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the fall before the climb

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Lynne has a memory problem.

No. Wait, that’s not right. Put like that, it sounds like the problem is with her memory. It’s not. Lynne has an excellent memory. It’s more like the problem is she has too much memory.

Argh, this is too confusing! Start again. It goes like this...

::

When Lynne passes her detective exam, she and all the other newly minted detectives get to go to the justice minister’s office for a special ceremony. The justice minister has an impressive red and gold suit and an impressive office full of all kinds of decorative geegaws and thingamajigs. While she waits her turn, Lynne mostly stares at the decor and entertains herself with what would happen if that globe there spun around and knocked over the square metal vase there.

Then she’s called up and she shakes the justice minister’s hand and is complimented for her commitment to the welfare of society.

“I wish you great luck in your new career, Detective,” says the justice minister.

“Thanks,” says Lynne. As she looks down at the minister, something nags at the back of her mind. Something she’s supposed to tell him...ah! “Don’t forget to take your medicine, Mr. Minister,” she says, triumphant. “You want to keep your heart healthy, after all!”

The minister frowns at her.

“Thank you, detective,” he says slowly. “I won’t.”

On their way out, Detective Jowd falls into step with her.

“How did you know the justice minister has a heart condition?” he asks in that mild tone of his.

“Hmm,” says Lynne. She hasn’t thought about it. “You know, I don’t know! It kind of just...came to me.” She frowns, puts a hand to her chin. “Maybe...it’s my detective’s sense? Yeah, that must be it! Guess it just shows I’m going to be a really good detective.”

Detective Jowd looks at her for a moment, mouth in a thoughtful line. Then he shakes his head, smiles, and claps her on the shoulder.

“You will, Lynne,” he says. “You will.”

Lynne beams, and walks with a skip in her step all the way out of the building.

::

Okay, that’s a good example.

But it’s not the first example.

That’s probably back when Lynne is still a uniform cop, fresh out of the academy. Their station gets a report that some young delinquents are using an old junkyard on the edge of town as a hideout, so the chief sends a couple officers down there every few hours to keep an eye on things.

It isn’t exactly stomping out evil, but someone has to keep the kids from getting squashed by a wrecking ball or whatever mischief kids can get up to in a junkyard. Lynne’s patrolling down there late one night with her partner when she hears a clang and the sound of voices from behind the chain-link fence.

“Damn kids,” grumbles Lynne’s partner, and sighs.

“I’ll go,” Lynne volunteers immediately. This is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened so far, except last week when she stopped a purse-snatching.

“Be my guest,” says her partner. “I’ll, uh, keep an eye on the perimeter. Make sure they don’t get away.”

Lynne rolls her eyes and crawls through the opening in the fence that the kids must have used. The junkyard has a couple flickering fluorescent lights, enough that she doesn't have to get her flashlight out right away. When she looks up, the wrecking ball is a black blot against the sky, carving a neat bite out of the moon.

The kids’ voices float up to her from below, and she can spy the yellow light of a lamp. They must be downstairs.

Hmm...she could go down the main stairs, but they would probably hear her coming and get out the back way through the sewers. But if she goes around the back way, she can get the jump on them.

As quietly as she can, she sneaks around the super’s office down the stairs on the other side. She jiggles the lock on the basement door till it pops open, switching on her flashlight long enough to find the trapdoor in the floor before dropping through it. She lands on the pavement below, and at the end of the sewer tunnel she can see the group of kids where they’re gathered on a beat-up green couch.

She switches on her flashlight, though she doesn’t really need it, and walks out there.

“Hey!” she says in her most commanding voice. “You kids aren’t supposed to be in here.”

Caught off-guard, they freeze. There are beer bottles and cigarette butts scattered on the ground, and a few empty spray paint cans.

“A cop?” says one of them disbelieving, and Lynne can’t help but puff out her chest.

“That’s right,” she said proudly.

“How’d you know about the secret tunnel?” asks one of them shrilly, and Lynne pauses. Wait. Has she been to this place before?  

“That’s classified police knowledge,” she says sternly. “And beside the point. You shouldn’t be here!”

“Are you gonna arrest us?” asks the first.

