Elizabeth knocked wearily on Janie's door several times before Janie opened it slowly in her bathrobe. She looked Elizabeth up and down, noting her friend's exhausted and defeated expression, and ushered her in without a word, pulling her into a hug.
"That bad, huh?" she asked.
In response, Elizabeth burst into tears.
It was a full hour before Elizabeth could put coherent sentences together to tell Janie what all had happened since she'd last seen her, with Janie making sympathetic noises here and there.
"I just don't know what to do," Elizabeth moaned into a tissue. "I feel like my life has fallen apart for the second time inside of two years."
"I'll tell you exactly what you're going to do," Janie said decisively, getting up and moving towards the linen closet. "I'm going to make up the spare bedroom for you. You're going to get some rest. Tomorrow, you're going to go get your clothes out of that stupid little apartment before they rope it off. You're not going to say one word to Fred if you see him. You're not going to call your mother. Then, you're going to come back here, I'm going to cook us a huge, carb-laden meal, and we'll drink wine until the walls are spinning."
A relieved smile escaped Elizabeth as she blew her nose one last time. "Thanks, Janie. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Hey, that's what best friends are for, right?"
She collapsed into an exhausted sleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow and didn't awaken until the sun was already high in the sky. She took a quick shower then steeled her nerves for the trip over to the apartment.
The front door sported an "Unfit for Habitation" notice, which she left untouched as she unlocked the door and slipped inside. The ruin of her living room greeted her, as did the furniture that had been new and clean up until yesterday when it was destroyed right along with the ceiling and carpet. Wincing from the thought of how much money she'd lost, she called out for Fred, and hearing no answer, crept into the bedroom to also find it empty.
The next hour was spent packing up the rest of her clothes, the linens, dishes and anything else portable that she could squeeze into her car. She toyed with the notion of calling Mickey to come help her, but decided against it. While he'd be happy to see she was moving out, she didn't want to have to explain why her living room didn't have a ceiling and who was responsible for it.
She toyed with the notion of leaving Fred a note, but couldn't quite bring herself to do it. Fred had a preternatural knack for being able to find her wherever she was anyway, and she supposed that couldn't have changed too much since he'd been made human. Besides, he knew she wouldn't want to move back in with Mickey while Marcia was still there, would rather die than move back in with her mother, and Janie was the only other person really close with her. Fred would figure it out.
And maybe once she'd had a few days to cool down, they might actually be able to talk.
Remembering the packet of documents that Cosmo had left for Fred that proved him to be a real, actual human, she took the packet out of the drawer and shoved it on top of one of the boxes. She'd give it back to him whenever he turned up.
He always turned up. She wasn't worried.
Elizabeth arrived back at Janie's around five and was unsurprised to see that Janie wasn't home yet. Her friend often worked crazy hours, seeing as she was a partner at the prestigious law firm where she worked. Elizabeth threw all the boxes in the corner of the spare bedroom and flopped down in front of the phone, dialing Mickey's number.
Naturally, because she couldn't catch a break, Marcia answered.
"Hi Marcia, it's Lizzie," she said. "Is Mickey home yet?"
"Sure, he's right here," Marcia chirped.
Elizabeth's jaw tightened in realization that they must have been standing very close together, because only a second later Mickey greeted her, "Hey Lizzie! How's it going?"
She twirled the phone cord around her finger. "I've had better days. I had to vacate my apartment. Permanently."
"There was a...problem. With the ceiling. And the plumbing. And, well, everything."
"Where are you and Fred now?"
"I'm at Janie's. Without Fred."
"Oh?" Mickey said, his tone unreadable. "Everything ok?"
"It will be," Elizabeth answered in what she hoped was an optimistic voice. "What with having no job and no apartment, I suddenly have a lot of time on my hands. How about you come to Janie's for dinner tomorrow? I can cook your favorite."
Mickey seemed to hesitate for a moment but finally consented. "Sure. Yeah. That sounds great, Lizzie. Can't wait."
A small smile crept up her face. "Wonderful. See you at six tomorrow."
Elizabeth spent the next morning again plastering her resume all over town, then spent three hours in the afternoon cooking and putting on her best outfit, carefully applying makeup and removing it until she achieved perfection. Her feet slipped into her nicest heels and she was just putting on her earrings when Janie strode in, throwing her briefcase in the corner.
