Cardboard Constellations

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Nolan 1
Kevin Nolan
Dr. Noyes
ENGL 412
Cardboard Constellations

Casper sat quietly beside me in the empty airplane cabin. His small fingers clenched the
crossword puzzle book in his lap, and his eyes glued to the page with such intensity that the kazoo-like
noise of the plane hardly seemed to bother him. “What rhymes with orange?” he asked suddenly.

“Door-hinge,” I replied.

“Well, it fits, I guess. But that seems like such a cheat.”

“Why’s that?”

“Door hinge is two words. It’s dis-in-gen-u-ous,” said Casper making it a point to revel in his
word smarts. His tone was spiked with the unfamiliar confidence of a cheeky sixth-grader. Being merely
the old man that I was, I felt obliged to humor him.

I sat there fidgeting with a rather large, nearly opaque glass bottle between my hands as if it
were an unsolved Rubik’s cube. The blend of nervousness and excitement in the pit of my stomach had
left me restless and queasy. This was, after all, Casper’s idea.

Then the plane began to tremble and I anxiously gripped the arm rests at my sides. Casper
continued to pay no mind to his surroundings until the intercom overhead buzzed and a woman’s voice
sounded, “Sorry about that, gents! I’m going to try and level out so you guys can get a smooth jump.”
Despite the distortion from the intercom the voice was unusually pleasant and comforting. A part of me
wanted nothing better than to become friends with it, to listen to the face behind its nimble tone.

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“Thanks!” echoed Casper cheekily across the empty cabin. “Shall we?” he said gazing at me with
eyes like a rare set of turquoise marbles—the kind any child would be envious of, with little glints of
viridian poking through here and there.

“I suppose so,” I answered, and with that I let down the tray tables in front of us. Casper shoved
his crossword puzzle book into a backpack beneath the seat and then pulled out seven Dixie cups. He
laid them out rim to rim on my tray table while I uncorked the glass bottle I had been toying with. I
carefully poured the peculiar liquid into the first cup, and moved down the line without stopping, filling
each of the cups as I went. Between each cup the tint of the liquid changed just slightly until by the final
cup we were left with a gradient of greens, yellows, and reds.

“Neat trick,” said Casper, his face all wide-eyed in amusement. He reached for the greens and
me the reds, and we drank. At first the drink was spicy with a strong ginger taste, but as I went down the
line the taste of honey became more apparent and the ginger less so. We toasted the final two cups—
each filled with a nearly equal shade of bright yellow, and indulged in the warm, tangy taste. The whole
thing seemed magical in a way. “Let’s do this!” exclaimed Casper while tearing off his seatbelt and
rushing over to the hatch at the back of the plane.

I unbuckled my own seatbelt and followed the boy, all the while hesitant for what was to come.
With each step my heart limped and goosebumps crawled down my veiny arms. Then, as if merely
waiting for my presence, the hatch creaked open and a river of wind whipped across my face.

“I learned another new word from your journal,” he said, almost having to shout over the
clamor of the wind.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Telos,” he replied, “What’s yours?” There was a sort of challenge or dare to his tone, and it
made me think. Telos was goal, purpose. I knew that.
But did I know my own? Had I not questioned it before?

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Casper extended his hand out to me, smiling to suppress my growing frown. I took his hand and
glared into the cloud fluffed horizon. His hands were soft and nimble, not like mine, which were old and
traced with wrinkles like soggy cardboard. Casper’s hand tugged at mine and with his youthful guidance,
together, we leapt from the safety of the airplane.
I was free-falling 13,000 feet above everything I knew. It was like giving God a high five. The air
pulled and danced across my face until my fear had all but melted away. I looked over at Casper, his
hand still locked with mine. His hair was a wavy blond rippling against the breaking wind, and I noticed
that hidden in the deep crescent of his bangs a streak of brown shaded his lazy eyes. Had I not looked
twice I would have easily mistook him for sleeping. He turned toward me and mouthed something along
the lines of, “Amazing, yeah?” Time must have been in free fall with us, because I could feel my aged
flesh wearing away into youth. Old scars and liver spots—each a memento of a more stressful time—
fled my shell of a body into the abyssal reaches of my mind. Meanwhile, Casper was growing taller.
Before my very eyes that flare of brown escaped to every corner of his head, darkening all as it passed.
He was at least in his mid-teens by now.
Suddenly I sensed Casper’s hand slipping from my own. He merely grinned as he let the wind
yank him away. The horizon was deepening into violet, and I felt myself plunged in uncertainty again. I
could think of nothing but Casper’s question. What’s your Telos? I thought. Why am I here? But I didn’t
have the answer. I didn’t know any better than I knew how many pancakes it would have taken to reach
me from the ground.
Just below us a series of cottony clouds trailed behind one another like sheep to the shepherd. I
saw Casper reaching for them so I tried to do the same, but as I got closer I noticed there was something
enormous and yellow hugging the edge of the clouds. It looked like some sort of strange drapery trying
to hide the affairs of a God. Casper pointed to them and I nodded, realizing what he had in mind. We

