Hampshire officially picked her from a short list of three candidates for a district court judicial position. Although it made sense that Jeanne Shaheen-a young, Democratic female governor-would want to appoint a young, Democratic female judge, Alex was still a little light-headed over the news when she went for her interview.

The governor was younger than Alex had expected, and prettier. Which is exactly what most people will think about me if I’m on the bench, she thought. She sat down and slipped her hands under her thighs to keep them from shaking.

“If I nominate you,” the governor said, “is there anything I should know?”

“You mean skeletons in my closet?”

Shaheen nodded. What it really came down to, for a gubernatorial appointee, was whether or not that nominee would in some way reflect poorly on the governor herself. Shaheen was trying to cross her t’s and dot her i’s before making an official decision, and for that, Alex could only admire her. “Is anyone going to come to your Executive Council hearing and oppose your nomination?” the governor asked.

“That depends. Are you giving out furloughs at the state prison?”

Shaheen laughed. “I take it that’s where your disgruntled clients have ended up.”

“That’s exactly why they’re disgruntled.”

The governor stood up and shook Alex’s hand. “I think we’ll get along well,” she said.

Maine and New Hampshire were the only two states left in the country with an Executive Council-a group that acted as a direct check on the governor’s power. For Alex, this meant that in the month between her nomination and her confirmation hearing, she had to do whatever she could to placate five Republican men before they put her through the wringer.

She called them weekly, asking if they had any questions they needed answered. She also had to arrange for witnesses to appear on her behalf at the confirmation hearing. After years in the public defender’s office, this should have been simple, but the Executive Council did not want to hear from lawyers. They wanted to hear from the community where Alex worked and lived-from her first-grade teacher to a state trooper who liked her in spite of her allegiance to the Dark Side. The tricky part was that Alex had to call in all her favors to get these people to prepare and testify, but she also had to make it clear that if she did get confirmed as a judge, she could give them nothing in return.

And then, finally, it was Alex’s turn to take the hot seat. She sat in the Executive Council office in the State House, fielding questions that ranged from What was the last book you read? to Who has the burden of proof in abuse and neglect cases? Most of the questions were substantive and academic, until she was thrown a curve.

Ms. Cormier, who has the right to judge someone else?

“Well,” she said. “That depends on whether you’re judging in a moral sense or a legal sense. Morally, no one has the right to judge anyone else. But legally, it’s not a right-it’s a responsibility.”

Following up on that, what is your position on firearms?

Alex hesitated. She was not a fan of guns. She didn’t let Josie watch anything on television that showed violence. She knew what happened when you put a gun in the hand of a troubled kid, or an angry husband, or a battered wife-she’d defended those clients too many times to dismiss that kind of catalytic reaction.

And yet.

She was in New Hampshire, a conservative state, in front of a group of Republicans who were terrified she would turn out to be a left-wing loose cannon. She would be presiding over communities where hunting was not only revered but necessary.

Alex took a sip of water. “Legally,” she said, “I am pro-firearms.”

“It’s crazy,” Alex said as she stood in Lacy’s kitchen. “You go to these robe sites online, and the models are all linebackers with breasts. The public perception of a female judge is one that looks like Bea Arthur.” She leaned into the hallway and yelled up the stairs. “Josie! I’m counting to ten and then we’re leaving!”

“Are there choices?”

“Yeah, black…or black.” Alex folded her arms. “You can get cotton and polyester or just polyester. You can get bell sleeves or gathered sleeves. They’re all hideous. What I really want is something with a waist.”

“Guess Vera Wang doesn’t do judicial,” Lacy said.

“Not quite.” She stuck her head into the hallway again. “Josie! Now!”

Lacy put down the dish towel she had been using to dry a pan and followed Alex into the hall. “Peter! Josie’s mother has to get home!” When there was no response from the children, Lacy headed upstairs. “They’re probably hiding.”

Alex followed her into Peter’s bedroom, where Lacy threw open the closet doors and checked beneath the bed. From there, they checked the bathroom, Joey’s room, and the master bedroom. It wasn’t until they went downstairs again that they heard voices coming from the basement. “It’s heavy,” Josie said.

Then Peter: “Here. Like this.”

Alex wound down the wooden stairway. Lacy’s basement was a one-hundred-year-old root cellar with a dirt floor and cobwebs strung like Christmas decorations. She homed in on the whispers coming from a corner of the basement, and there, behind a stack of boxes and a shelf full of home-canned jelly, was Josie, holding a rifle.

“Oh my God,” Alex breathed, and Josie swung around, pointing the barrel at her.

Lacy grabbed the gun and pulled it away. “Where did you get this?” she demanded, and only then did Peter and Josie seem to realize that something was wrong.

“Peter,” Josie said. “He had a key.”

“A key?” Alex cried. “To what?”

“The safe,” Lacy murmured. “He must have seen Lewis taking out a rifle when he went hunting last weekend.”

“My daughter has been coming over to your house for how long now, and you’ve got guns lying around?”

“They’re not lying around,” Lacy said. “They’re in a locked gun safe.”

“Which your five-year-old can open!”

“Lewis keeps the bullets-”

“Where?” Alex demanded. “Or should I just ask Peter?”

Lacy turned to Peter. “You know better. What on earth made you do this?”

“I just wanted to show it to her, Mom. She asked.”

Josie lifted a frightened face. “I did not.”

Alex turned. “So now your son’s blaming Josie-”

“Or your daughter’s lying,” Lacy countered.

They stared at each other, two friends who had separated along the fault lines of their children. Alex’s face was flushed. What if, she kept thinking. What if they’d been five minutes later? What if Josie had been hurt, killed? On the edges of this thought, another one ignited-the answers she’d given the Executive Council weeks before. Who has the right to judge someone else?

No one, she had said.

And yet, here she was doing it.

I am pro-firearms, she had told them.

Did that make her a hypocrite? Or was she only being a good mother?

Alex watched Lacy kneel beside her son and that was all it took to trip the switch: Josie’s steadfast loyalty to Peter suddenly seemed to only be a weight dragging her down. Maybe it was best for Josie if she started making other friends. Friends who did not get her called to the principal’s office and who placed rifles in her hand.

Alex anchored Josie to her side. “I think we ought to leave.”

“Yes,” Lacy agreed, her voice cool. “I think that would be best.”

They were in the frozen-food aisle when Josie began her tantrum. “I don’t like peas,” she whined.

“You don’t have to eat them.” Alex opened up the freezer door, letting the cold air kiss her cheek as she reached for the Green Giant vegetables.

“I want Oreos.”

“You’re not getting Oreos. You already had animal crackers.” Josie had been contentious for a week now, ever since the fiasco at Lacy’s house. Alex knew she couldn’t keep Josie from being with Peter at school during the day, but that didn’t mean she had to cultivate the relationship by allowing Josie to invite him over to play afterward.

Alex hauled a vat of Poland Spring water into her cart, then a bottle of wine. On second thought, she reached for another. “Do you want chicken or hamburger for dinner?”

“I want tofurkey.”

Alex started laughing. “Where did you hear about tofurkey?”

“Lacy made it for us for lunch. They’re like hot dogs but they’re better for you.”

Alex stepped forward as her number was called at the meat counter. “Can I have a half pound of boneless chicken breasts?”

“How come you get what you want, but I never get what I want?” Josie accused.

“Believe me, you’re not as deprived a child as you’d like to think you are.”

“I want an apple,” Josie announced.

Alex sighed. “Can we just please get through the grocery store without you saying I want again?”

Before Alex realized what her daughter was doing, Josie kicked out from the seat of the shopping cart, catching Alex hard in the middle. “I hate you!” Josie screamed. “You’re the worst mom in the whole world!”

Alex was uncomfortably aware of the other shoppers looking at her-the old woman feeling melons, the grocery employee with his fists full of fresh broccoli. Why did kids always fall apart in venues where you would be duly measured for your actions? “Josie,” she said, smiling through her teeth, “calm down.”

“I wish you were like Peter’s mother! I wish I could just go live with them.”

Alex grasped her shoulders, hard enough to make Josie burst into tears. “You listen to me,” she said in a heated undertone, and then she caught a distant whisper, and the word judge.

There had been an article in the local paper about her recent appointment to the district court; it ran with a photo. Alex had felt the spark of recognition when she passed people in the baking aisle and the cereal aisle: Oh, that’s her. But right now, she also felt the checks and balances of their stares as they watched her with Josie, waiting for her to act-well-judiciously.

She relaxed her grasp. “I know you’re tired,” Alex said, loud enough for the rest of the entire store to hear. “I know you want to go home. But you have to behave when we’re out in public.”

Josie blinked through her tears, listening to the Voice of Reason and wondering what this alien creature had done with her real mother, who would have yelled right back at her and told her to cut it out.

A judge, Alex suddenly realized, doesn’t get to be a judge only on the bench. She’s still a judge when she goes out to a restaurant or dances at a party or wants to throttle her child in the middle of the produce aisle. Alex had been given a mantle to wear, without realizing that there was a catch: she would never be allowed to take it off.

If you spent your life concentrating on what everyone else thought of you, would you forget who you really were? What if the face you showed the world turned out to be a mask…with nothing beneath it?

Alex pushed the cart toward the checkout lines. By now, her raging child had turned into a contrite little girl again. She listened to Josie’s diminishing hiccups. “There,” she said, to comfort herself as much as her daughter. “Isn’t that better?”

Alex’s first day on the bench was spent in Keene. No one but her clerk would know officially that it was her first day-attorneys had heard she was new, but weren’t sure when she quite started-and yet, she was terrified. She changed her outfit three times, even though no one would see it underneath her robe. She threw up twice before she left for the courthouse.

She knew how to get to chambers-after all, she’d tried cases here on the other side of the bench a hundred times. The clerk was a thin man named Ishmael who remembered Alex from their previous meetings and hadn’t particularly liked her-she’d cracked up after he introduced himself (“Call me Ishmael”). Today, however, he practically fell at her high-heeled feet. “Welcome, Your Honor,” he said. “Here’s your docket. I’ll take you to your chambers, and we’ll send a court officer in to get you when we’re ready. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No,” Alex said. “I’m all set.”

He left her in chambers, which were freezing cold. She adjusted the thermostat and pulled her robe out of her briefcase to dress. There was an adjoining bathroom; Alex stepped inside to scrutinize herself. She looked fair. Commanding.

And maybe a little like a choirgirl.

She sat down at the desk and immediately thought of her father. Look at me, Daddy, she thought, although by now he was in a place where he couldn’t hear her. She could remember dozens of cases he’d tried; he’d come home and tell her about them over dinner. What she couldn’t remember were the moments when he wasn’t a judge and was just her father.

Alex scanned the files she needed for that morning’s run of arraignments. Then she looked at her watch. She still had forty-five minutes before court went into session; it was her own damn fault for being so nervous that she’d gotten here too early. She stood up, stretched. She could do cartwheels in this room, it was that big.

But she wouldn’t, because judges didn’t do that.

Tentatively, she opened the door to the hall, and immediately Ishmael materialized. “Your Honor? What can I do for you?”

“Coffee,” Alex said. “That would be nice.”

Ishmael jumped on this request so fast that Alex realized if she asked him to go out and buy a gift for Josie’s birthday, he would have it wrapped and on her desk by noon. She followed him into the lounge, one shared by attorneys and other judges, and walked toward the coffeemaker. Immediately, a young attorney fell back. “You go right ahead, Your Honor,” she said, giving up her place in line.

Alex reached for a paper cup. She’d have to remember to bring a mug to leave in chambers. Then again, since her position was a rotating one that would take her through Laconia, Concord, Keene, Nashua, Rochester, Milford, Jaffrey, Peterborough, Grafton, and Coos, depending on what day of the week it was, she’d have to find a lot of coffee mugs. She pushed down on the thermal coffee dispenser, only to have it whistle and hiss-empty. Without even thinking about it, she reached for a filter to make a fresh pot.

“Your Honor, you don’t have to do that,” the attorney said, clearly embarrassed on Alex’s behalf. She took the filter out of her hand and started to make the coffee.

Alex stared at the lawyer. She wondered if anyone would ever call her Alex again, or if she should just have her name officially changed to Your Honor. She wondered if anyone would have the guts to tell her if she had toilet paper hanging off her shoe as she walked down the hall, or if she had spinach in her teeth. It was a strange feeling to be scrutinized so carefully and to know all the same that no one would ever dare to tell her to her face that something was wrong.

The lawyer brought her the maiden cup of fresh coffee. “I wasn’t sure how you liked it, Your Honor,” she said, offering sugar and creamer cups.

“This is fine,” Alex said, but as she reached for the cup, her bell sleeve caught the edge of the Styrofoam, and the coffee spilled.

Smooth, Alex, she thought.

“Oh, gosh,” the lawyer said. “I’m sorry!”

Why are you sorry, Alex wondered, when it was my fault? The girl was already setting out napkins to clean up the mess, so Alex stripped off her gown to clean it. For one giddy moment she thought about not stopping there-disrobing completely, down to her bra and panties, and parading through the courthouse like the Emperor in the fairy tale. Isn’t my gown beautiful? she’d say, and she would listen to everyone answer: Oh, yes, Your Honor.

She rinsed the sleeve off in the sink and wrung it dry. Then, still carrying her robe, she started back to chambers. But the thought of sitting there for another half hour, alone, was too depressing, so instead Alex began to wander the halls of the Keene courthouse. She took turns she’d never taken before and wound up at a basement door that led to a loading zone.

Outside, she found a woman dressed in the green jumpsuit of a groundskeeper, smoking a cigarette. The air was full of winter, and frost glittered on the asphalt like broken glass. Alex wrapped her arms around herself-it was quite possibly even colder out here than in chambers-and nodded at the stranger. “Hi,” she said.

“Hey.” The woman exhaled a stream of smoke. “I haven’t seen you around here before. What’s your name?”

“Alex.”

“I’m Liz. I’m the whole property maintenance department.” She grinned. “So where do you work in the courthouse?”

Alex fumbled in her pocket for a box of Tic Tacs-not that she wanted or needed a mint, but because she wanted to buy some time before this conversation came to a screeching halt. “Um,” she said, “I’m the judge.”

Immediately, Liz’s face fell, and she stepped back, uncomfortable.

“You know, I hate telling you that, because it was so nice the way you just struck up a conversation with me. No one else around here will do that and it’s…well, it’s a little lonely.” Alex hesitated. “Could you maybe forget that I’m the judge?”

Liz ground out the cigarette beneath her boot. “Depends.”

Alex nodded. She turned the small plastic box of mints over in her palm; they rattled like music. “You want a Tic Tac?”

After a moment, Liz held out her hand. “Sure, Alex,” she said, and she smiled.

Peter had taken to wandering his own home like a ghost. He was grounded, which had something to do with the fact that Josie didn’t come over anymore, even though they used to see each other after school three or four times a week. Joey didn’t want to play with him-he was always off at soccer practice or playing a computer game where you had to drive really fast around a racetrack that was bent like a paper clip-which meant that Peter, officially, had nothing to do.

One evening after dinner, he heard rustling in the basement. He hadn’t been down there since his mother had found him with Josie and the gun, but now he was drawn like a moth to the light over his father’s workbench. His father sat on a stool in front of it, holding the very gun that had gotten Peter into so much trouble.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for bed?” his father asked.

“I’m not tired.” He watched his father’s hands run down the swan neck of the rifle.

“Pretty, isn’t it? It’s a Remington 721. A thirty-ought-six.” Peter’s father turned to him. “Want to help me clean it?”

Peter instinctively glanced toward the stairs, where his mother was washing dishes from dinner.

“The way I figure it, Peter, if you’re so interested in guns, you need to learn how to respect them. Better safe than sorry, right? Even your mom can’t argue with that.” He cradled the gun in his lap. “A gun is a very, very dangerous thing, but what makes it so dangerous is that most people don’t really understand how it works. And once you do, it’s just a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver, and it doesn’t do anything unless you know how to pick it up and use it correctly. You understand?”

Peter didn’t, but he wasn’t about to tell his father. He was about to learn how to use a real rifle! None of those idiot kids in his class, the ones who were such jerks, could say that.

“First thing we have to do is open the bolt, like this, to make sure there aren’t any bullets in it. Look in the magazine, right down there. See any?” Peter shook his head. “Now check again. You can never check too many times. Now, there’s a little button under the receiver-just in front of the trigger guard-push that and you can remove the bolt completely.”

Peter watched his father take off the big silver ratchet that attached the butt of the rifle to the barrel, just like that. He reached onto his workbench for a bottle of solvent-Hoppes #9, Peter read-and spilled a little bit on a rag. “There’s nothing like hunting, Peter,” his father said. “To be out in the woods when the rest of the world is still sleeping…to see that deer raise its head and stare right at you…” He held the rag away from him-the smell made Peter’s head swim-and started to rub the bolt with it. “Here,” Peter’s father said. “Why don’t you do this?”

Peter’s jaw dropped-he was being told to hold the rifle, after what had happened with Josie? Maybe it was because his father was here to supervise, or maybe this was a trick and he was going to get punished for wanting to hold it again. Tentative, he reached for it-surprised, as he had been before, at how incredibly heavy it was. On Joey’s computer game, Big Buck Hunter, the characters swung their rifles around as if they were feather-light.

It wasn’t a trick. His father wanted him to help, for real. Peter watched him reach for another tin-gun oil-and dribble some onto a clean rag. “We wipe down the bolt and put a drop on the firing pin…. You want to know how a gun works, Peter? Come over here.” He pointed out the firing pin, a teensy circle inside the circle of the bolt. “Inside the bolt, where you can’t see it, there’s a big spring. When you pull the trigger, it releases the spring, which hits this firing pin and pushes it out just the tiniest bit-” He held his thumb and forefinger apart just a fraction of an inch, for illustration. “That firing pin hits the center of a brass bullet…and dents a little silver button called the primer. The dent sets off the charge, which is gunpowder inside the brass casing. You’ve seen a bullet-how it gets thinner and thinner at the end? That skinny part holds the actual bullet, and when the gunpowder goes off, it creates pressure behind the bullet and pushes it from behind.”

Peter’s father took the bolt out of his hands, wiped it with oil, and set it aside. “Now look into the barrel.” He pointed the gun as if he were going to shoot at a lightbulb on the ceiling. “What do you see?”

Peter peeked into the open barrel from behind. “It’s like the noodles Mom makes for lunch.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. Rotini? Is that what they’re called? The twists in the barrel are like a screw. As the bullet gets pushed out, these grooves make the bullet turn. Kind of like when you throw a football and put some spin on it.”

Peter had tried to do that in the backyard with his father and Joey, but his hand was too small or the football was too big and when he tried to make a pass, mostly it just crashed at his own feet.

“If the bullet comes out spinning, it can fly straight without wobbling.” His father began to fiddle with a long rod that had a loop of wire on the end. Sticking a patch into the loop, he dipped it in solvent. “The gunpowder leaves gunk inside the barrel, though,” he said. “And that’s what we have to clean off.”

Peter watched his father jam the rod into the barrel, up and down, like he was churning butter. He put on a clean patch and ran it through the barrel again, and then another, until they didn’t come out streaked black anymore. “When I was your age, my father showed me how to do this, too.” He threw the patch out in the trash. “One day, you and I will go hunting.”

Peter couldn’t contain himself at the very thought of this. He-who couldn’t throw a football or dribble a soccer ball or even swim very well-was going to go hunting with his father? He loved the thought of leaving Joey at home. He wondered how long he’d have to wait for this outing-how it would feel to be doing something with his father that was just theirs.

“Ah,” his father said. “Now, look down the barrel again.”

Peter grabbed the gun backward, looking down through the muzzle, the barrel of the gun pressed up against his face near his eye. “Jesus, Peter!” his father said, taking it out of his hands. “Not like that! You’ve got it backward!” He turned the gun so that the barrel was facing away from Peter. “Even though the bolt’s way over there-and it’s safe-you don’t ever look down the muzzle of a rifle. You don’t point a gun at something you don’t want to kill.”

Peter squinted, looking into the barrel the right way. It was blinding, silver, shiny. Perfect.

His father rubbed down the outside of the barrel with oil. “Now, pull the trigger.”

Peter stared at him. Even he knew you didn’t do that.

“It’s safe,” his father repeated. “It’s what we need to do to reassemble the gun.”

Peter hesitantly curled his finger around the half-moon of metal and pulled. It released a catch so that the bolt his father was holding slid into place.

He watched his father take the rifle back to the gun cabinet. “People who get upset about guns don’t know them,” his father said. “If you know them, you can handle them safely.”

Peter watched his father lock up the gun case. He understood what his father was trying to say: The mystery of the rifle-the very thing that had sparked him to steal the key to the cabinet from his father’s underwear drawer and show Josie-was no longer quite as compelling. Now that he’d seen it taken apart and put back together, he saw the firearm for what it was: a collection of fitted metal, the sum of its parts.

A gun was nothing, really, without a person behind it.

Whether or not you believe in Fate comes down to one thing: who you blame when something goes wrong. Do you think it’s your fault-that if you’d tried better, or worked harder, it wouldn’t have happened? Or do you just chalk it up to circumstance?

I know people who’ll hear about the people who died, and will say it was God’s will. I know people who’ll say it was bad luck. And then there’s my personal favorite: They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then again, you could say the same thing about me, couldn’t you?

The Day After

For Peter’s sixth Christmas, he’d been given a fish. It was one of those Japanese fighting fish, a beta with a shredded tissue-thin tail that trailed like the gown of a movie star. Peter named it Wolverine and spent hours staring at its moonbeam scales, its sequin eye. But after a few days, he started to imagine what it would be like to have only a bowl to explore. He wondered if the fish hovered over the tendril of plastic plant each time it passed because there was something new and amazing he’d discovered about its shape and size, or because it was a way to count another lap.

Peter started waking up in the middle of the night to see if his fish ever slept, but no matter what time it was, Wolverine was swimming. He thought about what the fish saw: a magnified eyeball, rising like a sun through the thick glass bowl. He’d listen to Pastor Ron at church, talking about God seeing everything, and he wondered if that was what he was to Wolverine.

As he sat in a cell at the Grafton County jail, Peter tried to remember what had happened to his fish. It died, he supposed. He’d probably watched it to death.

He stared up at the camera in the corner of the cell, which blinked at him impassively. They-whoever they were-wanted to make sure he didn’t kill himself before he was publicly crucified. To this end, his cell didn’t have a cot or a pillow or even a mat-just a hard bench, and that stupid camera.

Then again, maybe this was a good thing. As far as he could tell, he was alone in this little pod of single cells. He’d been terrified when the sheriff’s car pulled up in front of the jail. He’d watched all the TV shows; he knew what happened in places like this. The whole time he was being processed, Peter had kept his mouth shut-not because he was so tough, but because he was afraid that if he opened it he would start to cry, and not remember how to stop. There was the swordfight sound of metal being drawn across metal, and then footsteps. Peter stayed where he was, his hands locked between his knees, his shoulders hunched. He didn’t want to look too eager; he didn’t want to look pathetic. Invisibility, actually, was something he was pretty good at. He’d perfected it over the past twelve years.

A correctional officer stopped in front of his cell. “You’ve got a visitor,” he said, and he opened the door.

Peter got up slowly. He looked up at the camera, and then followed the officer down a pitted gray hallway.

How hard would it be to get out of this jail? What if, like in all the video games, he could do some fancy kung fu move and deck this guard, and another, and another, until he was able to race out the door and suck in the air whose taste he’d already started to forget?

What if he had to stay here forever?

That was when he remembered what had happened to his fish. In a sweeping moment of animal rights and humanity, Peter had taken Wolverine and flushed him down the toilet. He figured that the plumbing emptied out into some big ocean, like the one his family had gone to last summer on a beach vacation, and that maybe Wolverine could find his way back to Japan and his other beta relatives. It was after Peter confided in his brother that Joey told him about sewers, and that instead of giving his pet freedom, Peter had killed it.

The officer stopped in front of a room whose door read PRIVATE CONFERENCE. He couldn’t imagine who would visit him, except for his parents, and he didn’t want to see them yet. They would ask him questions he couldn’t answer-about how you could tuck a son into bed, and not recognize him the next morning. Maybe it would be easier to just go back to the camera in his cell, which stared but didn’t pass judgment.

“Here you go,” the officer said, and he opened the door.

Peter took a shuddering breath. He wondered what his fish had thought, expecting the cool blue of the sea, only to wind up swimming in shit.

Jordan walked into the Grafton County Jail and stopped at the check-in point. He had to sign in before he went to visit Peter Houghton and get a visitor’s badge from the correctional officer on the other side of the Plexiglas divider. Jordan reached for the clipboard and scrawled his name, then pushed it through the tiny slot at the bottom of the plastic wall-but there was no one there to receive it. The two COs inside were huddled around a small black-and-white TV that was tuned, like every other television on the planet, to a news report about the shooting.

“Excuse me,” Jordan said, but neither man turned.

“When the shooting began,” the reporter was saying, “Ed McCabe peered out the door of his ninth-grade math classroom, putting himself between the gunman and his students.”

The screen cut to a sobbing woman, identified in white block letters below her face as JOAN MCCABE, SISTER OF VICTIM. “He cared about his kids,” she wept. “He cared about them the whole seven years he’d taught at Sterling, and he cared about them during the last minute of his life.”

Jordan shifted his weight. “Hello?”

“Just a second, buddy,” one correctional officer said, waving an absent hand in his direction.

The reporter appeared again on the grainy screen, his hair blowing upward like a boat’s sail in the light wind, the monotone brick of the school a wall behind him. “Fellow teachers remember Ed McCabe as a committed teacher who was always willing to go the extra mile to help a student, and as an avid outdoorsman who talked often in the faculty room about his dreams to hike through Alaska. A dream,” the reporter said gravely, “that will never come to pass.”

Jordan took the clipboard and shoved it through the slot in the Plexiglas, so that it clattered on the floor. Both correctional officers turned at once.

“I’m here to see my client,” he said.

Lewis Houghton had never missed a lecture in the nineteen years he’d been a professor at Sterling College, until today. When Lacy had called he’d left in such a hurry that he hadn’t even thought to put a sign on the lecture hall’s door. He imagined students waiting for him to appear, waiting to take notes on the very words that came out of his mouth, as if the things he had to say were still beyond reproach.

What word, what platitude, what comment of his had led Peter to this?

What word, what platitude, what comment might have stopped him?

He and Lacy were sitting in their backyard, waiting for the police to leave the house. Well, they had left-or at least one of them-to broaden the search warrant, most likely. Lewis and Lacy had not been allowed into their own home for the duration of the search. For a while, they’d stood in the driveway, occasionally watching officers carry out bags and boxes full of things Lewis would have expected-computers, books from Peter’s room-and things he hadn’t-a tennis racket, a jumbo box of waterproof matches.

“What do we do?” Lacy murmured.

He shook his head, numb. For one of his journal articles on the value of happiness, he’d interviewed elderly folks who were suicidal. What’s left for us? they’d said, and at the time, Lewis had not been able to understand that utter lack of hope. At the time, he couldn’t imagine the world going so sour that you couldn’t see the way to set it to rights.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Lewis replied, and he meant it. He watched an officer walk out holding a stack of Peter’s old comic books.

When he’d first come home to find Lacy pacing the driveway, she’d flung herself into his arms. “Why,” she had sobbed. “Why?”

There were a thousand questions in that one, but Lewis couldn’t answer any of them. He’d held on to his wife as if she were driftwood in the middle of this flood, and then he had noticed the eyes of a neighbor across the street, peeking from a drawn curtain.

That’s when they had moved to the backyard. They sat on the porch swing, surrounded by a thicket of bare branches and melting snow. Lewis sat perfectly still, his fingers and lips numb from cold, from shock.

“Do you think,” Lacy whispered, “it’s our fault?”

He stared at her, amazed at her bravery: she’d put into words what he hadn’t allowed himself to even think. But what else was left to say between them? The shootings had happened; their son was involved. You couldn’t argue the facts; you could only change the lens through which you looked at them.

Lewis bent his head. “I don’t know.” Where did you even begin to look at those statistics? Had it happened because Lacy had picked Peter up too much as a baby? Or because Lewis had pretended to laugh when Peter took a tumble, hoping that the toddler wouldn’t cry if he didn’t think there was anything to cry about? Should they have monitored more closely what he read, watched, listened to…or would smothering him have led to the same outcome? Or maybe it was the combination of Lacy and Lewis together. If a couple’s children counted as a track record, then they had failed miserably.

Twice.

Lacy stared down at the intricate brickwork between her shoes. Lewis remembered laying this patio; he’d leveled the sand and set the brick himself. Peter had wanted to help, but Lewis hadn’t let him. The bricks were too heavy. You could get hurt, he’d said.

If Lewis had been less protective-if Peter had felt true pain, might he have been less likely to inflict it?

“What was the name of Hitler’s mother?” Lacy asked.

Lewis blinked at her. “What?”

“Was she awful?”

He put his arm around Lacy. “Don’t do this to yourself,” he murmured.

She buried her face in his shoulder. “Everyone else will.”

For just a moment, Lewis let himself believe that everyone was mistaken-that Peter couldn’t have been the shooter today. In a way, this was true-although there had been hundreds of witnesses, the boy they’d seen was not the same one Lewis had talked to last night before he went to bed. They’d had a conversation about Peter’s car.

You know you have to get it inspected by the end of the month, Lewis had said.

Yeah, Peter had replied. I already made an appointment.

Had he been lying about that, too?

“The lawyer-”

“He said he’ll call us,” Lewis answered.

“Did you tell him Peter’s allergic to shellfish? If they feed him any-”

“I told him,” Lewis said, although he hadn’t. He pictured Peter, sitting alone in a cell at a jail he’d driven by every summer, en route to the Haverhill Fairgrounds. He thought of Peter, calling home on the second night of sleepaway camp, begging to be picked up. He thought of his son, who was still his son, even if he had done something so horrible that Lewis could not close his eyes without imagining the worst; and then his ribs felt too tight and he couldn’t draw in enough air.

“Lewis?” Lacy said, pulling away as he gasped. “Are you all right?”

He nodded, smiled, but he was choking on the truth.

“Mr. Houghton?”

They both glanced up to find a police officer standing in front of them.

“Sir, could you come with me for a second?”

Lacy stood up beside him, but he held her off with one hand. He didn’t know where this cop was taking him, what he was about to be shown. He didn’t want Lacy to see it if she didn’t have to.

He followed the policeman into his own house, arrested for a moment by the white-gloved officers combing through his kitchen, his closet. As soon as they reached the basement door, he started to sweat. He knew where they were headed; it was something he had studiously avoided thinking about since he’d first gotten Lacy’s call.

Another officer was standing in the basement, blocking Lewis’s view. It was ten degrees colder down here, and yet Lewis was sweating. He mopped his forehead with his sleeve. “These rifles,” the officer said. “They belong to you?”

Lewis swallowed. “Yes. I hunt.”

“Can you tell us, Mr. Houghton, if all your firearms are here?” The officer stepped aside to reveal the glass-fronted gun cabinet.

Lewis felt his knees buckle. Three of his five hunting rifles were nestled inside the gun cabinet, like wallflowers at a dance. Two were missing.

Until this moment, he had not allowed himself to believe this horrible thing about Peter. Until this moment, it had been a devastating accident.

Now, Lewis started blaming himself.

He faced the officer, looking the man in the eye without giving any of his feelings away. An expression, Lewis realized, he’d learned from his own son. “No,” he said. “They’re not.”

The first unwritten rule of defense law was to act like you knew everything, when in fact you knew absolutely nothing at all. You were facing an unknown client who may or may not have had a chance in hell of acquittal; the trick, however, was to remain simultaneously impassive and impressive. You had to immediately set the parameters of the relationship: I am boss; you tell me only what I need to hear.

Jordan had been in this situation a hundred times before-waiting, in a private conference room at this very jail, for his next meal ticket to arrive-and he truly believed he had seen it all, which is why he was stunned to find that Peter Houghton had the ability to surprise him. Given the magnitude of the shooting and the damage wrought, the terror on the faces Jordan had seen on the television screen-well, this skinny, freckled, four-eyed kid hardly seemed capable of such an act.

This was his first thought. His second was: That’ll work to my advantage.

“Peter,” he said. “I’m Jordan McAfee, and I’m a lawyer. I’ve been retained by your parents to represent you.”

He waited for a response. “Have a seat,” he said, but the boy remained standing. “Or don’t,” Jordan added. He put on his business mask and looked up at Peter. “You’ll be arraigned tomorrow. You’re not going to get bail. We’ll have a chance to go over the charges in the morning, before you go into court.” He gave Peter a moment to digest this information. “From here on in, you’re not going through this alone. You’ve got me.”

Was it Jordan’s imagination, or had something flashed in Peter’s eyes when he’d said those words? As quickly as it might have happened, it was gone; Peter stared down at the ground, expressionless.

“Well,” Jordan said, getting to his feet. “Any questions?”

As he expected, there wasn’t any response. Hell, for all of Peter’s involvement in this little discussion, Jordan might as well have been chatting up one of the less fortunate victims of the shooting.

Maybe you are, he thought, and the voice in his head sounded too damn much like his wife’s.

“All right, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He knocked on the door, summoning the correctional officer who would take Peter back to his cell, when suddenly the boy spoke.

“How many did I get?”

Jordan hesitated, his hand on the knob. He did not turn to face his client. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he repeated.

Dr. Ervin Peabody lived across the river in Norwich, Vermont, and worked part-time at Sterling College’s psychology program. Six years ago he had been one of seven coauthors of a published paper about school violence-an academic exercise he barely remembered. And yet, he’d been called by the NBC affiliate out of Burlington-a morning news show he sometimes watched over a bowl of cereal for the sheer glee of seeing how often the inept newscasters screwed up. We’re looking for someone who can talk about the shooting from a psychological standpoint, the producer had said, and Ervin had replied, I’m your man.

“Warning signals,” he said in response to the anchor’s question. “Well, these young men pull away from others. They tend to be loners. They talk about hurting themselves, or others. They can’t function in school, or are subjected to discipline there. They lack a connection with someone-anyone-who might make them feel important.”

Ervin knew the network hadn’t come to him for his expertise-only for solace. The rest of Sterling-the rest of the world-wanted to know that kids like Peter Houghton were recognizable, as if the potential to turn into a murderer overnight were a visible birthmark. “So there’s a general profile of a school shooter,” the anchor prodded.

Ervin Peabody looked into the camera. He knew the truth-that if you said these kids wore black or listened to odd music or were angry, you were discussing most of the male teenage population at some point during their adolescent years. He knew that if a deeply disturbed individual was intent on doing damage, he’d probably succeed. But he also knew that every eye in the Connecticut Valley was on him-maybe even in the whole Northeast-and that he was up for tenure at Sterling. A little prestige-a label of expert-couldn’t hurt. “You could make that argument,” he said.

