Carlos wakes up to fingers trailing down his back, gentle and smooth; he turns his head without opening his eyes, lets himself be pulled into a kiss.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Good morning,” says Kevin.
Carlos blinks open his eyes at last, rolls out of bed and heads to the dresser. The sun’s pouring into their little bedroom; it’s going to be a beautiful day.
“What time is it?” he says.
“Seven-thirty,” says Kevin, “about time for us to get to work. Did you know, Vanessa’s getting married?”
“Married!” says Carlos, digging through the closet. His lab coat’s somewhere in there, he’s sure. “I didn’t even know she was dating anyone.”
“Well, neither did I,” says Kevin, appearing next to him and reaching into the closet to pluck out a suit jacket, “only an announcement appeared on my desk yesterday afternoon. She’s marrying Joan Pine, you know, the pharmacy worker?”
Lab coat at last. Carlos shrugs it on. “That’s great,” he says. “Are we invited?”
Kevin laughs. He’s always had a nice laugh. “I sure hope so,” he says. “I’d hate to miss it.”
“Great,” says Carlos. “I’ll make breakfast.”
It’s a quiet day at the lab. Carlos’ team of scientists are buzzing from place to place like white-coated bees: diligent, committed, organized, examining test tubes, poking at rats.
It’s nice, Carlos thinks, to see them so hard at work—so nice to see everyone hard at work. It’s like Kevin always says: idle hands are sure a nuisance when everyone’s trying to get things done. Especially when the work they’re trying to get done is as important as science.
He wanders over to where one of his scientists has a lab rat running around a little maze. It’s so cute there, squeaking frantically and clawing at the walls in desperation, and Carlos can’t help but smile.
“What are we seeing here?” he asks.
“Management asked me to find out the effects of certain chemicals they want to release to the public,” says his scientist. “We’re testing them on animal subjects, now.”
Carlos squints at the rat. Its eyes are wide and panicked, and it bares its teeth at him.
“Well, that sounds very important, then,” he says. “Let me know if you see anything unusual.”
“I’m sure we won’t,” says his scientist comfortingly, and scribbles something down in her notebook.
There’s a cough from behind him, polite. Carlos turns to see a dark-suited man, with the familiar StrexCorp logo stamped on his lapel.
“Sir!” Carlos says.
“Hello,” says the man in the dark suit, and shakes his hand. His skin is very dry and very hot.
“Is—is everything all right?” says Carlos. “Is something wrong? Has one of my scientists broken regulations, are you here to—fire someone, is—”
“No, no,” says the man in the dark suit, “nothing is wrong,” and Carlos instantly feels silly. Of course nothing is wrong. Why would anything be wrong?
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t know what came over me, can I help you with something?”
“We would just like to make sure that you’ll be attending Vanessa’s wedding,” says the man in the dark suit. “It’s very important to her that you and Kevin be there.”
“StrexCorp came all the way to my little lab to ask me if I can come to Kevin’s intern’s wedding?” says Carlos, a little stunned.
“StrexCorp cares about all of its employees,” says the man in the dark suit, sincere. “From the top down. We want to ensure that our business is a smoothly running machine. StrexCorp cares about you.”
“I—” says Carlos. “I don’t even know when Vanessa’s wedding is.”
“It’s this Sunday,” says the man in the dark suit. “We’ll give you a day off work.”
“Then I suppose I can make it,” says Carlos, half-laughing, “if I don’t have work. This really means that much to Vanessa?”
“StrexCorp cares about you,” the man in the dark suit says again, and puts out a hand. Carlos shakes it automatically—still very hot, still very dry—and watches him turn and walk away.
“Well,” says Kevin, philosophical, “StrexCorp does care about you.”
“I guess so,” says Carlos, rolls over, stares at the ceiling of their bedroom. It’s a hot night. “That’s nice to know.”
“Mm-hmm,” says Kevin, leans over to kiss him. “Get some rest. Tomorrow is another day.”
Carlos is sure it’ll take him hours to fall asleep. It’s not long, though, before he’s walking down a sidewalk next to a high wall. And, in the way of dreams, the street seems familiar to him, although he’s sure he’s never seen it before; and the man beside him has hair like Kevin’s, and a face like Kevin’s, but is surely not Kevin.
“You see,” says the man who isn’t Kevin, as if continuing a conversation already begun, “there’s an old magician’s trick, the Enchanted Casement, where a window hangs in the middle of the stage, and faces seem to appear in it. But there’s no one there.”
“Sounds fascinating,” says Carlos, and means it.
The man who isn’t Kevin ducks his head and smiles. “It’s just done with mirrors,” he says. “That’s important to remember, if you can. It’s all mirrors.”