"Geez kid, you look great," Janie said. "What's the occasion?"
"Mickey's coming over for dinner."
Janie watched her carefully for a moment then added, "What're you so nervous about, then?"
"I'm not nervous," Elizabeth replied, surprised that Janie had picked up on her mood so easily. "Just...excited."
"Please. If I know you, you spent hours preparing an over-the-top meal, even making sure that all the basil on the potatoes was perfectly evenly distributed. Now you're paying more attention to your boobs than I bet even Mickey has ever done." Elizabeth quickly pulled her dress up a bit to hide the cleavage she'd been inspecting. Janie chuckled and put her hand on her friend's shoulder. "Listen, honey. He's already your boyfriend, ok? You shouldn't feel like you have to compete with the ex-wife."
"Janie." Elizabeth spun around to meet her gaze. "Don't be silly, of course I don't have to compete. Like you said, he's already my boyfriend. I just...I just want this evening to go really well, ok? Things have been so weird lately, and I want to see where we stand."
Janie raised an eyebrow. "Want me to suddenly have an emergency across town that I have to disappear for?"
Elizabeth said nothing, biting her lip and allowing her eyes to drop to the floor, seeming to debate with herself, which made Janie chuckle.
"All right, Lizzie. Loud and clear. But only this once, and not in my bed, ok?"
Elizabeth turned beet red. "Janie!"
Janie, true to her word, left shortly after Mickey arrived, making the excuse that her mother had fallen ill and she had to go tend her for the night, leaving Elizabeth and Mickey to enjoy their meal alone.
"Janie sure does have a nice house," Mickey said, looking around the dining room in awe. "This type of molding costs a fortune."
"Really?" Elizabeth let her eyes roam the molding. "Well, Janie's never been short of money."
"Must be nice, eh?"
Elizabeth let a smile escape her. "Yeah, really."
Mickey poked at his food. "So...uh...how's Fred?"
Elizabeth kept her eyes on her plate. "He's fine, I guess. Haven't seen him in a couple days."
"Is that...a permanent thing?"
She shifted in her seat. "Look, let's not talk about Fred, ok? Tonight is about us, and no one else."
Mickey smiled and shrugged. "Suits me."
Their conversation was light and flirtatious, almost like it had been during their first few months together, and their banter fell into an easy rhythm as they finished their meal and took their wine to the couch. They laughed at silly memories, and the names "Fred" and "Marcia" never came up. Whether it was the wine or the first truly uninterrupted time they'd had together in what felt like months, they soon found themselves in the spare bedroom with the lights turned down low.
A couple of hours later, Mickey reluctantly told Elizabeth he needed to get going as he threw on his clothes. "I told Marcia I'd be back in time to tuck Nat in." He glanced at his watch and his face fell. "Well. I'll still tuck her in. She just won't be awake when I do it."
Elizabeth curled the blankets around her. "How's Marcia's house search going?"
Mickey shrugged as he started lacing up his shoes. "To be honest, she hasn't had much time to look, what with the business, and Nat, and all of that. Looks like it'll be a little longer than we originally thought."
She tried not to let the disappointment show in her eyes. "I'm sure Nat loves it," she said quietly.
"Oh, sure. They get along like gangbusters. It's just…" He turned to her, smiling. "It's just so different now, somehow. Almost like Marcia had to go and prove to herself that she could be successful before she'd just let herself be happy. And that makes Nat happy, and so that makes me happy."
Elizabeth tried to smile but failed. "Since I'm not living with Fred anymore, and I don't have that apartment anymore, maybe you could suggest to Marcia she ramp up her search."
She had hoped that Mickey would be excited at this veiled reference to moving back in with he and Nat, or at the very least see some relief in his eyes from the fact that she wasn't living with Fred, but instead she only saw a flash of irritation as he threw his sweater back on.
"Come on, Lizzie, it isn't tit for tat."
A puzzled expression crossed Elizabeth's face. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I don't need to kick Marcia out just because you kicked Fred out. That isn't how it works," he said, not looking her in the eyes. "I realize it's unorthodox, and I understand it's not the most comfortable thing for you to deal with, but - "
"That's the understatement of the year."
" - But we're doing the best we can." His eyes flashed for a moment. "And anyway, you're the one that wanted to move out. I pleaded with you not to."
Elizabeth stared up at him, comprehension beginning to dawn.
