He looked down at his toes, poking out from his red crocheted socks like little mice searching for food. He’d pulled his blanket up too far, exposing his feet, and wondered if the chill of the night had awakened him.
No, he thought. I don’t feel cold. This was something much more. Something shook me.
And then he shot up into a sitting position, any remnant of sleep completely quashed. He threw the covers off, put on his velvet slippers, and shuffled to the next room where all kinds of buzzing machinery and humming trinkets blinked and clinked and chirped. A large computer screen took up the entire left wall. Several hundred names were listed in alphabetical order, their letters glowing green, a variety of symbols and colors to the right of each name.
One of the names had a flashing purple checkmark next to it, which made Master George gasp and sit down in his specially-ordered, magnetically adjustable, ergonomically sophisticated swivel chair. He spun in three complete circles, moving himself with the tips of his toes, almost as though he were dancing. And then he laughed. He laughed loud and long and hard, his heart bursting with pride and joy.
After many disappointments, someone had finally made a Pick, one so powerful it had shaken the very foundation of the Command Center. The ramifications could be enormous, he thought, giddy and still chuckling.
And then, to his utter and complete astonishment, defying every sense of rational thought in his bones, two more purple checkmarks appeared on the screen, almost at the same time.
Three? So close together? Impossible!
He stood up, rocketing the chair backward with the backs of his knees, squinting to make sure it hadn’t been a trick of his eyes. There they were—three purple marks.
While dancing an old Irish jig he’d learned from his great-grandpapa, Master George went in search of his tabby cat, Muffintops. He found her snoozing behind the milk cupboard in the kitchen and yanked her into his arms, hugging her fiercely.
“Dearest Muffintops,” he said, petting her. “We must celebrate right away with some peppermint tea and biscuits!” He set her down and began rummaging through his pots and pans to find a clean teapot. Once he’d set some water on the stove, he straightened and put his hands on his hips, staring down at his whiskered friend.
“My goodness gracious me,” he said. “Three Picks within a few minutes of each other? I daresay we have a lot of work to do.”
Upstairs in his room, Tick was wide awake, despite the late hour.
He studied the first letter from M.G. until the sky outside faded from black to bruised purple and the first traces of dawn cast a pallid glow outside his window. The wind had picked up, the infamous branch that used to haunt his dreams as a kid taking up its age-long duty, scraping the side of the house with its creepy claws of leafless wood. But Tick kept reading, searching, thinking.
The magic words.
He didn’t know what they were, why he needed them, or what would happen on May sixth when he was supposed to say them, but he knew they were vital and he had to figure them out. And the first letter supposedly told him everything necessary to do just that.
Nothing came to him. He searched the sentences, the paragraphs, the words for clues. He tried rearranging letters, looked for words that were perhaps spelled vertically, sought the word “magic” to see if it lay hidden anywhere. Nothing.
He remembered the famous riddle from Lord of the Rings where the entrance to the Mines of Moria said “Speak friend, and enter.” It had literally meant for the person to speak the word “friend” in the Elven language and the doors would open. But nothing like that seemed to jump out at Tick as he sought for clues.
Figuring out the date of the special day from the first clue had been a piece of cake compared to this, and he grew frustrated. He also felt the effects of staying up all night and a sudden surge of fatigue pressed his head down to the pillow, pulled his eyelids closed.
When his mom poked her head in to wake him up for school, he begged for one more day, knowing she’d have a hard time arguing with a kid who’d been eaten alive just a few days earlier.
After his mom tucked him back into bed and patted his head like a sick three year old, Tick pondered the pledge he’d made by the fireplace the night before—to keep going, to fight the fear, to solve the puzzle. No matter what.
I’m either really, really brave or really, really stupid.
Finally, despite the light of sunrise streaming through his window, he fell asleep.
Old and Dusty
That Friday, completely healed and caught up on the work he’d missed at school, Tick sat in his science class, trying to pay attention to Mr. Chu as he talked about the vast mysteries that still awaited discovery in the field of physics. Usually, Tick enjoyed this class more than most, but he couldn’t get his mind off the second clue, frustrated that he wasn’t able to crack the code of the first letter.
“Mr. Higginbottom?” Mr. Chu asked.
Tick’s attention whipped back to the real world, and he stared at his teacher, suddenly panicked because he had no clue why Mr. Chu had said his name. “Sorry, what was the question?”
“I didn’t ask you a question,” his teacher answered, folding his arms. “I was just wondering why you’re staring out the window like there’s a parade out there. Am I boring you?” He raised his eyebrows.
“No, I was just . . . pondering the physics of the tetherball outside.”
Several snickers broke out in the room, though Tick knew it wasn’t in appreciation for his joke. Some of the kids in his class didn’t even listen to what he said anymore; they automatically laughed at him whenever he spoke because they assumed the others would think they were cool for poking fun at the nerdy Stinkbottom with the Barf Scarf. The laughter didn’t faze Tick in the least; in his mind, those people had ceased to exist a long time ago.
“Well,” Mr. Chu said. “Maybe you’d like to come up to the board and give us a diagram of what you’re thinking about?” Tick knew the man had to give him a hard time every now and then or it would be overwhelmingly obvious that he favored the smart kid with the red-and-black scarf.
“No, sir,” Tick replied. “Haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Let me know when you do. And in the meantime, grace me with your attention.”
Tick nodded and resettled himself in his seat, looking toward the front of the classroom. Someone behind him threw a wad of paper at his head; he ignored it as it ricocheted and fell to the floor. Mr. Chu continued his lecture, but faltered a few minutes later when someone grumbled about how boring science was.