Carlie St. George
Mid-country is dusty and hot, and all the towns are named something ominous and biblical. This town is called Heathens Perish; already, Cimcim is sick to death of it, the holy verses etched into floorboards, the flat-eyed stare of suspicious menfolk. Why two churches would wage over this sad stretch of tumbleweeds – but that’s the way with gods, sometimes. Each wants the final word.
Once it’d been a bloodless war, fought mostly with tiresome pamphlets, but now a prophet has gone missing, a child of seven years and undetermined gender. The Church of Cataclysm hire Cimcim’s partner, Yesterday, to prove the angel-worshippers stole their seer; the Church of Angels hire Cimcim to slay the demon they insist is to blame. Neither worship-house likes them working together, despite the fact they always do.
‘Doom-mongers got their hooks in her now,’ one priest warns, looking at Yesterday across the road. ‘Take their coin, they take your soul. Sleep one eye open, I were you.’
Cimcim discards the warning, but follows the advice: she always sleeps less when they’re on a case. A hunt is different. Monsters play by certain rules; all you truly need know is which game you agreed to play. But a case means a human culprit, and humans cheat; it’s what they do. A human will break any law, any promise, any salt line in order to keep their sins secret and safe.
Cimcim, not quite human, can bend the rules better than most – but she feels the weight of it, of compulsion, obligation. More likely than not, it’ll put her in the ground someday.
‘Been looking through the local holy books,’ Cimcim tells Yesterday, painting a spiral of black thorns over her eye. Women in Mid are expected to be dangerous, but aren’t supposed to look it; Cimcim, who wears weapons and leather and bold, asymmetrical make-up that passes for war paint, this part of the world, can’t quite pull off fashionably delicate. ‘Doubt any demon’s been in these parts for fifty years. No earth split asunder, no clew of worms spilling forth. This town is short on portents of doom.’
‘You only think that,’ Yesterday scoffs, voice muffled as she disappears under the absurd volume of her skirts, ‘because you didn’t try the stew last night. I’ll gladly suffer through any hail of vermin or storm of god-blood if I never have to face such horror again.’
‘Careful. Gods listen to blasphemy closer than prayer.’
‘I meant every word,’ Yesterday insists, posh and precise, as she fixes her drooping double buns. ‘Have you ever known me to lie?’
You’re not the liar here, Cimcim doesn’t say. Not Yesterday, who knows exactly who she is and what she wants, who travels in an endless pursuit of truth, justice, and the latest fashions. Not Yesterday, who is Cimcim’s to protect.
‘Never,’ Cimcim replies gravely. ‘And I expect you’ll keep meaning those words, too, ‘til one of your fancy dresses is stained a bright and holy red.’
She expects the usual theatrics: a loud gasp, a lamentation for the hypothetical dead – but that’s the problem with detectives: they don’t know how to stop looking for clues.
‘Hmm,’ Yesterday says, peering at Cimcim.
Cimcim doesn’t care to explore the subject further. ‘Discover anything useful last night, when you were aggravating the town folk?’
Yesterday turns back to her mirror, pushing up her copper specs and rubbing cold cream into her golden-brown skin. ‘I prefer the term interrogating.’
‘That mean you had pertinent questions for once, not anthropological?’
Yesterday smiles, mischievous with something else underneath, something like regret. ‘Anthropology is always pertinent. And I’ve already narrowed the list of suspects: the child’s beloved uncle, of course, and the mysterious stranger from your Home-country, and finally that cadaverous priest who warned I’d stick a dagger in your back, or steal your soul with a kiss.’
Cimcim pauses, make-up brush mid-air.
Yesterday’s lips are plump and forever distracting: red today, to match her silks. She’s round, beautiful, with soft, thick, inviting arms that Cimcim has slept inside before when shelter was scarce. Cimcim never says, I want your shelter, whether I need it or not. I want to hold and be held. I want to linger. She never asks, Can I kiss you without raising expectation? Could you love someone who doesn’t want more?
Cimcim, lacking a mirror, asks, ‘Decent enough?’
Yesterday’s smile softens. ‘Perfection. The fortune you might have made as an artist – but then we wouldn’t have met, and who would protect me, or play my guessing games? Surely, you must have a guess.’
