“So,” Arch drawls into the phone, “how’s that haircut working out for you?”
Carlos touches absent, momentarily self-conscious fingers to the nape of his neck, which is still barer than it has been in… well, a long time, anyway.
“It’s hot in the desert,” he protests, and then says: “hang on, how do you even know I’ve had a haircut?”
Arch laughs in a way that’s not particularly nice. He’s technically Carlos’ assistant, or possibly TA, or maybe some kind of evil genius who still isn’t old enough to realise that when he wears jeans they’re supposed to cover his underwear, who has been assigned to him because the faculty were always pretty suspicious of Carlos’ Night Vale research. Whatever he is, Carlos still calls to check in with Arch, largely because he’s been here for about a month now and most of the faucets in his home and lab have stopped spewing blood, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s safe here. He needs someone outside of the town to know that he’s still alive, anyway.
“Dude,” Arch says, “the local radio reports on you, like, all the time. Like, all the time. It’s kind of creepy, kind of sweet. Like, we can’t figure out if he wants to date you or eat your skin.”
Carlos pinches the bridge of his nose, sighs, and manages: “‘we’?”
“I’ve been playing the ones about you to your class,” Arch explains, matter-of-fact. “We’ve got a betting pool going; if you get found in bits in his crawlspace I make four hundred bucks.”
“I don’t have a class,” Carlos says weakly, and: “I think Cecil lives in an apartment building, I don’t think he has a crawlspace.”
“I got them to give me your class during your sabbatical of crazy,” Arch tells him, sounding frustrated. “Anyway, don’t get dismembered for a couple of months, I’ve got money on September. Gotta go, dude.”
He hangs up, and Carlos sighs as he drops his cell phone onto the mess of papers on his desk. When he left the university – or maybe was pushed; the funding for this trip did come through miraculously quickly after the breaking-into-the-board-of-directors’-meeting-screaming-NIGHT-VALE-WILL-KILL-US-ALL incident – he was feeling independent and righteous and determined. Now, well. It’s not like he wants all his friends and ex-colleagues to be bombarding him with emails or anything, but it would be nice if they occasionally checked to see if he needs a supportive phone call, or a care package, or a SWAT team.
Carlos pinches the bridge of his nose again, and turns back to the whiteboard on the wall covered in purple pen equations. He’s pretty sure he can remember what they’re for.
Dark Owl Records only sells music by Buddy Holly. This oddly specific shopping experience is not exclusive to here, actually; Carlos went into a drugstore earlier looking for Tylenol to find that it only had band aids and weed killer. Kind of a lot of weed killer, actually. Way more weed killer than is necessary for… well, a town in the middle of the desert. He should probably report the weed killer thing to someone, now he’s thinking about it.
The Hipster Kid Behind The Counter watches him for a while, chewing gum and periodically glowing green in swift staccato bursts.
“So…” Carlos says carefully, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jeans, “Buddy Holly, huh.”
The Hipster Kid Behind The Counter rolls his eyes elaborately and offers: “we now have a small assortment of recordings by deceased artists in this corner, if you follow me.”
It turns out they do. Some of the CDs are just in plastic slip cases, album titles Carlos doesn’t recognise scrawled across them in smeared Sharpie.
“You…” he begins, then lets it trail off because he doesn’t have a follow-up statement to that word just yet. “Could you get any dead musician here?” he asks instead, because he’s quickly learned that it’s best to just go with stuff in Night Vale. “Like… Kurt Cobain?”
The Hipster Kid Behind The Counter looks appalled. “We’ve got like dozens of unsold signed copies of Nevermind in the basement,” he all but spits.
“Oh,” Carlos says.
It’s then that he realises that The Hipster Kid Behind The Counter has not, in fact, left the counter at any point during all this, and he has to blink a handful of times to get his brain to process that.
“You need to, like, make peace with Telly,” The Hipster Kid Behind The Counter adds after a moment, unprompted. “I need a haircut. Like. Seriously.”
Carlos can’t even begin to imagine what that means, but a moment later he’s back out on the street with no memory of leaving the store anyway.
