by Michael B. Duff

The day Grandma died, Jenny broke away from her mother and went running down the street to Ralph's house. She ran down the stairs of the church, past the Big People in their nice clothes. Jenny's mother called after her, but Jenny didn't care.

She just ran and ran. Past the little park with the dirty fountain. Past the rows of pretty houses with their shiny cars. She ran all the way to the end of the block where Ralph lived. She was running so fast she slipped on the wet street and skinned her knee.

She got oily black dirt on the hem of her new pink dress, and her knee got bloody and puffy where she scraped it. It stung some, but Jenny picked herself up and started running again.

The lights were out in Ralph's house. He always liked to go Walking on Sunday morning. But even when he was Walking, he kept an eye on his house. So by the time Jenny got to the front door, he was there.

He opened the door for her as she climbed up on the porch. He filled up the doorway with his big belly and broad shoulders. He was wearing his nice white shirt and black sport coat. The black loafers on his feet were clean and shiny. These were his Walking clothes.

Jenny was already crying a little, but when she saw him, she started to bawl. Ralph stepped up to catch her, picking her up in his great big arms. He was warm and soft and he smelled like Ivory soap. Jenny buried her head in his shoulder as he carried her inside.

Most Big People would have asked her questions. They would have asked why she was crying. Would have fussed over her bloody knee and her dirty dress. Ralph didn't ask her any questions. Ralph already Knew. Somehow, Ralph always Knew.

He brought Jenny inside the house and sat her down on the couch. When he sat down beside her, he noticed her knee. Unconsciously, Ralph reached out with his hand to touch the wound, then he caught hold of himself and drew back. He brushed her hair a bit, then he went into the kitchen to get a rag.

He ran some warm water on it and came back. Slowly and carefully, he cleaned the blood and dirt off her knee. He noticed the dirt on her dress, but he didn't say anything.

Jenny was still crying some, but not as bad as before. Her Mommy told her to always say thank you when people were nice, but Jenny forgot. Instead she started pleading with Ralph. Begging him in her little girl voice, choking and gasping between sobs.

Begging Ralph to bring Grandma back to life.

Ralph's face got very serious and his eyes got very sad. His big ruddy face sagged and twitched like he was going to cry, too. He sniffled once and ran his fingers over his big bald head, smoothing down a wisp of black hair in the middle.

He looked away as Jenny pleaded with him, like he couldn't stand to look at her. After a while, Jenny saw his shoulders shaking and she knew that he was crying.

At first she thought he was crying because he couldn't do it. Then she realized that was wrong. When Ralph turned around and hugged her, she knew why he was crying. He was crying because he could do it; but he was afraid.

Ralph was always afraid. So he stayed in this house and wore these clothes and kept to himself in this neighborhood nobody ever heard of.

He made sure he looked normal and talked normal, and he tried very very hard to act normal, too. He did pretty good, because the rest of the people in the neighborhood thought he was normal just like them.

But Jenny knew he wasn't normal, and she knew to watch for things the Big People didn't see. She saw how Ralph never drove a car anywhere and he never got sick. She saw how his clothes never got dirty and he never missed a step or stubbed his toe. And how sometimes he didn't get wet when it rained.

He never mowed his lawn or worked in his garden, but somehow the grass was always green and the trees were always big and happy. Everybody knew he didn't go to work, but he told the Big People he wrote books for the college.

Ralph didn't go to work, but every day he went Walking. He would always leave out the front door and turn all the lights off in his house. Jenny would look through her window and watch him go. Sometimes he would even wave to her.

Most of the time, he would go around the corner at the end of the block and walk down the street. One day, Jenny hid in the bushes in front of his house and followed him. As soon as he turned the corner, she ran as fast as she could so she could see him walk away.

When she turned the corner, she didn't see him walking down the street. He wasn't there at all. Jenny didn't think he really turned the corner. He just pretended to turn the corner so people wouldn't notice anything strange.

Jenny didn't know to look for these things at first. She thought Ralph was just a nice lonely man living at the end of the block. Just like

everybody else.

