Night Vale is hot.
That's the first thing that Carlos thinks in the morning, driving to school. His dad let him take the car, at least, so he won't look like a total loser even if he's starting over for junior year. The car kicks up dust as he drives. Everything is dusty here.
Carlos hates the desert, and he hates sand, and he hates Night Vale, and he hates his dad's stupid job with its stupid transfers. He hates the idea of spending an entire school year in this boring town.
“It's only for a little while, mijo,” his dad said this morning as Carlos scowled at his cereal. “We'll be back in Minneapolis before you know it.”
But a year is a long time, Carlos thinks. Anything could happen in a year. Like he could die of boredom.
The school looks—small. And kind of weird, actually, Carlos thinks as he parks. Like, it's not actually rectangular, but sort of a triangle. And it's made of stone the color of fresh blood. There's a flag flapping in the breeze, on a pole high above the ground. There's no picture, just a blank field of deep violet.
“Weird,” he mutters to himself, then checks to see if anyone heard him. The parking lot is pretty empty for it being right before school time. There's nobody around. It's full of cars, though, so maybe he's just late.
The thought is enough to make Carlos hurry towards the front doors and into the building. It's empty inside, too, and quiet. But there's a sign that says “Main Office” in block letters, so he heads towards that.
“Hello?” Carlos says when he opens the door. There's still nobody there. He's wondering if something has gone really wrong—like maybe he's dreaming, or it's Saturday and he just forgot, his dad forgot too—when a woman appears.
Appears. As in, one second Carlos was alone, and the next there's a woman behind the front desk.
Carlos makes a noise that he would like to state for the record is not a yelp. The woman just raises her eyebrows at him—she's a kind-looking woman, wearing a hijab, and he thought that maybe he caught a flash of a pregnant belly when she first appeared—and slides a folder towards him.
“You're Carlos,” she says. The nameplate on the desk reads Christine—Secretary and Collector of Lost Souls. The only other personal item is a photo of a young girl, with the name DANA spelled out in colorfully painted macaroni on the frame.
The little girl has a gap-toothed smile. She doesn't look like a lost soul.
“Yes ma'am,” Carlos says, reflexively. “Where—is there a door back there, or something?” There is no door. Carlos can't see a door. But there has to be a door, people don't just pop out of thin air.
“Your class schedule is in there,” Christine, the secretary and collector of lost souls, says. “You're early.” She frowns delicately.
Okay. Carlos is early. That's not a problem, at least it's not still Sunday. “Oh. But there were cars everywhere. And the principal said to be here at seven thirty when my dad talked to her.”
“Principal Winchell is a very busy woman,” Christine says. “She cannot be expected to remember every single drill that the school is going to have. The students are still practicing for an emergency situation. Your guide will be here soon.”
Christine inclines her head towards three chairs stationed against the wall, all the same blood red of the flag out front. Carlos takes the folder from the desk and sits down. At least he'll have a guide. That's good. That's someone to talk to.
It's not that Carlos can't make friends. He's got friends in Minnesota. It's just that—he's had most of those friends since he was ten years old. He wasn't president of the science club when he made those friends. He didn't play Magic when he made those friends.
It might be different in Night Vale. Not that Carlos is nervous. It's just some stupid desert town.
Carlos pulls out his schedule. Studies it for a second. Looks from the paper in his hands to Christine at the desk, slack-jawed.
Advanced Summoning Rituals.
Basic Level Chemistry.
“Excuse me,” Carlos says. Christine looks up and smiles at him.
“Yes, dear?” she asks. “Is there a problem?”
Carlos wants to tell her that someone is playing a prank on him, but mostly he's swallowing down the unexpected lump in his throat. He's only been here for ten minutes, he hasn't even met anyone yet. Why is someone trying to mess with him? He hasn't done anything mockable yet. He will, eventually—Carlos knows himself. But not yet.
This school sucks. This town sucks.
“This schedule,” Carlos says, brandishing the paper. “There's something wrong with it.”
Christine extends a hand towards him. Carlos hands over the schedule, mutely. He's calculating how quickly he can get back to Minnesota. If he stays with his aunt, he could still start the school year on time at home.
The only problem with that is his horde of cousins. They all play soccer. And baseball. And lacrosse.
Carlos might be better off here than with Alex and Michael. And the girls will make him play dress up when they're not practicing kicking or dribbling or whatever people do in sports.
“Oh,” Christine says after a moment. “I see—your father said you were very advanced in science. I can have you switched into the higher level chemistry class. It's at the same time. I'm sorry about the mix-up.” She takes a pen and makes a note on the schedule.
Carlos is gaping, unable to speak, when the door to the office opens. There's a blast of noise from the hall, then it suddenly cuts off as the door shuts quietly.
“Hello,” says a voice. Carlos freezes, from the base of his spine all the way up to his crown.
That voice. Deep, and dreamy, like something out of the depths of a lake, like something out of the coldest parts of winter, when the snow makes everything silent. Like something from the tops of trees, from miles under the ground.
Carlos can't begin to imagine the face that goes with that voice.
He turns around slowly.
“Oh,” he says, unable to help his disappointment. The voice belongs to a boy—not fat or thin, not tall or short. Not beautiful or ugly. Just a boy. Carlos's age, probably, or somewhere around there.
“Cecil,” Christine says fondly. “You're here, good. This is Carlos. He's new in town. Show him the ropes, will you?”
Cecil looks at Carlos for a long moment. Carlos swallows hard and does his best not to squirm. “Of course,” he says at last. “Welcome to Night Vale, Carlos. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Carlos feels himself relax slightly, in the shoulders, and wonders when he tensed up in the first place.
“This is his schedule,” Christine says. Cecil moves past Carlos to take the paper, and brushes against him in the process. There's a spark that passes between their skin. A literal spark. Carlos hisses and rubs at the spot on his arm where Cecil's hand touched.
Cecil blinks at him and says, “Sorry. Electricity storm drill. You know. Can never get the static off afterwards.”
Electricity storm drill.
For a second, Carlos wonders if Cecil is the one who messed with his schedule. But he shakes the thought off almost at once—Cecil sounded frighteningly sincere when he was welcoming Carlos to town.
“Come on,” Cecil says to Carlos, and heads out of the office. Carlos is left to follow, hurrying to catch up to Cecil's long strides. Once they're in the hallway, it's noisy again. There are students now, filling every square foot of space.
People get out of the way for Cecil and Carlos, though. Carlos feels eyes on him, people staring. Like maybe they don't get new kids a lot. Maybe Cecil is popular. Maybe this place is just weird.
“What's your first class?” Cecil asks, with that same strange, slow voice. “No, wait, it's Literature. That's mine, too. Follow me.” And he starts walking faster, with his chin up, taking long, purposeful strides. Carlos scurries after Cecil, panting a little as he dodges around other students, all also hurrying now.
“How did you know that?” Carlos asks, but Cecil doesn't answer. Carlos slows down for a second, and gets an elbow in the stomach for it as people start running. Someone screams, in the distance. “What's going on?”
Cecil isn't running. He's just walking, smoothly. “The bell is about to ring,” he says. His voice floats backwards on the air, cutting above the sudden noises of panic—squeals of rubber soles on the tile, dull thumps as students crash into each other, a clatter ahead as a girl drops something but doesn't stop for it.
Cecil stops, abruptly, in front of a blank wall. Carlos stops with him, and the horde of rushing students moves around them, like antelope navigating around trees in a stampede.
“Cecil?” Carlos asks, trying not to hear the trembling note in his own voice. “Why is everyone so afraid?”
