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The California Zephyr

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John: Looks like I shan't be catching the 11:30 now....

Woman: Oh, no, John! (insistant) You mustn't miss your train!

John: (sympathetically) How can I think of catching a train when I should be here helping you?

Woman: Oh, John, thank you. (cheerfully) Anyways you could always catch the 9:30 tomorrow; it goes by Caton and Chipsdale.

John: (Enthusiastically) Oh the 9:45 is even better!

Woman: Oh but you'd have to change at Lands Green.

John: Yes, but there's only a seven-minute wait.

Woman: Oh yes, of course! I'd forgotten it was Friday.

 

The California Zephyr

 

Vwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Vwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Vwrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. The cybernetic arm adjusted position until it was directly in front of the keyhole. Vwrrrrrr. A small bulb on an even smaller arm popped out, inserted its needle end into the hole, and puffed a small amount of graphite powder inside. Lubrication. Carlos was rather proud of the squeezy puffy graphite bulb. It wasn’t entirely necessary for the robot to function, but it had a certain elegance that said I Am Not Just Any Cheapass Lockpicking Robot, Respect My Craft. 

Lockbot 5000 was not, strictly speaking, a robot. It wasn’t autonomous. It was a remote-controlled device. But Carlos had learned that manufacturers prefer buying the rights to robots rather than remote-controlled devices. And Lockbot 5000 was a cool name and (until recently) not under trademark.   

“That’s a good boy,” Carlos muttered happily, working the remote from his seat on the hallway carpet, propped up against the utility closet door. The puffy bulb arm retreated with a Vwrrrrrrr. “Okay, show us what you got, mon bot.” He grinned to himself.  Rhymes.  Hee. 

Vwrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Another arm popped out, this one sturdier and finished in pin-sized punchy things. Carlos took a sip from the aluminum can on the floor next to him and grimaced. He really ought to ask Teddy Williams about an emergency supply of Valium or Xanax or something, but he kept forgetting between crises. Usually the most terrifying things in his life were over and done with in the time it took to play an album cut. By the time he got around to considering pharmacology, he wasn’t scared anymore.  

Tonight, however... 

***

 

“Are you all right, Carlos?” 

“Sorry, what? Is it my turn?” Carlos didn’t know what to say, or do, or think.  His  skin was ice cold. So were the things under his skin.   

“Carlos?” Oh. It’s Mark. Hello, Mark. Mark looked at him over his cards, concern in his  face.  He was in his standard gear: blue shirt, suspenders, straw hat next to him on the table, deeply improbable beard. “Forgive my prying, but you don’t look well.” 

Carlos wondered whether Mark wore the same stuff all the time, or had a closet full of  identical-to-outsiders pieces, like Carlos’ own wonderland of lab coats. It was more interesting to try to figure it out than to ask outright, and much less rude. Carlos himself was wearing a lightly lined travel lab coat with handy ticket, postcard, and brochure pockets and a new AMTRAK pin on the lapel, a souvenir for a pin-junkie colleague. 

“Is it really cold in here?” Carlos asked.   

Mark shook his head. 

“Huh.” Carlos looked down at  the  piles of cards on the table in front of them. Judging by their relative sizes, Mark had been kicking his ass at Snap for some time, as he did every time they met on the train. He looked up at Mark again. “Mark, I don’t remember sitting down here. Nice to see you again, though. Hello.” 

“Hello again. That’s all right. Don’t be frightened. You were telling me about whatever ‘The Olden Faith’ is.” 

“I’m not really sure. Something to do with soft meat crowns? Also they dress kinda like you guys, but in a vegetable dye red. And they like cloaks.”   

“Interesting.” 

“I’ll try to find out more to tell you next time, if I can do it without getting, y’know, sacrificed.” 

Mark looked alarmed. “Do they do that?” 

“Not that I know of, but you can never be sure  in my town.” And just when did Night Vale become my town? He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else now. Well, obviously he could imagine it. He could imagine anything, But...his town now. Home.   

Carlos wanted very much to be home, but home was still many hours away.  He had a vague notion that this was part of whatever was wrong. 

“I appreciate the effort, but please do not take unnecessary risks to satisfy my curiosity.” 

“I promise.” Carlos decided against trying to explain that unnecessary risk in Night Vale was an entirely different concept from unnecessary risk in the outside world. He still didn’t fully grasp it himself. He half expected that one day he would be murdered by an angry fire hydrant because he was the only person in Night Vale who didn’t know that fire hydrants were both homicidal and quick to take offense. 

