The Forgotten Legend of Mitzy Bunkler: A Bedtime Story by Lauren Elizabeth (part 2)

I should tell you what Mitzy Bunkler looks like. Of course, nobody really knows anymore, so I can’t say that my description will be exactly spot-on, but I’ll try my best to be accurate.

Mitzy Bunkler is small. Very small. Actually, she’s probably no more than two feet high, and probably less. She’s very thin, and very straight, like a stick that’s been sanded and carved until it could be a table leg or the set of handlebars to a very old-fashioned bicycle. Now, from that bit of description you might guess that she is a fairy, but she isn’t. She’s related to fairies, of course (everything magical is related to everything else magical), but really she’s something different. A picture, you see, is a tiny whisp of imagination that forms itself into a little being — sometimes a dog, sometimes a bird, sometimes a cat, but most times a person. Most children have them, but the very sad thing about pictures is that they can’t have each other, and when the little child who created them grows up, they get forgotten about; so each picture is, at some point in time, really and completely alone.

Mitzy Bunkler’s hair is gray, and made of smoke. Her skin looks like the fog on your mirror after a hot shower. When she moves, she swirls and curls and seems to somehow catch hold of everything around her, and to most people she looks like no more than a shadow, a spot of grayness in an otherwise colorful world, and so they can’t see her. They don’t even know she’s there. But Timmy could see exactly what it was that made her so visible to him, what made her exist for only himself: her eyes. Her eyes were a dazzling, sparkling, fierce green. They were the sharpest, saddest eyes he’d ever seen, and if you saw them, they’d be the sharpest, saddest eyes you’d ever seen, too.

The eyes were the first thing Timmy saw when he opened the toy box.

Out swirled Mitzy Bunkler — irritable, cramped, and grouchy, but existing. She liked existing. Existing was actually a very lovely feeling — but she wasn’t going to show Timmy that.

“Took you long enough!” she chirped angrily. Mitzy Bunkler had a very tiny voice to go with her very tiny body, so most times her voice was like a flute. When she was angry, she chirped like an offended mother bird; when she was scared, she whistled like a kettle. Luckily for Timmy, she didn’t get angry or scared very often. He’d go deaf if she did.

“S-s-sorry!” gasped Timmy, leaping backwards onto his bed. Arnold was standing there, gaping at the strange misty form that was curling and twisting in front of him. He was so shocked he couldn’t even growl.

Mitzy’s eyes cooled a little. “Well, it’s alright, I suppose. I’m out now, aren’t I?”

“Yeah…”

Mitzy turned (as best she could turn, given that she wasn’t made of a whole lot of substance) and gave Timmy a long, hard look. Timmy felt as though he was under inspection by the school nurse on check-up day. He sat up straighter, wanting to seem healthy.

“You’ve been crying,” Mitzy declared after about five minutes of this. Timmy waited for her to say something else. She didn’t.

“Yeah, I have,” he replied.

“Why?”

“Because… because of being average.”

“Who’s ‘average’?” chirped Mitzy, suddenly indignant. “Who on earth — or any planet — has ever been average in the history of time and space?”

She stared at Timmy again for a long time. Then Timmy realized she expected an answer. “Um… I d-don’t know…” he said, even though he did know.

“Nobody, that’s who.” Mitzy folded her arms and smiled, looking very pleased with herself, as though that statement had been one of irrefutable wisdom.

“That’s what Mother and Dad say. They say that ‘average’ is a made-up word, except when you use it for test grades and stuff like that.”

“I’d say your parents are smart people,” said Mitzy approvingly. She glanced apprehensively at Arnold, who had started growling again. “Look, I think I’d better go for a while. Just until tomorrow morning. I’m coming with you to school.”

“Y-you are?”

“Of course I am. I’m your… well, you call us invisible friends, and grown-ups call us imaginary. I’m one of those. I go where you go.”

“So how are you going to leave tonight?”

“Oh, I’m not going to leave,” she said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world, “I’m just going to dematerialize. Break into a million bits, I mean. And then tomorrow I’ll materialize again when it’s time to go to school. I’ll have to be careful about my aim, though. That’s how I ended up in the toy box. I was aiming for on top of your bookshelf, but I guess my aim’s much worse than I thought.”

“Uh… yeah,” said Timmy stupidly.

