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Paper Airplanes Into the Void
    by Terra LeMay

Paper Airplanes Into the Void
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

The end of the world was pretty much what Jared had been told to expect, which was rather disappointing, all things considered. A thriving little tourist town had blossomed right up next to the place where the world dropped off into nothingness, and kitschy, hand-painted signs pointed the way to the largest overhang and the best view of the void beyond the edge. But the best view of the void was the same as every other view. It was like staring out a fogged window. There was nothing to see. No bottom to it as far as anybody knew, no far side, nothing but an endless expanse of . . . nothingness. With a sound track.

Noise echoed up from the void. Music, and indecipherable but distinctly human voices. There were people down there. Or out there. Somewhere. They talked to each other. They sang. They argued and cried. They played radios, car stereos, ipods with speakers, or who knew what. Maybe every resident of the deep carried around a well-tuned musical instrument. Nobody knew. Nobody had ever been down and come back to report it.

People had jumped. With parachutes and without. People had flown aircraft out there, planes, hang-gliders, helicopters. People had thrown ropes over the ledge and attempted to climb down. No one ever returned. It was almost a cliché.

Jared wasn't special. Why would things be any different for him than they were for everyone else? They wouldn't be. He knew. And yet, he'd come anyway.

The End - what the kitschy sign called The End, anyway - was really nothing more than a great, green field, fenced off from the town: lateral sides capped by immense, erosion-control barricades formed of school bus-sized concrete blocks. If you tried to reach the barricades from outside the fence - tried to reach the end of the Earth without going through the field called The End - you met the ocean spilling away into nothing, presumably digging out the underside of the shelf the town sat upon. It was unsafe to approach from that direction.

The rest of the edge of the world was immersed beneath the ocean, which perpetually spilled over into the void, but at The End, you could walk right up and look out over the abyss. Which meant Jared had to buy a ticket. But he knew to expect that. Everybody knew that.

It cost him ten dollars. Season passes were thirty-five. Family season passes: Seventy dollars. Military and senior citizens: Ten percent discount. Unaccompanied minors not admitted. Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.

The ticket-taker stamped Jared's hand as he pushed through the turnstile.

There was a circular aspect to his coming back to The End. He'd been born in the village beside The End (which was also called The End, though locals usually called it The Village to avoid confusion). He'd grown up hearing about it: about how his mother and father had left him, less than a day old, in the nursery at the village's medical center. Ostensibly to take a bit of fresh air, but they'd tucked a note beneath him where a nurse would find it the first time she picked him up. It said nothing of substance, only listed his maternal grandmother's address and phone number. Later, word came from The End: the young couple had exchanged a bucketful of rolled quarters for a hot air balloon large enough to carry them both out over the deep. Like everyone who'd gone before them, they were never seen again.

Jared had passed the medical center on his way toward the drop. It was smaller and more homely than he'd imagined. A broad, single-story building with clapboard siding and an asphalt-shingle roof, it looked more like a nursing home than a medical center. He'd paused to look, but had not entered. Plenty of time for that once he'd seen what he'd come to see.

It was early morning. Fog had crept up to lick the crumbling overhang of the drop. Something that sounded like Chopin rose from deep near where Jared approached. He stood and listened - listened for human voices, too, but heard none. When the piece finished, there was a brief moment of silence, then a Mariachi band picked up. Jared began to stroll, keeping inside the rope barrier that indicated where the stability of the cliff face was questionable.

There was nothing to look at. Nothing to see. Nothing to be learned from his walk that others hadn't already discovered. But he had to do it, at least once. He couldn't make a well-informed decision without examining The End firsthand. Once he had, he retreated back into the field. Just in time, too; the tourist buses had begun arriving, and while most people were still lined up to buy their tickets, a few had already wandered into the park. A family and their dog staked out picnic territory with blankets and lawn chairs. A young couple walked hand-in-hand along the edge, much the way Jared just had. (Was that how his parents had looked, when they'd first walked the drop?) When they reached some predetermined point, they both produced paper airplanes, which they threw with great ceremony out into the void. It seemed kind of silly, at first, until Jared thought of the box of letters he'd brought with him, which were out in the trunk of his car. Hundreds of them. Written to his parents, ever since he'd been old enough to scrawl the alphabet in Crayola erasable marker. He turned away and walked back the way he'd come.