Maybe that was why he and Mark got along. They both had outside worlds to deal with. 

They’d met a few months before, when Mark had walked past his seat and  noticed the NIGHT VALE tag tucked into the ticket rail. Most people who saw it ignored it altogether, never having heard of the place. Once a woman had made the sign of  the Cross at him. And then, hand to God, she hissed. But when Mark saw the tag, he stopped, introduced himself, and asked Carlos if he knew anything about bloodstones. They weren’t Mark’s particular sect’s thing, or any other’s that he knew of, but he’d heard of them and was curious. (Curiosity was another thing they both had in common, come to think of it. Mark would be a good scientist. Carlos, on the other hand, would be a terrible farmer.)   

This was unusual. Even the Amtrak conductors, willing and able to deal with anything from herds of things blocking the tracks to belligerent sports fans unused to  booze at mountain altitudes, balked at coming to collect Carlos before the Night Vale stop. At the end of his first return trip , he’d spotted  two of them huddled at the end of the car, arguing in low tones. They actually played rock-paper-scissors to see who had to do it. After that, he tried to be out of his seat and take his bag from the lower level luggage bay well in time to spare them the ordeal, but sometimes a scientist falls asleep.

 

***

Carlos fiddled with the remote and guided the pin arm into the keyhole. CHUK CHUK CHUK CHUK CHUK CHUK went the pins, working their way into the lock -- and the door opened. 

Well that’s not right, Carlos thought. We weren’t half done yet. Needs at least a dozen more CHUKs. 

Cecil Palmer stood in the doorway. Sorry, Cecil Gershwin Palmer. Hee. Gershwin. “Carlos?” 

Cecil hadn’t been at the station this time to pick him up, but after today’s broadcast, and the lateness of the train, Carlos would have been surprised to see him. Carlos and Lockbot 5000 were left alone on  the concrete platform, along with a few bags of mail and an odd crate or two. Fortunately, even on his own, the postal workers sent to collect the mail bags were easy to dodge in their cloth wrappings. The man with the truck  -- it was always a different man -- who collected the crates always ignored him, and he had both Night Vale cab companies programmed into his phone. 

Carlos didn’t like the crates. Something about them called to mind the memory of tiny projectile weapons and blood. 

For all the that, train travel in and out of Night Vale was cheaper and less stressful than trying to book a flight in and out of Randy Newman Memorial Airport. And entire trains rarely, if ever, disappeared for weeks at a time. 

***

 

“Are you having a seizure?” Mark was direct, which was another thing Carlos liked about him. 

“No? I mean, I never have before.” 

“All right.” Mark told him to smile, which he did, asked him to hold his arms straight out, which he did, and made him say,  “I’m terrible at Snap,” which he did, laughing. 

“Good. You’re probably not having a stroke.” 

“Thank you. Are you sure it’s not cold?” 

Mark shook his head again. 

“Can I put my arms down? I think I’m okay. I think I  just...left for a  second.” 

“Yes, you can. Are you sure you’re not ill? You were fighting off a case of throat spiders the last time we met.” 

Carlos rested his hands on the table. “No, those lozenges were great, thanks! I do need to put in new vocal cords, though, I’m nearly due.” 

Mark looked slightly horrified, but contained any disapproval. “If it’s something you enjoy, it is hardly my place to stop you.” 

“My offer still stands. I’ve got a spare set in my bag. It’d take five minutes at the next smoke stop.” 

“I appreciate it, but I believe I will continue with the lozenges and my original set, so I do not frighten my wife and children.” 

“Fair enough.” 

“Carlos, forgive my asking, but is something the matter? May I help?” 

Carlos looked out the window, momentarily distracted by the last deep grape bits of sunset.  “I…” What was the matter? 

Oh

Oh, riiiight: 

I’m taking the tape, just now, and I’m crushing it into little pieces . None of us have to think about it again. I’ll just double-check that the mirror in the station bathroom is covered, as usual, and then that will be that. Done. Forgotten.   

Oh. That’s why I’m cold. Yup. Oh, my poor Cecil. Carlos feared he  would hear Cecil’s speech in his head for the rest of his days. And would never, never be able to mention it out loud. Or, more likely, it would be replaced by the next stupid insane trauma  that wandered into his and Cecil’s lives. Life?   

