Something bumped against the door.

Tick sat up, suddenly very, very awake.


The Gnat Rat

Tick’s first instinct was to run and get his dad again, the creepy chills of the night he’d first heard the noises returning in full force. But he steeled himself, resolving not to go running off like a baby again until he knew it was all for real. Whatever was moving around in his closet couldn’t be very big, and it had to have a reasonable explanation. Maybe it was just a squirrel that had chewed a hole through the wall—too small for them to have noticed that night when he and his dad had searched the room.

What about the mechanical fan sound? he thought. He told himself that maybe the little squirrel had accidentally eaten his dad’s electric shaver, but then realized he was probably one step away from the mental hospital talking to himself like this, and telling jokes at that. Just go check it out, he told himself sternly.

He reached up to his headboard, keeping his eyes riveted on the closet, and flicked on the lamp. The warm glow banished the dark shadows, illuminating fully the door with its many posters and sports banners taped haphazardly across it. Encouraged and braver with the light on, Tick swung his legs around and stood up from his bed, hoping the closet door didn’t burst open when he did so. Nothing moved. The sound had completely stopped.

Maybe I just imagined it. I haven’t heard it since it woke

me up.

Think it all he wanted, he couldn’t convince himself. A slice of fear cut through his heart, making it pound even harder, sending a pulse of heat through his veins. His hands were sweaty and his shoulders and back tingled, making him remember what Mothball had said about the smoke-ghost he’d seen in the alley. The Tingle Wraith. But its sound had been totally different, and Tick didn’t really expect to see one in his closet.

No, this was something different, if anything at all.

He crept over to the door with ginger steps, staring at the thin sliver of space between the floor and the bottom of the door. If anything shot out from that crack, Tick knew he’d die of a heart attack on the spot. He stopped a couple of feet away and paused, clenching and unclenching his fists.

Just open it, you sissy.

He reached forward and twisted the handle, knowing his dad had done the exact same thing just over a week ago, remembering that there had been nothing there then.

He pulled the door open and stepped back.

Something very odd rested on top of a pile of dirty clothes.

Something Tick had never seen before in his life.

Edgar Higginbottom was a light sleeper, which he hated. Anything and everything woke him up. Cars outside, dogs barking, a child crying. When his kids had been babies, Edgar had woken up the instant any of them fussed. Often he’d lain there, wishing against all hope that Lorena would somehow hear and offer to take a turn checking on them or feeding them. But he always got up after a few seconds, feeling guilty for being so selfish after all his wife had gone through to bring those kids into the world in the first place.

This time, though, it had been a sudden light that snapped him awake, followed by the slight creak of someone walking in the house. He pushed himself up onto one elbow and looked at the door to his room, which stood slightly ajar. Judging from the angle of the shadows caused by the light, and the direction from which the sound had come, he guessed Tick had gotten out of bed for some reason.

What’s he doing up at—Edgar looked at his clock—three in the morning?

He flopped back down onto his side, then rolled his big body onto his back, rubbing his eyes and yawning as he stared at the ceiling. Then, with a grunt, he threw off the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed, searching for his slippers with his toes.

He found them, put them on, and stood up.

Tick’s mind seemed to split into two factions as he stared at the object. One side wanted him to run because anything that magically appeared in a closet had to be bad. The other side wanted to investigate because the thing looked completely harmless. The latter won the battle, his curiosity once again victorious over common sense.

He stepped closer and dropped to his knees, leaning forward.

It was a strange metal contraption, about a foot long, five or six inches wide, and maybe eight or nine inches tall. Its shiny gray surface had no blemishes, sparkling and clean, with round, gear-looking things attached to the side. A thin handle was attached to the top of the box and a small snout-like nose and a sinuous metallic tail were attached to either end. Along the bottom edges a series of ten evenly spaced rods poked out from the box and curved toward the floor, ending in a flat piece of metal about the size of a quarter. The first thought that popped into Tick’s mind was the thing looked like a stainless steel accordion, ready to march away.

But it didn’t move or make a sound.

Tick noticed some writing on the side of the box, shadowed by the light coming from the room. He shifted his position closer and squinted his eyes. It took a few seconds, but he finally made out what it said:


Manufactured by Chu Industries

What in the world . . .

Tick thought of Mr. Chu, his science teacher, but he obviously had nothing to do with this. Tick would know if his favorite instructor had his own company or was affiliated with one. It had to be a coincidence.

But . . .

His mind was blank, churning to come up with an explanation for the weird thing sitting in his closet. It had to be related to the letters from M.G., the Tingle Wraith, and Mothball, but how or why . . . ? No clue.

And what in the world is a Gnat Rat? He reached out a finger and brushed the back of the smooth gray metal box.

The thing jumped.

Tick gasped and fell backward, even though the Gnat Rat had barely moved—an inch at most—before coming to rest again. A slight buzzing came from it like the distant sound of his mom’s oven timer from downstairs. Whatever the thing was, it had just turned on or powered up.

A mechanized clicking sound sprung up and the ten pairs of metal legs started moving back and forth, slowly marching the Gnat Rat off the pile of clothes and out of the closet, toward Tick. His eyes wide and focused on the toy-like thing coming at him, Tick stood up, unsure what to do. It seemed totally harmless, a cheap robot you could buy at any discount store.

But then he remembered it slamming into his door when he’d closed it from the hallway that night. He thought about its name: Gnat Rat. And finally, he thought about how it had somehow disappeared and come back, magically. All of these things led to one conclusion.