She had never known Mickey to be a jealous man. In fact, he didn't seem to possess a jealous bone in his body. Had he taken her moving out as a kind of betrayal, and her letting Fred move in as a kind of affront? Is that why he'd asked Marcia to stay with he and Nat while she got on her feet? Was it all just a way of saying, You want to leave? Fine. You can be replaced.
"Are you jealous?" Elizabeth said, gobsmacked. "You're jealous that I moved out? Jealous about Fred, of all people?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Mickey suddenly burst. His eyes, when he turned them to her, looked wounded.
"Mickey, I moved out because it wasn't working between us, and I wanted to give us each some space to figure things out," Elizabeth explained in a louder voice than she meant to, sitting up in bed. "It certainly wasn't because I knew Fred was coming, and it certainly wasn't to make room in your house for Marcia!" She bit her lip. "Answer me this honestly: would you have ever asked Marcia to move in if I'd still been there?"
"Of course not."
"So it wasn't just for Nat's sake, like you said?"
He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "It was just a convenient solution to a strange problem, that's all. And at least you knew about Marcia. I didn't know a thing about Fred!"
"Mickey, I told you, neither did I!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "But what was I supposed to do? Let an old friend go sleep on the streets?"
"No," Mickey said quietly, rubbing his mouth, as if steeling himself for his next words. "Lizzie, tell me what's really going on with Fred. Who is he? Where the hell did he come from?"
Elizabeth frowned, shaking her head slightly in confusion. "I don't know," she breathed. "I don't even really know, Mickey."
"You must know."
"I only know what I know about him, which isn't all that much, and that's it."
"Great," Mickey muttered, plopping down on the side of the bed. "When we first got together, you used to say I was the perfect man for you," he murmured, looking down at his hands. "And I believed it up until a few months ago when you started acting so distant. I just don't understand where we started to go so wrong. I just...don't get it, Lizzie." Mickey heaved a sigh and rose to his feet. "I gotta go," he murmured, feeling in his pockets for his car keys.
Mickey leaned down and placed a kiss on her cheek, and she heard the front door shut a moment later. She turned off the light, rolled over, and despite her emotional state, quickly fell into a deep sleep.
In her dream, she was with Mickey in a park, but had the nagging feeling there was somewhere else she needed to be, and with someone else. Almost as if she were late for an important meeting or function. She kept glancing around in confusion, but saw nothing except trees and small ponds that dotted the park. Finally, her eyes landed on the figure of Fred standing atop a hill, hands in his pockets, a serious expression on his face. Her heart leapt as she realized he was where she needed to be, but by the time she reached the top of the hill, he was gone.
She woke up feeling confused and slightly irritated.
"Morning!" Janie's voice called a moment later, sticking her head into the bedroom. "Are you alone?"
"Mmm," Elizabeth murmured into her pillow.
"C'mon, sleeping beauty. It's Saturday. I've made some French toast. And I want to talk to you about something."
Elizabeth dutifully lugged herself out of bed and got dressed, appearing at the table a moment later just in time to have a mountain of French toast placed in front of her.
"From the state of your smeared makeup and unkempt hair, I'm going to go ahead and assume last night was a roaring success," Janie said, biting into her own French toast. "Not that I want you to kiss and tell at the breakfast table…" She leaned in. "Unless you want to."
Elizabeth averted her eyes. "We kind of had a fight. I don't really want to talk about it."
"Sorry to hear it. But I have some good news you might be interested in."
"I wanted to tell you last night, but it wasn't the right time." She put her fork down. "My office is hiring a paralegal right now. Job just opened up yesterday. We've already gotten some applicants, buuuuut I can probably arrange to get your application near the top if you're interested."
Elizabeth's tired face broke into a grin. "Janie, are you serious? That's one of the best firms in town!"
"I know. I helped make it that," Janie said proudly. "Sooo my word has some little sway. And I also have the ability - and if I'm being honest, find some enjoyment - in knocking someone's ass around if they ever bother you."
Tears filled Elizabeth's eyes and she grinned from ear to ear. "Janie, you just saved my life!"
Janie shrugged. "Well, it's what I was saying the other day. Sometimes things have to start falling apart before they can get better. If you hadn't been fired, I wouldn't have even brought it up. It's like that song. How's it go? 'I get by with a little from my friends.'"
Three days later, Elizabeth had a new job that paid twice what her old one did.
