Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sweet 16

Today, I am 16 years old. This is weird for me.

For one thing, changing ages is always weird. You don’t feel any older, because the aging has been happening so slowly and steadily over the past year that you haven’t really noticed it; so then, even though you think you still feel like you did when you turned 15, or whatever age you were before, you have to get used to telling people you’re ___ years old. You’ve never had to tell people that before, so it’s a hard habit to get into. And, just when you’ve gotten used to telling people your formerly new age, you have another birthday, and have to do the whole thing all over again.

And for another thing, well… I’ve always felt like 16 was sort of the halfway point between childhood and adulthood. Like, once I was 16 I’d suddenly be mature and womanly, and hundreds of boys would realize that I was a woman now, and little kids would look at me and think about me the way I always thought about teenagers when I was a little kid. I never really put it into those words before, it was just sort of this idea I had of what being 16 would be like, and maybe it will. Probably not, because I don’t actually know that many guys and the likelihood of them all falling for me at once is minimal.

But really, it feels just like every other birthday. Sure, I have different plans this year than any other birthday I’ve had — after all, it is my Sweet 16 — but I don’t just feel mature now. I feel just like I did yesterday, only there’s this weird knot in my stomach that wasn’t there before. Not a nervous knot, not a tense or unhappy knot, just a thoughtful knot that shows up and makes my face go all screwy whenever I get extra-thoughtful.

The thing about this birthday is that, maybe I am closer to being a woman. Maybe I am more mature. But I’m still me. I’m still the same me that I was on my seventh birthday — maybe even on my first birthday. Sure, I’ve gone through some stuff, both good and bad. I’ve changed. I have scars, both inside and outside that I didn’t come into this world with. I have new friends, I’ve lost old friends, and I have friends that have been here forever and will probably be here forever, too.

But I’m still Lauren Elizabeth Smith. I still live in a world populated by princesses in twirly dresses, knights in shining armour, dragons, dungeons, rescue missions; fairies, elves, dwarves, hobbits; animals that talk, some that are nasty and some that are kind; children who can fly; people who glow, and others who don’t; bedrooms that snow, stairs that become bumpy slides, and floors that are made of lava; wizards, guides, guardian angels and Jiminy-Cricket-style consciences; mad hatters, march hares, Cheshire cats and Queens of Hearts; toys that talk and move when I’m not in the room, that listen with big open eyes whenever I need to pour out my heart into someone’s ears, and who never, ever, ever tell my secrets; trees whose roots go so deep that they know and feel everything, and who let their knowledge and feelings slowly seep into me as I lean my head against their trunks, and who are always there to calm me when I feel like my heart’s about to burst; rivers that laugh and want to do nothing but play, even though they know full well that I am NOT going to stick my feet in their water; castles that look like playgrounds, but are really strongholds of a kingdom that’s been put under an evil spell that I can break by just pretending; clouds that are made of cotton candy; mysteries that must be solved; battles for death or glory; monsters that must be defeated; mountains that must be climbed; enemies who must be conquered.

I have friends, real ones, who love me unconditionally; I have a family who loves me unconditionally even more; I have a God who loves me unconditionally the most of all. I’m catching up on schoolwork; I’m thinking about college; I’m working on getting a driver’s license and maybe even a car. I have a social life, which mostly consists of people who I perform with; little kids really do look up to me, but more like an older human being who still remembers and understands exactly what it was like to be their age and less like some magical deity that they’ll automatically grow up to become. I’m thinking about what jobs I’d like to have; I’m planning for and working towards my future career; I’m writing, drawing, singing, composing. Every day I’m learning more about myself. This seems fairly adult-like to me.

Sp yeah, maybe I am closer to being a woman. Maybe I already am one. But no matter how old I get, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a child. That part of me will always be there, buried under the years, surfacing when people who I trust and love are around, and when I’m by myself, wondering which of my many stories will I write down today. I may be 16, but I’m still a kid. And I think that’s going to make this next year all the more fun.

Happy birthday to me!

Saviour’s Sunday: Poem “The Lion and The Lamb”

A Lion lies beside my feet,

A Lamb beside my head.

Each one watches over me

As I lie asleep in bed.

 

No nightmares dare to trouble me,

No demons, ghosts, or ghouls,

For the Lamb’s peace comforts my dreams,

And the Lion’s power rules.

 

The Lamb is curled beside my head,

The Lion at my feet.

