“The closet?” Tick said, licking his dry lips.

“Yeah, the closet. Where every monster that’s ever eaten a child dwells. Just great.”

They edged across the room, which now seemed as wide as the Sahara Desert. Tick noticed his dad tiptoeing, which for some reason made him laugh, though it came out sounding like a panicked hyena cornered by three starving lions.

“What?” Dad asked, settling back down onto his heels.

“Nothing. Go for it.” Tick gestured to the closet door, which stood ajar a couple of inches.

Dad reached out and flung it open, then took a quick step back. Nothing moved in the cluttered pile of dirty clothes, sports balls, Frisbees, and other junk. There didn’t seem to be enough space for a mechanical dog-sized monster to hide.

Tick stepped forward and nudged a pile of clothes with his foot. No response. They spent the next ten minutes searching the room from top to bottom, their initial fear having almost completely melted away, but found nothing.

“It has to be here somewhere, Dad. I’m telling you, there’s no way I imagined that thing. It scared me half to death.”

“Don’t worry, son, I believe you. But sometimes we wake from dreams and they seem very . . . real. You know?”

Tick wanted to argue, but he was smart enough to consider the possibility, even though it kind of made him want to kick his dad in the shins for suggesting it. Tick had been on the bed for a long time—maybe he’d fallen asleep without realizing it. But then the thing that clunked against the door . . . ?

No, he was convinced it’d been real. But why worry his poor dad any longer? He nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Come on,” Dad said, flicking off the flashlight and putting his arm around Tick’s shoulders. “You can sleep on the little couch in our bedroom. It’ll be like old times when the branch outside your window used to give you the heebie-jeebies on a windy night. It’s been years since we’ve had a sleepover.”

Tick felt dumb and embarrassed, but he didn’t hesitate, grabbing his pillow and blanket before following his dad out of the room. In the hallway, they shared a glance, then Dad shut Tick’s bedroom door, pulling on the knob until they both heard the comforting click of the latch taking hold.


A Most Unwelcome Patch of Smoke

The next Saturday afternoon, still in the bliss of Thanksgiving vacation and full from leftover turkey sandwiches, Tick sat in the front room, staring out the window at the falling snow. His family lived in a heavily wooded area and the east side of the state of Washington made for lots of snow in the wintertime. Many people in town grumbled about it, but Tick never did.

He loved the cold, he loved the snow, and he loved what came with it—Thanksgiving, then Christmas vacation, then the football play-offs, then the annual Jackson County Chess Tournament—where he’d won his age bracket three straight years. But even more than any of that, Tick loved the look of the cold white powder resting in soft clumps on the dozens of evergreen trees outside his house.

He heard a rumble coming down the street and saw the mailman’s truck slugging through the thick snow with chained tires. Tick watched as it pulled up to their mailbox; he saw the mailman reach out and put a stack of letters inside. A flash of yellow in the bunch made Tick’s heart jump-start to super speed. He leaned forward for a better view but it was too late. The truck lumbered away, sending twin sprays of snow shooting out behind the tires.

Tick jumped up from the couch and ran to the front door where he quickly put on his coat and snow boots. The rest of his family seemed busy with their own thing so no one noticed his nervous reaction to seeing the golden piece of mail.

It had been a full week since receiving the letter from Alaska, and he’d thought seriously of burning it every single day. He knew the weird thing in his closet had to be related to the “very frightening things” he’d been warned about. It seemed so simple to throw the letter into the fire to make sure nothing else happened.

But the part of Tick that loved chess and brainteasers and science desperately wanted to see what the “Twelve Clues” were all about, so he hadn’t burned the letter and the week had dragged on worse than the one right before Christmas.

And now, it looked like his choice not to burn the letter may have paid off.

He trudged his way through the few inches of snow to the mailbox. His dad had cleared everything with the blower earlier that morning, grumbling about how early winter had set in this year, but now Tick could barely tell he’d done anything at all. The storm was one of those that just kept on coming. The world lay bathed in white, a wintry wonderland that Tick knew would put even the scroogiest Scrooge in the holiday spirit.

He reached the brick mailbox and opened it up, pulling out the stack left moments earlier. He shuffled through the stack, taking each piece off the top and placing it on the bottom—a JC Penny catalog; power bill; an early Christmas card from Aunt Liz; junk mail; junk mail; junk mail.

And then there it was, the envelope, crinkled and golden, with Tick’s name and address written messily in blue ink across the front; no return address; the stamp an exotic temple perched high on a mountain. As promised, his next message had arrived.

And this time it was postmarked from Kitami, Japan.

Tick couldn’t believe his luck—no one had to know about this second letter. Something inside of him still itched to tell his parents, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not until he knew more, understood more. Not until he’d figured out the puzzle. With a crazy mix of excitement and panic, he locked the door to his room and sat on the bed, the yellow envelope in his sweaty hands.

He paused, considering the creepy thing from his closet one last time. He could still stop, burn both letters, and never look back.

Yeah, right.

Tick tore open the letter. He pulled out a single piece of the same white cardstock that had been used the first time, though this time it was only about half the size of the first one. As before, one side was blank while the other contained a typed message:

Mark your calendar. One week from the day before the day after the yesterday that comes three weeks before six months from six weeks from now minus forty-nine days plus five tomorrows and a next week, it will happen. A day that could very well change the course of your life as you know it.

I must say, I hope to see you there.

Scribbled directly below the last line were the initials “M.G.” and a note that said “This is clue 1 of 12.”