Now Mitzy laughed — a sincere, enthusiastic laugh that sounded like a load of little Christmas bells when you ring a bunch of them all at once. Arnold stopped growling at the sound of it. “Yeah.” She grinned a smokey grin. “Sweet dreams, Timmy. I’ll be here tomorrow.”

And with that she was gone — or had Timmy simply closed his eyes and fallen asleep? Timmy could never be sure.

The next morning, Timmy woke up feeling, for some reason, very excited. He couldn’t remember why, but something in the back of his mind made him feel like something very big and important and not average was going to happen to him. What was it… what was it…?

He woke up, ate his cereal, fed Arnold, and left for school just like any other day. But it wasn’t just like any other day, and he soon remembered why — when something in his backpack went BUMP.

He knew that BUMP.

With a gasp of sudden realization and excitement, he whipped his backpack around in front of him and unzipped it. There, staring up at him with great green eyes and rubbing her smokey head with one hand, was the miracle from his toy box.

“Hello!” he cried.

“Hey, you,” she said, wincing at the sound of his loud voice. “Close your mouth. You look as if you didn’t even know I was going to be here.”

“Well, I… I didn’t. I’d forgotten about you.”

The miracle’s green eyes blinked. “Oh. Of course you did. Shoulda known,” she said ruefully, more to herself than to Timmy. “Everyone always forgets me. Just hoped maybe this time it’d be different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing!” she twinkled, suddenly bright and cheery. She grabbed Timmy by the wrist and cried, “Come on, off we go! We’ve got an adventure to go on!”

“But what about school?”

“School?” she said, grinning. “School’s an adventure for another time. Maybe later.”

“But… but…” Timmy spluttered, struggling to pull out of her strange, smokey grasp as she pulled him off the sidewalk, across the road and into the woods that surrounded the town park, “But I can’t just skip school, Mother and Dad will be angry!”

They’d reached the opposite sidewalk now. The miracle stopped and turned around to face him. “Don’t worry. You won’t miss school. I’ll take you on an adventure or two, or three, or ten, and then we’ll be back here in time for you to catch your bus.”

“But that’ll take hours!”

“Will not!” she chirped indignantly. “I should think I have a bit more power that that. Now, any more buts for me to argue with?”

“N-not really… but… what’s your name?”

The miracle’s green eyes brightened, her mouth opened up in a misty, swirling smile. “I’m Mitzy Bunkler. Now come on, let’s go!” And with one final yank on Timmy’s arm, go they did… Deep, deep, deep into the forest.

************************

Timmy blinked. He had expected the inside of a forest to be dark and green and filled with shadows and scary noises. He hadn’t thought it would be so white and fluffy. “Where are we?” he asked Mitzy.

“Take a guess,” she replied.

“Um… We’re in a cloud?”

“Nope, but good try,” she laughed. She scooped up a handful of the white stuff and held it out to him. “Here, taste it.” Timmy blinked again. Mitzy rolled her eyes. “No really, have a lick!”

Tentatively, Timmy stuck out his tongue and lapped up a bit of the stuff. His eyes lit up and he smiled hugely. “It’s cotton candy!”

“Exactly!” said Mitzy. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it’s like to be the smallest thing in the universe?”

“Yeah, I have.”

“Well, you aren’t going to find that out any time soon, because it’s impossible to be that small, unless you’re the smallest thing itself. But this is the closest thing.”

“That’s amazing!” cried Timmy, “But… if we’re standing in a giant heap of cotton candy… Won’t we get eaten?”

“Not yet!” she cried, leaping into the air and flitting from one pile of cotton candy to another, “They haven’t even colored this stuff yet. Once they turn it blue or pink, then we’d better think about moving on.”

“But that could take ages!”

“I don’t think so!” said Mitzy, wagging one smokey finger. Even as she said it, Timmy looked up, and there, hanging in the air above him, was a giant vat of strange, sticky-looking, bright blue liquid.

As Timmy watched, invisible (probably giant) hands tipped the vat over, and a flood of blue gunk crashed over his head. Timmy squeezes his eyes shut and held his breath, but the stuff still got in his mouth and made him feel sticky all over. “Eurgh…” he groaned, smacking his lips and wiping the liquid from his eyes. “That’s gross.”