She soon found that having one of the partners as her best friend was oddly beneficial. Though she was a newbie, she was treated with a respect that she hadn't ever gotten at her old job. Once the other staff realized that Elizabeth was not just given a job through her connections, but rather because she was smart as a whip and knew her stuff, that respect only grew. Within a couple of weeks of starting, she realized that she actually looked forward to going into work every day, a notion that had been unthinkable in every other job she'd had.
She made an effort to spend time with Mickey and Nat a couple of times a week, but something had shifted and Elizabeth wasn't quite sure what it was. Time between phone calls and visits lengthened, and times when the conversation and company felt easy and free grew fewer. When the time came for Elizabeth to decide where she was going to move, she hesitated for only a short time before deciding on not moving back in with Mickey.
Not quite yet, she told herself. Maybe in a few months.
The apartment she chose was on a better side of town than her old one, roomier and brighter as well. Mickey and Nat helped her move in two days before Marcia found an apartment in the same complex, only in the more expensive section. Part of Elizabeth wondered if Marcia had chosen the complex because she wanted to keep an eye on Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was still uncomfortable with how often Marcia was still at Mickey's house even after her move. Better than half the time when Elizabeth would show up for dinner or game night, Marcia would be there, comfortable as a bug in a rug in Mickey's house.
Mickey always used the excuse that Marcia was Nat's mother, and that until they could work out a new custody agreement, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place in trying to please Marcia, Nat and Elizabeth. Elizabeth pointed out it was impossible to make everyone happy, and that a person could drive themselves crazy trying, but Mickey waved off her concerns with the fact that they were all still trying to reconnect. It unnerved her that he could be so breezy about something that she was vocally uncomfortable with, but perhaps against her better judgement, she put up with it.
It wasn't like there was much else going on in her life with the absence of Fred.
She hadn't seen Fred since the day she'd stormed out of the old apartment, and part of her was convinced she'd never see him again. She had no idea where someone like Fred would go, or what he would do, but she kept trying to convince herself that he wasn't her responsibility.
Except, a small voice kept telling her, she wasn't totally not responsible for him either. After all, she was the whole reason he was kicked out of Limbo, wasn't she? And in her most honest moments of crying into her pillow softly, she realized she missed him terribly. Far more than she'd ever missed anyone else in her life. It soon became a dull ache in her heart that never really went away.
Slowly, she found that whenever she was out in public, she was subconsciously looking for him. Any flash of orange would make her do a double take, and twice she ran after a stranger with ginger hair calling to them and blushing in embarrassment when she realized it wasn't Fred. She would find herself hanging around the mall where they'd gone his first day as a human, somehow hoping he'd show up, as well as asking the managers of her former apartment complex if they had any idea where Fred had gone.
But he had disappeared. Her guess as to where he'd gone was as good as anyone's, as no one had seen any sign of him.
Spring turned to summer, and summer turned to fall. The leaves began to turn yellow, orange and brown, and Elizabeth felt herself completely unmoored. The ache in her heart grew. She didn't know where she and Mickey were going. She didn't know where Fred was. She wasn't even entirely sure who she was anymore. Or even entirely sure if she'd ever figure it out.
But around Halloween, something happened that kicked her need to see Fred into overdrive.
One Tuesday afternoon, a case file landed on her desk that, one of the lawyers told her, was urgent. The lawyer - a small, skinny man who had joined the firm three months before - asked her to do some research into a matter that might help the case, then departed quickly. Seemed like the younger lawyers were always in a great hurry, she thought. Always needing to prove themselves, always needing to prove that they belonged there. And it seemed the young ones always came to her.
Elizabeth was a good researcher, and could dig up information that other paralegals sometimes had trouble getting ahold of, and the young, hungry lawyers knew it. It wasn't any great trick, of course - Elizabeth could be unfailingly polite in person and on the phone, had a knack for putting people at ease, but knew when and how to put her foot down if there was a piece of information she really needed to gather. Generally, people responded better to kindness and patience than they did brazen demands, a cue the other paralegals in the office could learn from. So they came to her when a matter was urgent or of the utmost importance or - as happened frequently - they thought winning the case could help their career.
