Chapter 1: desert flower
Carlos is not afraid of dying.
He would have barely lasted a week in Night Vale if he were. During the research team’s first week in town, he’d dealt with terrifying levels of radiation, pterodactyl attacks, and waking up one morning to find bloody animal carcasses littering the streets and no idea as to how they got there. Two team members drove out of town after that: the rest, Carlos included, had knuckled down, resolute, ready to work. This town was… fascinating. It would have been absurd to let a little thing like the fear of death hold them back from what could become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the century. After all: people were hit by buses in Boston every day.
Carlos is not afraid of dying. He knows death is inevitable and the aftermath is emptiness, only his own amassed energy and atoms dissipating back into the universe from whence they came: it’s a thought that has brought him far more comfort, over the years, than any idea of God in his youth ever had. In Night Vale, that truth feels closer than it ever had before: it’s acknowledged by townsfolk screaming in terror at the sky; it’s reflected in the void hovering overhead and in the lights above the Arby’s; it’s repeated, smooth, sonorous and reassuring, on the radio for the whole town to hear.
Carlos is not afraid of dying, but, lying bleeding under Lane Five, he had been absolutely terrified. The very worst thing wasn’t the pain, or even the calm numbness skirting horrifyingly at the edges of his vision. It wasn’t the rational part of his mind, kicking him from far off at his stupidity, and observing, dully, that none of the gaping citizens above were helping. The very worst thing was that he could still hear Cecil’s voice coming in over the alley speakers, and he sounded broken.
Cecil: steady and constant, anchoring the town through however many crises; Cecil, who was worryingly enthusiastic about municipal bureaucracy and who loved this place with all his heart; Cecil was crying. Cecil was cursing the town, and the people. Cecil was broken, and Carlos - lying there, bleeding out into the tiny city, darkness coming fast into his vision - Carlos was terrified for him, and for the town. What would a Night Vale without Cecil’s enthusiasm even look like? Carlos was terrified for himself, as well, and that terror manifested, as he swam down into dark oblivion, as a rush of regret: he had never even given it a chance.
Carlos is sensible, and well-informed about PTSD. It’s part of being a scientist.
He doesn’t plan on carrying these ingrained responses around forever: the rush of dizziness he feels when thinking about the bowling alley, heart pounding, breath quickening - no, he has a plan. He’ll challenge himself to think about the bowling alley, he’ll look at pictures, he’ll go back, soon, to the place. He’ll talk with friends, and ask for help as needed. He’ll get over it.
That said: first, he’ll take a long break. He’s sensible, but he is also gentle with himself. When his breath quickens upon driving past the bowling alley and he stares resolutely ahead, not thinking about it, Cecil squeezes his knee and doesn’t comment.
He lay in the tiny city, spires digging in to the back of his neck and his thighs, his hands wet with his own blood, looking up and wanting to laugh with the absurdity of it all - one whole year! there was a trophy waiting, even! - hoping for help, observing. Faces ringed the opening, stars flashed at the edges of his vision. No-one came to help, and the only sound had been Cecil’s devastated sobbing coming in over the crackling speakers - in retrospect, it occurs that perhaps the townsfolk had been as horrified by the sound as Carlos himself had been.
No-one helped, and then the faces were gone, Carlos’ vision a narrowing tunnel. He had focused on the ceiling tiles: an off-green that hadn’t even been fashionable when they were installed in the seventies, the edges of them fraying and peeling, and a brown splash in one corner, perhaps from someone throwing a glass in triumph. The strip lights had shone too brightly, and he couldn’t focus on them - and then even the tiles had been too bright, all of a sudden - too real, and he’d closed his eyes.
Carlos walks back into the bowling alley.
He’s confident, ready to face it, and then - his feet drag, the now-familiar symptoms of panic setting in, and he thinks: tomorrow, perhaps, maybe he doesn’t have to go right in just yet. Pauses, grounds himself with a hand on his chest and counts to five slowly. Opens his eyes, walks on.
The alley is closed: it’s shut down, for now, while the detritus of the tiny city is cleared away. Carlos unlocks the grubby glass doors and lets himself in, looks around for the light switches and, finding none, fumbles quickly in his pockets for his phone. Gets the light on, and exhales loudly into the gloom.
It’s a bowling alley. That’s all it is. There are twelve lanes and a soda machine, there’s a bar and a big gap in the middle of lane five - and a counter for shoes, and a floor and walls and ceiling tiles and lights. He looks up, and forces himself to keep looking, until the ceiling tiles are only ceiling tiles: dirty green, peeling at the edges, a little faded. The strip lights are dark grey when off, the stains on the ceiling invisible. It’s just a bowling alley.
“You really don’t have to do this alone, you know”, Cecil says quietly, walking up behind him, his feet soft in the layered dust. “Of course, I admire your motivations: it’s not everyone who will return to stare death i the face a second time, who is willing to think on it and acknowledge it, to greet it as an old friend. Given the shortness and insignificance of our tiny little lives, you’d think that more people would be willing to open conversation with their deaths - but, well. There you are.”
