Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  "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 mista
ke, 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.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]