“I’ll be right out. Just five more minutes, I promise. Maybe ten.”
“Seven and a half? Or two thirds … I just want to finish these calculations. I think I’m onto something big.” Carlos was warm, ingratiating and hopeful.
Cecil turned off his car and sighed into the phone. His nascent frustration crumbled; he was charmed, rendered defenseless.
“All right,” he said. “But seriously -- if we pass beyond the ten minute mark, I’m coming in there.”
“Thank you,” Carlos said, and Cecil can practically hear him beaming. Damn the flawless jewels of his eyes.
Cecil propped up his phone in the drink holder and stared at it, willing the minutes to pass. It wasn’t an unusual or difficult request. “Come on, time. I know you’re listening.”
In fact, the seconds slowed to a crawl, as though offended. Ten minutes felt like half an hour. Cecil unfolded himself, stepping out of his car -- his legs ached, a sure sign of time’s childishness -- and marched up to the lab. He knocked vigorously, and Carlos came to the door with a sheepish grin on his face.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I got caught up. Um. Again.”
Cecil waved his hand, a gesture of forgiving dismissal. Carlos’s bright teeth were a gun, and Cecil was the cry for mercy. Take everything I have; just, please, don’t hurt me.
“Hey, I get it. Time escapes from us all. Sprints away into the night, never to be seen again, no matter how many posters you put up around town.”
“Right,” Carlos said. “And the thing is -- I’m not quite done yet.”
He winced as Cecil exhaled.
“Should I just leave you to your work?” He said it gently, but his syllables were rimed with frost.
“No -- Cecil,” Carlos said. He raked both hands through his hair, and Cecil’s breath hitched. His equilibrium faltered, and gravity became brittle under his shoes. For a minute, anyway. “It’s just that the numbers are trying to tell me something, and I feel like I’m so close to it, and that it’s important, Cecil. That it’s everything.”
“Well,” Cecil said, stiffly, “eating dinner is usually pretty important, too. For continued living. And the maintenance of relatively new relationships.”
“I know,” Carlos said. He put his pencil down and shut his eyes. Cecil fought against the thaw in his own posture and expression; he was doing his best to project winter, to be absolutely Siberian, but Carlos’s face in repose was a desert wind, burning in Cecil’s veins and his mind, in the jelly of his knees.
To be this in love was exhausting.
Carlos pushed back from the desk. He shrugged off his labocoat and hung it up, carefully, beside another, nearly identical labcoat. This fraternal twin had some elegant piping along the breast pocket and glowed more freshly white than the others. Carlos took it down and slipped it on.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m ready. I’ll finish up here later.”
Cecil smiled, offering his hand. They left together, but Cecil noticed -- noticed quite clearly -- that Carlos’s step lingered on the threshold.
Cecil stifled a groan. It wasn’t even because of this pronouncement -- though he felt that Carlos should let it go already; things were always happening, that was, in fact, the exact nature of existence. Things, endlessly. An endless parade of afternoons, brunches, sudden backyard vortexes, stop signs, quick snacks, dire portents, and more piles of laundry than you, as a child, ever thought you would someday have to do.
But the real issue was the mashed up bit of fry trapped between Carlos’s teeth, the consequence of careless, noisy chewing. Cecil pushed his meatloaf around his plate, and the thick, white gravy seeped across the topography of the beef, drowning it, blanking it out.
Carlos kept talking, his vocabulary growing more technical and incomprehensible with each sentence. On the one hand, Cecil admired Carlos’s prowess in all things, and he was touched by the dedication that Carlos had shown to saving Night Vale from itself.
Most surviving visitors had not stayed long. A few weeks was above average. Two hours was more likely. Five minutes, in one terrified driver’s case. A year was unheard of.
But Carlos had persisted, against all odds, statistics, and rationality. Cecil loved this about him. His loyalty. His sense of investment. But Cecil wanted some of it, too, wanted a few pieces that were for him and him alone.
