Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Paper Towns - Hour Twelve

It is 2:40 in the morning. Lacey is sleeping. Radar is sleeping. I drive. The road is deserted. Even most
of the truck drivers have gone to bed. We go minutes without seeing headlights coming in the opposite
direction. Ben keeps me awake, chattering next to me. We are talking about Margo.
“Have you given any thought to how we will actually, like, find Agloe?” he asks me.
“Uh, I have an approximate idea of the intersection,” I say.
“And it’s nothing but an intersection.”
“And she’s just gonna be sitting at the corner on the trunk of her car, chin in her hands, waiting for
“That would certainly be helpful,” I answered.
“Bro, I gotta say I’m a little worried that you might, like—if it doesn’t go as you’re planning it—you
might be really disappointed.”
“I just want to find her,” I say, because I do. I want her to be safe, alive, found. The string played
out. The rest is secondary.
“Yeah, but— I don’t know,” Ben says. I can feel him looking over at me, being Serious Ben. “Just—
Just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn’t the way they actually are. Like, I
always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it actually comes to being
with her . . . it’s not the exact same. People are different when you can smell them and see them up
close, you know?”
“I know that,” I say. I know how long, and how badly, I wrongly imagined her.
“I’m just saying that it was easy for me to like Lacey before. It’s easy to like someone from a distance.
But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being, like,
just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who’s kinda bossy—then
I had to basically start liking a whole different person.”
I can feel my cheeks warming. “You’re saying I don’t really like Margo? After all this—I’m twelve
hours inside this car already and you don’t think I care about her because I don’t— ” I cut myself off.
“You think that since you have a girlfriend you can stand atop the lofty mountain and lecture me? You
can be such a—”
I stop talking because I see in the outer reaches of the headlights the thing that will shortly kill me.
Two cows stand oblivious in the highway. They come into view all at once, a spotted cow in the
left lane, and in our lane an immense creature, the entire width of our car, standing stock-still, her head
turned back as she appraises us with blank eyes. The cow is flawlessly white, a great white wall of cow
that cannot be climbed or ducked or dodged. It can only be hit. I know that Ben sees it, too, because I
hear his breath stop.
They say that your life flashes before your eyes, but for me that is not the case. Nothing flashes before
my eyes except this impossibly vast expanse of snowy fur, now only a second from us. I don’t know
what to do. No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that there is nothing to do, except to hit this white
wall and kill it and us, both. I slam on the brakes, but out of habit not expectation: there is absolutely
no avoiding this. I raise my hands off the steering wheel. I do not know why I am doing this, but I raise
my hands up, as if I am surrendering. I’m thinking the most banal thing in the world: I am thinking that
I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my friends to die. And to be honest, as the
time slows down and my hands are in the air, I am afforded the chance to think one more thought, and
I think about her. I blame her for this ridiculous, fatal chase—for putting us at risk, for making me into
the kind of jackass who would stay up all night and drive too fast. I would not be dying were it not for
her. I would have stayed home, as I have always stayed home, and I would have been safe, and I would
have done the one thing I have always wanted to do, which is to grow up.
Having surrendered control of the vessel, I am surprised to see a hand on the steering wheel. We
are turning before I realize why we are turning, and then I realize that Ben is pulling the wheel toward
him, turning us in a hopeless attempt to miss the cow, and then we are on the shoulder and then on the
grass. I can hear the tires spinning as Ben turns the wheel hard and fast in the opposite direction. I stop
watching. I don’t know if my eyes close or if they just cease to see. My stomach and my lungs meet in
the middle and crush each other. Something sharp hits my cheek. We stop.
I don’t know why, but I touch my face. I pull my hand back and there is a streak of blood. I touch
my arms with my hands, hugging my arms to myself, but I am only checking to make sure that they
are there, and they are. I look at my legs. They are there. There is some glass. I look around. Bottles
are broken. Ben is looking at me. Ben is touching his face. He looks okay. He holds himself as I held
myself. His body still works. He is just looking at me. In the rearview mirror, I can see the cow. And
now, belatedly, Ben screams. He is staring at me and screaming, his mouth all the way open, the scream
low and guttural and terrified. He stops screaming. Something is wrong with me. I feel faint. My chest
is burning. And then I gulp air. I had forgotten to breathe. I had been holding my breath the whole time.
I feel much better when I start up again. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
“Who is hurt?!” Lacey shouts. She’s unbuckled herself from her sleeping position and she’s leaning
into the wayback. When I turn around, I can see that the back door has popped open, and for a moment I
think that Radar has been thrown from the car, but then he sits up. He is running his hands over his face,
and he says, “I’m okay. I’m okay. Is everyone okay?”