“No, I’m going to call up the superintendent tomorrow and tell him to board up that gap in the fence,” says Lynne. “Now scram, and take that garbage with you.”

She watches with satisfaction as they scramble away, taking most if not all of the beer bottles with them.

On her way back up the stairs, she passes a beat-up green public phone and for a moment she is absolutely sure with every particle in her body that it is going to ring. She’s so sure that she stops in her tracks and turns toward it, hand outstretched.

It doesn’t ring.

She picks up the receiver anyway, heavy plastic cold against her hand.

“Hello?” she says, feeling silly. Only the dial tone answers her.

When she closes her eyes, she smells rain.

::

The problem with Lynne’s memory is this: Lynne remembers things she’s not supposed to remember.

She hums to herself as she goes shopping. She needs a Christmas gift, and eventually she settles on a pair of headphones that play music. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing, and she won’t let Christmas go by without gifts.

She’s halfway home when she stops dead in the street, rummages in her bag, and pulls out the headphones.

A gift?

Who was she expecting to give this to, Missile? Detective Jowd? She can’t imagine he would get much use out of them. Inspector Cabanela, maybe?

She stares at the headphones and sees a package wrapped in shiny paper with a big red bow on top.

“I think it’s been getting worse, Missile,” she says. She’s decorating for Christmas, because it’s her day off, and Missile is barking, because Missile always barks. “I just keep getting this feeling like there’s something important I’m forgetting, something really, really big—”  

Missile looks at her with his big bright eyes and lets out a sharp bark, tongue lolling. She finishes wrestling her plastic tree into position.

“I know you can’t understand me, boy, but I’ve got to talk about it to someone,” she says, standing on her tiptoes to put the star ornament on the top of the tree. Her fingers slip, and she accidentally knocks its ‘on’ switch. “Oh, bother—”

Tinkling music fills the apartment, accompanied by a crescendo of rising barks.

“Shhh, Missile,” she says, adjusting the star. “If you don’t quiet down the lady next door is going to knock the wall down on top of you.”

The realization, when it comes, startles her. She stops and turns around.

“See! I just did it again,” she says to Missile. “The apartment next door is empty, isn’t it? We don’t have a neighbor—which I suppose is lucky for you, or probably would get the wall knocked down on you.”

She sits cross-legged on the floor, and he trots up to her eagerly, tail wagging.

“Oh, Missile,” she says, scratching his ears while he pants in pleasure. “What am I going to do?”

::

“Hey Professor,” she says to the old pigeon man who works as a medical examiner. “Do you believe in past lives?”

He looks at her, then looks back at his scientific instruments. He’s a grumpy old guy, but Lynne likes him a lot, likes hanging around his lab where he’s always tinkering with things that hum and beep.

“I don’t believe one way or the other,” he says. “There’s nothing to prove they exist, but there’s nothing to prove they don’t exist, either.”

Lynne hums, and wonders what counts as proof. If something is in her head, does that mean it’s not real?

Can you measure if memories are true or not?

Pigeon man grunts to himself.

“Funny,” he says, in a way that mean he doesn’t think it’s all that funny. “That white-coated inspector was in here asking me the same thing.”

“Inspector Cabanela?” asks Lynne in surprise. “About past lives?”

“Not past lives,” he says. “Parallel worlds.”

::

“You should come to dinner at our place tonight,” says Detective Jowd. “To celebrate your promotion!”

“Sorry,” says Lynne automatically. “I can’t. I’ve got something important to do.”

“Oh yeah?” asks Detective Jowd. “What’s that? Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“No,” says Lynne vehemently, and then catches up to herself. “I mean, uh, yes. It can. It’s not really all that important,” she says, to cover for the fact that she has no idea why she even made the excuse in the first place. “Wait, did you say at your place?”

“I did,” says Jowd placidly.

Lynne pauses. She’s never been to Detective Jowd’s place before. She’s met his wife, Miss Alma, on a couple occasions and once their baby girl Kamila, who was probably too young at the time to remember.

The fact is, she knows enough about Detective Jowd’s personality to find this sudden invitation slightly suspicious.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” says Detective Jowd. “You know, Alma makes a meeeean chicken dinner.”

