Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  I glance around at the others. Between readings, our real personalities show. One of the trolls is working out a melody on a flute he has carved from a piece of bamboo. The fairies are doing crossword puzzles that Captain Crabbe creates for them, but they keep cheating by looking into the wizard's crystal ball. And Seraphima . . .

  She blows me a kiss, and I force a smile.

  She's pretty, I suppose, with her silver hair and eyes the color of violets in the meadow near the castle. But her shoe size is bigger than her IQ. For example, she honestly believes that just because I save her over and over again as part of my job, I must truly have feelings for her.

  I'll be honest, it's not a hard day's work to kiss a beautiful girl repeatedly. But it all starts feeling same old, same old after a while. I certainly don't love Seraphima, but that little detail seems to have escaped her. Which makes me feel guilty every time I kiss her, because I know she wants more from me than I'm ever going to give her when the storybook's closed.

  Beside me, Frump lets out a long, mournful howl. That's the second reason I feel so guilty kissing Seraphima. He's had a crush on her for as long as I can remember, and that makes it even worse. What must it be like, watching me pretend to fall in love with the girl he's crazy about, day after day? "I'm sorry, buddy," I say to him. "I wish she knew it was just for show."

  "Not your fault," he replies tightly. "Just doing what you have to do."

  As if he's conjured it, there is suddenly a blinding light, and our sky cracks open along a seam. "Places!" Frump cries, frantic. "Everyone! Into your positions!" He runs off to help the trolls dismantle the bridge, only so that they can rebuild it again.

  I grab my tunic and my dagger. The pixies who were our chess pieces rise like sparks and write the words SEE YOU LATER in the air before me, a trail of light as they zoom into the woods. "Yes, and thanks again," I say politely, intent on hurrying to the castle for my first scene.

  What would happen, I wonder, if I was late? If I dawdled or stopped to smell the lilacs at the castle gate, so that I wasn't in place when the book was opened? Would it stay sealed shut? Or would the story start without me?

  Experimentally, I slow my pace, dragging my heels. But suddenly I feel a magnetic tug on the front of my doublet, propelling me through the pages. They rustle as I leap through them, my legs moving in double time while I stare down, amazed. I can hear Socks whinnying in his stall at the royal stables, and the splash of the mermaids as they dive back into the sea, and suddenly, I am standing where I am supposed to be, before the royal throne in the Great Hall, at dispute court. "It's about time," Frump mutters. At the last moment there is a brilliant slice of light that opens above us, and instead of looking away like we usually do, this time I glance up.

  I can see the Reader's face--a little fuzzy at the edges, sort of how the sun looks from the ocean floor. And just like when one stares at the sun, I can't make myself turn away.

  "Oliver!" Frump hisses. "Focus!"

  So I turn away from those eyes, the exact color of honey; from that mouth, its lips parted just the tiniest bit, as if she might be about to speak my name. I turn away, and clear my throat, and for the hundred billionth time in my life, I speak my first line of the story.

  Save who?

  I did not write the lines I speak, they were given to me long before I remember. I mouth the words, but the actual sound is in the Reader's mind, not coming from my throat. Similarly, all the moves that we make as if we're performing a play somehow unravel across the someone else's imagination. It is as if the action and sound on our tiny, remote stage are being broadcast in the thoughts of the Reader. I'm not sure that I ever really learned this information--it's just something I've known forever, the same way I know that when I look at the grass and associate it with a color, I know that color is green.

  I let Rapscullio convince me that he is a nobleman from afar whose beloved daughter has been kidnapped-- a speech I've heard so often that occasionally, I murmur the words along with him. In the story, of course, he has no daughter. He's just setting a trap for me. But I'm not supposed to know that yet, even though I've played this scene a thousand times. So while he is going on and on about the other princes who won't rescue Seraphima, I think about the girl who is reading us.

  I've seen her before. She's different from our usual Readers--they're either motherly, like Queen Maureen, or young enough to be captivated by tales of princesses in peril. But this Reader looks--well, she looks to be about my age. It doesn't make any sense. Surely she knows--like I do--that fairy tales are just stories. That happy endings aren't real.

  Frump waddles across the polished black and white marble floor, his tail wagging vigorously as he skids to a halt beside me.

  Suddenly I hear a voice--distant, through a tunnel, but clear enough: "Delilah, I told you twice already . . . we're going to be late!"

  From time to time, I've heard Readers talking. They don't usually read out loud, but every now and then, a conversation occurs when a book is open. I've learned quite a lot from being a good listener. Like, for example, Don't let the bedbugs bite is apparently a common way to say good night, even in rooms that do not appear to be infested with insects. I've learned about things the Otherworld has that we don't: television (which is something parents do not like as much as books); Happy Meals (apparently not all meals bring joy. Just the ones that come in a paper bag with a small toy); and showers (something you take before bedtime that leaves you drenched).

  "Just let me finish," the girl says.

  "You've read that book a thousand times--you know how it ends. Now means now!"

