Zee’s family is still cleaning up the disaster of the past few months when Mrs. Hatcher finally decides to welcome Alex into their house, hunching his way under doorways and tripping over the debris of tipped cabinets and broken windows. She kicks away at the rubble in her path nonchalantly, giving Alex a comforting smile before he can apologize for being a cause of the mess, waving him up the stairs behind her. His head knocks against the ceiling over the foyer, and he has curl into himself in order to fit into the narrow sliver of the stairs. Maybe it is the sheer massiveness of his body – a largeness he still has to get used to, clumsy and unsure in all his movements – but as he makes his way through the upstairs hallway, kids that are almost adults staring at him with familiar blue eyes and squeezing around him to get through the house, he has no idea how such a large family copes in such a tiny domain.
Mrs. Hatcher moves to one of the doors at the end of the hallway, hiking up the mountain of blankets she has tucked under her armpit, kicking away a chunk of drywall that some monstrosity from the prison must have clawed out of the adjacent wall as she moves her way into the room.
“You know,” she drawls at him in her thick accent, a wry smile twisting over the lines of her aging, tired face as she looks at him over his shoulder. “I thought Zee would be the last one of the brood, but I guess you can’t exactly be helped.”
He has no time to respond before she yanks him into the room; she has a surprising amount of strength in her pudgy little body, because he can actually feel her pushing him through the rippling muscle packed under his skin. He obliges, lungs sucking in the dust that drifts through the air, shining like bright miniscule stars as they catch the light coming in from a broken window. The hardwood is scratched, the thick layer of powdered rubble covering it seeping into his socks as he walks across it. The walls are dotted with stains and posters ripped and drooping from their perches, books and clothes scattered over the floor.
One of Zee’s sisters – he can’t remember her name, can’t remember any of them, too many to count - scrubs furiously at a black smear on the back wall, humming to herself. Zee lies sprawled on the musty sheets of what must be his bed, flipping through the pages of a book, pictures of soldiers plastered over its slipcover.
He looks up at the sound of Alex entering, but he is given no time to greet them; the grin that starts to split is face is interrupted as his mother launches one of the bundles she has at his head.
“What the hell?” he shrieks, arms waving wildly as the sleeping bag unfurls over his head, trying to fling it off of him.
“I should be saying the same thing to you,” his mother lectures back. “Why don’t you get off that lazy butt of yours and help the rest of your family?”
“Thank you,” his sister chirps, voiced muffled behind a paper mask, scrubbing growing fiercer by the minute.
“I haven’t got a break in months either, you know,” Zee grumbles.
“If anyone deserves a break, it’s your friend here,” Mrs. Hatcher says, one hand rising to jab a thumb at Alex, the other resting on a popped hip.
“You realize I came out of the same prison as him, right?”
“You came out in one piece,” Alex mutters, feeling a grin start to break across his face, one that Zee seems to find contagious. “And that’s thanks to me, too.”
“That’s right!” Mrs. Hatcher chuckles. Alex feels his heart leap in his chest at the sound of her laughter, the warmth of her gentle hand patting him on one burly shoulder. “So you’re going to treat him well.”
“When have I not treated him well?”
“It’s a warning, Zee,” Alex smirks. “You better listen to your mother.”
Zee’s face twists into a grimace, and he flops back onto the mattress, dust rising up in a plume around him as its disturbed from its place sunken into the fabric.
“C’mon you guys,” he groans. “I haven’t been in my own bed in what feels like years.”
“Fine,” Mrs. Hatcher sighs. “You better cherish while you get the chance though,” she says, pointing at the sleeping bag she had tossed him earlier, “because by tonight it’s not going to be yours anymore.”
“What?!” Both Zee and Alex turn to her now, startled at her own statement. Even Zee’s sister turns around, eyes wide and eyebrows raised as she watches the scene in front of her; they stare at their mother in bewilderment, but she just stands her ground with a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her face.
“That’s right.” She waves up at Zee from the sleeping bag, as if the motion could get one to fly to the other, join in camaraderie like two long lost lovers. “That’s gonna be your friend’s bed for a while.”
“Mom, are you-“
“You better not get foul-mouthed on me right now,” she warns. “I know you’ve been through a lot too, but Alex needs a place to sleep too, and I don’t let my guests sleep on the floor.”
“You mean I’m going to have to sleep on the floor tonight?”