“The bell is about to ring,” Cecil repeats, and—plunges his arm into the wall. “Come on,” he says, reaching back with the other arm, the one that isn't currently disappearing into red stone blocks, and taking Carlos's hand. It feels like cool water on his skin, like diving into a small, inland lake in the middle of July.
Carlos's breath catches, and he feels his face heating up, feels the stupid blush spreading from his ears to the back of his neck, and then—it's not just his hand, not just where Cecil is touching him, because the feeling is everywhere, and he distantly realizes that Cecil is pulling him through the wall.
Carlos comes out on the other side breathless, confused, and still holding Cecil's hand.
They're standing in a classroom—an ordinary classroom. There are some rows of desks, a chalkboard at the front, and some teenagers with backpacks already sitting down, pulling out their books.
Did they just—but that's impossible.
Cecil drops Carlos's hand. “We're reading The Crucible,” he says, and goes to sit down in the back of the room, next to a boy with glasses and dark, curly hair.
Carlos resists the urge to rub his hand where Cecil was touching it. He takes a deep breath, tries to get his knees under control—they're shaking, why didn't he notice that start happening?--and collapses into the nearest empty desk.
This—this town might not be as boring as he thought.
The thing is, Carlos has read The Crucible before. He got an A on his final paper for it. McCarthyism, betrayal, allegories, communists—Carlos has all of that down.
So when the discussion starts out with how sloppy the spellcasting is, he's a little taken aback.
“If Mary Warren wanted revenge on Abigail, she wouldn't do it right there in the open,” the boy sitting next to Cecil says stubbornly. Carlos stares down at his new copy of the book and tries to understand what's going on.
The book has a blank white cover, just black text of the title and the words MUNICIPALLY APPROVED stamped on it in blue. The stamp is a little smudged, like whoever did it was in a hurry.
The teacher, Ms. Haller, is leaning forward from her perch on top of her desk. She's actually perched, too, crouching like she expects to spring up at any moment.
“You're projecting, Steve,” she tells the boy. “Mary Warren admits earlier in the play that she doesn't join in when the other girls cast spells. She might just not be experienced enough to know better.”
“She's eighteen,” Steve says, whining a little. “She knows better. It's probably John Proctor doing it.”
“What would he get out of framing her?” a girl in the second row pipes up, and Ms. Haller nods approvingly.
“These are all excellent points,” she says. “Let's ask our new student what he thinks.”
Every head in the room swivels to look at Carlos. He's uncomfortably aware of his hands, and the position of his legs, and the fact that his nose itches but he can't scratch it right now with everyone watching him.
Carlos wants to say something about paranoia, or the way courts in 1950s America were rigged, or even his wild theory that Mary Warren is secretly a lesbian. Instead he stutters, “I've never read this before.”
There is a collective intake of air as the entire room gasps, then silence so absolute Carlos wants to scream.
“Well,” Ms. Haller says awkwardly, glancing at the loudspeaker on the wall behind her. “It is your first day. It's okay, Carlos. Just make sure you read it by tomorrow.” And she switches topics, forcefully lecturing on the merits of a good familiar until the bell rings.
Carlos just sits there, wondering what happened.
Cecil comes to collect him as everyone else streams out the door—and there wasn't a door there earlier, was there?
“That was very brave,” Cecil says, hushed. “To not answer the question like that.”
“What?” Carlos is confused. That is his primary state of being right now.
Cecil's eyes widen. “You have to answer the questions,” he says. “You have to do the homework. Night Vale has very good test scores. It is a very good school district.” His tone implies that it is to stay that way.
Carlos is silent. He doesn't know what to say. Is there anything to say? This place doesn't make any sense. He wonders if he could talk his parents into going back to Minnesota. Even staying with his cousins is starting to seem appealing.
Cecil just eyes him suspiciously. “Follow me,” he says at last. “I'll show you your next class.”
And he reaches out and takes Carlos's hand again, like it's no big deal. It still feels strange, and beautiful. And maybe sinister, as well, because Cecil is just a boy. Holding his hand shouldn't make Carlos feel like he's in another plane of reality.
Carlos follows Cecil, and tries not to think too hard about it.
In his first week at Night Vale High, Carlos learns a few things.
He learns to do his homework and participate in class discussions when a girl in his chemistry class admits she was sick last night and didn't do the practice problems, and the teacher opens his mouth impossibly wide until it's a gaping, slavering maw, and swallows the girl whole.
He learns that the classrooms have doors, but sometimes it's faster to go through the walls.
He learns that Cecil's best friend is the boy from their English class, and that his name is Steve Carlsberg.
He learns, over an accidental slip during a dinner conversation, that his father works for a secret government agency, not as an actuary, and that he's here to assess threats made by a mysterious figure in Night Vale. Nobody will tell Carlos anything else about it, though.
He learns that Cecil is an intern at the local community radio station, that these interns have a death rate of 99.8%, and that Cecil has already been doing the job for six months, longer than any intern in the last ten years.
Carlos also learns that once Cecil is done guiding him around on the first day, he's apparently too cool or busy or something to even look at Carlos again.
It's fine, though, Carlos is fine with it.
And it's not like there isn't stuff to do, because Carlos has joined the Science Club, and it turns out that Night Vale is the coolest place on Earth.
The very first time he goes to a meeting, the club builds a bomb that emits a bright, piercing light and nothing else. Carlos still isn't sure exactly how they did it, but it happened.
“We're not a very popular club,” the president, Anna Wong, tells him after the meeting, as they're walking to the parking lot. “Everyone is so into sports right now, and the Mountaineering Club.”
“Mountaineering?” Carlos says, laughing. “There aren't any mountains around here.”
Anna gives him an incredulous look. “There's a trip,” she explains. “Every year. It's the most popular event we have, since it's on street cleaning day.”
“Okay,” Carlos agrees. He's learning that sometimes it's best just to agree. “Are you in the Mountaineering Club?”
Anna wrinkles her nose, and says, “No way. I'm not afraid of the street cleaners. I can build a sonic emitter strong enough to keep them away. But you should join. Cecil is the president.” She looks at him slyly, and waggles her eyebrows. Carlos feels himself blushing, heat creeping up the back of his neck and spreading from his ears.
“Why would that matter?” he asks, trying to keep his cool. Anna has the key to the chemical cabinet, she told him what time the club was meeting today without him having to ask, she can't just figure it out and stop talking to him.
Anna frowns at him, confused, and says gently, “It's not a big deal. Everyone has a crush on Cecil. It's the voice, I think.”
Carlos gapes at her. It's—this is a small town in the middle of the desert, there's no way that people are just cool with him liking boys. That doesn't even happen in Minneapolis. “You—you don't mind?” he asks. His voice cracks in the middle of the sentence, like he's thirteen.
“No,” Anna says. “I don't have a crush on him.” She sticks her nose in the air and says, “And you can drive me home, my car's engine turned into a swarm of locusts yesterday.”
Carlos's dad is being infuriatingly silent on the question of the secret threat hiding in Night Vale.
“No,” he says the third time Carlos tries to wheedle the information out. “Leave it alone, son.”
He pushes his glasses up his nose and just looks at Carlos. Carlos starts to panic a little—his dad is always smiling, joking. The only time he's ever looked like this before is when he was giving Carlos The Talk, and explaining consent and acceptance and how nobody was going to be upset if he brought Scott Little to dinner sometime.
“Is it really dangerous?” Carlos asks. Even the revelation that his dad has about thirteen guns and a background in criminal profiling hasn't done much to change the fact that he's pushing fifty, going gray, and best described as “skinny” and “weedy.”
His dad sighs and says, “It's complicated. We aren't concerned about anyone's safety right now. It's more the idea that there could be a threat in the future. There are some very bad signs.”
