“Dang it,” Tick said.


“I was hoping he’d give us another hint on how to come up with the magic words. This isn’t a clue.” Tick waved the paper in the air, then dropped it on the desk next to his journal. “It’s just a warning. No different from the stuff he said in the very first letter.”

“But remember,” his dad pointed out, “he said everything you receive is a clue.”

“Yeah, well right now I’m kind of sick of it.” Tick flopped onto his bed and rolled over toward the wall.

After a long pause, his dad spoke quietly. “Sleep on it, Professor. You’ll feel better in the morning, I promise.”

The floor creaked as his dad walked toward the hallway; then the light went off and he heard the soft thump of his dad gently closing the door.

Despite the tornado of thoughts churning inside his mind, Tick fell asleep.

Tick knows he’s dreaming, but it’s still creepy.

He’s in the forest, moonlight breaking the darkness just enough to make the trees look like twisted old trolls, their limbs reaching out to grab him, choke him.

Leaves and snow swirl around his body like fairies on too much pixie dust. A huge tree looms at his back. Tick watches the leaves spinning in the air, mesmerized.

He jumps to catch one, and some unseen force holds him in the air . . .

And then the leaves turn into letters.

One by one the letters pass in front of Tick, glowing briefly, teasing him with their riddles, reminding him that he can’t solve the biggest one of all. The first letter.

The first letter.

The first letter . . .


The Final Clue

The last yellow envelope from Master George came on the third of May, only three days before the Big Day. Tick came home from school on a warm and rainy afternoon to find it on his pillow, addressed to him and postmarked from Brisbane, Spain.

Until then, he’d been in a foul mood, with good reason.

Two days earlier, Sofia had announced she was pretty sure she’d solved the riddle of the magic words. Positive, in fact. Tick knew he should be happy for her, but instead felt jealous and angry. Especially since he knew she couldn’t tell him; in his mind it was like Paul and Sofia had this secret about Tick and kept giggling about it behind his back.

With each passing day May sixth grew closer and closer and Tick became more dejected, moping around like an old man searching for his lost soul in an Edgar Allan Poe story. He just didn’t get it—he was smart. He’d always thought he was way smarter than anyone his own age, and many who were older. Yet for some reason he couldn’t figure out those stupid magic words! Paul and Sofia did it, why couldn’t he?

As Tick opened the last letter, hoping against hope it somehow held the final link to the magic words, he thought again about how odd it was that Master George traveled around the world to mail his messages. And how Mothball and Rutger got around the world so quickly. It had to be something magical, and Tick sure hoped he’d find out all about it in three days.

He pulled out the white cardstock. The last clue. Scared to death he’d finish it and be no better off than before, he almost reluctantly read its words:

Everything you need to determine the magic words is in the first letter. Quit struggling so much and read them, won’t you? Listen to the words of Master George—they’ve been there all along! This is the last clue. I shall never see or speak to you again. Unless I do. Good-bye, and may the Realities have mercy on you.

Tick slumped down on his bed, groaning out loud. It seemed like the last few clues had been a complete . . .

Wait a minute.

He sat back up and put the paper in his lap, reading through the clue again. Had Master George made a mistake while typing it? The second sentence made no sense.

Quit struggling so much and read them, won’t you?

Read them? Why would he say them when referring to the first letter he’d sent out? There’d been only one piece of paper in that original envelope, so why would he use the plural word them when telling Tick to read it? The first letter . . .

Tick stopped. He felt like the Earth had stopped spinning and the air had frozen around him in an invisible block of ice; his mind and spirit seemed to step out of his body and turn around to look at him, not believing he could’ve missed something so obvious.

The first letter.

He grabbed his journal, ripping it open to find the clue that had first revealed he needed to discover magic words to say on May sixth. It had been the second clue, telling him that at the appointed time, he would need to say the words with his eyes closed. Master George couldn’t tell him what the words were, but the last sentence told him how he could figure it out himself:

Examine the first letter carefully and you will work them out.

Old M.G. had been purposefully tricky with his language to throw his readers off the trail. When Tick read that clue the first time, his mind had immediately interpreted it as referring to the very first letter he’d received in the mail from Master George. And once that had been set in his mind, he’d never even considered the possibility of a different meaning. But what the mysterious man really meant was something entirely different.

The first letter.

Not the first envelope. Not the first paper. Not the first message.

The first letter.

M.G. meant that Tick needed to literally examine the first letter of something. And only one possibility made sense. Even though some of the Twelve Clues had not seemed like clues at all, Master George had been very clear.

Everything is a clue.

His blood racing through his veins like he’d just done windsprints, setting his heart into a thumpity-thump that he could feel and hear in his ears, Tick went through his Journal of Curious Letters page by page, clue by clue. He kept a finger on the last page of the dusty old book, flipping back there after seeing each of the twelve riddles in turn, jotting down a letter then going back again.

One by one, Tick wrote down the first letter of each clue, twelve letters in all. When he finished, he sat back and stared at the result, wanting to laugh and cry and scream at the same time.



The Miracle of Screaming

Tick took his journal downstairs with him, eager to e-mail Sofia and Paul and let them know he’d finally—finally—figured it out. He placed his precious book on the desk and quickly logged in and sent off the messages, his excitement building by the second. He couldn’t wait until his dad got home from work so he could tell him, too.