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Title: Faceless Old Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Fandom: Welcome to Night Vale
Author: tikistitch
Rating: M
Characters/Pairings: Cecil/Carlos, The Faceless Woman Who Lives in Your House, Nazr Al-Mujaheed, Teddy Williams, Old Woman Josie, Hiram McDaniels
Warnings: Cursing, sexual situations. Hints of domestic violence (in the past), suicide. Spoilers up to Episode 33.
Word Count: 9500
Summary: Casino gambling comes to Night Vale in the wake of the highly-contested mayoral race. And something malevolent awaits Cecil in a garage that isn’t really there.
Notes: At the end.



“There's a body out there.”

Cecil jerked to consciousness, feeling the pressure on the end of his bed. His eyes snapped open, and he saw, if only out of the corner of an eye.

“You.”

“It's been there two days now,” said The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives in Your House.

And then, somehow, even though she had never quite been there, she was not there at all. Not anymore.

Cecil leaned on his elbows, shivering, his body bathed in a cold sweat. He flinched at the sudden sound, but it was only his phone ringing. He leaned over and grabbed it from the nightstand, also picking up his pack of Marlboro Menthol 100s. “Hello,” he said as he tried to extract a cigarette one-handed.

“We should go bowling.”

“Josie?”

“Get the team back together. Get Nazr and Teddy.”

“Yes, we should. Some time.” Cecil tossed the pack back and reached for his lighter. He fumbled as it transformed into a beetle and began to scurry away.

“It's Tuesday.”

The lighter plunged down to the floor and disappeared under the bed. Cecil dropped to his knees, trying to figure out where the hell it had gone. He hoped it hadn't fallen into that hole that had appeared the other day. “Yes. Tuesday,” he muttered. “Oh wait! You mean this afternoon?”

“Yes.”

Cecil was still peering under the bed, wondering where he'd stuck the flashlight. He thought about going to the kitchen to look for a matchbook. “I'm busy this afternoon....”

“Oh! That new boyfriend?”

“Um, in a way.” Just as he was about to get up, he spotted a flicker of movement. “Hang on!” Setting the phone aside, he lunged, and managed to trap his beetle lighter. Grinning, he flicked the head, and fire spurted out of the ass end. “Ummmm,” he said as he lit his Marlboro. He grabbed the phone again as the lighter skittered away. “We're busy this evening. It's just … some science thing.”

“That's right. No time for your old friends, you've got some fancy new ones.”

Cecil puffed menthol smoke. “Josie! It's not like that.” He frowned, watching the smoke drift upwards, towards the scorch marks from his last party. “Besides, I didn't hear you calling back when the angels were still talking to you.”

There was silence at the other end. Cecil realized immediately he had overstepped.

“Josie? Hey, I didn't mean.... Josie?”

But the phone had gone dead.




“Night Vale’s First Church of St. Andrey of the Transient States has announced community bingo night to raise funds for their proposed expansion into an equilibrium distribution. All proceeds will be assigned according to their eigenvector. Play now, before it's too late!

“And now, traffic. There are reports that Route 800 may or may not be blocked by a semi that has an equal chance or either having jackknifed and thus caused unspeakable ruin and mayhem; or is still running along smoothly bringing fresh market vegetables and the flesh of extinct animals to Ralph’s, where it is sure to delight many happy patrons. Please check your alternate reality state before proceeding on your morning commute.

“Listeners, I’ve been feeling a wave of nostalgia lately, thinking about those long nights I used to spend in my family’s garage, practicing my broadcasting technique, hoping to one day be a radio professional, and take my place among the pantheon of those whose voices loom in the night like static shadows. As you know, I am not usually one who cares to dwell in the past, as I feel the past is prologue, and it just gets too darned confusing, especially with all the local temporal aberrations we’ve been having. I asked Carlos – my sweet, dark-maned Carlos – if he could check into the past for me, to make certain it wasn’t interfering with my future. Do you see how confusing this has become? I think the modern timestream has gotten just too tangled for a typical citizen to make any sense of it.”



The apparatus blinked and hummed and generally made science-y noises. Carlos sat on the bed, twiddling with the dial while Cecil paced nervously nearby, Marlboro burning out between twitching fingers.

“Cigarette smoking decreases longevity. Statistically speaking,” Carlos offered.

Cecil strode by, trailing smoke and jangled nerves. “She was here, then? I can’t believe you don't have a Faceless Old Woman.”

The meter clicked. Dials whirled. “I can't believe that you do, Cecil. I don't deal in beliefs. I'm a scientist: I deal in the falsifiable.”

“So, what don't you know?”

Carlos gazed wistfully at his meter, as if it were a long lost love. “Well, I can't prove she was here, at least within two standard deviations, which is the accepted criterion.”

“She's been coming to me, claiming there's a body out in the garage. My garage. But I don't have a garage! I live in an apartment. There is no garage!

Carlos tilted his head, his bangs lolling fetchingly into his dark eyes. “I have found Night Vale to be especially conducive to places that don't actually exist.”

“I haven't had a garage since....” Cecil trailed off, trying to keep his thoughts from straying into dark places. “Since I was a kid.”

“Why don't you stay at my place for a few days? This series of … encounters,” and here Carlos was picking his words with the care one might take choosing a decent melon at the produce stand, “obviously has you rattled.”

Cecil sat down on the bed next to Carlos, the cigarette tracing out smoke. He was shaking his head. “There's all those other scientists always hanging around in your lab.”

“They're ‘hanging around’ because they’re running experiments, Cecil. Anyway, they're all off at the Conference on Stochastic Processes in Monte Carlo this week.”

“And you didn't go? Ouch!” And ash had landed on his finger. Cecil irritably stubbed the cigarette in the saucer of a dead teacup sitting on the nightstand, holding his injured digit in his mouth.

Carlos set down the apparatus and grabbed Cecil's hand. An angry little red blister had begun to sprout. He clucked his tongue. “Aloe. Do you have an aloe plant?”

Cecil nodded sullenly and pointed with the uninjured hand. Carlos went over and snapped off the tip of a succulent leaf, and then came back to the bed, pressing it over Cecil's burn. “Cigarettes: they are bad. From a public health standpoint.”

“I needed one.”

Carlos caught Cecil's other hand and guided it over to hold aloe plant over his wound. “I would stay here with you,” Carlos said gently, stepping back and rubbing his grizzled chin. “But I need to shave at least every other day. Plus or minus a day.”

