The voice on the radio is turned up loud enough to be heard over the repeated soft thumps as the scientists load pipettes with tips and the sharp clicks, like the tutting tongues of disappointed primary investigators, as the tips are discarded. The four of them stand in a horse-shoe shaped bay, backs to each other as they lose themselves in their work, the lull of the radio the only common experience they share.
Unbeknownst to one of the scientists, the shorter one with glossy, dark curls and a pair of earphones concealed under a pair of ear protectors, the other three have an ulterior motive for listening to the radio. The message from the sponsor ends and one of the scientists is about to ask the room an important question (That's bullshit, right? There isn't really sentient fungus in everyone's bedsheets?) when the moment they've been waiting for arrives and he chokes off his question with a sly glance at the woman working silently next to him. She, in turn, throws a sly glance over her shoulder at the other ear-muff-free scientist, who smirks.
The three of them cast sly glances at the fourth member of the laboratory, the one with CARLOS scrawled on the back of his labcoat below a definite ink stain that at no point in time was actually the word 'perfect' in someone else's handwriting. The voice on the radio sighs dreamily.
Listeners, what does it mean to love someone from afar?
The trio watch as Carlos, surely unable to hear the voice on the radio through such heavy duty ear protection, freezes. The error lasts for less than a second but the smug looks cast behind his back confirms that they all saw it. And if reality is nothing but a summation of the collected experiences of rational persons, then there is a significant likelihood that it happened.
We are all familiar with the painful childhood story of the planet who fell in love with the passing asteroid, dazzled by its beauty and.... um, other features that asteroids possess that are also really impressive. And the planet, unaccustomed to something so new and strange in its relatively fixed orbit, could do nothing but admire the asteroid and loathe itself for its own inaction as it sped past. And, who knew, maybe the asteroid also found the planet scientifically interesting --
Listeners, Intern Leland has just texted me saying that that's not how the story goes at all and that in his version the asteroid collides with the planet and yeah, yeah, mass extinction, sure -- so anyway if any scientists want to verify the story then that might be a . . . useful public service.
There are bitten lips to hide laughs but one of the scientists shakes her head sadly.
'He can't actually think that we don't realise he's listening too.' One of the scientists says to another as they hang up their labcoats. The second scientist shakes her head again, this time exasperated.
'They're both hopeless.'
The music thrums through Mission Grove Park. No-one had been expecting the Sheriff's Secret Police to call a mandatory Town Party this evening. It's a surprise to say thank you to all you hard-working citizens and attendance is mandatory on pain of public flogging. Well! Cecil's broadcast had gone earlier that evening. Steve Carlsberg stands on the edge of the throng of moving bodies, trying not to think about what he knows the Secret Police are doing outside City Hall now that the rest of town are concentrated at a safe distance away.
He smiles. Janice is a few feet away, squealing in delight as her Uncle spins her wheelchair in mad doughnuts, shaking his hips and singing along to the heavy metal cover of Forget You. Despite Cecil's prickly nature, Steve can't help but feel the straw-filled abomination in his chest fill with warmth watching him with Janice. The adoration they have for each other is obvious.
Steve's musings are interrupted as a small group of figures in white shuffle up to the edge of the crowd. Lianne Hart, of the Daily Journal, waves a hatchet in their direction, shouting the word 'INTERLOPERS!' and they freeze. When they realise she's just waving the hatchet as someone would give a friendly wave, they awkwardly raise their hands in reply and she goes back to dancing. Steve glances over at Cecil, now copying Janice as she moves her arms into strange but rhythmic positions, and takes a long sip of his beer. Another person Cecil adores, he thinks. The scientists haven't been in town long, but the amount of rude comments Steve hears about himself on the radio has definitely decreased now that Cecil has someone to impress.
The scientists have split off, leaving Carlos the Scientist standing watching the crowd and playing idly with the cuffs of his white coat. Steve watches as Cecil leans close to Janice and she whispers in his ear. He watches Cecil notice the scientist and he nods slowly at what his niece is whispering. With the flash of a grin he disappears into the crowd and Steve smiles as Janice wheels towards him, little face flushed but happy.
