Every morning, I now looked up through my bedroom window to check whether there was any sign of life in Margo’s room. She always kept her rattan shades closed, but since she’d left, her mom or somebody had pulled them up, so I could see a little snippet of blue wall and white ceiling. On that Saturday morning, with her only forty-eight hours gone, I figured she wouldn’t be home yet, but even so, I felt a flicker of disappointment when I saw the shade still pulled up.
I brushed my teeth and then, after briefly kicking at Ben in an attempt to wake him, walked out in shorts and a T-shirt. Five people were seated at the dining room table. My mom and dad. Margo’s mom and dad. And a tall, stout African-American man with oversize glasses wearing a gray suit, holding a manila folder.
“Uh, hi,” I said.
“Quentin,” my mom asked, “did you see Margo on Wednesday night?”
I walked into the dining room and leaned against the wall, standing opposite the stranger. I’d thought of my answer to this question already. “Yeah,” I said. “She showed up at my window at like midnight and we talked for a minute and then Mr. Spiegelman caught her and she went back to her house.”
“And was that—? Did you see her after that?” Mr. Spiegelman asked. He seemed quite calm.
“No, why?” I asked.
Margo’s mom answered, her voice shrill. “Well,” she said, “it seems that Margo has run away. Again.” She sighed. “This would be — what is it, Josh, the fourth time?”
“Oh, I’ve lost count,” her dad answered, annoyed.
The African-American man spoke up then. “Fifth time you’ve filed a report.” The man nodded at me and said, “Detective Otis Warren.”
“Quentin Jacobsen,” I said.
Mom stood up and put her hands on Mrs. Spiegelman’s shoulders. “Debbie,” she said, “I’m so sorry. It’s a very frustrating situation.” I knew this trick. It was a psychology trick called empathic listening. You say what the person is feeling so they feel understood. Mom does it to me all the time.
“I’m not frustrated,” Mrs. Spiegelman answered. “I’m done.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Spiegelman said. “We’ve got a locksmith coming this afternoon. We’re changing the locks. She’s eighteen. I mean, the detective has just said there’s nothing we can do—”
“Well,” Detective Warren interrupted, “I didn’t quite say that. I said that she’s not a missing minor , and so she has the right to leave home.”
Mr. Spiegelman continued talking to my mom. “We’re happy to pay for her to go to college, but we can’t support this. . this silliness. Connie, she’s eighteen! And still so self-centered! She needs to see some consequences.”
My mom removed her hands from Mrs. Spiegelman. “I would argue she needs to see loving consequences,” my mom said.
“Well, she’s not your daughter, Connie. She hasn’t walked all over you like a doormat for a decade. We’ve got another child to think about.”
“And ourselves,” Mr. Spiegelman added. He looked up at me then. “Quentin, I’m sorry if she tried to drag you into her little game. You can imagine how. . just how embarrassing this is for us. You’re such a good boy, and she. . well.”
I pushed myself off the wall and stood up straight. I knew Margo’s parents a little, but I’d never seen them act so bitchy. No wonder she was annoyed with them Wednesday night. I glanced over at the detective. He was flipping through pages in the folder. “She’s been known to leave a bit of a bread crumb trail; is that right?”
“Clues,” Mr. Spiegelman said, standing up now. The detective had placed the folder on the table, and Margo’s dad leaned forward to look at it with him. “Clues everywhere. The day she ran away to Mississippi, she ate alphabet soup and left exactly four letters in her soup bowl: An M , an I , an S , and a P . She was disappointed when we didn’t piece it together, although as I told her when she finally returned: ‘How can we find you when all we know is Mississippi ? It’s a big state, Margo!’”
The detective cleared his throat. “And she left Minnie Mouse on her bed when she spent a night inside Disney World.”
“Yes,” her mom said. “The clues. The stupid clues. But you can never follow them anywhere, trust me.”
The detective looked up from his notebook. “We’ll get the word out, of course, but she can’t be compelled to come home; you shouldn’t necessarily expect her back under your roof in the near future.”
“I don’t want her under our roof.” Mrs. Spiegelman raised a tissue to her eyes, although I heard no crying in her voice. “I know that’s terrible, but it’s true.”
“Deb,” my mom said in her therapist voice.
Mrs. Spiegelman just shook her head — the smallest shake. “What can we do? We told the detective. We filed a report. She’s an adult, Connie.”
“She’s your adult,” my mom said, still calm.
