Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  "You will."

  "I don't have a choice," Alex said.

  Josie turned to her, her eyes reflecting the candlelight. "Everyone has a choice," she said. She came up on an elbow. "Can I ask you something?"


  "Why didn't you marry Logan Rourke?"

  Alex felt as if she'd been thrust out into the storm, naked; she was that unprepared for Josie's question. "Where did this come from?"

  "What was it about him that wasn't good enough? You told me he was handsome and smart. And you had to love him, at least at one point . . ."

  "Josie, this is ancient history--and it's stuff you shouldn't worry about, because it has nothing to do with you."

  "It has everything to do with me," Josie said. "I'm half him."

  Alex stared up at the ceiling. Maybe the sky was falling down; maybe that's what happened when you thought your smoke and mirrors would create a lasting illusion. "He was all of those things," Alex said quietly. "It wasn't him at all. It was me."

  "And then there was the whole married part."

  She sat up in bed. "How did you find out?"

  "It's all over the papers, now that he's running for office. You don't have to be a rocket scientist."

  "Did you call him?"

  Josie looked her in the eye. "No."

  There was a part of Alex that wished Josie had talked to him--to see whether he'd followed Alex's career, if he'd even asked about her. The act of leaving Logan, which had seemed so righteous on behalf of her unborn baby, now seemed selfish. Why hadn't she talked to Josie about this before?

  Because she'd been protecting Logan. Josie may have grown up without knowing her father, but wasn't that better than learning he'd wanted you to be aborted? One more lie, Alex thought, just a little one. Just to keep Josie from being hurt. "He wouldn't leave his wife." Alex glanced sideways at Josie. "I couldn't make myself small enough to fit into the space he wanted me to fit into, in order to be part of his life. Does that make sense?"

  "I guess."

  Beneath the covers, Alex reached for Josie's hand. It was the kind of action that would have seemed forced, had it been in visible sight--something too openly emotional for either of them to lay claim to--but here, in the dark, with the world tunneling in around them, it seemed perfectly natural. "I'm sorry," she said.

  "For what?"

  "For not giving you the choice of having him around when you were growing up."

  Josie shrugged and pulled her hand away. "You did the right thing."

  "I don't know," Alex sighed. "The right thing sets you up to be incredibly lonely, sometimes." Suddenly she turned to Josie, stretching a bright smile on her face. "Why are we even talking about this? Unlike me, you're lucky in love, right?"

  Just then, the power came back on. Downstairs, the microwave beeped to be reset; the light in the bathroom spilled yellow down the hallway. "I guess I'll go back to my own bed," Josie said.

  "Oh. All right," Alex answered, when what she meant to say was that Josie was welcome to stay right where she was.

  As Josie padded down the hallway, Alex reached over to reset her alarm clock. It blinked 12:00 12:00 12:00 in panicked LED, like Cinderella's redflag reminder that fairy-tale endings are hard to come by.


  To Peter's surprise, the bouncer at the Front Runner didn't even glance at his fake ID, so before he had time to think twice about the fact that he was actually, finally here, he was pushed inside.

  He was hit in the face with a blast of smoke, and it took him a minute to adjust to the dim light. Music filled in all the spaces between people, techno-dance stuff that was so loud it made Peter's eardrums pulse. Two tall women were flanking the front door, checking out the new entrants. It took Peter a second glance to realize that one had the shadow of a beard on her face. His face. The other one looked more like a girl than most girls he'd ever seen, but then again, Peter had never seen a transvestite up close. Maybe they were perfectionists.

  Men were standing in groups of two or three, except for the ones that perched like hawks on a balcony overlooking the dance floor. There were men in leather chaps, men kissing other men in the corners, men passing joints. Mirrors on every wall made the club look huge, its rooms endless.

  It hadn't been hard to find out about the Front Runner, thanks to Internet chat rooms. Since Peter was still taking driver's ed, he had to take a bus to Manchester and then a taxi to the club's front door. He still wasn't sure why he was there--it was like an anthropology experiment, in his mind. See if he fit in with this society, instead of his own.

