Michael’s hands stopped shaking when the bottle was half empty. He knew that if he continued to drink, they would eventually start again. For now at least, he was in that intoxicated sweet spot. He opened the window and relit an old Swisher. Liza told him that she didn’t mind if he smoked inside once in a while. He normally refrained in the bedroom, but he didn’t feel like running into anyone downstairs. The block was still quiet. The girl was gone. Someone was in the shower. Liza. She had a habit of whispering to herself in there. It was a little unnerving, actually. Michael was annoyed with Bruce, more so after he heard him leave a few minutes ago, but his head was drowning in thoughts he had forced away for a long time.
Liza was sitting on the couch fighting sleep when he got back. Bruce grabbed the rest of the fastnachts from the kitchen and deposited them on an end table in the living room along with a six-pack of Guinness. Liza could see that he was sweating. She opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but changed her mind. If he wanted to tell her, he would. She would just obsess about it in the meantime. He bent down and kissed her on the lips, then stared at her. His face was a few inches from hers. It was a little unnerving. It wasn’t an angry stare or a happy one. It seemed so neutral on the surface, but it made her feel so sick.
Bruce made several trips to the kitchen to get napkins, then plates, then a bottle opener. He ate three fastnachts, and took his time with each one. When he finished, he pretended to be absorbed in the movie that was on TV. Liza kept watching him. He acted like he didn’t notice. After one fastnacht and half a beer, Liza fell asleep with her head in his lap. He played with her hair while he flicked through the channels. Bruce wasn’t sure if he’d made the right decision. When he was at the underpass, the thought of not coming back made him feel sick. Now he felt an uneasiness that he couldn’t identify. Bruce pulled the cap off of another beer and drained it in three gulps. He leaned down and whispered in Liza’s ear before shifting back and falling asleep himself.
“Are you mad at me?” Bruce stood in the doorway of Liza’s bedroom. He was still wearing his coat.
“No,” Liza lied.
“I wanted to give you and Laura privacy. I didn’t realize there was going to be a rumble.”
Damn you and your logical explanations. “It’s fine.” Liza plucked a tissue from the box and pulled the teeth out of her forehead. Yuck. She felt like she should get a rabies shot or a HIV test.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I was angry when you disappeared, but…you’re right. You didn’t know.” Liza dropped the teeth into the trashcan. She examined her forehead in the mirror over the bureau.
“I’m sorry,” said Bruce.
“It’s fine. Really.”
“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?” he asked.
“How about if you let me head-butt you.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “That would make you feel better?”
“Yes, but I might feel bad afterwards,” said Liza. She took off her jewelry and placed it in its drawer.
“Might?!” Bruce smiled.
Liza shrugged. “Uh huh, maybe.” She stared at him for a few seconds before cracking and smiling back. “I guess that won’t work. A trip to the dentist won’t make anything better anyway.”
“No, neither will a trip to the police station,” said Bruce.
“Hey!” Liza swatted him on the arm. He laughed.
“I know what would make you feel better,” said Bruce.
“Old fastnachts and Irish beer.”
“Mmmm…Fastnacht Day and St. Patrick’s Day, all in one. I like it,” said Liza, “I don’t have any Irish beer though, only Blue Moon.”
“Hmm.” Bruce scrunched up his face. “Were you going to get a shower?” he asked.
“Ok. Why don’t you do that and I’ll go to the beer distributor. We’ll meet downstairs in…half an hour?”
When Bruce left, Liza fished the tissue with the teeth out of the trashcan. One was a broken piece, the other still had the root attached. She jogged down to the kitchen and filled the sink with water. Then she pulled the stopper, tossed the teeth into the water, and flicked the switch for the garbage disposal.
Michael buttoned his coat and stepped outside. The girl, Laura, was still lying on the sidewalk. He lit a fresh Swisher and let his eyes roam the block. No one was out.
He made his way down the steps, slowly this time. He was still queasy from before. The girl was lying on her side, facing away from him. He didn’t want to look, but morbid curiosity forced him to.
Michael’s joints cracked when he crouched next to her. He took a long drag before rolling her on her back. She turned her head in his general direction, but her vile green eyes were unfocused. Good. He stared at her for a long time. She had Liza’s build, slightly darker hair, coarse features, except for the mouth. The mouths were the same, though the girl’s had blood caked around hers at the moment.
He stared a moment longer. She was only semi-conscious. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Michael stood up. He felt dizzy and had to steady himself. A hand touched his leg. He shook it off without looking and trudged back up to the house. He shut the doors and threw all of the locks behind him.
Michael stood at the window deciding what to do. He’d been around long enough to recognize a fight brewing: the anger in the girl’s walk, the hatred and impatience on Liza’s face. Bruce disappeared into the alley a few seconds before Liza turned to look for him. Michael shook his head. Liza looked like she was either going to cry or breath fire.
He was out the door when he saw the girl get in Liza’s face. The girl poked Liza. Liza grabbed the girl’s finger and twisted it violently away from her. Bird Dog sloshed around in Michael’s stomach as he ran down the steps. By the time he reached them, the girl’s mouth was a bloody mess and Liza had two teeth dangling from her forehead. The girl wasn’t deterred. She flailed her free arm toward Liza, scratching Liza’s face and grabbing a fist full of her hair.
