What would happen to the others between their turns and his? If they were being taken somewhere, would they just wait around all day until he arrived? Was the staggered time difference on purpose—so Master George wouldn’t have to do . . . whatever he was going to do to everyone all at once?
There I go again, Tick thought. Asking a billion questions even though he knew the answer was out of his reach for now. One more day. Twenty-four hours. Then, hopefully, he’d know everything at last.
He logged in to his e-mail and was excited to see messages from both Sofia and Paul. He opened Sofia’s, who’d sent hers hours before Paul.
Tick and Paul,
Not much to say now, huh? Don’t think Sofia Pacini is in love with two American boys, but I really hope I see you both tomorrow. I’m sure somehow they’re going to bring us magically together. Right?
Good luck. I wish we knew what to expect.
For some reason, Tick felt a pang of sadness in his heart, realizing the possibility he might never hear from Sofia again. What if something terrible happened tomorrow? What if only some of the people who performed the ritual made it to wherever they were going? Tick told himself to shut up and clicked on Paul’s e-mail.
My little buddies,
Hot diggity dog, tomorrow’s the day. Let’s don’t jinx anything.
Hope you’re right about us meeting. If so, see ya tomorrow.
Tick hit REPLY TO ALL and typed a quick message, knowing his friends might not see it anyway.
Paul and Sofia,
Good luck tomorrow. See you soon. I hope.
He turned off the computer and stood up, looking over at the fireplace. He thought back to the two events that had happened in the last few months related to the pile of stacked brick, now cold and dark. First, the commitment he’d made to not burn the first letter, to stay in the game—made while kneeling before a fire that could’ve ended it all. And then the bizarre incident with Kayla and the letter—something that either proved miracles really did happen or Tick had serious mental issues.
With a swarm of butterflies in his belly, Tick finally turned out the lights and headed up the stairs to his room, ready for one last night before the Big Day he’d been preparing for since November.
It took him over two hours to fall asleep.
The Barrier Wand
Among the Dead
The next evening—Monday night, May sixth—Tick stood on the front porch with his dad, looking at his digital watch every ten seconds as the sun sank deeper and deeper behind the tree-hidden horizon. The last remnants of twilight turned the sky into an ugly black bruise, a few streaks of clouds looking like jagged scars. It had just turned seven-thirty, and the temperature couldn’t possibly be any more perfect for a romp in the town cemetery. Warm, with a slight breeze bearing the strong scents of honeysuckle and pine.
“Are you ready for this?” Dad asked for the fifth time in the last half hour.
“I guess,” Tick replied, tugging at the scarf around his neck, in no mood to offer any smart-aleck response. He felt like he should have done more to prepare, but there was nothing he could think of to do. The only real instruction he’d been given in the Twelve Clues was to show up and do a couple of ridiculous cartoon actions.
He did have a backpack full of warm clothing, some granola bars and water, a flashlight, some matches, and—most important—his Journal of Curious Letters. He didn’t know if he’d be stranded somewhere and suddenly realize he needed to search for clues he’d missed before. Or maybe he needed it to enter the realm of Master George—kind of like a ticket.
Tick was as ready as he possibly could be. He looked at his dad, who seemed ten times more nervous than Tick did, wringing his hands, rocking back and forth on his feet, sweat pouring off his face. “Dad, are you okay?”
“No.” He didn’t offer anything else.
“Well . . . there’s nothing to worry about. I mean, it’s not like I’m going off to war or something. Mothball and Rutger will probably be there in the cemetery waiting for me. I’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?” Dad asked, almost in a whisper.
“How do I know what?”
“That you’re not going off to war?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” Tick couldn’t believe how the minutes dragged by.
“Many lives are at stake. That’s what the man said, right?”
His dad’s voice shook, worrying Tick. But he had no idea what to say. “I promise I’ll come back, Dad. No matter what, I promise to come back.”
“I don’t know what scares me more,” Dad said. “Letting you run off on your adventure or knowing I have to somehow tell your mom tonight that you may not come back for awhile. Can you imagine how much that woman’s going to worry? I may be strung up on a pole when you return.”
“Dad, how long have you guys been married?”
“Almost twenty years. Why?”
“Don’t you think she trusts you?”
“Well . . . yeah. What are you, a psychologist now?”
Tick shrugged. “No, I just think Mom will understand, that’s all. She’s always taught me right from wrong, hasn’t she? And to make sacrifices for other people—to serve other people. I’m just obeying orders, right?”
His dad shook his head in mock disbelief. “Professor, I can’t believe you’re only thirteen years old.”
“Thirteen and a half.”
His dad barked a laugh, then pulled Tick into a hug, squeezing him tight. “You better be off now, son. Don’t want to take any chances of being late, now do you?”
“Nope.” Tick returned the hug, trying to fight off tears.
“I love you, Atticus. I’m so proud of what you’re doing.” His dad pulled back, still holding Tick by both shoulders as he looked into his eyes. “You go and make the Higginbottom family proud, okay? You go out there and fight for what’s right, and fight for those who need your help.”
“I love you, too, Dad,” Tick said, hating how simple and stupid it sounded, but feeling the truth of it in his heart. They hugged again, for a very long minute.
Finally, without any need for additional words, Tick turned from his dad, walked down the stairs of the porch, waved one last time, then headed for his destiny.