# 89 – Homeless House Guests and Mistletoe

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Liza ran her fingers through the dark hair on Bruce’s chest.  He continued his deep, rhythmic breathing.  She wondered if he slept this heavily when he was outside, or only when he was somewhere safe.  The thought of him sleeping anywhere near Scary With Hat Guy made her numb.  Liza didn’t want him to go back there, but she wouldn’t try to make him stay if he didn’t want to.

She pushed the bad thoughts away and rested her head on his chest.  Liza knew that she would remember this as one of the best Christmases of her life.  It was because of Michael and Jake and Sam, but mostly Bruce.  It was no fairy tale, but that was kind of what she loved most about it.

Liza amused herself for a while by thinking up alternative lyrics to popular Christmas songs.  Just swap out the chestnuts and open fire with Bird Dog and cigarettes.  Deck the halls with buttons and bottle caps.  Good tidings to you and your homeless house guests.  Jake and Sam under the mistletoe.

Liza smiled.  She pulled the blanket up around herself and Bruce.  His mouth hung open a little and his five o’clock shadow was practically a beard, making him look both handsome and cute.  When she kissed him on the cheek, she lingered for a minute, breathing him in.  She laid her head back on his chest and drifted off to sleep.

# 88 – Brought Back

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The five of them stayed up most of the night drinking and playing cards.  The tree gained more ornaments:  two Joker cards and over a dozen bottle caps.  They put on one of those radio stations that plays nothing but Christmas songs all day.  Liza had come to hate Christmas songs over the past few years, but tonight she didn’t mind them.  After their kiss, Bruce dragged Liza outside.

Her little Focus, parked right in front of the house (for once), was an oasis of cleanliness in a sea of dirty snow.  “When did you do this?” asked Liza.

“This afternoon, when you were helping Michael in the kitchen…after I borrowed it to go Christmas shopping,” said Bruce.  His smile was both embarrassed and defiant as he handed her the keys.

Liza took them and shook her head.  “Nice, Professor.  So you stole my car.  I probably should have asked this before, but do you have a driver’s license?”  She tried to sound annoyed, but couldn’t stop herself from smiling back at him.

“Hey, I said ‘borrowed’.  Besides, you can’t be mad, I brought it back in better shape than I found it in.  And yes, I have a license.”  Bruce motioned with his head for her to go look.

Liza walked down to the curb.  The car was immaculate and there was no snow around it in a five foot radius.  She clicked it open and got inside.  No trash.  A big square present sat on the passenger seat and a shoebox was in the foot well.  Liza picked up the shoebox.  It contained the items from her car that Bruce must have deemed to not be trash:  makeup, a book, a bunch of change, a magazine, a tin of mints, an old GPS, and a phone charger.  On top of the pile was Liza’s butterfly knife.

Liza grinned and held it up.  Bruce and Michael were standing together on the sidewalk.  Bruce smiled.  Michael let out a bark of laughter.  “I’d of loved to see the look on Ray’s face,” he said.

©iStock.com/RainforestAustralia

©iStock.com/RainforestAustralia

Bruce pointed behind Liza.  The card was for “The one I love” but it wasn’t too sappy.  She unwrapped the present.  It was a stack of blank canvases.  Liza looked at Bruce.  He shrugged.  “Because your drawings are too good to be scribbled on a wrinkled food wrapper.  I know you like to sit in the park and sketch, but I thought…you might like to draw on these sometime too, so you can display them.”

Liza felt excited and scared.  She was trying to think of something to say when she noticed a folded up piece of paper sitting on top of the pile.  It was a job posting from the University’s website for an assistant art director.  “Thanks, but I can’t apply for this.  I don’t have a degree, just a bazillion credits that add up to nothing,” said Liza.

Bruce was giving her that look; the smile with the tongue poking around in his cheek.  “You already applied for it.  Sort of.  The director was in my office last week showing me cover samples for one of the magazines that the English department publishes.  He saw your sketch on my credenza.  I need a copy of your resume and a time next week when you’re free for an interview.”

# 86 – The Existence of Coke

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It took a colossal effort for Liza to force herself to go back downstairs, but her head settled down thanks to Blue Moon and a five person clean up crew.  When the dishes were done, they migrated to the living room and sat around Liza’s tree.  Its ornaments twinkled away, oblivious to their own ridiculousness.

Liza opened her second Blue Moon.  Sam was on his third.  Jake was drinking eggnog from a gallon container that he brought over from his house.  Bruce was drinking Rum and Coke, though with only Captain Morgan sitting next to him, Liza doubted the existence of the Coke.  Michael declined a glass for his Bird Dog, but set a coaster under the bottle on the end table.  Liza and Bruce looked at each other and smiled.  Then Bruce must have remembered that he was pretending that Liza didn’t exist, because he looked away.

Liza jogged upstairs to get her presents while Jake and Sam handed out theirs.  When she came back, a big box with a red bow was perched on Michael’s knees.  He leaned away from it as if he thought a bomb or a baby alligator were inside.  Liza handed him her present.  Before he could open his mouth, she said, “I haven’t had a real Christmas dinner since my parents died, and I wouldn’t have had one this year if it weren’t for you.”  Inside the box was a new pea coat to replace the charred one that he usually wore.  Jake and Sam gave Michael a pair of waterproof winter boots.  If he left, he would be one warm, dry homeless dude.

