I'm sorry, I seem to have a part of me stuck to you – I think it's my heart
Lizzie feared she was no longer a rational woman.
But then again, had she ever been able to claim that title?
It had been nearly four months since she'd bid Fred goodbye, and she was starting to feel every minute without him drag on for eternity. Never before had a person overturned so many aspects of her life. She'd been granted the strength to severe the bonds of her suffocating marriage; to break through her mother's barriers; to become open to any possibilities. After so many years of wishing, she'd been finally been given the one thing she'd needed: herself. She was no longer Elizabeth, the oppressed daughter of a megabeast; nor was she Snotface, the girl so wild she drove everyone away.
No, what she was now was lonely.
I'm scared to be alone. Hadn't she told him? Hadn't he seen it in her eyes, the sadness? Lizzie had a new job, a growing relationship with her mother, and something happening with Mickey. So why did she still feel the need to glance behind her in the mirror, draw the shower curtains closed tight, leave a lamp on so he would not stumble in the dark? When she was unhappy, she pined for her imaginary friend. It had become a habit. It was not normal.
"You're a twenty-six year old woman; you don't have time to be crazy anymore," she told her reflection in a restaurant's bathroom mirror one afternoon. Janie exited her cubicle and came to wash her hands beside her friend. She followed Lizzie's eyes, glancing behind herself.
"You're still hoping?" she asked quietly, and Lizzie nodded.
"I can't help it."
"Honey," Janie took a breath to continue, but whatever she said was drowned out by the sounds of the hand dryer.
The little Catflap did not sleep.
It was not something he enjoyed watching, her desperate pleas for her father to stay a little longer. She would cry and throw her pillow and bunch her hair in her fists pleading, just a bit more, just one more story. Her father would yield, lying with her face pressed into his embrace until the moon was high enough to shine its light through the windows. When the call of his own bed was too strong to ignore he would tuck her hair behind her ear and leave her with the lamplight on, bidding her sweet dreams. That was when Fred returned, when she cried to him that she could not dream, that she could not sleep. It was a saddening sight, to see the little girl's eyes so heavy and tired, her body sagging but her mind wide awake.
He didn't know the exact reason she was so scared to sleep; she wouldn't tell him. He did know she needed distractions, needed to be so exhausted that she would succumb to sleep against her own will. That was when he arrived with games and toys and stories of cornflake monsters. She would huddle into his chest in the early hours of the morning, finally spent. He would hold her and try to shake the twinge of unhappiness he'd sometimes feel, his blue eyes alight as he watched her slip into a place he could not follow.
It had been a good day.
Lizzie's workload was starting to ebb with the arrival of summer. Her boss was eager to be home with a cool drink rather than in the stuffy studios, so she allowed Lizzie to set down her brush and head home early. Lizzie designed children's book covers, having discovered a love for art. She'd been so set on tearing things apart when she was young that it came as a surprise when she picked up a brush and felt only the need to create.
She was supposed to be going out with Mickey that night. So when the phone rang and she answered to his heartfelt apology, Lizzie was not surprised.
"It's all right, Mickey," she tried to placate him while setting down her mascara brush and abandoning the bathroom. She would not be going anywhere tonight. "I understand if you can't find a babysitter for Natalie." And Fred, she thought to herself, because he was obviously the bad influence. Little girls did not become wild cards on a whim. She was gathering the breath for a good night when his voice cut across again.
"Would you like to come over anyway? We could watch movies. I'd just love to spend time with you."
She marvelled at his ability to weave the word love into every conversation. She scratched the back of her neck, feeling simultaneously pressured and thrilled. Was that what affection felt like? Or was she simply conflicted? She couldn't remember such feelings with Charles. With him it had always been excitement – until he left her, anyway.
"Lizzie? Are you still there?"
She nodded, pointlessly. "Y-yes, Mickey."
"Yes as in you'll come over?"
"Yes, I'll see you soon."
She heard the smile in his voice as he said goodbye.
She could hear the house from down the street.
