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A Different Story About A Different You

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This is a story about you, said the man on the radio, and you were apprehensive, because you remember what happened to the last few people you heard being addressed like this on the radio. Welcome to Night Vale.


[ intro music by Disparition plays ]


This is a story about you! No, no, not you. You're already had your turn. Besides, even if you were not still stuck in the hospital learning how to use the new anatomy you acquired in the aftermath of your previous time hearing about yourself on the radio, at least two of the vague yet menacing government agencies who surveil our fair town have assigned groups of agents to ensure that nothing interesting happens to you ever again, rendering you unfit for the entertainment of your fellow citizens. You will never hear about yourself on the radio again, and you are just going to have to accept that fact and move on with your life of government enforced mundanity.

No, this is a story about you! You were conceived and born in Night Vale, with the Sheriff’s Secret Police observing and recording both of those events just in case they needed to go back and reference them in the future. You attended Night Vale Elementary, Night Vale Junior High, and Night Vale High, just like all of your peers and all other Night Vale natives for time immemorial, at least all those who survived to adulthood. You are currently sitting in your home, and you are performing the traditional lunchtime activity of eating lunch. You still do not really believe that this is a story about you, because the man on the radio could be describing almost anyone right now.

“Get to the good part, Cecil!” you mutter to your computer speakers, because you are currently streaming this show live from Night Vale Community Radio’s newly redesigned website instead of listening to it on an actual radio, due to subterranean spaces generally having poor signal reception. It is a very nice website, as community radio websites go, but you wish that whoever maintains it would wise up to the fact that almost no one in town uses dial-up anymore and it would be nice to have the option of streaming files at higher bit-rates for greater audio fidelity. The bobble-head jackalope precariously balanced on top of your flatscreen monitor nods in agreement.

This is not due to any coincidental trick of air currents or the transmission of vibrations through solid objects. No, the bobble-head jackalope is haunted by the ghost of your late brother, who even in death remains quite the audiophile and agrees that distorting such dulcet tones should be a legally actionable crime against listening pleasure. He would not have phrased it quite like that if he could speak for himself. If given a voice, he would have thrown in a lot of extra jargon about overly lossy compression codecs and other obscure technological references that would cause most people to stop listening to him because they didn’t understand the words he was using. However, as he is nothing but a disembodied spirit, he is only able to communicate with non-psychically-gifted living beings such as yourself by moving inanimate objects weighing less than seventeen ounces, so until his handwriting improves beyond its current illegible state or you find a suitable old-school manual typewriter, all he can do is make the bobble-head jackalope nod.

Actually, he could throw all of your small knickknacks on the floor and make small tornados with whatever dust bunnies and stray bits of paper you happen to have lying around, but he is way too polite for that. He always was, even when you both were young. You will only admit it aloud on those rare occasions when you get drunk enough to cry, but in all your years of sharing apartment space with other people as an adult, your brother is the best roommate you have ever had.

You freeze in place as realization sets in! Or rather, it doesn’t, not exactly, because realization had already set in quite a while ago. Instead, denial falls away, which feels a lot like realization setting in, so under these circumstances you can be forgiven for getting the two mental states confused with each other. You unfreeze enough to put down the fork which you had been using to eat your take-out gluten-free long pig lo mein because you have not gotten around to relearning how to use chopsticks after getting your index finger bitten off while fighting your double earlier this year, and you say, “Oh, I guess you really are talking about me,” as much to yourself and to all the other listeners wherever and whatever they may be as to the man on the radio.

Yes, says the man on the radio, of course I am.

The bobble-head jackalope precariously balanced on top of your flatscreen monitor nods again and then cocks its head at the perfect angle to communicate a feeling of, “Well, duh! You only now just got that?” because even though we have already established that the ghost of your brother is a considerate roommate, he is still first and foremost your brother, and there are ways that a brother simply must react when confronted with certain behaviors of a sibling, such as said sibling stating the obvious so long after it has become obvious that the statement is almost a non sequitur. That’s just how family dynamics work. It’s part of human nature.

