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Young Man

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“Now would ya look at that?” Betty nudged Joanne’s arm and pointed in the direction of the diner entrance. In walked a small boy, probably not yet ten years old, back hunched from the burlap sack he struggled to carry. He glanced around the diner nervously then chose a spot in the corner booth. When he passed Betty and Joanne at the counter he gave them a slight smile. They smiled back and Joanne even said, “Good morning, sir!” That made the boy beam, exposing an adorable gap-toothed grin from ear to ear. Then he quickly scurried to his booth.
“I’ll take this one,” Joanne whispered to Betty and as she made her way across the diner, she grabbed a freshly baked muffin and a small cup of coffee. When she had arrived at the boy’s table, he was looking blankly down at his hands. “Coffee and a muffin on the house,” she said and he looked at her suspiciously. “Sunday special,” Joanne added, crossing her heart with her fingers. That seemed to reassure the child and he eagerly accepted the meal. When he tasted the coffee, however, he grimaced. Joanne laughed to herself. “Hot chocolate it is then. No charge.”
“So did he say anythin’?” Betty whispered once Joanne was back at the counter. Betty was always very nosey about the customers that came into the diner, especially unfamiliar faces. Joanne shook her head as she began to make a new pot of hot chocolate.
“No…he didn’t say a word.”
“Well you simply must get that boy to talk! A kid that young doesn’t just waltz into a diner with a sack all alone and have no juicy story behind it.”
Joanne rolled her eyes and looked around the diner. There were only a few other customers in the place; she could spare the time. “Hey Betty, why don’t you go tend to that beautiful young couple over yonder. They look mighty distressed, so be nice.”
After Betty had agreed, Joanne fixed up a steaming cup of hot cocoa with a dollop of whipped cream on top and brought it over to the child. When he accepted it, she sat down in the seat across the table. “So. You gonna tell me about it or do I have to guess?” The boy looked up at her and shrugged. “Well you have to talk sometime. Now I’m not gonna leave you alone until you do so I suggest you start to talkin’ young man.”
At that moment the boy actually looked up at her, his eyes full of loneliness. “I don’t know what to say, Miss. I’m real sorry.” He quickly looked back down once he had spoken, as if it were the first words he’d said his entire life. Joanne studied him closely, from his tiny dirty hands to the troubled expression written on his dirty face. But other than that he looked like he hadn’t been out on the streets for more than a day.
“What ya got there in that bag?” She nodded to his burlap sack that he had protectively placed in his lap.
He stirred his hot chocolate, his eyes still downcast. “A few apples, some bread, a bottle of water, a blanket. I don’t know…a few things.”
“Are you running away?” Joanne asked softly.
He nodded. Joanne heard Betty talking with the couple by the window.
“So what’re your names?” Betty chattered loudly. “I remember seein’ you fine couple in here before. Hasn’t been a while though, so please excuse my askin’.”
“Jack,” The man at the table said, pointing to himself. “And this is my…this is Rachel. Could we actually have a few more minutes to decide?” Betty nodded and after giving them a curious look, went to go tend to the other hungry customers.
Joanne turned her attention back to the boy, who she surprisingly found to be staring at her intently. Joanne was old, she’d lived her life, but the one thing she had never done was have children. She ran one of her wrinkled fingers over the pearl on her ear as she thought. Then suddenly she knew. “I ran away once,” She said to the boy and he gave a small giggle. “It’s true! When I was six I ran away from home. Just up and took some things, much like what you’re doin’, and left. I went runnin’ to the hills on the other side of the county.”
“Why’d you run away?”
“Well because! I had just gotten my heart broken by the love of my life,” She joked and laughed when the child stuck out his tongue. “And I was just plum tired of doin’ my chores. Funny, aint it?”
The boy was laughing then, his face alight with amusement and pure joy. But after a few seconds he grew serious again. He was quiet for a while and then, “You know why I’m runnin’ away?” Joanne shook her head and leaned across the table towards him to listen. “My mommy and daddy don’t love me no more. They’ve grown plum tired of me. I didn’t know what else to do.” Joanne nodded and he sighed.
“Well young man, let me tell you a little secret. I have no children of my own, but I know this for sure, from the bottom of my heart, that no parent can ever stop lovin’ their own. Never. I’m sure your Ma and Pa love you very much. I do know that parents can get mad at their kids and it can seem like they don’t love you anymore then but…you see, parents’ hearts are like the ocean. You’d think the ocean would just dry up, like a lake or creek would, but it never does. And even if the ocean started goin’ down and down and down, there would still be ocean water left someone on the earth, because the ocean never runs out of water. Much like how a parents’ heart never runs out of love. You get it?” The boy shrugged but didn’t look convinced. Joanne gave him a warm smile and covered his tiny hand with her old wrinkled one. “Look here, I’ve only known you for a few short minutes and I already have a heart full of love for you, young man. But your parents have known you your entire life, so their hearts must be full of even more love for you.”
His eyes lit up with hope. “You think?”
“I know,” Joanne squeezed his hand. Just then Betty came bustling over to the booth they were seated at.
“Oh! You would not believe what just happened. I noticed a Trooper car parked outside the diner so I went to go see what he wanted and he said that a little boy’s parents are lookin’ for him all over town! They’re puttin’ up flyers and gettin’ all their neighbors to help look for him,” Betty looked down at the boy and smiled. “Honey, the whole town’s lookin’ for you! Now if you’ll just get your things together I’ll escort you to the Trooper who will take you to your parents, okay?” The boy shot up off his seat, his face the picture of happiness. Joanne stood up as well and shared a smile with Betty. “Here I’ll take your things.” Betty said and began walking towards the door, but the boy hung back a bit.
“Thank you, Miss,” he smiled at Joanne and Joanne smiled back, tears threatening her eyes. “I guess this is goodbye…”
“Now just hold on a minute,” Joanne said sternly. Then she grabbed a napkin and took out a pen from her apron, jotted down a few things then handed it to the boy. “My home address and phone number, in case you ever need another hot chocolate.” In one swift motion the boy had Joanne in an embrace only a child can give, full of love and affection. Then he started hurrying after Betty.
Joanne noticed the young couple, Rachel and Jack, was watching with a look of sadness and earning as the little boy skipped through the diner. “Young man!” Joanne called after him. The boy turned around at the door with a puzzled expression. “You may call me Miss Joanne.”
He flashed his gap-toothed grin once again. “The name’s Tommy. But I think Young Man suits me more.” Then with a silly wink and a wave, he was headed back home.



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