They were officially finished! The class of ’92 had exploded out of Night Vale High like colony of wasps.
Cecil found himself a graduate, this newborn thing lingering between high school and college. The world was suddenly full of possibilities and insecurities.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true.
For Cecil Palmer there was really only one possibility. Very soon he would replace Leonard Burton as the Voice of Night Vale. He wasn’t sure precisely when yet, but the spiritual entity that was Night Vale had already become a part of Cecil. He didn't remember the details, it had been about three years ago and that was when his memory started to get hazy. Whatever had happened, Cecil was now spiritually, psychically ready to take over for Leonard and it couldn’t be too long before he did. He would speak for Night Vale and from that point on he would continue to speak for Night Vale (and to Night Vale) until the day he physically could not.
But regardless of his own fate he felt free. It was the excitement of his classmates, it was contagious and Cecil caught it as one would catch throat spiders — quickly and unfailingly. The atmosphere was alive and electric with excitement and ambivalence; an excited, ecstatic anxiety.
The graduation ceremony came and went. It was long, boring, full of speeches and Blood Stone rituals. A goat was sacrificed. Students shifted in their seats, boiling hot in their robes, anxious to complete this final step.
Old Woman Josie was there in the crowd, whooping loudly when Cecil accepted his diploma and customary graduate shotgun/harpoon-gun combo. He was glad to see her there, cheering just for him and knitting when she heard every other name, she claimed she was too old to get up for every single person although he distinctly heard her cheer when Earl Harlan’s name was called. She promised Cecil she would boo Steve Carlsberg but Cecil had been distracted (by his own booing, of course) and didn’t know if she did or not.
Cecil had crossed the stage, grinning. Earl called out his name from the rows of folding chairs the students — no, not students, graduates — were seated in. Earl started a chain reaction amongst Cecil’s friends and Cecil felt himself grin wider. It was nice to have friends. To feel loved. To love them back. But he couldn’t help the feeling that something was missing.
As he crossed the stage Cecil found himself imagining what it would have been like if his mother had been there too, to hiss gentle reassurances about the end of the world as he waved his diploma and shotgun in the air, one in each fist, as applause filled the gym. It had been three years since she disappeared; three years since Cecil had given up hope of ever seeing her again. But sometimes he still found himself thinking about her. Even as the gym rang with applause and chants and howls just for him he imagined her there too. On his way back to his seat he gave Earl a high five and grinned at his other friends.
The ceremony – thank the Gods Above and Below – concluded. Cecil changed out of his dress-clothes and into something more fashionable – a black shirt covered in neon cacti in every color imaginable, so bright they nearly blinded the onlooker, bell-bottom jeans fringed in faux-fur, and sandals. He stashed his gas-mask, mace, handgun and extra ammo in his bag, throwing it over one shoulder. He was ready for Midnight Madness and whatever else the night would bring.
Midnight Madness was being held at the Abandoned Missile Silo. Pitch black and ringing silence it was everything Midnight Madness should be. Despite this around 10 o’clock or so Cindy Sultan and Michelle Wynn found Cecil and Earl where they were at the refreshment table.
Earl was scowling over the punch, and Cecil was trying to convince him to stop being a wallflower. It was a useless battle. Cecil knew he would get Earl out on the floor with enough pestering but it would be for a song maybe two, tops. Earl Harlan was one of the best balanced and most poised people Cecil knew but he reserved his grace for battling wild animals, perform exorcisms, and other Scout things. Outside of the wilderness Earl was quiet and shy. He had his circle of friends but that was all. He didn’t mind spending his time alone, silent, working on whatever craft or ritual struck his fancy.
“Don’t make me do it, Cecil,” Earl said to his best friend. “People’ll look.”
“No they won’t, they’re too busy to look. Put your party face back on,” he instructed. Earl sighed and grit his teeth the way he was supposed to in order to indicate he was at a party.
“I’m really okay just hanging out here,” Earl said.
Cecil tisked (as best he could while still grimacing/grinning correctly). “Come on, I really want you to!”
Before Earl could answer a shape came up to them in the blackness.
“Hey losers,” it was Michelle, Cecil recognized her voice before he could see her face in the pitch-black, her teeth shining in the gloom. On her shoulder rode Cindy Sultan, a smooth fist-sized river rock and Michelle’s band-mate.
“Hi guys!” Cecil waved. “Help me convince Earl to stop being a baby.”
“Hey!” Earl protested, but Michelle cut him off before he could say anything else.
“I’m here to convince you both of that,” Michelle said. “A bunch of us are bailing. You wanna come?”
“Sure!” Cecil said, eagerly pushing off the concrete wall.
“Who’s going?” Earl asked, taking a sip of punch. He pulled a wasp’s sting off his tongue (someone clearly hadn’t mixed the drink very well) and flicked it away.
“Everyone. Me ‘n’ Cindy, obviously, The Black Dauphin, Madeline, Parker, you and Cecil,” she said. “It’ll be fun! Come on! We’re supposed to use this summer to the fullest! Make mistakes! Maybe murder someone! Like in the movies!”
“Well, I’m in if Earl’s in,” Cecil said, looking over at Earl.
“Fine, I’m in,” he sighed. “Are we going to at least wait until midnight?”
NAH Cindy wrote on a piece of paper and holding it out for them to read.
Cecil and Earl climbed out of the silo and into the cold starry night. Behind them the entire graduating class erupted into horrified screams. “See, now we won’t know what that was about,” Earl grumbled, but he did not seem unhappy about leaving early, nor even disappointed.