Flipping open the folder, Elizabeth began to scan the complaint that had led to the lawsuit. A landlord was suing his property management company for loss of reputation and income due to an incident that had happened only a week before. Apparently, the property management company - who were tasked by the owner landlord to fill vacancies in the apartment building and keep the apartments up to code - had allowed some sort of "vagrant" (the complaint read) to access an empty apartment and who then promptly died there, leading to police involvement and media attention. Due to this, other renters had started moving out of the apartment complex - evidently not wanting to live in a place where the homeless came to roost and, sometimes, die, Elizabeth guessed - meaning loss of income and reputation for the landlord, who owned several other apartment complexes in the city.
She spent the morning researching the other apartment complexes the landlord owned, finding that although they weren't exactly luxury apartments, they tended to be clean, safe places that working and middle class people called home. The apartment complex that had seen the death of the homeless man tended to be of the same caliber, and Elizabeth was able to ascertain that the landlord was indeed telling the truth when he said that renters had begun to leave en masse. She was also able to pull up several media stories from the office's newspaper library - where they had subscriptions to roughly 400 newspapers around the country - and see that, sure enough, there were several prominent and negative news stories written about the incident.
Elizabeth was just about to write up her findings to pass along to the lawyer when she happened to glance at one newspaper's description of the dead man: Red hair, roughly between the ages of 30-40, average height and weight, no identification, wearing a faded black leather jacket.
Her heart stopped in her chest.
Fred fit all of those criteria, even down to the faded leather jacket, which he took with him when he left the apartment. The jacket had been Mickey's, but Fred had liked it, and it hadn't been there when Elizabeth had gone back to retrieve her own clothing. And of course, Elizabeth had Fred's identification - not him.
Elizabeth's vision blurred and her eyes began to fill with tears at the thought that Fred might be lying on a cold metal table down at the coroner's office, his identity unknown, destined to be buried in a pauper's grave. Her heart broke at the mere thought of it, and before she could calm herself down, she had burst into Janie's office, ignoring Janie's secretary telling her that Janie was busy.
Janie looked up from behind her glass desk, phone still cradled to her ear, to find Elizabeth a sobbing mess on the other side, holding a sheaf of loose papers and newspaper articles.
"Hang on, I think I'm going to have to call you back," she said to the person on the other line before hanging up. Janie gave her friend an astonished look. "Jesus, what's wrong? It looks like you just found out Santa isn't real."
"Janie," Elizabeth bawled. "I think Fred might be dead."
"Fred who? Oh - right! That Fred!" Janie stood up and motioned for Elizabeth to sit down. "What makes you think that?"
Elizabeth shoved the papers at Janie and gave her a short rundown of the situation. Janie looked through everything carefully, shaking her head slowly.
"Listen, you're making a lot of inferences here that might very well have nothing to do with the reality," Janie said in what she hoped was a soothing voice. "This could be just about anybody, you know."
"Or it could be Fred," Elizabeth said, wiping her nose with a Kleenex from Janie's desk. "I'm sorry I burst in here like that."
"It's fine, Lizzie. Listen, you really haven't seen him in, what, a couple months?"
"Close to four."
"And you have no idea where he is?"
"None. And there's no one to ask, either. Who else knows him but me?"
Janie looked back down at the papers. "I think there's only one thing to do, then," she said quietly.
Elizabeth looked at her but didn't respond.
Janie sighed. "Call the coroner and make an appointment to view the body. Just tell him you may be able to identify the body, and - "
"Can you please stop calling it 'the body'?"
"Sorry kid, I'm a lawyer. You know how we are. But that's the only way to make sure."
Elizabeth sniffed miserably and asked, "Janie, I know it's a lot, but...will you go with me?"
Janie sighed again, throwing a forlorn look at the stacks of work on her desk. "If you want really want me to, I'll go with you. But it's got to be later tonight, ok? Not this afternoon. I've got a shitstorm on my hands with that client I just threw off the phone, and if I don't make some headway today, the shitstorm will turn into a shit-hurricane."
Elizabeth nodded numbly and rose. "All right," she said. "I'll let you know."
A quick call to the coroner ascertained two important things: one, that the body had not been claimed and was still in cold storage until next of kin could be located, and two, that eight o'clock that evening was fine for viewing. In fact, the coroner seemed somewhat relieved that someone might know who his mystery body might be, although the feeling of dread inside of Elizabeth continued to grow throughout the afternoon. By five o'clock, she was a bundle of nerves and cried almost continually until Janie showed up on her doorstep at 7:30 that night.
"You look like hell," Janie observed when Elizabeth threw open the door.