They walk in silence for a while. There’s an Arby’s on their right, glowing neon in the night, and for some reason he can’t quite explain, Carlos’ eyes are stinging with tears.
The man who isn’t Kevin stops in the middle of the sidewalk, reaches up a hand to Carlos’ face, brushes away the tears. “It’s all right,” he says. His voice isn’t like Kevin’s at all. “It’s going to be all right.”
Carlos swallows down the lump in his throat. The world around him is wavering, and he wants, abruptly, not to let it go. “The trick,” he says, desperate. “The magician’s trick, with the different faces—”
“Oh, yes,” says the man who isn’t Kevin. “That’s just an illusion, though. The real thing is far worse.”
And then the neon glow of the Arby’s is gone, and Carlos is blinking sunlight out of his eyes.
“I just had the strangest dream,” he says to Kevin, who’s already tying his shoes on the other side of the bed.
“Did you?” says Kevin.
“Yes,” says Carlos, and scrubs at his eyes with his fists. The dream is trickling out of his mind like sand. “Something about mirrors.”
He stops by Kevin’s booth at the end of the day, knocks on the door. He’s learned his lesson about just walking in; it takes ages to get blood out of a white lab coat.
Kevin opens the door, and his face breaks out into a wide smile. “Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” says Carlos. “I thought I’d congratulate Vanessa. Is she in?”
“Oh, she’s already gone home for the day,” says Kevin. “She’s very excited, though. She’s trying to make me help her pick flowers for Joan’s bouquet. Isn’t that adorable?”
“That’s adorable,” Carlos agrees.
Kevin carefully wipes his shoes on the mat just outside the booth door. “Do you want to go out tonight?” he asks.
“Sure,” says Carlos.
“I was just thinking,” Kevin says, as they make their way down the hall, “we haven’t gone out in ages. It’s a beautiful night, we could go see the high school basketball team, they’re playing Night Vale this week.”
“That sounds great,” Carlos agrees, and then blinks, shakes his head. It feels as if there’s water in his ears. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What did you say?”
“The high school basketball team,” says Kevin, who’s watching him carefully. “They’re playing Night Vale tonight.”
“Of course!” says Carlos, and then blinks again, hard. His ears are ringing, as if something very loud has exploded near them. “I’m sorry, one more time,” he says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
Kevin beams at him. “It’s all right,” he says. “How about a movie?”
“Sounds fantastic,” says Carlos. He feels as if something’s dislodged in his brain, but he can’t think what.
The next day at work he’s bent over a microscope when someone clears her throat next to him. He stands so quickly that he’s dizzy for a second, and turns.
It’s the scientist from the other day, the one he’d been talking to when the man in the dark suit from StrexCorp had come. “Yes?” he says. “What is it?”
The scientist looks nervous. “You told me to come and tell you if anything unusual happened to the rat,” she says.
“Has something happened?” says Carlos, delighted. “Unusual reactions? Strange effects?”
“Well—” says the scientist, “not strange, but it’s not like it was the other day. Could you come and see?”
“Of course,” says Carlos, and follows her over to the little glass maze. The rat’s not desperate and panicked, like it had been the other day. Instead, it’s wandering from dead end to dead end in the maze, bumping its nose on the glass. It doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing.
“I see what you mean,” he says. “When did this start?”
“Just today,” says his scientist. “We upped the dosage on the chemical we were feeding it just a few hours before the change in its behavior.”
“Any word from Management on what the chemical is designed to do?” says Carlos.
“None,” says his scientist. “It’s supposed to be top secret.” She looks tentatively hopeful. “Maybe it’s supposed to work this way? Aren’t top secret projects usually interesting?”
Carlos squats down, taps a fingernail against the edge of the maze. The rat doesn’t appear to notice.
“Just write everything that happens down,” he says, “and report it to Management. I’m sure they know best.”
“I’m sure they know best,” echoes his scientist, looking relieved.
“And—” says Carlos, and rubs at his forehead. There’s a headache building there, he can feel it. “Keep me updated too, all right?”
“All right,” says his scientist.
“Good,” says Carlos, and moves back to his microscope. Whatever had come dislodged in his brain yesterday feels like it’s left an empty space in his head.
Carlos hates empty spaces in his head. He massages at his temples, bends over his lens again.
This time, he dreams of a pizza parlor, where he’s holding a piece of pizza dripping with cheese and covered with olives and sausage. It’s bigger than his head.
“I’m allergic to olives,” he says.
The man across from him, who still isn’t quite Kevin, droops with disappointment. “You never told me,” he says.
“I always order jackalope,” says Carlos, and then wonders why, because jackalope is certainly not a pizza topping.
“You always do,” agrees the man who isn’t Kevin. “You have excellent taste.”
“My head hurts,” says Carlos, and puts down the slice of pizza.
