I really must be getting old.

Bewildered, he stood up, calling for Muffintops, and thinking how much he’d like a nice pot of peppermint tea.


The Final Preparation

By Sunday night, Tick had heard back from Paul and Sofia about the strange incident with the burned letter and its miraculous reappearance. They were as shocked and clueless as he was about how or why it happened. Paul wasn’t shy about expressing his doubt that it had occurred at all. His theory was Tick had been so stressed out about the magic words that he’d experienced one whopper of a bizarre dream.

But Tick knew it was real. He’d even asked Kayla about it and she didn’t remember anything about burning the letter. No, Tick knew something magical had happened. Something supernatural. Something miraculous. And he couldn’t wait to ask Master George what it might mean.

He sat at the desk in his room, waiting for his dad. The lamp on the desk provided the only light, failing miserably to push back the gloom. They’d planned all weekend to meet at eight o’clock Sunday evening to discuss the Big Day, and to run through the clues one final time. Though they didn’t really know what they were planning for, it seemed they’d have only one shot at this. Or rather, Tick would have only one shot. The clues had been very clear—he must go alone, unless his dad wanted to drop dead of a heart attack right before the special time.

Tick had just pulled out the Journal of Curious Letters when he heard a soft knock at the door. “Come in,” he called out.

His dad opened the door and shut it behind him. “Twenty-five hours to go, kiddo.”

Tick groaned. “I know. I’ve been dying for this day to come and now that it’s here, I wish we had a week or two more. I’m scared to death.”

“Well, at least you’re honest.” Dad came in and sat on the bed, ignoring the loud creak of the bedsprings, which sounded as if they were about to break. “Most kids would act all tough and say they weren’t scared at all.”

“Then most kids would be faking it.”

His dad clapped his hands together. “Well, we won’t have much time to talk tomorrow night before you go, so let’s run through everything.”

Tick wasn’t ready for that yet. “Dad?”


“What if . . . whatever I do takes me somewhere? Something tells me it will. What if I’m gone a long time?”

His dad’s face melted into a look of deep sadness, all droopy eyes and frowns. “Professor, trust me, I’ve been so worried about all this I can’t sleep at night. How could any good father let his son go off to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what and for who-knows how long? Especially after the dangerous things we’ve been through.” He paused, rubbing his hands together. “But what can I say—I’m nuts? It’s hard to believe in all this—but I believe in you. I’m taking a huge leap of faith, but I’m gonna let you walk out of this house and down that road”—he pointed out the window—“and off to wherever or whatever it is you’ve been called to do. It’s going to kill me, but I’m gonna do it. I’m either the best or the worst dad in history.”

A long silence followed. Tick felt something stir within him, a new appreciation for his parents and what they went through worrying about their kids. It couldn’t be easy. And now Tick was going to do the worst thing possible to his dad—make him let him go without having a clue what might happen to his only son.

“What about Mom?” Tick finally asked.

His dad looked up from the spot he’d been staring at on the floor. “Now that could be a battle.”

“What are you going to do? She’d never let me go.”

His dad laughed. “That’s exactly why you’re going to go tomorrow night, and leave the explaining-to-Mom bit to me. Once you’re gone, I’ll sit her down and spill the beans, every little morsel, from beginning to end. Your mom and I have loved each other for many years, son, and eventually she’ll understand why you’re doing this, and why you and I feel so strongly about it.”

Tick snorted. “Yeah, sometime after she tries to kill you for letting me go.”

His dad nodded. “You’re probably right, there. Just try to not be gone too long and maybe I’ll survive.”

Tick suddenly had a horrible thought. “What if . . . what if I never—”

His dad held up a hand and shushed Tick loudly. “Stop. Stop, Atticus.”


“No!” He shook his head vigorously. “You’re coming back to me, you hear? These people know what they’re doing, and you will come back to me. And there won’t be another word said about it, is that understood?”

Tick couldn’t remember the last time his dad had looked so stern. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now let’s run through those clues.”

It took a half hour, but they read through each and every one of the Twelve Clues, studying their words one last time to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. But it all seemed to be there, straightforward and solved. Looking back, it had all been pretty easy in a way. The real test seemed to be the endurance and the bravery to keep going.

And, of course, figuring out the magic words, which seemed to be the most important piece of the puzzle. No matter what else he’d done, without those words to say, he felt sure everything would fail.

When they read the twelfth clue, they realized they’d perhaps missed something—a little phrase their mysterious friend had thrown in to verify they’d decoded the magic words correctly.

Listen to the words of Master George—they’ve been there all along!

And they really had been there. If Tick had just known to look at the first letter of the individual clues, he probably would’ve figured out “Master George” the second they’d learned the name from Norbert up in Alaska.

And so, after thoroughly examining the entire Journal of Curious Letters with his dad, Tick felt ready to go.

Tomorrow night, in the cemetery close to downtown, at nine o’clock, he’d show up, alone, in warm clothing, say the words “Master George” with his eyes closed, hands in pockets, then stomp the ground with his right foot ten times.

After that, who knew what might happen.

Tick went downstairs to check his e-mail before bed, realizing this might be the last chance he had to see if his friends had sent anything. It was already approaching early morning on Monday for Sofia because of the time difference, and Paul was probably already in bed.