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and then, there's Night Vale

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Dust blows in over the road. Carlos is fourteen and the world is still very small: it is divided into isolated pockets of home, school, shops, socialising. These shine as bright islands in a sea of industry and wide-open concrete, miles upon miles of railroad, big open sky and forever roads.

These familiar spots are connected only by cars: it is impossibly far to walk, and anyway, there are no sidewalks. Carlos does not have a car. He arranges lifts with various family members, drives silent with them along endless rows of identical houses. It's okay, he tells himself.

He doesn't bother exploring the city very much: downtown is bleak and barren, and driving there is an hour each way. Home is more interesting: there are books to study, and extra credit to attain. Some weekends, there's roleplaying at a friend's house, an enormous sprawling place like all the rest on the highway. These overlook the smoke stacks of oil refineries, thick steam filling the sky and glowing orange in the night; miles-long trains rattling past the window for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time. He photographs the clouds of steam and changes their colours on the computer, turns them indigo and mauve, imagines great galaxies filling up their insides.

Boston is an entirely different world.

Carlos shares an apartment the size of a shoebox with four other physics majors. His room costs the same as the mortgage on the entire house back home: a fact that his mother repeats, loud and shrill, as they walk through the place and she worries loudly about the exposed brickwork, the old appliances, the rusted fire escape. Carlos thinks it is absolutely perfect.

Boston has public transport.

Even better: Carlos can cycle in to the university from his apartment. He can cycle to the lab, and, after hours, to the little Italian quarter across the river from Cambridge. He can ride the subway far out into the suburbs, but he never does, is certain he's had enough of suburbs to last a lifetime.

He rides the tourist boats out around the harbour whenever he worries about the size of the city, reassures himself with the sight of skyscrapers crowding up against the shoreline. He stands with tourists snapping away pictures and talking in various loud Southwestern accents, marking their origins precisely in his mind. He quietly outlines the Harvard appliqué on his chest with one fingertip, and breathes in deep relief that he'll never have to go back.

He comes out, to the surprise and concern of exactly no-one, and a housemate's friend takes him out dancing at his very first gay bar. The both of them stumble home at dawn together, sweat-sticky and with the remnants of peacock-bright, sugared cocktails stuck to their lips and the collar of Carlos' shirt. He's elated, giddy-high with the newness of it all, ridiculously in love with this city, the people.

Night Vale was never meant to be a long-term thing.

He's been nearly ten years in Boston when the offer comes up: a unique new research opportunity, out in the most scientifically interesting location in the States.

He's secure now, in Boston: he shows family friends the sights when they visit, and takes his tutorial students to the best pizzerias across the river. It's been several years since he finished his PhD: years of endless applications to ever-more-mundane postgrad projects, internships in windowless fluorescent labs, cycling home late on silent, sodium-shining streets.

Night Vale was only ever meant to be temporary.

The first week, in which several colleagues drive away, resolute and shaking, and in which he discovers the local radio host's weird obsession with him, only strengthens his resolve. Get the data; get home in time to see the Christmas lights go up. He instructs his students not to make friends in the area, nor to get involved in town affairs. It would skew the results.

Except... then, there are pterodactyls.

There are pterodactyls at the PTA meeting, and an out-of-town colleague texts to say she's heard rumours of a glowing cloud overhead. There's this pyramid, and strange slogans appearing all over town, and it's extraordinary - of course, it is terrifying too, it's just, well, he'd never imagined anything like this.

Not to mention that the locals really are friendly, and he thinks the radio host's crushing on him may have been sincere (and what does that say about this place's liberal values? Damn sight better than at Harvard, that's for sure), and actually, that radio host's kind of cute when you get to talk to him and... oh.

Forget Christmas: suddenly, the team are surviving Valentine's Day and Street Cleaning Day together; every week Carlos is having tea and corn muffins with Old Woman Josie and the angels that don't exist; and, he's sure he's seen a colleague surreptitiously praying to a bloodstone circle that she thinks he hasn't spotted her set up in the corner of the lab.

Carlos has research proposals for fascinating new phenomena coming out of his ears, and Harvard send eight more PhD students to help them in the lab, and they're still not enough: how could they ever have enough resources to fully study this remarkable place?

It's dangerous, of course: sometimes it's horrifying, and the incident at the bowling alley only hammers that fact home, but somehow, his take-home message that day isn't run, now, never look back, but... to ask Cecil out on a date. Somehow, between the near-death experiences every other day, he's decided he'll at least be around long enough to date.

Carlos isn't too sure when Night Vale started to feel like the safest place he's ever lived.

He thinks it's around the time Cecil takes him to the White Sand Ice Cream Shop to share a bowl of peanut butter apple ice cream, when Hannah Gutierrez takes over the tills so that her partner can sit down and chat with them. Carlos has always been struck by the way that Cecil seems to be able to easily converse with anyone in town, recalling their name and life story flawlessly, and Lucy Gutierrez is just the same: in the ten minutes she sits at their table, Lucy waves helloes to around a dozen customers.

Lucy and Cecil mostly make small talk - high school football scores and yesterday's traffic, new ice cream flavours they're researching - and Carlos listens, marvelling at Cecil's enthusiasm and Lucy's seriousness, wondering at the odd feeling that this is stronger social glue than any of them are letting on. He promises to bring a canister of liquid nitrogen by the shop soon, and asks for a box of raspberry balsamic to take to the lab.

He'll go back to Boston soon: he's sure of it. There are papers to present and friends to visit, and he could take Cecil along, show him the sights and the old buildings. Maybe the nearby mountains, too, because, existent or not, they're beautiful.

In the meantime: there's a life to be built here, too, he realises, watching Cecil giggle around a mouthful of ice cream as Old Woman Josie swings by the table to whisper something, grinning wickedly, into his ear. Night Vale is absurd and bizarre and dangerous; Night Vale is the safest and friendliest place he's ever known. These things exist together, Carlos understands, and he thinks, for now, he'll stay.