Ben and Radar dropped me off at my house — even though they’d skipped school, they couldn’t afford to skip band practice. I sat alone with “Song of Myself” for a long time, and for about the tenth time I tried to read the entire poem starting at the beginning, but the problem was that it’s like eighty pages long and weird and repetitive, and although I could understand each word of it, I couldn’t understand anything about it as a whole. Even though I knew the highlighted parts were probably the only important parts, I wanted to know whether it was a suicide-note kind of poem. But I couldn’t make sense of it.
I was ten confusing pages into the poem when I got so freaked out that I decided to call the detective. I dug his business card out of a pair of shorts in the laundry hamper. He answered on the second ring.
“Hi, um, it’s Quentin Jacobsen. I’m a friend of Margo Roth Spiegelman?”
“Sure, kid, I remember you. What’s up?”
I told him about the clues and the minimall and about paper towns, about how she had called Orlando a paper town from the top of the SunTrust Building, but she hadn’t used it in the plural, about her telling me that she wouldn’t want to be found, about finding her underneath our bootsoles. He didn’t even tell me not to break into abandoned buildings, or ask why I was at an abandoned building at 10 A.M. on a school day. He just waited until I stopped talking and said, “Jesus, kid, you’re almost a detective. All you need now is a gun, a gut, and three ex-wives. So what’s your theory?”
“I’m worried that she might have, um, I guess killed herself.”
“It never crossed my mind this girl did anything but run off, kid. I can see your case, but you gotta remember she’s done this before. The clues, I mean. Adds drama to the whole enterprise. Honestly, kid, if she wanted you to find her — dead or alive — you already would have.”
“But don’t you—”
“Kid, the unfortunate thing is that she’s a legal adult with free will, you know? Let me give you some advice: let her come home. I mean, at some point, you gotta stop looking up at the sky, or one of these days you’ll look back down and see that you floated away, too.”
I hung up with a bad taste in my mouth — I realized it wasn’t Warren’s poetry that would take me to Margo. I kept thinking about those lines at the end Margo had underlined: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” That grass, Whitman writes in the first few pages, is “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” But where were the graves? Where were the paper towns?
I logged onto Omnictionary to see if it knew anything more about the phrase “paper towns” than I did. They had an extremely thoughtful and helpful entry created by a user named skunkbutt: “A Paper Town is a town that’s got a paper mill in it.” This was the shortcoming of Omnictionary: the stuff written by Radar was thorough and extremely helpful; the unedited work of skunk-butt left something to be desired. But when I searched the whole Web, I found something interesting buried forty entries down on a forum about real estate in Kansas.
Looks like Madison Estates isn’t going to get built; my husband and I bought property there, but someone called this week to say they’re refunding us our deposit because they didn’t presell enough houses to finance the project. Another paper town for KS! — Marge in Cawker, KS
A pseudovision! You will go to the pseudovisions and you will never come back. I took a deep breath and stared at the screen for a while.
The conclusion seemed inescapable. Even with everything broken and decided inside her, she couldn’t quite allow herself to disappear for good. And she had decided to leave her body — to leave it for me — in a shadow version of our subdivision, where her first strings had broken. She had said she didn’t want her body found by random kids — and it made sense that out of everyone she knew, she would pick me to find her. She wouldn’t be hurting me in a new way. I’d done it before. I had experience in the field.
I saw that Radar was online and was clicking over to talk to him when an IM from him popped up on my screen.
QTHERESURRECTION: Paper towns = pseudovisions.
I think she wants me to find her body. Because she thinks I can handle it. Because we found that dead guy when we were kids.
I sent him the link.
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Slow down. Let me look at the link.
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Okay, don’t be so morbid. You don’t know anything for sure. I think she’s probably fine.
QTHERESURRECTION: No you don’t.
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Okay, I don’t. But if anybody’s alive in the face of this evidence. .
QTHERESURRECTION: Yeah, I guess. I’m gonna go lie down. My parents get home soon.
But I couldn’t calm down, so I called Ben from bed and told him my theory.
“Pretty morbid shit, bro. But she’s fine. It’s all part of some game she’s playing.”
“You’re being kind of cavalier about it.”
He sighed. “Whatever, it’s a little lame of her to, like, hijack the last three weeks of high school, you know? She’s got you all worried, and she’s got Lacey all worried, and prom is in like three days, you know? Can’t we just have a fun prom?”
“Are you serious? She could be dead , Ben.”
“She’s not dead. She’s a drama queen. Wants attention. I mean, I know her parents are assholes, but they know her better than we do, don’t they? And they think so, too.”
“You can be such a tool,” I said.
“Whatever, bro. We both had a long day. Too much drama. I’ll TTYS.” I wanted to ridicule him for using chatspeak IRL, but I found myself lacking the energy.