You go back to eating your lunch, slightly mollified but still with no small bit of trepidation, because you have always led a quiet life of the sort not worth mentioning on the radio, and you are not certain you want that to change. Also, you remember what happened to that last guy you heard being talked about like this, and that... wasn’t pretty. It still is not pretty. In fact, according to the rumors you have heard from several reliable sources, it is getting less pretty by the day as the mutations continue apace.

“That poor bastard,” you think to yourself. “And it looks like I’m next in line. How can I possibly express the rapturous joy which now consumes my soul?” you add mentally, using far stronger levels of sarcasm than most people bother with when not speaking aloud.

The man on the radio assures you that being mentioned on the radio is not a guarantee of imminent death, disaster, or dehumanization, no matter what statisticians keep insisting. Even if a so-called pattern has been forming, those statisticians should really just keep their pessimism to themselves anyway, because past performance does not guarantee future results. Everyone knows that.

“Okay,” you say as you glower accusingly at your speakers, “even if I accept that argument, Cecil, why are you talking about me of all people? And why do you keep talking about yourself in the third person? That sort of shtick may have worked on the clueless outsider with the kleptomania problem, but when you try it on anyone local who obviously already knows who you are, it just comes off as weirdly dissociative.”

It is not dissociative, says the man on the radio. It is a proven technique for maintaining professional distance and objectivity in journalistic settings. This is supposed to be a story about you, not a story about the... the storyteller.

“Yeah, sure, Cecil, just keep telling yourself that. But before you do, how about you answer my first and much more important question, hmmm? Why me?

Well, Abby, if you must know, the subjects for these... let’s call them ‘special interest pieces’ are usually chosen by a blindfolded intern throwing a dart at a map of our fair town--

“Oh God! Intern luck? You make your decisions using intern luck?!?” you shout, interrupting the very answer which you had so recently demanded. “Oh crap, that explains so much! The klepto outsider! That lady who grew the pseudo-bindi made out of little red insect eyes and was so disgusted by it that she fed herself to a pack of rabid sandworms before anyone could convince her it actually looked kind of pretty! The poor bastard who is still in the hospital playing mutation roulette! You let them all get touched by intern luck! And me, you did it to me! Oh shit, I am so screwed! Oh God! Oh fuck! Oh [BLEEP]! Oh fucketty fucking [BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP]!” You eventually run out of breath, but not nearly soon enough as far as everyone else involved is concerned.

However, the man on the radio continues while graciously ignoring your decidedly family-unfriendly interjection, the traditional selection method was not available in this instance, due to the fact that no Night Vale Community Radio interns bothered to show up to work today after all of them last being seen getting drunk on stolen wine-coolers and daring each other to spend the night in the totally-not-haunted abandoned house on Soul Destroyer Road. Expressions of condolences will be withheld until such a time as it can be confirmed that said interns are not merely spending the next few days in the Abandoned Mineshaft Outside Of Town, being re-educated to understand that robbing liquor stores is not the sort of activity that helps maintain a strong sense of community. Honestly, where were they raised, Desert Bluffs?

Anyway, lacking any other method of making a random choice but still wishing to avoid accusations bias, the man on the radio decided to just go with whichever Night Vale resident was listed first in the phonebook’s white pages. Hopefully that is that non-destined-for-tragedy enough for you?

“Yeah, I guess so,” you say, only to pause and then shout, “Wait! No, no it’s not! Since when is Abrams the first listing in the white pages? What happened to the entire Aaronson family? There were at least twelve of them old enough to own phones.”

Nothing happened to the Aaronson family aside from that unfortunate incident last week where Mrs. Aaronson tried to convince little Becky Aaronson that carob was just as good as chocolate, says the man on the radio. The stitches should be ready to come out in a few more days, and representatives of the Greater Night Vale Medical Association have been quoted as saying that Mrs. Aaronson should barely have a scar. They also applauded her for the neatness of her self-administered needlework and held her up as an example to all those whiners who keep demanding anesthetic while dripping all over the hospital’s nice clean floors.

