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PAPER TOWNS

To Julie Strauss-Gabel, without whom none of this could have become real

And after, when

we went outside to look at her finished lantern

from the road, I said I liked the way her light

shone through the face that flickered in the dark.

—“Jack O’Lantern,” Katrina Vandenberg in Atlas

People say friends don’t destroy one another

What do they know about friends?

—“Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” The Mountain Goats

MORNING

With a bag in each hand, I paused for a moment outside the van, staring at her. “Well, it was a helluva night,” I said finally.

“Come here,” she said, and I took a step forward. She hugged me, and the bags made it hard to hug her back, but if I dropped them I might wake someone. I could feel her on her tiptoes and then her mouth was right up against my ear and she said, very clearly, “I. Will. Miss. Hanging. Out. With. You.”

“You don’t have to,” I answered aloud. I tried to hide my disappointment. “If you don’t like them anymore,” I said, “just hang out with me. My friends are actually, like, nice.”

Her lips were so close to me that I could feel her smile. “I’m afraid it’s not possible,” she whispered. She let go then, but kept looking at me, taking step after step backward. She raised her eyebrows finally, and smiled, and I believed the smile. I watched her climb up a tree and then lift herself onto the roof outside of her second-floor bedroom window. She jimmied her window open and crawled inside.

I walked through my unlocked front door, tiptoed through the kitchen to my bedroom, peeled off my jeans, threw them into a corner of the closet back near the window screen, downloaded the picture of Jase, and got into bed, my mind booming with the things I would say to her at school.

PROLOGUE

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Our subdivision, Jefferson Park, used to be a navy base. But then the navy didn’t need it anymore, so it returned the land to the citizens of Orlando, Florida, who decided to build a massive subdivision, because that’s what Florida does with land. My parents and Margo’s parents ended up moving next door to one another just after the first houses were built. Margo and I were two.

Before Jefferson Park was a Pleasantville, and before it was a navy base, it belonged to an actual Jefferson, this guy Dr. Jefferson Jefferson. Dr. Jefferson Jefferson has a school named after him in Orlando and also a large charitable foundation, but the fascinating and unbelievable-but-true thing about Dr. Jefferson Jefferson is that he was not a doctor of any kind. He was just an orange juice salesman named Jefferson Jefferson. When he became rich and powerful, he went to court, made “Jefferson” his middle name, and then changed his first name to “Dr.” Capital D. Lowercase r. Period.

So Margo and I were nine. Our parents were friends, so we would sometimes play together, biking past the cul-de-sacced streets to Jefferson Park itself, the hub of our subdivision’s wheel.

I always got very nervous whenever I heard that Margo was about to show up, on account of how she was the most fantastically gorgeous creature that God had ever created. On the morning in question, she wore white shorts and a pink T-shirt that featured a green dragon breathing a fire of orange glitter. It is difficult to explain how awesome I found this T-shirt at the time.

Margo, as always, biked standing up, her arms locked as she leaned above the handlebars, her purple sneakers a circuitous blur. It was a steam-hot day in March. The sky was clear, but the air tasted acidic, like it might storm later.

At the time, I fancied myself an inventor, and after we locked up our bikes and began the short walk across the park to the playground, I told Margo about an idea I had for an invention called the Ringolator. The Ringolator was a gigantic cannon that would shoot big, colored rocks into a very low orbit, giving Earth the same sort of rings that Saturn has. (I still think this would be a fine idea, but it turns out that building a cannon that can shoot boulders into a low orbit is fairly complicated.)

I’d been in this park so many times before that it was mapped in my mind, so we were only a few steps inside when I began to sense that the world was out of order, even though I couldn’t immediately figure out what was different.

“Quentin,” Margo said quietly, calmly.

She was pointing. And then I realized what was different.

There was a live oak a few feet ahead of us. Thick and gnarled and ancient-looking. That was not new. The playground on our right. Not new, either. But now, a guy wearing a gray suit, slumped against the trunk of the oak tree. Not moving. This was new. He was encircled by blood; a half-dried fountain of it poured out of his mouth. The mouth open in a way that mouths generally shouldn’t be. Flies at rest on his pale forehead.

“He’s dead,” Margo said, as if I couldn’t tell.

I took two small steps backward. I remember thinking that if I made any sudden movements, he might wake up and attack me. Maybe he was a zombie. I knew zombies weren’t real, but he sure looked like a potential zombie.

As I took those two steps back, Margo took two equally small and quiet steps forward. “His eyes are open,” she said.

“Wegottagohome,” I said.

“I thought you closed your eyes when you died,” she said.

“Margowegottagohomeandtell.”

She took another step. She was close enough now to reach out and touch his foot. “What do you think happened to him?” she asked. “Maybe it was drugs or something.”

I didn’t want to leave Margo alone with the dead guy who might be an attack zombie, but I also didn’t care to

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