The thing about Cecil is that he seems personable enough, if as unnervingly unruffled as the rest of this town about, well, all aspects of their distinctly surreal lives, and he has the ability to contact most of the citizens quickly about things like collapsing buildings, flesh-eating cabbages, and telepathic ceiling tiles, and he’s friendly even if he doesn’t blink often enough, but… Well. Carlos isn’t sure what the ‘but’ is, exactly. Cecil has a charming smile, although it does seem to have several too many teeth in it; Night Vale citizens do seem to have a lot of teeth, actually, Carlos might have to do some investigating into that. Maybe it’s a calcium superfluity. Where was he? Oh, yes. Cecil.
Carlos still doesn’t listen to the Night Vale news that much, because all the casual reports of terrifying things that he actually managed to miss while he was testing the acidity of the soil (so acidic it ate through four petri dishes and the cuff of Carlos’ fourth favourite sweater) unnerve him kind of a lot. And also because it’s just very weird to hear Cecil singing the praises of a convicted felon five-headed dragon. Yes. Just weird. But, in any case, Cecil seems to be good at his job, if not sticking particularly closely to the idea of unbiased journalism, and he is the main news source given that the local newspaper is either run by geniuses or crooks. Or possibly both. The townspeople seem to like Cecil a lot, and they give Carlos knowing looks when they mention him that make him wonder if he should perhaps dig out some of those old newscasts that Arch keeps talking about and that Carlos hasn’t listened to because, well.
(Actually, the news situation is one of the more frustrating aspects of living in Night Vale, even more so than the small semi-translucent creatures who keep stealing his crockery or the way you can buy toothpaste and paint stripper in bulk but not shower gel. You cannot get a single news channel, no matter what cable package you have. Not a single one. You also don’t get any current affairs shows, or even things like Conan or Leno. And when you try to type in any news website that doesn’t relate directly to Night Vale’s, the screen goes black, while letters spell out THAT IS NOT A WEBSITE. THAT IS NOT A THING. PLEASE REPORT TO THE DARK BOX FOR REMINDER OF WHAT A WEBSITE IS, while your keyboard oozes… Carlos isn’t sure what it was oozing, actually, but he decided this was one of the few times not to be curious and didn’t keep a sample for testing.)
Cecil likes sweater vests and his shoes are always shiny and he seems to have the normal number of appendages for a human being, though it’s always possible that any extras are just periodic and/or sporadic, like the woman at the café down the road who makes Carlos’ coffee in the morning and sometimes has six legs, which is probably lunar but, given that the moon can disappear at will from over Night Vale, might not be.
The thing about Cecil that isn’t even really a thing, just an observation Carlos made in the margins of his lab notes one thick night when glass-eating marmosets dressed as 1920s flappers were roaming the streets, is that Carlos came here to work. He came here to prove that the information that comes out of Night Vale is real, for a given value of ‘real’, and maybe write an excellent paper that’ll get him tenure or something. He did not come here for friends or companions or radio journalists with toothy smiles that should be far, far more disconcerting than they actually are.
So. Yes. That.
“You are shitting me,” Arch says, when Carlos makes his customary I Am Actually Not Dead Yet, JSYK call. “That is not a thing that happens. Anywhere.”
“It happened!” Carlos insists. “The data was off the charts.”
“Damn,” Arch murmurs appreciatively. “Night Vale. Where even, like, sidewalks and Journey albums and… the clouds try and kill you.”
“Actually,” Carlos says, in the interests of accuracy, “there was only really one cloud, and it only rained dead animals and took over people’s minds for a while. It’s on the PTA now, and apparently has a really good scone recipe.”
Arch hangs up on him. Carlos kind of doesn’t blame him.
The Hooded Figure is in his kitchen on Thursday morning. Well. It’s probably Thursday. The sky is the fiery red that was promised and he’s pretty sure Tuesday and Wednesday switched places in name only, so, yes, it’s Thursday, and there’s a Hooded Figure in his kitchen that’s about eight feet tall and that has possibly rearranged all the magnets on his fridge.
“Fuck,” Carlos says, and slams the kitchen door. He presses his forehead against the frame, counts to ten while breathing deeply, and opens it again.
The Hooded Figure is still there. It hasn’t moved once.
Carlos shuts the door and decides to be rational about this. The fact is, he can deny the existence of hooded figures all he likes, but they are there, and he has no idea how to get rid of one short of a possible actual exorcism. As a scientist he’s too proud to have an exorcism, so, he’s just going to have to be logical about this. The hooded figure isn’t moving. He doesn’t have any pets or children, and even he isn’t foolhardy enough to go near the Dog Park. Maybe the Hooded Figure is just lost. Maybe it’ll be gone by the end of the day.
