When Carlos woke, he wished he was dead. The fierce painful pounding of his head thrummed constantly, and he had to breath evenly through his nose to keep himself from vomiting.
He was in a basement. Carlos knew it was a basement because he studied so many basements here in Night Vale. Nobody in town used their basement for an extra room or bar or storage space. They were all too afraid to use it. After extensive studies of several basements, Carlos concluded that Night Vale citizens were a bunch of wussies because none of the basements were haunted or scary in any way.
Carlos took that back immediately. Basements were fucking scary.
There was only one light source and it came from a lamp sitting on top of a woodwork station. There were three support beams and Carlos was tied to one of them. His back leaned against it, with his arms behind him, his elbows digging uncomfortably into the block of wood.
He was tied with... it felt like duct tape. He could feel it pulling and sticking with every movement.
The basement itself was pretty sparse. Besides the work station, there was a punching bag hanging low from the ceiling, a couple of boxes shoved to the side and-
Carlos' fear bumped up a notch. From where he sat, he saw a pair of legs sticking out from behind the boxes. He could make out the jeans and the black boots. Judging from the size of the boots, it was a man.
"Hello?" Carlos croaked out. His throat was so dry. "Sir? Sir, are you okay?"
No answer, no movement.
The door from the top of the stairs suddenly opened, bathing the basement with extra light. Carlos silenced himself immediately as heavy footsteps stomped down. A man carrying a tray came into view. He was an Asian man, slightly older than Carlos, with short cropped black peppered hair, and stubble on his square jaw. The man was tall, at least 6'2, and built like a fucking tank. The muscles he had on him could make Chuck Norris cry hot tears.
The man set down the tray in front of Carlos. It had a bowl of soup and bottle water.
The man stepped back and pulled a switchblade out from his pocket. He released the knife and Carlos stiffened. "I'm going to cut the tape," said the man in perfect, unaccented english. "Are you going to behave?"
The man stepped behind Carlos, out of view. Carlos could only see from the corner of his eye as the man kneeled down, then started hacking at the tape.
The moment Carlos' felt his hands were free, he shoved off the ground, running straight for the stairs.
The back of his knee suddenly exploded in white hot pain, collapsing his leg. Carlos fell, his arms stretched out, barely an inch away from the foot of the stairs. He tried to move again but the man grabbed him by the back of his coat, dragged him back and threw him against the support beam, cracking his head against it. Carlos' vision swam and for ten seconds, he lost conscious again.
When he came to, the man was reapplying the tape. "Stupid, goddamn idiot," he was hissing under his breath. He finished with the tape, aggressively picked up the tray with the food and stomped his way back up the stairs. He slammed the door shut, leaving Carlos alone once again.
The body of the other man never stirred once.
The man came back down the stairs two hours later, tray in hand again. He only came halfway down the stairs before asking, "Are we going to have a repeat performance of last time?"
As much as Carlos was tempted to try again, he knew he couldn't. He concluded that the man didn't stab him in the back of the knee, merely kicked him, but the blow was strong enough that his leg was still tingling painfully two hours later. Carlos was also immensely thirsty now and he was hungry. He shook his head.
"Are you going to behave?"
Satisfied, the man walked the rest of the way down, resting the tray back in front of Carlos. He took out his knife, made a show of showing the blade to Carlos, before going over to cut the tape.
This time, Carlos waited till the man was back in front of him before pulling out his arms. His shoulders gave protest and he winced. He bit back a hiss of pain and leaned forward, dragging the tray towards him. His knee throbbed hotly.
Carlos drank the water first, forcing himself to take tiny sips. All he wanted to do was chug the entire bottle but he was still afraid of vomiting. Once the bottle was a third empty, he tried the soup.
Chicken and rice. Campbell. It was cold and Carlos theorized his kidnapper didn't bother putting it back in the microwave.
The man settled down at the foot of the stairs, watching Carlos eat. "You're Carlos, aren't you?"
Carlos continued to eat in silence. He wasn't going to confirm or deny that.
"You're him," said the man, nodding as he spoke. "Of course you're him. The whole fucking town knows who you are. Cecil Baldwin's little boy toy."
Carlos had specifically asked Cecil to not talk so much about him and their relationship on air. It was annoying to have complete strangers come up to him and say things like, "Yeah, you go tap that!"
"I'm Bill," said the man. Now that Carlos listened more closely, he had a hint of a Southern drawl. "Not that you care, nobody here really does."
The soup wasn't near done but it seemed Bill was insistent on having a conversation. Carlos pushed the tray away and said, "If you know who I am, then you should know Cecil is expecting me. I will be missed."
Bill smiled bitterly. "I'm sure you will be."
"I... I don't have money-"
"Money? You live above a pizza restaurant and you're on a fellowship, of course you don't have any fucking money."
This was a bad sign. If Bill didn't want money, then what else would he want?
"Tell me something, Carlos," Bill said, leaning back, stretching out his legs and cupping his hands over his belly. "You've been living here in Night Vale for over a year, yeah? During this whole time, have you ever tried to leave?"
Carlos didn't understand. "Leave?"
"Yeah. Leave. Go visit relatives, celebrate Christmas in Hawaii, have Thanksgiving on the East Coast..."
"Like you said, I'm on a fellowship, I don't have money for travel."
Bill angrily kicked out, his foot colliding with the tray, overturning the plastic bowl with a harsh echoing clatter. Bits of rice smeared over the dark floor. "Fuck traveling then. How 'bout just leaving Night Vale? Hmm? Have you ever tried that?"