And that was another thing. Somewhere along the way they’d become  thoroughly bound together, and really they ought to do something about that, if only for efficiency’s sake. His early calculations indicated that shared accommodations would result in a lower risk of mortality, if only because the number of panicky 2 a.m. drives to the rescue, with or without stop sign immunity, would be significantly cut. There was also the fact that Cecil could put a sewer gaunt-rat down with a single shot to the head, while Carlos tended to stand on a lab counter and look for corrosive chemicals to throw at it while phoning the Sheriff’s Secret Police.  There would also be considerable economic advantage, an improved diet for both of them (well, mostly for Carlos), and a massive increase in their cuddling index. Carlos had actually plotted the potential cuddling on a grid, and the resulting curve was both elegant and promisingly slopey. Perhaps a PowerPoint presentation would convince Cecil, if Carlos made it look really, really science-y and impressive.  Cecil was very into science. 

In any case, this was why his earbud cords were twisted  a little too tightly around his neck and dangling down his back, unconnected to his phone.  All he could think was, Man, Cecil must have really strong fingers to crush a cassette with his bare hands. Maybe it was one of those shitty old Radio Shack cassettes. Maybe Capitol. He wasn’t  sure how old Cecil was, but trying to figure it out was more interesting than asking outright. And he wasn’t sure that he would like the answer, or that Cecil even knew it. For a brief moment he waxed nostalgic for cheap electronics, and thought how strange it was that he was once young enough to think that he could understand the world. Sorry, past Carlos, that’s not gonna happen. But at least it’ll be interesting. 

Maybe too interesting.   

“I….got some weird bad news before I got on the train, and I can’t do anything about it until I get home.”  And the train is late,  the way it  nearly always is, and I’m never gonna get home, and God, I am so tired. 

You could call him, a small voice reminded him. Like a normal person. On your phone.  The phone that you have in your pocket. For calling him and ordering takeout. The phone that lets you hear his show from two states away with a mountain range between you. 

I’m not sure I can, Carlos told it.  We're not  really what you call normal people. Also, I may be afraid. 

“Ah.” Mark again. Hi, Mark. “Is it something you would like to talk about?” 

Hoo boy.  Carlos managed a small smile. “I...wouldn’t know where to begin.” 

Mark nodded. Mark never pressed, which was another reason they got along. “Fair enough. Let me ask, are you taking any medication? Arachnopax? Araneusporin?” 

“Nah, the lozenges are more effective and don’t make me sleepy. What’s in those?” 

“Sugar and pectin. They’re very fancy,” Mark said wryly. 

“Cool. I had a Tylenol...three days ago?” Going through the Rockies gave him headaches. 

Mark’s face was deadpan, yet another thing Carlos liked about  him. “Yes. You English and your crippling drug dependence.” 

Carlos actually flashed a small grin at this. 

Mark nodded. “All right. The snack bar is closed, as it nearly always is. What you might do --  hypothetically, since as I’m sure you already know from  your  culture’s entirely accurate depictions of mine, I am not allowed to know anything at all about this sort of thing -- what you might consider doing is, go  over to the gentlemen sitting at the window wearing the red windbreaker, give him five dollars, and tell him I sent you  -- and that I said hello, and please say hello to Nora for me -- and that he should give you one of his things, if he has any left. Also, do you need five dollars?” 

Oh, Mark. Some people were just so damn nice. “I have five dollars. Is this like how Sarah and Anne aren’t supposed to be watching How to Train Your Dragon on the kid’s laptop over there?” Mark’s daughters, ten and 13, were at another table in the observation car, with a stubbly teen in a Hello Kitty t-shirt, fishnets, and furry leggings. All three were immersed in a movie. 

“Exactly so. Goodness, however will we defend ourselves against the corrupting outside world? You will note that if Sarah and Anne are sitting there, the...gentleman in the three-piece suit who has wandered through the car every  twenty minutes since we left Denver will not be able to approach the young man in the skirt before the film ends and the train, delayed as it is, reaches his stop.” 

Carlos blinked, impressed. “Are you Amish Batman, Mark?” 

“No, but I have shared the train with this man on several trips. The conductors know about him, but they cannot, according to my admittedly limited grasp of physics, be everywhere. The young man in the furry leg warmers does not need to meet  the man in the three-piece suit. Preventing this is a lesser evil than allowing my daughters to see what for all I know may be a perfectly fine film. Which, of course, I have never seen.” 