Lewis was the one who settled the Houghton household for the night. He’d start in the kitchen and load the dishwasher. He’d lock the front door and turn off the lights. Then he’d head upstairs, where Lacy was usually already in bed, reading-if not out assisting at a birth-and he’d stop in his son’s room. Tell him to shut off the computer and go to bed.

Tonight he found himself standing in front of Peter’s room, looking at the mess wrought by the police during their search. He thought about righting the remaining books on the shelves, putting away the contents of the desk drawers that had been dumped onto the carpet. On second thought, he gently closed the door.

Lacy was not in the bedroom, or brushing her teeth. He hesitated, an ear cocked. There was chatter-it sounded like a furtive conversation-coming from the room directly below him.

He retraced his steps, drawing closer to the voices. Who would Lacy be talking to at nearly midnight?

The screen of the television glowed green and unearthly in the dark study. Lewis had forgotten there even was a television in that room, it was so infrequently used. He saw the CNN logo and familiar ticker tape of breaking news along the bottom. A thought occurred to him: that ticker tape hadn’t existed until 9/11-until people were so scared that they needed to know, without any delay, the facts of the world they inhabited.

Lacy was kneeling on the carpet, her face turned up to the anchor’s. “There is little word yet about how the man who was the shooter secured his weapons, or exactly what those weapons are…”

“Lacy,” he said, swallowing. “Lacy, come to bed.”

Lacy did not move, did not give any indication she’d heard him. Lewis passed her, trailing his hand over her shoulder as he went to shut off the television. “Preliminary reports are focusing on two pistols,” the anchor confided, just before his image disappeared.

Lacy turned to him. Her eyes reminded him of the sky you see from airplanes: a boundless gray that could be anywhere, and nowhere, all at once. “They keep calling him a man,” she said, “but he’s only a boy.”

“Lacy,” he repeated, and she stood and moved into his arms, as if this were her invitation to the dance.

If you listen carefully in a hospital, you can hear the truth. Nurses whisper to one another over your still body when you are pretending to sleep; policemen trade secrets in the hallway; doctors enter your room with another patient’s condition on their lips.

Josie had been making a mental list of the wounded. It seemed she could play six degrees of separation with any of the injured-when she had seen them last; when they had crossed her path; where they had been in proximity to her when they had been shot. There was Drew Girard, who’d grabbed Matt and Josie to tell them that Peter Houghton was shooting up the school. Emma, who’d been sitting three chairs away from Josie in the cafeteria. And Trey MacKenzie, a football player known for his house parties. John Eberhard, who had been eating Josie’s French fries that morning. Min Horuka, an exchange student from Tokyo who’d gotten drunk last year out on the ropes course behind the track and then peed into the open window of the principal’s car. Natalie Zlenko, who’d been in front of Josie in the cafeteria line. Coach Spears and Miss Ritolli, two formers teachers of Josie’s. Brady Pryce and Haley Weaver, the golden senior couple.

There were others that Josie knew only by name-Michael Beach, Steve Babourias, Natalie Phlug, Austin Prokiov, Alyssa Carr, Jared Weiner, Richard Hicks, Jada Knight, Zoe Patterson-strangers with whom, now, she’d be linked forever.

It was harder to find out the names of the dead. They were whispered about even more quietly, as if their condition were contagious to the rest of the unfortunate souls just taking up space in the hospital beds. Josie had heard rumors: that Mr. McCabe had been killed, and Topher McPhee-the school pot dealer. To hoard crumbs of information, Josie tried to watch television, which was running twenty-four-hour Sterling High Shooting coverage, but inevitably her mother would come into the room and turn it off. All she had gleaned from her forbidden media forays was that there had been ten fatalities.

Matt was one.

Every time Josie thought about it, something happened to her body. She stopped breathing. All the words she knew congealed at the bottom of her throat, a boulder blocking the exit from a cave.

Thanks to the sedatives, so much of this seemed unreal-as if she were walking on the spongy floor of a dream-but the moment she thought of Matt, it became authentic and raw.

She would never kiss Matt again.

She would never hear him laugh.

She would never feel the print of his hand on her waist, or read a note he’d slipped through the furrows of her locker, or feel her heart beat into his hand when he unbuttoned her shirt.

She was only remembering the half of it, that she knew-as if the shooting had not only split her life into before and after, but also robbed her of certain skills: the ability to last an hour without puddling into tears; the ability to see the color red without feeling queasy; the ability to form a skeleton of the truth from the bare bones of memory. To remember the rest of it, given what had happened, would be nearly obscene.

So instead, Josie found herself veering drunkenly from the soft-focus moments with Matt to the macabre. She kept thinking of a line from Romeo and Juliet that had freaked her out when they’d studied the play in ninth grade: With worms that are thy chambermaids. Romeo had said it to Juliet’s looks-like-dead body in the Capulet crypt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But there were a whole bunch of steps in between that no one ever talked about, and when the nurses were gone in the middle of the night, Josie found herself wondering how long it took for flesh to peel from a skull; what happened to the jelly of eyes; whether Matt had already stopped looking like Matt. And then she’d wake up and find herself screaming, with a dozen doctors and nurses holding her down.

If you gave someone your heart and they died, did they take it with them? Did you spend the rest of forever with a hole inside you that couldn’t be filled?

The door to her room opened and her mother stepped inside. “So,” she said, with a fake smile so wide it divided her entire head like an equator. “You ready?”

It was only 7:00 a.m., but Josie had already been discharged. She nodded at her mother. Josie sort of hated her right now. She was acting all concerned and worried, but it was too much too late, as if it had taken this shooting for her to wake up to the fact that she had absolutely no relationship with Josie. She kept telling Josie she was here if Josie needed to talk, which was ridiculous. Even if Josie wanted to-which she didn’t-her mother was the last person on earth she’d want to confide in. She wouldn’t understand-no one would, except for the other kids lying in different rooms in this hospital. This hadn’t been just some murder on the street somewhere, which would have been bad enough. This was the worst that could happen, in a place where Josie would have to return, whether she wanted to or not.

Josie was wearing different clothes than the ones she’d been brought here with, which had mysteriously disappeared. No one was admitting to anything, but Josie assumed they were covered with Matt’s blood. In this, they had been right to throw them away: no matter how much bleach was used and how many washings were done, Josie knew she’d be able to see the stains.

Her head still ached from where she’d struck the floor when she fainted. She’d cut her forehead and narrowly avoided needing stitches, although the doctors had wanted to watch her overnight. (For what? Josie had wondered. A stroke? A blood clot? Suicide?) When Josie stood up, her mother was at her side immediately, an arm anchored around her for support. It reminded Josie of the way that she and Matt sometimes walked down the street in the summer, their hands filed into the back pockets of each other’s jeans.

“Oh, Josie,” her mother said, and that was how she realized she’d started to cry again. It happened so often, now, that Josie had lost the capacity to tell when it stopped and started. Her mother offered her a tissue. “You know what? You’ll start feeling better when you get home. I promise.”

Well, duh. Josie couldn’t start feeling any worse.

But she managed a grimace, which might have been a smile if you weren’t looking too closely, because she knew that’s what her mother needed right now. She walked the fifteen steps to the door of her hospital room.

“You take care, sweetheart,” one of the nurses said as Josie passed their pod of desks.

Another one-the one Josie had liked the best, who fed her ice chips-smiled. “Don’t come back and see us, you hear?”

Josie moved slowly toward the elevator, which seemed to get farther and farther away each time she glanced up. As she passed by one of the patient rooms she noticed a familiar name on the clipboard outside: HALEY WEAVER.

Haley was a senior, homecoming queen for the past two years. She and her boyfriend, Brady, were the Brangelina of Sterling High-roles Josie actually had believed she and Matt stood a good chance to inherit after Haley and Brady graduated. Even the wishful thinkers who pined after Brady for his smoky smile and sculpted body had to admit that there was a poetic justice to his dating Haley, the most beautiful girl in the school. With her waterfall of white-blond hair and her clear blue eyes, she had always reminded Josie of a magical fairy-the serene, heavenly creature that floats down to grant someone’s wishes.

There were all sorts of stories that circulated about them: how Brady had given up football scholarships at colleges that didn’t have art programs for Haley; how Haley had gotten a tattoo of Brady’s initials in a place no one could see; how on their first date, he’d had rose petals spread on the passenger seat of his Honda. Josie, circulating in the same crowd as Haley, knew that most of this was bullshit. Haley herself had admitted, first, that it was a temporary tattoo, and second, that it wasn’t rose petals, but a bouquet of lilacs he’d stolen from a neighbor’s garden.

“Josie?” Haley whispered now, from inside the room. “Is that you?”

Josie felt her mother’s hand on her arm, restraining her. But then Haley’s parents, who were blocking a clear view of the bed, moved away.

The right half of Haley’s face was swathed in bandages; her hair was shaved to the scalp above it. Her nose had been broken, and her one visible eye was completely bloodshot. Josie’s mother drew in her breath silently.

She stepped inside and forced herself to smile.

“Josie,” Haley said. “He killed them. Courtney and Maddie. And then he pointed the gun at me, but Brady stepped in front of it.” A tear streaked down the cheek that wasn’t bandaged. “You know how people are always saying they’d do that for you?”

Josie started shaking. She wanted to ask Haley a hundred questions, but her teeth were chattering so hard that she couldn’t manage a single word. Haley grabbed on to her hand, and Josie startled. She wanted to pull away. She wanted to pretend she’d never seen Haley Weaver like this.

“If I ask you something,” Haley said, “you’ll be honest, won’t you?”

Josie nodded.

“My face,” she whispered. “It’s ruined, isn’t it?”

Josie looked Haley in the eye. “No,” she said. “It’s fine.”

They both knew she wasn’t telling the truth.

Josie said good-bye to Haley and her parents, grabbed on to her mother, and hurried even faster toward the elevators, even though every step felt like a thunderstorm behind her eyes. She suddenly remembered studying the brain in science class-how a steel rod had pierced a man’s skull, and he opened up his mouth to speak Portuguese, a language he’d never studied. Maybe it would be like this, now, for Josie. Maybe her native tongue, from here on in, would be a string of lies.

By the time Patrick returned to Sterling High the next morning, the crime-scene detectives had turned the halls of the school into an enormous spiderweb. Based on where the victims had been found, string was taped up-a burst of lines radiating from one spot where Peter Houghton had paused long enough to fire shots before moving on. The lines of string crossed each other at points: a grid of panic, a graph of chaos.

He stood for a moment in the center of the commotion, watching the techs weave the string across the hallways and between banks of lockers and into doorways. He imagined what it would have been like to start running at the sound of the gunshots, to feel people pushing behind you like a tide, to know that you couldn’t move faster than a speeding bullet. To realize too late you were trapped, a spider’s prey.

Patrick picked his way through the web, careful not to disturb the work of the techs. He would use what they did to corroborate the stories of the witnesses. All 1,026 of them.

The breakfast broadcast of the three local network news stations was devoted to that morning’s arraignment of Peter Houghton. Alex stood in front of the television in her bedroom, nursing her cup of coffee and staring at the backdrop behind the eager reporters: her former workplace, the district courthouse.

She’d settled Josie in her bedroom to sleep the dark, dreamless sleep of the sedated. To be perfectly honest, Alex needed this time alone, too. Who would have guessed that a woman who’d become a master at putting on a public face would find it so emotionally exhausting to hold herself together in front of her daughter?

She wanted to sit down and get drunk. She wanted to weep, her head buried in her hands, at her good fortune: her daughter was two doors away from her. Later, they would have breakfast together. How many parents in this town were waking up to realize this would never be true again?

Alex shut off the television. She didn’t want to compromise her objectivity as the future judge on this case by listening to what the media had to say.

She knew there would be critics-people who said that because her daughter went to Sterling High School, Alex should be removed from the case. If Josie had been shot, she would have quickly agreed. If Josie had even still been friendly with Peter Houghton, Alex would have recused herself. But as it stood, Alex’s judgment was compromised no more than that of any other justice who lived in the area, or who knew a child who attended the school, or who was the parent of a teenager. It happened all the time to North Country justices: someone you knew would inevitably wind up in your courtroom. When Alex was rotating as a district court judge, she’d faced defendants she’d known on a personal level: her mailman caught with pot in his car; a domestic disturbance between her mechanic and his wife. As long as the dispute didn’t involve Alex personally, it was perfectly legal-in fact, mandatory-for her to try the case. In those scenarios, you simply took yourself out of the equation. You became the judge and nothing more. The shooting, as Alex saw it, was the same set of circumstances, ratcheted up a notch. In fact, she’d argue that in a case with the massive media coverage this one had, it would take someone with a defense background-like Alex’s-to truly be impartial to the shooter. And the more she thought about it, the more firmly convinced Alex became that justice couldn’t be done without her involvement, the more ludicrous it seemed to suggest she was not the best judge for the job.

She took another sip of her coffee and tiptoed from her bedroom to Josie’s. But the door stood wide open, and her daughter was not inside.

“Josie?” Alex called, panicking. “Josie, are you all right?”

“Down here,” Josie said, and Alex felt the knot inside her unravel again. She walked downstairs to find Josie sitting at the kitchen table.

She was dressed in a skirt and tights and a black sweater. Her hair was still damp from a shower, and she had tried to cover the bandage on her forehead with a swath of bangs. She looked up at Alex. “Do I look all right?”

“For what?” Alex asked, dumbfounded. She couldn’t be expecting to go to school, could she? The doctors had told Alex that Josie might never remember the shooting, but could she erase the fact that it had ever happened from her mind, too?

“The arraignment,” Josie said.

“Sweetheart, there is no way you’re going near that courthouse today.”

“I have to.”

“You’re not going,” Alex said flatly.

Josie looked as if she were unraveling at the seams. “Why not?”

Alex opened her mouth to answer, but couldn’t. This wasn’t logic; it was gut instinct: she didn’t want her daughter to relive this experience. “Because I said so,” she finally replied.

“That’s not an answer,” Josie accused.

“I know what the media will do if they see you at the courthouse today,” Alex said. “I know that nothing’s going to happen at that arraignment that’s going to be a surprise to anyone. And I know that I don’t want to let you out of my sight right now.”

“Then come with me.”

Alex shook her head. “I can’t, Josie,” she said softly. “This is going to be my case.” She watched Josie pale, and realized that until that moment, Josie hadn’t considered this. The trial, by default, would put an even thicker wall between them. As a judge, there would be information she couldn’t share with her daughter, confidences she couldn’t keep. While Josie was struggling to move past this tragedy, Alex would be knee-deep in it. Why had she put so much thought into judging this case, and so little into how it would affect her own daughter? Josie didn’t give a damn if her mother was a fair judge right now. She only wanted-needed-a mother, and motherhood, unlike the law, was something that had never come easily to Alex.

Out of the blue, she thought of Lacy Houghton-a mother who was in a whole different level of hell right now-who would have simply taken Josie’s hand and sat with her and somehow made it seem sympathetic, instead of contrived. But Alex, who had never been the June Cleaver type, had to reach back years to find some moment of connection, something she and Josie had done once before that might work again now to hold them together. “Why don’t you go upstairs and change, and we’ll make pancakes. You used to like that.”

“Yeah, when I was five…”

“Chocolate chip cookies, then.”

Josie blinked at Alex. “Are you on crack?”

Alex sounded ridiculous even to herself, but she was desperate to show Josie that she could and would take care of her, and that her job came second. She stood up, opening cabinets until she found a Scrabble game. “Well, then, how about this?” Alex said, holding out the box. “I bet you can’t beat me.”

Josie pushed past her. “You win,” she said woodenly, and then she walked away.

The student who was being interviewed by the CBS affiliate out of Nashua remembered Peter Houghton from a ninth-grade English class. “We had to write a story with a first-person narrator, and we could pick anyone,” the boy said. “Peter did the voice of John Hinckley. From the things he said, you think he’s looking out from hell, but then at the end you find out it’s heaven. It freaked out our teacher. She had the principal look at the paper and everything.” The boy hesitated, scratching his thumb along the seam of his jeans. “Peter told them it was poetic license, and an unreliable narrator-which we’d been studying, also.” He glanced up at the camera. “I think he got an A.”

At the traffic light, Patrick fell asleep. He dreamed that he was running through the halls of the school, hearing gunshots, but every time he turned a corner he found himself hovering in midair-the floor having vanished beneath his feet.

At a honk, he snapped alert.

He waved in apology to the car that pulled up alongside him to pass and drove to the state crime lab, where the ballistics tests had been given priority. Like Patrick, these techs had been working around the clock.

His favorite-and most trusted-technician was a woman named Selma Abernathy, a grandmother of four who knew more about cutting-edge technology than any technogeek. She looked up when Patrick came into the lab and raised a brow. “You’ve been napping,” she accused.

Patrick shook his head. “Scout’s honor.”

“You look too good for someone who’s exhausted.”

He grinned. “Selma, you’ve really got to get over your crush on me.”

She pushed her glasses up on her nose. “Honey, I’m smart enough to fall for someone who doesn’t make my life a pain in the ass. You want your results?”

Patrick followed her over to a table, on which were four guns: two pistols and two sawed-off shotguns. They were tagged: Gun A, Gun B-the two pistols; Gun C and Gun D-the shotguns. He recognized the pistols-they were the ones found in the locker room-one held by Peter Houghton, the other one a short distance away on the tile floor. “First I tested for latent prints,” Selma said, and she showed the results to Patrick. “Gun A had a print that matches your suspect. Guns C and D were clean. Gun B had a partial print on it that was inconclusive.”

Selma nodded to the rear of the laboratory, where enormous barrels of water were used for test-firing the guns. She would have test-fired each weapon into the water, Patrick knew. When a bullet was fired, it spun through the barrel of a gun, which caused striations on the metal. As a result, you could tell, by looking at a bullet, exactly which gun it had been fired from. This would help Patrick piece together Peter Houghton’s rampage: where he’d stopped to shoot, which weapon he’d used.

“Gun A was the one primarily used during the shooting, Guns C and D were left in the backpack retrieved at the crime scene. Which is actually a good thing, because they most likely would have done more damage. All of the bullets retrieved from the bodies of victims were fired from Gun A, the first pistol.”

Patrick wondered where Peter Houghton had gotten his armory. And at the same time, he realized that it wasn’t hard in Sterling to find someone who hunted or went target shooting at the site of an old dump in the woods.

“I know, from the gunpowder residue, that Gun B was fired. However, there hasn’t been a bullet recovered yet that confirms this.”

“They’re still processing-”

“Let me finish,” Selma said. “The other interesting thing about Gun B is that it jammed after that one discharge. When we examined it we found a double-feed of a bullet.”

Patrick crossed his arms. “There’s no print on the weapon?” he clarified.

“There’s an inconclusive print on the trigger…probably smudged when your suspect dropped it, but I can’t say that for certain.”

Patrick nodded and pointed to Gun A. “This is the one he dropped, when I drew down on him in the locker room. So, presumably, it’s the last one he fired.”

Selma lifted a bullet with a pair of tweezers. “You’re probably right. This was retrieved from Matthew Royston’s brain,” she said. “And the striations are consistent with a discharge from Gun A.”

The boy in the locker room, the one who’d been found with Josie Cormier.

The only victim who’d been shot twice.

“What about the bullet in the kid’s stomach?” Patrick asked.

Selma shook her head. “Went through clean. It could have been fired from either Gun A or Gun B, but we won’t know until you bring me a slug.”

Patrick stared at the weapons. “He’d used Gun A all over the rest of the school. I can’t imagine what made him switch to the other pistol.”

Selma glanced up at him; he noticed for the first time the dark circles under her eyes, the toll this overnight emergency had taken. “I can’t imagine what made him use either of them in the first place.”

Meredith Vieira stared gravely into the camera, having perfected the demeanor for a national tragedy. “Details continue to accumulate in the case of the Sterling shootings,” she said. “For more, we go to Ann Curry at the news desk. Ann?”

The news anchor nodded. “Overnight, investigators have learned that four weapons were brought into Sterling High School, although only two were actually used by the shooter. In addition, there is evidence that Peter Houghton, the suspect in the shootings, was an ardent fan of a hard-core punk band called Death Wish, often posting on fan websites and downloading lyrics onto his personal computer. Lyrics that, in retrospect, have some people wondering what kids should and should not be listening to.”

The green screen behind her shoulder filled with text:

Black snow falling

Stone corpse walking

Bastards laughing

Gonna blow them all away, on my Judgment Day.

Bastards don’t see

The bloody beast in me

The reaper rides for free

Gonna blow them all away, on my Judgment Day.

“The Death Wish song ‘Judgment Day’ includes a frightening foreshadowing of an event that became all too real in Sterling, New Hampshire, yesterday morning,” Curry said. “Raven Napalm, lead singer for Death Wish, held a press conference late last night.”

The footage cut to a man with a black Mohawk, gold eye shadow, and five pierced hoops through his lower lip, standing in front of a group of microphones. “We live in a country where American kids are dying because we’re sending them overseas to kill people for oil. But when one sad, distraught child who doesn’t see the beauty in life goes and wrongly acts on his rage by shooting up a school, people start pointing a finger at heavy metal music. The problem isn’t with rock lyrics, it’s with the fabric of this society itself.”

Ann Curry’s face filled the screen again. “We’ll have more on the continuing coverage of the tragedy in Sterling as it unfolds. In national news, the Senate defeated the gun control bill last Wednesday, but Senator Roman Nelson suggests that it’s not the last we’ve seen of that fight. He joins us today from South Dakota. Senator?”

Peter didn’t think he’d slept at all last night, but all the same, he didn’t hear the correctional officer coming toward his cell. He startled at the sound of the metal door scraping open.

“Here,” the man said, and he tossed something at Peter. “Put it on.”

He knew that he was going to court today; Jordan McAfee had told him so. He assumed that this was a suit or something. Didn’t people always get to wear a suit in court, even if they were coming straight from jail? It was supposed to make them sympathetic. He thought he’d seen that on TV.

But it wasn’t a suit. It was Kevlar, a bulletproof vest.

In the holding cell beneath the courthouse, Jordan found his client lying on his back on the floor, an arm shielding his eyes. Peter was wearing a bulletproof vest, an unspoken nod to the fact that everyone packing the courtroom that morning wanted to kill him. “Good morning,” Jordan said, and Peter sat up.

“Or not,” he murmured.

Jordan didn’t respond. He leaned a little closer to the bars. “Here’s the plan. You’ve been charged with ten counts of first-degree murder and nineteen counts of attempted first-degree murder. I’m going to waive the readings of the complaints-we’ll go over them individually some other time. Right now we just have to go in there and enter not-guilty pleas. I don’t want you to say a word. If you have any questions, you whisper them to me. You are, for all intents and purposes, mute for the next hour. Understand?”

Peter stared at him. “Perfectly,” he said, sullen. But Jordan was looking at his client’s hands.

They were shaking.

From the log of items removed from the bedroom of Peter Houghton:

Dell laptop computer.

Gaming CDs: Doom 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Three posters from gun manufacturers.

Assorted lengths of pipe.

Books: The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger; On War, Clausewitz; graphic novels by Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.

DVD-Bowling for Columbine.

Yearbook from Sterling Middle School, various faces circled in black marker. One circled face x’d out with words LET LIVE beneath picture. Girl identified in caption as Josie Cormier.

The girl spoke so softly that the microphone, hanging on a boom over her head like a piñata, had trouble picking up the unraveled threads of her voice. “Mrs. Edgar’s classroom is right next to Mr. McCabe’s, and sometimes we could hear them moving their chairs around or shouting out answers,” she said. “But this time we heard screaming. Mrs. Edgar, she took her desk and shoved it up against the door and told us all to go to the far end of the classroom, near the windows, and sit on the floor. The gunshots, they sounded like popcorn. And then…” She stopped and wiped her eyes. “And then there wasn’t any more screaming.”

Diana Leven hadn’t expected the gunman to look so young. Peter Houghton was shackled and chained, wearing his orange jumpsuit and bulletproof vest, but he still had the apple cheeks of a boy who hadn’t come through the far side of puberty yet, and she would have bet money he didn’t have to shave. The glasses, too, upset her. The defense would play that to the hilt, she was certain, claiming some myopia that would have made sharpshooting an impossibility.

The four cameras that the district court judge had agreed on to represent the networks-ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN-hummed to life like a barbershop quartet as soon as the defendant was led into the room. Since it had gotten so quiet in the room that you could hear the sound of your own doubts, Peter turned immediately toward them. Diana realized that his eyes were not all that different from those of the cameras: dark, blind, empty behind the lenses.

Jordan McAfee-a lawyer Diana didn’t like very much on a personal level but grudgingly admitted was damn good at his job-leaned toward his client the moment Peter reached the defense table. The bailiff stood. “All rise,” he bellowed, “the Honorable Charles Albert presiding.”

Judge Albert hustled into the courtroom, his robes whispering. “Be seated,” he said. “Peter Houghton,” he began, turning to the defendant.

Jordan McAfee stood. “Your Honor, we waive the reading of the charges. We’d like to enter not-guilty pleas for all of them, and we request that a probable cause hearing be scheduled in ten days.”

This wasn’t a surprise to Diana-why would Jordan want the whole world to hear his client being indicted on ten separate counts of first-degree murder? The judge turned to her. “Ms. Leven, the statute requires that a defendant charged with first-degree murder-multiple counts, at that-be held without bail. I assume you have no problem with this.”

Diana hid a smile. Judge Albert, God bless him, had managed to slip in the charges anyway. “That’s correct, Your Honor.”

The judge nodded. “Well then, Mr. Houghton. You’re remanded back into custody.”

The whole procedure had taken less than five minutes, and the public wouldn’t be happy. They wanted blood; they wanted revenge. Diana watched Peter Houghton stumble between the hold of two sheriff’s deputies and turn back to his lawyer one last time with a question on his lips that he didn’t utter. Then the door closed behind him, and Diana gathered her briefcase and walked out of the courtroom to the cameras.

She stood in front of a thrust of microphones. “Peter Houghton was just arraigned on ten counts of first-degree murder and nineteen counts of attempted first-degree murder, and various accompanying charges involving illegal possession of explosives and firearms in this recent tragedy. The rules of professional responsibility prevent us from commenting on the evidence at this point, but the community can rest assured that we are prosecuting this case vigorously, that we have been working around the clock with our investigators to make sure that the evidence is collected, preserved, and appropriately handled so that this unspeakable tragedy will not go unanswered.” She opened her mouth to continue but realized that there was another voice speaking, just across the hallway, and that reporters were defecting from her impromptu press conference to hear Jordan McAfee instead.

He stood sober and penitent, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, as he stared right at Diana. “I grieve with the community for its losses, and will represent my client to the fullest. Peter Houghton is a seventeen-year-old boy; he’s very scared. And I ask you to please have respect for his family and to remember that this is a matter to be determined in court.” Jordan hesitated, ever the showman, and then made eye contact with the crowd. “I ask you to remember that what you see is not always all it seems to be.”

Diana smirked. The reporters-and the people all over the world who would be listening to Jordan’s careful speech-would hear his little salvo at the end and believe that he had some fabulous truth up his sleeve-something that would prove his client was not a monster. Diana, however, knew better. She could translate legalese, because she spoke it fluently. When an attorney spun mysterious rhetoric like that, it was because he had nothing else he could use to defend his client.

At noon, the governor of New Hampshire held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol building in Concord. On his lapel he was wearing a loop of maroon and white ribbon, the school colors of Sterling High, which had sprouted up at gas station cash registers and Wal-Mart counters and were being sold for $1 each, the proceeds going to support the Sterling Victims Fund. One of his minions had driven twenty-seven miles to get one, because the governor planned to throw his hat into the Democratic primary in 2008 and knew this was a perfect media moment during which he could portray compassion at its strongest. Yes, he felt for the citizens of Sterling, and especially those poor parents of the dead, but there was also a calculated part of him that knew a man who could shepherd a state through one of the most tragic school shooting incidents in America would be seen as a strong leader. “Today, all of this country grieves with New Hampshire,” he said. “Today, all of us feel the pain that Sterling feels. They are all our children.”

He glanced up. “I’ve been up to Sterling, and I’ve spoken to the investigators who are working hard, round the clock, to understand what happened yesterday. I’ve spent time with some of the families of the victims, and at the hospital with the brave survivors. Part of our past and part of our future disappeared in this tragedy,” the governor said as he looked solemnly into the cameras. “What we all need, now, is to focus on the future.”

It took Josie less than a morning to learn the magic words: when she wanted her mother to leave her alone, when she was sick of her mother watching her like a hawk, all she had to do was say that she needed a nap. Then, her mother would back off, completely unaware of the fact that her whole face relaxed the minute Josie let her off the hook, and that only then could Josie recognize her.

Upstairs, in her room, Josie sat in the dark with her shades drawn and her hands folded in her lap. It was broad daylight, but you’d never know it. People had figured out all sorts of ways to make things seem different than they truly were. A room could be turned into an artificial night. Botox transformed people’s faces into something they weren’t. TiVo let you think you could freeze time, or at least reorder it to your own liking. An arraignment at a courthouse fit like a Band-Aid over a wound that really needed a tourniquet.

Fumbling in the dark, Josie reached underneath the frame of her bed for the plastic bag she’d stashed-her supply of sleeping pills. She was no better than any of the other stupid people in this world who thought if they pretended hard enough, they could make it so. She’d thought that death could be an answer, because she was too immature to realize it was the biggest question of all.

Yesterday, she hadn’t known what patterns blood could make when it sprayed on a whitewashed wall. She hadn’t understood that life left a person’s lungs first, and their eyes last. She had pictured suicide as a final statement, a fuck you to the people who hadn’t understood how hard it was for her to be the Josie they wanted her to be. She’d somehow thought that if she killed herself, she’d be able to watch everyone else’s reaction; that she’d get the last laugh. Until yesterday, she hadn’t really understood. Dead was dead. When you died, you did not get to come back and see what you were missing. You didn’t get to apologize. You didn’t get a second chance.

Death wasn’t something you could control. In fact, it would always have the upper hand.

She ripped the plastic bag open into her palm and stuffed five of the pills into her mouth. She walked into the bathroom and ran the tap, stuck her head close to the faucet until the pills were swimming in the fishbowl of her bulging cheeks.

Swallow, she told herself.

But instead, Josie fell in front of the toilet and spit the pills out. She emptied the rest of the pills, still clutched in her fist. She flushed before she could think twice.

Her mother came upstairs because she heard the sobbing. It had seeped through the grout of the tile and the soffits and the plaster that made up the ceiling downstairs. It would, in fact, become as much of this household as the bricks and the mortar, although neither of the women realized it yet. Josie’s mother burst into the bedroom and sank down beside her daughter in the attached bathroom. “What can I do, baby?” she whispered, running her hands up and down Josie’s shoulders and back, as if the answer were a visible tattoo instead of a scar on the heart.

Yvette Harvey sat on a couch holding her daughter’s eighth-grade graduation photo, taken two years, six months, and four days before she died. Kaitlyn’s hair had grown out, but you could still see the easy lopsided smile, the moon face that was part and parcel of Down syndrome.

What would have happened if she hadn’t chosen to mainstream Kaitlyn in middle school? If she’d sent her to a school for kids who had disabilities? Were those kids any less angry, less likely to have bred a killer?

The producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show handed back the stack of photographs that Yvette had given her. She hadn’t known, before today, that there were levels of tragedy, that even if the Oprah show called you to ask you to tell your sad story, they would want to make sure it was sad enough before they let you speak on camera. Yvette hadn’t planned to show her pain on television-in fact, her husband was so dead set against it he refused to be here when the producer came to call-but she was determined. She had been listening to the news. And now, she had something to say.

“Kaitlyn had a beautiful smile,” the producer said gently.

“She does,” Yvette replied, then shook her head. “Did.”

“Did she know Peter Houghton?”

“No. They weren’t in the same grade; they wouldn’t have had classes together. Kaitlyn’s were in the learning center.” She pushed her thumb into the edge of the silver portrait frame until it hurt. “All of these people who are going around saying that Peter Houghton had no friends-that Peter Houghton was teased…that’s not true,” she said. “My daughter had no friends. My daughter was teased every single day. My daughter was the one who felt like she was on the fringe, because she was. Peter Houghton wasn’t a misfit, like everyone wants to make him out to be. Peter Houghton was just evil.”

Yvette looked down at the glass covering Kaitlyn’s portrait. “The grief counselor from the police department told me Kaitlyn died first,” she said. “She wanted me to know that Kaitie didn’t know what was going on-that she didn’t suffer.”

“That must have been some consolation,” the producer offered.

“It was. Until we all started talking to each other and realized that the grief counselor had told the same thing to every one of us with a dead child.” Yvette glanced up, tears in her eyes. “The thing is, they couldn’t all have been first.”

In the days after the shooting, the families of the victims were showered with donations: money, casseroles, babysitting services, sympathy. Kaitlyn Harvey’s father woke up one morning after a light, last springtime snow to find that his driveway had already been shoveled by a Samaritan. Courtney Ignatio’s family became the beneficiaries of their local church, whose members signed up to provide food or cleaning services on a different day of the week, a rotating schedule that would take them through June. John Eberhard’s mother was presented with a handicapped-accessible van, courtesy of Sterling Ford, to help her son adapt to life as a paraplegic. Everyone wounded at Sterling High received a letter from the president of the United States, crisp White House stationery commending them on their bravery.

The media-at first a wave as unwelcome as a tsunami-became something ordinary on the streets of Sterling. After days of watching their high-heeled black boots sink into the soft mud of a New England March, they visited the local Farm-Way and bought Merrell clogs and muck boots. They stopped asking the front desk at the Sterling Inn why their cell phones didn’t work and instead congregated in the parking lot of the Mobil station, the point of highest elevation in town, where they could get a minimal signal. They hovered in front of the police station and the courthouse and the local coffee shop, waiting for any crumb of information they could call their own.

Every day in Sterling, there was a different funeral.

Matthew Royston’s memorial service was held in a church that wasn’t large enough to hold the grief of its mourners. Classmates and parents and family friends packed into the pews, stood along the walls, spilled out the doors. A contingent of kids from Sterling High had come dressed in green T-shirts with the number 19 on the front-the same one that had graced Matt’s hockey jersey.

Josie and her mother were sitting somewhere in the back, but that didn’t keep Josie from feeling that everyone was staring at her. She wasn’t sure if that was because they all knew she was Matt’s girlfriend or because they could see right through her.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” the pastor read, “for they will be comforted.”

Josie shivered. Was she mourning? Did mourning feel like a hole in the middle of you that got wider and wider every time you tried to plug it up? Or was she incapable of mourning, because that meant remembering, which she couldn’t do?

Her mother leaned closer. “We can leave. You just say the word.”