Elizabeth wiped a few tears from her swollen red eyes and nodded. "Well, I feel like hell. What if it's him, Janie? What if it's him and he died alone in some empty room, no one around to comfort him, and now he's been lying in some refrigerator for a week because no one knew who he was?"
"Well, I think he'd be pretty glad there was one person in this city who'll claim him, then," Janie said, pulling her friend into a tight hug. "Did you tell Mickey?"
"No. I begged off a date tonight, but I don't feel too bad about it. Lately, Marcia's been there almost every time I've come."
"Something is really fucking weird about that," Janie said, giving her a serious look. "You realize that, right?"
"Of course I do. But I don't have the emotional energy to deal with it at the moment." Elizabeth grabbed her coat. "Come on, let's get this over with."
It took all of a half a second for Elizabeth to know the body wasn't Fred's at the coroner's office, and she could have collapsed on the spot from relief. She immediately felt completely drained, and nearly fell asleep in Janie's car on the way back to her apartment.
"There, see? All's well that ends well," Janie told her as they pulled into her apartment complex.
Elizabeth didn't speak for a long moment, her mind racing despite her tiredness. "It isn't though, is it?" she murmured finally. "Because it still leaves the question open - what happened to Fred? Where is he? Is he all right?"
"Listen, I liked Fred, but you're not his guardian. He's a grown man, and he can take care of himself."
Elizabeth nodded slowly and got out of the car. "Thanks for going with me, Janie. You're the best best friend anyone could ever ask for."
"Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like without the little adventures you pull me into," Janie admitted with a small smile. "But try not to worry so much, ok? Fred will turn up eventually. Just think of this as a vacation from him."
But no matter how she tried that evening, she couldn't think of it that way. A thousand questions rattled around in her head: Where was he? What was he doing? Had he gotten on his feet, or was he still struggling to fit into real life as a mortal? Was he safe? Did he have enough to eat? It was getting cold, was he warm at night? Did he hate her? Did he think she hated him? Where was he?
She paced around the apartment, a hand clamped to her forehead, trying to make sense of all the thoughts and the implications of each possible answer. Part of her regretted speaking so harshly to him the last time she'd seen him, while another part felt that she'd been justified. But, a small voice said, how was I supposed to know it was the last time I'd see him?
A small sob escaped her at the thought that perhaps it really had been the last time she'd ever see him, and that their last words to each other were said in anger.
She really needed a drink.
Despite the fact that it was closing in on 10pm and, being the diligent responsible worker that she was always tried to be in bed by 10:30 to wake up refreshed for work the next day, she uncorked a bottle of wine and downed two glasses inside of ten minutes. She hadn't had dinner, and found that she quickly became woozy from the combination of lack of food, her exhaustion and the wine. Collapsing on the couch, she shut her eyes and thought, What do I do? What the hell do I do now?
And the answer came, quick as a flash: Find Cosmo and ask him where Fred was.
Her eyes shot open and she sat up suddenly. Of course! Cosmo had some sort of magic, didn't he? He knew how to find her, so he must know how to find Fred.
But...how was she to find Cosmo?
She squinted, trying to decide if this was a great idea or the product of a mind buzzed on wine. Besides, how would she even get Cosmo to come to her? How does one summon a magic imp? How does one call across the void and into Limbo, reaching out to an invisible being?
She stood to her feet, wobbling slightly. "Ok," she whispered to herself. "Janie is very logical. So maybe if I can approach this like Janie would, I'll find the answer."
She began to pace again, trying to put herself into the mind frame of a powerful lawyer interviewing someone on the witness stand, imagining she was Janie, and that Elizabeth Cronin was on the witness stand.
When was the last time you saw Cosmo? Four months ago. Why was he here? To leave Fred safely on Earth in the mortal realm. What is Cosmo? A pooka, an imaginary being, like Fred used to be. If Fred used to be a pooka, how did you used to call to Fred? I'd simply call his name, or think about him, and he'd appear. Did you use anything to summon Fred? No, I never needed to. But an awfully long time passed between the last time you saw him as a child, and when you saw him again as an adult. What was the conduit? He was stuck in a jack in the box. Had you thought about him recently before that? Yes, I'd thought about him just a day or so before he appeared again. And what were you doing right before he appeared? Playing with the jack in the box. Wouldn't it be logical to assume then, Ms. Cronin, that the jack in the box had some sort of mystical power if it was able to contain a magical being like a pooka, and that thinking about a pooka shortly before he appeared may have helped to summon him?