“Sold!” says Lynne, who has never been able to resist a good chicken.

They head to Detective Jowd’s place after work. It’s already dark by the time they leave, the moon full and eerily large. Lynne looks up at it, so close it almost feels like she could reach out and touch it.

“Something big is going to happen tonight,” she declares.

When she looks over at Detective Jowd, he’s frowning at her.

“Lynne,” he begins as if he’s going to ask her a question, then shakes his head. “Never mind.”

Then they’re at Detective Jowd’s house, and he gestures for Lynne to go ahead of him, like a gentleman. She opens the door.

“Hey, why is it dark in here?” she asks. Jowd, behind her, makes a startled noise.

Damn ,” he says, and then: “Kamila—“

But Lynne has already reached in for the light switch and flicked it on, and things seem to go in slow motion all of a sudden.

She sees the tennis ball drop from the fan, knocking the vases over and spinning up the balance toy. The cupid figurine rises from the crate.

“Once cupid fires his arrow, it’s all over,” thinks Lynne, and braces for impact.

::

The impact never comes. It’s just some party poppers a little girl set up for her mother’s birthday.

But for a moment there she almost has it, the world painted in red when she closes her eyes and spots in her vision like she’s been looking into a flame.

Kamila is taller than Lynne remembers, of course, the spitting image of her mother, and familiar in a way that even genetic resemblance doesn’t explain.

“Hey,” Lynne says, an idea striking her. “Do you like listening to music?”

“Yeah!” says Kamila, bouncing up and down. “I really do! I like to listen when I’m building things.”

“That’s awesome,” says Lynne. “I might have something for you later.”

There’s a high, plaintive meow from somewhere around her legs, and Lynne looks down to see a black kitten in a red bandanna twining around her ankles.

“Oh!” says Kamila. “Sissel came to say hi. He must like you, he doesn’t do that for everybody.”

“Sissel,” says Lynne slowly, the yellow eyes tugging at her memory. She crouches down, holding out a hand to the kitten. “Is this the same kitty from that time?”

“It is,” says Detective Jowd, reappearing. His face was suddenly drawn and solemn, watching her intently. Lynne is about to ask him what’s wrong, when suddenly—

“We’ve known each other for longer than that, Detective,” says a voice in her ear, as clear and distinct as if the speaker was sitting right next to her. “Do you remember?”

And then, all of a sudden, she does. All the pieces come together in a rush, leaving only one urgent question burning in her mind.

“Sissel,” she says, “why are you a cat?”

::

Miss Alma is apparently used to strange things going on in her house, because she doesn’t bat an eye at Lynne having a lengthy one-sided conversation with the family cat on the living room floor. Any other time Lynne would probably feel weird talking to thin air, but at the moment she’s too caught up in Sissel’s story of everything that happened since he and Missile left the Yonoa to go look for Detective Jowd.

“That explains why you couldn’t read,” Lynne exclaims. “It all makes sense!”

Sissel’s tail lashes back and forth.  

“Hmph,” he says. “Well, I could hardly help it. I’d only ever been a cat before. You humans have such complicated lives. I’ve learned a lot in these last ten years, you know. With this body I can go all over, so long as there are cores for me to possess. I’ve been keeping an eye on you too, Detective.”

“Wait, but if you and Detective Jowd knew all along about what happened, why didn’t you say anything?” asks Lynne.

Sissel looks away, licking his paw and swiping it over his ear in a faintly embarrassed fashion.

“Well, you see, the only ones who rightfully ought to have memories of the other past should be myself, Detective Jowd, Missile, and Yomiel,” he says. “Since we were the only ones who went all the way back to that day. And...we wanted you to grow up without those memories of death hanging over you. You were so young. We were just going to watch over you from a distance, but then to our surprise you began to remember all on your own.”

“That night at the junkyard,” says Lynne slowly. “And the Justice Minister’s heart medicine, and the lady next door knocking down the wall. But why?

Sissel flicks an ear.

“We’re not sure,” he says thoughtfully. “But, you know, you died more than once that night. Far more than anyone else. Erasing the memory of one death is one thing, but four? Five? All those memories crouched in the shadows, just waiting to pounce. And as we got closer and closer to that night in our timeline, it got harder to hold them back.”

