Where were the clues? What had happened to Mothball and Rutger? Did something get lost in the mail? Had they somehow proven themselves unworthy? Had the man
in charge moved on to other, more deserving, kids? The questions poured out of their minds and into their e-mails, but no answer ever came back.
Tick was sick with discouragement.
All he could do was watch the snow pile up in his front yard all through January and February. The weathermen loved reminding their viewers that it had been the worst winter on record, revealing snow tallies in fancy charts with as much enthusiasm as if they were announcing the lottery winners. It was March before the snow finally started to melt, revealing patches of deadened grass that desperately longed for spring.
Tick hadn’t missed a single day of school during the three months, trying his best to keep focused while he worried about not hearing from Master George. But even competing in the Jackson County Chess Tournament in the middle of March hadn’t been the same and Tick had placed fifth in his age bracket. His family seemed shocked that he’d lost the top spot, but his mind had been somewhere else, and the three-year winning streak ended with a dull thump instead of a big bang.
His dad constantly tried to cheer him up, encouraging him that something would come soon, but after a couple of months, even his dad seemed disheartened. Like a wounded snail limping to its next meal, Tick lived out each day hoping for a letter from Master George.
Tick did receive one exciting thing in the mail: a package of free spaghetti and sauce from Frupey the Butler. True to Sofia’s word, it had tasted wonderful, and Tick knew he could never eat the cheap stuff again.
But even in the depths of the three-month doldrums, Tick and Sofia had never given up. They made a commitment to study their own journals every day, even if only for a few minutes, to keep their minds fresh, hoping something new might pop out and surprise them. They forced themselves to stay active in the game, even if the other side offered no help. And every day, no matter what, they sent an e-mail to each other.
Tick felt sure he’d hit rock bottom when he got home and checked his e-mail, clicking on a new one from Sofia.
Hello from Italy.
Tick groaned and wrote his own quick reply:
Howdy from America.
Depressed, Tick shut off the computer and slumped his way up the stairs to wait for dinner. A few minutes later, he fell asleep with the Journal of Curious Letters clasped in his arms like a teddy bear.
April sixth was a Saturday, and the sun seemed to melt away any remnants of clouds, beating down with a warmth that hadn’t been felt in months. Tick made his usual trek to check the mail, basking in the golden light, his spirits lifted despite the circumstances. The sounds of trickling water came from everywhere as the massive amounts of snow increased their melting pace, disappearing by inches a day now. It wouldn’t be long before hundreds of tulips stood like fancy-hat-wearing soldiers all over the yard, the result of painstaking pre-winter planting by his mom over the years.
Even Tick, not exactly a flower expert, enjoyed his mom’s ridiculous amount of tulips every spring.
As he made his way down the steaming sidewalk, Tick took a deep breath, loving the strong smells of the forest that returned with the melting snow. The scents of moist dirt and bark and rotting leaves that had lain beneath the white stuff all winter filled his nostrils, and he felt better than he had in months. Spring tended to do that to people.
His good mood was short-lived, though. When he saw that the mailman hadn’t brought anything from Master George, he slipped right back into poor-little-Tick mode and went back inside the house.
Later that afternoon, Tick sat at the desk in his bedroom, working on the math homework he’d been too depressed to finish the day before. He’d opened up his window, grateful that he was able to do so without freezing to death; the winter had seemed to last for ten years. He was just finishing up his last problem when he heard the phone ring, followed by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs and down the hall toward his room.
“Tick, it’s your girlfriend.”
He turned to see his sister Lisa at the door, holding out the phone.
“Phone’s for you. It’s a girl.”
Tick’s first thought was that it must be Sofia—who else would call him? He jumped up from his desk and walked over to grab the phone. At the last second, Lisa put it behind her back, smirking at Tick.
“Wow, you seem awfully excited,” she said, eyebrows raised. “Are we having a little love affair that we haven’t shared with Sis?”
“Give it—it’s probably my, uh, science project partner.”
Lisa chuckled. “You’re gullible, kid—it’s actually a man.” She handed him the phone and left.
Tick closed the door and sat on his bed, putting the receiver to his ear. “Hello?”
At first, all he could hear was static and the sounds of . . . beeping . . . or some kind of machinery in the background. Then came a loud clonk, followed by a soft boink and then a rolling series of metal clicks, like someone cranking up a thick chain into a holding wheel. Finally, surprising him, he heard the distinct meow of a cat.
“Hello?” he repeated. “Anybody there?”
From the other end came a rattling sound as the person picked the phone back up. A voice spoke through the scratchy static, a man with the one accent Tick could identify—British. “Is this . . . let me see . . . ah, yes, is this Mister Atticus Higginbottom?”
“Yes . . . this is Atticus.”
“Uh, dear sir, you were supposed to be walking about today. I mean, er—it’s a nice day to go for a walk, don’t you think? Simply smashing, really, from what I hear.” The man coughed. Tick heard the cat meow again, followed by some muffled words as the stranger covered up his end with his hand. “In a minute, Muffintops. Patience, dear feline!”
“Sir, do I know you?”
“No, no, no, not yet, anyway. But we certainly have some common acquaintances, if you get my meaning. In fact, I’m on instruction from them, old chap.”
“On . . . instruction?”
“Yes, yes, quite right. They need you to go for a walk, good man. Asked me to call you.”
“A walk? Where?”
“The usual, I suppose. What’s a young master like yourself sitting inside all day for anyhow? Got a bit of the flu, do you?”