“Not when it turns into cotton candy,” said Mitzy, grinning. She tapped him on the shoulder and, just like that, all the blue was gone. Timmy gave a sigh of relief and wiggled his arms about, pleased that he could do so freely. “Come on,” Mitzy twinkled at him. “We’d better get going, they’re going to mix up the stuff into actual cotton candy now.”

Timmy looked up at the gigantic bucket that was now being pulled back away from the fluff they were standing in. “It’s so big…”

“Not really,” said Mitzy. “I mean, think about it. If we were the size you normally are, it wouldn’t seem very big at all. It’s not big… we’re just small.”

“Or maybe we’re not small, it’s just big.”

“It’s not like being small’s a bad thing,” chirped Mitzy, annoyed. “Here, look.” She grabbed Timmy’s hand. There was a whooshing sound and a blast of wind on Timmy’s face — he felt rather like he was spinning. He squeezed his eyes shut and held on very tight to Mitzy’s hand. When the movement stopped, he opened them to find that they were apparently perched on the highest branch of a very large tree. Spread out beneath them was, Timmy realized, a huge carnival, with ferris wheels and roller coasters and cake walks and games. He gasped in awe at the twinkling lights and the biggest of the spinning ferris wheels. It was all very pretty.

Mitzy tapped him on the shoulder. “Look there,” she said, pointing one twisting tendril of a finger.

Timmy looked. Mitzy was pointing at a very young girl, younger than Timmy, who was walking with her mother. One hand had disappeared into her mother’s, the attached arm lifted so high she had to walk on tip-toe, dangling happily from one ride to another. The other hand was holding very tightly to a thick, fluffy, delicious cone of light blue cotton candy.

“Is that the same stuff we were in just now?” he gasped.

“Sure is!” Mitzy replied. “Watch this.”

Timmy watched as the little girl took a large bite out of the cotton candy. Her face lit up in a very big smile, and she looked up and said, “Cotton candy is good, Mommy. You should have some.”

Mommy smiled distractedly — the line for the last ride of her day was getting longer, and she really wanted to get a good place in line so she could just get this whole carnival nonsense over with. “Mommy’s fine without it, dear,” she said wearily.

“But it’s good. It makes my tummy happy. See? Here, taste it!” She reached up as high as she could, waving the cone in front of Mommy’s face.

Mommy paused for a second, looked at the cone, glanced uneasily at the steadily growing line, and then turned back to her daughter’s pleading face.

“Please?” the girl begged.

“Oh, alright,” said Mommy reluctantly. As quickly as she could, she bit out of the cottony mound.

“Isn’t it good, Mommy?” the little girl asked.

To Timmy’s surprise, Mommy began to change. She looked down at her daughter, and her face relaxed into an affectionate smile. She bent down with her hands on her knees, looked the little girl in the face, and said, “Yes, sweetheart. It’s very good. You were right, it made Mommy’s tummy happy.” And with that, she picked her delighted daughter up off the ground and carried her to the end of the now extremely long line, where they stood, laughing and chattering and taking turns biting at the cotton candy.

“You see?” asked Mitzy happily. “It’s not so bad being small. All those tiny pieces of sugar probably thought they were to tiny to matter… But all that mother had to do was taste a few of them, and they made her day a bit happier, and her happiness in turn made the little girl happy.”

Timmy nodded. “And we never think about it, do we, us being so big?”

“Hardly ever,” agreed Mitzy. “But actually, compared to a lot of things, we’re not big at all.”

Timmy looked at her. “You’ve just shown me the smallest thing in the universe, or something close enough. So now you’re going to show me the biggest thing in the universe.”

“Or something close enough,” twittered Mitzy, smiling hugely. “Watch this.”

Timmy closed his eyes and held on tight to Mitzy’s hand again. This trip was much, much longer then the last two. When he opened his eyes this time, however, he immediately closed them again, because he found himself almost blinded by an onslaught of brilliant, fiery white light. “WHERE ARE WE?!?!” he screamed to Mitzy, his volume rising steeply with his shock. He could still feel her wispy hand clasped in his.

“We’re in space,” she said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s not that bad now, take a look.”

Hesitantly, Timmy opened his eyes. Mitzy was right — the light had dimmed considerably, but it was still very bright, and he had to squint to see what it was he was looking at, and even then he still didn’t know. “What is it?” he asked.

