# 42 – This Time Last Year

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Casey was spending more time sleeping than usual.  Tonight she as out before dusk.  Liza was exhausted.  It drained her to work through lunch, and she’d driven herself nuts all day worrying about Bruce and Casey.  She’d shuffled up to the third floor before she remembered that Bruce had been discharged.  His room was empty.  It made Liza sad even though she was glad that he was better.  She didn’t know when she would see him again, nor did she know how to get in touch with him short of physically hunting him down at work.  It would be easy enough to look up his university email address, but she felt funny.

They’d spent every evening together for the past week.  Now she missed this guy that she didn’t even know this time last year.  Liza frowned.  She kind of wanted to hunt him down now.  She also kind of wanted to stop going to class and move to the other side of the country.  Liza dug around in her purse for her keys.  Her fingers brushed against a piece of paper.  She pulled it out and unfolded it.  Bruce’s heavy handwriting stared up at her.

 

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# 41 – Casey Kearn and Pete

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Liza heard giggling and the low murmur of a man’s voice as she approached Casey’s room.

“My Aunt Liza has a friend named Bruce.”  Casey said.  Liza entered the room to find Bruce standing behind a guest chair.  Casey was chattering away from behind Pete, her teddy bear.  “She met him at her school.  It’s not a school for kids.  It’s a school for old people…there she is!”  Bruce turned and stared at Liza.  His expression was blank.

“Hey there.  What are you doing in Casey’s room?” asked Liza.

Bruce looked between Liza and Casey a few times, working his tongue around the inside of his cheek.  “Hey, they, uh, released me a couple of hours ago.  I was going to leave you a note.”  He waved a folded piece of paper that was dangling from his fingers.  He stared at Liza for what seemed like forever.  “So…I met your niece.”

“I see that.  I’m surprised you found her,” said Liza.

A smile flickered across Bruce’s face.  “So am I.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Not bad,” said Bruce.  She didn’t believe him.  His skin was grey and pit stains seeped out from under his arms.  He was wearing an expression that Liza couldn’t begin to figure out.

“That’s good.”  Liza walked over and gave him a quick kiss on the check.  A giggle came from behind Pete’s head.  Liza smiled and walked over to Casey’s bed.  She sat down very carefully, always fearful of tearing out a tube or wire.

“So what do you think of Dean Wells?” asked Liza.  She leaned over to kiss Casey on the forehead.

“Who?”

“Oh, I introduced myself as Bruce.  I hope that’s ok?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.  It’s up to you,” said Liza.

“Hmm…I think we can be on a first-name basis after she caught me bent over in the hall, and I caught her talking to herself.”  Bruce winked at Casey.

“Hey!  I was talking to Pete!” said Casey.

“Uh huh, he must be pret-ty special if he can talk with his mouth sewn shut.” said Bruce.  Casey giggled and shot Bruce a pretend dirty look.  She understood sarcasm well from growing up with her mom.  Bruce smiled and Liza thought again how handsome he looked.  She loved seeing him smile; all the more because he did it so rarely.  But the smile melted off of Bruce’s face a second later, and he was looking up at the clock.

“I’ll leave you two to your visit,” said Bruce.  We walked over and extended his hand to Casey.  “Casey, Pete, it was nice to meet you both.”

Casey stared at the hand, grinning to herself.  When she finally shook it, she looked over at Liza as if to confirm that she was doing it right.  Liza nodded.  “Nice to meet you,” said Casey.

Before Liza could sort through the questions that were flying around in her head, Bruce had kissed her on the cheek and was out the door.

# 40 – The Karma Fairy

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Liza skipped lunch and left work an hour early.  She grabbed a cup of coffee from a lunch truck outside of St. Francis.  This morning’s rain chased the humidity and cooled everything off, leaving a perfect summer afternoon.  She decided to enjoy it for a few minutes.  A short stone wall ran around the outside of the building.  It had probably been built to contain a small garden.  Now it was basically a giant trashcan.  Liza hopped up and lit her cigarette.  What an awesome aunt, she thought wryly.  All she needed now was to swap out the coffee cup for a bottle in a brown paper bag.  She tried to push the bad thoughts out of her head for a few minutes.  The sun felt amazing.  Liza dropped her sunglasses in place and turned her face up.

