The realization that Night Vale is already his home has been a long time coming, Carlos would admit to himself if he were forcing himself to be honest. Which he probably should. There clearly had not been enough honesty in his life or in his relationship when he had been in that desert other world.
Cecil had been smiling so broadly when the impossibly large car dropped them off at their little apartment. He hadn’t seemed to take his hands off of Carlos since the mayor’s assistant had taken the handcuffs off his wrists. Cecil had winked affectionately at Dana afterward, not seeming to notice the daggers that Carlos was shooting her with his eyes across the vehicle.
“Handcuffs. Seriously? Seriously??” Carlos had thought to himself with almost enough exasperation to damper his cheer at being home. But he let it go because his boyfriend had seemed so happy just to be able to wrap his arms around him.
Still holding his boyfriend’s tattooed hand, Carlos hurries to the door of their accessible first-floor apartment ready to be in their space once again, to sit on the floral couch they’d picked up at the pawn shop, to be with their knick-knacks and photos.
But then Cecil is stopping abruptly, just before their pink door and holding Carlos at bay from his own home.
“Pequeño?” Carlos says in confusion. He just wants to sit down at their table with their coffee mugs and relax.
Cecil bites his bottom lip with a pointed canine and fidgets for a moment, using one tattooed hand to pick at the thumb of the other. Carlos thinks he looks nervous. Almost like he did on their first date. “Just wait out here a moment, honey bunny. I want to straighten up before you come in.”
Carlos can’t help but snort in disbelief at that. “Cec, I know you’re not much of a housekeeper. I’ll clean up tomorrow while you’re at the station. Just let me in to the...”
Suddenly, Cecil is hugging him from behind with his arms and tentacles holding Carlos close. “Baaaaaaabe. Let me straighten up a minute and then you can come in and we’ll talk all night,” he whispers with his mouth almost close enough to touch Carlos’ ear.
“Well, in that case...” He answers with a smile.
Cecil gently kisses the back of Carlos’ neck before heading inside.
It takes longer than a moment. Carlos is fairly sure it’s been at least five minutes, but one can never really be sure in Night Vale. He’s checking the time on his phone when he swears he hears the unmistakable sound of glass smashing together.
“Pequeño? Are you doing okay in here?” He asks pushing the door open slowly.
Only to be hit with the smell of tobacco smoke as thick as an ashtray. His stomach sinks as he takes in the changes to their home since he had been away.
“Oh, darling Carlos!” Cecil sing-songs pulling the other man into a tight embrace and waltzing him through the threshold into their living room.
“Cecil, honey. What happened in here?” It was the kind of question the scientist normally tried to avoid asking; the kind of question where the answer *should* be obvious, but he didn’t much like the conclusion that he was drawing from available data.
Because it looked like someone who had access to their home had found a liquor store. And drank it.
“Oh, I just had a party. You know - A Going Elsewhere Party. I guess I didn’t clean up as well as I should have.” Cecil replies cheerfully.
“A party... with Armagnac...?” Carlos asks taking in the full trash can sitting beside their floral sofa.
“Well, it is my favorite,” the radio host answers with a nod.
Something isn’t sitting well with Carlos. He hadn’t been to many parties as an undergrad, but he’d never even heard of one where the host served brandy by the bottle. However, the room certainly smells like one of the frat parties that the scientist had been dragged to by his first boyfriend. The thick acrid smell of cigarette smoke, the stench of old alcohol bottles and the bitter smell of old trash wafting through the air with a hint of something masculine...
“It smells like cologne over everything…” Distantly Carlos wonders if Cecil had wanted to come into the apartment before him to try to cover up the party smell.
Almost on auto-pilot, he wanders into the kitchen. “Cec, when was the last time you took out the trash... or ate something besides Big Rico’s?” The dark-eyed man asks, indicating the black trash bags sitting in the corner of the kitchen floor and the counters which are bare except for a few discarded greasy pizza boxes.
“Welllll, beautiful Carlos, I was going to clean up before I left to join you in the desert other world, but I had so much else on my mind to do,” The radio host answers sheepishly.
The scientist can’t help but feel a pang of guilt at the mention of his partner’s willingness to move to be with him. He’d been such a jerk. Unconsciously, he closes his hands into tight fists and felt his nails begin to press into the palm of his hands. The anxious knot that had grown in the pit of his stomach when he first came through the door was growing to be the size of a bowling ball and settling in for the foreseeable future.
“Perfect beautiful Carlos, don’t worry about the apartment tonight.” The radio host implores with just the barest hint of a whine as he wraps his tattooed arms around his boyfriend. “Just come sit down on the couch. I’ll make us coffee and you can tell me all about the science you accomplished in the desert other world.”
Feeling the warmth of the arms wrapped around him and softness of his partner’s tentacles as they rub against his back, Carlos nods. Cecil deserves his attention tonight. He’s done so many things wrong lately. Tomorrow he will worry about the apartment.
More importantly, tomorrow he’ll worry about Cecil.