The man who isn’t Kevin looks even more despondent. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that. For now, anyway.”
“For now?” says Carlos.
“I promise to rub your back when I see you again,” says the man who isn’t Kevin, and smiles at him brilliantly.
“You’re seeing me right now,” says Carlos. “Aren’t you?”
The man who isn’t Kevin shrugs. “Yes and no,” he says. “You can see me, but it’s very possible that I can’t see you, and that this is only a dream after all. Perhaps it’s your subconscious telling you to try olives.”
“Are you real?” says Carlos.
“Well, I think I’m real,” says the man who isn’t Kevin, “but isn’t that just what a dream would say? You’ll have to ask me when we see each other again.”
He leans forward. “Carlos—perfect Carlos!” he adds, in what seems to be an automatic interjection, “listen. I have something new for you to remember.”
“I remembered about the mirrors,” says Carlos, proud.
“Good,” says the man who isn’t Kevin, “good, now listen to this. He grew into her arms two, like an adder or a snake; she held him fast, not let him go, he was her earthly maick. He grew into her arms two, like iron in hot fire; she held him fast, not let him go, he was her heart’s desire.”
“Is that a poem?” says Carlos. The man who isn’t Kevin really has an unforgettable voice; it turns the words into something endlessly comforting, an old lullaby.
“A ballad,” says the man who isn’t Kevin.
“What does it mean?” says Carlos.
The man who isn’t Kevin leans forward, puts his hands over Carlos’. “It means I’m trapped, too,” he says, “here, somewhere between when you close your eyes and when you open them. It means don’t give up. It means hold on. It means know what your heart’s desire is.”
“Trapped?” says Carlos blankly. “I’m not trapped.”
The man who isn’t Kevin squeezes Carlos’ hands, hard. “Remember,” he says, and Carlos wakes up.
“Let’s go to the park,” says Kevin at the end of the next day. He’s waiting for Carlos outside the lab, and his shoes are very clean.
“That’s a good idea,” says Carlos, leans down to kiss him on the cheek. “It’s such a nice day.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” says Kevin, and they make their way from the lab down the street to the park.
It really is a beautiful day. Children are laughing and splashing each other in the artificial pond, building castles in the sandbox, licking contentedly at enormous rust-colored lollipops. The snack stand is selling hot dogs, lemonade, and Coke in glass bottles. On a tree, Carlos spots a poster announcing that the circus is coming to town.
They settle on a bench by the artificial pond, and Carlos wraps an arm around Kevin’s shoulders, lets himself relax. The throbbing between his ears is still painful, but here in the beautiful sunshine, it seems to be beginning to fade.
He’s happier than he can ever remember being—simple, uncomplicated happiness, expanding in his chest like a balloon. The sun’s warm, and the sky’s blue, and every single person he sees has a smile on their face, and he’s sure, suddenly, that there’s nowhere better in the world than this.
Kevin leans into his arm, says, “Don’t you wish it could be like this forever?”
“I was just thinking that,” says Carlos.
Kevin hums. “Just like this,” he says, “with the sun and the children and the park, here in Desert Bluffs. Everywhere just like this, and everything just like this forever. Nothing dark or scary, no monsters or things under the bed or things you don’t understand. Just like this, always.”
Kevin’s voice, Carlos thinks through a haze of sunshine and happiness, must be half the reason Carlos liked him in the first place; it’s calm and compelling, like it has a wire directly into Carlos’ hindbrain telling him everything is going to be all right. It’s a voice made for radio—
—and there’s something nagging at the back of his mind, something that makes the pain in between his ears spike sharply. Carlos closes his eyes, lifts a hand to blot out the sunlight, but that just makes it worse. He grimaces.
“Something wrong?” says Kevin.
“A headache,” says Carlos. “I’m probably just dehydrated, don’t worry about me.”
“Of course I worry about you,” says Kevin, and reaches around to rub a gentle hand up and down Carlos’ back.
There’s something about that, too, that nags at him; but Carlos doesn’t focus on it, just lets Kevin’s soothing touch clear his mind until there’s nothing left.
The next day, though, the pounding in his head is back with a vengeance, and Carlos has to excuse himself from work to go sit outside and breathe the fresh air.
There’s a lab-owned radio in the parking lot; Carlos fiddles with it, tries to pick up Welcome to Desert Bluffs, but all he gets is static. Kevin must be on a coffee break, or Vanessa must have crossed some wires.
Carlos sighs, twirls the dial absently; the radio switches from baseball to This American Life to Spanish-language soccer to music, and he gives up, lets the dulcet strains of Adele wash over him, stares at the empty sky.
It’s only when the last wailing sometimes it hurts instead is beginning to wind down that Carlos comes back to himself; the station’s gone to commercials, and there’s a man talking excitedly about Arby’s, and—
—Carlos can’t see.
