This is a story about you, said the man on the radio, and you were pleased, because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio. Welcome to Night Vale.
This is a story about you. You live in a trailer out by the car lot, next to Old Woman Josie’s house. Occasionally, she’ll wave at you on her way out to get the mail or more snacks for the angels. Occasionally, you’ll wave back. You’re not a terrible neighbor, as far as it goes.
At night, you can see the red light blinking on and off on top of the radio tower. A tiny flurry of human activity against the impeccable backdrop of stars and void. You’ll sit out on the steps of your trailer, with your back to the brightness of the car lot, watching the radio tower for hours. But only sometimes. Mostly, you do other things. This story is about you.
You didn’t always live in Night Vale. You lived somewhere else, where there were more trees, more water. You wrote direct mail campaigns for companies, selling their products. “Dear resident,” you wrote often. “Finally, some good news in this dreary world. At last, a reason not to kill yourself!” Then you would delete that and write something else to send out, and it would not be seen by anyone.
You had a friend, and then a girlfriend, and then a fiancée, the same person. She cooked dinner sometimes, but sometimes you cooked. You often touched.
One day you were walking from the glass box of your office to your old Ford Probe, and a vision came to you. You saw above you a planet of awesome size, lit by no sun. An invisible titan, all thick black forest and jagged mountains and deep turbulent oceans. It was so far away, so desolate, and so impossibly, terrifyingly dark, and that day, you did not go home. You drove instead. You drove a long time, and eventually, you ended up in Night Vale, and you stopped driving.
You have been haunted ever since by how easy it was to walk away from your life, and how few the repercussions were. You never heard from your fiancée or your job again. They never looked for you, which doesn’t seem likely, or maybe it’s that in Night Vale, you cannot be found. The complete freedom, the lack of consequence: it terrifies you.
You have a new job now. Every day except Sunday, you drive out into the sand wastes and there you find two trucks. You move wooden crates from one truck to another while a man in a suit silently watches. It is a different man each time. Sometimes the crates tick. Mostly, they do not. When you are done, the man in the suit hands you an amount of cash, also different each time, and you go home. It is the best job you’ve ever had.
Except, today, it was different. You moved the crates. The man in the suit, a stranger, watched. But then, as had never happened before, the man in the suit received a phone call. He walked off at some distance to take it. “Yes, sir!” he said, and “No, sir!” Also he made hawk shrieking sounds. It wasn’t terribly interesting. You moved crates. But then, an impulse, an awful impulse, came over you, and for no other reason than that you are trapped by the freedom to do anything in this life, you took one of the crates, and put it in your trunk.
By the time the man came back from his phone call, you were done with your job. He gave you the money – it was nearly five hundred dollars today, the second highest it had ever been – and you drove home with the crate in your trunk.
When you got home, you took the crate into your trailer and left it in the kitchen. The crate did not make a ticking sound. It made no sound at all. Nothing made a sound except you, breathing in and breathing out. You cooked dinner – you always cooked dinner – and the red light on the tower blinked on and off in your peripheral vision, a message that was there and then wasn’t, and that you could never quite read. You wondered how long it would take them to miss the crate. You did not wonder who they were. Some mysteries aren’t questions to be answered, but just the kind of opaque fact, a thing which exists to be not known.
Which brings us to now, to this story, this story about you. You are listening to the radio. The announcer is talking about you. And then you hear something else, a guttural howl out of the desert distance, and you know that the crate’s absence has been discovered. The crate. Well, it sits, that’s all, on the kitchen floor. That’s all. It’s warm, warmer than the air around it. It smells sharp and earthy, like freshly ground cinnamon. And when you put your ear against the rough warm wood, you hear a soft humming, an indistinct melody. It does not appear to be difficult to open. All you would need to do is remove a few nails.
You do not open it.
You decide, instead, to go to the Moonlite All-Nite Diner, and have a slice of pie. The wind is hot, like always, and smells like honey and mud. Night is your favorite time. Daylight brings only a chain of visual sensations, none of which cohere into meaning for you anymore. Life has become out of focus, free of consequence.
As you drive, you turn off the headlights for a moment. At that moment, you feel again, above you, not even far away now, that planet of awesome size, lit by no sun. An invisible titan, all thick black forests and jagged mountains and deep, turbulent oceans. You see nothing but the faint moonlight on your dashboard, but you know the planet is out there, yawning in the unseen spaces.
The moment passes. You turn your headlights back on, and all you see is a road. Just asphalt! Just that. And you pass a man waving semaphore flags, indicating that the speed limit for this stretch is forty-five.
The Moonlite All-Nite Diner is radiant green, a slab of mint light in the warm darkness. You squint when you see it, like it hurts your eyes, but it does not hurt your eyes. You park near the front door. A man rolls by on the ground, his eyes bleary and sightless, whispering the word ‘mudwomb’ over and over. But you don’t have the money to tip him, so you go inside. You order a slice of strawberry pie, and the waitress indicates through words and movements that it will be brought to you presently. The radio speaks soothingly to you from staticky speakers set into a foam-tile ceiling. It is telling a story about you. Your story, at last.
A man slides into the booth across from you. You recognize him vaguely, although he looks considerably different now. It is that man who appeared to be of Slavic origin, but who dressed in an absurd caricature of an Indian chief and called himself the Apache Tracker. Except now, it’s difficult for you to miss, he has actually transformed into a Native American. You wonder if the pie will get there soon. The Apache Tracker smells of potting soil and sweat. He leans across the table and touches your hand, lightly.
You do not pull the hand away, because you know that there will be no consequence for any of this.
“Вы в опасности.” (Vy v opasnosti. You are in danger.) he says. “Они идут.” (Oni idut. They are coming).
