Carlos normally gets his produce from the Night Vale Green Market Co-Op, but they still haven’t hosed down the blood from last Sunday’s incident and he figures he’ll stick with the Ralph’s until the numbers on his Geiger counter are a little more normal. His basket is nearly full and he’s trying not to be too obvious about inspecting the cantaloupe for teeth and hair when the back of his neck prickles. Carefully, Carlos turns to see what's behind him.
The being shifting from foot to foot in front of the organic produce is tall, painfully and mind-bogglingly tall, with gleaming blue-black skin and three sets of wings and a head that blurs from human to bovine to avian to human again. Incongruously, it’s also wearing a faded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt and battered Chuck Taylors, but in spite of its clothing Carlos knows, deep in his gut and deeper in his heart, that the creature's an angel.
Once, such a realization would’ve sent him scrambling in a blind panic to his car, where he’d huddle on the floor of the backseat and babble notes into his phone and wait until the parking lot was empty before he’d dare emerge again. Now, he just idly wonders if the wings are cosmetic or if the angel actually uses them to fly. They seem far too tiny for all that there are six of them, and the angel is really quite tall.
Carlos gently sets the cantaloupe he’d been holding into his red plastic basket and says, “Hi.”
“Sorry to bother you,” the angel says. Its voice is deep and musical, and makes the hair on Carlos’ arms stand on end. “Are you Cecil’s scientist?”
Carlos smiles at the phrasing. “I suppose I am, yeah. Can I help you with something?”
All seven feet and however many inches of the angel curve down into Carlos’ space like a flower bending towards the sun. Its eyes are wide and strange; their color is the hot, pale blue of the desert sky at midday. “Please,” the angel says. Beautiful and terrifying, painfully polite. “Can you tell me if I’m real?”
“I…” Carlos blinks, puzzled. “Sorry, what?”
“It’s all these announcements from the City Council,” the angel says. It sounds exasperated. Carlos didn’t even know angels could sound exasperated. “Josie says we shouldn’t pay them any mind, but you know how it is. People keep saying you don’t exist, and after a while you can’t help but wonder if they’re right.”
Carlos considers pointing out that the angel’s ability to even question its own reality is a pretty clear indication that it does, in fact, exist, but this is Night Vale and Night Vale laughs in the face of ontological uncertainty. With his own two eyes Carlos has observed a house that empirically doesn’t exist. He’s never seen a quantum particle, but his computer models and lab readouts reassure him of their presence. Cecil -- lovely and wonderful and strange Cecil -- is comforting and solid in every way…except in Carlos’ peripheral vision, when his edges waver as though the lack of direct observation has left him unsure of what shape he should be.
It means absolutely nothing, to see a thing in Night Vale.
Carlos shifts his basket to his other arm, closes his eyes, and reaches out a hand. When his fingers bump the angel’s chest, his right arm goes numb to the elbow. The angel smells of petrichor and old pennies, and the soft rustle of its feathers reminds Carlos of a breeze whispering through leaves. Heat radiates from it like a banked fire.
Carlos smiles. Opens his eyes and pulls back his hand, surreptitiously tries to shake the feeling back into his now-tingling fingers. He says, “You’re real.”
“You’re sure?” the angel says.
Without a trace of hesitation, Carlos answers, “Absolutely.”
The angel’s smile is huge and white and beatific. The fluorescent lights flicker overhead, and the angel’s delight crackles around them like electricity. With a weird pang in his sternum Carlos remembers how the air tasted those few seconds after he’d kissed Cecil the first time, the exquisite marvel of biology and shared breath. He’d spent the rest of the night in a haze of productive giddiness, and he still has no idea how he came up with the calculations to reset the town. His notes are an ecstatic scribble of green crayon and half-illegible equations, with marginal notations like, “the air in my lungs was also in his lungs, I tasted air that touched his alveoli.”
(A few days later, Carlos awkwardly admitted to finding strange poetry in this fact: that he’d breathed in carbon dioxide that passed through Cecil’s capillaries, that in that first shaky breath after the kiss Cecil inhaled the molecular byproducts of Carlos’ cellular metabolism. Cecil went bright red, fluttered his hands and said, “Oh. Oh, Carlos.” Breathless and urgent, his eyes the color of abalone, his shadow flexing and curling around Carlos’ wrists. And so Carlos had kissed him again, swallowed his melting sigh, and the taste of his happiness was the most wonderful thing in the world)
“Thank you,” the angel says. Impossibly, its smile widens. Several people faint near the bulk bins, and the cantaloupe in Carlos’ basket utters a soft, delighted trill. It vibrates against his hand when he absentmindedly knuckles it.
“You’re, uh. You’re welcome?” His grin feels pale and shaky compared to the brilliance of the angel’s smile, but it’s nevertheless sincere. “That’s what I’m here for, I guess.”
The angel leans down (and down, and down -- it is, Carlos can’t help but note yet again, very tall) and takes Carlos’ face between its palms. Its skin is dry and hot, and a low hum settles in Carlos’ bones, a buzz like the song of a thousand drunken bees. It gently kisses Carlos on the forehead, and where its lips touch his skin burns.
Carlos shivers. “What--?”
“A blessing,” the angel says. It shifts its hands from his cheeks to his shoulders before it straightens again. “Normally we're in the business of protection, but He's been protecting you a while now.”
Carlos has long since given up on being surprised by the way Night Vale citizens (or, in this particular case, holy transdimensional beings) can clearly pronounce capital letters. His Catholic school days are long behind him, and he fell out of love with religion right around the time he fell in love with science; somehow, he doubts the angel is referring to God.
He says, cautiously, “…’he’?”