The diner bustled with activity, as it was one of the few places in town open past nine. Most other businesses adhered to a strict curfew, ignored at the employees’ peril. Just last week, Sam Armendariz failed to finish locking up the Urban Outfitters until nearly nine-fifteen. Cecil hadn’t seen him since.
The chatter from the other tables comforted him, gave him something to focus on besides the bit of potato, besides the now impenetrable sentences spilling from Carlos’s mouth, besides the uneasy sense that Cecil was not as happy as he thought he should be.
A group of students from the community college sat behind them, talking animatedly about a group project due next week. The mix of noise -- forks clinking against plates, thoughtful sips, nervous slurps, and mostly empty ketchup bottles asked for more than they could give -- muddled the conversation, but Cecil caught a few phrases. ‘Sacrifice at exactly dawn,’ ‘robes’ ‘peaked hoods’ ‘like, thirty dollars,’ ‘all agreed,’ ‘not drawing straws again, Stacy’, and so forth.
Cecil smiled at their youthful energy and inclined his head slightly, towards the other tables. Tired parents, sneaking out after putting the kids to bed and locking every door and window; high school students who knew how to pick locks; off-duty secret police drinking milkshakes through straws fed into their masks; a pair of hooded figures in one corner that nobody looked at or otherwise acknowledged. The waitress took their order as though addressing the adjacent wall, then slid a tray of cheeseburgers and curly fries along the floor so that it bumped the edge of their booth.
“ … do you know what I mean?”
Carlos’s voice broke through, and Cecil started. He clutched his coffee cup as though it meant to escape and he drank with sudden fervor, shaking his head. “No. I don’t know anything about what you mean.”
But before Carlos could finish, the atmosphere changed. Not just between them -- though there was an uncomfortable level of dismay in Carlos’s eyes -- but for the entire population of the diner. Conversation halted. Everyone sat up straight, their limbs and expressions rigid, like mannequins. Open-palmed, they slapped their tables violently and with increasing speed, excepting the hooded figures. The two of them hummed instead, an awful static noise that layered demonically over the manic table-slapping.
“We need to go,” Carlos said. “Right now.”
“What?” Cecil said, shouting to be heard over the rising drumbeat of the hands and the static, now underscored by an electric hiss that sounded like the moment right before a lightning strike. “Because of this? It’s nothing. Let it pass.”
He leaned in close, which put him right at eye level with the trapped, crushed potato. God. Run your tongue over your teeth, man. It will benefit everyone involved.
Carlos grabbed Cecil’s hand. “No. This is different--the frequencies--they’re not the same. Please just trust me.”
“I haven’t even had my pie yet --”
“Cecil,” Carlos jumped out of the booth, dragging the other man along with him. Cecil stumbled, nearly impaling himself on the keen edge of the table.
“Hey,” he cried, but Carlos was solidly built and energized with fear. They rushed into the parking lot, and Carlos broke into a sprint -- which was itself broken when Cecil yanked his wrist out of Carlos’s grip.
“Slow down, mister,” he said, two seconds away from stamping his foot. “They had cherry pie tonight. It's to die for, and I was willing!”
Carlos groaned. “This is serious. I think I’ve made something angry.”
Cecil marched to the car. “You certainly have.”
The drive back to the lab was short and silent. Cecil evaluated himself. He wasn’t really angry, he was just -- bothered. And he wasn’t really unhappy, he was just -- unsure.
There was something to be said for an unrequited crush: it required nothing. The suffering was tender, idealized; it placed the object of affection in a mystical realm of endless, flawless possibility. And, as an object, the person became more fantasy than reality. The relationship was lonely, but it was easy and sweet and it did not ask for one single shred of tolerance or work.
Until recently, Cecil had interacted only with the idea of Carlos, with his platonic concept. Any intimacies between them were not real, and therefore pure, untarnished by the grit of unexpected habits and misaligned priorities. The marble had sloughed off of Carlos’s skin, revealing something soft and vulnerable, something that could scar.
Cecil pulled up in front of the lab.
Carlos hesitated. He began slowly. “Listen. I’m not good at this.”
