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we're just lost along the way

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Cecil's mother was right.

Carlos doesn't know this. Carlos doesn't know anything about Cecil's mother at all. All Carlos knows is that there are no mirrors in Cecil's home. There are no mirrors in Cecil's car either, no rear view or side view or even vanity mirrors, which makes riding with him a somewhat harrowing experience. The only mirror Cecil will chance is the mirror in the men's room at the station; Carlos covers his own mirrors out of confused respect when he knows Cecil will be over.

So when it happens, Carlos is unprepared.

No one could fault Carlos for being unprepared for the sudden uprising of shadow creatures unhappy about their lack of representation in city government. No one could fault Carlos for not knowing that covering his mirror with a towel would be no sort of protection when the creatures erupted from it, sending shards of glass lancing through his bedroom. No one could fault Carlos for ducking, for covering his face with his arms as the fragments flew past him instead of yelling to Cecil not to come in.

Carlos faults Carlos for it.

The shadow creatures are gone in moments, rising straight out of the ceiling and going off to demand their rights, whatever those might be. Carlos stands, staring in disbelief at where the mirror was before turning his head, looking back to see if he'd really heard Cecil opening the door.

Cecil is crumpled in the doorway, and Carlos knows even in the instant that it takes him to get there and pull Cecil into his arms that there is no saving him, no amount of medical intervention that will fix the sucking wound made by the thick shard of glass embedded in his chest. Carlos doesn't know what to do, what to say. He hears himself saying things, reassurances, making promises he can't keep, but they're distant, far off, and even then he knows it's all meaningless.

Cecil coughs blood onto Carlos's lab coat, but he's smiling. "Carlos," he says, reaching up, but he doesn't quite have the strength to reach Carlos's face. Carlos catches his hand, holding it against his cheek. "My wonderful Carlos," Cecil says, and then he lets go, going limp in Carlos's arms.

And then it's over.

At the memorial service, people tut and sigh about it, about inevitability, about Cecil's mother, rest what remains of her soul, and the way she'd always known. Cecil's mother, they say, was a prophet, a seer, a bit unsettling but generally an upstanding community member. Carlos has no idea if this is Night Vale's idea of soothing someone when they're grieving, but it isn't helpful. Nothing can change the fact that lightning struck twice, that fate spared him only to kill Cecil. Cecil had to die, yes, in the vague way that all humans eventually have to die, but it didn't have to be like this, it didn't have to be this soon, it didn't have to be Carlos's responsibility.

He burns the lab coat, calling it a biohazard. It's not the neat process that he expected it to be. It doesn't want to catch when he puts the lighter to it; he splashes it with alcohol to help, and then it burns too fast, almost singeing the hair on his arms. He doesn't know what to do with the ashes either, the little bits of fabric and snaps and cracked buttons that remain. He eventually puts them down the sink and hopes that's it.

Two weeks later, one of the surviving interns- that was almost funny once, in a very grim, very Night Vale fashion, the way they couldn't keep them around- takes over for Cecil on Night Vale Community Radio. He's not as good, his voice not as resonant or soothing or perfect as Cecil's. It shakes slightly as he begins to read, but he comes into his own quickly.

The radio makes a loud snapping crack as Carlos throws it against the wall.

A fragment of the casing ricochets, flying back and leaving a long gash on Carlos's cheek. That's how Carlos learns that the worst thing about tears is that they can sting an open wound.

The days go on. Carlos learns things. He has the rest of his mirrors removed, replaced with abstract murals. He figures out how to get anywhere in the city without passing the station or the Arby's or Cecil's old apartment, the apartment that somebody else lives in now, where somebody else deals with the small vortex in the bathroom closet that sometimes eats washcloths. Carlos relearns things. He reschedules his day so that he's busy during those hours when the radio used to be so pivotal. He finds a new supplier for his lab coats. He goes on.

