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.”

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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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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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“Smoke’s been hanging over town for days now. You’ve noticed it: like something from a bad cigar.”

Ransom didn’t move. “And like a bad cigar, it’ll eventually smoke itself out,” he said. “No need to concern yourself with it unless you’re the fellow who paid a dollar for it and was expecting a Cuban.”

The deputy reached into his pocket and produced a coin, which he dropped on the table. At once, Ransom sat up, pulling his worn boots off the saloon table. He bit the piece and slipped it into an interior pocket.

“I’ve seen this thing every now and then on the trail,” he said. “Most likely a forest fire up in the hills kindled by lightning. Probably no threat, but I’d cut a fire-break along the windward side of town if I was really scared. A posse of men with good backs and good axes can do it in a day or two. Any woodsman worth his salt can show you how it’s done, and you’ve likely got more than a few kicking around.”

Deputy Gautreaux nodded. “I thought that’s what you’d say. But I’m not in the business of hunches and likelihoods, Mr. Ransom. I deal in facts, as does the Sheriff.”

“Then you must not deal very much,” Ransom said, resuming his former posture with a yawn. “Out here, it’s more happenstance and hearsay than anything, with the Devil as likely to be blamed for something as a mean son-of-a-bitch with a shooting iron.”

“I’m not some rarified dandy from back east who came out here to play at being a shootist, Mr. Ransom,” said Gautreaux. “I know a forest fire, and I know the wind, and this smoke is too thick and too long in tarrying to be the usual sort of conflagration. You know these parts, and you’re the man the Sheriff wants to sniff out the trouble.”

“Well that’s a mighty fine vote of confidence from a man who didn’t care to tell me so himself,” Ransom sniffed. “If it’s all the same to you, Deputy, I’ll stick to my own business.”

A bag landed on the table, the burlap distorted by coins within. “From the municipal coffers,” said Gautreaux. “Half now and half later to lead a scouting party up into the hills for more information.”

Ransom had the bag opened and the coins spilled blindingly fast. “Now you’ve gone and made it my business, haven’t you?”

“The Sherriff has, not me,” said Gautreaux. “If it were up to me, it would be me and my men going up there. A snake’s always safer in the dust behind you than in your saddlebag.”

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Without Bear to guide her, the girl could only wander aimlessly and desperately through the endless forest. She’d have given anything to have him back by her side, despite his often irritating old-fashioned demeanor, despite the secret fear that the others from school would laugh at her if they knew her childhood toy had escaped the dumpster (which had long since consumed her classmates’ toys).

Absent his determination, his steel, she was lost. It was painful to admit; twelve years old was practically grown up, after all, and what sort of grownup relied on teddy bears to guide them through far and enchanted wolds? What sort of grownup hovered on the verge of tears instead of taking charge?

And what sort was consumed by a deep and trembling fear when it was clear something was following her?

Horrified that it might be more gobs, or worse, the girl deliberately wandered through a muddy patch backwards, making it look like she had stumbled in the other direction, and then carefully doubled back through patches of fallen leaves that would betray no sign of her passing. It was a trick she had honed in years of hide and seek in the woods at Grandpa’s house, and her naturally light step allowed it to be pulled off without more than a soft rustle of fall foliage to betray her position.

The girl approached the shadow in the woods from behind, with the gob dagger drawn, though she had no idea how to use it. As the approached, the creature came into focus: a great grey blob that floated on the still air, controlling itself with large and gossamer fins. It looked like nothing so much as a large fish.

Hoping to scare it, the girl burst out of the underbrush with what she hoped was a very fierce yell and the gob dagger raised high. The curious fish-thing pivoted and faced her with a terrible gurgling sound, and the girl prepared to bury her dagger in her pursuer up to the hilt.

Then she saw its eyes.

Wide, sorrowful, fearful…they were like a mirror of her own. The girl lowered her weapon. “You’re just like me, aren’t you?” she said in her most soothing tone. “Lost and afraid.”

The creature bobbed, approximating a nod despite its lack of a neck.

“What do you say we travel together, then?” the girl said. She approached and calmly stroked the beast’s scaly surface. “We can be lost together.”

Gentle fins lofted her off the ground and onto the fish-thing’s neck, and the girl rode her newfound companion in the direction of the setting suns.

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I still remember the time Sean tried to do a wolf whistle and a copse of trees showed up and chased him across town.

Turns out he’d done a “wold whistle” by mistake, and the trees of the Old Town Wold hadn’t been happy about it.

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