“Of course,” said Carlos. 

“I am unfamiliar with what you outsiders called ‘movies,’” -- Mark actually made air quotes and Carlos nearly fell apart laughing, and Mark smiled in return -- “and unable to discuss them in any depth. Otherwise, hypothetically, I might entertain the notion that Kung Fu Panda is the better film, but  at least they’re not watching Shrek.” 

“Ew,” Carlos agreed. Was there anything worse than children’s films stuffed with grown-up cultural reference jokes? Of course there was. Nuclear war. Whole Foods parking lots. Genocide. But still. 

“In any case, take what the man in the red windbreaker gives you, go back to your seat,  pull out your blanket and pillow, lie down, and you will know what to do after that. If you need help later, and we are not still here in the observation car, our seats are two cars behind this one. The large quantity of straw hats will be something of a  hint if you are uncertain. No matter how late it is, call out, ‘Hey, Mark,’ six different people will answer, and one of them will be me.” 

“Lot of Marks on this trip?” 

Deadpan again. “More Lukes, but they are cranky if you wake them after nine.” 

Carlos nodded. “Thank you. Thanks very much. Mark, does your particular German dialect contain the word ‘schtick’?” 

“Sadly, that is Yiddish.”

 

***

 

Carlos grinned up at Cecil and offered a slightly squiffy wave. Gershwin. Seriously. “Hi, Cecil!” 

“Hello, Carlos. What are you doing?” 

“Breaking into your apartment with my prototype lockpicking robot.” 

Cecil nodded. “Let me rephrase. Why are you doing that? You have a key. Also you sleep here like six nights a week and oh shit I forgot to pick you up! I am so, so sorry!” 

“Four-point-seven-four, on average.” Precision, Cecil. Carlos was working on breaking five with a little luck. His recent train journey,  and of course the nights Cecil endured at his place (Cecil’s bed was bigger, and Carlos could shave at the lab if he had to), had brought the average down. 

Carlos’ hypothesis that their living situation  and mutual co-sleeping statistics would be numerically and personally improved if  they officially shared personal space continued to be supported by observation and data. He’d even run a few more simulations on his laptop on board the train that appeared to support this. The difficult bit was raising the subject with Cecil. Carlos was terrible at raising subjects. He had even looked for a suitable greeting card at a shop near the train station, but HELLO FROM COORS FIELD, while the least terrible on offer, didn’t seem appropriate, and remained tucked in his lab coat pocket. Having sampled the beer, he knew he’d definitely dodged a romantic-communication bullet there.   

“I know, but it’s late, and I didn’t want to make any noise.” It was a very quiet lockpicking robot, as lockpicking robots went, designed for non-lethal, non-startling law enforcement use. His trip had been to demonstrate it to a potential manufacturer in Denver. It also, he’d found in the Denver train station, doubled as a handy remote controlled luggage cart, albeit one that drew stares. “And the train was late again anyway. I just got here.”  God bless the Zephyr, it was the best way to travel, but it found so many different ways to break. On the other hand, “My train was late because there was a landslide on the tracks  in the mountains and then we had to go back for another engine and then one of the passengers had a heart attack and had to be returned to Denver,” was much more interesting than “We were five minutes late into O’Hare and I missed my connection and had to go via St Louis and Atlanta.” The first scenario meant never having to leave his seat, while the second meant running from terminal to terminal,  hurdling other passengers’ rolly bags, and wondering if he’d ever see his luggage again. 

A door down the hall creaked open, and a sleepy face peered out. “Um, guys…?” 

Carlos addressed the interloper with an angry lizard hiss. “Now is not a good time, Steve.” 

Steve Carlsburg squinted, studying Carlos’ expression. Apparently he did not like what he saw, and said, “‘kay.” The door shut again. 

Cecil looked impressed. “Gosh.” 

He sat next to Carlos, and oh, Carlos was grateful for the warmth and nearness.  And poor Cecil looked so tired. Cecil reached for a sip of  what he thought was Carlos’ soda -- they were long past the drink-sharing stage -- and made a face. “Carlos, is this beer?” 

“Yup. Crap, now I’m going to have to apologize to Steve.”   

“Where did you get beer?” 

“Guy on the train.” 

“You don’t drink beer. You hate beer. And you almost never drink in case you have to do science.” 

“Well, I kind of needed it tonight.” 