  It wasn't that he wanted to fool around with a guy--not yet, anyway. He just wanted to know what it was like to be among guys who were gay, and totally okay with it. He wanted to know if they could look at him and know, instantly, that Peter belonged.

  He stopped in front of a couple that was going at it in a dark corner. Seeing a guy kiss a guy was strange in real life. Sure, there were gay kisses on television shows--Big Moments that usually were controversial enough to get press, so that Peter knew when they were airing--and he'd sometimes watch them to see if he felt anything, watching them. But they were acted, just like regular hookups on TV shows . . . unlike the display in front of his eyes right now. He waited to see if his heart started pounding a little harder, if it made sense to him.

  He didn't feel particularly excited, though. Curious, sure--did a beard scratch you when you were making out?--and not repulsed, but Peter couldn't say he felt with any great conviction that that was something he wanted to try, too.

  The men broke away from each other, and one of them narrowed his eyes. "This ain't no peep show," he said, and he shoved Peter away.

  Peter stumbled, falling against someone sitting at the bar. "Whoa," the man said, and then his eyes lit up. "What have we here?"

  "Sorry . . ."

  "Don't be." He was in his early twenties, with white-blond crew-cut hair and nicotine stains on his fingertips. "First time here?"

  Peter turned to him. "How can you tell?"

  "You've got that deer-in-the-headlights look." He stubbed out his cigarette and summoned the bartender, who, Peter noticed, looked like he'd walked out of the pages of a magazine. "Rico, get my young friend here a drink. What would you like?"

  Peter swallowed. "Pepsi?"

  The man's teeth flashed. "Yeah, right."

  "I don't drink."

  "Ah," he said. "Here, then."

  He handed a pair of small tubes to Peter, and then took two for himself out of his pocket. There was no powder in them--just air. Peter watched him open the top, inhale deeply, then do the same with the second vial in his other nostril. Mimicking this, Peter felt his head spin, like the one time he'd drunk a six-pack when his parents had gone off to watch Joey play football. But unlike then, when he'd only wanted to fall asleep afterward, Peter now felt every cell of his body buzzing, wide awake.

  "My name's Kurt," the man said, holding out his hand.


  "Bottom or top?"

  Peter shrugged, trying to look like he knew what the guy was talking about, when in fact he had no clue.

  "My God," Kurt said, his jaw dropping. "New blood."

  The bartender set a Pepsi down in front of Peter. "Leave him alone, Kurt. He's just a kid."

  "Then maybe we should play a game," Kurt said. "You like pool?"

  A game of pool Peter could totally handle. "That would be great."

  He watched Kurt peel a twenty out of his wallet and leave it behind for Rico. "Keep the change," he said.

  The poolroom was adjacent to the main part of the club, four tables that were already engaged in various stages of play. Peter sat down on a bench along the wall, studying people. Some were touching each other--an arm on the shoulder, a pat on the rear--but most were just acting like a bunch of guys. Like friends would.

  Kurt took a handful of quarters out of his pocket and put them down on the lip of the table. Thinking that this was the pot they would be playing
for, Peter pulled two crumpled dollars out of his jacket. "It's not a bet," Kurt laughed. "It's what you pay to play." He stood up as the group in front of them sank the last ball, and started feeding the quarters to the table, until it released a colorful torrent of stripes and solids.

  Peter picked a cue off the wall and rubbed chalk over the tip. He wasn't great at pool, but he'd played a couple of times before, and he hadn't done anything totally stupid, like scratch and make the ball jump off the edge of the table. "So you're a betting man," Kurt said. "That could make this interesting."

  "I'll put down five bucks," Peter said, hoping that made him sound older.

  "I don't bet for money. How about if I win, I get to take you home. And if you win, you get to take me home."

  Peter didn't really see how he could win either way, since he didn't want to go home with Kurt and he sure as hell wasn't bringing Kurt home with him. He put the cue down on the edge of the table. "I guess I don't really feel like playing after all."

  Kurt grabbed Peter's arm. His eyes were too bright in his face, like small, hot stars. "My quarters are already in there. It's all racked up. You wanted to play the game . . . that means you've got to finish it."

