# 21 – Tomorrow

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Liza was sitting on the wooden deck just off of her kitchen.  She was lounging in a green plastic patio chair, flipping through one of her drawing portfolios.  Her black heels and button-down shirt were laying in a pile on the living room steps.  She was left wearing black dress pants and a teal spaghetti strap tank top.  On the table in front of her were a pack of cigarettes, what had been a six-pack of beer, and her bare feet.  Metallic midnight-blue toenails gleamed down at her.

Liza sighed as she rubbed her forehead.  An evening at the pediatric oncology ward would have left her in a cheerier mood than her ride home with Bruce.  She wasn’t sure what even happened.  What was the matter with her?  Part of her thought that she may have overreacted.  Then again, why couldn’t Bruce have just come out and said what he thought?  Her stomach was churning and too many jumbled thoughts were flying through her head.  Suddenly she decided that she couldn’t wait a week to talk to him again.  Liza leaned over to toss the last empty bottle into the recycle bucket and the chair slid out from under her.  She slammed onto the deck, shattering the bottle under her hand.

Liza had been a klutz all of her life.  She sighed, stood up, barely fazed, and righted the chair.  She would wait a bit.  It probably wasn’t a good idea to go trolling around Adams Square like a drunken drama queen.  As she plopped back into the chair, her eyes fell on the portfolio.  Liza knew that her drawings were decent.  But were they good?  How good?  Definitely good enough to provide her with a fun hobby.  Definitely better than what most people could produce.  Beyond that, she didn’t know.  In the back of her mind she knew that this insecurity was a big part of the reason that she never stuck with art in college.  With her job, things were black and white.  The work was repetitive.  There were rules and policies for everything.  Tasks had measurable results.  Liza despised these soul-numbing aspects of business and the drones who bought into them, but there was also comfort in the repetitive personality-lessness of her job.      

She sat outside for hours thinking all of this through while she pulled bloody slivers of glass from her palm.  She decided to call out of work tomorrow.  Casey was having some kind of treatment in the afternoon, so Liza was already scheduled to leave work at noon.  In the morning, she would find Bruce on campus.  She vaguely remembered that he had office hours tomorrow.  He was probably over in Hunter Wood, the liberal arts college’s building.

Later, when she was getting ready for bed, she caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror.  It was a good thing that she had managed to stop herself from going to look for Bruce tonight.  Drunken drama queen was too kind of a description.  She looked and smelled more like a homeless alcoholic with her blood-caked hands and red eyes.  The scent of alcohol and tobacco was so strong that even she could smell it.  Her bun had passed “messy” sometime between driving home with the window down and the dive she had taken onto the deck.  Yep, tomorrow was definitely better.  Tomorrow she would wake up looking like a supermodel.  Tomorrow she would find him.

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# 20 – Anything Nice to Say

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Their professor had let them leave once they finished their midterm.  Bruce was done in less than an hour.  Liza, worrying that he would walk home, had raced to finish.  She found him waiting patiently outside the classroom, looking at houses on his laptop.  Her throat tightened.  “Moving?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

“Far?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“No.”  He grinned up at her as he closed the laptop and slid it into his bag.  “Would you miss me?”

“Maybe.”

They walked hand in hand down to the courtyard.  Liza had really come to appreciate unexpected free time; even more so now that she was always at the hospital.  That reminded her.  She called Casey’s room when they got outside.  Her niece hadn’t improved, but she’d sounded happy, chattering on about how she finally beat Nurse Bill at rummy.  She’d just finished brushing her teeth and was getting ready for bed.  Liza whispered that she loved her and told her goodnight.  When she hung up the phone, Bruce was making a face that Liza couldn’t interpret, but her excitement overrode her curiosity.  She practically dove into the car.  Liza didn’t know what to do with the found hours.  She could get some long overdue chores done around the house, or just relax with a beer and work on her new drawing.  Maybe should would ask Bruce if he wanted to hang out.

“You never asked me what I thought of your drawing,” commented Bruce as he shifted around some of the junk in her footwell to make room for his feet.

Well, she definitely didn’t want to do this.  Until now, she’d been successfully ignoring the fact that he hadn’t mentioned her drawing all evening.  She tried to sound like she didn’t care.  “I know.”

“Why not?”  Liza fiddled with the radio and shrugged.  “Is it because I’m a professor?” he pressed.