Cecil's eyes strayed towards his bathroom, and whatever lurked within. He could sense a presence, even now. “I don't like them.”

“I understand. But shaving without a mirror can be somewhat dicey.”

Cecil was silent, holding the cool aloe against his burnt hand, staring into the bathroom. His throat was a little raw from the cigarette, and he wanted a drink. Hopefully something stronger than tap water.

“Cecil, how did she die?”

Cecil's face was ashen. Thoughts of his mother didn’t come easily to him. “She didn't.” He blinked down at his hand. “At least, not that we could tell. One day she was just … not there any more.”

“And you suspected your father? In your mother's disappearance, I mean?”

Cecil was startled out of his funk. He searched his boyfriend’s face. “How did you know?”

“I didn't. Statistically speaking, that's the likelihood.”

Shuddering now, Cecil thought back to a childhood spent in a picture puzzle missing a piece. “I don’t have any memories of him. It’s all a blank. I should have been old enough to recall. It’s strange. I know one day he was gone. That’s the day we covered all the mirrors.” Something flickered in his memory: a broken mirror. Red, pooling beneath….

“Cecil?”

The radio host shook himself out of his reverie. “Would it be all right if I stayed with you? Just a few days? Just until the other scientists get back?” He was biting his lip.

“Of course.” When had Carlos sat back beside him? His presence was comforting. Carlos was warm, and smelled faintly of cinnamon.

Cecil mouthed, Thanks. And then he stood, staring at his burned hand. “I should get a bandage.”

“I need to take a few more readings in here.”

Cecil nodded and left. Carlos sat on the bed, aimlessly punching buttons. “I'm worried about him,” he said softly.

“I know you are. I can see you.”

Carlos nodded.

“But why are you talking to me, if I'm not here.”

“You're improbable. Which means, statistically speaking, that you are not impossible.”

“And am I really speaking to you, Carlos? Or is it the other one?”

“That’s not clear.”

Carlos paused. There was only silence. But then, nothing was there.

“I wonder, what kind of processes are you running?” asked Carlos, as if to himself.




“What is it, Intern Stanislaw?”

“More position papers for the mayoral race.”

Tossing the stubby remnants of his cigarette into the potted Sarrcenia purpurea plant standing by the doorway, Cecil paused just inside the Community Radio station’s back entrance and thumbed through the stack of memos his eager intern had just handed over. He had been distracted lately, and not paying his usual attention to the antics of the players involved in this season's highly contested mayoral race. He gazed at the black words crawling across the pages like tiny invaders on the march. He read one line twice, and then again. “Casino gambling? In Night Vale?”

“Hiram McDaniels says we could be the Las Vegas of the Southwest.”

“Las Vegas is in the Southwest.”

“It was the green head that said it!” Stanislaw appeared troubled. He leaned closer to Cecil and confided, “I don't think Hiram McDaniel's actually has five heads. I think it's just a ploy to win the polycephalic vote!”

Cecil smiled wryly, enjoying Stanislaw's earnestness almost despite himself. “Isn't that a rather limited constituency? A lot of us have extra eyes, and superfluous limbs of course, and the man who runs the gas station has that extra spleen....”

“What about Michael Sandero!”

“Former.”

“Mark my words, Cecil!” insisted Stanislaw.

Cecil considered the statement, wishing he had another cigarette. “People say that, but spoken words are too transient to really pick up a mark. Maybe if you chanted them into a paper bag?”

Intern Stanislaw looked offended. He turned on his heel and stomped away.

Another day, another person pissed off at him. Cecil considered going out for another smoke.



“I spent all day slaving over a hot stove for this.”

Cecil cast a wary eye on the pizza sitting out on the coffee table. Either the table had one short leg or Carlos's floor was uneven, or possibly both, as the table tended to wiggle up and down when you touched it, or breathed on it, or even looked at it too intently. Carlos has stuck some folded up cardboard underneath one leg, but that just seemed to make the problem worse. Carlos's living space, such as it was, was basically the big, drafty attic at the top of his laboratory, which he had spiced with various second- or third-hand items of furniture.

“Why is it in a Big Rico's box?” asked Cecil.

“That was the hardest part, cooking the box. I used only the finest artisanal cardboard.” Grinning with false pride, Carlos held the box open, gesturing at it with a fine-skinned, dark hand.

Arching an eyebrow, Cecil sat down on Carlos's ratty couch, taking his time to select a small slice.

Carlos ripped a paper towel off the roll and handed it to Cecil. “Portabella, wolfsbane and garlic. Your favorite.”

“Wolfsbane? Do I seem like I have a yang deficiency?” asked Cecil, contemplating his slice, licking grease from a finger.

“I've heard you haven't been eating.”

“How the hell did you hear that?” Cecil snapped, immediately regretting his tone.

Carlos pretended not to notice, pouring out a two liter bottle of diet cola into some plastic cups. “Oh, some of your interns are a little chatty. Enrico says you don't have him order your cassowary salad sandwich at lunch anymore. And that you've been going on smoke breaks more often.”

“Enrico should mind his own business.” Cecil sounded sulky, even to himself.

“Cecil, eat your pizza or there will be no dessert!” Carlos picked up a little packet of dried pepper and dusted his own slice with small red flakes. “I've got malachite-chip ice cream.”

“Are you my Jewish grandmother now?”

Carlos chewed in an annoyingly enthusiastic manner. “If you'd like, we could call my abuela, and she will chastise you properly. The conversation will mostly be in Spanish, but I believe you will get the point.”

Cecil squirmed back on the couch, folding his legs up underneath him and obediently nibbling at his slice. “It's good,” he admitted. He started trying to recall the last time he'd eaten, and found that he couldn't remember. Maybe he was just hungry? “Carlos?”

“Mmm?”

“Why didn't you go to the conference with the rest of the scientists?”

Carlos picked a fragment of portabella off his slice and popped it in his mouth. “Oh, you know, nothing to present this time. Science is like that. Like my old advisor at MiskTech used to say, sometimes you run the samples, and sometimes the samples run you.”

“You were first author on several abstracts. I had Intern Stanislaw look it up.”

Carlos was suddenly making a big deal out of picking a bit of melted cheese from between his molars. “That was clever of you.”

“Carlos!”