  "Let me go," Peter said, his voice climbing higher on a ladder of panic.

  Kurt smiled. "But we're just getting started."

  Behind Peter, another man spoke. "I think you heard the boy." Peter turned around, still bound by Kurt, and saw Mr. McCabe, his math teacher.

  It was one of those strange moments, like when you're at a movie theater and you see the lady who works at the post office, and you know you know her from somewhere, but without the PO boxes and scales and stamp machines around her, you cannot quite figure out who she is. Mr. McCabe was holding a beer and wearing a shirt made out of something silky. He put down the bottle and folded his arms. "Don't fuck with him, Kurt, or I'll call the cops and get you bounced out of here."

  Kurt shrugged. "Whatever," he said, and he walked back into the smoky bar.

  Peter looked down at the ground, waiting for Mr. McCabe to speak. He was sure that the teacher would call his parents, or rip up his ID in front of him, or ask him why he thought coming to a gay bar in downtown Manchester was a good idea.

  Suddenly Peter realized he could have asked Mr. McCabe the same thing. As he lifted his gaze, he considered a mathematical principle that surely his teacher already knew: If two people have the same secret, it's not a secret anymore.

  "You probably need a ride home," Mr. McCabe said.


  Josie held her hand up to Matt's, a giant's paw.

  "Look at how tiny you are, compared to me," Matt said. "It's amazing I don't kill you."

  He shifted then, still hard inside her, so that she felt the bulk of his weight. Then he put his hand up to her throat.

  "Because," he said, "I could."

  He pressed just the slightest bit, pressure on her windpipe. Not enough to rob her of air, but certainly to scatter speech.

  "Don't," Josie managed.

  Matt stared down at her, puzzled. "Don't what?" he said, and when he started to move in her again, Josie was sure she had heard it all wrong.


  For most of the hour-long ride from Manchester, the conversation between Peter and Mr. McCabe was as superficial as a dragonfly on the surface of a lake, darting around topics neither of them particularly cared about: hockey standings for the Bruins, the upcoming winter formal dance, what good colleges were looking for these days from applicants.

  It was after they pulled off Route 89 at the exit for Sterling, and they were driving down dark back roads toward Peter's house, that Mr. McCabe even mentioned the reason they were both in the car. "About tonight," he began. "Not many people know about me in school. I haven't come out yet." The small rectangle of reflected light from the rearview mirror banded his eyes like a raccoon's.

  "Why not?" Peter heard himself ask.

  "It's not that I don't think the faculty would be supportive . . . it's that I don't think it's any of their business. Right?"

  Peter didn't know how to answer, and then realized that Mr. McCabe was not asking him for his opinion--just for directions. "Yeah," Peter said. "Turn here, and then it's the third house on the left."

  Mr. McCabe pulled up in front of Peter's driveway, but didn't turn in. "I'm telling you this because I trust you, Peter. And because if you need someone to talk to, I want you to feel free to come to me."

  Peter unbuckled his seat belt. "I'm not gay."

  "All right," Mr. McCabe replied, but something in his eyes went soft at the edges.

  "I'm not gay," Peter repeated more firmly, and he opened the car door and ran as fast as he could toward his house.


  Josie shook up the bottle of OPI nail polish and looked at the sticker on the bottom. I'm Not Really a Waitress Red. "Who do you think comes up with these? Do you think it's a bunch of women who sit around a conference table?"

  "No," Maddie said. "They're probably just old friends who get drunk once a year and write down all the flavors."

  "It's not a flavor if you don't eat it," Emma pointed out.

  Courtney rolled over, so that her hair tumbled over the side of the bed like a waterfall. "This is bogus," she announced, although it was her house and her slumber party. "There's got to be something exciting to do."

  "Let's call someone," Emma suggested.

  Courtney considered this. "Like a prank?"

  "We could order pizza and have it delivered to someone," Maddie said.

  "We did that last time with Drew," Courtney sighed, and then she grinned and reached for the phone. "I've got something better."

  She put on the speakerphone and dialed--a musical jingle that sounded awfully familiar to Josie. "Hello," a voice said gruffly on the other end.