When Mitzy answered, Timmy knew that she was smiling. She sounded almost proud. “A supernova. A star, that’s exploding. It’s dying.”

“It’s huge,” cried Timmy.

“That’s a bit of an understatement, Timmy,” said Mitzy, waving her arms about wildly. “It goes on and on and on.”

Timmy looked. She was absolutely right. Timmy suddenly felt very, very small. He tried to open his eyes as wide as he could, to take in all the yellows and oranges and reds, even blues and pinks and greens, but the explosion went on forever. There was no sound, and Timmy and Mitzy felt no heat, but there it was, happening right in front of them. A star, huge and old and very, very important, was dying. It was bigger than anything Timmy could ever have imagined. It was the biggest thing anyone had ever seen — and Timmy realized he was the first one to ever get to see it.

He turned to Mitzy, suddenly aware that his arms and legs were shaking furiously. “What now?”

Smiling in a strange, old way, Mitzy reached out her hand for Timmy’s. “Take a guess,” she said.

Timmy did. He was right.

The Forgotten Legend of Mitzy Bunkler: A Bedtime Story by Lauren Elizabeth (Part 1)

Nobody knows just who Mitzy Bunkler is. Not anymore. Because here’s the thing: Mitzy Bunkler isn’t real. She has never existed. Not ever, not in the whole of history and space and time. But to one little boy who lived in a little country in a little town that sat on the edge of a little hill, Mitzy Bunkler was the most very real person in the entire universe, and all the universes beyond.

Mitzy Bunkler, you see, is a picture. Not the kind you find in a museum, but the kind you might see as you’re walking down your sidewalk. You’re looking straight ahead, not paying much attention to what’s around you, and as the wind picks up or a fly or a bit of dust swirls itself up into your face, and you blink, which is only natural. But just before you blink, something in the corner of your eye, something you can’t quite see and don’t even quite know is there, moves. It just moves for a second, not even that — more like one trillionth of a second — and then it’s gone, you’ve opened your eyes again and the shadows in the corner of your eyes are just shadows again, harmless shadows that don’t move unless the sun does, and within another trillionth of a second you’ve completely forgotten about it, because you’re used to this. This happens every single time you blink.

Try it. Blink.

There. You just saw Mitzy Bunkler. She was there, just barely, ever so slightly there. But you don’t remember. You’ve gone and opened your eyes, and now you’ve forgotten again.

The thing about pictures like Mitzy Bunkler is that there really aren’t any. She’s the only one, there’s nothing like her, and remember, she doesn’t even exist. She’s the kind of picture that moves when you see something shift behind your reflection in your mirror. That shift that wasn’t there anymore when you turned around, that was Mitzy, that was her existing for just a little while.

Mitzy Bunkler: the loneliest, most wonderous, and most beautiful picture that no one, no one except one little boy, has ever seen.

That little boy’s name was Timmy.

Timmy was average. That was what everyone said. Of course, Timmy, being only six, wasn’t exactly sure what “average” meant, but he didn’t think he liked it very much. People always said it with an uncertain shrug, an uncertainly cocked eyebrow, an uncertainly crooked mouth, as if they weren’t quite sure of who exactly Timmy was and couldn’t think of another word to describe him besides “average”.

“Yes, Tallulah is a miraculously brilliant young child, not to mention pretty. Todd is doing wonderfully in his PE classes, but his math and reading could use some work. And Timmy… Timmy, Timmy… Who…? Ah yes, Timmy,” the principal of Timmy’s elementary school might say, nearly missing Timmy’s name on the list of student’s in Timmy’s class because he was busy trying not to spill a drop of coffee on Tallulah’s name, “How is young Timmy?”

“Oh,” his teacher might respond, her shoulder’s shrugged, her eyebrow cocked, her mouth crooked, and her mind focused on something else, “Oh, average, I suppose. I wouldn’t know. Doesn’t really talk much.”