The two men talk all night, but not about anything substantial. Carlos tries to explain some of the experiments he had conducted in the desert other world and the results that he had failed to obtain. He talks about the friendships he had formed with Doug and Alicia and some of the other masked warriors. He avoids mentioning his friendship with Kevin after noticing the way Cecil’s third eye snaps closed and his jaw clenches every time he hears the name.
Cecil, for his part, chatters on about their niece Janice and her latest sports accomplishments and good grades, Woody Guthrie’s newest CD and Cecil’s opinion on his experiments with the viola, and whatever local gossip comes to his mind.
They do not address the metaphorical elephant in the room. Had there been a literal elephant, Carlos would have been forced to insist that it be addressed.
But now Cecil has left for the Night Vale Community Radio station. He’d said that he needed to go in early to do some “‘paper’ work” for station management since he was staying in Night Vale. Carlos had been afraid to ask what the quotation marks that Cecil used every time he said “paper” were for and had instead did his best to reassure his boyfriend that he had his own work that needed addressing at his lab beside Big Rico’s.
“That’s technically true,” Carlos thinks to himself. It wasn’t a lie because he did have work that needed addressing at the lab. He was just choosing to focus on a more important job at their apartment.
Cecil had claimed the mess was leftover from a “Going Elsewhere Party” and from being too busy getting ready to move to cook or take the trash out. However, Carlos is a scientist and therefore believes in doing background research and analyzing data before drawing conclusions.
So, feeling more than slightly like he was somehow snooping in his own home, the scientist searches for some evidence that supported Cecil’s claim that there had been a party.
And found none. He does however find unfinished bottles of cheap brandy under the bathroom sink, under the couch, in the back of Cecil’s sock drawer and in the front closet.
Carlos isn’t even sure where to begin to handle this. The bowling ball size knot of anxiety which had been sitting in the bottom of his stomach is now spreading into his chest. It’s beating along with his heart and he can feel it with every breath. It threatens to spill out of the corner of his eyes and causes his hands to shake.
Cecil has a problem.
Cecil is in trouble.
Cecil - The Voice of Night Vale is in trouble. How had no one noticed? How had no one helped?
Carlos plops himself down on the counter in their kitchen. Surely, someone who knows Cecil well enough has noticed that something is amiss. Having never encountered a problem of this nature, Carlos finds himself falling back on the scientific method to address it. Before one forms a hypothesis, one must ask a question and do background research.
So, first a question. “What precisely is going on with Cecil?”
And now for background research. To research a topic, one consults an expert and Carlos can at least make educated guesses on who could be considered an expert on Cecil Gershwin Palmer.
He picks up the cheeseburger house phone and dials.
“Hello? Cecil, is that you, boy? Are you ready to talk about last night? What in goodness is going on with you and your science fellow?” Questions a raspy feminine voice.
“Hello, Mrs. Ortiz! This actually is Carlos the Scientist. I was calling to talk to you about… about my radio host...fellow?” The scientist trails off. He actually hasn’t had much experience talking with Old Woman Josie, but he knows that she has been Cecil’s bowling buddy for years.
“Oh, Carlos! Call me Josie! I haven’t talked to you in forever and a day! How are you? Are you taking care of Cecil?”
“Oh, okay, Josie…. Um, I’m trying to take care of Cecil. That’s actually why I called. Have you noticed anything...different with him since I’ve been away?” At the moment, Carlos desperately wishes that he had planned out the conversation. He isn’t exactly certain how to ask, “Do you think my boyfriend has a drinking problem?” without making it sound like an accusation and the last thing he wants is to burn bridges with Cecil’s friends.
“Oh, that boy missed you something fierce! He’s been talking about you and that desert other world of yours at all the bimonthly bowling league nights, but hasn’t really mentioned much else. I thought maybe he was kinda blue, so I’ve been inviting him over to come visit with me and the angels, but he hasn’t accepted an invitation in months.”
For some reason that he can’t quite pinpoint, that reply hits Carlos like a slap to the face. As his cheeks redden, he tries to come at his true question with a slightly different angle. “I’ve missed him, too. I...I was wondering if maybe he’d been acting differently than he used to? Like maybe drinking to forget more often?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. I haven’t seen him sad like that in years, but I haven’t seen him drinking anything other than cactus juice. Say, have you told him that you missed him too? I think he’d like to hear that.” The old woman answers softly. Carlos can’t help but think that he has never heard tough Old Woman Josie sound so gentle before.
“I-I’ll tell him, Josie. I’ve actually got a few other phone calls to make, but thank you for the advice. I a-appreciate it.”
“Cecil? Hi, Cecil, it’s Dana!”
“Dana, hi! It’s Carlos! The scientist. How are you?” Carlos always strives for clarity in conversations.
“Oh, hello, Carlos! I’m doing fine, all things considered. How are you? How is Cecil?” Dana’s reply is mayoral compared to her initially enthusiastic greeting.
