Carlos still couldn't say for sure what had prompted Cecil's breakdown. Only that he'd been fine and happy one day, and then overnight – literally overnight – he had devolved into a crying mess incapable of answering Carlos's questions or calming down. And the next day, Carlos couldn't get him to wake up at all.
He had been in a coma now for about five days, albeit not a very serious one. The hospital doctors said they were fairly certain that it was a self-induced coma, but Carlos refused to believe that Cecil would do anything to hurt himself. It simply wasn't in his nature. Cecil had always been happy-go-lucky, and any time he experienced a problem with somebody he simply talked about it. He just didn't keep secrets, and he especially didn't hide things from Carlos.
The nurses looked at one another with dark, worried expressions. 'Something really traumatic must've happened, then,' the doctor suggested, taking a moment to look up from his clipboard. 'Does he have any enemies, that you know of?'
Carlos blinked and stammered. 'What? No! Of course he didn't, no. Everybody loves Cecil. Even my parents love Cecil.' It wasn't exactly true – nobody was that popular. When they were still in college, there had been professors who found him too boisterous, classmates who found him too eccentric, and to be honest his constant optimism irritated Carlos from time to time. But these weren't exactly abnormal complaints, nor were they one-sided; Cecil had found those same professors boring, those same classmates moronic, and on occasion became irritated with Carlos's workaholic tendencies. But expecting everything to work out perfectly, without kinks, was simply unrealistic. Cecil managed to pass all his classes, shared a (somewhat grudging) respect with his classmates, and he and Carlos adored each other. Now Cecil's greatest opponents were those who disliked the radio station he worked at, the noisy neighbours who insisted he and Carlos were "too loud" (a thin veiled complaint about the fact that their relationship existed at all), and a group of school kids who liked to heckle everyone they passed.
Carlos realized that in his reverie he'd missed the doctor's exit. Everything else the doctor had said was blurred into background noise, and Carlos was now sitting in a chair next to Cecil's bed, all alone. Carlos looked down at his love, looking so untouched and calm for someone whom the doctors were sure had been attacked. Like he could wake up at any moment and begin to babble about the colour-less colour you saw when you closed your eyes. Like if Carlos just touched him, touched his face, he would groan in agitation and swat Carlos's hand away, rolling over with a request for five more minutes of sleep on his lips. Like they were back at home in their bed, and not in a sterile, cold hospital room.
Carlos had to look away from Cecil's face, trying to remember the breathing exercises his college adviser had taught him after his first official panic attack. And this time, just as with every other time, Carlos found that breathing slowly in and slowly out, in his nose and out his mouth, just didn't work for him.
For the first time in six years, Carlos placed his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, and started to cry.
He had a memory, in dream-like quality - or maybe it was an actual dream - about the morning after.
THE morning after, one of the only mornings that really mattered, in Carlos's opinion. Like waking up on Christmas morning as a child, and holding his breath to see if Santa Clause had actually come. And he did the same thing this time, afraid to open his eyes, just in case he'd imagined the whole thing, the past six months.
'Mmm,' Cecil hummed. 'What are you doing?'
Carlos couldn't control the smile that consumed his face as his eyes fluttered open. 'Nothing,' he whispered, nudging Cecil's nose with his own and leaning in to kiss him hello. 'Was it worth waiting?' Carlos asked, almost afraid of the answer. It was his idea to abstain, after all, not Cecil's. He'd been hurt too many times by men who were just "experimenting" or who had no intention of carrying on an actual relationship, either finding Carlos himself dull or too afraid to be out in such a hostile environment.
Cecil opened his own eyes and graced Carlos with an elegant, lopsided frown. 'Carlos, I'm hurt that you would doubt me.' Cecil smiled as he nuzzled against Carlos's neck, and his heart sped up. 'You are worth everything,' Cecil breathed.
Carlos woke with what he at first thought was an unexplained sadness, until he'd remembered about Cecil. It felt like something was trapped in his head and trying to get out by knocking his forehead down with the hammer of the gods. His left hand was cold, and extended away from his body, just resting on Cecil's side of the bed. It had been three weeks since Cecil's break down, two weeks and four days since he woke up, and two weeks and one day since he was admitted to the mental hospital just across the street from the research lab where Carlos worked. Last night was the first time since this all happened that Carlos managed to get more than two consecutive hours of sleep. He had insisted that Cecil be placed in the Night Vale Mental Hospital not only because it was nearby, but because both he and Cecil knew - or rather, had known - one of the doctors in residence there.