These logical thoughts don’t stop him from grabbing his wallet and jacket and fleeing the apartment above his lab anyway, running halfway down the street to his usual coffee place before he remembers that a message got tacked up yesterday about this being No Running Thursday and that offenders would have their legs cut off, and slowing down. He thinks about asking the people in the café if he’s supposed to have a Hooded Figure just kind of casually in his kitchen, but given everyone’s tendency to overreact and fling holy water or acid at one another on the slightest provocation, he decides to keep his mouth shut for the moment.
Carlos gets his coffee to take with him and goes for a wander through the quiet streets, trying to figure out if there are more Hooded Figures than usual or fewer and if he missed some kind of Adopt A Hooded Figure drive from the Council that he wasn’t informed of because Night Vale has more celebrations, appeals and rituals than can possibly be remembered. He catches the Apache Tracker’s eye, briefly considers- but no, the guy is creepy and Carlos doesn’t speak Russian and he’s fairly sure the Hooded Figures aren’t going to be scared off by a cheap plastic headdress with half the feathers on the wrong way round.
He finds Old Woman Josie sitting on the steps of her house and knitting what looks like a violently orange romper suit, admittedly for something rather wider than a baby and with multiple tentacles. She greets him with a vaguely inviting nod and Carlos goes to sit beside her, fidgeting with the plastic lid of his cup.
“I have a Hooded Figure in my kitchen,” he tells her.
Old Woman Josie nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maybe it’s normal for Night Vale. Maybe everyone’s got Hooded Figures in their kitchens. Maybe this means he’s officially part of the community now.
“Do I… what do I do?” he asks her. “I mean, you know, you have a lot of house guests-”
“Angels are not Hooded Figures,” she corrects him, sharp, the knitting needles suddenly clicking together sharp and bright in the scarlet-tinged sunlight.
“No,” Carlos agrees quickly, and looks up at the porch to find an Angel – this one with black hair and three sets of pursed lips – blowing the smoke from a cigarette in Carlos’ direction, eyes calm and glowing just slightly. “No offence, Erika,” he adds quickly.
This seems to mollify Old Woman Josie, who relaxes a little and says: “you don’t need to feed it or hold Monopoly nights for it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Carlos isn’t entirely sure that that was what he was asking, but, equally, it could’ve been.
“Is it going to kill me in my sleep?” he blurts.
Old Woman Josie considers him for a long while with her expressive yet unreadable eyes, that seem both younger and older than the rest of her. Without looking down, she continues her knitting, wool wrapped around the three extra fingers she has on each hand.
“It could kill you when you’re awake,” she offers.
Carlos stares at her until she starts laughing, a creaky, tingly sound that seems to make the air just a little magnetic.
“That old-women-have-wisdom shit is just something TV made up,” she tells him cheerfully. “Want a sandwich? I kill my own fillings.”
Carlos declines as politely as he can, waves goodbye to Erika, and begins the trek back to his lab. Maybe this has all been for nothing, and the Hooded Figure will be gone when he gets back.
The doorbell ringing in the normal world usually means that Jehovah’s Witnesses have found you or someone wants to sell you double glazing, a vacuum cleaner, or something you were not previously aware existed and still don’t want now you know of its existence.
In Night Vale, the doorbell ringing rarely means anything good. Carlos swallows a squeak of terror, wipes suddenly-damp hands off on his lab coat, and slips a scalpel into one of his pockets. It won’t do any good, but nobody in Night Vale goes anywhere unarmed. Even strollers have detachable crossbows and spiked wheels, like Roman chariots or action movie cars. And, right, yes, doorbell.
Standing on the doorstep is a young woman blowing gum and looking supremely bored. She doesn’t look murderous, though, so things might yet be okay.
“Hello?” Carlos says, carefully.
The woman has one purple eye and one orange eye, intricate raised ritualistic scarring on her face, and what looks like a really cool bionic left leg.
“I’m Dana,” she says, and pushes a slightly crushed white cardboard box at him.
Carlos frantically sorts through the name cards in his mind and manages to place her as the latest of the radio station’s worryingly disposable interns.
“This doesn’t contain a body part, does it?” Carlos asks tentatively, shaking the box a little and then pushing it away from him just in case something tries to get out.