I have no fear, for they are near;

My enemy’s been beat!

Thoughtful Thursday: Things My Friends Do That Make Me Smile

Julie draws about a million pictures of eyes.

Maddy flips out over finding anything in common with anyone.

Bekah walks around the house on tip-toe, even if she isn’t wearing ballet shoes.

Morgan snorts when she laughs.

Rebecca squeals over practically everything.

David fiercely insists that pineapples are pineapples and chocolate pies.

Carlie fiercely insists on wearing green and stripes, preferably both at the same time.

Anna squeaks when she laughs.

Michelle says things like “When I hear people not being quiet it makes me pumped.”

Cara makes crazy faces in photos.

Noah finds fart jokes hilarious.

Roman finds fart jokes hysterical.

Robert mixes up the names of his friends with the names of his dogs. And his computer.

Jameson doubles over on the ground when he laughs.

Halsey flips out over anything — anything — vintage.

Wesley quotes movies as much as I do — maybe even more than I do.

Megan dances around everywhere she goes and introduces herself to people by saying “Isn’t the moon just gorgeous tonight? Oh, I’m Megan, by the way.”

Emily freaks out over Doctor Who.

Wil sounds like a thirty-year smoker when he laughs.

Rachel makes puppy-eyes to ask for ice cream.

My friends are crazy. They’re loud, lovable, totally unique in every way, and the parts of them that make me laugh, even the parts that they don’t like, make my heart smile. I like that they have silly laughs, that they find fart jokes funny, that they go crazy for seemingly unimportant things, that they say things that don’t make sense for the sole purpose of not making sense, and that they determinedly dress, walk, and draw certain individual ways. Each of my friends is a gift from God, and their little quirks are just part of what makes them who they are. I love you guys! Thanks for all the laughter.

Movie Monday: How to Watch “Twilight” And Live to Tell About It

So, you’re home alone. There’s not much to do, so you switch on your TV. For a while you’re content watching What Not To Wear, but after a while you get bored with that, so you start flipping through channels, hoping you’ll accidentally find something decent to watch.

The problem is, it’s one of those days where there’s literally nothing on. Nothing that you want to watch, anyway. If you’re like me, that means that all that’s on is football, some talk shows, and the Disney Channel Army of Doom (a term I’ve decided to use to refer to the mass of channels that seem to play nothing but TV shows designed to warp the minds of innocent children, such as Cartoon Network, Toon Disney, Disney XD and the Disney Channel). So, as you’re repeatedly hitting the “UP” button on your remote, inwardly debating which show will cause your ears to bleed least — Spongebob Squarepants? Wizards of Waverly Place? Kick Buttowski? — the atmosphere in the room suddenly changes. The sound issuing from your television speakers goes from blaring-kid’s-show-theme-song to wailing synthesized instrumentals in a mopey minor key. Your screen is grey-toned, monotonous and racked with agitating shakey-cam. And the strange, awkward, creepy man standing in a forest with his shirt-unbuttoned is… wait… he’s sparkling?

Yes, my friend. In your innocent quest for entertainment you have inadvertently stumbled across what some call art, what others call crap, what Rifftrax calls an inexplicable cultural phenomenon, and what its director, producers, writers, actors, and novel-author call “Twilight”. You know of what I speak. There’s no use plugging your ears and covering your eyes and pressing the buttons of your remote at random, because you and I both know that you’re stuck between this, and the Disney Channel Army of Doom. And I have no way to make the latter survivable. So you get to choose: watch a cruddy TV show and die, or watch a cruddy movie and live. And no, it is not worth death to avoid watching Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart stammer and mumble their way through a few ridiculously slow-moving scenes.

So deal with it. You want to live? You’re watching “Twilight”.

NOTE: This is irony. I’m not actually saying you will literally physically die if you ever have to sit through an episode of A.N.T. Farm. Personally, however, every time I watch A.N.T. Farm, I die a little inside, whereas “Twilight” brings me great joy and much laughter. So, if you wish to retain your humanity, I would advise you to be smart and not allow yourself to stray into the dark realm of Disney Channel. There is evil there that does not sleep.

Okay. *sighs* Here we go. This is not going to be easy.