It was hard enough not having a clue who she was, but here in the Afterward, she couldn’t seem to recognize anyone else, either. People who had ignored her for her whole life suddenly knew her by name. Everyone’s eyes got soft at the edges when they looked at her. And her mother was the most foreign of all-like one of those corporate addicts who has a near-death experience and becomes a tree-hugger. Josie had expected to have to fight her mother in order to attend Matt’s funeral, but to Josie’s surprise, her mother had suggested it. The stupid shrink Josie had to see now-probably for the rest of her life-kept talking about closure. Closure, apparently, meant that she was supposed to realize that losing normal was something you got over, like losing a soccer game or a favorite T-shirt. Closure also meant that her mother had morphed into a crazy, overcompensating emotive machine, one who kept asking her if she needed anything (how many cups of herbal tea could a person drink without liquefying?) and trying to act like an ordinary mother, or at least what she imagined an ordinary mother to be. If you really want me to feel better, Josie felt like saying, go back to work. Then they could pretend it was business as usual, and after all, her mother was the one who’d taught Josie how to pretend in the first place.

In the front of the church was a coffin. Josie knew it wasn’t open; rumors had flown about that. It was hard to imagine that Matt was inside that lacquered black box. That he wasn’t breathing; that his blood had been drained out and his veins were pumped full of chemicals instead.

“Friends, as we gather here to remember Matthew Carlton Royston, we are beneath the protective shelter of God’s healing love,” the pastor said. “We are free to pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares.”

Last year, in ancient world history, they had learned about how the Egyptians prepared their dead. Matt-who studied only when Josie forced him to do it-had been truly fascinated. The way the brain was sucked out through the nose. The possessions that went into a tomb with a pharaoh. The pets that were buried beside him. Josie had been reading the chapter in the textbook out loud, her head cradled on Matt’s lap. He’d stopped her by putting his hand on her forehead. “When I go,” he said, “I’m going to take you with me.”

The pastor looked out over the congregation. “The death of a loved one can shake us to our very foundations. When the person is so young and so full of potential and skill, the feelings of grief and loss can be even more overwhelming. At times such as this we turn to our friends and family for support, for a shoulder to cry on and for someone to walk that road of pain and anguish with us. We cannot have Matt back, but we can rest easy knowing that he’s found the peace in death he was denied here on earth.”

Matt didn’t go to church. His parents did, and they tried to make him go, but Josie knew he hated it. He thought it was a waste of a Sunday, and that if God was at all worthy of hanging around with, he’d probably be out riding around with the top down on his Jeep or playing pickup pond hockey instead of sitting in a stuffy building doing responsive reading.

The pastor moved aside, and Matt’s father stood up. Josie knew him, of course-he cracked the worst jokes, silly puns that were never funny. He’d played hockey at UVM until he blew out his knee, and he’d had high hopes for Matt. But overnight, he’d turned hunch-shouldered and sullen, like a husk that used to contain the whole of him. He stood up and talked about the first time he’d taken Matt out to skate, how he’d started out pulling him along on the end of a hockey stick and realized, not much later, that Matt wasn’t holding on. In the front row, Matt’s mother began crying. Loud, noisy sobs-the kind that splattered against the walls of the church like paint.

Before Josie realized what she was doing, she’d gotten to her feet. “Josie!” her mother whispered, fierce, beside her-in that instant a flicker of the mother she was accustomed to, the one who would never make a spectacle of herself. Josie was shaking so hard that her feet did not seem to touch the ground, not as she stepped into the aisle in the black dress she had borrowed from her mother, not as she moved toward Matt’s coffin, magnetically drawn to a pole.

She could feel Matt’s father’s eyes on her, could hear the whispers of the congregation. She reached the casket, polished to such a gleam that she could see her own face reflected back at her, an imposter.

“Josie,” Mr. Royston said, coming down from the podium to embrace her. “You all right?”

Josie’s throat closed like a rosebud. How could this man, whose son was dead, be asking her that? She felt herself dissolving, and wondered if you could turn into a ghost without dying; if that part of it was only a technicality.

“Did you want to say something?” Mr. Royston offered. “About Matt?”

Before she knew what was happening, Matt’s father had led her up to the podium. She was vaguely aware of her mother, who’d gotten out of her seat in the pew and was edging her way down toward the front of the church-to do what? Spirit her away? Stop her from making another mistake?

Josie stared out at a landscape of faces she recognized and did not really know at all. She loved him, they were all thinking. She was with him when he died. Her breath caught like a moth in the cage of her lungs.

But what would she say? The truth?

Josie felt her lips twist, her face crumple. She started to sob, so hard that the wooden floorboards of the church bowed and creaked; so hard that even in that sealed casket, Josie was sure Matt could hear her. “I’m sorry,” she choked out-to him, to Mr. Royston, to anyone who would listen. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”

She did not notice her mother climbing the steps to the podium, wrapping an arm around Josie, leading her behind the altar to a little vestibule used by the organist. She didn’t protest when her mother handed her Kleenex and rubbed her back. She didn’t even mind when her mother tucked her hair back behind her ears, the way she used to when Josie was so small, she could barely remember the gesture. “Everyone must think I’m an idiot,” Josie said.

“No, they think you miss Matt.” Her mother hesitated. “I know you believe this was your fault.”

Josie’s heart was pounding so hard, it moved the thin chiffon fabric of the dress.

“Sweetheart,” her mother said, “you couldn’t have saved him.”

Josie reached for another tissue, and pretended that her mother understood.

Maximum security meant Peter did not have a roommate. He did not get recreation time. His food was brought to him three times a day in his cell. His reading material was restricted by the correctional officers. And because the staff still believed he might be suicidal, his room consisted of a toilet and a bench-no sheets, no mattress, nothing that might be fashioned into a means of checking out of this world.

There were four hundred and fifteen cinder blocks on the back wall of his cell; he’d counted. Twice. Since then, he’d taken the time to stare right at the camera that was watching him. Peter wondered who was at the other end of that camera. He pictured a bunch of COs clustered around a crummy TV monitor, poking each other and cracking up when Peter had to go to the bathroom. Or, in other words, yet another group of people who’d find a way to make fun of him.

The camera had a red light on it, a power indicator, and a single lens that shimmered like a rainbow. There was a rubber bumper around the lens that looked like an eyelid. It struck Peter that even if he wasn’t suicidal, a few weeks of this and he would be.

It did not get dark in jail, just dim. That hardly mattered, since there was nothing to do but sleep anyway. Peter lay on the bench, wondering if you lost your hearing if you never had to use it; if the power of speech worked the same way. He remembered learning in one of his social studies classes that in the Old West, when Native Americans were thrown into jail, they sometimes dropped dead. The theory was that someone so used to the freedom of space couldn’t handle the confinement, but Peter had another interpretation. When the only company you had was yourself, and when you didn’t want to socialize, there was only one way to leave the room.

One of the COs had just come through, doing his security sweep-a heavy-booted run past the cells-when Peter heard it:

I know what you did.

Holy shit, Peter thought. I’ve already started to go crazy.

Everyone knows.

Peter swung his feet to the cement floor and stared at the camera, but it wasn’t giving up any secrets.

The voice sounded like wind passing over snow-bleak, a whisper. “To your right,” it said, and Peter slowly got to his feet and walked to a corner of the cell.

“Who…who’s there?” he said.

“It’s about fucking time. I thought you were never going to stop wailing.”

Peter tried to see through the bars, but couldn’t. “You heard me crying?”

“Fucking baby,” the voice said. “Grow the fuck up.”

“Who are you?”

“You can call me Carnivore, like everyone else.”

Peter swallowed. “What did you do?”

“Nothing they said I did,” Carnivore answered. “How long?”

“How long what?”

“How long till your trial?”

Peter didn’t know. It was the one question he had forgotten to ask Jordan McAfee, probably because he was afraid to hear the answer.

“Mine’s next week,” Carnivore said before Peter could reply.

The metal door of the cell felt like ice against his temple. “How long have you been here?” Peter asked.

“Ten months,” Carnivore answered.

Peter imagined sitting in this cell for ten straight months. He thought about all the times he’d count those stupid cinder blocks, all the pisses that the guards would get to watch on their little television set.

“You killed kids, right? You know what happens in this jail to guys who kill kids?”

Peter didn’t respond. He was roughly the same age as everyone at Sterling High; it wasn’t like he’d gone into a nursery school. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a good reason.

He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “How come you didn’t get bail?”

Carnivore scoffed. “Because they say I raped some waitress, and then stabbed her.”

Did everyone in this jail think they were innocent? All this time Peter had spent lying on that bench, convincing himself that he was nothing like anyone else in the Grafton County Jail-and as it turned out, that was a lie.

Did he sound like this to Jordan?

“You still there?” Carnivore asked.

Peter lay back down on his bench without saying another word. He turned his face to the wall, and he pretended not to hear as the man next to him tried over and over to make a connection.

The first thing that struck Patrick, again, was how much younger Judge Cormier looked when she wasn’t on the bench. She answered the door in jeans and a ponytail, wiping her hands on a dish towel. Josie stood just behind her, her face washed by the same vacant stare he’d seen a dozen times over, now, in other victims he’d interviewed. Josie was a vital piece in the puzzle, the only one who had seen Peter kill Matthew Royston. But unlike those victims, Josie had a mother who knew the intricacies of the legal system.

“Judge Cormier,” he said. “Josie. Thanks for letting me come over.”

The judge stared at him. “This is a waste of time. Josie doesn’t remember anything.”

“With all due respect, Judge, it’s my job to hear that from Josie herself.”

He steeled himself for an argument, but she stepped back to let him inside. Patrick let his eyes roam the foyer-the antique table with a spider plant spilling over its surface, the tasteful landscapes that hung on the walls. So this was how a judge lived. His own place was a pit stop, a haven of laundry and old newspapers and food long past its expiration date, where he’d go for a few hours between his stints at the office.

He turned to Josie. “How’s the head?”

“It still hurts,” she said, so softly that Patrick had to strain to hear her.

He turned to the judge again. “Is there a room where we could go talk for a few minutes?”

She led them into the kitchen, which looked like just the kind of kitchen Patrick sometimes thought about when he imagined where he should have been by now. There were cherry cabinets and lots of sun streaming through the bay window and a bowl of bananas on the counter. He sat down across from Josie, expecting the judge to pull up a chair beside her daughter, but to his surprise she remained standing. “If you need me,” she said, “I’ll be upstairs.”

Josie looked up, pained. “Can’t you just stay?”

For a moment, Patrick saw something light in the judge’s eyes-want? regret?-but it vanished before he could put a name to it. “You know I can’t,” she said gently.

Patrick didn’t have any kids of his own, but he was pretty damn sure that if one of his had come this close to dying, he’d have a hard time letting her out of his sight. He did not know exactly what was going on between the mother and daughter, but he knew better than to get in the middle of it.

“I’m sure Detective Ducharme will make this utterly painless,” the judge said.

It was part wish, part warning. Patrick nodded at her. A good cop did whatever he could to protect and serve, but when it was someone you knew who was robbed or threatened or hurt, the stakes changed. You’d make a few more phone calls; you’d shuffle your responsibilities so that one took priority. Patrick had experienced that, to a greater degree, years ago with his friend Nina and her son. He didn’t know Josie Cormier personally, but her mother was in the field of law enforcement-Christ, she was at its top level-and for this, her daughter deserved to be treated with kid gloves.

He watched Alex walk up the stairs, and then he took a pad and pencil out of his coat pocket. “So,” he said. “How are you doing?”

“Look, you don’t have to pretend you care.”

“I’m not pretending,” Patrick said.

“I don’t even get why you’re here. It’s not like anything anyone says to you is going to make those kids less dead.”

“That’s true,” Patrick agreed, “but before we can try Peter Houghton we need to know exactly what happened. And unfortunately, I wasn’t there.”

“Unfortunately?”

He looked down at the table. “I sometimes think it’s easier to be the one who’s been hurt than the one who couldn’t stop it from happening.”

“I was there,” Josie said, shaken. “I couldn’t stop it.”

“Hey,” Patrick said, “it’s not your fault.”

She looked up at him then, as if she so badly wished she could believe that, but knew he was wrong. And who was Patrick to tell her otherwise? Every time he envisioned his mad dash to Sterling High, he imagined what would have happened if he’d been at the school when the shooter first arrived. If he’d disarmed the kid before anyone was hurt.

“I don’t remember anything about the shooting,” Josie said.

“Do you remember being in the gym?”

Josie shook her head.

“How about running there with Matt?”

“No. I don’t even remember getting up and going to school in the first place. It’s like a blank spot in my head that I just skip over.”

Patrick knew, from talking to the shrinks who’d been assigned to work with the victims, that this was perfectly normal. Amnesia was one way for the mind to protect itself from reliving something that would otherwise break you apart. In a way, he wished he could be as lucky as Josie, that he could make what he’d seen vanish.

“What about Peter Houghton? Did you know him?”

“Everyone knew who he was.”

“What do you mean?”

Josie shrugged. “He got noticed.”

“Because he was different from everyone else?”

Josie thought about this for a moment. “Because he didn’t try to fit in.”

“You were dating Matthew Royston?”

Immediately, tears welled in Josie’s eyes. “He liked to be called Matt.”

Patrick reached for a paper napkin and passed it to Josie. “I’m sorry about what happened to him, Josie.”

She ducked her head. “Me too.”

He waited for her to wipe her eyes, blow her nose. “Do you know why Peter might have disliked Matt?”

“People used to make fun of him,” Josie said. “It wasn’t just Matt.”

Did you? Patrick thought. He’d looked at the yearbook confiscated from Peter’s room-the circles around certain kids who became victims, and others who did not. There were many reasons for this-from the fact that Peter ran out of time to the truth that hunting down thirty people in a school of a thousand was more difficult than he’d imagined. But of all the targets Peter had marked in the yearbook, only Josie’s photo had been crossed out, as if he’d changed his mind. Only her face had words printed beneath it, in block letters: LET LIVE.

“Did you know him personally? Have any classes or anything with him?”

She looked up. “I used to work with him.”

“Where?”

“The copy store downtown.”

“Did you two get along?”

“Sometimes,” Josie said. “Not always.”

“Why not?”

“He lit a fire there once and I ratted him out. He lost his job after that.”

Patrick marked a note down on his pad. Why had Peter made the decision to spare her when he had every reason to hold a grudge?

“Before that,” Patrick asked, “would you say you were friends?”

Josie pleated the napkin she’d used to dry her tears into a triangle, a smaller one, a smaller one still. “No,” she said. “We weren’t.”

The woman next to Lacy was wearing a checkered flannel shirt, reeked of cigarettes, and was missing most of her teeth. She took one look at Lacy’s skirt and blouse. “Your first time here?” she asked.

Lacy nodded. They were waiting in a long room, side by side in a row of chairs. In front of their feet ran a red dividing line, and then a second set of chairs. Inmates and visitors sat like mirror images, speaking in shorthand. The woman beside Lacy smiled at her. “You get used to it,” she said.

One parent was allowed to visit Peter every two weeks, for one hour. Lacy had come with a basket full of home-baked muffins and cakes, magazines, books-anything she could think of to help Peter. But the correctional officer who’d signed her in for visitation had confiscated the items. No baked goods. And no reading material, not until it was vetted by the jail staff.

A man with a shaved head and sleeves of tattoos up and down his arms headed toward Lacy. She shivered-was that a swastika inked onto his forehead? “Hi, Mom,” he murmured, and Lacy watched the woman’s eyes strip away the tattoos and the bare scalp and the orange jumpsuit to see a little boy catching tadpoles in a mudhole behind their house. Everyone, Lacy thought, is somebody’s son.

She glanced away from their reunion and saw Peter being led into the visitation room. For a moment her heart caught-he looked too thin, and behind his glasses, his eyes were so empty-but then she tamped down whatever she was feeling and offered him a brilliant smile. She would pretend that it didn’t bother her to see her son in a prison jumpsuit; that she hadn’t had to sit in the car and fight a panic attack after pulling into the jail lot; that it was perfectly normal to be surrounded by drug dealers and rapists while you asked your son if he was getting enough to eat.

“Peter,” she said, folding him into her arms. It took a moment, but he hugged her back. She pressed her face to his neck, the way she used to when he was a baby, and she thought she would devour him-but he did not smell like her son. For a moment she let herself entertain the pipe dream that this was all a mistake-Peter’s not in jail! This is someone else’s unfortunate child!-but then she realized what was different. The shampoo and deodorant he had to use here were not what he’d used at home; this Peter smelled sharper, coarser.

Suddenly there was a tap on her shoulder. “Ma’am,” the correctional officer said, “you’ll have to let go now.”

If only it was that easy, Lacy thought.

They sat down on opposite sides of the red line.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I’m still here.”

The way he said it-as if he’d totally expected otherwise by now-made Lacy shudder. She had a feeling he wasn’t talking about being let out on bail, and the alternative-the idea of Peter killing himself-was something she could not hold in her head. She felt her throat funnel tight, and she found herself doing the one thing she’d promised herself she would not do: she started to cry. “Peter,” she whispered. “Why?”

“Did the police come to the house?” Peter asked.

Lacy nodded-it seemed as if it had happened so long ago.

“Did they go to my room?”

“They had a warrant-”

“They took my things?” Peter exclaimed, the first emotion she’d seen from him. “You let them take my things?”

“What were you doing with those things?” she whispered. “Those bombs. The guns…?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Then make me, Peter,” she said, broken. “Make me understand.”

“I haven’t been able to make you understand in seventeen years, Mom. Why should it be any different now?” His face twisted. “I don’t even know why you bothered to come.”

“To see you-”

“Then look at me,” Peter cried. “Why won’t you fucking look at me?”

He put his head in his hands, his narrow shoulders rounding with the sound of a sob.

It came down to this, Lacy realized: You stared at the stranger in front of you and decided, categorically, that this was no longer your son. Or you made the decision to find whatever scraps of your child you still could in what he had become.

Was that even really a choice, if you were a mother?

People could argue that monsters weren’t born, they were made. People could criticize her parenting skills, point to moments when Lacy had let Peter down by being too lax or too firm, too removed or too smothering. The town of Sterling would analyze to death what she had done to her son-but what about what she would do for him? It was easy to be proud of the kid who got straight A’s and who made the winning basket-a kid the world already adored. But true character showed when you could find something to love in a child everyone else hated. What if the things she had or hadn’t done for Peter were the wrong criteria for measurement? Wasn’t it just as telling a mark of motherhood to see how, from this awful moment on, she behaved?

She reached across the red line until she could embrace Peter. She didn’t care if it was allowed or not. The guards could come and pull her off him, but until that happened, Lacy was not planning to let her son go.

On the surveillance video taken from the cafeteria, students were carrying trays and doing homework and chatting when Peter entered the room holding a handgun. There was a discharge of bullets and a cacophony of screaming. A smoke alarm went off. When everyone started to run, he shot again, and this time two girls fell down. Other students ran right over them in an effort to get away.

When the only people left in the cafeteria were Peter and the victims, he walked through the rows of tables, surveying his handiwork. He passed by the boy he’d shot who lay in a puddle of blood on top of a book, but he stopped to pick up an iPod that had been left on the table and put the earphones in his ears before turning it off and setting it down again. He turned the page in an open notebook. And then he sat down at one untouched tray and placed the gun on it. He opened a box of Rice Krispies and poured them into a Styrofoam bowl. He added the contents of a milk container and ate all the cereal before standing up again, retrieving his pistol, and exiting the cafeteria.

It was the most chilling, deliberate thing Patrick had ever seen in his life.

He looked down at the bowl of ramen noodles he had cooked himself for dinner, and realized he’d lost his appetite. Setting it aside on a stack of old newspapers, he rewound the video and forced himself to watch it again.

When the phone rang, he picked it up, still distracted by the sight of Peter on his television screen. “Yeah.”

“Well, hello to you, too,” Nina Frost said.

He melted when he heard her voice; old habits died hard. “Sorry. I’m just in the middle of something.”

“I can imagine. It’s all over the news. How are you holding up?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, when what he really meant was that he was not sleeping at night; that he saw the faces of the dead whenever he closed his eyes; that his mouth was full of the questions he was certain he’d forgotten to ask.

“Patrick,” she said, because she was his oldest friend and because she knew him better than anyone, including himself, “don’t blame yourself.”

He bent his head. “It happened in my town. How can’t I?”

“If you had a videophone, I’d be able to tell if you’re wearing your hair shirt or your cape and boots,” Nina said.

“It’s not funny.”

“No, it’s not,” she agreed. “But you must know it’s a slam dunk at trial. You have, what? A thousand witnesses?”

“Something like that.”

Nina grew quiet. Patrick did not have to explain to her-a woman who’d lived with regret as a constant companion-that convicting Peter Houghton was not enough. For Patrick to lay this to rest, he’d have to understand why Peter had done this in the first place.

So that he could keep it from happening again.

From an FBI investigatory report, published by special agents in charge of examining school shootings around the globe:

Among school shooters, we have seen a similarity of family dynamics. Often the shooter will have a turbulent relationship with his parents, or will have parents who accept pathological behavior. There is a lack of intimacy within the family. There are no limits for television or computer use imposed on the shooter, and sometimes there is access to weapons.

Within the school environment, wefound a tendency toward detachment from the learning process on the part of the shooter. The school itself tended to tolerate disrespectful behavior, exhibited inequitable discipline and an inflexible culture-with certain students enjoying prestige given to them by teachers and staff.

Shooters are more likely to have access to violent movies, television, and video games; to use drugs and alcohol; to have a peer group that exists outside of school and supports their behavior.

In addition, prior to a violent act, there is evidence of leakage-aclue that something is coming. These hints might take the form of poems, writings, drawings, Internet posts, or threats made in person or in absentia.

In spite of the commonalities described within, we caution the use of this report to create a checklist that might predict future school shooters. In the hands of the media, this might result in labeling many nonviolent students as potentially lethal. In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the traits on the list.

Lewis Houghton was a creature of habit. Every morning, he woke up at 5:35 and went for a run on the treadmill in the basement. He showered and he ate a bowl of cornflakes while he scanned the headlines in the paper. He wore the same overcoat, no matter how cold or hot the weather, and he parked in the same spot in the faculty lot.

He’d once tried to mathematically figure the effect of routine on happiness, but there was an interesting twist to the calculation: The measure of joy brought by the familiar was amplified or reduced by the individual’s resistance to change. Or-as Lacy would have said, English, Lewis-for every person like himself who liked the worn grooves of the familiar, there was another person who found it stifling. In those cases, the comfort quotient became a negative number, and doing what came habitually actually detracted from happiness. It was that way, he supposed, for Lacy, who wandered around the house as if she’d never seen it before, who couldn’t stand the thought of going back to her practice. How can you expect me to think of someone else’s child right now? she had argued.

She kept insisting that they needed to do something, but Lewis didn’t know what that was supposed to be. And because he couldn’t comfort either his wife or his son, Lewis decided he was left to comfort himself. After sitting at home for five days after Peter’s arraignment, one morning he woke up and packed his briefcase, ate his cornflakes, read the paper, and headed off to work.

He was thinking of the equation for happiness as he headed to the office. One of the tenets of his breakthrough-H = R/E, or happiness equals reality divided by expectation-was based on the universal truth that you always had some expectation for what was to come. In other words, E was always a real number, since you could not divide by zero. But recently, he wondered about the truth of that. Math could only take a man so far. In the middle of the night, when he was wide awake and staring up at the ceiling, knowing that his wife lay beside him pretending to be asleep and doing the very same thing, Lewis had come to believe that you might be conditioned to expect absolutely nothing from one’s life. That way, when you lost your first son, you didn’t grieve. When your second son was jailed for a massacre, you were not shattered. You could divide by zero; it felt like a canyon where your heart used to be.

As soon as he set foot on the campus, Lewis felt better. Here, he was not the father of the shooter and never had been. He was Lewis Houghton, professor of economics. Here, he was still at the top of his game; he didn’t have to look at the body of his research and wonder at what point it had begun to unravel.

Lewis had just pulled a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase that morning when the chair of the econ department poked his head through the open doorway. Hugh Macquarie was a big man-Huge Andhairy is what the college students called him behind his back-who had taken over the position with gusto. “Houghton? What are you doing here?”

“Last I checked, the college was still paying me to work,” Lewis said, trying to make a joke. He couldn’t make jokes, never had been able to do so. His timing was off; he gave away punch lines by accident.

Hugh walked into the room. “My God, Lewis, I don’t know what to say.” He hesitated.

Lewis didn’t blame Hugh. He barely knew what to say himself. There were Hallmark cards for bereavement, for loss of a beloved pet, for getting laid off from a job, but no one seemed to have the right words of comfort for someone whose son had just killed ten people.

“I thought about calling you at home. Lisa even wanted to bring a casserole or something. How’s Lacy holding up?”

Lewis pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. “Oh,” he said. “You know. We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible.”

When he said this, he pictured his life as a graph. Normal was a line that stretched on and on, teasing its way closer to an axis but never really reaching it.

Hugh sat down in the chair across from Lewis’s desk-the same chair that was sometimes filled by a student who needed a tutorial in microeconomics. “Lewis, take some time off,” he said.

“Thanks, Hugh. I appreciate that.” Lewis glanced at an equation on the far blackboard that he’d been puzzling out. “Right now, though, I really need to be here. It keeps me from thinking about being there.” Reaching for some chalk, Lewis began to print across the board, a long and lovely stream of numbers that calmed him inside.

He knew that there was a difference between something that makes you happy and something that doesn’t make you unhappy. The trick was convincing yourself these were one and the same.

Hugh put his hand on Lewis’s arm, stilling it mid-equation. “Maybe I said that wrong. We need you to take time off.”

Lewis stared at him. “Oh. Um. I see,” he said, although he didn’t. If Lewis was willing to segregate his work life from his home life, why couldn’t Sterling College do the same?

Unless.

Had that been his mistake in the first place? If you were uncertain in the decisions you made as a father, could you patch over your insecurities with the confidence you had as a professional? Or would the fix always be flimsy, a paper wall that couldn’t bear weight?

“It’s just for a bit,” Hugh said. “It’s what’s best.”

For whom? Lewis thought, but he remained silent until he heard Hugh close the door behind himself on his way out.

When the chairman was gone, Lewis lifted the chalk again. He stared at the equations until they melded together, and then he began to scrawl furiously, a composer with a symphony moving too fast for his fingers. Why hadn’t he realized this before? Everyone knew that if you divided reality by expectation, you got a happiness quotient. But when you inverted the equation-expectation divided by reality-you didn’t get the opposite of happiness. What you got, Lewis realized, was hope.

Pure logic: Assuming reality was constant, expectation had to be greater than reality to create optimism. On the other hand, a pessimist was someone with expectations lower than reality, a fraction of diminishing returns. The human condition meant that this number approached zero without reaching it-you never really completely gave up hope; it might come flooding back at any provocation.

Lewis stepped back from the blackboard, surveying his handiwork. Someone who was happy would have little need to hope for change. But, conversely, an optimistic person was that way because he wanted to believe in something better than his reality.

He started wondering if there were exceptions to the rule: if happy people might be hopeful, if the unhappy might have given up any anticipation that things might get better.

And that made Lewis think of his son.

He stood in front of the blackboard and started to cry, his hands and his sleeves covered in fine white chalk dust, as if he had become a ghost.

The office of the Geek Squad, as Patrick affectionately referred to the tech guys who hacked into hard drives to find proof of pornography and downloads from The Anarchist Cookbook, was filled with computers. Not just the one seized from Peter Houghton’s room, but also several from Sterling High, including the one from the secretary’s main office and another batch from the library.

“He’s good,” said Orestes, a tech that Patrick would have sworn was not old enough to have graduated from high school himself. “We’re not just talking HTML programming. Guy knew his shit.”

He pulled up a few files from the bowels of Peter’s computer, graphics files that didn’t make much sense to Patrick until the tech typed a few buttons and suddenly a three-dimensional dragon appeared on the screen and breathed fire at them. “Wow,” Patrick said.

“Yeah. From what I can tell, he actually made up a few computer games, even posted them for gamers on a couple of sites where you can do that and get feedback.”

“Any message boards on those sites?”

“Dude, give me an iota of credit,” Orestes said, and he clicked onto one he’d already flagged. “Peter went by the screen name DeathWish. They’re a-”

“-band,” Patrick finished. “I know.”

“They’re not just a band,” Orestes said with reverence, his fingers flying over the keyboard. “They’re the modern voice of the collective human conscience.”

“Tell that to Tipper Gore.”

“Who?”

Patrick laughed. “She was before your time, I guess.”

“What did you used to listen to when you were a kid?”

“The cavemen, banging rocks together,” Patrick said dryly.

The screen filled with a series of posts from DeathWish. Most of them were entries about how to enhance a certain graphic or reviews of other games that had been posted on the site. Two quoted lyrics from the band Death Wish. “This is my personal favorite,” Orestes said, and he scrolled down.

From: DeathWish

To: Hades 1991

This town blows. This weekend there is a craft festival where old bags come to show off the ticky tacky shit they made. They should call it a CRAP festival. I’m gonna hide in the bushes outside the church. Target practice as they cross the street-ten points each! Yee ha!

Patrick leaned back in the chair. “Well, that doesn’t prove anything.”

“Yeah,” Orestes said. “Craft festivals do kind of suck. But check this out.” He swiveled in his own chair to reach another terminal, set up on a table. “He hacked into the school’s secure computer system.”

“To do what? Change his grades?”

“Nope. The program he wrote broke through the firewalls on the school system at 9:58 a.m.”

“That’s when the car bomb went off,” Patrick murmured.

Orestes pivoted the monitor so that Patrick could see. “This was on every single screen on every single computer at the school.”

Patrick stared at the purple background, the flaming red letters that scrolled like a marquee: READY OR NOT…HERE I COME.

Jordan was already sitting at the table of the conference room when Peter Houghton was brought in by a correctional officer. “Thanks,” he said to the guard, his eyes on Peter, who immediately canvassed the room, his gaze lighting on the only window. Jordan had seen this over and over in prisoners he’d represented-an ordinary human could so quickly turn into a caged animal. Then again, it was a chicken-and-egg conundrum: were they animals because they were in jail…or were they in jail because they were animals?

“Have a seat,” he said, and Peter remained standing.

Unfazed, Jordan started talking. “I want to lay out the ground rules, Peter,” he said. “Everything I say to you is confidential. Everything you say to me is confidential. I can’t tell anyone what you say. I can tell you, however, not to talk to the media or the police or anyone else for that matter. If anyone tries to contact you, you contact me immediately-call me collect. As your lawyer, I get to do the talking for you. From now on, I’m your best friend, your mother, your father, your priest. Are we clear on that?”

Peter glared at him. “Crystal.”

“Good. So.” Jordan pulled a legal pad out of his briefcase, a pencil. “I imagine you’ve got a few questions; we can start with those.”

“I hate it here,” Peter burst out. “I don’t get why I have to stay here.”

Most of Jordan’s clients started out quiet and terrified in jail-which quickly gave way to anger and indignation. But at that moment Peter sounded like any other ordinary teenage kid-like Thomas had sounded at his age, when the world apparently revolved around him and Jordan just happened to be living on it as well. However, the lawyer in Jordan trumped the parent in him, and he started to wonder if Peter Houghton truly might not know why he was in jail. Jordan would be the first to tell you insanity defenses rarely worked and were grossly overrated, but maybe Peter could be passed off as the real deal-and that was the key to securing an acquittal. “What do you mean?” he pressed.

“They’re the ones who did this to me, and now I’m the one who’s being punished.”

Jordan sat back and crossed his arms. Peter didn’t feel remorse for what he’d done, that much was clear. In fact, he considered himself a victim.

And here was the remarkable thing about being a defense attorney: Jordan didn’t really care. There was no room in his line of work for his own personal feelings. He had worked with the scum of the earth before-killers and rapists who fancied themselves martyrs. His job wasn’t to believe them or to pass judgment. It was simply to do or say whatever he had to in order to get them free. In spite of what he’d just told Peter, he was not a clergyman or a shrink or a friend to a client. He was simply a spin doctor.

“Well,” Jordan said evenly, “you need to understand the jail’s position. To them, you’re just a murderer.”

“Then they’re all hypocrites,” Peter said. “If they saw a roach, they’d step on it, wouldn’t they?”

“Is that how you’d describe what happened at the school?”

Peter flicked his eyes away. “Do you know that I’m not allowed to read magazines?” he said. “I can’t even go into the exercise yard like everyone else.”

“I’m not here to register your complaints.”

“Why are you here?”

“To help you get out,” Jordan said. “And if that’s going to happen, then you need to talk to me.”

Peter folded his arms across his chest and glanced from Jordan’s collared shirt to his tie to his polished black shoes. “Why? You don’t really give a shit about me.”

Jordan stood up and stuffed his notebook into his briefcase. “You know what? You’re right. I don’t really give a shit about you. I’m just doing my job, because unlike you, I won’t have the state paying my room and board for the rest of my life.” He started for the door, but was called back by the sound of Peter’s voice.

“Why is everyone so upset that those jerks are dead?”

Jordan turned slowly, making a mental note that kindness had not worked especially well with Peter, nor had the voice of authority. What had made him respond was pure and simple anger.

“I mean, people are crying over them…and they were assholes. Everyone’s saying I ruined their lives, but no one seemed to care when my life was the one being ruined.”

Jordan sat down on the edge of the table. “How?”

“Where do you want me to start,” Peter answered, bitter. “In nursery school, when the teacher would bring out snacks, and one of them would pull out my chair so I’d fall down and everyone else would crack up? Or in second grade, when they held my head down in the toilet and they flushed it over and over, just because they knew they could? Or that time they beat me up on my way home from school and I needed stitches?”

Jordan picked up his pad and wrote STITCHES. “Who’s they?”

“A whole bunch of kids,” Peter said.

The ones you wanted to kill? Jordan thought, but he didn’t ask. “Why do you think they targeted you?”

“Because they’re dickheads? I don’t know. They’re like a pack. They have to make someone else feel like shit in order to feel good about themselves.”

“What did you try to do to stop it?”

Peter snorted. “In case you haven’t noticed, Sterling’s not exactly a metropolis. Everyone knows everyone. You wind up in high school with the same kids who were in the sandbox in your preschool.”

“Couldn’t you stay out of their path?”

“I had to go to school,” Peter said. “You’d be surprised how small it gets when you’re there for eight hours every day.”

“So did they do this outside of school, too?”

“When they could catch me,” Peter said. “If I was by myself.”

“How about harassment-phone calls, letters, threats?” Jordan asked.

“Online,” Peter said. “They’d send me instant messages, saying I was a loser, things like that. And they took an email I wrote and spammed it out to the whole school…made it a joke…” He looked away, falling silent.

“Why?”

“It was…” He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Jordan made a note on his pad. “Did you ever tell anyone about what was going on? Parents? Teachers?”

“No one gives a crap,” Peter said. “They tell you to ignore it. They say they’ll be watching out to make sure it doesn’t happen, but they never watch.” He walked to the window and pressed his palms against the glass. “There was this kid in my first-grade class who had that disease, the one where your spine grows outside your body-”

“Spina bifida?”

