Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult


  His words could melt her just as surely as his kiss or his touch; she already knew that by now. She hated that rubbery smell that permeated the air the moment he ripped open the Trojan packet and stayed on his hands until they were finished. And God, did anything feel better than having Matt inside her? Josie shifted just a little, felt her body adjust to him, and her legs trembled.

  When Josie had gotten her period at thirteen, her mother had not given her the typical heart-to-heart mother/daughter chat. Instead, she handed Josie a book on probability and statistics. "Every time you have sex, you can get pregnant or you can not get pregnant," her mother said. "That's fifty-fifty. So don't fool yourself into thinking that if you only do it once without protection, the odds are in your favor."

  Josie pushed at Matt. "I don't think we should do this," she whispered.

  "Have sex?"

  "Have sex without . . . you know. Anything."

  He was disappointed, Josie could tell by the way his face froze for just a moment. But he pulled out and fished for his wallet, found a condom. Josie took it out of his hand, tore open the package, helped him put it on. "One day," she began, and then he kissed her, and Josie forgot what she was going to say.

  *

  Lacy had started spreading corn on the lawn back in November to help the deer through the winter. There were plenty of locals who frowned upon artificially giving the deer a helping hand during the winter--mostly the same people whose gardens were wrecked by those surviving deer in the summer--but for Lacy, there was karma involved. As long as Lewis insisted on hunting, she was going to do what little she could to cancel out his actions.

  She put on her heavy boots--there was still enough snow on the ground to merit it, although it had gotten warm enough for the sap to start flowing, which meant that at least in theory, spring was coming. As soon as Lacy walked outside, she could smell the maple syrup refining in the neighbor's sugar house, like candy crystals in the air. She carried the bucket of feed corn to the swing set in the backyard--a wooden structure that the boys had played on when they were small, and that Lewis had never quite gotten around to dismantling.

  "Hey, Mom."

  Lacy turned to find Peter standing nearby, his hands dug deep into the pockets of his jeans. He was wearing a T-shirt and a down vest, and she imagined he had to be freezing. "Hi, sweetie," she said. "What's going on?"

  She could probably count on one hand the number of times Peter had come out of his room lately, much less outside. It was part of puberty, she knew, for adolescents to hole up in burrows and do whatever it was they did behind closed doors. In Peter's case, it involved the computer. He was online constantly--not for web surfing as much as programming, and how could she fault that kind of passion?

  "Nothing. What are you doing?"

  "Same thing I've done all winter."

  "Really?"

  She looked up at him. Against the beauty of the brisk outdoors, Peter seemed wildly out of place. His features were too delicate to match the craggy line of mountains in the backdrop behind him; his skin seemed nearly as white as the snow. He didn't fit, and Lacy realized that most of the time when she saw Peter somewhere, she could make the same observation.

  "Here," Lacy said, handing him the bucket. "Help."

  Peter took the bucket and began to toss handfuls of corn on the ground. "Can I ask you something?"

  "Sure."

  "Is it true that you were the one who asked out Dad?"

  Lacy grinned. "Well, if I hadn't, I would have probably had to wait around forever. Your father is many things, but perceptive isn't one of them."

  She had met Lewis at a pro-choice rally. Although Lacy would be the first to tell you that there was no greater gift than having a baby, she was a realist--she'd sent home enough mothers who were too young or too poor or too overburdened to know that the odds of that child having a good life were slim. She had gone with a friend to a march at the statehouse in Concord and stood on the steps with a sisterhood of women who held up signs: I'M PRO-CHOICE AND I VOTE...AGAINST ABORTION? DON'T HAVE ONE. She had looked around the crowd that day and realized that there was one lone man--well-dressed in a suit and tie, right in the thick of the protesters. Lacy had been fascinated by him--as a protester, he was completely cast against type. Wow, Lacy had said, working her way toward him. What a day.

  Tell me about it.

  Have you ever been here before? Lacy had asked.

  My first time, Lewis said.

  Mine, too.