He puts a hand to his cheek, feels wetness there, brings it away and stares at his own tears. He’s crying. Why is he crying? Who cries over—
And olives. And a ballad, and a magician’s trick. And a man who looks like Kevin, but isn’t Kevin, can’t be Kevin—
—and, a few days ago, Kevin himself, asking if he wanted to go to a high school basketball game against Night Vale—
—but what does that have to do with anything?
The radio’s transitioned into an aggressively cheerful woman advertising Kaiser, but Carlos isn’t listening any more. Night Vale. Night Vale just across the canyon, Night Vale whose baseball team is the Spiderwolves and whose mayor is P something, Patricia, Pomona—
Carlos’ headache is gone.
He rubs at his eyes, clears away the last of his tears, looks around at the parking lot. The inside of his head feels different. Cleaner.
He makes his way back to the lab, watches his team of scientists hurry from station to station, pouring and peering and poking. One of them comes to wash his hands at the sink by Carlos, and Carlos taps him on the shoulder.
“Have you ever been to Night Vale?” he asks the scientist conversationally when he looks up.
“Night Vale?” says the scientist, blank-faced.
“Yes,” says Carlos. “Night Vale. Across the canyon. We played their basketball team the other day.”
The scientist is looking at him strangely. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says, “what’s Night Vale?”
“Not a high school sports fan?” says Carlos, aiming for a jovial tone.
The scientist shakes his head. “Sir, my daughter’s on the basketball team,” he says. “I go to all of her games. I’ve never heard of Night Vale.”
Carlos stares at the scientist. The scientist wipes his hands on a paper towel, walks away.
All around him, his team of scientists are buzzing around the lab like bees: single-minded, unthinking, and made up of a worrying number of drones. Carlos is a scientist, too, and believes in empirical data and the theories that can be extrapolated from it, not in hunches. But if he did believe in hunches, he’d have a hell of a hunch that something’s coming.
On the way back to his house, he’s stopped by a short girl with wide, almost terrified eyes. “Mr. Carlos?” she says.
“Just Carlos,” says Carlos automatically, and then recognizes her. “Vanessa! How are you?”
“I’m doing well,” says Vanessa, bobbing her head, “really well, um. Really well.”
“I heard about the wedding,” says Carlos. “Congratulations! To you and Joan both.”
“Thank you,” says Vanessa, bobs her head again.
“Do you know,” says Carlos,” a man from StrexCorp came all the way to my lab just to make sure I could make it to the celebration?”
Vanessa looks, if possible, even more terrified. “That’s what I’m here about,” she says. “To make sure that you can still, um, make it. It’s really important. Um. To me.”
Carlos blinks in surprise. “Of course I can make it,” he says. “Kevin and I will both be there, we won’t miss it.”
“Good,” says Vanessa, “um, thank you,” and looks as if she’s about to bolt.
“One thing,” says Carlos. “Have you ever heard of Night Vale?”
Vanessa looks at him in honest, complete confusion. “What’s Night Vale?” she says.
“That’s all right,” says Carlos, “that’s all.”
There’s a tap on his shoulder the next day at work. It’s the scientist from the other day, her clipboard clutched in her hands. “You told me to keep you updated on the test results with the rat, sir,” she says. She looks pleased.
“I did,” says Carlos. “What’s the word?”
“Come and see, sir,” says the scientist, and leads him over to the maze, where the rat is running through it with as much energy and verve as Carlos has ever really seen in a lab rat.
“He looks enthusiastic,” he says, bends down to tap the glass. The rat comes over, sniffs at his finger once or twice, and then practically bounds away.
“We tripled the dosage,” says the scientist. “It’s the happiest rat I’ve ever observed, sir. It’s sleeping and eating normally, it’s not sick or unhealthy. It’s just—happy.”
“Just—happy,” Carlos echoes, watching the rat. “It looks like it’s running the maze normally.”
“Actually,” says the scientist thoughtfully, “that was the only side effect.”
“What was?” says Carlos.
“That rat’s been running through the same maze for weeks now,” says the scientist. “It could find its way through blindfolded. But after we tripled the dosage, it was fumbling its way through as if it hadn’t ever seen the maze before.”
“It forgot,” says Carlos.
“It forgot,” the scientist agrees. “Mind wiped clean as a slate. Weeks of memory just—gone.”
“I see,” says Carlos. “You’d better tell Management, they’ll want to know about the side effects.”
“I already told them,” says his scientist. “Sir, I think they liked it. StrexCorp’s already placed a huge order.”
“Have they,” says Carlos.
The scientist nods, smiles. “Good news, right, sir?" she says. “The economy is stimulated, and the profits are booming—”
“Yeah,” says Carlos. “Good news.”