“We’ll hear about it, I’m sure,” said Cecil as Earl fished his car keys out of his pocket.
Cecil had known Earl literally as long as he could remember (although about three years ago parts of his memory had gotten threadbare and the rest was poorly patched together, events overlapping in ways they shouldn’t in order to replace what was somehow gone. But Earl was a constant throughout.) Earl meant everything to Cecil. Cecil had always been popular, he liked people and liked being with people, but he had always been closest to Earl. Between boy scouts, school, and every free moment Cecil and Earl spent together, it probably amounted to years of their short lives. To answer that age-old playground question “if you were trapped in a nightmare pocket dimension with one person who would it be?” Cecil would always say “Earl Harlan.”
And recently Cecil had noticed his feelings were becoming something more. Something romantic. He’d first noticed it in boy scouts earlier that year.
Cecil and Earl had just finished fighting off a desert-lamprey. The thing lay dying at Earl’s feet, Earl had his homemade spear buried deep in its flesh. He was snarling, tense over it, driving the blade home until it popped audibly out the other side into the sand. He was covered in sweat, bruises, scrapes, and the monster’s deep black blood.
Cecil had been hurt during the struggle, his shirt was torn and he had a gaping bloody bite on his chest. He had fallen into the sand from the force of the attack. But after Earl got the monster off Cecil he was able to pull himself back into a crouch. He was still clutching his ritual dagger in shaking fingers, ready to dive forward again. But there was no need.
The lamprey stopped twitching. It let out a final moan that shook the desert. Blood, Cecil’s and its, created sticky rivers in the sand oozing out from the lamprey. Then the only sound was the air leaking from it. The only movement was the blood flowing out of the wound Earl had inflicted and even that slowed, oozing now rather than spraying. Then, it stopped completely. Everything was still.
Cecil looked up at Earl and Earl looked down at Cecil. Their eyes met and what had been panic and primal rage faded into relief. They laughed. Earl kneeled next to Cecil. “Let me see that wound,” he said.
“It’s nothing really,” Cecil said, although he was beginning to feel a little dizzy. The adrenaline was wearing off, and the effects of blood loss swiftly taking hold of him. When he tried to stand he immediately fell back, shaking hand gripping Earl’s arm as the other boy carefully guided him back down.
“Just humor me,” Earl said. And Cecil did. Earl peeled off the rest of Cecil’s shirt and cleaned the wound. His careful callused fingers working quickly and skillfully over flesh, unflinching despite the gore. He wrapped clean white bandages around Cecil’s chest, on which he wrote ancient protective sigils in beautiful calligraphy using the lamprey’s blood. Cecil watched him work in the light of the brilliant red sunset. There was no sound except the scrape of Earl moving in the dust, the slow hiss of air as the lamprey deflated, and their own breathing.
Earl was close to Cecil. They were often close, but somehow this was different, more intimate. And Cecil realized how attractive Earl was just like that, smeared with grime and hard at work. He knew that before but in the way one notices one’s friends are good looking, not like this, not in the way that made his heart pound in his chest, probably making him bleed more if Earl hadn’t staunched the bleeding.
“There,” Earl said, looking up from his work. “Are you feeling okay?” he asked, clearly reacting to the expression on Cecil’s face.
“Um…yes,” Cecil answered, his lips and Earl’s were dangerously close, millimeters from contact. Cecil suddenly realized with an electric jolt that Earl wanted that contact as much as it he did. But neither closed the gap. Finally Earl rose and offered his arm to Cecil.
“We should field dress this thing and bring it back,” Earl said, cheeks somewhat pink. “Do you feel up to it?”
“Yes,” Cecil answered, “yes, definitely.”
And they did, although every so often their fingers met through the viscera, frightened gestures they could disguise as accidents although Cecil knew neither of them were kidding the other.
They never mentioned it again. Life remained the same.
Cecil and Earl joined the others in the parking lot. Cindy was seated (or standing, they were both the same when one was a river rock) on the trunk of Michelle’s car. The Black Dauphin had his chariot at the ready, the anxious fire-breathing snow-white Pegasuses pawing at the asphalt. He was already standing in the solid gold cart, his long riding whip in one hand the reigns in the other. The others were gathered around in a small semi-circle.
They were all sharp clean shapes in the darkness, distinct in their size and details, reduced to shadowy essences; Michelle’s dreadlocks, Madeline’s height and long braid, the Dauphin’s scraggly goatee, elaborate ermine robe, and pronged diadem, Parker’s earrings glowing in the gloom and his pronounced flattop.
“There you guys are,” Parker said as they approached. He smiled, not because he was at a party but because he was leaving one, headed for something bigger and better even if it was smaller and private.
Really, this was Everyone as far as Cecil was concerned; the core group who had survived their teenage years together. They came together at different times, assembling over the course of Middle School and High School, but now they were a unit, a clique, a group.
“So where should we go first?” Cecil asked, rubbing his hands together.
“That’s the question, you know?” said Michelle. “I just wanted to drive down route 800 ‘til we found a Ghost Car but Parker and Maddy are being wimps.”
“The last people who followed a Ghost Car became a Ghost Car,” Earl pointed out. “And besides, I’m not risking getting a speeding ticket.”
“You guys are such wimps,” said Michelle only half seriously.
“We could start by getting some food,” Cecil suggested.
“I could do that,” Parker agreed.
“I would also enjoy a meal,” the Dauphin said in his high heavily accented voice.