“So why aren’t any of the Aaronsons the subject of today’s program instead of me?” you ask.

Because they all switched to unlisted numbers before the most recent edition of the phonebook was compiled, says the man on the radio. The family gave an official press release, which was read on this very program. It stated that anyone who might want their new phone numbers had better ask for them soon because once the new phone books were released they were never giving their numbers out to anyone ever again. You must not have been paying attention that day.

“I guess all those rumors about Old Granny Aaronson being able to see the future and avoid all misfortunes were true,” you mutter as you get up from your chair to put away the leftovers from your lunch which you no longer have the appetite to finish.

The man on the radio pointedly ignores your snide remark as he finally returns to telling your story after that overly long digression. You return to your computer and pick up typing where you left off when you stopped for lunch, but you leave your browser window open, because you may not have ever wanted to hear about yourself on the radio, but now that it is happening you are feeling morbidly curious about it.

After high school, you attended Night Vale Community College for a few years, before deciding it was not for you and quitting to pursue a career in web design. Sometimes, when you can’t sleep at night, you lie on top of your covers in the darkness, staring at the bioluminescent mites wandering around on your ceiling like the constellations rearranging themselves with the passing eons, and you wonder how different your life might have turned out if you had bothered to pick a major and get your degree. You will keep asking this question in times of solitude and darkness for the rest of your life. You will never get an answer, at least not one you are willing to believe.

The dotcom bubble burst just before you were ready to enter the job market, but through luck, skill, and a willingness to learn new programming languages whenever you can afford the resources required to do so, you have been able to find employment more often than not, even in these years haunted by a continually uncertain economy. A couple of years ago you took the plunge and went the fully self-employed route, and you now earn your living writing simple buy vaguely addictive games for smartphones. It will never make you rich, but it allows you to live comfortably enough until you can think of something better.

As part of that comfortable enough life, you currently rent part of Mrs. Yamada’s nineteen-sixties era fallout shelter, which she subdivided and converted into apartments five or six years back after completing construction on her new, much larger and more luxurious fallout shelter sunk even deeper into the bedrock. Your home lacks windows, as fallout shelters tend to do, but you were never very fond of direct sunlight in the home environment anyway, due to the way it always seemed to cause uncomfortable levels of glare on your television and computer screens, no matter how you rearranged your furniture, so you consider this to be a plus.

Your immediate neighbors within the fallout shelter all keep to themselves just as much as you do, to the point that sometimes each of you begins to wonder if maybe you only imagined the others. Then, a random encounter with one or more of them at the mailbox or on the spiral metal stairs to the surface dispels the illusion, at which point you chat and catch up on all the latest gossip and once again feel like a member of a community. Whenever one of these gossip sessions reveals that you have managed to miss some piece of information which is considered to be common knowledge throughout the rest of the town, you will use the excuse that you have literally been living in a hole in the ground. Everyone always laughs at this joke despite it having stopped being funny shortly after you first started telling it.

You pause in your typing and say, “Wow, Cecil, snide much? If that’s how you’re going to be, then I don’t need to listen to this.” You reach over and twist the volume knob of your computer speakers to the off position then exit out of your web browser for good measure. It is not quite as satisfying as turning off a real radio, and it is nowhere near as satisfying as throwing a real radio across the room and smashing it against the far wall would be, but the resulting silence is the same. You then proceed to fill that silence by muttering to yourself about the apparent gibberish which you continue to type on your screen which will supposedly become a video game when all is said and done. The muttering to yourself actually seems to help your productivity somehow, but it’s still weird.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And sometimes you break up the monotony by drinking coffee.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And sometimes you break up the monotony by consulting crudely drawn flow-charts and pencil sketches of what the game interface should look like once you get around to doing the actual artwork for it.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person, and you mutter to yourself.

And you mutter to yourself, and you type what would look like gibberish to any normal person.

And you keep going for hours. Hours!

And...

And...

