Talking like this to her kept me calm, strangely. It kept me from imagining the possibilities. I came again to the sagging wooden sign for Grovepoint Acres. I could almost hear the sighs of relief from the bottleneck behind me as I turned left onto the dead-end asphalt road. It looked like a driveway without a house. I left RHAPAW running and got out. From close up, I could see that Grovepoint Acres was more finished than it initially appeared. Two dirt roads ending in cul-de-sacs had been cut into the dusty ground, although the roads had eroded so much I could barely see their outlines. As I walked up and down both streets, I could feel the heat in my nose with each breath. The scalding sun made it hard to move, but I knew the beautiful, if morbid, truth: heat made death reek, and Grovepoint Acres smelled like nothing except cooked air and car exhaust—our cumulative exhalations held close to the surface by the humidity.
I looked for evidence she had been there: footprints or something written in the dirt or some memento. But I seemed to be the first person to walk on these unnamed dirt streets in years. The ground was flat, and not much brush had grown back yet, so I could see for a ways in every direction. No tents. No campfires. No Margo.
I got back in RHAPAW and drove to I-4 and then went northeast of town, up to a place called Holly Meadows. I drove past Holly Meadows three times before I finally found it—everything in the area was oak trees and ranch land, and Holly Meadows—lacking a sign at its entrance—didn’t stand out much. But once I drove a few feet down a dirt road through the initial roadside stand of oak and pine trees, it was every bit as desolate as Grovepoint Acres. The main dirt road just slowly evaporated into a field of dirt. There were no other roads that I could make out, but as I walked around, I did find a few spray-painted wooden stakes lying on the ground; I guessed that they had once been lot line markers. I couldn’t smell or see anything suspicious, but even so I felt a fear standing on my chest, and at first I couldn’t understand why, but then I saw it: when they’d clear-cut the area to build, they’d left a solitary live oak tree near the back of the field. And the gnarled tree with its thick-barked branches looked so much like the one where we’d found Robert Joyner in Jefferson Park that I felt sure she was there, on the other side of the tree.
And for the first time, I had to picture it: Margo Roth Spiegelman, slumped against the tree, her eyes silent, the black blood pouring out of her mouth, everything bloated and distorted because I had taken so long to find her. She had trusted me to find her sooner. She had trusted me with her last night. And I had failed her. And even though the air tasted like nothing but it-might-rain-later, I was sure I’d found her.
But no. It was only a tree, alone in the empty silver dirt. I sat down against the tree and let my breath come back. I hated doing this alone. I hated it. If she thought Robert Joyner had prepared me for this, she was wrong. I didn’t know Robert Joyner. I didn’t love Robert Joyner.
I hit at the dirt with the heels of my fists, and then pounded it again and again, the sand scattering around my hands until I was hitting the bare roots of the tree, and I kept it up, the pain shooting up through my palms and wrists. I had not cried for Margo until then, but now finally I did, pounding against the ground and shouting because there was no one to hear: I missed her I missed her I missed her I miss her.
I stayed there even after my arms got tired and my eyes dried up, sitting there and thinking about her until the light got gray.
The next morning at school, I found Ben standing beside the band door talking to Lacey, Radar, and Angela in the shade of a tree with low-hanging branches. It was hard for me to listen as they talked about prom, and about how Lacey was feuding with Becca or whatever. I was waiting for a chance to tell them what I’d seen, but then when I had the chance, when I finally said, “I took a pretty long look at the two pseudovisions but didn’t find much,” I realized that there was nothing new to say, really.
No one even seemed that concerned, except Lacey. She shook her head as I talked about the pseudovisions, and then said, “I was reading online last night that people who are suicidal end relationships with people they’re angry with. And they give away their stuff. Margo gave me like five pairs of jeans last week because she said I could wear them better, which isn’t even true because she’s so much more, like, curvy.” I liked Lacey, but I saw Margo’s point about the undermining.
Something about telling us that story made her start to cry, and Ben put an arm around her, and she tucked her head into his shoulder, which was hard to do, because in her heels she was actually taller than him.