“And after that?” Earl asked.
Cecil shrugged, “I don’t know, you know, wherever?”
That “Wherever” was what was most heartily agreed on. And the night progressed without plan or goal, just embracing the spontaneity of choice, the joy of being able to change your mind at the last second, the freedom of being chaotic, lost, and human. Even though Cecil knew that choice did not really exist and that autonomy was only the faulty reassurance of consciousness it felt good. He felt free.
Around 1 or 2 in the morning they found themselves at the lip of Radon Canyon. They were seated in the sand drinking beers, laughing, talking, going over the things they all already knew. Some of them smoked, the gray smoke curling and twisting skyward in an infinity of wispy shapes.
Cecil took off his shoes, worrying the sand with his toes.
“Oh my God,” Madeline said, “how do you always have the best pedicures, Cecil?” She reached out and grabbed one foot, so she could see the toenails more clearly.
Michelle snorted with laughter. “Dude, what is with your foot fetish?”
“It’s not a fetish!” Madeline answered, holding Cecil by the ankle. “You should know that!”
“Maybe my feet aren’t as pretty as Cecil’s,” Michelle said.
“Oh my God!” Madeline said again, no longer listening to Michelle, “they’ve got little multi-headed baby eagles on them! Don’t you dare tell me you did these yourself!”
“You know I did,” Cecil said proudly, flexing his toes. It had taken him hours to get the scenes of wonder and carnage exactly right. On his fingernails he had stenciled “CLASS OF ’92!” in the school’s colors, which was pretty simple as far as he was concerned, so he decided to go all out on his toes.
“Ugh! You son of a bitch!” Madeline suddenly tensed and closed her mouth. They still weren’t sure how to deal with what happened to Cecil’s mother.
Death was one thing, a lot of people died that was just Night Vale. People disappeared too. But when they did generally someone knew what happened to them, even if it was only Leonard Burton. Night Vale was more tight-knit than most communities, despite its size. Everyone looked out for everyone else, with a few rare exceptions. Even strangers stood side-by-side in the face of adversity. You had to, after all the universe was a cruel and unfeeling place, the least you could do, as sentient life forms, was look out for one another. And it shook the entire city that no one, not even Leonard, knew what happened to Shoshanna Palmer.
Cecil gave her a nervous smile, “it’s no big deal, Maddy. It’s been three years. You can call me a son of a bitch all you want.”
“Madeline, you’re such a ditz,” said Michelle affectionately.
“How long did it take you? Your nails, I mean,” Madeline said, quickly clarifying.
“Oh forever! It took me like a decade to get the arteries on the middle left nail right.”
“Well, they are spectacular. You need to teach me your secret.”
“I don’t think I have one, really,” Cecil said. “I just pick the right colors and make sure it looks nice.”
“There’s got to be more than that!” she said.
“Maaaddy, kiiiiss me!” Michelle called out, stubbing out her cigarette in the sand. She and Madeline were always either dating or hating one another, depending. And Cecil always liked it better when they were dating. They were almost completely opposite in personalities but they complemented each other well. It was cute.
“Ugh, you’re so bad at being romantic!” Madeline answered, but still she crawled over to kiss her. Michelle grabbed her by the collar and pulled her into a deep snog.
Cecil went back to burrowing with his toes, thinking again about his mother. It had been three years and for the most part he’d been able to move on. But with graduation…he just wished she could be there. It reminded him that he had no idea who else could vanish. Sometimes he woke up terrified that he was alone, the last person left alive. That shadow darkened his thoughts.
Then he felt Earl’s hand on his shoulder. It squeezed him, not too hard, just in an anchoring reassuring way, as if Earl could read his mind. Earl wasn’t psychic (he didn’t have any special powers (he could even feel pain) which was part of the reason why Cecil figured Earl was such a good Scout, he was resourceful) but sometimes Cecil swore he could read minds, or at the very least, read Cecil’s mind.
Cecil looked over at his friend who gave him a sad half-smile.
“I’m alright,” Cecil muttered. “Really.”
“Well, I’m still here,” Earl said.
“I am getting another beer,” said the Dauphin, getting to his feet. He’d removed both his shoes and stockings so he had his breeches but nothing else, lily-white legs bare up to the knee. “Does anyone else want one?”
“Here!” Cecil called. He extended a tentacle to snatch it when it became clear that the Dauphin’s aim would be vague and wrong, as usual.
“Me too!” said Madeline. She picked up her can from where it slammed into the sand she sat down next to Michelle again. She clearly decided not to risk opening it yet after seeing Cecil’s bubble over, spraying him with sticky carbonated booze. Cecil let out an “ugh,” a sound he generally reserved for the most annoying things in his life — such as Steve Carlsberg. “Do you guys ever think about the future?” Madeline asked.
“I try not to think too hard about it,” Parker said, eyes skyward, cigarette clamped between his lips. “It freaks me out. There’s too many possibilities, you know? Like we could be anything in ten years. We’ll be twenty-eight. That’s fucking ancient.”
“Well, I do,” Madeline said.
“The future is mysterious and dreadful,” The Black Dauphin sighed and swished his beer thoughtfully. “I think of it often. What do you plan to do with yours, Madeline LeFleur?”
