# 67 – Inexplicable

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Liza got up to make another cup of coffee.  She needed a minute to digest everything that she had just heard without four pair of eyes boring into her.

So apparently…Bruce woke up early and decided to clear the snow from Liza’s walkway and car.  That’s when Michael showed up.  Jake, who didn’t have work because of the weather and who is always hot, was sitting in his living room with the windows cracked.  He “overheard” their conversation.  It turns out that he was right.  (He took an obscene amount of enjoyment in pointing this out to Liza.)  Bruce was, inexplicably, homeless.

His friend Michael, also homeless, frequented a shelter in Liza’s neighborhood.  Bruce and Michael were both in Adams Square the night that Michael rescued Liza.  They saw Brad lurking around, and Bruce sent Michael to sit with her.  Afterwards, Michael volunteered to look out for Liza when he was staying at the shelter in her neighborhood.  Bruce agreed, and gave him her address.  Michael was walking past Liza’s house this morning when he spotted Bruce and stopped to talked to him.

Jake heard their exchange and went outside to confront them.  Liza’s three self-appointed guardian angels were out front arguing when Sam, Jake’s boyfriend, showed up.  Sam thought that this was all none of Jake’s  business, but agreed that they should not leave Liza alone with Bruce and Michael, who could be a couple of demented murderers for all they knew.  So, the four of them decided that the best thing to do would be to make breakfast in Liza’s kitchen while they waited for her to wake up.  At least, this is what Liza thought happened.

The four of them had pounced as soon as breakfast was over.  They bickered and talked over each other like children vying to tell their mother their version of the story first.  What Liza most wanted to know, no one could (or rather, would) explain.  How had the dean of a large university ended up homeless?

 

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# 66 – Jesus, Bigfoot, The Jersey Devil, and Punxsutawney Phil

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“Yeah,” called Michael.  Waves of smoke rolled out of his mouth.  He helped Liza to her feet, dusting off her back as if she had been laying in dirt rather than on her own living room floor.  Liza didn’t know what was happening.  She would have been less surprised to find Jesus standing over her and Bigfoot, The Jersey Devil, and Punxsutawney Phil making breakfast in the kitchen.

A Christmas Story was on TV.  That must have been the children she heard yelling.  Liza walked into the kitchen.  She didn’t know what to say.  What the hell was going on?  Liza looked at Jake and then Bruce.  Jake pretended to be absorbed with preparing his coffee.  Bruce was flipping and re-flipping pancakes at the stove.  Sam glided over and pressed a cup of coffee into her hands.  “Hey Sweetie, how are you feeling?”  he asked.

“Um, ok.”

“Good!  Breakfast is almost ready,” said Sam.  He looked behind her.  “How do you take your coffee?…”

“It’s Michael!” he barked, “I take my coffee black.”  Sam looked Michael up and down before turning back to the coffee maker.  Liza set her cup on the table and slid into a chair.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Bruce leaned over and set a stack of pancakes in the center of the table.  They smelled like butter and chocolate.  “You have some company,” he answered.

“I see that, Professor,” she answered.  “Where did everybody come from?”

“Let’s eat first,” said Michael.  He forked three pancakes onto his plate and sat down next to Liza in one fluid motion.  The butter and chocolate smell got stronger.  Her stomach rumbled.

“Ok.  Let’s eat.”

 

# 65 – Nudged

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Liza didn’t know if she’d slept for an hour or a day.  She couldn’t move her arms, she couldn’t see, and she heard mens’ voices.  Terror tore through her body, further paralyzing her.  Maybe she was still asleep.  “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”  It felt like she was on fire.  She smelled smoke.  Oh Jesus!  “Wake up, wake up.”  The ground under her shook.  Kids were yelling.  The men laughed.  Metal scraped.  The smoke smell was overwhelming.  Liza coughed.  Sweat erupted from every pore.  She wished that whoever was tormenting her would attack her so she could wake up.

Something pushed against her arm.  “You OK?!” asked the disembodied voice of a man.

“Did you just kick her?” asked another voice.

“I didn’t kick her, I nudged her,” said the first voice.  “Liza!  Wake up.”

She was able to move.  Liza tucked her head and flailed her arms.  The backs of her hands met with fleecy resistance, but now she could see out of one eye.  The other was still bandaged.  She blinked.  A fog of smoke hung above her head.  The blanket was tucked underneath her on all sides.  She shifted and yanked it out from under her.

“Is she awake?”  It was Jake.  Liza tilted her head back.  Three sets of eyes stared back at her from the kitchen.  Jake was sitting at the table. Sam was making coffee.  Bruce was at the stove with a spatula in his hand.  Liza looked up and waved some of the smoke away.  Blue eyes stared down at her.  A little cigar was wedged between a single tooth and a pair of weathered lips.

# 64 – Like a Colicky Infant

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When Liza didn’t have work for more than a couple of days, her sleep pattern degenerated to that of a colicky infant.  It was close to dawn by the time Liza finished.  Her uninjured eye was killing her, but she was pleased with the sketches she started.  She went upstairs, brushed her teeth and got into bed.  The sound from the TV downstairs wouldn’t let Liza forget that Bruce was asleep in her living room.  Not that she could anyway.  She felt bad leaving him down there when she had two spare rooms, but he seemed comfortable and hadn’t stirred in hours.

