"Here, let me fix that," said Jon, trying to figure out which buttons on the rental car controlled the radio. It had started picking a weird kind of static, or at least Jon assumed it was static, because what radio station would deliberately play something that sounded like incoherent growling?
"Don't touch that dial, Stewart!" snapped Stephen. "It's a very respectable local program. And it means we're getting close!"
"Uh, sure," said Jon, and settled back into the passenger seat.
He still wasn't sure what they were close to. Some subset of Stephen's extended family had booked a couple of lodges at a nice resort to get together and have a reunion, but Stephen had refused to give Jon the name of the resort, or the exact location, or even what kind of a setting it was. When Jon insisted that he at least had to know whether to pack for a desert or a beach or a forest, Stephen had waved his hands and said, "Oh, just pack for everything."
So for all Jon knew, the All-Growling Hour was a cherished local tradition in whatever part of South Carolina they were in. (It had to be South Carolina. Their flights were booked from LaGuardia to Charleston International, and they hadn't been driving that long.)
"Before we get there," continued Stephen, more calmly, "I want to remind you one more time that this side of my family can be...eccentric. So be on your best manners, and if you come across anything unusual, just don't..."
He'd given this speech at least four times since inviting Jon at all. "Stephen, relax," urged Jon. "If they're not going to bat an eye at our relationship, I'm sure I can manage to be polite to them."
Not that anyone in this day and age should be batting an eye at same-sex relationships. (Half of Stephen's family still did. That was the half he no longer spoke to.) But there were other parts of their situation that reasonable people might be put off by, and if this mysterious set of relatives was really so far down the other end of the tolerance scale, Jon was going to be thrilled.
"Jon, you didn't let me finish." Stephen's hands tensed on the wheel as they sped down the tree-lined highway. "You have to not...freak out. Or scream. Or hide. Or run to the nearest phone and call up the SCP Foundation. In fact, you really shouldn't let on that you've ever heard of the SCP Foundation."
"Stephen," said Jon carefully, "do you remember that time you called me up for advice on what to put down on the insurance form, after you had to clear out your studio when it was taken over by mutant wheat?"
"I have learned a lot about insurance codes since then," said Stephen, sulking a little. "Specifically, I have learned that you can hire people to figure them out so you don't have to care about them."
"And do you have any idea how many times I've eaten at one of the Starbucks restaurants under your desk? You know, in the space where, according to all the laws of physics, there shouldn't be room for more than a couple of espresso machines?"
"Well, it's not like I count them. Although I know it's been enough to get your ticket punched ten times, because you got that eleventh latte free."
"Uh-huh. And how about that time the whole place was infected by radioactive spider DNA, and you grew two extra arms?"
That brought Stephen's mood back up. "Oh, I remember that well," he said, the smile spreading across his face. "Why, do you want to do it again? Because I'm not keeping them permanently, it's not worth the cost of re-tailoring all my suits, but for a special occasion...."
"Um," said Jon. Those were some very distracting mental images, and he could not afford to get distracted. He was on an important train of thought, here. "My point is. And we are coming back to that question later. But my point is, Stephen, if this is the side of your family that's...weird? I do have a fair amount of experience in weird. My freaking-out threshold: not all that low. I promise."
"Well, good!" cried Stephen. "That's great, that's just wonderful to hear. Grab some peanuts or something out of my backpack, will you? We're about to cross the border."
"What border?" asked Jon, though he obediently unzipped the backpack that had been sitting next to his feet and started fishing around for the tin of peanuts. "And how can you even tell? There aren't any signs anywhere ahead of us...."
That was the point when his ears stuffed up, like they'd just been through a sharp change in air pressure.
Jon found the peanuts and nabbed a handful for himself. The chewing and swallowing motion popped the pressure back to equal in his ears as he sat up and glanced out the window...
...where there was now a snow-capped mountain peak, visible beyond the treeline outside Jon's window.
"The hell?" said Jon.
But Stephen was breathing a sigh of relief.
And when Jon turned to check on his boyfriend he found Stephen relaxed, grinning, and checking out the new scenery with a grand total of three, count 'em, three honey-brown eyes. "Weird at last, weird at last!" he exclaimed. "Thank God Almighty, weird at last!"
On the front porch of the main cabin, in the middle of what appeared to be an ordinary stretch of southeastern flatwoods if not for the mountain visible to the north and the occasional batch of palm trees, Carlos was indulging in something he hadn't gotten to do for a long time.