“That’s…. That’s actually what I’m calling about.” Carlos states, yet again wishing that there was an easier way to complete this background research than talking about private personal things with other people. If Carlos is honest with himself, he doesn’t consider himself comfortable with conversations of the private and personal nature.
“Yeah, I was wondering if you’d noticed anything different with Cecil since I’ve been away?”
“Um, Carlos…. I don’t know if Cecil mentioned it to you, but he hasn’t really been talking to me while you’ve been away…” Dana answers softly with a trace of hurt in her voice.
That sounds vaguely familiar, but more importantly that sounds important. A distant voice in Carlos’ head scolds him that a good boyfriend would know that his partner wasn’t on speaking terms with one of his closest friends. “Um….Yeah, now that you mention it, I think maybe he said something about…. thinking you were the one who bought him at the auction?”
“Yeah, that’s what he thought! I told him it wasn’t true and I didn’t buy him at the auction. Last night, I had to have him handcuffed to his chair at the opera to keep him from saving me! It turns out that Hiram’s violet head was the one who bought him to keep me safe from Hiram and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. So Cecil should know now that I was telling the truth! Make sure that he knows I want to talk to him whenever he’s ready.” Dana replied in a rush of words.
“Yeah? Why did you have him handcuffed?” Carlos questions, feeling as though he’s missing a major part of a story.
“He made it clear that he was tired of someone else using his body to protect me and I can’t honestly say I blame him. Personally, I tend to favor bodily autonomy when possible, except for in the case of librarians.” Dana states firmly. “It was the only way to ensure that no one could use him to try to save me and prove to him that it wasn’t me doing so.”
“Oh… I tend to favor bodily autonomy too… I’ll…. I’ll let Cecil know that you want to talk to him.” Carlos answers, struggling to find the right words with embarrassment once again reddening his cheeks.
“Okay, thank you, Carlos!”
Having consulted the experts on the topic of Cecil Gershwin Palmer who would fall under the heading of Friends with no success, Carlos decides that he’ll have to turn to those he had classified as Family.
Despite Cecil’s own personal problems with Steve Carlsberg, Carlos had always gotten along with him. He considers his conspiracy theories to be outlandish, even by Night Vale standards, but he is family and so maybe he had noticed that there was something amiss with the radio host.
It had made Carlos’ heart smile the night before to hear how excited his niece Janice had been to see him.. And Steve had always seemed to be a fan of Carlos’ since the scientist had moved to the strange desert town with the exception of the day of Strexcorp’s ultimate defeat. Hopefully the conspiracy theorist will be willing to trust that the “outsider” only had his brother-in-law’s best interests at heart.
Arriving at the Carlsberg-Palmer residence on the other side of Night Vale, Carlos sits in his sporty hatchback taking a moment to collect himself. “There has to be a way to bring this up…. Some way to know if Cecil is okay without asking anything….anything that would make him look bad. That’s the last thing I’d want,” Carlos worries anxiously to himself as he tugs his dark hair firmly in a nervous childhood tic.
It was moments like these – moments which required a combination of tact, kindness and finesse which made him wish that he had the social skills of a “normal” person. “Fuck, I’d settle for an educated slug,” he thinks darkly to himself, scratching the back of his neck where he was sure he could feel the stress rash developing. He really needs to pull himself together before trying to talk to his in-laws.
Carlos jerks his head back from his hands quickly enough to give himself whiplash.
“Howdy there, brother-in-law Carlos!”
Heart racing, the scientist rolls down his window facing the blonde man to his left.
“Uhhhhh….. Hello, brother-in-law Steve? How are you doing this afternoon?” He inquires, doing his best impression of a person who was not having a minor anxiety bout moments before.
“I’m doing a-okay, but I noticed your sporty hatchback parked here in our driveway for about forty-five minutes and I figured I should come out and ask if you needed any help before the Night Vale’s Sheriff’s Secret Police came and took you away,” Steve answers in a cheerful voice.
Carlos winces in embarrassment as he realizes just how long he must’ve spent staring at the front of the brick house thinking to himself. “I don’t require any help! Thank you, Steve. I actually just came over for a quick visit. Are Janice and Abby home?”
“Sure are!” Steve booms with a broad smile. “Come on in, brother-in-law Carlos!”
“Oh, uh, thank you! I appreciate the invite.” The dark-haired man offers his best grateful smile. Although he is fairly certain it was customary to be invited to someone else’s home before sitting pondering in their driveway for almost half an hour, it’s still nice how considerate Steve is.
“Hi, Uncle Carlos!” Janice greets with an excited hug to Carlos’ waist.
“Hello, Niece Janice. How was school today?” Carlos asks with a small smile.
“It was good! I got an A on my Modified Sumerian final!” She answers with a small cheer for her own hard work.
Carlos’ smile this time is genuine. His niece never fails to bring joy to his heart when they were together and despite their age difference he can’t help but admire the youngster’s self-confidence. How different would his childhood have been if he had been able to provide his own cheer section?
“Congratulations! I’m very proud of your hard work! Uncle Cecil tells me that Modified Sumerian isn’t an easy class.”
