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08 February 2014 @ 11:26 pm
FIC: Stranger: (2/?)  
Title: Stranger (2/?)
Author: joonscribble
Fandom: Welcome to Night Vale
Rating: PG-13ish
Timeline: Set after "A Beautiful Dream" but before "Lazy Day." Also, for the purposes of this story, "Condos" is not part of the timeline yet.
Spoilers: Probably safe to say everything before "Lazy Day."
Disclaimer: All the recognizable Night Vale characters were created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.
Summary: After Carlos leaves Night Vale to go to a conference, the town vanishes without a trace.
Author's Note: So Carlos got to enjoy himself in this chapter for like two seconds.


Carlos was dreaming.

He was inside what could pass for the NVCR station. That would make sense because across from where he stood, separated by a window was Cecil. He was sitting in front of his microphone, speaking, the On Air sign lit up above his head. Carlos couldn’t hear what he was saying nor could he make out the words from reading his lips. But Cecil had that slightly blank, benign look on his face as he murmured into the microphone. It was possibly the traffic report. Carlos tapped on the window, trying to get Cecil’s attention. But Cecil continued to talk soundlessly, giving no indication he saw Carlos. Suddenly frustrated, Carlos knocked harder, the glass thick and bruising his knuckles as he continued to bang on it. Cecil nattered on, oblivious.

Suddenly out of the corner of his eye, Carlos saw something. A flash of something grey and big. Something was breathing against Carlos’ cheek, its breath hot and unpleasant. He wanted to turn his head to look but was paralyzed at the fear of what he might see. Instead, he continued to hit against the glass, this time making a fist to pound on it, willing Cecil to look up and see him.

But Cecil merely spoke on and on while whatever was next to Carlos breathed and breathed, moving closer until he could almost feel its teeth against his skin.

The jolt of the plane landing on the tarmac shook Carlos from his sleep. His body jerked involuntarily, nearly smacking the person sitting next to him. His brain seemed to still be in some state of paralysis, even as Carlos felt something akin to a minor panic grip him. It took him a few seconds to remember what had happened. He was in San Francisco. For the conference. Right.

He’d driven to the airport in Phoenix to catch his flight, the drive uneventful. It had been his plan to do some work on the plane but had realized much too late that his laptop had also been drained of all battery power. Much like his phone which had failed to charge at all during the car ride. So he’d ended up sleeping the two hour flight instead, though he hardly felt refreshed. If anything, the sleep seemed to have alerted his body to how stiff and cramped it felt.

After deplaning, the first order of business was to get a sizeable cup of coffee at a tiny bakery kiosk. Day old looking muffins were lined up on a tray, making for a rather sorry sight. But they were bread products and after almost a year without, Carlos found himself ordering three and eating two of them standing by the kiosk with what was probably a blissful expression on his face. 

**

Carlos was halfway to the hotel in his rental car when his cell phone rang, causing him to nearly drive off the road. Pulling over, he answered.

“Carlos, hey!”

“Mike?”

“Did you just get in?”

“Nearly.” The GPS helpfully told Carlos he was 14.7 miles away from his destination. “I’m driving to the hotel now.”

He had emailed Mike his schedule and they’d planned on meeting up before going to the first round of lectures.

“Great, I’m in the lobby now,” replied Mike. “Call me when you get settled in. We can grab an early lunch at the hotel and you can tell me all about Tonopah,” he said, cheerily.

“Sure, I’ll be there in abou- wait, what?”

“See you soon!”

 The line went dead. Carlos stared at his phone and saw that the battery display was at 100 percent.

**

Last time Carlos had seen Mike Gustave, he had looked like the sort of person to be constantly mistaken for an overgrown boy scout. By the time he had left Night Vale, Mike resembled more an overgrown boy scout who had seen one too many bears. Now Mike himself looked like a big, friendly, well-fed bear.

“I can’t get enough of the food in San Diego,” Mike said. “Eileen’s always trying to get me to eat healthier. I told myself I’d cheat a little on this trip but she’s gotten inside my head now,” he explained, gesturing to his salad. Carlos tried to hold onto his table manners as he dug into his pasta after grabbing half the offered bread. Wheat never tasted so amazing.

Mike continued on in between bites about the work he was now doing, picking Carlos’ brain for directional ideas on the research project he was putting together. Time flew by as Carlos listened to Mike’s questions and comments, offering his own as his mind wrapped itself around Mike’s theories and organizing the needed experiments to test them. It felt good. More than good, it felt wonderful to be able to communicate like this again. To be able to draw upon the laws of nature and be confident that they were stable and predictable. And to have someone who understood respond in kind.

It was only when Mike finally asked, “So how about you?” that Carlos realized he hadn’t even thought about Night Vale since landing in San Francisco.

“Well, there’re a few experiments we have running,” Carlos hedged. He felt a wave of embarrassment at having to discuss the utter static nature of his work.