Ugh! How can you possibly enjoy doing this?, wonders the man on the radio. How is this supposed to result in a fun video game when nothing about this looks fun at all? How do you not go crazy doing this day after day? Have you managed to find some facet of enlightenment and bent it to your will, or is being a programmer truly only a profession for damned souls? Just watching this is making my brain cry.

Of course you do not answer any of these questions, because you do not hear them. You show no signs of ending the hellishly monotonous typing and muttering which is apparently the daily life of a programmer. When will it end?

Ordinarily, directly influencing the events of your story rather than impartially reporting on them would be unprofessional, but there is no way that what is happening right now has even the hint of being a good radio program. With a sigh of regret for compromised journalistic integrity but also of anticipated relief, the man on the radio gives narrative causality a slight nudge, only a tiny one, and just like that, hidden beneath the various windows you have open on your screen, your web browser unobtrusively opens itself to your last visited page and resumes streaming the live audio feed from Night Vale Community Radio. You startle so severely at the quiet but unexpected bass “Thoop” sound your speakers make as they switch themselves on that you do not even consciously register the voice of the man on the radio/audio stream talking about how startling the unexpected noise from your speakers is.

As soon as gravity brings you back into contact with the floor and your chair, you freeze in place, as if bracing yourself for a physical blow, while adrenaline floods your system, your heart races, and your mind rapidly catalogs any possible changes to your environment that may have occurred since the last time you paid direct attention to it. Congratulations, you have a very well developed fight or flight response. It might save your life one day. Not today, though. No physical blow comes right now, of course not. Why should one? There is no one around but the ghost of your brother, the bioluminescent mites on your ceiling, the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, the hidden member of the Sheriff’s Secret Police who is assigned to monitor your every move, the spider somewhere on your body, and the voice of the man talking about you through your computer speakers. You are safe. You are as safe as anyone ever is in this dangerous world. You breathe in through your nose. You breathe out through your tightly gritted teeth.

Okay, I should come clean. I was kind of lying when I said there was no one around but your brother, the mites, the Faceless Old Woman, the Sheriff’s Secret Police, the spider, and my voice. There are also about two dozen tiny soldiers from the tiny city underneath the pin retrieval area of lane five of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex wandering around lost in your ventilation system. Don’t worry though, they’ve been in there long enough that they ran out of food ages ago and are way too weakened by hunger to be a threat to anyone. I’m only bringing it up at all to let you know that you are probably going to start smelling something a little off in a week or so. When that happens, just pretend it’s a dead mouse or especially meaty tarantula or something. Okay? Now that that is out of the way, let us get back to the story about you, because this is after all a story about you and not a story about some of the tiny warmongers who attacked my boyfriend and are now getting their just desserts.

Ahem.

Right.

As I was saying...

You are safe. You can set down that mug half full of cold coffee that you were going to throw at your hypothetical intruder in order to buy you time to grab your emergency sidearm from its nearby hiding place. You can also stop shouting profanities, because the FCC is probably mad enough about this broadcast as it is. Can we discuss this like a couple of mature adults? Please?

“God damn it, Cecil, keep your astrally projected fingers away from my computer, because if you fry my hard drive with a mini-EMP while poking around in its guts then I will be fully within my rights to show up at the radio station and kick your corporeal ass!”

Eh, close enough. With that out of the way, can we please move on to anything other than this or what you were doing before? Because I’ve already developed a tic in my left eye from watching you do nothing but type and talk to yourself for the past however many hours, and I’m worried it might become permanent if I have to do much more of that.

“Ooooo! Mr. Man On The Radio has come down from his unassailable tower of professional distance and objectivity and is using “I” statements.”

I’m just trying to do my job here, Abby.

“So am I, but your whining about how I’m not being entertaining enough for you is a distraction I don’t need and didn’t ask for. There is no reason why this should be my problem instead of yours. And don’t you dare trying to call what you’re doing right now a community service, because your whole issue is that you don’t have any community services to provide right now. Why can’t you just leave me alone and bother someone else?”