No, it’s because the picture is both for you and of you, and I apparently care way too much what you think.  “Yes.”

“I’m a literature professor.”

“I know…still.”  It sounded lame, even to her.  They fell silent as Liza maneuvered her car through the cramped streets around campus.  Bruce was staring out the window, looking lost in thought.  It was Liza’s favorite kind of night:  no humidity, temperature in the mid-seventies, full moon.  She rolled down her window and tried to push aside a thought that was slowly beginning to torment her.  She looked over at Bruce a few times.  He was still staring out the window.  “Well?!”

Bruce jumped and looked at her wide-eyed.  “Well, what?”

Liza wondered if he was messing with her.  “What did you think about my drawing?”

“Do you want to know?”

Liza began to feel sick.  He wasn’t saying anything because he didn’t like her drawing and was trying to spare her feelings.  “No.”  Bruce continued to stare at her.  He looked as if he expected her to say something else, or as if he might say something himself.  Then the light turned green and Liza returned her attention to the street.  She turned up the radio and fished a cigarette from her purse.  She dug around blindly for a minute and couldn’t find a lighter or matches.  Bruce was watching her out of the corner of his eye like he had on the first night of class.  She fought the urge to flick the unlit cigarette at his head, figuring that it might come off as just a tiny bit childish.  At the next red light, he rummaged around by his feet and came up with a blue lighter.  He wordlessly lit her cigarette and then placed the lighter in an empty cup holder.

They drove together like that until they reached Adams Square.  Liza sucked down two cigarettes to keep herself from coming apart.  Bruce, either unaware or uncaring, stared out the window the entire time.  When she left him off at the usual spot, Bruce leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before getting out.  She drove off as soon as he stepped away from the car.

# 19 – Like a Psycho

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Bruce had just taken a big mouthful of energy drink.  He froze for a second, looking wide-eyed and guilty.  Liza raised her eyebrows and tried to look annoyed, but the smile kind of ruined it.  Bruce swallowed and smiled back at her.

“I tried to wake you up, but you were sleeping so heavily that I thought you were dead at first.  I didn’t want to leave you out here, so I found your address on your license, used your lip balm, stopped and bought some things with your credit card on the way to your house, put you in bed, made myself dinner, read your mail, vacuumed, took a shower, used your toothbrush, tried on your panties, and then caught a bus back.”  He took another gulp of energy drink, set it down, folded his arms, and leaned back.

Liza burst out laughing.  “Is that all true?”

“Some of it.”

“Which parts?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”  Bruce looked amused.  Liza just shook her head.

“Where did my pen come from?  I thought I lost it.”

“You don’t want to know,” said Bruce.

“Why not?”

“The answer might freak you out.”

“After saying that you wore my panties, you’re worried about freaking me out?”

Bruce grinned, thought for a minute, and shrugged.  “I saw you in Adams Square drawing.  I didn’t want to disturb you, but I wanted to make sure no one bothered you.  After you left, I walked by where you were sitting and found the pen.”

Liza let that sink in for a minute.  If Bruce wanted to do something to her, he’d already had plenty of opportunities, and what had he done?  Sat and talked to her.  Watched over her.  Driven her home and tucked her into bed.  Anyway, they had only met in the first place because she’d stared at him in class and then followed him in her car like a psycho.

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.  He looked surprised.  She reached up and turned his head toward her.  His expression was neutral but his dark eyes were smiling down at her.  When she kissed him, he unfolded his arms and wrapped them around her.  They sat like that until it was time for class.

# 18 – Demented

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“It’s not done,” Bruce blurted before Liza could say a word.

“Good evening to you too, Professor.  What’s not done?”  Liza juggled her purse, messenger bag, a cigarette butt, and a bag of fast food.  He tried to help, but she swatted his hand away.

“I told you, you can call me Bruce.”  He eyed the fast food bag.

“Ok.  Good evening to you too, Bruce.  What’s not done?”  She thrust the bag into his hand, flicked the cigarette butt, and untangled herself from the bag straps.

“The story.”

“The story?  You mean it wasn’t the end when two of the three main characters died, and the third had a mental breakdown and became a bum?”

Bruce winced, “No, there’s another part.  More like an epilogue or a sequel.  I just didn’t write it yet.”  He was biting his cuticles.  She noticed for the first time that his nails were bitten down to the quick.  He must have noticed her noticing, because a second later he tucked his hangs under his legs.  Liza turned her head to hide a smile.  “So, you didn’t like it?” he asked.

