“No, I was just . . .” But the stranger had a point. Tick should be outside on the first beautiful day of the year so far.
“Well, off you go. Not a moment to waste.”
“But . . . where am I supposed to go? Who—”
“Cheers, old boy. Only a month to go—I mean, er, a month or two, yes, that’s right.”
“Wait,” Tick urged.
The phone clicked and went silent.
A Meeting in the Woods
Tick told his mom he had to go to the library, then headed out the door. Though he didn’t need a jacket, he’d instinctively put on his scarf, which began to scratch and make him too warm before he’d made it past the driveway.
Stupid scarf. He loosened it, but he couldn’t bring himself to take it off.
The cloudless sky was like a deep blue blanket draped across the world, not a blemish in sight. As much as Tick loved the winter and snow, even he had to admit it was about time for some warm weather.
As he left his neighborhood and started down the road that led through the woods to town, Tick thought about the phone call he’d received. Every instinct in his mind told him it had to be Master George—in fact, he realized he’d heard the voice once before. On the tape of the third clue.
Wow, he thought. I just spoke with Master George.
Tick felt a shiver of excitement and a sudden bounce lifted his steps. After three grueling months, things seemed to be rolling again. He just hoped he had chosen the right direction to take a walk, though he couldn’t think of another way that could possibly be classified as “the usual.”
He was almost to the spot where he’d seen the wooden sign with Rutger’s silly poem scrawled across it when he felt something hit him in the right shoulder. A rock rattled across the pavement, and Tick looked into the woods across the street. The last time someone had thrown a rock at him—
Another one flew out of the trees, missing him badly.
“Rutger, is that you?” Tick said, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice.
No reply came, but a few seconds later another rock shot out, this time smacking him in the forehead. “Ow!” he yelled. “Do you really have to do that?”
“Yes!” a male voice said from within the thick trees.
Grinning, Tick crossed the street and stepped into the forest.
It didn’t take long to find them. Rutger, his stomach sucked in as far as it would go—which wasn’t much—hid behind a tall, thin tree with no branches, his body jutting out on both sides. Mothball, on the other hand, was trying her best to squat behind a short, leafy bush, her head poking at least two feet above its top, her eyes closed as if that would somehow make her invisible.
It was one of the most ridiculous things Tick had ever seen.
“Uh, you guys really stink at hide-and-seek,” he said. Both of them stepped out from their hiding places, faking disgust.
They looked the same as the first time he’d met them. Rutger, incredibly short and round as a bowling ball, still wore his black clothes and the shoes and mittens Tick had given him months ago, though it seemed too warm for the outfit. Mothball had different clothes on, but they were still gray and hung on her eight-foot-tall frame like flags with no wind. The forest floor was mushy and wet and water dripped on them from the branches above.
“’Ello, little sir,” the giant woman said, a huge smile crossing her wide face.
“Looks like you’re a lot smarter than we thought,” the tiny Rutger added—well, tiny in terms of height. If anything, he looked even fatter than the last time Tick had seen him. “But . . . I don’t suppose you brought any food?”
“Man, am I glad to see you guys again,” Tick said, ignoring Rutger’s plea for something to eat. “What took you so long?”
“’Tis all part of the plan, it is,” Mothball said in her thick accent, folding her huge arms together. “Master George—he’s a smart old chap—reckoned he’d take a long wait and see who stuck it out. You know, weed out the ninnies with no patience.”
“Last time you guys wouldn’t tell me M.G.’s name,” Tick said.
Rutger reached out and lightly slapped Tick on the leg. “Well, you figured it out yourself, now didn’t you? Wouldn’t it seem silly for us to not say his name when you already know what it is? Good job, old boy, good job!”
Tick knew he probably had little time available to him and wished he’d sat down to organize all of his questions before going out. He had a million things he wanted to ask, but his mind felt like soup in a blender. “So . . . how many kids like me are left? How many are still getting the clues?”
Rutger stared up at the sky as he slowly counted on his fingers. When he got to ten, he quit and looked at Tick. “Can’t tell you.”
Mothball shifted her large body and leaned back against a tree. “Master George sends his regrets on the bit of trouble you had in the northern parts. Never meant that to happen, he didn’t.”
Tick squinted his eyes in confusion. “Wait a minute, what do you mean by that?” He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about her statement struck him as odd.
Rutger cleared his throat, trying to take the attention away from Mothball, whose face suddenly revealed she’d said something she wasn’t supposed to.
“All my good friend means,” Rutger said, “is that we never expected our, uh, enemy to catch up with you so quickly. Don’t worry, though, we’ve, uh, taken care of the problem for now.” He rolled his eyes and turned around, whistling.
“Didn’t help matters much there, now did ya, my short friend?” Mothball muttered.
A swarm of confusion buzzed inside Tick’s head, and he felt like the answer was somewhere right in the middle if he could just get to it. “But . . . what about the Gnat Rat thing, and the Tingle Wraith? You make it sound like—”
“Come on, now,” Mothball said, straightening back to her full height. “Time’s a-wasting, little sir. Got a lot to talk about, we do.”
“Mister Higginbottom!” Rutger interjected, spinning his wide body around to look at Tick once again. “I immediately demand you cease these questions, uh, immediately!”