Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Josie already knew the answer. This group of kids--they weren't her friends. Popular kids didn't really have friends; they had alliances. You were safe only as long as you hid your trust--at any moment someone might make you the laughingstock, because then they knew no one was laughing at them.

  Josie was smarting, but she also knew part of the prank was a test to see how she reacted. If she turned around and accused her friends of hacking into her email and invading her privacy, she was doomed. Above all else, she wasn't supposed to show emotion. She was so socially above Peter Houghton that an email like this wasn't mortifying, but hilarious.

  In other words: Laugh, don't cry.

  "What a total loser," Josie said, as if it didn't bother her at all; as if she found this just as funny as Drew and Matt did. She balled up the email and tossed it behind the couch. Her hands were shaking.

  Matt lay his head down in her lap, still sweaty. "What did I officially decide to write about?"

  "Native Americans," Josie replied absently. "How the government broke treaties and took away their land."

  It was, she realized, something she could sympathize with: that rootlessness, the understanding that you were never going to feel at home.

  Drew sat up, straddling the weight bench. "Hey, how do I get myself a girl who can boost my GPA?"

  "Ask Peter Houghton," Matt answered, grinning. "He's the lovemeister."

  As Drew snickered, Matt reached for Josie's hand, the one holding the pencil. He kissed the knuckles. "You're too good to me," he said.


  The lockers in Sterling High were staggered, one row on top and one row on the bottom, which meant that if you happened to be a lower locker you had to suffer getting your books and coat and stuff while someone else was practically standing on your head. Peter's locker was not only on the bottom row, it was also in a corner--which meant that he could never quite make himself small enough to get what he needed.

  Peter had five minutes to get from class to class, but he was the first one into the halls when the bell rang. It was a carefully calculated plan: if he left as soon as possible, he'd be in the hallways during the biggest crush of traffic, and therefore was less likely to be singled out by one of the cool kids. He walked with his head ducked, his eyes on the floor, until he reached his locker.

  He was kneeling in front of it, trading his math book for his social studies text, when a pair of black wedge heels stopped beside him. He glanced up the patterned stockings to the tweed miniskirt and asymmetrical sweater and long waterfall of blond hair. Courtney Ignatio was standing with her arms crossed, as if Peter had already taken up too much of her time, when he wasn't even the one who'd stopped her in the first place.

  "Get up," she said. "I'm not going to be late for class."

  Peter stood and closed his locker. He didn't want Courtney to see that inside, he had taped a picture of himself and Josie from when they were little. He'd had to climb up into the attic where his mother kept her old photo albums, since she'd gone digital two years ago, and now all they had were CDs. In the photo, he and Josie were sitting on the edge of a sandbox at nursery school. Josie's hand was on Peter's shoulder. That was the part he liked the best.

  "Look, the last thing I want to do is stand here and be seen talking to you, but Josie's my friend, which is why I volunteered to do this in the first place." Courtney looked down the hall, to make sure no one was coming. "She likes you."

  Peter just stared at her.

  "I mean she likes you, you retard. She's totally over Matt; she just doesn't want to ditch him until she knows for sure that you're serious about her." Courtney glanced at Peter. "I told her it's social suicide, but I guess that's what people do for love."

  Peter felt all the blood rush to his head, an ocean in his ears. "Why should I believe you?"

  Courtney tossed her hair. "I don't give a damn if you do or you don't. I'm just telling you what she said. What you do with it is up to you."

  She walked down the hallway and disappeared around a corner just as the bell rang. Peter was going to be late now; he hated being late, because then you could feel everyone's eyes on you when you walked into class, like a thousand crows pecking at your skin.

  But that hardly mattered, not in the grand scheme of things.


  The best item the cafeteria served was Tater Tots, soaked in grease. You could practically feel the waist of your jeans getting snugger and your face breaking out--and yet, when the cafeteria lady held out her massive spoonful, Josie couldn't resist. She sometimes wondered: If they were as nutritious as broccoli, would she want them so much? Would they taste this good if they weren't so bad for you?