It’s something about Night Vale.
He’s sure of that now. Whatever’s going on—his headache, his dreams, maybe even StrexCorp’s lab rat—it has something to do with the little town across the canyon. The little town that no one remembers.
That thought startles Carlos; he stops in his tracks. He’s been tracing his way automatically to the Desert Bluffs radio station, like he does almost every day, but now he turns around, stares at the street as if he’s never seen it before.
Kevin knows about Night Vale. He’d mentioned their basketball team to Carlos, that day Carlos’ headache had started. And Carlos remembers Kevin’s face as he’d dropped the name in conversation, watching Carlos carefully—
—as if he were testing him. Testing to see if he’d react. Testing to see if he’d remember the name.
Testing to see what he’d remember, if he heard the name.
It has to do with StrexCorp; it must have to do with StrexCorp. StrexCorp appearing in his lab, StrexCorp putting in a huge order for the chemical his scientist had given that lab rat—StrexCorp is up to something, and Kevin must be in their employ, or under their threats.
The face of the man who isn’t Kevin swims up before Carlos’ eyes without prompting. It’s all done with mirrors, he’d said. That’s just an illusion, though. The real thing is far worse.
The real thing?
Carlos closes his eyes, ignores the irritated shove of pedestrians past him. He’s on the edge of something, he can feel it. Something about Night Vale, and forgetting, and mirrors—
—mirror doubles. The man who isn’t Kevin could be Kevin’s identical twin, but he’s not. He’s Kevin’s mirror double.
But why would Kevin—and StrexCorp, if Kevin is their agent—think it was so important that Carlos forget Night Vale? Why would they want to make sure Carlos couldn’t remember Mayor Pamela Winchell, and the Arby’s, and the dog park, and Telly the barber—
Carlos opens his eyes, retraces his thoughts. The dog park hadn’t shown up in his dreams. Neither had Telly the barber. And neither—memories bursting across his skull like fireworks—had clocks filled with grey ooze, or five-headed dragons, or mysterious hooded figures, or the Sherriff’s secret police, who’d come by one night to plant cameras in his living room—
—in their living room—
Cecil, who he lives with. Cecil, the host of Night Vale’s radio station. Cecil, the mirror double in his dreams. Cecil, his boyfriend.
And if Cecil is his boyfriend—
—then why is he here? In Desert Bluffs? Living with Kevin?
And why is StrexCorp so insistent on making sure Carlos doesn’t remember he actually lives in Night Vale?
Carlos blinks, and the world rushes back. He’s on an ordinary Desert Bluffs sidewalk, mothers with strollers, severed goat heads dangling from the trees, and he’s heading to Kevin’s booth, where Kevin is most likely waiting for him.
Kevin can’t know that Carlos has remembered. He can’t, or he’ll tell StrexCorp, and whatever StrexCorp did to Carlos’ head to make him forget, they’ll just do again. And then Carlos will lose the dreams, and Night Vale, and Cecil. And he can’t lose Cecil. Not again.
Not ever again.
He’s at his lab—his real lab, the one in Night Vale, not the one StrexCorp’s provided for him—and even though he knows it’s a dream, Carlos finds himself blinking away tears. It’s home. It’s so, so good to be home.
“Hello,” says Cecil behind him, and Carlos turns.
“It’s not just you that everyone’s forgetting,” he says. “It’s everyone in Night Vale. It’s Night Vale itself.”
“How can everyone just forget a whole town?” says Carlos. “It’s just across Radon Canyon. Doesn’t anyone look and see? It’s right there.”
“Technically speaking,” says Cecil, “it isn’t right there any more. It’s right here.”
Carlos blinks. “Here,” he says.
“In your head,” Cecil confirms. “Just underneath the surface of your conscious mind.”
“And that’s why I can see it in dreams?” says Carlos. “The streets, and the pizza place, and this lab, they’re all that’s left of the real places? And I can only see them when I’m dreaming.”
Now Cecil looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Not quite,” he says. “All of those places are dreams. You made them up. The real places aren’t in a shape you would recognize any more.”
“Then what,” says Carlos, and stops.
Cecil spreads his arms. “Hello,” he says.
“The voice of Night Vale,” says Carlos.
“And the everything else of Night Vale, too, at the moment,” Cecil agrees, tucks his hands into his pockets. “I—we—Night Vale always liked wearing this body best. It’s nice. Human.”
Carlos looks at Cecil’s clothes, his face, his eyes. Cecil looks slightly worried, as if afraid that Carlos will shout at him.
“Have you—has Cecil always been like this?” Carlos says. “Some kind of, what, avatar prophet thing?”
Cecil shrugs. “Everyone is, a little. All Night Vale citizens have a piece of home in them. Cecil more than most, though. He seems suited to it.”