A news reporter was divulging the details of a car accident from a house's stereo somewhere down the road. Pulling into the driveway, Lizzie had to smile. The house was alive with the glaring of lights, the pulsing of the television and the shouts of a little girl. Nobody answered the door when she knocked, so she let herself in. The house was no messier than could be expected in a home with a single dad and a girl with a little too much imagination. The news reporter's voice had given way to commercials, and she clapped her hands over her ears, following the blaring noise to the living room.
"Ever heard of 'disturbing the peace'?!" She shouted over the din, finding Mickey bent over the TV set, fiddling with cords and buttons. When he didn't answer, she grinned and plucked the plugs from his ears.
"Lizzie!" Mickey yelled, surprised, "I'm sorry about this! Natalie's 'friend' messed with the stereo and now I can't get the volume down!"
She felt her heart clench for the briefest of seconds. Fred was here now. She hoped he would try to talk to her. Ever since she'd found him playing with Natalie, he had not made any attempt to contact her through the girl. She wondered why, ashamed that she should be envious of a child. A pure, heavy silence shocked her out of her ponderings. There was a triumphant shout from Mickey, and Lizzie shook her head to clear it of the ringing in her ears.
"Nice job," she said, "I thought the police would be showing up soon."
"The neighbours are pretty used to the craziness at this house. I'm sure they were giving me time to deal with the noise before they called."
From above them came the thumping of feet and the high pitched shouts of child's play. Lizzie knew Natalie didn't have any school friends. She wondered if Mickey could hear the evidence of his daughter's imagination, or if he simply pretended not to.
"Your hair's growing out again." Mickey offered a smile tinged with fondness as he set the television back in its place and headed for the stairs. "It's looking nice." He flicked the stairwell light on. "Natalie! Elizabeth is here!"
She unconsciously reached up to play with a strand of her hair, heading to the kitchen. "I brought popcorn," she announced as Mickey returned, his daughter hot on his heels.
"Hey Lizzie," Natalie said quietly, twisting a doll in her hands. "Want to play dolls with me? Fred won't; he says it's for girls."
Despite her feelings, she didn't have to force a smile as she set the bag of popcorn down on the counter.
"I'd love to Natalie, but your daddy and I are going to watch a movie. Do you want to sit with us?"
The little girl worried her lower lip and wrung the doll's hair gently. To anyone else she'd appear to be thinking, but Lizzie knew that look. The girl was not thinking; she was listening. To Fred.
"No it's all right; I'll go back upstairs." Mickey patted his daughter's hair tenderly as she passed him, heading for the stairs. He was no longer watching her but over his shoulder called, "You're not playing Electric Barbie again, Natalie. Put the extension cord down."
Lizzie smiled as the little girl sighed and ceased to pull the cord from behind the television cabinet.
As she disappeared up the stairs, Mickey ran a hand through his hair and closed his eyes. "I know she's just going through a phase, but I'm starting to worry, Lizzie." They moved toward the lounge room and sank onto the couch. When he didn't try to sit so close their legs touched, she patted his arm worriedly.
"Is she still not sleeping?"
Mickey sighed, the breath of unease like a trail of smoke. "Barely. Sometimes she's still awake when I leave her and I feel terrible but…I'm just so tired…" he scraped his hands down his face, bowed in shame. "I hate leaving her alone. Did you see her dragging her feet? She doesn't realise it, but she's fading, Lizzie. I don't know what to do." She was hugging him now, staring at the silent television, praying for answers. "I think…I think it's his fault."
She stiffened. "His?"
"Her friend. I think he keeps her awake. Or maybe…she's scared to be alone with him when I leave. I think that's why she stays up. Lizzie…I have to get rid of her imaginary friend."
Protectiveness blossomed in her chest like a peony. Fred would never do anything to upset a child. She tried to remember how it had felt, the day he'd gone. She imagined it to feel like a tearing in her heart, like her world had shattered. But it had been a subtle death for her emotions. She'd sighed, and her childhood had disappeared in a breath.
"Mickey, you can't. You can't take him away from her. You'll make it worse." She was so filled with loyalty she had no room for long sentences. "Promise you won't; please."
"I – I don't know what else to do, Lizzie."
"There's got to be something else. We'll find a way."
He saw on her face the same desperation that Natalie showed when he bid her goodnight. "You win, Lizzie. I'll find another way," he said, if only to feel her Thankyou kiss on his cheek.