Cimcim winces. ‘Was it the uncle?’
‘Interesting. Why the uncle?’
Cimcim shrugs, nonchalant as she knows how. ‘Seems the saddest.’
‘Hmm,’ Yesterday says again.
In fact, it’s the stranger from West-country, come out to incite a holy war to better build his own church from the ashes. Yesterday discovers the child, safe and unharmed, while Cimcim takes great pleasure in knocking the aspiring priest senseless. She discovers his true name tattooed across his back: Abenlynhohochet, which tells her he’s a widow and a thief, and that his family considered his birth a blessing: in All-country, ‘benlyn’ best translates as ‘miracle.’
Yesterday, who prefers children in the theoretical, when they aren’t loud and sticky and asking so many questions she can’t get her own in edgewise, escapes to find a wheelbarrow for their felled malefactor. Cimcim, left with the child, endures.
Yes, these are her real teeth. No, she can cheat the sun. No, she didn’t declare her gender in adolescence, and yes, she’s content with the gender assigned. No, given names are only secret in East. No, her name is longer than the Bad Man’s: Ocimcimkalinlanqueti. Yes, it is hard for many to say. Slower, sure: O-seem-seem-kuh-lean-lonk-tee. Yes, Cimcim is fine. No, westerners are assigned two parts of their name – once at birth, once at seven – and then add to their own names throughout their life. No, they never subtract or replace; names are an evolution, a reflection of past and present. No. No. We don’t understand that. No, we don’t believe in erasure.
The child is silent, briefly. Then. ‘Are Westerners named after their jobs? But what if you’re a cook, and alls you want is to hunt monsters and not cook no more? What if you change gender? You allowed to change gender?’
‘Yes,’ Cimcim says, working backwards and wondering if this town simply has no wheelbarrows. ‘Plenty of folk come to figure their given gender is wrong, or incomplete. Some choose to reflect that, some don’t: names aren’t gendered, out West. And work, most people include it. Say I’m an ex-cook and a monster hunter. I’m not a monster hunter who’s never been a cook. Different paths, different names, see?’
‘But what if you don’t like your name?’
‘Then you keep becoming until you do.’
‘What’s the word for prophet?’
‘What’s the word for married?’
The child frowns. ‘But that’s not part of your name.’
‘I’m not married.’
‘But I dreamed you would save me, you and your detective. And there was snow, and blood, and you kissed.’
‘Is that so?’ Yesterday asks suddenly from the doorway, enchanted and enchanting, the wheelbarrow forgotten behind her.
Cimcim may forget to breathe.
‘How very interesting,’ Yesterday continues, looking only at Cimcim. ‘How often do your visions come true?’
‘I’m a prophet,’ the child says. ‘All my visions are true, in some world or other.’
‘Very interesting,’ Yesterday says, eyes curious, alight.
Cimcim turns away to collect the quarry, and herself. She only remembers to breathe again when Heathens Perish is long behind them.
East-country is tempestuous with wind and fire and magic. Each town is a fortress against these storms, each building architectural and beautiful and defiant.
Yesterday is from East-country.
They never travel past the border.
South-country is hot and wet, like the very air wants to drown you. Each town has their own flower, their own saint, their own Words. Some Words are more vicious than others.
Cimcim and Yesterday left Justice Hanging two nights ago, but still the town clings to them as they make camp, watching the stars. It’d been an ugly case, child-killings. Kind that lingers in your dreams, but they caught the murderer, and that was supposed to mean something. Supposed to be what mattered, in the end.
Yesterday is talking more than usual because Cimcim is talking less than usual. Yesterday’s whiskey-flushed, so polluted she’s gone cross-eyed, a rare and troubling thing.
‘Do you know,’ Yesterday says, ‘it might even be a universal constant? Everywhere, someone’s looking up at those stars, finding their own meaning, their own patterns. How many cultures, in this big, lonely country, and not one looking for patterns in the dirt.
‘Do you know that’s what a detective does? It’s patterns, but you find them in people, in their gods and predictabilities, in their lies and body language and what they offer their dead. Culture, you have to think outside your own, because if you don’t, if you miss it, if you miss what you’re missing…’ Yesterday laughs, humming aimlessly. ‘Dead, dead, dead.’
