The next morning at school, I found Ben standing beside the band door talking to Lacey, Radar, and Angela in the shade of a tree with low-hanging branches. It was hard for me to listen as they talked about prom, and about how Lacey was feuding with Becca or whatever. I was waiting for a chance to tell them what I’d seen, but then when I had the chance, when I finally said, “I took a pretty long look at the two pseudovisions but didn’t find much,” I realized that there was nothing new to say, really.
No one even seemed that concerned, except Lacey. She shook her head as I talked about the pseudovisions, and then said, “I was reading online last night that people who are suicidal end relationships with people they’re angry with. And they give away their stuff. Margo gave me like five pairs of jeans last week because she said I could wear them better, which isn’t even true because she’s so much more, like, curvy.” I liked Lacey, but I saw Margo’s point about the undermining.
Something about telling us that story made her start to cry, and Ben put an arm around her, and she tucked her head into his shoulder, which was hard to do, because in her heels she was actually taller than him.
“Lacey, we just have to find a location. I mean, talk to your friends. Did she ever mention paper towns? Did she ever talk about a specific place? Was there some subdivision somewhere that meant something to her?” She shrugged into Ben’s shoulder.
“Bro, don’t push her,” Ben said. I sighed, but shut up.
“I’m on the online stuff,” Radar said, “but her username hasn’t logged on to Omnictionary since she left.”
And then all at once they were back on the topic of prom. Lacey emerged from Ben’s shoulder still looking sad and distracted, but she tried to smile as Radar and Ben swapped tales of corsage purchasing.
The day passed as it always did — in slow motion, with a thousand plaintive glances at the clock. But now it was even more unbearable, because every minute I wasted in school was another minute in which I failed to find her.
My only vaguely interesting class that day was English, when Dr. Holden completely ruined Moby Dick for me by incorrectly assuming we’d all read it and talking about Captain Ahab and his obsession with finding and killing this white whale. But it was fun to watch her get more and more excited as she talked. “Ahab’s a madman railing against fate. You never see Ahab wanting anything else in this whole novel, do you? He has a singular obsession. And because he is the captain of his ship, no one can stop him. You can argue — indeed, you may argue, if you choose to write about him for your final reaction papers — that Ahab is a fool for being obsessed. But you could also argue that there is something tragically heroic about fighting this battle he is doomed to lose. Is Ahab’s hope a kind of insanity, or is it the very definition of humanness?” I wrote down as much as I could of what she said, realizing that I could probably pull off my final reaction paper without actually reading the book. As she talked, it occurred to me that Dr. Holden was unusually good at reading stuff. And she’d said she liked Whitman. So when the bell rang, I took Leaves of Grass from my bag and then zipped it back up slowly while everyone raced off either to home or to extracurriculars. I waited behind someone asking for an extension on an already late paper, and then he left.
“It’s my favorite Whitman reader,” she said.
I forced a smile. “Do you know Margo Roth Spiegelman?” I asked.
She sat down behind her desk and motioned for me to sit. “I never had her in class,” Dr. Holden said, “but I’ve certainly heard of her. I know that she ran away.”
“She sort of left me this book of poems before she, uh, disappeared.” I handed the book over, and Dr. Holden began paging through it slowly. As she did, I told her, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the highlighted parts. If you go to the end of ‘Song of Myself,’ she highlights this stuff about dying. Like, ‘If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.’”
“She left this for you,” Dr. Holden said quietly.
“Yeah,” I said.
She flipped back and tapped at the green highlighted quote with her fingernail. “What is this about the doorjambs? That’s a great moment in the poem, where Whitman — I mean, you can feel him shouting at you: ‘Open the doors! In fact, remove the doors!’”
“She actually left me something else inside my doorjamb.”
Dr. Holden laughed. “Wow. Clever. But it’s such a great poem — I hate to see it reduced to such a literal reading. And she seems to have responded very darkly to what is finally a very optimistic poem. The poem is about our connectedness — each of us sharing the same root system like leaves of grass.”
“But, I mean, from what she highlighted, it seems kinda like a suicide note,” I said. Dr. Holden read the last stanzas again and then looked up at me.
“What a mistake it is to distill this poem into something hopeless. I hope that’s not the case, Quentin. If you read the whole poem, I don’t see how you can come to any conclusion except that life is sacred and valuable. But — who knows. Maybe she skimmed it for what she was looking for. We often read poems that way. But if so, she completely misunderstood what Whitman was asking of her.”
“And what’s that?”
She closed the book and looked right at me in a way that made it impossible for me to hold her gaze. “What do you think of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring at a stack of graded papers on her desk. “I’ve tried to read it straight through a bunch of times, but I haven’t gotten very far. Mostly I just read the parts she highlighted. I’m reading it to try to understand Margo, not to try to understand Whitman.”
She picked up a pencil and wrote something on the back of an envelope. “Hold on. I’m writing that down.”
“What you just said,” she explained.