Carlos stuck a bare foot out and pushed down on the coffee table, and it wiggled up and down. “All right. All right. There is a chance that I was worried.”

Cecil's face melted into a smile. He set down his pizza crust on the unsteady coffee table and wriggled over into Carlos's lap, finishing with a cheesy-garlicky kiss. “So you're planning to stay here and stuff me with pizza until I'm fat.”

“Yes, you've divined my evil plan. And then when you're through broadcasting for the day, I'll just roll you home from the studio.” Carlos's hands went to Cecil's shirt, pulling it out of his waistband, pressing on Cecil's flat, pale stomach. “I will call you Gordito,” he muttered, thumbs circling Cecil's jutting hipbones.

Cecil, suddenly shy, slipped off Carlos's lap.

Ignoring his friend's mood, Carlos pointed a jaunty thumb at the coffee table. “You should finish your crust. It's the best part!”

“Never cared for the crust,” said Cecil, hugging his knees to his chest. “It brings back unhappy memories.”

“What kind of memories?”

“Of eating pizza crust.”

Carlos gave the pizza box a nudge. After feigning reluctance, Cecil reached in and grabbed another slice. To his surprise, the scientist snatched his uneaten crust and gobbled it up. “Waste not, want not!” he smacked.

“Is that what your grandmother used to say?”

“No, she used to say, 'Basta ya! Experimentos outside!'” Carlos grinned and greedily reached for another slice of pizza. “I may have blown up her lhasa apso at one point. I can't recall.”

Cecil pointed towards the corner, towards Carlos's bathroom. There was a toilet set off in an alcove behind a door. A sink and a big, solid old claw-foot tub stood nearby. Cecil wasn't quite certain how they'd ever managed to maneuver that tub up Carlos's narrow staircase. “I noticed you covered it up.” The shaving mirror over the sink had a cotton sheet draped over it.

“I want you to feel safe here. Because you are safe here.”

“Thank you,” Cecil whispered. “She always said to be wary of reflections.”

“Have you considered that perhaps your reflection means no harm?”

Cecil turned towards Carlos. “What?”

“Eat you pizza,” said Carlos.



“Listeners, I've just been given word that Night Vale now has a casino. Yes, several weeks ahead of the mayoral race vote, where legalized gambling in Night Vale has become a contentious issue, Markov's Casino and Family State Space has suddenly appeared, fully formed, on the sand wastes just outside of city limits, atop an ancient, Native American burial ground. When questioned, several bystanders were heard to say, 'Yep, yep, it's definitely a casino. No could you get out of our way? We wanna play the jumbo slot machine.'

“In other news, the City Council has announced plans for a new municipal lottery, perhaps similar to Quinto, or perhaps not. There will be no prizes, and tickets will cost an arm and a leg. Literally. A City Council spokesperson explained that she was just hired for the job, but as a liberal arts graduate, was having a difficult time breaking into her chosen profession of beekeeping.”



“It's real then?” Cecil and Carlos stood out in the parking lot, occasionally dodging the many SUVs and camper vans barreling through, intent on obtaining the blackjack tables or roulette wheel.

Carlos's dark eyes were fixed on his beeping meter. “I can say, with an eighty percent probability, that I have confidence that this place exists. And that we are about to be run over by that Hummer.” He grabbed Cecil by the arm and yanked them out of the way of the non-environmentally friendly vehicle.

“So, it is real?” Cecil persisted. “For certain?”

“Statistics is never having to say you're certain.”

Cecil sighed, and they watched as a large, pasty-skinned family of four exited the Hummer, moving towards the doorway under the draped “Smorgasbord $14.95” sign.

“Cecil! Are you here for poker, or the ocelot races?” asked a dark-haired man, accenting the inquiry with a playful slap at Cecil's butt.

“Nazr,” said Cecil. “Don't the Scorpions have a game coming up?”

“Oh, no,” laughed Coach Al-Mujaheed. “That's not 'til tomorrow. But that's plenty of time. I don't like to over train the boys, you know. My boys play good. They're good boys. Good football boys.”

“I was just talking to Josie,” said Cecil. “You know, about the bowling league?”

“Bowling? Who'd go bowling when we have an ocelot racing! With ocelots!”

“Ocelot races?” asked Carlos, who grunted when the coach slapped him enthusiastically on the back.

“Why yes! They got a special track right out back. A special ocelot track. A track for ocelots!”

“That sounds scientifically interesting,” said Carlos. “I guess I should investigate.”

“Sounds good, Doc,” blustered the coach, gripping the scientist by the shoulder and marching him towards the casino entrance.

“Uh, are you coming too?” Carlos called back.

“I need to get back to the station,” said Cecil.

“See you!”

Thunder crashed in the distance. Cecil shook his head, and then suddenly looked up, extending an inquisitive hand.



The front doors opened, and Cecil darted inside the station, now soaking wet from the sudden rain shower. “Dammit,” he grumbled, looking around for somebody with a towel, and maybe some hot coffee. Oddly enough, though the intern's break room was empty, and it didn't appear that any of them had disappeared down the bottomless pit over by the coffee machine. Still dripping, he ducked into the bathroom looking for paper towels, only to find Interns Neumann, Enrico and Stanislaw all crowded around. “What's going on?” he asked as Khoshekh rolled over in mid-air and started to purr.

The interns all stepped back; varying expressions of embarrassment on their faces, and Cecil realized what they were all doing.

“Since when do we have a slot machine in the men's room?”

“There's online poker in the ladies room!” said Intern Enrico. “Um, so I've heard.”

“Can somebody get me a towel,” sighed Cecil. “And a cup of coffee? And maybe, just maybe, the reports for my radio program? We have a potential flash flood situation out there, and you know what that means?”

“Uhhh, it means I can finally use my rubber devil duckie?” proposed Intern Enrico, his eyes bright.

Cecil rolled his eyes, looking over his eager if dim young colleagues. “It means increased tourism opportunities for the Waterfront Recreation Center!”

The interns scattered. Cecil reached over and scratched Khoshekh's furry belly. The cat produced a sound somewhere between a meow and the death shrieks of a bludgeoned black rhinoceros. Cecil glanced over at the men's room mirrors, which were all draped under towels, as had been the case since he came to work here so many years ago. With a set to his jaw, he grabbed one of the towels, and rubbed it over his sopping hair.

