Page 30 of Paper Towns

“She has a black notebook with her,” I say.

Ben wheels around to me. “Okay, Q. If I see a girl who looks exactly like Margo in Agloe, New York, I’m not going to do anything. Unless she has a notebook. That’ll be the giveaway.”

I shrug him off. I just want to remember her. One last time, I want to remember her while still hoping to see her again.

Agloe

The speed limit drops from fifty-five to forty-five and then to thirty-five. We cross some railroad tracks, and we’re in Roscoe. We drive slowly through a sleepy downtown with a café, a clothing store, a dollar store, and a couple boarded-up storefronts.

I lean forward and say, “I can imagine her in there.”

“Yeah,” Ben allows. “Man, I really don’t want to break into buildings. I don’t think I would do well in New York prisons.”

The thought of exploring these buildings doesn’t strike me as particularly scary, though, since the whole town seems deserted. Nothing’s open here. Past downtown, a single road bisects the highway, and on that road sits Roscoe’s lone neighborhood and an elementary school. Modest wood-frame houses are dwarfed by the trees, which grow thick and tall here.

We turn onto a different highway, and the speed limit goes back up incrementally, but Radar is driving slowly anyway. We haven’t gone a mile when we see a dirt road on our left with no street sign to tell us its name.

“This may be it,” I say.

“That’s a driveway,” Ben answers, but Radar turns in anyway. But it does seem to be a driveway, actually, cut into the hard-packed dirt. To our left, uncut grass grows as high as the tires; I don’t see anything, although I worry that it’d be easy for a person to hide anywhere in that field. We drive for a while and the road dead-ends into a Victorian farmhouse. We turn around and head back up the two-lane highway, farther north. The highway turns into Cat Hollow Road, and we drive until we see a dirt road identical to the previous one, this time on the right side of the street, leading to a crumbling barnlike structure with grayed wood. Huge cylindrical bales of hay line the fields on either side of us, but the grass has begun to grow up again. Radar drives no faster than five miles an hour. We are looking for something unusual. Some crack in the perfectly idyllic landscape.

“Do you think that could have been the Agloe General Store?” I ask.

“That barn?”

“Yeah.”

“I dunno,” Radar says. “Did general stores look like barns?”

I blow a long breath from between pursed lips. “Dunno.”

“Is that—shit, that’s her car!” Lacey shouts next to me. “Yes yes yes yes yes her car her car!”

Radar stops the minivan as I follow Lacey’s finger back across the field, behind the building. A glint of silver. Leaning down so my face is next to hers, I can see the arc of the car’s roof. God knows how it got there, since no road leads in that direction.

Radar pulls over, and I jump out and run back toward her car. Empty. Unlocked. I pop the trunk. Empty, too, except for an open and empty suitcase. I look around, and take off toward what I now believe to be the remnants of Agloe’s General Store. Ben and Radar pass me as I run through the mown field. We enter the barn not through a door but through one of several gaping holes where the wooden wall has simply fallen away.

Inside the building, the sun lights up segments of the rotting wooden floor through the many holes in the roof. As I look for her, I register things: the soggy floorboards. The smell of almonds, like her. An old claw-footed bathtub in a corner. So many holes everywhere that this place is simultaneously inside and outside.

I feel someone pull hard on my shirt. I spin my head and see Ben, his eyes shooting back and forth between me and a corner of the room. I have to look past a wide beam of bright white light shining down from the ceiling, but I can see into that corner. Two long panes of chest-high, dirty, gray-tinted Plexiglas lean against each other at an acute angle, held up on the other side by the wooden wall. It’s a triangular cubicle, if such a thing is possible.

And here’s the thing about tinted windows: the light still gets through. So I can see the jarring scene, albeit in gray scale: Margo Roth Spiegelman sits in a black leather office chair, hunched over a school desk, writing. Her hair is much shorter— she has choppy bangs above her eyebrows and everything is mussed-up, as if to emphasize the asymmetry—but it is her. She is alive. She has relocated her offices from an abandoned mini-mall in Florida to an abandoned barn in New York, and I have found her.

