Panicking, he headed toward the stuffed animals. They were all crammed into a box—giraffes, bears, dogs, cats. They all looked like they needed a home, and it broke his heart to think he could only take one of them.
But he had to make a choice. He was gravitating toward a stuffed puppy when he noticed a lion half-buried in the pile, only his sly feline eyes and furry yellow mane poking out. It was no place for such a majestic beast.
The boy plucked the lion from the animals, so soft and huggable in his arms, and ran over to his mother with it, hoping she hadn’t changed her mind.
She looked at the lion and smiled. He had done well.
After she paid, he hugged that lion with all his might. It felt so good to hold something, and it felt like the lion was holding him back, thanking him for the rescue.
“What is the lion’s name?” his mother asked quietly. There was so much sadness in her voice that it nearly broke the spell the boy was under, that dizzy spell of love.
“Lionel,” he said after thinking about it for a moment. “Lionel the lion. And I love him.”
“And you know he loves you, don’t you?” she said, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her faux-fur coat. It smeared her red lipstick. “Just as I love you.”
His mother didn’t tell him that she loved him all that often so he was surprised to hear it. It made his birthday that much better.
Soon they were back on the bus, but this time they weren’t headed back to the house. The roads were unfamiliar, and the city was slowly left behind them. The yards got bigger, the snow deeper.
“Where are we going?” he asked. “This isn’t the way home.”
“We’re going to see some friends of mine,” she said.
The boy didn’t like that. He hugged his lion tight to him. He didn’t like her friends.
She put her hand on his shoulder but wouldn’t look at him. They were the only people on the bus which made him feel even more alone.
“Don’t worry,” she said eventually. “They have boys your age there.”
That didn’t make him feel any better. He didn’t get along with other kids, whether they were his age or not. He was shy and often got picked on for being too quiet. That only made him sink more into himself, where it was always safe and comfortable.
Eventually the bus stopped by huge iron gates and a stone wall, and the mother grabbed his hand, holding her purse close to her as they shuffled out into the snow. The bus pulled away and the boy wished he could have stayed on it. They were in the hills, in the middle of nowhere, and even though his home was cold and dirty, it was still home.
The boy couldn’t read the sign on the wall so he asked his mother what it said.
“It says we are welcome,” she said, hurrying him along until they were standing in front of the gates. She pressed a buzzer on the intercom.
The boy stared through the iron bars at the giant mansion on the hill. He didn’t like it. Something about it, maybe the bars on the windows or the overgrown ivy, or the way it bared down on them, like a brick beast, ready to pounce. He was grateful at that moment to have a lion like Lionel, but it didn’t stop him from digging in his heels.
“Come on,” his mother hissed, yanking him forward until they were climbing up the stairs.
The front door opened, and a tall, thin man with a beak for a nose and slicked back hair appeared, peering down at them.
“Welcome, Miss Lockhart,” he said, and then gestured for them to come inside.
The man was speaking to them still as they stepped into the mansion, but the boy wasn’t listening. He was struck by the cold all around him. From the sickly yellow lights to the industrial feeling walls and floor—everything screamed inhospitable. There were bad vibes here, a place that held nothing but wicked things.