Driving on highway outside Roscoe, a town near the intersection where Agloe General Store supposedly stands, Quentin and his friend spot a crumbling barn in the field beside a dirt road. Lacey recognizes Margo’s car parked outside the barn, and Quentin leaps out of the car and runs to investigate. Ben, Radar, and Lacey follow him into the barn. Inside, they find Margo writing in her notebook. She seems completely unsurprised to see them. She stares at Quentin and he thinks that her eyes look silent and dead; she reminds him of Robert Joyner, staring through his blank eyes.
Margo’s emotionless response to the arrival of Quentin and his friends makes a startling contrast with the exuberance and intimacy of the road trip that has just ended. This contrast is an early sign that Margo does not belong in the world Quentin and his friends have created for themselves.
Margo asks for five minutes to finish writing. When she closes her notebook, she offers each of them a tepid hug or handshake. She seems at a loss for what to say, and Quentin is disappointed that there is not more drama in this moment — no tears or embraces. She asks what they are doing in Agloe, and when Lacey says how worried they have been, Margo brushes her off with chipper comments about being “A-OK.” Her cavalier attitude infuriates Lacey, who calls Margo a bitch and storms out of the barn. Ben and Radar follow her, but Quentin stays behind.
Margo’s blasé attitude is her tool for pushing Lacey and the others away. The road trip among the friends in the car was marked by its honesty and camaraderie. But Margo refuses to be honest about what she feels at that moment, masking truth with her obviously false cheer. Her saccharine happiness is also a way of insulting Lacey and the others for their worry. Her “A-OK” comment implies they were stupid for being so afraid, but also has a tinge of irony that implies they could not possibly understand how unwell she really is.
With the others gone, Margo and Quentin launch into a massive fight. Margo is angry at Quentin for coming to Agloe, telling him she intended to break from every connection she had. She accuses him of using her to play the hero and expecting her gratitude as a prize for discovering her. Quentin accuses Margo of being selfish, not thinking about how her disappearance would affect Ruthie, or her friends. He tells her he couldn’t move on from losing her because he thought she had killed herself.
Many people worried Quentin would lose himself in his obsession with finding Margo, and for the first time Quentin sees the extent to which this did happen — how he could not “move on” because he felt so tied to her. Margo is aware of the ways Quentin has idealized her in the past, and shows this awareness when she accuses him of having ulterior motives for coming after her.
Quentin’s criticisms send Margo into a fit of temper, which has the odd effect of calming Quentin down. She asks Quentin how he found her, and he explains the trail of clues. He tells Margo about his theory that she had killed herself in a pseudovision and wanted him to find her body. Margo apologizes for her anger, and tells Quentin she has been thinking about him — and her family — a lot since she left. She tells him she was afraid to maintain ties to anyone in Orlando, because those ties might eventually compel her to go back.
Margo’s fear of being brought back into her old life in Orlando shows that she still feels connected to the people and places she left behind. Though things she has said in the past have made her seem totally disenchanted with Orlando and everyone in it, her real feelings are much more complicated.
Lacey calls Quentin’s cell phone, asking to speak to Margo. While they talk, apparently amiably, Quentin explores the barn. He finds Margo’s books: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When Margo finishes her call with Lacey, she tells Quentin that his friends are staying at a nearby motel, and will be leaving in the morning with or without him. She tells Quentin she has made plans to leave for New York City that day. She adds that her original plan was to leave Orlando on graduation night rather than three weeks before, as she did, but that she made last-minute adjustments when she found out Jase was cheating on her.
In reaching out to Margo and offering forgiveness (as implied by the tone of the conversation), Lacey shows her compassion and enduring loyalty to her friend. The revelation that Margo had been planning her departure from Orlando long before Jase began cheating on her illuminates how long and painful her unhappiness must have been, and hints at how planning elaborate escapades — something she long ago admitted to enjoying — has helped her take refuge from a painful reality over the years.
