By the time Granny, Aunt Millie, and Judy finished cleaning the incredibly cluttered flat, it was past noon and soon Judy’s “little friends,” as Granny called them, would be arriving for the party.
In truth, Judy didn’t know her “friends.” They were all grandchildren of her granny’s many church friends who Judy had only met a few times and didn’t much care for. But she supposed that wasn’t quite fair. She just didn’t know them.
However, Granny wanted Judy to have friends, so Judy would try. She’d do anything to please Granny, after all. Who else in this world did she have to please who would actually notice?
Aunt Millie, she supposed, but Aunt Millie just wanted a hug every so often and some acknowledgement that she existed. Judy could do that. After all, wasn’t that what she wanted, too?
Granny set about preparing the refreshments only to find a disturbing lack of the correct ingredients. So she gave Judy a list and told her to run across the street to the grocery and give it to Mr. Tilney along with a little purse containing the sum that would be required to make the purchases.
As Judy exited the flat building, she noticed a tall, skinny man sitting on the curb, wearing a rumpled business suit. He had removed his hat and was twirling it around and around on his finger. His reddish hair was messy and his blue eyes distant. He had a small mustache on his upper lip—at least it was neatly clipped, though. A mustache was bad enough, but a messy mustache was unbearable in Judy’s opinion.
Judy tilted her head to the side, took a step nearer the man, and tried to see what he was staring at across the street.
She could see nothing worth such serious deliberation. Just Mr. Tilney’s store and Mother’s flower shop and the small flat over the flower shop.
The man seemed to be staring at nothing, into a distance that didn’t really exist.
He turned. The two stared at each other for a few incredibly long seconds before he cleared his throat.
“Who are you?” His voice was strangled, and his eyes fastened on her face in a hungry sort of way.
She didn’t know what to think of that. It didn’t seem mean, but she’d been given so many warnings about mean men that she knew she ought to be cautious. “Judy.” Surely telling him her name wouldn’t hurt a thing.
“I know. At least, most of me knew.” The man straightened his back and looked her up and down before returning to her face, a bashful grin twisting his lips.
“Then why did you ask?” asked Judy.
“Because I wanted to be sure.” He ran a hand through his hair and watched her with eyes a bit closed, like he was wincing in pain. “Sometimes it’s good to double check before assuming something, especially if you’ve gotten in trouble before for not being sure and assuming and moving too fast for your own good.”
“Oh.” That made sense, she supposed. Caution was definitely preferable. One didn’t make mistakes if one were cautious, and mistakes weren’t something her mother appreciated. Especially ones that caused a mess Mother had to clean up. Not that she ever cleaned unless she absolutely must. Mother didn’t mind most messes. The cleaning up messes part, however? It made Mother most cross. Judy hated when her mother went from not caring at all to being cross. It was the worst feeling in the world.
“You look like your Aunt Lola,” said the man, referring to the paternal aunt who visited occasionally. “But your hair isn’t curly like hers.”
“I know,” said Judy. “It’s curlier when my braids aren’t so tight.” She tugged one to show how tight and unforgiving it was.
“Mine would curl if I let it grow, probably. Like my mother’s hair.” His voice was raspy, and Judy wondered if it was always like that or if he was just sad right then. “Who told you you look like her?”
“Aunt Lola,” said Judy.
“Oh.” He stood. Judy was obliged to crane her neck to continue looking him in the eye. He was quite tall, and not just because Judy was quite short. Her mother was half his size, she was sure. “Are you supposed to be talking to strangers?” the man asked.
Judy shook her head. “I’m supposed to be getting these things and hurrying back,” she said, holding up the slip of paper.
He accepted the grocery list and gave it a looking over before passing it back to her. “Well, then you’d best be about your business.”
“Will you be about your business, too?” Judy asked.
The man nodded, and his voice cleared a bit as he replied. “I will. I need to see my sister before I go to a party, or she’ll be mad at me. We can’t have that.”
“Good. You looked lonely sitting on the street there.”
“Did I?” The man had an odd little twist to his lips now that told her he had some sort of feeling that wasn’t quite comfortable.
Judy offered a bit of a smile to set him at ease. “Yes. And that’s no good! After all, there are so many people in the world that one oughtn’t to be lonely!”
Or at least one oughtn’t to be lonely when one was a big man who could go anywhere and meet anyone. Judy couldn’t really make friends because she got in trouble for wandering off, and it was hard enough making friends anyway, but the man could do anything he wanted. He could make dozens of friends. Judy felt a flash of jealousy but quickly reined it in.
The man laughed dryly. “Well, what if there was only one person in the world a fellow wanted to be with?”
“Then he’d better be with that person.” Judy glanced across the street. “I’d better go. Granny will be worried. Besides, I guess you are a stranger, and Aunt Millie says you might be mean, even in places I think are safe. She’s most afraid someone will be mean to me.”
“Very well. Run along, Judy.”
Judy paused. “How’d you know my name?” Strangers weren’t supposed to know her name.
“You told me, baby,” the man reminded her, eyes twinkling.
“Oh,” said Judy. She stood still for a moment, contemplating whether strangers ought to call her “baby,” then she hurried across the street and into Mr. Tilney’s store.
In no time at all, she was back out with the groceries. The man was gone.