Carlos didn’t intend to call a sex line. It just sort of happened.
He had left that disgustingly loud faculty party early. He hated the damned things, he hated the cheap wine and the forced joviality, but this time he didn’t manage to talk his way out of it. He rarely managed to talk his way out of, or into, anything. Actually, it wasn’t very often that he managed to talk at all, since he preferred to hide either in his lab or in his flat most of the time. He was more useful there, and he knew he was very good at what he did, even if his field of research was so obscure that it took half an hour to explain what it was that he actually did. Well, half an hour if he was talking to someone with a Ph.D. in biochemistry – otherwise it would probably take years.
He was more drunk than he wanted to be, but not drunk enough to forget about the humiliation of failing at proper small talk yet again. Apparently people didn’t care about enzymes as much as he did. Instead, people talked about friends (but he never remembered who broke up with whom) and children (but he could never tell who was pregnant and who just deceptively pregnant-shaped) and politics (but he didn’t know who was running for president) and haircuts (but his own hair was so weird and uncontrollable that people just tended to stare at it). To avoid further missteps, he crammed half of an extraordinarily dry tuna sandwich into his mouth, just to hear a colleague’s pony-tailed girlfriend (he forgot her name) make a comment about how loud he was chewing. He spent the rest of the evening leaning against a wall, slowly sipping can after can of somewhat warm beer, and trying to turn invisible. He stayed until ten, because he didn’t want to be the first one to leave. That would have been like admitting defeat.
When he got back to his small apartment, he felt dizzy and exhausted and annoyed, not in the shape to get any work done, but far too wired to go to bed. He prepared himself for another sleepless night spent sitting cross-legged on the floor, solving Sudoku puzzles until his eyes hurt, just to keep from punching something. He felt in his jacket pocket for the pencil stub he always kept with him, and that was when he found the phone number.
He had discovered the advertisement weeks ago, thumbtacked to the wall of one of the cubicles in the men’s room near his lab in the biochem department’s basement: a printed page with the image of a stylised eye on it, and the slogan – WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE. Underneath the large words in purple, smaller print proclaimed: Call for the time of your life! Our lovely ladies and gorgeous gentlemen are here to satisfy your darkest, strangest desires! We are available all hours of the day, charging modest prices by the minute. The tear-off strips on the bottom of the page sported a local landline number, and Carlos took one, on a whim, and because this weird little ad was the first thing that made him smile in weeks. When he went back to the same cubicle the next day, the piece of paper was gone. He asked his colleagues (well, the people working on the same corridor as him) about the phone sex advertisement on the wall, but they all looked him uncomprehending and a little alarmed. One of them forced out a laugh, apparently thinking it was a very poor joke. So Carlos sidled away, and forgot about the entire thing until his fingers closed around that little scrap of paper.
It was perfect. He felt like shouting, like taking all his embarrassed frustration out on someone before he exploded, but he knew he would never in a thousand years dare to do that to a real person standing in front of him, to someone who could talk back. But there, on the other end of the phone there was some poor man or woman whose job combined the worst aspects of prostitution and telemarketing. And that person was paid not to hang up. He would call, let the whoever was on the other side debase themselves to the keep the call going, he would bask in their pathetic servility, maybe make a few outlandish requests to humiliate them further, then he would hang up. Like a prank call, minus the risk of pissing someone off. Great plan.
He sat down on the sofa that was also his bed, since the living room was also his bedroom and, if fact, the only room in his flat. He dialled the number eagerly, and pressed call. After three rings, someone picked up.
"Welcome… to Night Vale,’ said a voice, and Carlos had to admit that despite its grandiose cheesiness, it sounded quite pleasant. "Which one of our ladies or gentlemen do you require tonight? If you are a first-time caller or suffering from memory loss, allow me to remind you that from 10 pm to 6 am, the available personnel are Lyanne Hart, Steve Carlsberg…"
"You’ll do fine," blurted out Carlos. The voice had a strange lulling effect, and listening to it he felt too close to taking the entire thing seriously. He had to remind himself that he didn’t call this number for enjoyment, he called it to find someone more pathetic than him.
"Very well. My name is Cecil," continued the voice. "How may I address you, kind caller?"
"Carlos," said Carlos, cursing himself for not saying one of his colleagues' names instead.
"Carlos," repeated the voice named Cecil, and Carlos couldn’t help the shudder running down his spine. The way that man said his name, Carlos could imagine him turning it over in his mouth, tasting every separate sound on his tongue. It felt strangely obscene. But the man was a professional, of course he talked like that.
"What would you like to do to me, Carlos?" asked Cecil, and Carlos had to swallow a sneer. This was why he didn’t really miss sex. He liked men’s bodies, he liked women’s bodies, he liked orgasm, but when it came to sex, he couldn’t help but find it a boring, awkward, ridiculous ritual. I say the right things, you do the right things, we both pretend it was far better than it actually was because we feel a vague obligation to boost each other’s self esteem. Pathetic. On the rare occasions he actually ended up in bed with someone, he obediently went through the motions with quiet disappointment. But now there was no one here, and he could let loose.
