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how to love a world that you don't understand

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He can’t pinpoint the exact moment when his opinion changed. Initially, he hadn’t known what to think of the voice on the radio, and he knew even less when that voice suddenly said his name. And kept saying it, often accompanied by words rarely applied to him—or anyone—so publicly; words of hyperbolic adoration; words typically confined to a diary with a heart-shaped lock and a secret place under the bed. The dreams of a teenager, sighed to the entire population.

Carlos listened to these Trapper Keeper exaltations while working in his lab. Night Vale teemed with samples to analyze: scales from a lizard dropped by the glow cloud; skin cells from a man with a sentient rash; a feather from one of the angels. A scrap of fabric from the hood of a hooded figure, found snagged on the fence of the dog park and quickly snatched up when the wind pulled it free. Carlos had that scrap locked in a black, steel reinforced box; it hummed irritably at him whenever he tried to handle it.

He even had a single, dead fly from the swarm that lived inside the briefcase of a man he couldn’t quite recall.

In addition to the usual range of scopes and meters (barometer, koniscope, CLidar, etc), he had a device sold to him by a local, said to measure the town’s emotional state at any given time. Its indicators were labeled with things like ‘mildly anxious,’ ‘incredibly anxious,’ ‘cursing themselves because they forgot to buy eggs,’ and, at the top, ‘pure existential terror’. The device was constantly active.

Every evening since he arrived in Night Vale, Carlos ran his tests, wrote theories, and graphed impossible numbers while Cecil delivered the news and occasionally editorialized about the stunning perfection of his favorite new scientist. Cheeks burning, Carlos pulled back his lower lip and frowned at the white, even rows of his teeth. He ran a hand through the dark, smooth waves of his hair. And he soon realized, after his first night in town, that everyone else listened to Cecil, too. People on the street grinned at him after a particularly loving broadcast, warmly and without disdain. In fact, it was as though the praise had cemented his place among the locals. He was marked as a visitor, an outsider, but in a friendly way. A guest that, although not invited, everyone was happy to see.

Because of this, Carlos knew that if he wanted to disseminate information about his findings, Cecil was the person to help him. They met a number of times to discuss what was happening here. But never to discuss what was happening anywhere else. Never to discuss the excited tremble of Cecil’s hands as he took notes on Carlos’s discoveries, or the crinkle around his eyes when he smiled and thanked Carlos for his heroic efforts on behalf of the town. These were things they did not address.

Carlos left their meetings in an ambivalent state. He had no analysis for Cecil. The data was inconclusive. Everything about him was both sincere and unsettling. When they spoke in person, Carlos tried to find something discordant in his mannerisms, his posture or expression or word choice. He looked for a sinister vein shooting through Cecil’s ineffable cheer, for the lightless reaches beneath his pleasant grin.

But there was nothing to find.

Cecil accepted his world at face value, and he expected that everyone else did, too. He was more the town’s observer than its agent, though he was complicit in the status quo. He considered an inter-dimensional attack with the same attitude as the average person considered the weather, and of course he rarely considered the weather at all.

Something had to be wrong with him. Something had to be wrong with a man so much a product of this place, a man who murmured uneasily about re-education notices, about things he could not remember and things he struggled in vain to forget.

Carlos was sure of this, until he wasn’t.

It was the day he went beneath the bowling alley. He nearly died there, lying on the polished wood of lane five, bleeding from multiple small but astonishingly deep wounds. That miniature society really knew its siege weapons, he thought, vaguely, as his vision turned to sea water, stinging and blurry with pain. He wasn’t aware of much in that moment, aside from the aching weakness of his body. Someone’s arms were around his waist, and then someone cradled his head, making concerned clucking noises as they pulled off his lab coat. Faces were indistinct; voices, a jumble.

The radio played over the loudspeakers, incomprehensible but familiar. Cecil’s words were lost, but the tone filtered through—despairing, inconsolable, soft and high-pitched with grief. Something about it clung to Carlos’s mind as he slipped into unconsciousness, like the harmony to a song.

A scene came to him, a recent memory played back, perhaps triggered by this tone. Due to the finicky nature of the human brain, some parts of it were in sharp focus—the check peeking out from beneath the sugars on the table; the gleaming whipped cream on top of Cecil’s half-eaten pie; the smear of translucent bacon grease across Carlos’s empty plate. They had met at the diner two weeks ago to talk about—what? That wasn’t clear. Clocks. Earthquakes. An atonal buzzing, recorded only at precise coordinates, in the strip mall. Or—the community calendar.

“How is it possible to cancel Wednesday? How does that work, in practice?” Carlos asked. He sipped his mostly black coffee as Cecil shrugged.

“It just doesn’t happen,” he replied. “You go to bed on Tuesday, you have your sleep, and if you’ve got a dentist’s appointment on Thursday, then you had better get up and start brushing your teeth.”

Carlos massaged his left temple with his thumb. He had the coffee in his other hand, raised to his mouth. The smell of it, strong and (mostly) bitter and revitalizing, kept him anchored to the conversation. This detail is fuzzy and thin in his recollection, from the pale blur of the cup to the inky swirl of the liquid. In his mind’s eye, he’s holding fog.

“Look—we mark time symbolically, right? It’s five in the afternoon because that’s the system we’ve all agreed on,” Carlos said. “Like the entire concept of noon.”

“Yes,” Cecil said. “And, this Wednesday, that concept is not happening.”

Carlos sighed.

“The city council is terribly sorry about it,” Cecil added gently.

“I’m not upset,” Carlos said. “It just doesn’t make sense. You can’t negate an idea.”

“Can’t you?” Cecil said. He smiled, and there was no malice or guile in it. “The city council does it all the time.”

Disquieted, Carlos glanced down at his coffee cup. The image solidified; the cup was empty, containing only dregs. Carlos set it down and said, “I’ve got to go. Thanks for coming out.”

Disappointment flickered in Cecil’s eyes, but it was brief; the time span between one breath and the next.

“All right,” he said. He leaned forward, his fingers splayed flat on the table, and Carlos thought that they would touch, thought Cecil was going to take his hand.

But Cecil did not do this. The tips of his fingernails nearly brushed against Carlos’s knuckles, so close that Carlos felt warm air move with Cecil as he stood, pushing himself up and out of the booth. But they did not touch.

“If you need anything else,” Cecil said, “you have my number.”

“Right,” Carlos said. He stood up, too, and they lingered awkwardly for a few seconds, as though each waiting for the other person to move first.

“Goodnight,” Cecil said, finally. He slipped past, careful not to jostle Carlos’s elbow or shoulder, and the bells above the diner’s entrance jingled as he left.

When Carlos came to in the bowling alley, his mind thrummed with afterimages, with fragments of conversation. The truth was that he had changed his mind about Cecil a long time ago. He just hadn’t realized it until right then, sitting propped up against a vending machine as Teddy Williams, wearing a stethoscope, checked his heart rate.

Carlos reached for the pocket of his lab coat and felt bandages instead, wrapped expertly around his midsection and both forearms.

“I need my phone,” he croaked.

Teddy frowned. “Your heart’s hammering against your ribcage like it’s trying to escape, son.”

“I know, I can feel that—I mean, thank you,” Carlos said, quickly. “Thank you for looking after me. But I’d also really like my phone. Please.”

Someone—a guest of the doomed birthday party, still milling about the tiny, war-torn scene—brought it to him.

Carlos cleared his throat. He dialed Cecil’s number.