A knock at the door snapped his attention away—his mom wondering why he hadn’t come down for cookies. Tick mumbled something about not feeling well, which was far truer than he liked to admit.
It couldn’t be for real. It had to be a scam or a joke. It had to be.
And yet, as the purple and orange glow of twilight faded into black darkness, Tick still lay on his bed, contemplating the letter, ignoring his growing hunger. He felt hypnotized by M.G.’s message. Eventually, no closer to understanding or believing, he fell asleep to the soft hum of the central heating.
But in his dreams, he kept seeing the same words over and over, like a buzzing neon sign on a haunted hotel:
Very frightening things are coming your way.
A Kid’s Worst Nightmare
Tick woke up to the wonderful sound and smell of sizzling bacon, coupled with the uncomfortable sensation of sliding down a mountain. By the time he shook his head and burned the cobwebs of sleep away, he realized his dad had taken a seat on the edge of the bed, making the mattress lean considerably in that direction.
Tick tried not to smile. Edgar Higginbottom was a tad on the heavy side. Certainly with his pale skin, scraggly hair, and a nose the size of Rhode Island, he didn’t qualify as the most handsome man on the planet, but whatever the big guy lacked in looks, he more than made up for in kindness and humor. Tick thought his dad was the coolest person on the planet.
“Morning, Professor,” Dad said in his gravelly voice. Everyone in the family joked that Tick might be the smartest one living in the house, so his dad had taken to calling him Professor a long time ago. “Gee, I came home last night all ready to take you down in Football 3000 again, but you’re up here dead to the world. I even brought a movie home for us to watch. You sick?”
“No, I just didn’t feel that great last night.” Tick rolled over, slyly pushing the envelope and mysterious letter farther under his pillow. Luckily, his dad hadn’t seen it. Tick didn’t know what he was going to do when his mom asked about it. In the brightness of the morning, it almost felt like the letter had been a dream or a prank after all; though he couldn’t wait to read it again.
“Well, you look like three days of rough road if you want to know the truth,” his dad said. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. What time is it?”
Tick sat up in bed. “Serious?” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in so long. “It’s really ten-thirty?”
“Oh.” Tick fell back on the bed.
“It’s ten-thirty-six,” Dad said with his patented wink.
Tick groaned and pressed his hands over his eyes. It didn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but for some reason it bothered him that the letter from Alaska had drained his brain so much that he’d slept for more than twelve hours.
“Son, what on earth is wrong with you?” Dad put his hand on Tick’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m pretty close to calling the Feds and telling them an alien’s kidnapped my son and replaced him with a half-baked clone.”
“Dad, you watch way too many sci-fi movies. I’m fine, I promise.”
“It’s been at least seven years since I’ve seen a movie without you, big guy.”
“Good point.” Tick looked over at his window, where a fresh batch of snow curtained the bottom edges. The sight made him shiver.
Dad stood and held out a hand. “Come on, it’s not too late for breakfast. Mom made her famous puffed-oven-pancakes. Let’s get down there before Kayla tries to throw them in the fireplace again.”
Tick nodded and let his dad help him up, then followed him out of the room, the whole time thinking about the letter and wanting desperately to tell someone about it.
Not yet, he thought. They might think I’m crazy.
“So what was that letter all about?” his mom asked. The whole family sat at the kitchen table, little Kayla next to Tick, her hands already sticky after only one bite.
Tick’s hand froze halfway on its journey to put the first chunk of puffy pancake, dripping with hot syrup, into his hungry mouth. He’d hoped his mom had somehow forgotten about the mystery letter; he’d failed to come up with a plan on what to say.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, then stalled for time by popping the bite into his mouth and chewing. He lifted his glass of cold milk and took a long drink, his mind spinning for an answer. “You know that Pen Pal Web site I subscribed to a while back?”
“Oh, yeah!” Mom replied, lowering her own fork. “You never told us how that went—did you finally find someone?” The Pen Pal site took a bunch of data from kids all around the world and then matched them up as writing buddies with others kids their same age and with the same interests. A parent had to approve it, of course, and Tick’s mom had done just that, giving the company all kinds of information and filling out a million forms. Maybe it wasn’t too far of a stretch to think one of the pen pals might want to send a letter via regular mail instead of e-mail. It was Tick’s only chance.
“Maybe,” Tick mumbled through another huge bite. He stared at his plate, hoping she’d move on to grill one of his sisters about something else. She didn’t.
“All the way from Alaska,” she continued. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Uh . . . I don’t know actually. Whoever it was just signed it M.G.”
“Alaska, huh?” Dad said. “Hey, maybe your pen pal knows old Aunt Mabel up in Anchorage. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“I highly doubt it,” Mom answered. “That woman probably hasn’t set foot out of her house in ten years.”
Dad gave her a disapproving stare.
Lisa chimed in, her plate already empty. “Tick, how can you not know who it is? Didn’t you have to give them your address?”
“We told you not to do that unless we checked it out first,” Dad said, his brow creased in concern. “You know what the world’s like these days. Is this from someone we’ve already approved?”
Tick suddenly lost every ounce of his appetite. “I don’t know, Dad—yeah, I think so. It didn’t say much. It was kind of dumb, actually.” He wanted to tell them the truth, but something about the letter made him nervous, and he bit his tongue instead.