“No, it was pretty damn weird, but I loved it,” said Liza.  “I like that you wrote it in the form of a children’s story.”

“Why?”

Why?  …this feels like a test, Professor.”

Bruce laughed and shook his head, “No, just curious.  Most people find that aspect of my stories disturbing.”

“Ok.  Hmm…I liked that part of the story because it was different.  You could have written a children’s’ story that was actually meant for children, but where’s the fun in that?  You could have told the story like a regular short story for adults, but that would have been boring.  Seeing it through Sam’s eyes was almost cruel.  You know, anyone who reads this is going to think you’re really demented.”

Demented?  Jesus.”

Liza shrugged, “I meant it as a compliment.  I really enjoyed the story.”

Liza opened the bag and took out two chicken sandwiches.  She handed one to Bruce and put the other on her lap.  She pulled a can of energy drink from her bag, cracked the top, and placed it on the bench between them.  Bruce was already halfway done his sandwich by the time Liza had hers unwrapped.  “So, speaking of demented,” she said, “are you going to explain to me how it is that I fell asleep on this bench last week, and woke up the next morning in my bed?”

# 17 – Bruce’s Story

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Once upon a time, there was a boy named Sam. Same was seven. He lived in the city in a brick row house that was covered in words. The house, the block, and the city were all a mess. There was trash everywhere. It smelled like a bathroom. Everything in Sam’s house was broken and his mom and dad were never home. His dad worked in a factory. His mom was a dancer. Sam couldn’t picture people paying her to dance. He’d seen her dance with his dad once at a wedding and it was bad.

Sam didn’t care about any of this because he spent most of his time in his tree house out back. It didn’t look very nice from the outside. The wood was old and the tree was surrounded by trash. To get up to it, you had to climb a hundred foot rope ladder. The inside was cool. The walls were bright blue and Sam had filled it with treasures he had found around the neighborhood: crates, old toys, bottle caps that he had glued to one wall, and spark plugs. A place that fixed cars was right behind Sam’s house. One of his favorite things to do was collect spark plugs from the greasy parking lot in an old orange Frisbee. He had a mountain of them in a corner of the tree house.

One afternoon, he was daydreaming as he wandered around collecting spark plugs. He didn’t notice that a little girl was watching him until he was right in front of her. She was sitting on the hood of a rusty old Nova, picking at a giant scab on her leg. The girl was wearing a seat belt as a bracelet. Her fingernails and toenails were both painted the same shade of blue as the inside of the tree house. Sam wasn’t really interested in girls yet, but he thought that if he was, he would be interested in her. She was beautiful, even with the scab and the grease stains. The girl had long, golden hair and big brown eyes.

She didn’t say a word to Sam, just hopped down and started helping him pick up spark plugs. The orange Frisbee was overflowing in no time, and she helped him carry them up to his tree house. She looked around while Sam worked on his spark plug mountain. She tried out some of the toys and studied the bottle caps. She flipped over a crate and sat down. She told Sam that she loved the tree house. Sam was happy. He didn’t have any real friends. Most people didn’t let their kids play outside because the neighborhood was so dangerous. They all thought Sam was weird anyway. 

Dixie, as Sam learned was her name, didn’t seem to think so. If she did, she didn’t care. Or maybe she was a little weird herself and didn’t notice his weirdness. Anyway, it turned out that her dad worked at the place that fixed cars. She had camp in the mornings, but a big yellow bus dropped her off there afterwards. She told Sam that her parents had named her Dixie because they had been on a trip down south nine months before she was born.

Sam and Dixie became friends instantly. They collected spark plugs and bottle caps and played in the tree house. One afternoon, they were walking back to the tree house when they heard whimpering coming from the sewer. Dixie was smaller so she shimmied through the hole. A minute later, she passed a little brown puppy up to Sam. The scrawny little dog was shivering even though it was summer. They took him back to the tree house and cleaned him off. They decided to keep him as a pet. Sam said that he needed a name. Dixie was running her finger along the bottle cap wall. She said that they should name him Miller.

So, for the rest of the summer, Sam, Dixie, and Miller spent as much time as they could playing together. But the summer went by fast, like all fun things do. Sam went to the school around the corner and Dixie went to school two towns away. She never came to stay at the shop with her dad anymore. Sam and Miller missed Dixie. They thought about her all the time. Sam wondered if he loved Dixie.

