“Oh, Tick, you better hope I don’t tell your father you just said that,” she replied. “By the way, I hear you’re no match for him in that silly football video game.”

Tick forced a laugh. “How in the world did you know that?”

“Small town, kiddo. Small town.”

“Yeah . . . guess so.” An awkward silence followed, and he shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I better get to a computer.”

“Have fun. Let me know if you need any help.” She turned and pushed her book cart down another aisle.

Relieved, Tick jogged to the long row of computer desks and found an empty one, glad to sit down and rest. As he pulled out his library card, he nervously glanced around, though he had no idea what he was looking for. Getting a little paranoid, aren’t you? he chided himself. There has to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this. Something.

He slid the card into the electronic reader, then typed his password when the prompt appeared on the screen. A few seconds later a window opened for him, connecting him to the Internet. Peeking around the library stacks like a top-level CIA agent searching for spies, Tick pulled out the two mystery letters and unfolded them, pressing them flat on the desk next to the keyboard.

He read through them both again, even though he already knew the first thing he wanted to try on the Internet search engine. He hoped other people had received similar letters and were talking about them in blogs or message boards. Holding his breath, wishing like crazy he’d find something useful, Tick typed “M.G.” and clicked SEARCH. An instant later, the computer screen told him how many hits: 2,333,117.


Web sites about MG Cars, Madagascar, Magnesium, MG Financial Group were listed, but nothing that gave any kind of hint about who had sent the two letters. He tried other phrases: “frightening things”; “despicably deadly”; “forty-nine days plus five tomorrows.”

Nothing useful popped up.

Discouraged, he sat back and stared at the screen. He’d been afraid to admit how much he really wanted there to be others like him. He didn’t want to be alone in this crazy stuff. The first letter had been addressed to “Dear Master Atticus,” but the wording of the message made Tick think more than one letter had been sent out, a plea for help from anyone willing to give it.

Well, maybe he’d have to be the first one to put some clues out there for other people to find.

Rejuvenated by the thought, he typed in the address for the Pen Pal site, then logged into his own section and personal profile. He briefly described the situation, listed some of the key phrases from both letters, then asked if anyone out there had received something similar. He clicked SUBMIT and sat back in the chair again, folding his arms. Hopefully, if anyone else in the world searched for the same things as he’d just done, they would somehow get linked up with his Pen Pal information and e-mail him.

It was a start.

The snow had started up again, big fluffy flakes swirling in the wind. Tick pulled his red-and-black scarf up around his ears and mouth as he left the library and headed for home. He walked in the opposite direction from where he’d come earlier, perfectly willing to take the long way around in order to avoid the haunted alleyway. He shivered, not sure if it was from the cold weather or the memory of the spooky smoke-ghost.

He walked all the way around the downtown area, doing his best to stay in the most public of places. The sky had melted into a dull gray, flakes of white dancing around him like a shaken snow globe. Maybe that’s where I am, he thought. I’ve been sucked from the real world and placed in some alien’s giant coffee table knickknack.

A shot of relief splashed through his nerves when he finally made it to the small section of forest that lined the road to his neighborhood. All he wanted was to go home and warm up, maybe play his dad in Football 3000 . . .

From the corner of his eye, Tick saw something move in the trees just to the left of the road. Something huge, like a moose or a bear. He turned and looked more intently, curious. Though he lived in a small town, big animals rarely ventured into the woods this close to his neighborhood. Just a few feet away from him, a shadow loomed behind a thick tree frosted with snow, its owner obviously trying to hide from him. Animals don’t hide, Tick thought, warning alarms clanging in his mind as he readied himself to run.

But then the thing stepped out from behind the tree and Tick’s feet froze to the ground.

Despite its enormous size and odd appearance, it wasn’t an “it” at all.

It was a person. A lady.

And she was eight feet tall.



The sight of a giant, skinny woman coming out of the forest didn’t help Tick’s anxiety much after his experiences with the freaky thing in his bedroom and the ghost-face in the alley. He yelped and started to run down the street toward his home, only making it two steps before he tripped over a chunk of ice that had fallen off the back of someone’s tire well. His face slammed into the fresh snow, which was, to his relief, powdery and soft.

By the time he scrambled up from the ground, the enormous woman was beside him, helping him to his feet instead of ripping out his throat. Her face fell into a frown, as though saddened to see him so afraid. Her expression somehow made Tick feel guilty for running away so quickly.

“’Ello,” she said, her voice husky and thick with a strange accent. “Pardon me looks. Been a bit of tough journey, it has.” She stepped back, towering over Tick. Her eyes were anxious and hesitant and the way she fiddled with her huge hands made him think of Kayla when she was nervous. The gesture made the giant lady seem so . . . innocent, and Tick relaxed, feeling oddly at ease.

She had thick black hair that cascaded across her shoulders like a shawl, her face square and homely with bright blue eyes. Her gray clothes were wet and worn, hanging on her impossibly thin body like droopy sheets on a wooden laundry rack. The poor woman looked miserable in the cold, and the slight hunch to her shoulders only added to the effect. But then she swept away that impression with a huge smile, revealing an enormous set of yellow teeth.

Tick knew he was staring, but he couldn’t look away. “You’re . . . huge,” he said before he could stop himself.

The woman flinched, her smile faltering just a bit. “I’m a bit lanky, I’ll admit it,” she said. “No reason for the little man to poke fun, now is it?”