Quentin asks Margo to explain her plan, to help him understand what was and wasn’t intentional, and what everything meant. Margo begins by showing him her notebook. She explains that, when she was ten years old, she began writing a detective story in which she and Quentin, together with a talking version of Myrna Mountweazel, investigate the death of Robert Joyner, who in her version of the story is murdered by his demon-possessed brother-in-law rather than taking his own life. Quentin is a heroic love interest for Margo in this mystery, and the Spiegelmans are doting parents who shower her with presents. After finishing the story in fifth grade, Margo explains, she used the notebook to plan her pranks and schemes, writing new ideas on top of the pages that she had already filled with her mystery.
Margo’s story represents her dream of living in a happier world, where she feels loved (both by Quentin and by her parents) and where she never has to confront the scary reality of depression that she discovered much too young. That this story is literally written underneath the plans she imagined as an adult is a symbol of the way these essential desires for love and peace of mind have motivated her actions throughout her life and pushed her to become the person she is.
Margo tells Quentin that she began planning her final night in Orlando during their junior year of high school, and that she always intended to bring him along as her partner. She hoped that she could liberate Quentin through a night of adventure, and inspire him to become the hero she imagined him to be in her childhood story. When they finally had their night together, Margo tells him, she was surprised to find how much she loved being with him — after imagining him as a two-dimensional boy for years, she was amazed to see him as a real person. She tells him the clues that lead him to the strip mall — whose real name, she reveals, is The Osprey —were thrown together hastily. She wanted to give him the place, where she spent so much time during high school, as a gift to help him become a braver person. She tells Quentin she never meant to worry him, and that she tried to paint over the troubling graffiti about going to the paper towns and never coming back.
Margo admits here to having transformed Quentin into an idea in the same way he did to her, which emphasizes both how easy it is to reduce people to concepts, and how many opportunities for connection are lost when people refuse to see one another’s complexity. Her revelation that the strip mall was supposed to be a gift that would make Quentin happy rather than a clue that would terrify him recalls Mr. Jacobsen’s remark about humans lacking good mirrors — because Margo could not see how her behavior and her gift would appear to Quentin, she failed to communicate the affectionate, encouraging message she wanted to leave for him.
Quentin asks Margo why she would come to Agloe, of all places. Margo explains that she has always felt like a “paper girl,” more flimsy and artificial even than the people who surrounded her. She says she loved being reduced to a beautiful idea, and encouraged others to see her that way because it made them love her. Still, she knew she had to force herself to become a real person. She tells Quentin she was drawn to Agloe because it was a place where something fictitious —the copyright trap that existed only in the world of the map — became real. Quentin tells her again how he feared she was dead, and Margo reads him a passage from The Bell Jar about how fruitless it would be to kill a body when the thing one wants to kill is much deeper —for Margo, the parts of herself that feel painfully empty and false.
Margo’s notion that being a paper girl made her easier for others to love is evidence that she fears her authentic self — the struggling person whom she wishes she could “kill” — is not worthy of love. As cool and collected as she’s always seemed, it is clear that Margo craves approval and is afraid of being rejected by people who are not willing to accept the more complicated parts of her personality.
Quentin encourages Margo to come home with him, telling her she can stay with his family until she starts college. Margo insists she cannot go back to Orlando, claiming it will be to easy for her to begin believing in superficial things — not just popularity, but college and the other trappings of a successful life she has chosen to reject. Quentin acknowledges to himself that he still believes in the value of things like family and education. He tries to convince Margo that going to college, at least, is important, but she scoffs. He asks what she plans to do in the long term, and Margo quotes Emily Dickinson: “Forever is composed of nows.”
Margo and Quentin have different aspirations for their lives that reflect their different values and needs. Neither can understand the other’s reason for choosing the path they do, and their attempts to persuade each other to reconsider their values are fruitless. There is a sense that neither Quentin nor Margo has chosen the wrong path — that both conventional and unconventional ways of approaching adulthood are legitimate. As they learn to see each other more clearly and with greater humility, they will need to learn to respect each other’s choices, even those they don’t understand.
Margo borrows Quentin’s phone and calls her family. She has a tense conversation with her mother, then talks briefly with Ruthie, apologizing for not calling her and promising to call every Tuesday from then on. When she hangs up, she screams. Her mother has told her about having changed the locks, and Margo is hurt by that gesture. She also feels guilty for having gone so long without speaking to Ruthie.
