They called him Ned, and all Ned wanted to do was make the world a happier place. Ned did everything he could to further that end. He was always smiling because when someone saw him smile, they smiled back. He was always doing favors for people. Even if they didn’t know it.
This morning he stopped to let a car make a turn against the green. There was nobody around but him, so he waved the driver through. The driver waved back, and Ned waved and waved until the car went out of sight.
A bee landed on his arm. He though the bee would like to sting him and so he let it. As the bee wrenched its abdomen from the stinger still embedded in his arm and flew away, Ned waved to it.
Up the sidewalk a short ways was Jack Kelly and a few other boys from Ned’s high school. Ned smiled and nodded to each in turn, which they repeated sardonically back at him, upper teeth exposed to jut over bottom lips in yokel fashion.
“Where you goin’, dogmeat?” Jack said.
“Oh, everywhere,” Ned said, “and nowhere.”
The fellas laughed. Ned was tickled. He loved talking to Jack and his friends, because they always smiled and joked around him.
“Everywhere,” Jack repeated in a nasal whine. “bet you don’t have anything special planned for tonight.”
“I don’t know,” Ned said, “movies?”
Jack cackled and dug an elbow into his neighbor’s ribs. “Movies, huh? Your parents mind if we come along?”
“Oh no, not at all.”
Jack seemed taken aback. “Really? Your folks got that much money?”
Ned nodded. “Yes. Come to the movies tonight, my treat.”
Jack cocked his head sceptically. “Alright if we bring dates?”
“Oh yeah, bring everyone,” Ned said, grin never leaving his face, “there’s room for all.”
Jack actually seemed to soften a bit. “Wow…thanks, dogmeat.”
“No problem,” Ned said, giving a little bow, “no problem at all.”
They were discussing candidates when Ned walked away. He thought of how wonderful it would be to have parents who could afford to pay for their son’s friends and their dates at the movies. It was a nice thought. He hoped they had fun thinking about it.
A mail carrier stood in his path, mouthing words, trying to match labels to addresses. He flagged Ned down.
“Hey, you!” he called, “do you know where 9013 Maple Terrace is?”
“Yes I do,” Ned told him confidently.
The carrier breathed a sigh of relief. “Great. Could you give this to them? I’m running late already and I just spent ten minutes trying to find this place.”
“I’d be glad to.” Ned took the envelopes and waved the carrier down the sidewalk. Then he kept on walking. At one point he found a dirty old woman sitting on the sidewalk, with a cup marked change. He gave the mail to her. She probably needed something to read.
Next he saw a golden spaniel straining at the leash. The owner had tied it to a stake, and every time a car sped by the dog was stopped short at nine feet, barking arthritically. Ned unhooked the leash from the stake. The little dog licked his fingers. Ned walked a little ways until he found a truck stopped at a red light. Covertly, Ned looped the leash around the bumper. The light changed and the truck took off, the dog already scurrying frantically, lead tugging at its neck, barking and waving its tail as the truck disappeared over the next rise.
He walked around town and flattered people. He told a lady that a scarf matched her eyes. He told a man that he had the biggest gut Ned had ever seen. And everywhere he went, he smiled.
A girl with long auburn hair and glasses jogged up to him. He recognized her.
“You’re Beth,” he said, “from class?”
She bit her lip and shifted in her tennis shoes, as if undecided on whether she should be seen talking to him.
“And you’re Ned,” she said.
“Yep,” he said, “that’s me.” And smiled.
“Could I, um…” she darted her gaze back and forth, gripping her right arm with her left hand, “do you mind if I…can I talk to your parents about something?”
“Oh sure!” he said.
A few cars whizzed past.
“So?” she said.
Ned cocked his head.
“Are you going to…” she took a nerving breath. “can we go to your house?”
Ned nodded and set off at a brisk pace. Beth trotted beside him, still looking around them.
“Are your parents disabled?” she asked.
“Because we never see them at homecoming or things like that. Do they have MS or something?”
“Yep!” he laughed. Beth frowned slightly.
“That’s got to be hard. How do they get groceries, do they order online or do they send you out to shop?”
He paused to consider. “How about both?” he asked. Beth altered her path slightly, putting an inch more of room between their bodies.
“So…I guess they help you with your homework a lot, huh?” she continued.
“Another one knocked out of the park, Beth, you are so smart!”
That seemed to be the wrong answer. Beth furrowed her brow at him, mouth depressing into a thin pink line.
“I really like your glasses, Beth,” he said. This did not make her smile either.
“Thank you,” she said absently, still studying him.
It was a long walk. Ned lived quite a ways from the school, in a house that was the only finished house in a planned development park. He tried pointing out nice things to Beth, but the more he talked, the more she seemed to withdraw from him. It was that way sometimes with people. He never really understood why.
Beth crinkled her nose as they got close. “Is there a sewer line broken or something?”
“Yes,” Ned said, guiding her to the front door. Beth clapped a hand to her nose as they walked in the front door. She retched a little, then looked at Ned and forced her hand away from her face.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’m sure you can’t help it.”
“I can’t,” he agreed, “can I get you some water?”
“Sure,” she said absently, scanning the living room. The house was dark, as no one had paid the power bill for some time now. Ned grabbed a glass and turned the faucet. Nothing came out. He waited the space of a few heartbeats and turned the faucet into the ‘off’ position again. He left the glass on the counter and went back into the living room.
Beth had her shirt over her nose, she pulled it off when Ned came in. She looked quizzically at his empty hands, then at the kitchen doorway.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.
Beth shook her head. “No, actually…I really want to talk to your parents.”
“Sure! They’re right up here.”
Ned took Beth by the hand and led her to the den, where it was even darker because there were no windows. Beth took a moment in the doorway for her eyes to adjust while Ned went forward into the darkness.
“Beth,meet the parents.”
Beth started screaming.
“I thought they would be happy if their son came back,” Ned called over the sound, “so I put on his skin and said hi. And then they were so happy they started screaming. They screamed and screamed until they died of happiness.”
“Good job!” Ned said approvingly.
Beth held her stomach and gasped. “School…said…household…unresponsive.”
Ned nodded. “I saw from the mail that Ned was going to start school soon, so I thought I’d make them happy by showing up.”
Beth gaped at him, a string of drool dangling from the edge of her mouth. “You’re not Ned?” she whispered.
“No,” Ned laughed, “do you want to see my real face?” and he pulled and pulled and Ned’s skin stretched and tore and Beth screamed and ran out the living room and out the front door.
Ned stopped stretching, but the skin was too loose now, and floppy, so he stepped out of it and walked out the front door, locking it behind him. The police would be very happy with the mystery he left behind, they would have to work years at solving it. And now that Beth had a story to tell, people would stop ignoring her at school.
Ned walked. Around midnight in the park, a mugger mistook him for someone in a black leather hoodie and held a knife to his abdomen. Ned thought the mugger would be happy if he died and let himself be stabbed, falling to the pavement while the mugger ran.
Then he got back up.