Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Paper Towns - Chapter 8

“Well, first off, we will get caught,” I said. I hadn’t started the minivan and was laying out the reasons I
wouldn’t start it and wondering if she could see me in the dark.
“Of course we’ll get caught. So what?”
“It’s illegal.”
“Q, in the scheme of things, what kind of trouble can Sea-World get you into? I mean, Jesus, after
everything I’ve done for you tonight, you can’t do one thing for me? You can’t just shut up and calm
down and stop being so goddamned terrified of every little adventure?” And then under her breath she
said, “I mean, God. Grow some nuts.”
And now I was mad. I ducked underneath my shoulder belt so I could lean across the console toward
her. “After everything YOU did for ME?” I almost shouted. She wanted confident? I was getting confident.
“Did you call MY friend’s father who was screwing MY boyfriend so no one would know that I was
calling? Did you chauffeur MY ass all around the world not because you are oh-so-important to me but
because I needed a ride and you were close by? Is that the kind of shit you’ve done for me tonight?”
She wouldn’t look at me. She just stared straight ahead at the vinyl siding of the furniture store. “You
think I needed you? You don’t think I could have given Myrna Mountweazel a Benadryl so she’d sleep
through my stealing the safe from under my parents’ bed? Or snuck into your bedroom while you were
sleeping and taken your car key? I didn’t need you, you idiot. I picked you. And then you picked me
back.” Now she looked at me. “And that’s like a promise. At least for tonight. In sickness and in health.
In good times and in bad. For richer, for poorer. Till dawn do us part.”
I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, but all her teamwork stuff aside, I still felt like I was
getting badgered into something, and I wanted the last word. “Fine, but when Sea-World, Incorporated or
whatever sends a letter to Duke University saying that miscreant Quentin Jacobsen broke into their facility
at four thirty in the morning with a wild-eyed lass at his side, Duke University will be mad. Also, my
parents will be mad.”
“Q, you’re going to go to Duke. You’re going to be a very successful lawyer-or-something and get
married and have babies and live your whole little life, and then you’re going to die, and in your last moments,
when you’re choking on your own bile in the nursing home, you’ll say to yourself: ‘Well, I wasted
my whole goddamned life, but at least I broke into SeaWorld with Margo Roth Spiegelman my senior
year of high school. At least I carpe’d that one diem.’”
“Noctem,” I corrected.
“Okay, you are the Grammar King again. You’ve regained your throne. Now take me to SeaWorld.”
As we drove silently down I-4, I found myself thinking about the day that the guy in the gray suit showed
up dead. Maybe that’s the reason she chose me, I thought. And that’s when, finally, I remembered what
she said about the dead guy and the strings— and about herself and the strings.
“Margo,” I said, breaking our silence.
“Q,” she said.
“You said . . . When the guy died, you said maybe all the strings inside him broke, and then you just
said that about yourself, that the last string broke.”
She half laughed. “You worry too much. I don’t want some kids to find me swarmed with flies on a
Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.” She waited a beat before delivering the punch line. “I’m too vain
for that fate.”
I laughed, relieved, and exited the interstate. We turned onto International Drive, the tourism capital
of the world. There were a thousand shops on International Drive, and they all sold the exact same thing:
crap. Crap molded into seashells, key rings, glass turtles, Florida-shaped refrigerator magnets, plastic
pink flamingos, whatever. In fact, there were several stores on I-Drive that sold actual, literal armadillo
crap—$4.95 a bag.
But at 4:50 in the morning, the tourists were sleeping. The Drive was completely dead, like
everything else, as we drove past store after parking lot after store after parking lot.
“SeaWorld is just past the parkway,” Margo said. She was in the wayback of the minivan again,
rifling through a backpack or something. “I got all these satellite maps and drew our plan of attack, but
I can’t freaking find them anywhere. But anyway, just go right past the parkway, and on your left there
will be this souvenir shop.”
“On my left, there are about seventeen thousand souvenir shops.”
“Right, but there will only be one right after the parkway.”
And sure enough, there was only one, and so I pulled into the empty parking lot and parked the car
directly beneath a streetlight, because cars are always getting stolen on I-Drive. And while only a truly
masochistic car thief would ever think of jacking the Chrysler, I still didn’t relish the thought of explaining
to my mom how and why her car went missing in the small hours of a school night.