Cecil swished the can experimentally, and for some reason appeared to be trying not to laugh. “This is two-thirds full and warm. How long have you been working on it?” 

“About four hours. Maybe six.” Well, technically, it had been in his possession for about four hours. He’d only opened it forty-five minutes ago, here in the hallway, and for all its faults, it had made time into an even more abstract concept than usual. 

Cecil’s face suddenly fell. “Oh, God, you heard the show.” 

“Yup.” Carlos always listened to Cecil’s show. For some reason Cecil often forgot this. Something in him blocked it out, and he was surprised every time. Usually he was delighted. (And maybe that was the reason he forgot it.) This time his expression was...not frightened. Not stricken. Concerned. 

“Are you all right?” Cecil asks him. 

Well obviously. That’s why I’m sitting out here with beer and a robot and terrified to open  the door to the place where I’m most welcome. 

Carlos didn’t say that. Carlos didn’t know what to say. I don’t know how to fix you was presumptuous, and implied that Cecil was broken, and that it was Carlos’ place to fix him. I don’t know what happened to you, or why ,or who you are...hell, Carlos didn’t even know that about himself. Who does? This beer is awful was not why he was crying, probably, even though it was truly awful. Really awful. I was so afraid of what I’d find when I opened the door only seemed ridiculous now. Cecil had been through shit Carlos couldn’t even imagine, and still liked being alive more than anyone he knew. There were guns in Cecil’s place -- anyone who went through the public school system in Night Vale  had a gun or ten, whether they wanted them or not -- but they were absolutely not for eating. I was worried you’ve been sitting on the sofa in the dark all night by yourself. Okay, Cecil probably had been  --  no light had spilled into the hallway when he opened the door -- but there was no changing it now, and it was likely something Cecil had done a lot more often before Carlos came along. Carlos was not a little proud of that. 

“Am I all right?” Carlos ventured after a while. “The hell with me. Are you?” 

And Cecil surprised him by actually saying, “No. I’m not. I’m very glad you’re here.” 

And Carlos understood now that he was an idiot. He'd had nothing to worry about. Cecil was braver than Carlos would ever be, often to the point of stupidity. If he weren’t, he would never have played the cassette in the first place. (Carlos considers the level of embarrassment he’d feel upon reading his improvised grade school lab notebooks. And now he wonders where they are, and hopes he never finds them. And God knows they’d never, to his knowledge, sucked out his soul or crushed or remade him.) If Cecil weren’t brave, and kind, and capable, and and and all that Scout stuff, he would have happily murdered Kevin in the sandstorm and never told a soul. That was Cecil’s finest moment, as far as Carlos was concerned. He hoped that one day he would be able to tell him so. 

Cecil handed him a distressed looking  kleenex. “This may be used. Sorry.” 

Carlos dabbed at his eyes and FNORKed into the tissue, wondering why he’d been sitting here in the dimmed nighttime lights, why he couldn’t bring himself to phone or even text, and finally knew the answer. He finally knew what to say, because it was always, always the right thing to say, always the thing he wanted to say, and he looked at Cecil and fairly grinned. He could feel his eyes well over again, but this time not from terror, or worry, or shame at his own cowardice. 

Carlos shook his head. “No. No, I’m not all right.  I just... After everything that happened, I just wanted to see you.” 

And he saw instantly that he’d got it right. Cecil’s face lit up like the jukebox at the Desert Flower, and then he leaned his head on Carlos’ shoulder, and they sit there for a while, watching Lockbot 5000’s LED lights. 

Carlos slipped his arm through Cecil’s. “You can finish my beer if you want.” 

“Oh God, thank you.” Cecil chugged it, admittedly no great task. “Oh, that’s horrible.” 

“I know! Man, when even I can tell beer is bad… People drink that shit on purpose. I will never get it.” 

“Carlos? Instead of sitting in the hallway, why don’t we go inside and be really depressed on the sofa?” 

“Can we be really depressed in bed? I feel the way you look and I really need to lie down.” 

“We’ll have to take our shoes off,” Cecil pointed out. “And  to be honest, I feel the way you look, but less drunk. That’s not going to last, by the way, so drink some water or you'll regret it later.” 

“Okay. Let’s try to take them off. Really, really hard.” 

Cecil stood, and helped Carlos to his feet. “Deal.”


***

Between the two of them they managed three and a half shoes. One of them kind of stuck to Carlos' foot, and he fell asleep. But that was okay. They could work on raising their average later.