We saw you come here on the back of our compatriot. The words were deep and resonant, knowing and kind, and they were articulated without any motion at all on the part of the perhaps-whale save its gentle bobbing in the air. We could tell that you were in need of aid.

“Yes,” said the girl tremblingly, teaching out a hand. “I’ve lost my friend, I’ve lost my way, and I must get to the Great Eye.”

The perhaps-whale’s wordless tone grew concerned. Yes, we know of the Great Eye at Childhood’s End, it wordlessly intoned. It is beyond our power to reach.

“Why?” said the girl petulantly. “You could fly me there in minutes.”

No, we cannot, replied the perhaps-whale. For you see, we do not exist.

The girl raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You look like you exist to me,” she said.

Of course, for we are childhood dreams, borne upward by winds of belief and sustained by the power of innocent minds. But Childhood’s End is the death of all such dreams, the grey crushing that accompanies all such young things. We exist only for those who believe, or can be made to believe, and to pass through the Great Eye at Childhood’s End would be, for us, to cease.

“I don’t believe in you,” the girl replied. “Whales can’t fly.”

You, a child, should know better than anyone the difference between what one says to others and what one feels to oneself. The tone without tone of the perhaps-whale sounded light and amused at this. Suffice it to say that we would not, we could not, be speaking if that were really so.

“So that’s it, then,” said the girl. “You won’t help me.”

Why would you want help to reach such an awful place? Childhood’s End is the death of wonder and dreaming, the graveyard of games and fun, the tomb of carelessness. To pass through the Great Eye is to lose all those things. Why not stay here, stay outside it, forever? You would grow older but remain a child. does that not appeal?

The girl bit her lip.

Is that not the darkest and most desperate desire of your heart? Surely you have seen them where you live, those who never leave home, those who still wake to mother’s fresh meals, those who know nothing but play and games their whole lives.

The girl thought about poor Bear, the gobs, and all she had seen and heard up to that point. “That sounds…terrible,” she said. “As bad as Childhood’s End sounds, that sounds just as bad. Isn’t there another way?”

There is no other way. Childhood is sunshine and adulthood is night. It is one or the other, always.

“What about sunrise?” the girl said defiantly. “What about sunset? If you won’t take me there, I’ll go alone.”

Inspired by this image.

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Bear’s wounds were so great that he could no longer walk, no longer use his weapons. The gobs had assumed him to be dead, a piece of worthless fluff no longer worthy of the slightest consideration now that he had ceased to hack and slash at them. Bear had cannily maintained his silence while they were about, but once they had moved on in pursuit of the girl, he cried out for aid.

It was a risk, to be sure. He might attract more gobs, or something worse. But with his body torn up in battle, there was no other way for him to continue to serve the girl as he had since the day she had come home, when they had met on the playroom floor. His service, and the completion of the Unspoken Promise, was greater than any threat from within or without.

“Hello there, little toy bear.” A silhouette loomed over Bear, the size and shape of a small child, maybe half or less of the girl’s age. “Do you need help?”

“That is correct,” said Bear matter-of-factly. “I have lost my charge, she who is as my sister, she who I have sworn to protect and see through from birth to maturity in a promise unspoken to her parents on the day of her birth.”

“That is an awfully big promise for such a small bear,” said the shadow. “I can carry you for a bit, if you like.”

“That would be most kind of you,” said Bear. “I have no way of repaying your kindness, which makes the gesture all the more noble.”

It wasn’t until the shape picked Bear up that he noted something odd. The child-sized shape’s grip was watery and cold, and the presence of shadow and indistinctness of features did not dissipate with distance or the strength of light. “I hope you don’t think it rude of me to ask,” said Bear, after they had walked for some time, “but what might I call you, and what might you be?”

“I am a shade, and you may call me Shade, for you see I do not remember any other name I might have had,” was the reply. “Long ago, something dreadful happened, and I must wander from the Gobwood to Childhood’s End again and again until I can remember what it was.”

“That seems a terrible punishment for something unremembered,” said Bear in a kindly tone.

“It is not so bad,” replied Shade. “And it is much better with a traveling companion. I try to help others when I can, and the Gobwood is always full of those that need my aid.”

Bear saw the wisdom in this, and did his best to engage Shade in pleasant conversation as they walked. In time, the two came to the edge of a great crag overlooking a forested valley with jagged uplifts in the smokey distance. Atop one of them was the ragged shape of a great pleasure wheel.

“The Great Eye,” whispered Bear.