“What’s going on?” he demanded. He tried to sound authoritative, but he was queasy and winded from his sprint down to the sidewalk. The girls ignored him. They grappled for a minute. Liza still had the girl’s finger. The girl still had Liza’s hair. Liza’s eyes were wide, only partially seeing what was really there. It was a look that Michael knew well.
She clamped down on the arm that had her hair and dug her nails in. Michael saw drops of blood fall, then Liza threw her weight forward and knocked the girl to the ground. Liza went down on top of her. The girl lost her grip on Liza’s hair. Liza let go of the finger. It jutted out of the hand diagonally. Liza started punching the girl in the face over and over. With each hit, the girl’s head bounced off the sidewalk like a fleshy basketball.
Michael took a deep breath and came up behind Liza. He grabbed her fist as she was winding up for another swing. “That’s enough. You’re going to get yourself in trouble, Liza.” She pulled forward, trying to free her hand. Michael had to pick her up off of the girl. Oh Jesus, he was getting old.
Liza found her feet and wrenched herself free. Michael prepared to grab her again, but she got still. She looked off at nothing for a minute, stepped over the girl, and headed up to the house. The girl was cradling her injured finger against her chest and shielding her face with the other hand.
Michael followed Liza into the house. She shut the doors and threw all of the locks behind them. Bruce was standing in the living room. He looked embarrassed and concerned. He better be. Liza was heading toward the stairs. Michael would deal with Bruce later.
“Hey! What just happened?!” he asked Liza. “Who was that?”
She paused at the foot of the steps. “My sister, Laura”
“Sister?” asked Michael.
“A few years younger than me.”
“What does she want?”
Liza sighed. “I let her live here for a while because my niece was sick. But Laura’s a loser and I threw her out after Casey died. She thinks I stole some of her stuff. She said something about a blue shoebox. I’ll look tomorrow.”
Michael nodded. He couldn’t speak. He felt like someone had punched him. Liza went upstairs. Bruce stood there looking unsure of what to do.
It was late March; not bad during the day, but chilly at night. Liza rolled down the window as soon as they got off of 95. She leaned back against the headrest. The air felt nice and carried the unfamiliar smell of firewood burning. Depending on where you were in the City, your nose could be accosted by anything from stale beer, to urine, to cooking grease. Most of the houses didn’t have fireplaces. It was probably a good thing. No one around here would know how to start one without a can of lighter fluid anyway.
She and Bruce had their hands clasped together on top of the console. Liza rubbed the side of his hand with her thumb. They stopped at a light at the foot of the off-ramp and a man limped up to the car with a sign saying that he was a homeless veteran. Liza saw him all the time. She used to give him a few dollars or a couple of cigarettes now and then, until Cynical Liza intervened. Cynical Liza wanted to know where he got fresh clothes and supplies to make signs. He was also a bit overweight.
Bruce was watching him carefully. Liza wondered what he was thinking. Did he miss that life? She didn’t understand how he could, but then, living that way had always been a choice for him. The light changed. Bruce smiled at Liza and squeezed her hand before moving on.
Back at the house, Bruce snaked into an empty spot as if he’d been parallel parking all of his life. “Who’s that?” he asked.
Liza followed his gaze to the front of her house. Oh, super. “It’s Laura.”
“She doesn’t see us yet. Do you want me to drive around back?” asked Bruce.
It was tempting. She didn’t feel like dealing with Laura. Liza wanted to go inside and crawl into her warm bed with Bruce. But it looked like she was going to have to get this confrontation over, or Laura would never stop turning up. Liza sighed. “No. I’d better talk to her.” She got out of the car and headed up to the street.
Laura caught sight of her as she was passing Jake’s house. “There you are, you bitch!” screeched Laura at an unnecessary volume. Liza cringed. Laura was a drama queen who was quick to air her dirty laundry in public. She stalked down the steps. Liza fantasized about nailing her in the face and continuing on into the house.
Little Sister was nearly as sturdy as Liza, but she was a girly girl. She was all talk; loud, inexplicably arrogant, trash-talk. Growing up, Liza was the only think that stopped Laura from getting her ass handed to her on many occasions.
Liza became aware that she was by herself. She turned. Bruce wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the car either. Whatever. She didn’t need help.
Liza and Laura met on the sidewalk in front of the house. “Where’s the rest of my stuff?” demanded Laura. She was in Liza’s face, pointing, breathing, angry. Liza took half a step back and tried to think of what “stuff” Laura was talking about. “Ya better give it tuh me!” said Laura. Liza was disgusted by her sister’s accent. She no elocutionist either, but you would never believe that they grew up in the same house. She wondered where Laura stayed when she disappeared for months or years at a time.
Laura leaned in, close to Liza again, and brushed her with her hand. Liza didn’t see red. It was more like she saw sparklers. She grabbed Laura’s finger, stepped forward and head-butted her in the face as hard as she dared. She didn’t want to hurt herself, after all. Michael would have to tell you what happened next.