It has occurred to Carlos more than once that he might actually be dead.
He sat down and put serious thought into it one day, trying to work out whether, if he was dead, he was in some sort of Heaven or some sort of Hell.
On the face of things, of course, that much at least should have been obvious. Mysterious and vaguely unsettling noises emanating from a dog park no one was permitted to enter, approach, or be more than slightly aware of; sunrises and sunsets happening apparently whenever they pleased; lights in the sky that had no discernible source and that were a different color every time you looked away from them or blinked but that never seemed to change in a way you could perceive until you realized they were blue now and had been blue three hours ago but hadn’t been for much of the interim – these were not the makings of paradise.
Unless, of course, you happened to be a scientist. A very bored scientist. A scientist whose eagerness for his field, when combined with his relative lack of funds and the relative lack of startling things that could be discovered or investigated on a budget, left him spending most of his time doing a very good impression of a greyhound on a short leash, running circles around a splintered fencepost and occasionally choking himself.
And then, suddenly, there was Night Vale. Very suddenly. Suddenly enough that even before beginning to take the theory seriously enough to call it a theory, Carlos was occasionally struck by the thought that maybe he hadn’t actually fallen asleep at his kitchen table all those weeks ago in a fit of exhausted despair at the lack of substance in his life, and maybe his supervisors hadn’t woken him with a frantic phone call a scant few hours later, and maybe he hadn’t driven out into the desert the next week. Maybe the ceiling had collapsed on him. Maybe he had fallen asleep with the stove on and his house had burned down around him. Maybe, in his half-awake stupor, he had scribbled what he thought was a city name on a piece of paper, hallucinated a week of gathering supplies and people in a matter of minutes, and driven off the road in the middle of the night.
Certainly, he would never be bored in Night Vale. Boredom in Night Vale was, frankly, dangerous, and probably illegal. Most things seemed to be, depending on the day, and who he asked, and in what language.
It was when his team members started dying off that he started giving the possibility more than passing consideration. One by one, and occasionally one by two or two by five, they fell victim to Night Vale and its dangers, and he didn’t. And he began to wonder, absently, because he would not allow the wondering to be anything more than that, if it might be because none of them had ever really been there to begin with.
Somewhere around the sixth or seventh casualty, he started to realize that there was too much space between the ticks of his wall clock. Somewhere around the thirteenth, he stopped telling himself that he was imagining it.
A few months after establishing their base, the last remaining member of his team – who had bravely refused to return home unless he accompanied her, because she took her job just as seriously as he took his, and had been only slightly less bored than he had been before the whole ordeal began, and that margin probably only being due to the fact that she was also slightly younger –
– a few months later, she – Adelia – brave Adelia – was swallowed up by a lake that had materialized beneath her and around her as she walked across the parking lot of a craft store that seemed to have knitted itself into being over the course of a few hours.
And that night, Carlos sat down in his kitchen in a fit of exhausted despair, and drew up a list of factors indicating which half of the afterlife he might currently be trapped in.
He had never been a particularly religious man, so the list wasn’t as well-rounded as it probably could have been. It was, if he was being honest with himself, a glorified set of pros and cons. “Good” and “bad.”
(He didn’t write Cecil’s name down, at first.
He didn’t know which side of the sheet to put him on.)
There was no ticking to distract him as he wrote. He had dismantled his wall clock months ago, and found it to be predominantly full of sand and his least favorite kinds of candy.
This was different than what he had found inside literally any other clock he had taken apart, which he had found both alarming and exciting right up until he'd mentioned it to Cecil, during one of their increasingly startlingly frequent conversations, and Cecil had beamed at him and said he was glad Carlos had liked his present, though he hadn't actually expected the delivery person to go to all the trouble of swapping out the old clock for it, and didn't that just add to the surprise wonderfully!
Apparently, after realizing that Carlos was distressed by the way clocks functioned - or rather, didn't - in Night Vale (but not going so far as to realize that it should really just be an all-around distressing fact), Cecil had done some research on what the inside of a clock was "supposed" to look like.
(This conversation had happened over the phone, but Carlos had very distinctly heard the fact that Cecil was either using air quotes or trying to convey that he might be.)
His research had been conducted at the local library, which explained the sand and the candy. Sort of. Maybe. Carlos had tried not to think about it.
The three giant, useless, rusty gears and the dozens of tiny cogs he'd picked out of the sand had suddenly made slightly more sense, at least.
Carlos had been caught somewhere between being touched by the gesture and being alarmed that someone had gone into his apartment while he wasn't there - though really, by then, he had known better than to think that that sort of alarm would accomplish much.
