Carlos first hears the voices when he is eleven years old.
It's early morning, and the light spilling in from the high window on the bathroom wall falls over his shoulder, runs out in front of him in a long rectangle. He is huddled against the corner of the wall and the counter. He can smell breakfast from here, and he knows that the school bus will leave in ten minutes whether or not he's on it. And he does not want to be on it.
Yesterday was his first day of seventh grade, and he has no wish to repeat the experience. No one said it to his face, but he heard them in every hall, in every classroom -- beaner, queer, wetback, fag. And every face looking back at him in the cafeteria was white, every table full when he asked to sit there. He ate lunch in the library.
At his last school they had an assembly about bullying. "Bullies feed on attention," the principal said. "If you ignore them, they'll go away."
Carlos is as close to invisible as he can be. How much more does he have to ignore them?
get up and go to school, if you don't go they'll think they won, get up and go, get up and fight
There's a voice in his head, and it isn't his own. It's a nice voice, confident and authoritative like Robocop or the Terminator. It's the voice of the man Carlos wants to be.
Who are you? he thinks.
A friend. The voice sounds kind. And Carlos has never had a friend before. Now go eat breakfast.
The other three come later. Two of them bicker like brothers, the siblings Carlos never had, and the other two are more like an old married couple, kindly uncles who are always there for him. All four are men.
Carlos finds a place for himself in high school, at long last, and these four friends cheer him on, give him help, are there for him when his other friends are not.
Chemistry, tenth grade: The other kids in class slack off on their experiments, talk and flirt and pass notes, and Carlos burns his thumb on the Bunsen burner. He's the only one still working. He curses and dives for the sink.
Jim -- the first, the oldest, his best and closest friend -- is already talking.
Run some cold water over it. At least a minute. You'll be fine.
The sink sputters and chokes for a minute before the water begins to flow, and Carlos's thumb feels like the skin is shrinking to the bone, but it's going to be all right.
Biology, eleventh grade: They count off into groups of four for the fetal pig dissection. Carlos doesn't know any of the people he ends up with; two girls and a boy, all three of them white. Their lab manual is ten pages long. They're never going to finish it.
Carlos grabs a pair of latex gloves and one of every tool the lab manual says they'll need. A metal tray with a pig lying in state on a foam rubber sheet.
"Ew," says one of the girls when he gets back to the lab table. The other girl elbows her. The boy looks interested.
Carlos doesn't know what to say. He never does.
Thomas speaks up; second-oldest, Jim's counterpart, calm and collected. Tell one of them to get gloves. You'll need help.
Carlos adjusts his glasses and addresses himself to the boy. "Go get some gloves. We'll be done faster if you help me."
"Sure." The boy has green eyes and long dark eyelashes, and his gaze lingers a little too long on Carlos before he goes to get gloves. His name, Carlos remembers, is Nate.
Well, it's a start.
Anatomy, twelfth grade: It's the most terrifying field trip he's ever been on. The cadaver dissection was fascinating, but this is worse. He was up last night with his throat burning with acid, unable to sleep, thinking of all the things that could go wrong.
Carlos is almost exactly two years younger than everyone in his grade. He has always been the youngest in the class, the smallest, the furthest behind emotionally. He can't drive. His mother is giving him a ride to the place.
His throat is tight and tingling with the promise of acid. He should never have signed up for this field trip. It's some sort of conference for science teachers with a bunch of people presenting their research, and he's one of maybe five kids in the class who signed up. He looks fourteen on a good day, his voice squeaks at all the wrong moments, he's five foot four inches and will never be any taller, and his mom is dropping him off. He's about to walk into a room full of actual grown-up scientists. The prey-animal instincts of middle school have never left him, and he wants to ask his mom to just turn around and take him home.
But she's already parked and is leaning over to kiss him goodbye on the cheek. He accepts, and levers himself out of the car. His legs shake. He loops the strap of his messenger bag over his shoulder and walks toward what he hopes is the right door.
Jim speaks first, joined by the rest of them until all four are speaking in a chorus:
You'll be fine. We know you can do this. You are braver than you know, Carlos.
He sees the shape of his teacher through the glass of the door, tries the handle, and has to knock. She opens the door for him.
"Hi, Carlos! You're early," she says. Her hair is going prematurely grey, and strands of it are escaping her ponytail. "There's coffee and tea if you want some. Coats go over there," she adds as she sees him awkwardly survey the room.
See? You can do it, they continue. We will be here if you need us. We always are.