Because there aren’t any interns to fill out the paperwork for a new focal subject. Even if I could maintain a coherent monolog while doing the paperwork myself without broadcasting horrible paper-crinkling noises the whole time, I still couldn’t file it with City Council without leaving at least ten minutes of dead air, which is anathema to a radio professional. And speaking as a radio professional, this is a story about you, as has been mentioned before, not about me.

"That doesn't answer the question of who I would have to fuck to get you to go away," you say, and the man on the radio is suddenly filled with unease as the plotline of the story about you skews off in an unexpected direction and your mind is taken over by strange musings of the vilest, most unnatural variety. Of all the people you could lust after, why him? “I bet you would find a way to make it happen if I went over to Steve Carlsberg’s house,” you say, as if suggesting a quick trip to the Ralph’s to pick up a quart of orange milk. “He’s been divorced long enough that it shouldn’t be weird if I asked him on a date.” Your face spreads into the widest of grins as you warm to the idea. “Or,” you continue, “I could reenact the beginning of a million bad porno movies, just show up on his doorstep and be all, ‘Hi, you might not remember me, but I was two years behind you in high school, and I’ve thought you were super-hot since forever,’ and then jump his bones right there in his foyer, bruised tailbones and carpet-burns for everyone. I bet you’d have that paperwork filled out and filed in two minutes flat, dead air be damned.”

The man on the radio is nearly struck speechless with horror. He had spent all day wishing for even the smallest scrap of news to report on, but now that his wish comes true, he wishes that he could take it all back rather be forced to witness a good woman succumb to mind control parasites or out-of-season sex pollen or whatever other evil force could warp an otherwise intelligent mind into suddenly desiring someone so foul as, ugh, Steve Carlsberg! Fortunately, the man on the radio is dating a brilliant scientist, who is good at solving this sort of problem. You can still be saved, Abby! Hope is not yet lost, even as you laugh and run out of your apartment. You do not notice the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home reaching out and brushing a finger against the upper curve of your ear as you run by her. You do not notice her at all. You continue up the spiral metal staircase, out through the open blast-doors, and into Mrs. Yamada’s backyard. The cool evening air is bracing after spending all day sitting in front of your computer, and you take off running down the street with a spring in your step and a song in your heart that sounds suspiciously like the Weather!


[ ”All The Sand In The Sea,” by Devotchka ]


By the time the Weather ends, you are standing in front of a door, rapping your knuckles against its already scratched and dented metal surface. Fortunately, in your confused state, you seem to have lost all sense of direction and traveled, not to Steve Carlsberg’s house where whatever force is controlling you would surely cause you to do something you would regret as soon as you were once again yourself, but to... Wait a second. That’s Carlos’ lab! I’m not usually one for violence against anyone, be they man, woman, or child, but I swear, Abby, if you infect my boyfriend with brain parasites that make him have the hots for Steve Carlsberg, then I’ll have no choice but to--!

The door opens to reveal sweet, vulnerable Carlos, who has no idea of the danger he is in!

“Hi, I’m Abby Abrams,” you say in an amazingly naturalistic manner for someone under nefarious mind control by an unknown source, as opposed to the well-meaning government sponsored mind control which only wants to make us all better citizens and is always perfectly natural, “you don’t know me, but Cecil probably just texted you about me having mind controlling parasites or off-season sex pollen exposure or whatever other explanation he has managed to come up with in the past few minutes.”

“He might have.” A pause, then, “So, do you?” asks concerned but still far too trusting under these circumstances Carlos. She might be giving off spores, Carlos! Mind control spores! Why aren’t you wearing you gasmask, or a hazmat suit, or both?!?

“I guess you haven’t been listening to Cecil’s show today,” you saw without answering Carlos’ very pertinent question.

“Er, no, not really, I’ve, um, I was working and lost track of time,” sweet Carlos says, still not appreciating the danger he could be in at this very moment.