“What kind of bad signs?” Carlos asks.
“Oh, you know,” his dad says, casual again, waving a hand like the portents are irritating flies. “Hurricanes in the desert. Crows gathering. That sort of thing. What did you do in school today?”
Carlos sighs, and says, “I made something blow up.”
“Good job, son,” his dad says, ruffling his hair. “Well done.”
The Mountaineering Club is doing sign-ups in the lunchroom. Carlos is eating with Anna and her friends, and not looking over at Cecil. Because Cecil isn't even that cool, okay, he's not good-looking the way some of the guys around here are.
“You're staring,” Anna says, smirking at him. Carlos takes a defiant bite of his ham sandwich.
“I'm not,” he says, once he's chewed and swallowed.
“Kinda are,” Lucas Billings says, and Carlos glares.
“I'm just thinking of signing up,” he lies. “I've never climbed a mountain.”
“So go sign up,” Anna says. “Chicken.” She bawk bawk bawks lightly, under her breath.
“I will,” Carlos snaps, heaving to his feet. He knocks over his plastic chair, and winces. In his old cafeteria, people would have started clapping. In Night Vale, nobody even looks up. Carlos is left standing there, like an idiot, with his hands braced on the lunch table.
There's nothing left to do but stalk over to the folding table where Cecil and Steve Carlsberg are eating lunch, and say, “How do I sign up for the trip?”
Cecil slides a sheet of paper over, and a pencil. “You put your name and contact on that,” he says. “When street cleaning day comes, we'll do our best to get you out, but you have to be prepared to get to the high school on your own.”
“I can do that,” Carlos agrees, like this is really a matter of life and death. This is the second time someone has mentioned street cleaning day. Maybe it's a code.
“Thank you for signing up,” Cecil says. And he turns back to Steve Carlsberg, leaving Carlos with no choice but to go back to the lunch table, feeling strangely triumphant, and discouraged.
“Wow,” Anna says, deadpan, looking at him from over the frames of her glasses. “Well done. Now you have to climb a mountain with Cecil Palmer.”
And, well. It's quite possible that Carlos hasn't thought this through.
They've moved to the final project on The Crucible. English is probably his favorite subject here, since he's so behind in things like Summoning Rituals and Hieroglyphs. English is easy, even if Ms. Haller looks pretty disappointed whenever he brings up allegories or the idea of duty instead of talking about the dark arts.
“We'll be breaking into pairs,” Ms. Haller says as she passes out the assignment sheets. “And don't think that you get to choose your partner, a missive arrived from the Vice Principal's office this morning with instructions.”
Everyone shudders as one. They always do when someone mentions the Vice Principal's office.
Carlos reads the assignment sheet as Ms. Haller begins calling out names. Make a poster, write a presentation—basic stuff.
“Carlos and Cecil,” Ms. Haller says, and Carlos's stomach swoops down, rises back up, feels strangely wet, like a kingfisher.
Cecil appears out of thin air—maybe literally—and perches on the edge of Carlos's desk. “I think we should do paranoia,” he says. Carlos's heart lifts for a minute—has Cecil noticed the kinds of things he says in class?--but then Cecil keeps talking. “There's obviously a paranoia spell at work, or John Proctor wouldn't be accusing his teenage lover of trying to kill his wife.”
Carlos sighs. “Okay,” he agrees.
Cecil chews on his lip absentmindedly. Carlos tries not to stare. “I'm pretty busy with the radio station,” he says. “Could you work on the project this weekend?”
“Sure,” Carlos agrees, breathlessly, before he remembers. “No, wait. My dad is having a poker game this weekend.” His father's poker games are actually top-secret meetings of his secret government agency. Carlos isn't supposed to have people over during them.
“I'm babysitting Dana on Sunday,” Cecil says, “but Saturday? You could come over.”
“Sure,” Carlos agrees. “That would be fine.” Cecil's house. No big deal.
Carlos has totally got this.
Cecil's doorbell wails instead of rings. After a month in Night Vale, Carlos isn't too freaked out by it.
But the woman who answers the door takes one look at him and wails, too, a sort of high-pitched unearthly shriek. And that's a little more unusual.
“Mom,” Cecil says from behind the woman. He comes into view in pieces, over her shoulder, around the gap of her waist, and Carlos starts to breathe a little quicker. Cecil puts a hand on his mother's shoulder and says, “He's invited.”
The wailing stops. Cecil's mother looks at him suspiciously. She's a tall, bone-thin woman, with a mess of graying curls piled on top of her head. She has horn-rimmed glasses and a hawk's nose.
“Hello, Mrs. Palmer,” he says.
Mrs. Palmer steps backwards, around Cecil, and flees into the house and out of sight. Carlos stands on the porch, next to a pot of exquisite begonias, and wonders what he did wrong.
“She likes you,” Cecil tells him, smiling. “Come on, we need to get started.” He leads the way to the kitchen, where there's already a tri-fold poster on the table.
“So, where do you want to start?” Carlos asks, trying to reign in his sigh. He doesn't understand anything about his classes here, except chemistry. Science is always steady when it's controlled, despite the way the Science Club made a praying mantis grow to the size of a kitten yesterday.
Cecil looks at him for a second and says, “You don't believe in witchcraft, do you?” He says it like Carlos would say 'you don't believe in gravity, do you?' It's unsettling, to say the least.
“No,” Carlos says. He's never felt alone in that regard, before.
“I didn't think so,” Cecil says, satisfied, like he's confirmed a mystery to himself. He tilts his head and smiles, just a little. “You're pretty weird, aren't you?”
Carlos wasn't weird at his old school. A little too into science, sure. The gay kid, yeah. But he had friends, ones from middle school who carried into high school, and some guys from the cross country team. It doesn't really seem fair that he's weird in Night Vale, where there are classes on the dark arts.
“I guess,” he says, shrugging. Cecil's smile widens into a grin.
“We could talk about how the play coincides with--” Cecil screws up his face, and says very carefully, like he's sounding it out, “Mc-Carth-ee-ism.”
Carlos's heart starts to pound. “You would do that?” They haven't talked about it in class. He made the mistake of picking up an extra history textbook in the school library once. The section on the Cold War only talked about the marginalization of different subcultures, and America's interference in wars of independence around the world.
It's stuff that Carlos's dad talks about, sometimes, like when they got denied membership to a country club. It's kind of weird that it's what Cecil grew up learning, instead of Plymouth Rock and the Gettysburg Address and Sputnik.
“Nobody's ever done a project on it before,” Cecil says. “We'll get extra points for originality. Ms. Haller voted against the conformity measure in the last election.”
“Okay. So we should start with Arthur Miller's background,” Carlos says.
They take a break for food two hours later. Carlos comes back from the bathroom as Cecil is pulling pizza rolls out of the oven and says, “Did you know that your bathroom mirror is covered?”
“Mom doesn't like mirrors,” Cecil says. “She says I'm going to die and mirrors will be involved, so she covered them all.”
“She didn't just get rid of them?” Carlos isn't going to touch the whole 'death by mirror' thing right now. But wouldn't it make more sense to not have mirrors instead of draping sheets over them?
“Mom doesn't like running from fear,” Cecil says, and uses a spatula to scrape a small mountain of pizza rolls onto a plate, which he puts in the middle of the table. It's cluttered by now, with scraps of paper from the pictures they printed out, and index cards where Cecil has been writing down the oral part of their presentation.
Cecil doesn't understand the last act of the play, where John Proctor dies instead of signing his name to a confession of witchcraft. His problem, as far as Carlos can glean, seems to be about the absurdity of refusing to bow to the will of the town leaders. That's the word he used, too, “absurdity.”
