A story of courage
Part III – The Conclusion
“Are you hungry?” Miss Stanford asked solicitously, after the sound of his mother’s fading footsteps had disappeared.
“I can make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Spencer shook his head, his eyes wide, unable to speak. Just like the story! She was going to poison him and then eat him up!
Spencer screwed up his courage.
“I have a friend who’s a great big lion,” he said, trying to make his voice sound firm and fearless. “His name is Leo.”
Miss Stanford regarded him judiciously. She shook her head sagely.
“And I bet you’re the only one who can see him,” she crooned.
Spencer’s eyes grew even wider.
“How did you know?” he stammered.
Miss Stanford pointed her finger at him.
“I know a lot of things even your mother doesn’t know,” she said. Then she laughed. It sounded like the witch’s cackle in the story his mother read to him. His mother had laughed like the witch to explain what the word cackle meant. But when his mother laughed, Spencer was not afraid.
“Well,” Miss Stanford went on, “I don’t mind if he comes to visit you, but you just make sure he doesn’t knock over my furniture or do his business on my floors. You understand me? Because if he does, well, I’ve been known to make the most delicious lion stew!” And with that she turned and walked into the kitchen.
Spencer stood there, trembling. He could not move, he could not think. The fear gripping him was greater than the fear he felt when he was pushed over that ledge.
His head turned toward the door.
It was not even a conscious decision.
He flung himself at the door, turned the lock, and threw the door open. Then he charged into the hallway, running wildly.
He saw the elevator but was afraid to use it. His parents had warned him never to go into one alone.
He searched frantically for the stairs. He saw a door that did not look like it led to an apartment. He opened it. There was some kind of closet behind it. For a moment he considered whether to hide inside.
No, that would not do.
He continued searching. Finally he did find the stairway door. It was heavy, but he managed to push it open. Grabbing onto the banister, he leaped from step to step.
It was so far to the bottom. It seemed to take forever.
Spencer knew the difference between a “B” and a “1.” He could hide in the basement, but it would be better to go outside and try to find his mother. She couldn’t have gotten very far.
Spencer came to the first floor. He opened the door, raced through the hallway, and stepped outside.
The witch was waiting for him!
Spencer dodged past her, screaming, “Leo, Leo!”
Miss Stanford called out to some adults who were on the street.
“Stop that little boy! Stop him! He’s trying to run away!
Spencer had not gotten very far when strong hands grabbed him.
Miss Stanford strode toward him, her face contorted with fury.
“Thank you,” she said to the man who was restraining Spencer. “His mother asked me to watch him, and he suddenly just ran out of the apartment.” She took control of Spencer from the stranger. Her left hand gripped Spencer’s left arm firmly. Then, with her right hand she slapped Spencer hard across the face.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” she hissed.
Spencer’s legs collapsed underneath him. Miss Stanford dragged the limp boy back to her apartment.
Spencer sat at the kitchen table.
Miss Stanford sat across from him.
“Why did you run away like that?” she demanded.
Spencer was beyond fear now.
“If you kill me and eat me my friend Leo the Lion will come and eat you up!” Spencer said defiantly.
“Kill you and eat you?” Miss Stanford shook her head. “Where did you ever get that idea?”
Suddenly Miss Stanford got a faraway look in her eyes.
“You’re such a handsome little boy. When you grow up…” Miss Stanford sighed deeply. “Ah, when I was younger, the boys didn’t run away from me…”
Miss Stanford looked so sad. She didn’t look like a witch anymore. Spencer wanted to cry for her.
Miss Stanford’s face became hard again.
“You listen to me, Spencer.” Her voice was harsh. “Your mother paid me to watch you. If I eat you up, I’ll have to give her back the money. I don’t want to do that. So if you do what you’re told, you don’t have to worry. But if you don’t…” Miss Stanford drew a finger across her throat and made a choking sound. “If you try to run away again, damn the money, I will eat you up!”
Spencer no longer felt sorry for Miss Stanford. He was still afraid, but everything was out in the open now. Miss Stanford was a witch, but she wanted his mother’s money, so she wouldn’t eat kill him and eat him.
“Do we understand each other, little boy?”
The uneasy truce that settled between them gave Spencer a framework for his days and nights. Miss Stanford rarely spoke. Spencer said almost nothing. Spencer watched her warily, not completely sure she would keep her word. Perhaps the desire to eat a little boy would overcome her desire for his mother’s money. It was at mealtimes that this suspicion became rampant. He could not get over the fear that she would try to poison him. He barely ate and then only certain foods: a hard-boiled egg that he saw come directly from the shell, potato chips from an unopened bag, water directly from the tap; only food he was certain could not be poisoned. Of food she prepared he would have nothing, and entreaties and even threats could not cause him to budge. Though Miss Stanford began to worry because it seemed like he was losing weight, she decided not to force the issue; his mother would be back soon enough. She was convinced the boy was mentally disturbed.