'Having fun?' He asks and she nods vigorously. 'Where did Cecil run off to?'
Janice pulls a face that is far too sly for any ten year old. 'We have a plan.' She glances over at the scientist, who is now checking a metal box and frowning.
Cecil reappears seconds later, carrying two beers and takes a long swig of one of them before marching up to Carlos. They're almost out of earshot, the music is pretty loud, even for Night Vale. But Cecil's voice carries.
'Hi!' He says, 'I didn't think you'd come, do you want a beer?' Steve didn't think it was possible for the scientist to look more like a fawn in the headlights but Carlos manages it. He can't make out what the scientist is replying, but Cecil places the beer slowly on the ground by his feet and Steve tries not to wince. Janice actually winces.
'So, you know they say the DJ booth is charmed to only tell the truth?' Cecil is heard to say. The shorter man's head snaps up from his machine at this, curls bouncing. He pushes his glasses up.
A few minutes later, the music is shut off dramatically. The silence is deafening for less than a second until the entire town starts shrieking their complaints. The figures in white are swarming around the DJ booth and Steve can just make out the angular shape of Cecil, standing next to the booth with his face in his hands.
'Oh, no.' Janice breathes from his side.
'What was the plan?' Steve asks, keeping a close eye on Lianne Hart, who is waving her hatchet at the scientists with a slightly different intention. Janice looks at her hands.
'He was going to play the salsa version of I Really Like You!'
'Hi, Cecil? I'm not calling for personal reasons-' The figure of Carlos the Scientist disappears out of the laboratory and into the adjoining office.
There are eye rolls from the other scientists.
League Night is more important than any massing underground army.
That is what Old Woman Josie tells Teddy Williams as he tries to deny her team entrance to the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. The Erikas loom and emit their black light, as is their way, and Teddy acquiesces, sweating.
Tonight is especially important, they're playing the Night Vale Community College Team (a strong rival since Sarah Sultan realised she could just roll herself down the lane) and they're trying out a potential new team member. Old Woman Josie watches the new recruit from across the booth as he takes a ball from their star player and weighs it in his hands. Cecil is watching him, cheeks pink, and Josie doesn't think he has stopped smiling since the other man arrived.
'So I would say that most of getting a strike is really believing that it's going to happen.' Cecil explains and Carlos laughs and shakes his head.
'I'm pretty sure it's all math.'
'Oh, really?' Cecil challenges, voice like honey. Like something sticky he wants to catch Carlos in. Old Woman Josie hopes that the flirting will not distract Cecil from the game, even if it is nice to see him so happy. She knows how long it's been.
Any worries Josie might have had about Cecil's performance fall like the pins he decimates with each throw. He is doing a good job of not looking too pleased with himself and the scientist, who really does seem to be a lovely boy, stopped clapping after the first three strikes.
'Umm,' Cecil says as he slides into the seat next to her, crossing his legs and sighing, 'So Carlos can't bowl?' He says it like he's hoping she's going to correct him and explain exactly why Carlos should join the team immediately.
'No.' She agrees emphatically. There are jeers from the Community College team as Carlos steps up to bowl. 'Perhaps you should show him?'
Cecil flushes and shakes his head just as Harrison Kipp shouts for Carlos to give up and use the ramp, 'I don't want to patronise.' Josie gives him The Eyebrow, well-honed from its frequent use on the Erikas, and the young man is out of the booth in a flash.
Josie makes strained eye contact with Erika as they observe Cecil trying to explain how to bowl from a respectable distance away, making large gestures instead of taking the perfect opportunity to offer to pull the other man close and just show him.
'Erika, I think these boys need some help.' The angel rolls their many eyes in a way that Josie has learnt means you don't say.
Several rounds (and a little divine intervention) later, Josie's team leave the Bowling Alley triumphant. Sarah Sultan had written No Comment when Josie thanked her for the game and had drawn a rude caricature of Carlos throwing the ball backwards. Old Woman Josie had shown it to Carlos - call it a test of character, Old Women are allowed to do that - and she was impressed, if a little surprised, at his delighted laugh.