“So, you have an internship at the radio station?” Carlos asks. Cecil has a pizza roll in his mouth, too early, judging from his yelp and frantic chewing.
“Yeah,” Cecil says, once he's done wincing from the burn in his mouth. “It's really cool, I love it there!” He's bright, suddenly, in a way Carlos hasn't seen. Not that he's been looking, because that would be creepy, this is the first time they've hung out.
“I heard that it's a hard job,” Carlos says, not sure if it's okay to talk about the death rate.
“I guess some people don't find it easy,” Cecil says, and then checks over his shoulder, lowers his voice. “But I know I'm not going to die like everyone else.”
“How could you know that?” So far, Carlos has seen four people die—one in class, two swallowed by a black hole that appeared in the sidewalk, and one other who shot himself when four of the Sheriff's Secret Police surrounded him as he was coming out of the post office.
Death just exists in Night Vale. It's a constant companion. Carlos's dad told him not to worry, that they were being protected, but it's not like Carlos can just ignore that it's happening, even if it won't happen to him.
“My mom works in the archives at City Hall,” Cecil says, very quietly, so quietly that Carlos has to lean in to hear him. “She—she looked at the tablets that tell the future. She saw my name. I'm going to take over the radio broadcast when I'm older.”
“There are tablets that tell the future.” Of course there are, Carlos doesn't know why he's surprised. Cecil, meanwhile, looks vaguely alarmed.
“I don't know why I told you that,” he says. “I've never told anyone that. Mom could get in big trouble if anyone finds out that she's read the tablets. Only the Mayor and certain official personnel are supposed to read the tablets.”
“I won't tell,” Carlos promises. “I wouldn't do that.”
Cecil just nods, doesn't say anything. He seems very far away, suddenly. “I'm babysitting Dana tomorrow,” he says abruptly.
“Christine the secretary's daughter?” Carlos remembers the picture, the way Christine smiled at Cecil.
“Yeah,” Cecil says. “We're going to the new pizza place, Big Rico's. Have you been to it?”
“No,” Carlos says. “My dad likes to eat healthy meals.” They take turns cooking. Carlos's night usually involves a lot of rice, since he's bad at most things that don't come prepackaged.
“You could meet us,” Cecil says, staring at the space over Carlos's shoulder. “If you want. By that point I'll want a break from kid conversation.”
“Okay,” Carlos says, breath quickening. It's just hanging out—because it's not a date with a kid there. It's not a date.
“It's a date!” Anna cackles from her perch on Carlos's bed. “You wouldn't be freaking out so bad if it wasn't a date.”
“Stop laughing and help me,” Carlos demands, holding out two different shirts. “Which one is going to make me look like less of a dork?”
“You're going to look like a dork no matter what,” Anna says, “because you are a dork. Embrace it, make it your own.” But she takes the shirts from him and examines them, tosses one over her shoulder and hands the other back. “Pink. Definitely pink. You don't want him to think you're not interested.”
“Is that a thing here?” Carlos asks, tugging on the polo. “Do people wear certain colors to, to, demonstrate romantic attraction?” It's Night Vale. Anything is possible.
Anna gives him a look that would wither flowers. “No,” she says. “It just makes you look gay. Like, really, really gay.” She hops off the bed, glares at him, and says, “You better not forget about Science Club just because you're going to get a boyfriend.”
“You don't really think he's interested,” Carlos says, but he's starting to wonder. Cecil invited him. To get pizza. It could be a date.
“Whatever,” Anna says, and punches him on the shoulder. “We're making an invisibility serum next week, you'd better show up.” And she flounces out of his room, past his dad, who dodges her neatly and leans in the doorway.
“You combed your hair,” his dad says, raising an eyebrow. “Got a hot date?” Carlos gapes, mouth open, until his dad says, startled, “Oh shit, you've got a date?”
“It's not a date,” Carlos says, refusing to look up from the floor. “It's just a friend.”
“Hmm,” his dad says. “And this friend. He wouldn't happen to be in the Mountaineering Club, would he?”
“How'd you know?” Carlos asks, jerking his head up. He doesn't talk to his dad about crushes, or anything. Not because he isn't cool with the liking boys thing, he's the coolest ever about it, it's just—his dad. Not really who he wants to discuss his lack of a love life with.
“You joined an outdoor activity,” his dad says, dry as the desert outside. “I remember what it was like to try to get you to go camping with the Boy Scouts. There had to be a good reason.”
“It's not a date,” Carlos repeats, for clarity's sake. “But--”
“But you like him,” his dad says, crossing his arms. “Well, I can't say I'm happy you're growing up—don't make that face—but I hope it goes well.”
“Yeah,” Carlos agrees, because it's not a date, but what if it is? “Me too.”
Cecil is already at Big Rico's Pizzeria when Carlos shows up. He's with a little girl with dark hair and a purple dress printed with penguins, who is bouncing up and down, making her pigtails fly over her head and then slap her shoulders.
“Hi!” Carlos says, sitting down in the empty chair.
Cecil smiles at him, then says to the little girl, “Okay, Dana, now we can order.”
“Yessssssss,” Dana hisses. She grabs a glass bottle of Coke that's sitting in front of her and slurps from it aggressively. “Do you like pineapple?” It is not a friendly question.
“Sure?” Carlos agrees, and Dana jumps out of her chair and scampers to the nearby counter. Cecil tilts his chair so he can watch Dana order the pizza, and says to Carlos, “You made the right decision. Dana is very protective of her pizza topping choices.”
“I'm not picky. So, you babysit her a lot?” Carlos used to babysit his little cousins, sometimes, but the youngest one is twelve now, so he hasn't had to in years.
“Once a week, while Christine is doing errands and yoga and stuff,” Cecil says. “Dana's dad was friends with my mother, so it's the least I could do.”
“What happened?” Carlos asks, glancing at Dana, who's still at the counter, talking to a guy who must be Big Rico. He's smiling indulgently, like maybe he's got kids of his own at home or something.
“Giant buzzards attacked a few months ago,” Cecil shrugs. “He got carried off. I'm glad you came.”
“Really?” Carlos tries to contain his smile. Grinning like a lunatic isn't going to make him look cute.
“Yeah,” Cecil says. “Big Rico has white noise generators, the Sheriff's Secret Police can't hear us here. You like science, right? You're good at it?”
“I guess,” Carlos says, not sure where this is going. His stomach sinks a little. Does Cecil need help with his homework or something?
“I need your help,” Cecil says, leaning in again. His has very intense eyes. “I need your help testing some DNA that I found.”
“That you—found? Do you mean like, hair or something?” Carlos doesn't know how to do that. Anna might be able to show him. She knows how to do a lot of things.
“A vial of blood,” Cecil says, still the picture of calm. “I found it in my mom's jewelery box. Which, I know, pretty normal, no reason to freak out, right? But it's exactly like the vial of my baby blood that she keeps. It's mounted on the same kind of necklace chain and everything. But it's not my blood.”
Carlos is trying to think of what to say when Dana comes bouncing back, with a pizza on a serving plate. Big Rico is following her, and hands around paper plates to each of them. “Big Rico made it early!” Dana chirps. “Because he said he didn't want me to hit anyone if they didn't like my toppings.”
“I had to use bleach on the bloodstains last time,” Big Rico says, proudly. “This little tyke is going to show them all one day, you just watch.” He tugs on one of Dana's pigtails and leaves, ambling back behind the counter.
Cecil grabs two slices of pizza and puts them on Dana's plate. “Chew this time,” he tells her. “You don't want to choke and die and leave your little brother with a ghost instead of a sister.”
“He's not even here yet,” Dana grumbles, but she chews each bite anyway.