Margo is committed to forging her own path through adulthood without feeling tied down by the expectations of her parents. Still, she is very vulnerable and craves the love and approval of her family, so Mrs. Spiegelman’s rejection is extremely painful. Their exchange is a reminder of the fact that becoming an adult does not mean abandoning every connection or ridding oneself of every vulnerability — like children, adults need to feel cared for and supported.
Margo and Quentin walk through the fields outside the barn, and he tells her everything that has happened since her disappearance. Quentin takes Margo’s hand. They lie down in the field, and Margo talks about how surprising it was to find, on the night before she left, how similar Quentin was to the hero she imagined in her story. She tells him nothing ever happens like you imagine it will, and Quentin answers that, if you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens. He understands that, as impossible as it is to imagine the mind of another person— or another vision for the world, or anything at all — the act of imagination is the only way for a person to reach outside themselves. Margo rests her head on Quentin’s shoulder, and they fall asleep.
Though Quentin has learned greater humility, and has begun to question his capacity to understand other people, he has also developed a sincere optimism about the ability of human beings to make nourishing, substantial connections. Although he was wrong about what Margo felt and intended, he has reached out to her with compassion, and made a sincere effort to understand her. That gesture of love and openness is valuable in itself, even if the understanding it yields is imperfect.
Quentin wakes around sunset, and sees Margo digging a few feet from him. He kneels next to her and begins to dig as well. She tells him they are “digging graves for Little Margo and Little Quentin and puppy Myrna Mountweazel and poor dead Robert Joyner.” They make the grave carefully, though they only have their hands to dig with.
The people Margo hopes to bury are both characters from her story and real people (and animals) who impacted her when she was young. Margo wants not only to put the past behind her, but to reconcile herself to the things that have made her who she is. Burying them ceremonially, rather than simply trying to forget about them, is a way of acknowledging those influences with respect, even as she tries to move on.
Margo tells Quentin that she never thought of Robert Joyner as a real person, and instead thought of him as a minor character in the drama of her life. Quentin realizes he has done the same thing. He tells Margo he has always found her metaphor — of strings breaking inside Joyner —compelling, but that there are other ways of thinking about life and death and brokenness. The metaphor of string implies that a person can be broken beyond repair, while Whitman’s metaphor of grass implies that people are tied together and can live through one another. Quentin suggests an alternative metaphor: that people are vessels who start out perfect but become cracked over time, and that it is only by looking through the cracks that people begin to see one another clearly.
Quentin has spent a great deal of time trying to understand and apply metaphors crafted by other people: Margo’s strings, Whitman’s grass, his father’s mirrors and windows, Detective Warren’s balloons. The metaphor he creates for himself is the product of all the new insight he has gained, and shows how he has come into his own through the process of searching for Margo. He can assert his own philosophy of human connection — one that embraces pain without losing hope — and express himself in his own words rather than borrowing others’ language.
Quentin kisses Margo. Margo asks Quentin to come to New York with her, but they both understand that it will not happen. Quentin tries to explain the reasons he can’t go with her, telling her that he has a life in Orlando, but she stops his explanation with another kiss. They bury the notebook, saying “Godspeed” to their childhood selves, and to Robert Joyner. Back in the barn, Quentin helps Margo pack her car.
As much, and as sincerely, as Quentin has come to love Margo, searching for her has also taught him to appreciate the connections and attachments that make up his life in Orlando. Quentin’s choice is an incredibly hard one to make, but he makes it with full knowledge of what he is giving up and what he is gaining — he has a new sense of agency in his own life, and he is able to live with purpose in a way he has never been before.
Margo takes Quentin to the motel where Lacey, Radar, and Ben are staying. They promise to call and write, and Quentin says he will try to visit her later in the summer. He does not know whether any of these things will happen, but knows they have to imagine them to keep themselves from falling apart. Staying behind while she goes on without him is the hardest thing he has ever done. Before getting into her car, Margo turns back to face Quentin. Her eyes are soaked with tears, and Quentin embraces her. They kiss, and he thinks he can see her almost perfectly.
Quentin accepts the uncertainty that comes with separating from Margo, seeing that he cannot control her actions or make her want the same things he does. When they come back together after walking away from each other, though, there is a strong sense that their connection will endure their separation in some way, as they are now tied together by bond of loyalty, love, and compassionate understanding.