  Most of Josie's friends only drank diet soda for their meals; getting anything substantial and carbohydrate-based practically labeled you as either a whale or a bulimic. Usually, Josie limited herself to three Tater Tots, and then gave the rest to the guys to devour. But today, she'd practically been salivating for the past two classes just thinking about Tater Tots, and she couldn't stop taking just one more. If it wasn't pickles and ice cream, did it still qualify as a craving?

  Courtney leaned across the table and swept her finger through the grease that lined the Tater Tot tray. "Gross," she said. "How come gas is so expensive, when there's enough oil on these babies to fill Drew's pickup truck?"

  "Different kind of oil, Einstein," Drew said. "Did you really think you were pumping out Crisco at the Mobil station?"

  Josie bent down to unzip her backpack. She had packed herself an apple; it had to be in here somewhere. She rummaged through loose papers and makeup, so focused on her search that she didn't realize the banter between Drew and Courtney--or anyone else, for that matter--had fallen silent.

  Peter Houghton was standing next to their table, holding a brown bag in one hand and an open milk carton in the other. "Hi, Josie," he said, as if she might be listening, as if she weren't dying a thousand kinds of death in that one second. "I thought you might like to join me for lunch."

  The word mortified sounded like you'd gone to granite, like you couldn't move to save your soul. Josie imagined how years from now, students would point to the frozen gargoyle that used to be her, still rooted to the plastic cafeteria chair, and say, Oh, right, I heard about what happened to her.

  Josie heard a rustling behind her, but she couldn't have moved at that moment if her life depended on it. She looked up at Peter, wishing there were some kind of secret language where what you said was not what you meant, and the listener would automatically know you were speaking that tongue. "Um," Josie began. "I . . ."

  "She'd love to," Courtney said. "When hell freezes over."

  The entire table dissolved into a fizz of laughter, an inside joke that Peter didn't understand. "What's in the bag?" Drew asked. "Peanut butter and jelly?"

  "Salt and pepper?" Courtney chimed in.

  "Bread and butter?"

  The smile on Peter's face wilted as he realized how deep a pit he'd fallen into, and how many people had dug it. He glanced from Drew to Courtney to Emma and then back at Josie--and when he did, she had to look away, so that nobody--including Peter--would see how much it hurt her to hurt him; to realize that--in spite of what Peter had believed about her--she was no different from anyone else.

  "I think Josie should at least get to sample the merchandise," Matt said, and when he spoke she realized that he was no longer sitting beside her. He was standing, in fact, behind Peter; and in one smooth stroke he hooked his thumbs into the loops of Peter's pants and yanked them down to his ankles.

  Peter's skin was moon-white under the harsh fluorescent lamps of the cafeteria, his penis a tiny spiral shell on a sparse nest of pubic hair. He immediately covered his genitals with his lunch bag, and as he did, he dropped his milk carton. It spilled on the floor between his feet.

  "Hey, look at that," Drew said. "Premature ejaculation."

  The entire cafeteria began to spin like a carousel--bright lights and harlequin colors. Josie cou
ld hear laughter, and she tried to match her own to it. Mr. Isles, a Spanish teacher who had no neck, hurried over to Peter as he was pulling up his pants. He grabbed Matt with one arm and Peter with the other. "Are you two done," he barked, "or do we need to go see the principal?"

  Peter fled, but by that time, everyone in the cafeteria was reliving the glorious moment of his pantsing. Drew high-fived Matt. "Dude, that was the best fucking lunch entertainment I've ever seen."

  Josie reached into her backpack, pretending to search for that apple, but she wasn't hungry anymore. She just didn't want to see them all right now; to let them see her.

  Peter Houghton's lunch bag was beside her foot, where he'd dropped it when he ran away. She glanced inside. A sandwich, maybe turkey. A bag of pretzels. Carrots, which had been peeled and cut into even strips by someone who cared about him.

  Josie slipped the brown bag into her knapsack, telling herself that she'd find Peter and give it back to him, or leave it near his locker, when she knew she would do neither. Instead, she would carry it around until it started to reek, until she had to throw it out and could pretend it was that easy to get rid of.


