"Where did you go to school?"
"...here," he answered tersely.
The air in the little office was thick and hazy, making the blurry, half-silhouetted figure across the desk appear almost immaterial. Even in broad daylight, it was nigh-impossible to make out more than the shadow of eyes, of a nose, of lips. Clearly there was something there, but a special kind of darkness disguised any distinct features except for narrow rectangular glasses that always seemed a bit askew. Carlos admittedly hadn't even noticed it right away, putting the distinct lack of detail off to distance and how godawful bright the sun was. By the time he tried to get a good look at Cecil, he'd already cottoned on to the fact that nothing really worked here, or at least, not like it did back home. The distinct lack of detail was one of the less bizarre things he'd learnt in the first week.
But it was one of the only things that bothered Carlos more and more as time went on. The answer seemed so near, like he was just on the edge of understanding it but hadn't gotten the details just right. Occasionally, half-asleep, he'd have a moment of clarity where it clicked in his mind-- but he'd lose it by the time he was awake, holding it in his hands like ashes. The question was like a splinter in his mind, and interacting with Cecil rubbed against it and brought him spiraling back to the question. He'd asked directly, once or twice, but the canny-uncanny radio host always managed to avoid giving an answer. He'd just say something like, "why don't we just get to know each other better?" and give the impression of a wink.
"When did you graduate?"
"Oh, y'know. A few years ago." A shaky smile shone through his words. "Isn't it kind of rude to try and guess someone's age?"
If there was anything Carlos had learned about Cecil, it was that he was an avid oversharer except when it came to direct questions about himself. Those, he'd swerve and bend over backwards to avoid. Carlos wasn't sure if Cecil was just private--though that seemed contradictory for the same person who would loudly proclaim his crush to the entire town--or if he was hiding something from Carlos.
What would he feel the need to hide?
Carlos was starting to suspect it was all connected, maybe that he couldn't see Cecil without knowing him to a certain extent. That would be consistent with the various perceptual oddities around him--imaginary corn, the dog park, the angels. Reality was malleable in and around Night Vale. It didn't show up on any maps, and most people could pass through its apparent location without seeing anything besides miles of desert. The occasional person who did enter the town came back talking about it like a person, like the town itself had spoken directly to them; that was one thing Carlos had yet to experience. It was an anomaly; somehow more real than Atlantis, somehow more believable than aliens or Bigfoot, but still something that evaded direct observation.
Maybe that was the key: direct observation. Maybe observing Cecil peripherally, somehow, would produce an explanation, even if not an entirely logical one.
Tracking down the year Cecil graduated, however, proved to be a little more tricky than Carlos had anticipated.
Everyone over the age of about 25 recalled going to school with Cecil, but nobody recalled many details. Some of them claimed he'd graduated the year they were freshmen, but none of them had graduated in the same year. Nobody remembered being in the same graduating class as Cecil, let alone if they'd shared any classes. Across the differing accounts, Carlos came to the estimate that Cecil must have graduated at some point between 1994 and 1999.
It was a nonsensically broad range, but it was a good place to start.
NVHS was another big, adobe-styled building in the same vein as many of the municipal facilities. It was formed out of two large boxes with a two-layered, open hallway connecting them. The front office was located in the center of the leftmost wing of the school. The office smelled like stale patchouli and carpet cleaner, and was larger than the school needed.
While nobody was quite as smitten with him as Cecil, everybody at least seemed to like Carlos, even if they'd never met him. They regarded him with an almost universal warmth that was an uncanny echo of Midwestern hospitality. It was easy for him to secure access to the school's records room. Following a harrowing journey through the mazelike halls of the school, Carlos found a heavy door with a little nameplate reading "RECORDS." The old-fashioned key he'd received at the office turned with a heavy thunk, letting Carlos into the dusty room. A few small lights flickered unevenly above him as he sorted through stacks of old yearbooks.