"Nothing," snapped Carlos gleefully. "I don’t want to do anything to you. You’re not my type. Hey, couldn’t you, um, talk about me having sex with someone far hotter than you?"
"Very well," said the voice, taking this in stride. "Do you have someone specific in mind? Most callers prefer celebrities, with politicians coming in a close second."
"I don’t care," answered Carlos. "Just make him very muscular. And, um, blond hair."
"He is standing right in front of you," said Cecil, a little awkwardly. "He is looking at you, and he knows you want him. He is wearing a linen shirt, and he slowly starts unbuttoning it. Are you looking at him? He is reaching inside his shirt to tease a nipple, and…"
"Wait, wait, stop," interrupted Carlos. He wanted to get a reaction from Cecil, to hear humiliation, annoyance, anger, and his last request didn’t seem to do the trick. "Give me some context! Where are we? I can’t get into this without some background information."
There was silence on the other end of the phone line.
"Come on, tell me where we are," demanded Carlos. "Bedroom? Kitchen? Bathroom? In the middle of Times Square? What sort of phone sex worker are you? Come on!"
There was another long moment of silence. Carlos reckoned he managed to bully Cecil speechless, and prepared to put the phone down with an ill-defined sense of disappointment, when the man finally spoke.
"The full moon hanging over the desert wastes reminds you of the eye of some enormous primordial beast," he said. "It is the only source of light for miles and miles around, and the darkness around you is almost complete. You only see the pitch-black outlines of the dunes, and the pitch-black outline of your own hands. They told you the desert would be cold at night, cold enough to kill, and you wish, you desperately and fervently wish that were true. But you have been walking for days now, and despite the night-time you are surrounded by scorching, blistering heat. You are thirsty. Your skin feels hot and dry, as if it betrayed your living body to become a part of the dead desert instead. You dream of water, in glasses and pitchers and lakes and brooks, you remember its splashing sound and its clean, empty taste. But you won’t see water ever again, you realise, as you realise that you will die here, that you will stop and fall and wither until you are as dry as the sand. That is when you look up at the next dune, and you see him."
Carlos made a little noncommittal sound. He had no idea what to think. That was not what he expected from a phone sex worker, that was strange, that was downright bizarre, and it was his cue to laugh and mock and ridicule. He would do that, he would definitely do it, but for the moment he wanted to listen to Cecil’s story for just a little bit longer.
"You blink, and blink again," Cecil continued. "You rub your dry, tearless eyes, but the outline of the lone figure is still there. You scamper up the side of the dune, your feet sinking into the silty mixture of pebbles and sand up to the ankle, but you don’t care, you don’t care that the cloud of sand you kicked up gets into your nose, your mouth, your eyes, stinging and aching, because you have to reach him before he goes. And then you are there, standing before him, and he smiles at you lazily, like he is glad that you came. You see that his feet are bare, and so is his chest, and a pair of worn jeans are slung low on his hips. His hair is stuck into spiky clumps, and beads of sweat are running down his neck to gather in the little indentation above his collarbone, and you watch them trickle on, marking capricious parallel lines down his chest, down his abdomen, but before you could stop them, they disappear under the waistband of his jeans. As the moonlight hits him, he almost glistens – he looks cool and wet and you need to touch him. You want to, don’t you?"
Cecil fell silent, waiting for an answer, and Carlos was thinking about what to say. It would have to be something clever, something cutting, spiteful. It would have to be something that shut this whole thing down, that made it clear that he didn’t take it seriously and that he had absolutely no intention of stroking himself to orgasm while an absolute stranger was crooning absurdities into his ear.
"I…er," groaned Carlos finally.
"He knew you wouldn’t be able to help yourself," said Cecil, with a thread of warm amusement in his voice. "You lean in, and taste the skin of his neck, your tongue flat against the fluttering pulse. He tastes like saltwater and port towns, he tastes like seagulls sound, and you want to drown in him. You bend down to mouth at his collarbone, and follow the little droplets down, down until you are kneeling on the silt, nuzzling against the plane of his stomach, and as you rub your cheek against him, you can feel two strong hands fist into your hair, pulling hard."
Carlos had difficulty stifling a gasp. The rational part of his mind warned him that he was far past the point where he could pretend to be unaffected, but it was overruled by the part of him saying that yes, he could continue to pretend this did nothing for him as long as Cecil kept talking, and he would deal with the consequences sometime later.