It’s not your fault, Cimcim doesn’t say. It’s her own. If only Cimcim been more careful. When did she stop being so careful?
But she already knows the answer to that.
‘Back home—’ Yesterday hiccups, face gone blank in a way that scares Cimcim a little. ‘The stars are brightest at home. Nice woman in Justice Hanging told me that, and I thought, now those would be good town Words. Such a lovely tradition, naming towns after their central thesis, their local proverb. Would they’ve killed him, you think, if the town was named Bright Star instead? There was so much blood, you know.’
But there wasn’t. There were ugly marks round the throat, and fresh piss, and bits of drool, but no blood was spilt when that mob dragged the killer from his cell. Cimcim would’ve smelled it. She would’ve seen it, standing at the ringleader’s open front door, pushing against an invisible wall, trying to break through the threshold – trying and failing.
She couldn’t weep for the man, wouldn’t. He was as rotten as they come, would’ve kept on killing kids if Yesterday hadn’t sussed him out – but Yesterday believes in court justice, had begged Cimcim to save him. Her face, when she saw those feet swing, when she saw Cimcim had failed…
‘Justice,’ Yesterday says bitterly. ‘Justice is best served by hanging the judge. You believe those Words, Cimcim? Say what you think. Say something. Anything.’
I’m sorry, she doesn’t say. Didn’t mean to let them see, didn’t mean to smile so wide, looking at you. Never used to let anyone see my teeth, spent years not speaking at all – but you get me feeling so easy, so loose in my own skin. Thinking it’s okay, letting people know me, wanting to be known. But when humans know what you are, they only use your rules against you. Why they couldn’t hang him outright: jail is public. I could’ve stopped it. But this – what if they’d turned on you, Yesterday? How can I protect you if I’m forever seeking invitation?
Cimcim is impossibly strong, impossibly fast. She can turn bat-like, if she really feels the notion. Can survive long hours in the sun, can even resist the call to count whatever’s spilled to the floor most days – but not all is determined by obstinance and prayer. Humans have laws made to be broken, and Cimcim has rules impossible to cheat.
‘Your teeth are beautiful,’ Yesterday slurs fiercely, eyes dark and unfocused as she leans in close. ‘Someone told you they weren’t. Don’t speak, you’re a burden, no one wants see your ugly teeth. But they lied, they were idiots; I wanna see all of time – no, all of you all of time, however much you wanna show me. I want that world to be this world, you remember? The prophet? You’re beautiful to know, I want—’
Yesterday reaches out, rubs her thumb gently against Cimcim’s pale white cheek. ‘I want,’ she says again, and abruptly loses her balance.
Cimcim catches Yesterday before she can kiss the dirt. Yesterday smiles up at her, bright and sloppy and confused. ‘Y’know,’ she says, blinking heavily. ‘Y’know I might be drunk?’
‘I know,’ Cimcim murmurs, eventually, long after Yesterday has fallen asleep.
West-country is quaking country. The ground trembles often, a mild, familiar shudder. When it splits open wide, the land offers gifts, though not every gift is necessarily wanted.
It’s good to be home again. Cimcim is wandering, not running, and she’s missed the warm nights. She’s missed the men in their fashionable hats and mural tattoos, the women in their gothic face paints and intricate jewelry. The way imbalance is revered here, how it’s reflected through the asymmetry of each signpost and temple and fashion staple. Cimcim has missed this perplexing, dangerous earth, which is thoughtful and mischievous and always carefully watching. No one stares at Cimcim here, not if her teeth are hidden. No one ever stumbles over the length of her name – though that isn’t to say introductions are any less painful.
The innkeeper’s son laughs when Yesterday introduces Cimcim, only trailing off as he realizes the pronunciation is true. ‘Your folks were unkind,’ he says finally, ‘saddling a kid with a name like that. Judge in these parts is goodly, though. Surely if you appeal—’
But Cimcim merely shakes her head.
‘Right,’ Yesterday says, breaking the silence. ‘Perhaps we could see the scene of dastardly violence?’
