“I didn’t have any photos of you,” Cecil said.
He had already been on the porch when Carlos pulled into the driveway, but his gaze hadn’t even flickered towards Carlos, and the walk from his car to Cecil’s statue-like pose in front of the door had been, or had at least felt, long. Cecil was looking directly at their motion-sensor porch light which stayed on continuously even though Carlos had taken it apart twice and found it to be functioning perfectly. There was just always something moving.
“The power went out,” Cecil said.
Carlos looked at the blazing white of the light and said, somewhat unnecessarily, “It’s on now.”
“I’m worried about your eyes—”
“I know who you are,” Cecil said, finally looking at him. His pupils were still just pinpricks from the force of the light. “Carlos.” He rubbed his temples. “The power,” he said, “was out for a really long time. Citizens with power outages, especially during times of rolling blackouts, may experience a temporary sense of identity dislocation.”
Carlos remembered, distantly, Cecil advising everyone to keep photo albums with them in case the lights so much as flickered. He had never liked cameras—he had a stilted smile when posed, a discomfort with being too clinically and directly looked at—and cameras in Night Vale made him even more nervous. In his ID photo for the lab, a small purple orb, approximately three centimeters wide, rested lightly on his brow, which was minor, compared to the streaks of hairline cracks fracturing the image and splitting him into exactly thirteen pieces. He hadn’t let Cecil take any of him, though Cecil had wanted to.
“I was in the house,” Cecil went on, “but it was someone else’s house that I’d picked out. I had curtains that matched the curtains I would have chosen and the flashlight was in the drawer where I would have put it. Everything was exactly the same, but it wasn’t mine, and it never had been mine, and there was only the illusion of possession, dreamed a long time ago, in some other house that looked the same as this one.”
He was using his radio voice. The actual sound of him wasn’t different and Carlos listened to him talk like that for most of the day, Cecil a low hum in his ears as he moved around the lab, so he hadn’t noticed—but most of what he said was rounded out into a sort of buttery fullness, words cushioning and propping each other up. He was leaning on that voice to hold him up.
Carlos swallowed. “Do you want to sit down?”
“All right,” Cecil said, like it didn’t matter one way or the other, even though Cecil preferred indoors and counted mosquito bites with a solemnity he didn’t even reserve for obituary readings. He sat down on the edge of the porch, his legs splayed out on the ground. His feet were bare.
“You remember me,” Carlos prompted, before sitting down beside him, his elbow against Cecil’s.
“I remember you, but you’re not part of my life. You—” Cecil frowned. “You have to admit, it is a bit unlikely. That I could love you so much and you would love me back. If life teaches us anything, it’s that tragedy is as likely to spring from devotion as—”
“Please don’t do that,” Carlos said quietly.
“Talk to me like you’re on the radio. Like I’m—” he groped for the word he was looking for and couldn’t find it because there were too many, and too many that were too revealing, when he had been precise and unsentimental about his love for Cecil, always: Like I’m everyone else. Like I’m faceless. Like I’m not going to talk back. Like I’m waiting for you to entertain me. Like I’m someone for you to win over. “Not really here.”
“We aren’t really here,” Cecil said, but he didn’t spin off from it, didn’t proclaim that to be lone voyagers in an endless cosmos of uncertainties, and for that, at least, Carlos was grateful.
“You remember me, but you feel like I’m not real. Like your life doesn’t belong to you.”
Cecil nodded. “I was looking at a wall and thinking that I had never noticed it always being that color, and the sameness of it seemed so different, and the difference in noticing and noticing it seemed similar to things that had happened before.” He looked at Carlos sideways, then, and added, almost dryly, “So I came outside.”
“And stared at our porch light.”
“We looked at lights,” Cecil said. “I thought it would help you feel familiar. I want you to feel familiar,” and his voice snagged like cloth on a nail, and something inside Carlos broke.