"He forces your head up and drags you back to your feet and kisses you on the mouth. You kiss him back ferociously, like you are trying to drink him, because nothing else will satisfy the thirst and the burning. And as you are kissing he pulls you into him, until your hot, dry body is flush against his, and rocking against him you can feel he is hard in his jeans, rubbing up against you with every movement. He bears you down without breaking the kiss, you are lying flat on your back on the warm silt, with his weight pressing on top of you, and you can feel how hard he is for you, how good he will be for you. He yanks your hair so hard you see the stars of a constellation you never knew about, and he kicks your legs open to press in against you. You want him."
Carlos didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. He was not sure when he had started palming himself through his pants.
"You want him," repeated the voice insistently. "You want him like water."
"I want him," blurted out Carlos, quick and clumsy and undignified.
"You are lying there underneath him, naked and exposed, and he slides a hand between the two of you, to finally touch you. You arch into the hand wrapping around you, pushing up frantically, but he just smiles. His smile becomes wider and wider, until it reaches his ears, and his teeth are white and sharp and there are many of them, and his hand is tight around your cock as he throws his head back and laughs. His laughter creaks like a badly oiled metal hinge, and it sends an ice-cold shiver through your body. And then, still laughing, the apparition vanishes, its laughing head, the sinews of its neck, its strong arms, its taut stomach, its erection digging into your thigh, its hand still on your cock crumbling back into the sand and silt it always was."
Carlos couldn’t help a vague sound of confused disappointment. He could have asked what was happening and why, he could have made threats, but all he wanted was hear to Cecil’s voice, so he could imagine he could feel those ghostly hands on him again.
"You are alone in the desert," Cecil continued relentlessly. "You’ve always been. You should probably get up and try to walk. If you stay here, you can only hope the night vultures get you before your veins slowly dry out. But you are still naked, still lying on your back on the silt. You are still hard, aching for the hands, the mouth, the cock of someone who was nothing more than a mirage. Let’s get up and try to walk."
"I can’t," panted Carlos into the phone. "I can’t." He was so hard it hurt, and his bewildered anger towards that impossible, infuriating voice only made it worse.
"You rut into you own dry, sandy hand," continued Cecil, his voice still as calm and unaffected as it was in the beginning. "But your skin feels just as hot and rough as the desert, and you know that if you couldn’t cry, you can’t come either. There is nothing left in you, and you are on your back, begging for release with your fist around your cock, but nothing happens."
"Please," whimpered Carlos, with his eyes shut tight, his right hand down his boxers and his left clutching the phone in a deathgrip, far beyond caring what he sounded like. "Please let me. Please make me."
"Suddenly, you hear a roll of thunder," said Cecil. "Then a slight, uncertain wind awakens, bringing the smell of lightning and lemons, and you can feel the first large drops of rain on your skin. Every drop lands like a cool, wet kiss, and you can feel them caressing and tickling your chest, your thighs, your face. Some of them fall into your mouth, dissolve on your tongue. Everywhere they land, the sand is washed off and your skin comes alive, demanding more. And more comes, the rain falling down in earnest, until you are utterly drenched, slick with it, shaking with delight and want as you gasp for breath through the sheets of water criss-crossing the air."
"Yes," grunted Carlos, desperately close to the edge.
"Yes," echoed Cecil. "Yes, the rain has washed you clean, and yes, it still keeps falling, and your hand is wet and your cock is wet and your hand is on your cock, your back is on the sand, and your are staring up at the lights shining through the rainclouds. You can come now, Carlos."
Cecil said his name like a word of dark and incomprehensible magic, like a command, and Carlos was overwhelmed, lightning-struck, Carlos was coming hard. His vision went white and he slumped back onto the sofa, gasping and shaking through the aftershocks, while the voice named Cecil whispered calming nonsense into the phone he was still clutching to his ear.
Still trembling a little, he struggled out of his pants, and clumsily tried to wipe himself with his some tissues. He did not want to hang up just yet, but he had no idea how he could talk to Cecil now, after all this happened, and he could already feel his throat closing up, almost choking with embarrassment, when Cecil spoke again.
"You have walked into the desert, looking for gold and diamonds," he stated, in his nonchalant tone. "You will walk out of it, having found only water. The rain didn’t give you what you wanted, but did it give you what you need?"
"I don’t know if there is a difference," said Carlos, smiling at the absurdity of it all.
"We will see," he answered. "But for now – good night, Carlos. Good night."
The other man hung up the phone. Carlos knew he should have felt ashamed, terrified, disgusted, angry – any number of things related to the fact that he got slightly drunk, decided to prank call a sex line and somehow ended up jerking off furiously to an unearthly monologue by a weirdo with the sexiest voice on earth, until he came all over his only presentable pair of pants. He also knew he should probably muster up some sadness over the fact that despite nobody touching him, or even being in the same room as him, this was the best sex he could remember having.
But the smell of lightning and lemons still hovered around the room, and Carlos felt like his limbs were turned into rainwater and his thoughts washed away by flash floods, and no matter how hard he reached for the panic, it simply wasn’t there. So he pulled his chequered comforter over himself, turned towards the wall, and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.