a sure thing

fanfiction of Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

About three miles before they reach Night Vale, the speedometer reverses. Carlos doesn’t see it at first, because they’re on the highway and moving at a pretty constant rate. Then he notices the needle creeping too far past the speed limit and lifts his foot off the gas a little, and Raquel says, “Carlos? Are we stopping?”

He stops easing up on the pedal, and the needle hovers around 85. It definitely doesn’t feel like they’re going 85. “I think there’s something wrong with the speedometer,” he says. He speeds up again, and the needle moves back down.

“Well, we’re almost there,” says Brian. “We can get it looked at once we’ve found a motel.”

After a few more minutes they arrive, and Carlos starts to slow down. The speedometer makes a weird noise, almost like a gasp. The needle vibrates violently as Carlos eases the van into a parking space outside a place that looks like a motel. When he finally stops, the dashboard emits a high-pitched scream and the needle snaps off entirely.

They all stare at the broken piece of plastic, resting motionless on the bottom of the speedometer case.

There’s a knock on the driver’s side window. Carlos turns to look. Someone is standing next to the van, somehow managing to appear impatient through the leather balaclava they’re wearing. Carlos rolls down the window.

“Parking is not permitted within sixty-four feet of signs beginning with the letter M,” the person says in a muffled voice. “You must be new in town.”

Carlos glances around. There’s a dilapidated old marquee out front of the building he assumed was a motel, reading MARGIE’S NAIL SALON AND MAXILLOFACIAL SURGERY. “Uh,” he says. “Yes, we are.”

“Then I won’t incarcerate you in the abandoned mine shaft this time. You might not be so lucky again, huh, bud? Watch it.” The person steps back, arms crossed. They appear to be wearing a row of blow darts across their chest.

Carlos eyes the darts. “Are there any other, um, rules we should keep in mind?”

“Yes,” says the person, and doesn’t elaborate.

The local community radio host finds Carlos attractive, and doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that Carlos might own a device capable of picking up radio frequency. It feels a lot like the situation with that undergrad in the AMO course Carlos taught last fall. She seemed like a perfectly normal student until the afternoon after the final exam, when she showed up at his office and told him that she understood why he’d waited given the unbalanced power dynamics of the student/teacher relationship, but now that she was no longer technically his student, he could be honest with her about his feelings. It was completely out of the blue, as if her experience of their interactions had been completely different from his.

Cecil isn’t quite like that–he at least doesn’t seem to be under the impression that they actually have any kind of relationship–but he’s definitely building up some idealized version of Carlos to adore, and he’s doing it entirely in public. It’s weird and creepy and makes Carlos feel incredibly disrespected.

And that’s not the worst he’s dealing with. This place is weirder than he could possibly have expected. He’s not allowed to write, regular pizza consumption is mandatory, and he hasn’t yet seen a child that isn’t packing a gun–and that’s not even beginning to touch the objectively impossible phenomena going down all over the place. The rule about parking near certain signs is beginning to make sense; really, you can’t expect people who have never experienced any reliable laws of physics to be able to come up with sensible laws of their own.

He thinks about leaving a few times, that first week. But he has a tablet for taking notes, he likes pizza, and he stops objecting to the militarization of children after he sees a three-year-old expertly whip two miniature pistols out of the hip pockets of her overalls and take down something rabid that was trying to kill her. Carlos still isn’t sure what it was–it was moving too fast for him to get a good look, and now seems to have vaporized–but as he watches the kid skip away singing a jumbled rendition of the ABCs, he considers taking some shooting lessons of his own.

Old Woman Josie reassures him that adults are rarely the primary targets of anything that can be defeated with bullets. “Regular bullets, anyhow,” she clarifies. “I think you’d better leave the irregular kind alone, no offense. Don’t want you killing yourself before nothin’ else gets a fair shot.” Her little hand-pat walks a very fine line between comfort and condescension.

He gathers data, he forms theories, he tests the theories, and he slowly goes insane, because his entire worldview is based on the premise that given enough time and energy, anything can be forced to make sense. The rest of his team are confused and frustrated too, but to them this is just a job. They don’t live for science the way Carlos does. This town is fraying their nerves, but it’s not tearing them apart.

Carlos can’t leave. He can’t leave in a psychological sense, because deep down he’s convinced that somehow, eventually, he will find the answers and solve this place; and he can’t leave in a literal sense, because the city won’t let him. Every time he wanders past city limits (usually while he has his nose in the screen of one scientific instrument or another), he winds up at the radio station.

Maybe it’s Cecil. Maybe the voice of Night Vale is connected to the city in a deeper way, and Carlos can’t leave because the voice wants him to stay.

Cecil’s excited crush hasn’t gotten any less inappropriate, but at this point it’s just about the only thing Carlos can consistently rely on. He never knew how badly he needed things to rely on until he didn’t have any. His research has gravitated more and more toward his most consistent results, the house that isn’t there and the clocks that aren’t real–the things that at least make no sense in predictable ways. He’s starved for predictability.

So he occasionally contacts Cecil about strange phenomena, things unrelated to their relationship, and he listens to the show, basking in the confidence that Cecil’s breathless report of their interactions will in good time circle around to the perfection of his hair.

Maybe Cecil isn’t the creepy one anymore.

Carlos never makes a real effort to leave. He stays because he knows that if he didn’t, he’d never do anything with his life but wonder what on earth was going on with this place. If he left Night Vale, he’d only end up trying to come back, and he’s not certain it will still be here if he does.

He’s not certain of anything anymore. It’s his duty as a scientist to incorporate new evidence into his understanding of the world, but the evidence this place is firing at him (occasionally literally) is too much for him to incorporate. It doesn’t only contradict everything he’s ever known; it contradicts itself, and everything he ever hasn’t known, and the very concept of contradiction. Carlos can’t go anywhere until he’s figured out what it all means, which probably means that he’s never going anywhere again.

The man Cecil has fallen for head over heels isn’t real. Cecil has invented a perfect boyfriend based on a few conversations and a physical appearance he enjoys. Carlos will never be that man, and in the long run indulging Cecil’s fantasies will only result in disappointment for both of them.

Carlos almost dies in a bowling alley. He wakes up, and he thinks: who would have missed me?

By the time he kisses Cecil, he knows full well that he’s doing it for none of the right reasons. He does it anyway. The sun is setting at the wrong time, and that feels like a good enough excuse.