'Can I keep this, please? My team will love it.' He folds it neatly into one of his large labcoat pockets, 'Thank you so much for having me, Josie. I can only apologise for my lack of talent but it was really scientifically interesting to watch the rest of you bowl. There are so many independent variables that go into the perfect throw! And you make all the calculations look so effortless!' Part of Josie would like to discuss the science of bowling with this young man a little more, but Cecil has already been hovering for too long for it to be casual. She thanks Carlos for coming and pretends to fiddle with the clasp on her handbag so Cecil can swoop in as they make their exit.
'Are you coming to Rico's?' She hears Cecil ask, an undeniable note of hope in his inflection.
'I actually have to go back to the lab.'
'Oh, but that's right by Rico's! I can drive you if you like?'
'I, um, I actually drove here, so - yeah.' There's an awkward pause. 'But thanks, I had a nice time.' Josie doesn't need to look to know that Cecil beams at this. She can feel the warmth of it.
'I'm really glad!' He drops his voice, 'Look - Carlos - I wasn't great when I started to bowl either, but I'd happily teach you - you know, if you wanted to learn?' They pass Teddy Williams on the way out, who looks at the pair of them and winks at Josie. They bid each other good night and by the time Josie catches up with the team, Carlos has made it back to his car and drives away with a cheery wave. Cecil watches like he has been struck by something, lifting his hand in return as though it's not his own.
'Why didn't Cecil come?' John Peters asks around a mouthful of pizza.
‘Because the scientist didn’t want bowling lessons.’ Erika says.
‘Or coffee.’ Another Erika adds.
But, seeing as it is illegal for John to acknowledge either of those responses, however true, Josie shrugs and to the Erikas says, ‘Those boys need some help.’
Michelle Nguyen doesn't bother to disguise her bored sigh as the man in white enters Dark Owl Records. A customer, she scowls down at her nails which are currently painted a cherry red and patterned with the unmistakeable cracks of human teeth marks. Her nails will look like this until she spots Night Vale High School student Melissa Jones copying her and then it'll have to stop. Greaat.
She stares at the interloper as he taps a finger against his lips thoughtfully, scanning the racks of records. He's lucky that the racks currently contain records. Last week Michelle had replaced all of the LPs with childhood photos of Pamela Winshaw. She takes a slow sip of iced coffee - with extra beef extract, just because - and watches him. She listens to the radio. She knows who he is.
By the time he's made it over to the counter she's made up her mind that he's not actually that attractive. He just has features that society has pressured boring, normal people into believing they like. Like a strong jaw, and dark, inquisitive eyes, and really great hair. They stare at each other.
'Uhh, hi?' He tries. Michelle props her chin lazily on her hand and conveys the word what? with all the power her City Council-approved Sass Grant allows. He frowns slightly. 'Can you help me?' The what? intensifies. He runs a hand through his hair, almost tugging at it. 'Um, right well. I was wondering if you could tell me what kind of music Cecil likes and if there are any records that he'd like but doesn't currently own.'
A slow sip of iced coffee is a great way to cover a smirk. 'Oh, yeah? You guys getting serious?' She kind of knew they were because Dana, the current radio intern, had told her brother who told his best friend who's dad was not-so-secretly a member of the Secret Police who confirmed and told Michelle on the weekly store inspection that Cecil had talked his way out of another re-education the other day for concealing a love-bite without official paperwork. I'm sorry, Officer, it's all my fault, Cecil had begged, apparently, Carlos was never electrocuted out of his oral fixation phase.
Also, Cecil keeps spamming their group chat with updates about Carlos' hair and how generally perfect he is. Sooo.
Michelle is too busy imagining Carlos's lips on the pale line of Cecil's throat to catch what he mumbles. A terrible, terrible, but also really fucking entertaining idea begins to form in her mind.
'Cecil likes nightcore.' Spills from her mouth, tone still impressively bored even as her insides roil with mischief.