Using a pencil.
There wasn't anything special he needed to write, but he was a scientist; he knew how to get data out of anything. For the moment he had gathered a bunch of leaves off the nearest trees and bushes (after he got Cecil's assurance that they weren't poisonous, of course), and was filling notebook pages with sketches of their structures.
The family with all the kids had started up a casual game of baseball in the back yard, which Carlos had politely declined to join in, on account of the fact that both the bat and the ball were spiked. The woman with the horns had been arguing on her phone in Modified Sumerian ever since she got out of the car. And Cecil was fixing some tea for one of his older aunts when another rental car showed up.
So Carlos was alone out front to greet this next part of the family. Well, that was all right. A scientist is self-reliant. As long as a scientist is not expected to do something like face a fire-breathing second cousin unarmed.
The car crunched its way up the gravel in front of the cabin, and a three-eyed man in a polo shirt stuck his head out the driver's-side window. "This the Palmer reservation?" he shouted.
"That's right!" called Carlos. "Come on in! Leave your stuff for now. We're not hashing out who sleeps where until everybody gets here."
"Great!" yelled the driver, and crunched the car a few more feet.
Carlos had just enough time to think his voice sounded oddly familiar before he and another man climbed out of the vehicle, and oh, hey, Carlos know those faces from TV. In their two-eyed incarnations, anyway. "Aren't you from The Daily Show?" he blurted, standing to greet them.
"Formerly from The Daily Show," said Stephen Colbert testily.
"Of course, of course. Sorry, I haven't caught your shows much since college, and that was a while ago," stammered Carlos. "We don't get a lot of mainstream TV in Night Vale."
"Well, sir, you have us at a disadvantage," said Jon Stewart, offering him a handshake. "Or at least, you have me at a disadvantage. I just found out about that extra eye like ten minutes ago, and I don't know what the hell it can see."
"Normal things," sulked Stephen. "And somewhat into the ultraviolet spectrum, and angels. And the occasional aura. No big deal."
Carlos filed that statement away as something to do science on later, and focused on Jon, accepting the handshake. "Does that mean you're another plus-one?" he asked hopefully. "My name's Carlos, and this is my first time being around more than one of the family, so —"
"Carlos?" interrupted Stephen, looking at him in sudden horror. "Cecil's Carlos?"
"Well." Carlos blushed. "You could say that."
Stephen charged past the both of them and threw open the front door. "CECIL!"
Now, granted, it had been some time since Carlos had seen much of the man on TV, and people change, and sometimes you have to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But sometimes you also have to be realistic, and in this case Carlos was steeling himself for the realistic possibility that Stephen's anger was about to explode in something fantastically racist.
"Be right there!" came Cecil's voice from the depths of the cabin. (Well, "cabin" was sort of a misnomer. They were houses, and maintained by the resort in a fairly cushy state, but the log-cabin-y exteriors let PR get away with making them sound quaint and rustic.) "Just a second!"
Sure enough, exactly one second later (assuming time was more stable here than it was in Night Vale, anyway), Cecil himself strolled down the front hall, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. He was wearing a purple tunic with glittery sleeves over dark leggings, which put him around the middle on the scale of weird outfits Carlos had seen so far today, and lit up when he realized who had arrived. "Cousin Stephen! How have you —"
"This is your Carlos?" cried Stephen, shouting right over him. "THIS is your boyfriend?"
But instead of getting defensive, Cecil relaxed into the most self-satisfied smirk Carlos had ever seen. "That's him."
In a voice that was equal parts fury and despair, Stephen croaked, "I hate you so much."
"Oh, don't be like that," purred Cecil, in 100% Radio Voice. "I'm sure your boyfriend has a...."
He reached the front door. He looked Jon up and down. Jon gave him a self-conscious little wave.
"...very charming personality," finished Cecil.
"Kill me now," muttered a mortified Carlos, burying his face in his hands.
After more than a year of Night Vale, he really should have learned to be more careful with figures of speech. "Gladly!" yelled Stephen, and for a few minutes it took both Cecil and Jon to hold him back.
When Jon heard the details of the baseball game, he wasn't too keen on going near the back yard for now either. And it seemed like Stephen should probably be chaperoned for a while at this point. So Cecil got them some tea, and all three ended up taking chairs in the nice big sitting room, alone except for the obligatory kid who had parked herself on the couch and was ignoring the rest of the world in favor of a dusty, leather-bound book.