That part, Timmy knew, was true. He didn’t talk much. He sat in the back of his classroom with the other T’s (except for Tallulah, who sat in the front row because she was pretty and got all A’s on her homework assignments), dutifully coloring his skies blue and his grasses green, answering on his math worksheets that a one and a one make a two and sometimes another one, but never a three, writing his name in neat cursive handwriting, remembering which hand was on the left and which was on the right, reading “A Cat in The Hat” during quiet time, when the teacher would sit behind her computer screen and laugh very loudly at whatever it was she was looking at and snap if any of the children made a noise, and occasionally answering a question when the teacher called on him during lessons. He never spoke out of turn, never forgot his homework, never cut in line, and always ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a sliced up apple for lunch. Everybody knew he was there, but nobody seemed to notice that he existed. And who could blame them, wondered Timmy. He didn’t exactly stand out from the crowd.

Timmy lived with his mother, his father, and his pet dog, Arnold. His mother worked part-time as a nurse at the doctor’s office, and then came home at the same time as Timmy. His father taught an art class at the little town college and came home for dinner, his hands, face, and clothing spattered with paint and clay, to wash up and play with Timmy and Arnold for a while before sitting down to eat whatever Mother had cooked. Then Timmy would do his homework while his parents cleaned up dinner, and then the four of them would sit in the living room (Timmy and his parents on couches, Arnold on the floor because for him couches were out-of-bounds) and watch a show on the television. Sometimes they would watch a film (his father called them “documentaries”) about something important like Ancient Egypt. Other times they would watch a movie, a real one, with a story and characters and morals. When they watched these, Mother would always quiz Timmy about the morals to see if he could spot them. Timmy liked it when Mother quizzed him. It made him feel special.

Then, once Mother and Dad were sure that he had understood the morals of the movie, Dad would scoop Timmy up onto his back and carry him up the stairs to the bathroom, where they would brush their teeth together and see who could get their teeth the whitest. Then they’d have a race to see who could get into their pajamas fastest. Dad always let Timmy win, and then he’d tell him a bedtime story as a prize. Dad’s stories were all about people who went on grand adventures and saw marvelous sights and defeated terrible foes. Magical, wonderous, beautiful, completely impossible stories that had Timmy sitting up in bed, his knees and covers pulled up to his chin, his eyes huge. And then Dad would kiss him goodnight, tuck him into bed, and go to send Mother up to Timmy’s room. Mother would sit on the edge of Timmy’s bed, ruffle his hair, check his knees and elbows for bumps and bruises, tickle his armpits to make him laugh, and then kiss him goodnight. As she leaned in to give him a kiss she would always whisper, “Never forget that Dad and I love you very much.” and Timmy never did forget it. What if he was average at school? At home, he had the best parents and the best dog in the whole world. When Mother left, Arnold would leap up onto Timmy’s bed, and Timmy would put one arm around the big dog and bury his face in Arnold’s fur. Timmy didn’t care much whether or not Arnold smelled bad.

Then the next day he would go to school and Mother and Dad would go to work, and he would be quietly average again. Quietly Average Timmy. That was him. Whatever “average” meant.

Timmy didn’t like being average very much.

One day, Timmy felt so very invisible that when he came home from school, he didn’t play in the yard with Arnold, or wrestle with Dad, or eat Mom’s dinner. He didn’t even do his homework. He got off the bus, walked through his door, marched up the stairs and slammed the door. Mother was worried about him. She tried to get him to come out and talk to her, or to let her come in so she could talk to him, but he wouldn’t do it. Eventually Mother decided to wait until Dad got home and went downstairs to make dinner, so Arnold took her place by the door and whined his worries at Timmy through the wood. But Timmy still wouldn’t come out. When Dad got home, he tried, too, but to no avail; Timmy was going to stay in his room all night long and he wasn’t coming out. So Dad and Mother and Arnold talked it over and decided that something was definitely making Timmy very sad, but they couldn’t make him talk about it. So they decided to let him have his space, and ate dinner and cleaned up without him, but they left his plate on the table.

Eventually, Timmy came down. Mother heated up his dinner for him in the microwave, and she and Dad went into the living room to watch television shows until he was done. When he finished, he washed his plate, standing on tip-toe so that he could reach the sink, did his homework, and followed his parents into the living room.

He stood in the doorway for a minute, not sure what to do.

“Dad? Mother?” he said finally.

Dad turned off the television. “Hey, kiddo,” he said, he and Mother turning around to look at him. “You finish you dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Wash your plate?”

“Yes.”

“Do your homework?”

“Yes.”

