Somewhere a band is playing,
Playing the strangest tunes,
Of sunflower seeds and sailors
Who tide with the strangest moons.
Somewhere a drummer simmers
And trembles with times forlorn,
Remembering days of summer
In futures yet unborn.
Once upon a time--
One day Cecil walks into the desert and doesn't come back.
It's a nice afternoon. Early March, in the upper seventies, the road shimmering with heat and the scrub brush soaking up the sun. The sky is cloudless, and the breeze is swift and cool. One has the sense of, somewhere in the ozone, a gathering of angels.
These angels are mighty and great; they sing the choruses of the Eternal, and their voices are like bells. The angels' wings are infinite, and they beat in the rhythm of the universe, and the angels' faces are unknowable, and their eyes contain the light of galaxies.
It is possible that one of them is black.
Somewhere on the horizon, the sun is preparing to set in a spectacular display of color. After a few moments of hesitation, Night Vale citizens report, Cecil turns and walks towards the west. His shadow streams out long and stark behind him.
He carries neither pack nor suitcase; he shows no sign of uncertainty. It is believed that he speaks to no one, and it is certain that no one speaks to him. He simply walks along the side of the road, past the trailers and gas stations, and leaves no footsteps.
Old Woman Josie later reports that Cecil's wavering silhouette shrinks until it disappears into the sun. And it never, ever appears again; and he never, ever comes back.
But that was a long time ago, in a kingdom very far away. When the world was young, and wishing still helped.
Sometimes there are wolves. They seem to remember those better than anything, the wolves; they steal livestock, and wait in the darkness with yellow starving eyes and stinking breath, and dress up in old women's clothing, all of which tend to leave an impression.
Sometimes there are forests. More often, there's desert; there was a desert before there was anything else, with rolling dunes and glimmering oases, and the land remembers.
It's the memory of the land that holds.
And other things, too. Patterns, and habits. Fears. Hopes. But there's nothing stronger than the land.
Except one thing, of course. But you can probably guess that.
The first night Carlos spends in Night Vale, the only thing that makes sense is the radio. He takes it apart, puts it back together, just like he used to do when he was six and the laws of the universe were just beginning to reveal themselves before his eyes.
He half expects it to be filled with shrieking insects, or barking a mysterious code from a long-dead Soviet spy station, but it's just machinery and a voice. Collected, calm, as rich as chocolate and as smooth as caramel.
Welcome to Night Vale, it tells him, and Carlos sits on his creaking motel bed, stares out into the night blazing with lights that he cannot explain and phenomena that shake his world by its foundations.
And the voice makes him laugh.
It's a startling sound; for a second he wonders if there's someone in the room with him, and then he wonders how long it's been since he was happy that he can't recognize his own laughter any more. And then the desert swallows the sound of his laughter, too, and there's only the voice on the radio, warm and solid, an anchor, a warm blanket, and he lets it wrap around him.
Cecil has been the host of Night Vale's community radio show for about fifteen years.
Cecil has been the host of Night Vale's community radio show since Night Vale began.
Cecil had a mother, and a family, and a childhood, and grew up in Night Vale, and built a life in Night Vale.
Cecil has never not been the host of the Night Vale community radio show.
One day long ago, Cecil walked into the desert and never came back.
He interviewed Mayor Pamela Winchell on her upcoming electoral platform about a week after that.
(Sometimes it's a radio. Sometimes not.)
Cecil's sitting on a bench by the dog park, watching the stars, when Carlos settles beside him. It's subtle, how Cecil's face lights up when Carlos is near him, but Carlos is learning to see it.
"It's a beautiful night," says Cecil.
Carlos tilts his head up, stares at the rust-colored moon. (He's actually fairly certain that the color is light pollution, and not an unearthly curse or a dread omen.) "Yeah," he says. "Really beautiful."
Cecil's not quiet, not often. But tonight he says nothing, just leans his head back, closes his eyes. He looks happier than Cecil has ever seen him.
In the desert, the temperature drops from scalding to freezing in the space of a few minutes. For now, though, they're in the golden moment of evening when the sky is indigo and the air is nothing but still, dry heat.
Carlos watches Cecil's face, the peace on it, the upward curve of his lips. He almost expects it when Cecil's eyes snap open and catch him looking.
Cecil smiles. It's shy, and sweet, and Carlos leans over and kisses him.
And it's a strange thing, because Carlos has never considered himself a romantic man, no matter what his abuelita called him when he dressed up in a suit to take Marcela Gutierrez to the sixth-grade dance; but when he kisses Cecil, it's like he's kissing the smell of hot concrete, and the scrub brush, and the sand, and the rust-red moon. And he cups the back of Cecil's head with one hand, and he can feel Cecil smile under his lips.
When they break apart, Cecil's eyes are dark and happy, and he looks at Carlos and says, "Hello."
Once upon a time, there was a woodcutter's son, the youngest of three brothers, who went to seek his fortune. And he stumbled upon an enchanted forest--
But there are only forests sometimes. And less and less, these days.
Once upon a time, there was a cotton farmer's son, the youngest of three brothers, who went to seek his fortune. And he stumbled across an enchanted swamp--
Only that's not right, either. Almost a century old, now.
Once upon a time, there was a nurse's son, the youngest of three brothers, a scientist, who went to seek his fortune. And he stumbled across an enchanted desert--
The night comes when Cecil takes Carlos home with him.
They don't talk much on the way there. But Cecil tangles his fingers with Carlos', dry and warm, and Carlos can't help but squeeze, and they hold hands all the way to Cecil's front door.