In a flash, Elizabeth had darted to her bedroom and began to rifle through her closet.
Janie was forever telling her that thoughts could manifest into reality, and that by focusing one's mind energy on something, it helped bring it to fruition. What did she call it? The law of attraction? Yes, that was it.
Right, Elizabeth thought. Let's see if we can attract this Cosmo to come to this apartment.
She knew full well that if she hadn't been half-soused on cheap red wine, this stunt would seem ridiculous and childish. But by this time, she felt she had nothing to lose. She emerged triumphantly a moment later with the worn old jack in the box, and cradled it lovingly to her belly, trying to breathe deeply to calm herself down a bit.
Stepping to the middle of the room and still clutching the jack in the box, she found herself at a loss for what to say or do. Her head swam, but she swallowed her emotions, slowly closed her eyes, and forced herself to focus.
She tried to remember every detail of Cosmo: how he looked, his voice, his clothes. Furrowing her brow, she repeated Cosmo, I need you. Come to me. I need you. It's about Fred. Please, come to me. Please, please, over and over for several minutes, her hands trembling around the jack in the box. Her ears stayed perked for any small sound, but as she stood and repeated her mantra in her head, the apartment remained completely silent.
Silent and empty.
With a sigh of resignation, she relinquished the jack in the box after ten minutes, setting it gently on the nightstand and sinking to her bed. She ought to have known better that such a stupid, made-up ceremony wouldn't work.
Until she caught the sounds of movement in her living room.
"Where the hell am I?" a familiar voice wailed beyond her bedroom door.
Elizabeth shot out of bed and ran to the living room, her eyes falling on the glittery form of Cosmo A-Go-Go standing confusedly in the living room, throwing glances around in terror. Finally, his gaze landed on her and his eyes bulged.
"Ms. Cronin? What in heaven's name is this all about?" he demanded hotly.
Despite herself, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "Cosmo!" she crowed. "It worked!"
"What worked?" he barked. "What am I doing here? One minute I was training a new pooka to walk through solid matter, and the next instant I'm standing here, on Earth! With the depressing tones of gray all around me!"
"I need your help," Elizabeth declared, letting go of him and stepping back. "It's about Fred."
"Fred? What about Fred? Didn't I leave him here with you?"
"You did, but he's gone." Her eyes sank to the floor. "And I don't know where he is. I need your help, Cosmo," she repeated.
Cosmo looked astonished. "But how did a mortal summon me? It's not possible!"
"Well obviously it is," Elizabeth countered, crossing her arms in front of herself. "Because here you are."
Cosmo huffed. "Well, despite the fact that my being here simply because you wanted me here are slim to none, here I am, and I suppose I'm stuck here until you release me."
"I'll release you if you can find Fred," Elizabeth ordered. "You're not leaving until you do."
Cosmo gawked at her, as though deeply offended. "It's not my responsibility to keep track of ex-pookas, Ms. Cronin. He's mortal now. I've no power over him at all."
"You never really did, and you know it. I'm not saying you have to make him appear in a puff of smoke. I'm just saying you've got to find him." She began to pace again, fiddling with her hands. "I haven't seen him in four months, Cosmo. I just want to know he's ok."
"Four months? Goodness, I forgot how quickly time passes on Earth," Cosmo mused. "Why, may I ask, haven't you seen him in four months?"
"It's not important," Elizabeth said, brushing off his question with a quick hand gesture. "What's important is that I'm being driven crazy by not knowing if he's ok." She turned to look at him, gazing at him deeply. "It's ok if he never wants to see me again, or speak to me again. I just need to know he's all right."
Cosmo huffed once more, straightening his lapels. "All right, all right," he growled. "Hang on a minute."
With this, Cosmo closed his eyes and remained motionless for several long moments, breathing evenly. Elizabeth waited silently as well, hardly daring to move at all. At last, his eyes re-opened.
"Well, he's still alive," Cosmo said with a shrug. "Of course, my ability to see him, or appear to him, or even track him is nigh on impossible now that he's a mortal, but there's enough left linking he and I together that I can at least sense whether his soul is still here on Earth or not. And it is." He looked smug. "Right, you've got what you want. Assurance that he's ok. Send me back to limbo now, please."