“Childhood’s End,” said Shade sadly. “The end of my journey, and the beginning of yours.”

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Grandmother had used to tell stories about the rhinoceros, about how he was wise but jealously guarded his wisdom, about how he was quick to anger but quick to forgive, about how the powder of his horn could bring youth and health to even the oldest and most impotent of men. Nguyễn had listened, rapt at her feet, even as the hills had echoed with the combat of two wars.

For a long time, everyone had assume that the rhinos had long since been hunted to oblivion. And in the hard times during the war and the lean times after its thundering conclusion, Nguyễn had never given it any mind other than to chuckle at the counterfeit horn powder peddled by the local Chinese pharmacy. But then the government had announced with great fanfare that a few rhinos still remained, and began building a wildlife preserve nearby to attempt to reap tourist dollars. Nguyễn saw the occasional Western tourist, often with long hair and clothing that made a pretense of being half as expensive as it was. They often wore clothing with the stylized rhinoceros logo of the Cát Tiên park.

Nguyễn had been unable to get a job working for the park, and his small farm produced failed crop after failed crop. Even the small store that his wife operated on the side of their ramshackle home facing the road, seldom did enough business to cover the purchase of the items for sale. After Đức in the village had led a group into the forest to kill a rhinoceros and returned weeks later flashing crisp fans of đồng, Nguyễn’s wife had asked him to venture into the forest to set a snare and kill a rhinoceros of his own.

“The girls are hungry,” she said, over and over. “A rhinoceros horn could provide for all of us for years, and the snares are easy to make.”

Each time, Nguyễn made the same answer: “I do not want to be the man to kill the last rhinoceros in these hills.”

“They are not the only ones left,” his wife sniffed. “There are more in Africa and Indian and Indonesia. And who are you to put a dumb animal before the life of your family?”

Still, with the specter of Grandmother foremost in his mind, Nguyễn had resisted his wife’s calls year after year. In the rainy season of 2010, though, a flood and a herd of cows who had escaped from their pen combined to annihilate the rice crop and caused five hundred thousand đồng of damage. The dam was owned by the government, and the cattle farmer was a wealthy man with Party connections; no aid was forthcoming from any other quarter, and Nguyễn’s extended family could offer little but sympathy.

Quietly, Nguyễn dug up the rifle that he had buried in 1975. He spent a day silently cleaning it behind the chicken coop, using motions which had once been second nature, and took a roll of barbed wire from the destroyed fence as well as what little food he could scrape together.

The Cát Tiên rangers patrolled regularly but stuck to wide roads and trails; by drawing on long-ago experiences, Nguyễn was able to penetrate deep into the hard of the forest to set his snares near where Đức and his fellows had caught their rhinoceros. A day passed, and then another, and then another. Nguyễn made camp near a small creek, checking each snare daily and living off his meager supplies as well as whatever small animals happened to wander into his traps.

On the fifth day, Nguyễn had come across a sprung snare with a writhing mound of smooth, dark flesh caught therein. He saw flashes of frightened eyes, flicking of terrified ears, and perceived a series of low moaning bellows which seemed to echo in the deepest part of his stomach. The creature was small, male, and rather pathetic looking, but there was still the opportunity to release the snare and let it fade back into the foliage of Cát Tiên.

Nguyễn regarded the rhinoceros for a time. He saw Grandmother by the fireside, his emaciated wife and family, the rich Westerners, and the villagers lucky enough to work for the reserve. If, as he suspected, he had snared the last of its kind, the action to follow would affect all of them in turn.

“Forgive me.” The bolt of Nguyễn’s rifle cycled smoothly as he shot the rhinoceros. The shot tore open the animal’s leg, cutting its femoral artery; its cried redoubled but became weaker and weaker as it bled out into the thick, damp soil of Cát Tiên. After a time, the rhinoceros breathed its last through a film of bloody foam, and Nguyễn cut off its horn with a borrowed hacksaw.

The park rangers found what was left of it months later; DNA testing confirmed that it was the very last of its kind. And, ever since, Nguyễn’s waking and slumbering hours have been troubled by the gentle sound of heavy inhuman breathing and foliage parting in the dark.

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Fawn Delacroix Pivec owned a small library of books about the little chinks through which magic might seep into our otherwise mundane world. Lewis and Lewis, C. S. and Carroll respectively, were first and foremost in the collection, and her peers in school had long grown tired of endless book reports and dioramas on they and their literary successors.