Liza closed her eyes for what she swore was an hour, but which her alarm clock said was only seven minutes.  She put on her TV and tried again.  She put the pillow over her head.  It didn’t matter.  Liza scooped up the pillow and the Nightmare Before Christmas blanket and went downstairs.  Bruce was still sleeping.  He hadn’t moved.  Liza thought for a minute before setting up the pillow and blanket in front of the sofa.  She was asleep within a few minutes.

# 63 – Chasing Rabbits

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Bruce was sleeping so heavily that he didn’t wake up when Liza’s cell went off two feet from his head.  It was Jake checking to make sure that she was okay before he went to bed.  Liza switched the phone to vibrate and texted back that she was fine.

Bruce passed out on Liza’s sofa an hour ago.  They put up the tree and decorated it with random objects from around the house:  buttons, cotton balls, beach tags, beads from an old chandelier, curled pieces of ribbon, and soda tabs.  After freeing Liza from the tree box, Bruce went for the box of ornaments.  They were her parents’.  Some were from family vacations, others were inscribed with their names.  There were homemade ornaments, ornaments that marked milestones, and ornaments that showcased favorite activities or movie characters.  Liza wanted to rip the box out of his hands and put it out on the curb.  This was a bad idea.  Bruce seemed to know what she was thinking.  He put the box back, shut the door, and ushered her up to the living room ahead of him.  The makeshift ornaments were his idea.  Liza loved the way they looked..

They watched a Christmas episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia while they worked.  Afterwards they ordered pizza.  Bruce hesitated at sitting on the sofa.  He ran his hands down the front of his hoodie.  “I was…doing some work outside earlier.  I don’t want to get your sofa dirty.”  Liza gave him a pair of scrub pants and a large t-shirt that she wore to bed while she washed his clothes.  Four pieces of pizza, two glasses of iced tea, and half of Scrooged later, and Bruce was asleep.

Their conversation was easy, but they avoided talking about what happened over the summer.  Liza still wanted an explanation, but not at the cost of him staying.  Whatever the reason for him blowing her off, she had a hard time believing that it was done out of malice.  He’d helped her twice without being asked, and without taking credit.

As she sat there sketching in the glow of the tree lights, her mind wandered to the camping trips that her family took when she and Laura were little.  The woods around the cabin where they stayed were always loaded with rabbits.  Liza was fascinated by them.  The only wild animals in the city were pigeons, squirrels, and rats.  Liza would spend hours chasing the rabbits with a long fishing net.  She didn’t want to hurt them, just get a closer look, maybe play with them.  At first, she ran after the rabbits, but that never even got her close.  Liza realized that you had to approached them slowly.  She was still never able to catch one, but if she took her time, sometimes they would relax and let her get close.  Her relationship with Bruce reminded her of this.

Poll: Should romance stories have happy endings?

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# 62 – The Hole

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Bruce stood just inside the doorway, unsure of what to do. “Liza?” he called.  No answer. He turned to leave, stopped, bent down to take off his shoes, and stopped again. Noises were coming from the basement. It sounded like someone was moving boxes around. The tree. He put his wet shoes on the doormat and his gloves on the radiator. The warmth felt amazing. Bad Santa was on TV. The house smelled like Liza’s perfume and…chocolate.

Bruce looked around.  It was a typical rowhouse. The living room led into the dining room, which led into the kitchen. The basement steps would be off the dining room. Family pictures sat on a shelf in the living room. Bruce couldn’t stop himself from inspecting them.  There were no pictures of Casey or her mom. Bruce picked up a picture of Liza and her parents. Liza looked much like she did now.  It was probably taken not long before her parents died.  He forced himself to put it down and move on. A mug of hot chocolate and a plate with three chocolate chip cookies sat on the dining room table. “That’s for you!” called Liza’s disembodied voice from somewhere in the basement. It sounded like she was in a cave.

Bruce shoved one of the cookies in his mouth and washed it down with the hot chocolate. “Thanks. Where are you?”

“The hole.” Ah, well that explained it. Bruce grabbed the mug and the two cookies and headed down the basement. It was unfinished but clean, with cement floors, plaster walls, and a ceiling high enough for him to walk upright. A lot of the houses in the City originally had garages in the back. The basement doors were recessed back, with a pathway leading to them from the driveway. Most people removed the garages to create extra space in the basement. Liza’s house was like this. A wall with a steel door sat at the back of the basement, where the garage door would have been. The original exterior wall remained, but the pathway had been enclosed, creating a long cinder block and brick storage area. The Hole.

Liza was inside moving boxes around. Bruce watched her while he wolfed down the rest of the cookies and hot chocolate. He smiled, then frowned. It felt a little weird being in this house. He shouldn’t be here. Should he? Did it matter now? His thoughts were interrupted by a dramatic sigh. Liza was wedged in the doorway of The Hole, pinned there by a mammoth Christmas tree box. “Are you going to help me, Professor?” Bruce shook his head and smiled as he went over to free Liza.