Carlos began with 1995-96. Already its pages were beginning to turn yellow. The few pages of index at the back listed Cecil as being on page 192. He thumbed through the other students until he came upon the correct page--the senior group picture. At the very end of the small text listing the students, there was a note: "Not pictured: Cecil Palmer." Looking through the individual senior pictures, however, showed neither a photo of Cecil nor even an empty spot where a picture should have been. Something about this struck Carlos as extremely odd, but he couldn't place it. None of the people he'd talked to from the class of 1996 had said they'd graduated with Cecil, only the opposite.
Thinking he'd maybe find Cecil's picture amongst the juniors in the 94-95 yearbook, Carlos checked the index once again. There was only one page listed under Cecil's name, and turning to that page produced almost the exact same result: the senior group photo, the text mentioning Cecil remaining the same, the only difference being the other students. While Carlos felt uneasy about this, he could chalk it up to a repeated grade, or maybe a supersenior year.
Both possibilities became less and less likely as he looked through the older yearbooks. Every single one of them, back through the 70s and 80s, only had Cecil listed in one place, not pictured in the senior group photo. Carlos shut the 1971 yearbook and leaned back against a cabinet, looking up at the old wet spots on the ceiling. The room spun around him, turning the lump of discomfort weighing heavy in his stomach into full-blown nausea, as he tried to reconcile what he'd just seen. There was no reason the books should list Cecil as a senior for over 20 years. There were a couple of books even older than Carlos that listed Cecil all the same.
He'd guesstimated that he and Cecil were roughly the same age, but even if he accounted for a thirty-year distance, it didn't make sense for Cecil to appear--albeit not pictured--in every yearbook. Carlos considered looking even further, through the 60s and eventually the 50s, but he extrapolated that he'd only find the exact same thing. He was almost afraid to look at the census records. Even, Carlos dared to think, even by Night Vale standards this seemed weird. It just made no goddamn sense, like the slightly radioactive clock goo, but for some reason it was much more disturbing. The implications--how old was Cecil really? who, or what, was he?--itched at the back of his mind. The room pressed in around him and Carlos made a hasty escape, leaving the yearbooks strewn about in messy piles.
An unseen, unfelt gust of wind ruffled the pages of 1971.
Carlos studiously avoided the station building for a few weeks. He did not listen to the radio. For the first time, he noticed the subtle tremors under his feet that coincided with Cecil's broadcasts. They confused his seismographs, which output shaky lines of, on cursory inspection, what appeared to be writing. The glyphs matched some of the ones he'd seen around town, carved into bloodstone or concrete. It was a language nobody knew, or one that nobody admitted to knowing. Carlos wished he'd thought to invite a linguist.
Transposing the seismograms showed certain patterns: they shared a commonly-shaped beginning at the top of the hour; followed by a long string of differing symbols with some familiar pieces, probably words or phrases, interspersed; a few minutes of silence about three-quarters of the way through; and an identical ending as the hour moved on. They were all the exact same length. The writing wasn't even, either, because some parts were written out with wide spacing and rolling curves, while others were crammed together and somewhat pitchy, like the writer was excited. There would be occasional extra blank spaces that would form an on-and-off pattern with the rest of the writing. It almost looked like a conversation.
The ongoing mysteries were unable to distract him fully, however, and Carlos often found his mind elsewhere. He kept a small notebook--separate from his all-but-decorative observation pad--and he'd flip through it in private, penciling things in when he was fairly certain nobody could see him. He was terrible at keeping secrets. The first few pages were dedicated to simple arithmetic, followed by a page topped with a single number in a circle--61--and a list of messily handwritten questions beneath it. "Why in school in 40s?" was one of them. The questions wouldn't leave him alone, restless and circling like the albino bats that occasionally haunted his mailbox, rebounding and echoing in his head.
The largest and loudest by far was "why?"
Why him, specifically. Why was a potentially-rather-old, perception-influenced being fixated on him?
Part of the problem was Carlos'... not exactly reciprocal fixation, but unyielding curiosity focused on Cecil. There were mysterious hooded figures, angels, faceless old women, all sorts of unfamiliar types of things, and the one provoking most of his questions was a seemingly-mostly-regular human. Why did he feel like he'd understand Night Vale if he understood Cecil?