The kitchen was dark. And quiet. Adelia was dead. Presumably. Gone, almost definitely. Carlos was sitting alone in what was supposed to be shared housing, and he was suddenly very, very aware of just exactly how and where and when everyone's possessions and notes and research had started spilling over into spaces that had once belonged to colleagues. He wondered how long he would be able to justify leaving Adelia's things in place. He wondered how long it would be before a new team was sent out. He wondered how long they would last.
He was sitting alone, in the dark and the quiet, breaking the law by writing a list he could barely read, and somewhere out in the city there was someone who would maybe - probably - care if he was caught.
(He sighed a sigh that expelled more air than his lungs should really have been able to hold, and scribbled Cecil's name across the center of the page.)
He didn’t come to any concrete conclusions that night, and hasn’t since, and it bothers him when he lets it. He doesn’t, often. He has work to do.
(He wonders, sometimes, who he’s doing the work for. Contact with what he is beginning, despite himself, to consider “the outside world” has been staticky and infrequent as of late.)
His mind changes often on the subject, which is not something he was accustomed to his mind doing on any subject before coming to Night Vale. He has no practice at it. If he did, maybe he would know how to behave like his own mortality is something to take into consideration even when he believes it isn’t.
He feels mortal enough when he sits inside a circle of rock salt, and furiously types up the day’s findings on his laptop, and painstakingly transfers notes from his phone because when he was caught writing things down on a clipboard out in public he was informed that warnings are not issued in Night Vale and he should consider himself lucky that he lacks the internal organ traditionally removed as punishment for one’s first offense of the pens and pencils ban. He feels mortal enough, when he stares down at the pile of clockwork and sand and black jelly beans that he still, somehow, hasn’t disposed of.
When he looks up at the night sky and wonders what the temporal dissonance might be doing to the way he sees the stars; when he realizes that on the cosmic scale he is a tiny, frightened infant who has merely crawled into a room it does not recognize and cannot fathom how to cope with; when he looks out at the desert, stretching endlessly, hungrily on – then he knows his own mortality. Knows it with the sort of numb shock with which people know about the recent and sudden demise of a loved one. Knows it with a terrifying finality which, if the knowledge outlasts the shock, kicks his overworked and increasingly creative survival instincts into high gear as every alarm bell in his head rings until he can’t hear himself think beyond a frantic string of get out get out get out get outgetoutgetout –
But these are moments. These are not his default state. His default state for a long time has been to not know, one way or the other, whether or not he can die.
And more and more, lately, as he survives more and more unlikely things, his default answer when he bothers to consciously ask himself that question has been probably not.
So he does stupid things. Things that he recognizes the stupidity of later. Later, when he is holding a bleeding appendage under the kitchen sink to see if he needs stitches. Later, when he sits up in bed sweating and gasping because if he’d been just a second slower, put his foot down just an inch to the left –
He does stupid things. And he realizes, later, that they were stupid. And he tells himself he will never do anything like them again.
And no one else notices, and no one else cares, and it gets harder and harder to be his own voice of reason.
And one day he wakes up in a bowling alley, battered and bruised and soaked in his own blood and with his last thought still running circles in his head because he can’t put another one together yet – of all the ways to die, even in Night Vale, of ALL the ways to die, of all the ways to die…
He sits up, and looks at the crowd gathered over another prone body, and realizes that the radio behind the counter is broadcasting at full volume, and the strange man on the radio, the strange man who played his voicemails on the air and took him to Night Vale’s equivalent of a fancy restaurant and beamed the entire evening as Carlos babbled about impossible seismic activity, the strange man who bought him a clock that was slightly less completely unlike a normal clock than all the other clocks in the city -
While Carlos sits on the bowling alley floor, head spinning and heart pounding as he tries to remember how to breathe, the man on the radio cries for him.
Cecil mourns him, and in the absence of any ability to form his own thoughts, it is the sound of this mourning that fills Carlos's head.
The break to a pre-recorded message jumpstarts something, and his first conscious thought, the first thought to break through the whirl of meaningless ofallthewaystodieofallthewaystodieofalltheways, is a distant I hope I didn't miss the weather.
His head is buzzing. The message ends. Cecil is live on the air once more, and his voice is the sort of ecstatic that Carlos used to find distantly endearing, and then immediately worrying, and then worryingly endearing.
Slowly, carefully, Carlos gets to his feet.
The crowd begins to disperse. People walk past him, occasionally spare him a glance, but none of them stop. Conversations begin and end around him, and he catches bits and pieces as vertigo spikes and then fades, as his stomach lurches and his head settles into a dull ache, as he realizes with a distant sort of alarm that he has become so accustomed to the smell of blood that it almost fails to register.
But above the largely incoherent noise of his surroundings, he can hear the radio. Cecil's voice ringing clear in his head, he stumbles outside, and the ground is more solid beneath his feet than it has been in months. (Metaphorically. Physically, it's anyone's guess.)
He is alive, and someone else in the world is happy about it.