Cecil didn’t turn his head, because if he did then he would look at Carlos, and if he looked at Carlos then it would all be over. And he didn’t want that. He wanted to hang on to this irritation. He was entitled to it. “At what?”
“Explaining myself. About anything, most of the time. I was a teacher’s assistant in graduate school and I never spoke to a single student. I just graded the exams.”
Cecil tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to indicate that he was listening.
“I can’t -- articulate. Not easily. Not until I have everything figured out and written down. And with this, I don’t. But the frequencies are different. The signals aren’t right. There’s something coming. Coming here. And I think -- I think it’s noticed me, noticing it.”
He opened the passenger door. He cleared his throat with such audible anxiety that Cecil almost turned his head. But, in the end, did not.
“You’ve been patient, and that means a lot to me. Everything about what we’ve done, and been through -- it means a lot. But I need to understand this. Before something happens. Okay?”
“If you’re in danger, you shouldn’t be alone,” Cecil said. “Maybe I --”
“No,” Carlos cut him off. “No, you should go home. Lock the door. Draw a rune on it or whatever you do.”
“I can’t have you here. You’d be a distraction, and I just -- I can’t have it.”
Cecil, who was moments ago ready to forgive everything, to finally turn his head, to let warm concern wash over him like a sheet of rain, to stay up all night in the lab, if necessary, and keep vigil against any invaders, real or perceived … Cecil’s heart shuttered. The rain became a storm.
He looked down, away, scanning desperately for a point of reference that was not anywhere near Carlos’s face, Carlos’s body.
“Oh,” he said.
“I’ll make this up to you,” Carlos said. “I promise. Okay?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
Carlos hesitated, but Cecil was resolute. If there was something in Carlos’s posture, the shape of his mouth, the tension of his jaw -- if there was a paragraph of sentiment and regret and misery, long and sincere enough to redeem the situation -- Cecil wasn’t interested. Not right now.
Carlos kissed him, but it was quick, awkward and nervous. Nothing like their first time, or any time in the interim. The distance of it made Cecil’s stomach drop.
“Goodnight,” Carlos said. “We’ll talk soon.”
The passenger door clicked gently shut. Cecil stared at the center of the steering wheel, his mind underwater, heavy as the ocean floor. Then, alone, he drove back to his apartment.
A pool of yellow light spilled over his hands, cascading to the carpet, suffusing the objects there in a soft glow (aside from his bloodstones, which pulsed with malevolent shadows at all times). He sighed again at the unkempt trail of clothes, shed earlier in a slow procession of despair, one article after the other, as he crawled towards his bed.
He hadn’t known what to do or think, and so had opted for neither. He reverted to existence at its most basic level: regular breathing, slow blinking, lying still. His bed was a sarcophagus.
Cecil retrieved his glasses first, then the phone. He yawned as he pressed the button for messages, hunching over, his shoulders drawn taut.
“I’ve got it, Cecil! I’ve solved it, and it’s just as bad as I thought -- maybe worse -- look, you have to come over. Please. As soon as you get this. I need to explain. I can do that now.”
Ordinarily, the warm, dulcet tones of Carlos’s voice were like a mint and honey balm to Cecil’s ears, but listening to this message just made him tired. How often was this going to happen? How many times was the apocalypse going to intrude on their personal lives?
The next message started.
“I don’t know if you’re really asleep or just -- just ignoring me, but, Cecil, you’ve got to come. I swear to you, I’ll explain it. I’ll explain why it matters.”
There was a pause, and Cecil heard a faint knock in the background.
“I hope that’s you.”
Cecil felt cold. “No,” he said. “It’s not me.”
A door opened, a greeting followed. A naive, friendly greeting.
“Close the door,” Cecil said, bending so low over his phone that his forehead touched the screen.
The rest of the message was unintelligible. A battle cry rang out, then clattering -- the phone, falling from Carlos’s hands -- then dead air. The timer expired, beeping aggressively.
Cecil knew what to do. He knew what to think.
He reached for his clothes.