“Don’t talk so loud. You’ll wake the whole neighborhood.”

Rutger answered in an exaggerated whisper. “You won’t hear another peep from me until I’m holding a nice new pair of shoes and a warm-as-muffins pair of mittens.” He nodded curtly and folded his arms.

Tick stood up. “I’ll go—but what did you mean when you said the Realities?”

“Oh, come on, boy. It’s all about the kyoopy—science, Chi’karda, Barrier Wands!”

Tick stared, wondering if anyone in history had ever answered a question as poorly as Rutger just had. “What are you talking about?”

Rutger put two fingers together and swiped them across his lips, the age-old sign for zipping one’s mouth shut.

“Fine,” Tick muttered. “Be back in a minute.”

He walked up the porch steps and opened the front door. Just before he stepped into the house, Tick heard Rutger say something creepy.

“Good. Because when you get back, we need to talk about dead people.”


Nowhere in Between

Tick wasted five minutes searching for the box in the basement where his old clothes were stored—the ones his mom couldn’t bear to part with. He finally spotted it and pulled almost everything out before he found a pile of shoes of varying sizes. He chose three pairs that seemed the closest to Rutger’s size, then rummaged through everything else again, searching for mittens or gloves. He found nothing.

He walked back upstairs, still doing his best to keep quiet, and dove into the closet holding all of their winter clothing. He finally came across a pair of yellow mittens his grandma in Georgia had knitted out of yarn a long time ago. They’d been his once, but Kayla had been wearing them ever since she destroyed her own pair in the fireplace. Tick tried not to laugh at the thought that they should fit Rutger just perfectly.

I can’t believe I have a Hobbit in my own front yard.

Holding in a snicker, he went outside.

“Oh, those will do just fine. Just fine! Thank you.” Rutger hurriedly pulled on the mittens, then replaced his worn shoes with a pair of sneakers that Tick must’ve grown out of very quickly because they still looked relatively new.

“Glad to be of service,” Tick said, settling on the step beside his new friend. He shivered from the cold and tightened his scarf around his neck. “Now I think you had a lot to tell me? What was that about dead people?”

The little man rubbed his newly wrapped hands together and leaned against the step behind him. “Ah, yes, dead people. There’s a phrase that Mas—” He caught himself before saying anything else, looking at Tick with guilt written all over his face.

“What?” Tick asked.

“Oh, nothing . . . nothing. I was just going to say that there’s something a good friend of mine always says: ‘Nothing in this world better reflects the difference between life and death than the power of choice.’ Says that all the time, my friend does.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

Rutger looked at him intently. “What’s your name, son?”

“Atticus Higginbottom. Or Tick.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Rutger pulled out a notepad and pencil from his pocket, then started scanning it, much like Mothball had done. “There you are, and there we go.” He wrote a checkmark next to Tick’s name, then put the pad and pencil back into his pocket. When he pulled his hand out, this time he was holding a yellow envelope. “I believe you’ve been expecting this.”

“The fourth clue?”

“You got it.”

He handed the envelope to Tick, who immediately ripped it open then pulled out the cardstock containing the next message from M.G. Before he could read it, Rutger placed a pudgy hand on top of the clue.

“Remember what I said about dead people, young man.”

“What exactly did you say?”

“Well, nothing really, now that you mention it. Wasn’t supposed to say much, anyhow. It’s for you to figure out.”

“You’ve really cleared things up for me, Rutger, thank you.”

The round man’s eyes narrowed. “Do I sense a hint of sarcasm?”

Tick laughed. “Not just a hint.” He pulled the message out from under Rutger’s hand. “May I please read this now?”

Rutger waved a hand. “Read to your heart’s delight.”

Squinting to see in the patchy moonlight, Tick did just that.

The place is for you to determine and can be in your hometown. I only ask that the name of the place begin with a letter coming after A and before Z but nowhere in between. You are allowed to have people there with you, as many as you like, as long as they are dead by the time you say the magic words. But, by the Wand, make sure that you are not dead, of course. That would truly throw a wrinkle into our plans.

Tick looked over at Rutger. “I can bring people with me, as long as they’re dead before I say the magic words? That doesn’t make any sense.”

The short man smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Hey, I didn’t write the clues.”

“And how can a letter come after A, before Z, but nowhere in between? Wouldn’t that exclude all twenty-six letters?”

“Who am I, Sherlicken Holmestotter? You figure it out, kid.” He rubbed his arms and shoulders with his mittened hands.

“Sherlicken who? Do you mean Sherlock Holmes?”

Rutger gave him a blank stare. “No, I mean Sherlicken Holmestotter, the greatest detective who ever lived.”

Tick didn’t know what to think of that answer. “So are you going to tell me anything worthwhile or not?”

“I’m leaning toward the not, actually.”

“Boy, you and Mothball sure are a lot of help. Why didn’t M.G. just send me letters in the mail like he did with the other stuff?” Tick shivered again, and realized his warm clothes and scarf weren’t enough to block out the freezing cold.

“Nice to meet you, too.” Rutger looked down at the ground, no small feat with his huge belly. “I guess you didn’t want me to come, did you?”

“Hey, I was just kidding.” Tick tried to keep from laughing as he reached out and patted the man’s shoulder. Maybe it was the guy’s size, but Tick felt like he was consoling a little kid. “I’m glad we met. I just wish you could tell me a little more about what’s going on.”