We stood outside, leaning against the back of the minivan, the air so warm and thick I felt my clothes
clinging to my skin. I felt scared again, as if people I couldn’t see were looking at me. It had been too
dark for too long, and my gut ached from the hours of worrying. Margo had found her maps, and by
the light of the street lamp, her spray-paint-blue fingertip traced our route. “I think there’s a fence right
there,” she said, pointing to a wooden patch we’d hit just after crossing the parkway. “I read about it
online. They installed it a few years ago after some drunk guy walked into the park in the middle of the
night and decided to go swimming with Shamu, who promptly killed him.”
“Yeah, so if that guy can make it in drunk, surely we can make it in sober. I mean, we’re ninjas.”
“Well, maybe you’re a ninja,” I said.
“You’re just a really loud, awkward ninja,” Margo said, “but we are both ninjas.” She tucked her
hair behind her ears, pulled up her hood, and scrunched it shut with a drawstring; the streetlight lit up
the sharp features of her pale face. Maybe we were both ninjas, but only she had the outfit.
“Okay,” she said. “Memorize the map.” By far the most terrifying part of the half-mile-long journey
Margo had plotted for us was the moat. SeaWorld was shaped like a triangle. One side was protected by
a road, which Margo figured was regularly patrolled by night watchmen. The second side was guarded
by a lake that was at least a mile around, and the third side had a drainage ditch; from the map, it looked
to be about as wide as a two-lane road. And where there are water-filled drainage ditches near lakes in
Florida, there are often alligators.
Margo grabbed me by both shoulders and turned me toward her. “We’re going to get caught, probably,
and when we do, just let me talk. You just look cute and be that weird mix of innocent and confident,
and we’ll be fine.”
I locked the car, tried to pat down my puffy hair, and whispered, “I’m a ninja.” I didn’t mean for
Margo to hear, but she piped up. “Damned right you are! Now let’s go.”
We jogged across I-Drive and then started bushwhacking through a thicket of tall shrubs and oak
trees. I started to worry about poison ivy, but ninjas don’t worry about poison ivy, so I led the trail, my
arms in front of me, pushing aside briars and brush as we walked toward the moat. Finally the trees
stopped and the field opened up, and I could see the parkway on our right and the moat straight ahead
of us. People could have seen us from the road if there had been any cars, but there weren’t. Together
we took off running through the brush, and then made a sharp turn toward the parkway. Margo said,
“Now, now!” and I dashed across the six lanes of highway. Even though it was empty, something felt
exhilarating and wrong about running across a road that big.
We made it across and then knelt down in the knee-high grass beside the parkway. Margo pointed to
the strip of trees between SeaWorld’s endlessly gigantic parking lot and the black standing water of the
moat. We ran for a minute along that line of trees, and then Margo pulled on the back of my shirt, and
said quietly, “Now the moat.”
“Ladies first,” I said.
“No, really. Be my guest,” she answered.
And I didn’t think about the alligators or the disgusting layer of brackish algae. I just got a running
start and jumped as far as I could. I landed in waist-deep water and then high-stepped across. The water
smelled rank and felt slimy on my skin, but at least I wasn’t wet above my waist. Or at least I wasn’t
until Margo jumped in, splashing water all over me. I turned around and splashed her. She faux-retched.
“Ninjas don’t splash other ninjas,” Margo complained.
“The true ninja doesn’t make a splash at all,” I said.
“Ooh, touché.”
I was watching Margo pull herself up out of the moat. And I was feeling thoroughly pleased about the
lack of alligators. And my pulse was acceptable, if brisk. And beneath her unzipped hoodie, her black
T-shirt had become clingy in the water. In short, a lot of things were going pretty well when I saw in
my peripheral vision a slithering in the water beside Margo. Margo started to step out of the water, and
I could see her Achilles tendon tensing, and before I could even say anything, the snake lashed out and
bit her left ankle, right below the line of her jeans.
“Shit!” Margo said, and she looked down and then said “Shit!” again. The snake was still attached. I
dove down and grabbed the snake by the tail and ripped it from Margo’s leg and threw it into the moat.
“Ow, God,” she said. “What was it? Was it a moccasin?”
“I don’t know. Lie down, lie down,” I said, and then I took her leg in my hands, and I pulled up her
jeans. There were two drops of blood coming out where the fangs had been, and I leaned down and put
my mouth on the wound and sucked as hard as I could, trying to draw out the venom. I spit, and was
going to go back to her leg when she said, “Wait, I see it.” I jumped up, terrified, and she said, “No, no,
God, it’s just a garter snake.” She was pointing into the moat, and I followed her finger and could see
the little garter snake skirting along the surface, swimming beneath a floodlight’s skirt. From the well-lit
distance, the thing didn’t look much scarier than a baby lizard.
“Thank God,” I said, sitting down next to her and catching my breath.