Lacey doesn’t even respond; she just jumps forward, between Ben and me. She is leaning over the
apartment’s kitchen, and she looks at Ben. She says, “Sweetie, where are you hurt?” Her eyes are overfull
of water like a swimming pool on a rainy day. And Ben says, “I’mfineI’mfineQisbleeding.”
She turns to me, and I shouldn’t cry but I do, not because it hurts, but because I am scared, and I
raised my hands, and Ben saved us, and now there is this girl looking at me, and she looks at me kind
of the way a mom does, and that shouldn’t crack me open, but it does. I know the cut on my cheek
isn’t bad, and I’m trying to say so, but I keep crying. Lacey is pressing against the cut with her fingers,
thin and soft, and shouting at Ben for something to use as a bandage, and then I’ve got a small swath
of the Confederate flag pressed against my cheek just to the right of my nose. She says, “Just hold it
there tight; you’re fine does anything else hurt?” and I say no. That’s when I realize that the car is still
running, and still in gear, stopped only because I’m still standing on the brakes. I put it into park and
turn it off. When I turn it off, I can hear liquid leaking—not dripping so much as pouring.
“We should probably get out,” Radar says. I hold the Confederate flag to my face. The sound of liquid
pouring out of the car continues.
“It’s gas! It’s gonna blow!” Ben shouts. He throws open the passenger door and takes off, running in
a panic. He hurdles a split-rail fence and tears across a hay field. I get out as well, but not in quite the
same hurry. Radar is outside, too, and as Ben hauls ass, Radar is laughing. “It’s the beer,” he says.
“The beers all broke,” he says again, and nods toward the split-open cooler, gallons of foamy liquid
pouring out from inside it.
We try to call Ben but he can’t hear us because he’s too busy screaming, “IT’S GONNA BLOW!”
as he races across the field. His graduation robe flies up in the gray dawn, his bony bare ass exposed.
I turn and look out at the highway as I hear a car coming. The white beast and her spotted friend
have successfully ambled to the safety of the opposite shoulder, still impassive. Turning back, I realize
the minivan is against the fence.
I’m assessing damage when Ben finally schleps back to the car. As we spun, we must have grazed
the fence, because there is a deep gouge on the sliding door, deep enough that if you look closely, you
can just see inside the van. But other than that, it looks immaculate. No other dents. No windows broken.
No flat tires. I walk around to close the back door and appraise the 210 broken bottles of beer, still bubbling.
Lacey finds me and puts an arm around me. We are both staring at the rivulet of foaming beer
flowing into the drainage ditch beneath us. “What happened?” she asks.
I tell her: we were dead, and then Ben managed to spin the car in just the right way, like some kind
of brilliant vehicular ballerina.
Ben and Radar have crawled underneath the minivan. Neither of them knows shit about cars, but I
suppose it makes them feel better. The hem of Ben’s robe and his naked calves peek out.
“Dude,” Radar shouts. “It looks, like, fine.”
“Radar,” I say, “the car spun around like eight times. Surely it’s not fine.”
“Well it seems fine,” Radar says.
“Hey,” I say, grabbing at Ben’s New Balances. “Hey, come out here.” He scoots his way out, and I
offer him my hand and help him up. His hands are black with car gunk. I grab him and hug him. If I had
not ceded control of the wheel, and if he had not assumed control of the vessel so deftly, I’m sure I’d be
dead. “Thank you,” I say, pounding his back probably too hard. “That was the best damned passengerseat
driving I’ve ever seen in my life.”
He pats my uninjured cheek with a greasy hand. “I did it to save myself, not you,” he says. “Believe
me when I say that you did not once cross my mind.”
I laugh. “Nor you mine,” I say.
Ben looks at me, his mouth on the edge of smiling, and then says, “I mean, that was a big damned
cow. It wasn’t even a cow so much as it was a land whale.” I laugh.
Radar scoots out then. “Dude, I really think it’s fine. I mean, we’ve only lost like five minutes. We
don’t even have to push up the cruising speed.”
Lacey is looking at the gouge in the minivan, her lips pursed. “What do you think?” I ask her.
“Go,” she says.
“Go,” Radar votes.
Ben puffs out his cheeks and exhales. “Mostly because I’m prone to peer pressure: go.”
“Go,” I say. “But I’m sure as hell not driving anymore.”
Ben takes the keys from me. We get into the minivan. Radar guides us up a slow-sloping embankment
and back onto the interstate. We’re 542 miles from Agloe.


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