His heart pounding, he stepped out into the bitterly cold night, quietly shutting the door behind him.

After searching the whole yard and finding nothing, he sat on the front porch and put his head into his cupped hands, squeezing his eyes shut in anger at himself. How could he have been so stupid? He should never have lain down to read—everyone knew that was the number one way in the world to make yourself fall asleep. He blew out an exasperated sigh as he leaned back and folded his arms, looking up at the sky. Dark, churning clouds, their edges softly illuminated by the moon hiding behind them, seemed to move across the sky at an unnatural pace like something from a horror movie in fast forward.

Tick shivered, and he knew it wasn’t the cold alone that caused it.

He leaned forward to stand up when something hit him on his right temple, followed by the soft clatter of a rock tumbling down the steps. He looked just in time to see a pebble the size of a walnut come to a rest a few feet away.

Belatedly, he said, “Ow” as he looked around to discover where the rock had come from. Nothing stirred in the darkness, the only sound a slight breeze whispering through the leafless trees in the front yard and sighing over the snow-covered bushes lining the front of the house. He thought one bush may have moved more than the others, and he was just about to investigate when another rock hit him, this time in the right shoulder. Sure enough, the rock came from the suspected bush, the powdery layer of snow almost completely knocked off.

“Who’s over there?” he asked, surprised he didn’t feel more scared. “Quit throwing rocks like a baby and come out.”

The bush rustled again, then a small figure stepped out from behind the branches. It was impossible to make out details in the scant light, but the person looked like a little kid, maybe six or seven years old, bundled up in layers and layers of clothes. He or she resembled nothing so much as a big round ball with little bumps for arms and legs and a head.

“Who are you?” Tick asked, standing up and stepping closer. “Are you the one who left me the note on the sign?”

The little person walked toward him, waddling like an overweight duck. A shaft of moonlight broke through the clouds just as the visitor reached a spot a few feet in front of Tick, revealing in vivid detail what he’d thought was a child.

It was a man. A very short and very fat man.

He was dressed all in black—black sweat pants and sweatshirt, black tennis shoes, black coat, black hat pulled over his ears. Tick’s dad had once made a joke that sweat suits were made for people to exercise in, but the only people who seemed to wear them were fat people like himself.

Knowing all too well what it felt like to be made fun of, Tick always tried never to do it to anyone else. As the strange little round man walked up to him, Tick promised himself he would do his best to refrain from all known fat jokes.

“I’m large, okay?” the man said, though he barely came to Tick’s waist. His voice was normal with no accent or strange pitch. Tick didn’t know why that surprised him so much, but then he realized he’d been expecting the guy to sound like one of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.

So much for not judging others on their looks.

The short man continued, “And I must be the dumbest fat guy you’ll ever meet, because I wore all black to camouflage myself in a place that is covered in snow.”

Tick stared, with no idea how to respond.

“My name is Rutger,” the stranger said, holding a hand up toward Tick. “My hand might be the size of your big toe, but don’t be scared to shake it. Nice to meet you.”

Tick reached down and clasped Rutger’s hand, shaking it very gently.

“What’s that?” Rutger asked. “Feels like I’m grabbing a floppy fish. You think I’m made of porcelain or something? Shake my hand if you’re gonna shake my hand!”

Tick gripped harder and shook, completely amazed by this new person. He finally spoke back. “Sorry. I’m just a little surprised. I didn’t know . . .”

“What? That I’d look like a shrunken Sumo wrestler? Come on, let’s sit and talk awhile. This weight is killer on my tiny legs.” Rutger didn’t wait for a response, walking over to the porch steps and taking a seat on the bottom step. Even then, his feet barely touched the ground in front of him.

Tick smiled, finally feeling at ease, and joined Rutger on the steps. “So, you’re friends with Mothball, right?”

Rutger slapped his round belly. “You betcha I am! That tall stack of sticks is the best friend a man can have, even if she is three times my size. Well, up and down, anyway, if you know what I mean.” He raised his hand vertically, as if guessing the height of something. “Ah, Mothball’s a funny one if you get her going. Word to the wise though. Don’t ever ask her about the day she and her twin sis were born unless you have about seven days with nothing else to do but sit and listen.”

Tick grinned. “I’ll remember that. Why’d you throw those rocks at me?”

“Why were you late?”

“I . . . uh, good point. Slept in.”

Rutger looked at Tick intently, searching for something. “Looks like you forgot your assignment, too.”

“I did? What—” Then Tick remembered the poem and what it had asked for. He’d meant to scrounge around in the basement to find some old shoes and mittens. “Oh, never mind—you’re right, I forgot. Sorry.”

Rutger slapped Tick on the shoulder. “It’s okay, I can wait.”

“Huh? You mean . . .”

“That’s right, big fella. Come back with what I asked for and maybe I’ll talk.”

Tick paused before responding, hopeful that Rutger would wink and say he’d only been kidding. “You’re . . . serious?”

Rutger leaned closer like a giant rubber ball rolling forward. “I’ve been to more places in the last two weeks than you’ve seen in your whole life, boy. My shoes are just about ready to call it a day and walk off my feet—no pun intended, though that was a pretty good one. And my hands—cold, young man, cold.”

“You mean, the shoes and mittens are for you?”

“Who else, boy? Do you think I’d be traipsing around the Realities with a little child stuck to my hip? Of course they’re for me!” His voice had risen considerably, and Tick worried his dad would hear.