“Oh, come on, Connie. Look, is it sick that it’s a blessing to have her out of the house? Of course it’s sick. But she was a sickness in this family! How do you look for someone who announces she won’t be found, who always leaves clues that lead nowhere, who runs away constantly? You can’t!”
My mom and dad shared a glance, and then the detective spoke to me. “Son, I’m wondering if we can chat privately?” I nodded. We ended up in my parents’ bedroom, he in an easy chair and me sitting on the corner of their bed.
“Kid,” he said once he’d settled into the chair, “let me give you some advice: never work for the government. Because when you work for the government, you work for the people. And when you work for the people, you have to interact with the people, even the Spiegelmans.” I laughed a little.
“Let me be frank with you, kid. Those people know how to parent like I know how to diet. I’ve worked with them before, and I don’t like them. I don’t care if you tell her parents where she is, but I’d appreciate it if you told me.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I really don’t.”
“Kid, I’ve been thinking about this girl. This stuff she does— she breaks into Disney World, for instance, right? She goes to Mississippi and leaves alphabet soup clues. She organizes a huge campaign to toilet paper houses.”
“How do you know about that ?” Two years before, Margo had led the TP-ing of two hundred houses in a single night. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited on that adventure.
“I worked this case before. So, kid, here’s where I need your help: who plans this stuff? These crazy schemes? She’s the mouthpiece for it all, the one crazy enough to do everything. But who plans it? Who’s sitting around with notebooks full of diagrams figuring out how much toilet paper you need to toilet paper a ton of houses?”
“It’s all her, I assume.”
“But she might have a partner, somebody helpin’ her do all these big and brilliant things, and maybe the person who’s in on her secret isn’t the obvious person, isn’t her best friend or her boyfriend. Maybe it’s somebody you wouldn’t think of right off,” he said. He took a breath and was about to say something more when I cut him off.
“I don’t know where she is,” I said. “I swear to God.”
“Just checking, kid. Anyway, you know something, don’t you? So let’s start there.” I told him everything. I trusted the guy. He took a few notes while I talked, but nothing very detailed. And something about telling him, and his scribbling in the notebook, and her parents being so lame — something about all of it made the possibility of her being lastingly missing well up in me for the first time. I felt the worry start to snatch at my breath when I finished talking. The detective didn’t say anything for a while. He just leaned forward in the chair and stared past me until he’d seen whatever he was waiting to see, and then he started talking.
“Listen, kid. This is what happens: somebody — girl usually— got a free spirit, doesn’t get on too good with her parents. These kids, they’re like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and strain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. And maybe you never see the balloon again. It lands in Canada or somethin’, gets work at a restaurant, and before the balloon even notices, it’s been pouring coffee in that same diner to the same sad bastards for thirty years. Or maybe three or four years from now, or three or four days from now, the prevailing winds take the balloon back home, because it needs money, or it sobered up, or it misses its kid brother. But listen, kid, that string gets cut all the time.”
“I’m not finished, kid. The thing about these balloons is that there are so goddamned many of them. The sky is choked full of them, rubbing up against one another as they float to here or from there, and every one of those damned balloons ends up on my desk one way or another, and after a while a man can get discouraged. Everywhere the balloons, and each of them with a mother or a father, or God forbid both, and after a while, you can’t even see ’em individually. You look up at all the balloons in the sky and you can see all of the balloons, but you cannot see any one balloon.” He paused then, and inhaled sharply, as if he was realizing something. “But then every now and again you talk to some big-eyed kid with too much hair for his head and you want to lie to him because he seems like a good kid. And you feel bad for this kid, because the only thing worse than the skyful of balloons you see is what he sees: a clear blue day interrupted by just the one balloon. But once that string gets cut, kid, you can’t uncut it. Do you get what I’m saying?”
I nodded, although I wasn’t sure I did understand. He stood up. “I do think she’ll be back soon, kid. If that helps.”
I liked the image of Margo as a balloon, but I figured that in his urge for the poetic, the detective had seen more worry in me than the pang I’d actually felt. I knew she’d be back. She’d deflate and float back to Jefferson Park. She always had.
I followed the detective back to the dining room, and then he said he wanted to go back over to the Spiegelmans’ house and pick through her room a little. Mrs. Spiegelman gave me a hug and said, “You’ve always been such a good boy; I’m sorry she ever got you caught up in this ridiculousness.” Mr. Spiegelman shook my hand, and they left. As soon as the door closed, my dad said, “Wow.”
“Wow,” agreed Mom.
My dad put his arm around me. “Those are some very troubling dynamics, eh, bud?”