“Lacey, we just have to find a location. I mean, talk to your friends. Did she ever mention paper towns? Did she ever talk about a specific place? Was there some subdivision somewhere that meant something to her?” She shrugged into Ben’s shoulder.
“Bro, don’t push her,” Ben said. I sighed, but shut up.
“I’m on the online stuff,” Radar said, “but her username hasn’t logged on to Omnictionary since she left.”
And then all at once they were back on the topic of prom. Lacey emerged from Ben’s shoulder still looking sad and distracted, but she tried to smile as Radar and Ben swapped tales of corsage purchasing.
The day passed as it always did—in slow motion, with a thousand plaintive glances at the clock. But now it was even more unbearable, because every minute I wasted in school was another minute in which I failed to find her.
My only vaguely interesting class that day was English, when Dr. Holden completely ruined Moby Dick for me by incorrectly assuming we’d all read it and talking about Captain Ahab and his obsession with finding and killing this white whale. But it was fun to watch her get more and more excited as she talked. “Ahab’s a madman railing against fate. You never see Ahab wanting anything else in this whole novel, do you? He has a singular obsession. And because he is the captain of his ship, no one can stop him. You can argue—indeed, you may argue, if you choose to write about him for your final reaction papers—that Ahab is a fool for being obsessed. But you could also argue that there is something tragically heroic about fighting this battle he is doomed to lose. Is Ahab’s hope a kind of insanity, or is it the very definition of humanness?” I wrote down as much as I could of what she said, realizing that I could probably pull off my final reaction paper without actually reading the book. As she talked, it occurred to me that Dr. Holden was unusually good at reading stuff. And she’d said she liked Whitman. So when the bell rang, I took Leaves of Grass from my bag and then zipped it back up slowly while everyone raced off either to home or to extracurriculars. I waited behind someone asking for an extension on an already late paper, and then he left.
“It’s my favorite Whitman reader,” she said.
I forced a smile. “Do you know Margo Roth Spiegelman?” I asked.
She sat down behind her desk and motioned for me to sit. “I never had her in class,” Dr. Holden said, “but I’ve certainly heard of her. I know that she ran away.”
“She sort of left me this book of poems before she, uh, disappeared.” I handed the book over, and Dr. Holden began paging through it slowly. As she did, I told her, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the highlighted parts. If you go to the end of ‘Song of Myself,’ she highlights this stuff about dying. Like, ‘If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.’”
“She left this for you,” Dr. Holden said quietly.
“Yeah,” I said.
She flipped back and tapped at the green highlighted quote with her fingernail. “What is this about the doorjambs? That’s a great moment in the poem, where Whitman—I mean, you can feel him shouting at you: ‘Open the doors! In fact, remove the doors!’”
“She actually left me something else inside my doorjamb.”
Dr. Holden laughed. “Wow. Clever. But it’s such a great poem—I hate to see it reduced to such a literal reading. And she seems to have responded very darkly to what is finally a very optimistic poem. The poem is about our connectedness—each of us sharing the same root system like leaves of grass.”
“But, I mean, from what she highlighted, it seems kinda like a suicide note,” I said. Dr. Holden read the last stanzas again and then looked up at me.
“What a mistake it is to distill this poem into something hopeless. I hope that’s not the case, Quentin. If you read the whole poem, I don’t see how you can come to any conclusion except that life is sacred and valuable. But—who knows. Maybe she skimmed it for what she was looking for. We often read poems that way. But if so, she completely misunderstood what Whitman was asking of her.”
“And what’s that?”
She closed the book and looked right at me in a way that made it impossible for me to hold her gaze. “What do you think of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring at a stack of graded papers on her desk. “I’ve tried to read it straight through a bunch of times, but I haven’t gotten very far. Mostly I just read the parts she highlighted. I’m reading it to try to understand Margo, not to try to understand Whitman.”
She picked up a pencil and wrote something on the back of an envelope. “Hold on. I’m writing that down.”
“What you just said,” she explained.