Carlos takes a piece of pizza, sits across from Cecil and Dana, and eats.
He knew it wasn't a date, anyway.
Anna doesn't even ask why he needs access to a high-level laboratory, just hands him a key to the science building of Night Vale Community College and a user manual. “Why do you even have this?” Carlos can't help asking.
“I am the president of the Science Club,” Anna says. “Just go after seven, nobody should be there by that time.”
Carlos calls Cecil and lets him know. “What do you want me to check for?” Carlos asks, like he has any idea what he's doing anyway. He's parked outside the building now, waiting for the janitor to clear out.
The clouds overhead are moving in distinct, almost sentient, ways. They form into an elephant, a narwhal, a sunflower. Carlos watches them and wonder why it is a place like this, where everything is horrifying all the time, gets to have the most wonderful things he's ever seen.
“I have some of my mother's hair,” Cecil says. “Could you just—check if she has another kid, or something? She wouldn't carry anyone else's blood.”
“Okay,” Carlos says, and flips to the index of the manual Anna gave him. Helpfully, there's a section labeled “Paternity Testing.” It's just a picture of a machine and the words “press the button,” but it's enough.
Carlos is pretty sure that's not how DNA testing works, in the real world. But it's enough to help Cecil.
By the time Cecil shows up, on foot, everyone has left the building. Carlos uses Anna's keys to let them in, and Anna's directions to get them to the lab. Everything in it is silver and gleaming, much better than a community college should have.
“Do you have the, uh, samples?” Carlos asks, trying to sound official. Cecil reaches into his pocket and brings out a small vial of red liquid on a golden chain. Then he opens his backpack and digs out a hairbrush. He hands both to Carlos, gingerly.
The machine from the manual is just sitting on the counter. Carlos clears his throat and goes over to it. There are two little drawers labeled One and Two. He opens them and puts a strand or two of hair in the first drawer. It makes a noise like 'snurk' when he closes it.
This part isn't so easy. He doesn't really like blood. Carlos takes a deep breath and uncorks the vial, pours a few drops into the second drawer, which seems to hum in pleasure when he shuts it. There's a big red button on the side of the machine.
Obeying the manual, Carlos presses it. The machine starts to whir encouragingly.
“Now what?” Cecil asks, and Carlos jumps.
“I don't know,” he admits. “We wait, I guess? I don't—this isn't really science, this is just a weird machine. I haven't done this before.”
Cecil hops up onto one of the pentagonal lab tables. He braces his elbows on his thighs and leans forward a little. “Thank you,” he says. “For doing this. I appreciate it.”
“It's fine,” Carlos says. He looks at the machine, pokes it a little. It beeps at him. It looks like a metal breadbox. “Why do you think your mom has another kid?”
“She's been strange the last few months,” Cecil says. “Ever since I started at the radio station, I guess. And when I found the necklace—it's exactly like the one with my blood. Even the bottles are the same shape.”
“You could just ask her,” Carlos suggests, but Cecil shakes his head.
“If she wanted me to know, if it was safe for me to know, I would. But I can't just ignore it, not when I'm already in it. I'm going to be a journalist, a thirst for the truth is in my bones.” He pauses, then adds, “or my blood, I don't know where they inserted the thirst for truth.”
“Cecil--” Carlos starts, but the machine gives a decisive ding. There's paper coming out of it, from where Carlos couldn't say, but it's printing results.
He rips the paper off the machine and reads what it says. Just one sentence. Two words.
“Does 'it's Kevin' mean anything to you?” Carlos asks, but Cecil just shakes his head.
“I'll ask my mom,” Cecil says. “I need to know. I'll ask her tomorrow.”
“Do you want a ride home?” Carlos asks, hating the sad, set look on Cecil's face. It's stupid to get so worked up over a boy he barely knows.
“Sure,” Cecil says. “Thanks, that would be neat.”
It's dark out. The sun sets quickly in Night Vale. The moon is very bright overhead, and there is nobody on the road. Cecil is dark blue in the night, in Carlos's passenger seat, and when he glances over he wonders how he could have ever thought this boy wasn't beautiful.
“You're really cool,” Cecil says quietly when Carlos pulls into his driveway. Carlos can't help laughing a little—nobody in the history of time has ever mistaken Carlos for being cool before. “You are,” Cecil insists. “I just—thanks.”
He climbs out of the car. Carlos waits until he's inside before he leaves.
The phone rings shrilly eight times before Carlos wakes up enough to answer. “What?” he grunts, not caring about manners at five o'clock in the morning.
“Street Cleaning Day,” Anna says, hushed, like she's hiding. The words should have no meaning for Carlos. Instead, they send a shiver of fear down his spine, make him sit up.
“If you leave now you can make it to my house, they don't come down my street because of my defenses.”
“I have to go to the mountains,” Carlos says. Street Cleaning Day means the Mountaineering Club's trip. What was he thinking? He gets out of bed and starts packing. What do people take to the mountains? Socks, plenty of socks.
“Don't be an idiot,” Anna snaps. “You'll be safer at my house, they go past the high school early.”
“I signed up,” Carlos protests, deciding if he'll need textbooks. He could do homework tonight, but they might be heavy on the hike. He's not good at hiking to start with.
“Oh,” Anna says, suddenly sly. “This is about Cecil.”
“It's about Cecil,” Carlos agrees, too tired to protest. “I'll see you soon, okay?”
“If you don't get street cleaned,” Anna sniffs, and hangs up.
Carlos goes to knock on his dad's door before he leaves for the high school, still too early. “Dad, it's Street Cleaning Day,” he says. His father is already awake, doing his morning pushups. He looks at Carlos, confused, then seems to remember what that means in Night Vale.
“I'll call the school and tell them you're sick,” he says, already moving for the phone.
“No, I've got Mountaineering Club,” Carlos says. “They do this every year, leave until it's over, whatever it is.”
“I don't want you going out there for some boy,” his dad says, but he looks appeased. “Every year?”
“Practically the whole high school,” Carlos confirms, and his dad throws up his hands.
“Go, go,” he says, and Carlos does.
It looks like an ordinary day when he's driving to school. Maybe a little more empty on the road than usual, but not deserted. When he gets to school, though, there are six yellow buses waiting in the parking lot. Cecil is standing outside one of them, dressed in combat fatigues.
“Good, you're here,” Cecil says when Carlos arrives at the front of the line for the bus. He checks Carlos's name off and shoots him a quick smile, but that's all there's time for. Carlos sits on the bus, next to Lucas from Science Club. He's asleep against the window, snoring a little.
Cecil sits next to Steve Carlsberg at the front of the bus, right behind the driver. Carlos shouldn't be surprised. They're best friends, he's just some new kid who did a DNA test.
Over the next few hours, Carlos learns some new things.
The Mountaineering Club sings bus songs.
Lucas doesn't react well to sudden bus songs when he's asleep.
His nose does not break easily, but it can still hurt.
Cecil and Steve Carlsberg are close enough friends to fall asleep on top of each other, with elbows in each others' guts and heads on each others' shoulders.
The bus comes in sight of the mountains a few hours later, Carlos isn't sure exactly how long. His watch broke sometime in the first week in Night Vale during a Science Club meeting where they were trying to build their own clock. All of their watches broke.
“I've never seen a mountain,” Carlos tells Lucas, staring up at it. “How is this mountain just in the middle of the desert, anyway?”
“It's the mountain,” Lucas says, and shrugs. “Come on, let's go.” He charges ahead to join the rest of the group, who are listening to Steve Carlsberg speak.
“--so stick with your Mountaineering Buddy,” Steve says. “And remember to hydrate! Does everyone have a Mountaineering Buddy?”