“Yeah. She had a wheelchair and she couldn’t sit up or anything, and before she came to class the teacher told us we had to treat her like she was just like us. The thing is, she wasn’t like us, and we all knew it, and she knew it. So we were supposed to lie to her face?” Peter shook his head. “Everyone talks like it’s all right to be different, but America’s supposed to be this melting pot, and what the hell does that mean? If it’s a melting pot, then you’re really just trying to make everyone the same, aren’t you?”

Jordan found himself thinking about his son Thomas’s transition to middle school. They’d moved from Bainbridge to Salem Falls, a small enough school system that the cliques had already developed thick cellular walls against outsiders. For a while, Thomas had been a chameleon-he’d come home from school and hole up in his room, emerging as a soccer player, a thespian, a “mathlete.” It took him several sheddings of his own adolescent skin to find a group of friends who let him be whoever he wanted; and the rest of Thomas’s high school career was a fairly peaceful one. But what if he hadn’t found that group of friends? What if he’d continued peeling off layers of himself until there was nothing left at his core?

As if he could read Jordan’s mind, Peter suddenly stared at him. “Do you have kids?”

Jordan did not talk about his personal life with clients. Their relationship existed in the confines of a court, and that was that. The few times in his career when this unwritten rule had been broken had nearly wrecked him personally and professionally. But he met Peter’s gaze and said, “Two. A six-month-old baby and a son at Yale.”

“Then you get it,” Peter said. “Everyone wants their kid to grow up and go to Harvard or be a quarterback for the Patriots. No one ever looks at their baby and thinks, Oh, I hope my kid grows up and becomes a freak. I hope he gets to school every day and prays he won’t catch anyone’s attention. But you know what? Kids grow up like that every single day.”

Jordan found himself at a loss for words. There was the finest line between unique and odd, between what made a child grow up to be as well adjusted as Thomas versus unstable, like Peter. Did every teenager have the capacity to fall on one side or the other of that tightrope, and could you identify a single moment that tipped the balance?

He suddenly thought of Sam this morning, when Jordan was changing his diaper. The baby had grabbed hold of his own toes, fascinated to have located them, and immediately stuffed his foot into his mouth. Look at that, Selena had joked over his shoulder, like father like son. As Jordan had finished dressing Sam, he’d marveled at the mystery life must be for someone that young. Imagine a world that seemed so much bigger than you. Imagine waking up one morning and finding a piece of yourself you didn’t even know existed.

When you don’t fit in, you become superhuman. You can feel everyone else’s eyes on you, stuck like Velcro. You can hear a whisper about you from a mile away. You can disappear, even when it looks like you’re still standing right there. You can scream, and nobody hears a sound.

You become the mutant who fell into the vat of acid, the Joker who can’t remove his mask, the bionic man who’s missing all his limbs and none of his heart.

You are the thing that used to be normal, but that was so long ago, you can’t even remember what it was like.

Six Years Before

Peter knew he was doomed, the first day of sixth grade, when his mother presented him with a gift over breakfast. “I know how much you wanted one,” she said, and she waited for him to open the wrapping paper.

Inside was a three-ring binder with a graphic of Superman on the cover. And he had wanted one. Three years ago, when that was a cool thing to have.

He had managed a smile. “Thanks, Mom,” he said, and she beamed at him, while he imagined all the ways carrying this totally stupid notebook would be used against him.

Josie, as usual, had come to his rescue. She told the school custodian that her bike handlebars were all screwed up and that she needed some duct tape to jury-rig it until she got home. In reality, she didn’t bike to school-she walked with Peter, who lived a little farther out of town but picked her up along the way. Although they never saw each other outside of school-and hadn’t in years, thanks to some blowout fight between his mother and hers that neither of them could really remember the details about-Josie still hung out with Peter. And thank God for that, because no one else really did. They sat together during lunch, they read each other’s rough drafts in English, they were always each other’s lab partners. Summers were always tough. They could email, and every now and then they saw each other at the town pond, but that was about it. And then, come September, they fell back in step as if they’d never missed a beat. That, Peter figured, was the very definition of a best friend.

Today, thanks to the Superman binder, they’d started off the year with a crisis. With Josie’s help, he’d made a slipcover of sorts from the tape and an old newspaper they stole from the science lab. He could take it off when he was home, she reasoned, so that his mother wouldn’t be offended.

The sixth graders had lunch fourth period, when it was only 11:00 a.m., but by that point it felt like they hadn’t eaten in months. Josie bought-her mother’s cooking skills, she said, were limited to writing a check to the cafeteria ladies-and Peter stood beside her in the snaking line to pick up a carton of milk. His mother would have packed him a sandwich with the crusts cut off, a bag of carrot sticks, an organic fruit that might or might not be bruised.

Peter slid his binder onto the cafeteria tray, embarrassed even though it was still covered up by the newspaper. He popped a straw into his milk carton. “You know, it shouldn’t make a difference what binder you’ve got,” Josie said. “What do you care what they think?”

As they headed into the lunchroom, Drew Girard slammed into Peter. “Watch where you’re going, retard,” Drew said, but it was too late-Peter had already dropped his tray.

His milk spilled all over his splayed binder, melting the newspaper into a muddy clot and revealing the Superman graphic beneath it.

Drew started to laugh. “Are you wearing your Underoos, too, Houghton?”

“Shut up, Drew.”

“Or what? Will you melt me with your X-ray vision?”

Mrs. McDonald, the art teacher who was patrolling the lunchroom-and who Josie swore she’d once caught sniffing glue in the supply closet-took a halfhearted step forward. By seventh grade, there were kids like Drew and Matt Royston who were taller than the teachers and had deep voices and were shaving; but there were also kids like Peter, who prayed every night that puberty would hit but hadn’t seen any viable signs yet. “Peter, why don’t you just go take a seat…” Mrs. McDonald sighed. “Drew will bring you another carton of milk.”

Probably poisoned, Peter thought. He started mopping off his binder with a wad of napkins. Even after it dried, it would reek, now. Maybe he could tell his mother that he’d spilled his milk on it at lunch. It was the truth, after all, even if he’d had a little help doing it. And it just might be enough incentive for her to buy him a new, normal notebook, one like everyone else’s.

Inside, Peter was grinning: Drew Girard had actually just done him a favor.

“Drew,” the teacher said. “I meant now.”

As Drew took a step toward the interior of the cafeteria toward the pyramid of milk cartons, Josie stuck out her foot surreptitiously so that he tripped, landing flat on his face. In the lunchroom, other kids started to laugh. That was the way this society worked: you were only at the bottom of the totem pole until you could find someone else to take your place. “Watch out for kryptonite,” Josie whispered, just loud enough for Peter to hear.

The two best things about being a district court judge, in Alex’s mind, were, first, being able to address people’s problems and make them feel as if they are being listened to, and second, the intellectual challenge. You had so many factors to balance when you were making decisions: the victims, the police, law enforcement, society. And all of them had to be considered in the context of precedent.

The worst part of the job was that you couldn’t give people what they really needed when they came to court: for a defendant-the sentencing that would really offer treatment, instead of a punishment. For a victim-an apology.

Today there was a girl standing in front of her who wasn’t much older than Josie. She was wearing a NASCAR jacket and a black pleated skirt, and had blond hair and acne. Alex had seen kids like her, hanging out in parking lots after the Mall of New Hampshire was closed for the night, spinning 360s in their boyfriends’ I-Rocs. She wondered what this girl would have been like if she’d grown up with a judge for a mother. She wondered if, at some point, this girl had played with stuffed animals underneath the kitchen table and read books beneath her covers with a flashlight when she was supposed to be going to bed. It never failed to amaze Alex how, with the brush of a hand, the track of someone’s life might veer in a completely different direction.

The girl had been charged with receiving stolen property-a $500 gold necklace that her boyfriend gave her. Alex looked down at her from the bench. There was a reason it was up so high in a courtroom-it had nothing to do with logistics and everything to do with intimidation. “Are you knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waiving your rights? And you understand that by pleading guilty, you’re admitting to the truth of the charge?”

The girl blinked. “I didn’t know it was stolen. I thought it was a present from Hap.”

“If you read the face of the complaint, it says you’re charged with knowingly receiving this necklace, knowing it was stolen. If you didn’t know it was stolen, you have the right to go to trial. You have the right to mount a defense. You have the right to have me appoint a lawyer to represent you because you are charged with a Class A misdemeanor and this is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. You have a right to have the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. You have the right to see, hear, and question all the witnesses against you. You have the right to have me subpoena into court any evidence and/or witnesses in your favor. You have the right to appeal your decision to the Supreme Court, or the Superior Court for a jury trial de novo if I make an error of law or if you don’t agree with my decision. By pleading guilty, you give up these rights.”

The girl swallowed. “Well,” she repeated. “I did pawn it.”

“That’s not the essence of the charge,” Alex explained. “The essence of the charge is that you took that necklace even after you knew it was stolen.”

“But I want to plead guilty,” the girl said.

“You’re telling me you didn’t do what the charge said you did. You can’t plead guilty to something you didn’t do.”

In the rear of the courtroom, a woman stood up. She looked like a poorly aged carbon copy of the defendant. “I told her to plead not guilty,” the girl’s mother said. “She came here today and she was going to do that, but then the prosecutor said she’d get a better deal if she said she was guilty.”

The prosecutor sprung out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box. “I never said that, Your Honor. I told her what the deal on the table was, today, if she was pleading guilty, plain and simple. And that if she pled not guilty instead and went to trial, the deal was off the table and Your Honor would make the decision that you wanted to make.”

Alex tried to imagine what it would be like to be this girl, completely overwhelmed by the massive stature of this legal system, unable to speak its language. She would look at the prosecutor and see Monty Hall. Do you take the money? Or do you choose Door Number One-which might reveal a convertible, or might reveal a chicken?

This girl had taken the money.

Alex motioned the prosecutor to approach the bench. “Do you have any evidence from your investigation to prove she knew it was stolen?”

“Yes, Your Honor.” He produced the police report and handed it over. Alex scanned it-there was no way, given what she’d said to the cops and how they’d recorded it, that she hadn’t known it was stolen.

Alex turned to the girl. “Based on the facts of the police report, coupled with the offer of proof, I find that there’s a basis for your plea. There’s enough evidence here to substantiate the fact that you knew this necklace was stolen, and you took it anyway.”

“I don’t…I don’t understand,” the girl said.

“It means I’ll take your plea, if you still want me to. But,” Alex added, “first you have to tell me that you’re guilty.”

Alex watched the girl’s mouth tighten and start to tremble. “Okay,” she whispered. “I did it.”

It was one of those incredibly beautiful autumn days, the kind when you drag your feet on the sidewalk in the morning as you walk to school because you cannot believe you have to waste eight hours there. Josie was sitting in math class, staring at the blue of the sky-cerulean, that was a vocabulary word this week, and just saying it made Josie feel like her mouth was full of ice crystals. She could hear the seventh graders playing Capture the Flag in gym class in the recess yard, and the drone of the lawn mower as the custodian moved past their window. A piece of paper was dropped over her shoulder, into her lap. Josie unfolded it, read Peter’s note.

Why do we always have to solve for x? Why can’t x do it himself and spare us the HELL!!!!!

She turned around, giving him a half-smile. Actually, she liked math. She loved knowing that if she worked hard enough, at the end there was going to be an answer that made sense.

She didn’t fit in with the popular crowd at school because she was a straight-A student. Peter was different-he got B’s and C’s, and once a D. He didn’t fit in either, but it wasn’t because he was a brain. It was because he was Peter.

If there was a totem pole of unpopularity, Josie knew she still ranked relatively higher than some. Every now and then she wondered if she hung out with Peter because she enjoyed his company or because being with him made her feel better about herself.

While the class worked on the review sheet, Mrs. Rasmussin surfed the Internet. It was a schoolwide joke-who could catch her buying a pair of pants from Gap.com, or reading soap opera fansites. One kid swore he’d found her looking at porn one day when he went to her desk to ask a question.

Josie finished early, as usual, and looked up to see Mrs. Rasmussin at her computer…but there were tears streaming down her cheeks, in that strange way that happens when people do not even realize they are crying.

She stood up and walked out of the room without even saying a word to the class about being quiet in her absence.

The minute she left, Peter tapped on Josie’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with her?”

Before Josie could answer, Mrs. Rasmussin returned. Her face was as white as marble, and her lips were pressed together like a seam. “Class,” she said, “something terrible has happened.”

In the media center, where the middle school students had been herded, the principal told them what he knew: two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Another one had just crashed into the Pentagon. The south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed.

The librarian had set up a television so that they could all watch the unfolding coverage. Even though they had been pulled out of class-usually a cause for celebration-it was so quiet in that library that Peter could hear his own heart pounding. He looked around the walls of the room, at the sky outside the windows. This school wasn’t a safety zone. Nothing was, no matter what you’d been told.

Was this what it felt like to be at war?

Peter stared at the screen. People were sobbing and screaming in New York City, but you could barely see because of the dust and smoke in the air. There were fires everywhere, and the ululations of screaming fire engines and car alarms. It looked nothing like the New York Peter remembered the one time he’d vacationed there with his parents. They’d gone to the top of the Empire State Building and they were planning to have a fancy dinner at Windows on the World, but then Joey had gotten sick from eating too much popcorn and instead they’d headed back to the hotel.

Mrs. Rasmussin had left school for the day. Her brother was a bond trader in the World Trade Center.

Had been.

Josie was sitting next to Peter. Even with a few inches of space separating their chairs, he could feel her shaking. “Peter,” she whispered, horrified, “there’s people jumping.”

He couldn’t see as well as she could, even with his glasses, but when he squinted he could tell Josie was right. It made his chest hurt to watch, as if his ribs were suddenly a size too small. What kind of person would do that?

He answered his own question: The kind who doesn’t see any other way out.

“Do you think they could get us here?” Josie whispered.

Peter glanced at her. He wished he knew what to say to make her feel better, but the truth was, he didn’t feel all that great himself and he didn’t know if there were even any words in the English language to take away this kind of stunning shock, this understanding that the world isn’t the place you thought it was.

He turned back to the screen so that he didn’t have to answer Josie. More people leaped out of the windows of the north tower; then there was a massive roar as if the ground itself were opening its jaws. When the building collapsed, Peter let out the breath he’d been holding-relieved, because now he couldn’t see anything at all.

The switchboards to the schools were completely jammed, and so parents fell into two categories: the ones who didn’t want to scare their kids to death by showing up at school and shepherding them into a basement bunker, and those who wanted to ride out this tragedy with their children close at hand.

Lacy Houghton and Alex Cormier both fell into the latter category, and both arrived at the school simultaneously. They parked beside each other in the bus circle and got out of their cars, and only then recognized each other-they had not seen each other since the day Alex marched her daughter out of Lacy’s basement, where the guns were kept. “Is Peter-” Alex began.

“I don’t know. Josie?”

“I’m here to get her.”

They went into the main office together, and were directed down the hall to the media center. “I can’t believe they’re letting them watch the news,” Lacy said, running beside Alex.

“They’re old enough to understand what’s happening,” Alex said.

Lacy shook her head. “I’m not old enough to understand what’s happening.”

The media center was spread with students-on chairs, on tables, sprawled on the floor. It took Alex a moment to realize what was so unnatural about the crowd: no one was making a sound. Even the teachers stood with their hands over their mouths, as if they were afraid to let out any of the emotion, because once the floodgates opened, everything else in their path would be swept away.

In the front of the room was a single television, and every eye was on it. Alex spotted Josie because she had stolen one of Alex’s headbands-a leopard print. “Josie,” she called, and her daughter whipped around, then nearly climbed over other kids in her effort to reach Alex.

Josie hit her like a hurricane, all emotion and fury, but Alex knew that somewhere inside was the eye of that storm. And then, like any force of nature, you had to brace yourself for another onslaught before things went back to normal. “Mommy,” she sobbed. “Is it over?”

Alex didn’t know what to say. As the parent, she was supposed to have all the answers, but she didn’t. She was supposed to be able to keep her daughter safe, but she couldn’t promise that either. She had to put on a brave face and tell Josie it was going to be fine, when she really didn’t know that herself. Even driving here from court, she had been aware of the fragility of the roads beneath her wheels, of the divider of sky that could so easily be breached. She passed wells and thought about drinking-water contamination; she wondered how far away the closest nuclear power plant was.

And yet, she had spent years being the judge others expected her to be-someone cool and collected, someone who could reach conclusions without getting hysterical. She could certainly put on that demeanor for her daughter, too.

“We’re fine,” Alex said calmly. “It’s over.” She did not know that even as she spoke, a fourth plane was crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. She did not realize that her fierce grip on Josie contradicted her words.

Over Josie’s shoulder Alex nodded to Lacy Houghton, who was leaving with her two sons in tow. With some shock she realized Peter was tall now, nearly as tall as a man.

How many years had it been since she’d seen him?

You could lose track of someone when you blinked, Alex realized. She vowed not to let that happen to her and her daughter. Because when it came down to it, being a judge didn’t matter nearly as much as being a mother. When Alex’s clerk had told her the news about the World Trade Center, her first thought had not been for her constituents…only for Josie.

For a few weeks, Alex held to her promises. She rearranged her docket so that she was home when Josie got there; she left legal briefs in the office instead of bringing them home to read on weekends; every night, over dinner, they talked-not just chatter, but real conversation: about why To Kill a Mockingbird might very well be the best book ever written; about how you could tell if you’d fallen in love; even about Josie’s father. But then, one week, a particularly knotty case had her staying late at the office. And Josie started being able to sleep through the night again, instead of waking up screaming. Part of going back to normal meant erasing the boundaries of what was abnormal, and within a few months, the way Alex had felt on 9/11 was slowly forgotten, like a tide washing out a message she’d once scrawled on the sand.

Peter hated soccer, but he was on the middle school team. They had an anyone-can-play policy, so that even kids who might not normally make varsity or JV or-who was he kidding? the team, period-could join. It was this-plus his mother’s belief that part of fitting in meant being in the crowd to begin with-that led him to a season of afternoon practices where he found himself doing passing drills and running after the ball more often than he returned it; and games twice a week where he warmed middle school soccer field benches all over Grafton County.

There was only one thing Peter hated more than soccer, and that was getting dressed for it. After school, he’d purposely find something to do at his locker, or a question to ask a teacher, so that he wound up in the locker room after most of his teammates were outside stretching and warming up. Then, in a corner section, Peter would strip without having to listen to anyone make fun of the way his chest sort of caved in at the bottom, or having the elastic of his boxers twisted to give him a wedgie. They called him Peter Homo, instead of Peter Houghton, and even when he was the only one in the locker room he could still hear the slap of their high-fives and the laughter that rolled toward him like an oil slick.

After practice, he usually was able to do something that ensured he would be the last one in the locker room-picking up the practice balls, asking the coach a question about an upcoming game, even retying his cleats. If he was really lucky, by the time he reached the showers, everyone else would already have left for home. But today, just as practice had ended, a thunderstorm had rolled in. The coach herded all the kids off the field and into the locker room.

Peter walked slowly into his corner bank of lockers. Several guys were already headed to the showers, towels wrapped around their waists. Drew, for one, and his friend Matt Royston. They were laughing as they walked, punching each other in the arms to see who could land the harder hit.

Peter turned his back to the other locker sections and skimmed off his uniform, then covered himself quickly with a towel. His heart was pounding. He could already imagine what everyone else saw when they looked at him, because he saw it, too, in the mirror: skin white as the belly of a fish; knobs sticking out of his spine and collarbones. Arms without a single rope of muscle.

The last thing Peter did was take off his glasses and put them on the shelf of his open locker. It made everything blissfully fuzzy.

He ducked his head and walked into the shower, pulling off his towel at the last possible minute. Matt and Drew were already soaping themselves up. Peter let the spray hit him in the forehead. He imagined being an adventurer on some wild white river, being pummeled by a waterfall as he was sucked into a vortex.

When he wiped his eyes and turned around, he could see the blurred edges of the bodies that were Matt and Drew. And the dark patch between their legs-pubic hair.

Peter didn’t have any yet.

Matt suddenly twisted sideways. “Jesus Christ. Stop looking at my dick.”

“Fucking fag,” Drew said.

Peter immediately turned away. What if it turned out they were right? What if that was the reason his gaze had fallen right there at that moment? Worse, what if he got hard right now, which was happening more and more lately?

That would mean he was gay, wouldn’t it?

“I wasn’t looking at you,” Peter blurted. “I can’t see anything.”

Drew’s laughter bounced against the tile walls of the shower. “Maybe your dick’s too small, Mattie.”

Suddenly Matt had Peter by the throat. “I don’t have my glasses on,” Peter choked out. “That’s why.”

Matt let go, shoving Peter against the wall, then stalked out of the shower. He reached over and plucked Peter’s towel from a hook, tossing it into the spray. It fell, soaked, to cover the central drain.

Peter picked it up and wrapped it around his waist. The cotton was sopping wet, and he was crying, but he thought maybe people couldn’t tell because the rest of him was dripping, too. Everyone was staring.

When he was around Josie, he didn’t feel anything-didn’t want to kiss her or hold her hand or anything like that. He didn’t think he felt those things about guys, either; but surely you had to be gay or straight. You couldn’t be neither.

He hurried to the corner bank of lockers and found Matt standing in front of his. Peter squinted, trying to see what Matt was holding, and then he heard it: Matt took his glasses, slammed the locker door on them, and let the mangled frames drop to the floor. “Now you can’t look at me,” he said, and he walked away.

Peter knelt down on the floor, trying to pick up the broken pieces of glass. Because he couldn’t see, he cut his hand. He sat, cross-legged, with the towel puddled in his lap. He brought his palm closer to his face, until everything was clear.

In her dream, Alex was walking down Main Street stark naked. She went into the bank and deposited a check. “Your Honor,” the teller said, smiling. “Isn’t it beautiful out today?”

Five minutes later, she went into the coffee shop and ordered a latte with skim milk. The barista was a girl with improbable purple hair and a straight piercing that went across the bridge of her nose at the level of her eyebrows; when Josie was little and they’d come here, Alex would have to tell her not to stare. “Would you like biscotti with that, Judge?” the barista asked.

She went into the bookstore, the pharmacy, and the gas station, and in each place, she could feel people staring at her. She knew she was naked. They knew she was naked. But no one said anything until she got to the post office. The postal clerk in Sterling was an old man who had been working there, probably, since the changeover from the Pony Express. He handed Alex a roll of stamps, and then furtively covered her hand with his own. “Ma’am, it might not be my place to say so…”

Alex lifted her gaze, waited.

The worry lines on the clerk’s forehead smoothed. “But that’s a beautiful dress you’ve got on, Your Honor,” he said.

Her patient was screaming. Lacy could hear the girl sobbing all the way down the hall. She ran as fast as she could, turning the corner and entering the hospital room.

Kelly Gamboni was twenty-one years old, orphaned, and had an IQ of 79. She had been gang-raped by three high school boys who were now awaiting trial at a juvy facility in Concord. Kelly lived at a group home for Catholics, so abortion was never an option. But now, an ER doctor had deemed it medically necessary to induce Kelly, at thirty-six weeks. She lay in the hospital bed with a nurse trying ineffectually to comfort her, as Kelly clutched a teddy bear. “Daddy,” she cried, to a parent who had died years ago. “Take me home. Daddy, it hurts!”

The doctor walked into the room, and Lacy rounded on him.

“How dare you,” she said. “This is my patient.”

“Well, she was brought into the ER and became mine,” the doctor countered.

Lacy looked at Kelly and then walked into the hall; it would do Kelly no good to have them fighting in front of her. “She came in complaining of wetting her underwear for two days. The exam was consistent with premature rupture of membranes,” the doctor said. “She’s afebrile and the fetal monitor tracing is reactive. It’s completely reasonable to induce. And she signed off on the consent form.”

“It may be reasonable, but it’s not advisable. She’s mentally retarded. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her right now; she’s terrified. And she certainly doesn’t have the ability to consent.” Lacy turned on her heel. “I’m calling psych.”

“Like hell you are,” the doctor said, grabbing her arm.

“Let go of me!”

They were still screaming at each other five minutes later when the psych consult arrived. The boy who stood in front of Lacy looked to be about Joey’s age. “You’ve got to be kidding,” the doctor said, the first comment he’d made that she agreed with.

They both followed the shrink into Kelly’s room. By now, the girl was curled into a ball around her belly, whimpering. “She needs an epidural,” Lacy muttered.

“It’s not safe to give one at two centimeters,” the doctor argued.

“I don’t care. She needs one.”

“Kelly?” the psychiatrist said, squatting down in front of her. “Do you know what a C-section is?”

“Uh-huh,” Kelly groaned.

The psychiatrist stood up. “She’s capable of consent, unless a court’s ruled otherwise.”

Lacy’s jaw dropped. “That’s it?”

“I have six other consults waiting for me,” the psychiatrist snapped. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Lacy yelled after him. “I’m not the one you’re disappointing!” She sank down beside Kelly and squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. I’m going to take care of you.” She winged a prayer to whoever might move the mountains that could be men’s hearts. Then she lifted her face to the doctor’s. “First do no harm,” she said softly.

The doctor pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll get her an epidural,” he sighed; and only then did Lacy realize she had been holding her breath.

The last place Josie wanted to go was out to dinner with her mother, so that she could spend three hours watching maître d’s and chefs and other guests suck up to her. This was Josie’s birthday celebration, so she didn’t really understand why she couldn’t just demand take-out Chinese and a video. But her mother was insisting that it wouldn’t be a celebration if they just stayed at home, and so here she was, trailing after her mother like a lady-in-waiting.

She’d been counting. There were four Nice to see you, Your Honors. Three Yes, Your Honors. Two My pleasure, Your Honors. And one For Your Honor, we have the best table in the house. Sometimes Josie read about celebrities in People magazine who were always getting handouts from purse companies and shoe stores and free tickets to opening nights on Broadway and Yankee Stadium-when you got right down to it, her mother was a celebrity in the town of Sterling.

“I cannot believe,” her mother said, “that I have a twelve-year-old.”

“Is that my cue to say something like, you must have been a child prodigy?”

Her mother laughed. “Well, that would work.”

“I’m going to be driving in three and a half years,” Josie pointed out.

Her mother’s fork clattered against the plate. “Thanks for that.”

The waiter came over to the table. “Your Honor,” he said, setting a platter of caviar down in front of Josie’s mother, “the chef would like you to have this appetizer with his compliments.”

“That’s so gross. Fish eggs?”

“Josie!” Her mother smiled stiffly at the waiter. “Please thank the chef.”

She could feel her mother’s eyes on her as she picked at her food. “What?” she challenged.

“Well, you sounded like a spoiled brat, that’s all.”

“Why? Because I don’t like fish embryos sitting under my nose? You don’t eat them either. I was at least being honest.”

“And I was being discreet,” her mother said. “Don’t you think that the waiter is going to tell the chef that Judge Cormier’s daughter is a piece of work?”

“Like I care?”

“I do. What you do reflects on me, and I have a reputation I have to protect.”

“As what? A suck-up?”

“As someone who’s above criticism both in and out of the courtroom.”

Josie tilted her head to one side. “What if I did something bad?”

“Bad? How bad?”

“Let’s say I was smoking pot,” Josie said.

Her mother froze. “Is there something you want to tell me, Josie?”

“God, Mom, I’m not doing it. This is hypothetical.”

“Because you know, now that you’re in middle school, you’re going to start coming across kids who do things that are dangerous-or just plain stupid-and I would hope you’d be-”

“-strong enough to know better than that,” Josie finished, echoing her in a singsong. “Yeah. Got it. But what if, Mom? What if you came home and found me getting stoned in the living room? Would you turn me in?”

“What do you mean, turn you in?”

“Call the cops. Hand over my stash.” Josie grinned. “Of hash.”

“No,” her mother said. “I would not report you.”

Josie used to think, when she was younger, that she would grow up to look like her mother-fine-boned, dark-haired, light-eyed. The combination of elements were all there in her features, but as she’d gotten older, she started to look like someone else entirely-someone she had never met. Her father.

She wondered if her father-like Josie herself-could memorize things in a snap and picture them on the page just by closing his eyes. She wondered if her father sang off key and liked to watch scary movies. She wondered if he had the straight slash of eyebrows, so different from her mother’s delicate arches.

She wondered, period.

“If you didn’t report me because I’m your daughter,” Josie said, “then you’re not really being fair, are you?”

“I’d be acting like a parent, not a judge.” Her mother reached across the table and put her hand on Josie’s, which felt weird-her mother wasn’t one of these touchy-feely types. “Josie, you can come to me, you know. If you need to talk, I’m there to listen. You’re not going to get into legal trouble, no matter what you tell me-not if it’s about you, not even if it’s about your friends.”

To be perfectly honest, Josie didn’t have many of those. There was Peter, who she’d known forever-although Peter no longer came to her house and vice versa, they still hung out together in school, and he was the last person in the world Josie could ever imagine doing anything illegal. She knew that one of the reasons other girls excluded Josie was because she always stuck up for Peter, but she told herself that it didn’t matter. She didn’t really want to be surrounded by people who only cared about what happened on One Life to Live and who saved their babysitting money to go to The Limited; they seemed so fake sometimes that Josie thought if she poked one of them with a sharp pencil they’d burst like a balloon.

So what if she and Peter weren’t popular? She was always telling Peter it didn’t matter; she might as well start to believe it herself.

Josie pulled her hand away from her mother and pretended to be fascinated by her cream of asparagus soup. There was something about asparagus that she and Peter found hilarious. They’d done an experiment, once, to see how much you had to eat before your pee smelled weird, and it was less than two bites, swear to God.

“Stop using your Judge Voice,” Josie said.

“My what?”

“Your Judge Voice. It’s the one you use when you answer the phone. Or when you’re out in public. Like now.”

Her mother frowned. “That’s crazy. It’s the same voice I-”

The waiter glided over, as if he were skating across the dining room. “I don’t mean to interrupt…is everything to your liking, Your Honor?”

Without missing a beat, her mother turned her face up to the waiter. “It’s gorgeous,” she said, and she smiled until he walked away. Then she turned to Josie. “It’s the same voice I always use.”

Josie looked at her, and then at the waiter’s back. “Maybe it is,” she said.

The other kid on the soccer team who would rather have been anywhere else was named Derek Markowitz. He’d introduced himself to Peter when they were sitting on the bench during a game against North Haverhill. “Who forced you to play?” Derek had asked, and Peter had told him his mother. “Mine too,” Derek admitted. “She’s a nutritionist and she’s nuts about fitness.”

At dinner, Peter would tell his parents that practice was going fine. He made up stories based on plays he’d seen other kids execute-athletic feats that he himself could never have done. He did this so that he could see his mother glance at Joey and say things like, “Guess there’s more than one athlete in this family.” When they came to cheer him on during games, and Peter never left the bench, he said it was because Coach played his favorites; and in a way, that was true.

Like Peter, Derek was just about the worst soccer player on the planet. He was so fair that his veins looked like a road map underneath his skin, and he had such pale hair that you had to search hard to find his eyebrows. Now, when they were at games, they sat next to each other on the bench. Peter liked him because he smuggled Snickers bars into practice and ate them when Coach wasn’t looking, and because he knew how to tell a good joke: Why did the ref stop the leper hockey game? There was a face-off in the corner. What’s more fun than stapling Drew Girard to a wall? Ripping him off. It got to the point where Peter actually was looking forward to soccer practice, just to hear what Derek had to say-although then Peter began to worry again if he liked Derek just because he was Derek, or because Peter was gay; and then he’d sit a little farther away, or tell himself that no matter what, he wouldn’t look Derek in the eye for the whole practice, so that he didn’t get the wrong idea.

They were sitting on the bench one Friday afternoon, watching everyone else play Rivendell. Sterling was expected to be able to kick their collective ass with their eyes closed (not that that was reason enough for the coach to put Peter or Derek in to actually play during a real league game). The score was climbing to something humiliating in the last minute of the final quarter-Sterling 24, Rivendell 2-and Derek was telling Peter another joke.

“A pirate walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder, a peg leg, and a steering wheel on his pants,” Derek said. “The bartender says, ‘Hey, you’ve got a steering wheel on your pants.’ And the pirate goes, ‘Arrrgh, I know. It’s driving me nuts.’”

“Good game,” the coach said, congratulating each of the players with a handshake. “Good game. Good game.”

“You coming?” Derek asked, standing up.

“I’ll meet you in there,” Peter said, and as he leaned down to retie his cleats he saw a pair of lady’s shoes stop in front of him-a pair he recognized, because he was always tripping over them in the mudroom.

“Hi, baby,” his mother said, smiling down.

Peter choked. What middle school kid had Mommy come to pick him up right at the field, as if he were leaving nursery school and needed a hand crossing the street?

“Just give me a second, Peter,” his mother said.

He glanced up long enough to see that the team had not gone into the locker room, as usual, but hung around to watch this latest humiliation. Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, his mother marched up to the coach. “Coach Yarbrowski,” she said. “Could I have a word?”

Kill me now, Peter thought.

“I’m Peter’s mother. And I’m wondering why you don’t play my son during the games.”

“It’s a matter of teamwork, Mrs. Houghton, and I’m just giving Peter the chance to come up to speed with some of the other-”

“It’s halfway through the season, and my son has just as much right to play on this soccer team as any of the other boys.”

“Mom,” Peter interrupted, wishing that there were earthquakes in New Hampshire, that a ravine would open under her feet and swallow her mid-sentence. “Stop.”

“It’s all right, Peter. I’m taking care of it.”

The coach pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll put Peter in on Monday’s game, Mrs. Houghton, but it isn’t going to be pretty.”

“It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be fun.” She turned around and smiled, clueless, at Peter. “Right?”

Peter could barely hear her. Shame was a shot that rang in his ears, broken only by the buzz of his teammates. His mother squatted down in front of him. He had never really understood what it meant to love someone and hate them at the same time, but now he was starting to get it. “Once he sees you on that field, you’ll be playing first string.” She patted his knee. “I’ll wait for you in the parking lot.”

The other players laughed as he pushed past them. “Mama’s boy,” they said. “Does she fight all your battles, homo?”

In the locker room, he sat down and pulled off his cleats. He had a hole in the toe of one sock, and he stared at it as if he were truly amazed by that fact, instead of because he was trying so hard not to cry.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt someone sit down beside him. “Peter,” Derek said. “You okay?”

Peter tried to say yes, but just couldn’t get the lie through his throat.

“What’s the difference between this team and a porcupine?” Derek asked.

Peter shook his head.

“A porcupine has pricks on the outside.” Derek grinned. “See you Monday.”

Courtney Ignatio was a spaghetti-strap girl. That’s what Josie called that posse, for lack of a better term-the girls who wore belly-baring tanks and who, during the student-run recitals, made up dances to the songs “Booty-licious” and “Lady Marmalade.” Courtney had been the first seventh grader to get a cell phone. It was pink, and sometimes it even rang in class, but teachers never got angry at her.

When she was paired with Courtney in social studies to make a timeline of the American Revolution, Josie had groaned-she was sure she’d be pulling all the weight. But Courtney had invited her over to work on the project, and Josie’s mother told her that if she didn’t go, she would be stuck doing all the work, so now she was sitting on Courtney’s bed, eating chocolate chip cookies and organizing note cards.

