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The Journal of Curious Letters 1r-1, Page 2

James Dashner

  “Yeah, so I can get picked on even more? No, thanks.”

  Mr. Chu’s face melted into a frown. He looked at the floor. “I hate what those kids do to you. If I could…”

  “I know, Mr. Chu. You’d beat ’em up if it weren’t for those pesky lawsuits.” Tick felt relieved when a smile returned to his teacher’s face.

  “That’s right, Tick. I’d put every one of those slackers in the hospital if I could get away with it. Bunch of no-good louses-that’s what they are. In fifteen years, they’ll all be calling you boss. Remember that, okay?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Good. Why don’t you run on home, then. I bet your mom’s got some cookies in the oven. See you Monday.”

  “Okay. See ya, Mr. Chu.” Tick waved, then hurried down the hall toward home.

  He only tripped and fell once.

  “I’m home!” Tick yelled as he shut the front door. His four-year-old sister, Kayla, was playing with her tea set in the front room, her curly blonde hair bouncing with every move. She sat right next to the piano, where their older sister Lisa banged out some horrific song that she’d surely blame on the piano being out of tune. Tick dropped his backpack on the floor and hung his coat on the wooden rack next to the door.

  “What’s up, Tiger?” his mom said as she shuffled into the hallway, pushing a string of brown hair behind her ear. The cheeks of her thin face were red from her efforts in the kitchen, small beads of sweat hanging on for dear life along her forehead. Lorena Higginbottom loved-absolutely loved — to cook and everyone in Deer Park knew it. “I just put some cookies in the oven.”

  Righto, Mr. Chu.

  “Mom,” Tick said, “people stopped calling each other ‘Tiger’ a long time before I was born. Why don’t you just call me ‘Tick’? Everyone else does.”

  His mom let out an exaggerated sigh. “That’s the worst nickname I’ve ever heard. Do you even know what a tick does?”

  “Yeah, it sucks your blood right before you squish it dead.” Tick pressed his thumb against his pant leg, twisting it with a vicious scowl on his face. Kayla looked up from her tea set, giggling.

  “Lovely,” Mom said. “And you have no problem being named after such a creature?”

  Tick shrugged. “Anything’s better than Atticus. I’d rather be called… Wilbur than Atticus.”

  His mom laughed, even though he could tell she tried not to.

  “When’s Dad gonna be home?” Tick asked.

  “The usual, I’d guess,” Mom replied. “Why?”

  “He owes me a rematch in Football 3000.”

  Mom threw her arms up in mock desperation. “Oh, well, in that case, I’ll call and tell him it’s an emergency and to get his tail right home.”

  Lisa stopped playing her music, much to Tick’s relief, and, he suspected, to the relief of every ear within a quarter mile. She turned around on the piano bench to look at Tick, her perfect teeth shining in an evil grin. Wavy brown hair framed a slightly pudgy face like she’d never quite escaped her baby fat. “Dad whipped you by five touchdowns last time,” she said sweetly, folding her arms. “Why don’t you give up, already?”

  “Will do, once you give up beating that poor piano with a hatchet every day. Sounds like an armless gorilla is playing in there.”

  Instead of responding, Lisa stood up from the piano bench and walked over to Tick. She leaned forward and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “I wuv you, wittle brother.”

  “I think I’m gonna be sick, Mom,” Tick groaned, wiping his cheek. “Could you get me something to clean my face?”

  Lisa folded her arms and shook her head, her eyes set in a disapproving stare. “And to think I used to change your diaper.”

  Tick barked a fake laugh. “Uh, sis, you’re two years older than me-pretty sure you never changed my diaper.”

  “I was very advanced for my age. Skilled beyond my years.”

  “Yeah, you’re a regular Mozart-well, except for the whole music thing.”

  Mom put her hands on her hips. “You two are just about the silliest kids I’ve ever-” A loud buzz from the kitchen cut her off. “Ah, the cookies are done.” She turned and scuttled off toward the kitchen.