“Ain’t that the truth! It and Emergency Bloodletting were the only classes I had to repeat. Had the hardest time learning to tie off a tourniquet.” Steve replies in his booming voice. “So, brother-in-law Carlos, what brings you over for a visit? Did you want to catch the football game?” He asks motioning for the shorter man to join him on the faded plaid couch.
Carlos can’t help fidgeting with the hem of his lavender plaid lab coat as he sits down.
“Well, to be perfectly accurate, which I strive to be, I do appreciate accuracy…” The scientist runs a hand through his dark hair trying to collect his thoughts.
“I came to ask if you had noticed anything...different with Cecil recently? I mean, different not in the sense of his usual eccentricities and unique personality which he of course has in abundance and make him himself- Cecil Gershwin whom I love, but I mean different in the sense of...maybe something I should worry about?” The scientist winces. He thinks he probably could have phrased that more coherently, but he really doesn’t want his niece to get the wrong idea about her Uncles’ relationship and had thusly kind of wandered verbally.
This whole day is making his regular social anxiety even worse somehow.
Steve gives him a sideways look from where he sits on the other end of the couch and scratches at his blonde beard. “I haven’t noticed anything wrong, but we haven’t really had a lot of family time lately. Cecil’s been so busy with the plans for moving and the whole Lot 37 problem. He seemed fine when I brought Janice over for her visits, though. Do you think he’s sick?”
“Uh, I just thought... with all he’s been dealing with lately that I should ask…”
“Oh. Janice, did you notice anything wrong with Uncle Cecil?” Steve asks, turning toward the kitchen table where the olive-skinned girl had been working on her homework.
“Not really,” She answers with a shrug. “He seemed kind of sad cause you weren’t there Uncle Carlos, but I tried to cheer him up. We watched Cat Ballou like three times one day! I bet he’s real happy that you’re back.” The youngster gives her uncle her most encouraging smile at the thought.
Steve nods in agreement with this assessment.
“Yeah that sounds right. He seemed like himself, but from before you guys got together. A little melancholy, quiet, but I figured that was just because he was having a tough time with the whole long-distance thing.”
“Like himself, but from before you guys got together…. Like himself, but before you guys got together.” Steve’s words reverberate around in Carlos’ head ominously.
“Oh. Well, um, thank you for the information. I appreciate the help. Did you say that Abby was home right now? I’d like to ask her if she noticed anything.”
Oh yeah! She’s working on her latest project in her studio. Feel free to go chat! Just remember to knock before you go in. You know how she can be when she’s really focused on a sculpture. It’s like she forgets about the whole rest of the world outside of her art.” Steve answers with the universal Night-Valean sign for “Caution! Speak up for The Sheriff’s Secret Police!”
“Thank you, Steve. I appreciate it.” Carlos replies with an exaggerated thumbs-up.
“No problemo, brother-in-law Carlos!”
Carlos cracks his fingers as he collects himself in front of the wooden door. He wouldn’t say that he disliked his boyfriend’s sister. More accurately, he thinks to himself, “I wouldn’t say that I dislike Cecil’s sister.”
However, the scientist had historically gotten along better with Cecil’s brother-in-law, much to the radio host’s dismay. Where Steve is open yet easy to talk to, Abigail can be...a bit much. Like her younger brother, she has a tendency toward a larger-than-life personality which can intimidate quieter people like a certain withdrawn scientist.
Carlos has never had to wonder what Steve was thinking due to his friendly, open-and-honest personality. However, he is still learning to read the elder Palmer sibling’s moods. The conversation would go one of two ways according to his calculations, either Abby would be happy to see him and excited for the chance to gossip with “little Gershowitz’s boyfriend!” or she would be monumentally annoyed at being asked to dish about her “favorite baby brother’s” problems. His calculations based on previous encounters indicate it will be a coin toss.
Carlos knocks on the door.
“Ooomph!” Carlos grunts as he finds himself pulled into a massive hug. He still has not quite solved the physics question of how Abby manages to always give harder hugs than her husband, who is physically both bigger and taller. Not that Abby was slight, she has muscles built from years of work welding and working on her found-art sculptures. It was more that her hugs are surprisingly bone-crushing.
“Little brother Carlito! It’s been too long, man!” The tall woman booms.
“Uh- yeah! Yeah, it has. How are you, Abby?” Carlos asks after catching his breath.
“Oh, I’m good. Nearly finished with this piece that Sheriff Sam commissioned. I think it’s gonna turn out alright. So, what brings you over to visit? You here to catch the football game?” She answers with a broad smile.
“Maybe this won’t be so bad. I seem to have found her in a good mood.” Carlos thinks to himself optimistically. “Uh, actually, Abigail….” He begins.
“Carlito, man! I’ve told you! You can call me Abby.” She interrupts with a gentle punch to Carlos’ bicep.