“What?” Courtney said, standing in front of her with her hands on her hips.

“What what?”

“Why do you have that look on your face?”

Josie shrugged. “Your room. It’s totally different than mine.”

Courtney glanced around, as if seeing her bedroom for the first time. “Different how?”

Courtney had a wild purple shag rug and beaded lamps strung with gauzy silk scarves for atmosphere. An entire dresser top was dedicated to makeup. A poster of Johnny Depp hung on the back of her door, and a shelf sported a state-of-the-art stereo system. She had her own DVD player.

Josie’s room, in comparison, was spartan. She had a bookshelf, a desk, a dresser, and a bed. Her comforter looked like an old-lady quilt, compared to Courtney’s satin one. If Josie had any style at all, it was Early American Dork.

“Just different,” Josie said.

“My mom’s a decorator. She thinks this is what every teenage girl dreams of.”

“Do you?”

Courtney shrugged. “I kind of think it looks like a bordello, but I don’t want to ruin it for her. Let me just go get my binder, and we can start…”

When she left to go back downstairs, Josie found herself staring into the mirror. Drawn forward to the dresser with makeup on it, she found herself picking up tubes and bottles that were completely unfamiliar. Her mother rarely wore any makeup-maybe lipstick, but that was it. Josie lifted a mascara wand and unscrewed the cap, ran her finger over the black bristles. She uncapped a bottle of perfume and sniffed.

In the reflection of the mirror, she watched the girl who looked just like her take a tube of lipstick-“Positively Hot!” the label read-and apply it. It put a bloom of color in her face; it brought her to life.

Was it really that easy to become someone else?

“What are you doing?”

Josie jumped at the sound of Courtney’s voice. She watched in the mirror as Courtney came forward and took the lipstick out of her hands.

“I…I’m sorry,” Josie stammered.

To her surprise, Courtney Ignatio grinned. “Actually,” she said, “it suits you.”

Joey got better grades than his younger brother; he was a better athlete than Peter. He was funnier; he had more common sense; he could draw more than a straight line; he was the one people gravitated toward at a party. There was only one thing, as far as Peter could tell (and he’d been counting), that Joey could not do, and that was stand the sight of blood.

When Joey was seven and his best friend went over the handlebars of his bike and opened a cut over his forehead, it was Joey who passed out. When a medical show was on television, he had to leave the room. Because of this, he’d never gone hunting with his father, although Lewis had promised his boys that as soon as they turned twelve, they were old enough to come out with him and learn how to shoot.

It seemed as if Peter had been waiting all fall for this weekend. He had been reading up on the rifle his father was going to let him use-a Winchester Model 94 lever action 30-30 that had been his father’s, before the purchase of the bolt-action Remington 721 30.06 he used now to hunt deer. Now, at 4:30 in the morning, Peter could barely believe he was holding it in his hands, the safety carefully locked. He crept through the woods behind his father, his breath crystallizing in the air.

It had snowed last night-which was why the conditions were perfect for deer hunting. They’d been out yesterday to find fresh scrapes-spots on live trees where a buck had rubbed his antlers and returned to scrape over and over, marking its territory. Now it was just a matter of finding the same spot and checking for fresh tracks, to see if the buck had come through yet.

The world was different when there was no one in it. Peter tried to match his father’s footsteps, setting his boot into the print left behind by his father. He pretended he was in the army, on a guerrilla mission. The enemy was right around the corner. At any moment now, he might be surprised into an exchange of fire.

“Peter,” his father hissed over his shoulder. “Keep your rifle pointed up!”

They approached the ring of trees where they’d seen the rub. Today, the antler scrapes were fresh, the white flesh of the tree and the pale green strip of peeled bark chafed raw. Peter looked down at his feet. There were three sets of tracks-one much larger than the other two.

“He’s already been through here,” Peter’s father murmured. “He’s probably following the does.” Deer in rut weren’t as smart as usual-they were so focused on the does they were chasing, they forgot to avoid the humans who might be hunting them.

Peter and his father walked softly through the woods, following tracks toward the swamp. Suddenly, his father stuck out his hand-a signal to stop. Glancing up, Peter could see two does-one older, one a yearling. His father turned, mouthing, Don’t move.

When the buck stepped out from behind the tree, Peter stopped breathing. It was massive, majestic. Its thick neck supported the weight of a six-point rack. Peter’s father nodded imperceptibly at the gun. Go ahead.

Peter fumbled with the rifle, which felt thirty pounds heavier. He lifted it to his shoulder and got the deer in his sights. His pulse was pounding so hard that the gun kept shaking.

He could hear his father’s instructions as if they were being whispered aloud even now: Shoot underneath the front leg, low on the body. If you hit the heart, you’ll kill it instantly. If you miss the heart, you’ll get the lungs, so it will run for a hundred yards or so and then drop.

Then the deer turned and looked at him, eyes trained on Peter’s face.

Peter squeezed the trigger, sending the shot wide.

On purpose.

The three deer ducked in unison, unsure of where the danger was. Just as Peter wondered whether or not his father had noticed that he wimped out-or simply assumed Peter was a lousy shot-a second shot rang from his father’s rifle. The does bolted away; the buck dropped like a stone.

Peter stood over the deer, watching blood pump from its heart. “I didn’t mean to steal your shot,” his father said, “but if you’d reloaded, they would have heard you and run.”

“No,” Peter said. He could not tear his eyes from the deer. “It’s okay.” Then he vomited into the scrub brush.

He could hear his father doing something behind him, but he wouldn’t turn around. Instead Peter stared hard at a patch of snow that had already begun to melt. He felt his father approach. Peter could smell the blood on his hands, the disappointment.

Peter’s father reached out, patting his shoulder. “Next time,” he sighed.

Dolores Keating had transferred to the middle school this year in January. She was one of those kids that slipped by unnoticed-not too pretty, not too smart, not a troublemaker. She sat in front of Peter in French class, her ponytail bobbing up and down as she conjugated verbs out loud.

One day, as Peter was doing his best not to fall asleep to Madame’s recitation of the verb avoir, he noticed that Dolores was sitting in the middle of an ink stain. He thought that was pretty funny, given that she was wearing white pants, and then he realized that it wasn’t ink at all.

“Dolores has her period!” he cried out loud, out of sheer shock. In a house full of males-with the exception of his mother, of course-menstruation was one of those great mysteries about women, like how do they put on mascara without poking out their eyes and how can they hook a bra behind themselves, without seeing what they’re doing?

Everyone in the class turned, and Dolores’s face went as scarlet as her pants. Madame ushered her into the hall, suggesting she go to the nurse. On the seat in front of Peter was a small red puddle of blood. Madame called the custodian, but by then, the class was out of control-whispers raging like a brush fire about how much blood there was, how Dolores was now one of the girls that everyone knew had her period.

“Keating’s bleeding,” Peter said to the kid sitting next to him, whose eyes lit up.

“Keating’s bleeding,” the boy repeated, and the chant went around the room. Keating’s bleeding. Keating’s bleeding. Across the room, Peter caught Josie’s eye-Josie, who’d started to wear makeup lately. She was singing along with the rest of them.

Belonging felt like helium; Peter felt himself swell inside. He’d been the one to start this; by drawing a line around Dolores, he’d become part of the inner circle.

At lunch that day, he was sitting with Josie when Drew Girard and Matt Royston came over with their trays. “We heard that you saw it happen,” Drew said, and they sat down so that Peter could tell them the details. He began embellishing-a teaspoon of blood became a cup; the stain on her white pants grew from a modest spot to a Rorschach blot of enormous proportion. They called over their friends-some who were kids on Peter’s soccer team, yet hadn’t spoken to him all year. “Tell them, too, it’s hilarious,” Matt said, and he smiled at Peter as if Peter were one of them.

Dolores stayed out of school. Peter knew that it wouldn’t have made any difference if she was gone for a month or more-the memories of sixth graders were steel traps, and for the rest of her high school career, Dolores would always be remembered as the girl who got her period in French class and bled all over the seat.

The morning that she came back, she stepped off the bus and was immediately flanked by Drew and Matt. “For a woman,” they said, drawing out the words, “you sure don’t have any boobs.” She pushed away from them, and Peter didn’t see her again until French class.

Someone-he really didn’t know who-had come up with a plan. Madame was always late to class; she had to come from the other end of the school. So before the bell rang, everyone would walk up to Dolores’s desk and hand her a tampon they’d been given by Courtney Ignatio, who’d pilfered a box from her mother.

Drew was first. As he set the tampon on her desk he said, “I think you might have dropped this.” Six tampons later, the bell still hadn’t rung, and Madame wasn’t in the room yet. Peter walked up, holding the wrapped tube in his fist, ready to drop it-and noticed Dolores was crying.

It wasn’t loud, and it was barely even visible. But as Peter reached out with the tampon, he suddenly realized that this was what it looked like from the other side, when he was being put through hell.

Peter crushed the tampon in his fist. “Stop,” he said softly, and then he turned around to the next three students waiting in line to humiliate Dolores. “Just stop already.”

“What’s your problem, homo?” Drew asked.

“It’s not funny anymore.”

Maybe it was never funny. It was just that it hadn’t been him, and that was good enough.

The boy behind him shoved Peter out of the way and flicked his tampon so that it bounced off Dolores’s head, rolled underneath Peter’s seat. And then it was Josie’s turn.

She looked at Dolores, and then she looked at Peter. “Don’t,” he murmured.

Josie pressed her lips together and let the tampon roll from her outstretched fingers onto Dolores’s desk. “Oops,” she said, and when Matt Royston laughed, she went to stand beside him.

Peter was lying in wait. Although Josie hadn’t been walking with him for a few weeks now, he knew what she was doing after school-usually strolling into town to get an iced tea with Courtney & Co. and then window-shopping. Sometimes he stood back at a distance and watched her the way you’d stare at a butterfly that you’d only known as a caterpillar, wondering how the hell change could be that dramatic.

He waited until she’d left the other girls, and then he followed her down the street that led to her house. When he caught up to her and grabbed her arm, she shrieked.

“God!” she said. “Peter, why don’t you just scare me to death!”

He had worked out what he was going to ask her in his mind, because words didn’t come easily to him, and he knew that he had to practice them more than others would; but when he had Josie this close, after everything that had happened, every question felt like a slap. Instead, he sank onto the curb, spearing his hands through his hair. “Why?” he asked.

She sat down next to him, folding her arms over her knees. “I’m not doing it to hurt you.”

“You’re such a fake with them.”

“I’m just not the way I am with you,” Josie said.

“Like I said: fake.”

“There’s different kinds of real.”

Peter scoffed. “If that’s what those jerks are teaching you, it’s bullshit.”

“They’re not teaching me anything,” Josie argued. “I’m there because I like them. They’re fun and funny and when I’m with them-” She broke off abruptly.

“What?” Peter prompted.

Josie looked him in the eye. “When I’m with them,” she said, “people like me.”

Peter guessed change could be that dramatic: in an instant, you could go from wanting to kill someone to wanting to kill yourself.

“I won’t let them make fun of you anymore,” Josie promised. “That’s a silver lining, right?”

Peter didn’t respond. This wasn’t about him.

“I just…I just can’t really hang out with you right now,” Josie explained.

He lifted his face. “Can’t?”

Josie stood up, backing away from him. “I’ll see you around, Peter,” she said, and she walked out of his life.

You can feel people staring; it’s like heat that rises from the pavement during summer, like a poker in the small of your back. You don’t have to hear a whisper, either, to know that it’s about you.

I used to stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom to see what they were staring at. I wanted to know what made their heads turn, what it was about me that was so incredibly different. At first I couldn’t tell. I mean, I was just me.

Then one day, when I looked in the mirror, I understood. I looked into my own eyes and I hated myself, maybe as much as all of them did.

That was the day I started to believe they might be right.

Ten Days After

Josie waited until she could no longer hear the television in her mother’s bedroom-Leno, not Letterman-and then rolled onto her side to watch the LED acrobatics of the digital clock. When it was 2:00 a.m., she decided it was safe, and she pulled back her covers and got out of bed.

She knew how to sneak downstairs. She’d done it a couple of times before, meeting Matt outside in the backyard. One night, he’d texted her on her cell-1/2 2 C U now. She had gone out to him in her pajamas, and for a moment when he touched her she actually thought she would slip through his fingers.

There was only one landing where the floorboards creaked, and Josie knew enough to step over it. Downstairs, she rummaged through the stack of DVDs for the one she wanted-the one she didn’t want to be caught viewing. Then she turned on the television, muting the sound so low she had to sit right on top of the screen and its built-in speakers to hear.

The first person shown was Courtney. She held up her hand, blocking whoever had been videotaping. She was laughing, though; her long hair falling over her features like a screen of silk. Offscreen, Brady Pryce’s voice: Give us something for Girls Gone Wild, Court. The camera fuzzed out for a moment, and then there was a close-up of a birthday cake. HAPPY SWEET SIX-TEEN, JOSIE. A run of faces, including Haley Weaver’s, singing to her.

Josie paused the DVD. There was Courtney, and Haley, and Maddie, and John, and Drew. She touched her finger to each of their foreheads, getting a tiny electric shock each time.

At her birthday party, they’d had a barbecue at Storrs Pond. There were hot dogs and hamburgers and sweet corn. They had forgotten the ketchup and someone had to drive back into town to buy some at a mini-mart. Courtney’s card had been signed BFF, best friends forever, even though Josie knew she’d written the same thing on Maddie’s card a month earlier.

By the time the screen fuzzed out again and her own face came on, Josie was crying. She knew what was coming; she remembered this part. The camera panned back and there was Matt, his arms around her as she sat on his lap on the sand. He had taken off his shirt, and Josie remembered that his skin had been warm where it pressed up against hers.

How could you be so alive one moment, and then have everything stop-not just your heart and your lungs, but the way you smiled slowly, the left side of your mouth curling before the right; and the pitch of your voice; and the habit you had of tugging at your hair when you were doing your math homework?

I can’t live without you, Matt used to say, and now Josie realized he wouldn’t have to.

She couldn’t stop sobbing, so Josie pushed her fist into her mouth to keep herself from making noise. She watched Matt on the screen the way you might study an animal you had never seen before, if you had to memorize it and tell the world later what you’d found. Matt’s hand splayed across her bare stomach, grazed the edge of her bikini top. She watched herself push him away, blush. “Not here,” her voice said, a funny voice, a voice that didn’t sound like Josie to her own ears. You never did, when you heard yourself on tape.

“Then let’s go somewhere else,” Matt said.

Josie ruched up the edge of her pajama top, until she could reach underneath. She spread her own hand across her belly. She edged her thumb up, like Matt had, to the curve of her breast. She tried to pretend it was him.

He had given her a gold locket for that birthday, one she hadn’t taken off since that day nearly six months ago. Josie was wearing it on the DVD. She remembered that when she’d looked at it in the mirror, Matt’s thumbprint had been on the back, left behind after he clasped it around her neck. That had seemed so intimate, and for a few days, she had done everything she could to keep it from rubbing off.

On the night that Josie had met Matt out in her own backyard, beneath the moon, he’d laughed at her pajamas, printed all over with pictures of Nancy Drew. What were you doing when I texted you? he asked.

Sleeping. Why did you have to see me in the middle of the night?

To make sure you were dreaming about me, he said.

On the DVD, someone called out Matt’s name. He turned, grinning. His teeth were wolf’s teeth, Josie thought. Sharp, impossibly white. He stamped a kiss on Josie’s mouth. “Be right back,” he said.

Be right back.

She pressed Pause again, just as Matt stood up. Then she reached around her neck and ripped the locket off its thin gold chain. She unzipped one of the couch cushions and pushed the necklace deep inside the stuffing.

She turned off the television. She pretended that Matt would be suspended like that forever, inches away from Josie so that she could still reach out and grab him, even though she knew that the DVD would reset itself even before she left the room.

Lacy had known they were out of milk; that morning, as she and Lewis sat like zombies at the kitchen table, she had brought it up:

I hear it’s going to rain again.

We’re out of milk.

Have you heard from Peter’s lawyer?

It devastated Lacy to know that she could not visit Peter again for another week-jail rules. It killed her to know Lewis hadn’t been there to see him at all yet. How was she supposed to go through the motions of an ordinary day, knowing that her son was sitting in a cell less than twenty miles away?

There was a point where the events of your life became a tsunami; Lacy knew, because she’d been washed away once before by grief. When that happened, you would find yourself days later on unfamiliar ground, rootless. The only other choice you had was to move to higher ground while you still could.

Which is why Lacy found herself at a gas station buying a carton of milk, although all gut instinct told her to crawl under the covers and sleep. This was not as easy as it seemed: to get the milk, she had to first back out of her garage with reporters slapping the car windows and blocking her path. She had to elude the news van that followed her to the highway. As a result, she found herself paying for the milk at a service station in Purmort, New Hampshire-one she rarely frequented.

“That’s $2.59,” the cashier said.

Lacy opened her wallet and extracted three dollar bills. Then she noticed the small, hand-lettered display at the register. Memorial Fund for the Victims of Sterling High, the sign read, and there was a coffee can to hold the donations.

She started shaking.

“I know,” the cashier sympathized. “It’s just tragic, isn’t it?”

Lacy’s heart was pounding so fiercely she was certain the clerk would hear it.

“You’ve got to wonder about the parents, don’t you? I mean, how could they not have known?”

Lacy nodded, afraid that even the sound of her voice would ruin her anonymity. It was almost too easy to agree: Had there ever been a more awful child? A worse mother?

It was simple to say that behind every terrible child stood a terrible parent, but what about the ones who had done the best they could? What about the ones, like Lacy, who had loved unconditionally, protected ferociously, cherished mightily-and still had raised a murderer?

I didn’t know, Lacy wanted to say. It’s not my fault.

But she stayed silent because-truth be told-she wasn’t quite sure she believed that.

Lacy emptied the contents of her wallet into the coffee can, bills and coins. Numb, she walked out of the gas station, leaving the carton of milk on the counter.

She had nothing left inside. She’d given it all to her son. And that was the greatest heartbreak of all-no matter how spectacular we want our children to be, no matter how perfect we pretend they are, they are bound to disappoint. As it turns out, kids are more like us than we think: damaged, through and through.

Ervin Peabody, the professor of psychiatry at the college, offered to run a grief session for the entire town of Sterling at the white clapboard church in its center. There was a tiny line item in the daily paper and purple flyers posted at the coffee shop and bank, but that was enough to spread the word. By the time the meeting convened at 7:00 p.m., cars were parked as far as a half mile away; people spilled through the open doors of the church onto the street. The press, which had come en masse to cover the meeting, was turned away by a battalion of Sterling policemen.

Selena pressed the baby closer against her chest as another wave of townspeople pushed past her. “Did you know it was going to be like this?” she whispered to Jordan.

He shook his head, eyes roaming over the crowd. He recognized some of the same people who’d come to the arraignment, but also a host of other faces that were new, and that wouldn’t have been intimately connected to the high school: the elderly, the college kids, the couples with young babies. They had come because of the ripple effect, because one person’s trauma is another’s loss of innocence.

Ervin Peabody sat in the front of the room, beside the police chief and the principal of Sterling High. “Hello,” he said, standing up. “We’ve called this session tonight because we’re all still reeling. Nearly overnight, the landscape’s changed around us. We may not have all the answers, but we thought it might be beneficial for us to start to talk about what’s happened. And maybe more importantly, to listen to each other.”

A man stood up in the second row, holding his jacket in his hands. “I moved here five years ago, because my wife and I wanted to get away from the craziness of New York City. We were starting a family, and were looking for a place that was…well, just a little bit kinder and gentler. I mean, when you drive down the street in Sterling you get honked at by people who know you. You go to the bank and the teller remembers your name. There aren’t places like that in America anymore, and now…” He broke off.

“And now Sterling’s not one either,” Ervin finished. “I know how difficult it can be when the image you’ve had of something doesn’t match its reality; when the friend beside you turns into a monster.”

“Monster?” Jordan whispered to Selena.

“Well, what is he supposed to say? That Peter was a time bomb? That’ll make them all feel safe.”

The psychiatrist looked out over the crowd. “I think that the very fact that you’re all here tonight shows that Sterling hasn’t changed. It may not ever be normal again, as we know it…. We’re going to have to figure out a new kind of normal.”

A woman raised her hand. “What about the high school? Are our kids going to have to go back inside there?”

Ervin glanced at the police chief, the principal. “It’s still the site of an active investigation,” the chief said.

“We’re hoping to finish out the year in a different location,” the principal added. “We’re in talks with the superintendent’s office in Lebanon, to see if we can use one of their empty schools.”

Another woman’s voice: “But they’re going to have to go back sometime. My daughter’s only ten, and she’s terrified about walking into that high school, ever. She wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. She thinks there’s someone with a gun there, waiting for her.”

“Be happy she’s able to have nightmares,” a man replied. He was standing next to Jordan, his arms folded, his eyes a livid red. “Go in there every night, when she cries, and hold her and tell her you’ll keep her safe. Lie to her, just like I did.”

A murmur rolled through the church, like a ball of yarn being unraveled. That’s Mark Ignatio. The father of one of the dead.

Just like that, a fault line opened up in Sterling-a ravine so deep and bleak that it would not be bridged for many years. There was already a difference in this town, between those who had lost children and those who still had them to worry about.

“Some of you knew my daughter Courtney,” Mark said, pushing away from the wall. “Maybe she babysat for your kids. Or served you a burger at the Steak Shack in the summer. Maybe you’d recognize her by sight, because she was a beautiful, beautiful girl.” He turned to the front of the stage. “You want to tell me how I’m supposed to figure out a new kind of normal, Doc? You wouldn’t dare suggest that one day, it gets easier. That I’ll be able to move past this. That I’ll forget my daughter is lying in a grave, while some psychopath is still alive and well.” Suddenly the man turned to Jordan. “How can you live with yourself?” he accused. “How the hell can you sleep at night, knowing you’re defending that sonofabitch?”

Every eye in the room turned to Jordan. Beside him, he could feel Selena press Sam’s face against her chest, shielding the baby. Jordan opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t find a single word.

The sound of boots coming up the aisle distracted him. Patrick Ducharme was headed straight for Mark Ignatio. “I can’t imagine the pain you’re feeling, Mark,” Patrick said, his gaze locked on the grieving man’s. “And I know you have every right to come here and be upset. But the way our country works, someone’s innocent until they’re proven guilty. Mr. McAfee’s just doing his job.” He clapped his hand on Mark’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “Why don’t you and I grab a cup of coffee?”

As Patrick led Mark Ignatio toward the exit, Jordan remembered what he had wanted to say. “I live here, too,” he began.

Mark turned around. “Not for long.”

Alex was not short for Alexandra, like most people assumed. Her father had simply given her the name of the son he would have preferred to have.

After Alex’s mother had died of breast cancer when she was five, her father had raised her. He wasn’t the kind of dad who showed her how to ride a bike or to skip stones-instead, he taught her the Latin words for things like faucet and octopus and porcupine; he explained to her the Bill of Rights. She used academics to get his attention: winning spelling bees and geography contests, netting a string of straight A’s, getting into every college she applied to.

She wanted to be just like her father: the kind of man who walked down the street and had storekeepers nod to him in awe: Good afternoon, Judge Cormier. She wanted to hear the change in tone of a receptionist’s voice when the woman heard it was Judge Cormier on the line.

If her father never held her on his lap, never kissed her good night, never told her he loved her-well, it was all part of the persona. From her father, Alex learned that everything could be distilled into facts. Comfort, parenting, love-all of these could be boiled down and explained, rather than experienced. And the law-well, the law supported her father’s belief system. Any feelings you had in the context of a courtroom had an explanation. You were given permission to be emotional, in a logical setting. What you felt for your clients was not really what was in your own heart, or so you could pretend, so that no one ever got close enough to hurt you.

Alex’s father had had a stroke when she was a second-year law student. She had sat on the edge of his hospital bed and told him she loved him.

“Oh, Alex,” he’d sighed. “Let’s not bother with that.”

She hadn’t cried at his funeral, because she knew that’s what he would have wanted.

Had her own father wished, as she did now, that the basis of their relationship had been different? Had he eventually given up hoping, settling for teacher and student instead of parent and child? How long could you march along on a parallel track with your child before you lost any chance of intersecting her life?

She’d read countless websites about grief and its stages; she’d studied the aftermath of other school shootings. She could do research, but when she tried to connect with Josie, her daughter looked at her as if she’d never seen her before. At other times, Josie burst into tears. Alex didn’t know how to combat either outcome. She felt incompetent-and then she’d remember that this wasn’t about her, it was about Josie-and she’d feel even more like a failure.

The great irony hadn’t escaped Alex: she was more like her father than he ever might have guessed. She felt comfortable in her courtroom, in a way she did not feel in the confines of her own home. She knew just what to say to a defendant who’d come in with his third DUI charge, but she couldn’t sustain a five-minute conversation with her own child.

Ten days after the shooting at Sterling High, Alex went into Josie’s bedroom. It was midafternoon and the curtains were shut tight; Josie was hidden in the cocoon she’d made of her bedcovers. Although her immediate instinct was to snap open the shades and let the sunlight in, Alex lay down on the bed instead. She wrapped her arms around the bundle that was her daughter. “When you were little,” Alex said, “sometimes I’d come in here and sleep with you.”

There was a shifting, and the sheets fell away from Josie’s face. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face swollen. “Why?”

She shrugged. “I was never a big fan of thunderstorms.”

“How come I never woke up and found you here?”

“I always went back to my own bed. I was supposed to be the tough one…. I didn’t want you to think I was scared of anything.”

“Supermom,” Josie whispered.

“But I’m scared of losing you,” Alex said. “I’m scared it’s already happened.”

Josie stared at her for a moment. “I’m scared of losing me, too.”

Alex sat up and tucked Josie’s hair behind her ear. “Let’s get out of here,” she suggested.

Josie froze. “I don’t want to go out.”

“Sweetheart, it would be good for you. It’s like physical therapy, but for the brain. Go through the motions, the pattern of your everyday life, and eventually you remember how to do it naturally.”

“You don’t understand…”

“If you don’t try, Jo,” she said, “then that means he wins.”

Josie’s head snapped up. Alex didn’t have to tell her who he was. “Did you guess?” Alex heard herself asking.

“Guess what?”

“That he might do this?”

“Mom, I don’t want to-”

“I keep thinking about him as a little boy,” Alex said.

Josie shook her head. “That was a really long time ago,” she murmured. “People change.”

“I know. But sometimes I can still see him handing you that rifle-”

“We were little,” Josie interrupted, her eyes filling with tears. “We were stupid.” She pushed back the covers, in a sudden hurry. “I thought you wanted to go somewhere.”

Alex looked at her. A lawyer would press the point. A mother, though, might not.

Minutes later, Josie was sitting in the passenger seat of the car beside Alex. She buckled the seat belt, then unlatched it, then secured it again. Alex watched her tug on the belt to make sure it would lock up.

She pointed out the obvious as they drove-that the first daffodils had pushed their brave heads through the snow on the median strip of Main Street; that the Sterling College crew team was training on the Connecticut River, the bows of their boats breaking through the residual ice. That the temperature gauge in the car said it was more than fifty degrees. Alex intentionally took the long route-the one that did not go past the school. Only once did Josie’s head turn to look at the scenery, and that was when they passed the police station.

Alex pulled into a parking spot in front of the diner. The street was filled with lunchtime shoppers and busy pedestrians, carrying boxes to be mailed and talking on cell phones and glancing into store windows. To anyone who didn’t know better, it was business as usual in Sterling. “So,” Alex said, turning to Josie. “How are we doing?”

Josie looked down at her hands in her lap. “Okay.”

“It’s not as bad as you thought, is it?”

“Not yet.”

“My daughter the optimist.” Alex smiled at her. “You want to split a BLT and a salad?”

“You haven’t even looked at a menu yet,” Josie said, and they both got out of the car.

Suddenly a rusted Dodge Dart ran the light at the head of Main Street, backfiring as it sped away. “Idiot,” Alex muttered, “I should get his plate number…” She broke off when she realized that Josie had vanished. “Josie!”

Then Alex saw her daughter, pressed against the sidewalk, where she’d flattened herself. Her face was white, her body trembling.

Alex knelt beside her. “It was a car. Just a car.” She helped Josie to her knees. All around them, people were watching and pretending not to.

Alex shielded Josie from their view. She had failed again. For someone renowned for her good judgment, she suddenly seemed to be lacking any. She thought of something she’d read on the Internet-how sometimes, when it came to grief, you could take one step forward and then three steps back. She wondered why the Internet did not add that when someone you loved was hurting, it cut you right to the bone, too. “All right,” Alex said, her arm anchored tight around Josie’s shoulders. “Let’s get you back home.”

Patrick had taken to living, eating, and sleeping his case. At the station, he acted cool and in command-he was the point man, after all, for all those investigators-but at home, he questioned every move he made. On his refrigerator were the pictures of the dead; on his bathroom mirror he’d created a dry-erase marker timeline of Peter’s day. He sat awake in the middle of the night, writing lists of questions: What was Peter doing at home before leaving for school? What else was on his computer? Where did he learn to shoot? How did he get guns? Where did the anger come from?

During the day, however, he plowed through the massive amount of information to be processed, and the even more massive amount of information to be gleaned. Now, Joan McCabe sat across from him. She had cried her way through the last box of Kleenex at the station, and was now wadding paper towels up in her fist. “I’m sorry,” she said to Patrick. “I thought this would get easier the more I do it.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” he said gently. “I do appreciate you taking the time to speak to me about your brother.”

Ed McCabe had been the only teacher killed in the shooting. His classroom had been at the top of the stairs, en route to the gymnasium; he’d had the bad fortune to come out and try to stop what was happening. According to school records, Peter had had McCabe as a math teacher in tenth grade. He’d gotten B’s. No one else could remember his not getting along with McCabe that year; most of the other students hadn’t even recalled Peter being in the class.

“There’s really nothing else I can tell you,” Joan said. “Maybe Philip remembers something.”

“Your husband?”

Joan looked up at him. “No. That’s Ed’s partner.”

Patrick leaned back in his chair. “Partner. As in-”

“Ed was gay,” Joan said.

It might be something, but then again, it might not. For all Patrick knew, Ed McCabe-who’d been just a hapless victim a half hour ago-could have been the reason Peter started shooting.

“No one at the school knew,” Joan said. “I think he was afraid of backlash. He told people in town that Philip was his old college roommate.”

Another victim-one who was still alive-was Natalie Zlenko. She’d been shot in the side and had to have her liver resected. Patrick thought he remembered seeing her name listed as president of the GLAAD club at Sterling High. She’d been one of the first people shot; McCabe had been one of the last.

Maybe Peter Houghton was homophobic.

Patrick handed Joan his card. “I’d really like to talk to Philip,” he said.

Lacy Houghton set a teapot and a plate of celery in front of Selena. “I don’t have any milk. I went to buy some, but…” Her voice trailed off, and Selena tried to fill in the blanks.

“I really appreciate you talking to me,” Selena said. “Whatever you can tell me, we’ll use to help Peter.”

Lacy nodded. “Anything,” she said. “Anything you want to know.”

“Well, let’s start with the easy stuff. Where was he born?”

“Right at Dartmouth-Hitchcock,” Lacy said.

“Normal delivery?”

“Totally. No complications.” She smiled a little. “I used to walk three miles every day when I was pregnant. Lewis thought I’d wind up delivering in someone’s driveway.”

“Did you nurse him? Was he a good eater?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t see why…”

“Because we have to see if there might be a brain disorder,” Selena said matter-of-factly. “An organic problem.”

“Oh,” Lacy said faintly. “Yes. I nursed him. He’s always been healthy. A little smaller than other kids his age, but neither Lewis nor I are very big people.”

“How was his social development as a child?”

“He didn’t have a lot of friends,” Lacy said. “Not like Joey.”

“Joey?”

“Peter’s older brother. Peter is a year younger, and much quieter. He got teased because of his size, and because he wasn’t as good an athlete as Joey….”

“What kind of relationship does Peter have with Joey?”

Lacy looked down at her knotted hands. “Joey died a year ago. He was killed in a car accident, by a drunk driver.”

Selena stopped writing. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yes,” Lacy said. “Me, too.”

Selena leaned back slightly in her chair. It was crazy, she knew, but just in case misfortune was contagious, she did not want to get too close. She thought of Sam, how she’d left him sleeping this morning in his crib. During the night he’d kicked off a sock; his toes were plump as early peas; it was all she could do not to taste his caramel skin. So much of the language of love was like that: you devoured someone with your eyes, you drank in the sight of him, you swallowed him whole. Love was sustenance, broken down and beating through your bloodstream.

She turned back to Lacy. “Did Peter get along with Joey?”

“Oh, Peter adored his big brother.”

“He told you that?”

Lacy shrugged. “He didn’t have to. He’d be at all of Joey’s football games, and cheering just as loud as the rest of us. When he got to the high school, everyone expected great things of him, because he was Joey’s little brother.”

Which could be, Selena knew, just as much a source of frustration as it was of pride. “How did Peter react to Joey’s death?”

“He was devastated, just like we were. He cried a lot. Spent time in his room.”

“Did your relationship with Peter change after Joey died?”

“I think it got stronger,” Lacy said. “I was so overwhelmed. Peter…he let us lean on him.”

“Did he lean on anyone else? Have any intimate relationships?”

“You mean with girls?”

“Or boys,” Selena said.

“He was still at that awkward age. I know he’d asked a few girls out, but I don’t think anything ever came of it.”

“How were Peter’s grades?”

“He wasn’t a straight-A student like his brother,” Lacy said, “but he’d get B’s and the occasional C. We always told him to just do the best he could.”

“Did he have any learning disabilities?”

“No.”

“What about outside of school? What did he like to do?” Selena asked.

“He’d listen to music. Play video games. Like any other teenager.”

“Did you ever listen to his music, or play those games?”

Lacy let a smile ghost over her face. “I actively tried not to.”

“Did you monitor his Internet use?”

“He was only supposed to be using it for school projects. We had long talks about chat rooms and how unsafe the Internet can be, but Peter had a good head on his shoulders. We-” She broke off, looking away. “We trusted him.”

“Did you know what he was downloading?”

“No.”

“What about weapons? Do you know where he got them from?”

Lacy took a deep breath. “Lewis hunts. He took Peter out with him once, but Peter didn’t like it very much. The shotguns are always locked in a gun case-”

“And Peter knew where the key was.”

“Yes,” Lacy murmured.

“What about the pistols?”

“We’ve never had those in our house. I have no idea where they came from.”

“Did you ever check his room? Under the bed, in the closets, that kind of thing?”

Lacy met her gaze. “We’ve always respected his privacy. I think it’s important for a child to have his own space, and-” She pressed her lips shut.

“And?”

“And sometimes when you start looking,” Lacy said softly, “you find things you don’t really want to see.”