He turned Cecil’s chin towards him and kissed him, first softly, because Cecil was what Cecil had never been—hesitant, reluctant—and then more intently, like Cecil was a problem that needed to be solved and if he could reduce Cecil to component parts of lips, tongue, and teeth, if he could simplify Cecil’s questions and distance to a series of movements, an arc of spine, a raise in temperature across skin, an exhalation—then things would mend. One came to Night Vale to practice science instead of just theorize about it. One fell in love with Cecil to stop the aching awfulness, freshly realized, of only listening to him.
He broke away and said against Cecil’s neck, “Better?”
In an approved novel, it would have been: the City Council was fond of literature that resolved everything through sex. Cecil owned a complete set of D. H. Lawrence and a startling amount of leather-bound erotica.
“No,” Cecil said, but he was canting forwards, like there was a magnetic pull, but Carlos had more to worry about than whether or not they both had sex.
His desperation was raw, something like sandpaper that would scrape him down to essentials, or inessentials, more likely—whatever it was that he was, now, without Cecil, which he didn’t want to know and could not imagine.
“I needed to see you,” Carlos said. “We sat at the Arby’s. We looked at the lights, that’s why you’re looking at the light.”
“I know that,” Cecil said patiently, but not the way he had explained the difficulty of locating the clock-tower, but the in-stride way he took all City Council announcements, especially those revoking the existence of previously acknowledged things.
“The problem,” Carlos said, trying to fight against the thread of panic stitched through his voice, trying to unpick it by sheer calm, “is what you feel, not what you remember. Right?”
“When the lights came back on, I found my memories divorced from my nature and context, my mind separated from my heart, as though—”
“Right,” Carlos said. “So—something you don’t know, then.”
“You’re the scientist,” Cecil said, with a touch of the acerbic. There was a tearstain at the corner of his right eye, faint, like a ghostly thumbprint. Carlos wondered if that was from during the blackout or afterwards.
He looked hard at his shoelaces. Cecil was the one who talked; Carlos was the one who did things, who measured, deduced, asked out, kissed. Cecil made speeches; Carlos didn’t like to unless it was urgent. The trouble was that nothing had ever, in his life, been more urgent than this—not Radon Canyon, not the clocks, not the Man in the Tan Jacket, not the bowling alley—nothing more likely to kill him, not even in Night Vale, than Cecil looking at him like he was just a handsome stranger.
And I fell in love instantly, Cecil had said once—Carlos had heard it, pipette in hand, blinking owlishly in the face of Cecil’s unexpected adoration—but he was not falling in love now. Their life was someone else’s story.
Except—all evidence must be considered—he had gone outside to stare at the light. The likely cause of the smudge at the corner of his eye. He had reached out.
Carlos wondered how many couples across town were having this conversation. He reached out and took Cecil’s hand. He could feel the sweat cupped in the palm of his hand, but Cecil didn’t move away, and after a moment, Carlos raised his hand to his mouth and kissed Cecil’s knuckles, one by one, stalling for time with that flicker of his tongue against the clean, soap-and-cotton taste of Cecil’s skin.
“Do you know the angriest I’ve ever been at you?”
A flicker of tension from Cecil’s fingertips to his wrist, then all the way up his arm, a long stretch of rigid muscle.
“I don’t think I would have liked you being angry at me,” he said softly. “I didn’t know you were. The time we talked about the moon, or the clock-tower—”
“You stopped talking,” Carlos said.
A corner of Cecil’s mouth pulled back, edging his jaw sideways, a gesture of absolute confusion that Carlos would have found endearing in better circumstances.
“It was bad enough during the sandstorm,” Carlos said, “listening to Kevin, not knowing where you were, but we weren’t—I didn’t know as much, then.”