It was a nice homey room, lots of finished wood, and floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall to let in the shadows of the trees and the sunlight off the mountain. "We're in the Atlantic coastal plain," said Jon, still not happy about that last detail. "Where did a mountain come from?"
"No idea," said Stephen. "It wasn't there last time I visited."
"It probably isn't real," put in Cecil. "Most mountains aren't, you know."
"Oh, well, that would explain it," said Jon, not knowing how else to respond. Obviously this subject was going nowhere. Time to find a different line of conversation. "So, ah...Palmer, that doesn't sound like a really Jewish last name. Is there a story behind that, or...?"
Cecil looked at him with interest over a mug of tea. "Do I look Jewish to you?"
"Oh, geez, sorry!" stammered Jon, trying not to cringe too hard. You take a few months away from your show and suddenly you lose all your interviewing skills, apparently. Just because the guy had the dark brown curls, and that nose, and the chin, and, well, the everything else..."Didn't mean to make assumptions."
"He's never met one of you before," explained Stephen, who was now flopped across the arms of his chair like an overlarge cat.
While Jon was still trying to work out what ethnic group would make this conversation make any sense, Cecil said, "Of course! It's all right, Jon, I look different to everyone. I mean, completely different. Age and sex seems to be constant, and people usually report seeing the same eyes, but that's all. How do my eyes look to you, by the way?"
"Um," said Jon. He felt like he was going to be saying that a lot this vacation. "They're, well, purple. Kind of a striking shade of it, honestly."
"So I guess this means Carlos sees you as another impossibly hot male model," grumbled Stephen, narrowing all three eyes at his cousin.
Cecil glared right back. "Carlos is a scientist."
"That explains the lab coat," muttered Jon.
"So he sees you as someone who happens to look like a male model," said Stephen, undeterred. "No wonder you landed him!"
"As a scientist," countered Cecil, "it is Carlos' job to be interested in facts. Objective truth. Things that can be proven."
"I am slightly less jealous of you now," allowed Stephen.
"Hang on," cut in Jon, brain making several leaps of inference at once. "Are you trying to say that whatever version of you Carlos sees...is the actual you?"
Cecil's cheeks flushed a pleased shade of light purple. "Exactly."
"Wow," said Jon. "No wonder you like him."
Carlos got drawn back into the thick of things when some of the other adults started coordinating dinner. There were a few family members still due to arrive, but the kids were starting to get restless, and if left to fend for themselves there was no telling what they'd start eating.
One of Cecil's relatives (they all got addressed as Cousin or Aunt or Uncle; none of the exact relationships were totally clear) started interrogating Carlos about some of his experiments in Night Vale while Carlos was mixing salad ingredients. The man was also wearing a sort of lab coat, big lacy Victorian collar notwithstanding, and it almost felt like they were having a normal conversation about real-world science until he asked Carlos to taste-test the soup and tell him if it needed more cyanide.
"Da-ad!" groaned a teenage boy in a rainbow tiger-striped jumpsuit, who had come in to try to sneak off with one of the burgers early. "Uncle Cecil told you his boyfriend was cyanide intolerant!"
"Oh, no." Carlos hunched protectively over the salad, suddenly afraid it might be the only dish that wouldn't kill him. "Has anybody been keeping track of what ingredients they're using?"
"Ah, don't worry, Curly, the turducken's safe," laughed the gravelly-voiced Cousin BJ, pulling the birds in question out of the oven. "And the imaginary corn won't kill ya."
Carlos noticed he didn't say anything about the cinnamon rolls. Great. And here he'd been looking forward to enjoying some wheat by-products, too.
The whole clan — it had to be more than thirty by now — wasn't going to fit in any of the cabins, so they pulled together picnic tables out back and unfolded all kinds of mismatched chairs to sit around them. As people started jockeying for seats, Carlos pulled Jon aside to warn him about the soup, and the nearly-everything-else.
"I know, right?" said Stephen in exasperation. "Aunt Morticia always puts too much hemlock in her biscuits. I hate hemlock."
"Uh, wow." Jon turned to Carlos. "I'm just gonna sit next to you and let you try everything first, if you don't mind."
"Taking risks for the sake of experimentation is part of being a scientist," Carlos assured him. When Jon didn't seem sure how to take that, he added, "Besides, I trust Cecil to warn me if anything too harmful comes along."
Jon had promised Stephen not to freak out, and so far he thought he was doing a pretty good job.