  Kayla screamed something unintelligible then ran after her mom with a huge smile planted on her face, dropping tea cups all over the floor and hallway.

  Tick looked at Lisa and shrugged. “At least she’s not burning things.” Kayla had been caught several times at the living room fireplace, laughing with glee as she destroyed important objects in the flames. Tick headed for the staircase. “I’ll be back in a minute-gotta use the bathroom.”

  “Thanks for sharing that bit of exciting news,” Lisa quipped as she followed Kayla toward the kitchen.

  Tick had his hand on the banister when his mom called back for him. “Oh, I almost forgot. You got a letter in the mail today. It’s on your bed.”

  “Ooh, maybe it’s a love letter,” Lisa said, blowing a kiss at Tick.

  Tick ignored her and ran up the stairs.

  The bed squeaked as Tick flopped down next to his pillow where a tattered yellow envelope rested, his full name-Atticus Higginbottom-and address scrawled across it in messy handwriting. The stamp was an old picture of the Eiffel Tower but the postmark smeared on top of it said, “Macadamia, Alaska.” The upper left corner of the envelope had no return address. He picked up the envelope and flipped it over-nothing there either. Curious, he stared at the mysterious letter for a moment, racking his brain. Who could possibly have written him from the state of Alaska? No one came to mind.

  He wedged his finger under the sealed flap on the back and ripped the envelope open. A simple rectangle of white cardstock that barely fit in the envelope held a long message on one side, typed by what appeared to be an old-fashioned typewriter. Baffled, Tick pulled the card out and began to read.

  D ear Master Atticus,

  I am writing to you in hopes that you will have the courage of heart and the strength of mind to help me in a most dreadful time of need. Things are literally splitting apart at the seams, as it were, and I must find those who can assist me in some very serious matters.

  Beginning today (the fifteenth of November), I am sending out a sequence of special messages and clues that will lead you to an important, albeit dangerous, destiny if you so choose. No, dangerous may not be a strong enough word. Indubitably and despicably deadly-yes, that’s better.

  I will say nothing further. Oh, except several more things. If ever you want the madness to stop, you need only to burn this letter. I’ll know when you do and shall immediately cease and desist.

  However, if this letter remains intact for one week after you receive it, I will know you have chosen to help me, and you will begin receiving the Twelve Clues.

  Know this before you decide, my friend: Many, many lives are at stake. Many. And they depend entirely on this choice that you must make. Will you have the courage to choose the difficult path?

  Do be careful. Because of this letter, very frightening things are coming your way.

  Most faithfully yours, M.G.

  P.S. I recognize that, like most young people, you probably love sweetened milk and peppermint sticks. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor practical means to send you any as a welcoming gift. Please do not think me unkind. Good day.

  Tick stared at the letter for ten minutes, reading it over and over, wondering who could’ve played such a trick. His sister Lisa? No-he couldn’t see her using words like “despicably” and “indubitably.” His mom or dad? Certainly not. What would be the point? Tick had no true friends to speak of, so the only other option was that it was a trick from the bullies at school. But again, such an idea made no sense. Plus, how would anyone he knew manage to get an Alaskan postmark on the envelope?

  His dad did have an old aunt who lived up there somewhere, but Tick had never even met the lady as far as he could remember, and doubted she even knew he existed. Plus, Tick didn’t think her initials were M.G.
r />   A knock at the door snapped his attention away-his mom wondering why he hadn’t come down for cookies. Tick mumbled something about not feeling well, which was far truer than he liked to admit.

  It couldn’t be for real. It had to be a scam or a joke. It had to be.

  And yet, as the purple and orange glow of twilight faded into black darkness, Tick still lay on his bed, contemplating the letter, ignoring his growing hunger. He felt hypnotized by M.G.’s message. Eventually, no closer to understanding or believing, he fell asleep to the soft hum of the central heating.

  But in his dreams, he kept seeing the same words over and over, like a buzzing neon sign on a haunted hotel:

  Very frightening things are coming your way.

