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Going Native

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Cecil unnerves me.

He has pasty skin, dust-colored hair, and eyes like penicillin cultures. He wears the fixed, faintly desperate smile of a North Korean tour guide. When he rhapsodizes over my supposed charms, I don't really get the joke. Obviously it is a joke. No one says that sort of thing sincerely. Especially on the radio, for crying out loud! But as odd social behaviors go, in Night Vale, taunting the newcomer is on the harmless side, and I choose not to be offended.

I listen to his program just like everyone else. He's relatively well-informed. Exempt from some of the strictures on discussing forbidden topics, as well, I think. Maybe he's just less afraid than the rest of the citizenry. I would ordinarily admire that in a journalist, but here...

Here it seems a little sinister. What price has he paid for that freedom, and to whom?

That sounds paranoid, though, and I'd rather not adopt the local culture of paranoia, so I'm not about to ask.

* * *

At least he's consistent. This 'beautiful Carlos' business has become a running joke. A meme, which the locals have adopted with the enthusiasm of adolescents trading YouTube links. Good-natured enough, I suppose, but it's getting old.

I needed a haircut anyway.

* * *

What the hell just happened?

I see no mechanism through which Cecil's ranting over the 'crime' of cutting my hair -- a haircut I requested, paid for, and was satisfied with -- could reasonably result in the barber descending into a sort of fugue state of theatrical remorse and hallucination, but that appears to be precisely what has occurred.

What kind of power does that man wield here? Or is it simply a kind of collective delusion, a crowd hysteria like the dancing madness that cropped up from time to time in Europe concurrent with bubonic plague epidemics?

Not a bad hypothesis, actually. A psychologically stressed population; a smooth, persuasive, comforting voice on the radio; a viral idea, something pleasant to fixate on, something to cherish, even something as silly as my hair; then the object of the fixation is taken away, and the populace reacts disproportionately. The barber may have accepted the scapegoat role voluntarily, in a way -- taking the 'sins' of the town with him into self-imposed exile.

That would make him kind of a hero, I think.

I know better than to discuss this theory. Psychology isn't my field, anyway. I suppose I'd just better avoid the town's triggers. I only wish I weren't wearing one of them on my head.

* * *

I don't know who the hell FEMA has been talking to. Certainly not me. I flagged my readings as anomalous when I sent them...

Does anyone even read my reports?

Am I even sure I sent them? Maybe I only dreamed I sent them. Maybe I'm dreaming now.

* * *

There is anomalous data, and then there is bullshit.

I want to believe this... clock... thing... is a joke. Someone who knew I've been focusing on time-related phenomena went around and replaced the guts of a bunch of clocks with... I don't know, caulk and teratomas?

I can tell this place is getting to me, because that wasn't my first hypothesis.

Empiricism is still a powerful tool, even here. My only comfort, sometimes. Of course I checked all the clocks I could get my hands on. Wasted nearly a week on it. I was going to drive out to seismometer C today, the one to the northwest, I have to download the data directly because something interferes with wireless signals up that way -- but clock goo. All over my kitchen counters.

I thought of going around and asking people. Devoting even more time to this nonsense... is it even worth it? Clocks aren't time. Clocks are machines. Machines running without machinery is an entirely different anomaly from the discrepancies in actual time measurement. It's not as if I need a particularly large sample to investigate that one. It's just that I'm so damn curious. What if it's not a prank? What if it's simply the universal Night Vale clock situation? I need to know! Even if it means neglecting the seismic data for another day -- hell, I don't even know what I'm seeing on the seismographs anymore, and I'm sick of debugging the stuff.

So I just called Cecil.

I've been calling him kind of a lot lately. But it makes sense. He has the whole town by its collective ear. And if he's going to persist in flogging that schoolgirl-with-a-crush gag, he can damn well do me a favor or two. To be fair, he never seems to mind.

I'm a little fuzzy on what I actually said. I ended up calling a bunch of times because I was forgetting things, and in the end I just asked him to meet me. Hopefully I can be a little more organized in person.

* * *

I am starting to think of Cecil as Night Vale.

That doesn't even make sense written down. It's not that I think he's some sort of anthropomorphic personification of the regional spirit or something. Although that wouldn't be the weirdest thing I've run across here. But he's not a collective, or even a spokesman for the whole. He's an individual.

Still, I feel as if he functions as a sort of... diagnostic interface? The readout, not the machine. Maybe just a representative sample. Maybe just a mine canary.

He even complements the town visually. His skin is pale apricot-tan like adobe, with a few sandy freckles. His hair matches the local stone, a blondish brown that looks a bit gingery in the afternoons. His eyes are sagebrush green. It's a nice effect, really. He has the sort of face that only becomes handsome once you get to know him, the same way Night Vale only shows its small-town charm once you get past the 'dear God, what even is this?' stage.

Cecil and Night Vale both frighten me, but not as much as they used to, and not as much as maybe they should. And I am growing fond of both, maybe fonder than I ought, and in neither case am I sure whether my fondness is genuine or something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

The question is starting to feel pointlessly academic. I'm not going to leave. I'm not going to walk away from such a goldmine of bizarre phenomena. If I lose my funding I'll stay and work on my own dime. This is where I need to be right now.