Selena leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. “When did that happen, Lacy?”

Lacy walked to the window, drawing aside the curtain. “You would have had to know Joey to understand. He was a senior, an honors student, an athlete. And then, a week before graduation, he was killed.” She let her hand trail the edge of the fabric. “Someone had to go through his room-pack it up, get rid of the things we didn’t want to keep. It took me a while, but finally, I did it. I was going through his drawers when I found the drugs. Just a little powder, in a gum wrapper, and a spoon and a needle. I didn’t know it was heroin until I looked it up on the Internet. I flushed it down the toilet and threw the hypodermic out at work.” She turned toward Selena, her face red. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I’ve never told anyone, not even Lewis. I didn’t want him-or anyone-to think anything bad about Joey.”

Lacy sat down on the couch again. “I didn’t go into Peter’s room on purpose, because I was afraid of what I’d find,” she confessed. “I didn’t know that it could be even worse.”

“Did you ever interrupt him when he was in his room? Knock on the door, pop your head inside?”

“Sure. I’d come in to say good night.”

“What was he usually doing?”

“He was on his computer,” Lacy said. “Almost always.”

“Didn’t you see what was on the screen?”

“I don’t know. He’d close the file.”

“How did he act when you interrupted him unexpectedly? Did he seem upset? Annoyed? Guilty?”

“Why does it feel like you’re judging him?” Lacy said. “Aren’t you supposed to be on our side?”

Selena met her gaze steadily. “The only way I can thoroughly investigate this case is to ask you the facts, Mrs. Houghton. That’s all I’m doing.”

“He was like any other teenager,” Lacy said. “He’d suffer while I kissed him good night. He didn’t seem embarrassed. He didn’t act like he was hiding anything from me. Is that what you want to know?”

Selena put down her pen. When the subject started getting defensive, it was time to end the interview. But Lacy was still talking, unprompted.

“I never thought there was any problem,” she admitted. “I didn’t know Peter was upset. I didn’t know he wanted to kill himself. I didn’t know any of those things.” She began to cry. “All those families out there, I don’t know what to say to them. I wish I could tell them that I lost someone, too. I just lost him a long time ago.”

Selena folded her arms around the smaller woman. “It’s not your fault,” she said, words she knew Lacy Houghton needed to hear.

In a fit of high school irony, the principal of Sterling High had placed the Bible Study Club next door to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. They met Tuesdays, at three-thirty, in Rooms 233 and 234 of the high school. Room 233 was, during the day, Ed McCabe’s classroom. One member of the Bible Study Club was the daughter of a local minister, named Grace Murtaugh. She’d been killed in the hallway leading to the gymnasium, shot in front of a water fountain. The leader of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance was still in the hospital: Natalie Zlenko, a yearbook photographer, had come out as a lesbian after her freshman year, when she’d wandered into the GLAAD meeting in Room 233 to see if there was anyone else on this planet like herself.

“We’re not supposed to give out names.” Natalie’s voice was so faint that Patrick had to lean over the hospital bed to hear her. Natalie’s mother hovered at his shoulder. When he’d come in to ask Natalie a few questions, she said that he’d better leave or else she’d call the police. He reminded her that he was the police.

“I’m not asking for names,” Patrick said. “I’m just asking you to help me help a jury understand why this happened.”

Natalie nodded. She closed her eyes.

“Peter Houghton,” Patrick said. “Did he ever attend a meeting?”

“Once,” Natalie said.

“Did he say or do anything that sticks in your mind?”

“He didn’t say or do anything, period. He showed up the one time, and he never came back.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Sometimes,” Natalie said. “People wouldn’t be ready to come out. And sometimes we got jerks who just wanted to know who was gay so that they could make life hell for us in school.”

“In your opinion, did Peter fit into either one of these categories?”

She was silent for a long time, her eyes still closed. Patrick drew away, thinking that she’d fallen asleep. “Thanks,” he said to her mother, just as Natalie spoke again.

“Peter was getting ragged on long before he ever showed up at that meeting,” she said.

Jordan was on diaper detail while Selena interviewed Lacy Houghton, and Sam was appallingly bad at going to sleep on his own. However, a ten-minute ride in the car could knock the kid out like a prizefighter, so Jordan bundled the baby up and strapped him into the car seat. It wasn’t until he put the Saab into reverse that he realized his wheel rims were grinding against the driveway; all four of his tires had been slashed.

“Fuck,” Jordan said, as Sam started to wail again in the backseat. He plucked the baby out, carried him back inside, and tethered him into the Snugli that Selena wore around the house. Then he called the police to report the vandalism.

Jordan knew he was in trouble when the dispatch officer didn’t ask him to spell his last name-he already knew it. “We’ll get to it,” the officer said. “But first we’ve got a squirrel up a tree that needs a hand climbing down.” The line went dead.

Could you sue the cops for being unsympathetic bastards?

Through some miracle-pheromones of stress, probably-Sam fell asleep, but startled, bawling, when the doorbell rang. Jordan yanked the door open to find Selena outside. “You woke up the baby,” he accused as she lifted Sam out of the carrier.

“Then you shouldn’t have locked the door. Oh, hi, you sweet man,” Selena cooed. “Has Daddy been a monster the whole time I’ve been gone?”

“Someone slashed my tires.”

Selena glanced at him over the baby’s head. “Well, you sure know how to win friends and influence people. Let me guess-the cops aren’t exactly scrambling to take your report?”

“Not quite.”

“Comes with the territory, I guess,” Selena said. “You’re the one who took this case.”

“How about a little spousal understanding?”

Selena shrugged. “Wasn’t in the vows I took. If you want to have a pity party, set the table for one.”

Jordan ran a hand through his hair. “Well, did you at least get anything out of the mother? Like, for example, that Peter had a psychiatric diagnosis?”

She peeled off her jacket while juggling Sam in one hand and then the other, unbuttoned her blouse, and sat down on the couch to nurse. “No. But he did have a sibling.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. A dead one, who-prior to being killed by a drunk driver-was the All-American Son.”

Jordan sank down beside her. “I can use this…”

Selena rolled her eyes. “Just for once, could you not be a lawyer and focus instead on being a human? Jordan, this family was in so deep they didn’t have a chance. The kid was a powder keg. The parents were dealing with their own grief and were asleep at the wheel. Peter had no one to turn to.”

Jordan glanced up at her, a grin splitting his face. “Excellent,” he said. “Our client’s just become sympathetic.”

One week after the school shooting at Sterling High, the Mount Lebanon School-a primary grade school that had become an administrative building when the population of students in Lebanon dipped-was outfitted to be the temporary home for high school kids to finish out their school year.

On the day that classes were beginning again, Josie’s mother came into her bedroom. “You don’t have to do this,” she said. “You can take a few more weeks off, if you want.”

There had been a flurry of phone calls, a pulse of panic that began a few days ago when each student received the written word that school would be starting again. Are you going back? Are you? There were rumors: whose mother wouldn’t let them return; who was getting transferred to St. Mary’s; who was going to take over Mr. McCabe’s class. Josie had not called any of her friends. She was afraid to hear their answers.

Josie did not want to go back to school. She could not imagine having to walk down a hallway, even one not physically located at Sterling High. She didn’t know how the superintendent and the principal expected everyone to act-and they would all be doing that: acting-because to feel anything real would be devastating. And yet there was another part of Josie that understood she had to go back to school; it was where she belonged. The other students at Sterling High were the only ones who really understood what it was like to wake up in the morning and crave those three seconds before you remembered your life wasn’t what it used to be; who had forgotten how easy it was to trust that the ground beneath your feet was solid.

If you were drifting with a thousand other people, could you really still say you were lost?

“Josie?” her mother said, prompting.

“It’s fine,” she lied.

Her mother left, and Josie started to gather her books. She realized, suddenly, that she’d never taken her science test. Catalysts. She didn’t remember anything about them anymore. Mrs. Duplessiers wouldn’t be evil enough to hand out the test on their first day back, would she? It wasn’t like time had stopped during these three weeks-it had changed completely.

The last morning she had gone to school, she hadn’t been thinking of anything in particular. That test, maybe. Matt. How much homework she’d have that night. Normal things, in other words. A normal day. There had been nothing to set it apart from any other morning at school; so how could Josie be sure that today wouldn’t dissolve at the seams, too?

When Josie reached the kitchen, her mother was wearing a suit-work clothes. It took her by surprise. “You’re going back today?” she asked.

Her mother turned, holding a spatula. “Oh,” she answered, faltering. “I just figured that since you were…You can always reach me through the clerk, if there’s a problem. I swear to God, Josie, I’ll be there in less than ten minutes….”

Josie sank into a chair and closed her eyes. Somehow, it didn’t matter that Josie herself was leaving the house for the day-she’d still imagined her mother sitting home waiting for her, just in case. But that was stupid, wasn’t it? It had never been like that, so why should now be any different?

Because, a voice whispered in Josie’s head. Everything else is.

“I’ve rearranged my schedule so I’ll be able to pick you up from school. And if there’s any problem-”

“Yeah. Call the clerk. Whatever.”

Her mother sat down across from her. “Honey, what did you expect?”

Josie glanced up. “Nothing. I stopped that a long time ago.” She stood up. “You’re burning your pancakes,” she said, and she walked back upstairs to her bedroom.

She buried her face in her pillow. She didn’t know what the hell was wrong with her. It was as if, after, there were two Josies-the little girl who kept hoping it might be a nightmare, might never have happened, and the realist who still hurt so badly she lashed out at anyone who got too close. The thing was, Josie didn’t know which persona was going to take over at any given moment. Here was her mother, for God’s sake, who couldn’t boil water but was now attempting pancakes for Josie before she went back to school. When she was younger, she had imagined living in the kind of house where on the first day of school your mother had a whole spread of eggs and bacon and juice to start the day off right-instead of a lineup of cereal boxes and a paper napkin. Well, she’d gotten what she wished for, hadn’t she? A mother who sat at her bedside when she was crying, a mother who had temporarily abandoned the job that defined her to hover over Josie instead. And what did Josie do? She pushed her away. She said, in all the spaces between her words, You never cared about anything that happened in my life when nobody was watching, so don’t think you can just start now.

Suddenly, Josie heard the roar of an engine pulling into the driveway. Matt, she thought, before she could stop herself; and by then, every nerve in her body was stretched to the point of pain. Somehow, she hadn’t really thought about how she would physically be transported to school-Matt had always picked her up en route. Her mother, of course, would have driven her. But Josie wondered why she hadn’t worked through these logistics earlier. Because she was afraid to? Didn’t want to?

From her bedroom window she watched Drew Girard get out of his battered Volvo. By the time she reached the front door to open it, her mother had come out of the kitchen, too. She held the smoke detector in her hand, popped off its plastic snap on the ceiling.

Drew stood in a shaft of sunlight, shading his eyes with his free hand. His other arm was still in a sling. “I should have called.”

“That’s okay,” Josie said. She felt dizzy. She realized that, in the background, the birds had come back from wherever they went in the winter.

Drew looked from Josie to her mother. “I thought maybe, you know, you might need a ride.”

Suddenly Matt was standing there with them; Josie could feel his fingers on her back.

“Thanks,” her mother said, “but I’m going to take Josie in today.”

The monster in Josie uncoiled. “I’d rather go with Drew,” she said, grabbing her backpack off the newel post of the banister. “I’ll see you at pickup.” Without turning around to see her mother’s face, Josie ran to the car, which gleamed like a sanctuary.

Inside, she waited for Drew to turn over the ignition and pull out of the driveway. “Are your parents like that?” Josie asked, closing her eyes as they sped down the street. “Like you can’t breathe?”

Drew glanced at her. “Yeah.”

“Have you talked to anyone?”

“Like the police?”

Josie shook her head. “Like us.”

He downshifted. “I went over to the hospital to see John a couple of times,” Drew said. “He couldn’t remember my name. He can’t remember the words for things like forks or hairbrushes or stairs. I kind of sat there and told him stupid things-who’d won the last few Bruins games, things like that-but the whole time I was wondering if he even knows he can’t walk anymore.” At a stoplight, Drew turned to her. “Why not me?”

“What?”

“How come we got to be the lucky ones?”

Josie didn’t know what to say to that. She looked out the window, pretending to be fascinated by a dog that was pulling its owner, instead of the other way around.

Drew pulled into the parking lot of the Mount Lebanon School. Beside the building was a playground-this had been an elementary school, after all, and even once it became administrative, neighborhood kids would still come to use the monkey bars and the swings. In front of the school’s main doors stood the principal and a line of parents, calling out the names of students and encouraging them as they walked inside.

“I have something for you,” Drew said, and he reached behind his seat and held out a baseball cap-one Josie recognized. Whatever embroidery had once been on it had long since unraveled; the brim was frayed and curled tight as a fiddlehead. He handed it to Josie, who ran a finger gently along the inside seam.

“He left it in my car,” Drew explained. “I was going to give it to his parents…after. But then I kind of thought you might want it instead.”

Josie nodded, as tears rose along the watermark of her throat.

Drew bent his head against the wheel. It took Josie a moment to realize that he was crying, too.

She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” Josie managed, and she settled Matt’s baseball cap onto her head. She opened the passenger door and reached for her knapsack, but instead of heading toward the school she walked through the rusted gates onto the playground. She strode into the middle of the sandbox and stared at her shoe prints, wondered how much wind or weather it would take to make them disappear.

Twice Alex had excused herself from the courtroom to call Josie’s cell, even though she knew Josie kept it turned off during classroom hours. The message she left both times was the same:

It’s me. I just wanted to know how you were holding up.

Alex told her clerk, Eleanor, that if Josie called back, she was to be disturbed. No matter what.

She was relieved to be back at work, but had to force herself to pay attention to the case in front of her. There was a defendant on the stand who claimed to have no experience with the criminal justice system. “I don’t understand the court process,” the woman said, turning to Alex. “Can I go now?”

The prosecutor was in the middle of his cross-examination. “First, why don’t you tell Judge Cormier about the last time you were in court.”

The woman hesitated. “Maybe for a speeding ticket.”

“What else?”

“I can’t remember,” she said.

“Aren’t you on probation?” the prosecutor asked.

“Oh,” the woman replied. “That.”

“What are you on probation for?”

“I can’t remember.” She looked up at the ceiling, her brow wrinkling in thought. “It begins with an F. F…F…F…felony! That’s it!”

The prosecutor sighed. “Didn’t it have to do with a check?”

Alex looked at her watch, thinking that if she got this woman off the damn stand, she could see if Josie had called in yet. “How about forgery,” she interrupted. “That starts with an F.”

“So does fraud,” the prosecutor pointed out.

The woman faced Alex blankly. “I can’t remember.”

“I’m calling a one-hour recess,” Alex announced. “Court will resume at eleven a.m.”

As soon as she was through the door that took her to her chambers, she stripped off her robes. They felt suffocating today, something that Alex didn’t really understand-this was where she had always felt comfortable. Law was a set of rules she understood-a code of behavior where certain actions had certain consequences. She could not say the same of her personal life, where a school that was supposed to be safe turned into a slaughterhouse, where a daughter carved from her own body had become someone Alex no longer understood.

Okay, if she was going to be honest, that she’d never understood.

Frustrated, she stood up and walked into her clerk’s office. Twice, before the trial began, she’d called on Eleanor for trivial things, hoping that instead of hearing “Yes, Your Honor,” the clerk would let down her guard and ask Alex how she was doing, how Josie was doing. That for a half a moment, she wouldn’t be a judge to someone, just another parent who’d had the scare of a lifetime.

“I need a cigarette,” Alex said. “I’m going downstairs.”

Eleanor glanced up. “All right, Your Honor.”

Alex, she thought. Alex Alex Alex.

Outside, Alex sat down on the cement block near the loading zone and lit a cigarette. She drew in deeply, closed her eyes.

“Those’ll kill you, you know.”

“So will old age,” Alex replied, and she turned around to see Patrick Ducharme.

He turned his face up to the sun, squinted. “I wouldn’t have expected a judge to have vices.”

“You probably think we sleep under the bench, too.”

Patrick grinned. “Well, that would be just plain silly. There’s not enough room for a mattress.”

She held out the pack. “Be my guest.”

“If you want to corrupt me, there are more interesting ways.”

Alex felt her face flame. He hadn’t just said that, had he? To a judge? “If you don’t smoke, why’d you come out here?”

“To photosynthesize. When I’m stuck in court all day it ruins my feng shui.”

“People don’t have feng shui. Places do.”

“Do you know that for a fact?”

Alex hesitated. “Well. No.”

“There you go.” He turned to her, and for the first time she noticed that he had a white streak in his hair, right at the widow’s peak. “You’re staring.”

Alex immediately jerked her gaze away.

“It’s all right,” Patrick said, laughing. “It’s albinism.”

“Albinism?”

“Yeah, you know. Pale skin, white hair. It’s recessive, so I got a skunk streak. I’m one gene away from looking like a rabbit.” He faced her, sobering. “How’s Josie?”

She considered putting up that Chinese wall, telling him she didn’t want to talk about anything that could compromise her case. But Patrick Ducharme had done the one thing Alex had wished for-he’d treated her like a person instead of a public figure. “She went back to school,” Alex confided.

“I know. I saw her.”

“You…Were you there?”

Patrick shrugged. “Yeah. Just in case.”

“Did anything happen?”

“No,” he said. “It was…ordinary.”

The word hung between them. Nothing was going to be ordinary again, and both of them knew it. You could patch up whatever was broken, but if you were the one who had fixed it, you’d always know in your heart where the fault lines lay.

“Hey,” Patrick said, touching her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

She realized, mortified, that she was crying. Wiping her eyes, Alex moved out of his reach.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said, daring Patrick to challenge her.

He opened his mouth as if he was about to speak, but then snapped it shut. “I’ll leave you to your vices, then,” he said, and walked back inside.

It wasn’t until Alex was back in chambers that she realized the detective had used the plural. That he’d not only caught her smoking, but also lying.

There were new rules: All the doors except for the main entrance would be locked after school began, even though a shooter who was a student might already be inside. No backpacks were allowed in classrooms anymore, although a gun could be sneaked in under a coat or in a purse or even in a zippered three-ring binder. Everyone-students and staff-would get ID cards to wear around their necks. It was supposed to make everyone accountable, but Josie couldn’t help but wonder if this way, next time, it would be easier to tell who’d been killed.

The principal got on the loudspeaker during homeroom and welcomed everyone back to Sterling High, even if it wasn’t Sterling High. He suggested a moment of silence.

While other kids in her homeroom bowed their heads, Josie glanced around. She was not the only one who wasn’t praying. Some kids were passing notes. A couple were listening to their iPods. A guy was copying someone else’s math notes.

She wondered if they, like her, were afraid to honor the dead, because it made them feel more guilty.

Josie shifted, banging her knee against the desk. The desks and chairs that had been brought back to this makeshift school were for little children, not high school refugees. As a result, nobody fit. Josie’s knees were bent up to her chin. Some kids couldn’t even sit at the desks; they had to write with their binders on their laps.

I am Alice in Wonderland, Josie thought. Watch me fall.

Jordan waited for his client to sit down across from him in the conference room of the jail. “Tell me about your brother, Peter,” he said.

He scrutinized Peter’s face-saw the disappointment flash across it as he realized that Jordan had again unearthed something he’d hoped would stay hidden. “What about him?” Peter replied.

“You two get along?”

“I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I wasn’t.” Jordan shrugged. “I’m just surprised you didn’t mention him earlier.”

Peter glared at him. “Like when? When I was supposed to shut up at the arraignment? Or after that, when you came here and told me you were going to do all the talking and I was going to listen?”

“What was he like?”

“Look. Joey’s dead, which you obviously know. So I don’t really get why talking about him is going to help me.”

“What happened to him?” Jordan pressed.

Peter rubbed his thumbnail against the metal edging of the table. “He got his golden boy straight-A self rammed by a drunk driver.”

“Hard to beat that,” Jordan said carefully.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, your brother is the perfect kid, right? That’s tough enough right there, but then he dies and turns into a saint.”

Jordan had been playing devil’s advocate, to see if Peter would take the bait, and sure enough the boy’s face transformed. “You can’t beat it,” Peter said fiercely. “You can’t measure up.”

Jordan tapped his pencil on the edge of his briefcase. Had Peter’s anger been born of jealousy or loneliness? Or was his massacre a way to turn attention to himself, finally, instead of Joey? How could he formulate a defense that Peter’s act was one of desperation, not an attempt to one-up his brother’s notoriety?

“Do you miss him?” Jordan asked.

Peter smirked. “My brother,” he said, “my brother, the captain of the baseball team; my brother who placed first in the state in a French competition; my brother who was friends with the principal; my brother, my fabulous brother, used to drop me off a half mile away from the gates of the high school so that he didn’t have to be seen driving all the way in with me.”

“How come?”

“You don’t exactly get any perks for hanging around with me, or haven’t you noticed yet.”

Jordan had a flash of his car tires, slashed to their metal haunches. “Joey wouldn’t stick up for you if you were being bullied?”

“Are you kidding? Joey was the one to start it.”

“How?”

Peter walked toward the window in the small room. A mottled flush rose up his neck, as if memory could be burned into the flesh. “He used to tell people I was adopted. That my mother was a crack whore, and that’s why my brain was all fucked up. Sometimes he did it right in front of me, and when I’d get pissed off and whale on him he’d just laugh and knock me on my ass and then he’d look back to his friends, as if this was proof of everything he’d been saying in the first place. So, do I miss him?” Peter repeated, and he faced Jordan. “I’m glad he’s dead.”

Jordan wasn’t often surprised, and yet Peter Houghton had shocked him several times already. Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out.

If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.

“Peter,” Jordan murmured, “did you mean to kill them?”

Immediately Jordan cursed himself-he’d just asked the one question a defense attorney is never supposed to ask, setting Peter up to admit to premeditation. But instead of answering, Peter threw a question back at him that had just as unsettling an answer. “Well,” he said, “what would you have done?”

Jordan stuffed another bite of vanilla pudding into Sam’s mouth and then licked the spoon himself.

“That’s not for you,” Selena said.

“It tastes good. Unlike that pea crap you make him eat.”

“Excuse me for being a good mother.” Selena took a wet washcloth and wiped down Sam’s mouth, then applied the same treatment to Jordan, who squirmed away from her hand.

“I am totally screwed,” he said. “I can’t make Peter sympathetic over losing his brother, because he hated Joey. I don’t even have a valid legal defense for him, unless I try for insanity, and it’s going to be impossible to prove that with the mountain of evidence the prosecution’s got for premeditation.”

Selena turned to him. “You know what the problem is here, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You think he’s guilty.”

“Well, for Christ’s sake. So are ninety-nine percent of my clients, and it’s never stopped me from getting acquittals before.”

“Right. But deep down, you don’t want Peter Houghton to get acquitted.”

Jordan frowned. “That’s crap.”

“It’s true crap. You’re scared of someone like him.”

“He’s a kid-”

“-who freaks you out, just a little bit. Because he wasn’t willing to sit down and let the world shit on him anymore, and that’s not supposed to happen.”

Jordan looked up at her. “Shooting ten students doesn’t make you a hero, Selena.”

“It does to the millions of other kids who wish they’d had the guts to do it,” she said flatly.

“Excellent. You can be the leader of Peter Houghton’s fan club.”

“I don’t condone what he did, Jordan, but I do see where he’s coming from. You were born with six silver spoons up your ass. I mean, honestly, have you ever not been in the elite group? At school, or in court, or wherever? People know you, people look up to you. You’re granted passage and you don’t even realize that other people never get to walk that way.”

Jordan folded his arms. “Are you about to do your African pride thing again? Because to tell you the truth-”

“You’ve never gone down the street and had someone cross it just because you’re black. You’ve never had someone look at you with disgust because you’re holding a baby and you forgot to put on your wedding ring. You want to do something about it-take action, scream at them, tell them they’re idiots-but you can’t. Being on the fringe is the most disempowering feeling, Jordan. You get so used to the world being a certain way, there seems to be no escape from it.”

Jordan smirked. “You took that last part from my closing in the Katie Riccobono case.”

“The battered wife?” Selena shrugged. “Well, even if I did, it fits.”

Suddenly Jordan blinked. He stood up, grabbed his wife, and kissed her. “You are so fucking brilliant.”

“I’m not going to argue, but do tell me why.”

“Battered woman syndrome. It’s a valid legal defense. Battered women get stuck in a world that slams them down; eventually they feel so constantly threatened that they take action, and truly believe they’re protecting themselves-even if their husbands are fast asleep. That fits Peter Houghton, to a T.”

“Far be it from me to point this out to you, Jordan,” Selena said, “but Peter’s not female, and he’s not married.”

“That’s not the point. It’s post-traumatic stress disorder. When these women go ballistic and shoot their husbands or slice off their dicks, they aren’t thinking about the consequences…just about stopping the aggression. That’s what Peter’s been saying all along-he just wanted it to stop. And this is even better, because I don’t have to fight the prosecutor’s usual rebuttal about a grown woman being old enough to know what she’s doing when she picks up the knife or the gun. Peter’s a kid. By definition, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Monsters didn’t grow out of nowhere; a housewife didn’t turn into a murderer unless someone turned her into one. The Dr. Frankenstein, in her case, was a controlling husband. And in Peter’s case, it was the whole of Sterling High School. Bullies kicked and teased and punched and pinched, all behaviors meant to force someone back where he belonged. It was at the hands of his tormentors that Peter learned how to fight back.

In the high chair, Sam started to fuss. Selena pulled him out and into her arms. “No one’s ever done this,” she said. “There is no bullied victim syndrome.”

Jordan reached for Sam’s jar of vanilla custard and scraped out the leftovers with his forefinger. “There is now,” he said, and he savored the last of the sweet.

Patrick sat at his office computer in the dark, moving a cursor through the video game created by Peter Houghton.

You started by picking a character-one of three boys: the spelling bee champ, the math genius, the computer nerd. One was small and thin, with acne. One wore glasses. One was grossly overweight.

You did not come equipped with a weapon. Instead, you had to go to various rooms of the school and use your wits: the teachers’ lounge had vodka, to make hand grenades. The boiler room had a bazooka. The science lab had burning acid. The English classroom had heavy books. The math room had compasses for stabbing and metal rulers for slicing. The computer room had wires, for garrotes. The wood shop had chain saws. The home arts class had blenders and knitting needles. The art room had a kiln. You could combine materials to make combo assault weapons: flaming bullets from the bazooka and vodka, acid daggers from the chemicals and compasses, snares from the computer wires and the heavy books.

Patrick maneuvered the cursor through hallways and up staircases, through locker rooms and into the janitor’s office. It struck him, as he was turning virtual corners, that he’d walked this map before. It was the floor plan of Sterling High.

The object of the game was to aim for the jocks, the bullies, and the popular kids. Each was worth a certain amount of points. Kill two at once, you got triple the points. However, you could be wounded, too. You might be sucker-punched, slammed into a wall, shoved in a locker.

If you accrued 100,000 points, you got a shotgun. If you reached 500,000 points, you received a machine gun. Cross a million, and you’d find yourself straddling a nuclear missile.

Patrick watched a virtual door fly open. Freeze, his speakers cried, and a phalanx of policemen in SWAT jackets stormed onto the screen. He positioned his hand on the arrow keys again, readying himself. Twice now, he’d gotten this far and had been killed or had killed himself-which meant losing.

This time, though, he raised his virtual machine gun and watched the officers fall in a spray of bright blood.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE WON HIDE-N-SHRIEK! the screen read.

DO YOU WANT TO PLAY AGAIN?

On the tenth day after the shooting at Sterling High, Jordan sat in his Volvo in the parking lot of the district courthouse. As he’d expected, there were white news vans everywhere, their satellites pointed to the sky like the faces of sunflowers. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the Wiggles CD, which was doing its effortless job of keeping Sam from throwing a fit in the backseat.

Selena had already slipped into the court undeterred-no one in the media would recognize her as anyone connected to this case. As she approached the car again, Jordan got out and took the piece of paper she offered him. “Great,” he said.

“See you later.” She bent down to unbuckle Sam from the car seat as Jordan headed into the courthouse. As soon as one reporter saw him, there was a domino effect-flashbulbs burst like a string of fireworks; microphones were thrust in front of him. He pushed them away with one outstretched arm, muttered “No comment,” and hustled inside.

Peter had already been brought to the holding cell of the sheriff’s office, awaiting his appearance in court. He was pacing in a small circle, talking to himself, when Jordan was brought into the cell. “So today’s the day,” Peter said, a little nervous, a little breathless.

“Funny you should mention that,” Jordan said. “Do you remember why we’re here today?”

“Is this some kind of test?”

Jordan just stared at him.

“A probable cause hearing,” Peter said. “That’s what you told me last week.”

“Well. What I didn’t tell you is that we’re going to waive it.”

“Waive it?” Peter said. “What does that mean?”

“It means we fold before the hand’s even played,” Jordan replied. He handed Peter the piece of paper Selena had brought him in the car. “Sign it.”

Peter shook his head. “I want a new lawyer.”

“Anyone worth their salt is going to tell you the same thing-”

“What? To give up without even trying? You said-”

“I said I’d give you the best defense I can,” Jordan interrupted. “There’s already probable cause to believe that you committed a crime, since there are hundreds of witnesses claiming to have seen you shooting in the school that day. The issue isn’t whether or not you did it, Peter, it’s why you did it. Having a probable cause hearing today means they score a lot of points, and we score none-it would just be a way for the prosecution to release evidence to the media and the public before they get a chance to hear our side of the story.” He thrust the paper at Peter again. “Sign it.”

Peter met his gaze, fuming. Then he took the paper from Jordan, and a pen. “This sucks,” he said as he scrawled his signature.

“It would suck more if we did the probable cause hearing.” Jordan took the paper and left the cell, heading out of the sheriff’s office to give the waiver to the clerk. “I’ll see you in there.”

By the time he reached the courtroom, it was packed to the rafters. The media that had been allowed in stood in the back row, their cameras ready. Jordan sought out Selena-she was juggling Sam in the middle of the third row behind the prosecution’s table. So? she asked, a shorthand lift of her brows.

Jordan nodded the slightest bit. Done.

The judge presiding was inconsequential to him: someone who would rubber-stamp this process and turn it over to the court where Jordan would have to put on his dog-and-pony show. The Honorable David Iannucci: what Jordan remembered about him was that he had hair plugs, and when you appeared before him you had to do your absolute best to keep your eyes trained on his ferret-face instead of on the seeded line of his scalp.

The clerk called Peter’s case, and two bailiffs led him through a doorway. The gallery, which had been buzzing with quiet conversation, fell silent. Peter didn’t look up as he entered; he continued to stare at the ground even as he was shuttled into place beside Jordan.

Judge Iannucci scanned the paper that had been set in front of him. “I see, Mr. Houghton, that you wish to waive your probable cause hearing.” At this news-as Jordan had expected-there was a collective sigh from the media, all of whom had been hoping for a spectacle.

“Do you understand that I would have had the obligation today to find whether or not there was probable cause to believe that you committed the acts for which you are charged, and that by waiving the probable cause hearing, you are not requiring me to find that probable cause; you will now be bound over to the grand jury, and I will bind this case over to the superior court?”

Peter turned to Jordan. “Was that English?”

“Say yes,” Jordan answered.

“Yes,” Peter repeated.

Judge Iannucci stared at him. “Yes, Your Honor,” he corrected.

“Yes, Your Honor.” Peter turned to Jordan again and, under his breath, muttered, “This still sucks.”

“You’re excused,” the judge said, and the bailiffs hefted Peter out of his seat again.

Jordan stood, giving way to the next defense attorney for the next case. He approached Diana Leven at the prosecutor’s table, still organizing the files she never had a chance to use. “Well,” she said, not bothering to look up at him. “I can’t say that was a surprise.”

“When are you going to send me discovery?” Jordan asked.

“I don’t remember getting your letter requesting it yet.” She pushed past him, hurrying up the aisle. Jordan made a mental note to get Selena to type something up and send it off to the prosecutor’s office, a formality, but one that he knew Diana would uphold. In a case this big, the DA followed every rule to the letter, so that if the case ever went up on appeal, procedure would not be the downfall of the original verdict.

Just outside the double doors of the courtroom, he was waylaid by the Houghtons. “What the hell was that?” Lewis demanded. “Aren’t we paying you to work in court?”

Jordan counted to five under his breath. “I spoke about this with my client, Peter. He gave me permission to waive the hearing.”

“But you didn’t say anything,” Lacy argued. “You didn’t even give him a chance.”

“Today’s hearing wouldn’t have benefited Peter. It would, however, have put your family under the microscope of every camera outside the courthouse today. That’s going to happen anyway. Did you really want it to be sooner rather than later?” He looked from Lacy Houghton to her husband, and then back again. “I did you a favor,” Jordan said, and he left them holding the truth between them, a stone that got heavier with every passing moment.

Patrick had been heading to the probable cause hearing for Peter Houghton when he received a cell phone call that sent him screaming in the opposite direction, to Smyth’s Gun Shop in Plainfield. The owner of the store, a round little man with a tobacco-stained beard, was sitting outside on the curb, sobbing, when Patrick arrived. Beside him was a patrol officer, who jerked his chin in the direction of the open door.

Patrick sat down beside the owner. “I’m Detective Ducharme,” he said. “Can you tell me what happened?”

The man shook his head. “It was so fast. She asked to see a pistol, a Smith and Wesson. Said she wanted to keep it in the house, for protection. She asked if I had any literature on that model, and when I turned my back to find some…she…” He shook his head and went silent.

“Where did she get the bullets?” Patrick asked.

“I didn’t sell them to her,” the owner said. “She must have had them in her purse.”

Patrick nodded. “You stay here with Officer Rodriguez. I might have some more questions.”

Inside the gun shop, there was a spray of blood and brain matter on the right-hand wall. The medical examiner, Guenther Frankenstein, was already bent over the body, lying sideways on the floor. “How the hell did you get here so fast?” Patrick asked.

Guenther shrugged. “I was in town at a baseball card collectors’ show.”

Patrick squatted beside him. “You collect baseball cards?”

“Well, I can’t very well collect livers, can I?” He glanced at Patrick. “We really have to stop meeting like this.”

“I wish.”

“Pretty self-explanatory,” Guenther said. “She stuck the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.”

Patrick noticed the purse on the glass counter. He rifled through it, finding a box of ammunition and the Wal-Mart receipt for them. Then he opened the woman’s wallet to find her ID, just at the same time Guenther rolled the body over.

Even with the gunshot residue blackening her features, Patrick recognized her before he saw her name. He’d spoken to Yvette Harvey; he’d been the one to tell her that her only child-a daughter with Down syndrome-had not survived the shooting at Sterling High.

Indirectly, Patrick realized, Peter Houghton’s casualty count was still rising.

“Just because someone collects guns doesn’t mean they intend to use them,” Peter said, scowling.

