“Uh, wow,” Dad mumbled, caught off guard that his aunt had actually quit yapping. “Sounds like your life is a lot more interesting than you let on, Aunt Mabel. We’re sure glad we could come and visit you.” He looked over at Tick, raising his eyebrows.

Tick straightened in his seat. “Yeah, I’m really excited I finally got to meet you.” He raised his cup as if saluting, and immediately felt like an idiot.

“You boys aren’t mocking me, are you?” Mabel asked, her eyes narrowing.

“No!” Tick and his dad said in unison.

“Good. Let’s eat some supper.” She squirmed in her seat, but couldn’t move an inch. “Atticus, dear boy, be a gentleman and assist your elders.” She held out a hand.

Tick jumped up and gently helped her stand, then escorted her into the cramped but cozy kitchen.

A wave of mouth-watering smells bombarded them when they entered, and Tick proceeded to eat the most scrumptious meal he’d had in a long time, which was saying a lot considering how good of a cook his mom was. There were freshly baked rolls soaked in butter, grilled chicken with lemon sauce, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes with chunks of garlic—all of it delicious.

Aunt Mabel talked the entire time they ate, covering every topic from her ingrown toenail to how she’d finally lost her last tooth to decay, but Tick barely heard her, enjoying three more helpings of the fantastic dinner.

Frazier crept up to the car of his prey, his eyes flickering to the house of the old woman. He’d watched their shadows leave the front room and head deeper into the house, probably to the kitchen for dinner. The thought made his stomach rumble and he resolved to bag this place and find something to eat as soon as he’d accomplished his task. Even expert spies like himself had to chow down every once in a while.

He crouched behind the left front tire, making sure the body of the car stayed between him and the house. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the special device—an oval-shaped metal container, about eight inches long and three inches wide, a seam wrapped around the middle. On one side of the seam, several buttons and dials poked out. Frazier looked at the familiar label on the other side—the label that marked items taken from the Fourth Reality:

Manufactured by Chu Industries

He split the little machine into two pieces along the seam, slipping the part with the controls back into his pocket. The other half, with its dozens of wires and clamps coiled inside like poisonous snakes ready to wreak havoc, didn’t look nearly as menacing as it should, considering what Frazier knew it could do to something like a car. More precisely, what it would do, indirectly, to the people inside the car.

Frazier snickered, then reached underneath the tire well to place the Chu device as far and as deep as he could toward the engine. He pushed the small button in the middle and heard a hiss followed by a metallic clunk as the gadget reached out with tiny claws and adhered itself to the car. A spattering of tiny clicks rang out as the machine crawled its way to where it needed to go.

Smart little devices, these things. In a matter of moments, the beautiful but deadly trinket would find exactly what it needed.

Once in place, it only needed Frazier’s signal to come alive.

Aunt Mabel must think I’m three years old, Tick thought.

It all started at bedtime. Mabel followed Tick into the bathroom and pulled a container of floss from a dusty cabinet. She yanked off a three-foot long piece and handed it to Tick.

“Now, catch every nook and cranny,” she said as Tick started threading the minty string between his two front teeth. “You never can tell what nasty little monsters are having a nice meal of your gums.”

Tick finished and threw the used floss into a small wastebasket, wishing Mabel would leave him alone. When she didn’t move an inch, hovering behind him as he stared into the mirror, Tick reached over and grabbed his toothbrush and toothpaste. Warily glancing back at Mabel, he finally turned on the water and started brushing.

“Here, let me take a turn,” Mabel said a few seconds later. To Tick’s horror, she reached around his shoulder and grabbed the toothbrush from his hand and began vigorously scrubbing his teeth, pushing his head down lower with her other hand. Tick never would’ve thought such an old and frail woman could have so much strength in her arms. “Gotta get those molars!” she yelled with enthusiasm.

Next came pajama time. Tick had brought a pair of flannel pants and a T-shirt to sleep in, but that was not good enough for Aunt Mabel. She went to the basement and dug through some boxes before returning with a musty old pair of long johns that were as red as her lipstick and looked like Santa’s underwear. Tick begrudgingly put them on, heeding his dad’s pleas that they do everything humanly possible to make the old woman happy so nothing jeopardized their trek the next day. He almost broke his promise when Mabel topped everything off by twisting a scratchy wool stocking cap onto his head. Instead, he forced a grin and followed her to the bed she’d prepared for him.

After tucking him in with no fewer than seven thick quilts, Mabel kissed him on the forehead and sang him a bedtime song, which sounded like a half-dead vulture warning its brothers that the chickenhawk he’d just eaten was poisonous. Tick closed his eyes, hoping that if Mabel thought he was asleep, he could avoid an encore. Satisfied, Aunt Mabel tiptoed out of the room—making sure before she closed the door that the night-light she’d plugged in worked properly.

Tick rolled over, wondering if his great-aunt would do the same routine with his dad. When he finally quit laughing at the image of Mabel brushing his dad’s teeth, Tick fell asleep.

The next morning, after a wonderful meal of eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese biscuits, and freshly-squeezed orange juice, and after a long lecture on how important it was not to talk to strangers, especially those holding guns or missing any teeth, Tick and his dad were able to escape for a day of “exploring the wonders of Alaska.” Aunt Mabel seemed exhausted from her efforts and couldn’t hide the fact that she was almost relieved to get some rest from taking care of the boys.

After filling up the car with gas and junk food, Tick and his dad began their three-hour journey, the Journal of Curious Letters sitting on the seat between them.

Next stop: Macadamia, Alaska.


Going Postal

After driving down the straightest road Tick had ever seen—with nothing but huge piles of snow and ice on either side—they pulled into the small town of Macadamia right around noon. The first thing they did was stop at a gas station to fill up the car for the drive back so they wouldn’t have to do it later. The cracked and frozen streets were deserted, with only a few cars parked along the main road in front of various dilapidated shops and dirty service centers.