“Had enough quiet time?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Dad patted the space on the couch between him and Mother. “Let’s talk.”

So Timmy talked. He sat in between Dad and Mother with Arnold on the floor in front of him, and told them everything: about sitting in the back of the class, about not talking much, about blue skies and one plus one and cursive handwriting, about the teacher’s computer and the principal’s coffee, about Tallulah sitting in the front row because she was special, and most of all, about “average”. His parents and Arnold sat and listened. They didn’t say a lot, they just watched him and listened to what he had to say, occasionally glancing at each other with expressions that Timmy didn’t quite understand. Finally, he finished. He took a very deep breath, and then looked from Dad to Arnold to Mother, wondering what was supposed to happen next, and hoping that whatever it was made him feel better.

Mother put her arm around Timmy’s shoulders. She didn’t say anything at first, or look at Timmy. She and Dad were both staring at the black television screen, looking very thoughtful. Then Mother turned her head to look at Timmy, and she said very quietly, “Timmy, you aren’t average. There’s no such thing as average. Average is a made-up thing. It’s imaginary.”

“But it isn’t,” said Timmy, surprised. “It’s real. Teacher talks about average grades and test scores all the time.”

Dad shook his head. “‘Average’ means what happens often. An average grade is the grade that most kids in a certain grade level are likely to get on a test or something. ‘Average’ can apply to things like tests and grades, but when people try to use it on other people, the word becomes imaginary.”

“You don’t happen often, Timmy,” said Mother. “You happen only once. You can’t be average because there are lots of people in the world, but only one Timmy. Only one you.”

As if to prove what Mother and Dad were saying, Arnold barked and nestled his nose in between Timmy’s sneakers. He sniffed them, and barked again.

“There’s only one Arnold, too,” laughed Timmy, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

“Only one Arnold,” agreed Dad, smiling and scratching Arnold between the ears. “Arnold is not your average dog.”

“And I’m not your average Timmy,” replied Timmy, smiling back.

“No, you’re absolutely not,” said Mother. “Timmy, you know those stories your dad tells you every night? The ones about knights and dragons and strange worlds where magic happens?”

Timmy nodded.

“The people in those stories might seem incredible, but at the beginning of the story, everybody thinks they’re pretty average.”

Timmy blinked. He hadn’t noticed that.

“What I mean, Timmy, is that no matter how average people think you are, no matter how invisible you may seem to others, and no matter how much you think you blend in, wonderous, beautiful, and miraculous things can still happen to you. You can make them happen to you. You don’t have to seem special to other people to make the world magical.”

Timmy went to bed that night feeling much better. Dad told him a story, Mother checked him for bumps and bruises, and Timmy went to sleep feeling peaceful and happy.

That was the night that Mitzy Bunkler appeared in his toy box.

Don’t worry, reader. I haven’t forgotten Mitzy Bunkler, though everyone else has. Mitzy Bunkler, the strange, lonely, just-out-of-sight picture was about to become Timmy’s first wonder.

It began at midnight.

BUMP

… went the toy box. Timmy and Arnold didn’t move. Arnold snored.

BUMP

… went the toy box again. Arnold started, lifted up his head, and gazed at the toy box uncertainly. Were Mother and Dad just moving around? Or was there really something in the toy box?

There was a long silence. Arnold put his head back down.

BUMP, BUMP!!

Arnold leapt to his feet, scowling at the toy box. He growled at it, his fur bristling. Something was in there

Timmy stirred, rubbed his eyes, and sat up, blinking and squinting furiously.

“What? Arnold, what’s wrong –”

BUMP, BUMP, BUMP!!!

Timmy gasped and grabbed onto Arnold’s head. “Arnold, what is it? What’s in my toy box?”

BUMP BUMP BUMP BUMP BUMP!!!!

Timmy started to call for Mother and Dad, but the toy box bumped again, and this time, he heard a tiny “ouch!!” from inside it.

And for the first time, the thought occurred to Timmy that whatever was in his toy box might not want to be in there. Maybe it wasn’t a monster trying to scare him. Maybe, just maybe, it was trying to be somewhere else, but it was stuck in his toy box.

Something magical was trapped. In Timmy’s toy box.

Timmy decided, then and there, that he was going to let it out.

And that’s when the miracle started.

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 😄 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.”