Chapter 1

"Are these yours or mine?"

Elizabeth looked up from where she hovered over a pile of books, the dog-eared copy of a Stephen King novel still clutched in her hands as she tried to remember whether it was hers or Mickey's, and caught sight of Mickey standing over her holding a set of light blue bed sheets. She bit her lip and shrugged.

"I can't remember," she murmured apologetically. "Just go ahead and keep them."

"But you'll need bed sheets at your...your..." His breath caught in his throat for a moment, and his eyes fell to the floor. "...uh, at your new apartment."

She quickly averted her eyes, squinting slightly and trying to focus on the book cover in front of her, if only to keep the tears from welling up as they already had a half-dozen times that day. The separation of belongings, a ritual of break-ups since time immemorial, was no less difficult when it wasn't even really a break-up.

At least that's what she kept trying to tell herself.

With a sigh, she rose and dropped the book back onto Mickey's pile and excused herself to the restroom. She knew this was just as difficult for him as it was for her, a stabilizing thought she tried to keep at the forefront of her mind as she splashed cool water on her face in the sink. Today was an anniversary of sorts, an anniversary of several disparate but connected events in her life, and as with any anniversary, the day had become a time of reflection.

It was eighteen months to the day since she had ordered Charles, her then-husband, out of her life. Eighteen months to the day since she'd last seen her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred, as he'd guided her to more self-understanding in a week than she'd experienced in her entire adult life. Six months later – a year ago today exactly – the lease expired on the apartment she'd moved into after leaving Charles and she'd moved in with Mickey, another childhood friend, albeit a real person and something much more than a friend. Twelve months later – again, to the day – she was moving out. Leaving. The lease on a new apartment had just been signed that morning, the shiny silver keys dropped into her palm by a smiling leasing agent, and that afternoon a couch and mattress had been delivered to the empty apartment awaiting her.

Now all that was left to do was separate she and Mickey's belongings.

The divorce from Charles had been finalized several months ago, leaving her free to do whatever she pleased, and at the time, what pleased her was living with Mickey and beginning to build a life with he and his daughter Natalie. It was exciting to fall in love all over again, and this time to fall in love with a man who loved her for exactly who she had become – herself. But cracks had been evident right from the start.

"Listen, are you sure you don't want to give this just a few more days?" a soft voice called through the bathroom door. Elizabeth slowly dried her face on a hand towel before opening the door to find Mickey's drawn face behind it.

"A few more days won't change anything," she answered just as softly. "For now, I think this is the best thing we can do."

"But..." Mickey heaved a small sigh. "Look, things have been going good at the counseling sessions, right?" A note of pleading entered his tone. "Lizzie, we can overcome whatever problems we have. I know we can. I just think you moving out isn't the right decision. For you, for me, or for Nat."

"We've talked about this over and over again," she replied, looking down at her hands. "We both need some space." Mickey opened his mouth to respond and before he could, she continued, "Mickey, listen. We both moved so quickly into this relationship. Think about it. You had just gotten divorced, I was just about to get divorced. We – we didn't even take any time to just breathe before we both jumped in head-first."

"Because I knew exactly what I wanted!" Mickey burst, clasping her shoulders. "And it was you. I wanted you, Lizzie. And at least at one time, I know you wanted me, too."

"I still do," she said, not looking into his eyes. "I just need some time and space, Mickey. We both do. This isn't – this isn't a break-up, ok?"

"It sure as hell feels like it," Mickey muttered, leaning against the doorway and crossing his arms over his chest.

They were silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts, when a thump from the room behind them caused them both to turn. A streak of blonde hair disappeared from the room, and both of the adults smiled a little.

"Guess no conversation in this house is entirely private," Mickey mused with a small chuckle. His smile faded and he looked back to Elizabeth. "She's really going to miss you, Lizzie."

"I'll still be around," she said, her smile broadening a little. "You two can't be rid of me that quickly."

"I got them, Fred!" Natalie crowed as she burst into her bedroom and swiftly slammed the door behind her. Glancing around the room and finding it empty, she again called, "Fred? Where did you go?"

"I do have other places to be, you know!" came the nasally reply as a form dressed in green and crowned with fiery orange hair reappeared in the corner of her room. "I can't be hanging around here all day!"

"Why not?" the little girl earnestly demanded. "You're my friend!"

"As if I could ever forget that, Buttbreath," Fred said, giving her a light noogie. He noticed the bundle in her arms. "What's that? Are we making a rope ladder to climb out the window?" he asked excitedly.