  I have heard this Reader speaking to the older woman before. From their conversations, I'm guessing it's her mother. She is always telling Delilah to put the book away and to go outside. To take a walk and get some fresh air. To call a friend (though how many could be within earshot?) and go to a movie (whatever that is). Repeatedly, I wait for her to heed her mother's directions--but most of the time she finds an excuse to keep reading. Sometimes she does go outside, but opens the book and starts reading again. I cannot tell you how frustrating this is for me. Here I am, wasting away inside a book I wish I could escape, and all she wants to do is stay in the story.

  If I could talk to this girl Delilah, I'd ask her why on earth she would ever trade a single second of the world she's in for the one in which I'm stuck.

  But I've tried talking out loud to other Readers. Believe me, it was the very first thing I attempted when I started to actively dream about life in the Otherworld. If I could just get one of those people holding the book to notice me, maybe I'd have a chance at escaping. However, the people holding the book saw me only when the story was playing, and when the story is playing, I am compelled to stick to the script. Even when I try to say something like "Please! Listen to me!" I wind up announcing, instead, "I'm on my way to rescue a princess!" like some sort of puppet. If I ever had reason to believe that a Reader could see me for who I really am--not who I play in the story--I'd do, well, anything. I'd scream at the top of my lungs. I'd run in circles. I'd light myself on fire. Anything, to keep her seeing me.

  Can you imagine what it would be like to know that your life was just going to be a series of days that were all the same, that were do-overs? As Prince Oliver, I may have been given the gift of life . . . but I have never been given the chance to live.

  "Coming," Delilah says, over her shoulder, and I exhale heavily, a breath I hadn't even realized I was holding. The thought of not having to go through the motions again--it's a gift, an absolute gift.

  There is a dizzying whirl of gravity as the book starts to close, something we've all gotten used to. We grab on to details--candelabra and table legs and in some desperate cases, the hanging tail of a letter like g or y, until the pages are completely closed.

  "Well," I say, letting go of the drapery I was clutching. "Guess we got off lucky this--"

  Before I can finish, however, I find myself flying head over heels as the p
ages are rifled through, and our world reopens on the very last bit of the story. As if by magic, I'm suddenly stuffed into the white tunic with a red sash; and Seraphima is glittering beside me in her shimmering gown. Frump has a wedding band tied to a silver ribbon around his neck. The trolls are holding the pillars of a bridal bower; the pixies have spun silken ribbons that wrap around them and blow in the sea breeze. The mermaids gather in the shallows of the ocean, watching us bitterly as we wed.

  I glance down, and suddenly panic.

  The chessboard. It's still there. The pixie chess pieces are gone, certainly, but the squares I drew with a stick--the proof that there is life in this book when no one is reading it--are still carved onto the beach.

  I don't know why the book hasn't reset itself. It never makes mistakes like this; every time we are flipped to a new page we will find ourselves ready, in costume, with any necessary set in place. Maybe, for all I know, this has happened before and I never noticed it. But it stands to reason that if I noticed, someone else might too.

  Like a Reader.


  Deep breaths, Oliver, I tell myself. "Frump," I hiss.

  He growls, but I can understand him clearly: Not now.

  Okay, Oliver, I tell myself. This is not a disaster. People read a fairy tale for the happy ending, not to hunt for a faintly visible chessboard scratched into the sand on the final page. Still, I try to pull Seraphima toward me in an attempt to hide the chessboard beneath the fabric of her billowing dress. Seraphima, however, misinterprets this to mean that I might actually want to get closer to her. She tilts up her chin and her eyes flutter closed, waiting for her kiss.

  Everyone's waiting. The trolls, the fairies, the mermaids. The pirates with their anchor lines tightly wrapped around Pyro the dragon to keep him subdued.

  The Reader is waiting too. And if I give her what she wants, she'll close the book and that will be that.

  Oh, fine.

  I lean forward and give Seraphima a kiss, winding my hands in her hair and pulling the length of her body along mine. I can feel her melt beneath my touch, leaning into me. She may not be my type, but there's no reason I shouldn't enjoy myself at work, after all.


  As the girl leans closer, the sky darkens above us. "How strange," the girl murmurs.

  Her finger comes down, pushing at the edges of our world, bending the scenery even as we stand in it. I draw in my breath, thinking she is going to trap me, but instead, she touches the very spot where the chessboard is etched onto the sand.

  "That," she says, "was never here before."

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  About Jodi Picoult

  JODI PICOULT is the author of twenty novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister's Keeper. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at

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  Also by Jodi Picoult

  Handle With Care

  Change of Heart

  The Tenth Circle

  Vanishing Acts

  My Sister's Keeper

  Second Glance

  Perfect Match

  Salem Falls

  Plain Truth

  Keeping Faith

  The Pact


  Picture Perfect

  Harvesting the Heart

  Songs of the Humpback Whale

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  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright (c) 2007 by Jodi Picoult All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Atria Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  First Washington Square Press trade paperback edition February 2008

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  ISBN-13: 978-0-7434-9672-8

  ISBN-10: 0-7434-9672-8

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7434-9673-5 (pbk) ISBN-10: 0-7434-9673-6 (pbk)



  Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes

  (Series: # )




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