“God, I wish I could say the same,” you say with far more vehemence than is necessary even if you are being piloted like a meat puppet by mind control parasites with bad taste in men. “Long story short: Today is apparently a day devoid of news, traffic reports, community calendar announcements, or sponsored messages, so Cecil has been pestering me all afternoon in the name of good radio; I eventually got fed up and mentioned my longstanding attraction to Steve Carlsberg; Cecil overreacted because he can’t comprehend anyone thinking Steve is sexy of their own free will, and I thought I should come over and explain things before someone officially declared a town emergency and got the Sheriff’s Secret Police involved.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I hope you won’t be too offended if I ask for a blood sample just to be certain,” darling, practical Carlos says as he invites you into the lab.

“Whatever it takes to get this over and done with,” you say as you follow him into the building, through the main laboratory, and into one of the smaller side rooms, where he offers you a seat on the same couch which he has so often collapsed upon after late nights performing science for the good of all. Carlos goes to get his phlebotomy kit, pausing to turn on a nearby radio on his way past. The room fills with the sound of the man on the radio talking about his voice filling the room.

“What I don’t understand, Cecil,” Carlos says, turning towards the direction in which he knew the town radio station was located, because he is amazingly considerate and knows his boyfriend likes it when people make the effort to look him in the eye when talking to him, even when he happens to be six blocks away in a room with no external windows, “is why you didn’t just talk to me if you were so bored.”

I didn’t want to interrupt anything important, says the man on the radio.

“Don’t think of it as interrupting,” Carlos says. “Think of it as participating, as helping.” He then ties the length of rubber tube around your arm, finds a vein, and deftly draws three vials of blood before you have fully realized that he has stuck a needle into your arm, because Carlos is simply that good.

Whatever suave and fully articulate reply the man on the radio hoped to make is interrupted by your phone neighing like a horse, which, for everyone else listening right now, is the sound that indicates a text message from someone not on your contact list. You wait for Carlos to finish putting the band-aid on your inner elbow, check the message, and then hold up your phone in triumph.

“I just got a text from Steve,” you crow with far more joy than such an announcement should ever warrant unless the message includes a promise from him to give up baking forever, which this one sadly does not. Better luck next time. “He’s been listening to the show, and says that as long as I wasn’t just saying I thought he was hot in order to mess with Cecil, then he would love to get together for drinks tonight if I’m free! Well,” you say, glowering back and forth between Carlos and the radio, as if dear Carlos was somehow for anything unpleasant at all and as if the man on the radio was actually the man inthe radio, both wholly ridiculous notions, especially since it was so recently mentioned within your hearing that the man on the radio is exactly where he always is, sitting six blocks away, in his sound booth in the Night Vale Community Radio building, and--

“Cecil!”

Sorry, Carlos.

“Well,” you repeat, rolling your eyes as you do so, while still somehow managing to maintain your now properly directed glower, which is actually a pretty interesting trick, “am I free? Has the town been properly entertained? Can we declare this debacle finished so I can start pretending that none of this ever happened aside from the ‘getting a date’ with Steve part? Not that I need your permission, but it would be nice to have some advanced warning if you’re going to try to sabotage my chance at getting laid for the first time in ages.”

Yeah, sure, whatever, says the man on the radio, trying and failing to suppress a shudder. Do whatever you want, but don’t blame me when it all ends in tears. I mean, this is the guy who tells everyone his dog is part spider-wolf when it’s obviously a just a German Shepard-ish mutt he’s trained to look like it has more eyes and legs than it really does. Who even does that? Really?

“You’re the only one who cares, Cecil,” you say as you go running out to door to start preparing for your date before anyone can change their minds and annoy you further.

You go on your date, but if anyone in town hears about it going well or poorly, then they must have heard about from a different source, because after today, the man on the radio never talks about you again. Some things are simply too weird, even for him. Seriously, Carlos, run every test you have on that blood, because I refuse to believe that woman’s attraction to Steve Carlsberg could be natural. I refuse to believe anyone’s attraction to Steve Carlsberg could be natural, because ew, just ew. I’ll be finished here and on my way to your lab in twenty minutes. To everyone else listening out there:

Goodnight, Night Vale, goodnight.