He sighed and carefully hung the towel back over the mirror, being sure to tuck in the corners. And then he paused. He nudged the towel to the side, just a little, and peered into the mirror.

A flick of movement. And … who was that?

Cecil whirled around.

But there was nothing behind him. There was no other living being in the bathroom: no one but Khoshekh.



“Listeners, we are receiving more and more reports of the sudden appearance of various games of chance in Night Vale businesses, in private residences, inside schools and churches, and even out on street corners. Night Vale elementary is said to now have a bingo hall inside one of the kindergarten classrooms, and a Mrs. Martina Gardener reports that now several Japanese pachinko games stand where the family used to house its laundry room. The Gardener family however is not upset regarding their lack of clean laundry, and reports a substantial increase in tourism. You go, Gardener family!”

“And now a word from our sponsors, Markov's Casino and Family State Space. Come to Markov's, as it's probably open. You'll have a good, family-friendly evening, unless you don't because it's already morning, and you rub your eyes, thinking of another day wasted, another day closer to sun collapsing in on itself and the end of the known universe. Markov's: the fun never stops, even when you're miserable and full of self-loathing.”



After the broadcast Cecil had decided to leave his car in the parking lot and walk back to Carlos's laboratory, as following the flash flood many of Night Vale's roads had become impeded by roving flocks of red rubber devil duckies, all scowling their way downstream.

Although the rains had stopped, it was still dark and gloomy, which was rather the rule in these environs. “I'll be there soon,” he said into the phone when it rang.

“Chinese, or Mesopotamian tonight?”

“Oh, can you get those little fried hamsters on a stick again?”

“Anything you want, Cecil,” chuckled Carlos. “I'm working my fingers to the bone, dialing the take out numbers for you.”

Cecil smiled and put away his phone. He pulled out his Marlboros, but on second thought, stuffed it back in his breast pocket. It wouldn't do to have Carlos smell smoke on him. Besides, he should think about cutting down.

Cecil started humming Carlos's silly MiskTech school song as he walked, “He's up all night to run assays, she's up all night to run assays, we're up all night to run assays.” Just out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the gutter had become clogged with cute little polka dot devil duckies, turning the roadway into a standing pool of water. The sun broke through the clouds, sending a thin sheen of sunlight tumbling downwards. He turned his head and noticed his reflection in the still water, hurrying along beside him, head tilted forward.

Cecil drew in a breath and trained his eyes at the sidewalk in front of him, trying not to notice. He walked along, listening to the wind, and the gentle bobbing of the rubber bath toys.

Against his will, his eyes darted to the side, catching a flicker of movement. It was just the light on the water, he told himself. Just the light. He increased his pace, eyes boring into the sidewalk.

There it was again.

Cecil stopped short.

He turned, gaze locked at the still water pooling by the gutter, smooth surface glinting in the sun.

And then he was running, across the wet lawns, away from the sidewalk, away from the street. He ran until his lungs ached, his heart hammering in his chest.

Away from the water.

Away from....

He ran right into Carlos, who was waiting for him outside the lab.

“I'm all right. I'm all right,” huffed Cecil as Carlos held him steady.

“Cecil-”

Cecil tried to catch his breath. “Just … thought I saw something. Probably nothing. Probably … just the light.”

“Cecil!”

“What?” Carlos's hands were gripping his arms, the scientist's eyes full of concern. “What is it?”

“Do- don't go back there,” Carlos stammered. “I mean, just now. I haven't had time-”

Cecil stared over Carlos's lab-coated shoulder, and noticed for the first time the large shadow visible in the alley behind the building that housed Carlos's lab. “What is it? Carlos! What is it?” But somehow he knew. In that instant, he knew.

“Cecil-”

Cecil tore himself away from Carlos and ran towards the alley, pooled water splashing as he hurtled towards the back of the laboratory and saw it, saw it standing there clear as day, a building that couldn't possibly be there, as it lived now only in Cecil's memory.

The garage.

He let out a strangled cry. Then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed into Carlos's arms.



“I haven't been able to prove it's actually there, at least, within a certain confidence interval. Sure you won't have more fried hamster?” Carlos offered over a wooden stick impaled with bits of meat.

Cecil sat stewing on Carlos's ratty couch. He was barefoot, as his shoes and socks had gotten soaked. His tie was askew, shirt untucked and he was swaddled in what must have been every available blanket. He waved his hand. “No thank you.”

“Maybe when my colleagues return from Monte Carlo we can run some more tests....”

But that was wrong. “We don't need any more tests. I need to go.”

“Not now,” Carlos soothed, voice oozing caramel with maybe a dash of chocolate sauce.

“Yes. Now!” Cecil struggled out of his blanket nest as Carlos sat down beside him.

“You’re still feeling ill,” said Carlos, leaning close and pressing a cool hand on Cecil’s temple. “You should rest,” he murmured, and Cecil felt some of the dread and urgency start to slip away, replaced by something else. “Rest a while,” Carlos urged, his lips pressed ever so gently on Cecil's forehead.

But Cecil had anything but rest on his mind. He pulled Carlos down and kissed him fully on the lips. He tasted lovely, like a summer rain. He felt Carlos's hands pressing his shoulders, easing him down into the soft, welcoming recesses of the couch. They kissed some more, and Cecil felt Carlos's weight settle onto him, pressing into him.

“Stay here with me,” Carlos whispered, nuzzling his neck, tugging on Cecil's shirt buttons. Carlos eased down and began kissing his chest, lips and teeth and tongue, Cecil's breath catching when he grazed a sensitive nipple. Cecil threaded a leg around Carlos's body, pulling him nearer.

Carlos continued kissing a line down Cecil's belly, down to the unmarked space below his many tattoos. Cecil wiggled as Carlos nipped at his hipbone, biting down, placing his own marks there. Cecil stretched and sighed. He wanted to feel this, wanted to feel possessed, needed to feel safe.

Carlos’s soft mouth was low on Cecil’s stomach, lips brushing against the fine hairs there, sweet and gentle. The couch sagged then bounced up slightly as Carlos slipped off, tugging at Cecil's belt. And then fine-skinned hands were gripping his bare thighs, spreading his legs. Cecil moaned, arching his back at the exquisite feel of lips on him. He felt so hungry for this, eager and aching for Carlos's touch. The world and its cares retreated to the margins. He threaded a hand through Carlos's thick hair. There were only two people in the world, just they two. Cecil writhed, eyes shut, whispering his lover's name. No Night Vale, no Markov's with its glittering lights, no laboratory test tubes, no....