So, when standing longingly in a fairy ring at the very edge of the Pivecs’ five acres, Fawn was delighted but unsurprised to spy a fairy flitting back and forth among the stinging nettles and wild raspberries tumbling over the old fence.

“Take me with you,” she whispered breathlessly, at once afraid to cry out and scare the delicate being away and unable to contain her joy upon seeing it.

The tiny fairy cocked its head and regarded her.

“Take me with you,” Fawn said again. “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. I’m ready to see your world. I always have been.”

“Oh, child,” said the fairy, in a voice that was birdsong and cicadas, summer rain and running water. “My poor precious child. You dwelt in our world for an aeon and verily became our most beloved friend and queen, ere you returned. But mortal memories cannot hold that where we dwell and dance, so it has already slipped away from you like sand in a spring tempest.”

From an idea by breylee.

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It wasn’t just that summer vacation was coming to an end, and that life would soon be classrooms and textbooks and waking up early to get dressed. This was Tara’s twelfth summer, and she could see childhood’s end bearing down upon her not far off.

There would be school dances, growth spurts, algebra, and other distasteful things to contend with, combined with the pressures she’d seen unleashed on her older sister. The obsessive desire to act older, to cast off childish aspects and habits…it didn’t excite a dreamy girl who preferred to stomp around the yard and scribble down stories in worn-out notebooks.

Tara’s family had a house on the literal edge of their tiny town, with houses across the street and a relative wilderness to the back, bounded on one side by a farm. The highway, sometimes audible through the trees, had brought development to the east: an ugly mini-mall and fast food joints fused with gas stations. But if she walked in the other direction, Tara could find excitement and stories to be told in the woods.

She set out one day, feeling a strong urge to be outside and muddy among the trees. Her older sister and ostensible babysitter was on the phone with her boyfriend–another accoutrement of growing up that Tara was less than enthusiastic about–so with their parents at work the wold was free and fair even though Tara was theoretically forbidden from going in. But rules were made to be broken, and broken especially in the service of squeezing out a few more honey-yellow drops of summer from the dying light of August.

It was, after all, Tara’s last summer.

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I used to come here as a child, but not to appreciate it. This park was my playground, site of pirate adventures and long-winded fantasy stories that never existed anywhere but between my ears. While the other kids preferred the swings or slides or sports field, for me it was always the trail, the bridge, the river bubbling merrily past.

When a person reaches a certain age, they find themselves returning more and more often to these places of memory. I’ve been back in person, but more often than not I return solely in my memory. The sunlight is stronger, the shadows darker, and the possibilities broader. I can be any age, any person, anywhere, so long as it is through the lens of an eight-year-old wearing an old blazer like a pirate coat.

It’s sad, devastatingly sad, that those days are now fixed like graven statues in the past. At the time, it seemed like that world was there, always there, forever for the asking and the taking. At times it seems almost unfair that those days nearly twenty years ago have cast such a long and deep shadow over the rest of my life, that all my years since are like a faded daguerreotype beside their brilliance.

As we age, it’s only natural to look back with regret; regret is in many ways the most human of emotions, the longing tug that connects us to our pasts. There are times when I feel I’d trade anything to go back and do it over again, do it right this time.

And then there are times when I just wish I could live it over again, the riverside trails and my childish games unchanged for all the time I’ve mulled them over.

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He’d lived a remarkable life, being born sometime in the 1850s when his tribe still practiced their traditional way of life as farmers and herders and dying well into his 90s (at least) in 1941. His real name was long-forgotten, lost with most of his people when they were moved to a reservation; people mostly called him John Green.

From the time his people were forcibly resettled around 1885 until his death, John Green lived a quiet life in his ramshackle government-provided reservation house, tending to his true passion: gardening. As a youth he’d been trained in the cultivation of the Three Sisters: squash, corn, and beans.

Finding himself with nothing but time on his hands, John Green set out to perfect them.

He carefully bred and nurtured new varieties of each in his garden, year after year, decade after decade. The cultivars that worked were sold out of a small booth in the nearest town every other Sunday. John Green was intensely private, but did show the occasional interested party around his garden; a notebook from a state official that visited him in 1927 is the best source for many of the varieties he created.

Ordinarily, that’s where it would have stopped; John Green, the interesting footnote in botanical history, the humble man responsible for over 45 varieties of corn, beans, and squash.

But that was before the contagion that began sweeping through the cornfields of Middle America, resulting in massive crop failures and the specter of a supply chain collapse for the first time in centuries. The only strains resistant to it?

John Green’s.

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