The young man shows them to the room and quickly flees. Hauntings have that effect on people, and this one’s been going on some weeks now, ever since a traveller got himself butchered. The innkeeper hired Cimcim to exorcise his ghost, but exorcisms are a last resort, one that small-minded humans always reach for first. If Yesterday can bring the culprit to justice, though, then perhaps the ghost might finally rest.
Admittedly, time is a limiting factor. How many people have walked these floors since the murder? How many have slept in this bed? The killer could be in Mid-country by now, with no trail left behind to follow. But this is Yesterday’s specialty: solving the impossible, finding hope for the hopeless.
Cimcim settles on the bed, an eye out for vengeful ghosts. Yesterday settles on her heels, an eye out for Cimcim.
‘You can ask,’ Cimcim says, as Yesterday, carefully not asking anything, sprinkles one of her colorful powders on the ugly carpet. There’s been so much unsaid between them these past several months since Justice Hanging. Cimcim has found it hard to speak much at all lately, more self-conscious than she’s been in years. With strangers, it’s better to only speak when necessary, to keep her lip movements small. And though she never needs do that with Yesterday, who knew what Cimcim was long before she owned up to it, well…Cimcim knows how dangerous words are, has never understood how some folk just…speak whatever they like, without fear of consequence or reprisal. If she had any knack for it, the things she might ask. Was it just the whiskey talking? You even remember what you said? Is it possible you meant it, that you still mean it, even if you want more than I’m willing to give? Yesterday deserves honesty, but Cimcim is a coward, unwilling to bet high and lose. Yesterday is safe, except for all the ways she’s not. She can be trusted with everything, everything but Cimcim’s heart.
‘You can ask,’ Cimcim says again, because someone needs to ask something, and it’s never going to be her.
‘Hmm.’ Yesterday studies the carpet where blue and purple and green footprints have begun to emerge. ‘Is it martyrdom, then?’
Cimcim blinks. ‘What?’
‘Your blatant refusal to appeal to a Judge, even though they could approve an extension to your name.’ There’s an edge to Yesterday’s voice that Cimcim can’t account for. ‘It’s what a Westerner does, isn’t it? A murderer becomes a murderer falsely convicted, should a Judge rule it thus. A child with a hateful name becomes a child whose parents were proven hateful. An extension provides context, yes? But you keep letting people only see the slur.’
‘You’re so sure it’s a slur?’
‘I know it’s unkind,’ Yesterday says, ‘and I know it’s untrue.’
Cimcim shakes her head. ‘You don’t know everything. Not even you.’
‘Well, of course I don’t.’ Yesterday sits back in a huff, irritably pushing her green satin ruffles away from the footprints. ‘Certain mathematics are well beyond me, and I’m sure I’ll never understand how people happily live on ever-quaking ground – but then, what do I know of West? I’m fluent in East and All-Country, can parse several dialects of Mid, North and South, am studying Mid sign language, which is vastly different than finger-talk back home – and yet here I can’t even ask for water because what if “cimcim” means water, and you’ve been traumatized by this liquid you can’t properly ingest? It doesn’t mean water, does it?’
Cimcim crosses her arms. ‘Amazing. You cracked the case.’
Yesterday smiles tightly. ‘Well, I am the greatest detective this century, you know. One of the smartest women living today – and I’ve made myself ignorant, all for you. Can you imagine I’d do that for anyone?’
Cimcim doesn’t say all kinds of things, most of them ugly and barbwire sharp.
Yesterday inhales, begins to say something gentle-like – but then the ghost appears, howling obscenities over her head. He’d been attractive once, white-blonde and Eastern, probably, going by those long, fancy vowels – but being dead tends to trump such things, especially when your torso is all red and raw and missing chunks.
Cimcim jumps to her feet, but Yesterday barely even glances up. ‘Oh, be quiet,’ she tells him, like a madwoman. ‘I’m working on it, aren’t I?’
The ghost howls incoherent rage.
‘Well, that’ll hardly make things go any faster, will it? I’ve already determined you were killed by either your partner in crime – yes, I know about that – or by the innkeeper’s son. Do you want justice, or do you want to keep interfering with my work?’