She thought that until one day she was playing in the road with Muffin (her stupid little dog that always ran away). Her Mommy told her not to cross the street, so she stood in her driveway and threw the ball. Muffin would run into the street and bring the ball back.

Muffin didn't run in front of cars most of the time, and they didn't get that many cars down their street anyway. Mommy didn't like her throwing the ball into the street, but she wasn't watching all the time.

This time she threw the ball into the street and stupid Muffin didn't want to go get it. Jenny scolded him and pointed to the ball, but he wouldn't go. Jenny was so angry, she went right after the ball. And (just this once) she forgot to look both ways before she went into the street.

She didn't see the car, but she heard the squeal of the brakes and a scream from inside where the people sit. She remembered falling down and seeing the pebbles inside the big rubber wheel.

Then it was dark for a long time, and she woke up in Ralph's house. Ralph was standing in the middle of the living room, looking at her like he had been looking at her for a long time. When she woke up, Ralph looked down at his feet and ran his hands over his head like he was ashamed of something. (Muffin was in the kitchen, playing with a meaty bone that weighed almost as much as he did.)

Jenny asked how she got to his house, but Ralph didn't say anything. He just bit his lip and looked down at his feet again. He said the car came very very close and almost hit her, and that she should never ever run out into the street like that again.

Jenny looked down at her feet then, too. And promised that she wouldn't. Mommy came and got her and Muffin. Ralph took Mommy in the other room and talked to her. Jenny couldn't hear what Ralph was saying, but Mommy wasn't mad, so he must not have told her about Jenny running into the road and being bad.

Jenny went inside her house and played with Muffin some more. It wasn't until late at night that she decided Ralph was lying. She remembered the car and the big black wheel and the scream. She could even remember a bump from the car. She remembered that she couldn't move at first, and how the woman from the car stood over her and cried.

But as hard as she tried, she couldn't remember the pain. She was sure she got hit by the car, but she couldn't remember the hurting part. And from the way the woman had been crying, Jenny thought she had been hurting pretty bad.

After that, Jenny started watching Ralph really close. Closer than any of the Big People did. Closer even than her Mommy watched her sometimes. She saw that Ralph was always very nice, but he always seemed somehow worried and scared.

She asked him about it one time, but he just patted her on the head and told her not to worry. And most of the time, she didn't. She played with Muffin (never in the road, though). She played with her dolls and put on stupid dresses that Mommy made her wear. And she knew that she would have to go to school soon.

Her Mommy said she was very smart, and that school would be easy and fun. Jenny tried to go to Ralph's house sometimes, but most of the time he was gone Walking and couldn't come home to see her. Sometimes, though, he would let her inside and talk with her like she was a Big Person. And he always had cookies and milk. Ralph said little girls should always have cookies and milk.

They even had a tea party once. Ralph was very much the gentleman, and he taught her how to hold her cup and lay out the table.

Mommy didn't mind her going to Ralph's house. Mommy liked Ralph. She said he was very nice and very smart, but she worried about how he kept to himself. Mommy tried to bring Ralph to church once, but when he saw the altar and the wooden crosses he started to cry, right there in front of everybody.

Mommy didn't say much to Ralph after that. The rest of the Big People knew to leave him alone. And none of the Big People knew that Ralph could Do things.

But Jenny knew. And when Grandma died and she saw all the Big People being sad, she knew Ralph could make Grandma not dead anymore.

Ralph hugged her close and told her he wanted very much to help her, but that it was wrong for him to do things like that, and that sometimes people were just supposed to die.

Jenny wailed and pleaded with him, but all Ralph did was hold her tight and rock her back and forth. Then Mommy came to take her back to church. Ralph said Jenny had been very good and just needed to cry a bit.

Jenny stood up and tried to hide her knee when Mommy came into the living room. She knew if Mommy saw the big cut she would get worried and mad.

But when Jenny looked down, the cut on her knee was all better. And the hem of her dress wasn't dirty anymore, either.