  Chapter 3

  A Kid’s Worst Nightmare

  Tick woke up to the wonderful sound and smell of sizzling bacon, coupled with the uncomfortable sensation of sliding down a mountain. By the time he shook his head and burned the cobwebs of sleep away, he realized his dad had taken a seat on the edge of the bed, making the mattress lean considerably in that direction.

  Tick tried not to smile. Edgar Higginbottom was a tad on the heavy side. Certainly with his pale skin, scraggly hair, and a nose the size of Rhode Island, he didn’t qualify as the most handsome man on the planet, but whatever the big guy lacked in looks, he more than made up for in kindness and humor. Tick thought his dad was the coolest person on the planet.

  “Morning, Professor,” Dad said in his gravelly voice. Everyone in the family joked that Tick might be the smartest one living in the house, so his dad had taken to calling him Professor a long time ago. “Gee, I came home last night all ready to take you down in Football 3000 again, but you’re up here dead to the world. I even brought a movie home for us to watch. You sick?”

  “No, I just didn’t feel that great last night.” Tick rolled over, slyly pushing the envelope and mysterious letter farther under his pillow. Luckily, his dad hadn’t seen it. Tick didn’t know what he was going to do when his mom asked about it. In the brightness of the morning, it almost felt like the letter had been a dream or a prank after all; though he couldn’t wait to read it again.

  “Well, you look like three days of rough road if you want to know the truth,” his dad said. “You sure you’re okay?”

  “Yeah, I’m fine. What time is it?”


  Tick sat up in bed. “Serious?” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in so long. “It’s really ten-thirty?”


  “Oh.” Tick fell back on the bed.

  “It’s ten-thirty- six, ” Dad said with his patented wink.

  Tick groaned and pressed his hands over his eyes. It didn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but for some reason it bothered him that the letter from Alaska had drained his brain so much that he’d slept for more than twelve hours.

  “Son, what on earth is wrong with you?” Dad put his hand on Tick’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m pretty close to calling the Feds and telling them an alien’s kidnapped my son and replaced him with a half-baked clone.”

  “Dad, you watch way too many sci-fi movies. I’m fine, I promise.”

  “It’s been at least seven years since I’ve seen a movie without you, big guy.”

  “Good point.” Tick looked over at his window, where a fresh batch of snow curtained the bottom edges. The sight made him shiver.

  Dad stood and held out a hand. “Come on, it’s not too late for breakfast. Mom made her famous puffed-oven-pancakes. Let’s get down there before Kayla tries to throw them in the fireplace again.”

  Tick nodded and let his dad help him up, then followed him out of the room, the whole time thinking about the letter and wanting desperately to tell someone about it.

  Not yet, he thought. They might think I’m crazy.

  “So what was that letter all about?” his mom asked. The whole family sat at the kitchen table, little Kayla next to Tick, her hands already sticky after only one bite.

  Tick’s hand froze halfway on its journey to put the first chunk of puffy pancake, dripping with hot syrup, into his hungry mouth. He’d hoped his mom had somehow forgotten about the mystery letter; he’d failed to come up with a plan on what to say.

  “Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, then stalled for time by popping the bite into his mouth and chewing. He lifted his glass of cold milk and took a long drink, his mind spinning for an answer. “You know that Pen Pal Web site I subscribed to a while back?”

  “Oh, yeah!” Mom replied, lowering her own fork. “You never told us how that went-did you finally find someone?” The Pen Pal site took a bunch of data from kids all around the world and then matched them up as writing buddies with others kids their same age and with the same interests. A parent had to approve it, of course, and Tick’s mom had done just that, giving the company all kinds of information and filling out a million forms. Maybe it wasn’t too far of a stretch to think one of the pen pals might want to send a letter via regular mail instead of e-mail. It was Tick’s only chance.

  “Maybe,” Tick mumbled through another huge bite. He stared at his plate, hoping she’d move on to grill one of his sisters about something else. She didn’t.

  “All the way from Alaska,” she continued. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

  “Uh… I don’t know actually. Whoever it was just signed it M.G.”