Lucas's arm shoots out and he grabs Carlos by the shoulder. Around him, everyone else is doing the same thing, grabbing the person they're standing next to. Cecil is grabbing Steve, up at the front of the group.
And they hike.
It's a nice mountain, Carlos decides, somewhere in the first hour. Not too steep, plenty of wildlife to look at. Green, somehow, here in the middle of flat, dry land. It's nice to walk, and be away from whatever is going on back in Night Vale.
The third hour, Carlos wants to kill whoever invented mountains. His legs ache, he has a mosquito bite on his neck, and Lucas keeps humming the Davy Crocket song.
At the end of the fourth hour, the hike stops. “It takes forever to make camp,” Lucas explains. He's sitting on a rock. Carlos is collapsed on the ground next to the rock. “Even with the bottomless backpack.”
Bottomless backpack. Okay, Carlos is too tired to think about that. There is a bottomless backpack. He is just going to accept that as a fact and move on.
“Dude,” Lucas says. “You look like you're about to die. Chill, I'll go get our tent.”
Carlos remains on the ground while Lucas gets a tent—presumably from the bottomless backpack—and sets it up. He does it quickly. But he's been in the Mountaineering Club before. Carlos has not. Carlos is a physically unfit slug who should have stuck with the Boy Scouts instead of insisting he wanted to go to Kumon.
By the time it's dark, and campfires are being lit up and down the mountain, Carlos feels like he can move again. He finds the campfire that Lucas is at and plops down on the ground. Someone hands him a skewer with a marshmallow on the end.
“I've got the Hershey's,” Cecil says from the left, and Carlos nearly jumps out of his skin. Cecil smiles at him. Steve Carlsberg is on Cecil's other side. His marshmallow is on fire.
“Thanks,” Carlos says. He is acutely aware of Cecil at his side as he makes his s'more. Cecil breaks the chocolate bar in half and puts it on a graham cracker for him, uses the other half to smoosh the gooey toasted marshmallow down and make a sandwich.
Carlos eats it and doesn't stare at the way the fire flickers across Cecil's face, making him look older, mysterious, like someone Carlos could meet in two years at college.
Someone who maybe would be interested in him, too. Instead of Carlos just pining, like an idiot.
“I'm going to get more graham crackers,” Carlos says, not bothering to check if it's a good lie. He's away the fire, in the sparse trees of the mountain, when he notices that he's not alone.
“Mountaineering Buddy,” Cecil says, quietly, from behind him. “You can't just go off into the woods alone.”
“You're not my Mountaineering Buddy,” Carlos snaps. “You're Steve's. Why don't you just go back over there?”
Cecil frowns, confused. “I—why are you mad?”
“I'm not mad,” Carlos says, aware that he's snarling.
Cecil takes a step closer to him. “You are,” he says. “I don't get it, what's wrong?”
A lot of things are wrong. Carlos takes a deep breath, counts to ten, tries to calm down a little. Cecil is looking at him, wounded, and Carlos hates that, even if it's Cecil's fault that Carlos wants to scream until the entire mountain goes quiet.
But it's not Cecil's fault. He didn't ask to have Carlos like him. And even if he did, it wouldn't be his fault. It takes all the anger out of Carlos, makes him just feel—tired. Just really tired.
“Okay,” Cecil agrees, cautiously. “Listen, I talked to my mom. About the DNA test.”
“What did she say?” Carlos asks, but Cecil sends a nervous glance to the side, where another campfire is flickering, and dark humanoid shapes are moving around it. Just more students, but in the dark they seem terrifying, strange, malevolent.
“We can talk in my tent, later,” Cecil says. “Steve wants to try to flirt with Hannah White after s'mores, so there'll be a little time.”
“I'll meet you,” Carlos promises, and Cecil smiles at him like the sun going up.
“We should go back,” he says, and turns around, heads back for the campfire.
Carlos stands there for a second, wondering exactly how screwed he is.
Steve Carlsberg does go and try to hit on Hannah White. Carlos watches him talking to the volleyball captain, and waits for a minute before making his way over to Cecil's tent. Lucas is already asleep in their tent, and Carlos would be, too, except—Cecil asked him to come.
Cecil's tent is nearby, set weirdly apart. Everyone else pitched theirs in neat rows, but Cecil is a little ways off, just next to a small, clear stream.
There's no way to knock on a tent. Carlos just grits his teeth and unzips the front flap. Cecil is inside, sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“I talked to my mom,” Cecil says once Carlos is inside, with the flap zipped up behind him. He's whispering. Carlos sits down and scoots close, so he can hear.
Cecil is wearing plaid pajama bottoms and a shirt that says Night Vale Scorpions. His arms are very skinny, frailer than they seem in regular clothes.
“What did she say?” Carlos asks.
Cecil grimaces, and says, “She said she has no idea who Kevin is. But she—Carlos, I think she was lying. My mom never lies to me.”
“So why do you think she is now?” Carlos used to think that his dad never lied to him, but then the whole reveal of the secret government agency happened. They've been getting better about it.
“Just a feeling,” Cecil says, shrugging unhappily. Carlos could put his hand down, cover Cecil's, comfort him. But that isn't something that people do when they'd rather keep talking to their crushes instead of being humiliated.
“Could you ask your dad?” Carlos isn't sure if Cecil has a father, honestly. He doesn't live with the Palmers if he exists. But it's worth a shot.
“Father got taken by the Sheriff's Secret Police when I was a baby,” Cecil says, with a hint of pride. “We think he might be among them, now.”
“Oh.” Carlos doesn't know what to say, except, “My parents split up a few years ago.”
“I'm sorry,” Cecil says. Then he says, “You're not like other people, Carlos. Not at all.”
As if Cecil isn't the one who's different, and strange, and maybe spectacular. As if he doesn't understand that at all.
And that's when Carlos loses his mind, because he grabs Cecil by the shoulders and kisses him. He's halfway through the motion when he starts panicking, before their lips even meet. He's about to pull away when Cecil puts his hands on Carlos's waist, kisses him back.
It's awkward, because they're kneeling in a tent, and Carlos accidentally bites Cecil's lip and makes him gasp, and it is the very best thing to ever happen to Carlos.
“Cecil,” Carlos says, shakily, pulling away. Cecil makes an impatient noise and brings his hand up to Carlos's head, winds fingers through his hair, kisses him again.
“We can't,” Cecil pants a few minutes later, when Carlos is dazed and glassy-eyed.
Carlos feels something heavy and leaden plop into his stomach. “You don't like boys.” Or maybe he just doesn't like Carlos.
“I like boys—I like you, Carlos.” Cecil's fingers tighten in Carlos's hair, tugging a little too hard. “But we're not allowed to date outsiders until we have nineteen points on our Alert Citizen cards, and I've only got ten.”
“We'll keep it a secret,” Carlos says, frantically. The feel of Cecil's hand in his hair is unlike anything he's ever felt, every nerve sparking, as new as Cecil's shoulders under his hands, like the first time Cecil grabbed his hand to pull him through a wall. “We don't—we don't have to tell people.”
“There's no such thing as secrets, Carlos,” Cecil says, pulling back, untangling them, and Carlos's heart bleeds. “Not in Night Vale.”
The ride back to town the next day is horrible. Everything is awful. Even the absence of bus songs does nothing to cheer Carlos up.
Cecil sits in the same seat as yesterday, next to Steve Carlsberg again, and doesn't look back at Carlos the whole ride.
It's dusk when they get back to Night Vale. And it would be interesting, because the time spent going to the mountain and coming back from the mountain shouldn't be so vastly different, but all Carlos can think about is Cecil saying “we can't.”