So there's no reason not to make friends. And if those friends scare me a little, well... welcome to Night Vale, right?

* * *

I have been completely wrong about a number of things.

I wonder whether this is what religious revelation feels like. A dizzying moment of figure-ground inversion, a calamitous and ecstatic reordering of all my priorities. If I tried to explain it, it would all sound so ordinary, and yet the whole world is different now. Everything is completely different.

Jumping down into the miniature city was blatantly stupid. I even sort of knew that when I did it, but I was so eager to take away at least one of these people's many sources of terror, I convinced myself of the conclusion before I did the experiment. An occupational hazard. The consequences, in this case, were far worse than academic disgrace.

So many people have written of their near-death experiences, I think we feel we know what it would be like, we think we can imagine it, but it's not like that at all. And if I try to put it in words now I'll just be treading in the misleading footsteps of those whose words have failed to describe it before.

I was battered by such intolerably strong emotions. Not all of them were terrible. Fear, anger, pain, but also a sense of freedom from consequences; the worst has happened already, so what is there to worry about? There's no sense in putting up façades when you're bleeding out. As I lay there in that ridiculous, awful place, victim of my own overconfidence, I realized that I don't want to keep Night Vale at arm's length anymore. I don't want to be an outsider, an observer. I don't want to think of my neighbors as 'these people' or 'the townsfolk' anymore.

I realized belonging is as easy as opening your hands. And I saw that I had missed my chance to do it.

Then I passed out.

Then I woke up. Which was pretty confusing.

The first thing I heard was the radio, playing over the bowling alley's PA, as it often is. Cecil was going on about angels again, a topic that has become comfortingly familiar over the last year. I had a sense of climbing his voice to consciousness as if it was a ladder out of the dark.

I heard people some distance away, negotiating in hushed, intense voices, as if planning a heist or talking down a crazed gunman. I later found out that they were working out how to get the Apache Tracker out of the cavern without descending themselves and sharing his fate. I later found out that it took too long. But now, still woozy and disoriented, I found the sound comforting.

I heard Williams grunting to himself as he located my wounds, small but deep, and applied pressure or gauze or butterfly stitches as necessary. When I opened my eyes I saw a bag of blood hanging from the underside of the snack counter, its tube connected to the vein in my less-injured arm.

I didn't wonder why a bowling alley should be prepared to do blood transfusions. This is Night Vale.

The radio, suddenly, was not a soothing background noise anymore, but something direct and intense. I thought at first that someone had turned it up. But no, it was just the change in Cecil's tone. He sounded upset. He sounded like he was crying. He sounded like an ordinary person in pain, and that was when the other shoe dropped, the flipside of my first revelation:

Cecil was never mocking me. All that 'beautiful Carlos' stuff, that ridiculous line about love at first sight -- it was never a joke.

He's meant it all along.

"Tell him I'm okay," I said to Williams, who at first made absent be-quiet-and-let-me-work sounds. But he was down to band-aids and alcohol wipes, I could do that stuff myself, and this was important, God it was so important. "Someone tell Cecil I'm not dead!"

And someone did, and for a little while I reveled in simply being alive, and in Cecil's public exultation -- imagine being so unguarded that you would broadcast such personal things on the radio! It's a different kind of frightening, like watching someone walk too close to a cliff edge. It's also... really sweet, honestly.

Then they brought up the Apache Tracker, and...

I didn't even get to thank him. They didn't bring him close enough, I couldn't talk loud enough.

Processing that will take some time.

With band-aid-stiff fingers, I dug out my phone and texted Cecil. I didn't know what I wanted to say to him. I just knew that waiting until I had the right words might mean I'd never get to say anything at all. After wearing his heart on the airwaves for so long, he has the right to witness a little fumbling on my part.

His eyes were still a little red-rimmed when he met me at my car. He approached so cautiously, as if he might startle me. I tried to explain what I'd realized, and I know I made a mess of it, but he seemed to understand.

He does that. Understands people. Cares about people, cares about me far too much, and instead of being afraid of him I find I'm afraid for him now.

I guess it's only fair for me to have to worry, after he had to deal with thinking I was dead.

I invited him to sit with me. He sat close, right up against my side, and I didn't mind at all. I think we both needed human contact rather badly just then. When I rested a hand on his knee, he leaned his head on my shoulder, as naturally as if we'd been doing this every night all year. We sat like that and watched the lights. The night was cold, and Cecil was warm, and I was too tired to think, and too happy to need to.

* * *

I'm pretty sure this shadow energy thing is entirely reversible. Just a matter of finding the right frequency. Doing it manually would take too long; I can write an algorithm for it.

Ho-hum, just another night at the lab, saving the town from a contagious buzzing energy cloud -- I'm not sure if I keep breaking into giggles because it's absurd how ordinary this seems to me now, or because I can still feel Cecil's lips and they are so soft.

* * *

Cecil is talking about our date on the radio. He's nattering giddily on the air like he's in a coffee shop with his very best friend.

Cecil is very best friends with Night Vale itself, and I think I'm starting to love them both.