  They had gotten separated as a new influx of marchers came up the stone steps. A paper had blown off the stack that Lewis was carrying, but by the time Lacy could grab it, he'd been swallowed by the crowd. It was the cover page to something bigger; she knew by the staple holes at the top, and it had a title that nearly put her to sleep: "The allocation of public education resources in New Hampshire: a critical analysis." But there was also an author's name: Lewis Houghton, Sterling College Dept. of Economics.

  When she called to tell Lewis that she had his paper, he said that he didn't need it. He could print out another copy. Yes, Lacy had said, but I have to bring this one back to you.

  Why?

  So you can explain it to me over dinner.

  It wasn't until they'd gone out for sushi that Lacy learned the reason Lewis had been at the statehouse had nothing to do with attending a pro-choice rally, but only because he had a scheduled appointment with the governor.

  "But how did you tell him?" Peter asked. "That you liked him, you know, like that?"

  "As I recall, I grabbed him after our third date and kissed him. Then again, that may have been to shut him up because he was going on and on about free trade." She glanced back over her shoulder, and suddenly the questions all made sense. "Peter," she said, a smile breaking over her. "Is there someone you like?"

  Peter didn't even have to answer--his face turned crimson.

  "Do I get to know her name?"

  "No," Peter said emphatically.

  "Well, it doesn't matter." She looped her arm through Peter's. "Gosh, I envy you. There's nothing that compares to those first few months when all you can think of is each other. I mean, love in any form is pretty fabulous . . . but falling in love . . . well."

  "It's not like that," Peter said. "I mean, it's kind of one-sided."

  "I bet she's just as nervous as you are."

  He grimaced. "Mom. She barely even registers my existence. I'm not . . . I don't hang out with the kind of people she hangs out with."

  Lacy looked at her son. "Well," she said. "Then your first order of business is to change that."

  "How?"

  "Find ways to connect with her. Maybe in places where you know her friends won't be around. And try to show her the side of you that she doesn't normally see."

  "Like what?"

  "The inside." Lacy tapped Peter's chest. "If you tell her how you feel, I think you might be surprised at the reaction."

  Peter ducked his head and kicked at a hummock of snow. Then he glanced up at her shyly. "Really?"

  Lacy nodded. "It worked for me."

  "Okay," Peter said. "Thanks."

  She watched him trudge back up the hill to the house, and then she turned her attention back to the deer. Lacy would have to feed them until the snow melted. Once you started taking care of them, you had to follow through, or they just wouldn't make it.

  *

  They were on the floor of the living room and they were nearly naked. Josie could taste beer on Matt's breath, but she must have tasted like that, too. They'd both drunk a few at Drew's--not enough to get wasted, just buzzed, enough so that Matt's hands seemed to be all over her at once, so that his skin set fire to hers.

  She'd been floating along pleasantly in a haze of the familiar. Yes, Matt had kissed her--one short one, then a longer, hungry kiss, as his hand worked open the clasp on her bra. She lay lazy, spread beneath him like a feast, as he pulled off her jeans. But then, instead of doing what usually came next, Matt reared over h
er again. He kissed her so hard that it hurt. "Mmmph," she said, pushing at him.

  "Relax," Matt murmured, and then he sank his teeth into her shoulder. He pinned her hands over her head and ground his hips against hers. She could feel his erection, hot against her stomach.

  It wasn't the way it normally was, but Josie had to admit that it was exciting. She couldn't remember ever feeling so heavy, as if her heart were beating between her legs. She clawed at Matt's back to bring him closer.

  "Yeah," he groaned, and he pushed her thighs apart. And then suddenly Matt was inside her, pumping so hard that she scooted backward on the carpet, burning the backs of her legs.

  "Wait," Josie said, trying to roll away beneath him, but he clamped his hand over her mouth and drove harder and harder until Josie felt him come.

  Semen, sticky and hot, pooled on the carpet beneath her. Matt framed her face with his hands. "Jesus, Josie," he whispered, and she realized that he was in tears. "I love you so goddamn much."

  Josie turned her face away. "I love you, too."

  She lay in his arms for ten minutes and then said she was tired and needed to go to sleep. After she kissed Matt good-bye at the front door, she went into the kitchen and took the rug cleaner out from underneath the sink. She scrubbed it into the wet spot on the carpet, prayed it would not leave a stain.