We walk toward Margo, all four of us, but she doesn’t seem to see us. She just keeps writing. Finally, someone—Radar, maybe—says, “Margo. Margo?”

She stands up on her tiptoes, her hands resting atop the makeshift cubicle’s walls. If she is surprised to see us, her eyes do not give it away. Here is Margo Roth Spiegelman, five feet away from me, her lips chapped to cracking, makeup-less, dirt in her fingernails, her eyes silent. I’ve never seen her eyes dead like that, but then again, maybe I’ve never seen her eyes before. She stares at me. I feel certain she is staring at me and not at Lacey or Ben or Radar. I haven’t felt so stared at since Robert Joyner’s dead eyes watched me in Jefferson Park.

She stands there in silence for a long time, and I am too scared of her eyes to keep walking forward. “I and this mystery here we stand,” Whitman wrote.

Finally, she says, “Give me like five minutes,” and then sits back down and resumes her writing.

I watch her write. Except for being a little grimy, she looks like she has always looked. I don’t know why, but I always thought she would look different. Older. That I would barely recognize her when I finally saw her again. But there she is, and I am watching her through the Plexiglas, and she looks like Margo Roth Spiegelman, this girl I have known since I was two—this girl who was an idea that I loved.

And it is only now, when she closes her notebook and places it inside a backpack next to her and then stands up and walks toward us, that I realize that the idea is not only wrong but dangerous. What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person.

“Hey,” she says to Lacey, smiling. She hugs Lacey first, then shakes Ben’s hand, then Radar’s. She raises her eyebrows and says, “Hi, Q,” and then hugs me, quickly and not hard. I want to hold on. I want an event. I want to feel her heaving sobs against my chest, tears running down her dusty cheeks onto my shirt. But she just hugs me quickly and sits down on the floor. I sit down across from her, with Ben and Radar and Lacey following in a line, so that we are all facing Margo.

“It’s good to see you,” I say after a while, feeling like I’m breaking a silent prayer.

She pushes her bangs to the side. She seems to be deciding exactly what to say before she says it. “I, uh. Uh. I’m rarely at a loss for words, huh? Not much talking to people lately. Um. I guess maybe we should start with, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Margo,” Lacey says. “Christ, we were so worried.”

“No need to worry,” Margo answers cheerfully. “I’m good.” She gives us two thumbs-up. “I am A-OK.”

“You could have called us and let us know that,” Ben says, his voice tinged with frustration. “Saved us a hell of a drive.”

“In my experience, Bloody Ben, when you leave a place, it’s best to leave. Why are you wearing a dress, by the way?”

Ben blushes. “Don’t call him that,” Lacey snaps.

Margo cuts a look at Lacey. “Oh, my God, are you hooking up with him?” Lacey says nothing. “You’re not actually hooking up with him,” Margo says.

“Actually, yes,” Lacey says. “And actually he’s great. And actually you’re a bitch. And actually, I’m leaving. It’s nice to see you again, Margo. Thanks for terrifying me and making me feel like shit for the entire last month of my senior year, and then being a bitch when we track you down to make sure you’re okay. It’s been a real pleasure knowing you.”

“You, too. I mean, without you, how would I have ever known how fat I was?” Lacey gets up and stomps off, her footfalls vibrating through the crumbling floor. Ben follows. I look over, and Radar has stood up, too.

“I never knew you until I got to know you through your clues,” he says. “I like the clues more than I like you.”

“What the hell is he talking about?” Margo asks me. Radar doesn’t answer. He just leaves.

I should, too, of course. They’re my friends—more than Margo, certainly. But I have questions. As Margo stands and starts to walk back toward her cubicle, I start with the obvious one. “Why are you acting like such a brat?”

She spins around and grabs a fistful of my shirt and shouts into my face, “Where do you get off showing up here without any kind of warning?!”

“How could I have warned you when you completely dropped off the face of the planet?!” I see a long blink and know she has no response for this, so I keep going. I’m so pissed at her. For . . . for, I don’t know. Not being the Margo I had expected her to be. Not being the Margo I thought I had finally imagined correctly. “I thought for sure there was a good reason why you never got in touch with anyone after that night. And . . . this is your good reason? So you can live like a bum?”