The premise of “Twilight” is thus: A relatively personality-less teenage girl named Bella Swan moves to a relatively personality-less town called Forks (the town is portrayed as personality-less in book and movie only; I’m sure that in real life Forks, Washington is a really cool place with really cool people. But in the world of “Twilight”, well…), in order to live with a relatively personality-less dad and attend a relatively personality-less high school where she meets relatively personality-less people and falls in love with a relatively personality-less vampire. The said vampire, Edward Cullen, is pale, creepy, effeminate, and sparkly — yes, I said sparkly — as are his vampire housemates, all of whom walk around looking either bored, haughty, or constipated, and mostly constipated. Edward himself stares at Bella from across the room, watches her sleep in her room, every night when she has no idea he’s there, bluntly tells her that he could kill her in an instant, confesses openly to having murdered multiple people and tells her that he wanted more than anything to murder her before he’d even met her, and forces out half-enunciated words through a clenched jaw. This, we’re told, is supposed to be attractive. Our two protagonists fall for each other during a series of awkward, uncomfortable scenes comprised of half-finished sentences, stuttering, lip-biting, blinking really fast for no apparent reason, abruptly-ended conversations, hulking, and a lot of Edward staring at everything from underneath dense eyebrows trying to look tough (which is hard to do when you, you know, sparkle). The antagonists are barely there, and when it comes to hammy acting, these three take the cake — which is saying something, considering what we get from the rest of the cast.

Pretty horrifying, right?

WRONG!!!

I’m going to re-write that paragraph, only I’m going to do it in a way that shows exactly how I feel about “Twilight” and why I not only survive watching it, but actually enjoy it.

The premise of “Twilight” is thus: A hilariously bland teenage girl named Bella Swan moves to a delightfully boring town called Forks (the town is portrayed as boring in book and movie only; I’m sure that in real life Forks, Washington is a really cool place with really cool people. But in the world of “Twilight”, well…), in order to live with a comically dull dad and attend a gleefully flavorless high school where she meets laughably humdrum people and falls in love with a fabulously tedious vampire. The said vampire, Edward Cullen, is pale, creepy, effeminate, and sparkly — yes, I said sparkly!!! — as are his vampire housemates, all of whom walk around looking either bored, haughty, or constipated, and mostly constipated, providing just enough laughs when the awkward monotony of everyone else fails to entertain. Edward himself provides us with astoundingly funny antics by staring at Bella from across the room, watches her sleep in her room, every night when she has no idea he’s there, claims that he, the sparkly vampire, could kill her in an instant (HA!!), runs around like a Benny Hill music video whilst talking about having murdered multiple people, and tells her that she smells so stinking good that when he first met her he nearly murdered her on the spot — because, you know, when your cake smells good, you just have to kill it — and garbles out half-enunciated words through a clenched jaw. Obviously, we are going to be attracted to this sparkly nonsense! Our two protagonists fall for each other during a series of wonderfully awkward, entertainingly uncomfortable scenes comprised of half-finished sentences, stuttering, lip-biting, blinking really fast for no apparent reason, abruptly-ended conversations, hulking, and a lot of Edward staring at everything from underneath dense eyebrows trying to look tough (because in the hilarious world of “Twilight”, sparkles just scream tough). The antagonists are barely there, and when it comes to hammy acting, these three take the cake — which is incredible, considering the delightfully over-the-top un-believability we receive from the rest of the cast.

There you go! That, ladies and gentlemen, is how I not only survive watching “Twilight”, not only enjoy “Twilight”, but actually laugh at, and even love, “Twilight”! It’s simple: View the whole thing not as a serious film that’s trying to insult your intelligence as a viewer, but instead as a comedy, created purely for your entertainment.

It’ll take a while to get the hang of, but with a little practice you can adjust your attitude in such away that you, too — yes, you, my friend — will be able to watch “Twilight” — and live to tell about it.

Ida Ichabod and The Girl Without A Face (Chapter 3)

I blinked. “What?”

“You’re wanted downstairs,” the man repeated. “We’re in need of your assistance, Agent Ichabod. We need you to help us with… something.”

“What do you mean, you need my help with something? What something? Why do you need my help?” My voice was growing slowly louder, as though I was a radio and someone had gotten their hand on the volume knob.

He looked around nervously. “Please, Agent Ichabod, keep your voice down.”

“Why?” I snorted, for some reason angry that one of Them would show anything resembling fear. “Everyone is outside training.”

“Not quite everyone,” the man said, looking over my shoulder. I turned around. Edgar’s head was poking out of the sick-room door, frowning. “Ida, you ought to be quieter than that, there are sleeping people in this room,” he called.