A thought, unbidden, nudged at the corner of Cecil's mind.

A broken mirror….

He struggled to push himself up. Strong arms held tight around his waist, lips brushing his neck, whispering, “Stay with me. Please.”

“Carlos?” Cecil whispered, eyes fluttering open, his hand tightening on Carlos's dark, tangled hair. Carlos was there, down on the floor, and yet he wasn't. “Carlos....”

Who was holding him?

Carlos moved, mouth and tongue. Cecil cried out, shutting his eyes, raw sensation arcing through his body....



“Carlos?”

Cecil threw the covers back, struggling to sit up on the couch. Somewhere his cell phone was still ringing. He lunged towards where his jacket had been slung over the back of a chair, but ended up face-planting when his ankle got tangled in a blanket, which had in turn gotten caught in the coffee table's gamey leg. Cursing, he rose and limped over to grab the phone. He listened – or tried to listen – to the sound of his intern's babbling voice.

“Enrico? Hiram McDaniels … is doing what? Slow down!”

There was the sound of shuffling on the other end, and some muttered voices. “Cecil!” came a new voice.

“Yes, Stanislaw?”

“You ... need ... to … get … down ... here. Now!”

Despite the intern's protestations of urgency, Cecil decided a shower was in order. He shed what clothes he still had on, pulled the ringed curtain around the old tub, and turned on the jury-rigged shower head. The vinyl curtain didn't quite close, so he found himself glancing over at the sink. The shaving mirror still had the sheet draped over it. It would have been fogged over anyway.

Cecil forced himself to look away, letting the tepid water wash over him.

A little later, still tying up his tie, he found Carlos downstairs in the lab. To his surprise, when he explained the situation, the scientist cheerfully tossed the keys to his sports coupe to Cecil. Cecil had expected an argument, but Carlos merely turned back to his buzzing apparatus, the very picture of scientific inquiry. Cecil, in a hurry, headed for the car.



“I'm the five-headed dragon who cares about our children! Now, maybe you don't want to vote for me. Maybe you don't care for children. Not many people care like I care. I don't care like people care, because I'm a five-headed dragon!”

“I like children with a splash of barbecue sauce,” muttered Cecil, looking around the noisy, glittering main floor of Markov's Casino and Family State Space where Hiram McDaniels had decided to make an impromptu campaign appearance. As his debate opponent hadn’t shown up, he was instead addressing his remarks to an empty chair. The wooden chair was now somewhat blackened. It had gotten a bit scorched as McDaniels’s green head was feeling a bit frisky this afternoon.

“Forget the children!” yelled a heckler.

“You’ll note my opponent hasn’t even bothered to show up. Maybe she doesn’t care about the children. Not like I care!”

“Green 11235!” shouted a croupier. Despite McDaniels’s spirited speech, there were few people listening to him at this point. Most of the crowd, including the Community Radio interns who had summoned Cecil down to Markov's, had gravitated towards the roulette wheel, where they were chattering with excitement. The same winning number, Green 11235, had now come up eight times in a row. This was extremely odd, especially as there was no such slot as Green 11235 on the wheel.

“I cut two millimeters from one of the roulette table legs. I think this makes the game more interesting.”

Cecil flicked his eyes to the side, and almost saw the Faceless Old Woman there. “Do you think Hiram noticed?”

“I hope so.”

“Tell me something: are you the one who did that to Carlos's coffee table?”

“No. Your boyfriend is a real cheapskate.”

Cecil nodded and directed his attention back to the red, white and blue bunting-bedecked dais. Hiram McDaniels had finally gotten his debate, as his green head and his purple head were currently going at it. Cecil had missed the beginning of the argument. The green head roared and belched smoke, and McDaniels’s tail swept around, taking out a row of slot machines, leaving many disgruntled potential voters in its wake.

McDaniels stomped an angry dragon foot, and the dais he had been standing on suddenly collapsed underneath him, leaving him in a tangle of heads and talons and patriotic ribbon.

“I also removed several support beams from the wooden dais. I thought this would add interest to the debate.”

“Good job,” said Cecil. A crowd of panicked people rushed by them, but they were soon enough enraptured again by the blinking lights of a slot machine, or the steady whirl of a roulette wheel. “You know, I just had a really strange experience with Carlos. We were … well, you know. But I wasn't sure where he is. Or if he was there.”

“It's been there three days now, Cecil. Three days.”

Cecil jerked his head to the left, but the Faceless Old Woman was no longer there. He shuddered. The garage: he'd never gotten to go to the garage.

But his reverie was broken when Teddy Williams sauntered up to him, tilting up his rhinestone sunglasses and extending a hand. “Cecil! It's been a long time.”

“Looking … uh, good, Teddy,” said Cecil, a little uncertainly. He had known the bowling alley proprietor nearly his whole life, but couldn’t ever recall seeing him dressed in such a flashy manner. Was there even such a thing as a triple-breasted suit jacket? The gold buttons shone, resplendent against the mauve sharkskin. Cecil glanced over to where a number of hooded attendants were now sweeping away the wreckage of Hiram McDaniels’s debate stand. As for the five-headed mayoral candidate, he had stomped out in a huff. A literal huff. The doorway was scorched in his wake.

“Were you watching the debate?” Cecil asked Teddy.

“Oh, no, I'm the manager here now!”

Cecil frowned. “But what about the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex?”

Teddy burnished a set of elegantly groomed fingernails against his lapel. “Hrmm? Bowling alley?”

“There was a village,” Cecil explained, holding his hand down towards the floor. “Tiny people who were going to attack us. You had gathered together a posse of townspeople.”

Teddy worried his signet pinkie ring. “Tiny people?”

“Under the pin retrieval area of lane five!”

Teddy threw his head back and laughed, showing a splash of gold fillings. “Cecil, my memory’s not as sharp as yours any more. But come on and take a random walk with me.”

Confused, Cecil followed Teddy, passing by several Community Radio interns who were now hunched over the blackjack table. “Aren’t the odds usually in favor of the house?” Cecil wondered.

“Yep! But we’ve got ourselves a whole town of folks hoping to be outliers. Come on back and take a gander at our poker room. I think you’ll like it there. Texas Hold 'Em! And boy, do we hold ‘em.”

