Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  "I can feel you staring, you know," Patrick murmured. A lazy smile heated his face, but his eyes were still shut.

  Alex leaned over, slipping her hand under the covers. "What can you feel?"

  "What can't I?" Striking quick as lightning, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her underneath him. His eyes, still softened by sleep, were a crisp blue that made Alex think of glaciers and northern seas. He kissed her, and she vined around him.

  Then suddenly her eyes snapped open. "Oh, shit," she said.

  "That wasn't really what I was going for . . ."

  "Do you know what time it is?"

  They had drawn the shades in her bedroom because of a full moon last night. But by now, the sun was streaming through the thinnest crack at the bottom of the windowsill. Alex could hear Josie banging pots and pans downstairs in the kitchen.

  Patrick reached over Alex for the wristwatch he'd left on her nightstand. "Oh, shit," he repeated, and he threw back the covers. "I'm an hour late for work already."

  He grabbed his boxers as Alex jumped out of bed and reached for her robe. "What about Josie?"

  It wasn't that they had been hiding their relationship from Josie--Patrick often dropped by after work or for dinner or to hang out in the evenings. A few times, Alex had tried to talk to Josie about him, to see what she thought of the whole miracle of her mother dating again, but Josie did whatever it took to avoid having that conversation. Alex wasn't sure herself where this was all going, but she did know that she and Josie had been a unit for so long that adding Patrick to the mix meant Josie became the loner--and right now, Alex was determined to keep that from happening. She was making up for lost time, really, thinking of Josie before she thought of anything else. To that end, if Patrick spent the night, she made sure he left before Josie could wake up to find him there.

  Except today, when it was a lazy summer Thursday and nearly ten o'clock.

  "Maybe this is a good time to tell her," Patrick suggested.

  "Tell her what?"

  "That we're . . ." He looked at her.

  Alex stared at him. She couldn't finish his sentence; she didn't really know the answer herself. She never expected that this was the way she and Patrick would have this conversation. Was she with Patrick because he was good at that--rescuing the underdog who needed it? When this trial was over, would he move on? Would she?

  "We're together," Patrick said decisively.

  Alex turned her back to him and yanked shut the tie of her robe. That wasn't, to paraphrase Patrick earlier, what she had been going for. But then again, how would he know that? If he asked her right now what she wanted out of this relationship . . . well, she knew: she wanted love. She wanted to have someone to come home to. She wanted to dream about a vacation they'd take when they were sixty and know he'd be there the day she stepped onto the plane. But she'd never admit any of this to him. What if she did, and he just looked at her blankly? What if it was too soon to think about things like this?

  If he asked her right now, she wouldn't answer, because answering was the surest way to get your heart handed back to you.

  Alex rummaged underneath the bed, searching for her slippers. Instead, she located Patrick's belt and tossed it to him. Maybe the reason she hadn't openly told Josie she was sleeping with Patrick had nothing to do with protecting Josie, and everything to do with protecting herself.

  Patrick threaded the belt through his jeans. "It doesn't have to be a state secret," he said. "You are allowed to . . . you know."

  Alex glanced at him. "Have sex?"

  "I was trying to come up with something a little less blunt," Patrick admitted.

  "I'm also allowed to keep things private," Alex pointed out.

  "Guess I ought to get back the deposit on the billboard, then."

  "That might be a good idea."

  "I suppose I could just get you jewelry instead."

  Alex looked down at the carpet so that Patrick couldn't see her trying to pick apart that sentence, find the commitment strung between the words.

  God, was it always this frustrating when you weren't the one running the show?

  "Mom," Josie yelled up the stairs, "I've got pancakes ready, if you want some."

  "Look," Patrick sighed. "We can still keep Josie from finding out. All you have to do is distract her while I sneak out."

  She nodded. "I'll try to keep her in the kitchen. You . . ." She glanced at Patrick. "Just hurry." As Alex started out of the room, Patrick grabbed her hand and yanked.

  "Hey," he said. "Good-bye." He leaned down and kissed her.

  "Mom, they're getting cold!"

  "See you later," Alex said, pushing away.

  She hurried downstairs and found Josie eating a plate of blueberry pancakes. "Those smell so good . . . I can't believe I slept this late," Alex began, and then she realized that there were three place settings at the kitchen table.

  Josie folded her arms. "So how does he take his coffee?"

  Alex sank into a chair across from her. "You weren't supposed to find out."

  "A. I am a big girl. B. Then the brilliant detective shouldn't have left his car in the driveway."

  Alex picked at a thread on the place mat. "No milk, two sugars."

  "Well," Josie said. "Guess I'll know for next time."

  "How do you feel about that?" Alex asked quietly.

  "Getting him coffee?"

  "No. The next time part."

  Josie poked at a fat blueberry on the top of her pancake. "It's not really something I get to choose, is it?"

  "Yes," Alex said. "Because if you're not all right with this, Josie, then I'll stop seeing him."

  "You like him?" Josie asked, staring down at her plate.


  "And he likes you?"

  "I think so."

  Josie lifted her gaze. "Then you shouldn't worry about what anyone else thinks."

