Norbert stared at the empty space on the other side of the counter, knowing he needed a much stronger word than befuddled to explain how he felt now. Finally, shaking his head, he reached down and grabbed the box containing Master George’s letters.

“These are going out tonight,” he said, though no one was in the room to hear him.


A Very Strange Letter

Atticus Higginbottom—nicknamed “Tick” since his first day of kindergarten—stood inside the darkness of his own locker, cramped and claustrophobic. He desperately wanted to unlatch the handle and step out, but he knew he had to wait five more minutes. The edict had been decreed by the Big Boss of Jackson Middle School in Deer Park, Washington. And what Billy “The Goat” Cooper commanded must be obeyed; Tick didn’t dare do otherwise.

He peeked through the metal slats of the door, annoyed at how they slanted down so he could only see the dirty white tiles of the hallway. The bell ending the school day had rung ages ago and Tick knew that by now most of the students would be outside, waiting for their buses or already walking home. A few stragglers still roamed the hallways, though, and one of them stopped in front of Tick’s jail cell, snickering.

“Hope you get out before suppertime, Icky Ticky Stinkbottom,” the boy said. Then he kicked the locker, sending a terrible bang of rattled metal echoing through Tick’s ears. “The Goat sent me to make sure you hadn’t escaped yet—good thing you’re still in there. I can see your beady little eyes.” Another kick. “You’re not crying are you? Careful, you might get snot on your Barf Scarf.”

Tick squeezed his eyes shut, steeled himself to ignore the idiot. Eventually, the bullies always moved on if he just stayed silent. Talking back, on the other hand . . .

The boy laughed again, then walked away.

In fact, Tick was not crying and hadn’t done so in a long time. Once he’d learned to accept his fate in life as the kid everyone liked to pick on, his life had become a whole lot easier. Although Tick’s attitude seemed to annoy Billy to no end. Maybe I should fake a cry next time, Tick thought. Make the Goat feel like a big bad king.

When the hall had grown completely still and silent, Tick reached down and flicked the latch of the door. It swung open with a loud pop and slammed against the locker next to it. Tick stepped out and stretched his cramped legs and arms. He couldn’t have cared less about Billy and his gang of dumb bullies right then—it was Friday, his mom and dad had bought him the latest gaming system for his thirteenth birthday, and the Thanksgiving holidays were just around the corner. He felt perfectly happy.

Glancing around to make sure no one had hung around to torture him some more, Tick adjusted the red-and-black striped scarf he always wore to hide the hideous purple blotch on his neck—an irregular, rusty-looking birthmark the size of a drink coaster. It was the one thing he hated most about his body, and no matter how much his parents tried to convince him to lose the scarf, he wore it every hour of every day—even in the summer, sweat soaking through in dark blotches. Now, with winter settling in with a vengeance, people had quit giving him strange looks about the security blanket wrapped around his neck. Well, except for the jerks who called it the Barf Scarf.

He set out down the hall, heading for the door closest to the street that led to his house; he lived within walking distance of the school, which was lucky for him because the buses were long gone. He rounded the corner and saw Mr. Chu, his science teacher, step out of the teacher’s lounge, briefcase in hand.

“Well, if it isn’t Mr. Higginbottom,” the lanky man said, a huge smile on his face. “What are you still doing around here? Anxious for more homework?” His straight black hair fell almost to his shoulders. Tick knew his mom would say Mr. Chu needed a haircut, but Tick thought he looked cool.

Tick gave a quick laugh. “No, I think you gave us plenty—I’ll be lucky to get half of it done by Monday.”

“Hmmm,” Mr. Chu replied. He reached out and swatted Tick on the back. “If I know you, it was done by the end of lunchtime today.”

Tick swallowed, for some reason embarrassed to admit his teacher was exactly right. So, I’m a nerd, he thought. One day it’ll make me filthy dirty rotten rich. Tick was grateful that at least he didn’t really look the part of a brainy nerd. His brown hair wasn’t greasy; he didn’t wear glasses; he had a solid build. His only real blemish was the birthmark. And maybe the fact that he was as clumsy as a one-legged drunk. But, as his dad always said, he was no different from any other kid his age and would grow out of the clumsiness in a few years.

Whatever the reason, Tick just didn’t get along with people his own age. He found it hard to talk to them, much less be friends. Though he did want friends. Badly. Poor little me, he thought.

“I’ll take your lack of a smart-aleck response—and the fact you aren’t holding any books—as proof I’m right,” Mr. Chu said. “You’re too smart for the seventh grade, Tick. We should really bump you up.”

“Yeah, so I can get picked on even more? No, thanks.”

Mr. Chu’s face melted into a frown. He looked at the floor. “I hate what those kids do to you. If I could . . .”

“I know, Mr. Chu. You’d beat ’em up if it weren’t for those pesky lawsuits.” Tick felt relieved when a smile returned to his teacher’s face.

“That’s right, Tick. I’d put every one of those slackers in the hospital if I could get away with it. Bunch of no-good louses—that’s what they are. In fifteen years, they’ll all be calling you boss. Remember that, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Why don’t you run on home, then. I bet your mom’s got some cookies in the oven. See you Monday.”

“Okay. See ya, Mr. Chu.” Tick waved, then hurried down the hall toward home.

He only tripped and fell once.

“I’m home!” Tick yelled as he shut the front door. His four-year-old sister, Kayla, was playing with her tea set in the front room, her curly blonde hair bouncing with every move. She sat right next to the piano, where their older sister Lisa banged out some horrific song that she’d surely blame on the piano being out of tune. Tick dropped his backpack on the floor and hung his coat on the wooden rack next to the door.

“What’s up, Tiger?” his mom said as she shuffled into the hallway, pushing a string of brown hair behind her ear. The cheeks of her thin face were red from her efforts in the kitchen, small beads of sweat hanging on for dear life along her forehead. Lorena Higginbottom loved—absolutely loved—to cook and everyone in Deer Park knew it. “I just put some cookies in the oven.”