Casey was a sweet kid.  Quiet.  Thoughtful.  She never gave anyone a hard time.  What was hard was the leukemia.  While most children grew up, Casey deteriorated.  It was hard to watch.  Liza wasn’t sure if she couldn’t handle it, or didn’t want to.  Then there was the other thing.  She loved Casey, but had never been interested in kids, she felt uncomfortable around them, and had managed to avoid them up to this point in her life.  Liza and Casey usually ran out of things to talk about quickly.  Their conversations were awkward and forced.  Yet, Casey loved Liza.  She acted as if she were a “cool aunt”.  All the while, Liza half hoped that Laura would come back and free her.

Liza wished again that their parents were still alive.  She took a long drag before flicking the cigarette into the street.  It didn’t seem right for a kid to have such a short, miserable life.  This is why Liza always thought that karma was a bunch of bull.  It was just something weak people invoked to make themselves feel better when bad things happened.  Casey didn’t do anything to deserve this.  Laura sure did, but Laura was one of those people who always seemed to land on their feet.  Maybe the karma fairy had made a mistake.  Liza sighed.  She slid off the wall and headed into the hospital.

# 39 – Like an Injured Pedophile

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Bruce’s shirt was soaked.  This was ridiculous.  He needed to break down and get a cell phone.  The hospital was finally releasing him today.  He thought about just leaving.   Liza wanted an explanation for the other day.  He didn’t blame her, but he still didn’t know what he was going to tell her.  It occurred to him that if he left, she would worry when she came tonight and he was gone, and she would have no way to get in touch with him.  He’d decided to leave a note for her in her niece’s room.  That was turning out to be way more difficult than it had seemed.  Apparently, you needed to be on a list to visit children.  Bruce managed to sneak in, but he’d been roaming around the halls for almost twenty minutes and hadn’t been able to find eight-year-old Casey.  He realized that didn’t know her last name or what she looked like.  Bruce wondered if maybe Casey was a boy, but he was pretty sure that Liza had refereed to her as her niece.

His ribs were killing him and his head was spinning.  This was nice.  He was all sweaty.  He’d snuck into a children’s’ ward, and now he was creeping around like an injured pedophile.  Bruce doubled over, resting his hand against the wall for support.  He leaned there like that with his eyes closed.  After a few minutes, he felt better.  He opened his eyes and looked around, trying to decide what to do.  A blonde-haired boy was looking out at Bruce from a room across the hall.  The toddler looked a little scared.  Bruce smiled at him and straightened up.  The boy smiled and laid his head back down.  Bruce turned and his eyes fell on a medical chart that was hanging next to the door to his right.  The last name jumped off the chart and punched him in the stomach.  Kearn.  He knew that he should walk away, but he couldn’t move.  From inside the room came a tiny voice, “Hi.  Who are you?”

# 38 – Class 8

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Liza sat on the edge of the marble bench outside of Norton Hall.  Saint Francis Hospital discharged Bruce yesterday afternoon, but he was still a mess.  Besides a bunch of cuts and bruises, he ended up with a severe concussion, a broken nose, three missing teeth, and two cracked ribs.  Liza visited him every night for the six days he was hospitalized.  Casey was in Saint Francis’ pediatric oncology division, so Liza would sit with her until she fell asleep, then go up to Bruce’s room and sit with him until he fell asleep.  Bruce had been quiet all week.  He wouldn’t talk about what had happened that day or much else.  Liza didn’t press him, but she was frustrated and hurt that she apparently didn’t rate any kind of explanation.  What was he hiding?  It had to be something significant. Maybe he thought that she wouldn’t see him anymore if she knew.  Liza couldn’t see that happening.  The secretiveness made her consider not visiting, but then she found herself drawn to his room every night.  She told herself that she was going because Nurse Bill told her that Bruce had no other visitors.  Really, she just missed him.  He always seemed glad to see her when she showed up.  Even though it pained him to move, he would slide over and pat the bed.  He would wrap his arm around her and they would watch TV until he dozed off.
 