“I’m going to do something for the town,” Madeline said, opening a can of beer. It hissed and fizzled in the still (but glowing) night air but it didn’t spray her. She gave Cecil a triumphant look, and he considered ringing the beer out of his shirt for effect. She took a dramatic swig of her drink before putting it on the ground. As she spoke she constructed a little mound out of the sand the can displaced. She leaned her head on Michelle’s shoulder. “I’m not sure what yet, but I’m going to do some good.”
Madeline was tall, she towered over Cecil and Parker and was nearly the same size as Earl. She was white, almost literally, with long jet-black hair that made her look all the paler. Her eyes were a little too large and hazel, more green than brown. She was lanky and thin. Michelle, on the other hand, was short, heavy, with dark brown almond-shaped eyes and skin as dark as her girlfriend’s was pale. She wore severe make-up, Madeline wore none.
Together they made an adorable, if unlikely, couple. Each complimenting the other, body and personality. If they got married it would be weirdly perfect, Cecil thought. But he also knew that it wouldn’t happen. They would break up next year after attempting to be serious. They would get together again, twice. Then they would grow apart and wind up in completely different fields. Michelle would marry before Madeline, a woman named Esméralda Starstalker. That would throw Madeline for a loop, and she would try desperately to find that special somehow. It would be hard for her, strange, and full of mistakes.
Cecil never meant to do it, to peer into their lives, but sometimes it just happened. He shook his head, trying to escape this image of the future.
Madeline was speaking when he came back to the present, Michelle’s fingers tracing shapes down her girlfriend’s chest, kissing at her neck. Madeline was bright red, and attempted to dislodge Michelle with a shove. “Not here, Michelle! Makers of Us All!”
“You’re such a nerd,” Michelle said, separating from her with a final chaste kiss against her cheek.
“What was your question, Dauphin? I’m sorry, I missed it because of some people!” She threw a meaningful look at Michelle who was lighting another cigarette.
“What sort of good?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” Madeline said pitifully. “Maybe make people appreciate it more. Outsiders, I mean.”
“Why?” Parker asked. “Who cares about Outsiders?” He was on the smaller side, stocky, handsome. He played football and his physique reflected it, all broad dark muscle. He wore his hair in a flattop and had considered shaving “1992” in the back of it, but his mother stopped him. Both of his ears were pierced. He, like Cecil, had had it done by Michelle in eleventh grade, crowded in Old Woman Josie’s bathroom. There were heavy black curtains hung over the mirrors but Cecil showed Parker how to use a full sink to see his reflection.
Cecil couldn’t help but agree with Parker. Maybe he was just prejudiced, being an actual living breathing part of Night Vale itself, but the Outside world and all the Outsiders in it seemed vastly overrated.
But he supported Madeline, as she looked deflated. “I think it’s neat,” Cecil said. “And you’re being really civic minded which is really important.”
Madeline shrugged one shoulder. “It’s not like I really know what I’m going to do. But thank you, Cecil.”
Cindy used a stick to scratch her answer in the sand. I KNOW!
“What do you wish to do, Cindy Sultan?” the Black Dauphin asked, beer half-way to his lips.
WHATEVER SARA DECIDES NOT TO DO, I DON’T CARE BESIDES THAT. Cindy scrawled.
“That hardly counts,” pouted the Dauphin.
Cecil didn’t have to read her mind to know that Cindy and her twin sister Sara didn’t get along. Sara was class valedictorian and had delivered her speech via the proxy of a very unimpressed looking Steve Carlsberg. Cindy and Cecil had booed together until Mr. Peters, you know, the shop teacher? Shushed them and gave them a harsh look.
“I know what you’re gonna do,” said Michelle to the river rock. “We’re gonna hit the big time!”
YES! THAT! WE’RE GOING TO ROCK!
The pun earned a few snickers.
OH COME ON! I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY.
Michelle, Cindy, and three others were in a band. Its name and composition (besides Cindy and Michelle) were constantly changing and Cecil wasn’t sure what they were called or who was in it at that exact moment. Music was Michelle’s life. She played guitar and sang. Cindy played the drums. “We’re gonna be super stars, Cindy. Drugs, babes, fame, fortune, the whole nine yards.”
“Hey!” Madeline piped in.
“That’s right, Cindy you and the others can keep the babes. I already got one.”
The Black Dauphin spoke up next. He said that as long as he was able to inherit his family’s lands, vast wealth, and influence he would be satisfied. “Really, I am not hard to please. I do not need anything more than the simple happiness of having four-thousand serfs and several Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with gold. Perhaps this meager fortune will help stave off the crippling ennui,” The Black Dauphin worried the service medals on his jacket as he spoke. “You know, if my dad actually lets me inherit.”
“Is he saying that shit again?” Michelle asked, with a sympathetic “tisk.”
“Yes, but at this point I am not surprised. It is what he does.” He was not fit for the crown, according to his father. And the fact that the Black Dauphin had already had two girlfriends without noble rank only exasperated the distance between king and heir. He was described as being both too melancholic and too lusty to wear the crown. His friends always stood by him, but really there was only so much they could do when The Black Dauphin’s kingdom was in another dimension and his father could, if he wanted to, have them all beheaded.
The Black Dauphin often worried his younger brother, the Green Prince, or his cousin, the Orange Duke, would be chosen over him. “So I’ll be either Rainbow King,” he said, “or like an algebra teacher. Maybe a band director? Something like that. If I survive the shame and torment of being disinherited, that is.” His voice was high and accented with his native Middle French. His hair was a deep blue, almost black but not quite. The dozens of jewels he wore glittered in the sickly green glow of the canyon, making the Dauphin look like he was a smaller closer sky, alive with fiery stars.