“And I’ve asked you to call me Carlos and Cecil has asked you to call him Cecil, although as a sibling I can see why you don’t want to give up on his childhood nickname. He still asked.” The scientist thinks to himself, but elects not to say aloud. He is sure that the topic will be hard enough to broach without starting out on a combative foot. Instead, he presses a hand to his temple and takes a long breath. “Um, actually…. Would you like a hand with that...? Whatever that is exactly?” Carlos asks indicating the massive pile of wire hangers on the studio table that the artist has been cutting into smaller pieces.
“Oh! Yeah, I’m just cutting these wire hangers into three-inch pieces with these wire cutters.” She explains flexing the wire cutters in question. “Dillards threw out like hundreds of these and I’ve got plans for like this huge-ass sculpture of a ‘rika that I want to build! These are gonna be his wings. You can feel free to help cut if you want, just be careful not to get cut.”
After holding his breath for a moment waiting for the Angel Acknowledgement siren to sound, Carlos smiles. He is a firm believer that a little repetitive work can be a good distraction and make difficult conversations easier.
“Well, actually, Abby, I wanted to talk to you about Cecil.” He stated, picking up the wire cutters and reaching for a yellow hanger.
“Gershowitz? What about him?”
“Has he seemed different to you recently? I mean, different from his usual, that is?” Carlos begins.
The tall woman looks down at him with a flat look.
“Carlito, he was about to leave our hometown, all his family, friends and Night Vale Community Radio to run off and be with you -his bunny in the desert other world. That’s about as far from his usual as things would get.”
Carlos can’t stop his cheeks from burning with shame there. Intellectually, he knows that had been what he’d asked of his boyfriend, but the way it was phrased and coming from Cecil’s sister… it just seems so much worse than it had sounded when he’d asked. He’d meant it to be full of possibility and adventure for the two of them, but here in Abby’s studio it just sounds so sad for Cecil.
“Yes, well…” He clears his throat and decides to bite the bullet. “I meant more, has he seemed to be sadder lately or maybe partying more...or...maybe drinking to forget more…?” He trails off, wishing that he’d written a script for this conversation.
Abby shrugs her broad shoulders. “To be honest, I’m not exactly on the list of people Gershowitz would talk about that kinda thing with.” She pulls a package of nicotine gum out of her black cargo shorts and offers Carlos a piece which he declines with a shake of his head before continuing. “Yeah, he’s been distant, but he doesn’t like talk about his feelings with me. I would say….I haven’t seen him this moody since he was in high school. Prolly not to long after moms took off.”
Carlos knows that Abby had been forced to drop out of college to raise Cecil after their mother had left when Cecil was a teenager. However, it is a topic that both the siblings tend to avoid in conversations. The scientist nods.
“That’s reminiscent of what Steve said. He said that Cecil was… acting like himself, but from before we started dating… I wasn’t sure what he meant.”
The artist nods back absently as she examines a broken hanger. “Yeah, he was real moody there for a bit in high school- sorta like he’s been here lately. I ended up having to threaten to pull him out of Boy Scouts in order to get him to go to counseling.”
Carlos feels himself choke on air and blinked several times. “Um… Excuse me? Did you just say… you blackmailed Cecil into therapy?” He asks, sure he had misunderstood something.
“Yeah, I just didn’t feel like I had any other options, ya know? It sounds real shitty now looking back at it, considering how good he turned out, but by the Brownstone Spire, I was just twenty-two and he was falling asleep in school all the time, couldn’t concentrate on his classes for shit, his grades turned lousy and then there were the rumors.” She seems to count her reasons on one hand until she made a sign for explosion when she said rumors.
“Rumors?” The scientist questions flatly.
“Yeah, he was getting a…” Abby trailed off and held up her fingers in scare quotes. “ ‘Bad reputation’ around town. Gonna be real with you, I was afraid he was going to turn out just like mom and I don’t think he’s ever really forgiven me for actually telling him that straight out.”
Carlos does his best to avoid doing an impression of a gaping fish, but finds it difficult.
“I’m sorry? That all sounds like average teenage stuff?” He holds his hands up in exasperation. “What---? You blackmailed him into counseling just because of some rumors? As the only openly gay kid in my high school, I can tell you, there were plenty of rumors about me! But I’m glad my parents’ answer wasn’t to bully me into therapy. How could that have helped?”
Abby appears to pull herself up to her full height and squares her shoulders before turning to the metal cabinet full of her more durable art paper so that her back is to the shorter man. She snorts in disbelief.
“Look, Carlos, it wasn’t just some rumors! And I’m only telling you this because Gershowitz never will and I think maybe you need to know if you two are serious. Moms had a drinking problem and then she left. And then Gersh started acting differently - real rebellious and subversive.”
“Subversive? What are you, The Sheriff’s Secret Police or his sister? What does that even mean?” Carlos asks without thinking, voice full of accusation.