Coincidentally, this is the day he first hears about Night Vale. He doesn't recognize it at the time, because it's right before lunch, but many years later he laughs about it.
College is too much like high school, socially, and he throws himself into his work with new passion. He's finally found classes taught at his level, and he enjoys coming to them.
Things aren't all roses. He's been aware for a long time that most people don't hear voices. The only voice most people have in their heads is their own. Does it make him more or less crazy that he doesn't hear them out loud? He carries his secret alone, and it begins to chafe his heart.
Crazy or not crazy, says Kyle, the youngest one, the closest he's ever had to a brother, you're still our friend. It doesn't make a difference. You're still you.
Carlos has his doubts.
Night Vale is different from the start.
His little Honda bumps and rattles along the asphalt. If he were someone else he'd wish for company -- the rest of the team will arrive later in the week, assuming nothing goes horribly wrong.
Carlos never has to wish for company.
Kyle and he are singing along to one of their Singers and Songwriters CDs when the player begins to skip and static to creep in. Carlos fiddles one-handed with it, gives up, and switches to radio.
The rhythm of the road beats like a pulse through his body, and the inside of his head is silent. Not empty, but silent, like the desert that surrounds them.
As he scans for a station, he keeps finding the same show. A community radio station, it sounds like. Community calendar. Weather. Traffic. Narrated by a man with a honey-smooth voice.
The voice is very familiar, and Carlos feels for the association even as he notices that it is all of a sudden dusk, and the lights of a town loom through the darkness up ahead.
"Welcome to Night Vale," says the voice on the radio, and Carlos slams on the brakes.
It's Jim's voice.
The man on the radio is named Cecil. He has long dark hair and keen black eyes like a raven's, and like a raven he cocks his head to the side when he listens. His skin is dark and flawless, and when Carlos looks at him he thinks he finally knows what perfect skin looks like.
All four voices agree.
Cecil is kind and understanding, and despite Night Vale being... Night Vale, it takes Carlos more than a year to broach the topic. And it happens accidentally.
"So..." he begins over a slice of pizza. They've ended up at Big Rico's. Again. Kyle complains every time. Apparently their background music is atrocious. Carlos can't hear it and doesn't care.
"So." Cecil echoes, and does the Cecil Head Tilt.
"How do you get your news?" says Carlos. He's been wanting to ask. "I mean, you can't be everywhere at once."
"Not anymore," Cecil says, and takes a long sip of his prickly pear tea. "Mostly I get updates while I'm in the studio. Sometimes I get news texted to me. That sort of thing."
"I mean, the things that don't come from updates," Carlos says. "Like... like when there was that sandstorm. There's physically no way you could've been at that press conference to see what was happening. How do you know what's happening?" He takes a sip of what Big Rico's calls an iced coffee but is definitely cold Dr Pepper.
Cecil swirls his straw around in his drink with the tip of one long, lovely finger. "Oh, I hear voices," he says cheerfully.
Carlos's mouth drops open without his telling it to. Iced coffee goes everywhere. He mops his face off with his napkin as Cecil tries very hard not to stare at him, or maybe not hard at all. Perhaps dribbling iced coffee all over oneself is a normal occurrence in Night Vale.
"You too?" he manages at last, though it feels like there's a nice, icy bolus of tingly Dr Pepper stuck in one of his lungs, really wedged in there nice and deep.
"Oh yes, I always have," Cecil says, then pauses and obviously re-runs the conversation in his head. " 'You too?' I didn't know you heard voices too, sweet Carlos." He puts an elbow on the table, rests his cheek on his palm, and gives Carlos a look he can only describe as adoring. Genuinely adoring, not "humor the crazy man" adoring.
Carlos is feeling a rapid rise of panic in his stomach despite the sheer Night-Vale-iness of the whole situation -- run, run, run, yammers his inner monologue, now he knows, you should never have told him --
Stop that, says Jim. You can trust him.
How do you know?
How do you know you can't?
"Yeah, I do," Carlos says, his voice trembling. "I hear voices too."
Cecil beams. "Oh, that's wonderful. I never imagined you could be even more perfect. What are yours like?"
"What are yours like?" Carlos says back, almost mimicking, and has to force himself not to clap his hand over his mouth in shame. Sometimes this happens, and he repeats the people around him without meaning to. Of all the times.
"Well, one of them sounds like you, darling Carlos," Cecil says.
Carlos opens his mouth and it's like Kyle is speaking through him, there's no way he can be this smooth. But it is, it's him, he's finally done it, he has achieved social competency after all these years.
"That's funny," he says, "because one of mine sounds like you."