“I guess my neck gets cold pretty easily,” he said, shrugging while he faked a shiver. Of course Ms. Sears knew about his birthmark, but he wanted to avoid a lecture on not being ashamed of who you are. “Any cool books come in lately?”

Her brow furrowed as she thought, making her entire weave of hair shift like a jittery land mass triggered by an earthquake. “There’s a new one by Savage, but I think he’s too scary for you,” she said, trying to hold back a smile.

Tick rolled his eyes. “I’ll take my chances.”

“Okay, but if you have nightmares, tell your mom that I warned you.” She smiled. “I’ll hold it up at the counter for you.”

“Thanks, Ms. Sears.” He inched toward the computers, and she got the message.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Have fun.”

He nodded, then sat down at a computer as soon as she walked away. His mind still spun, the clues of M.G. bouncing around his brain like renegade alphabet soup. He knew several things for sure, and he also knew what he still needed to figure out. For some reason, on May sixth he needed to close his eyes, say some magic words that he didn’t know, and hit the ground ten times with an object still left to be determined. Piece of cake.

After logging into his e-mail Web site, he hesitated a second before hitting the INBOX button. He’d checked his e-mail almost every day for weeks, and he was always disappointed to find nothing there. But what are the odds? he thought. Who knew if anyone else out there had received anything, much less went searching the Internet for others. But Tick felt like he’d explode if he didn’t find someone with whom to swap ideas and thoughts.

He clicked the mouse.

The INBOX page only took a couple of seconds to load and a subject line written all in capital letters caught his eye the instant it appeared. His breath caught in his throat. He stood up in excitement, his chair tipping backward to the ground with a ringing metallic clang. He noticed a few scowls from the other library patrons as he righted the chair and sat down, the skin of his face on fire. Once settled, he looked at the screen again, hoping his eyes hadn’t been lying to his brain.

But there it was, in black capital letters, bold against the white background:




Talking to Sofia

As he opened the e-mail, Tick’s heart pounded so much he felt like he was trying to breathe underwater. He could hardly believe it; to receive an e-mail from another person experiencing the same mysteries as he was would validate everything once and for all—even more than meeting Mothball or being attacked by the Gnat Rat.

Forcing his eyes to slow down and take in each word, Tick read the e-mail.

Dear Atticus Higginbottom,

I’ll write to you in English, since I know you must be a typical American who can only speak Americanese, and my English is, well, brilliant. My name is Sofia Pacini and I live in the pretty Alps in the country of Italy. Do you know where Italy is? Probably not. You’re too busy studying the Big Mac and the Spider-Man and not world geography. Maybe you can learn from Sofia and be smart. I’m just teasing you, so please don’t cry. :)

I saw your post on the Pen Pal Web site and almost swallowed my shoe. No, I didn’t have a shoe in my mouth, it just sounds like something a funny Americanese boy would say.

Tick paused, trying to hold in a laugh since he’d already embarrassed himself enough in front of the library crowd. But this Italian girl . . . was she for real? He continued reading.

I got a letter from a person named M.G. in November. You too? At first I laughed and thought it was my friend Tony, but the letter came from Alaska, so I don’t know. Then more came, and I met a really tall lady called Mothball. Did you meet her? She’s like a walking tree with clothes, but I like her.

So what do you think? Is this for real? What will happen on the day? Did you figure everything out? Find anyone else? Write me back.

Your new friend,


P.S. You have a weird name, btw.

Tick hated when the e-mail ended, wishing she’d written him pages and pages of what she thought and felt and if she’d figured out the magic words or anything else. He clicked the REPLY TO SENDER button.

Dear Sofia,

He paused, wondering what in the world he should write to her. The chilling thought hit him that maybe he shouldn’t trust her. Maybe she was on the side of whoever or whatever had sent the Tingle Wraith and Gnat Rat. Maybe she was a spy, ready to feed him information leading him away from the solution, not toward it.

That’s just a chance I’ll have to take, he thought. Shrugging the worry away, he began typing his message.

I know I have a weird name. Everyone calls me Tick, so you can, too.

Sounds like we’re in the same boat. I’ve received three clues now, one of them on a tape. How about you? I met Mothball, too. She gave me the second clue. Maybe we can help each other?

He almost started telling her the things he’d figured out and which ones had him stumped, but decided to wait to see if she would write him back. One more e-mail from her ought to help him know for sure if she was okay. After thinking for a minute, he finished his letter.

I wonder how many others like us are out there. I hope someone else writes me. Let me know if anyone writes to you, OK?

Have you seen anything like a ghost made out of smoke that turns into a grandpa face? What about a Gnat Rat? That thing put me in the hospital, but I’m OK now. How old are you? I’m thirteen, and I live in Washington, though you already know that because I guess you saw my Pen Pal account.

You’re from Italy? That’s way awesome. I wish we could meet and talk face to face about this stuff. I’m keeping all my notes in a book called Tick Higginbottom’s Journal of Curious Letters. Pretty cool, huh?

Talk to you later,


He clicked SEND, knowing Sofia probably wouldn’t read the e-mail until tomorrow because it was already past bedtime in Italy. His initial excitement tempered by the thought that he wouldn’t hear back from Sofia for at least a day, he logged off the computer and grabbed his backpack.

On his way out, Ms. Sears reminded him of the book she had held for him and he checked it out just to be nice. With everything going on in his life, reading a new book suddenly seemed dull in comparison. Tick shook his head; he never would’ve thought he’d say that.

The book tucked safely in his backpack next to his journal, Tick exited the library and headed home.