"No. Not good enough," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "He's alive, but is he ok? Warm? Safe? Not hungry?"
"I can't see or sense any of that, not needing any of those things myself," Cosmo admitted. "I can only sense whether he's alive or not."
"Then take me to him."
"No can do, Ms. Cronin," Cosmo said, this time with an apologetic shrug.
"Because I'm magical, and he's not."
"Yes, I know that, but if you're so magical, how is it you can't even tell me where he is?" She gave him an even look. "You're some high-ranking guy in Limbo, aren't you? I refuse to believe this is something you can't do."
Cosmo looked slightly offended, and rather snappishly noted, "I'm not saying I don't have the ability if I really put my mind to it. I'm saying I can't. It's against the Rules, which were set by the Powers That Be. I cannot go against them. It interferes with free will, you see, and They're rather picky about that, truth be told."
She searched his face for some trace of dishonesty or trickery, but found none. Her heart sank. "Please," she said in a small voice. "Cosmo, please. I'm begging you."
Cosmo shook his head steadfastly. "I cannot," he repeated. Her face began to crumple once more into tears, and Cosmo felt some part of himself moved. With a sigh, he took one of her hands and lifted her face to meet his gaze. "Ms. Cronin, I truly am sorry. I'm sorry that whatever this was didn't work out between the two of you. But the outcome is what both of you have freely chosen for yourselves, and I cannot interfere in that. Even if one or both of you regrets it now." His expression was soft, the first time she'd seen something akin to emotion on his face. "That's life, my dear. Sometimes we do things that, later on down the road, we wish we hadn't. It isn't always a happy ending, I'm afraid. Fred is alive. That is all I can tell you, and that will have to be enough for you. I'm sorry if it isn't."
Elizabeth leaned into him, crying softly on his chest. "I can't stand the thought of never seeing him again, Cosmo," she whispered. "Knowing he's alive isn't the same thing as knowing he's ok."
"Your connection to him still runs deep," Cosmo said. "And I know that because I can feel it. It's a physical sensation for us pookas, you see. It would have to be, if you were able to harness the power of that connection to summon me all the way from Limbo. I've never been summoned by a mortal before."
"Then can't you please - "
"I'm sorry." Cosmo pulled away. "I wish I could be of more assistance."
Another sob escaped her form, but she nodded nonetheless. "All right," she said softly. "If there's nothing you can do, then...then I guess that's it."
Cosmo seemed to hesitate for a moment, bobbing on his heels, before cocking his head to the side. "Well, I - I suppoooose...I suppose there might be one thing I could do for you that wouldn't technically be breaking the Rules…"
Elizabeth stood to attention. "What's that?"
Cosmo was quiet for a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts. "Well, I can't take him to you, or bring him to you. That's clearly against the Rules. But, well, people just...just happen to run into one another once in a while, don't they?"
Elizabeth frowned, but looked intrigued. "I - I guess so…"
"Yes. And I don't think there's anything in the Rules about...well, about arranging coincidences, is there? It doesn't effect anyone's free will to any strong degree, does it?"
"No, of course not!" Elizabeth agreed quickly, almost afraid to breathe.
"Well...I suppose just this once, you understand, and consider it a large gift, the first and only you'll ever get from me, Ms. Cronin," Cosmo blustered. "I - I will do my best to arrange some sort of coincidence. But you must understand, I'm not responsible for whether you notice it or not, or whether Fred notices it or not. It is entirely up to you and he, independently. That's free will. That's what makes this little loophole work, understand?"
"Yes," Elizabeth crowed. "Yes, I understand. Thank you, Cosmo! Thank you!"
"Well," Cosmo said, dusting off his sleeve. "I do what I can."
"How long from now?"
"Don't get greedy, my dear. It'll happen when it happens. Just keep your eyes open." He stood up more straightly. "Now that I've done as you ask, would you mind terribly…?"
"Oh!" Elizabeth cleared her throat. "I release you back to Limbo, Cosmo. Thank you very much."
Cosmo nodded, gave her a small smile, and disappeared in a cloud of glitter, leaving her living room empty once again. The clock on the wall alerted her that it was midnight, and suddenly she could hardly keep her eyes open. With a small, satisfied smile, she crawled into bed and drifted off to a deep sleep shortly thereafter, the thought of possibly seeing Fred again soon making her ridiculously happy.