It was unseasonably warm for late March-a freakish eighty-five degrees-and the air-conditioning at the jail was broken. The inmates were walking around in their boxers; the guards were all on edge. The HVAC patrol, which had been called in on the pretense of humane incarceration, was working so slowly that Jordan figured they’d master their trade just in time for the snow to start falling again outside. He’d been sitting in a sweatbox of a conference room with Peter for over two hours now, and felt as if he’d soaked through every last fiber of his suit.

He wanted to quit. He wanted to go home and tell Selena that he never should have taken this case, and then he wanted to drive with his family to the eighteen stingy miles of beach that New Hampshire was blessed with and jump fully clothed into the frigid Atlantic. Dying of hypothermia couldn’t be any worse than the slow kill Diana Leven and the DA’s office had in store for him in court.

Whatever small hope Jordan had kindled by discovering a valid defense-albeit one that had never been used before a judge-had been steadily eroded in the weeks following the hearing by the discovery that had arrived from the DA’s office: stacks of paperwork, photos, and evidence. Given all this information, it was hard to imagine a jury caring why Peter had killed ten people-just that he had.

Jordan pinched the bridge of his nose. “You were collecting guns,” he repeated. “I suppose you just happened to be storing them under your bed until you could get a nice glass display case.”

“Don’t you believe me?”

“People who collect guns do not hide them. People who collect guns do not have hit lists with photos circled.”

Perspiration beaded on Peter’s forehead, around the collar of his prison uniform, and his mouth tightened.

Jordan leaned forward. “Who’s the girl that got erased?”

“What girl?”

“In the photos. You circled her, and then you wrote LET LIVE.”

Peter looked away. “She’s just someone I used to know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Josie Cormier.” Peter hesitated, then faced Jordan again. “She’s okay, right?”

Cormier, Jordan thought. The only Cormier he knew was the judge sitting on Peter’s case.

It couldn’t be.

“Why?” he asked. “Did you hurt her?”

Peter shook his head. “That’s a loaded question.”

Had something happened here that Jordan didn’t know about?

“Was she your girlfriend?”

Peter smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “No.”

Jordan had been in Judge Cormier’s district court a few times. He liked her. She was tough, but she was fair. In fact, she was the best judge Peter could have drawn for his case-the alternative superior court justice was Judge Wagner, who was a very old, prosecution-biased judge. Josie Cormier had not been a victim of the shooting, but that wasn’t the only scenario that would compromise Judge Cormier as the justice for the trial. Suddenly Jordan was thinking of witness tampering, of the hundred things that could go wrong. He was wondering how he could find out what Josie Cormier knew about the shooting, without anyone else learning that he’d been looking into it.

He was wondering what she knew that might help Peter’s case.

“Have you talked to her since you’ve been in here?” Jordan said.

“If I’d talked to her, would I be asking you if she was okay?”

“Well, don’t talk to her,” Jordan instructed. “Don’t talk to anyone except me.”

“That’s like talking to a brick wall,” Peter muttered.

“You know, I could rattle off a thousand things I’d rather be doing than sitting with you in a conference room that’s as hot as hell.”

Peter narrowed his eyes. “Then why don’t you go do some of them? You don’t listen to a word I say, anyway.”

“I listen to every word, Peter. I listen to it, and then I think about the boxes of evidence the DA dropped at my door, all of which make you look like a cold-blooded killer. I hear you tell me you were collecting guns, like you’re some kind of Civil War buff.”

Peter flinched. “Fine. You want to know if I was going to use the guns? Yeah, I was. I planned it. I ran through the whole thing in my head. I worked out the details, down to the last second. I was going to kill the person I hated the most. But then I didn’t get to do it.”

“Those ten people-”

“Just got in the way,” Peter said.

“Then who were you trying to kill?”

On the opposite side of the room, the air conditioner suddenly choked to life. Peter turned away. “Me,” he said.

One Year Before

I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Lewis said as he opened the back door of the van. The dog, Dozer, was lying on his side, fighting to breathe.

“You heard the vet,” Lacy said, stroking the retriever’s head. Good dog. They’d gotten him when Peter was three; now, at twelve, his kidneys had shut down. Keeping him alive with medications was only for their benefit, not his: it was too hard to imagine their house without the dog padding through its halls.

“I wasn’t talking about putting him down,” Lewis clarified. “I was talking about bringing everyone along.”

The boys fell out of the back of the van like heavy stones. They squinted in the sunlight, hunched their shoulders. Their broad backs made Lacy think of oak trees that tapered to the ground; they both had the same habit of turning in their left foot when they walked. She wished they could have seen how very alike they were.

“I can’t believe you dragged us here,” Joey said.

Peter kicked at the gravel in the parking lot. “This sucks.”

“Language,” Lacy warned. “And as for all of us being here, I cannot believe you’d be selfish enough to not want to say good-bye to a member of the family.”

“We could have said good-bye at home,” Joey muttered.

Lacy put her hands on her hips. “Death is a part of life. I’d want to be surrounded by people I love when it’s my time, too.” She waited for Lewis to haul Dozer into his arms, then closed the hatch of the door.

Lacy had requested the last appointment of the day, so that the doctor wouldn’t be rushed. They sat alone in the waiting room, the dog draped like a blanket over Lewis’s legs. Joey picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine from three years ago and started to read. Peter folded his arms and stared up at the ceiling.

“Let’s all talk about our best Dozer memory,” Lacy said.

Lewis sighed. “For God’s sake…”

“This is lame,” Joey added.

“For me,” Lacy said, as if they hadn’t even spoken, “it was when Dozer was a puppy, and I found him on the dining room table with his head stuck inside the turkey.” She stroked the dog’s head. “That was the year we had soup for Thanksgiving.”

Joey slapped the magazine back on the end table and sighed.

Marcia, the vet’s assistant, was a woman with a long braid that reached past her hips. Lacy had delivered her twin sons five years ago. “Hi, Lacy,” she said, and she came right up and folded her in her arms. “You okay?”

The thing about death, Lacy knew, was that it robbed you of your vocabulary for comfort.

Marcia walked up to Dozer and rubbed him behind the ears. “Did you want to wait out here?”

“Yes,” Joey mouthed toward Peter.

“We’re all coming in,” Lacy said firmly.

They followed Marcia into one of the treatment rooms and settled Dozer on the examination table. He scrabbled for purchase, his claws clicking against the metal. “That’s a good boy,” Marcia said.

Lewis and the boys filed into the room, standing against the wall like a police lineup. When the vet walked in, bearing his hypodermic, they shrank back even further. “Would you like to help hold him?” the vet asked.

Lacy moved forward, nodding, and settled her arms around Marcia’s.

“Well, Dozer, you put up a fine fight,” the vet said. He turned to the boys. “He won’t feel this.”

“What is it?” Lewis asked, staring at the needle.

“A combination of chemicals that relax the muscles and terminate nerve transmission. And without nerve transmission, there’s no thought, no feeling, no movement. It’s a bit like drifting off to sleep.” He felt around for a vein in the dog’s leg, while Marcia kept Dozer steady. He injected the solution and rubbed Dozer’s head.

The dog took a deeper breath, and then stopped moving. Marcia stepped away, leaving Dozer in Lacy’s arms. “We’ll give you a minute,” she said, and she and the vet left the room.

Lacy was used to holding new life in her hands, not feeling it pass from the body in her arms. It was just another transition-pregnancy to birth, child to adult, life to death-but there was something about letting go of the family pet that was even more difficult, as if it were silly to have feelings this strong for something that wasn’t human. As if admitting that you loved a dog-one that was always underfoot and scratching the leather and tracking mud into the house-as much as you loved your biological children were foolish.

And yet.

This was the dog who had stoically and silently allowed two-year-old Peter to ride him like a horse around the yard. This was the dog who had barked the house down when Joey had fallen asleep on the couch while his dinner was cooking, until the entire oven was on fire. This was the dog who sat beneath the desk on Lacy’s feet in the dead of winter as she answered email, sharing the heat of his pale, pinkened belly.

She bent over the dog’s body and began to weep-quietly, at first, and then with loud sobs that made Joey turn away and Lewis wince.

“Do something,” she heard Joey say, his voice thick and ropy.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and assumed it was Lewis, but then Peter began to speak. “When he was a puppy,” Peter said. “The time we went to pick him out from the litter. All his brothers and sisters were trying to climb over the pen, and he was on the top of the stairs, and he looked at us and tripped and fell down them.” Lacy raised her face and stared at him. “That’s my best memory,” Peter said.

Lacy had always considered herself lucky to have somehow received a child who was not the cookie-cutter American boy, one who was sensitive and emotional and so in tune with what others felt and thought. She let go of her fist-grip on the dog’s fur and opened her arms so that Peter could move into them. Unlike Joey, who was already taller than her and more muscular than Lewis, Peter still fit into her embrace. Even that square span of his shoulder blades-so expansive underneath a cotton shirt-seemed more delicate underneath her hands. Unfinished and rough-hewn, a man still waiting to happen.

If only you could keep them that way: cast in amber, never growing up.

At every school concert and play in Josie’s life, she’d had only one parent in the audience. Her mother-to her credit-had rearranged court dates so that she could watch Josie be plaque in the school dental hygiene play, or hear her five-note solo in the Christmas chorale. There were other kids who also had single parents-the ones who came from divorced families, for example-but Josie was the only person in the school who had never met her father. When she was little and her second-grade class was making necktie cards for Father’s Day, she was relegated to sitting in the corner with the girl whose dad had died prematurely at age forty-two of cancer.

Like any curious kid, she’d asked her mother about this when she was growing up. Josie wanted to know why her parents weren’t married anymore; she hadn’t expected to hear that they were never married. “He wasn’t the marrying type,” she’d told Josie, and Josie hadn’t understood why that also meant he wasn’t the type to send a present for his daughter’s birthday, or to invite her to his home for a week during the summer, or to even call to hear her voice.

This year, she was supposed to be taking biology, and she was already nervous about the unit on genetics. Josie didn’t know if her father had brown eyes or blue ones; if he had curly hair or freckles or six toes. Her mother had shrugged off Josie’s concerns. “Surely there’s someone in your class who’s adopted,” she said. “You know fifty percent more about your background than they do.”

This is what Josie had pieced together about her father:

His name was Logan Rourke. He’d been a teacher at the law school her mother had attended.

His hair had gone white prematurely, but-her mother assured her-in a cool, not creepy, way.

He was ten years older than her mother, which meant he was fifty.

He had long fingers and played the piano.

He couldn’t whistle.

Not quite enough to fill a standard biography, if you asked Josie, not that anyone ever bothered to.

She was sitting in bio lab next to Courtney. Josie ordinarily would not have picked Courtney as a lab partner-she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier-but that didn’t seem to matter. Mrs. Aracort was the teacher-adviser to the cheerleaders, and Courtney was one of those. No matter how skimpy their lab reports turned out, they still always managed to get A’s.

A dissected cat brain was sitting on the front desk next to Mrs. Aracort. It smelled of formaldehyde and looked like roadkill, which would have been bad enough, but in addition, last period had been lunchtime. (“That thing,” Courtney had shuddered, “is going to make me even more bulimic.”) Josie was trying not to look at it while she worked on her class project: each student had been given a wireless-enabled Dell laptop to surf the Net for examples of humane animal research. So far Josie had catalogued a primate study being done by an allergy pill manufacturer, where monkeys were made asthmatic and then cured, and another one that involved SIDS and puppies.

She hit a browser button by mistake and got a home page for The Boston Globe. Splashed across the screen was election coverage: the race between the incumbent district attorney and his challenger, the dean of students at Harvard Law School, a man named Logan Rourke.

Butterflies rose inside Josie’s chest. There couldn’t be more than one, could there? She squinted, leaning closer to the screen, but the photograph was grainy and there was a sunlight glare. “What’s wrong with you?” Courtney whispered.

Josie shook her head and closed the cover of her laptop, as if it, too, could hold fast to this secret.

He never used a urinal. Even if Peter just had to pee, he didn’t want to do it standing next to some gargantuan twelfth grader who might make a comment about, well, the fact that he was a puny ninth grader, particularly in his nether regions. Instead, he’d go into a stall and close the door for privacy.

He liked to read the bathroom walls. One of the stalls had a running series of knock-knock jokes. Others blurted the names of girls who gave blow jobs. There was one scribble that Peter found his eye veering toward repeatedly: TREY WILKINS IS A FAGGOT. He didn’t know Trey Wilkins-didn’t think he was even a student at Sterling High anymore-but Peter wondered if Trey had come into the bathroom and used the stalls to pee, too.

Peter had left English in the middle of a pop quiz on grammar. He truly didn’t think that in the grand scheme of life, it was going to matter whether or not an adjective modified a noun or a verb or just dropped off the face of the earth, which is what he was sincerely hoping would happen before he had to go back to class. He had already done his business in the bathroom; now he was just wasting time. If he failed this quiz, it would be the second in a row. It wasn’t even his parents’ anger that Peter was worried about. It was the way they’d look at him, disappointed that he hadn’t turned out more like Joey.

He heard the door of the bathroom open, and the busy slice of hallway noise that trailed on the heels of the two kids who entered. Peter ducked down, scanning beneath the stall door. Nikes. “I’m sweating like a pig,” said one voice.

The second kid laughed. “That’s because you’re a lard-ass.”

“Yeah, right. I could beat you on a basketball court with one hand tied behind my back.”

Peter could hear a faucet running, water splashing.

“Hey, you’re getting me soaked!”

“Aaaah, much better,” the first voice said. “At least now I’m not sweating. Hey, check out my hair. I look like Alfalfa.”

“Who?”

“What are you, retarded? The kid from the Little Rascals with the cowlick thing on the back of his head.”

“Actually, you look like a total fag…”

“You know…” More laughter. “I do sort of look like Peter.”

As soon as Peter heard his name, his heart thumped hard. He slid open the bolt in the stall door and stepped outside. Standing in front of the bank of sinks was a football player he knew only by sight, and his own brother. Joey’s hair was dripping wet, standing up on the back of his head the way Peter’s sometimes did, even when he tried to slick it down with his mother’s hair gel.

Joey flicked a glance his way. “Get lost, freak,” he ordered, and Peter hurried out of the bathroom, wondering if that was even possible when you’d been missing most of your life.

The two men standing in front of Alex’s bench shared a duplex, but hated each other. Arliss Undergroot was a Sheetrock installer with tattoos up and down both arms, a shaved head, and enough piercings in his head to have set off the metal detectors at the courthouse. Rodney Eakes was a vegan bank teller with a prized record collection of original cast recordings from Broadway shows. Arliss lived downstairs, Rodney lived upstairs. A few months back, Rodney had brought home a bale of hay, planning to use it for mulching his organic garden, but he never got around to it and the hay bale remained on Arliss’s porch. Arliss asked Rodney to get rid of the hay, but Rodney hadn’t moved fast enough. So one night, Arliss and his girlfriend cut the twine and spread the hay out over the front lawn.

Rodney called the police, and they had actually arrested Arliss on the grounds of criminal mischief: legalspeak for destroying a bale of hay.

“Why are the taxpayers of New Hampshire shelling out money for a case like this to be tried in court?” Alex asked.

The police prosecutor shrugged. “The Chief asked me to pursue it,” he said, but then he rolled his eyes.

He had already proven that Arliss had taken the bale of hay and spread it over the lawn-the burden of proof fulfilled. But a conviction in this case would mean Arliss would have a criminal record for the rest of his life.

He might have been a lousy neighbor, but he didn’t deserve that.

Alex turned to the prosecutor. “How much did the victim pay for that bale of hay?”

“Four dollars, Your Honor.”

Then she faced the defendant. “Do you have four dollars with you today?”

Arliss nodded.

“Good. Your case is filed without a finding conditional upon your paying the victim. Take four dollars out of your wallet and give it to the police officer over there, who will bring it to Mr. Eakes in the back of the courtroom.” She glanced at her clerk. “We’re taking a fifteen-minute recess.”

In chambers, Alex stripped off her robe and grabbed a pack of cigarettes. She took the back stairs to the bottom floor of the building and lit up, inhaling deeply. There were days when she was proud of her job, and then there were others, like today, when she wondered why she even bothered.

She found Liz, the groundskeeper, raking the lawn in front of the courthouse. “I brought you a cigarette,” Alex said.

“What’s wrong?”

“How did you know something was wrong?”

“Because you’ve been working here for how many years, and you’ve never brought me a cigarette.”

Alex leaned against the tree, watching leaves as bright as jewels catch in the tines of Liz’s rake. “I just wasted three hours on a case that never should have made it to a courthouse. I have a splitting headache. And I ran out of toilet paper in the bathroom in chambers and had to call the clerk in to get me a roll from maintenance.”

Liz glanced up at the tree as a gust of wind sent a new score of leaves onto the raked grass. “Alex,” she said. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“When was the last time you got laid?”

Alex turned, her mouth dropping open. “What does that have to-”

“Most people who go to work spend their time wondering how long till they get back home to do whatever it is they really want to do. For you, it’s the other way around.”

“That’s not true. Josie and I-”

“What did you two do for fun this weekend?”

Alex plucked a leaf and shredded it. In the past three years, Josie’s social calendar had become crammed with phone calls and sleepovers and packs of kids going to a movie or hanging out in someone’s basement lair. This weekend, Josie had gone shopping with Haley Weaver, a junior who’d just gotten her driver’s license. Alex had written two decisions and cleaned out the fruit and vegetable drawers in her refrigerator.

“I’m setting you up on a blind date,” Liz said.

There were a number of business establishments in Sterling that hired teenagers for after-school employment. After his first summer at QuikCopy, Peter had deduced that this was because the jobs mostly sucked, and they couldn’t find anyone else to do them.

He was responsible for photocopying most of the course material for Sterling College, which professors brought in. He knew how to shrink a document down to one-thirty-second of its original size, and how to add toner. When customers paid, he liked to guess what size bill they were going to pull out of their wallets just by the way they dressed or wore their hair. College kids always used twenties. Moms with strollers whipped out a credit card. Professors used crumpled singles.

The reason he was working was because he needed a new computer with a better graphics card, so that he could do some of the gaming design he and Derek had been into lately. It never failed to amaze Peter how you could take a seemingly senseless string of commands and-magic!-it would become a knight or a sword or a castle on the screen. He liked the very concept: that something the ordinary person might dismiss as gibberish was actually vibrant and eye-catching, if you knew how to look at it.

Last week, when his boss said he’d hired another high school student, Peter had become so nervous that he actually had to lock himself in the bathroom for twenty minutes until he could act like it was no big deal. As stupid and boring as this job was, it was a haven. Peter was alone here most of the afternoon; he didn’t have to worry about crossing paths with the cool kids.

But if Mr. Cargrew was hiring someone else from Sterling High, then that person knew who Peter was. And even if the kid wasn’t part of the popular crowd, the copy center would no longer be a comfortable place. Peter would have to think twice about what he said or did, because otherwise, it would become fodder for rumors around school.

To Peter’s great surprise, however, his co-worker turned out to be Josie Cormier.

She had walked in behind Mr. Cargrew. “This is Josie,” he said, by way of introduction. “You two know each other?”

“Sort of,” Josie had replied, as Peter answered, “Yeah.”

“Peter will show you the ropes,” Mr. Cargrew said, and then he left to go play golf.

Occasionally when Peter walked down the hall in school and he saw Josie with her new group of friends, he didn’t recognize her. She dressed differently now-in jeans that showed off her flat belly and a rainbow of T-shirts layered one over the other. She wore makeup that made her eyes look enormous. And a little sad, he sometimes thought, but he doubted she knew that.

The last major conversation he’d had with Josie had been five years ago, when they were in sixth grade. He had been certain that the real Josie would come out of this fog of popularity and realize that the people she was hanging around with were about as scintillating as cardboard cutouts. He was sure that as soon as they started ripping on other people, she’d come back to Peter. Oh my God, she would say, and they’d laugh about her journey to the underworld. What was I thinking?

But Josie never came crawling back to him, and then he started to hang out with Derek from the soccer team, and by the time he was in seventh grade he found it really hard to believe that once, he and Josie had spent two weeks coming up with a secret handshake that no one else would ever be able to duplicate.

“So,” Josie had said that first day, as if she’d never met him before, “what do we do?”

They had been working together for a week now. Well, not together-it was more like they were doing a dance punctuated with the sighs and throaty grumbles of the copiers and the shrill ring of the telephone. Mostly, if they spoke, it was informational: Do we have any more toner for the color copier? How much do I charge someone to receive a fax here?

This afternoon, Peter was photocopying articles for a psychology course at the college. Every now and then, as the pages whipped through the automatic collating machine, he’d see brain scans of schizophrenics-bright pink circles at the frontal lobes that reproduced in shades of gray. “What’s that word you use when you call something by its brand name instead of what it really is?”

Josie was stapling together another job. She shrugged.

“Like Xerox,” Peter said. “Or Kleenex.”

“Jell-O,” Josie answered after a moment.

“Google.”

Josie glanced up. “Band-Aid,” she said.

“Q-tip.”

She thought for a second, a grin spreading over her face. “FedEx. Wiffle ball.”

Peter smiled. “Rollerblade. Frisbee.”

“Crock-Pot.”

“That’s not-”

“Go look it up,” Josie said. “Jacuzzi. Post-it.”

“Magic Marker.”

“Ping-Pong!”

By now they’d both stopped working. They were standing next to each other, laughing, when the bell over the door chimed.

Matt Royston walked into the store. He was wearing a Sterling hockey cap-even though the season wouldn’t start for another month, everyone knew he would be tapped for varsity, even as a freshman. Peter-who’d been reveling in the miracle that here was Josie, again, like she used to be-watched her turn to Matt. Her cheeks pinkened; her eyes leaped like the brightest part of a flame. “What are you doing here?”

He leaned against the counter. “Is that how you treat all your customers?”

“Do you need something copied?”

Matt’s mouth cocked up in a grin. “No way. I’m an original.” He glanced around the store. “So this is where you work.”

“No, I just come here for the free caviar and champagne,” Josie joked.

Peter watched this exchange from behind the counter. He waited for Josie to tell Matt that she was in the middle of doing something, which might not necessarily be true, but they had been having a conversation. Sort of.

“When do you get off?” Matt asked.

“Five.”

“Some of us are going over to Drew’s tonight to hang out.”

“Is that an invitation?” she said, and Peter noticed that when she smiled, really hard, she had a dimple he’d never noticed before. Or maybe she just hadn’t smiled that way around him.

“Do you want it to be?” Matt answered.

Peter walked toward the counter. “We have to get back to work,” he blurted out.

Matt’s eyes flicked over Peter. “Stop looking at me, homo.”

Josie moved so that her body was blocking Peter’s view of Matt. “What time?”

“Seven.”

“I’ll see you over there,” she said.

Matt rapped his hands against the counter. “Cool,” he replied, and he walked out of the store.

“Saran Wrap,” Peter said. “Vaseline.”

Josie turned to him, confused. “What? Oh. Right.” She picked up the materials she’d been stapling, stacked a few more packets on top of each other, aligned their edges.

Peter added paper to the machine that was working on his job. “Do you like him?” he asked.

“Matt? I guess.”

“Not like that,” Peter said. He pressed the Copy button, watched the machine begin to birth a hundred identical babies.

When Josie didn’t answer, he went to stand next to her at the sorting table. He gathered a packet of papers in his hands and stapled it, then handed it to her. “What does it feel like?” he asked.

“What does what feel like?”

Peter thought for a moment. “Being at the top.”

Josie reached across him for another packet of material and fed it into the stapler. She did three of these, and Peter was certain that she was going to ignore him, but then she spoke. “Like if you take one wrong step,” she said, “you’re going to fall.”

When she said that, Peter could hear a note in her voice that was like a lullaby. He could vividly remember sitting on Josie’s driveway in the heat of July, trying to make a fire with sawdust, sunlight, and his glasses. He could hear her yelling over her shoulder as they ran home from school, daring Peter to catch up. He saw a faint flush paint her face and realized that the Josie who used to be his friend was still there, trapped inside several cocoons, like one of those Russian nesting dolls that hides another and another, until you reach the one that fits snug in the palm of your hand.

If he could just somehow make her remember those things, too. Maybe being popular wasn’t what had made Josie start hanging out with Matt and Company. Maybe it was just because she’d forgotten that she liked hanging out with Peter.

From the corner of his eye, he looked at Josie. She was biting her lower lip, concentrating hard on getting the staple straight. Peter wished he knew how to be as easy and natural as Matt, but all his life, he’d always seemed to laugh just a little too loud or too late; to be oblivious to the fact that he was the one being laughed at. He didn’t know how to be anyone except who he’d always been, so he took a deep breath and told himself that not too long ago, that had been good enough for Josie anyway.

“Hey,” he said. “Check this out.” He walked into the adjoining office, the one where Mr. Cargrew kept a picture of his wife and kids and his computer, which was firmly off-limits and password-encoded.

Josie followed him and stood behind the chair as Peter sat down. He keyed a few strokes, and suddenly the screen opened up for access.

“How did you do that?” Josie asked.

Peter shrugged. “I’ve been playing around with computers a lot. I hacked into Cargrew’s last week.”

“I don’t think we should-”

“Wait.” Peter picked his way through the computer until he reached a well-hidden file of downloads and opened up the first porn site.

“Is that…a dwarf?” Josie murmured. “And a donkey?”

Peter tilted his head. “I thought it was a really big cat.”

“Either way, it’s totally gross.” She shuddered. “Ugh. How am I going to take a paycheck from that guy’s hand now?” Then she looked down at Peter. “What else can you do with that computer?”

“Anything,” he bragged.

“Like…hack into other places? Schools and stuff?”

“Sure,” Peter said, although he didn’t really know about that. He was just starting to learn about encryption and how to make wormholes through it.

“What about finding an address?”

“Piece of cake,” Peter answered. “Whose?”

“Someone totally random,” she said, and she leaned over him to type. He could smell her hair-apples-and felt the press of her shoulder against his. Peter closed his eyes, waiting for lightning to strike. Josie was pretty, and she was a girl, and yet…he felt nothing.

Was that because she was too familiar-like a sister?

Or because she wasn’t a he?

Stop looking at me, homo.

He did not tell Josie this, but when he’d first found Mr. Cargrew’s porn site, he’d found himself staring at the guys, not the girls. Did that mean he was attracted to them? Then again, he’d looked at the animals, too. Couldn’t it just have been curiosity? Comparison, even, between the men and him?

What if it turned out that Matt-and everyone else-was right?

Josie clicked on the mouse a few times until the screen was filled with an article from The Boston Globe. “There,” she said, pointing. “That guy.”

Peter squinted at the caption. “Who’s Logan Rourke?”

“Who cares,” Josie said. “Someone who looks like he has an unlisted address, anyway.”

He did, but then, Peter figured that anyone running for public office probably was smart enough to take their personal information out of the phone book. It took him ten minutes to figure out that Logan Rourke had worked for Harvard Law School, and another fifteen to hack into the human resources files there.

“Ta-da,” Peter said. “He lives in Lincoln. Conant Road.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw his smile spread, contagious, over Josie’s face. She stared at the screen for a long moment. “You are good,” she said.

Economists, it was often said, knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Lewis considered this as he opened up the enormous file on his office computer, the World Values Survey. Gathered by Norwegian social scientists, here was data collected from hundreds of thousands of people around the world-an endless array of details. Simple ones-like age, gender, birth order, weight, religion, marital status, number of children-and more complex accounts, like political views and religious affiliations. The survey had even considered time allocation: how long a person spent at work, how often he went to church, how many times a week he had sex and with how many partners.

What would have seemed tedious to most people was, to Lewis, like a roller-coaster ride. When you started to sort out the patterns in data this massive, you didn’t know where you’d twist or turn, how steep the fall or how soaring the heights. He’d examined these numbers often enough to know that he’d be able to quickly crank out a paper for next week’s conference. It didn’t have to be perfect-the gathering was small, and his higher-ranking peers wouldn’t be present. He could always take whatever he eked out now and polish it later for publication in an academic journal.

The focus of his paper involved putting a price on the variables of happiness. Everyone always said that money bought happiness, but how much? Did income have a direct or causal effect on happiness? Were happier people more successful in their jobs, or were they given a higher wage because they were happier people?

Happiness wasn’t limited to one’s income, either. Was marriage more valuable in America or Europe? Did sex matter? Why did churchgoers report higher levels of happiness than nonchurchgoers? Why did Scandinavians-who scored high on the happiness scale-have one of the highest suicide rates in the world?

As Lewis set about picking through the variables of the survey using multivariate regression analysis on STATA, he thought about the value he’d have put on the variables of his own happiness. What monetary compensation would have made up for not having a woman like Lacy in his life? For not getting a tenured position at Sterling College? For his health?

It didn’t do the average person much good to know that marital status was associated with a 0.07 level increase in happiness (with a standard error of 0.02 percent). On the other hand, tell the Average Joe that being married had the same effect on overall happiness as an additional $100,000 a year, and it put things into perspective.

These were the findings he’d reached so far:

Higher income was associated with higher happiness, but in diminishing returns. For example, someone who made $50,000 reported being happier than the man with a salary of $25,000. But the incremental gain in happiness that came from getting a raise from $50K to $100K was much less.

In spite of material improvements, happiness is flat over time-relative income might be more important than absolute income gains.

Well-being was greatest among women, married people, the highly educated, and those whose parents didn’t divorce.

Women’s happiness was declining over time, possibly because they’d reached greater equality with men in the labor market.

Blacks in the U.S. were much less happy than whites, but their life satisfaction was on the upswing.

Calculations indicated that “reparation” for being unemployed would take $60,000 per year. “Reparation” for being black would take $30,000 per year. “Reparation” for being widowed or separated would take $100,000 per year.

There was a game Lewis used to play with himself, after the kids were born, when he was feeling so ridiculously lucky that surely tragedy was bound to strike. He’d lie in bed and force himself to choose what he was first willing to lose: his marriage, his job, a child. He would wonder how much a man could take before he reduced himself to nothing.

He closed the data window and stared at the screen saver on his computer. It was a picture taken when the kids were eight and ten, at a petting zoo in Connecticut. Joey had hoisted his brother up, piggyback, and they were grinning, with a striated pink sunset in the background. Moments later, a deer (deer on steroids, Lacy had said) had knocked Joey’s feet out from beneath him and both boys had fallen and dissolved into tears…but that was not the way Lewis liked to recall it.

Happiness wasn’t just what you reported; it was also how you chose to remember.

There was one other finding he’d catalogued: happiness was U-shaped. People were happiest when they were very young and very old. The trough came, roughly, when you hit your forties.

Or in other words, Lewis thought with relief, this is as bad as it gets.

Although Josie got A’s in math and liked the subject, it was the one grade she had to fight for. Numbers did not come easily to her, although she could reason with logic and write an essay without breaking a sweat. In this, she supposed, she was like her mother.

Or possibly her father.

Mr. McCabe, their math teacher, was walking through the rows of desks, tossing a tennis ball against the ceiling and singing a bastardized Don McLean song:

“Bye, bye, what’s the value of pi

Gotta fidget with the digits

Till this class has gone by…

Them ninth graders were workin’ hard with a sigh

Sayin’, Mr. McCabe, come on, why?

Oh Mr. McCabe, come on, why-y-y…”

Josie erased a coordinate from the graph paper in front of her. “We’re not even using pi,” one kid said.

The teacher whirled around and tossed the tennis ball so that it bounced on the boy’s desk. “Andrew, I’m so glad to see you woke up in time to notice that.”

“Does this count as a pop quiz?”

“No. Maybe I should go on TV,” Mr. McCabe mused. “Is there a Math Idol?”

“God, I hope not,” Matt muttered from the desk behind Josie. He poked her shoulder and she pushed her paper to the upper left corner of her desk, because she knew he could see the homework answers better there.

This week they were working on graphing. In addition to a bazillion assignments that made you take data and force it into bar graphs and charts, each student had had to create and present a graph of something near and dear to them. Mr. McCabe left ten minutes at the end of each class period for the presentation. Yesterday, Matt had shown off a graph of relative age of hockey players in the NHL. Josie, who was presenting hers tomorrow, had polled her friends to see if there was a ratio between the number of hours you spent doing your homework and your grade point average.

Today was Peter Houghton’s turn. She had seen him carrying his graph into school, a rolled-up piece of poster board. “Well, look at that,” Mr. McCabe said. “Turns out we are talking about pie. The other one, that is.”

Peter’s graph was a pie chart. It had been clearly shaded with colors, and computer labels identified each section. The title at the top of the chart said POPULARITY.

“Whenever you’re ready, Peter,” Mr. McCabe said.

Peter looked a little bit like he was going to pass out, but then, Peter always looked like that. Since Josie had started working at the copy shop, they’d been talking again, but-by unwritten rule-only outside of school. Inside was different: a fishbowl where anything you said and did was being watched by everyone else.

When they were kids, Peter had never seemed to notice when he was drawing attention just by being himself. Like when he’d decide to speak Martian during recess, for example. Josie supposed that the flip side of this, the optimistic angle, was that Peter never tried to be like anyone else. She couldn’t lay claim to that herself.

Peter cleared his throat. “My graph is about status in this school. My statistical sample came from the twenty-four students in this class. You can see here”-he pointed at one wedge of the pie-“that a little less than a third of the class are popular.”

Shaded violet-the color of popularity-were seven wedges, each sporting a different classmate’s name. There was Matt, and Drew. A few girls who hung out at lunchtime with Josie. But the class clown was also lumped in that group, Josie noticed, and the new kid who’d transferred from Washington, D.C.

“Over here are the geeks,” Peter said, and Josie could see the names of the class brain and the girl who played tuba in the marching band. “The largest group is what I call normal. And roughly five percent are outcasts.”

Everyone had grown quiet. This was one of those moments, Josie realized, when the guidance counselors would get called in to give everyone a booster shot of tolerance for differences. She could see Mr. McCabe’s brow furrow like origami as he tried to figure out how to turn Peter’s presentation into an After School Special moment; she saw Drew and Matt grinning at each other; and most of all, she noticed Peter, who was blissfully unaware that all hell was about to break loose.

Mr. McCabe cleared his throat. “You know, Peter, maybe you and I should-”

Matt’s hand shot up. “Mr. McCabe, I have a question.”

“Matt-”

“No, seriously. I can’t read that skinny piece of the pie chart. The orange one.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “That’s a bridge. You know. A person who can fit into more than one category, or who hangs out with different kinds of people. Like Josie.”

He turned to her, beaming, and Josie felt everyone’s eyes on her-a hail of arrows. She curled over her desk like a midnight rose, letting her hair fall over her face. To be honest, she was used to being stared at-walk anywhere with Courtney and it was bound to happen-but there was a difference between people looking at you because they wanted to be like you, and people looking at you because your misfortune brought them one rung higher.

At the very least, kids would remember that once, Josie had been an outcast who used to hang out with Peter. Or they’d assume that Peter had some weird crush on her, which was just sick, and she’d never hear the end of it. A murmur ran through the classroom like an electric shock. Freak, someone whispered, and Josie prayed prayed prayed that they were not talking about her.