Impossibly, the ghost is swayed by this baseless argument and promptly evaporates. Cimcim, who’s in no mood to feed Yesterday’s ego by saying things like amazing or how could you possibly know instead raises one eyebrow and thinks bullshit as hard as she can.
Yesterday surprises her by laughing. ‘Come on. Let’s go antagonize the town folk.’
The town folk are indeed antagonized when the innkeeper’s son spitefully confesses to the murder. The ghost, rather than gracefully fading into some distant afterlife, chooses to haunt his killer instead; since he leaves the inn by doing so, Cimcim and Yesterday still get paid. The innkeeper herself is understandably bitter, so they leave quick like, making camp miles away.
The silence between them isn’t ominous, but it is conspicuous.
Takes several tries, but eventually Cimcim manages to unstick her tongue. ‘I’d never ask you to change for me,’ she says. ‘I’d never ask you to be anything less than yourself.’
Yesterday sighs and sits beside her. ‘I know. If you had, I never would’ve done it. You’re not responsible for my decisions, and I’m sorry for suggesting otherwise. It’s only…you must understand, curiosity is not an idle thing for me. A detective must learn. They must always be reaching. The consequences for ignorance are not merely theoretical.’
Who died, Yesterday? Cimcim doesn’t ask. Who died strung up and bloody cause you got something wrong?
Cimcim says, ‘You ask my name, I’ll tell you. It’s no secret, not really.’
‘Maybe,’ Yesterday says. ‘But that’s not quite the same as wanting me to know.’
Cimcim does want her to know, and doesn’t. She wants too many things, all of them contradictory.
Yesterday squeezes Cimcim’s arm. ‘It’s all right,’ she says lightly. ‘It’s not as though I’d tell you my name in return.’
‘That’s completely different,’ Cimcim says, disturbed.
‘I love that you think so. Not everyone does. But that’s the trouble with people, sometimes. They expect things you should never have to give.’
Cimcim forgets to breathe again.
Yesterday taps her own chest twice to remind her. ‘I forget sometimes, the way I see the world, but you’re not a case to be solved, Ocimcimkalinlanqueti. You’re my very favorite person, and I can wait for you.’ She laughs, uncharacteristically self-conscious. ‘Besides, the situation is hardly untenable. If I need translation, you’ll be at my side, won’t you?’
‘Always,’ Cimcim says immediately.
Yesterday smiles. ‘You say the loveliest things, sometimes. I do have one question, if you’re willing to hear it.’
‘Are you worried I’ll believe it’s true, your name? Or worried I’ll tell you it’s not?’
It shouldn’t be a hard question. But some things, Cimcim has never been sure of.
‘I’ll give you three guesses,’ Cimcim says, instead of answering proper.
Yesterday can hardly hide her delight. But the more she contemplates, the more melancholic she becomes. Finally, some nights later as she struggles to sleep on ground that won’t stay put, Yesterday turns to face Cimcim. ‘Monster,’ she whispers, soft and sad.
‘Two left,’ Cimcim says, and drifts off to the soothing, trembling earth.
Mid-country is still dusty and hot, and their gods are irritable, especially this time of year.
‘My. Fucking. DRESS,’ Yesterday says.
‘Told you,’ Cimcim says, and lifts her open canteen to collect the free food.
North-country is cold and beautiful and bleeding.
No, snow doesn’t bleed here, not this close to the East border. It must belong to the tundra-wyrm. Gargantuan beasts, unreasonable and vicious, and this one had wiped out half a town before Cimcim had taken its head. She’ll need to dispose of the corpse once she remembers where she left it – oh, over yonder, and so much bloody snow between them. She considers her shaking fingers and the red-soaked bandages wrapped around her left side and thigh.
Right, there are things in this world that have even bigger and uglier teeth than she does.
She remembers, vaguely, how it bit down, an agony she can no longer feel. It would’ve torn her in half, had she been human. Instead, she’ll die slow and delirious and alone.
Cimcim sways forward another step, then stops. Some of the blood has landed in such perfect, little drops. That’s a rare thing, perhaps an omen, worthy of consideration. One, two – no, there’s another, now she has to start all over. One, two, three—
Have the hallucinations kicked in already?