An old man knelt near the middle of the field, pinning kites to the grass so the wind wouldn't blow them away. He'd tapped a stake into the ground, and a sign stapled to it read: Kites - $20. Hang Gliders - $2000. Jared didn't see any hang gliders, but he stopped to talk to the old man anyway. He'd heard stories of this particular old man, all his life.

"Do you sell many?" he asked. "Hang gliders, I mean."

"Oh yes! Yes, many more than you'd expect!" The old man rose, pausing once he regained his feet so he could stretch his back. "It's a one way trip though, you know. You'd think that'd put people off, but no, doesn't seem to. Folks come here from all over the world just to go over. Lots of them do it in my hang gliders."

Jared gestured at the brilliantly colored kites on the grass, at the obvious lack of hang gliders. "Are you sold out, then? Expecting more soon?"

The old man scratched his head, looking befuddled, then said, "Oh! No, I've got one out in the truck, matter of fact, but that one's already sold. I require a twenty-four hour waiting period before delivery." He narrowed his eyes and considered Jared carefully. "Payment in advance. No refunds. I like people to have enough time to change their minds, in case they haven't thought things through. You understand."

Jared nodded.

"Course, there ain't no stopping some folks. There's 'em that just takes a running leap. With or without a parachute. And there's climbers, sometimes. Come with repelling gear and ropes and the whole nine. But if it's a hang glider you're wanting, I'm your man."

"What about hot air balloons?"

"$20,000," said the old man, without pausing even a beat. "I don't keep those on hand. They take three weeks to deliver."

"$20,000 . . ." repeated Jared, a little stunned.

"That's right," said the old man. "I used to bring a balloon out here on weekends and rent it out. Just for sightseers, you know. Kept it tethered, never meant no one to take it off into The End. But some while back, I had some dishonest folks rent it for an hour, take it up into the air, then cut free of my tether. Now it's $20,000, cash in advance. No exceptions." He crossed his arms defensively, as if Jared had already double-crossed him.

"Yes, sir," Jared said. "That's all right. I was only asking. My parents, uh, rented a balloon here once. That's all."

The old man gave a tight, unfriendly nod. Jared thanked him and retreated. He spent the rest of the day watching people fly kites. Several vendors sold helium balloons, and he purchased one and set it free. It quickly flew too high for him to see whether it disappeared into The End or not. He thought of going to his car to fetch some of his letters. He could fold them into paper airplanes and throw them, the way he'd seen others doing it, all day. But it was hard for him to reconcile himself with the idea that his parents might not ever receive them. Besides, the signs near the exit warned: "No re-entry" and Jared didn't want to pay the extra admission.

At lunchtime, he grew hungry and left the park, went to one of the small hotels he'd passed on the way into town. He checked in and called room service to bring him a sandwich and a glass of milk, which he ate and drank. Then he climbed under the covers of his bed and went to sleep. He didn't call anyone or write any letters, though he knew he should've.

He'd intended to buy a hot air balloon, but there was no way he could justify such an enormous expense, even if he'd had that much money. He was leaving what remained of his savings to Gran, to help pay her senior care expenses. He'd have to buy a hang glider instead. But first he wanted to tour the hospital where he'd been born. He'd have to go back to The End, pay for the hang glider, then go tour the hospital, and wait until tomorrow to go find his parents.

Somehow it didn't happen. He stayed in bed until nightfall, got up, discovered the entire town more or less shut down in the evenings, then went back to his hotel room.

He still didn't call anyone or write any letters.

The next morning, he returned to The End. The ticket-gate attendant recognized him. Or recognized his hand stamp, anyway. "Season Pass is only thirty-five dollars," said the man.

"That's okay," Jared replied. "This is the last day." Then he remembered the twenty-four hour wait for delivery on the hang glider. "Well, I'll be back tomorrow, but that's it."

The ticket-taker shrugged and stamped his other hand. Yesterday, the stamp had been of a little green frog. Today, it was a kite. It seemed a good omen.

Once again, Jared arrived before the kite seller. He walked out to the mist-shrouded drop. He stepped over the safety rope and took a seat on the ledge, letting his feet dangle. A Led Zeppelin song echoed up from the deep. Jared didn't know the title, but he'd heard it many times. When it finished, a Japanese pop song replaced it. At least, he thought it might be Japanese. He didn't actually speak Japanese, so he couldn't be sure. He also heard many conversations, though of course he couldn't make out any of the words. When the kite seller arrived. Jared went to see him.

"Do you have any hang gliders today?" he asked.

