At the appropriate time, you must say the magic words with your eyes closed. If you can’t speak and close your eyes at the same time, you belong in a hospital. As for what the magic words are, I can’t tell you and I never will. Examine the first letter carefully and you will work them out.

He read it again three times, then stuffed the letter and the envelope into his coat pocket. Shivering as he put his gloves back on, he couldn’t help but feel a mixture of excitement and wariness.

Magic words? Eyes closed? What is this, Oz?

Things were getting just plain weird. Pulling his scarf tighter, Tick rubbed his arms, trudging through the snow toward home.

He got to his house just in time for dinner, which he wolfed down like a kid determined to eat all the Halloween candy before a sibling stole it. He barely heard the conversation around the table and excused himself after stuffing the last three bites’ worth of spaghetti into his mouth all at once.

He leapt up the stairs to his room, determined to finally put some major thought into figuring out the clues. Something about seeing an eight-foot-tall woman appear out of the woods on a snowy day made everything seem real. Though he had no idea about the whys or hows or whats, he was now committed to the game.

Tick unfolded the original letter and both clues and put them on his desk, pointing his lamp to shine directly on their stark black words. He reread the first letter from M.G., which seemed to be mostly an introduction to set things up. The most recent message said the first letter would reveal “magic words” he’d need to say on a special day, but he’d get to that later. One thing at a time.

The first clue obviously told him the date of that special day—the day when he’d have to have solved the ultimate puzzle spelled out by the coming clues. He focused on the paragraph, reading it several times.

Mark your calendar. One week from the day before the day after the yesterday that comes three weeks before six months from six weeks from now minus forty-nine days plus five tomorrows and a next week, it will happen. A day that could very well change the course of your life as you know it.

I must say, I hope to see you there.

As he read through it, he tried to visualize in his mind the stated time periods, adding and subtracting as he went. But by the time he got to the end, the words always jumbled up and fell apart inside his thoughts. He realized he needed to treat it like a math problem, solving it in sections until everything could be added together.

He pulled out a pencil and drew parentheses around phrases that were easy to identify as a stand-alone period of time. Then he assigned letters to them to help him solve them in the most logical order. All the while, he knew he must be the biggest dork this side of the Pacific Ocean, but he didn’t care. He was just starting to have fun.

He first attempted to figure out the clue from beginning to end, adding and subtracting time with each new phrase as it came in order. But he kept hitting a snag because of the words “before” and “six weeks from now” in the middle of the paragraph. The phrases seemed to split the timeline into two pieces and he realized he needed to work around them, not from first word to last word.

After a half hour and lots of erasing and starting over, he copied the phrases and their assigned letters to a different sheet of paper. Then, using the Seattle Seahawks calendar that hung next to his bed (which also had a one page, year-at-a-glance section for this year and the next), he penciled in the dates as he figured them out. When he finished, he leaned back in his chair and took a look:

Beginning Date: Today, November 26.

A. –6 weeks from now = January 7

B. –6 months from A = July 7

C. –the day before the day after the yesterday that comes 3 weeks before B = 3 weeks plus 1 day before B = 22 days before B = June 15

D. –1 week from C = June 22

E. –D minus 49 days = May 4

F. –E plus 5 tomorrows and a next week = E plus 12 days = May 16

He went over his math again to make sure he’d done it right, and was just about to put the calendar away, quite satisfied with himself, when he realized he’d missed the easiest and most important part of the clue. The beginning date.

You idiot, he thought.

Whoever M.G. was, he or she would have no way of knowing when people received the cryptic letters, much less when they would test out the first clue to figure out the

all-important date. Tick reread one of the lines from the first letter:

Beginning today (the fifteenth of November), I am sending out a sequence of special messages . . .

November the fifteenth. Even before officially starting the messages, M.G. had provided the mystery’s first hint: the start date needed to solve Clue Number One.

Tick quickly went through the calendar again, calculating three times what the date should be based on the new starting date, erasing and rewriting. Finally, confident that he’d solved it, his paper showed a different result:

May 6

At first, he worried that the results were only ten days apart when the beginning dates had been off by eleven, but after looking at the calendar three times, he determined it had to do with June only having thirty days.

May sixth. The all-important date. Just over five months from now.

Tick wrote the date in big letters on the bottom of the first clue, then ripped out the one-page calendar and stapled it to the back of the cardstock. He examined the second clue for awhile, which really did nothing but refer him to the first letter he’d received as a code or something to figure out the “magic words.” After an hour of staring at the typed message, his brain exhausted, he gave up. He folded everything up together and stuck the stack in his desk drawer.

For the rest of the evening, Tick couldn’t quit thinking about the first clue. According to the stranger known as M.G., something very important was to happen on May sixth of the next year.

But what?

Much later that night, after playing Scrabble with his mom and Lisa (Tick’s best word: galaxy, 34 points on a double-word score), eating two-thirds of a bag of Doritos while watching SportsCenter with his dad (swearing on his life he’d never eat another chip—a promise he knew wouldn’t last past tomorrow), analyzing the clues for a while (still no luck with the magic words), then reading for an hour in bed (the latest seven-inch-thick fantasy novel he’d checked out from the library), Tick finally went to sleep.

In the middle of the night, ripping him from a dream in which he’d just received the very prestigious Best Chess Player in the World trophy, crowds chanting his name and cheering wildly, Tick heard the sounds again: the metallic whirring, the scraping, the patter of tiny footsteps. All coming from inside the closet, where the door was closed.