Page 9 of Paper Towns

But no. There was one-eyebrowed Chuck to see, and Ben to tell the story to, and classes and the band room and Duke and the future.

“Q,” Margo said.

I looked up at her, and for a moment I didn’t know why she’d said my name, but then I snapped out of my half-sleep. And I heard it. The Muzak from the speakers had been turned up, only it wasn’t Muzak anymore—it was real music. This old, jazzy song my dad likes called “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Even through the tinny speakers you could hear that whoever was singing it could sing a thousand goddamned notes at once.

And I felt the unbroken line of me and of her stretching back from our cribs to the dead guy to acquaintanceship to now. And I wanted to tell her that the pleasure for me wasn’t planning or doing or leaving; the pleasure was in seeing our strings cross and separate and then come back together—but that seemed too cheesy to say, and anyway, she was standing up.

Margo’s blue blue eyes blinked and she looked impossibly beautiful right then, her jeans wet against her legs, her face shining in the gray light.

I stood up and reached out my hand and said, “May I have this dance?” Margo curtsied, gave me her hand, and said, “You may,” and then my hand was on the curve between her waist and her hip, and her hand was on my shoulder. And then step-step-sidestep, step-step-sidestep. We fox-trotted all the way around the seal tank, and still the song kept going on about the stars falling. “Sixth-grade slow dance,” Margo announced, and we switched positions, her hands on my shoulders and mine on her hips, elbows locked, two feet between us. And then we fox-trotted some more, until the song ended. I stepped forward and dipped Margo, just as they’d taught us to do at Crown School of Dance. She raised one leg and gave me all her weight as I dipped her. She either trusted me or wanted to fall.


We bought dish towels at a 7-Eleven on I-Drive and tried our best to wash the slime and stink from the moat off our clothes and skin, and I filled the gas tank to where it had been before we drove the circumference of Orlando. The Chrysler’s seats were going to be a little bit wet when Mom drove to work, but I held out hope that she wouldn’t notice, since she was pretty oblivious. My parents generally believed that I was the most well-adjusted and not-likely-to-break-into-SeaWorld person on the planet, since my psychological well-being was proof of their professional talents.

I took my time going home, avoiding interstates in favor of back roads. Margo and I were listening to the radio, trying to figure out what station had been playing “Stars Fell on Alabama,” but then she turned it down and said, “All in all, I think it was a success.”

“Absolutely,” I said, although by now I was already wondering what tomorrow would be like. Would she show up by the band room before school to hang out? Eat lunch with me and Ben? “I do wonder if it will be different tomorrow,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.” She left it hanging in the air, and then said, “Hey, speaking of tomorrow, as thanks for your hard work and dedication on this remarkable evening, I would like to give you a small gift.” She dug around beneath her feet and then produced the digital camera. “Take it,” she said. “And use the Power of the Tiny Winky wisely.”

I laughed and put the camera in my pocket. “I’ll download the pic when we get home and then give it back to you at school?” I asked. I still wanted her to say, Yes, at school, where things will be different, where I will be your friend in public, and also decidedly single, but she just said, “Yeah, or whenever.”

It was 5:42 when I turned into Jefferson Park. We drove down Jefferson Drive to Jefferson Court and then turned onto our road, Jefferson Way. I killed the headlights one last time and idled up my driveway. I didn’t know what to say, and Margo wasn’t saying anything. We filled a 7-Eleven bag with trash, trying to make the Chrysler look and feel as if the past six hours had not happened. In another bag, she gave me the remnants of the Vaseline, the spray paint, and the last full Mountain Dew. My brain raced with fatigue.

With a bag in each hand, I paused for a moment outside the van, staring at her. “Well, it was a helluva night,” I said finally.

“Come here,” she said, and I took a step forward. She hugged me, and the bags made it hard to hug her back, but if I dropped them I might wake someone. I could feel her on her tiptoes and then her mouth was right up against my ear and she said, very clearly, “I. Will. Miss. Hanging. Out. With. You.”

“You don’t have to,” I answered aloud. I tried to hide my disappointment. “If you don’t like them anymore,” I said, “just hang out with me. My friends are actually, like, nice.”