“Do you have to be Cecil?” asks Carlos. Against his better judgment, he’s fascinated. It’s a familiar feeling. “Or can you—be other people?”
Cecil’s face flicks to the Apache tracker’s, then Dana’s, then Steve Carlsberg’s, then back to Cecil again. “I can be someone else, if you want me to be,” he says, but his face is worried.
“This is fine,” Carlos assures him, “this is, um, great. It’s nice.”
Cecil’s face breaks out into a shy smile. “It’s really good to see you again, Carlos,” he says.
Carlos hesitates for a moment, then reaches out and takes Cecil’s hand. “Tell me how to get you out of here,” he says. “Tell me how to get us home.”
“I have told you,” says Cecil. “Don’t you remember?”
“I remember about mirrors,” says Carlos, “and I remember about the ballad. She held him fast, not let him go, he was her heart’s desire.”
Cecil’s hand—no, Night Vale’s hand—is very warm in Carlos’. “Yes,” he says, and smiles, and Carlos loves him, completely and heart-achingly, with a force so strong it surprises even himself. He loves him, and he wants to see him, and he wants to go home—
His lab is dissolving around him. Cecil says, “There’s one more thing for you to remember.”
“Anything,” says Carlos, desperate, “what?”
Cecil says, “Don’t eat the food on the witch’s table,” and Carlos wakes up.
There’s a hand on his shoulder; it’s Kevin’s. Carlos rolls over, says fuzzily, “What is it?”
“Get up, sleepyhead,” says Kevin. “Vanessa’s wedding is today.”
Vanessa’s having her wedding in the park, according to Kevin. Carlos doesn’t know whether to believe what Kevin tells him any more, but he has no other sources, no invitation, and suddenly that, too, seems strange.
Kevin holds his hand all the way to the park. Carlos is too terrified to let go, and Kevin is squeezing his hand very tight.
To Carlos’ relief, though, there are chairs arranged in the park, and Vanessa and Joan are both there in beautiful white gowns, holding bouquets. Carlos thinks he sees a tentacle slither in Joan’s bouquet, and feels sick.
The ceremony is quiet. A minister officiates; he has a StrexCorp logo stamped on his collar. Vanessa and Joan both look petrified, and when it comes time for them to kiss, it’s barely a peck on the lips, over almost before it’s begun; and then the crowd’s clapping, and standing up, and the wedding party must be beginning.
“Look,” says Kevin, “refreshments,” and points. “Let’s go try a few.”
Carlos follows him to the refreshments table, watching his back carefully. He’s increasingly certain that Kevin is an important agent in all this, and as Kevin hands him a glass of champagne, he watches his face carefully, looking for a sign of—
The moment the champagne glass touches his lips, a memory swims up before his eyes, this one from just yesterday: the rat in the maze, scampering happily from place to place, and his scientist’s voice saying, It forgot. Mind wiped clean as a slate.
Don’t eat the food on the witch’s table!
Carlos lowers the champagne glass. “Actually,” he says, “I’m not thirsty. I think I’ll pass.”
“But we’re at Vanessa’s wedding,” says Kevin. “We have to have some refreshments. It would be rude not to.”
“You aren’t eating or drinking,” Carlos points out.
They stare at each other.
Kevin says, very quietly, “Carlos, please.”
“No, thank you,” says Carlos. “I don’t think so.”
Kevin tucks his hands into his pockets, and it’s so like Cecil that Carlos can’t help but wince. Kevin sees it, and purses his lips.
“It’s not really about the food, you know,” he says, still in that same quiet tone. “It’s about the choice. You have to choose this, willingly, or it won’t work.”
“Why me?” says Carlos. “Out of everyone in Night Vale, why did they pick me to stay in the real world? Why didn’t they just consign me to someone else’s subconscious?”
Kevin looks confused. “They?” he says.
“StrexCorp,” says Carlos.
But Kevin’s smiling at him now, a smile too wide and with far too many teeth, as if he knows something Carlos doesn’t, and Carlos tries to think quickly. Is StrexCorp not the mastermind behind all this? And if they aren’t responsible for erasing Night Vale, who is? StrexCorp runs Desert Bluffs, they—
It’s all done with mirrors.
Mirrors. Kevin is Cecil’s mirror double. So if Cecil is the voice of Night Vale, then—
“You,” he says.
“I picked you because I like you,” says Kevin. “He does, too, doesn’t he? My double in Night Vale. He likes you a lot.”
“He does,” says Carlos, “and I like him, too. A lot.”
“But you could like me,” says Kevin, and his voice is coaxing. Carlos glances around; the wedding guests are departing in droves. Vanessa and Joan are nowhere to be seen, and he wonders what threats were made against them, what Kevin did to convince them to marry so Carlos would be drawn here.