Steve Carlsberg had been a year ahead of Cecil and Carlos at school, but because organic chemistry – a class required for all people majoring in some form of science – was so difficult to get into, Carlos and Steve found themselves in the same class. Carlos always found Steve intimidating, and the feeling only heightened when Cecil told him, in the most off-handed way possible, that he and Steve had once dated. Carlos didn't have a lot of options, though, and the hospital where Steve worked was one of the best in the state. And this morning, Carlos decided with an abject and somber determination, he was going to talk to Steve and visit Cecil.
His colleagues at the lab had been pushing him to go for the past week and a half, but Carlos always managed to find a way out of visiting. 'He's probably waiting by the door for you to come get him,' Paolo insisted. 'Come on, you know how sensitive he is. If you wait too long, you might hurt his feelings.'
Carlos had to restrain himself from snapping at Paolo – for implying Cecil was weak, for insinuating their relationship wasn't strong enough to withstand a few weeks' separation, but mostly for assuming he understood the situation at all. Carlos had to take a deep breath before nodding and making a hollow promise to go after work. Paolo shook his head with a disgusted sigh. 'You know, man, there are some things in life more important than science.'
It was really lucky for Paolo that Vanessa needed his help with an especially tricky experiment, because Carlos was in no shape or mood to deal with any more nagging than the immense guilt he already felt. It wasn't Paolo's fault, strictly speaking, as Carlos hadn't told anyone the full story – only that Cecil was in the hospital for an extended stay.
The only person who knew the whole story, aside from Steve and Carlos, was Dana. She was an intern at the radio station where Cecil worked, and she'd grown close to Cecil over the past couple months in which she'd been interning. She was one of the only interns that Station Management actually liked, probably in part because she didn't mess with – and thereby accidentally break – any of the equipment. But being close to Cecil also meant being close to Carlos, as Cecil hardly kept their relationship a secret. It was an aggravation at first, when they'd only just met, but over time it had become one of Cecil's most endearing traits. By the time Carlos and Dana actually met, she knew almost everything about him. It stood to reason, then, that Carlos would feel comfortable explaining the situation to her.
She, too, was stunned into disbelief. 'He doesn't remember you…at all?'
Carlos shook his head, and then remembered he was on the phone. 'My name didn't even sound familiar to him.'
'So –' he could hear her rustling papers in the background, and then plopping them on a table. He heard a small huff, and assumed she was now sitting on the counter, out in the sound booth where she usually monitored Cecil's show. Carlos closed his eyes and tried not to think about it. 'So, did he think you were just another doctor?' she asked.
'I haven't…been to see him yet,' Carlos admitted. 'They only just told me he woke up.'
'What?' Dana snapped. 'How long has he been awake?'
'Two days.' He heard Dana swear on the other end of the phone, and he shook his head again. 'They didn't want to let me in at first. They thought –' he had to do his breathing exercises again, control his anger. He'd had time to get used to the news, to what the doctors thought. Dana didn't have that luxury. 'They thought I'd raped him. And that he tried to kill himself.'
There was a silence on the other end, and Carlos figured that Dana was finding the idea a little difficult to make sense of. He couldn't stand the silence, and suggestion – though ludicrous, made him feel guilty. Like there was something wrong with him, like it was his fault something like this had happened to Cecil. So he did the only thing he could think to do, and talked through the silence.
'They asked me for, uhm, for a specimen, and tested it. And it wasn't a match for…' Carlos had to swallow the scream that threatened to rise from his throat every time he even thought about it. 'For what they did find,' he finished in one breath.
Dana was silent for a moment more, before speaking up, voice cracking. 'So they did find – he was –'
'Yes,' Carlos answered. He heard a retching noise and closed his eyes, pretending he was anywhere else, having any other conversation with anybody else. Just that he wasn't here, and that this wasn't real.
'Oh, God,' Dana said, and she gave up the pretense that she wasn't crying. 'Who –'
'They don't know,' Carlos answered. 'Just that he's… that he's… unwell. They've taken him to a mental hospital,' he let Dana's sobs fill up the space in between them. When she quieted a bit, he spoke up again. 'They want me to visit him, see if I can't break him out of…whatever this is he's gotten himself into. But I just… I don't know if I can. I don't know that I'm strong enough to do that.'