You nod. He taps the table. Then, bringing his thick eyebrows together and pursing his lips, he leans down and taps the ground. You nod again.
“I think my pie is here now,” you say unnecessarily, as the pie is quite visibly placed in front of you.
You did not order invisible pie. You hate invisible pie.
He looks at the pie for a long time, and then lets his breath hiss out slowly through his nose.
“Они придут снизу. Пироги не помогут.” (Oni pridut snizu. Pirogi ne pomogut. They are arriving from below. Pies will not help.) He leaves. What an asshole that guy is!
You finish the pie and ask for the check. “Check pleasssse,” you say, whispering it into your drinking glass as is custom, and then lifting the tray of sugar packets to find it, filled out and ready to be paid. You drop a few dollars onto the check, place it back under the sugars, wait for the sound of swallowing, and leave the diner. The waitress nods as you leave, but not at you. She nods slowly and rhythmically to music only she can hear, her eyes riding the curved line of neon lights above the menu.
As you start the car, the man on the radio says something about the weather.
[“You Don’t Know” by Mount Moon. For more music by Mount Moon, check out mountmoon.bandcamp.com.]
The crate is in your kitchen where you left it, and you get down on your knees to embrace it more fully. It has grown warmer, even hot. It still is not ticking. It had taken you no time to get back home. Now that you think about it, were there any other cars on the road? Where did all the cars go? The man with the semaphore flags explaining the speed limit – he wasn’t there either. Your heart pounds.
Without allowing another stray thought to wander through your mind and delay you, you grab the crate and throw it in your trunk. You turn the ignition, and your car radio comes alive with a pop, just as the announcer says that your car radio comes alive with a pop.
Where to now? You don’t know, but you go there anyway. A pair of headlights, a pair of eyes, and two shaky hands, speeding through the silent town. Behind you, you see helicopter searchlights sweeping down onto your trailer. There are sirens. A purplish cloud hangs over the town, glittering occasionally as it rotates. The whole works.
You drive past the Moonlite All-Nite, still aglow and full of people eating what sounds good only late at night, and Teddy Williams’ Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, which has taken to not only locking but barricading its doors at closing time. You pass by City Hall, which, as always, is completely shrouded after dark in black velvet.
Moving farther out, following the pull of the distant, uncertain moon, you pass by the car lot, where the salesmen have been put away for the night, and Old Woman Josie’s house, where the only sign that the unassuming little home could be a place of residence for angels is the bright halo of heavenly light surrounding it, and the sign out front that says “Angels’ Residence”. And the town is behind you, and you are out in the scrub lands, and the sand wastes. By the road you see a man, holding a cactus in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. He shakes both at you as you pass, and howls.
And then, you are alone. Just you, and the desert. You stop the car and get out. Pebbles crunch in the sand in response to your movement. The radio murmurs behind the closed doors of your car. The headlights illuminate only a few stray plants, and the wide dumb eyes of some nocturnal animal. Looking back, you see the bulge of light that is your Night Vale. The purple cloud, now floating over the heart of the city, reaches its tendrils in and out of buildings. You hear screams, and gunfire.
You open the trunk and lay one hand on the crate. It pulses with some kind of life. Still no ticking though. You look back. Several buildings are on fire. Crowds of people are floating in the air, held aloft by beams of light, and struggling feebly against power they cannot begin to understand. The ground shifts, like it was startled.
It’s so quiet, when it finally comes. You see the black car long before it arrives. it comes to a halt nearby and two men step out. You don’t run. Neither do they.
“How did you find me?” you ask.
“Everything you do is being broadcast on the radio for some reason. That made it pretty easy,” says one of the men, the one who isn’t tall.
“Yeah,” you say. “I see that now.”
“You have the item?” the man who is not tall asks.
You say nothing.
The man who is not tall signals the man who is not short, and he walks past you, looks into your trunk, and nods.
“Even easier,” says the man who is not tall.
There is an unexpected click. One of the rear doors of the black car has opened, and your fiancée has stepped out. Her eyes are wet, like it was the night you left. She does not appear to have aged, but then, you can’t actually remember how long it has been. Could it have been last week? Or was it ten years ago?
“Why?” she says. “Why? Why?”
You don’t know what to say.
The man who is not short steps up to you, puts a knife against your throat. Nobody says anything. Your fiancée shakes her head. Her eyes are empty, broken, gushing. The radio is saying all of this as it happens. You hear it dimly through the car door. You can’t stop smiling.
All at once, the consequences. All at once you are no longer free. It’s all coming back around, all at once. Life, bleary, washed-out, snaps back into focus. The red light on the tower still blinks in the distance and every message in this world has a meaning. It all makes sense and you are finally being punished. You can’t think of a time you have ever been happier.
Your fiancée abruptly gets back into the car. Neither of the men seem to notice her. One opens the crate with a couple of quick taps, and pulls out of it an intricate miniature house. The hours that must have been spent building it! Every detail is accounted for! Inside the house, you think you see for a moment lights and movement.
“Undamaged,” says the man who is not tall.
You beam at him. The knife presses harder against your throat, but it does not hurt. Your eyes wander up and you see above you the dark planet of awesome size perched in its sunless void, an invisible titan, all thick black forests and jagged mountains and deep, turbulent oceans. A monster. Spinning. Soundless. Forgotten.
It’s so close now. You see it just above you. Maybe even if you tried very hard, you could touch it. You reach up…
This has been your story. The radio moves onto other things: news, traffic, political opinions, and corrections to political opinions. But there was time, one day, one single day, in which it was only one story, a story about you. And you were pleased, because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.
Good night, Night Vale. Good night.
I’d never join a PEN15 club that would allow a person like me to become a member.