"Do you know how long I've been here?" Bill said. "Nearly fifteen years."
There was a pause and Carlos realized Bill was waiting for Carlos to answer. "That's a long time."
"Yes it is, that's a very long time. And do you know what's the worst part? I think it's actually been longer."
Carlos thought back to the clocks in Night Vale, how none of them had gears or batteries or even numbers. He thought back to when he tried taking apart his own watch, the expensive watch he got as a Christmas gift from his sister, and found the gears slowly melting into a solid gel. Time moved so oddly here in Night Vale, it was like it didn't exist. Carlos had long given up on trying to understand it.
"I came here by accident," Bill said. "I was trying to get to Las Vegas and I got lost. I still don't know how that happened, I didn't take any short cuts or backroads. I got lost on my way to one of the most famous cities in the world. Lucky me, eh? So while driving I noticed a road sign to good old Night Vale. And I thought to myself, Hey! Maybe I should pull over here and get a map, some gas and ask for directions. They have a McDonalds, perfect!"
Bill's face darkened. Carlos knew this was where the tale was going to take a sinister turn.
"So I got my map," Bill continued. "And my gas and I happily ate some chicken strips. Then I tried to leave."
He made a motion with his hand, mouthing a car engine as he mimicked driving away.
"At first, I thought I made a wrong turn, because I ended up right back inside city limits," he said, cocking his head. "So I tried again."
He repeated the hand motion and noise.
"And guess what? I was back inside city limits. AGAIN. So I tried to leave. AGAIN."
He was nearly yelling now, repeating the motion over and over, baring his teeth as the noise got louder. "AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN. I've been trying to leave this goddamn town for fifteen fucking years. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is?"
Carlos chose not to answer, unsure if a yes or no would set Bill off. On the inside, Carlos was shaking. Unable to leave? He had never thought of the possibility. He had considered going away a few weeks ago to visit his sister out in New York, but each time he thought about it, something new and foreign happened in Night Vale, making him change his mind.
Carlos had no intention living here for the rest of his life. There was so much he wanted to do, to see, and while Cecil was making things quite enjoyable, Carlos was not at point in their relationship to wonder if they should be making certain decisions in their lives.
"Answer me, scientist," Bill snapped, kicking against Carlos' shoe. "Explain how this is possible."
"I don't know," Carlos said carefully. "I don't have all the factors."
Surprisingly, Bill grinned. "You see? I like that answer. You know why? Because it's rational. Logical. You ask a Night Vale citizen a question like that, do you know what they'd say? Leave Night Vale? Now why would do you a crazy thing like that?"
He giggled, the sound too close to a sob. "You and I?" Bill said, indicating himself and Carlos with a finger. "We're normal, doc. We're outsiders of Night Vale. We don't accept things as is. We question, we wonder, we know what's real and what isn't."
"Why am I here?" Carlos finally asked. Bill was acting almost friendly, his voice taking on an admiration tone. This didn't seem like your common kidnapping. As if Carlos knew what normal kidnappings consisted of.
"We're the same," Bill repeated. "But you're different. You see, Carlos, what I've concluded is this: Night Vale likes you."
Carlos was dimly aware he could try running again. His belly was full, his head didn't hurt as much, and the pain in his leg dulled to a light ache. He could try taking Bill on, now that he was distracting himself with this revelation.
But like any good scientist, Carlos himself wanted to know the truth.
"Night Vale likes you," Bill said again. "Do you know you're the only one here who has ever interacted with the angels? Everyone else here pretends they don't exist. It doesn't matter if they see them at the grocery store or at the mall, they all turn their heads away."
"Old Woman Josie talks to them."
"Old Woman Josie is part of Night Vale. She doesn't count. You count."
A headache was forming and this time it was not from the blunt force trauma. This conversation was going nowhere and all he wanted to do was scream, 'Why? Why are you doing this? What the hell do you want?' Not even Cecil gave him so much bullshit. "Then why don't you talk to them?" Carlos asked.
"Don't you think I haven't tried? The fucking things don't acknowledge me. Only you."
"And you bashed me over the head for it."
Bill nodded, not at least bit sorry. "That I did."
"I still don't understand your motive. Why am I here?"
"Because," Bill said simply. "You're my ticket out of here."
After a quick bathroom break, Bill tied Carlos back to the beam.
Carlos again noticed the legs of the poor man in the corner. He felt guilty for forgetting about him. "Who's he?" Carlos asked. "If it's me you want, why him?"
Bill jerked his head toward the body's direction. "You want to see?"
No, no, Carlos most definitely did not want to see.
Bill walked over to the body. He examined it for a moment, then kneeled down and grabbed hold of a leg. With a grunt, he dragged the body out into the light for Carlos to see.
Carlos nearly screamed.
Bill must have killed his twin brother because that was him on the ground dead. The side of his face was bloody, the head clearly been beaten. "He's not my brother," Bill huffed. "I don't have siblings. This here is my doppelgänger. My double. Damn fool came straight to the front door, wanting to meet me. Idiot. So I smashed his skull in."
Carlos turned his head away. Bile was moving up his throat and he didn't want to lose his lunch. Not here. Not now.
"Isn't this what your precious Cecil said on the radio?" Bill sneered, grabbing a chunk of the dead man's hair, hauling the head up and giving it a good shake. "Kill your double? Well, that is exactly what I did."
He dropped the head and stepped back. "Rest well tonight, sweet Carlos. Tomorrow, you and I are leaving Night Vale forever."