Rusty shopping carts, cardboard boxes, and tattered backpacks were scattered everywhere. Little piles of junk lay around them. There were even tents made from old blankets draped over bushes. Apparently, she’d found some sort of homeless person mecca. Bruce was surrounded by five or six people. One was Scary Witch Hat Guy from last night. He was yelling hysterically and hitting Bruce with a book. Another guy was kicking him. The others were mostly egging them on, but would throw a fist or a foot of their own once in a while. Bruce was fighting back, but there were too many. Someone nailed him square in the face with a big piece of wood. Liza heard the crunch from where she was parked. Bruce reeled back, staggered sideways, and dropped to his knees. His head bobbed close to the ground.
Liza had no idea what was going on. It didn’t matter. She thought about Bruce watching over her the night she had sat outside drawing, taking care of her when she passed out at school, framing her picture of him and displaying it in his office. An hour ago, she’d been wrapped in his warm arms. His head had been lying on the pillow next to hers, and now it was leaking blood like a fountain. It was as Liza was running toward him that she realized that she had already passed the point where she could just walk away.
Or…maybe not. Liza had assumed that he lived in one of the condos or big townhouses around Adams Square, but Bruce marched off in the other direction. It was hard following him in the city’s rush hour traffic, especially since she wasn’t very familiar with this area. She stopped at a light and Bruce got several blocks ahead of her by the time it changed. Liza cruised after him, careful not to drive too fast. She didn’t want to lose him, but she didn’t want him to see her either. They were heading into an area near the river that was mainly industrial. There weren’t as many cars or pedestrians. At the next light, Liza jabbed the lock button on her door and retrieved the butterfly knife from the passenger’s side foot well.
She watched Bruce turn down what looked like an access road for the river. Liza cursed. He wasn’t making this easy. She turned down the road in time to see him veer off the sidewalk and disappear below a highway underpass. She’d never been here before. It was pretty desolate, surrounded by abandoned mills and factories. The highway arched above them on the right, and the river was somewhere ahead. She felt uneasy. Liza looked in the rear view mirror. Traffic continued to roll down the cross street, but no one else turned down here. Liza inhaled deeply. She wished that she had a cigarette. What the hell was she doing? What if Bruce saw her or her car got a flat tire, or she got raped and dumped in the river by some nut job?! They were all horrifying thoughts, but eventually her curiosity won out and she crept down to the end of the road. It dead ended at the river as Liza had figured. To the right was the underpass where she last saw Bruce. She coasted to stop. Liza didn’t know what she expected to see below the underpass, but this wasn’t it.
Liza told herself that she was being like a detective. It sounded better in her head than paranoid girlfriend or nosy hookup. The easiest way to get from her house to the University on public transit was the El. Liza had caught up with Bruce half a block before he disappeared up the steps of the closest stop. She was now gliding down the street under what she hoped was his train. Once again, she felt stupid; for doing this in the first place, and because this would all be for nothing if she’d picked the wrong train to follow.
She thought about turning around and going to work, but she needed to see this through. Too many little things didn’t make sense and she couldn’t make herself ignore them anymore. Liza didn’t feel like he was bullshitting her. He was holding something back, for sure, but he’d said as much. Why couldn’t she drop him off at his house? Why didn’t she have his cell number? They’d only known each other for a couple of months, but an address and phone number didn’t seem like too much to ask. And why had he avoided her question that night when he’d shown up to class with his face cut and bruised?
She figured that this all had something to do with the whole “long story that he didn’t want to talk about”. Liza knew that she could have and should have just asked. The problem was, she was too damn happy when she was with Bruce. Aside from her drawing, he was the only part of her life that was just for her. There was no stress. Spending time with him was never a chore or an obligation. It was easy and fun, even when everything else was going to shit. She was afraid that hearing his story might change that for her, or that her prying would change things for him.
Liza had zoned out so thoroughly that she almost didn’t see Bruce. She hadn’t expected him to come out of an El stop that was two stops before the University. They weren’t far from Adams Square. He must be going home. It looked like she was about to get an answer to one of her questions.
“I can be ready in about twenty minutes! It’ll still be quicker than the bus, and safer,” Liza called. She was washing her hair at warp speed. “I really don’t mind.”
“Thanks, but you don’t have to do that. You have work. It’s not like you’re already going to class. Take your time getting ready. I’ll be fine.” Bruce poked his head through the curtain and kissed Liza. His eyes wandered. Then he smiled, kissed her again, and was gone.
Fueled by her growing agitation, Liza finished a minute later. Maybe he was blowing her off. Could she have read him that wrong? He’d been the one who’d asked to stay over, and it wasn’t as if she’d turned overbearing and clingy this morning. When she went back into her bedroom, she found that Bruce had made the bed. There was a pink sticky note with a heart on her pillow. Ok, probably not a blow off, but something was definitely not right. She needed to find out what, before she got to the point where she couldn’t just walk away from this guy. Liza threw on some clothes, jammed a clip into her wet hair, grabbed her purse, and sprinted out to the car.
Light from the street poked through the curtains and cast her bedroom in slices of shadow and light. Liza slid her cell phone off of the little antique apothecary cabinet that she used as a night stand. It was five sixteen in the morning, a little before dawn. As she drifted fully awake, she tried to piece everything together. She was lying in bed, sans clothes. The Nightmare Before Christmas blanket and a long arm were wrapped around her. She turned her head to find Bruce sleeping next to her. Liza wanted to move closer, kiss him, run her fingers through his shimmery black hair, but she resisted the urge. Instead, she studied him. She was noticing a few faint freckles around his eyes when Bruce opened them so quickly that he startled Liza. She wondered if he’d been sleeping at all. His expression was unreadable. They stared at each other for a minute. Bruce kissed her forehead and lips. He pulled her toward him and closed his eyes. Liza kissed him on the cheek, ran her hand through his hair, and fell back asleep.
They were silent for most of the ride, but not in an awkward way. They listened to the radio and watched the city roll by. At night, you could forget that most of it was a dump. Some of it even looked pretty. Liza drove more slowly than usual. It had been a long day and her right hand was still enveloped in Bruce’s. When she stopped at the corner where she usually dropped off Bruce, he didn’t move. Liza looked around. Was there an axe murderer outside the car that she didn’t see? No, though there was a homeless guy across the street wearing a witch hat. He had wild eyes and was walking toward them slowly. Something about him reminded Liza of a 80s horror movie killer.
“Do you want me to drop you off somewhere else?”
“No.” More motionless silence. He was eyeing the homeless guy too.
“Ok…” Well, now it was awkward. “If you don’t get out soon, I’m going to take you home with me.”