"Sure!" replied the old man. He tapped his sign into the ground with a rubber mallet. "Already spoken for, though. You'll have pay me today and come back tomorrow to get your own."

"Right," said Jared.

He had the money in his pocket, twenty crisp hundred-dollar bills and a stack of tens and ones, because he wasn't sure if there'd be sales tax. Instead of handing it over, he helped the old man pin down his beautiful kites, and when that was done, he walked around the field, watching the people who came to picnic and play and those who came to walk along The End, those who threw paper airplanes and released balloons and bought the old man's kites and flew them. In the afternoon, a young man came, and the kite seller disappeared, then returned a few minutes later rolling a colorful bundle on a two-wheeled cart. Together, the young man and the old man assembled a hang glider, and when they'd finished, they wheeled it out toward The End. The old man unfastened a knot where the safety rope boundary was tied to one of its posts, and opened a space for the hang glider to launch. The two shook hands.

By this point a crowd had gathered all around the make-shift launch pad. No one spoke to the young man or tried to talk him out of going. The old man helped him clip himself into his harness. A couple of bystanders helped him get up to speed, helped him launch, and then he was in the air. Not quite flying, not quite falling, but making an unsteady arc into the fog. Then he was gone. By the time Jared lost sight of him, the old man had already retied the boundary rope.

The bystanders shook their heads. They dispersed like people waking from a collective dream. Jared heard some of them expressing regret at the loss of such a healthy young man. It was a shame, really, they said. A shame for people to throw their lives away like that. From the deep, a family chorus sang "Happy Birthday" to some unseen celebrant.

Jared left. He went back to his hotel and ordered room service again. Broccoli and Cheddar soup and a glass of water. They also brought him packets of oyster crackers, but he didn't eat them. He went to bed. He didn't call anyone or write any letters.

"A season pass is only thirty-five dollars," said the ticket taker, the next morning. His stamp was shaped like a banana, but in red ink.

"I know," said Jared. "I should have bought one the first day, but now it just seems silly. I'll be back tomorrow, but that's the last day."

The ticket-taker nodded, as if he'd heard this before.

This time, the kite seller was already pinning down his kites when Jared arrived. Again Jared helped.

"Still haven't made up your mind?" asked the old man. "Of course, it's a big decision. Nothing wrong with taking your time about it."

"No, I've made up my mind," Jared replied, and yet, he didn't hand over the cash. The old man nodded, as if this was routine, and didn't press him.

Jared spent the day helping with the kites. It was easier for the old man if someone could show the children how to fasten their string and how to launch their kites, while the old man took their parents' money. In the afternoon, another young man came, and Jared kept an eye on all the kites while the old man fetched another hang glider. Yesterday's hang glider had been orange. Today's was blue. The old man put it together unaided. His customer was busy talking on a cell phone and repacking a satchel he intended to take with him. He had a head-mounted camera and a radio transponder and a variety of other devices with which he hoped to communicate with his partner, on the phone. The old man warned him that such devices never worked in The End, but he was not put off. He disappeared with a more confident arc than his predecessor, and when Jared mentioned the difference, the old man said, "Well, he's been taking hang-gliding lessons for several years, preparing for this day. Everyone who goes goes a little differently. You stick around, you'll see that."

Jared stayed until the end of the day. He helped the man pack up his kites, and as they were about to say their goodbyes, a breathless young woman ran up, waving a wad of hundred dollar bills. "I thought I was going to miss you," she said. "I thought I wasn't going to make it."

"Well," said the old man, "The End isn't going anywhere. There's still time."

"I want to go tomorrow," she said. "I'm ready. I have to know what's out there."

He took her money and promised to bring her a hang glider the next day.

Jared stopped at an ATM on the way to his hotel and withdrew another two hundred dollars. It made him feel a little guilty to draw down his resources beyond the level he'd intended, but he had to stay at least two more nights at the hotel, and he didn't want to eat into the money he'd budgeted to give the old man. That evening, he ordered room service again. He ate a steak and a baked potato, asparagus, a dinner roll, and an ice cream sundae for desert.

He still didn't call anyone or write any letters.

The next day, the girl didn't show up to claim her hang glider. Jared offered to buy it when the old man had begun packing up his kites, but the old man refused.

"That happens sometimes. I'll hold onto it, for now. She might show up tomorrow. I'll honor our agreement as long as she shows up this week. Would you like to buy a hang glider for tomorrow? I could bring two, tomorrow. It's two thousand dollars. But you know that."