  "I worry about what you think," Alex said. "I don't want you to feel like you're any less important to me because of him."

  "Just be responsible," Josie answered, with a slow smile. "Every time you have sex, you can get pregnant or you can not get pregnant. That's fifty-fifty."

  Alex raised her brows. "Wow. I didn't even think you were listening when I gave that speech."

  Josie pressed her finger against a spot of maple syrup that had fallen onto the table, her eyes trained on the wood. "So, do you . . . like . . . love him?"

  The words seemed bruised, tender. "No," Alex said quickly, because if she could convince Josie, then she surely could convince herself that what she felt for Patrick had everything to do with passion and nothing to do with . . . well . . . that. "It's only been a few months."

  "I don't think there's a grace period," Josie said.

  Alex decided that the best road to take through this minefield was the one that would keep both Josie and herself from being hurt: pretend this was nothing, a fling, a fancy. "I wouldn't know what being in love felt like if it hit me in the face," she said lightly.

  "It's not like on TV, like everything's perfect all of a sudden." Josie's voice shrank until it was barely a thought. "It's more like, once it happens, you spend all your time realizing how much can go wrong."

  Alex looked up at her, frozen. "Oh, Josie."


  "I didn't mean to make you--"

  "Let's just drop it, okay?" Josie forced a smile. "He's not bad-looking, you know, for someone that old."

  "He's a year younger than I am," Alex pointed out.

  "My mother, the cradle robber." Josie picked up the plate of pancakes and passed it. "These are getting cold."

  Alex took the plate. "Thank you," she said, but she held Josie's gaze just long enough for her daughter to realize what Alex was really grateful for.

  Just then Patrick came creeping down the stairs. At the landing, he turned to give Alex a thumbs-up sign. "Patrick," she called out. "Josie's made us some pancakes."


  Selena knew the party line--you
were supposed to say that there was no difference between boys and girls--but she also knew if you asked any mom or nursery school teacher, they'd tell you differently, off the record. This morning, she sat on a park bench watching Sam negotiate a sandbox with a group of fellow toddlers. Two little girls were pretending to bake pizzas made out of sand and pebbles. The boy beside Sam was trying to demolish a dump truck by smashing it repeatedly into the sandbox's wooden frame. No difference, Selena thought. Yeah, right.

  She watched with interest as Sam turned from the boy beside him and started to copy the girls, sifting sand into a bucket to make a cake.

  Selena grinned, hoping that this was some small clue that her son would grow up to act against stereotype and do whatever he was most comfortable doing. But did it work that way? Could you look at a child and see who he'd become? Sometimes when she studied Sam, she could glimpse the adult he'd be one day--it was there in his eyes, the shell of the man he would grow to inhabit. But it was more than physical attributes you could sometimes puzzle out. Would these little girls become stay-at-home Betty Crocker moms, or business entrepreneurs like Mrs. Fields? Would the little boy's destructive behavior bloom into drug addiction or alcoholism? Had Peter Houghton shoved playmates or stomped on crickets or done something else as a child that might have predicted his future as a killer?

  The boy in the sandbox put down the truck and moved on to digging, seemingly to China. Sam abandoned his baking to reach for the plastic vehicle, and then he lost his balance and fell down, smacking his knee on the wooden frame.

  Selena was out of her seat in a shot, ready to scoop up her son before he started to bawl. But Sam glanced around at the other kids, as if realizing he had an audience. And although his little face furrowed and reddened, a raisin of pain, he didn't cry.

  It was easier for girls. They could say This hurts, or I don't like how this feels, and have the complaint be socially acceptable. Boys, though, didn't speak that language. They didn't learn it as children and they didn't manage to pick it up as adults, either. Selena remembered last summer, when Jordan had gone fishing with an old friend whose wife had just filed for divorce. What did you talk about? she asked when Jordan came home.

  Nothing, Jordan had said. We were fishing.

  This had made no sense to Selena; they'd been gone for six hours. How could you sit beside someone in a small boat for that long and not have a heart-to-heart about how he was doing; if he was holding up in the wake of this crisis; if he worried about the rest of his life.

  She looked at Sam, who now had the dump truck in his hand and was rolling it across his former pizza. Change could come that quickly, Selena knew. She thought of how Sam would wrap his tiny arms around her and kiss her; how he'd come running to her if she held out her arms. But sooner or later he'd realize that his friends didn't hold their mothers' hands when they crossed the street; that they didn't bake pizzas and cakes in the sandbox, instead they built cities and dug caverns. One day--in middle school, or even earlier--Sam would start to hole himself up in his room. He would shy away from her touch. He would grunt his responses, act tough, be a man.

  Maybe it was our own damn fault that men turned out the way they did, Selena thought. Maybe empathy, like any unused muscle, simply atrophied.


  Josie told her mother that she had gotten a summer job volunteering with the school system to tutor middle and elementary school kids in math. She talked about Angie, whose parents had split up during the school year and who had failed algebra as an indirect consequence. She described Joseph, a leukemia patient who'd missed school for treatment and had the hardest time understanding fractions. Every day at dinner, her mother would ask her about work, and Josie would have a story. The problem was, it was just that--a fiction. Joseph and Angie didn't exist; and for that matter, neither did Josie's tutoring job.