Carlos drives home. He parks in front of his house and hates it, hates the way it's between two houses that look exactly the same, like this is some normal suburban street instead of Night Vale, where there are no secrets but he still doesn't know anything.
His dad takes one look at him when he walks inside and makes a phone call.
“Cancel the mission,” he says to whoever his partners in government-sponsored espionage are. “I don't care. No, I really don't. Elliot Strex can wait for one night. My son is heartbroken.”
“I'm not heartbroken,” Carlos says when his dad hangs up, and he just rolls his eyes and opens his arms. Carlos steps inside and buries his face in his father's shoulder. “I hate this stupid town.”
“I know, mijo,” his dad says, hugging him tight. “I know.”
Cecil ambushes Carlos on his way to Ancient Hieroglyphs, pulls him into an empty classroom and shuts the door. Carlos isn't really in the mood—seeing Cecil still makes him want to run into the forest, but there's no forest to run to.
“What are you doing?” Carlos demands, shoving Cecil away. “The bell could ring any minute.”
Cecil opens his mouth, says nothing, closes it again. He looks lost, and when he does speak, there's a strain in it. “I—we're still friends, right?”
“We weren't friends before,” Carlos says. “We weren't—we never hung out, you never even looked at me until that stupid project.”
Cecil's hand comes out, reaches for Carlos again, but Carlos steps away. “We're friends,” he says. “It's so easy to talk to you, Carlos, and you understand things. I don't even talk to Steve the way I talk to you.”
Carlos doesn't understand a damn thing about this town, or Cecil. He has no idea what he's doing. “I have to go to class,” he says, and tries to shove past Cecil into the hallway, but Cecil blocks him.
“Will you come over after school?” he asks. “I found something. About Kevin.”
Carlos hesitates. He doesn't want to go over to Cecil's house, and sit across from him at his kitchen table, and know he's not allowed to kiss Cecil even though Cecil wants him to.
“Yeah,” he says. “Meet me out front, I'll drive.”
Cecil's mother isn't home, or at least she isn't visible.
“You don't have to be at the radio station today?” Carlos asks as Cecil leads the way into the house, not towards the kitchen this time, but up a flight of stairs.
“Leonard told me to stay away until I sort out my problems, because Station Management could smell my discontent and it was making them hungry,” Cecil says. He sounds disgruntled. “I'd rather be there. It's the only place that always cheers me up.”
He opens a door and goes inside a room. Carlos follows. It's Cecil's bedroom, and Carlos is startled for a minute about how normal it looks. Blue walls, a window, a twin bed, dark wooden furniture. There are even band posters. They look like band posters, anyway, even if Carlos has never heard of Mostly Sunny or Extended Forecast. There are guitars on them.
“What did you want to tell me about Kevin?” Carlos asks, instead of letting himself think about how this is Cecil's bedroom.
“I found this,” Cecil says, and ducks under his bed. He emerges a second later, hair mussed, holding a photograph. “It was in the crawlspace buried in a sealed glass jar.”
Carlos takes the photo, and just—stares. Two boys, young, standing on the front porch of a house. They're wearing matching sweaters.
“You have a twin,” he says after a minute. But not quite a twin. There's something sinister about this boy, the one who looks just like Cecil and yet doesn't. “How do you know it's Kevin?”
“Look on the back,” Cecil says, excited, waving his hands. “Look, look!”
Carlos flips it around, and the description on the back, in spiky handwriting, says Cecil and Kevin, first day of school.
“You have a brother,” Carlos says, and Cecil shrugs, his triumphant grin gone. He's seventeen, just Carlos's age, and he actually likes Carlos back, which has never happened before, and--
“Right, fuck this,” Carlos decides, and kisses the worry off of Cecil's face.
It's surprisingly easy to keep it a secret, all of Cecil's warnings about mind screening notwithstanding. It helps that they're both still busy all the time. Cecil has to go to the radio station nearly every day, and investigate his brother's disappearance without igniting suspicion.
Carlos has the Science Club, and something resembling a social life thanks to Anna's intervention. He's also been spending more time with his dad, because whoever “Elliot Strex” is, he's not moving on his plot to overthrow the world or whatever. Things have been quiet.
In the last few weeks, Carlos has learned these things:
Cecil will talk, forever if uninterrupted, about beautiful things, things that sound like poetry, things about the stars and human beings.
Cecil likes to put his hands in Carlos's hair when they kiss.
Cecil's bed, even though it looks tiny, is actually big enough for both of them if they squeeze together.
“I think I'm getting close to finding out where Kevin is, and maybe why I don't remember him,” Cecil says, one Tuesday afternoon when they're lying there, catching their breath. “I don't know exactly what's happening yet, but there's this new development that's been under construction for a couple of years, and it's becoming an actual town soon. It's called Desert Bluffs. I think the town is involved somehow.”
“I've never heard of it,” Carlos says.
“Steve is really annoyed because they're going to be on our game schedule next year, and he doesn't want to have another team to play against,” Cecil says. “It just gives me a funny feeling. There's this company backing the whole project, that's pretty shady, right? It's called StrexCorp.”
Ice runs down Carlos's spine. “Strex. You said Strex?” He sits up, and that makes Cecil sit up, too.
“Yeah, that's what I said,” Cecil says. “Why? Have you heard of it?”
“You need to stop looking into this,” Carlos says, because he's suddenly, acutely aware that they are out of their depth. If Carlos's dad thinks this Strex guy is a threat, Cecil can't handle it.
“Why? What's going on?” Cecil asks, but Carlos can't tell him. There's not a lot of point in having a secret government agency if people's sons go around talking about it.
So he kisses Cecil, because that's been a good distraction technique so far.
It's nice, kissing Cecil, Carlos decides. Especially when Cecil flexes his arms and rolls them over—he's stronger than he looks—even though Carlos is sort of pressed half against the wall, which is cold. But Cecil is warm against his front, and sort of presses down on top of him, and that's good, good in a lot of ways.
Cecil seems to notice that Carlos is hard just when Carlos is about to make an excuse and go to the bathroom to readjust. He stops moving, draws away from Carlos. His face is very close. He has freckles on his eyelids.
“Do you want to?” Cecil asks, quietly, so quietly that Carlos feels it more than hears it. He has to gasp in air, lungs suddenly burning.
“If you do,” he says. “We don't have to if you don't want.”
“I want to,” Cecil says, biting his lip. Carlos can't help leaning forward again, kissing him.
Cecil's hand dips under Carlos's shirt, and he jumps. Cecil's always a little cold. He presses his palm on Carlos's stomach, spreads his fingers out. Trails it down to where his hipbone sticks out.
“I think we should wait,” Cecil says, and Carlos goes rigid.
“Are you okay?” He pulls away, mourns the loss of Cecil's hand on his hip, panics until he sees that Cecil is smiling.
“I'm fine,” Cecil says. “Carlos, I'm fine. And I want to, I really do. But my mom is going to be home soon. Probably.”
Cecil's mom hasn't been around for about five days, as far as Carlos can tell. Cecil always says she'll probably be home soon.
“We could hurry,” Carlos says, not sure if this is past the bad point of pushing it.
But Cecil strokes Carlos's hair and says, “I want it to be special. I want it to matter for you.” Because Cecil has had sex but Carlos hasn't, and he thinks maybe teenage boys aren't supposed to feel the way he does right now, like there are tiny jellyfish in his veins, swimming, electric.
“ And I have an appointment with a man who says he can use indigenous magic to track Kevin. I'm meeting him in like an hour,” Cecil says, rolling off the bed. He lands lightly, like a cat.
“Oh.” There's relief, briefly, before Carlos remembers about Strex. “You can't meet him. You can't.”