He’s wound his arms around Carlos’ waist, and now rests his chin on Carlos’ shoulder, gazing out at the empty lanes with him. He’s a solid, warm mass against his back, and Carlos gives out a heavy sigh and leans back into him, allows himself to be held.
“Thank you for coming, love. I know it’s … not the easiest thing.”
“Of course. I know. I’m here”, Cecil says, and together they look out at the empty lanes, warm and breathing in the dust and very much alive, very much together, listening to Carlos’ heart slow down to a strong and steady beat.
Chapter 2: you are here
Carlos lifts up the cloth covering the mirror in Cecil's bathroom, and holds his own gaze, just for a few moments, before picking up the shaving foam. It's not quite vanity: it's an anchor. His face, changing: it's consistent. In a world where science doesn't always work, it's reassuring.
It's always been reassuring: for years, he's watched the thin lines around his eyes deepen and sprout tributaries, his hair shoot through with grey. Every new glasses prescription has snapped the changes into sharper focus. The change is a constant: it reminds him he is human, that he is moving forwards through time, along with everyone else. It helps him think.
He likes the premature grey colouring his temples. He likes the reminder that he is temporary, and ageing. It's a memento mori, clear as the ocean and constellation and helix tattoos etched under his skin; obvious as the empty void hovering over the town. It reminds him that he is small, and ultimately, insignificant. That he is fragile and ignorant and wanting in the face of a strange and unforgiving universe.
It makes him want to be better. The helix tattoo that winds down his left leg, inked after he'd finished his masters in genetics (and before he'd fallen irrevocably in love with astrophysics) reminds him how very small scientists are, individually: and, how amazing it is to overcome that insignificance, at least a little, by building on all that has gone before.
He is temporary, and so is everyone else, and when Cecil says it out loud on the radio, it is the most reassuring thing in the world. Carlos smiles, runs a hand through his hair, and gets to work on shaving.
Cecil has nightmares. He thinks this is normal.
Cecil lives without mirrors, and sometimes has trouble feeling real. He doubts his existence, and often struggles to feel himself inside his body. Carlos knows that Khoshekh helps: Cecil goes to sit in the sink, sometimes, and talks to him, and he purrs back.
Cecil keeps a photo of himself on the desk at work, and another one on the bathroom counter: they're focus points for the bleary early mornings and slow afternoons. He long ago learned to shave cleanly without a mirror, but likes it when Carlos helps out anyway: it's tactile, intimate.
It's early in their dating that Carlos is first woken up in the middle of the night. They're still in that glowing-new phase, finding and learning all these domestic habits and little quirks in each other, fitting together and readjusting, blissful in noting every place they match. Cecil wakes up hyperventilating, grasping for the light: he squeezes Carlos' shoulder in reassurance and apologises profusely for waking him even as he sobs in shaky breaths. He asks Carlos to look at him, to hold on to his hands and assure him he's here.
Carlos holds him, and speaks slow and quiet, counts off each of the senses that tell him Cecil is there, until he is calmer. The next day, Carlos takes off his wristwatch and gives it to Cecil, shows him how the moon and stars move slowly across the face, how he sometimes likes to focus closely on the second hand and his own position in space and time.
Cecil has developed all sorts of ways to ground himself when needed: Carlos' presence is another addition to the list. Carlos learns about the way the interns keep an ear out to the speakers in the lobby, and pop in to the studio with coffee when it sounds as though Cecil could use some company. Old Woman Josie sends little notes to Cecil's apartment, and Lucy Gutierrez chats with them both and asks them their opinions on new ice cream flavours when they visit the White Sand. The manager at Dark Owl Records sends mixtapes to the station and Cecil plays them in the car until he's learned the words enough to sing along loudly. Collectively, they help; and, at night (when, frankly, it's easy for anyone to feel as though they're the only person in the universe), Carlos is there to hold on to Cecil, to talk with him and stave back some of the nightmares.
Each of Cecil's tattoos has the story behind it and the process of its inscription etched into his mind. One night, he runs Carlos through a few of their histories: the people who had put them there, the way the nerve endings under the coloured swirls are forever changed. They make love, and Cecil asks, gasping, for Carlos to dig his fingernails in hard; to look at him and not break eye contact for anything; to let him bury his hands in Carlos' hair. Afterwards, Cecil gazes at the ceiling and muses quietly on existence and impermanence, but he's calmer now. Sometimes, he can doubt his own self along with the usual kind of open-minded doubting of the whole of the world: it's an ordinary questioning, one with which Carlos is familiar.
One morning, Carlos takes a marker to the timepiece, while Cecil primly averts his eyes from the contraband writing implement. He returns the watch with a short message written on the glass, standing out above the ever-moving hands and the drifting stars: a reminder, an anchor, a note from someone who loves him. It says, simply, "you are here".