“Would that really be that bad?” asked Parker. “Being king of a whole planet seems like a lot of work. You’d be a good teacher.”
“Thank you,” The Dauphin answered. “It…I guess it would not be ‘that bad’ as you say. But I was born to rule. I am the Dauphin. Something would be wrong if I was not king, right?”
“I don’t think so,” Parker said.
“Have you no idea what you wish to do, Parker Flynn?” asked The Dauphin.
Parker shook his head, “I can’t believe you guys already know as much as you do! All I know is I want to major in Blood Stones or Ritualistic Chanting.”
“Well, that’s something, right?” Earl said helpfully. “You were always really good at chanting in scouts.”
“Eh,” said Parker, unconvinced. “It’s easy for you and Ceec. You guys have your futures already set in stone. Literally in Cecil’s case.”
A weird silence fell over the group. It was always awkward when this came up. Cecil had been hoping they would just ignore Earl and him, talk about the unknown for a little while rather than absolute. No one looked at them, but Cecil and Earl looked at each other.
There were obviously dozens of children in Night Vale who were handed their destinies besides Cecil and Earl. But none of them were present and many were slated to be sacrifices in case the Chalk Spire became displeased or there was a serious drought. Becoming Scoutmaster or Voice of Night Vale was a bigger deal and less likely to end in horrible bloody death if only by a few fatality units. They were positions that meant something.
No one quite knew what The Voice did, but it was generally understood that they weren’t supposed to. All they knew was that the Voice was there for them; comforting and authoritative. He brought them the news. But they knew somewhere deep down that it was more than that although no one could say why besides maybe the Voice himself. The Scoutmaster trained the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts were deemed to be both “crucial” and “character building” by the City Council. “Woe be on the town that has no Scouts for they shall be consumed!” they often added.
Cecil generally kept quiet about his future. Earl and Old Woman Josie were the only two people Cecil ever shared his fears with, his anxieties, the horrors he was only just getting used to encountering. He was, in part, a piece of Night Vale and knew what was happening in every part of it at all times. He lived with one foot in the present the other perpetually stepping forward into the ever flowing future like one of those Ancient Egyptian statues. It was worse than growing pains. He was getting used to it. He was learning how to focus his awesome powers and block things out. Sometimes he even managed to be alone with his thoughts. Leonard was giving him lessons, but they were often difficult to follow.
Earl was still getting used to the idea of destiny. He had only recently been chosen to be the next scoutmaster, apprenticing under the current one, Samuel Goldberg, until the job killed him (either Scoutmaster Goldberg or Earl, whichever came first). The news came shortly after Earl, Cecil, and Parker became the only surviving Eagle Scouts, after which the standard divining rituals were performed.
Earl, Parker, Cecil, and Scoutmaster Goldberg had all sliced their palms open with their BSA pocket knives and allowed the blood to flow into a cauldron of eagle blood, the ashes of all of their troop mates who had died since cub scouts, water carried 18 miles via sacred canteen, and wax they each made themselves from animal fat (the animal used was their choice, although whale was preferred and human was frowned upon). While they all chanted the scout oath Scoutmaster Goldberg stirred the concoction.
Slowly an image began to take shape in the mixture. The blood stone circle surrounding them began to glow and hum. The dead boy scouts began to whisper, the sound rising, rising, rising until they were screaming at pitch that caused Cecil’s glasses to crack and his teeth to rattle. The blood stones were blindingly bright and hummed as loudly as the dead scouts screamed.
Then suddenly there was silence.
Silence as severe as the noise had been, so profound it hurt. All that could be heard was their harsh breathing in the ringing air and each surviving scout’s ragged heartbeat. In the cauldron Earl’s face shone back at them. And that was that. Earl was excited, proud and terrified, nearly collapsing against the cauldron. He probably would have if Cecil hadn’t caught him.
He still was excited, proud and terrified, but he was beginning to get used to it. Last week Justin Fernandez, the Scoutmaster’s apprentice, had been killed during the cub scouts’ attempt at their coup d’etat badges. The day after tomorrow – although the date was only just being divined at that very moment miles away in City Hall – Earl would be abducted from his bed, blindfolded, drugged and dragged to the secret boy scout head quarters underneath the Ralph’s. He would be put through strange and painful rituals and thus Inducted. Then the training would begin. It was a pretty sweet deal as far as Earl was concerned. He loved Scouts more than anyone else Cecil had ever met. He liked the idea of being Scoutmaster, but he couldn’t shake the fear and existential dread that Cecil believed inevitably came with prophecy.
The silence was broken eventually, although Cecil felt the line drawn between the rest of the group and Earl and himself.
Still they all laughed again, joked, cried, they spent the night they way they planned. Free, empty, meaningless, and beautiful.
The evening ended in the parking lot of the Moonlite All Nite Diner. Goodbyes were said, hugs had gone around, tears were shed, promises were made that they might not keep no matter how badly they believed they would. They would see each other again they would have to. They would all remain in Night Vale. Anyone who left Night Vale nearly always returned whether they liked it or not.
But things would be different. They wouldn’t be classmates. They wouldn’t be high school students. They were jettisoned into reality. They felt grown up.
Parker, Cindy, Michelle, and Madeline piled into Michelle’s car. The Black Dauphin hopped on his Pegasus powered chariot, taxiing around in a wide arch before going skyward. Earl and Cecil were left behind to travel via Earl’s pick-up truck. Cecil would only travel in Earl’s pick-up because Earl could fold the mirrors in such a way that Cecil couldn’t catch his reflection by mistake.
