The Temptation of the Flames

Tick could think of a million things he’d rather do than get stung all over his body by mechanical gnats that popped out of a demon lunch box with legs. It was a long list and included being dropped in a boiling vat of vinegar and having his toenails removed with hot pincers. Two days after the attack, he’d returned home from the hospital feeling and looking much better, but the experience remained vivid in his mind, playing itself out over and over again. Without any doubt, he knew the Gnat Rat and its stinging bugs had been the single worst thing that had ever happened to him. And that included the time Billy “The Goat” Cooper had almost broken Tick’s arm in front of the girls’ locker room.

Despite the lingering horror he felt, Tick was madly curious to know where the Gnat Rat had come from. And where it had gone. The boxy contraption must have disappeared right after releasing the bugs because his dad said he never saw it and saw no signs of a nest or a hole anywhere in the walls or floorboard. The Rat would’ve been impossible to miss since Tick had collapsed right next to it in his room. The thing had simply vanished—or run away to whatever magical hole it lived in. Either way, Tick knew he could never look at the world in the same way again, and the knowledge made him feel sick, fascinated, and scared, all at the same time.

The doctors had probed him over and over, not bothering to hide their suspicion that some serious child abuse had occurred. But they found dozens of stingers, just like the ones that came from a normal yellow jacket common to the area. That finding, coupled with the obvious fact that Edgar and Lorena Higginbottom were perhaps the two nicest people to ever live in Deer Park, and quite possibly the world, quickly dissolved the distrust of the doctors toward the parents.

Though they said no fewer than a hundred times how impossible it seemed that the bees targeted Tick and no one else, let alone the fact that bees rarely attacked during the middle of winter, the doctors eventually let the matter drop and sent Tick home.

I must have some seriously sweet blood, Tick thought, picking at the bandages covering his arms.

The only thing more baffling than the lone victim and the Gnat Rat disappearing was how quickly Tick healed. He almost felt disappointed he wouldn’t miss more than a couple of days of school. Almost.

Now, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling late the next Tuesday night, he couldn’t sleep. More than ever before in his life, Tick felt terribly afraid. His life was at risk, and for what?

He’d put on a show for his family, acting brave and cracking jokes, but he knew he did it more for himself than anyone else. He didn’t want to accept the horror of what he’d experienced, didn’t want to accept the potential for worse things to come. But the fear crashed down on him after dinner and he’d never felt so hopeless.

Sighing, he sat up in bed and retrieved the letter and clues from his desk drawer, staring at them for a long moment. As he did, he felt the last ounce of bravery drain from his spirit. Quietly, he crept from his room and took the letters downstairs to the living room.

It was the only room in the house with a fireplace.

Twenty minutes later, the gas-log fire had heated the entire room, its blower wafting warm and comforting air across Tick’s face as he sat directly in front of it, staring at the licking flames. The rest of his family had long since fallen asleep, and he had been extra, extra careful not to wake his freakishly light-sleeping dad. This was Tick’s moment of truth and he needed to be alone.

He gripped the first letter tightly in his right hand, clenching a fist around the wrinkled cardstock. He didn’t know how it worked, but he trusted the instruction told to him by the mystery-person, M.G. If ever he wanted it to stop, just burn the letter and everything would “cease and desist.” Tick had no doubt it was true, just as he had no doubt that Gnat Rats, Tingle Wraiths, and an eight-foot-tall woman named Mothball really and truly existed.

Burn the letter, stop the madness.

The thought had run through his mind a thousand times since he’d first come to consciousness after the brutal gnat attack. Only two clues in—ten to go—and he wanted to quit. Desperately wanted to quit. How could he keep going, when things worse than the Gnat Rat might attack him? How could he, Atticus Higginbottom, a kid with a pretty decent brain but the body of a thirteen year old, fight the forces that some unknown enemy threw at him? How could he do it?

He sat up, crossing his legs under him, facing the fire. He thought about the tremendous ease of simply throwing the letter into the fire not two feet in front of him, of watching it crinkle and shrivel into a crispy ball of black flakes, of returning his life back to normal. He could do it and be done. Forever.

And then it hit him—an odd feeling that started somewhere deep down in his stomach and swelled into his chest, spreading through his fingers and toes.

The first letter said many lives were at stake. Whether that meant ten or ten thousand, Tick didn’t know. Neither did he have any idea how twelve clues, written to him in cryptic messages from some stranger, had anything to do with saving people’s lives. But could he really risk that? Could Tick really be a coward and throw this challenge to the flames, when so much might be on the line? When so many people’s lives were on the line?

Even if it were just one person?

What if that one person was Kayla and her life was in the hands of someone else? The thought gripped Tick’s heart, squeezed it hard. He pictured Kayla’s big-toothed smile, her cute look of concentration when she played on the computer, her giggle fits when Tick tickled her under her arms. Tick’s eyes rimmed with tears. The thought of anything bad happening to his little sister made him feel a sadness that was heavy and bleak.

In that moment, in the darkness of deepest night, sitting in the warmth of a flickering fire and thinking about things far beyond what any kid should have to contemplate, Tick made his decision, committing to himself that he would never waver from it, no matter what.

In that moment, he answered the question posed to him by the one known as M.G.

Will you have the courage to choose the difficult path?

“Yes,” Tick whispered to the flames. “The answer is yes.”

He folded up the letter and turned his back on the fire.

In a place very far from the home of Atticus Higginbottom, Master George awoke with a start. Exactly what had jolted him from sleep, he wasn’t sure, but it didn’t make him very happy. He rather liked the act of blissful slumber and believed very strongly in the old adage about beauty sleep. (Though he knew if Mothball or Rutger were around they’d say something persnickety about him needing to sleep for the next forty years to gain a single ounce of beauty.)