On very rare occasions, he can think about it and not break down; on very rare occasions, he can deal with the thought of Cecil as he was, before the end, when he was a whole, living thing, a being that could walk and talk and just be Cecil. He doesn't know if those occasions hurt or help. They feel so nice when they're there, even with the bitter pang in his stomach, but they hurt so much when they're gone.

Carlos gets a phone call one day, a call on his cell phone, which not many people have the number to. He doesn't recognize the number, other than the $#£ Night Vale area code, but he answers anyway.

"Hello," he says, with some trepidation. "This is Carlos."

"Carlos the scientist, the one with the good hair?" the woman at the other end asks.

"I think that's me," he replies.

"This is Josie," the woman says, and Carlos frowns. He's been more or less actively avoiding Old Woman Josie, no interest in getting involved in any angelic business that might tarnish his reputation as an actual scientist. "I need you down at my house just as soon as you can get here."

"I don't know that-" Carlos starts.

"You listen to me," Old Woman Josie snaps. "You come out here. Your fancy science can wait a damn minute."

Carlos has no idea what to say to something like that. "I'll come down as soon as I can," he says.

"See that you do," she says, and hangs up on him, leaving him to stare at his phone and wonder what the hell.

Carlos gets in his dangerous, mirrorless car and drives out to Old Woman Josie's house. It's exactly as he pictured, slightly run-down, a collection of odds and ends in the yard and on the porch: a garden gnome, a bottle tree, a planter made from a tire, a hand-painted sign that reads ANGELS' RESIDENCE.

Old Woman Josie is sitting on her porch in a rocking chair, rocking slowly back and forth as she waits. There's a glow from inside the house, like the glow from a television set but not at all. Carlos supposes that's what angel-glow is supposed to look like, though he's not ruling out any other kind of glow.

"There you are," Old Woman Josie says, not getting up. "About damn time."

"I'm sorry for the delay," Carlos says, though he's not, really. "I just-"

"He's here," Old Woman Josie calls, turning away and ignoring Carlos.

Carlos knows someone- maybe more like something- is at the door before it opens. It opens without being touched, and suddenly all Carlos can see is- is- it's a blinding indigo light- no, a shine, one that blazes in his eyes, blows out his retinas at the same time that it shows every detail of every part of every thing, the garden gnome and the bottle tree and the planter and Old Woman Josie and Carlos's own body, his skin, his hair. The shine glistens, shakes like heat lines, until it shrinks slowly down, closer and closer to the figure within it, until all that's left is a tall, perfect, winged man, one who still glows, not like a television set at all.

"Cecil," Carlos breathes.

"My darling Carlos," Cecil says, and he sounds like himself only more, bigger, resounding, reverberating in Carlos's ears. "Sweet, beautiful Carlos."

Carlos swallows down the lump in his throat, keeps himself from falling to his knees. "Cecil, I-"

"It's Erika," Cecil says gently. "With a k. I don't suppose you ever took Transmigration Studies. It has to do with the hierarchy of angels, which you are, of course, not to know about."

Carlos doesn't know how to speak anymore. "How?" he says finally.

"You didn't think a little thing like death would stop me, did you?" Erika says. "I mean, I assume I lost my job and my apartment, but those are relatively minor setbacks."

"How am I going to tell my family I'm dating an angel?" Carlos wonders aloud, unable to process the massive nature of it, the hugeness of this idea, the idea that Cecil is here, that Carlos doesn't have to be so hopelessly, helplessly alone. Even if Cecil doesn't want him around, there is a Cecil, and for now that's good enough.

Cecil- Erika- frowns. "That kind of inter-hierarchical relationship is very unorthodox."

"I don't care," Carlos says, giddy, lightheaded. "I just really don't care."

Erika reaches out and strokes Carlos's cheek, and the feeling of his fingers is electric, magnetic. "I'm sure we can work something out," he says.

"As long as you're here," Carlos says. "As long as you're here, we can do anything."

Cecil's mother was right.

She just underestimated her son.