I wanted to say something along the lines of “look who’s talking”, but before I could get the words out Edgar was walking towards us, tucking his book under his arm and saying something in greeting to the man from the basement. I couldn’t quite make out what he said — my ears had started ringing again.

Edgar knew Them. Edgar had been down to the basement. Edgar was a part  of Them, maybe even was one of Them… But no, I was being silly. Hadn’t Rick said that it was highly likely that Edgar had been to the basement before? My head ached, and suddenly everything was tinged with blue and my tongue felt fuzzy. I felt myself sway and grabbed onto Edgar’s shoulder. “Ida!” he cried, gripping my arms. “No more fainting spells, please.”

I swallowed hard and blinked rapidly — gradually, everything came back into focus. “Yeah, of c-course… sorry.”

The man held out his hand, thought better of it, shoved it back into the pocket of his lab-coat, and smiled sheepishly at me. “We understand, Agent Ichabod.”

I stared hard at him. “No. You don’t.” Truth be told, neither did I. Edgar opened his mouth, his expression reproachful, but I pulled away and plowed on. “What do you want?” I demanded.

“I told you. You’re wanted downstairs.”

“Why?”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, you’ll find out if you come, won’t you?”

I shuffled my feet a bit, carefully examining the pattern on the tile. “Um… Is it, you know, alright if… Is it alright if… um… if Edgar comes too?” I bit my lip, feeling my cheeks get warm. Why was I being such a baby?

“Of course,” the man replied. Edgar, probably guessing what I was thinking, looked away from me very pointedly. I stared just as hard at a group of dots on the tile that were arranged in the shape of an alligator’s head. “If you’ll just quiet down,” he continued, “You can follow me.”

Still trying very hard not to make eye contact with either of them, I followed Edgar and the man through the basement door (“Authorized Personnel Only”, the sign said) and down the long, dark, cold stairway, which felt rather like being swallowed whole. I shivered and shoved my hands deeper into my pockets.

The staircase seemed to go on forever, taking us deeper and deeper underground. Twenty feet above me, I thought, Lucy and Officer Stein are training. And I can’t hear them. I can’t see anything, either. My grunt of irritation as I tripped over a metal something resting on one of the steps — a wrench, perhaps — echoed around my head. I jumped, extremely grateful that Edgar could see me no more than I could see him.

“Hold it,” said the man suddenly, throwing out his arm to catch me. “We’re at the bottom.”

I carefully pulled my foot back. “Oh.” Edgar chuckled.

I could hear the sound of skin sliding across stone. “Hang on –” he grunted, “The door’s here somewhere, it always takes a bit to find –”

“Why don’t you just put a light down here?” I asked. “It’s not like the dark is hiding anything, everybody knows you’re here.”

“Well,” he replied, “People are less likely to come down here if it’s dark, right? Light,” he said, “Is attractive. Aha, here we are.” There was a click, followed by a series of bangs that sounded like the turning of an enormous lock, and then with a burst of sterilized white light, the door swung open to reveal the strangest room I’d ever laid eyes on.

Which was saying something. I kill monsters in the bedrooms of children.

The room was green. Cold, glaring, blindingly neon green. I blinked furiously, shading my eyes with my hand, squinting and wondering why on earth anyone would paint a room neon green. Then I saw that the room hadn’t been painted at all — the strange color came from enormous glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that were emitting the green glow. Wait…

Chandeliers?!” I hissed to Edgar.

He nodded. “Apparently they have some unknown use. Or else the director is just secretly flamboyant, which I doubt.”

I watched as the light slowly changed from neon green to burnt orange. “Why do they change color like that?”

“Oh, the monsters like it. It’s like a drug.”

“So they just give the monsters whatever the heck they want?” I spat, glaring at the man, who was walking again. I didn’t bother to follow him.

“No, I said the monsters like it, not that they want it,” he replied, irritated, as always, at my incorrectness. “The light effects them like a drug, puts them into a near-permanent state of lethargy. They fight it — until you turn it on, and then they can’t. It’s like they’re under hypnosis.”

I scowled at him. “No need to talk to me if you’re going to talk to me like I’m three.”

“I was correcting you. You always jump to conclusions.”

I didn’t answer him, but turned away and looked pointedly over my shoulder at the door.