Her lips were so close to me that I could feel her smile. “I’m afraid it’s not possible,” she whispered. She let go then, but kept looking at me, taking step after step backward. She raised her eyebrows finally, and smiled, and I believed the smile. I watched her climb up a tree and then lift herself onto the roof outside of her second-floor bedroom window. She jimmied her window open and crawled inside.

I walked through my unlocked front door, tiptoed through the kitchen to my bedroom, peeled off my jeans, threw them into a corner of the closet back near the window screen, downloaded the picture of Jase, and got into bed, my mind booming with the things I would say to her at school.


The Grass


I’d been asleep for just about thirty minutes when my alarm clock went off at 6:32. But I did not personally notice that my alarm clock was going off for seventeen minutes, not until I felt hands on my shoulders and heard the distant voice of my mother saying, “Good morning, sleepyhead.”

“Uhh,” I responded. I felt significantly more tired than I had back at 5:55, and I would have skipped school, except I had perfect attendance, and while I realized that perfect attendance is not particularly impressive or even necessarily admirable, I wanted to keep the streak alive. Plus, I wanted to see how Margo would act around me.

When I walked into the kitchen, Dad was telling Mom something while they ate at the breakfast counter. Dad paused when he saw me and said, “How’d you sleep?”

“I slept fantastically,” I said, which was true. Briefly, but well.

He smiled. “I was just telling your mom that I have this recurring anxiety dream,” he said. “So I’m in college. And I’m taking a Hebrew class, except the professor doesn’t speak Hebrew, and the tests aren’t in Hebrew—they’re in gibberish. But everyone is acting like this made-up language with a made-up alphabet is Hebrew. And so I have this test, and I have to write in a language I don’t know using an alphabet I can’t decipher.”

“Interesting,” I said, although in point of fact it wasn’t. Nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams.

“It’s a metaphor for adolescence,” my mother piped up. “Writing in a language—adulthood—you can’t comprehend, using an alphabet—mature social interaction—you can’t recognize.” My mother worked with crazy teenagers in juvenile detention centers and prisons. I think that’s why she never really worried about me—as long as I wasn’t ritually decapitating gerbils or urinating on my own face, she figured I was a success.

A normal mother might have said, “Hey, I notice you look like you’re coming down off a meth binge and smell vaguely of algae. Were you perchance dancing with a snakebit Margo Roth Spiegelman a couple hours ago?” But no. They preferred dreams.

I showered, put on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. I was late, but then again, I was always late.

“You’re late,” Mom said when I made it back to the kitchen. I tried to shake the fog in my brain enough to remember how to tie my sneakers.

“I am aware,” I answered groggily.

Mom drove me to school. I sat in the seat that had been Margo’s. Mom was mostly quiet on the drive, which was good, because I was entirely asleep, the side of my head against the minivan window.

As Mom pulled up to school, I saw Margo’s usual spot empty in the senior parking lot. Couldn’t blame her for being late, really. Her friends didn’t gather as early as mine.

As I walked up toward the band kids, Ben shouted, “Jacobsen, was I dreaming or did you—” I gave him the slightest shake of my head, and he changed gears midsentence— “and me go on a wild adventure in French Polynesia last night, traveling in a sailboat made of bananas?”

“That was one delicious sailboat,” I answered. Radar raised his eyes at me and ambled into the shade of a tree. I followed him. “Asked Angela about a date for Ben. No dice.” I glanced over at Ben, who was talking animatedly, a coffee stirrer dancing in his mouth as he spoke.

“That sucks,” I said. “It’s all good, though. He and I will hang out and have a marathon session of Resurrection or something.”

Ben came over then, and said, “Are you trying to be subtle? Because I know you’re talking about the honeybunnyless prom tragedy that is my life.” He turned around and headed inside. Radar and I followed him, talking as we went past the band room, where freshmen and sophomores were sitting and chatting amid a slew of instrument cases.

“Why do you even want to go?” I asked.

“Bro, it’s our senior prom. It’s my last best chance to be some honeybunny’s fondest high school memory.” I rolled my eyes.