The artist turns back to face her brother-in-law with arms full of paper. “It means Gershowitz was taken in for re-education more times than either of us can probably remember and was fucking his way through Night Vale High. And when you have an emotionally volatile fifteen year old who’s failing classes and friends you know - friends you trust - calling to ask if he’s okay after hearing about him pulling a train on the baseball team behind the bleachers, then! Then you do what you think is best! Even Old Woman Josie called and asked if he was doing alright, but she was too polite to say why!” The artist pauses to catch her breath after having pushed the last of this out in a rush.
Carlos feels like he’s been hit by a ton of bricks. Embarrassment, concern, and righteous anger all vying for his attention. At a loss for words, he waits for his sister-in-law to continue.
Placing a hand on her temple and turning to look over her shoulder away from the dark-haired man, she finishes.
“So I’m sorry, but I know my baby brother can do better than being the town bicycle, and we were getting hang-up calls and the jealous little girlfriend of some baseball player even fucking keyed ‘slut’ into Gershowtiz’s car. I was afraid he’d get hurt. Like physically. And you weren’t there so I don’t think you get to judge me.”
Carlos nods. He’s not sure what to say, but he’s never been a parent or a parental figure and the way he can see Abby’s eyes glistening makes him want to take a moment to think before replying.
“So yeah. I guess I’d say that ‘Like himself, but from before you started dating’ would prolly do as well as any explanation I can give. And like I said, I’m just telling you because I think maybe he’s serious about you….and maybe there is something wrong with Gersh. If so, maybe he’ll talk to you about it? I mean - what’s he gonna do if he finds out I snitched? Push Steve and I further away?” Abby asks with a bitter laugh, fidgeting with the silver choker over her adam’s apple. “ Anyway, I need to finish that project for the mayor, so if we could talk another time….?” She trails off with a shrug.
“Oh. Yeah. Thank you for taking time to talk to me, Abby… Good luck with your project…”
Carlos finds himself once again sitting in his hatchback trying to decide his next move. Common relationship advice tells him that the proper step now would be to communicate his concerns to his boyfriend and give him a chance to explain himself, but the scientist in him tells him to sort the facts at hand before making a move. He pulls out a worn notebook and begins searching the vehicle floor for a pen.
“She keeps her Moet et Chandon /In her pretty cabinet /"Let them eat cake", she says. /Just like Marie Antoinette…” Playing over a buzzing sound interrupts Carlos’ attempts at writing a conversation in his head and prompts him to reach for his cellphone in his backseat.
Noting the unknown number with a 575 area code, the scientist states, “Hello. This is Carlos Medina, may I inquire who is calling?”
“Yeah. Hey, Medina. This is Earl. Earl Harlan.” Replies a somewhat familiar voice.
“Oh. Hello, Earl. How are you?” While Carlos and Earl had of course met each other, with the former being the boyfriend of the latter’s oldest friend, Carlos had kept his distance remembering a certain harried love confession.
“Garbage at the moment, actually, but that’s kinda the point. Look, Medina, I think me and you need to talk about Cec since you’re back in town and I’ve got about an hour before my shifts starts at Tourniquet so can you meet me there? There’s an employee smoking area with a bench around back. I’ll be outside.” Comes the reply, spoken so quickly that Carlos doesn’t have a chance to interrupt.
“What about Cecil? Can’t we just talk….” The scientist attempts.
“Just meet me at Tourniquet, okay? Can you just do that? I’m already in the parking lot.”
“Alright, Earl, since it seems to be important, I can do that. I’ll be there in between ten to fifteen minutes.” Carlos concedes allowing the frustration to bleed into his voice.
“That’s good. Good. Alright, see you then.”
Carlos walks up to the small employee smoking area behind the fine dining establishment Tourniquet to find Earl sitting on the aforementioned bench with half a cigarette hanging from his freckled face.
“Hello, Earl.” The scientist greets with his best attempt at cordiality.
“Medina.” The other man replies.
“You said we should talk about Cecil.” Carlos prompts wanting to finish this conversation before it’s even started.
“Actually, I said I think we need to talk about Cec. Come sit down.” The chef corrects as he pats the other half of the metal bench.
Figuring one should err on the side of being polite to the friends of one’s partner, even the ones with old crushes, Carlos sits.
“Soooooo…… I guess you figured out about Cec’s drinking problem by now…”
“How…. What….?” Carlos begins without knowing where his sentence is going.
“Medina, you’ve been talking to eeeeeveryyyyoooone and it’s a small town and I was a damn good scout….Unless you meant how I knew about Cec’s drinking problem, in which case,he ate a peanut-butter jelly sandwich drunk in the lobby of my work and destroyed his studio. Those were pretty big hints. Plus, the fact I’m his oldest friend. Personally, I woulda thought I’d been the first person you came and talk to cause I was there when he was a day-drunk in high school.”
Carlos is really getting tired of his own fish-on-land gaping impression which he finds himself doing as memories of sorority girls with valley girl accents and vodka water bottles in morning classes during his freshman year of college pass through his mind.
“Earl, I appreciate you trying to look out for Cecil, I really do, but I simply do not see how exaggerating his problems will do him any favors. Besides, I just spoke with Abigail and I think that if Cecil had been a teenage alcoholic that she would have found it relevant to mention.”