“So, are you responsible for the slot machine in our men’s room?” Cecil caught his breath as Teddy pounded him on the back.

“You have slots out at community radio? Well, now, that’s unfair competition. I bet it’s nothing like here at Markov’s! Look at this,” he blustered, pausing to wave a hand at the banks of whirling, buzzing, clicking, clattering slot machines, almost every one of which was now attended by a Night Vale citizen, staring blank-eyed, yanking on levers like so many rats in Skinner boxes.

“Wait a minute,” said Cecil, spotting a familiar face. “Josie!”

The old woman was glaring through glasses so thick as to make her eyes bulge like a frog tracking a gnat. The cataract-clouded brown of her magnified irises tracked to the side until they centered roughly in Cecil’s direction. “Yes?”

“Josie.”

“Yes?” She was already facing the slot machine again, all focus on the sour lemons and bunches of red cherries.

“We should go bowling again soon. Carlos doesn't bowl, but we could teach him. I'm sure he'd be up for it.”

“Bowling,” she repeated. She tugged at the lever, and the dials whirled. Lucky seven, lucky seven, sour lemon.

“Yes. Remember? You wanted to get the bowling team back together?”

“I'm on a lucky streak, honey,” she retorted. “I need to get back.” Bar, bar, cherries.

Cecil started to speak again, but decided against it. “The angels, Josie?” he finally asked.

“They can take care of themselves.”

Teddy was urging him along, so, regretfully, Cecil left the rows and rows of one-armed bandits and let the bowling alley owner lead him off the main floor into a narrow, windowless corridor. It smelled of cigar smoke and stale beer back here. Cecil felt a prickling on the back of his neck. He turned.

“Carlos?”

But the scientist was not there. Instead, hanging on the wall, he saw a small, decorative mirror. Cecil shuddered, and let Teddy hurry him along, on into the bowels of Markov’s.



“Listeners, have you ever wondered who left that hat on the stand, given that you don't wear hats, and you haven't been outside your house in fifteen years? If anyone knows, please, call the station. But don't ask for Nicholas. You know why.

“Night Vale High is pleased to invite you to a new production of Waiting for Godot. The script has been slightly changed to be more appealing and comprehensible to a modern audience, so the principals are now a group of laid off British coal miners in the 1970s who have decided to make their fortune as a boy band. All proceeds go to a vague but menacing government agency, which has been rendered unfortunately specific but benevolent by the recent shut-down.

“Recently declared mayoral candidate and long-time five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels has been leaving insulting answering machine messages to local media outlets which declared him the loser in this week’s debate with the Faceless Old Woman Who Lives in Your House. I have to say, this reporter attended that debated, and it looks like sour (and slightly burnt) grapes on the part of McDaniels. Our advice, get a hacksaw, and start working on the furniture next time, McDaniels!”



It seemed like he had stayed at Markov's forever. There weren't any clocks on the casino floor. Not that clocks worked in Night Vale, but it was disturbing nonetheless.

None of the interns had been around the station when he returned, not even in the men's room, which was now outfitted with not only a slot machine but also several carnival games and a vending machine which dispensed lottery tickets. In fact, almost no one remained in the Community Radio building when he went to begin his broadcast. After the show, he had locked up the building, and then driven home along deserted streets. Night Vale was looking even more like a ghost town than usual.

He stood outside Carlos's laboratory, finishing his cigarette. There was a light in the window. Carlos was still up, doing science. He didn't like Cecil smoking inside. Carlos didn't like him smoking, period. He was a good boyfriend, Cecil reflected.

Cecil peeked around the corner, down the alley. It was still there. Or still wasn't there.

“Four days, Cecil.”

Cecil nearly jumped out of his skin. “Aren't you supposed to live in my house? I'm outside!”

“I'm not supposed to do anything.” Cecil couldn't see her, of course, but he suspected she was sassing him.

“You want me to go down there. But Carlos thinks it's dangerous.”

“Who are you gonna listen to? Your boyfriend, or a slightly malevolent, unpredictable entity like me?”

“When you put it that way....”

“What are you afraid of, Cecil?”

Cecil flicked the cigarette to the ground, stubbing the orange ash out with the toe of his shoe. He knew damned well what he was afraid of.

“All this time, you don't even offer me a cigarette.”

“How can you smoke? You're not even really there.”

“Of course I'm not there. I'm here.”

“Semantics,” grumbled Cecil, who nevertheless held out his pack to the side. And then the pack was missing one cigarette.

“I like tearing them apart and remixing the tobacco.”

“I need to get inside.”

“Light?”

He reached for his lighter. But he fumbled, and it dropped to the ground, and then skittered away on insect legs.

“Fuck!”

Unthinkingly, Cecil raced after the lighter, running down the alley and finally tackling the stupid thing.

He stuffed it back in his pocket and looked up.

It was just as he remembered: the big old wooden door that needed painting, and chipped beige stucco. He rose, brushing himself off. He walked completely around, until he found the side door. He wondered if it was locked, or even how you could lock and unlock a door that wasn't really there.

There wasn't a bell to ring, so that left that out. Carlos's scientists would be home soon, and he had promised they would do further tests.

He looked back up the alley, towards Carlos’s lab, and light.

His hand was already clutching the smooth brass doorknob.

Cecil held his breath.

And twisted....



“This is Cecil Gershwin Palmer. Greetings from Night Vale!”

Cecil, sitting up high on the dusty workbench, leaned over hit the eject button. He pulled the cassette from the player, feeling it through his hands. That was a good one, but he still needed to work on his radio voice. Recording in the garage seemed to give it a better timbre, pulling in echoes from dark places. Especially now that Mom's car was gone. The engine must be running this week. Sometimes the engine worked, but sometimes not. She must be out running errands. It seemed that she had been gone a long time this time. Maybe there were a lot of errands?

Mom seemed troubled these days. But she always seemed troubled. Maybe if she would just let go, everything would be better for her. Yes, leave the past behind!

The tape was back in the recorder.