“The town loves you,” the angel says. Its palms are broad and warm, and later that night, when Carlos changes into his pajamas, he’ll find scorch marks in the shape of two human hands burned perfectly into his skin. They won’t hurt when he touches them, and by morning they’ll both be gone.
“And,” the angel continues, “Night Vale protects its own.”
Over in the nearest checkout lane, Josie hands her check to the cashier and stands on her tiptoes so she can peer over the divider into the produce section. “Erika?” she calls. “Erika, be a dear and help Erika carry the groceries out to the car, would you?”
Standing just behind her is an angel laden with grocery bags. It has four faces and far too many eyes, and a sweater vest Carlos is pretty sure Josie knit herself. It swivels its feline aspect in their direction and waves cheerfully at them.
Ignoring it would be rude. Carlos waves back.
“Whoops,” his angel says, a little guiltily. “That’s me.” It pats Carlos on the shoulder. “Thanks again. I appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Carlos says weakly. He watches it lope towards the checkout, where it relieves the other Erika of several grocery bags and they both trail the diminutive Josie out to the maroon station wagon taking up two spaces in the front of the store. “Anytime.”
Not five minutes later, men in dark suits and sunglasses burst into the store with guns drawn and loudspeakers blaring. The cantaloupe in Carlos’ basket flings itself in front of a stray bullet that would’ve otherwise shattered Carlos’ clavicle.
(The town loves you, the angel had said)
The store manager tells Carlos he doesn’t have to pay for the ruined produce, but Carlos insists. The one he takes home in its place has too many teeth for him to feel comfortable about eating it, but it seems happy enough in the little nest he makes for it out of washrags and dried lemon peel.
That night, Carlos wakes in what he can only assume is the Night Vale Public Library. Shadowy stacks rise in the gloom around him, and the air tastes of dust and moth wings and vanilla. There’s something wilder too, a strange feral musk that makes his eyes water and the back of his throat burn, and he doesn’t need to hear the low, throbbing growl in the distance to know librarians are on the prowl.
This is Carlos’ first visit to the library. On Leanne’s recommendation he’s taken to keeping a canister of bear spray in one pocket and a vial of rosewater given to him by one of the town’s many silent, white-eyed children in the other; he touches them now through the fabric of his lab coat, which he hadn’t been wearing when he went to bed but seems to be wearing now, and feels reassured.
Near the back of the library, in a tiny room with no doors and only a small, circular window, Carlos finds the recordings. The collection is a large one: MP3 players, CDs, cassette tapes and records, even a few eight-tracks here and there. He hunts down the ones labeled “Night Vale Community Radio" and keeps the volume low so as not to alert the librarians, but there’s no mistaking what he finds on the recordings.
No mistaking it at all.
When he meets with Cecil at Big Rico's during his lunch break the next day, Carlos asks, as casually as he can manage, “How old are you, anyway?”
Cecil puts down the slice of pepperoni and squid roe pizza he’d been eating with every evidence of enjoyment and makes a face like a cat being flicked with water. “Oh, ugh,” he says. “Why would you ask me that, Carlos? I’m probably so old compared to you, it’s embarrassing.”
Carlos rests his elbows on the laminate tabletop and his chin in his palms, thinks about the smooth, even, oh-so-familiar voice he’d heard in the library recordings before one of the shadows in the corner deepened and detached itself from the wall with a buzzing scream. He smiles at Cecil, says, “Humor me,” and across the table Cecil lights up like Radon Canyon on a cold, clear night and knocks over the arsenic shaker with an elbow.
“That’s not fair,” Cecil says faintly. “Carlos, that’s not fair,” and Carlos hears himself say, “I really like the way you say my name.”
Cecil’s eyes widen. The expression on his face is one that makes Carlos’ heart pound. He says, “Okay, okay, fine. I’m thirty-four.”
How long, Carlos wonders, has he been thirty-four? Does he even know?
And for the very briefest of moments, he considers asking. The familiar and frustrating itch of an untested hypothesis. But then Cecil’s foot bumps his beneath the table, hesitantly at first, like it was an accident, and then more firmly and with purpose. Cecil touches the back of Carlos’ hand with smooth, unlined fingertips, and his sleeve pulls back from his wrist to reveal intricate whorls of blue and red and black ink. Today, Cecil’s eyes are the dark and alien shimmer of an oil slick; the shy sweetness of his smile is almost unbearable.
Carlos turns his hand palm-up so he can twine their fingers together. He says, “You know, I turn thirty-three next month. We’re not as far apart as you think.”
Cecil’s shadow goes all shivery and skitters up the wall alongside their booth, where it balances precariously atop one of many identical pictures of an unsmiling Big Rico and pulses crimson. Cecil himself beams, blurts, “Neat!” and looks mortified not a half-second later. “I…uh. Sorry.”
If Carlos shifts his hand, he can feel the seemingly fragile knobs of Cecil’s carpal bones, the narrow and ropy tendons there, the reassuring thrum of his pulse. Cecil is the sun radiating off the sand wastes in the height of the afternoon, the shriek of hawks wheeling overhead. He is the taste of sage and the smell of hot asphalt, the buzz of the radio tower, the arid and sandy wind that scours brand-new buildings into something ancient within the span of a few months. He is blood and muscle, bile and bone. Today, his eyes are the color of an oil slick and his shadow’s trying to hide behind the napkin dispenser, and his heart drums along at a very human eighty-two beats per minute.
Cecil has been thirty-four for a very long time, and Carlos doesn’t think he knows.
Cecil is the Voice of Night Vale, and Cecil loves him.
Carlos smiles. Beneath his fingers, Cecil's pulse ratchets up. His expression is soft and hopeful, and his shape remains steady.
“Don’t be sorry,” Carlos says. “It is pretty neat.”
And it is.