Because there was a God, the bell rang.

“So, Josie,” Drew said. “Are you the Tobin or the Golden Gate?”

Josie tried to stuff her books into her backpack, but they scattered to the ground, pages splayed. “London,” John Eberhard snickered. “Look, she’s falling down.”

By now, someone in her math class had surely told someone else down the hall what had happened. Josie would hear laughter following her like a kite’s tail for that whole day-maybe even longer.

She realized that someone was trying to help her pick up her books, and then-one beat later-that this someone was Peter. “Don’t,” Josie said, holding up a hand, a force field that stopped Peter in his tracks. “Don’t ever talk to me again, all right?”

In the hallway, she turned corners blindly until she found the little alley that led to the wood shop. Josie had been so naïve, thinking that once she belonged, she was firmly entrenched. But In only existed because someone had drawn a line in the sand, so that everyone else was Out; and that line changed constantly. You might find yourself, through no fault of your own, suddenly standing on the wrong side.

What Peter hadn’t graphed was how fragile popularity was. Here was the irony: she wasn’t a bridge at all; she’d completely crossed over to become part of her group. She’d excluded other people to get to where she so badly wanted to be. Why would those kids ever welcome her back?

“Hey.”

At the sound of Matt’s voice, Josie drew in a sharp breath. “Just so you know, I’m not friends with him.”

“Well, actually, he’s right about you.”

Josie blinked at him. She’d witnessed, firsthand, Matt’s cruelty-how he’d shoot rubber bands at ESL students who didn’t know the words to report him to the faculty; how he called one overweight girl the Walking Earthquake; how he’d hide a shy kid’s math textbook in order to watch him freak out, thinking it was lost. It was funny then, because it hadn’t been about Josie. But being the object of his humiliation felt like a slap. She’d thought, mistakenly, that hanging with the right crowd granted her immunity, but that turned out to be a joke. They’d cut you down anyway, as long as it made them seem funnier, cooler, different from you.

Seeing Matt with that grin on his face, as if he’d thought she was a total joke all along, hurt even more, because she’d considered him a friend. Well, to be honest, sometimes she wished for even more than that: when a fringe of hair fell over his eyes and his smile lit as slowly as a fuse, she went totally monosyllabic. But Matt had that effect on everyone-even Courtney, who’d gone out with him in sixth grade for two weeks.

“I never thought anything the homo said would be worth listening to, but bridges take you from one place to another,” Matt said. “And that’s what you do to me.” He took Josie’s hand, pressed it up against his chest.

His heart was beating so hard she could feel it, as if possibility were something you might cup in your palm. She looked up at him, keeping her eyes wide open as he leaned in to kiss her, so that she would not miss a single, startling moment. Josie could taste the heat of him like cinnamon candy, the kind that burned.

Finally, when Josie remembered that she had to breathe, she tore away from Matt. She had never been so aware of every inch of her skin; even the bits hidden under layers of T-shirt and sweater had come alive.

“Jesus,” Matt said, backing away.

She panicked. Maybe he had just remembered he was kissing a girl who five minutes ago had been a social pariah. Or maybe she’d done something wrong during the kiss. It’s not like there was a manual you could read so you’d know how to do it right.

“I’m guess I’m not very good at that,” Josie stammered.

Matt raised his brows. “If you get much better…you might kill me.”

Josie felt a smile start inside her like a candle flame. “Really?”

He nodded.

“That was my first kiss,” she admitted.

When Matt touched her lower lip with his thumb, Josie could feel it everywhere-from her fingertips to her throat to the heat between her legs. “Well,” he said. “It’s not going to be your last.”

Alex was getting ready in her bathroom when Josie wandered in, looking for a new razor. “What’s that?” Josie had asked, scrutinizing Alex’s face in the mirror as if it belonged to a stranger.

“Mascara?”

“Well, I know what it is,” Josie said. “I meant, what’s it doing on you?”

“Maybe I felt like wearing makeup.”

Josie sank down onto the lip of the bathtub, grinning. “And maybe I’m the Queen of England. What is it…a new photo for some law review?” Suddenly, her eyebrows shot up. “You’re not going on, like, a date, are you?”

“Not ‘like’ a date,” Alex said, brushing on blush. “It’s an honest-to-goodness one.”

“Oh, my gosh. Tell me about him.”

“I don’t know anything. Liz set me up.”

“Liz the custodian?”

“She’s a groundskeeper,” Alex said.

“Whatever. She must have told you something about this guy.” Josie hesitated. “It is a guy, right?”

“Josie!”

“Well, it’s been a really long time. The last date you went out on that I can remember was the man who wouldn’t eat anything green.”

“That wasn’t the issue,” Alex said. “It was that he wouldn’t let me eat anything green.”

Josie stood up and reached for a tube of lipstick. “This is a good color for you,” she said, and she swept the tube over Alex’s mouth.

Alex and Josie were exactly the same height; looking into her daughter’s eyes, Alex could see a tiny reflection of herself. She wondered why she’d never done this with Josie: sat her down in the bathroom and played with eye shadow, painted her toenails, curled her hair. They were memories that every other mother of a daughter seemed to have; only now was Alex realizing that it had been up to her to create them.

“There,” Josie said, turning Alex to look in the mirror. “What do you think?”

Alex was staring, but not at herself. Over her shoulder was Josie-and for the first time, Alex could really see a piece of herself in her daughter. It wasn’t so much the shape of the face but the shine of it; not the color of the eyes but the dream caught like smoke in them. There was no amount of expensive makeup that would make her look the way her Josie did; that was simply what falling in love did to a person.

Could you be jealous of your own child?

“Well,” Josie said, patting Alex’s shoulders. “I’d ask you out for a second date.”

The doorbell rang. “I’m not even dressed,” Alex said, panicked.

“I’ll stall him.” Josie hurried down the stairs; as Alex shimmied into a black dress and heels, she could hear conversation stir, rise up the stairs.

Joe Urquhardt was a Canadian banker who’d been roommates with Liz’s cousin in Toronto. He was, she had promised, a nice guy. Alex asked why, then, if he was so nice, he was still single.

How would you answer that question? Liz had asked, and Alex had to think for a moment.

I’m not that nice, she’d said.

She was pleasantly surprised to see that Joe was not troll-statured, that he had a head of wavy brown hair that did not seem to be attached by double-sided tape, and that he had teeth. He whistled when he saw Alex. “All rise,” he said. “And by all, I do mean Mr. Happy.”

The smile froze on Alex’s face. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” she asked, and she dragged Josie into the kitchen. “Shoot me now.”

“Okay, that was pretty awful. But at least he eats green food. I asked.”

“What if you go out there and say I’m violently ill?” Alex said. “You and I can get take-out. Rent a movie or something.”

Josie’s smile faded. “But, Mom, I’ve already got plans.” She peered out the doorway to where Joe was waiting. “I could tell Matt that-”

“No, no,” Alex said, forcing a smile. “One of us ought to be having a good time.”

She walked out of the kitchen and found Joe holding up a candlestick, scrutinizing the bottom. “I’m very sorry, but something’s come up.”

“Tell me about it, babe,” Joe said, leering.

“No, I mean that I can’t go out tonight. There’s a case,” she lied. “I have to go back into court.”

Maybe being from Canada was what kept Joe from understanding how incredibly unlikely it would be for court to be in session on a Saturday night. “Oh,” he said. “Well, far be it from me to keep those wheels of justice from grinding. Some other time?”

Alex nodded, ushering him outside. She took off her heels and padded upstairs to change into her rattiest sweats. She would eat chocolate for dinner; she would watch chick flicks until she was completely sobbed out. As she passed the bathroom, she could hear the shower running-Josie getting ready for her own date.

For a moment Alex stood with her hand on the door, wondering whether Josie would welcome her if she went in and guided her in putting on her makeup, offered to style her hair-just as Josie had done for her. But for Josie, that was natural-she’d spent a lifetime grabbing moments of Alex’s time, when Alex was busy preparing for something else. Somehow, Alex had assumed that time was infinite, that Josie would always be there waiting. She never guessed that she herself would one day be left behind.

In the end, Alex drew away from the bathroom door without knocking, too afraid she might hear Josie say she did not need her mother’s help to even risk making that initial offer.

The one thing that had saved Josie from total social ruin in the wake of Peter’s math presentation was her simultaneous anointing as Matt Royston’s girlfriend. Unlike most of the other sophomores who were occasional couples-random hookups at parties, best-friend-with-benefits situations-she and Matt were an item. Matt walked her to her classes and often left her at the door with a kiss that everyone watched. Anyone stupid enough to mention Peter Houghton’s name in conjunction with Josie’s had to answer to him.

Everyone, that is, except for Peter himself. At work, he didn’t seem to be able to pick up on the clues that Josie gave him-turning her back when he came into the room, ignoring him when he asked her a question. He finally cornered her in the supply room one afternoon. How come you’re acting like this? he said.

Because when I was nice to you, you thought we were friends.

But we are friends, he replied.

Josie had faced him. You don’t get to decide that, she said.

One afternoon at work, when Josie went out to the Dumpster with a load of trash, Peter was already there. It was his fifteen-minute break; usually he walked across the street and bought himself an apple juice, but today he was leaning over the metal lip of the Dumpster. “Move,” she said, and she hefted the bags of garbage up and over.

As soon as they struck bottom, a shower of sparks rose.

Almost immediately, fire climbed up the cardboard stacked inside the Dumpster; it roared against the metal. “Peter, get down from there,” Josie yelled. Peter didn’t move. The flames danced in front of his face, the heat distorted his features. “Peter, now!” She reached up, grabbing his arm, pulling him down to the pavement as something-toner? oil?-exploded inside the Dumpster.

“We have to call 911,” Josie cried, and she scrambled to her feet.

The firemen arrived in minutes, spraying some noxious chemical into the Dumpster. Josie paged Mr. Cargrew, who’d been on the golf course. “Thank God you weren’t hurt,” he said to both of them.

“Josie saved me,” Peter replied.

While Mr. Cargrew spoke to the firemen, she went back into the copy shop with Peter following. “I knew you’d save me,” Peter said. “That’s why I did it.”

“Did what?” But Peter didn’t have to answer, because Josie already knew why Peter had been up on the Dumpster when he should have been on break. She knew who’d tossed the match, the moment he heard her exiting the back door with bags of garbage.

Josie told herself, even as she pulled Mr. Cargrew aside, that she was only doing what any responsible employee would do: tell the boss who had tried to destroy his property. She did not admit that she was scared by what Peter had said, by the truth of it. And she pretended not to feel that small fanning in her chest-a smaller version of the fire that Peter had started-which she identified, for the very first time in her life, as revenge.

When Mr. Cargrew fired Peter, Josie didn’t listen to the conversation. She felt his gaze on her-hot, accusing-as he left, but she focused her attention on a job from a local bank instead. As she stared at the papers coming out of the machine, she considered how strange it was to measure success by how closely each product resembled the one that had come before.

After school, Josie waited for Matt at the flagpole. He’d sneak up behind her and she’d pretend she didn’t notice him coming, until he kissed her. People watched, and Josie loved that. In a way, she thought of her status as a secret identity: now, if she got straight A’s or said she actually liked to read for fun, she wouldn’t be thought of as a freak, simply because when people saw her, they noticed her popularity first. It was, she figured, a little like what her mother experienced wherever she went: when you were the judge, no other trait really mattered.

Sometimes she had nightmares in which Matt realized she was a fraud-that she wasn’t beautiful; she wasn’t cool; she wasn’t anyone worthy of admiration. What were we thinking? she imagined her friends saying, and maybe for that reason, it was so hard even when she was awake to think of them as friends.

She and Matt had plans for this weekend-important plans that she could hardly keep to herself. As she sat on the stone steps leading up to the flagpole, waiting for him, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. “You’re late,” she accused, grinning, and then she turned around to see Peter.

He looked just as shocked as she felt, even though he’d been the one to seek her out. In the months since Josie had gotten Peter fired from the copy shop, she had gone out of her way to avoid coming in contact with him-no easy feat, given that they were in math class together every day and passed in the halls numerous times. Josie would always make sure she had her nose in a book or her attention firmly focused on another conversation.

“Josie,” he said, “can we talk for a minute?”

Students were streaming out of the school; she could feel their glances flick over her like a whip. Were they staring at her because of who she was, or because of who she was with?

“No,” she said flatly.

“It’s just…I really need Mr. Cargrew to give me my job back. I know it was a mistake, what I did. I thought maybe-maybe if you told him…” He broke off. “He likes you,” Peter said.

Josie wanted to tell him to go away; that she didn’t want to work with him again, much less be seen having a conversation with him. But something had happened during the months since Peter had set that Dumpster fire. The payback she’d thought he was due, after his math-class elegy to Josie, had burned in her chest every time she thought about it. And Josie had started to wonder if maybe Peter had gotten the wrong idea not because he was crazy, but because she’d led him to it. After all, when no one was around at the copy shop, they’d talked to each other, they’d laughed. He was an okay kid-just not someone you wanted to be associated with, necessarily, in public. But feeling that way was different than acting on it, right? She wasn’t like Drew and Matt and John, who’d shove Peter into the wall when they walked by him in the halls, or who stole his brown-bag lunch and played monkey in the middle with it, until it ripped and the contents spilled onto the floor-was she?

She didn’t want to talk to Mr. Cargrew. She didn’t want Peter to think that she wanted to be his friend, that she even wanted to be his acquaintance.

But she didn’t want to be like Matt either, whose comments to Peter sometimes made her feel sick inside.

Peter was sitting across from her, waiting for an answer, and then suddenly he wasn’t. He tumbled down the stone steps as Matt stood over him. “Get away from my girlfriend, homo,” Matt said. “Go find a nice little boy to play with.”

Peter had landed facedown on the pavement. When he lifted his head, his lip was bleeding. He looked at Josie first, and to her surprise, he didn’t seem upset or even angry-just truly, deeply tired. “Matt,” Peter said, coming up on his knees. “Do you have a big dick?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Matt said.

“Not really.” Peter staggered to his feet. “I just wondered if it was long enough for you to go fuck yourself.”

Josie felt the air charge between them the moment before Matt was on Peter like a hurricane, punching him in the face, wrestling him bodily to the ground. “You like this, don’t you,” Matt spat as he pinned Peter down.

Peter shook his head, tears streaming down his cheeks, streaking the blood. “Get…off…”

“I bet you wish you could,” Matt sneered.

By now a crowd had gathered. Josie glanced around frantically, looking for a teacher, but it was after school and there were none around. “Stop,” she cried, watching Peter squirm away as Matt went after him again. “Matt, just stop it.”

He pulled his next punch and got to his feet, leaving Peter curled on his side like a fiddlehead. “You’re right. Why waste my time,” Matt said, and he started walking, waiting for Josie to fall into place beside him.

They were heading toward his car. Josie knew that they’d swing into town and grab a coffee before going back to her house. There, Josie would focus on her homework until it became impossible to ignore Matt rubbing her shoulders or kissing her neck, and then they’d make out until they heard her mother’s car pulling into the garage.

There was still an unleashed fury to Matt; his fists were curled at his sides. Josie reached for one, unfurled his hand, threaded their fingers together. “Can I say something without making you mad?” she asked.

This was rhetorical, Josie knew: Matt was already angry. It was the flip side to the passion that made her feel as if she’d gone electric inside-just directed, negatively, at someone weak.

When he didn’t answer, Josie forged ahead. “I don’t get why you have to pick on Peter Houghton.”

“The homo was the one who started it,” Matt argued. “You heard what he said.”

“Well, yeah,” Josie said. “After you pushed him down the steps.”

Matt stopped walking. “Since when did you become his guardian angel?”

He was staring in a way that cut her to the quick. Josie shivered. “I’m not,” she said quickly, and she took a deep breath. “I just…I don’t like the way you treat kids who aren’t like us, all right? Just because you don’t want to hang out with losers doesn’t mean you have to torture them, does it?”

“Yeah, it does,” Matt said. “Because if there isn’t a them, there can’t be an us.” His eyes narrowed. “You should know that better than anyone.”

Josie felt herself go numb. She didn’t know whether Matt was bringing up Peter’s little math chart, or worse, her history as Peter’s friend in earlier grades-but she didn’t want to find out, either. This was her biggest fear, after all: that the in crowd would realize she’d been out all the time.

She wouldn’t tell Mr. Cargrew what Peter had said. She wouldn’t even acknowledge him again, if he came up to her. And she wouldn’t lie to herself, either, and pretend she was any less awful than Matt when he mocked Peter or beat him up. You did what you had to, to cement your place in the pecking order. And the best way to stay on top was to step on someone else to get there.

“So,” Matt said, “are you coming with me?”

She wondered if Peter was still crying. If his nose was broken. If that was the worst of it.

“Yes,” Josie said, and she followed Matt without looking back.

Lincoln, Massachusetts, was a suburb of Boston that had once been farmland and that now was a hodgepodge of massive homes with ridiculously high real estate values. Josie stared out the window at the scenery that might have been hers to grow up with, under different circumstances: the stone walls that snaked around properties, the “historic property” badges worn by houses that were nearly two hundred years old, the small ice cream stand that smelled like fresh milk. She wondered whether Logan Rourke would suggest that they take a ride down to the Dairy Joy and share a sundae. Maybe he would walk right up to the counter and order butter pecan without even having to ask her what her favorite flavor was; maybe that’s what a father could spin out of instinct.

Matt was driving lazily, his wrist canted over the steering wheel. Just sixteen, he had his driver’s license and was ready and willing to go anywhere-to get a quart of milk for his mother, to drop off the dry cleaning, to squire Josie home after school. For him, it wasn’t the destination that was important, it was the journey-which was why Josie had asked him to take her to see her father.

Besides, it wasn’t as if she had an alternative. She couldn’t very well ask her mother to do it, given that her mother didn’t even know Josie had been looking for Logan Rourke. She could have probably figured out how to take a bus to Boston, but reaching a home in the suburbs was more complicated than that. So in the end, she decided to tell Matt the whole truth-that she had never known her father, and that she’d found him in a newspaper, because he was running for public office.

Logan Rourke’s driveway was not as grandiose as some of the others they’d passed, but it was immaculate. The lawn had been trimmed to a half inch; a spray of wildflowers craned their necks around the iron base of the mailbox. Hanging from a tree branch overhead was the house number: 59.

Josie felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. When she’d been on the field hockey team last year, that had been her jersey number.

It was a sign.

Matt pulled into the driveway. There were two cars-a Lexus and a Jeep-and also a toddler’s ride-on fire truck. Josie could not take her eyes off it. Somehow, she hadn’t imagined that Logan Rourke might have other children. “You want me to come in with you?” Matt asked.

Josie shook her head. “I’m okay.”

As she walked up to the front door, she began to wonder what on earth she’d been thinking. You couldn’t just drop in on some guy who was a public figure, could you? Surely there would be a Secret Service agent or something; an attack dog.

As if she’d cued it, a bark rang out. Josie turned in the direction of the sound to find a tiny little Yorkie with a pink bow on its head making a beeline for her feet.

The front door opened. “Titania, leave the postman al-” Logan Rourke broke off when he noticed Josie standing in front of him. “You’re not the postman.”

He was taller than she’d imagined, and he looked just like he did in the Globe-white hair, Roman nose, rangy build. But his eyes were the same color as hers, so electric that Josie couldn’t look away. She wondered if this had been her mother’s downfall, too.

“You’re Alex’s daughter,” he said.

“Well,” Josie replied. “And yours.”

Through the open doorway, Josie heard the shriek of a child still dizzy and delighted from being chased. A woman’s voice: “Logan, who is it?”

He reached back and closed the door so that Josie couldn’t see into his life any more. He looked incredibly uncomfortable, although in all fairness Josie imagined it was a little off-putting to be confronted by the daughter you’d abandoned before birth. “What are you doing here?”

Wasn’t that obvious? “I wanted to meet you. I thought you might want to meet me.”

He drew a deep breath. “This really isn’t a good time.”

Josie glanced back at the driveway, where Matt was still parked. “I can wait.”

“Look…it’s just that…I’m running for political office. Right now, this is a complication I can’t afford-”

Josie tripped over that one word. She was a complication?

She watched Logan Rourke take out his wallet and peel three hundred-dollar bills away from the rest. “Here,” he said, pushing it into her hand. “Will this do it?”

Josie tried to breathe, but someone had driven a stake through her chest. She realized that this was blood money; that her own father thought she’d come here to blackmail him.

“After the election,” he said, “maybe we could have lunch.”

The bills were crisp in her palm, the kind that had just come into circulation. Josie had a sudden memory of being little and accompanying her mother to the bank: how her mother would let her count the twenties to make sure the teller had gotten the withdrawal amount right; how fresh money always smelled of ink and good fortune.

Logan Rourke wasn’t her father, not any more than the guy who’d taken their coins at the toll booth or any other stranger. You could share DNA with someone and still have nothing in common with them.

Josie realized, fleetingly, that she had already learned that lesson from her mother.

“Well,” Logan Rourke said, and he started toward the door again. He hesitated with his hand on the knob. “I…I don’t know your name.”

Josie swallowed. “Margaret,” she said, so that she would be just as much of a lie to him as he was to her.

“Margaret, then,” he answered, and he slipped back inside.

On the way to the car, Josie opened her fingers like a flower. She watched the bills fall to the ground near a plant that looked, like everything else here, as if it was thriving.

Honestly, the whole idea for the game came to Peter when he was asleep.

He’d created computer games before-Pong replicates, racing courses, and even one sci-fiscenario that let you play online with someone in another country if they logged onto the site-but this was the biggest idea he’d conceived of yet. It came about because, after one of Joey’s football games, they’d stopped off at a pizza place where Peter had eaten way too much meatball and sausage pizza, and had been staring at an arcade game called DEER HUNT. You put in your quarter and shot your fake rifle at the bucks that poked their heads out from behind trees; if you hit a doe, you lost.

That night Peter dreamed about hunting with his father, but instead of going after deer, they were looking for real people.

He had awakened in a sweat, his hand cramped as if he’d been holding a gun.

It wouldn’t be all that hard to create avatars-computerized personas. He’d done some experimenting, and even if the skin tone wasn’t right and the graphics weren’t perfect, he knew how to differentiate between races and hair color and build through programming language. It might be kind of cool to do a game where the prey was human.

But war games were old hat, and even gangs had been totally overdone, thanks to Grand Theft Auto. What he needed, Peter realized, was a new villain, one that other people would want to gun down, too. That was the joy of a video game: watching someone who deserved it getting his comeuppance.

He tried to think of other microcosms of the universe that might be battlegrounds: alien invasions, Wild West shootouts, spy missions. Then Peter thought about the front line he braved every day.

What if you took the prey…and made them the hunters?

Peter got out of bed and sat down at his desk, pulling his eighth-grade yearbook from the drawer where he’d banished it months ago. He’d create a computer game that was Revenge of the Nerds, but updated for the twenty-first century. A fantasy world where the balance of power was turned on its head, where the underdog finally got a chance to beat the bullies.

He took a marker and started to look through the yearbook, circling portraits.

Drew Girard.

Matt Royston.

John Eberhard.

Peter turned the page and stopped for a moment. Then he circled Josie Cormier’s face, too.

“Can you stop here?” Josie said, when she really didn’t think she was going to be able to spend another minute riding in the car and pretending that her meeting with her father had gone well. Matt had barely pulled over when she opened the door, flew through the high grass into the woods at the edge of the road.

She sank down on the carpet of pine needles and started to cry. What she’d been expecting, she really couldn’t say-except that this wasn’t it. Unconditional acceptance, maybe. Curiosity, at the very least.

“Josie?” Matt said, coming up behind her. “You okay?”

She tried to say yes, but she was so sick of lying. She felt Matt’s hand stroke her hair, and that only made her cry harder; tenderness cut as sharp as any knife. “He didn’t give a shit about me.”

“Then you shouldn’t give a shit about him,” Matt answered.

Josie glanced up at him. “It’s not that simple.”

He pulled her into his arms. “Aw, Jo.”

Matt was the only one who’d ever given her a nickname. She couldn’t remember her mother calling her anything silly, like Pumpkin or Ladybug, the way other parents did. When Matt called her Jo, it reminded her of Little Women, and although she was pretty sure Matt had never read the Alcott novel, secretly she was pleased to be associated with a character so strong and sure of herself.

“It’s stupid. I don’t even know why I’m crying. I just…I wanted him to like me.”

“I’m crazy about you,” Matt said. “Does that count?” He leaned forward and kissed her, right on the trail of her tears.

“It counts a lot.”

She felt Matt’s lips move from her cheek to her neck to the spot behind her ear that always made her feel like she was dissolving. She was a novice at fooling around, but Matt had coaxed her further and further each time they were alone. It’s your fault, he’d say, and give her that smile. If you weren’t this hot, I’d be able to keep my hands off you. That alone was an aphrodisiac to Josie. Her? Hot? And-just as Matt had promised every time-it did feel good to let him touch her everywhere, to let him taste her. Every incremental intimacy with Matt felt as if she were falling off a cliff-that loss of breath, those butterflies in her stomach. One step, and she’d be flying. It didn’t occur to Josie, when she leaped, that she was just as likely to fall.

Now she felt his hands moving under her T-shirt, slipping beneath the lace of her bra. Her legs tangled with his; he rubbed up against her. When Matt tugged up her shirt, so that the cool air feathered over her skin, she snapped back to reality. “We can’t do this,” she whispered.

Matt’s teeth scraped over her shoulder.

“We’re parked on the side of the road.”

He looked up at her, drugged, feverish. “But I want you,” Matt said, like he had a dozen times.

This time, though, she glanced up.

I want you.

Josie could have stopped him, but she realized she did not intend to. He wanted her, and right now, that was what she most needed to hear.

There was a moment when Matt went still, wondering if the fact that she hadn’t shoved his hands away meant what he thought it meant. She heard the rip of a foil condom packet-How long had he been carrying that around? Then he tore at his jeans and hiked up her skirt, as if he still expected her to change her mind. Josie felt Matt pulling aside the elastic of her underwear, the burn of his finger pushing inside her. This was nothing like the times before, when his touch had left a track like a comet over her skin; when she found herself aching after she told him she wanted to stop. Matt shifted his weight and came down on top of her again, only this time there was more burning, more pressure. “Ow,” she whimpered, and Matt hesitated.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.

She turned her head away. “Just do it,” Josie said, and Matt pushed his hips flush against hers. It was the kind of pain that-even though she was expecting it-made her cry out.

Matt mistook that for passion. “I know, baby,” he groaned. She could feel his heartbeat, but from the inside, and then he started to move faster, bucking against her like a fish released from a hook onto a dock.

Josie wanted to ask Matt whether it had hurt the first time he had done it, too. She wondered if it always would hurt. Maybe pain was the price everyone paid for love. She turned her face into Matt’s shoulder and tried to understand why, even with him still inside of her, she felt empty.

“Peter,” Mrs. Sandringham said at the end of English class. “Could I see you for a moment?”

At the sound of his teacher’s summons, Peter sank down in his chair. He began to think of excuses he could give his parents when he came home with another failing grade.

He actually liked Mrs. Sandringham. She was only in her late twenties-you could actually look at her while she was prattling on about grammar and Shakespeare and imagine not so long ago, when she might have been slouched in a seat like any ordinary kid and wondering why the clock never seemed to move.

Peter waited until the rest of the class had cleared out before he approached the teacher’s desk. “I just wanted to talk to you about your essay,” Mrs. Sandringham said. “I haven’t graded everyone’s yet, but I did have a chance to look over yours and-”

“I can redo it,” Peter blurted out.

Mrs. Sandringham raised her brows. “But Peter…I wanted to tell you that you’re getting an A.” She handed it to him; Peter stared at the bright red grade in the margin.

The assignment had been to write about a significant event that had changed your life. Although it had happened only a week ago, Peter had written about getting fired for setting the fire in the Dumpster at work. In it, he didn’t mention Josie Cormier at all.

Mrs. Sandringham had circled one sentence in his conclusion: I’ve learned you will get caught, so you have to think things through before you act.

The teacher reached out and put her hand on Peter’s wrist. “You really have learned something from this incident,” she said, and she smiled at him. “I’d trust you in a heartbeat.”

Peter nodded and took the paper from the desk. He swam into the stream of students in the hallway, still holding it. He imagined what his mother would say if he came home with a paper that had a big fat A on it-if, for just once in his life, he did something everyone expected of Joey, and not Peter.

But that would have necessitated telling his mother about the Dumpster incident in the first place. Or admitting that he’d been fired at all, and now spent his after-school hours at the library instead of at the copy center.

Peter crumpled up the essay and threw it into the first trash can that he passed.

As soon as Josie started spending her free time almost exclusively with Matt, Maddie Shaw had seamlessly slipped into the position of being Courtney’s sidekick. In a way, she fit better than Josie ever had: if you were walking behind Courtney and Maddie, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was who; Maddie had so closely cultivated the style and movement of Courtney that she’d elevated it from imitation to art.

Tonight they’d gathered at Maddie’s house because her parents had gone to visit her older brother, a sophomore at Syracuse. They weren’t drinking-it was hockey season, and the players had to sign a contract with the coach-but Drew Girard had rented the uncut version of a teen sex comedy, and the guys were discussing who was hotter, Elisha Cuthbert or Shannon Elizabeth. “I wouldn’t throw either of them out of bed,” Drew said.

“What makes you think they’d get in in the first place?” John Eberhard laughed.

“My reputation reaches far and wide…”

Courtney smirked. “It’s the only part of you that does.”

“Aw, Court, you wish you knew that for sure.”

“Or not…”

Josie was sitting on the floor with Maddie, trying to make a Ouija board work. They’d found it in the basement closet, along with Chutes and Ladders and Trivial Pursuit. Josie’s fingertips rested lightly on the planchette. “Are you pushing it?”

“Swear to God, no,” Maddie said. “Are you?”

Josie shook her head. She wondered what kind of ghost would come to hang out at a teenage party. Someone who’d died tragically, of course, and too young-in a car crash, maybe. “What’s your name?” Josie said loudly.

The planchette swiveled to the letter A, and then B, and then stopped.

“Abe,” Maddie announced. “It must be.”

“Or Abby.”

“Are you male or female?” Maddie asked.

The planchette slipped off the edge of the board entirely. Drew started to laugh. “Maybe it’s gay.”

“Takes one to know one,” John said.

Matt yawned and stretched, his shirt riding up. Although Josie’s back was to him, she could practically sense this, so attuned were their bodies. “As thrillingly fun as this has been, we’re out of here. Jo, come on.”

Josie watched the planchette spell out a word: N-O. “I’m not leaving,” she said. “I’m having fun.”

“Meow,” Drew said. “Who’s pussy-whipped?”

Since they’d started dating, Matt spent more time with Josie than with his friends. And although Matt had told her he’d much rather fool around with her than be in the company of fools, Josie knew it was still important to him to have the respect of Drew and John. But that didn’t mean he had to treat her like a slave, did it?

“I said we’re leaving,” Matt repeated.

Josie glanced up at him. “And I said I’ll come when I want to come.”

Matt smiled at his friends, smug. “You never came in your life before you met me,” he said.

Drew and John burst out laughing, and Josie felt herself flush with embarrassment. She stood, averting her eyes, and ran up the basement stairs.

In the entryway of Maddie’s house she grabbed her jacket. When she heard footsteps behind her, Josie didn’t even turn around. “I was having fun. So-”

She broke off with a small cry as Matt grabbed her arm hard and spun her around, pinning her up against the wall by her shoulders. “You’re hurting me-”

“Don’t ever do that to me again.”

“You’re the one who-”

“You made me look like an idiot,” Matt said. “I told you it was time to go.”

Bruises bloomed on her skin where he held her fast, as if she were a canvas and he was determined to leave his mark. She went limp beneath his hands: instinct, a surrender. “I…I’m sorry,” she whispered.

The words were a key-Matt’s grip relaxed. “Jo,” he sighed, and he rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t like sharing you. You can’t blame me for that.”

Josie shook her head, but she still didn’t trust herself to speak.

“It’s just that I love you so much.”

She blinked. “You do?”

He hadn’t said those words yet, and she hadn’t said them either, even though she felt them, because if he didn’t say them back then Josie was sure she’d simply evaporate on the spot from sheer humiliation. But here was Matt, saying he loved her, first.

“Isn’t that obvious?” he said, and he took her hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed the knuckles so gently that Josie almost forgot all that had happened to get them to that moment.

“Kentucky Fried People,” Peter said, mulling Derek’s idea while they sat on the sidelines in gym class, as the teams for basketball were being picked. “I don’t know…doesn’t it seem a little…”

“Graphic?” Derek said. “Since when were you aiming for politically correct? See, imagine if you could go to the art room, if you had enough points, and use the kiln as a weapon.”

Derek had been road testing Peter’s new computer game, pointing out room for improvement and flaws in the design. They knew they had plenty of time for conversation, since they were bound to be the last kids chosen for teams.

Coach Spears had chosen Drew Girard and Matt Royston to be team captains-a huge surprise, not-they were varsity athletes, even as sophomores. “Look alive, people,” Coach called out. “You want your captains to think you’re hungry to play. You want them to think you’re the next Michael Jordan.”

Drew pointed to a boy in the back. “Noah.”

Matt nodded to the kid who’d been sitting next to him. “Charlie.”

Peter turned to Derek. “I heard that even though Michael Jordan’s retired, he’s still getting forty million dollars in endorsements.”

“That means he makes $109,589 a day, for not working,” Derek figured.

“Ash,” Drew called out.

“Robbie,” Matt said.

Peter leaned closer to Derek. “If he goes to see a movie, it’ll cost him ten bucks, but he’ll make $9,132 while he’s there.”

Derek grinned. “If he hard-boils an egg for five minutes, he’ll make $380.”

“Stu.”

“Freddie.”

“O-boy.”

“Walt.”

By now there were only three kids left to be picked for teams: Derek, Peter, and Royce, who had aggression issues and came complete with his own aide.

“Royce,” Matt said.

“He makes $4,560.85 more than he would working at McDonald’s,” Derek added.

Drew scrutinized Peter and Derek. “He makes $2,283 watching a rerun of Friends,” Peter said.

“If he wanted to save up for a new Maserati, it would take him a whole twenty-one hours,” Derek said. “Damn, I wish I could play basketball.”

“Derek,” Drew picked.

Derek started to stand up. “Yeah,” Peter said, “but even if Michael Jordan saved a hundred percent of his income for the next four hundred and fifty years, he still wouldn’t have as much as Bill Gates has right this second.”

“All right,” Matt said, “I’ll take the homo.”

Peter shuffled toward the back of Matt’s team. “You ought to be good at this game, Peter,” Matt said, loud enough so that everyone else could hear. “Just keep your hands on the balls.”

Peter leaned against a floor mat that had been strung on the wall, like the inside of an insane asylum. A rubber room, where all hell could break loose.

He sort of wished he was as sure of who