After I hung up with Ben, I went back online, looking for a list of pseudovisions in Florida. I couldn’t find a list anywhere, but after searching “abandoned subdivisions” and “Grovepoint Acres” and the like for a while, I managed to compile a list of five places within three hours of Jefferson Park. I printed out a map of Central Florida, tacked the map to the wall above my computer, and then added a tack for each of the five locations. Looking at the map, I could detect no pattern among them. They were randomly distributed among the far-flung suburbs, and it would take me at least a week to get to all of them. Why hadn’t she left me a specific place? All these scary-as-hell clues. All this intimation of tragedy. But no place . Nothing to hold on to. Like trying to climb a mountain of gravel.
Ben gave me permission to borrow RHAPAW the next day, since he was going to be driving around, prom shopping with Lacey in her SUV. So for once I didn’t have to sit outside the band room — the seventh-period bell rang and I raced out to his car. I lacked Ben’s talent for getting RHAPAW to start, so I was one of the first people to arrive at the senior parking lot and one of the last to leave, but finally the engine caught, and I was off to Grovepoint Acres.
I drove out of town on Colonial, driving slowly, watching for any other pseudovisions I might have missed online. A long line of cars trailed behind me, and I felt anxious about holding them up; I marveled at how I could still have room to worry about such petty, ridiculous crap as whether the guy in the SUV behind me thought I was an excessively cautious driver. I wanted Margo’s disappearance to change me; but it hadn’t, not really.
As the line of cars snaked behind me like some kind of unwilling funeral procession, I found myself talking out loud to her. I will play out the string. I will not betray your trust. I will find you.
Talking like this to her kept me calm, strangely. It kept me from imagining the possibilities. I came again to the sagging wooden sign for Grovepoint Acres. I could almost hear the sighs of relief from the bottleneck behind me as I turned left onto the dead-end asphalt road. It looked like a driveway without a house. I left RHAPAW running and got out. From close up, I could see that Grovepoint Acres was more finished than it initially appeared. Two dirt roads ending in cul-de-sacs had been cut into the dusty ground, although the roads had eroded so much I could barely see their outlines. As I walked up and down both streets, I could feel the heat in my nose with each breath. The scalding sun made it hard to move, but I knew the beautiful, if morbid, truth: heat made death reek, and Grovepoint Acres smelled like nothing except cooked air and car exhaust — our cumulative exhalations held close to the surface by the humidity.
I looked for evidence she had been there: footprints or something written in the dirt or some memento. But I seemed to be the first person to walk on these unnamed dirt streets in years. The ground was flat, and not much brush had grown back yet, so I could see for a ways in every direction. No tents. No campfires. No Margo.
I got back in RHAPAW and drove to I-4 and then went northeast of town, up to a place called Holly Meadows. I drove past Holly Meadows three times before I finally found it — everything in the area was oak trees and ranch land, and Holly Meadows — lacking a sign at its entrance — didn’t stand out much. But once I drove a few feet down a dirt road through the initial roadside stand of oak and pine trees, it was every bit as desolate as Grovepoint Acres. The main dirt road just slowly evaporated into a field of dirt. There were no other roads that I could make out, but as I walked around, I did find a few spray-painted wooden stakes lying on the ground; I guessed that they had once been lot line markers. I couldn’t smell or see anything suspicious, but even so I felt a fear standing on my chest, and at first I couldn’t understand why, but then I saw it: when they’d clear-cut the area to build, they’d left a solitary live oak tree near the back of the field. And the gnarled tree with its thick-barked branches looked so much like the one where we’d found Robert Joyner in Jefferson Park that I felt sure she was there, on the other side of the tree.
And for the first time, I had to picture it: Margo Roth Spiegelman, slumped against the tree, her eyes silent, the black blood pouring out of her mouth, everything bloated and distorted because I had taken so long to find her. She had trusted me to find her sooner. She had trusted me with her last night. And I had failed her. And even though the air tasted like nothing but it-might-rain-later, I was sure I’d found her.
But no. It was only a tree, alone in the empty silver dirt. I sat down against the tree and let my breath come back. I hated doing this alone. I hated it. If she thought Robert Joyner had prepared me for this, she was wrong. I didn’t know Robert Joyner. I didn’t love Robert Joyner.
I hit at the dirt with the heels of my fists, and then pounded it again and again, the sand scattering around my hands until I was hitting the bare roots of the tree, and I kept it up, the pain shooting up through my palms and wrists. I had not cried for Margo until then, but now finally I did, pounding against the ground and shouting because there was no one to hear: I missed her I missed her I missed her I miss her.
I stayed there even after my arms got tired and my eyes dried up, sitting there and thinking about her until the light got gray.