He had known enough—he still remembered, even before that, Cecil being the only person he’d thought to call when panic had drawn itself slowly up his back like the cold blade of a knife, when the Man had been on his porch—but he hadn’t known everything. He hadn’t known how Cecil’s clothes were always starch-crisp, even after he’d slept in them, or how he smiled directly into his first cup of coffee in the mornings. He had known the way Cecil looked at him, with faint amazement, but he hadn’t known, then, that he looked the same way back.
“It was with the butterflies,” he said. “Seventeen casualties in three hours, everyone’s faces cut to ribbons from their wings, and I was studying why, why their wings would have turned into glass, why they would have wanted blood, and I had you on, because I always have you on, and you said, ‘There’s something beating against the sound-booth,’ and then you stopped.” He clenched his hand tighter around Cecil’s. An indelicate touch, more like the butterflies after the glass than before. “You stopped talking, and I counted, Cecil, I counted four and a half minutes before you started again.”
“I remember the butterflies,” Cecil said, and for the first time that night, he sounded like he was talking to Carlos and to no one else. “But there wasn’t one on the sound-booth, I said, and it didn’t take me four-and-a-half minutes to say—it was an intern’s daughter with glue on her hands and feet, trying to be Spiderman.”
“Trying to be—you never said that.”
Cecil looked at him indignantly and Carlos wanted to kiss him again, that flushed mouth, and draw the irate expression from him moan by eager moan, have Cecil shove him down, his back flat against the cool tiles of the porch—but he waited, because he had to be sure.
Cecil said, “I certainly did, Carlos the Scientist who can’t even observe data. The butterflies must have temporarily interfered with the signal. They often do that, butterflies, even when they aren’t inflicting mass carnage. Butterfly swarms are one of the top causes of radio wave disintegration.”
“That can’t possibly be—”
“And also you never said anything,” Cecil said, with the specific tone he had when he was making some triumphant point over a triumph he didn’t fully understand.
Carlos put his hand over his mouth, laughing against his palm, feeling too many things at once, a series of overlapping Venn diagrams. “I was still angry. I gave you that—” and the word hickey was too ridiculous, so he refused to say.
“Hickey,” Cecil said. His smile was brighter than the porch light. Carlos’s heart buzzed against the sun of it, not unlike the bugs against their lamp, and Cecil went on: “That was, without a doubt, the single most significant mark anyone ever left on me, and that includes the guy who thought he was a vampire, the one who got half a pint of my blood? You know who I mean—I showed it to the interns. I thought about having pictures of it framed. I should have, that might have worked as a picture of you. Immediate recovery is always speedier than delayed recovery. Also I take back what I said before about not liking you being angry with me. Potentially. Maybe. Are you angry with me now?”
Carlos’s heart was doing somersaults and throwing fireworks shows, probably casting off as much light as Cecil’s smile. “I don’t think so.”
“You,” Cecil said, “are the great love of my life. Which I know. Which I feel. And I would stare at a hundred lights to make sure I always knew that.”
“That’s not optimal,” Carlos said.
Cecil arched an eyebrow. “Your plan?”
“First things first,” he said, and turned up the collar of his lab coat the way Cecil liked. There were bylaws against outdoor kisses lasting longer than thirty-seven seconds, but everyone knew the City Council had a soft spot for Cecil. Carlos took it to forty-one before they moved inside.
Cecil woke up just as Carlos was laying the last photograph on the bed. It was still faintly warm from the printer.
“Insurance,” Carlos said, “until I convince someone to fix the power grid.” And by convince, he meant threaten to murder.
Cecil picked them up and brightened instantly, even though Carlos normally had to lure him out of bed with pots of coffee and promises of donuts. “They’re all of you! But you hate having your picture taken.” If Cecil had a radio voice, he also had a will-absolutely-bring-this-up-on-the-radio voice, and so Carlos sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, resigning himself to it, just as long as Cecil didn’t notice right away that—
“You’ve got cartoon hearts around your heard in this one! Carlos!”
“I don’t know why that keeps happening,” Carlos said, even though he did. He’d snapped that one while he’d been looking at Cecil.