Liza gave Jake a boxed set of old black and white movies and new mats for his truck.  She gave Sam a gift card to J. Crew and a pair of those mittens that fold back and turn into fingerless gloves.  Bruce gave Jake a pictography on old-school Hollywood actresses.  He gave Sam a Starbucks gift set that had a commuter mug, coffee k-cups, and a gift card.

Sam gave Liza a pad of sketch paper and a set of charcoal pencils in a wooden box with her initials carved into the lid.  The font was crazy and asymmetrical.  She loved it.  Jake gave her gift card to the art museum so that she could see the Cezanne exhibit that was going to be there next month.

Jake and Sam gave Bruce two pair of long johns and a book of letters written by famous authors.  Bruce hesitated before opening Liza’s gift.  He didn’t look at her as he tore the wrapping paper away.  Inside was a leather-bound copy of Robinson Crusoe.  Bruce stared at the book.  It occurred to Liza that he may not remember the significance of that book. He’d been a bloody, semiconscious mess at the time.  This was a stupid idea.  He didn’t remember and he wasn’t going to open the cover.  She should have gotten him a sweater.

# 71 – Chaos and Oranges

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The mall was mobbed and her pant legs were cold and wet from her romp through the cemetery.  She was curious to know what was happening at home, but she wasn’t in a rush to get back either.  Would Bruce and Michael still be there?  Liza invited them to stay until Christmas was over and the snow melted.  Michael seemed more at ease while he was cooking breakfast this morning.  He’d even asked if he could use her washing machine to clean his clothes while she was gone.  Bruce was more subdued than he was over the summer, but he seemed content staying.

Liza knew that she was bad at relationships of any kind.  She was normally quick to sever one that brought even a hint of drama.  Bruce had ended theirs, but now he was back and she didn’t know what to do.  Her little sister had done the same and Liza had literally shut her out.  She just wasn’t willing to deal with her issues.  So why was she willing to deal with Bruce’s?

She bought a small caramel macchiato from a coffee shop and sat down at a cafe table outside Nordstrom.  An old couple was sitting at a table nearby.  The husband was breaking apart an orange for the wife with shaky hands.  She was smiling and chattering away.  Liza scowled and looked away.

For once, her head was empty.  She felt like the calm center of a storm of Christmas shopping chaos.  The husband’s jacket was hanging off the back of his chair, dragging on the floor.  She sipped her coffee.  Two teenage girls were showing each other their purchases as they exited Nordstrom.  The chubby one sideswiped Liza’s table when they passed.  A security alarm blared from one of the stores.  The wife got up to get some napkins.  On her way back, she noticed the coat and hung it back on the chair.

Two little boys were laughing as they tossed pennies into a fountain.  Their mom watched them from a bench nearby.  The wife rubbed her husband’s shoulders and kissed him on the temple before retaking her seat.  Liza stood up so fast that she almost knocked over the table.  The old couple looked, but she ignored them.  She had enough of the mall.  She wanted to go home.

# 60 – Like a Cyclops with Allergies

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Bruce was pretty much right.  They didn’t dilate her pupils, but both of her eyes were puffy and red.  The lid of the left eye was sealed shut with a thick ointment, and yes, a bandage covered the whole thing.  It turned out to be a scratched cornea.  The doctor said she would be fine within a week.  At the moment, she felt like a Cyclops with allergies.  Liza got off the elevator on the wrong floor twice, slipped on ice in the parking garage, and bashed her knee with the car door.  She was grateful that Bruce was there to drive her home.  Neither of them mentioned the comment she made earlier.  They coasted down the snowy highway in silence.

By the time they parked on Liza’s block, six or seven inches of snow had fallen.  What if she was right?  Liza couldn’t stand the thought of Bruce wandering around the City coatless in a snowstorm.  Liza frowned.  She hated him for making her care.  “Do you want to borrow my car to take…home?  I’m off until after Christmas.  I won’t need it for a few days.”

Bruce was quiet for a minute, then shook his head, turned off the car, and handed her the keys.  “Thank you for the offer.”

“Ok,” said Liza, accepting the keys.  How was she going to do this?

“Are you going to be ok getting up to the house?” asked Bruce.

“Yes.”

Bruce eyed the three sets of steps that led up to the front door.  “Here, let me walk you.”

“I’m fine, seriously.  If I can’t make it up a few steps, then I’m in trouble,” said Liza.

“Why?”

“I have to shovel, do laundry, and put my Christmas tree up.”  There, hopefully that was enough without being too obvious.

“What?!  You can’t do all that.  Didn’t the doctor tell you to rest your eyes?”

“You’re right.  I should stay inside, read a book, watch some TV.  That would be easier on my eyes,” said Liza. 

Bruce took a deep breath.  “Why can’t Laura do it?”

“Laura’s gone.  I threw her out after Casey…oh.  Casey died,” said Liza.  Yikes.  She’d had to break the news to so many people over the past few months, she’d become a little desensitized.

“I’m sorry about Casey,” said Bruce.  He didn’t look surprised.  Liza nodded.  She was thinking about the story Bruce had written for her niece.  They were both quiet for a while.  Bruce finally broke the silence.  “So, who lives here now?”

“Me.”

“That’s it?” asked Bruce.

“Yep.”

Bruce plucked the keys out of her hand and marched around the car.  He opened her door and held out his hand.  “Come on.  I’m going to help you inside and then I’m going to shovel your walk,” said Bruce.