  Peter burst out of the cafeteria and careened down the narrow hallways like a pinball until he finally reached his locker. He fell to his knees and rested his head against the cold metal. How could he have been so stupid, trusting Courtney, thinking Josie might give a rat's ass about him, thinking he was someone she could fall for?

  He banged his head until it hurt, then blindly dialed the numbers on his locker. It swung open, and he reached inside for the photo of himself and Josie. He crushed it into his palm and walked down the hall again.

  On the way, he was stopped by a teacher. Mr. McCabe was frowning at him, putting a hand on his shoulder, when surely he could see that Peter couldn't bear to be touched, that it felt like a hundred needles were going through his skin. "Peter," Mr. McCabe said, "are you all right?"

  "Bathroom," Peter ground out, and he pushed away, hurrying down the hallway.

  He locked himself inside a stall and threw the picture of himself and Josie into the toilet bowl. Then he unzipped his fly and urinated on top of it. "Fuck you," he whispered, and then he said it loud enough to rattle the walls of the stall. "Fuck you all."


  The minute Josie's mother left the room, Josie plucked the thermometer out of her mouth and held it up against the lightbulb of her nightstand lamp. She squinted to read the tiny numbers, and then stuck it back into her mouth as she heard her mother's footsteps. "Hunh," her mother said, holding the thermometer up to the window to better read it. "I guess you are sick."

  Josie gave what she hoped was a convincing moan and rolled over.

  "You sure you're going to be all right here, alone?"


  "You can call me if you need me. I can recess court and come back home."


  She sat down on the bed and kissed her forehead. "You want juice? Soup?"

  Josie shook her head. "I think I just need to go back to sleep." She closed her eyes so that her mother would get the message.

  She waited until she heard the car drive away, and even then she stayed in bed for an extra ten minutes to make sure she was alone. Then Josie got out of bed and booted up her computer. She Googled abortifacient--the word she'd looked up yesterday, the one that meant something that terminates a pregnancy.

  Josie had been thinking about this. It wasn't that she didn't want a baby; it wasn't even that she didn't want Matt's baby. All she knew for certain was that she didn't want to have to make that decision yet.

  If she told her mother, her mom would curse and scream and then find a way to take her to Planned Parenthood or the doctor's office. To be honest, it wasn't even the cursing and screaming that worried Josie. It was realizing that--had her own mother done this, seventeen years ago--Josie wouldn't even be alive to be having this problem.

  Josie had toyed with contacting her father again, which would have taken an enormous helping of humility. He hadn't wanted Josie born, so theoretically, he'd probably go out of his way to help her have an abortion.


  There was something about going to a doctor, or a clinic, or even to a parent, that she couldn't quite swallow. It seemed so . . . deliberate.

  So before she reached that point, Josie had chosen to do a bit of research. She couldn't risk being caught on a computer at school looking these things up, so she'd decided to play hooky. She sank into the desk chair, one leg folded beneath her, and marveled as she received nearly 99,000 hits.

  Some she already knew: the old wives' tales about sticking a knitting needle up inside her, or drinking laxatives or castor oil. Some she'd never imagined: douching with potassium, swallowing gingerroot, eating unripe pineapple. And then there were the herbs: oil infusions of calamus, mugwort, sage, and wintergreen; cocktails made out of black cohosh and pennyroyal. Josie wondered where you even got these things--it wasn't like they were in the aisle next to the aspirin at CVS.

  Herbal remedies, the website said, worked 40-45 percent of the time. Which, she supposed, was at least a start.

  She leaned closer, reading.

  Don't start herbal treatment after the sixth week of pregnancy.

  Keep in mind these are not reliable ways to end pregnancy.

  Drink the teas day and night, so you don't ruin the progress you made during the day.

  Catch the blood and add water to dilute it, and look at the clots and tissue to make sure the placenta has passed.

  Josie grimaced.

  Use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the dried herb per cup of water, 3-4 times a day. Don't confuse tansy with tansy ragwort, which has been fatal to cows that have eaten it growing nearby.

