Little Boy Lost
Johnny crawled into the makeshift bed and pulled the covers close. He felt achy and chilled to the bone, maybe from the cold he obviously had, or maybe from the deep regret for all the trouble he had caused. How could his camping out in the alley have brought on so much trouble for these nice people?
He lay curled up in the cot thinking over the past couple of days. Those thoughts led his mind back to the boy's facility. Trouble always seemed to find him there and had somehow followed him here. What had he done to bring trouble? He tried to remember, but nothing came to mind. He didn't remember doing anything bad…he never did, not then or now; yet things always turned out bad for him.
He turned over and stared at the file cabinet on the wall. Thoughts of losing his parents; then walking into that horrible boy's detention center and the foster homes he fought to escape from drifted through his memories. Then when he thought trouble might have finally found a new home…trouble struck again when his uncle died.
Silent tears trickled from his eyes, sliding down and dampening the pillow. The deep sadness he lived with daily tightened its grip on his heart, and he slipped into a fitful sleep.
Jimbo didn't mean to drop the cookie sheet. The tray clattered against the prep table and bounced on the floor sending loud noises echoing across the room. The normal sounds of a busy diner silenced for a few seconds before chuckles could be heard from the patrons at the clumsiness of the kitchen help. Then the clinking of silverware against glass plates began again. But in the seconds of silence, Jimbo heard a yelp and more clattering and scraping from his office. He hurried over and opened the door. The light from the kitchen shown on the over turned cot and across to Johnny's huddled form in the far corner between the wall and the file cabinet.
Jimbo bent down and righted the cot. Careful to move slowly and speak softly he stepped toward Johnny. "Sorry about that, Johnny. I didn't mean to scare you. I dropped a tray." There was no sound from the corner. He couldn't tell if Johnny was holding his breath or not. He continued over and extended his hand. "Come on."
Johnny looked up from beneath his bangs, and tentatively reached for Jimbo's hand so he could help him up. He realized that he did trust the man, and that felt good. "Sorry." He mumbled.
"For what? If I hadn't known what that noise was, after the day we've had, I would have been startled too."
"Acted like a baby." Johnny said softly.
"Listen kid, you acted more bravely than some of the officers on the force when you protected Rita earlier." He tapped Johnny's chest. "That kind of courage comes from here." Then he tapped Johnny's head. "Fear comes from here, and you can learn to control that. Being startled after a loud noise…well, that can happen to anyone." Jimbo shrugged. "Someday I'll tell you about being scared after some pretty hairy situations while I was on the force, but right now I think you might want to eat something. I have to get back to the kitchen."
"It's okay…I'm not really hungry."
Jimbo reached for Johnny's forehead, but he ducked away. Jimbo backed up and held his hands out in surrender."Okay, either you're really getting sick or you're worried about payment for the food." Johnny's mouth fell open and his eyes got big. "You know I was a teenager once. " Jimbo chuckled. "I don't remember ever not being hungry, and as to payment…I have two sinks packed full of dirty pots, pans and dishes waiting for you after you eat. So, either you eat now or after you finish washing, but you will eat. You need to keep up your strength so your body can heal. You choose…before or after." Jimbo turned toward the kitchen. "Oh yeah…Rita has a huge slice of fresh apple pie with your name on it waiting beside the biggest ham sandwich I've ever seen." He laughed as he walked out of the room.
Johnny smiled. "Apple pie?"
"A big slice!" Jimbo teased.
"Well…maybe I will eat a little." His stomach growled. His eyes met Jimbo's and he shrugged. Jimbo's smile grew. "But then I'll get right on those dishes."
"Wouldn't have it any other way."
Rita saw the exchange through the window between the kitchen and the dining area. She held her breath, hoping Johnny would agree to the "job" Jimbo had planned for him. It was the first step towards them being allowed to continue helping him after today. When Johnny agreed she let the air out in a whoosh and couldn't help the smile that stretched across her face. She also couldn't stop the tears of relief and joy the involuntarily slipped from her eyes.
