One day Steve returns to Night Vale.
He does not know how long he has been walking, but his legs ache and he has consumed most of his water. His stomach hurts and the sun has set. A breeze stirs the twilight air, reminding him how if he does not find shelter he will freeze in the night.
Then he sees the fog, hovering grey in the distance. His legs move faster and as he approaches he can feel a sizzling on his skin that is not heat, but some form of cool energy. He enters the fog and should not be able to see, it looked so dense from afar, but he can make out the outlines of buildings and lights behind windows and sparks floating up from some far off fire and eerie columns of fluorescence hovering in the sky. And it is like his ears have suddenly been turned on there is so much noise, humming and sputtering and creaking and wailing. He sees a street begin ahead of him and trudges forward. There are figures on the edge of the road. Their shadows fall upon the small dunes, distorted into freakishly and disproportionately limbed figures. Two of the figures' shadows are waltzing to a nonexistent beat while their owners remain menacingly still, but Steve is not perturbed by this. And as his reaches where the pavement begins he turns onto the road and sees it. His car sits right where he left it, six months to maybe two years ago.
The Corolla does not look abandoned. The hubcaps are still missing, but someone has washed it. It purrs as he approaches and arches against his touch as he strokes its hood. Happy to see you too, he says and opens the door. He sits down and leans his head against the headrest, succumbing to exhaustion. He might have fallen asleep right then if not for the radio.
. . . Welcome to Night Vale . . .
Well, Cecil, he says aloud, I'm back whether you like it or not.
After that he sits still and simply listens to the news. The Sheriff's Secret Police are reissuing all permits in tasteful chartreuse paisley. Local businesses are generously pooling donations for construction of a trans-dimensional port. Steve wonders if he might visit Earl Harlan once the port is built. He had been friends with the Scoutmaster before his disappearance and Steve considers it would do him a great deal of good to try and be more social this time. Perhaps they can go to the upcoming concert by the Night Vale Symphony orchestra who are playing the (so Cecil's heard) very difficult three hour opera: Troubleshooting my iPhone.
Steve knows in his cynical mind that all the stories are ludicrous. Yet he can't bring himself to care as he drowns in their comforting familiarity.
. . .Traffic news now. And it seems Steve Carlsberg has returned from his sabbatical. He has been sighted on the edge of town, sitting in his car. Yes, the tan Corolla. What an eyesore. And it seems he is not even driving! Just sitting there! I mean, who does that? Now listeners I am not myself a fan of turning the rumor mill, but I couldn't help hearing through the grapevine that Steve has been spending his long absence in Desert Bluffs. What a horrendous betrayal – wait . . . I'm sorry, listeners, Carlos is looking at me with just a splendid expression of aggravation. What's the matter, darling?
Cecil, you always say you try to be as truthful as possible. So, don't you think you're being a bit, ehm, rude?
I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.
There is a pause which Steve can only guess is filled by a glaring contest between the Voice of Night Vale and his scientist boyfriend. And it seems Carlos wins.
Oh, well, Cecil concedes, I suppose . . . it is nice to have him back. There, I said it. It's not like I've been moping for the past half a year about some terrible void in myself and just an hour ago I suddenly felt whole again. Nothing like that. Anyways, now everything can get back to normal, right folks? Night Vale is complete. Steve Carlsberg is back and we can all get on with our lives. Not that it mattered that he was gone in the first place.
And now, the weather.
The music starts up and Steve can't help himself: he starts laughing. The laugh is wild, shaking his whole body. He is thankful for Carlos the Scientist; it is nice to hear Cecil be put in his place. Steve also feels a pleasant affection for the Voice of Night Vale seep through him. He is touched that underneath the prickly dislike, Cecil did miss him. It solidifies his resolve and he whistles the right five notes that start his car and proceeds to drive into town. By the time the broadcast ends he has reached Grove Park.
He is not expecting a welcoming party. Approaching the mass of people, he brakes the car and gingerly steps out. Hey, he says, tentatively. No answer. They are all looking at him, but no one moves forward. He stares back, wondering whether it is really he they are waiting for, but then a clatter of footsteps distracts him. He turns to see Cecil Baldwin running down the street with Carlos keeping an easy stride behind him. The Voice of Night Vale stops in front of him, struggling to catch his breath, and mutters something about back to back scheduling before clearing his throat and looking Steve in the eye. Cecil extends his arms, as if awaiting an embrace. The action is serious and ceremonial. Steve can see that those capable of facial movement are smiling, encouraging him to walk forward. He realizes that he must do this, accepting Cecil is the ultimate reconciliation, but Steve also feels a roiling sense of confusion in his stomach. He used to hate Cecil for what he stood for. And Cecil hated him for his rejection of Night Vale. But now he wants to run into those arms which symbolize much more than the physical boundaries of one man. Yet he also wants to never have to touch Cecil Baldwin ever in his life, because it would be terribly familiar. In Cecil's every movement he can sees echoes of Kevin and the lost Desert Bluffs. He wonders how two towns and two people can be so similar and so absolutely different.