She lets go of my shirt and pushes away from me. “Now who’s being a brat? I left the only way you can leave. You pull your life off all at once—like a Band-Aid. And then you get to be you and Lace gets to be Lace and everybody gets to be everybody and I get to be me.”

“Except I didn’t get to be me, Margo, because I thought you were dead. For the longest time. So I had to do all kinds of crap that I would never do.”

She screams at me now, pulling herself up by my shirt so she can get in my face. “Oh, bullshit. You didn’t come here to make sure I was okay. You came here because you wanted to save poor little Margo from her troubled little self, so that I would be oh-so-thankful to my knight in shining armor that I would strip my clothes off and beg you to ravage my body.”

“Bullshit!” I shout, which it mostly is. “You were just playing with us, weren’t you? You just wanted to make sure that even after you left to go have your fun, you were still the axis we spun around.”

She’s screaming back, louder than I thought possible. “You’re not even pissed at me, Q! You’re pissed at this idea of me you keep inside your brain from when we were little!”

She tries to turn away from me, but I grab her shoulders and hold her in front of me and say, “Did you ever even think about what your leaving meant? About Ruthie? About me or Lacey or any of the other people who cared about you? No. Of course you didn’t. Because if it doesn’t happen to you, it doesn’t happen at all. Isn’t that it, Margo? Isn’t it?”

She doesn’t fight me now. She just slumps her shoulders, turns, and walks back to her office. She kicks down both of the Plexiglas walls, and they clamor against the desk and chair before sliding onto the ground. “SHUT UP SHUT UP YOU ASSHOLE.”

“Okay,” I say. Something about Margo completely losing her temper allows me to regain mine. I try to talk like my mom. “I’ll shut up. We’re both upset. Lots of, uh, unresolved issues on my side.”

She sits down in the desk chair, her feet on what had been the wall of her office. She’s looking into a corner of the barn. At least ten feet between us. “How the hell did you even find me?”

“I thought you wanted us to,” I answer. My voice is so small I’m surprised she even hears me, but she spins the chair to glare at me.

“I sure as shit did not.”

“‘Song of Myself,’” I say. “Guthrie took me to Whitman. Whitman took me to the door. The door took me to the mini-mall. We figured out how to read the painted-over graffiti. I didn’t understand ‘paper towns’; it can also mean subdivisions that never got built, and so I thought you had gone to one and were never coming back. I thought you were dead in one of these places, that you had killed yourself and wanted me to find you for whatever reason. So I went to a bunch of them, looking for you. But then I matched the map in the gift shop to the thumbtack holes. I started reading the poem more closely, figured out you weren’t running probably, just holed up, planning. Writing in that notebook. I found Agloe from the map, saw your comment on the talk page of Omnictionary, skipped graduation, and drove here.”

She brushes her hair down, but it isn’t long enough to fall over her face anymore. “I hate this haircut,” she says. “I wanted to look different, but—it looks ridiculous.”

“I like it,” I say. “It frames your face nicely.”

“I’m sorry I was being so bitchy,” she says. “You just have to understand—I mean, you guys walk in here out of nowhere and you scare the shit out of me—”

“You could have just said, like, ‘Guys, you are scaring the shit out of me,’” I said.

She scoffs. “Yeah, right, ’cause that’s the Margo Roth Spiegelman everybody knows and loves.” Margo is quiet for a moment, and then says, “I knew I shouldn’t have said that on Omnictionary. I just thought it would be funny for them to find it later. I thought the cops might trace it somehow, but not soon enough. There’s like a billion pages on Omnictionary or whatever. I never thought . . .”

“What?”

“I thought about you a lot, to answer your question. And Ruthie. And my parents. Of course, okay? Maybe I am the most horribly self-centered person in the history of the world. But God, do you think I would have done it if I didn’t need to?” She shakes her head. Now, finally, she leans toward me, elbows on knees, and we are talking. At a distance, but still. “I couldn’t figure out any other way that I could leave without getting dragged back.”


Tags: John Green Young Adult
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