"Excuse me, miss."
She turned from the window just in time to avoid meeting Johnny's eyes. "Yes, may I help you?" On the other side of the counter stood a very tall, slender man who could have passed for Abe Lincoln. He wore a fireman's uniform.
"I was on the crew that responded to a fire here last night."
"Oh…thank you for getting the fire out!"
He splayed his hand on his chest. "We didn't. I mean we made sure it was out, but there was a kid here that did most of it. I wanted to check on him to see if he was alright. We…uh…he…um...I can't believe he knew what to do! He'd make a hell of a…sorry…a great fireman.
Rita smiled. Pride swelled at the things the man said about Johnny. "Well it just so happens, Captain…"
"I'm no Captain…" He blushed. "Engineer…I'm the engineer. I just drive the rig and operate the pumps. I'm not the Captain."
"Really? You look like a Captain. Anyway…um Mr. Engineer, I'm Rita. The kid is doing okay. As a matter of fact he's right here in the kitchen. I'll get Johnny for you."
Hank held up his hand. "No, that's okay…I just wanted to make sure. He looked like he might have been hurt. My name is Hank…Uh…Henry." He smiled at her.
"He was mugged in the alley the night before the fire. In fact we had never seen him before Jimbo found him out there in the alley, soaking wet and hurt. It was the kids that mugged him that started the fire."
"Why?" Hank asked.
"I guess they were angry that Jimbo was trying to help Johnny. We are still trying to figure that out. But, they are in custody now, so maybe we'll get some answers."
"Good. I'm glad. We need to get arsonists off the streets. If there is anything the fire department can do to help the charges stick…"
"Well actually it was the break in and hostage situation they were arrested for. Oh and the gun."
Hank's eyes got big. "Hostage situation…gun?"
Rita giggled. It was easy to joke about now that the thugs were in custody. Maybe it was a healing reflex. "Yep…Hostage situation. The three of us, Jimbo, Johnny and me were held at gunpoint this morning by the same thugs that hurt Johnny and tried to burn this place down."
"Wow!" Hank declared as he scratched the back of his head. "Then why are you open?"
Rita thought about that very question for a second. Then she answered. "Well, we can't let horrible people like that shut us down or stop us from living…can we?" She didn't know if she was trying to convince Hank or herself. "Besides that boy…young man in there needs to see that he has to go on. I think maybe he already has, but he has to face whatever life throws at him. We can't shy away from adversity. We can't hide from violence. It is everywhere…all around us."
"Yes it is. I'm glad Johnny has people he can look up to. You said he was mugged? Where does he live? Where is his family?"
"We aren't sure, but we think he may be a runaway. His driver's license is local, but he begged us not to call anyone; begged not to go to the hospital. He even threatened to leave even though he could barely stand" Rita smiled at Johnny's strength of character.
"Where will he stay?"
"He's sleeping on a cot in the office for now. After that…I don't know." Rita didn't know why he felt so comfortable sharing all of this with Hank, but he seemed to bring out a trusting calmness in her. He was an excellent listener, and she needed to talk about everything that had happened. "Excuse me just a minute." She went to fill coffee cups for several tables and see if anyone needed anything.
Hank glanced into the kitchen and watched as Johnny started on a huge stack of dirty dishes.
"Can I get you some coffee or something?" Rita asked as she slipped back behind the counter and returned the coffee carafe to the burner.
"No thank you. My fiancée is waiting in the car. I have to be going. I'm glad the kid…uh, Johnny, is doing okay." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a brochure. "Would you please give this to Johnny? It's information about the LA County Fire Department training academy. What the qualifications are and how to apply." Hank shrugged. "We all thought he was a natural."
"Sure, I'd be glad to." Rita took the flyer. "Nice to meet you, Henry."
Hank stood to leave, pulling his well worn fire department baseball cap from his back pocket, started to put it on and stopped. He looked at the cap…turned it this way and that; then he smiled. "Give him this too."