For the first few weeks, when he was just settling in, Carlos had felt a number of emotions about his not-so-secret secret housemate-- namely: shock, fear, apprehension, paranoia, dismay, and something unfamiliar but nonetheless vaguely ominous. Those had largely subsided as he realized that she was one of the less dangerous (people? things?) entities in Night Vale. It wasn't like she disrupted his daily activities outside of the odd occurrence of dead lizards pinned to the walls or missing tea bag. She'd claimed the red mug he'd received years ago from an ex, but that was perfectly alright because Carlos had been meaning to get rid of it and only still had it because he was nostalgic for his days in college.
He hoped this small intrusion wouldn't upset their living not-arrangement.
One night, before he went to sleep uneasily and dream of horses with men's faces warning him of a distant duststorm, Carlos left a freshly filled teapot on his kitchen table. Beside it, he placed the red mug. In their shadow went a nub of a pencil and a folded piece of notebook paper. When unfolded, it would reveal a message: "how old is Cecil?"
The next morning, the note was tucked neatly inside the teapot, wrapped around the pencil. In precise, looping cursive read the response: "he's been here longer than I've been alive."
That didn't quite answer his question, but it confirmed his suspicion that Cecil was older than he'd initially thought, and older still than he'd thought after careful reconsideration. He repeated the ritual that night with a new question: "how much can you tell me?"
The next morning, the piece of notebook paper was soaked through with hot water and stuck to the table. Carlos was able to revive it well enough to look for an answer--but he found none. There were two lines drawn under the words "been here," as though for emphasis. He tried again with a more specific question, but the next morning found the paper completely gone and the teapot housing a very loud, very confused meat-moth. Thankfully, the moth was too disoriented to even attempt to bite Carlos. A moth bite was all sorts of hell to treat, which only made sense given the side-effects. His skin was not numb and he was not nauseous, so he was probably safe from being turned into putrefied moth food.
Carlos did not ask again, partly because he wasn't sure he was ready to hear anything else. Based on all of his research, the Faceless Old Woman was a phenomenon dating well back in Night Vale's history--not quite as long as the evidence of there being a "Voice of Night Vale," which predated the invention of radio, but certainly longer than phenomena like the hooded figures. He'd initially assumed that "the Voice of Night Vale" was a title passed down in some way, from a town crier to a radio host, that had belonged to several people over the years. Now, though, he realized that there was only ever one "Voice of Night Vale," and that was Cecil.
There was a sharp knock on his front door.
Carlos had been half-anticipating and half-dreading this moment ever since he realized it was bound to happen. He knew he was pushing boundaries. He'd crossed lines and he'd looked far too much into everything, especially the things that were kept most secret. People had tried to warn him, but he was too curious. He walked like a man to his execution.
Which is why he was so surprised to see, of all people, Cecil at his door. His perception hypothesis proved correct, too, because he actually saw more of Cecil than he ever had before. Not a face, but eyes, big and purple and wet. And so many of them--six, he counted: the pair that most people had, a pair above those that sat where eyebrows should be, and a pair below that followed the line of his cheekbone.
"Um," said Cecil, reaching up to twirl a lock of fair hair around a finger. On the back of his hand, there was a large twitching lump bisected by a line almost like a seam. There was another, smaller one on his wrist, just visible under the cuff of his sleeve. "Would you like to... take a walk?"
Wordless, they strolled into the warm, dry night. They passed the dog park in silence, then Historic Night Vale (where Carlos had found more questions than answers), and soon the light and sound of the town was far behind them, though they hadn't walked very far. Glancing around, Carlos realized he was in a stretch of desert he couldn't recognize, the hard ground peppered with innumerable cacti.
"Where are we?" Carlos, who was beginning to think that this really was some sort of execution, asked. He felt really bad that they were making Cecil do it.
"Um, here, I think." Cecil lightly tapped his right collarbone. "We aren't too far away from the rest of town."
"Is this the part where you kill me?"