Dana rolls her eyes at him and looks put-upon. “It’s brownies,” she says with another snap of her gum.
“Right,” Carlos says. “Okay. Well. Thanks.”
“They’re from Cecil,” Dana adds, in what Carlos is rapidly gathering is her perpetually monotone voice. “He said not to tell you but they’re from him. He’d have brought them over himself but, y’know, the bandaging.”
“Bandaging?” Carlos demands, suddenly alarmed despite every resolve he’s ever made. “Did I miss something?”
He would honestly not put it past Night Vale to have a Ritualistic Finger Cutting Day, or similar celebration.
Dana sighs loudly, and with a patronising edge. “He doesn’t bake,” she tells him, and then turns and flounces away. Carlos is pretty certain her bionic leg has rocket thrusters built in, but she’s gone too quick for him to get a good look.
He walks into the kitchen and puts the box of brownies on the table. It’s been a week and the Hooded Figure is still there, but Carlos isn’t quite so scared anymore, because that would just expend a ridiculous amount of energy. That might explain a lot about Night Vale as a whole.
“He made me brownies,” he tells the Hooded Figure, who is possibly looking at him and possibly isn’t. The Hooded Figure never moves but somehow its sightless hood seems to follow him around the room anyway. “That’s… friendly, isn’t it?”
The Hooded Figure doesn’t change its expression, but it’s totally looking at Carlos like he’s a moron. He can just tell.
“Do these contain animal viscera?” he asks, and carefully opens the lid of the box, scalpel in his other hand just in case. The brownies look pretty good, actually.
“Oh,” he says after a moment, glancing up at the Hooded Figure, "stop looking at me like that.”
“Is Stockholm Syndrome contagious?” Carlos asks.
“Do you mean: does the whole town have it?” Arch says. “Because the answer is probably yes.”
“No, I mean, can you catch it? Like flu or something?” Carlos clarifies.
“You’re never going to get tenure if you ask questions like that,” Arch reminds him, and adds: “I forwarded your last three reports to the faculty.”
The City Council censor most of Carlos’ reports, which he only learned when he got an email from his boss demanding to know why every third word was ‘cucumber’ and every fifth word was ‘assignation’, but a few of them make it through.
“Oh?” he says, careful.
“Yeah,” Arch says, “they say you’re not being objective enough.”
Carlos is objective. Carlos is absolutely objective. It’s just that it’s quite hard to stay objective when you’ve got Hooded Figures living in your kitchen, radio news reporters stalking you with somewhat dubious baked goods, and everything is so soaked with chemicals, radiation and dark magic that half the time your food disparages your cookery skills while you’re trying to make dinner.
“That’s ridiculous,” is all he says aloud.
“If you say so,” Arch replies, sounding sceptical. “Oh, and can you hurry up and get murdered by your own teeth or something, I want your office.”
“You have my office now,” Carlos points out, taking a bite out of one of the brownies Cecil made him. The Hooded Figure refused to taste-test them for him, but Carlos has eaten half the box and they haven’t tasted like intestines or made him develop scales yet, anyway.
“I want to keep it,” Arch explains.
“I’ll let you know if I get murdered by my own teeth,” Carlos says dryly, and hangs up a few minutes later.
“I’ll probably get murdered by these brownies,” he says to nothing in particular, but carries on eating anyway.
Carlos has finally given in to curiosity and agreed to come and see Khoshekh, because a floating male cat that can have babies without the aid of any other creature’s DNA was enough to spike his interest, he won’t pretend otherwise. The way Cecil’s eyes light up – not literally for once; metaphor is a tricky thing in Night Vale – when Carlos agrees to come by is… um, well.
He gets to the station a little early, where a bored-looking security guard stares at him and eats something that drips dark red out of a bag. Carlos spends a few moments musing on what working security is like in a place where most threats can literally walk through walls or blast you into non-existence before you can get within grabbing distance, and then makes a conscious decision not to think about that any more.
There’s a large plaque on the wall to his left, In Memoriam in scrolling letters at the top, and a long list of names underneath. When he leans a little closer, Carlos can see that the paint on the last intern’s name is still glistening wet. He backs up hurriedly, looking away from where there’s a lot of expectant blank space left on the plaque.