  "Matt," Courtney said, holding up a finger to her lips to keep everyone else quiet. "Hey."

  "It's fucking three in the morning, Court."

  "I know. I just . . . I've been wanting to tell you something for a really long time, and I don't know how to do it, because Josie's my friend and everything--"

  Josie started to speak, to let Matt know he was being led into a trap, but Emma clapped her hand over Josie's mouth and pushed her back on the bed.

  "I like you," Courtney said.

  "I like you, too."

  "No, I mean . . . I like you."

  "Geez, Courtney. If I'd known that, I guess I would be having wild sex with you, except for the fact that I love Josie, and she's probably less than three feet away from you right now."

  The silence shattered, laughter breaking it apart like glass. "God! How'd you know?" Courtney said.

  "Because Josie tells me everything, including when she's sleeping over at your house. Now take me off speakerphone and let me say good night to her."

  Courtney handed the receiver over. "Good answer," Josie said.

  Matt's voice was smoky with sleep. "Did you doubt it?"

  "No," Josie replied, smiling.

  "Well, have fun. Just not as much fun as you'd be having with me."

  She listened to Matt yawn. "Go to bed."

  "Wish you were next to me," he said.

  Josie turned her back on the other girls. "Me, too."

  "Love you, Jo."

  "I love you, too."

  "And I," Courtney announced, "am going to throw up." She reached over and punched the disconnect button of the phone.

  Josie tossed the receiver on the bed. "It was your idea to call him."

  "You're just jealous," Emma said. "I wish I had someone who couldn't live without me."

  "You're so lucky, Josie," Maddie agreed.

  Josie opened the bottle of nail polish again, and a drop spilled off the brush to land on her thigh like a bead of blood. Any of her friends--well, maybe not Courtney, but most of them--would have killed to be in her position.

  But would they die for it, a voice inside her whispered.

  She looked up at Maddie an
d Emma and forced a smile. "Tell me about it," Josie said.


  In December, Peter got a job in the school library. He was in charge of the audiovisual equipment, which meant that for an hour after school each day, he'd rewind microfilm and organize DVDs alphabetically. He'd bring the overhead projectors and TV/VCRs to classrooms, so that they were in place when the teachers who needed them arrived at school in the morning. He especially liked how nobody bothered him in the library. The cool kids wouldn't have been caught dead there after school; Peter was more likely to find the special-needs students, with their aides, working on assignments.

  He'd gotten the job after helping Mrs. Wahl, the librarian, fix her ancient computer so that it stopped blue-screening on her. Now Peter was her favorite student at Sterling High. She let him lock up after she left for the day, and she made him his own key to the custodial elevator, so that he could transport equipment from one floor of the high school to another.

  Peter's last job that day was moving a projector from a bio lab on the second floor back down to the AV room. He had stepped into the elevator and turned a key to close the door when someone called out, asking him to hold the door.

  A moment later, Josie Cormier hobbled inside.

  She was on crutches, sporting an AirCast. She glanced at Peter as the doors of the elevator closed, and then quickly down at the linoleum floor.

  Although it had been months since she'd gotten him fired, Peter still felt a flash of anger when he saw Josie. He could practically hear Josie ticking off the seconds in her head until the elevator doors opened again. Well, I'm not thrilled being stuck in here with you either, he thought to himself, and just about then the elevator bobbled and screeched to a halt.

  "What's wrong with it?" Josie punched at the first-floor button.

  "That's not going to do anything," Peter said. He reached across her--noticing that she nearly lost her balance trying to lean back, as if he had a communicable disease--and pushed the red Emergency button.

  Nothing happened.

  "This sucks," Peter said. He stared up at the roof of the elevator. In movies, action heroes were always climbing through the air ducts into the elevator shaft, but even if he stood on top of the projector, he didn't see how he could get the hatch open without a screwdriver.

  Josie punched at the button again. "Hello?!"

  "No one's going to hear you," Peter said. "The teachers are all gone and the custodian watches Oprah from five until six in the basement." He glanced at her. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

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