'Really?' The scientist adjusts his glasses as though it'll help him see if Michelle is lying. She batters down her impressed feelings that he recognises the genre. 'He never said anything about that. . .'
'Well, what's the last thing you heard him listen to?'
'Well, literally speaking, the weather.'
'The weather isn't music.' Michelle says it like he's dumb. She's starting to wonder if he is a little stupid, no matter how studious his glasses make him look.
Carlos blinks at her and then, 'He has been listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack a lot recently. He really likes That's a LOT of Screaming From Uptown.'
Michelle groans. She'd told Cecil that Hamilton was sooo 2015. 'I told him that being able to rap to Hamilton stopped being impressive like a hundred years ago.'
'I think it's pretty impressive.' A small smile curls across Carlos' face, amused and intimate. Michelle doesn't think that's cool either. 'But nightcore though?'
There's a tinkling sound, like a bell but actually more like marbles in an empty tin can. Michelle's eyes wander carelessly to the shop door and then focus sharply as she clocks who has entered.
How is this guy still here? Michelle sighs. 'Look, I can't even believe I'm going to say this-' She ducks down below the counter and flicks through the specially ordered stack of records. She pulls out the one labelled C. Palmer and half-throws it on the counter, disgusted at herself.
'Oh my God, he was literally talking about how much he wanted this the other day!' Carlos is already fumbling for his wallet which is great because Michelle really wants to lounge around on her stool behind the counter looking aloof. She can't be caught with a happy customer. 'This is perfect, thank you so much!'
'No, seriously, thank you! I would never have remembered this!'
'Yeah. Sure. Whatever.'
'Thank you, Michelle!' He practically broadcasts to the rest of the shop as she gives him his change. She's going to have to pay the blood sacrifice herself later which is suuuper annoying but if it gets him out of here quicker then she doesn't really mind.
'Don't do anything you don't have a licence for!' She calls after him as he walks out, unable to physically comprehend what he's seeing as he gazes at the album artwork but smiling down at it anyway. If she can't be cold and aloof then light bullying with have to suffice.
'What did he want?' Maureen asks. Michelle thinks it's great the way she talks to her but with her back turned, still looking through the records on the nearest shelf. Like, eye contact and being able to read facial expressions is what society has pressured normal, boring people into believing they need for a conversation. Michelle thinks the way Maureen's ripped tights disappear beneath the hem of her huge denim jacket is great too.
'A record for Cecil.' Maureen spins, face scrunched up. 'Right.'
'Did you hear about the-'
'Love bite? Yes.' Michelle trails off as Maureen steps up to the counter and takes a slow sip of the melting iced coffee. A question occurs: 'Do you think he's actually attractive?'
Shoot your shot.
That’s what Weird Scout Phillips had advised Blood Scout Ortega earlier that afternoon when he was stressing about that girl in his Weird Spanish class that he thought was m̴͚̱̝͉͗͒̋ư̴̧̙̪̳̝̫̜̭̻͛͗̆̆͝ỹ̷̠ ̸̛͔ȟ̶̬̋̔e̴̡͓̣̤͔̭̜̦̣͈͐͌̈́͂r̷̡̭̺̳͈̬͗̿͛̓͊͜m̶̪̮̐̓͗o̸͈̣̳̟͉̯̖̻̓̑͗ş̴͍͍̺̘̬̮̫̘͗͊̔̆͘͝ͅả̶̢̨̢̜̺̖̖̘̻͗̓͒̊͛͠͠ͅ.
Shoot your shot. Earl Harlan muses.
The Night Vale Shrike and Carcass Bar (NOT Grill) isn’t quite as bustling as it usually is at this time on a Friday evening and, from what used to be his usual booth before the unexpected arrival of a son, Earl has a decent view of the whole room. This fits nicely with Scout Law #1453: a Scout should seek out the best vantage point and defend it at all costs. Not that he’s looking at the whole room.