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clung ourselves to the massive yellow drapes and let ourselves swing from one cloud to the next. That’s
when I realized they weren’t drapes at all; they were sticky notes, gargantuan sticky notes.
“Replace washing machine & find new job,” and “She like’s mashed potatoes with no skin,” I
read from the notes, though the ink seemed to bleed down the paper as I tugged at the ends of each
one. They were trifles, worries I had stressed myself with in the past. But they hardly seemed important
now. In fact, the notes Casper swung from seemed much more interesting. “10/10/10 in binary, is 42.
Today is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” read one. “42 is the
angle at which a rainbow forms, and the number of minutes it takes to free fall through the earth,” read
When there were no more notes to swing from we leapt again into the fall. By this point the
ground was getting close. I looked over to Casper and he gestured me a thumbs up, and then his mouth
sprang open in an odd sort of way. He was hiccupping left and right, and with each one he bounced
upwards like a jack-in-the-box until he was completely out of my viewing range.
My nerves wracked at me again. My stomach twisted as I felt a rush of heat ignite in my veins.
Where were my hiccups? I drank the same drink as Casper, though perhaps I didn’t deserve them. After
all, I didn’t even know my Telos. I didn’t know, and it frightened me. The evening was coming on.
“Hey!” a voice seemed to trickle into my ears despite the sound of the crackling wind, but it
wasn’t Casper’s voice. It was the warm, heartening voice I had heard over the intercom on the plane. I
longed more than ever to hear more, but it didn’t come. Instead, I felt something trigger from deep
within. I let out a gigantic belch, so large and so loud that tiny bubbles even blurted from my mouth.
Their momentum heaved me upwards back into the cloudy mayhem, where hiccup after hiccup ensued.
Darkness seemed to engulf everything until I finally reached a huge white platform suspended in
mid-air by what appeared to be chain links of paper-people. Grabbing at its edge I was met with a hand.
It was Casper’s hand, but as it helped to heave me up I realized that the two of us had changed again. I

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had grown younger still, and he more mature. At this point we were nearly twins the way our features
mirrored one another—that small nose nested between those deep turquoise eyes. He was tall and
slender like me, yet still retained the subtle hint of strength in the back of his shoulders.
I wondered where we were, as the dark horizon let on nothing, not a single cloud. Then a gleeful
laugh startled me from behind and I turned. It was a short brunette woman dressed in a bright green
dress with tiny leaves embroidered into its sides. Her smile was so full of compassion that I knew she
had to be the face behind the voice I had heard before. She darted up a massive spiral staircase that
stood behind her, and I wanted dearly to run after her but my feet wouldn’t budge a muscle. I felt no
control over my body. I was, quite literally, glued to where I stood.
“Hold on there,” said Casper walking over to my backside, “Where did that come from?”
Turning my neck as far as it would go, I barely made out what was a giant wind-up gear jutting
out of my back like I was some kind of doll. “I have no idea,” I said.
“Well, let me give you a hand,” said Casper while pushing at the gear, forcing it to rotate. “But
while you’re here you should help me with this last word in my crossword puzzle.” In his left hand
Casper awkwardly held his crossword puzzle book again while his right arm worked on my back.
“Shoot,” I said.
“What do you call trees that are in fall?”
Casper stopped winding and contemplated over his crossword for a moment. “Perfect!” he
exclaimed, and having completely lost his grip on the gear I was sent madly dashing up the staircase.
The steps alternated from black to white like the keys on a piano, and as my feet hit each one a
different tone rang in the distance. As I ran paper airplanes and cranes zoomed from nowhere at all.
One even caught at my arm, leaving me with a small cut. When I reached the end of the staircase I came
upon a new platform much like the one below, but black. Still, the woman I sought was nowhere to be