Natalie looked down at the clump of bed sheets clutched to her chest. "No, I think they're Lizzie's." Her face tightened. "She can't leave without her bed sheets, so if we hide them, she won't be able to leave."

Fred hesitated for only a moment before bursting, "Oh, let the dumb old Snotface leave! Who cares? We don't need her to have a good time, do we, Buttbreath?"

Natalie didn't respond and instead sat on her bed, her eyes not leaving the sheets. "But I don't want her to go, Fred," she whispered.

"She's not really going!" Fred protested. "Like we'd ever get that lucky! You just wait, she'll be 'round here every day, telling us Oi! You can't set the drapes on fire! Or Hey, don't play in the oven! She'll still be around to ruin all our fun, just you wait and see!"

When this didn't have the desired effect, Fred dropped down next to his charge on the bed, throwing an arm around her.

"Buttbreath?" he said softly. "Come on, don't go silent on me! You know I hate that bollocks!"

"I don't want her to go," Natalie repeated in a quiet voice, hugging the sheets snugly. "Mama said she'd come back when she left, and she didn't. Not once. So what if Lizzie leaves and never comes back? And what if she's leaving because of me?" Natalie's voice was becoming decidedly throatier as tears began to brim in her eyes. "I'm always causing trouble. Maybe that's why Mama never came back either."

"Hey, hey, hey! Listen, you!" Fred pulled Natalie onto his lap, wrapping both arms around her. "Firstly, Snotface isn't anything like your mother. She's all right. For a grown-up, anyway. Secondly, she's not leaving because of you, just like your mother didn't leave because of you. That's a load of horseshit. You're awesome. You're fantastic. You're my best pal, and Drop Dead Fred isn't pals with just any stupid git off the street. You know that, don't you, Buttbreath?"

Before she could respond, the door creaked open and Mickey's face peeked into the room to find his daughter curled up on the bed clutching the light blue sheets in her arms. She looked up at him, her face wet. "Daddy?" she said. "Does Lizzie really have to go?"

Mickey closed the door quietly behind him and laid on the bed next to Natalie. "Lizzie needs some time to figure things out, Nat, but she'll still be around. You'll still see her all the time."

"That's what you said about Mama," she murmured into her father's chest. "And then she moved to New Mexico and I haven't seen her since last Christmas."

Mickey's heart sunk. "I know that, sweetheart, and I'm sorry. Your mom – well, she just needed some distance. It isn't your fault."

"That's what Fred said," she said. Looking around, she discovered that Fred had again disappeared. "Fred?" she called in confusion.

Fred, however, was no longer in Natalie's bedroom and was instead sitting on top of the dresser in the bedroom where Elizabeth was silently folding clothes and laying them in a suitcase. Though his former charge could neither see nor hear him, Fred often found that a one-sided conversation was cathartic, at least for him.

"She's in there crying her eyes out, Snotface!" Fred spat. "D'you know what it's like for that kid to lose a mum and then lose the second-closest thing to a mum inside of a year? Cor, no wonder I'm still assigned to her!" He sighed dramatically. "At this rate I'll be here 'til she's twenty!"

Elizabeth's ears perked and she glanced behind her, almost certain that she'd heard something. Seeing the room was empty, she turned back to her packing.

"And that's nothing compared to what it'll be like having Fartpants moanin' and groanin' around the house once you leave!" Fred continued to bellow, now pacing behind Elizabeth. "God, he's already completely intolerable, but just wait until he's single! Christ, it'll be unadulterated torture! Bet he'll spend every night in this bed just crying and whinging. 'Oh Lizzie! Oh I miss your stupid, ugly face! Oh, oh! Let me just cry into this pillow like a complete girl every day and night!'" Fred scoffed and threw himself into the easy chair in the corner. "And since you can't hear me, I can admit that the only thing that makes this place even slightly interesting is you." After a beat, he sneered halfheartedly. "But not because I like you, you turd, but because it's so much fun to needle you. Buttbreath is a good kid, but she doesn't have the imagination that you did, Snotface."

From the cabinet under the bed stand, Elizabeth withdrew a small, faded jack-in-the-box and smiled.

"Kept that, did you?" Fred said, but his tone sounded softer than he would have preferred, making him glad Elizabeth couldn't hear him. "Typical. Sentimental ol' Snotface."

She reverently placed it in the box containing a few books and other small articles, then set the box gently on the bed, touching the jack-in-the-box gently with a small sigh. "I miss you, Fred," she said in a near-whisper.

Fred sat silently, his arms crossed over his chest. After a moment, his face slackened a bit and he whispered, "Miss you too, Snotface."