  This morning, like every morning, Josie left the house. She got on the Advance Transit bus and said hello to Rita, the driver who'd been on this route all summer. When the other passengers got off at the stop that was closest to the school, Josie stayed in her seat. She didn't get up, in fact, until the very last stop--the one that was a mile south of the Whispering Pines Cemetery.

  She liked it there. At the cemetery, she didn't run into anyone she didn't feel like talking to. She didn't have to speak at all if she wasn't in the mood. Josie walked up the winding trail, which was so familiar to her by now that she could tell, with her eyes closed, when the pavement was going to make a dip and when it would veer left. She knew that the violently blue hydrangea bush was halfway to Matt's grave; that you could smell honeysuckle when you were only steps away from it.

  By now, there was a headstone, a pristine block of white marble with Matt's name carefully carved. Grass had started to grow. Josie sat down on the raised hummock of dirt, which was warm, as if the sun had been seeping into the earth and holding that heat in wait for her. She reached into her backpack and took out a bottle of water, a peanut butter sandwich, a bag of saltines.

  "Can you believe school's starting in a week?" she said to Matt, because sometimes she did that. It wasn't like she expected him to answer; it just felt better talking to him after so many months of not talking. "They're not opening the real school yet, though. They said maybe by Thanksgiving, when the construction's done."

  What they were actually doing to the school was a mystery--Josie had driven by enough to know that the front hallway and library had been torn down, as had the cafeteria. She wondered if the administration was naive enough to think that if they got rid of the scene of the crime, the students could be fooled into thinking it had never happened.

  She'd read somewhere that ghosts didn't just hang around physical locations--that sometimes, a person could be haunted. Josie hadn't really considered herself big on the paranormal, but this she believed. There were some memories, she knew, you could run from forever and never shake.

  Josie lay down, her hair spread over the newborn grass. "Do you like having me here?" she whispered. "Or would you tell me to get lost, if you were the one who could talk?"

  She didn't want to hear the answer. She didn't even really want to think about it. So she opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared into the sky, until the brilliant blue burned the backs of her eyes.


  Lacy stood in the men's department at Filene's, touching her hands to the bristled tweeds and hallowed blue and puckered seersucker fabrics of the sports jackets. She'd driven two hours to Boston so that she would have the best choices to outfit Peter for his trial. Brooks Brothers, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Ermenegildo Zegna. They had been made in Italy, France, Britain, California. She peeked at a price tag, sucked in her breath, and then realized she did not care. This would most likely be the last time she would ever buy clothes for her son.

  Lacy moved systematically through the department. She picked up boxer shorts made of the finest Egyptian cotton, a packet of Ralph Lauren white tees, cashmere socks. She found khaki trousers--30 x 30. She plucked a button-down oxford shirt off a rack, because Peter had always hated having his collar peek out from a crewneck sweater. She chose a blue blazer, as Jordan had instructed. We want him dressed as if you're sending him to Phillips Exeter, he had said.

  She remembered how, when Peter was around eleven, he'd developed an aversion to buttons. You'd think it would be easy to get around something like that, but it eliminated most pants. Lacy could remember driving to the ends of the earth to find elastic-waist flannel plaid pajama pants that might double for daily wear. She remembered seeing kids wearing pajama bottoms to school as recently as last year and wondering if Peter had started the trend, or simply been slightly out of sync.

  Even after Lacy had gathered what she needed, she continued to walk through the men's department. She touched a rainbow of silk handkerchiefs that melted over her fingers, choosing one that was the color of Peter's eyes. She rifled through leather belts--black, brown, stippled, alligator--and neckties printed with dots, with fleur
s-de-lis, with stripes. She picked up a bathrobe that was so soft it nearly brought her to tears, shearling slippers, a cherry-red bathing suit. She shopped until the weight in her arms was as heavy as a child.

  "Oh, let me help you with those," a saleswoman said, taking some of the items from her arms and carrying them to the counter. She began to fold them, one by one. "I know how it feels," she said, smiling sympathetically. "When my son went away, I thought I was going to die."

  Lacy stared at her. Was it possible that she wasn't the only woman who had gone through something as awful as this? Once you had, like this salesperson, would you be able to pick others out of a crowd, as if there were a secret society of those mothers whose children cut them to the quick?

  "You think it's forever," the woman said, "but believe me, once they come home for Christmas break or summer vacation and start eating you out of house and home again, you'll be wishing college was year-round."

  Lacy's face froze. "Right," she said. "College."

  "I've got a girl at the University of New Hampshire, and my son's at Rochester," the saleswoman said.

  "Harvard. That's where my son's going."

  They had talked about it once--Peter liked the computer science department at Stanford better, and Lacy had joked around, saying she'd throw away any brochures from colleges west of the Mississippi, because they were so far away.

  The state prison was sixty miles south, in Concord.

  "Harvard," the saleswoman said. "He must be a smart one."

  "He is," Lacy said, and she continued to tell this woman about Peter's fictional transition to college, until the lie did not taste like licorice on her tongue; until she could nearly believe it herself.

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