Especially considering that he was almost the only "outsider" present. Of the guests who weren't family of Stephen's by blood, the majority were still residents of Night Vale, or Twin Peaks, or Eureka, or Gravity Falls, or any number of other towns that ran on the same flexible laws of reality (not to mention fashion) as Stephen's studio. And of the other two exceptions, one of them — Cousin BJ's wife Lydia — had practically gone native, if her blood-red poncho with spiderwebs all over it was any indication.
That left Cousin Cecil's boyfriend Carlos. Granted, Carlos seemed to think lab coats were casual wear and had no trouble eating imaginary corn, but at least he totally understood when Jon couldn't figure out how to butter something that wasn't there.
They were comparing local subway systems (Jon's had been shut down for three hours because there were kittens on the tracks; Carlos' took you on an eons-long fugue in the four minutes between stops) when a car horn sounded off a cheerful beep-beep! out front.
A couple of the younger children shrieked in delight, and very few of them waited for parental permission to leave the tables. Plenty of adults looked pretty giddy themselves. "It's Aunt Valerie!" squeaked Stephen as he abandoned his plate of turducken and hemlock biscuits, joining Cecil and the fun-sized mob of kids as they trampled the grass on their way to the front yard.
Which left Jon at the end of a table with Carlos, who was shaking his head slowly, as if to clear it.
"Fine, don't worry. Sound just really took me back, that's all." Carlos gave him a sheepish smile. "To third grade, believe it or not. The bus horn sounded exactly like that. And we were on it all the time, because our teacher was always taking us on these great field trips...museums, parks, zoos...."
"Listen, my mom was a teacher for years, so I'm always happy to hear them get appreciated," Jon assured him. And, okay, now Carlos was pulling off his glasses and massaging his temples. "Seriously, are you sure you didn't eat anything suspicious?"
"Just a headache," said Carlos, waving his worries back. "It's weird...I'm trying to remember specific places we went, but everything's coming up vague."
"Well, you did say it was the third grade," said Jon reasonably. "It's been a while."
"The thing is, her class was the whole reason I got inspired to become a scientist in the first place. So you'd think it would have made more of an impression, right?" Carlos pinched the bridge of his nose. "Gah, what was that one place...our parents came along, and we were doing this unit on nocturnal animals...."
The commotion of the departed kids was getting louder again; they must have picked up the latest arrival. Jon thought he caught the trill of an unfamiliar woman's voice above the chatter, too muffled to make out any words but too distinctive to miss.
Carlos sat up straighter, and put his glasses back on in a hurry.
One of the children yelled something, and this time the reply was clear: "Yes, I absolutely want to see the insect you found! Did you know that scientists have described over one million different species of insects? But they all agree there are at least a million more still undiscovered! Who knows, maybe you've found a new one!"
The excited crowd rounded the corner of the building and poured back into the yard.
At the center of the gaggle of the kids, with Cecil and Stephen and a handful of other adults in tow, was a woman: neither short nor tall, neither fat nor thin, neither old nor young. She had vibrant red-orange hair, most of which was piled up in a messy bun on the back of her head, and was wearing a modest collared dress printed with a pattern of seeds, saplings, and leaves. The way she moved, some of the leaves almost seemed to be rustling on their own.
Carlos stood up so fast he knocked over his chair. "Ms. Frizzle!"
Aunt Valerie turned, studied his face for a moment, then broke into a smile. "Can it be? Is it really little Carlos Ramon?"
"You..." Carlos thrust out his arm and pointed a trembling finger at her. "You turned me into a bat!"
"Oh, Carlos, I can see we have so much to catch up on!" said Valerie Frizzle, beaming at him. "But not this minute. It's been a long trip, and I've been promised a cold drink." She started on toward the kitchen again, addressing the kids: "There's so much I've always found fascinating about ice cubes...."
Cecil peeled away from the group to rejoin his boyfriend. He squeezed Carlos' still-kind-of-shaky arm with both hands, and, at the same time, picked up Carlos' chair with...okay, those were definitely tentacles. Where had he even been keeping them? "Carlos! You didn't tell me you'd met my aunt before."
"Well, I didn't know she was your aunt until just now," said Carlos weakly. "Although, in light of all these memories I'm suddenly un-repressing? It makes so much sense."
"Did she really turn your class into bats?" piped up Stephen, appearing next to Jon. "What was that like?"
Carlos thought about it.
Then he held his cupped hands on either side of his head, waggled them for emphasis, and said, "Ear-y."
Everyone at their table groaned. "Carlos!"