“This is Cecil. Welcome to Night Vale!” he babbled, the words seeming to appear as if from mid-air. “Listeners,” (actually he didn't have any listeners, it was just Cecil, all alone in his garage, and all alone in his house, but some day), “Listeners, I've been thinking about the past. And memory! I think sometimes we remember stuff too much, and we let it interfere with our lives. You have to move ahead, I say. Start each day fresh. Even those days when sometimes the sun doesn't rise. I mean, that's been happening a lot. Too bad we don't have anyone around to tell us why, you know. Seems like one of those things you could count on, like the Imaginary Corn Festival and the fact that I'll always be best buddies with Steve Carlsberg.

“Um … what was I talking about just now?”

“Five days, Cecil.”

Cecil was down off the workbench, breathing hard, heart rattling in his chest.

A flicker, just at the edge of his vision. The Faceless Old Woman? That was dumb. She lived in the house, not the garage. Like, duh.

There was a full-length mirror, pushed over to the other side of the garage. It had a tarp thrown over it, but you could still see a sliver of the reflective surface, just along one side. There was a crack, and a few gaps where the shattered pieces had fallen off. Maybe that’s why Mom threw it in the garage?

Cecil hit the eject button once again and, clutching the tape, walked slowly towards the mirror. He fingered the cassette, turning it over and over and over as he walked. What was that, skimming behind the smooth surface? Something was there, just beneath the tarp. He needed to see. He needed to see.

He stopped before the mirror and absently tried to slip the tape into the breast pocket of his shirt. But there was something already there. Puzzled, he slipped two fingers into the pocket, and drew out a pack of cigarettes.

Cigarettes?

Wait.

He didn't smoke.

Cecil didn't smoke.

His father smoked.

A broken mirror.

Blood….

A flicker, just at the edge of his vision. The tape made a small smack on the concrete floor when he let it drop. Cigarettes scattered on the floor. Holding his breath, he held out a trembling hand.

The tarp was down, folding itself into itself on the bare, cold floor. Cecil was staring at someone he didn't recognize: someone who resembled him, but older, full of cares.

The day she left, the day she was no longer there. The broken mirror in her room. Blood, pooling on the floor.

The acrid smell of cigarette smoke.

His other was reaching for him, eyes black as the void.

“No!”

Movement. Behind him.

Cecil yelped as his face smacked the concrete, the breath knocked out of him. Blindsided. A weight was on top of him, holding him down, suffocating.

There was a cry; a thump, like a falling body.

“Cecil?”

Cecil sat up. Carlos had his arms wrapped around him.

“Cecil? Are you all right?” Fine-skinned hands, touching his face. “Tell me you're all right.”

“He went into the mirror, Carlos. Or maybe…. Maybe that’s where he came from. I don’t know.”

They were both breathing hard.

Cecil gazed at Carlos, imploring. “What just happened?”

With some effort, Carlos got to his feet. He gazed into the mirror. From Cecil's position on the floor he could see Carlos, and Carlos's reflection.

Even in the dim light, Cecil could see: the mirror Carlos had blood on his hands.

“I wanted to make sure I could keep you safe,” Carlos said softly. “I wanted to make sure we could keep you safe. I’ve been trying to figure it out all week.”

The realization hit Cecil. “That's not- That's not you.”

“No. Yes. Well, yes and no.”

Cecil was silent.

“I haven't ever told you this.” Carlos approached the mirror. He placed a hand against it, just as his double mirrored the gesture. “I was a twin. But sadly my brother was stillborn.”

“Identical twins?” asked Cecil.

“Oh, more interesting than that: mirror twins. For example, he is – or would have been – left-handed, whereas I am right-handed. His hair parts on the opposite side. I always thought, had he lived, he might have been a poet. Or a playwright. Or perhaps a painter.” Hand almost touched bloody hand. Carlos grew silent, head tilted to the side, lost in the mirror.

“But, he didn't actually die.”

“No, not quite. You see, he's always been with me. He's always been there for me, when I've needed him. My one hope for him now is that someday, he will find his Cecil.” He smiled softly and withdrew his hand, as did his other, who left a bloody handprint on his side of the broken mirror.

Cecil found he didn’t know what to say. He looked over at the mirror, the mirror Carlos, standing alone. His throat was dry.

There was something on the floor beside Carlos in the mirror. Something that wasn’t alive any more.

The real Carlos squatted down and grabbed the tarp. He threw it over the mirror, being careful that the entire reflective surface was draped.

Cecil's mind was racing. He rose to his feet, still shaky, and approached Carlos.

“I called the station, but there was no answer. And then I happened to look outside, and saw the cigarette butt, and I knew.” Carlos smiled slightly. “You shouldn't smoke, you know. It's bad for you.”

“I've stopped,” said Cecil. “As of now.”

“But I didn't know- I still wasn't certain I could save you. And then I realized, I would never be certain. I had to take a chance.”

Cecil remembered locking the door to an empty radio station. “There's no one at Community Radio today. No one but me. They've all gone to the casino. I think the whole town's at Markov's.” He glanced at the floor, at the cracked cassette and spilled cigarettes. Remnants of another time. “Carlos, the gambling. Why haven't I been affected like everyone else?”

Carlos was still studying the mirror, almost as if he could still see into it. “It’s a stochastic process. Memory is the key. Night Vale has become unaffected by memory.” He shivered, and then tore his eyes from the tarp-covered mirror, glancing over at Cecil. “You, my dear, have altogether too much memory. You are imbued with it. That is my working hypothesis as to why you have been unaffected.”

“We need to save the town.”

“Yes, that's true. But I had to save you first. I was certain of that.”

Cecil wrapped Carlos in his arms. After a while, Carlos returned the embrace, burying his face in Cecil's neck, his shoulders shaking.

Cecil patted small circles in his boyfriend's back. “I think I know what to do,” he whispered. Carlos drew back, staring at him with large, dark eyes, full of uncertainty.



“I remember the 7-10 split like it was yesterday.”

All across town, the citizens of Night Vale paused between hands of poker and rolls of the dice to listen to the sound of the town's most familiar voice.

“We used to have a team. Me, Old Woman Josie, who's out by the used car lot; Nazr Al-Mujaheed, the coach the Night Vale Scorpions; and Teddy Williams, the owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade complex, and a good friend.”

Carlos, sitting in the casino's master control room, broke into a grin as he admired his spectacular job rewiring the PA system. The security guard on duty snored softly. It had only taken a few drops of a sedative in his coffee to lull him. Like many people nowadays he was probably sleep-deprived. Carlos had counted on that likelihood.

