Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Paper Towns - Chapter 18

We walk around the back of the building and find four locked steel doors and nothing but ranch land,
patches of palmettos dotting an expanse of gold-green grass. The stench is worse here, and I feel afraid
to keep walking. Ben and Radar are just behind me, to my right and left. We form a triangle together,
walking slowly, our eyes scanning the area.
“It’s a raccoon!” Ben shouts. “Oh, thank God. It’s a raccoon. Jesus.” Radar and I walk away from the
building to join him near a shallow drainage ditch. A huge, bloated raccoon with matted hair lies dead, no
visible trauma, its fur falling off, one of its ribs exposed. Radar turns away and heaves, but nothing comes
out. I lean down next to him and put my arm between his shoulder blades, and when he gets his breath
back, he says, “I am so fucking glad to see that dead fucking raccoon.”
But even so, I cannot picture her here alive. It occurs to me that the Whitman could be a suicide note.
I think about things she highlighted: “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” “I
bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your
bootsoles.” For a moment, I feel a flash of hope when I think about the last line of the poem: “I stop some
where waiting for you.” But then I think that the I does not need to be a person. The I can also be a body.
Radar has walked away from the raccoon and is tugging on the handle of one of the four locked steel
doors. I feel like praying for the dead—saying Kaddish for this raccoon—but I don’t even know how. I’m
so sorry for him, and so sorry for how happy I am to see him like this.
“It’s giving a little,” Radar shouts to us. “Come help.”
Ben and I both put our arms around Radar’s waist and pull back. He puts his foot up against the wall to
give himself extra leverage as he pulls, and then all at once they collapse onto me, Radar’s sweat-soaked
T-shirt pressed up against my face. For a moment, I’m excited, thinking we’re in. But then I see Radar
holding the door handle. I scramble up and look at the door. Still locked.
“Piece of shit forty-year-old goddamned doorknob,” Radar says. I’ve never heard him talk like this
“It’s okay,” I say. “There’s a way. There has to be.”
We walk all the way around to the front of the building. No doors, no holes, no visible tunnels. But
I need in. Ben and Radar try to peel the slabs of particleboard from the windows, but they’re all nailed
shut. Radar kicks at the board, but it doesn’t give. Ben turns back to me. “There’s no glass behind one of
these boards,” he says, and then he starts jogging away from the building, his sneakers splashing sand as
he goes.
I give him a confused look. “I’m going to bust through the particleboard,” he explains.
“You can’t do that.” He is the smallest of our light trio. If anyone tries to smash through the boardedup
windows, it should be me.
He balls his hands into fists and then extends his fingers out. As I walk toward him, he starts talking
to me. “When my mom was trying to keep me from getting beat up in third grade, she put me in tae kwon
do. I only went to like three classes, and I only learned one thing, but the thing comes in handy sometimes:
we watched this tae kwon do master punch through a thick wooden block, and we were all like,
dude, how did he do that, and he told us that if you move as though your hand will go through the block,
and if you believe that your hand will go through the block, then it will.”
I’m about to refute this idiotic logic when he takes off, running past me in a blur. His acceleration
continues as he approaches the board, and then utterly without fear, he leaps up at the last possible
second, twists his body sideways—his shoulder out to bear the brunt of the force—and slams into the
wood. I half-expect him to burst through and leave a Ben-shaped cutout, like a cartoon. Instead, he
bounces off the board and falls onto his ass in a patch of bright grass amid the sea of sandy dirt. Ben
rolls onto his side, rubbing his shoulder. “It broke,” he announces.
I assume he means his shoulder as I race toward him, but then he stands up, and I’m looking at a
Ben-high crack in the particle-board. I start kicking at it, and the crack spreads horizontally, and then
Radar and I get our fingers inside the crack and start tugging. I squint to keep the sweat from burning
my eyes, and pull with all my force back and forth until the crack starts to make a jagged opening. Radar
and I urge it on with silent work, until eventually he has to take a break and Ben replaces him. Finally
we are able to punch a big chunk of the board into the minimall. I climb in feetfirst, landing blindly onto
what feels like a stack of papers.
The hole we’ve carved into this building gives a little light, but I can’t even make out the dimensions
of the room, or whether there is a ceiling. The air in here is so stale and hot that inhaling and exhaling
feel identical.
I turn around and my chin hits Ben’s forehead. I find myself whispering, even though there’s no
reason to. “Do you have a—”
“No,” he whispers back before I can finish. “Radar, did you bring a flashlight?”
I hear Radar coming through the hole. “I have one on my key chain. It’s not much, though.”
The light comes on, and I still can’t see very well, but I can tell we’ve stepped into a big room filled
with a labyrinth of metal shelves. The papers on the floor are pages from an old day-by-day calendar,
the days scattered through the room, all of them yellowing and mouse-bit. I wonder if this might once
have been a little bookstore, although it’s been decades since these shelves held anything but dust.
We fall into line behind Radar. I hear something creak above us, and we all stop moving. I try to
swallow the panic. I can hear each of Radar’s and Ben’s breaths, their shuffling footsteps. I want out of
here, but that could be Margo creaking for all I know. It could also be crack addicts.
“Just the building settling,” Radar whispers, but he seems less sure than usual. I stand there unable
to move. After a moment, I hear Ben’s voice. “The last time I was this scared, I peed myself.”
“The last time I was this scared,” Radar says, “I actually had to face a Dark Lord in order to make
the world safe for wizards.”
I made a feeble attempt. “The last time I was this scared I had to sleep in Mommy’s room.”
