Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Paper Towns - Chapter 17

Mom came into my room the next morning and said, “You didn’t even close the door last night, sleepyhead,”
and I opened my eyes and said, “I think I have a stomach bug.” And then I motioned toward the
trash can, which contained puke.
“Quentin! Oh, goodness. When did this happen?”
“About six,” I said, which was true.
“Why didn’t you come get us?”
“Too tired,” I said, which was also true.
“You just woke up feeling ill?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, which was untrue. I woke up because my alarm went off at six, and then I snuck into
the kitchen and ate a granola bar and some orange juice. Ten minutes later, I stuck two fingers down my
throat. I didn’t want to do it the night before because I didn’t want it stinking the room up all night. The
puking sucked, but it was over quickly.
Mom took the bucket, and I could hear her cleaning it out in the kitchen. She returned with a fresh
bucket, her lips pouting with worry. “Well, I feel like I should take the day—” she started, but I cut her
“I’m honestly fine,” I said. “Just queasy. Something I ate.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll call if it gets worse,” I said. She kissed my forehead. I could feel her sticky lipstick on my skin. I
wasn’t really sick, but still, somehow she’d made me feel better.
“Do you want me to close the door?” she asked, one hand on it. The door clung to its hinges, but only
“No no no,” I said, perhaps too nervously.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll call school on my way to work. You let me know if you need anything.
Anything. Or if you want me to come home. And you can always call Dad. And I’ll check up on you this
afternoon, okay?”
I nodded, and then pulled the covers back up to my chin. Even though the bucket had been cleaned,
I could smell the puke underneath the detergent, and the smell of it reminded me of the act of puking,
which for some reason made me want to puke again, but I just took slow, even mouth breaths until I heard
the Chrysler backing down the driveway. It was 7:32. For once, I thought, I would be on time. Not to
school, admittedly. But still.
I showered and brushed my teeth and put on dark jeans and a plain black T-shirt. I put Margo’s scrap
of newspaper in my pocket. I hammered the pins back into their hinges, and then packed. I didn’t really
know what to throw into my backpack, but I included the doorjamb-opening screwdriver, a printout of
the satellite map, directions, a bottle of water, and in case she was there, the Whitman. I wanted to ask her
about it.
Ben and Radar showed up at eight on the dot. I got in the backseat. They were shouting along to a
song by the Mountain Goats.
Ben turned around and offered me his fist. I punched it softly, even though I hated that greeting. “Q!”
he shouted over the music. “How good does this feel?”
And I knew exactly what Ben meant: he meant listening to the Mountain Goats with your friends in
a car that runs on a Wednesday morning in May on the way to Margo and whatever Margotastic prize
came with finding her. “It beats calculus,” I answered. The music was too loud for us to talk. Once we
got out of Jefferson Park, we rolled down the one window that worked so the world would know we had
good taste in music.
We drove all the way out Colonial Drive, past the movie theaters and the bookstores that I had been
driving to and past my whole life. But this drive was different and better because it occurred during
calculus, because it occurred with Ben and Radar, because it occurred on our way to where I believed
I would find her. And finally, after twenty miles, Orlando gave way to the last remaining orange tree
groves and undeveloped ranches—the endlessly flat land grown over thick with brush, the Spanish moss
hanging off the branches of oak trees, still in the windless heat. This was the Florida where I used
to spend mosquito-bitten, armadillo-chasing nights as a Boy Scout. The road was dominated now by
pickup trucks, and every mile or so you could see a subdivision off the highway—little streets winding
for no reason around houses that rose up out of nothing like a volcano of vinyl siding.
Farther out we passed a rotting wooden sign that said GROVE-POINT ACRES. A cracked blacktop
road lasted only a couple hundred feet before dead-ending into an expanse of gray dirt, signaling that
Grovepoint Acres was what my mom called a pseudovision—a subdivision abandoned before it could
be completed. Pseudovisions had been pointed out to me a couple times before on drives with my parents,
but I’d never seen one so desolate.