“How in the name of the Nameless Specter would Abby know? Cec did his damndest to hide it from everyone, especially her! If my parents didn’t realize, and he practically lived with us junior year, how would she with all the shifts she was pulling to make ends meet?”
The shorter man sends a level stare across the cold bench he’s sharing. “Cecil Gershwin Palmer - The Voice of Night Vale? One of the most stand-up charitable community-minded guys either of us have ever met? Not to mention as big a dork as me. A high-school lush?” Carlos snorts in disbelief. “Yeah. Right. Next you’ll tell me you believed that stupid rumor that went around about him and the sportball team behind the bleachers.”
“Of course not!” Earl replies with an exaggerated roll of his green eyes.
Carlos nods emphatically and holds his tan hands up in a wide gesture meant to convey, “Well duh!”
“It was the chess team in Mrs. Gold’s science lab, but of course that was somehow too boring for the rumor mill.” He answers before taking a long drag on his cigarette.
Carlos can only seem to stare at the other man with his black eyes wide in surprise. “I like science and municipally approved books just as much as the next guy…” spoken defensively echoed in his head along with some risqué private time that Cecil had initiated in Carlos’ own laboratory.
“You know how a high school always has that one kid the rumor mill can’t get enough of? That was Cec when we were both young.” Earl continues. “But like all rumors - only about a quarter of what you hear is the truth, another half is total bullshit and the last quarter’s been exaggerated past recognizing… Except whatever you might hear about him at Sarah Sultan’s 18th Birthday Party. That? That happened...Whewwwww….. Did that happen…That’s the night we learned not to let Cecil near molly. By the way, don’t let Cecil near molly.”
“I don’t think I like you very much,” Carlos states flatly in response, for once not bothering to try calculating the consequences before speaking.
The chef actually smiles a little at that. “Mutual. But I think we might have someone in common, so I figured I’d put in an effort. Say, do you know how he got that big scar around his foot?”
“Of course! It was a boy-scouting incident with a metal trap!” Carlos answers defensively.
“Right! And after I told him to be careful with that librarian trap.” Earl confirms.
“Well, do you know how he lost his back tooth?” The shorter man tries to keep the defensiveness out of his voice when he asks as he tugs at his long dark hair.
“Oh yeah! We were making mousse in middle-school home ec! I always warn him to watch out for cinnamon scorpions, but does he ever remember? Nooooooooo.” The chef shakes his head and rolls his eyes at the memory.
Carlos realizes at that moment that Cecil had never told him that Earl was with him that day when he tripped over the scorpion and fell into a counter knocking out a tooth on impact, but it makes sense. But the way Earl talks, it’s as if the two of them had been inseparable once.
“... Do you know how he got that scar on his right elbow?” Comes the question interrupting the scientist’s train of thought.
“Yes! Yes. He is my boyfriend and we are very dedicated to one another. I know practically his whole medical history. He slipped and landed on a broken bottle after a school dance.” Carlos isn’t even bothering trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice at this point.
Earl offers him a small knowing smile and a sidelong glance as he lights a second cigarette. “Oh man, Medina... Cec always could spin a story. He landed on a broken brandy bottle that had fallen out of his old jeep when I cold-clocked him at Junior Prom.”
The shorter man finds himself on his feet.
“Excuse me, Harlan? You what? Punched your supposed best friend in the face while he was intoxicated and couldn’t defend himself? Why on earth are you telling me this? Are you proud of yourself?”
Earl stands up slowly and seems to straighten himself to his full height. As seemingly always, a cigarette dangles effortlessly from his lip and Carlos finds himself half-wondering how the chef manages to speak without it falling to the ground.
“Yeah, actually I am proud of myself. Because I don’t know about where you’re from, but the scouts here? In Night Vale? They don’t give out lessons for stopping a drunk who wants to drive, Medina. There’s no fucking badge for that one.” The taller man spreads his hands wide in a gesture meant to signify emptiness.
Carlos feels his blood start to run cold as the former scout leader continues to speak.
“The best friend I’ve ever had was fixing to kill himself or someone else that night, he was so damned plastered out of his head. You weren’t there so don’t bother telling me what you would’ve done differently. I wasn’t exactly sober as a hooded figure myself, alright? But I did what I had to do to keep Cec in one piece.”
His stomach is twisting around himself as Carlos thinks about the implications of Earl’s words. That there could have been a world where him and Cecil had never found each other. There was almost a world where Cecil had never graduated, went to college, interned at the radio station, went to Europe, joined a bowling league...fell in love..met his niece...
“My point is…” Earl sighs and drags a freckled hand down his face. “The reason I asked to talk to you today is that I know without a doubt that he’s drinking again and he hasn’t been a mess this big since the years after his mom abandoned him.” Guilt gnaws at Carlos’ skin as he thinks about the parallels and the taller man fixes him with a pointed look. How many times today had he had the words “you weren’t there” leveled at him like an accusation?