The first bell rang, meaning five minutes to class, and like Pavlov’s dogs, people started rushing around, filling up the hallways. Ben and Radar and I stood by Radar’s locker. “So why’d you call me at three in the morning for Chuck Parson’s address?”

I was mulling over how to best answer that question when I saw Chuck Parson walking toward us. I elbowed Ben’s side and cut my eyes toward Chuck. Chuck, incidentally, had decided that the best strategy was to shave off Lefty. “Holy shitstickers,” Ben said.

Soon enough, Chuck was in my face as I scrunched back against the locker, his forehead deliciously hairless. “What are you assholes looking at?”

“Nothing,” said Radar. “We’re certainly not looking at your eyebrows.” Chuck flicked Radar off, slammed an open palm against the locker next to me, and walked away.

“You did that?” Ben asked, incredulous.

“You can never tell anyone,” I said to both of them. And then quietly added, “I was with Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

Ben’s voice rose with excitement. “You were with Margo Roth Spiegelman last night? At THREE A.M.?” I nodded. “Alone?” I nodded. “Oh my God, if you hooked up with her, you have to tell me every single thing that happened. You have to write me a term paper on the look and feel of Margo Roth Spiegelman’s breasts. Thirty pages, minimum!”

“I want you to do a photo-realistic pencil drawing,” Radar said.

“A sculpture would also be acceptable,” Ben added.

Radar half raised his hand. I dutifully called on him. “Yes, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to write a sestina about Margo Roth Spiegelman’s breasts? Your six words are: pink, round, firmness, succulent, supple, and pillowy.”

“Personally,” Ben said, “I think at least one of the words should be buhbuhbuhbuh.”

“I don’t think I’m familiar with that word,” I said.

“It’s the sound my mouth makes when I’m giving a honey-bunny the patented Ben Starling Speedboat.” At which point Ben mimicked what he would do in the unlikely event that his face ever encountered cleavage.

“Right now,” I said, “although they have no idea why, thousands of girls all across America are feeling a chill of fear and disgust run down their spines. Anyway, I didn’t hook up with her, perv.”

“Typical,” Ben said. “I’m the only guy I know with the balls to give a honeybunny what she wants, and the only one with no opportunities.”

“What an amazing coincidence,” I said. It was life as it had always been—only more fatigued. I had hoped that last night would change my life, but it hadn’t—at least not yet.

The second bell rang. We hustled off to class.

I became extremely tired during calc first period. I mean, I had been tired since waking, but combining fatigue with calculus seemed unfair. To stay awake, I was scribbling a note to Margo— nothing I’d ever send to her, just a summary of my favorite moments from the night before—but even that could not keep me awake. At some point, my pen just stopped moving, and I found my field of vision shrinking and shrinking, and then I was trying to remember if tunnel vision was a symptom of fatigue. I decided it must be, because there was only one thing in front of me, and it was Mr. Jiminez at the blackboard, and this was the only thing that my brain could process, and so when Mr. Jiminez said, “Quentin?” I was extraordinarily confused, because the one thing happening in my universe was Mr. Jiminez writing on the blackboard, and I couldn’t fathom how he could be both an auditory and a visual presence in my life.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Did you hear the question?”

“Yes?” I asked again.

“And you raised your hand to answer it?” I looked up, and sure enough my hand was raised, but I did not know how it had come to be raised, and I only sort of knew how to go about de-raising it. But then after considerable struggle, my brain was able to tell my arm to lower itself, and my arm was able to do so, and then finally I said, “I just needed to ask to go to the bathroom?”

And he said, “Go ahead,” and then someone else raised a hand and answered some question about some kind of differential equation.

I walked to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, and then leaned over the sink, close to the mirror, and appraised myself. I tried to rub the bloodshotedness out of my eyes, but I couldn’t. And then I had a brilliant idea. I went into a stall, put the seat down, sat down, leaned against the side, and fell asleep. The sleep lasted for about sixteen milliseconds before the second period bell rang. I got up and walked to Latin, and then to physics, and then finally it was fourth period, and I found Ben in the cafeteria and said, “I really need a nap or something.”

Tags: John Green Young Adult