  *

  Peter highlighted the text on his computer screen and deleted it. Although he thought it would be pretty cool to open an email and automatically have an I LOVE YOU message written over and over on the screen, he could see where someone else--someone who didn't give a crap about C++--would think it was just downright strange.

  He'd decided on an email because that way if she blew him off, he could suffer the embarrassment in private. The problem was, his mother had said to show what was inside him and he wasn't very good when it came to words.

  He thought about how sometimes, when he saw her, it was just a part of her: her arm resting on the passenger window of the car, her hair blowing out its window. He thought about how many times he'd fantasized about being the one at the wheel.

  My journey was pointless, he wrote. Until I took a YOU-turn.

  Groaning, Peter deleted that, too. It made him sound like a Hallmark card writer, or even worse, one that Hallmark wouldn't even hire.

  He thought about what he wished he could say to her, if he had the guts, and poised his hands over the keyboard.

  I know you don't think of me.

  And you certainly would never picture us together.

  But probably peanut butter was just peanut butter for a long time, before someone ever thought of pairing it up with jelly. And there was salt, but it started to taste better when there was pepper. And what's the point of butter without bread?

  (Why are all these examples FOODS!?!?!??)

  Anyway, by myself, I'm nothing special. But with you, I think I could be.

  He agonized about the ending.

  Your friend, Peter Houghton

  Well, technically that wasn't true.

  Sincerely, Peter Houghton

  That was true, but it was still sort of lame. Of course, there was the obvious:

  Love, Peter Houghton

  He typed it in, read it over once. And then, before he could stop himself, he pushed the Enter button and sent his heart across the Ethernet to Josie Cormier.

  *

  Courtney Ignatio was so freaking bored.

  Josie was her friend and all, but there was, like, nothing to do. They'd already watched three Paul Walker movies on DVD, checked the Lost website for the bio on the hot guy who played Sawyer, and read all the Cosmos that hadn't been recycled, but there was no HBO, nothing chocolate in the fridge, and no party at Sterling College to sneak into. This was Courtney's second night at the Cormier household, thanks to her brainiac older brother, who had dragged her parents on a whirlwind tour of Ivy League colleges on the East Coast. Courtney plopped a stuffed hippo on her stomach and frowned into its button eyes. She'd already tried to get details out of Josie last night about Matt--important things, like how big a dick he had and if he had a clue how to use it--but Josie had gone all Hilary Duff on her and acted like she'd never heard the word sex before.

  Josie was in the bathroom taking a shower; Courtney could still hear the water running. She rolled to her side and scrutinized a framed photograph of Josie and Matt. It would have been easy to hate Josie, because Matt was the uber-boyfriend--always glancing around at a party to make sure he hadn't gotten too far away from Josie; calling her up to say good night, even when he'd just dropped her off a half hour before (yes, Courtney had been privy to a display of that very thing just last night). Unlike most of the guys on the hockey team--several of whom Courtney had dated--Matt honestly seemed to prefer Josie's company to anyone else's. But there was something about Josie that kept Courtney from being jealous. It was the way her expression slipped every now and then, like a colored contact lens, so you could see what was actually underneath. Josie might have been one-half of Sterling High School's Most Faithful Couple, but it almost seemed like the biggest reason she clung to that label was because that was the only reason she knew who she was.

  You've got mail.

  The automaton on Josie's computer spoke; until then, Courtney hadn't realized that they'd left the computer running, much less online. She settled down at the desk, wiggling the mouse so that the screen came back into focus. Maybe Matt was writing some kind of cyberporn. It would be fun to screw around with him a little and pretend that she was Josie.

  The return address, though, wasn't one that Courtney recognized--she and Josie, after all, had nearly identical Buddy Lists. There was no subject. Courtney clicked on the link, assuming it was some kind of junk mail: enlarge your penis in thirty days; refinance your home; real deals on printer ribbon cartridges.

  The email opened, and Courtney started to read.

  "Oh my God," she murmured. "This is too fucking good."