Cecil notes his reticence and lowers his arms. Steve's discomfort starts to dissipate as he feels another laugh bubbling up inside him, because Cecil looks as petulant as five year old child. Ah, Cecil still does hate him. Did you miss me? he provokes and Cecil blushes violently which makes him laugh all the harder and he grabs the man around the shoulders and hugs him. No, I absolutely did not miss you, Cecil muffles into his shoulder, and I cannot believe you left us for Desert Bluffs of all places! I'm glad to see you finally saw sense, but I don't think I can ever forgive you.
Then you may hate me for not being able to ever fully belong and I may hate you for sharing the face of the first real love of my life and we shall call it even, Steve says as he steps back, cradling Cecil's face in his hands. He thinks he could stay like that forever, it is so very intoxicating, until he hears Carlos shuffling uncomfortably from behind Cecil's back. The scientist's eyes are averted, but his fingers are frantically buttoning and unbuttoning the top of his shirt and Steve realizes that his manhandling of the scientist's boyfriend may be rather awkward for everyone else. His grip loosens and he releases a dazed Cecil to collapse against a startled Carlos. He watches as their hands instinctively entwine and as the two steady themselves against each other he is filled with tenderness towards them.
It seems that is the cue for the rest of the populace to descend. Suddenly he is surrounded by a whirr of bodies all clutching and speaking, but he ends up with his mother smothering him against her chest and he has to tell her to stop crying or she'll accidentally kill him and wouldn't that be a terrible way to begin his new life. His father is hovering a few feet above the ground; skin flushed a deep royal blue of pride. Diane Creighton says she's been keeping his Corolla in her garage, because she just knew he was going to come back someday and of course he'll need his car. Her scrying stone had told her he'd return today so she had personally driven it out to the edge of town for him to find. She asks if he'll be returning to the PTA meetings, despite having no offspring of his own, because it is quite a wonderful display of civic dedication. The Sheriff's Secret Police are busy wrapping Night Vale Resident Reentry forms into elaborate origami which are then shoved into his pants pockets. Tristan Cortez asks if he'll be able to help with the new gardening initiative he's working on. He's discovered that the mutant sewer octopi have feces with intense fertilization properties. Carlos pulls Steve aside to earnestly ask him if he knows anything about the passage of time outside Night Vale. They make a –purely professional, they have to emphatically tell Cecil—appointment to discuss it in a week's time over milkshakes at the Moonlight Diner. Steve will be very busy.
Two months later he is sitting on the bleachers at the Night Vale v Desert Bluffs football playoff. He had honestly enjoyed helping the kids train (Coach Nasir al-Mujahid had begged him to since without the help of divine intervention the Scorpions barely knew how to even play the game), but he could not lie to himself that he was chasing the last connection to Desert Bluffs. This would be the last test of his self control.
The Desert Bluff players materialize on the field and the game starts. He cheers, he boos and he makes all the right sounds when appropriate. Night Vale, Night Vale! he chants, but his eyes scan the crowd until he spots him. Kevin. He is sitting alone so Steve climbs down and sits next to him. Kevin does not look at him, his eyes are slightly glazed, but he is smiling. His lips are pulled tight across his teeth and Steve wonders if his smile always looked like that, so grotesque. Hello, Steve whispers and he can barely say the one word he is so nervous. Why hello there friend! Are you enjoying this game – Kevin's head swivels and for a moment his expression falters, smile falling and eyes growing wide. That's when Steve kisses him, but Kevin gasps against him and Steve pulls away to see the first face is back. I've never been to Night Vale, Kevin says, the kiss completely lost in his mind, you are all so friendly! What's your name? Steve can't answer right away; he is looking at the ground, blinking away a few tears. He hadn't had high hopes, he won't let himself have the luxury of full disappointment. Finally he turns back and in the calmest voice he can muster says, I'm Steve. Carlsberg.
