After dinner one night, Tick sat at his desk, his Journal of Curious Letters open before him, while his dad lounged on the bed with his hands clasped behind his head. Tick had told him everything, but his dad hadn’t been much help, falling back on his normal Dad capacity of offering encouragement and rally cries. Tick suspected his dad knew more than he let on, but that he felt much like Paul did—it was up to Tick to solve the puzzle.
“Go through your list again,” his dad said. “Everything we know needs to happen on May sixth.”
Tick groaned. “Dad, we’ve gone over this a million times.”
“Then once more won’t hurt. Come on, give it to me.”
Tick flipped to the page where he’d accumulated his conclusions. “Okay, on May sixth, I need to be in a cemetery—any cemetery—with no one else there but all the dead people.”
“That excludes me, unfortunately.” His dad let out an exaggerated sigh. “I still don’t know if I’m going to let you do this.”
“Dad, it’ll be fine. It’s probably a good thing you won’t be there, anyway—I’m sure I’ll be abducted by aliens or something.”
“Whoa, now that’s a dream come true.”
Tick rubbed his eyes, then kept reading. “I need to be dressed warmly, and at nine o’clock on the nose I need to say the magic words, with my eyes closed, then stomp on the ground with my right foot ten times—all while keeping both of my hands in my pockets.”
“Is that it?”
His dad rolled into a sitting position on the bed with a loud grunt. “All that’s pretty easy, don’t you think?”
“Well . . . yeah, except for one tiny thing.”
“The magic words.”
Tick nodded. “The magic words. At this rate, Paul will be the only one of the three of us who gets to . . . do whatever it is that’s gonna happen.”
His dad scratched his chin, doing his best Sherlock Holmes impression. “Son, it can’t be that hard. I mean, all the other clues have been challenging and fun, but not really hard, you know what I mean?”
“Maybe this is Master George’s last way of weeding out those who aren’t willing to stick with it. Maybe I’m one of those last schmoes who ends up losing. The seventh clue said most people would fail.”
“Listen to me,” his dad said, unusually serious. “I don’t care what happens, and I don’t care who this Master George fancy lad from England is. You’re not a schmoe, and you never will be. You hear me?”
“Yeah, but . . .” Tick’s eyes suddenly teared up and his heart seemed to swell and grow warm, like his veins had brought in steaming hot soup instead of the usual blood. It hit him then that he was worried—no, scared—that he wasn’t going to solve the riddle of the magic words. He’d analyzed the first letter from M.G. more times than he could count, and nothing had come to him.
His dad got up and knelt next to his son, pulling him into his arms. “I love you, kid. You mean more to me than you can ever know, and that’s all that matters to me.”
“Dad, no offense, but . . . I mean, I really appreciate all your help.” He pulled back from the hug and looked at his dad. “I want this so bad. I know it sounds dumb, but I want this. I’ve never really done anything important before, and Master George said I might be able to save peoples’ lives.”
“Then by golly we’ll figure it out, okay? Give me that jour—”
His words cut off when a thunderclap of broken glass shattered the silence, followed by the tinkle of falling shards and a loud thump on the floor. Dad fell onto his back with a yelp and Tick’s hand went to his chest, clutching his shirt like an old woman shocked by the spectacle of kids skateboarding in a church parking lot.
Someone had wrapped a note around a rock and then thrown it through the window.
While his dad went for the rock, Tick ran to the window to see if he could get a look at who had thrown it. He just caught a glimpse of a figure leaving the front yard and disappearing into the thicker trees of the neighboring woods.
A very short, very fat, figure.
Snickering, Rutger waddled along on his short legs through the dark trees and back to the main road. The thrill of throwing the rock had been a great boon to his spirits, and he had enjoyed every second of it. Now he just had to get away before Tick caught him.
As he thought about it more while escaping, he realized that breaking one of the Higginbottoms’ windows maybe hadn’t been the smartest thing to do, or the nicest. But it sure was funny.
He crossed the road and entered the forest on the other side, trying to remember the best way back to the old abandoned graveyard. He could’ve stuck to the road for a while longer, but he was worried he’d be caught. As he paused behind an enormous bush—it had to be big to hide him—he heard Tick’s voice from a distance.
“Did you really have to break my window, Rutger!” the kid yelled.
Rutger laughed, then set off again, feeling his way in the darkness.
Tick and his dad walked up and down the road a few times, trying to spot the eccentric little man, but he was nowhere in sight, the darkness too deep. A slight breeze picked up, making Tick shiver.
“I can’t believe he broke my window,” he said, but then he laughed.
“You think it’s funny, huh?” Dad said.
“Actually . . . yeah. That guy’s crazy.”
“Well, young man,” Dad said in his best attempt at a stern voice, “maybe you won’t laugh so much when I tell you it’s coming out of your allowance. Come on, let’s go see what the note said.”
Tick picked up the rock, which was about the size of his fist, and carefully pulled the pieces of tape off the white cardstock that had been wrapped around the hard, cold surface. When he finally got it off safe and sound, he turned it over to see that it was the next clue—number eleven—from Master George.
“Read it, read it,” his dad urged.
Tick read it out loud as he devoured each word with his eyes.
Given that the day is almost here, I will issue a final warning. If you succeed in this current endeavor, your life will be forever altered, becoming dangerous and frightful. If you do not, very bad things will happen to people you may never meet or know. The choice to continue is yours.