“We weren't the best by any means. But we'd get together, every other Tuesday. Nazr always bought the beer. It was a cheap, American beer, and it was always slightly bitter.”

Nazr Al-Mujaheed, who was currently down on his knees in an alleyway, jiggling a pair of dice in his hand, was listening to an old boom box someone had propped up on a trash can and tuned to Community Radio's frequency. The knees of his pants had gotten dirty, and he scratched absently at the caked mud.

“Old Woman Josie used to cook us muffins. This was before the angels, so they always had plenty of salt, and were absolutely delicious, warm and sweet.”

Old Woman Josie stopped staring at bars and grapes and lemons, staring up instead at the bright fluorescent lights that bedecked the casino's ceiling. The lights reflected off her thick glasses.

“Teddy Williams was always annoyed because we would forget our shoe sizes. He suggested we get them tattooed on our foreheads, for future convenience.”

Teddy Williams was sitting in his car in the middle of the Markov's parking lot. There was a gun sitting on his lap, a Beretta. He leaned over towards his car radio, turning up the volume.

“That was my first tattoo, actually: my shoe size, though I got it on my shoulder, not on my forehead. It was all a shared joke. I gotten a lot of ink since then, all of them represent something shared, a memory, a realization, a meaningful glance, a whisper, a footstep.”

There were several Community Radio interns in the Markov's parking lot. They were all feeling hungry and thirsty, as well as a little stiff and sore, like one who had fallen asleep in a strange posture.

“I wasn't ever a very good bowler. I would get distracted. I would drink too many plastic cups full of stale beer, and laugh at a one of Teddy's bad jokes. I would get grease from the pizza on my fingers, and wipe it off on my pants. My strikes tend to roll to the left. It's a little quirk I developed, and I've never quite been able to get rid of it.”

Cecil sat alone behind the board, tracing a finger down the sinuous markings on his arm. “I remember that one tournament a few years back. I had the last frame. But I bowled a 7-10 split, and I couldn't make the spare. It spun off, to the left. Always to the left. We lost. Nazr was disappointed, but then we met again, on the second Tuesday. Like we always did, before the world got too complicated.”




“Carlos?”

“Hmm?” Carlos absently tossed his car keys up in his hand as they walked across the Community Radio station parking lot to his car.

“We haven't had a chance to talk about it, but you know when we, uh, I mean, just before I headed to the casino...?”

Carlos tossed up his keys. Cecil snatched them from the air.

Carlos froze. “Oh!” He looked over at Cecil. And then he was looking back at the ground, blushing furiously. “Oh. Uh.” He scratched the back of his neck.

“That was you and....”

“Yes. Me and him,” Carlos whispered. He finally looked up to meet Cecil's eyes. “I'm sorry, Cecil. I mean, I didn't know that was going to happen. I mean, I didn't know it was going to happen like that.

“Could it happen again?”

“I could try to- I mean- If you didn't want- I could-”

“Because, that would be, um, interesting.”

Carlos stopped stammering and stared at Cecil. His eyes widened.

Cecil lobbed the car keys back to Carlos, who caught them one-handed. Cecil arched an eyebrow. “You gonna let me in?”

“Oh!” said Carlos. He hurriedly pressed the button. The alarm beeped, and the door locks clicked. Cecil sauntered over to the car and let himself in the passenger seat.

Carlos stared for a while, and then stumbled over to the car and, after fumbling with the handle for a moment, managed to open the driver's side door.




“I shaved a few inches off the pins. I also applied polish unevenly the floor. I believe this will make the game more interesting.”

Carlos looked at Cecil. “Isn't she supposed to live in your house?” he asked.

Cecil finished tying his bowling shoes. “She gets around these days. It's a brave new world.”

“Anybody wanna beer?” asked Teddy Williams, who was dressed in his usual polyester. He held out a tray containing some sweaty plastic cups of bad beer. Cecil and Carlos each took a cup.

“Cecil, I heard Hiram McDaniels say he wants to outlaw bowling!” said Teddy.

“Hiram says a lot of things. He has five mouths, after all.”

“I'm voting for the Faceless Old Woman,” said Teddy. “Even if she does shave my pins.”

“Carlos,” said Nazr Al-Mujaheed, “You wanna be a good bowler?”

“Well, yes. I've never actually tried my hand before.”

“Oh, we'll make you into a good bowler. A good bowling person. Do you have only one right hand?”

“Er, last I checked.”

“Good, that makes it simpler. And only one head. Yeah, you'll be a good bowler.” Nazr grabbed Carlos and frog-marched him down to Lane Six.

Old Woman Josie was standing nearby, staring at them. “So that's the new boyfriend.”

“Yep.”

“I like the lab coat. Can he finish a 7-10 split?”

“We'll have to see I guess.”

There was a commotion down in the lanes. The Community Radio Interns were trying to teach Hiram McDaniels's green head how to bowl, but the purple head was having none of it, and there wasn't a lot left of Lane Two just now.

“Josie-”

“Yeah?”

“I've been a jerk.”

“Forget about it.”

“I don't want to. Forget, I mean. I think I've had enough of that.”

Josie smiled. “What happened to the casino, anyway?”

“Gone. Carlos says he can prove it quite possibly wasn't there to begin with. I couldn't understand his explanation though.”

There were shouts from down in the lanes. Carlos stood at the head of Lane Six, just behind the line, looking sweetly confused, while Nazr and Teddy leapt up and down, slapping hands and spilling beer.

In his very first frame, Carlos had bowled a strike.

“Maybe he won’t need to worry about 7-10 splits,” said Old Woman Josie.

Cecil puffed up his chest. “He knows physics!”

“Well, come on, then. I’m not gonna let Mr. Fancypants Scientist get ahead of me. I talk to angels!” And with that, Josie took Cecil’s offered arm, and they made their way down to the lanes.




Notes: I wrote this partly because I'm still not over Cassette. The title is from a Pearl Jam song. According to Eddie Vedder, it's about an elderly woman who spots an old flame, but can't recall his name. Since I can never make out what he's singing, I'll take his word for it. In case a rogue biologist should see this, pitcher plants aren’t actually native to the southwest, that’s why I said it was potted. This one has several math in-jokes. Stochastic processes are memoryless, that is, they're like flipping a coin or throwing dice, so the chance of getting a 7 is the same every time, no matter what you've rolled before.

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