“Bingo!” he yelled, turning to say his time out loud. His words died somewhere in his throat when he saw Sofia looking at him with a smirk, holding up her paper with the answer scrawled across it:

9:00 p.m.

“Dang,” Tick muttered. “But you didn’t even take notes or anything!”

“I’ve got brains—I don’t need notes.”

Tick folded his arms. “I take it back—you’re not a woman. You’re a girl. And I hate spaghetti.”

“I believe Americans call this a . . . sore loser, right?”

“Something like that.”

Sofia put her hands behind her head and looked up at the ceiling, letting out a big sigh, relishing her win. “I can’t wait to visit your little house in Washington. Will your mother make me a hot dog?”

Tick snapped up the sixth clue from the table and stood up. “If you’re lucky. And what makes you think our house is little, rich girl?”

Sofia lowered her arms to her lap and eyed Tick up and down. “I looked at your clothes and I said to myself, he must live in a little house.” She winked, then punched Tick in the leg, hard.

“Ow!” he yelled, rubbing the spot. “What’s that for?”

“To let you know I’m kidding.”

Tick shook his head. “You are one weird kid.”

“Ah, yes. That’s the kettle calling the papa black.”

Tick burst out laughing, falling back on the couch holding his stomach.

“What’s so funny?”

“Well, for one thing, you said it backwards. And it’s pot, not papa.”

“Whatever. When I come to visit you, I will teach you Italian so we can talk like intelligent people.”

“I think spaghetti is just about the only Italian word I need to know, thank you very much. That, and pizza.”

Sofia tried to punch him again, but this time Tick was too fast; he jumped up and ran out of the room, the sounds of pursuit close behind. Luckily, dinner was ready in the kitchen—ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches.

The next day, Tick’s heart hurt when he had to say good-bye to Norbert, then Frupey and Sofia after they dropped him and his dad off at a car rental agency—the rich girl and her butler had a flight to catch. In just one day, they’d become like close family, and he hated to think he may never see them again. At least he knew he could expect an e-mail from Sofia, and he hoped she really would come visit him next summer.

Of course, by then, the magic day would have come and gone, and who knew what might change after that.

After another couple of fun-filled days being pampered by Aunt Mabel and having his life mapped out for him in detail, Tick and his dad headed back to Washington.

Once there, Tick began the longest three months of his life.

Part 3

The Magic Words


April Fool

Tick stared at his own reflection in the dark puddle of grimy water only inches away from his face, dismayed at how pitiful he looked. Like a scaredy-cat kid, eyes full of fear. Both ends of his scarf hung down, the flattened tips floating on the nasty sludge like dead fish. He winced when Billy “The Goat” Cooper yanked his arm behind him again, ratcheting it another notch higher along his back until the pain was almost unbearable.

Tick refused to say a word.

“Come on, Barf Scarf Man,” the Goat growled, digging his knee into Tick’s spine, wedging it below his twisted arm. “All you have to say is, ‘Happy April Fool’s Day. Please get me wet.’ You can do it, you’re a big boy.”

Tick remained silent, despite the pain, despite the mounting humiliation as more school kids gathered around the scene. A few months ago, he would’ve given in and said the words, done as the Goat commanded. He would’ve let it end quickly and moved on. But not now. Never again.

Billy pushed Tick’s face into the water, holding it there for several seconds. Tick remained calm, knowing he could hold his breath much longer than the Goat would dare keep him down. When he finally removed his hand from the back of Tick’s head, Tick slowly raised himself out of the water, spit, then took a deep breath.

“Say it, boy!” Billy yelled, unable to hide the frustration in his voice. If he couldn’t get Tick to obey, the tables would turn and he’d be the one suffering a humiliating defeat. “Say it or I’ll wrap your sorry scarf around your head and dunk you ’til you quit breathing.”

Tick felt a sudden surge of confidence and he spoke before he could stop himself. “Go ahead, Billy Boy. At least then I’d never have to look at your Frankenstein goat face again.”

His spirits soared when the crowd around them laughed. A few kids clapped and whistled.

“Frankenstein goat face!” one kid called out. “Billy the Frankenstein Goat Face!”

This created more laughs, followed by murmurs of conversation and shuffling of feet as people moved away, evidently having had enough.

“Leave him alone, Goat Face,” a girl yelled over her shoulder.

Tick closed his eyes and took a gulp of air, knowing Billy would push him down at least one more time, would hold him under longer than ever before. But to his shock, he felt his arm released; the pressure of Billy’s knee against his spine disappeared. As Tick’s entire right side lit up with tingles and pressure from the blood rushing back to where it belonged, he scooted away from the pool of water and turned to sit on his rear end, staring up at Billy.

The Goat looked down on him with an odd expression. It wasn’t anger or hate. He seemed . . . surprised.

“You’re weird, man,” Billy said. “I’m sick of you anyway. Go home and cuddle with your Barf Scarf.” He kicked Tick’s leg, then turned to walk away with his hoodlum friends.

Tick didn’t totally understand the storm of emotions that swelled within him at that moment, but he surprised himself when he laughed out loud right before the tears came.

As Tick walked home, he put Billy out of his mind and thought of the long three months he’d just endured. After the thrill and excitement, the life-threatening danger and escapades of Alaska, he’d expected to come home and barely rest, clue after clue and stranger after stranger showing up at his doorstep, delivering one adventure after another.

But nothing had happened. Nothing.

He and Sofia e-mailed back and forth, never failing to ask the other if they’d seen something or met someone. The answer was always a frustrated NO!