“Because I think that is precisely what Whitman would have wanted. For you to see ‘Song of Myself’ not just as a poem but as a way into understanding another. But I wonder if maybe you have to read it as a poem, instead of just reading these fragments for quotes and clues. I do think there are some interesting connections between the poet in ‘Song of Myself’ and Margo Spiegelman—all that wild charisma and wanderlust. But a poem can’t do its work if you only read snippets of it.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said. I took the book and stood up. I didn’t feel much better.
I got a ride home with Ben that afternoon and stayed at his house until he left to go pick up Radar for some pre-prom party being thrown by our friend Jake, whose parents were out of town. Ben asked me to go, but I didn’t feel like it.
I walked back to my house, across the park where Margo and I had found the dead guy. I remembered that morning, and I felt something twist at my gut in the remembering of it—not because of the dead guy, but because I remembered that she had found him first. Even in my own neighborhood’s playground, I’d been unable to find a body on my own—how the hell would I do it now?
I tried to read “Song of Myself” again when I got home that night, but despite Dr. Holden’s advice, it still turned into a jumble of nonsensical words.
I woke up early the next morning, just after eight, and went to the computer. Ben was online, so I IM’ed him.
QTHERESURRECTION: How was the party?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Lame, of course. Every party I go to is lame.
QTHERESURRECTION: Sorry I missed it. You’re up early. Want to come over, play Resurrection?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Are you kidding?
QTHERESURRECTION: uh . . . no?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Do you know what day it is?
QTHERESURRECTION: Saturday May 15?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Bro, prom starts in eleven hours and fourteen minutes. I have to pick Lacey up in less than nine hours. I haven’t even washed and waxed RHAPAW yet, which by the way you did a nice job of dirtying up. Then after that I have to shower and shave and trim nasal hairs and wash and wax myself. God, don’t even get me started. I have a lot to do. Listen, I’ll call you later if I have a chance.
Radar was on, too, so I IM’ed him.
QTHERESURRECTION: What is Ben’s problem?
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Whoa there, cowboy.
QTHERESURRECTION: Sorry, I’m just pissed that he thinks prom is oh-so important.
OMNICTIONARIAN96: You’re going to be pretty pissed when you hear that the only reason I’m up this early is that I really need to go because I have to pick up my tux, aren’t you?
QTHERESURRECTION: Jesus Christ. Seriously?
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Q, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and all the days for the rest of my life, I am happy to participate in your investigation. But I have a girlfriend. She wants to have a nice prom. I want to have a nice prom. It’s not my fault that Margo Roth Spiegelman didn’t want us to have a nice prom.
I didn’t know what to say. He was right, maybe. Maybe she deserved to be forgotten. But at any rate, I couldn’t forget her.
My mom and dad were still in bed, watching an old movie on TV. “Can I take the minivan?” I asked.
“Decided to go to prom,” I answered hurriedly. The lie occurred to me as I told it. “Gotta pick out a tux and then get over to Ben’s. We’re both going stag.” My mom sat up, smiling.
“Well, I think that’s great, hon. It’ll be great for you. Will you come back so we can take pictures?”
“Mom, do you really need pictures of me going to prom stag? I mean, hasn’t my life been humiliating enough?”
“Call before curfew,” my dad said, which was midnight.
“Sure thing,” I said. It was so easy to lie to them that I found myself wondering why I’d never much done it before that night with Margo.
I took I-4 west toward Kissimmee and the theme parks, and then passed I-Drive where Margo and I had broken into SeaWorld, and then took Highway 27 down toward Haines City. There are a lot of lakes down there, and wherever there are lakes in Florida, there are rich people to congregate around them, so it seemed an unlikely place for a pseudovision. But the Website I’d found had been very specific about there being this huge parcel of oft-foreclosed land that no one had ever managed to develop. I recognized the place immediately, because every other subdivision on the access road was walled in, whereas Quail Hollow was just a plastic sign hammered into the ground. As I turned in, little plastic posters read FOR SALE, PRIME LOCATION, and GREAT DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIE$!