'It didn't last very long,' Cecil assured him about Steve Carlsberg, as Carlos attempted to school his face into something a little less panic-stricken. 'I think he's still a little sore about it, though. He's been grumpy ever since.'
'So do you, ah,' Carlos cleared his throat. 'Just have a thing for scientists or something?'
Cecil tilted his head. 'Well, I quite like science, although I'm not very good at it. Too much math involved, really. I just happen to have met a lot of really passionate scientists. Passion is sort of an important factor in a relationship, after all,' Carlos hummed in agreement, trying not to compare himself to Steve so much. 'But Earl wasn't a scientist. Come to think of it, I don't even know what happened to Earl. Maybe he's been kidnapped by a pack of rabid boy scouts or something,' Cecil suggested, voice deadly serious. Carlos couldn't hold back his laughter, though he often tried whenever Cecil's voice took on that melodramatic, radio-announcer tone. It had become a game with them – Carlos trying to remain calm, and Cecil trying everything in his power to shake the façade.
Carlos was still sitting in his car, staring at the building ahead of him. The car was turned off and his seatbelt was unbuckled, but he still felt like he couldn't move. He knew it was just a fantasy, just a ridiculous dream that he could turn around now and have things be the same as they were nearly a month ago. That he could go home and Cecil would be waiting for him, feeding the stray cat that sometimes slept on their couch. That they could watch another X-Files marathon on the Syfy channel, make out for a while and fall asleep on the uncomfortable couch because they kept forgetting that they weren't teenagers anymore.
He managed to force his hand up, to unlock the door and step out of the car, to start walking to front of the building, but he couldn't remember actually doing any of it. He felt like he was floating, like his actions were being controlled by somebody else or like he was being wheeled into the hospital and having an out-of-body experience. It felt unreal, even as he signed the visitor forms and received his My Name Is sticker.
He was about to turn and find a seat in the stark waiting room when the desk clerk, a kindly older woman, called his name. He looked up to her, blinking slowly. 'You're here to see Cecil, correct?' she asked.
Carlos nodded. 'Have you spoken to the patients here?'
'Oh, yes, of course,' she said. 'Cecil is such a sweetheart. He's one of our calmer patients. He mostly just sits in his room and does his radio broadcast.' Carlos blinked in confusion. 'Oh, not a real broadcast, of course,' she tittered. 'But he seems to think he's reaching quite an audience, giving community bulletins and sports updates. He skips over the weather, though – he usually sings that bit, instead of actually reporting it.'
Carlos wasn't sure what to say to this, so he just nodded and found a seat. The room was empty except for him, but he knew there had to be other people at this hospital. So where were their parents, their loved ones?
'Carlos,' a voice boomed, and Dr Steven Carlsberg followed it. 'It's been so long,' Steve greeted, shaking Carlos's hand. Steve's hand looked as though it might have been warm, but even the palm of his hand was like ice. The stark contrast was enough to completely wake Carlos up. 'How have you been doing?' Steve asked.
'Well, you know,' Carlos nodded to the door. He'd never been very good with words, but he hadn't thought they'd be required in this sort of a situation. After all, his boyfriend of five years was currently sitting, straight-jacketed, in a rubber room. (Or so Carlos imagined – he'd never been in a mental hospital before, and had done everything in his power to avoid going near them. It wasn't that the people within them scared him, so much as the very thought made him sad. He'd wanted to be a psychology student at one point in his life, and had nearly memorized the entire DSMIV. With every symptom mentioned, he felt himself sinking lower and lower into an overwhelming feeling of doom.)
Steve merely nodded and dropped Carlos's hand. 'Surprised to see you two are still together,' he goaded, but Carlos avoided the bait. He wasn't here for a pissing contest, and the last thing he needed was to get on the bad side of a man who stood between him and Cecil. 'You get the 4-1-1 from Old Woman Josie over there?'
Carlos looked to the desk clerk, and then back to Steve.
'That's what Cecil calls her – Old Woman Josie. Wait 'til you hear his show – you'll get a kick out of it.' Carlos tried not to let Steve's nonchalant attitude get to him, but it was quickly becoming grating. There was looking on the bright side of things, and then there was making light of a bad situation.
'Can I see him?' Carlos asked through gritted teeth. And if you say, "I dunno, can you?" I will punch you so hard your front teeth will fall out, you sick bastard, he thought. But Steve only nodded and waved for Carlos to follow him through a locked door.