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.
Copyright © Jodi Picoult, 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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