Earl showed up at the door of Cecil's duplex with a casserole and a smile. "Hi, Cecil! I can't stay long, but I thought it might be one of those days where you could use some real food instead of coffee and individually-wrapped pudding cups."
"You are so thoughtful," said Cecil. Even though he had switched over to butterscotch pudding, after Carlos had explained that butterscotch was, scientifically speaking, the most nutritious flavor. He peered at the bubbling concoction under the glass lid. "Wow, you really put the whole ball of wax on that, didn't you?"
"...yes? Cecil, you love paraffin. You used to slather it on everything. It was a running joke in our scout troop."
That didn't sound right. But then, a lot of things Earl said about Cecil didn't sound right. And they'd both been through so much re-education over the years, it wasn't worth fighting over whose memories were more or less altered. "Well, I appreciate it, Earl, I really do. A man cannot live on school-lunch snacks alone, no matter how much science is involved. Can I offer you a drink or something before you go?"
Earl accepted the offer, and they made a little small talk as they headed inside. Turned out Earl had asked around and finally figured out the name of his son — it was [three seconds of muffled droning, followed by an owl screech]. Cecil, meanwhile, had gotten involved in the volunteer cleanup team at the bowling alley, so league night would be going ahead as scheduled.
"You're still bowling, then?"
Cecil scoffed. "What kind of a life would it be, without bowling?"
"It's just that you mentioned not knowing what to do with yourself," said Earl. "On the radio, earlier. I was worried you might have forgotten that you used to have hobbies — you know, bowling, wood-carving, making fun of the moon, that kind of thing."
"Gosh, no. Haven't I given you my Tumblr yet? I think the last two things I posted were a photoset of Khoshekh carvings and this hilarious list of moon jokes."
Earl accepted Cecil's username along with a glass of orange milk. (Cecil was already following Earl, of course. The man reblogged a lot of forbidden information, but at least he had a consistent thought-crime tag, so Cecil could safely filter it out.)
"I just get a little melancholy sometimes talking to Carlos, that's all," continued Cecil, carving himself a slice of the casserole with a hatchet and scooping it onto a plate. "I'm okay the rest of the time. That's normal, isn't it?"
"Sure. Every relationship has its ups and downs," Earl assured him. "It's not like you feel melancholy every time you talk to him, right? You still have fun, still make each other laugh, still find ways to do things for each other that warm your heart and leave you feeling happy and loved."
"I mean, it's your personal relationship, you have your own private lives. You can't put everything about it on the radio."
Cecil's brow furrowed. "What are you talking about? Carlos makes me happy while we're on the radio all the time! He made me happy today! You know, in between the melancholy parts."
"I must have missed it," said Earl sheepishly. "Which part was the happy part?"
"How about the part where he promised he would come home soon? That's always heartwarming! And it happens all the time, on-air and off. I bet you there hasn't been a single week in the past seven months when he hasn't said it multiple times."
Earl's face shifted into a strange, unreadable look.
Cecil didn't like it. "What? What is it now?"
"He didn't...I assumed that was something else you'd worked out by talking in private." Earl glanced at the window, the one with the bush where their secret-police observer was listening, then bent forward and lowered his voice. "You haven't been re-educated in the past few hours, have you?"
"Then you should remember that Carlos said he would see you again soon. He didn't mention anything about home. I don't want to say anything for sure without going back through the transcripts Intern Beth made before that unfortunate incident with the ice cream truck and the laser pointer, but...." Earl encompassed the space of the duplex with a sweeping gesture. "...I don't remember Carlos referring to this place as home any time since August."
"Well, now you're just being silly," said Cecil, folding his arms. The casserole sat forgotten on the countertop. "Of course Carlos would call this place home. We picked it out together! He was the one who asked if we could move in in the first place! That was before you got back to town, but I played the whole speech on-air — look it up."
"No need. Since finding my way back, I've caught up on everything I'd missed by listening to your broadcasts. You mean the day with the condo sales, right?"
"Yes! So you've heard?"
"And Carlos didn't ask about moving in when you were off the air?"
"Why would he? He'd already asked. I said yes! I don't know how you could've missed that. There were beings from species that do not possess ears who didn't miss it."
"I remember you saying yes," allowed Earl. "But I don't remember him asking if you wanted to move in. I remember him telling you that he thought it was time for you two to move in."
"Earl Harlan, you are splitting hairs in a completely unnecessary way. Carlos asked for my input and opinions on plenty of things, using many different phrasings and grammatical structures. Just because he didn't roll out this one thing with the perfect rhetorical flourishes doesn't mean he didn't care about my opinion!"
"Of course not," said Earl, relaxing. "So in this case it is something that happens in private."
"Exactly!" Cecil was trying to think of an example, but the only specific one that came to mind was when Carlos had asked if he would come visit the otherworld desert. And he had a feeling that would get him another intense, uncomfortable look if he mentioned it and nothing else. "It's our personal relationship. We don't put everything about it on the radio."
"I would assume nothing less!" exclaimed Earl. "Cecil, I'm really sorry, I didn't come here wanting to upset you. You don't have to drag out personal details to convince me of anything. If you say you're fine, I believe you."
"Good," said Cecil. As an afterthought, he added, "And I am."
Earl put his now-empty glass in the sink and nodded to the casserole. "Call me when you're done with the dish and I'll swing by to pick it up, okay?"
"Okay. And thanks again."
"Don't even mention it. And, listen, if you want to hang out some time outside of work...we can grab lunch together, we can go bowling...you could bring your niece to the rec center with me and [three seconds of muffled droning, followed by an owl screech]? The restaurant keeps me pretty busy, so I can't give you a blank check, but we can hammer something out."
"I'd like that," admitted Cecil. Even though he had hobbies, spending long stretches of time with only the Faceless Old Woman in the too-empty duplex that Carlos had...that he and Carlos had picked out together...did get tiring sometimes. "What are you doing on league night...?"
Turned out Earl had a shift that night, but was free on Saturday. They made plans to go down to the range together and get some firearms practice, in the name of self-defense against all those menaces that weren't as impervious to bullets as librarians.
After Earl left, Cecil put most of the casserole in the fridge and stared at the lone slice he'd carved away.
He didn't have much of an appetite. And there was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, like maybe he was coming down with something. Still, he hadn't touched any food since lunch, so he should probably at least try to eat some of this.
First, though...he went over to the window.
"Yes, Mr. Palmer?" asked the secret police officer in his bushes.
"You have searchable transcriptions of all my phone calls since August, right? Even the ones made in private?"
"Of course," said the officer proudly. "We hold our spying on citizens to the highest standards of quality and completeness. Why? Would you like a copy?"
He looked at his dinner.
He looked at his phone, charging on a corner of the counter. (No new messages.)
He looked at the foyer, where a pair of Carlos's shoes had been sitting, untouched, for nine months and counting.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I would."