“And I promised,” says Lynne.

“You promised?”

“On the Yonoa. I promised I’d never forget you, no matter what happened.”

“Hmm,” says Sissel. “So you did. And you kept your promise. So—thank you for remembering me. ”

Lynne feels tears welling in her eyes, and she scoops him up in her arms, because it’s Sissel, her friend.

“Sissel, I’m so glad to see you,” she says into his fur.

Sissel purrs and rubs his face against hers.

“You too, Lynne,” he says. “You too.”

::

Detective Jowd can move very unobtrusively for such a large man when he wants to. He sidles back into the room when Lynne is wiping the last of the tears from her eyes.

“You’ve had a chance to catch up, I guess,” he says. “It seems you were right, Sissel.”

Sissel hops on top of an armchair and folds himself into a loaf, looking smug. Detective Jowd gives him a scratch under the chin, looking pensive.

“I wasn’t sure—” he says, half to himself, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Hey, Lynne?” He turns to her.

“Yes?”

He fixes her with his most solemn stare.

“Thank you,” he says quietly. “For everything.”

Lynne smiles.

“I just followed the example of my hero,” she says, and he gives a rueful snort.

“You think more highly of me than I deserve,” he says. “I guess it makes me want to live up to your expectations. Now, how about that chicken?”

“Yeah!” says Lynne, because with all these emotional revelations she’s really worked up an appetite.

“You and chicken,” says Sissel, and evidently Detective Jowd can hear him too, because he chuckles. “No matter what world we’re in, that hasn’t changed.”

“I’d hate to face life without chicken,” says Lynne agreeably. “Do you suppose there is such a thing?”

“They say there are parallel worlds,” says Detective Jowd. “And I suppose we are living proof that such a thing can exist.”

Lynne stops in her tracks. Something has just come back to her, not a memory from another timeline but one from here and now.

“Hey, Sissel?” she says.

“Yes, Detective?”

“What if I’m not the only one who remembers?”

::

As it turns out, Inspector Cabanela is invited to dinner too, and he brings Missile, which makes Lynne want to cry again. Missile can’t strictly talk to her anymore, but he can bark a lot and Sissel translates. Lynne just hugs him and tells him how brave he is.

Inspector Cabanela seems like his usual exuberant self at dinner, totally unbothered by the pangs of memory as far as Lynne could tell. But Inspector Cabanela has always been better at hiding his true feelings than Lynne has.

“Do you want me to come with you?” asks Sissel. Detective Jowd shakes his head.

“No,” he says, and rises. “It’s best if he hears it from me.”

Lynne and Sissel both watch as he crosses the room to where Inspector Cabanela is in the midst of gesticulating a story to Miss Alma. He places a hand on his old friend’s shoulder and murmurs something. Inspector Cabanela looks surprised but follows Detective Jowd to the other room.

“Does Miss Alma know?” asks Lynne softly. Sissel slits his eyes.

“She knows something is different,” he says. “She doesn’t know what. Jowd doesn’t want to tell her. Doesn’t want to upset her. It’s not as if remembering one’s own death is very pleasant.”

Lynne shivers, and Sissel snuggles closer in her lap.

“I’ve tried to tell him that these things don’t stay buried,” he says. “Memories stick around, like ghosts.” He pauses, and then says drily. “I think recent events may have forced him to reconsider his position.”

They both watch Missile. Right now he’s playing with Kamila, dancing around her ecstatically like there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“He misses the little lady,” says Sissel. “He’s always asking about her when I come to visit.”

“I’ll bring him over more often,” promises Lynne. “Now that I know.”

“I’m glad you’re back, Detective,” says Sissel. “Things weren’t right without you and the little warrior around.”

“Don’t worry,” says Lynne. “I’m here to stay, and there’s still plenty of evil to stomp out!” She looks around the room, and maybe everything’s not quite the same, but the hard part is done and they’re back together.

“We’ll be alright from here on in,” says Sissel with the supreme native confidence of a cat. “You’ll see.”

::

Lynne’s memories led her back to her family, and she wouldn’t trade that for the world.

::