Drink to Forget by aperplexingpuzzle
The waterless waterfront of Night Vale might not have existed, but it was still the perfect place to watch fireworks.
Not that Carlos was in the mood to watch fireworks, or celebrate, or do anything at all, but it very seldom mattered what he was in the mood for these days. It was mandated that citizens watch the fireworks, and it was mandated that they smile, and it was mandated that they be happy, and if Carlos could only manage one out of the three tonight… well, at least it was the one most easily measured by StrexCorp executives.
As increasingly powerless as she was, the Night Vale mayor had announced her own rule for the night: drink to forget. That one, Carlos could happily comply with. He’d done very little else since that day three months back when everything changed.
Those three months had exacted a toll on him more suited to three years’ worth of time. Carlos’ normally clean-shaven face was scruffy and unkempt, and unfamiliar lines of worry had painted their way across his forehead. His long, slightly-greasy hair was badly in need of a cut, as well, but he could imagine Cecil’s reaction to this with all-too-horrifying clarity. His boyfriend’s face would spasm, the mutilated corners of his lips raising subconsciously, and those horribly blank eyes would close and open three times in quick succession before his inevitable pronouncement: “How wonderful!”
Carlos shuddered, and took a long swig.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” chirped a dreamy, high-pitched voice from beside him as a particularly vivid firework bloomed across the sky. Carlos grunted noncommittally in response. Were they? Maybe they had been, once upon a time. Carlos had vague memories of watching fireworks shows with his family as a child, laughing and enjoying the bright lights and sulfurous smell. He hadn’t talked to his parents in… years now. He wondered if they missed him. He wondered what they’d say if he ever went back.
Don’t think about it, Carlos thought roughly, resisting the urge to scratch at the black brand adorning the back of his hand. It was too late to leave now. Much too late.
“You know, I have no idea what makes fireworks spark and bang like that!” Cecil continued, sounding mildly curious now. Still high-pitched. Still wrong. “What do you think, Carlos? Maybe God?”
“G—?!” Carlos bit back an incredulous retort. “No, Cecil,” he sighed. “It… it has to do with chemistry.”
“Ah, science,” Cecil said, nodding sagely. “I should have known.” There was a long pause, during which Carlos pretended not to notice the way Cecil’s hand clung, trembling, to his shoulder. “Beautiful,” Cecil repeated.
No, it was much too late to leave. Maybe it had been too late from the moment Carlos had fallen, bloody and panicking, into an impossibly small city with impossibly small occupants, and realized as he fell that there was only one voice in the world he wanted to hear, one face he wanted to see. Maybe it had been too late the moment that inquiring voice had come over the radio, and said his hair was perfect. Maybe it had been too late the moment he entered Night Vale.
His bottle of beer tipped from numb fingers, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe. There was something pressing, tightening on his chest, and it was all too much. Viciously, he fought to contain himself, because as soon as someone noticed, there would be questions, and pills, and everything would be happy happy happy like it was for Cecil and oh God, maybe it was better that way…
Carlos’ eyes bulged open, looking for something, anything to distract himself from that line of thought, and his gaze fell on two checkered shoes. Just that. Two checkered shoes, attached to the feet of the man sitting beside him.
He paused, stunned, and his panic came to a crashing halt. Cecil, who had once worn any crazy thing he could get his hands on without a care for how they went together, now stuck to a fiercely regimented wardrobe. Collared shirt, fully buttoned, sleeves rolled down. Solid-colored tie. Slacks. Brown loafers. Holidays, weekdays, weekends, it was always the same thing. But now he was wearing checkered shoes.
“Is something the matter?” Cecil asked, in a tone that was either too cheerful to be concerned, or maybe too concerned to be cheery.
Carlos hesitated, sure he was reading too much into this, possibly grasping at straws.
Cecil followed his gaze for a moment, then returned it with solemn white eyes that belied his rictus grin.
“Happy New Year’s,” Cecil whispered, and for just that moment his voice was a low hum, still sonorous and beautiful, still the only voice in the world Carlos wanted to hear.
“Happy New Year’s,” Carlos whispered back,
A thought occurred to him—a slightly irrational thought, to be sure, but he clung to it nonetheless.
Maybe it’s not too late after all…