Cecil appears and sweeps him up to the fourth floor on a stream of chatter where Carlos only really hears one word in every four, smiling with his too-many teeth and gesturing with long fingers.
And then there’s Khoshekh.
Carlos supposes that ‘cat’ is probably the most technically correct word to call the creature floating by the sink, batting at nothing with one bloated paw, lazy yet sharp yellow eyes fixed on Carlos. And the claws are something else. Cecil, unperturbed, all but bounces over to Khoshekh, crooning pet names and reaching out to scratch behind the – cat’s ears, apparently oblivious to the fact he could lose a hand.
Maybe, Carlos’ brain suggests unhelpfully, he can grow his hands back.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Cecil gushes, when he seems to remember that Carlos is there.
“He’s something,” Carlos agrees, and Khoshekh flicks his tail, which is easily as thick as Carlos’ arm.
“And just look at his kittens!” Cecil adds happily, and Carlos belatedly notices all the little, normal-kitten-sized bundles of fluff floating at varying heights around the bathroom, mewling, wiggling tiny paws, and writhing around on air.
“Wow,” he says, because, floating kittens.
“We can’t keep them,” Cecil says, mournful now, corners of his mouth turning almost comically down, fingers still knotted in Khoshekh’s thick pelt, uh, fur. “We’ve got to give them away to good homes.”
Carlos automatically reaches for a pale blue kitten floating at chest height, and pets its soft stomach. It lets out a low, rumbling purr that makes the sink rattle.
“Have you figured out how to get them out of the bathroom yet?” he asks.
Cecil looks briefly sheepish. “Not exactly, no. So their owners will just have to visit them here. And perhaps bring a ladder.” He nods toward where a lilac-coloured kitten is curled up in a sleeping heap somewhere near the ceiling.
If they all grow as large as Khoshekh then perhaps there will be consequences, since this bathroom isn’t really all that large, but Carlos looks back down at the little blue kitten that’s now batting gently at his hand and, hey, it’s a miracle this town hasn’t collapsed in on itself yet anyway.
“Would you like to adopt one?” Cecil asks.
Accepting a small, fluffy, floating, genetically improbable kitten that he can only visit if he comes to Cecil’s place of work is possibly going to give entirely the wrong impression, Carlos thinks, but the kitten lets out a plaintive little mew and sapphire-coloured sparks leap off its fur.
“I actually would love to,” Carlos says softly, and looks up in time to almost be blinded by Cecil’s smile.
“Morning,” Carlos says to the Hooded Figure, sticking the kettle on and dumping instant coffee granules into two mugs. He stifles a yawn. “It’s another Imaginary News day, so I think that everything is going to be absolutely fine, there will be no creatively biblical plagues of anything, and it will absolutely not rain either drain cleaner or supermarket brand cola at any point this afternoon.”
He adds hot water to the coffee, stirs it with his only remaining teaspoon, adds a little sugar to one of the mugs and places it near the Hooded Figure. It never drinks the coffee he makes it, but he thinks it appreciates the effort. In any case, the messages he sometimes finds in fridge magnet letters that he didn’t purchase are getting a bit less malevolent.
The Hooded Figure has been living in his kitchen for two months now, and, as housemates go, it’s actually been kind of great. It doesn’t generate loads of washing up, it doesn’t hog the wifi, and sure, he can’t get into that corner of his kitchen anymore, but Carlos has reconciled himself to just never being able to use his bread bin ever again. The Hooded Figure doesn’t seem to want to change rooms, even when he pointed out that he’s got loads of channels in the living room, and it wouldn’t go with him to the Night Vale Glee Club when he offered to get it out of the house – probably a good thing; the Glee Club opened up a portal to somewhere and they’re still trying to get giant purple poisonous moths out of the hall – but Carlos is kind of used to it now.
“Maybe I’ll go and see Curie this afternoon,” he says; his kitten shoots blue sparks more often than it used to and its gender is frankly a little ambiguous, but Carlos has gotten surprisingly attached to the little creature.
The Hooded Figure says nothing.
“Shut up,” Carlos says.
The Hooded Figure says nothing.
“Fine,” Carlos allows, “maybe Cecil might be there too. You know. Because he works there. And I should probably tell him about those wristwatch-eating ghosts that have turned up near the elementary school. For the safety of the town, of course.”
The Hooded Figure says nothing.
“Yeah,” Carlos sighs, “I know.”