One afternoon during Thanksgiving vacation, Sam was on his way back to the tree house. He was eating a soft pretzel and holding a bottle cap that he had just found. He was excited when he found it, but it was also making him sad. The cap was red and white with a big gold D in the center. Around the top, it had the word “DIXIE”.

When he got closer to the tree house, he saw Dixie climbing up the rope ladder, and all of his sadness went away. Sam thought she looked even prettier all cleaned up with her school clothes on. He was still a few houses away, but he yelled her name and started to walk faster. Miller was peeking down over the side of the tree house, barking and wagging his tail. Dixie turned when she heard Sam call her. She had a beautiful smile on her face. Just then, she slipped off of the rope ladder. Sam felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. She caught herself after falling only a few feet, but a sound like a crack of thunder cut through the air. It was the sound of wood snapping. The whole tree house split in half. The back part remained anchored to the tree.  The front broke away.  Dixie fell to the ground, still clutching the rope ladder. She landed with a thump and didn’t move. Spark plugs rained down her. A second later Miller thumped down next to her. Then they both disappeared from view when the front half of the tree house crashed down on them.

Everything after that was like a nightmare in slow motion.  Dixie’s dad and the other men from the car place came running over. There were lights and sirens and neighbors looking out their windows. At first, Sam just stood there. He couldn’t move. Then he ran. He ran until he was on the other side of the city and his legs gave out. He collapsed on a sewer grate. Sam laid there crying for days, thinking about Dixie and Miller. He never went back again. During the day, he looked through dumpsters for food. At night, he slept on the merry-go-round at a playground. He didn’t collect sparks plugs or bottle caps ever again. He didn’t own anything but the clothes he was wearing and the Dixie bottle cap.

# 16 – Vibrating

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Liza’s vibrating cell phone jolted her awake. She pulled it out of her pocket and flicked off the alarm. It was seven in the morning. The dawn sunlight poked through the curtains. She was in her bedroom, on her bed, fully dressed with her Nightmare Before Christmas blanket draped over her. Sitting on the comforter next to her were her keys and purse. Liza lay there for a minute piecing everything together.  She turned her head and saw a half sheet of parchment paper sitting on the other pillow.  Every inch was filled with heavy handwriting.  Next to it was the ebony and silver fountain pen her parents had given her when she started taking art classes.  She hadn’t seen it since the night she had drawn Bruce’s picture.  Now she was really confused.  Liza wondered for a moment if she should be freaked out or angry, then she smiled and rolled over to read Bruce’s story.

# 15 – Class 5

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Liza pulled into a parking spot and rested her head on the steering wheel for a minute before getting out. Casey had been in the hospital for three days. The nausea she’d been dealing with had caused her weight to plummet and left her dehydrated. The doctors warned Liza that Casey was not doing well. Apparently, a bunch of her counts, levels, and other medical statistics that Liza didn’t understand were not where they should be.

Laura was nowhere to be found. Liza had come home from work one night to find Casey lying in a pool of her own vomit. Her skin was grey and her eyes were puffy and red from crying. She told Liza that her mom had gone out to refill some of her prescriptions that morning and hadn’t come back. Three days later Laura was still M.I.A. Liza had called out of work to stay with her niece at the hospital.

Casey fell asleep right after dinner tonight.  Her favorite nurse, Bill, was on duty. Liza had decided to go to class and then run home to try to get some sleep. Hopefully she would be back at the hospital in the morning before Casey woke up. She wouldn’t have bothered with class at all but she really wanted to give Bruce the picture. She’d also realized that she didn’t have any way to contact him and had felt bad standing him up.

He was waiting for her on the bench in the garden looking nervous. As Liza got closer, she could see that his lip was split and one side of his mouth was ringed in a bright bruise.

“Whoa! What happened to you, Professor? Rumble in the faculty dining room over who has the most letters after their name?” She slid her sunglasses down to get a better look and he raised his eyebrows at her.

“What happened to you? You look a little…tired,” he teased. A smile crept across his face and he winced in pain.

“Mmm, answering a question with a question. That must mean that this is part of your “long story that you don’t want to talk about”,” she said. He looked away. Liza sighed and sat down. “Whatever. I don’t want to talk about it either so we’re even. Here,” she said, thrusting the picture into his hand. Bruce started to smile again but caught himself. Liza leaned back and closed her eyes while he looked over the sketch.