“You can’t go back until They give you permission.”

Again, I made no reply. There was a silence, during which I heard Edgar shuffle his feet anxiously and clear his throat numerous times, and the man’s footsteps as he continued to retreat towards the other end of the room.

“Looks awfully foolish, doesn’t he?” Edgar finally whispered.

“Everyone looks foolish compared to you,” I snapped, quickly moving to follow the strange man down the room. I wanted to see if Edgar was following, but I didn’t look back. Stupid mission leaders.

As I walked, I braved glancing at the walls on my left and right, though I kept my head trained forward. There seemed to be holes in the wall — fifty or so on each side — deep, black holes, each of about a five-foot radius, with bars over them. I thought at first that they were windows. Why on earth would they have windows underground, I wondered. Then I realized, as a long, spiny tail which had draped itself between one of the bars twitched and began to retreat into the hole again, that these were not windows. They were, in fact, cages.

The tail stopped moving, still have in the open. It twitched again. I flinched.

Why was this room so long?

I rushed to catch up with the man again. He’d put his gas mask back on; as I reached him, I felt the blood rush from my face and I swayed. Behind me, I heard Edgar’s pace quicken. Determined not to lose consciousness again, I forced myself to stand still and look just to the left of the mask. My palms felt clammy. I quickly buried them in my pockets again. “What is this place?”

We’d reached the end of the room. Here, I saw, was another door, as thick and heavy as the first, but painted the same color as the walls so that it would blend in with the lights. There was no door-handle. “The storage room,” he replied.

“And this?” I nodded to the door.

“It’s, well…” He glanced at Edgar, who had now caught up. I could almost hear my mission leader shrug. “You tell me.”

He placed his palm on the door, and it swung inward, taking the three of us with it. With an abrupt burst of noise and bright lights, I found myself standing in what was undoubtably —

“An ice cream parlour?!” I gasped.

“Well… kind of,” said the man. “Really, it’s headquarters. But the Director… he’s what you might call an eccentric.”

“Mr Pan?” The head of the PPAA was a little odd, and his inexplicable need to give his daughter whatever the heck she wanted was certainly not normal; but he eccentric wasn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe him.

“No. Mr Dodge.”

“Did SOMEbody say my name?”

I blinked. Strutting towards us from across the ice cream parlour was the strangest person I’d ever laid eyes on. I have laid eyes on persons of considerable strangeness, but in the case of this person — apparently Mr Dodge, Their director — eccentric didn’t seem to cover it. He was tall — his head brushed the ceiling as he walked — and he was the skinniest person I’d ever seen. His clothing (boy, did he ever have on a lot of clothing) hung from his bony frame like curtains, pooling around his feet as he walked in great swathes of thick, velvety fabric. He was as bald as an eagle on his head, but from his chin and upper lip hung a thick, curly beard of the deepest black that ended just below his ribs. His eyes were hidden by equally thick, curly black brows that stuck out about an inch from his face. His nose was shockingly small, ending in a round snout the shape of a mushroom just above his moustache. His clothes were deep emerald, velvet, and far too big for him, and seemed to be mostly comprised of a pair of pants underneath a robe that tied at his waist and had an enormous fur collar surrounding his neck. He also had on mounds and mounds of jewelry: pearls, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, odd little stones that glittered when he moved… He was strange, alright. Very strange. But I liked him immediately. Aside from enormous eyebrows, his eyes were also surrounded by laugh lines, and the eyes themselves were a deep, deep emerald, the same color as his robe, and even more velvety. I knew right off that as long as this man was in charge, I was safe down here.

“Yes, sir,” said the man in the mask. “I did. I was explaining the main room of headquarters –”

“What’s to explain?” boomed Mr Dodge. “It’s clearly an ice cream parlour.”

“Yes, sir, but I was trying to explain why.”

“Why?!” Mr Dodge roared. “Why?! Because I like ice cream, that’s why!” Abruptly, he turned and looked at me, a long, bony finger pointed directly at my nose. “Would you like some?”

“Some… um…” I was rather taken aback by this strange man’s stranger manner, but I tried not to show it. “Some ice cream? Uh… yes, please.”

“Excellent!” he cried, whipping around in a flurry of emerald velvet and stepping behind the ice cream counter. “What flavour would you like?”

I stared at the menu that was hanging on the wall behind the counter. “Um… homemade vanilla?”