Cecil arrived about forty minutes ago, clearly having come straight from the recording booth but divested of his tie and poncho. Even from across the bar, the loose way the shirt collar sat around Cecil’s pale neck made Earl reach for a sip of wheat-free beer. He takes another fortifying sip now. Cecil is clearly waiting for that scientist boyfriend of his. And, from the way he's drumming his fingers on the table and staring out of the window, he's clearly been waiting longer than he anticipated.
He's an old friend, Earl thinks as he rises and winds his way through the mishmash of sticky bar tables and stickier chairs. There is nothing too forward about saying hi to an old friend. He pauses briefly at the boundary where he could turn around and Cecil would never know that there was someone walking in his direction. A glance to his left reveals that the waitress, probably a fan of Cecil's show, is eyeing him suspiciously and then Earl has no choice but to keep going forward. To prove that he is a friend and not about to try steal Cecil's wallet. Just his attention, he thinks and then groans at his own consciousness.
'Hi.' He mumbles to Cecil's hunched figure. The tall man had briefly abandoned his vigil of the parking lot and was tapping a long message into his phone. Cecil's face whips up, face a picture of cautious hope, schooling itself into sternness and then pulling inwards into what Earl recognises as surprised disappointment. Cecil clears his throat.
In all honesty, Earl didn't think much past this point.
They stare at each other until Cecil releases a soft sigh. 'Do you want to sit down?'
'Yeah - uh - thanks.' He trips over his words but thankfully not the thick, root-like legs of the table. 'You looked a bit lonely so I thought I'd come say hi.' Cecil smiles at him but it doesn't touch his eyes. It's the kind of smile he used to give his sister to wind her up, Earl remembers. 'Are you waiting for-?'
'Sooo, what's up with you, Earl?' Cecil cuts him off. He applies his fake charm like he's holding a sparkler between their bodies. His discomfort and anger still there but masked by the gaudy and distracting sparks of his radio voice and eager reporter's posture. If Earl didn't know better he'd think his old friend was genuinely interested.
'I have a son now.' He reveals quietly. Cecil's eyes dart back to the car park but that's fine, the small triangle of skin between the edges of his shirt collar is even more hypnotic up close and, when Cecil is gazing into the distance, Earl can stare at it, or the delicate line of Cecil's cheekbones, or the inky swirl of a new tattoo on his forearm. Suddenly, Cecil's eyes narrow and he puts down his glass with a thud.
'I'll be right back.' He says, eyes never leaving the quiet patch of asphalt out the window. Earl twists in his seat and watches as a figure in a long, white coat hurries into perspective. His bottom lip is caught between a row of straight white teeth.
Earl is surprised to find that the sinking feeling he expected, the feeling of a sudden thundershower ruining your kindling before you could reach for the flint, is not quite there. Instead, he sips his drink and allows himself to bask in the mild voyeuristic pleasure of watching a couple argue in public. Perhaps his attraction to Cecil is merely an echo of what he had felt in those heady teenage years. Perhaps what he really desires is someone to talk to again - like they used to talk. Perhaps, he thinks, watching Cecil approach the scientist with all the might and buzzing electrical anger of the Glow Cloud, these are thoughts for another time.
Carlos the Scientist alternates between wringing his hands together and reaching out towards Cecil, palms up like he's pleading but also asking why? Earl can't hear them through the glass but he sees the way Cecil gestures towards the bar: You left me looking like an idiot in there for aaaages. And then at his phone: you could have just texted me. Carlos runs a stressed hand through his hair and Earl notices the way Cecil watches the long strands fall back into place. But, science, is all Earl can imagine Carlos is saying. Carlos reaches for Cecil's hands and looks visibly pained as they're whipped away into the pockets of Cecil's fashionable but functional work trousers. Cecil shakes his head and turns on his heels, arms now crossed tightly around his chest as he marches away.
Earl briefly entertains the idea that Cecil is going to come back and spend the evening with him instead. Definitely his second choice, but maybe they'll get chatting and they'll slowly, shakily, take that first step on the ladder down into the dark abyss that was their teenage years to see if they can find that old friendship again. He watches Cecil bypass the snarling doors of the Bar and the fantasy pops.