Jared nodded, but he kept his money.

That night he decided to eat out and went to a local Mexican restaurant that he'd passed every day going to and from the hotel. He had Texas-style fajitas and chips and salsa and a small margarita, which he drank too quickly because it was cold and refreshing and tasted very good. When the waiter asked if he'd like another, he said no. It seemed like a bad idea to get intoxicated on the night before making a big decision. He went back to his hotel. He tried to write a letter, but midway through it, he realized he wasn't sure who he was writing to. He threw it away. He wrote another. Changed his mind. Threw it away too. Finally, he went to bed.

He had every intention of going to the old man and buying his hang glider the next day, but somehow he ended up at the hospital, where he'd been abandoned. No one remembered him or his parents; the staff had all retired or quit or been replaced. The receptionist suggested he go to The End and look for the kite seller.

"He could probably tell you a little something about everybody who's ever gone over," she said. "He's been selling his kites and hang gliders for just about as long as I can remember. Ask him."

Jared already knew this, but had been afraid. He thought the old man would remember his parents as the couple who'd stolen his hot air balloon. He returned to his hotel room instead. He wrote a letter. Threw it away. Wrote another. Threw it away too. He tried to take a nap, but couldn't sleep. Finally, he called his gran, back in Minnesota.

"Hello," he said.

"I've been worried about you!" she replied.

"I know," he said, then they talked, for a long time. When he hung up, he finally wrote a letter. He folded it carefully, put it in his pocket, then went out to his car to go to The End as he'd originally planned.

Once there, he took the box containing all the letters he'd written to his parents out of his trunk and carried it with him into the park. The ticket taker at the turnstile was a woman. She didn't recognize him. She stamped his hand with a black umbrella. She didn't offer him a season pass.

The old man greeted him with a nod, but was helping a young girl to tie a string to her kite, so Jared was forced to set his box on the ground and wait his turn. When it came, he said, "I think my parents rented a hot air balloon from you. I think they cut the line and took it into The End."

The old man frowned.

"I was only a baby. I don't remember."

"So now you're growed up and you'd like to buy a hang glider. Try to go and find 'em?"

Jared nodded at first, then shook his head.

"I did. I mean, I wanted to buy a balloon. I didn't know they were so expensive. But I've got people. I mean, I've got someone I don't want to leave behind, and they're not ready to come with me."

The old man didn't say anything. Jared dug in his pocket, and gave the man two thousand dollars.

"Here," he said. "It's not enough. But it's all I can afford. I was going to give it to you anyway, and I still want you to have it. They shouldn't have taken your balloon. They shouldn't have gone."

The man accepted his money. "You don't want me to bring you a hang glider tomorrow? You don't want to know what's out there anymore?"

"No," replied Jared. "I'm staying. At least for now." He retrieved his box. "You should sell pens and stationary."

The man laughed and nodded. "I used to," he said, "but the paper kept blowing away."

The old man walked with him to The End and untied the boundary rope for him. Jared sat on the ledge, with the box beside him, and folded one of his letters into a paper airplane. Show tunes echoed up from the deep, along with the voices of two people who were having a conversation. When he was finished, he threw the letter. It fluttered more than flew, but that was fine. Jared had plenty more with which to practice his technique.

The old man said, "When you're finished, tie this rope back, all right? Won't stop those who've made up their minds, but we wouldn't want anyone falling over the edge by accident."

Jared said he would. He folded another paper airplane and threw it. The old man walked away.

Maybe Jared was not as daring as his parents. Maybe he was not as brave. Maybe by not going he was losing out on the opportunity to ever know them. Maybe they'd been waiting, all his life, for him to grow up and follow in their footsteps.

Maybe they were dead. Maybe the sounds echoing up from the deep were some kind of atmospheric effect that nobody understood. He threw another paper airplane. He threw three more.

They shouldn't have gone. Gran loved them. Jared loved them even though he couldn't remember them. It had been selfish of them to go. He threw another paper airplane. Another. He threw them all afternoon. When he finished, he threw the box over too, then retied the barrier rope. There was nothing to do after that. He stood and looked at the void for a while, then put his hands in his pockets and walked away.

In his pocket, his fingers brushed the folded shape of his most recent letter, which he'd almost forgotten about. He withdrew it, smiled, and strode purposefully toward the exit.

He was going to deliver it personally, to his Gran, who loved him.

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