"Where I-- what-- what??" Cecil's face, at least as far as Carlos could tell, contorted in something akin to shock and disgust. "No, of course not!" He regained composure, albeit with a hint of a violet-toned blush. "Why would I--? No. Never." The last word was intoned so heavily that the landscape seemed to ripple around them. "You have-- you have questions. In the interests of um, of transparency, I'd like to answer them."
Carlos tried to look at Cecil, but his eyes had trouble staying focused. His vision kept sliding away, looking past Cecil or over his shoulder, unable to look right at him. Trying for too long made his head throb, so Carlos settled for looking just behind Cecil's head. "What," he started, then shook his head. "Who are you?"
"Cecil Gershwin Palmer, at least, I am now." Though they hadn't moved since the conversation began, they suddenly stood by two large, flat rocks. Cecil took a seat and Carlos hesitantly followed him.
"How old are you?"
"I don't remember."
Carlos' entire line of questions--when did you go to school, why are you in all the yearbooks, why can't I look at you--came crashing to a halt behind that one statement. "You don't... remember," he echoed blankly.
"It's been a very long time," Cecil continued as though they were talking about something truly innocuous.
"Do you remember when you were born?"
"Even if I did, there wouldn't be a point in knowing. We didn't have time like this when I was young." He pointed up at the sky, at the suddenly-shining full moon, circling around it with his finger. "I don't remember anything at all before the doors, and very little before they closed. They closed on me, you know. The gate was about to shift location and it probably couldn't tell the difference between me and there, so it pushed us together until the difference was gone. We became one and the same-- we became here."
"You and... what?"
"The city that was there before there was here. I'm not sure what happened to it. I think maybe I-- the person I was before I became here and thus my current self-- erased it, somehow. But it was gone when I woke up here for the first time and saw the sun again and my skin was sand and I could feel everything but I couldn't move." Cecil brought his left hand to his face, hiding two of his eyes behind his palm. The seam running across the bulge on his hand parted and receded, revealing a large eye that fixated itself on Carlos.
The scientist shuddered, but his damnable curiosity was too strong for him to recoil. Instead, he reached out and gently took Cecil's wrist, pulling it across the gap between them. The eye watched him, unmoving, its unbroken heliotrope surface like a large droplet of water sitting on Cecil's hand. Carlos prodded around it, finding no structures that would suggest an eye being there--he could feel only the typical metacarpal bones laying under the skin. For the first time, however, Carlos noticed and registered Cecil's skin tone--a dusky tan with strong violet tones. He realized that Cecil really didn't look human, and probably only passed as such due to his sort of perceptual obfuscation. By the time someone noticed that, outwardly, Cecil wasn't human, they already had to know. It was a neat form of self-preservation, like psychic camouflage.
Carlos looked again at Cecil's palm, then noticed something on his wrist: another eye, smaller, close to the size as the ones on his face, but otherwise identical. There was a cacophony of twitching and bioluminescence showing through the sleeve of Cecil's shirt. He'd started unfastening the cuff buttons before remembering himself. "May I...?" he asked, trailing off as he looked up. He stared, not quite gaping, right through Cecil.
It wasn't like he was fading from visibility, like a ghost; it was more like the image of Cecil was simply giving way to its surroundings, almost like he was just a person-shaped cutout of the night around them. He shimmered like a desert mirage and his eyes formed little constellations far away. He half-smiled gently, the tips of sharp teeth beginning to peek out from between his lips, face undulating in and out of direct visibility. Every last hypothesis fled from Carlos' mind as he realized exactly what he saw, as impossible and contradictory as it was.
"It's you," he whispered. "You're-- the town, th-the everything, it's all-- it's you-- Night Vale is just--"
"Did you know," Cecil said, but he didn't say, because it was like his voice was carrying in a wind that wasn't there, "that's the oldest of my names anyone still uses? People have been calling me that for a long time. Since the council was just men, even before they summoned Station Management, they've been calling me that."
Carlos fell silent for a long time. Before he even knew it, he was carefully splaying his fingers around half-closed eyes and kissing the most scientifically interesting community he'd ever known.