Carlos stands, stricken, watching Cecil go and looking for all the world like the last puppy of the infestation. The one who's seen all its littermates die and knows what's coming next. Earl finds it in himself to sympathise. Carlos and his team of scientists do save the town an awful lot, he's not really a bad guy.
Cecil makes it almost to the boot of his car before he turns sharply on his heels and strides back towards his boyfriend. Somehow the same distance takes half the amount of time to cover and, before Earl can really process what has happened, Cecil has his hands in Carlos' hair and their lips are pressed together. Earl can see the way Cecil's frustration ebbs away from him, the way that Carlos' tanned hand slides up Cecil's back when he trusts that he has, genuinely, been forgiven for this mistake. They do make an attractive couple, Earl concedes.
He almost yelps out loud as a balaclava-clad human-shaped entity of the Sheriff's Secret Police pops up in front of the window with no prior warning. He settles for clapping a hand over his mouth to catch the little dribbles of beer he may have spat out in surprise. The Officer moves slowly and sinuously, like a snake sussing out the best angle from which to attack. They raise a gloved hand and point at the beermat on the table Earl is currently occupying. He peers at it.
DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET DRINK TO FORGET
The beermat advises in an authoritative serif font. Earl glances at the drinks Cecil left behind, the ice long-melted and condensation coating the glasses. The Officer nods.
Well, Earl thinks, gripping the drink he assumes will taste the nicest with a steady hand. He can't see the Officer's eyes but he knows that they're watching him. Shoot your shot, I guess.
Dana sweeps out of the Press Conference Gazebo will all the grace one can possibly muster when their Director of Emergency Press Conferences had called the journalists of Night Vale into the centre of town to goad them into daring her to eat an entire goat - including, Dana was surprised and repulsed to find out, the hooves and horns. 'I just can't believe you guys are making me do this.' Pamela was heard to say between squelching bites.
Stray shrieks and the sound of ripping flesh still exudes into the quiet Desert Day but Mayor Cardinal straightens her spine and marches into the cool comfort of the limo idling a few metres away.
There's something she needs to do.
The City Council are waiting inside. Their numerous heads twist on the wiry stalks of what should be necks but are not necks.
'Weeelllllllll…?' They hiss and splutter in unison. Dimly, if she listens underneath the constant static the Council buzzes with, she can make out Cecil's radio show curling outwards through the speakers like an embrace from distant relative. She misses her internship so much. She hears Cecil say: my boyfriend, who is a hero and it strengthens her resolve. Her briefcase opens with a smart snap and she pulls out the file and presents it to the City Council.
Their reaction is immediate and meets her expectations. The Council lets out a loud howling and the limo rocks as it stomps its many feet.
'No!' It screeches, 'This is not even an open plot!' It hisses. Dana lets her sweet but no-longer youthful face rest in the blank expression she would use on Cecil when he needed reigning in.
'I'm allowed to pick any of them, and that's the secret town mission that I want to cease.'
'But he's not even here. Surely you are wasting you only chance to abort the morally debatable work of-'
'He's coming back.' Her voice sounds steady and strong. She's learning to like it. 'And no-one in this town is to hurt him or remove him from Cecil's reality when he does.'
The City Council uses a limb appendage to flick open the file. There is a picture of a man clipped to the yellowing pages inside. The picture has clearly been taken without his knowledge but, even gazing off to the side with his mouth hanging open in speech, he looks both handsome and distinguished. If a tad gormless.
Dana has read the file a number of times. She knows that the title reads 'Remove Carlos the Scientist from Night Vale' and the other pages list the numerous attempts made by the Secret Police, City Council and randomly selected Night Vale Citizens at doing just that.
'You are certaaaain?' The Council manages to sound patronising even through the medium of snarl. Dana sets her jaw. They burn a dark sigil into the file with a bloody talon.
The corner of Dana's lips twitch as she hears Carlos' voice through the speaker. She knows the place he calls from too well.
I'm a scientist, he assures Cecil and, perhaps, the rest of Night Vale too, scientists are always fine.
I love you, honey.
And Cecil's voice, one she misses so much. I love you too, Carlos.