After looking at the bite and seeing that the bleeding had already stopped, she asked, “How was making
out with my leg?”
“Pretty good,” I said, which was true. She leaned her body into mine a little and I could feel her
upper arm against my ribs.
“I shaved this morning for precisely that reason. I was like, ‘Well, you never know when someone is
going to clamp down on your calf and try to suck out the snake poison.’”
There was a chain-link fence before us, but it was only about six feet tall. As Margo put it, “Honestly,
first garter snakes and now this fence? This security is sort of insulting to a ninja.” She scampered up,
swung her body around, and climbed down like it was a ladder. I managed not to fall.
We ran through a small thicket of trees, hugging tight against these huge opaque tanks that might
have stored animals, and then we came out to an asphalt path and I could see the big amphitheater where
Shamu splashed me when I was a kid. The little speakers lining the walkway were playing soft Muzak.
Maybe to keep the animals calm. “Margo,” I said, “we’re in SeaWorld.”
And she said, “Seriously,” and then she jogged away and I followed her. We ended up by the seal
tank, but it seemed like there were no seals inside it.
“Margo,” I said again. “We’re in SeaWorld.”
“Enjoy it,” she said without moving her mouth much. “’Cause here comes security.”
I dashed through a stand of waist-high bushes, but when Margo didn’t run, I stopped.
A guy strolled up wearing a SEAWORLD SECURITY vest and very casually asked, “How y’all?”
He held a can of something in his hand—pepper spray, I guessed.
To stay calm, I wondered to myself, Does he have regular handcuffs, or does he have special
SeaWorld handcuffs? Like, are they shaped like two curved dolphins coming together?
“We were just on our way out, actually,” said Margo.
“Well, that’s certain,” the man said. “The question is whether you walkin’ out or gettin’ driven out
by the Orange County sheriff.”
“If it’s all the same to you,” Margo said, “we’d rather walk.” I shut my eyes. This, I wanted to tell
Margo, was no time for snappy comebacks. But the man laughed.
“You know a man got kilt here a couple years ago jumping in the big tank, and they told us we
cain’t never let anybody go if they break in, no matter if they’re pretty.” Margo pulled her shirt out so it
wouldn’t look so clingy. And only then did I realize he was talking to her breasts.
“Well, then I guess you have to arrest us.”
“But that’s the thing. I’m ’bout to get off and go home and have a beer and get some sleep, and if I
call the police they’ll take their sweet time in coming. I’m just thinkin’ out loud here,” he said, and then
Margo raised her eyes in recognition. She wiggled a hand into a wet pocket and pulled out one moatwater-
soaked hundred-dollar bill.
The guard said, “Well, y’all best be getting on now. If I were you, I wouldn’t walk out past the whale
tank. It’s got all-night security cameras all ’round it, and we wouldn’t want anyone to know y’all was
“Yessir,” Margo said demurely, and with that the man walked off into the darkness. “Man,” Margo
mumbled as the guy walked away, “I really didn’t want to pay that perv. But, oh well. Money’s for
spendin’.” I could barely even hear her; the only thing happening was the relief shivering out of my
skin. This raw pleasure was worth all the worry that preceded it.
“Thank God he’s not turning us in,” I said.
Margo didn’t respond. She was staring past me, her eyes squinting almost closed. “I felt this exact
same way when I got into Universal Studios,” she said after a moment. “It’s kind of cool and everything,
but there’s nothing much to see. The rides aren’t working. Everything cool is locked up. Most of the
animals are put into different tanks at night.” She turned her head and appraised the SeaWorld we could
see. “I guess the pleasure isn’t being inside.”
“What’s the pleasure?” I asked.
“Planning, I guess. I don’t know. Doing stuff never feels as good as you hope it will feel.”
“This feels pretty good to me,” I confessed. “Even if there isn’t anything to see.” I sat down on a
park bench, and she joined me. We were both looking out at the seal tank, but it contained no seals, just
an unoccupied island with rocky outcroppings made of plastic. I could smell her next to me, the sweat
and the algae from the moat, her shampoo like lilacs, and the smell of her skin like crushed almonds.
I felt tired for the first time, and I thought of us lying down on some grassy patch of SeaWorld together,
me on my back and she on her side with her arm draped against me, her head on my shoulder,
facing me. Not doing anything—just lying there together beneath the sky, the night here so well lit that
it drowns out the stars. And maybe I could feel her breathe against my neck, and maybe we could just
stay there until morning and then the people would walk past as they came into the park, and they would
see us and think that we were tourists, too, and we could just disappear into them.
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.


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