  Then she found something that looked less, well, medieval: vitamin C. Surely that couldn't be too bad for her? Josie clicked on the link. Ascorbic acid, eight grams, for five days. Menstruation should begin on the sixth or seventh day.

  Josie got up from her computer and went into her mother's medicine cabinet. There was a big white bottle of vitamin C, along with smaller ones of acidophilus, vitamin B12, and calcium supplements.

  She opened the bottle and hesitated. The other warning that the websites all gave was to make sure you had reason to subject your body to these herbs before you started.

  Josie padded back into her room and opened her backpack. Inside, still in its plastic bag from the pharmacy, was the pregnancy test she'd bought yesterday before she came home from school.

  She read the directions twice. How could anyone pee on a stick for that long? With a frown, she sat down and went to the bathroom, holding the small wand between her legs. Then she set it into its little holder and washed her hands.

  Josie sat on the lip of the bathtub and watched the control line turn blue. And then, slowly, she watched the second, perpendicular line appear: a plus sign, a positive, a cross to bear.


  When the snow blower ran out of gas in the middle of the driveway, Peter went to the spare can they kept in the garage, only to discover it was empty. He tipped it over, watched a single drop strike the ground between his sneakers.

  He usually had to be asked, like, six times to go out and clear the paths that led to the front and back doors, but today he'd turned to the chore without any badgering from his parents. He wanted--no, scratch that--he needed to get out there so that his feet could move at the same pace as his mind. But when he squinted against the lowering sun, he could still see a scroll of images on the backs of his eyelids: the cold air striking his ass as Matt Royston pulled his pants down, the milk splattering on his sneakers, Josie's gaze sliding away.

  Peter trudged down the driveway toward the home of his neighbor across the street. Mr. Weatherhall was a retired cop, and his house looked it. There was a big flagpole in the middle of the front yard; in the summertime the grass was trimmed like a crew cut; there were never any leaves on the lawn in the fall. Peter used to wonder if Weath
erhall came out in the middle of the night to rake them.

  As far as Peter knew, Mr. Weatherhall now passed his time watching the Game Show Network and doing his militaristic gardening in sandals with black socks. Because he didn't let his grass grow longer than a half inch, he usually had a spare gallon of gas lying around; Peter had borrowed it on his dad's behalf other times for the lawn mower or the snow blower.

  Peter rang the doorbell--which played "Hail to the Chief"--and Mr. Weatherhall answered. "Son," he said, although he knew Peter's name and had for years. "How are you doing?"

  "Fine, Mr. Weatherhall. But I was wondering if you had any gas I could borrow for the snow blower. Well, gas I could use. I mean, I can't really give it back."

  "Come on in, come on in." He held the door open for Peter, who walked into the house. It smelled of cigars and cat food. A bowl of Fritos was set next to his La-Z-Boy; on the television, Vanna White flipped a vowel. "Great Expectations," Mr. Weatherhall shouted at the contestants as he passed. "What are you, morons?"

  He led Peter into the kitchen. "You wait here. The basement's not fit for company." Which, Peter realized, probably meant there was a dust mote on a shelf.

  He leaned against the counter, his hands splayed on the Formica. Peter liked Mr. Weatherhall, because even when he was trying to be gruff, you could tell that he just really missed being a policeman and had no one else to practice on. When Peter was younger, Joey and his friends had always tried to screw around with Weatherhall, by piling snow at the end of his plowed driveway or letting their dogs take a dump on the manicured lawn. He could remember when Joey was around eleven and had egged Weatherhall's house on Halloween. He and his friends had been caught in the act. Weatherhall dragged them into the house for a "scared straight" chat. The guy's a fruitcake, Joey had told him. He keeps a gun in his flour canister.

  Peter cocked an ear toward the stairwell that led down to the basement. He could still hear Mr. Weatherhall puttering around down there, getting the gas can.

  He sidled closer to the sink, where there were four stainless steel canisters. SODA, read the tiny one, and then in increasing size: BROWN SUGAR. SUGAR. FLOUR. Peter gingerly opened up the flour canister.

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