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Counting Down the Hours

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There was a singular problem with an 11pm radio broadcast, and it was that nobody listened.

Sometimes Cecil caught late night passersby, speeding through the sleepy desert city of Night Vale towards destinations unknown, but Night Vale Community Radio was a small station, only reaching a few dozen miles down the road on a clear day; anyone driving through only caught snippets of the show, making it pointless to address them.

Usually he played music, ranging from Top 40 hits to esoteric indie bands Cecil discovered during MySpace's heyday. The show bored him. There was no point playing strange music if nobody phoned in to ask what it was. Besides, Cecil preferred to report news, put his fancy journalism degree to good use; but breaking stories were rare at midnight.

He briefly considered requesting an earlier time slot, where reports weren't plentiful but at least they existed, but that would mean long, painful nights with a cold void next to him in bed. It was easier finding sleep during the day, when the desert sun warmed the blankets though the window and Carlos seemed closer than nine hours ahead and six thousand miles away.

So he kept the 11pm-2am show, filling the space between songs with whatever popped into his head. If he was lucky, he could pull a weird article or three from the Internet before the broadcast. If he wasn't, he relied on weird trivia. When the trivia ran out, Cecil looked to the classics and stole a page from The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

(It was also Dana's fault for leaving a Lovecraft anthology at the station last week.)

He dropped a few lines about cell phones becoming sentient and, for the most part, docile, right in the middle of an intermission. "A fun new family pet!" Cecil announced cheerfully, only to return later in the broadcast with a warning about the violently feral Razrs, which enjoyed amputating fingertips and other protruding appendages.

Nobody noticed. Not even station management stayed up late enough to hear Cecil's show.

The joke was revealed in a tumble of words over a scratchy phone connection, because even the CERN physicists couldn't cobble together a decent international line.

(Cecil insisted it was intentional. Carlos initially thought he was being ridiculous. Eight months later, he wasn't so sure anymore.)

"So you're making up stories now?" Carlos asked, phone sandwiched between shoulder and ear as he reached for the chamomile tea. "Like they're real news?"

"It's wonderful!" The lilting chirp of Cecil's voice managed to traverse the crackly line perfectly, as it always did, and it brought a smile to Carlos' face, as it always did. "The night shift's so boring! And nobody's even awake for it, so I do what I want."

Cecil's giddy enthusiasm would've been contagious, if it wasn't just past 23:00 in Geneva. So, instead, Carlos hummed an agreement.

"I wish I could hear it," Carlos added, after a moment. Cecil had a voice suited perfectly to radio, and before Carlos received a year-long research opportunity at CERN, he'd usually fall asleep to Cecil's show, the rambling between-song monologues washing over him like warm water.

But Night Vale's community radio station was too small and too under-funded to have a continuous online stream. It barely had a website; NVCR's sole internet presence was a labor of love by Dana, the station's intern. Carlos adamantly denied checking the website daily, but Google Analytics did not lie.

(Dana rolled her eyes and gave Cecil the account, just so he would stop asking about it.)

There was a short pause, the line silent but for the static of an international call, then, "It's that time of year again, listeners! Blood Oath Renewal Day! Don't forget to do your part for the ancient, unmentionable ritual that sustains our town! And if you have been selected for active participation, please respect your fellow citizens and refrain from excessive gibbering about the things you have done and seen on the behalf of your town. Remember, Night Vale survives only due to the efforts of citizens like you, dear listeners; your efforts, and the warm, carmine viscera on your cold, trembling hands."

Carlos recognized the tone: Pitched slightly higher than usual but no less sonorous, it straddled the line between giddy enthusiasm and cool professionalism. But Cecil's radio voice didn't usually leave Carlos in a stunned, disconcerted silence.

He knew Cecil was waiting for a reaction, probably holding his breath. All Carlos could say was, "Wow."

Cecil tittered. "Yeah," he agreed, his voice still hovering in the higher pitch. Carlos knew he would be shifting anxiously, shuffling his feet, waiting for a response. As much as Cecil loved to talk, he clammed up when he was worried.

Cecil's doubt dispersed Carlos' shock instantly. "It was good!" Carlos reassured him. "It just, uh, caught me off guard? I wasn't expecting something like that."

"Well," Cecil drew out the word, sounding much more like himself. "I did just sort of slap it together. I'll have the whole thing polished up a lot more for next week. Like, I might as well put some effort into it, right?"

"Of course," Carlos agreed. If something was worth doing, after all, it was worth doing thoroughly. "Just, maybe don't tell me any more ‘Night Vale' news before I'm off to bed? Because that was, um, a little creepy. Good, but creepy."

Cecil chuckled, a sound warmer than chamomile tea on a cold Swiss night.

But in Night Vale, the real Night Vale, there were still hours of warm desert daylight left after Cecil bade Carlos good night. Cecil could've slept. He preferred to, when Carlos was also supposedly asleep, though he was probably still pouring over his notes and cross-referencing journals, papers strewn across the bed as his tea slowly cooled on the night stand.

(Cecil quickly became accomplished at picking through the academic mess to find space, switching off the radio on the night stand as he did so, usually catching the tail end of Lara and Elle's first piece)

Instead, he planned. This wasn't going to be a one-time thing, a novelty show nobody ever heard. Cecil had three hours to fill, and he was going to fill them with existential terror and government conspiracies and creeping horror.

(Creeping horror was granted a corral of red loops on the paper, before Cecil absentmindedly cupped his chin in his pen hand and scribbled red ink across his cheeks.)

A pen stroke of petty vengeance made science obsolete in the new Night Vale, because science took Carlos away. It was only temporary, sure, but the alternative was blaming Carlos and Cecil would never do that. In fact, Carlos' name acquired a dazzling array of hearts and stars, sandwiched between some bizarre weather phenomena and a list of neighbors Cecil could safely reference. Cecil had time to decide how to introduce Carlos into his bizarre narrative; it was the sole advantage of Carlos' absence, because his reappearance had to be absolutely perfect.

Before long, the apartment was beginning to look normal again, like Carlos was still home. These papers were covered in Cecil's neat handwriting instead of Carlos' slapdash scrawl, and detailed the infrastructure of an eldritch town rather than an incomprehensible series of equations, but somehow the mess was comforting.

The familiar motion of gathering strewn papers and arranging them into neat stacks was also calming, at least until Cecil caught himself looking for the page numbers Carlos started leaving on his work after a few too many instances of reshuffled research.

A disorienting horror show set in Night Vale, starring its very own citizens. It was a crazy concept, and station management would probably never go for it, but at least it kept Cecil's mind occupied as he curled up in the too-large bed, the room slightly too warm from the afternoon sun as it struggled to break through the thick curtains.

And the next night, when he cheerfully announced Night Vale's weekly events (now including a knitting circle, please bring your best war needles, don't forget 3mms are now prohibited due to last week's Incident; and a meeting to discuss starting construction of the new waterfront, approved at the previous City Council meeting), he knew he had something good going if the look on the board operator's face was any indication.

Night Vale, the new Night Vale, had four months to prepare itself for the arrival of its most-loved new citizen. Cecil would make sure it was ready.