“Are you doing any follow ups on the gravity pockets you wrote about?” asked Mike. “I’m seeing something similar where I am so I was curious if the phenomenon might actually be spreading.”

Carlos frowned. “Wrote about?”

“Yeah. That article you wrote for the AAAS journal. I thought you were presenting it at the conference.”

“Um…I definitely didn’t write any article for the AAAS,” said Carlos.

Mike snorted as he stabbed at his salad. “I’m pretty sure you’re the only Carlos Delgado with a lab in Tonopah.”

Their earlier brief phone conversation came back to Carlos. “Mike, my lab’s in Night Vale.”

“Where?”

“Night Vale. You know the place you lived in for six months?”

Mike gave him a confused look. “Did the town change its name or something?”

“No, it’s always been Night Vale. The town where nothing works properly and things keep trying to kill you?”

“Wasn’t Tonopah listed as like the top safest town in America?” Mike questioned.

Carlos knew he wasn’t the best at reading people and he stared at Mike, trying to discern if this was some elaborate joke; a ploy to unnerve Carlos as a hilarious throwback to their time together in a town that was largely certifiable. But Mike only blinked back at him, his expression now growing a little concerned.

“Mike, you lived in Night Vale. The lab was there. You left because the town was too bizarre for you.”

“Uh…if by bizarre you mean too boring.”

Carlos tried to think. Maybe something had happened to Mike since leaving Night Vale. Something that made him forget. Is this what whoever ran the town do to anyone who moved away? But Carlos distinctly remembered getting an email back from Mike after he had sent him his schedule that had referenced Night Vale. That had only been yesterday. Surely…

As calmly as he could, Carlos put down his utensils.

“Carlos?” asked Mike. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Carlos answered, forcing himself to smile. “I just…I need to check in with Cynthia about something. I promised I would. I’ll be right back.” He hurried toward the restrooms, away from Mike’s gaze.

Standing by a stack of high chairs, Carlos pulled out his phone. Going to his contacts, he searched under C. Right between Carol Buchan and Cynthia Shin where he should have been was not Cecil Palmer. He ignored the pasta that was now turning into rocks in his stomach and tapped in the phone number he’d memorized.

“Your call could not be connected as dialed. Please check the number and dial again.”

Carlos checked his texts. Hardly anyone texted him apart from Cecil who had a tendency to text him daily with various comments, questions and the odd youTube video of a cat to share. But now in his phone there was nothing. Not a single text history other than a few from various members of his lab.

He wasn’t going to panic. He certainly wasn’t going to panic standing outside of the men’s room while Mike Gustave ate a salad several feet away. There was some sort of explanation for this. He called Cynthia.

“Cynthia Shin speaking,” she answered in three rings.

“Cynthia, it’s Carlos.”

“Carlos, hi! How was your flight?”

 “Fine. It was fine. How are things at the lab?”

“I told you not to worry about us,” Cynthia said, exasperated. “Everything’s running smoothly. Josh got that soil sample so we’re doing tests on it now.”

That all matched up with their last conversation, dispelling much to Carlos’ anxiety. He breathed out a small sigh of relief. “That’s great. And Josh is okay, right? The forest didn’t do anything to him?”

“Uh…no? The forest was perfectly civil?” answered Cynthia, clearly confused.

Carlos froze. After a beat, he forced himself to talk as nonchalantly as possible. “Have you listened to Cecil’s show today?”

“What show?”

“The community radio program. We have it on every day.”

“I didn’t even know Tonopah had a community radio show.”

The sound of his own heartbeat filled Carlos’ ears. “Night Vale,” he practically strangled out. “You mean Night Vale.”

“What’s Night Vale?”

“Cynthia, if you and Mike planned this then good job. Really funny, you definitely got me. Did you somehow get my phone to erase Cecil’s contact information too?” He had tried for levity but it came out sounding more desperate.

“Who are you talking about?” asked Cynthia, her tone matching Mike’s face from earlier.

“Where are you?” Carlos demanded. “Right now. Where are you?”

“The lab,” Cynthia answered. “Carlos, are you feeling alright? You sound-“

“The town. I mean, the town.”

“I’m in Tonopah. Where the lab is. Seriously, Carlos, are you okay? You’re starting to scare me.”

Carlos hung up.

His hands shaking, he scrolled through the rest of his contacts. All of the numbers he had stored in there related to the town, Big Rico’s, John Peters, Teddy Williams, Cecil’s cell phone as well as the NVCR station numbers were all gone. A voicemail from Cecil that Carlos had saved a few weeks back was also gone.

It was getting harder to breathe as the temperature the in the restaurant seemed to go up several degrees. Carlos called up his emails on his phone. He scrolled frantically through them, seeing ones from Cynthia, Mike, Josh, other members of his lab. But none from Cecil or any to Cecil.

It was like he and all of Night Vale had been cut out of Carlos’ life all together.

TBC