Bruce’s muscles were tensed and his breathing was erratic. Liza knew that he was awake, but she was willing to pretend. She didn’t know what to say anyway. Her mind raced. It was getting late and they had work tomorrow. She pushed the bad thoughts from her head and forced herself to relax. Bruce relaxed too after a while, and then he was asleep.
She rubbed his chest. Her thoughts turned from the past to the future. She was surprised to find that she could see it, some of it, anyway. For Liza, picturing the future had always been like picturing the time before she was born. There was just nothing there. She sometimes wondered if this was a sign that she wasn’t going to be around for long.
They were living in one of the old three-story row houses not far from campus. It was early summer. Liza and Bruce were sitting at a table on a small patio that was enclosed by a high brick wall. They each had a cup of iced tea. Fluffy white clouds and towering buildings watched from the sky. Bruce was on one side of the table typing on his laptop. Liza sat across from him drawing…a comic strip? No, it looked like a graphic novel. One of the panels showed a young boy in a jester hat standing at a bus stop. He was wearing a backpack, but a full moon lit the scene. It was night.
Pots clanged somewhere inside the house followed by faint cursing. Michael. Future Liza grinned as she slid the paper across the table toward Bruce. She started on another sheet. When she looked up a minute later, Bruce was smiling at her. He was holding the drawing. Liza smiled back. He added it to the bottom of a small stack of pages that sat next to his laptop.
That was all. When she woke up the next morning, she wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a thought or something else entirely.
Bruce recognized the note for the blow off that it was, but walked around campus for another two hours looking for Liza. It wasn’t until she didn’t answer his phone calls that he gave up and went home. She got like this sometimes. He thought he understood. It was like him living at the underpass, only she came home at night.
Something was different this time, maybe because he knew that the last place she’d been was his office. He had a sick feeling. It wasn’t lost on him that he’d come close to taking off on her not long ago. Bruce lay in bed thinking and listening. Michael was coughing up a lung across the hall, so he didn’t hear her when she came home.
He pretended to be asleep when she slid into bed next to him a while later. It was almost midnight. Liza was still for a couple of minutes, then sighed and moved closer. She wrapped her arm around his waist and laid her head on his chest. Her hair exuded the smell of cigarettes the way Michael’s pores exuded the smell of alcohol. Bruce sighed and covered her hand with his.
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.
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.