  “Alaska, huh?” Dad said. “Hey, maybe your pen pal knows old Aunt Mabel up in Anchorage. Wouldn’t that be something?”

  “I highly doubt it,” Mom answered. “That woman probably hasn’t set foot out of her house in ten years.”

  Dad gave her a disapproving stare.

  Lisa chimed in, her plate already empty. “Tick, how can you not know who it is? Didn’t you have to give them your address?”

  “We told you not to do that unless we checked it out first,” Dad said, his brow creased in concern. “You know what the world’s like these days. Is this from someone we’ve already approved?”

  Tick suddenly lost every ounce of his appetite. “I don’t know, Dad-yeah, I think so. It didn’t say much. It was kind of dumb, actually.” He wanted to tell them the truth, but something about the letter made him nervous, and he bit his tongue instead.

  He forced the rest of his pancake down, anxiously waiting to see where the conversation went. For several moments the only sounds were the soft clanks of silverware against plates, drinks being put back on the table, Kayla babbling about her favorite cartoon. Finally, his dad mentioned the big game between the Huskies and the Trojans, opening up the morning paper to read about it.

  Relief washed through Tick. When he stood to take his dishes to the sink, his mom put her hand on his arm.

  “Would you mind taking Kayla out to play in the snow? She’s been asking for it all morning.”

  “Uh… sure,” Tick replied, smiling at his sister even though his thoughts were a million miles away. “Come on, kid.”

  Late that night, after watching the movie Dad had brought home-a creepy sci-fi flick where the hero had to travel between dimensions to fight different versions of the same monster-Tick lay on his bed, alone, reading the letter once again. Night had fallen hours earlier and the darkness seemed to creep through the frosted window, devouring the faint light coming from his small bedside lamp. Everything lay in shadow, and Tick’s mind ran wild imagining all the spooky things that could be hiding in the darkness.

  Why are you even doing this? he asked himself. This whole thing has to be a joke.

  But he couldn’t stop himself. He read through the words for the hundredth time. The same ones jumped out at him without fail.

  Dreadful time of need.

  Indubitably and despicably deadly.

  Very frightening things are coming.

  Lives are at stake.

  Courage to choose the difficult path.

  Who would send him such a-

  A noise from the other side of the room cut him out of his tho
ughts. He leaned on his elbow to look, a quick shiver running down his spine. It had sounded like the clank of metal against wood, followed by a quick burst of whirring — almost like the hum of a computer fan, but sharper, stronger-and it had only lasted a second or two before stopping.

  What in the world…

  He stared at the dark shadow that arrowed across the floor between his dresser and the closet. He reached for his lamp to point it at the spot, but froze when he heard the noise again-the same mechanical whirr, but this time followed by a series of soft thumps that pattered along the carpet toward him. He looked down from the lamp too late to see anything. Tick froze. It sounded like a small animal had just run across the room and under his bed.

  Tick pulled his legs to his body with both arms, holding himself in a ball, squeezing. What was it? A squirrel? A rat? What had that weird sound been?

  He closed his eyes, knowing he was acting like the biggest baby on the planet but not caring. Every kid’s nightmare had just come true for him. Some… thing was under his bed. Probably something hideous. Something crouching, ready to spring at him as soon as he got the nerve to peek.

  He waited, scared to open his eyes. Straining his ears, he heard nothing. A minute went by, then two. He hoped an ounce of courage would magically well up inside him from somewhere, but no such luck. He was thoroughly and completely creeped out.

  A sudden image from an old movie popped in his head: a horrible, monstrous gremlin eating through the bottom of his bed, straight through to the mattress, biting and chewing and snarling. It was all Tick needed.

  Moving faster than he’d thought possible, Tick jumped off the bed and sprinted for the door, ripping it open even as he heard the sound of small feet scampering across the carpet behind him. He bolted out of his room and quickly closed the door.

  Something slammed into it from the other side with a loud clunk.

  Chapter 4