Tick Higginbottom’s

Journal of Curious Letters

He then took out the glue from his mom’s scrapbooking case and pasted the first letter from M.G. onto the first page of the journal, centering it as best he could. He left a few blank pages for notes and calculations, then glued in the first clue, along with his solution and the ripped-out calendar with the special date of May sixth circled. Finally, he attached the second clue. He made sure everything was dry, then closed the book.

Satisfied with his efforts, and glad to have everything he needed in one portable book, he took his journal and went back upstairs.

The next day, almost as though the mysterious M.G. knew Tick was organized and ready to go, the third clue came in the mail.


The Voice of M.G.

It was Saturday, and just as he had done a couple of weeks earlier, Tick spied on the mailbox, waiting for the mailman to show up. The day was clear and crisp, the sun almost blinding as it reflected off the snow still covering the ground. Tick sipped hot chocolate and watched countless little drops of water fall from the trees in the yard as clinging icicles dripped away the last remnants of their lives. His mom and dad had gone Christmas shopping, Lisa was upstairs playing house with Kayla, and the soft melody of Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” echoed through the house. Tick didn’t know if life could be any better.

The truck finally rumbled up to his house around noon, and Tick didn’t bother looking to see if there was any sign of a yellow envelope. He had his boots and coat on and was out the door before the mailman had even left for the next house. By the time the truck drove off, Tick had already pulled out the stack of letters.

Sitting right on top was a crumpled yellow envelope with the same messy handwriting, postmarked from South Africa. Other than a strange lump in one corner, the rest of the envelope was flimsy and flat. Intrigued, a shiver of excitement rattling his nerves, Tick sprinted back to the house and up to his room in no time, where the Journal of Curious Letters lay resting on his bed.

He ripped open the envelope and peered inside, seeing nothing at first. He billowed it out, turning it upside down and shaking it until a little, flashy square fell out and tumbled off the bed. Tick picked it up off the floor. It was a tiny cassette tape, the kind his dad used when he made everyone talk about themselves for a tape to send to Grandma and Grandpa in Georgia. (A couple of years ago, his dad had finally switched to a video camera, but he still occasionally used the tape recorder, too.)

Nothing had been written on the tape label, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what M.G. intended the recipients of this clue to do. It took Tick ten minutes to dig out his dad’s little tape machine, hidden behind some socket wrenches in his dad’s infamous “junk drawer.” Tick could hardly contain himself as he went back to his room, locked the door, popped in the tape, and pushed PLAY.

He heard a few seconds of scratchy background noise, then a loud clank. Tick, pencil in hand, planned to transcribe every word into his journal, but once the message started, he could only listen, fascinated.

A man spoke, his voice quirky and heavy with a British accent. Not like Mothball’s accent; no, this man’s voice sounded much more sophisticated and tight, like the head butler at an English manor who has just realized his entire staff is stricken with the flu on the night of the big Christmas party to which hundreds of very important people are invited.

Well, one mystery had been solved: M.G. was a man.

When the short message ended, Tick laughed out loud, then rewound it to listen again. Then he quickly fast forwarded through the rest of the tape to make sure there were no other messages. On the fourth time, he wrote every single word into his journal:

Say the magic words when the day arrives, then hit the ground below you ten times, as hard as you can, with a very specific object. It’s a bit of a quandary because I can’t tell you what the object is. Let’s just say, I hope your soul is stronger than mine because there are no exceptions to this requirement. Also, the object must be the opposite of wrong but not correct.

Whew, glad to have that bit done. I really need to use the lavatory before I . . . oh, sorry, . . . meant to turn the recorder off. Where is that confounded button . . . ? Ah! There we are—


Tick hit the STOP button, shaking his head at how

crazy this M.G. guy seemed. Ever since he’d mentioned peppermint sticks and sweetened milk in the first letter, Tick had sensed a subtle sense of humor in the man, a contrast to the message of doom that seemed to be laced throughout the clues and warnings. He wondered if he’d ever get to meet M.G. He’d already begun to feel a sense of trust toward him.

Tick stared at his own handwriting, rereading the words, committing them to memory. Something in the back of his mind told him this one was simple, an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. The mystery lay in figuring out what the object must be. Once he knew that, it seemed pretty obvious what he needed to do: hit the ground ten times after saying the magic words.

Tick decided it really came down to two phrases:

Let’s just say, I hope your soul is stronger than mine


the object must be the opposite of wrong but not correct

Thinking, Tick flipped to a blank page in the journal to see if jotting down notes could whip up his brain functions into a frenzy. Staring at the empty lines on the page made him suddenly remember that he’d never written down the odd words Mothball had said that day by the woods when she’d been listing the things she wasn’t allowed to mention. Mad at himself for not doing it sooner, Tick squeezed his eyes shut and searched the darkness of his vision, hoping bright neon words would jump out and remind him of what she’d said. One or two did almost immediately, and after a few minutes he’d remembered four and wrote them in a list on the left side of the page.

The Master

The Barrier Wand

The Realities

The Kyoopy

There’d been another weird word that he couldn’t quite recall. Nothing else came to him, and he realized his eyes were getting droopy, his brain nice and ready for an afternoon nap. Wanting to check his e-mail—and needing some fresh, cold air to wake him up—he threw his new journal into his backpack and headed off for the library, telling Lisa he’d be back in a couple of hours.

“Tick, don’t you ever take that scarf off?” Ms. Sears asked, stopping Tick before he could make it to the library computers. He’d spent some time studying his Journal of Curious Letters, as well as finishing up the last bit of homework for the weekend, and wanted to check his e-mail account, though he’d yet to receive anything since leaving the hint phrases on the Pen Pal site.