Cecil turned and went to climb in but Earl grabbed him by the arm. “Wait,” he said with a hint of nervousness in his voice like a drop of blood in water.
Cecil looked back at his best friend in confusion. Earl’s face reflected that anxious twinge Cecil had heard. It made his heart catch. “Sorry,” Earl mumbled, although the grip on Cecil’s arm remained tight as if he was afraid to let Cecil go.
Cecil smiled, “it’s fine, Earl. But what’s wrong?”
Earl swallowed, “Nothing. Not really. It’s…” he trailed off and started again. “I just…if I don’t say something it’s going to kill me. If you never want to see me again after this I would totally understand. I just wanted to…I think you should know…I care about you Cecil.”
Cecil’s heart began to pound. He felt his palms begin to sweat. His throat went dry and for once, perhaps for the first time in his life, he was at a loss for words.
Earl licked his lips. He took a deep breath. “It’s more than friends, you know what I mean? I like you, Cecil. I mean I like-like you. I might even be in love with you and—”
Cecil cut Earl off by pressing a kiss against his lips. Earl’s grip on his arm disappeared as he slid his arms around Cecil’s waist, pulling him close as if to prove to himself that Cecil, and his kiss, were real. Cecil draped his arms around Earl’s neck, one hand threading through his hair.
When they broke apart they were breathing heavily against one another’s lips, foreheads pressed together. Cecil’s third eye was closed against the soft skin of Earl’s forehead. They hung like that for a second, all warm breath and gentle half kisses.
“Wow…” Earl breathed. “Wow, Cecil, I never thought you would…you could get any guy you wanted.”
“I don’t want any guy,” Cecil said. “I want you.”
That made Earl hungrily close the gap between them again. Cecil, braver now, pressed his tongue against the seam of Earl’s lips. Earl opened his mouth. Their tongues tangled, awkward but enthusiastic, curious. One of Earl’s hands was on Cecil’s face, stroking his cheek. The other was at his waist. One of Cecil’s hands was now knotted in Earl’s hair, the other was on his back.
Slowly, questioningly, abortively, Cecil’s fingers went downward, tracing Earl’s spine through his uniform. As he came to the base of Earl’s spine and the curve of his ass Earl pressed against Cecil, and Cecil felt it, felt Earl, through his pants. The feeling of Earl hardening against him sent an electric shock through Cecil, it made him braver, and he slipped his fingers into the waistband of Earl’s shorts. But Earl suddenly tensed and Cecil retracted his hands, resting more chastely on Earl’s back. He broke the kiss, “what’s wrong?”
“I need to know something, Cecil,” Earl said, looking into Cecil’s eyes. Again their foreheads came together.
“Anything,” Cecil said.
“Are we…what are we?”
Cecil’s chest tightened. He didn’t like the answer he had to give. He wanted it to be otherwise. But they weren’t free. Neither of them was free. Their futures already existed and Cecil knew that no matter how hard they fought against it it wouldn’t work. He wanted to save Earl from that. Save them both.
“We’re best friends,” he said, but he sounded sadder than he meant to, unable to bear the disappointment himself let alone pass it on to Earl.
Earl looked heartbroken, betrayal written in every line of his face. But he said nothing about it. He just nodded and looked away. They remained there, tangled together, but silent. Earl seemed to gather his thoughts and said, “is it because…?”
“Please, Earl, please don’t ask,” Cecil breathed. He wanted it. He wanted this more dearly than anything else in the world at that moment. He wanted to tell Earl yes, they could be a couple; they were a couple. They could be together forever. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t possible.
“Okay,” Earl said, swallowing hard. He took a deep shaking breath, his eyes closed.
Cecil bit his lip, “I’m sorry, Earl, I’m so sorry.”
When Earl opened his eyes again he asked, “could we just pretend we’re more than that for just a little longer?”
“Yes, I’d like that,” Cecil answered, pulling Earl against him again.
He didn’t want to explain to Earl why they couldn’t be anything more. It would destroy him the same way it was destroying Cecil. Cecil could see it, the rest of their lives in scattered snapshots. Cecil saw them pulled apart by time and their adult lives. They would see each other only by mistake. They would become awkward and tense. They would live in one another’s pasts but their presents would be defined by other things, other people, other events.
Worst of all Cecil saw himself, Parker Flynn, and a group of boy scouts who had yet to be born all dressed in mourning black. Earl was nowhere to be seen and Cecil refused to read the name on the tombstone.
Life would pull them away from one another. It was unavoidable, not just because he could see it but because that was where their prophesied existences would play out. The Scoutmaster and the Voice had little reason to interact and their responsibilities were too large to ignore. It wasn’t something either of them could deny.
But this moment, this pretend moment, this kiss, felt so good. Earl’s lips locked over his, his tongue in his mouth. His hands nervously sliding under Cecil’s shirt to ghost over the bare skin, gaining courage when Cecil moaned and leaned against him. Earl experimentally kissed Cecil’s neck his lips playing down the column of his throat. They were pressed together, both awkward and virginal and grinding against one another.
They were sloppy but they were passionate. All tongue and teeth and nervous shaking fingers. Earl gripped Cecil’s ass, dipping into his shorts spurred on by Cecil’s earlier bravery and the way he said Earl’s name and nipped at his throat. Cecil’s hands had slipped under Earl’s shirt too, tracing the musculature with slow pleasure, just mapping the skin. They backed into the building, Cecil being the initiator although they orbited in a sort of awkward dance until Earl had Cecil pinned against the brick of the Moon Light All Nite Diner.