We were about five miles past Grovepoint Acres when Radar turned down the music and said, “Should
be in about a mile.”
I took a long breath. The excitement of being somewhere other than school had started to wane. This
didn’t seem like a place where Margo would hide, or even visit. It was a far cry from New York City.
This was the Florida you fly over, wondering why people ever thought to inhabit this peninsula. I stared
at the empty asphalt, the heat distorting my vision. Ahead, I saw a strip mall wavering in the bright distance.
“Is that it?” I asked, leaning forward and pointing.
“Must be,” Radar said.
Ben pushed the power button on the stereo, and we all got very quiet as Ben pulled into a parking
lot long since reclaimed by the gray sandy dirt. There had once been a sign for these four storefronts.
A rusted pole stood about eight feet high by the side of the road. But the sign was long gone, snapped
off by a hurricane or an accumulation of decay. The stores themselves had fared little better: it was a
single-story building with a flat roof, and bare cinder block was visible in places. Strips of cracked paint
wrinkled away from the walls, like insects clinging to a nest. Water stains formed brown abstract paintings
between the store windows. The windows were boarded up with warped sheets of particleboard. I
was struck by an awful thought, the kind that cannot be taken back once it escapes into the open air of
consciousness: it seemed to me that this was not a place you go to live. It was a place you go to die.
As soon as the car stopped, my nose and mouth were flooded with the rancid smell of death. I had to
swallow back a rush of puke that rose up into the raw soreness in the back of my throat. Only now, after
all this lost time, did I realize how terribly I had misunderstood both her game and the prize for winning
I get out of the car and Ben is standing next to me, and Radar next to him. And I know all at once that
this isn’t funny, that this hasn’t been prove-to-me-you’re-good-enough-to-hang-out-with-me. I can hear
Margo that night as we drove around Orlando. I can hear her saying to me, “I don’t want some kids to
find me swarmed with flies on a Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.” Not wanting to be found by some
kids in Jefferson Park isn’t the same thing as not wanting to die.
There is no evidence that anyone has been here in a long time except for the smell, that sickly sour
stench designed to keep the living from the dead. I tell myself she can’t smell like that, but of course she
can. We all can. I hold my forearm up to my nose so I can smell sweat and skin and anything but death.
“MARGO?” Radar calls. A mockingbird perched on the rusted gutter of the building spits out two
syllables in response. “MARGO!” he shouts again. Nothing. He digs a parabola into the sand with his
foot and sighs. “Shit.”
Standing before this building, I learn something about fear. I learn that it is not the idle fantasies
of someone who maybe wants something important to happen to him, even if the important thing is
horrible. It is not the disgust of seeing a dead stranger, and not the breathlessness of hearing a shotgun
pumped outside of Becca Arrington’s house. This cannot be addressed by breathing exercises. This fear
bears no analogy to any fear I knew before. This is the basest of all possible emotions, the feeling that
was with us before we existed, before this building existed, before the earth existed. This is the fear that
made fish crawl out onto dry land and evolve lungs, the fear that teaches us to run, the fear that makes
us bury our dead.
The smell leaves me seized by desperate panic—panic not like my lungs are out of air, but like the
atmosphere itself is out of air. I think maybe the reason I have spent most of my life being afraid is that
I have been trying to prepare myself, to train my body for the real fear when it comes. But I am not
“Bro, we should leave,” Ben says. “We should call the cops or something.” We have not looked at
each other yet. We are all still looking at this building, this long-abandoned building that cannot possibly
hold anything but corpses.
“No,” Radar says. “No no no no no. We call if there’s something to call about. She left the address
for Q. Not for the cops. We have to find a way in there.”
“In there?” Ben says dubiously.
I clap Ben on the back, and for the first time all day, the three of us are looking not forward but at
one another. That makes it bearable. Something about seeing them makes me feel as if she is not dead
until we find her. “Yeah, in there,” I say.
I don’t know who she is anymore, or who she was, but I need to find her.


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