But no, there’s Yesterday, jumping off a wagon and running across the snow. It’s a terrible idea: those heeled boots aren’t meant for this terrain; no matter how adept she normally is at hopping and dancing and skipping over blood trails in them. And that purple checkered dress is beautiful – Yesterday is always beautiful, dressed up or down – but where is her shawl, her coat? Why is she so stubbornly worthless at taking care of herself?
‘You’d die without me,’ Cimcim says, as Yesterday drops to her knees, frantically examining Cimcim’s wounds.
‘The sheer lack of awareness in that statement indicates you’re not coherent enough for the lecture you surely deserve,’ Yesterday says, ‘though one is coming, I assure you, defining the meaning of “partnership”, and how it doesn’t at all include leaving one’s partner behind—’
‘I missed you,’ Cimcim says, just because it’s true. She always misses Yesterday, even sometimes when she’s there.
Yesterday looks extremely alarmed by this.
‘Right,’ she says, standing. ‘Time to see a doctor, is it?’
‘Doc’s dead. Wyrm ate him.’
‘Fortunately, I know another one a few hours ride from here. Let’s get you there before you bleed out, yes?’
It’ll take days before Cimcim bleeds out. She’s funny that way. It’s the venom they need to worry about. She should tell Yesterday so – but no, the blood drops. They need to be accounted for, prioritized. She can’t go anywhere until she knows exactly how many there are. One, two, three, four—
Five, six, seven—
Something tugs on her arm. It can be dealt with later. Everything can be dealt with later: the wyrm’s corpse, Yesterday, even dying, if that’s what it comes down to. Eight, nine—
Yesterday’s no longer at Cimcim’s side. She’s directly in front now, holding Cimcim steady. ‘Hey, hey, look at me. We need to go. You can count whatever you want in the wagon, but – no, no, Cimcim, please, you have to focus, remember? You know how to do this.’
‘I’m coming,’ Cimcim mutters, mostly so Yesterday will stop distracting her. There’s so much more blood now. She can’t keep up with it. ‘Soon as I – damn it – one, two—’
A firm hand on her shoulder. Another lifting her chin. ‘Ocimcimkalinlanqueti.’
Cimcim looks at Yesterday. Her eyes are dark and frightened. Her crown braid has started to come loose. Her mouth is distracting as ever. Purple today, to match her dress.
‘If you don’t come with me now,’ Yesterday says, slow and precise, ‘you’ll die. And if you die, who will stop me from running around without a coat, or from getting murdered during one of my grand reveals?’
‘Stop those,’ Cimcim says, sluggish. ‘Dangerous.’
‘Yes, darling, but they’re also absolutely the thing to do if you’re a detective of any renown. So you see, I need you. Keep looking at me. We’re taking a step, all right?’
Yesterday steps backwards through the snow; Cimcim follows, staggering slightly. With obvious difficulty, Yesterday holds her up. ‘See? Not very far now. Just a few more – no, no, Cimcim, don’t look down. Look at me. If you don’t look at me, I’ll die.’
Cimcim looks at Yesterday. The numbers are reprioritized.
‘I could kiss you,’ she says.
Cimcim’s lips are numb. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to talk now, the way it hasn’t been in such a long time. The words fall out before she’s even finished thinking them: ‘I’d like to kiss you. I think about it a lot. There’s a flutter in my belly whenever you smile or say my name.’
‘But – when I – you never—’
Cimcim barely hears her. ‘I flutter different, though. Called asa, in West. It’s not the monster thing, not a rule. I’ve just never had that want, not low in my gut, not between my legs, not even for you. And if I was with you, I’d wanna be with you. I wouldn’t wanna pretend. You want a woman, deserve one, who looks at you with heat, and maybe in that other world…but I can only love you the way I love you. I’m sorry that’s not enough.’
‘You—’ Yesterday’s lovely mouth hangs slack-jaw before she visibly regroups. ‘We will revisit this later, at great length, once we get you well again. Come on, now. Another few steps, we’re almost there.’