Cecil wasn’t sure how long they were there. At once it felt like hours, perhaps centuries, and mere moments all at once before they were interrupted. The back door of the diner was thrown open and the owner of the place, Aleksander Ruçi, a vampire and stickler for rules and decency stepped out. He stood silhouetted in the doorway screeching at Earl and Cecil in a mix of English, Albanian, and a long dead tongue, his bat like wings flapping furiously as he demanded that they leave.
The spell was broken. Earl and Cecil came apart. Just friends again. The world beyond Earl sharpened. It happened so quickly Cecil was sure he had the emotional equivalent of whiplash.
They fled, Cecil and Earl, to Earl’s truck, giddy and loose limbed as the vampire screeched and swore behind them. Cecil was pulling his jeans back into place, closing the button again. Earl tied his kerchief, redid the buttons of his shirt that Cecil had unfastened and tucked his shirt back into his shorts, going from sloppy to immaculate at seeming supernatural speeds.
Earl was not the first boy he’d ever kissed. Cecil was popular, while he hadn’t exactly gone all the way with anyone he had certainly come close with his boyfriend of earlier that year. Earl, on the other hand, Cecil knew, had never been kissed. He was too shy. If he ever got compliments he just said “thanks” and never initiated anything romantic (well, until tonight).
Cecil looked over at him, Earl was bright red, the blood seeming to have jumped from his groin to his face. His fingers were shaking against the steering wheel. But he was grinning broadly, almost stupidly.
They laughed as Earl turned out of the parking lot and down the street. It was that weird time of night before anything is open and after everything is closed. Nothing moved. Empty storefronts stared out at them as they headed towards the car lot. Cecil’s lips felt kiss-swollen and his body tingled. He desperately wanted to do that again. To lean over and kiss Earl now, to say screw obligations, screw prophecy, screw the future!
They could have this, whatever it was.
They could have something, whatever it proved to be.
But Cecil didn’t move. After their laughter petered out they fell into silence, pregnant and heavy and still.
Earl turned onto Old Woman Josie’s gravel drive and put the engine into neural. “I hope you don’t get in trouble for coming back this late,” Earl said, breaking the silence. He didn’t look at Cecil when he said this, as if he was afraid to.
“Nah, I told her I would probably be out really late. She told me ‘you’re only young once, unless you’re afflicted by some nightmarish curse that alters your very being and undoes the life you lived, robbing you of the “you” you had earned through anguish and experience.’”
“That’s lucky,” Earl said, “my dad’s going to pitch a fit. I said I’d be back by one. Hopefully he won’t open any wormholes this time. We only just got the last one closed.”
“Oh, you finally got it shut? Does that mean you found the last one?”
“Yeah, it was hiding under the sink.”
“Wow, lucky you got it.”
“I know, it would have been a nightmare if it got into the water supply.”
“Well, good luck,” Cecil said, opening the door.
“Thanks,” Earl answered.
Cecil stood in the driveway but he didn’t close the car door. There was a pause then, “Earl, call me after the Induction. I’ll bring you clean bandages and a cake to celebrate.”
“Sure,” Earl said, warmly. “That’d be nice. I probably won’t be up for much.”
“That’s fine. We can watch a movie or something. You still haven’t seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly which is a crime,” Cecil said.
“Then we’ll do that before you report me to the Sheriff’s Secret Police,” said Earl, half smiling in that way he always did when he told a bad joke. Even from where he stood outside of the car Cecil could see the red mark blooming on Earl’s neck where his mouth had been. Cecil touched his own throat, prodding the sensitive skin where Earl had given the most attention, wondering if he’d left his mark on Cecil as well.
“Call me tomorrow, okay? Or I guess I mean today,” Earl asked. “I’m not sure when they’re coming for me but I want to hang out before they do.”
“Of course!” Cecil said giving him a smile. Earl nodded and pulled closed the door of his truck. He honked as he peeled past the car lot, Cecil continued to wave.
It would all be over soon. And with that realization any excitement about graduation drained from him. Earl would go on to become Scoutmaster. He, Cecil, would assume Leonard’s role as the Voice of Night Vale, as exciting as that was it also scared him. Just like his powers scared him. Just like growing up scared him. Just like what he was scared him.
He was still adjusting to this new him: still mostly…or at least part…Cecil Gershwin Palmer but also part Night Vale itself. His memories mingled and mixed with the town’s. His thoughts were sometimes not his own. In the back of his eyes, somewhere in the distance he could always see the expanse of Night Vale, the town as one, a vast monstrous creature with its tiny people, living tiny lives like cells in a body. But then he could also see each life as this vast thing, this unit infinite potential, this impossibly complex being crafted from meat and bone, of acids and proteins and calcium made of memory and emotion and thought. Each of them made up of an infinity of cells. There were different sizes of infinity. They were always in motion, always living and dying and changing. They were not the same beings when they went to sleep that they were when they woke up. They were brief blasts of potential, living solar flares. They lived everyday without knowing what was happening around them.
Cecil knew that once, not so very long ago, he was exactly like they were. He often wondered how he used to get by not knowing what was happening everywhere. (He definitely didn’t know how he managed to live without astral projection. It was the single best part of his new powers, never having to actually go anywhere in person. Of course Old Woman Josie was not happy when Cecil attempted to send his astral form to go to school for him so he didn’t have to get out of bed in the morning and Cecil was forced to comply with her demands and go there in person.) But he could live without were the occasional dark glances into the future.
