For more than a month, 9-year-old Travis Butler tried to pretend everything was normal--walking to a nearby market for food, attending school faithfully--even as his mother lay dead on the living room floor.
He was afraid, he told family friends who discovered the truth Monday night, that he would have to go to an orphanage if his secret came out.
Not knowing what else to do, he forged his mother's signature on school papers, did his homework, tried to cut his own hair, and celebrated Thanksgiving by eating a frozen pizza, his maternal grandmother said. All the while, 30-year-old Crystal Wells lay where she had fallen in their modest east Memphis apartment, her body covered with a coat the boy had carefully tucked around her.
Memphis police do not suspect foul play in Wells's death, but are awaiting a medical examiner's report, spokeswoman Debby Hall said. Wells's mother, Shirley Wilder, of Carthage, Miss., who now has custody of Travis, said her daughter had complained about feeling poorly for the past year.
The boy's story was the talk of the city today, bringing tears to many eyes as people contemplated the child's life for the past month. Police said Wells apparently had been dead since Nov. 3.
"He's a smart little child and she was a brilliant girl, and they were two buddies together. She taught him how to be a little soldier," Wilder said today, adding that she has not pressed Travis for many details and did not want him exposed yet to reporters' questions.
In failing health herself, Wilder said she had been worried about her daughter and grandson, but had been unable to contact them because they had no telephone. Wells was unemployed, so there was no one to miss her at work, and Travis's father is deceased, she said.
"I always just had to wait for them to call me," she said. "And this time, I kept waiting and waiting. That's what hurts, to think about the little fella being there by himself all that time."
Travis's secret came out Monday night when two worried friends of Wells, Nathaniel and Dorothy Jeffries of Olive Branch, Miss., showed up at the apartment to check on mother and son.
"At first, he said his mother was at work and wouldn't let us inside," Dorothy Jeffries told the Commercial Appeal of Memphis. "When we kept asking, he finally just broke down and said, 'Mama can't talk anymore because she got really sick and I think she is dead.' "
Police spokeswoman Hall said that Travis was "obviously distressed" when officers arrived at the apartment. "He was afraid he would be sent to an orphanage or a foster home--he was just afraid," she said. "Also, he didn't want them to take his mother away."
The boy had survived on food that was already stored in the house, buying other items with cash his mother had had, police said. The November rent on the apartment had been paid, and the apartment management had not yet demanded rent for December.
Travis, a fourth grader at South Park Elementary School, apparently managed to care for himself so well that school officials did not notice anything greatly amiss.
"Everybody is so heartbroken about this," said Memphis city schools spokeswoman Delores Bell. "The teacher felt terrible, that since she saw the child every day, she should have seen a sign, but she had not seen anything in his behavior that was out of the ordinary. And who would've thought a child would have something like this at home? Obviously, he was able to carry on."
South Park principal Roy Stone said the only unusual thing anyone noticed about the boy, whom he described as a good student, was when Travis arrived at school the other day with a "funny-looking" haircut. "He told a friend his mother would take care of it," Stone said today.
Stone spoke with Travis briefly on Tuesday when the boy came to school with his grandmother, who had rushed to Memphis Monday night, to retrieve his papers and other belongings.
"He told me he had been washing and ironing his clothes every day," Stone said. "He said he had not talked to anyone about his mother. He didn't play after school; he just went home every day and stayed in the apartment."
Wilder said her grandson was glad to be with his family. This morning, he was eating waffles and sausage, and chatting with his uncle as his grandmother talked on the telephone.
"He's with me as long as I am in existence on this earth," she said. "He's my brave little boy."