Ben chuckles. “Q, if I were you, I would get that scared Every. Single. Night.”
I’m not up for laughing, but their laughter makes the room feel safer, and so we begin to explore. We
walk through each row of shelves, finding nothing but a few copies of Reader’s Digest from the 1970s
lying on the floor. After a while, I find my eyes adjusting to the darkness, and in the gray light we start
walking in different directions at different speeds.
“No one leaves the room until everyone leaves the room,” I whisper, and they whisper okay’s back. I
get to a side wall of the room and find the first evidence that someone has been here since everyone left.
A jagged semicircular, waist-high tunnel has been cut out of the wall. The words TROLL HOLE have
been spray-painted in orange above the hole, with a helpful arrow pointing down to the hole. “Guys,”
Radar says, so loud that the spell breaks for just a moment. I follow his voice and find him standing by
the opposite wall, his flashlight illuminating another Troll Hole. The graffiti doesn’t look particularly
like Margo’s, but it’s hard to tell for sure. I’ve only seen her spray-paint a single letter.
Radar shines the light through the hole as I duck down and lead the way through. This room is entirely
empty except for a rolled carpet in one corner. As the flashlight scans the floor, I can see glue
stains on the concrete from where the carpet had once been. Across the room, I can just make out another
hole cut into the wall, this time without the graffiti.
I crawl through that Troll Hole into a room lined with clothing racks, the stainless-steel poles still
bolted into walls wine-stained with water damage. This room is better lit, and it takes me a moment to
realize it’s because there are several holes in the roof—tar paper hangs down, and I can see places where
the roof sags against exposed steel girders.
“Souvenir store,” Ben whispers in front of me, and I know immediately he is right.
In the middle of the room five display cases form a pentagon. The glass that once kept the tourists
from their tourist crap has mostly been shattered and lies in shards around the cases. The gray paint
peels off the wall in odd and beautiful patterns, each cracked polygon of paint a snowflake of decay.
Strangely, though, there’s still some merchandise: there’s a Mickey Mouse phone I recognize from
some way back part of childhood. Moth-bit but still-folded SUNNY ORLANDO T-shirts are on display,
splattered with broken glass. Beneath the glass cases, Radar finds a box filled with maps and old tourist
brochures advertising Gator World and Crystal Gardens and fun houses that no longer exist. Ben waves
me over and silently points out the green glass alligator tchotchke lying alone in the case, almost buried
in the dust. This is the value of our souvenirs, I think: you can’t give this shit away.
We make our way back through the empty room and the shelved room and crawl through the last
Troll Hole. This room looks like an office only without computers, and it appears to have been abandoned
in a great hurry, like its employees were beamed up to space or something. Twenty desks sit in
four rows. There are still pens on some of the desks, and they all feature oversize paper calendars lying
flat against the desks. On each calendar, it is perpetually February of 1986. Ben pushes a cloth desk
chair and it spins, creaking rhythmically. Thousands of Post-it notes advertising The Martin-Gale Mortgage
Corp. are piled beside one desk in a rickety pyramid. Open boxes contain stacks of paper from old
dot matrix printers, detailing the expenses and income of the Martin-Gale Mortgage Corp. On one of the
desks, someone has stacked brochures for subdivisions into a single-story house of cards. I spread the
brochures out, thinking that they may hold a clue, but no.
Radar fingers through the papers, whispering, “Nothing after 1986.” I start to go through the desk
drawers. I find Q-tips and stickpins. Pens and pencils packed a dozen each in flimsy cardboard packaging
with retro fonts and design. Napkins. A pair of golf gloves.
“Do you guys see anything,” I ask, “that gives any hint that anyone has been here in the last, say,
twenty years?”
“Nothing but the Troll Holes,” Ben answers. It’s a tomb, everything wrapped in dust.
“So why did she lead us here?” asks Radar. We are speaking now.
“Dunno,” I say. She is clearly not here.
“There are some spots,” Radar says, “with less dust. There’s a dustless rectangle in the empty room,
like something was moved. But I don’t know.”
“And there’s that painted part,” Ben says. Ben points and Radar’s flashlight shows me that a piece of
the far wall in this office has been brushed over with white primer, like someone got the idea to remodel
the place but abandoned the project after half an hour. I walk over to the wall, and up close, I can see
that there’s some red graffiti behind the white paint. But I can only see occasional hints of the red paint
bleeding through—not nearly enough to make anything out. There’s a can of primer up against the wall,
open. I kneel down and push my finger into the paint. There’s a hard surface, but it breaks easily, and
my finger comes up drenched in white. As the paint drips off my finger, I don’t say anything, because
we’ve all come to the same conclusion, that someone has been here recently after all, and then the building
creaks again and Radar drops the flashlight and curses.
“This is freaky,” he says.
“Guys,” Ben says. The flashlight is still on the ground, and I take a step back, to pick it up, but then
I see Ben pointing. He is pointing at the wall. A trick of the indirect light has made the graffiti letters
float up through the coat of primer, a ghost-gray print I recognize immediately as Margo’s.
I pick up the flashlight and shine it on the paint directly, and the message disappears. But when I
shine it against a different part of the wall, I can read it again. “Shit,” Radar says under his breath.
And now Ben says, “Bro, can we go now? Because the last time I was this scared . . . screw it. I’m
freaked out. There’s nothing funny about this shit.”
There’s nothing funny about this shit is the closest Ben can come to the terror I feel, maybe. And it
is close enough for me. I fast-walk toward the Troll Hole. I can feel the walls closing in on us.


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