I didn’t know exactly what it was about Alex Stewart that so intrigued me, but I’d been drawn to him from the moment I met him at the bus station. Sure, he was different from the others I’d known at the shelter. He was very good-looking and intelligent, but that wasn’t it. No…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I knew only that I had to reach out to him, help him in any way I could.
By the time I finally got to go home, I was exhausted. I had worked fourteen hours straight at the shelter after five hours of post grad classes at the university. I braked my old SUV to a stop in the driveway and went inside. The silence of the night was immediately interrupted by the enthusiastic welcome I received from my extended “family”—twelve dogs and seven cats of varying sizes. I made my way through the kitchen, stopping just long enough to drop my backpack on the table and hang my jacket on the back of a chair. I went on to my bedroom, noting that my brothers hadn’t even heard me come in. And nobody ever remembers to lock the doors, I thought as I peeled off my clothes, slipped into a faded old football jersey that was three sizes too big, and collapsed on the bed, too tired to even take a shower.
I thought I’d fall into a deep and immediate sleep, but I ended up lying awake several hours before finally drifting off. My thoughts were on Alex. He cracked jokes, but I had the feeling he’d left something quite disturbing behind, wherever he’d actually come from.
Most of the people I encountered at the shelter had left something behind, usually not by choice, and they longed to go back to their “old life.” Not Alex. He seemed to want to forget his past life even existed. What, I wondered, could have been so awful that he would rather live like this than go back?
“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t even come here for a visit,” I told him as I brought my SUV to a stop in the driveway.
“Did I ever say that?” He pushed open the door on the passenger side and climbed out just as my army of critters came charging across the yard to greet us. “None of them bite, do they?” he called out to me.
“Some of them don’t even have teeth,” I laughed. “About half of these guys are really, really old. Old critters in shelters are hard to place--a shame, since they make such good pets.”
“Most people who come in are looking for puppies or kittens,” he agreed.
“They don’t know what they’re missing.”
He grabbed the grocery bags in the back seat as the animals ganged up on me. I reached into my backpack and took out a large freezer bag full of treats, tossing them out. The animals grabbed them enthusiastically.
He followed me into the house via the torn screen door off the kitchen. I wondered what he might be thinking. My kitchen was big and always cluttered. Jackets hung on the backs of the chairs. Food and water bowls were lined up against one wall. Dishes were piled up in the sink, and the trash can overflowed. The place was a mess. I could only imagine how it looked to Alex.
“I see Paulie forgot to take the trash out,” I observed with a shake of my head. My big brother had promised me he'd have it cleaned up by the time we arrived. Note to self: kill Paulie later.
“I can do that,” Alex offered.
I nodded. “Great. There’s garbage cans out front, at the end of the drive,” I said, in case he hadn’t noticed them when we came in.
He gathered up the trash. It took him less than five minutes to do the task. “Any other odd jobs I can do while I’m here?” he asked when he returned to the house.
“Maybe after dinner.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” he told me over dinner.
“About what?” I asked.
“Your offer, if it’s still open,” he said. “I’d like to move in here—temporarily.”
“Of course the offer stands. As you can see, there’s plenty of room,” I said, tossing scraps under the table, which created a feeding frenzy. “I’m glad you changed your mind about this, Alex. I think you’ll be happy here. I should probably warn you, though.”
“This is as quiet as it will ever be around here,” I told him. “When everybody’s here, it can get pretty crazy.”
“I was sleeping in a bus station when you found me,” he reminded me. “Does it get crazier than that?”
I laughed. “You have a point.” Then: “I do think you’ll like it here, once you adjust to the chaos.”
“I know I will.” he paused. “This is the first home I’ve ever been in that actually felt like a home.”
I hesitated. “What about your own home?” I finally asked.
He shook his head. “That was more like a hospital than a home,” he said. “Sterile, antiseptic, never cozy. Never comfortable.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Anything but,” he said. “My father had a thing about germs.”
“Like Howard Hughes?” I asked, recalling the eccentric millionaire’s descent into mental illness in his last years of life.
“Yeah. Times ten.”
Then he abruptly changed the subject. Again….