It's a little awkward, and a little clumsy; Carlos is pretty sure Cecil has a lot more experience than him, but he's a scientist, and so he goes about forming hypotheses and developing procedures and testing conclusions until Cecil is shouting and coming down his throat, and he pulls Carlos back up and kisses him again and again, and overall, Carlos considers the experiment a resounding success.
Afterwards, in Cecil's bed, Carlos lies with Cecil's arms wrapped around him and his chin in Cecil's hair. It's a hot night, but it's cool in Cecil's bedroom; the window is open, and the curtains are fluttering in the breeze.
Carlos doesn't know what time the sun set today, and he's pretty sure it was off-schedule. But here, in the gentle Night Vale dusk, he allows himself to believe that it's not Night Vale that's off-schedule, but the rest of the world. That time has gone right here; that this is the way things are supposed to be; that this is how the story is supposed to go.
Cecil shifts in his arms, murmurs against his chest. Carlos lets his eyes drift shut. Somewhere in the world right now, music is playing, and people are dancing, and discoveries are being made, and hearts are being broken and repaired, and--
And Cecil is here. And Carlos is here with him.
Sometimes Carlos dies.
Snakebite, or poisoned daggers, or the anger of a djinni or demon or dragon or malevolent ancestor. Or eating the food on the witch's table, or straying from the path, or not showing kindness to the injured dog at the gate or the old woman who lives in the forest--
Cecil's walked into the desert a thousand times. He never does come back.
And where does he go, as he walks into the setting sun? Where does he walk in the endless desert, the trailers and lights of Night Vale receding behind him? What does he do out there, far from the home he knew?
Does it matter? He won't speak about it, if you ask him. He'll just look at you blankly, as if he has no idea what you're talking about. And maybe he doesn't.
There's always a hero. Always a prince, or the youngest son of a woodcutter, or a little girl, or a businessman on vacation, or an agent from the FBI. Or a scientist.
And though witches and crocodiles and mysterious and awful phenomena may be anything they please, it is-- somehow-- important that the hero walk on two legs, and smile. That he feel joy, and despair, and betrayal. That he be human.
Carlos knocks on the door of the booth, pushes it open. Cecil is unplugging mysterious audio machines, winding wires around microphones, twirling dials down to zero, and it's a few moments before he notices Carlos in the doorway.
"Hello," he says, and "oh, you shouldn't have."
"They're not illegal, are they?" says Carlos, pushes the flowers into Cecil's hands.
"Not yet," says Cecil, and presses his nose into the blossoms. Carlos can see the corners of his eyes crinkle.
"Was it a good show?" says Carlos, and wraps an arm around his back as they leave the booth. Down the hall, Station Management's door rattles gently.
"Yes," says Cecil, "though we did lose another intern."
"Mackenzie?" says Carlos.
"No," says Cecil, "Mackenzie disappeared into the ether last week, this was McKayla. We might hold a joint memorial service. Station Management is slashing our funeral budget again."
"That's awful," says Carlos sympathetically.
"It's all right," says Cecil, and leans into his arm. He's warm, and it feels comfortable, and good, and right. "I'm sure they'll spend the extra money on something worthwhile. Maybe their diet of sacrifices is running low."
They step out into the dusk. Cecil says, "And how was your day?"
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away--
The land remembers. It's remembered for a long, long time now, and isn't that the job of the land, to carry all the old ghosts?
It remembers wolves, and dragons, and old women who live in the woods and show kindness to princes who show kindness to them and sometimes have angels who change their lightbulbs. It remembers pyramids, and obelisks, and even ziggurats, and the beautiful wild emptiness of the old country. It remembers the shape of stories.
A town is made up of a lot of things. Buildings, of course. Roads, and street signs. Natural attractions that take your breath away. Waterfront parks where there is no water. Fields of dream corn.
A town's made up of people. Children, and adults, and faceless old women who leave silvery hairs on your pillow. Policemen, and farmers, and government officials, and scientists. And the endless, eternal heartbeat of the land.
Sometimes a town is made up of journalists. Sometimes a journalist is made up of the town. Sometimes heartbeats need voices.
Sometimes it's important that even when journalists are made out of towns, they're human, too. Just like heroes.
Because the land remembers, and the land is strong, but there's one thing stronger.
Haven't you guessed it yet?
It's early morning. The desert heat hasn't yet begun to creep under the door and through the windows; it's cool inside their bedroom.
Cecil stirs in Carlos' arms. "Good morning," he says.
"Good morning," says Carlos.
"I'll make breakfast," says Cecil peaceably, and pecks Cecil on the lips, rolls out of bed.
There's an eldritch wailing coming from the linen closet. In the bathroom, there's a security-camera-red light blinking on Carlos' toothbrush. Carlos brushes his teeth, and spits into the sink, and rinses out his mouth.
Cecil is making pancakes shaped like the Thing that came out of the library last week. Carlos leans against the frame of the doorway, toothbrush in hand, and says, "I love you."
Even after all this time, Cecil's face still lights up, "I love you, too," he says. The pancakes are burning.
And someday Cecil will leave, will obey the call of the land and walk out into the desert, will be too old and not human enough to be the voice of Night Vale any more; and someday Carlos will be bitten by a rattlesnake, or tricked by a wicked witch, or he'll see his father cast himself into the Aegean Sea; and someday all of this will end--
But not today. Today there's still love.
Of course that was it. What kind of story did you think this was?
The Arctic is lit by the midnight sun. The surface of the moon is lit by the face of the Earth. Our little town is lit, too, by lights above that we cannot explain.
And they lived happily ever after until the end of their days.
Don't they always?
Somewhere a band is playing--
Oh listen, oh listen that tune!
If you learn it you’ll dance on forever
In June and yet June and more June.
And Death will be dumb and not clever
And Death will lie silent forever
In June and June and more June.