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The Journal of Curious Letters, Page 2

James Dashner

  “I’m not a-lying, ma’am,” Norbert answered, trying his best to look calm. He didn’t like fibbing to such a scary woman—and crossing his fingers under the counter wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if she found out—but somehow he just knew that if this evil lady wanted to stop Master George from doing whatever he was trying to do, then those letters needed to get in the mail, no matter what. And it was all up to Norbert Johnson.

  The lady looked away as if lost in deep thought over what she should do next. “I know he’s up to something,” she whispered, barely audible and not really speaking to Norbert anymore. “But which Reality . . . I don’t have time to look in them all . . .”

  “Miss Jane?” Norbert asked. “May I—”

  “It’s Mistress Jane, you Alaskan ice head.”

  “Oh, uh, I’m awfully sorry—I just wanted to know if there’s any postal service you’ll be a-needing today.”

  The nasty woman looked at him for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, “If you’re lying to me, I’ll find out and I’ll come back for you, Norbie.” She reached into the pocket of her overcoat, fidgeting with something hidden and heavy. “And you won’t like the consequences, I can promise you that.”

  “No, ma’am, I’m sure—”

  Before he could finish his sentence, though, the last and by far most bizarre thing of the day occurred.

  Mistress Jane disappeared.

  She vanished—into thin air, as they say. Poof, like a magic trick. One second there, the next second gone.

  Norbert stared at the empty space on the other side of the counter, knowing he needed a much stronger word than befuddled to explain how he felt now. Finally, shaking his head, he reached down and grabbed the box containing Master George’s letters.

  “These are going out tonight,” he said, though no one was in the room to hear him.




  A Very Strange Letter

  Atticus Higginbottom—nicknamed “Tick” since his first day of kindergarten—stood inside the darkness of his own locker, cramped and claustrophobic. He desperately wanted to unlatch the handle and step out, but he knew he had to wait five more minutes. The edict had been decreed by the Big Boss of Jackson Middle School in Deer Park, Washington. And what Billy “The Goat” Cooper commanded must be obeyed; Tick didn’t dare do otherwise.

  He peeked through the metal slats of the door, annoyed at how they slanted down so he could only see the dirty white tiles of the hallway. The bell ending the school day had rung ages ago and Tick knew that by now most of the students would be outside, waiting for their buses or already walking home. A few stragglers still roamed the hallways, though, and one of them stopped in front of Tick’s jail cell, snickering.

  “Hope you get out before suppertime, Icky Ticky Stinkbottom,” the boy said. Then he kicked the locker, sending a terrible bang of rattled metal echoing through Tick’s ears. “The Goat sent me to make sure you hadn’t escaped yet—good thing you’re still in there. I can see your beady little eyes.” Another kick. “You’re not crying are you? Careful, you might get snot on your Barf Scarf.”

  Tick squeezed his eyes shut, steeled himself to ignore the idiot. Eventually, the bullies always moved on if he just stayed silent. Talking back, on the other hand . . .

  The boy laughed again, then walked away.

  In fact, Tick was not crying and hadn’t done so in a long time. Once he’d learned to accept his fate in life as the kid everyone liked to pick on, his life had become a whole lot easier. Although Tick’s attitude seemed to annoy Billy to no end. Maybe I should fake a cry next time, Tick thought. Make the Goat feel like a big bad king.

  When the hall had grown completely still and silent, Tick reached down and flicked the latch of the door. It swung open with a loud pop and slammed against the locker next to it. Tick stepped out and stretched his cramped legs and arms. He couldn’t have cared less about Billy and his gang of dumb bullies right then—it was Friday, his mom and dad had bought him the latest gaming system for his thirteenth birthday, and the Thanksgiving holidays were just around the corner. He felt perfectly happy.

  Glancing around to make sure no one had hung around to torture him some more, Tick adjusted the red-and-black striped scarf he always wore to hide the hideous purple blotch on his neck—an irregular, rusty-looking birthmark the size of a drink coaster. It was the one thing he hated most about his body, and no matter how much his parents tried to convince him to lose the scarf, he wore it every hour of every day—even in the summer, sweat soaking through in dark blotches. Now, with winter settling in with a vengeance, people had quit giving him strange looks about the security blanket wrapped around his neck. Well, except for the jerks who called it the Barf Scarf.

  He set out down the hall, heading for the door closest to the street that led to his house; he lived within walking distance of the school, which was lucky for him because the buses were long gone. He rounded the corner and saw Mr. Chu, his science teacher, step out of the teacher’s lounge, briefcase in hand.

  “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Higginbottom,” the lanky man said, a huge smile on his face. “What are you still doing around here? Anxious for more homework?” His straight black hair fell almost to his shoulders. Tick knew his mom would say Mr. Chu needed a haircut, but Tick thought he looked cool.

  Tick gave a quick laugh. “No, I think you gave us plenty—I’ll be lucky to get half of it done by Monday.”

  “Hmmm,” Mr. Chu replied. He reached out and swatted Tick on the back. “If I know you, it was done by the end of lunchtime today.”

  Tick swallowed, for some reason embarrassed to admit his teacher was exactly right. So, I’m a nerd, he thought. One day it’ll make me filthy dirty rotten rich. Tick was grateful that at least he didn’t really look the part of a brainy nerd. His brown hair wasn’t greasy; he didn’t wear glasses; he had a solid build. His only real blemish was the birthmark. And maybe the fact that he was as clumsy as a one-legged drunk. But, as his dad always said, he was no different from any other kid his age and would grow out of the clumsiness in a few years.

  Whatever the reason, Tick just didn’t get along with people his own age. He found it hard to talk to them, much less be friends. Though he did want friends. Badly. Poor little me, he thought.

  “I’ll take your lack of a smart-aleck response—and the fact you aren’t holding any books—as proof I’m right,” Mr. Chu said. “You’re too smart for the seventh grade, Tick. We should really bump you up.”

  “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 hangin
g 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.

  Dear 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,


  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.

  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.




  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 kind
ness 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.”