“She did give you a sleeping bag, genius,” his sister sings, and he flings the book at her head. She dodges it, and it goes flying out the broken window, leaving her doubled over as she shrieks with laughter. Alex feels a giggle rumble up from deep in his belly, followed by a dull ache for the family he lost and never really had. He wonders if he’ll ever get to be a part of this one, if one day he won’t stop feeling like an outsider looking through the front window of another family’s house in the dead of night with longing.
“I swear, you two,” Mrs. Hatcher growls. She starts to raise her voice, her eyes bulging and her lips pressed in a thin, impatient line as she points at the two of them. They shrink under her gaze, Zee turning to look at his fingernails, his sister’s eyes glued to the wall.
“Let Alex have your bed,” she continues. “Just until I can find something else for him.”
“Mrs. Hatcher,” Alex starts, his own voice still too foreign to him in its deepness. He clears his throat. “I really don’t need-“
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Hatcher says, brushing off his concerns with another wave of the hand. “Zee is going to do the right thing and use the sleeping bag tonight.”
“So I’m going to have to sleep on the dusty floor then.” Zee says. “That’s great.”
“Well, it won’t be dusty once you get off your lazy bum and help the family clean,” she replies. She steps to the side, pointing to the narrow gap in between her and Alex, out into the hallway.
Zee slides off the bed with a grunt, grumbling, but still flashing a grin at Alex as he squeezes past. Mrs. Hatcher is about to leave the room, make her way downstairs before Alex is able to stop her again.
“Mrs. Hatcher,” he stutters out, and she stops at the edge of the stairs, turning to look at him with a quirked eyebrow. “You really don’t have to do all this.”
“Yeah, I don’t.” she grins. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to, though.”
“Seriously, I just,” Alex ponders. He looks down at his feet, fiddling with the drawstrings of a pair of triple extra large jogging sweats. “I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Alex, I have six kids, and you’re making me go on an unexpected seventh.” His heart leaps into his throat at that, settling in a throbbing lump behind his Adam’s apple at the idea of her thinking of him as her own; he doesn’t think he deserves that. “My house has been absolutely trashed and I don’t think the insurance companies are going to cover half of this crap for anyone. I’ve got a ton of burdens already and I am trying to take them in stride, but I don’t need any more. So if I thought you were one, you wouldn’t be in my house right now.”
“I know,” he says. He looks back into the room again, at the inviting plushness of the mattress, a twang of guilt plucking at his heartstrings at the thought of pushing Zee away from it. It’s not only because he doesn’t think he has earned it; he doesn’t think half his body would be able to fit on a twin bed. “I just don’t want to intrude.”
“You are a friend to us,” Mrs. Hatcher says. She moves forward, and she has to stretch up on her tiptoes in order to cup Alex’s massive cheeks; she doesn’t even need to, stout enough that as long as he looked straight down he could still meet her eye. “You’re as good as family to Zee. That’s a good enough reason for me to keep you here with us as long as you need.”
“I just don’t think I’ve earned it, after the things I’ve done.”
“You don’t need to earn it. I’m already proud of you for being so strong.”
The lump in his throat grows thicker, his voice growing thick as he chokes on it. “I’ve been to prison, it’s nothing to be proud of.”
“And you met my son there! But that doesn’t mean I love him any less, no matter how much of a rascal he is.” Her fingers dig under his chin, raising his head as much as she can. Her eyes have tears in them, a mirror to his.
“You brought my son back to me alive,” she says. “This is the least I could do to repay the favour.”
He coughs out a laugh, smiling as a tear slips its way down his cheek. Her smile blooms wider on her face, as she moves forward, arms barely halfway around his stomach as she hugs him.
He sniffs, gently trying to respond in kind, the stumps of his arms awkwardly enclosing around her shoulders. He still wants to apologize for causing such a mess - not only to her, but to his own friends, to Lucy and Simon and Donovan, to Toby, to everyone he had ever stolen from, to the family he never got to apologize to before they were prematurely ripped from his life – but he knows that she isn’t going to want to hear it.
“Thank you,” he says. He can’t think of anything else to say.
Mrs. Hatcher grunts against him, and he feels the smallest of squeezes tickle at his sides. She pushes away, breaking the hug reluctantly, only to look up at him with that same, warm smile he remembers on his own mother.
“You are very welcome,” she says, nodding. She turns around, gesturing for him to follow as she makes her way back down the stairs. “But for now we should clean up this disaster. Let’s go see if those fancy prosthetics of yours can hold a broom.”