Cecil went inside. The sun was beginning to seep through the curtains, filling the silent and still house with a gentle glow that illuminated dancing dust. He climbed the stairs, careful to avoid the creaking step as he did so. He considered telling Old Woman Josie he was home but fatigue had hit him all at once, like a heavy-weight’s punch.
He clambered into his room and struggled out of his shirt and jeans, tossing them vaguely in the direction of his hamper before falling into bed in his briefs, asleep before his head hit the pillow.
Maybe they were just dreams but they were so often more than that.
He saw the Black Dauphin, years older, his hair now pitch black. He was standing in a familiar classroom but the desks were filled with unfamiliar students. The Dauphin was writing equations on a black board in his looping handwriting.
Madeline was older, too, her hair, now short, was greying. She was standing over a desk, surrounded by pamphlets. She whistled while she worked, she looked happy.
Michelle stood in the shadow of a great dark owl. She was dressed like Buddy Holly and organizing shelves of records. A woman who was not Madeline came up behind her and kissed her neck gently. She too was dressed like Buddy Holly.
Parker was making dinner for a group of three children who looked so much like him. One wore a clawed hand around her neck and was reading from a soft cover book, the spine read Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye. A woman came in dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase. She kissed Parker on the cheek and did the same for each of the children.
Cindy was on a stage, a microphone pointed uselessly at her while words on a huge LED screen scrawled by. She was giving a lecture of some sort, the words that went by were unfamiliar to Cecil. In the wings behind Cindy was Sara, watching with what might have been pride (it was hard to tell with river rocks).
Earl, tall, all lean muscle, and far more scarred than he was now stood before a sea of boy scouts. He was going over construction and deployment of basic explosives. He looked at the boys with proud, fatherly affection.
In each of these visions Cecil saw his friends as he knew them now, young and filled with potential, unset wax, unfired clay, reflected in the shapes they would take. The them they were and the them would become existing both separately and as one being.
And then there was someone Cecil did not know. A man with a square jaw and dark delicate skin. His hair was perfect. His smile was perfect and revealed his straight white teeth. He stood surrounded by test tubes and beakers and other equipment. He wore a lab coat. The younger-reflection was not yet quite handsome, dogged by the awkward ganglyness and bad skin many teens suffered from. His hair was still perfect. His eyes were still bright and enthusiastic (even if his glasses were a little too big for his face). He had several Band-Aids half-covering a burn that he probably got from whatever weird experiment he was doing. He wore a Pearl Jam t-shirt and torn blue jeans, a flannel shirt hung around his waist. He seemed to be a little younger than Cecil, probably not a high school senior yet.
Cecil reached out for him. This man’s name was on the tip of his tongue and he wanted to call it. He knew it in the dream and managed to shout to him. But all Cecil heard was a distant buzz, like an out of tune radio. The man (and the boy) looked up from their work and straight at him. As soon as their eyes met Cecil woke up.
It was soon clear what had woken him. Old Woman Josie blowing an air horn from his doorway. He sat bolt upright, Josie was smiling evilly at him. “Morning, sleepyhead. You must have had fun last night.”
Cecil blinked and grunted, rubbing his eye. “Wha’ time iz it?” he asked groggily.
“Almost four in the afternoon. You slept the whole day away, now you gotta get up. Earl’s called you twice already. I told him he’d better just come over. He’s on his way.” She stopped and looked at him critically. “Something bothering you, Cecil?”
Cecil realized he was scowling. He was trying to remember the dream he was having. It had been important, at least he thought it had been. But even as he tried to gather it up it disintegrated in his hands.
“Yeah, yes. I mean no. It’s nothing. Just lemme get dressed,” he gestured for her to leave the room, lugging himself to his feet with his blanket wrapped around him like a robe.
“Alright, Earl should be here any minute so hurry up,” Josie said, closing the door behind her.
Soon Earl would be taken from him. Soon Cecil would assume his role at Leonard’s post, the Voice of Night Vale. Soon his world, already so changed and twisted up, would alter again as he became the self he was born to be.
But that was coming. It wasn’t here yet. This was now. And he had this now like water in his cupped hands. Time would leak away from him drop by drop. The future would come.
But he had time.
He had now.
And he would cherish it.
Many miles away from Night Vale Carlos the high school freshman found himself awake. He could have sworn he heard his name. He sat up in the darkness, fear crawling over his limbs and clutching his gut. The voice that had called him sounded so close, like someone was standing right next to him.
He grabbed his glasses with fingers shaking from tiredness and worry. Nothing moved. Across the room his brother, Jaime, slept undisturbed. Carlos jumped when he saw a movement in the shadows but it was only the cat, stretching on her perch at the foot of Jaime’s bed.
Carlos took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. It must have been a dream. Nothing in the room was disturbed. There was no stranger here. It was illogical to think that someone would sneak into his room just to say his name and impossible to think they could do such a thing and then vanish. He lay back down.
The voice that had been as clear and crisp in his memory a moment ago as if he’d just heard it was beginning to fade. Sleep was beginning to take hold of him again. It was strange but in a way he regretted losing that voice. He liked it. It seemed…important, somehow. Something he should cherish. He wanted to hear it again.
With that thought sleep overtook him and by the time he awoke the next morning any memory of the dream and the voice calling his name was gone.