That's a very fine name. Have I heard it before . . . oh you're the one who sent the email back during the sandstorm! You something naggling at the back of my head told me I should come today and I guess this was it, I get to meet you! I'm glad you're the first person I've met here. I just knew we'd get along when I read your email. To be honest, I'm terribly shy sometimes, but once I get to know people I find I do like everybody! And you are very nice. Tell me about all these people! Kevin waves a hand across the residents of Night Vale. So Steve does and it is a full half hour of storytelling before they reach the two huddled underneath the orange tree further out from the field.
That's Cecil Baldwin and Carlos the Scientist.
Oh, yes. He's my double, Kevin nods, I remember him.
He is nothing like you.
Kevin is a bit taken aback by Steve's hostility, but he passes over it. And Carlos is . . .? His boyfriend, Steve supplies in warmer tones. They fall silent and watch the two for a bit. Carlos is pointing at the ground and saying something that makes Cecil laugh, leaning against his shoulder. Cecil has one finger curling around Carlos' hair, Carlos' arm is around Cecil's waist. They are staring into their partner's eyes in utter adoration. Steve thinks that if he asked either of them on the details of the game they would not be able to come up with anything they are so absorbed with each other. They are very much in love, Kevin observes, how refreshing. I wish I loved someone as much as they do. But I will eventually right? If Cecil's my double there should be double Carlos. I just have to find him. I hope I do soon.
That's when Steve realizes.
A new man came into town today . . . the same words, two towns, the beginning of two pairs of lovers.
In Night Vale he walked in with a team of scientists, but in Desert Bluffs he was found in a coma on the edge of town. Steve is struck mute by his discovery and first he pats his chest, looks down at his skin and back at Carlos. They don't look that similar, he thinks, but he remembers that the Desert Bluffs dopplegangers were different, from what he remembers Kevin saying. Pablo Mitchell and Pamela Winchell had looked completely different after all. He looks back at Kevin who is so sorrowfully hopeful. Steve knows he has already found and lost his Carlos. Desert Bluffs is a terrible, terrible place.
Maybe you . . . maybe you already have. Found him, that is. Oh no, Kevin replies all superficial smile, I'd know. I'd definitely remember.
Steve has to excuse himself before he starts openly crying. But I'll see you next game right, Kevin asks. Yes, definitely, yes, Steve says, because he can't let go of Kevin now. He can't be his lover, this he knows, but perhaps they can start something new, something different. He offers a wobbly smile. Steve will let himself feel sorrow, because that is the healthy thing to do, but he thinks this might not be so bad. He can have Night Vale and still keep part of Kevin, if not the memories deleted by StrexCrop, at least the man himself. Perhaps they can become friends.
Steve goes home and takes a nap. When he awakes the pain of Kevin is gone, but the soft memory of his face remains. Even with the grotesque smile and void eyes, Steve thinks Kevin is beautiful. He heads down to the bar and without ordering is handed a smoking carafe. Although he can find no liquid he pours it down his throat and it burns warmly. The bar is not that filled. He spots Nick Ford, still wearing his plaid work suit, alone at a booth and he thinks on how he used to attend to PTA meetings just to see the handsome superintendent stand menacingly in the corner. Then, he looks back at his drink and thinks about the hundred more years of life left to him and makes his resolve. Might as well do something with them. So he throws back the remainder, slams he carafe down onto the counter, slides off his stool and saunters over to Nick's booth. Can I buy you a drink, he asks in the smoothest tones he can muster. Nick looks adorably flattered, but Steve is not expecting the next words out of his mouth, I'm so sorry, Steve, I'm already with someone.
The air on the other side of the booth starts to darken and suddenly a very embarrassed Trish Hidges is sitting at the table. He's never had much interaction with the Mayor's assistant before, but there is always time to try something new. So he grins amiably to put them at ease. Well, may I buy you both a drink then? They are surprised at his boldness, but Trish does slide down for him to sit next to her, a coy smile on her bright white lips.
Hours later when they are lying on the grass in Grove Park and Trish's breath is on his neck and Nick's hand is clutched in his and he can hear Cecil moaning wantonly from behind some nearby tree and the feral dogs (plastic bags, Trish whispers) are growling and the lights above Arby's shine dimly upon their faces, he is perfectly content. He thinks he may stay like this forever, because this is where he truly belongs. And when a circular portal opens up above and drops a twenty foot chimera down, and they are running for their lives he feels vibrant and pulsing and complete. The fear is another part of life. There is no fear in death. How boring death must be.
Sometimes, when it all becomes too much he may walk out into the desert and sit in the sand for a few hours. But he will always come back to the wildness and wonderfulness of that desert town. Because in the end Steve Carlsberg will always return to Night Vale.