Miss Stanford did not let him outside except to accompany her shopping, at which time he was ordered to remain next to her. During the day Spencer played with his blocks, looked at his books, or stared out the living room window, where he watched the people and the cars on the street below. The cars sometimes seemed empty; he wondered if anyone was inside or if cars could drive themselves. This reverie would lead to thoughts of his mother and father. What were they doing? How long before his mother returned? When would he see his father again? But most of all he wondered about Leo the Lion, whom he now believed he would never see again.
Sometimes he watched television, but it often failed to hold his attention. It could not compare with the richness he found in his own mind.
At night he had trouble falling asleep. He stirred at the slightest sound. He would awaken from vague nightmares sweating and shaking. But he never cried out. The witch in the apartment was more frightening than any nightmare.
Then came the day the doorbell rang. Spencer and Miss Stanford looked at each other with relief. His Mommy had returned!
Miss Stanford opened the door. The two women embraced. When Miss Stanford stepped away from his mother, Spencer ran to her, practically leaping into her arms. She hugged him tightly.
“I missed you, Spencer,” she whispered.
Then she looked at him.
“You look so thin,” she said. “Haven’t you been eating?”
“He missed you,” Miss Stanford offered. “He had no appetite.”
Spencer noticed that his Mommy looked thinner, too. Had she also been afraid of being poisoned?
“I guess I don’t look so great myself,” his mother said.
“You do look kind of haggard, Mabel,” Miss Stanford agreed.
His mother sighed.
“It was rough, Sally, really rough,” his mother said. “I never want to go through that again. One day I ran out of money. I was so hungry and desperate that I stole a ham from a grocery store. They caught me and I was arrested.”
“Oh, Mabel, that’s nothing. I’ve been arrested many times.” Both women looked at each other and laughed. Spencer did not understand what was so funny. “And you’re here,” Miss Stanford went on brightly, “none the worse for wear.” Then her tone became serious.
“Mabel, I’d like to speak to you alone.” His mother followed Miss Stanford into her bedroom. The door closed. Spencer could hear nothing. It was not long before they both came out.
His mother came over to him and looked down at him for a long time, thinking.
“When can I see Daddy again?” Spencer asked.
“Soon, maybe. I don’t know.” His mother shrugged.
“I’ll never see Leo again, you know,” Spencer blurted out.
His mother gave him a hard look and then slapped him in the face. It hurt worse than the blow from Miss Stanford.
“Stop this nonsense about that lion. He doesn’t exist. Stop talking like you’re crazy. You’re not crazy! You’re not crazy!”
Spencer started to cry.
His mother’s eyes filled with tears. Then she started sobbing. She bent down and hugged Spencer tightly. “I’m so sorry,” she said, over and over again.
Then she straightened up.
“Sally, can I use your phone?”
Spencer’s mother went into the kitchen. It sounded like she was talking to his Daddy. Spencer stopped crying.
“Why did you think I was going to eat you?” Miss Stanford asked suddenly.
Spencer looked up at her. He wasn’t afraid anymore. His Mommy was here. He went and got the book and showed it to Miss Stanford. She leafed through its pages.
“Do I look like the witch?” she asked.
Miss Stanford sighed.
“Ah, Spencer, if only 15 years past you could see me when I was your mother’s age, you would never say that. Spencer, I’m not a witch. I don’t eat children. And I’ve never hurt anyone.” She fell silent and then added: “They’ve hurt me.”
Sally Stanford’s eyes welled up.
“I’m sorry,” Spencer said, his own eyes again filling with tears, though he knew not why.
Miss Stanford bent down towards him.
“I wish I’d had a little boy like you,” she said. “I never had any children.”
Spencer reached out with his arms. Miss Stanford took him into her own.
His mother came out of the kitchen.
“There’s nothing wrong with him, Sally. He’s just a very imaginative child.”
“I know,” Miss Stanford responded.
“Come,” his Mommy said. “I’m taking you to see your father.”
The door to Spencer’s apartment opened. His Daddy stood in the doorway. Spencer had never seen his father look so sad.
“I guess you’re not my wife anymore, Mabel.”
“I don’t know, George, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t know what I want.”
“I haven’t had a drink since you left, Mabel.”
Spencer saw the tears in his Mommy’s eyes.
His father looked down at Spencer and his face brightened. He lifted his son in the air.
“Spencer, my little man, I missed you. Mommy may not be my wife anymore but how could I have ever doubted you’re my son?”
Spencer looked over his father’s shoulder and his heart filled with joy.
In the living room, Leo the Lion sat on his haunches, waiting for him.