“Because I think that is precisely what Whitman would have wanted. For you to see ‘Song of Myself’ not just as a poem but as a way into understanding another. But I wonder if maybe you have to read it as a poem, instead of just reading these fragments for quotes and clues. I do think there are some interesting connections between the poet in ‘Song of Myself’ and Margo Spiegelman — all that wild charisma and wanderlust. But a poem can’t do its work if you only read snippets of it.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said. I took the book and stood up. I didn’t feel much better.
I got a ride home with Ben that afternoon and stayed at his house until he left to go pick up Radar for some pre-prom party being thrown by our friend Jake, whose parents were out of town. Ben asked me to go, but I didn’t feel like it.
I walked back to my house, across the park where Margo and I had found the dead guy. I remembered that morning, and I felt something twist at my gut in the remembering of it — not because of the dead guy, but because I remembered that she had found him first. Even in my own neighborhood’s playground, I’d been unable to find a body on my own — how the hell would I do it now?
I tried to read “Song of Myself” again when I got home that night, but despite Dr. Holden’s advice, it still turned into a jumble of nonsensical words.
I woke up early the next morning, just after eight, and went to the computer. Ben was online, so I IM’ed him.
QTHERESURRECTION: How was the party?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Lame, of course. Every party I go to is lame.
QTHERESURRECTION: Sorry I missed it. You’re up early. Want to come over, play Resurrection?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Are you kidding?
QTHERESURRECTION: uh. . no?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Do you know what day it is?
QTHERESURRECTION: Saturday May 15?
ITWASAKIDNEYINFECTION: Bro, prom starts in eleven hours and fourteen minutes. I have to pick Lacey up in less than nine hours. I haven’t even washed and waxed RHAPAW yet, which by the way you did a nice job of dirtying up. Then after that I have to shower and shave and trim nasal hairs and wash and wax myself. God, don’t even get me started. I have a lot to do. Listen, I’ll call you later if I have a chance.
Radar was on, too, so I IM’ed him.
QTHERESURRECTION: What is Ben’s problem?
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Whoa there, cowboy.
QTHERESURRECTION: Sorry, I’m just pissed that he thinks prom is oh-so important.
OMNICTIONARIAN96: You’re going to be pretty pissed when you hear that the only reason I’m up this early is that I really need to go because I have to pick up my tux, aren’t you?
QTHERESURRECTION: Jesus Christ. Seriously?
OMNICTIONARIAN96: Q, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and all the days for the rest of my life, I am happy to participate in your investigation. But I have a girlfriend. She wants to have a nice prom. I want to have a nice prom. It’s not my fault that Margo Roth Spiegelman didn’t want us to have a nice prom.
I didn’t know what to say. He was right, maybe. Maybe she deserved to be forgotten. But at any rate, I couldn’t forget her.
My mom and dad were still in bed, watching an old movie on TV. “Can I take the minivan?” I asked.
“Decided to go to prom,” I answered hurriedly. The lie occurred to me as I told it. “Gotta pick out a tux and then get over to Ben’s. We’re both going stag.” My mom sat up, smiling.
“Well, I think that’s great, hon. It’ll be great for you. Will you come back so we can take pictures?”
“Mom, do you really need pictures of me going to prom stag? I mean, hasn’t my life been humiliating enough?”
“Call before curfew,” my dad said, which was midnight.
“Sure thing,” I said. It was so easy to lie to them that I found myself wondering why I’d never much done it before that night with Margo.
I took I-4 west toward Kissimmee and the theme parks, and then passed I-Drive where Margo and I had broken into SeaWorld, and then took Highway 27 down toward Haines City. There are a lot of lakes down there, and wherever there are lakes in Florida, there are rich people to congregate around them, so it seemed an unlikely place for a pseudovision. But the Website I’d found had been very specific about there being this huge parcel of oft-foreclosed land that no one had ever managed to develop. I recognized the place immediately, because every other subdivision on the access road was walled in, whereas Quail Hollow was just a plastic sign hammered into the ground. As I turned in, little plastic posters read FOR SALE, PRIME LOCATION, and GREAT DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIE$!
Unlike the previous pseudovisions, someone was keeping up Quail Hollow. No houses had been built, but the lots were marked with surveying stakes, and the grass was freshly mown. All the streets were paved and named with road signs. In the subdivision’s center, a perfectly circular lake had been dug and then, for some reason, drained. As I drove up in the minivan, I could see it was about ten feet deep and several hundred feet in diameter. A hose snaked across the bottom of the crater to the middle, where a steel-and-aluminum fountain rose from the bottom to eye level. I found myself feeling thankful the lake was empty, so I wouldn’t have to stare into the water and wonder if she was in the bottom somewhere, expecting me to put on scuba gear to find her.
I felt certain Margo could not be in Quail Hollow. It abutted too many subdivisions for it to be a good place to hide, whether you were a person or a body. But I looked anyway, and as I idled down the streets in the minivan, I felt so hopeless. I wanted to be happy that it wasn’t here. But if it wasn’t Quail Hollow, it would be the next place, or the one after that, or the one after that. Or maybe I’d never find her. Was that the better fate?
I finished my rounds, finding nothing, and headed back toward the highway. I got lunch at a drive-thru and then ate as I drove out west toward the minimall.