“They’re kind of assholes,” I said. My parents always liked it when I cursed in front of them. I could see the pleasure of it in their faces. It signified that I trusted them, that I was myself in front of them. But even so, they seemed sad.
“Margo’s parents suffer a severe narcissistic injury whenever she acts out,” Dad said to me.
“It prevents them from parenting effectively,” my mom added.
“They’re assholes,” I repeated.
“Honestly,” my dad said, “they’re probably right. She probably is in need of attention. And God knows, I would need attention, too, if I had those two for parents.”
“When she comes back,” my mom said, “she’s going to be devastated. To be abandoned like that! Shut out when you most need to be loved.”
“Maybe she could live here when she comes back,” I said, and in saying it I realized what a fantastically great idea it was. My mom’s eyes lit up, too, but then she saw something in my dad’s expression and answered me in her usual measured way.
“Well, she’d certainly be welcome, although that would come with its own challenges — being next door to the Spiegelmans. But when she returns to school, please do tell her that she’s welcome here, and that if she doesn’t want to stay with us, there are many resources available to her that we’re happy to discuss.”
Ben came out then, his bedhead seeming to challenge our basic understanding of the force gravity exerts upon matter. “Mr. and Mrs. Jacobsen — always a pleasure.”
“Good morning, Ben. I wasn’t aware you were staying the night.”
“Neither was I, actually,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
I told Ben about the detective and the Spiegelmans and Margo being technically a missing adult. And when I had finished, he nodded and said, “We should probably discuss this over a piping hot plate of Resurrection.” I smiled and followed him back to my room. Radar came over shortly thereafter, and as soon as he arrived, I was kicked off the team, because we were facing a difficult mission and despite being the only one of us who actually owned the game, I wasn’t very good at Resurrection. As I watched them tramp through a ghoul-infested space station, Ben said, “Goblin, Radar, goblin.”
“I see him.”
“Come here, you little bastard,” Ben said, the controller twisting in his hand. “Daddy’s gonna put you on a sailboat across the River Styx.”
“Did you just use Greek mythology to talk trash?” I asked.
Radar laughed. Ben started pummeling buttons, shouting, “Eat it, goblin! Eat it like Zeus ate Metis!”
“I would think that she’d be back by Monday,” I said. “You don’t want to miss too much school, even if you’re Margo Roth Spiegelman. Maybe she can stay here till graduation.”
Radar answered me in the disjointed way of someone playing Resurrection. “I don’t even get why she left, was it just imp six o’clock no dude use the ray gun like because of lost love? I would have figured her to be where is the crypt is it to the left immune to that kind of stuff.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t that, I don’t think. Not just that, anyway. She kind of hates Orlando; she called it a paper town. Like, you know, everything so fake and flimsy. I think she just wanted a vacation from that.”
I happened to glance out my window, and I saw immediately that someone — the detective, I guessed — had lowered the shade in Margo’s room. But I wasn’t seeing the shade. Instead, I was seeing a black-and-white poster, taped to the back of the shade. In the photograph, a man stands, his shoulders slightly slumped, staring ahead. A cigarette dangles out of his mouth. A guitar is slung over his shoulder, and the guitar is painted with the words THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.
“There’s something in Margo’s window.” The game music stopped, and Radar and Ben knelt down on either side of me. “That’s new?” asked Radar.
“I’ve seen the back of that shade a million times,” I answered, “but I’ve never seen that poster before.”
“Weird,” Ben said.
“Margo’s parents just said this morning that she sometimes leaves clues,” I said. “But never anything, like, concrete enough to find her before she comes home.”
Radar already had his handheld out; he was searching Omnictionary for the phrase. “The picture’s of Woody Guthrie,” he said. “A folksinger, 1912 to 1967. Sang about the working class. ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ Bit of a Communist. Um, inspired Bob Dylan.” Radar played a snippet of one of his songs — a high-pitched scratchy voice sang about unions.
“I’ll email the guy who wrote most of this page and see if there are any obvious connections between Woody Guthrie and Margo,” Radar said.
“I can’t imagine she likes his songs,” I said.
“Seriously,” Ben said. “This guy sounds like an alcoholic Kermit the Frog with throat cancer.”
Radar opened the window and stuck his head out, swiveling it around. “It sure seems she left this for you, though, Q. I mean, does she know anyone else who could see this window?” I shook my head no.
After a moment, Ben added, “The way he’s staring at us — it’s like, ‘pay attention to me.’ And his head like that, you know? It’s not like he’s standing on a stage; it’s like he’s standing in a doorway or something.”
“I think he wants us to come inside,” I said.