He says, “I want to go home.”
“Night Vale is just the beginning,” says Kevin. He’s very close to Carlos now, and Carlos takes a step back, but Kevin follows, his voice gentle and compelling. “We’ll spread across the canyon, Carlos, we’ll spread bigger. Suburbs sprawl, it’s what we do. We’ll eat up other towns like we ate up Night Vale, and we’ll spread across the whole state, across the whole desert.”
Carlos doesn’t have room to back up any more. Kevin rubs a hand up and down his arm. “All you have to do is say yes, Carlos,” he says. “Just say yes, and forget Night Vale, and it’ll all be gone forever. And you’ll be happy. Just say yes, and you’ll be so, so happy.”
Carlos shuts his eyes. Kevin’s voice is like honey, thick and slow, pouring into his ears, and his hand on Carlos’ arm is like a brand, burning away memory, burning away thought—
“You could have power, if you wanted,” says Kevin. “You could have money. You could have a lab that spans continents—”
“No, thank you,” says Carlos quietly. “I’d rather have Cecil.”
There’s a long pause. Carlos risks opening his eyes; Kevin’s standing there, his eyes dark, his lips pursed. Then he shudders, and his face twists up, and he wraps his arm around himself, and when he looks up again it’s Cecil, his face joyous, and he collapses into Carlos’ arms and says, “You did it, you—”
“No, thank you,” says Carlos firmly. “No trickery. No illusions. I want Cecil.”
The thing wearing Cecil’s face steps back, cocks its head to the side. Divorced from the pretense that it’s Cecil, it barely seems human.
“How did you know?” it says.
“The voice,” says Carlos. “Nobody can ever really get Cecil’s voice right.”
The thing wearing Cecil’s face shudders again, and its face twists into one of Carlos’ scientists, then the man in the dark suit from StrexCorp, then finally back to Kevin. “Carlos,” Kevin’s face says.
“Desert Bluffs,” says Carlos.
“Do you remember a few days ago,” says Kevin, “in the park? When the children were playing in the pond, and the circus was coming to town, and the sun was shining, and everything was so good?”
He steps closer to Carlos again, closes his hand around Carlos’ wrist. “And you said you wished it could be like that forever. Everywhere just like that, and everything that way, always.”
His voice is like a red-hot needle, boring into Carlos’ brain. “Can’t you see it?” he says. “Everywhere happy. Everything happy. Nothing dark, nothing scary, nothing mysterious. Just this, forever.”
And Carlos can see it; he can see it clear as day, the suburbs of Desert Bluffs expanding and unfolding across the desert, across the continent. He can see people smiling, and hot dogs and lemonade and Coke in glass bottles, and people moving from place to place like bees, hardworking and mindless and so content, across the state, across America, across the planet.
And as he imagines it, the vision grows clearer and brighter, and there’s a sharp spike of want in his chest—want for that happiness, want for that simplicity, want for everything to be knowable and known, for everything dark and strange to have never existed and all the monsters to be tricks of the light; and the sharper the want grows in his chest, the dimmer his memory of Cecil’s face becomes—
Kevin’s hand is hot on his wrist. “That’s right,” he says, his voice soft in Carlos’ ear. “All you have to do is forget. All you have to do is say yes.”
And Kevin’s hand on his wrist is gentle; it’s a comfort, an anchor, and Carlos is suddenly grateful for it, unsure why he’d ever feared it in the first place. Kevin is here, and Kevin is helping him, and he’s so glad Kevin is here, so glad Kevin is helping him get through—whatever this is.
And does it matter, really, what this is? Carlos blinks open his eyes, slowly, and there’s Kevin, and Kevin is smiling at him; and he’s happy Kevin is smiling, he’s so happy that he can make Kevin happy, he’s so, so happy.
“Just say yes, Carlos,” says Kevin, “that’s all, just one word,” and of course Carlos will say yes, he’ll do whatever Kevin wants him to do, he opens his mouth—
He grew into her arms two, says a voice in Carlos’ head, like iron in hot fire; she held him fast, not let him go, he was her heart’s desire.
And Cecil, a few moment’s later: It means don’t give up. It means hold on. It means know what your heart’s desire is.
“Really?” says Carlos. “You thought what I wanted was, what, for everything mysterious about the world to be gone? Why do you think I moved to Night Vale?”
“It was working well enough for a while,” says Desert Bluffs, mild. Its face is some amalgam of features, now; Carlos thinks he recognizes Vanessa’s mouth, Kevin’s eyes, and, with a swoop of shock, his own hair.
“No,” says Carlos. “The answer is still no, thank you. Not now, and not ever. Sorry.”
“I could kill you,” offers Desert Bluffs pleasantly.
