Dana wakes up, face down on the dusty ground. She shifts her head slightly to the left, trying to breathe, but finds this impossible as she abruptly realizes that she cannot see a mountain.
She sits up carefully, because no child raised in Night Vale would ever accept the disappearance of such a phenomena without a certain amount of suspicion. She looks to her right, back to her left, and then carefully turns around, still sitting on the ground. There is a door behind her, freestanding and locked.
She frowns, remembering finding such a door in that other place where she had wandered for so long. She scans the horizon again, but finds no mountains, no looming menacing figures.
“What are you looking for?” someone asks.
Dana jumps. “Mountains,” she says, because it would only be polite to answer the question.
“There’s no such thing as mountains,” the voice scoffs, and Dana realizes that it seems to be coming from the other side of the door.
“Well, I don’t want to believe in them either,” she admits, “But I’ve had to deal with one for a long time. It was a very persistent delusion. I scarred my hands, trying to climb up it at one point. Do you need me to unlock the door for you?”
“The key got lost,” the voice says. “I don’t need it anyways.” A young girl steps out from behind the door. She looks at Dana, assessing, as her thumb gently rubs against the spine of the paperback book in her hand.
“Are you looking for me too?” she asks.
“I don’t think so,” Dana says carefully. “I don’t recognize you, anyways, and I don’t feel any soul deep pangs that would indicate the ponderous gears of fate pulling us towards an inevitable destiny. So I think we just met by accident. Do you have any water?”
The last spills out over her lips, because she is suddenly aware of an aching thirst inside her. She doesn’t really remember eating or drinking in that strange plain around the mountain. It never bothered her there.
The girl digs into the bag slung over her shoulder. Dana can hear what sounds like rocks, tumbling over each other. She stares at the girl’s necklace, gaudy plastic beads on a plastic wire that is slowly drooping with the heat. The centerpiece sizzled faintly under the noon sun.
“You survived the summer reading program?” she hazards. The city council had banned all such programs when she was barely five, but she knew a librarian’s hand when she saw it. It was hard to forget such a bony, narrow appendage, most especially when you woke to find yourself in the darkened library and numerous such hands reaching for you.
The girl nods, handing over a water bottle. “I conquered it,” she says, and there is a bloodthirsty pride there. “Last summer.”
Dana nods. “Maybe I’ve not been gone so long as all that, I suppose,” she says mostly to herself. “If this is where I left, of course.”
“This is Night Vale,” the girl says bluntly. “I don’t know if it’s the same place as what you left, but if it’s at least similar, then you’ll understand when I say we’re just past John Peter’s house, you know, the farmer?”
Dana nods again. “Well then, this is close enough to what I left for that to make sense,” she says, standing up. She unscrews the cap to the water bottle and drinks deeply. “What are you doing out here?” she asks when she is done.
The girl narrows her eyes. “Are you Intern Dana?”
“I’m not sure how much of an intern I am anymore,” Dana says. “I’ve been gone for a while now. I think that might cost me my position, even if Cecil is a sweetheart about things like trans-dimensional dislocations. But yes, I’m Dana.”
The girl regards her suspiciously for a few long moments. Abruptly, she shoves her paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls into her backpack. She sticks out her hand.
“Tamika,” she says. The beads at the end of her braids click together softly in the sudden wind. “I’m thirteen and a half.”
“Glad to meet you,” Dana says, shaking her hand. “I’m… well, older than you.”
Tamika nods. “Probably,” she allows. “Do you like reading?”
“Some,” Dana says. “I don’t know if I can recommend you anything.”
Tamika frowns, the disappointment of someone who had found reading as a lifesaving device and now finds that desperate passion thwarted. She glances upwards then looks back at Dana.
“Wanna get some food?” she asks diffidently.
Dana’s stomach growls, and she laughs to cover the sudden pains shooting through her midsection. “I’d love some,” she says. “Big Rico’s sounds wonderful right now.”
Tamika watches her carefully. “They’re closed,” she says clearly. “Went out of business.”
Dana blinks. “Oh,” she says. “I-I guess this isn’t the same Night Vale that I left.” She thinks back, through ages of memories. “My fam- my boss. Cecil Gershwin Palmer, do you know…?” she trails off, uncertain.
“You haven’t been gone that long,” Tamika says, turning on her heel. “Cecil’s here. He’ll want to talk to you.” Tamika starts taking long strides, but Dana catches up to her easily with her longer legs.
“I’ve missed him too,” she says.
“You can’t meet up with him,” Tamika says, not slowing. “This isn’t the Night Vale that you left, Intern Dana, because you never could have returned to that place that now only exists in your memories.”
Dana flinches, recognizing the truth she had been avoiding for so long. “Why can’t I meet with him?” she asks instead.
Tamika glances over at her. “Because I want to keep you alive.”
They walk in silence for a while. Dana can begin to see the outlines of the town, the car lot, the radio tower, Old Woman Josie’s house.
“They’re gone,” Tamika says bitterly. Dana pauses in her inspection of Old Woman Josie’s house, unsure of what she was seeing that perturbed her so. She looks again, and sees no slight heavenly aura, no rocking chair on the porch.
“The angels left, and They did something to her,” Tamika says, spitting out the pronouns. “Tell me if you see any yellow helicopters.”
Dana easily falls back into the habit of scanning the sky, but all she sees is a normal helicopter painted with murals of diving birds of prey.
“Who sends the yellow helicopters?” she asks.
“Them,” Tamika says stiffly. “The ones around us and inside us, the ones who believe in a smiling god.”
Dana frowns, some long forgotten almost memory stirring, of an endless spiral and yellow triangles, but Tamika veers to the left, tugging on her hand. The thought is lost, popped like a soap bubble, only oily residue remaining.
They walk down a side street, Tamika keeping Dana pressed between her and the wall. Dana looks at the few people on the street, all of who are keeping their eyes determinedly high. It is almost as if she and Tamika were invisible, except the people’s avoidant gazes and paths clearly denote their ability to see them.
“I’m missing, you see,” Tamika says conversationally. The librarian’s hand thumps against her chest with each step, an almost hypnotic rhythm. “They’re keeping me missing.”
“Well, I’m missing too, I suppose,” Dana says.
Tamika smiles broadly. “Yes, you are. But I am found. I found myself, and I found you, so we can be found together while still being missing. And if you’d be amenable to it,” she says, tongue tripping over a word she had only ever seen and never heard, “I think that we could find some other people. People who do not want to be found, who believe in a smiling god, and who are keeping a very close eye on your boss.”
Dana raises her eyebrows. “I wasn’t in the Scouts, Tamika,” she says. “I don’t know how good I’ll be at revolution.”
Tamika shrugs. “Neither was I when I started,” she says. She touches the hand on her necklace in a habitual, unthinking gesture. “You learn fast. If you have to.”
“I am unafraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship,” Dana recites wryly. “Louisa May Alcott,” she says to Tamika’s inquiring glance.
“Little Women, right?” Tamika asks. Dana nods.
Tamika faces ahead once more, small pre-teen legs striding quickly over the hot pavement. “I don’t know if you trust me,” she says. “It’s alright if you want to leave.”
Dana shrugs. “I don’t think this is fate or anything like that,” she says. “I could leave if I wanted to. But this almost seems like the start of the hero’s journey for me. Hope you don’t mind disappearing at some point, being my mentor and all.”
Tamika snorts. “Narrative casualty has nothing on me,” she says. “I’ve got too many things to do to die.”
“I wouldn’t doubt that,” Dana says with a smile.