Tick sat back against the wall, his head swimming in confusion and awe.

He no longer doubted the messages represented a very serious matter—clues to something extremely important. He was sure the phrase in the first letter that said many lives were at stake wasn’t a joke and it scared him. No matter the source, Tick knew he had to get to the bottom of it.

And he felt an overwhelming itch to figure out the first clue. He looked over at his calendar and started running through the words of the message, trying to mentally pinpoint the special day it referred to, but his mind kept spinning in too many directions for him to think straight. Let’s see . . . one week from today . . . six weeks before . . . six months . . . minus forty-nine days . . . ARGH!

Shaking his head, Tick grabbed the first letter from M.G., folded it up with the second, then stuffed them both into the back pocket of his jeans and ran downstairs. It was time to get serious. First things first.

“Mom, I’m running over to the library!” he yelled as he quickly put on his coat and gloves. He was out the door before she could respond.

By the time Tick left his neighborhood, the snow had let up, the air around him brightening as the sun fought its way through the thinning clouds.

Deer Park was a small town and since the city center was only a couple of miles from Tick’s house, he walked there all the time. And, being a bookworm and study bug, the library often ended up as Tick’s destination of choice. Especially when he wanted to use the Internet. His family had it at home, but it wasn’t as fast as at the library, and Kayla always seemed to want to play her Winnie the Pooh game the second he sat down at the computer, bugging him until he gave in.

He crossed over the town square where, during the summer, a huge fountain usually sprayed. Now the square lay as a flat expanse of whiteness, countless footsteps in the snow crisscrossing it as people bustled around the town.

The library was one of the oldest buildings around, a gray bundle of granite built decades ago. To get there, Tick always took a shortcut between the fire station and the drugstore, a thin alley the width of his shoulders. The stone walls that towered over him as he walked along the alley made him think of old medieval castles.

He had almost reached the end of the alley when a quick breeze whipped past his left ear, followed by an eerie, haunting moan that rose up behind him like the last call of a lonely ghost before heading back to its grave. Tick spun around, stumbling backward when he saw what was there.

A swirling, rippling cloud of gray smoke floated in the alley, surging and receding, billowing out then shrinking back again every two or three seconds. Like it was . . . breathing.

And then the smoke turned into a face.

The wispy smoke coalesced and hardened, forming into unmistakable facial features. Dark eyes under bushy gray eyebrows. A crooked nose with black, gaping holes for nostrils. Thin lips pulled back into a wicked grin, exposing an abyss of a mouth with no teeth. Wild, unkempt hair and beard.

Tick willed himself to move, but he could only stare in amazement at the impossible thing floating in front of him.

The moaning sound returned—a deep, low groan filled with grief and pain. It came from every direction, amplified by the narrow stone walls, growing louder and creepier. Tick felt goose bumps break out all over him, chills washing across his skin in waves.

“What . . . who are you?” he asked, amazed that he had found the courage to speak.

Instead of answering, the smoky face groaned louder, its eyes flaring wider.

Then it lunged toward Tick, who turned and ran for his life.


The Lady in the Trees

Tick shot out of the alley at a full run and slammed into a man walking past, both of them tumbling to the ground in a chaotic jumble of arms and legs.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Tick yelled, helping the man to his feet as he looked back at the alley, expecting the smoky apparition to appear. But nothing came out and the creepy sound had stopped completely.

“It’s okay,” the man replied as he brushed himself off. “What’s the rush?”

Tick finally focused on the man he’d tackled and saw it was Mr. Wilkinson, the school custodian. “Oh, just going to the library. Sorry.” Tick took three hesitant steps so he could see clearly down the alley. It was empty, no sign of a spooky ghost-face anywhere. “Well, gotta run. Don’t want to waste any study time!”

Not waiting for an answer, Tick took off for the old library building, wondering if somehow Mr. Wilkinson had saved him from a terrible fate.

Five minutes later, Tick stood doubled over in the lobby of the library, hands on his knees, gasping like each breath might be his last. Even though the thing in the alley had disappeared and not chased him, Tick had run as hard as he could until he was safe inside the musty-smelling entryway of the old building.

Maybe I am imagining things, he thought. There’s no way I just saw what I think I saw.

The librarian behind the desk gave him an evil stare as Tick caught his breath. If he’d been in a better mood he would’ve laughed at how she fulfilled every clichŽ in the book: hair up in a bun; glasses perched on the tip of her nose with a linked chain drooped around her neck; beady eyes that told small children they’d never reach adulthood if they didn’t read thirty books a day. This librarian must be new; the rest of the staff knew him like a mother knew her own kids.

He spotted Ms. Sears over by the non-fiction section and quickly walked toward the computers, trying to avoid her; the last thing he needed right now was some nice chitchat about the weather.

She saw him anyway.

“Hi there, Tick,” she called out to him, her beaming smile managing to calm his nerves a bit. Ms. Sears had

gray, tightly curled hair that looked like a cleaning pad permanently glued atop her freckled head. “What are you up to today? Here to study up on your chess strategy? Or maybe look for a pen pal?”

Tick shook his head, trying to dislodge the heavy feeling that clung to his bones like an oily sludge. “Nah, I just wanted to poke around on the Internet. Got a little boring over at my house.”

“Your dad didn’t break out the karaoke set again, did he? If so, I hope all your windows were closed.” She gave him a wink.

“No, I think he finally figured out he sounds like a wounded goat when he sings.” He knew his voice sounded tight and he hoped Ms. Sears didn’t notice. So many questions bounced around inside his head he felt like he’d need surgery to relieve the swelling.