  She swiped the body of the email and forwarded it to [email protected].

  Drew, she typed. Spam this out to the whole wide world.

  The door to the bathroom opened, and Josie came back into the bedroom wearing a bathrobe, a towel wrapped around her head. Courtney closed the server window. "Good-bye," the automaton said.

  "What's up?" Josie asked.

  Courtney turned around in the chair, smiling. "Just checking my mail," she said.

  *

  Josie couldn't sleep; her mind was tumbling like a spring stream. This was exactly the sort of problem she wished she could talk about with someone--but who? Her mother? Yeah, right. Matt was out of the question. And Courtney--or any other girlfriend she had--well, she was afraid that if she spoke her worst fears out loud, maybe that would be enough for them to come true.

  Josie waited until she heard Courtney's even breathing. She crept out of bed and into the bathroom. She closed the door and pulled down her pajama pants.

  Nothing.

  Her period was three days late.

  *

  On Tuesday afternoon, Josie sat on a couch in Matt's basement, writing a social studies essay for him about the historical abuse of power in America while he and Drew lifted free weights.

  "There are a million things you could talk about," Josie said. "Watergate. Abu Ghraib. Kent State."

  Matt strained beneath the weight of a barbell as Drew spotted him. "Whatever's easiest, Jo," he said.

  "Come on, you pussy," Drew said. "At this rate they're going to demote you to JV."

  Matt grinned and fully extended his arms. "Let's see you bench this," he grunted. Josie watched the play of his muscles, imagined them strong enough to do that and also tender enough to hold her. He sat up, wiping his forehead and the back of the weight bench, so that Drew could take his turn.

  "I could do something on the Patriot Act," Josie suggested, biting down on the end of the pencil.

  "I'm just looking out for your own best interests, dude," Drew said. "I mean, if you'
re not going to bulk up for Coach, do it for Josie."

  She glanced up. "Drew, were you born an idiot, or did that evolve?"

  "I intelligently designed," he joked. "All I'm saying is that Matt better watch out, now that he's got some competition."

  "What are you talking about?" Josie looked at him as if he were crazy, but secretly, she was panicking. It didn't really matter whether or not Josie had shown attention to someone else; it only mattered whether Matt thought so.

  "It was a joke, Josie," Drew said, lying down on the bench and curling his fists around the metal bar.

  Matt laughed. "Yeah, that's a good description of Peter Houghton."

  "Are you going to fuck with him?"

  "Hopefully," Matt said. "I just haven't decided how yet."

  "Maybe you need some poetic inspiration to come up with a suitable plan," Drew said. "Hey, Jo, grab my binder. The email's right in the pocket in the front."

  Josie reached across the couch for Drew's backpack and rummaged through his books. She pulled out a folded piece of paper and opened it to find her own email address right at the top, the whole student body of Sterling High as the destination address.

  Where had this come from? And why hadn't she ever seen it?

  "Read it," Drew said, lifting the weights.

  Josie hesitated. "'I know you don't think of me. And you certainly would never picture us together.'"

  The words felt like stones in her throat. She stopped speaking, but that didn't matter, because Drew and Matt were reciting the email word for word.

  "'By myself, I'm nothing special,'" Matt said.

  "'But with you . . . I think . . . '" Drew convulsed, laughing, the weights falling hard back into their cradle. "Fuck, I can't do this when I'm cracking up."

  Matt sank down on the couch beside Josie and slipped his arm around her, his thumb grazing her breast. She shifted, because she didn't want Drew to see, but Matt did, and shifted with her. "You inspire poetry," he said, smiling. "Bad poetry, but even Helen of Troy probably started with, like, a limerick, right?"

  Josie's face reddened. She could not believe that Peter had written these things to her, that he'd ever think she might be receptive to them. She couldn't believe that the whole school knew that Peter Houghton liked her. She couldn't afford for them to think that she felt anything for him.

  Even sorry.

  More devastating was the fact someone had decided to make her the fool. It was not a surprise that someone had gotten into her email account--they all knew each other's passwords; it could have been any of the girls, or even Matt himself. But what would make her friends do something like this, something so totally humiliating?

 
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