Cimcim takes another few steps and doesn’t climb into the wagon so much as collapse into it, Yesterday hovering over her. Yesterday’s eyes are still frightened. Wet, too. Prognosis must be poorly indeed.
‘You’ll take me home,’ Cimcim says, ‘won’t you?’
‘Be quiet, you’re not—’
‘It’s a fine place to die,’ Cimcim continues, ‘but my bones belong to different dirt. You’ll take care of it, won’t—’
‘Stop saying you’re dying, you fucking liar. Do you have no faith in me at all?’
But Cimcim has all the faith in Yesterday, following the clues, finding hope for the hopeless. ‘Solving the impossible,’ she murmurs, touching Yesterday’s cold cheek. ‘Didn’t even need your third guess.’
But Cimcim can’t answer. Priorities keep shifting.
East-country is on fire. At least, that’s how it seems when Cimcim wakes up, glances out the bedroom window, and sees flames drifting gently from the sky. Yesterday, at her side and fuzzy and very possibly a fever-dream, assures her it’s only a light flurry of fireflakes: common in early spring and easily extinguished. They’re a good omen, Yesterday explains, and Cimcim trusts every version of Yesterday, even the dreamed-up ones, so she passes out again.
When she wakes later, Cimcim is clear-headed enough to remember how she almost went the way all flesh must – and, unfortunately, everything else, too. Would that she could fall back asleep, but Yesterday, sitting beside her and still wearing Cimcim’s blood, will have none of it.
‘The doctor has gone to fetch more medicines,’ Yesterday says. ‘In the meantime, we should talk.’
‘Suppose we ought,’ Cimcim says cautiously, glancing around. This is someone’s house: doctor’s place, most likely. How long since she’s been invited inside a home? ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Oh? What are you apologizing for now?’
There are too many answers to that questions. ‘You didn’t want to come back here.’
‘Yes, well.’ Yesterday fidgets, tugging at her blood-spattered sleeves. ‘It was time I cashed in a favor. Can’t collect them endlessly, you know.’
‘Some things are more important than ghosts,’ Yesterday says.
Cimcim closes her mouth.
Yesterday leans back. ‘I’m very aware, of course, of my limited fighting skills. My muscles are soft, my right hook abominably sloppy. I could not fell a man, nor likely a reasonably sized dog, and am entirely mortal, easy to dispatch. I am a detective, and little more.’
‘But there’s a difference, you know, between being a useless fighter and being useless in a fight. You may have noticed I’m quite clever; I can improvise, can distract or strategize or hide as necessary. I’m certainly a better medic than you; your field dressings were appalling. Also, I’m an accomplished tracker, which is fortunate, as you would not have survived much longer on your own. Of course, we’ve already discussed what would become of me if you abruptly perished, so we needn’t repeat all that. Tragic endings bore me, so it’s probably best you just vow never to do this again, or I’ll—’
‘I’m sorry,’ Cimcim says, and she is, because Yesterday’s right, and even if she wasn’t, it’s cruel to leave someone without saying goodbye. ‘I won’t.’
‘Well. Well, good, then.’ Yesterday, visibly thrown, regroups. ‘Now. About you being in love with me—’
Cimcim pushes herself up. ‘We don’t need to—’
‘Don’t we? It seems like the kind of thing people discuss.’ Yesterday leans forward, the dark bruises under her eyes thrown into stark relief. ‘For instance, if we did discuss it, I might say I’ve been in love with you since – oh, I couldn’t tell you. The first time you punched a man in my honor, perhaps. I do have a weakness for beautiful, chivalrous women with fantastic arms. Or maybe when you first refused to kill an innocent creature, despite already being paid to do so, or that wonderful morning you finally trusted me enough to smile with your mouth wide open. I don’t believe love is a linear progression because people refuse to grow in a linear way: we become who we are slowly, over a thousand sideways and forwards and backwards steps. I’ve been in love with you, Cimcim, for so many hundreds of thousands of steps, and it’d be a shame to keep quiet about them now simply because you’re a bit embarrassed.’
Cimcim doesn’t speak. She can’t. She doesn’t even know what to say.
Yesterday doesn’t mean…
She can’t mean…
‘Have you ever known me to lie?’ Yesterday asks softly.