That throws Carlos for a second, but he blinks, shakes his head. “I have to make the choice,” he says. “Isn’t that what you said? I have to choose to forget Night Vale, or your plan won’t work.”
Desert Bluffs stares at him with Kevin’s eyes, cold and dark and fathomless, like a shark’s.
“Besides,” Carlos dares to add, “you like me.”
“I could learn to like you less,” says Desert Bluffs, but it tucks its hands into its pockets, ducks its head. When it looks up, it’s Kevin again.
“Don’t think you won’t see me again,” Kevin says. “And tell that—other me—that he’ll see me, too.”
“Of course we will,” says Carlos. “You’re just across the canyon.”
“And don’t forget,” says Kevin, “that you did live here. For a little while. All Desert Bluffs citizens have a piece of home in them. Tell Night Vale that, too. I’ll never really be gone.”
The park is dissolving around him; there’s a pounding in between Carlos’ ears, worse than ever before, worse than he could ever have imagined, like his head’s about to split open, but he manages to smile at Kevin through the stars bursting in front of his eyes. “I’ll tell him,” he says, “but I don’t think he’ll care. He knows Desert Bluffs wasn’t ever home.”
“Oh, no?” says Kevin. His eyes are dark and cold.
“No,” says Carlos, “home is where—”, and then the world goes black.
He’s in a hallway.
He blinks a few times, tries to struggle to his feet; his legs aren’t working quite right. The floor seems like a good option for now.
“And now,” says a voice from behind him, “the weather,” and there’s the sound of a door opening and closing. Cecil’s face appears in front of him, and his hand, extended.
Carlos takes it gladly, lets Cecil pull him to a standing position. “Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” says Cecil, and beams.
“Hello,” Carlos repeats, and takes Cecil’s face in his hands, and kisses him soundly. Cecil responds with enthusiasm, and they remain that way for a long, long time.
“How is everyone?” says Carlos, once they finally break apart. “Old Woman Josie, and Hiram McDaniels, and the interns—”
“Well, the new intern has disappeared without a trace,” says Cecil, “but otherwise everything is exactly the same. We thought we had lost Steve Carlsberg for a while, but unfortunately someone found him at the bowling alley.” He frowns. “It is just like Steve Carlsberg to be bowling while the rest of the town is clustered together, paralyzed with fear for your well-being—”
Carlos kisses him again, and that looks as if it’s going to last for a while, and maybe get even more interesting, until Cecil pulls back firmly. “The weather is almost over,” he says. “I have to get back to the booth.”
“Go on,” says Carlos, waves a hand, “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Cecil slips his hand into Carlos’, and smiles at him. “Come with me,” he says. “Stay in the booth for the end of the show.”
“All right,” says Carlos, surprised, and follows Cecil through the door of the booth. The walls are—thank God—clean except for a few years’ worth of dust, and there’s a spindly little chair near the stool in front of Cecil’s microphone. Carlos sits down, props his chin on his hand; the weather is coming to a close, and Cecil gives him a smile before flipping a switch on his microphone.
“Well, Night Vale,” he says, “it is my pleasure to report that we are no longer trapped in the subconscious mind of Carlos—though I did notice, as I’m sure you all noticed, that Carlos’ subconscious was as beautiful and perfect as the rest of him.
It appears that Carlos has saved us all from the devious machinations of Desert Bluffs upon our little town—for shame, Desert Bluffs, for shame—and I am sure he would not turn down a plate of homemade cookies in thanks, if, by some inexplicable coincidence, you happen to have baked some. He enjoys white chocolate and macadamia nuts.”
Cecil leans back on his stool, taps his fingers on his leg. “Night Vale,” he says, “Night Vale, wonderful, glorious Night Vale, Night Vale of the perfect streets and the perfect and houses and perfect citizens and perfect dog park and perfect angels, both of which of course do not exist; oh, Night Vale, perfect Night Vale, it is so good to be here. Together. With the people we love.
Hold on to the people you love tonight. Hold on to them every night. Let them know what they mean to you, even if what they mean is untranslatable from an ancient demon tongue. Let them know that you care, and that you always have, and that you always will.”
Cecil glances at Carlos out of the corner of his eye, and his mouth curls up into a half-smile. “A heart’s desire can be a strange thing, Night Vale,” he says. “It can be a desire for some things, like money or power; or it can be a desire for other things, like a brain, or a heart, or a liver, or courage. Or it can just be the desire to go home.
And maybe that’s the best thing for a heart’s desire to be.” Cecil glances at Carlos, and Carlos sees something alien flash behind his eyes, something dark and ancient and very, very warm, before Cecil turns back to the microphone.
“After all,” he says, “home is where the heart is.
Stay tuned for a recording of humpback whale pods making imperceptible but indisputable gestures of unconditional love.
Good night, Night Vale.