NONSENSE, girl!” he boomed. “Vanilla? POO. You want –” Then he froze and looked me square in the eye. For a split-second, I felt as though I’d been stripped bare in front of this man, right down to my bones, and he was looking inside of me… “You want red velvet cake. With white sprinkles.”

That sounded a little rich for my taste. “Why white sprinkles?” I asked him.

“For fun,” he said simply, and quick as a flash he’d scooped both the deep scarlet ice cream and the sprinkles into an enormous waffle cone and was holding it over the counter inches from my face. I reached up and took it, giving it a tentative lick as I took a step back. “That’s it!” he roared approvingly. It tasted very good.

I sat at one of the spotlessly white tables while Edgar asked for mint-chocolate-chip and was instead given triple-chocolate-chunk with crimson and purple sprinkles, licked my own ice cream, and thought. I thought about apologizing to Edgar. I thought about getting up and running as fast as I could back to the crop circle and pretending that none of this had ever happened. I thought about Mr Dodge and his velvety emerald eyes. I thought about how good this ice cream tasted. I thought about the monster tail I’d seen hanging out of the cage back in the storage room. Mostly, though, I wondered. Why the heck was I down here?

By the time I’d worked my way from utter confusion to flat-out bewilderment, Mr Dodge had forced a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the man in the mask and scooped himself a triple-scoop mix of lime sherbet, white chocolate, and red velvet with a mountain of sprinkles of every color imaginable somehow balanced on top. The three of them made their way over to me, all licking their ice cream, and sat down at my table. Watching Mr Dodge eat his ice cream fascinated me. The man in the mask, Edgar and I were all struggling to keep our ice cream from dribbling out of the cones and onto our wrists, but not a sprinkle fell onto Mr Dodge, despite his magnificent beard.

When I’d finished, I glanced nervously at Edgar. He was still busy trying to lap up the slowly melting drops of triple-chocolate-chunk, but he caught my look and nodded at me. I bit my lip and looked back at the eccentric director. “Uh… Mr Dodge, we haven’t been introduced. I’m –”

“Ida Michelle Ichabod. Fifteen years old. Been one of our best agents for nine years. Specialize in automobile driving, laser blasters, and disguises. In the running for mission leader as well as a considered candidate for Officer.” I blinked and opened my mouth, but he continued. “You’ve been an agent since you were six years old, and were, if I recall correctly, one of a very few hand-picked by myself and my men.”

I stared at him, my mouth still hanging open. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then Edgar leaned over, cleared his throat, and said quietly, “Mr Dodge keeps tabs on all the agents, Ida.”

“Of course I do!” boomed Mr Dodge.

“I…” I tried to think of something, anything, to say. “I didn’t know I was a candidate for Officer.”

“You’re not. Officially, anyway. You’re a considered candidate.”

“Oh.” Another pause. “Um… Mr Dodge… I was just — well, I was wondering…”

“You were wondering why you’re here.”

I nodded gratefully. “Yeah. Yes, sir, I mean.”

“Because I wanted to show you something.” Suddenly his green eyes sparkled, like a kid who’s just realized that there’s two days left till Christmas. “C’mere.”

Edgar, the man in the mask, and I followed the mountain of emerald velvet back into the storage room, which was now a jarring shade of neon yellow. Mr Dodge lead us over to one of the cages in the wall. There was no tail in this one, though. In fact, as far as I could tell, there was absolutely nothing in this cage.

“Look!” said Mr Dodge excitedly, pointing another bony finger (this one heavily ringed) at the cage.

I did so. There was still nothing. “What exactly are we supposed to be looking at, Mr Dodge?”

“Exactly what I thought you’d say!” he roared, giving me an approving look. “There’s nothing to look at! Nothing! Until…” Now he tapped one finger on a cage bar.

I watched as a set of all-too-familiar silver talons slid from nowhere in the darkness. And I remembered Rick, saying he’d been pulled down here because he’d captured a new breed of monster — a nameless, faceless monster — and suddenly everything clicked.

“I’m here because of this,” I said. “I’m here because I found something that only one other person has found. I didn’t just find it, I shot it, I bagged it.”

“Not just that,” said Mr Dodge, suddenly quiet as he turned towards me and leaned down, till his mushroom-shaped nose was less than an inch away from my own. “You’re here because we need you. You’re here because we think there are more.

“You’re here because we think the PPAA has been infiltrated.”