Liza would ease herself out of the bed, pull the covers up over his chest, find an uninjured spot on his cheek, and kiss him goodnight.  Usually, she would end up standing there watching him sleep, thinking.  Was he a drug dealer?  An alcoholic?  A serial killer?  A serial rapist?  Maybe he was as crazy as Scary Witch Hat Guy, only he hid it better.  Her cynical nature had her convinced that he was bad news. Then, what happened yesterday confused her all over again.

 

# 37 – These Situations

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Bruce was still on his knees; in too much pain to get up and too stubborn to collapse completely.  A nasty bruise was forming on the outside of his left forearm.  Other than that, it looked like most of the damage was to his head and face.  Liza crouched next to him to get a better look.  There was a deep gash on the side of his head.  One eye was swollen shut, his nose didn’t look right, and blood was smeared everywhere.  Liza started to feel queasy so she looked away.  She noticed that some of the residents were peeking out from their tents and blanket piles.  A few were edging their way toward Liza and Bruce.  She took a deep breath and stood quickly.  Liza stared back at them as she retrieved the butterfly knife from the ground.  She opened it and tucked it into the side pocket of her work pants.  The blade sliced through the bottom but stayed.  Liza had visions of severing an artery and dying in a pool of her own blood back here.  What would the homeless people do?  Liza imagined them wrapping her in liquor-soaked newspapers and setting her adrift in the river on top of an old car hood.  They would flick cigarette butts on her until she ignited.  At least her funeral would be unique.

She moved back to Bruce, who was trying to push himself to his feet.  “Are you going to be able to walk?”  He nodded slightly.  “Ok.”  Liza helped him get to his feet.  He was shaky.  She ducked under his right arm and wrapped her left arm around his waist.  She wasn’t so much holding him up as letting him use her as a human crutch.  She got him into her car and gave him her blazer to use to try to stem some of the bleeding.  He buried his face in it and flopped back against the seat.  Liza pulled her knife out as she walked around to the driver’s side and got in the car.  She could see them watching from beneath the underpass, but no one approached.

Liza sped up the access road.  They were almost back at the intersection when a cop car turned down the road.  She thought about flagging him down, but she didn’t know everything that had happened.  Why had Bruce gone there?  Why were those homeless people beating him up?  Liza slowed to a more moderate speed and hit the recline button on Bruce’s seat.  She looked straight ahead and pretended to fiddle with the radio as they passed each other.  Yep, don’t mind me.  I always drive down this abandoned dead-end road on my way to work.  The cop slowed down as they passed each other, but he didn’t stop her.  Liza took off as soon as she was back on the main street.

# 36 – The Oh Shit! Moment

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It was a good thing that Liza didn’t stop to think about the fact that she was charging a small mob of mentally unstable homeless people.  Fortunately, the butterfly knife that she was still holding scared away all but one of Bruce’s attackers.  The one, of course, was Scary Witch Hat Guy.  This guy was the king of mentally unstable homeless people, with a crown to prove it.  Liza’s crazed, wheezy sprint with a folded up knife didn’t faze him.  Without missing a beat, he whacked her with a copy of Robinson Crusoe that he was wielding like a tennis racket.  He caught her shoulder.  Pain shot through her arm but Liza just managed to stay on her feet.  She panicked and threw the closed knife at him.  Her aim was slightly better than his.  The heavy knife caught him just above the right eye, opening up a gash along the brow line.  Blood began to dribble into his eye.  Terrifyingly enough, he didn’t seem hurt so much as stunned.  Liza had a major Oh Shit! moment, but then Scary Witch Hat Guy dropped the book, waved, and walked away.