“Yeah, it will. Just like your feet.” Billy snorted out a laugh, and his cronies joined in.
Tick couldn’t believe how idiotic this guy was, but held his face still and said nothing.
“Here’s an early Christmas present for you, Ticky Stinkbottom,” Billy said, and his cronies’ forced laughter ended abruptly. “Stay in your locker for three minutes, instead of the usual ten. Then, go into the bathroom and stick your head in a toilet. Do that and we won’t bother you until we get back from Christmas break. Deal?”
Tick felt his stomach drop because he knew Billy would send a spy to make sure he did what he’d been ordered to do. “With my hair wet, I might catch a cold on the way home.”
Billy reached out and slammed Tick up against the locker, sending a metallic clang echoing down the hallway. “Then I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have school for two weeks, now isn’t it?” He let go and stood back. “Come on, guys, let’s go.”
As they walked off, Tick lowered his head and stepped into his locker, closing the door behind him.
A few minutes later, he stood alone in the boys’ bathroom, staring at his distorted image in a moldy, warped mirror. He pulled down his scarf with two fingers and examined his birthmark, which looked just as ugly as ever. He felt himself sliding into that state of depression he’d visited so often before he had resolved to quit letting the bullies rule his life.
But then he thought of Mothball and Rutger, the letters and clues, and the way they all made him feel important. He snapped out of the gloom and doom, and smiled at himself in the mirror.
Forget those morons. I’m not sticking my head in the toilet, spy or no spy.
A moving smudge suddenly appeared on the reflection of his face, like black moss growing across the mirror. Startled, Tick reached out and touched it with his finger, but only felt the cool hardness of the glass. In a matter of seconds, the entire mirror was dark, blacking out everything. Tick took a step back, a shot of panic shooting through him.
The blackness grew, enveloping the wall and the sink, moving outward in all directions. It took on substance, puffing out like black cotton, devouring the entire bathroom wall. Tick spun to see that all the walls and the ceiling were covered now, dark smoke everywhere. The room looked like the result of a five-alarm fire, but Tick couldn’t see flames and felt no urge to cough.
Then, with a great whooshing sound, every bit of the strange smoky substance rushed to the exit of the bathroom in streaks of wispy darkness, coalescing there into a big ball of black smoke. Tick’s heart stuttered to a stop as he realized what hovered between him and the exit.
A Tingle Wraith.
Tick moved to run, but stopped instantly. He had nowhere to go. The Wraith completely blocked the one and only exit out of the bathroom, its dark smoke already forming into the same ancient, bearded face he’d seen in the alley a few weeks ago. Mothball’s words about the creature came back to him, sending a sickening lurch through his body.
If any man, woman, or child hears the Death Siren for thirty seconds straight, their brain turns right to mush. Nasty death, that.
Tick turned to look for another way out. A tiny window let some daylight in, but other than that, there were only stalls and urinals. He ran to the thin slat of a window and grabbed the metal crank bar to open the window. He twisted the bar clockwise and a horrible screech of metal on metal boomed through the room as the glass slowly tilted outward.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew the Wraith would start its deathly cry soon. He looked over his shoulder and saw the mouth forming into a wide, black abyss.
Tick quickened his pace, cranking the window as hard as he could. It jammed when it reached the halfway point. He pushed and pulled but the lever wouldn’t budge. He beat against the glass with both fists, but ended up with bruised knuckles, leaving the dirty glass unbroken. Desperate, he tried to squeeze through the window anyway, pushing one arm through. It didn’t take long to see it was hopeless. The crack was too thin.
He ran to the stalls, jumping up on one of the toilets to see if he could lift a ceiling tile and climb up. But it was too far above his head.
And then he heard it, the worst sound to ever beat his eardrums, a cacophony of nightmarish wails. The sound of dying men on a battlefield. The sound of a mom screaming for a lost child. The sound of criminals at the gallows, waiting to drop into their nooses. All mixed together into one horribly terrifying hum.
The Death Siren.
As the Wraith’s cry increased in volume with every passing second, Tick squirmed his way onto the top of the stall siding, balancing as it creaked and groaned below him. He held on with one hand and reached up with the other, stretching to see if he could touch the tiles. His fingertip brushed it, but that was all.
Frantic, he jumped back down to the floor and ran out of the stall, spinning in a wide circle, looking for ideas, for a way out.
The Death Siren rose in pitch and volume, growing more horrible by the second. Tick covered his ears with both hands, hoping to quell the noise, but the stifled groan he heard was worse. Spookier. Creepier. He knew it was almost over, that he only had a few more breaths until his brain turned to mush from the loud, haunting cry.
He looked directly at the Tingle Wraith. As he stared at its wispy black face, long and old and sad, its mouth bellowing out the terrible sound, Tick realized he had only one choice.
He dropped his hands from his ears, closed his eyes, and ran straight toward the smoky ghost.
Tick held both arms out in front of him, stiffening them like a battering ram, and charged. He crossed the floor in two seconds, his clenched fists the first thing to make contact. Not knowing what to expect, and his mind half insane knowing the thirty seconds were almost up, Tick threw himself forward with every bit of strength in his legs and feet.
A cold, biting tingle enveloped his hands and arms and then his whole body as he ran straight through the black smoke of the Wraith. The Death Siren took on a different pitch—lower, gloomy. Tick felt like he’d dived into a pool of arctic water, everything muffled and frigid and dark.
But then he was through the Wraith’s body, slamming into the wall on the other side. His mind sliding into shock, Tick flung open the bathroom door and threw his body out into the hallway, banging the door shut behind him.
Silence filled the school, but he could still hear a muted ringing in his ears, like the tolling of death bells.