‘No,’ Cimcim admits quietly. ‘You’re not the liar here.’
‘Hmm. Yes, let’s talk about that, too, because I’m very much at a loss. Lying about hunting for dinner when you’ve run off to kill monsters is one thing. But to suggest you’re regularly dishonest—’
‘I didn’t tell you what I was,’ Cimcim reminds her, ‘not until after you figured it out, way you figure everything out—’
‘Clearly,’ Yesterday says, bone dry, ‘there are things I’ve missed.’
‘Yeah,’ Cimcim says. ‘Too cowardly to tell you that, too.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake—’
‘And I didn’t tell you, neither, about what I don’t, what I can’t feel for you. Every day, I don’t tell you something: little things, big things. I just don’t know how. Maybe I didn’t lie proper, but a lie of omission—’
‘Is still a lie?’ Yesterday nods absently, lips pressed into a hard line. ‘Yes, I’ve heard that particular proverb before. It’s bullshit, of course.’
‘You don’t owe anyone your identity,’ Yesterday says firmly, ‘not any piece of it. You don’t owe me because you love me or because I love you. That’s not what love is, that’s not how it works, and I hate whoever taught you otherwise, whoever named you liar and made you believe it. You’re wonderful and true, the most honest person I know. Surely, you must see that.’
Cimcim thinks, I don’t think anyone sees quite how you see, Yesterday.
She thinks, But Uncle did love me, that was the problem: wept when he put me in the ground and wept when the ground gave me back. Human, he assumed, a miracle. Benlyn, he would’ve named me – but then I changed. You can’t always help it. You can’t always know who you’ll become.
She thinks, I’ve become better because of you, Yesterday. Couldn’t bear it, you came to regret me.
Cimcim says, ‘Don’t say it doesn’t matter. Sex always matters, even when folk say it don’t.’
‘Well,’ Yesterday says, hesitating, ‘yes. That doesn’t mean we can’t figure it out.’
But Cimcim has heard that before: from women who promised they could make do without, from men who swore she only needed a good bedding, from men and women both who she did bed and still complained about her lack of desire. They called her liar too, more times than not, when she didn’t change, when they couldn’t fix her. And might be Cimcim’s a liar, but she’s not broke, and she’s not looking to be fixed by anybody. She couldn’t stand it, if Yesterday tried. With her, Cimcim wants to be true.
‘I won’t change,’ Cimcim says, squaring her shoulders. ‘I want this, I want you – but I won’t change, not for anything, so don’t expect—’
And then Yesterday is kissing her, slow and soft and lingering, and Cimcim doesn’t forget to breathe; she just can’t be bothered right now.
‘I’d never ask,’ Yesterday murmurs. ‘I’d never want you to be anything less than yourself.’
North-country is less miserable this time of year, but the snow persists, bright white and mulish. Another one of Yesterday’s grand reveals gone dramatic. Another attempt on Yesterday’s life, and a gunfight easily won.
Another ‘get thee gone, ‘til we need you again.’
Cimcim snuggles inside Yesterday’s arms, ignoring the stars. The ground is tediously steady but wonderous to behold: there are so many footprints they can make, so many directions they can roam. There’s a joy, she thinks, in wandering, when you have someone to wander with.
‘All right,’ Yesterday says, frowning at her torn sleeve. ‘I’ll admit, that could’ve gone better.’
Cimcim brushes her lips against Yesterday’s neck; Yesterday, ticklish, retaliates immediately. Cimcim is covered in red lipstick and scatterings of snow.
‘Could’ve gone worse,’ she says, so open. Smiling so wide. ∎
Carlie St. George: Writer. Pop culture nerd. Californian. Feminist. Cisgender. Silly hat enthusiast. Board game fan. 30-something. Avid-but-distracted reader. Low Stakes Detective, most recent cases: The Mystery of The Missing Lipstick, Where Does Time Go, and What Is My Sexuality, Anyway? Clarion West 2012 graduate. Amateur poker player. Selfie apologist. Firm believer that any story can be improved by adding a murder mystery. Lover of clothes and books and horror and sugar. Sidekick-in-waiting. She/her.
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