“So. If you’re staying, tell Cec to come to AA with me. Insist on it cause no matter what he’ll tell you, you can’t kick this shit alone. And if this is too much - if you’re gonna do another runner, do it now. Today. So I can find a sitter for Roger and I’ll go be with Cecil while he detoxes, which honestly my sponsor will just hate.
I don’t know if I can put him back together without falling off the wagon myself, but I’ll sure fucking try. And he never… He never looked at me the way he looks at you. So for the record, Medina, I hope you stay…”
Carlos arrives at their apartment shortly after Cecil would normally be leaving the NVCR parking lot. He reaches the pink front door to find it unlocked. Stepping inside the apartment, he’s relieved to find the smell of tobacco and cologne has receded to be seemingly replaced by the clean smells of vinegar and lavender fabuloso.
“Pequeño- are you home?” He calls walking from the front room to the kitchen. He stops just outside the kitchen with his feet just barely on the shag living room carpet, half an inch from the blue tile of the kitchen floor.
His relief dies a sudden death as he takes in the details which differ from his memories of the morning. The kitchen’s been cleaned with the garbage taken out and dishes put away. It looks the way Carlos remembered their space before his time in the desert other-world. Except sitting on Carlos’ regular seat across from Cecil is Carlos’ leather duffel bag and filling the table in front of him must be every bottle in the apartment- some emptier than others.
“Cecil… What…?” He attempts to ask.
“You can l-leave. If you want to…” The radio host’s voice cracks before he sets down the purple coffee mug he was holding.
“Pequeno- ! No! What…?”
Cecil holds up a shaking tattooed hand for quiet and bites at his bottom lip with a sharp tooth before saying again, this time in perfect monotone. “You can leave, if you want.”
Carlos has to bite his tongue to keep from interrupting as the other man continues.
“You never signed up for this.” He gestures to the table in front of him, his metaphorical cards on the table. “You signed up for the Voice of Night Vale Cecil - Mr. Community and Respectability. Not this. You didn’t know what you were getting yourself into and I’m not going to hold you to promises you made when you couldn’t have known what you were promising.” He finishes with a shrug.
The shorter man nods shakily. “You done, pequeño?” He asks in a thick voice.
His boyfriend nods and wipes under an eye with the back of his fist.
“Can I sit down with you, babe?”
Carlos picks up his surprisingly heavy duffel bag and lays it on the floor before sitting down across from the taller man.
“Cecil, I love you. I meant every promise I ever made to you. And I don’t want to leave.” He answers gently while holding eye contact.
“You’d be the first.” The radio host replies with a dismissive hand wave.
“The first what?”
“The first who wants to stay. My mom abandoned Abby and me….so many times…. The first chance Abby had to make a better family than me, she took it...Replaced me with Steve in her and Janice’s life as soon as she could. The guys I dated before weren’t the caring types…” Cecil shudders involuntarily before finishing “… No one who’s really known me has ever wanted to stay...” The radio host fidgets with his nail polish as his voice trails off.
“What about Earl?” Carlos finds himself asking.
“Earl...Earl’s different than most.” Comes the quiet reply.
“I know. And we’re both… We’re both in your corner.” He assures.
Cecil stands up and walks over to the copper sink, refilling the coffee mug with tap water before turning and hopping up to sit on the counter, tentacles swaying by his side.
“I should have told you long before now….It’s just hard to know the right time to tell the guy you just fell in love with that you drink to forget more than you should...probably every night, if I’m being honest with myself….”
Carlos nods sympathetically.
“It’s just… Before I met you there wasn’t a lot of memories that I wanted to remember… And plenty that would be easier to forget. I was just living day-to-day. But then I met you! And by the Brownstone Spire! It was like seeing sunshine for the first time in years. I felt myself actually looking forward to the future...”
Cecil offers a half-smile to his boyfriend who is still sitting at the table listening intently.
“But then you were gone…. And with the Lot 37 thing going on, I felt like…. I felt like I couldn’t even control my own body. So, I just found myself starting to drink more and more… just trying to find that sunshine feeling again… And then next thing I knew, it was just like the bad old days.”
Carlos wishes the guilt washing over his body could help anybody, but knew it wouldn’t. “Statistically, guilt has to be the most useless emotion in the multiverse.” He can’t help but think.
“Pequeño...I want better for you than this…” He replies instead, waving a hand at the table between them. “I’m not going anywhere, unless you want me to leave. But Cecil, you deserve better than this and I… I wish you loved yourself the way you deserve to be loved…”
Cecil nods wrapping his arms around his midsection.
“Earl already talked to you didn’t he, the busybody? Told you that this is nothing new...”
Carlos gave up being surprised at the way his boyfriend seems to know even the more intimate goings-on in Night Vale long ago.
“Yeah, pequeño...He says you should call him to talk about getting set up for AA…And I think you should…I’ll help however I can.”
“Would you hold my hand on the couch while I make the call, bunny?” Is the whispered reply
“Whatever you need, babe. Whatever you need.”