Cecil hummed to himself as he snipped the best flowers from the window box, ready to be arranged on the dining room table.
On their dining room table. On his and Carlos's dining room table. For his and Carlos's anniversary. So many wonderful combinations of words...!
He was the one making the dinner, because Carlos — as usual — was busy at work. These unannounced late nights used to bother Cecil, and he had put in a lot of effort trying to get Carlos to call when it happened. Now, though? He was just thankful he could count on Carlos to come home to him at the end of the day. However late that was.
Cecil worked too, of course. But the job of local radio host wasn't nearly as demanding out here as it had been back in Night Vale. There was no traffic; there were no advertisers, no government to send them press releases, no agencies to make public service announcements; the only person who ever called in was Carlos, and only rarely; maybe once a month there was an item for the community calendar. And, of course, there were only about a dozen listeners, since nobody out here had ever owned a radio receiver until Carlos and Kevin started making them.
Thinking about Kevin made Cecil grimace as he arranged the flowers in a vase. His colleague/nemesis/neighbor was still suffering from the influence of Strexcorp's conditioning, and Cecil doubted he would ever fully recover. Science, unfortunately, was no help — Cecil had tried to ask Carlos about it shortly after he moved, and gotten a blank look and a confused "Help him? But he's fine!"
Well, Cecil had learned to put up with it. He'd had to; Kevin was his only co-worker, and the only person he and Carlos could socialize with who was their own size. Which mattered when it came to things like, say, bowling. None of the masked warriors would fit into the bowling alley Carlos had built.
The oven beeped, making Cecil jump. He'd gotten caught up in staring at one of their shelves, the one with a photo of the old league team in between two scuffed trophies, and forgotten all about the roast!
Muttering under his breath, he ran over to switch off the heat and take out the sizzling tray. Sure, he missed bowling with lots of people, but it wasn't a big deal. He still talked with Josie on the phone sometimes, and that other teammate whose name and face he couldn't remember and whose conversations always faded into buzzing when he hung up. He'd even gone back to visit Night Vale for league night once, although the round trip was such a hassle! No wonder Carlos had never done it, back before he'd asked Cecil to move out here for good.
The roast already smelled delicious. And it would only be better once Cecil added the special seasonings Earl had recommended, the last time they talked.
He talked with Earl even less than he did Josie.
(He had spoken to Dana maybe twice. She had finally managed to prove that she wasn't the one subjecting him to unwilling mind-control, but by that point Cecil had already decided to move. It's one thing to maintain a friendship long-distance, and quite another to repair one.)
Well, some amount of drifting away from people was just part of life. Cecil had survived the year when Josie was MIA under the angels' secret protection program; he'd learned to cope after Earl got dragged away by strange mute children, and Cecil had assumed he would never be seen again; he'd stayed strong when Carlos first went missing and didn't call him for a month. Not talking to people too often was easier when you at least knew that they were alive and well.
He set out the nice dishes, cracked a bottle of wine, and poured two glasses.
Who needed an extended network of nearby friends, anyway? Hadn't Cecil felt isolated and disconnected most of the time, those last few months in Night Vale? He was probably just romanticizing the idea now that he no longer had it. He did that sometimes: idealized things that weren't part of his world, and took for granted the things that were.
Carlos didn't have that problem. Carlos could be happy wherever he was. He had never mentioned missing anyone from that university where he used to teach. He'd seemed friendly with his team of scientists back in Night Vale, but hadn't been too broken up about getting separated from them. He'd gotten close to some of the masked warriors, but when both Doug and Alicia had fallen in battle a few months ago, he'd adjusted pretty quickly.
In retrospect, maybe Cecil should have appreciated it more when they'd been separated and Carlos had said things like "I love you" or "I miss you." Sure, it was a poor substitute for the physical contact he'd missed, or for conversations where he could talk about his own issues and have Carlos listen without distraction...but when he thought about how easy it probably would have been for Carlos to forget about him completely....
Cecil shook himself. What was he doing, dwelling on past stresses? Tonight was supposed to be for celebrating.
Sure, it had hurt when their relationship was in that uncertain limbo where Cecil kept waiting for Carlos to come back to Night Vale, unaware that Carlos no longer wanted to do so...but Carlos had eventually come clean. And when he'd asked Cecil to move to the desert instead, Cecil had said yes! Once they'd finally started talking about it, it turned out there had been an answer that would make them both happy this whole time! Carlos had a ton of science to do in their new home, and nobody here would yell "interloper!" when he went by, or accuse him of being an evil secret agent. Cecil had his own job, and beautiful scenery to enjoy, and he still had the Internet and never needed to charge his phone.
And, perhaps most important of all, he had Carlos. The love of his life. The one person whose presence would make any other hardships worth it.
Cecil set out two candles, lit the dancing flames, dimmed the lights, and waited for Carlos to get home.
He jerked awake with a start, neck sore from the way he'd fallen asleep sideways in a chair. The house was dark. All he could see was the blinking red light through the window, a single candle flame sputtering on the table, and a smaller blinking red light from his phone.
Cecil stretched, groaned, and shuffled blearily across the carpet to see what was going on.
1 New Voicemail.
Rubbing his neck, Cecil poked through options with his free thumb until he got the message playing.
Hi, babe, it's me. Sorry I got your voicemail.
I have exciting news! When I was leaving work this afternoon, I saw a rabbit. Now, you know rabbits are not native to this desert, which means it was a fascinating scientific mystery where this one came from, so I followed it, to try to find out.
After a short run it went down a rabbit hole, which is a thing that rabbits do. And the hole was much bigger than you would expect based on the rabbit's size, so I was able to keep following it. Here is what I found out: the hole was also much deeper than you would expect! I ended up falling very far down. I don't know exactly how far.
Long story short, I also have bad news: I have not figured out how to get back up to the surface, and will probably be late for our anniversary dinner tonight.
But don't worry about me! I'm not hurt or anything — a scientist is always fine — and also, this place looks pretty interesting. For instance, there are some bottles that I really want to investigate. They have labels, and strange liquids inside, and they look really scientifically fascinating!
Once I'm done with that, though, I will get right to work on finding a way home again.
I love you. I'll call again soon.