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found, only a strange telescope-like contraption stood at the platform’s center. “Teleidoscope, 10¢
Adm.” read a sign planted in front.
Curiosity got the best of me, so I reached for a dime in my pocket and placed it within the small
tin can that accompanied the sign. I took my seat beneath the teleidoscope and peered through the lens
with my left eye while placing my right arm on the dial attached to the colossal contraption.
At first I saw nothing but a blank piece of cardboard. I admired its seamlessly flimsy and durable
nature, but as I flicked the teleidoscope’s dial everything went into motion. Colors flooded in every
which way coalescing into stars like the bauble ornaments on a Christmas tree. They played connect the
dots with one another until they were fully formed constellations. I continued spinning the dial and the
constellations shifted further and further around. Soon they became figures that moved and danced and
talked like film. I could not let go of the dial, for I was all but lost in the world of the teleidoscope.
I stood amidst an endless throng of people. The aroma of life was all around: barbeque and
alcohol, grilled pineapple and sweat, an ocean breeze all swirled together. It was like a temporal dead
zone with no fear or worries to speak of. Then there was the sound, a powerful melody reverberated
with the beat of my heart. I looked upwards and saw a stage. Casper appeared strumming on a guitar,
his face now older than I recalled.
Then in the corner of my eye I saw her, the woman, the friend. I pushed person after person
aside in an attempt to reach her but she moved only further away. She knows, I thought, she knows my
Telos. The music grew louder and louder with each stride I took until the heavy metal thunder had
completely deafened my senses. It didn’t matter though, for synesthesia had taken over. Buckets of
paint—violets, blues, and oranges splattered across the walls of my mind. The chase saturated me with
a certain feeling of warmth. It was the kind of warmth you felt clinging to a pile of laundry fresh out of
the drier—the kind of feeling you never wanted to go away but knew would ultimately end with passing
time. This was my moment. This was the very apotheosis of my being.

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Suddenly a muffled voice called out to me. It was not the voice I longed to hear, but rather
Casper’s voice. “Casper,” the voice called out. I simply ignored it and moved faster through the crowd. I
had to hear the woman’s voice again, to hear her give me the answer to that terrible question. “Casper,”
the haunting voice called again.
I reached past the final wall of people and arrived at a beach. The tide flexed its muscles in ebb
and flow, crashing against the back of a strange tree planted into the sand. Its leaves shed one by one as
walked over to it. I pressed my ear to the bark, hoping a word or two might slip out from somewhere
deep within. Nothing came but the peculiar sound of a rain stick flipped upside down.
“Casper, it’s time to go.”
I let my heavy shoulder lean against the tree while I stared off into the glowing moon. It was a
full moon showered in a bright blue light that made the sun seem like a mere candle to its glory. A hole
slid open in the center of the moon like the aperture on a camera, and I felt myself being whisked away
as my lazy eyes fell into slumber. Then my heart began to slow, began to fall back into free-fall.
My hands grew soft and I realized I was a kid again. I found myself opening a door, looking into a
new light like a phoenix through the ashes. I sat in what appeared to be a cardboard box. A little window
was cut in its side like a television set. Peering through it I saw Casper sleeping on the couch, his hair
now gray and his face worn with age. In the background I heard “Hallelujah” peacefully whistling on the
record player. Then in the corner of my eye I saw a shattered mirror hanging to the wall. Its pieces were
scattered across the floor below. I crept over to it, and I found that as I moved closer and closer the
record player would play in reverse. With each pace of my foot the remnants of the mirror miraculously
flew back into their rightful place, until at last I could see my full reflection—those bright turquoise eyes
and that wavy blond hair. I saw my smile and began at last to think with my heart.
I knew that I could be happy, too.