Cecil scowls at him, and the jellyfish evaporate. “You can't tell me not to go and not tell me why. I'm a journalist, Carlos, and he's my brother.”
“You're not a journalist, you're a radio station intern,” Carlos argues, standing up. He wants to grab Cecil's shirt, keep him here, as close to safe as possible, but that's a fight he would lose.
“It's my fate,” Cecil says, in that strange, endless voice that he gets sometimes. “We've all got the future inside of us already, Carlos. This is just me starting mine today.”
“You can't just say things like that,” Carlos says, because for all the mystical stones or whatever say Cecil isn't going to die, this place is horrible and harsh, and this Strex man scares people much more competent than them. People who actually know what they're doing.
Cecil softens, reaches out. “I'll be careful,” he says, and kisses Carlos.
Carlos doesn't register the pounding noise, or the footsteps, until Steve Carlsberg is saying, “Hey, Cecil, dude—whoa.”
Cecil pulls away abruptly, and Carlos can only see how he goes still, shocked—scared. “Steve,” he says, pleading already, while Carlos is still trying to get his bearings. “It was the first time, don't—we don't need to report it, it won't happen again.”
Steve takes one step back, holds up his hands like he's surrendering. “If that's true, there's no penalty, dude. I just—you know I can't just not.”
“If you love me, don't,” Cecil blurts, and Steve stutters to a halt. Carlos can't do anything but stand there and wonder if this is what it looks like to watch a heart break.
“It's the law,” Steve says. “It's the law, Cecil.”
“I'll never forgive you,” Cecil says, and Carlos's heart stutters.
“It's the law,” Steve says again. He turns around, runs out of the room, and Cecil lets out a sound that is hideously like a sob.
“Cecil--” Carlos tries, but Cecil thrusts an arm out.
“You need to go,” he says, hoarse. “And I need to go meet this mystic.” He wipes at his eyes, roughly, with his face. “Go home. Don't lock your door, it will just make them angry.”
“Is this one of those things where it's not actually serious, like how being late to class is just a detention, or is this one of those things where it's going to get us killed, like cheating on a quiz?” Carlos asks, not sure, not sure of anything.
“Go home, Carlos,” Cecil says, blank-faced. “I'll call you later.”
Carlos goes home.
Cecil doesn't call.
Carlos isn't sick, so he has to go to school. Even though Cecil hasn't called, and then he isn't in English, and all Carlos wants to do is run to his house and see if he's still there, if the house has been burned away, if Cecil still exists somewhere in space and time.
There is a single blue rose and a white envelope waiting on his desk in chemistry class. The entire class is grouped around, whispering. They go silent when they see him, give him stares appropriate for a deathbed.
“It's a summons to Principal Winchell's office,” Anna says. It's clear that she's being brave from the way people murmur admiringly.
And that is slightly better than what Carlos has been afraid of, a visit from the Town Council, or the Sheriff's Secret Police. He's never seen Cecil afraid before last night. The principal is nothing. He picks up the blue rose and marches out of the classroom.
The door to Principal Winchell's office is pitch black, with a frosted window. Carlos could swear that there are gluttonous figures moving, casting shadows, but when he knocks they disappear.
“Enter,” says a female voice, like a thousand terrible silver bells. Carlos shudders and opens the door.
Principal Winchell is a severe, beautiful, ageless woman with empty eyes and olive skin. “Carlos,” she says. “Sit down.”
Carlos sits in the high-backed chair in front of Principal Winchell's desk. “Is there a problem?” he asks, his dad's voice running through his mind. Don't let them see you're scared, son.
It was weird advice when his dad was an actuary. It makes more sense now.
Principal Winchell sighs heavily. “You and Cecil Palmer have been up to quite some trouble.”
How much does she know? “It was just one time. I don't care what Steve Carlsberg said.”
Principal Winchell waves a hand, brushing away his words. “Don't be coy, please. We've already examined Cecil. We know everything. Two little boys trying to pull one over on a town edict—well, young love. But you went too far when you helped him find his brother.”
“Kevin's real,” Carlos says. He hadn't been sure.
“Not anymore,” Principal Winchell says. She leans back in her chair and steeples her fingers. Stares at him with her empty eyes. “Did you know, Carlos, that Cecil is meant for very important things?”
“He's not meant for anything,” Carlos says, staring back. “He's just a kid.”
“He's not just a kid. He's going to be very important in the coming fight. Elliot Strex is a very dangerous man, and Cecil won't do us any good in the war if he gets himself killed when he's seventeen looking for some lost brother.” She reaches into a drawer and pulls out a single sheet of paper. “You understand, of course, that he's already forgotten all of this. All about you.”
“He hasn't,” Carlos says. “You can't just make him forget.”
“This is Night Vale,” Principal Winchell says. “Do you really think that wiping away less than a few months of memories is difficult for us? Of course, changes had to be made. He was so very angry at Steve Carlsberg. We couldn't just get rid of that, and without a reason, he'll just have to be angry forever. And the radio station. You just had to talk to him about how much he loves it, didn't you?”
They took Steve, Carlos thinks, numb. They took the radio station. What else did they take, besides Carlos?
“The mountains,” Principal Winchell says, smiling ruefully. “That's going to be a bit tougher. You did kiss him there, that makes it more difficult. And he can't go remembering that he was president of a Mountaineering Club, that could trigger something. We'll come up with a solution, though, don't worry.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Carlos asks. In the movies, when the evil mastermind explains the plan, someone ends up dead. He's going to die.
It's not as scary as it should be.
“Because you're not going to remember,” Principal Winchell says. “You're going to sign this agreement--” she pushes the sheet of paper towards him-- “and you're going to forget Cecil Gershwin Palmer. You and your father are going to be gone from this town tonight. Everything about you will cease to exist—your name, your house, everything.”
“I won't sign that,” Carlos says, not even looking down at the paper. He's read Faust. He knows about deals with the devil.
“You will.” Principal Winchell leans across the desk and places a pen on top of the contract. “Because if you sign it, I will leave you one thing. You'll know, in the back of your mind, that Night Vale is interesting. Fascinating. Scientifically, of course. And someday, that thought will let you work your way back here. Maybe by that point you won't mess everything up. You could have Cecil again.”
“He won't remember me,” Carlos says. He seizes onto that thought, because—he could take this deal. If he doesn't, he won't even have this promise, fake as it probably is.
And then—Principal Winchell smiles at him, very sadly. Like someone who maybe lost somebody, a long time ago.
“I wouldn't be so sure,” she says. “It's hard to entirely get rid of that much love. He's from Night Vale, after all. We love deeply here. He'll take one look at you and he'll be right back here.”
“He loves me.” Carlos—this isn't fair, he hasn't gotten to tell Cecil that he loves him, too, he hasn't even gotten to hear Cecil say it.
“Sign the paper,” Principal Winchell says.
Carlos picks up the pen.
“Confidentially,” Principal Winchell says as the door to her office bursts open and three men wearing balaclavas storm in, “I think that I handled this very neatly. I may be moving up in the world very shortly.”
Carlos thought he would be the only one who was excited to be in Night Vale, after all these years of wondering about the place in the back of his mind, but it seems like they're just as excited to have him. They came to his meeting and everything.
An old lady and her very tall friend are pressing a plate of corn muffins into his hands. “Just eat up, dear,” she says. “I'm sure that you'll fit right in.”
“Well, this is the most scientifically interesting community—by far—in the U.S. I'm here to find out just what is going on around here.” He grins, too excited about finally being here to remember to be awkward.
There is a sound like a lovesick sigh from nearby. It sounds like something out of a dream. Like something he's maybe heard before.
When Carlos looks around, nobody is there.