Based on the wildly popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is filled with mundane and surreal stories of the titular desert town and its inhabitants. In our excerpt, chapter five, we follow 19-year-old pawnshop owner Jackie as she witnesses some eerie activity at the Moonlite All-Nite diner. (For the first four chapters in their entirety, head here.
Jackie ordered coffee. Eventually coffee was given to her. These moments were related.
The Moonlite All-Nite was packed, as it always was in the morning. There were few places in town where one could quietly have breakfast in the company of so many other people also quietly having breakfast. There is nothing more lonely than an action taken quietly on your own, and nothing more comforting than doing that same quiet action in parallel with fellow humans doing the same action, everyone alone next to each other.
In her right hand was the coffee, served in a mug that said:
JONES BROTHERS WEED WATCHERS CO.
“WE WATCH YOUR WEEDS FOR SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR!”
24/7 AUDIO AND VIDEO MONITORING.
It was part of the Moonlite All-Nite’s charm. They used mugs gathered from any number of sources. Sometimes those sources left strange stains or humming sounds on the mugs. This was also part of the charm.
Her left hand clutched the piece of paper, where it had been clutched since yesterday evening. Earlier, she’d tried burning the paper, but it came back from the ashes. She had placed the paper in a small lockbox, which she locked. It got out.
She tried showering the paper away. Taking a shower often solved problems for her. She would find herself with thoughts that seemed to come from outside of her, thoughts that would question decisions or offer suggestions or just consider life hazily in a way that made it seem like the thoughts could not possibly be her own.
When she’d held the paper directly under the stream of the shower, it had turned soggy and dissolved, falling into sludge that crumbled toward the drain. But then it was back in her hand. Over and over she destroyed it, and over and over it returned.
“Finally, a dependable companion,” she said to the showerhead, and a thought popped into her head that was barely formed into words, more a general image of how often Jackie is surrounded by things she can depend on, and how little she thinks about them. She left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely.
Sitting in the diner, out of hope for much else, she rolled the paper into a ball and shoved it into her oatmeal, along with the usual blueberries and salt cubes and cured salmon. She downed the entire bowl like she hadn’t eaten in days, which might have also been the case. It was hard to tell, as she was hardly able to pay attention to much more than the paper. Her left hand twitched, and without looking down she knew.
“Dammit!” she said, stabbing the paper with her butter knife and then repeated “Dammit” a couple of more times in a hopeless decrescendo.
“KING CITY,” said the paper.
“Yeah, yeah, so I’ve heard,” she muttered. No one around her noticed. Teenagers shout things a lot while smashing knives near their hands, everyone knew.
The man on her left was poking the chipped countertop and whispering to it. His straw hat was set very far back on his head, so that his face seemed longer than it should be. On her right was a woman who had set her chair so it was facing the door to the diner and was making a checkmark on her clipboard every time someone walked in. All in all, no one cared about a young woman shouting and jabbing at her hand.
Coffee at the Moonlite in the morning was part of her usual routine. In about five minutes, she would put down whatever remained of the coffee, whisper into her water glass for the check, pull it out from under the tray of sugar packets, where it would suddenly be, then place it along with some cash back under the sugars, wait for the sound of swallowing to indicate the bill was paid, and then leave the restaurant. The typical diner rigmarole.
Then she would drive to the pawnshop, dig up the doors from where they were hidden, and replace them unlocked at the front just in time for opening time, which was the moment her gut told her the shop should be open. She would sit there all day, doing what she did and no more than what she did, and then she would stop doing that and go home. There wasn’t much else to it, life. A person’s life is only what they do.
But this morning she did not ask for the check. She did not pay it or leave. She stared at the paper in her hand and knew that she would not do any of the things she normally did this day. This knowledge came as a pain in her stomach and a fluttering on her neck. It was physical, this knowledge, as a strong knowing always is. It had more to do with an ache in her bones than a notion in her head.
The paper had disrupted her routine, and her routine was her life. Without it she was just a teenager who did not age and had no friends. She felt helpless before the paper’s power, even as she did not understand what that power was.
“Fine!” she shouted at it.
“Okay!” shouted a man in a nearby booth at a stain on his tie.
In the kitchen, another man, in a floral apron and a hairnet, nodded at a tub of soaking dishes. “Yep,” he said.
People often found themselves assenting to inanimate objects in the Moonlite All-Nite.
Jackie sat back on the cracked red stool that smelled of rubber and sawdust. She needed a plan. She turned to the man on her left.
“I need a plan,” she said.
“What was that?” He looked up. His forehead was long and unwrinkled, and he appeared to be wearing a great deal of makeup.
“A plan, dude. I need my life back the way it was.” She shook the paper in frantic demonstration.
“Ah. Okay, kid.” He flicked his eyes back to the counter where he had been staring.
“I need the man in the tan jacket.”
The man next to her narrowed his eyes. He presumably had two eyes.
“What was that you were just saying?” he said.
“I need to find someone else who saw him. There must be somebody in this town who talked to him and can tell me about him.”
He stared at her with what was probably a normal amount of eyes.
“I’ll need to start talking to people. All over town. Try to find anyone who knows him. Listen carefully to what they say and what they don’t say.”
“Did you just mention a man in a tan jacket?” he asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, turning back to the front and reestablishing the wall between her and her fellow customers eating at a diner counter, or the “eighth wall” as it is known in the world of theater.
She decided to make a list of everyone who might know about this mysterious man. She pulled out the pen she used for writing tickets at the pawnshop. It was a promotional pen from a festival put on by the city a few years ago.
THE NIGHT VALE SHAKESPEARE IN A PIT FESTIVAL. FALL INTO THE BARD’S WORDS. it said. The broken leg had been painful, but she did love the pen.
She searched her pockets for anything to write on and could find nothing. The blank tickets were kept at the pawnshop, and anyway they were only for writing claim tickets. There is a way things are done. Although that moment they were not being done. Her existence was premised on everything being the same, every day, and the paper was insistently different. It was impossible to sink into a blissful holding pattern with a mysterious paper in her hand.
There were no menus or place mats to write on, and then she looked down at her left hand and the paper. Of course. She put the paper on the counter, wrote “LIST” at the top of the blank side.
Or at least “LIST” was what she intended to write. Instead, she wrote “KING CITY.”
“No,” she said, to her own hand. She crossed out what she had written and wrote “LIST.”
Except that it still looked a lot like “KING CITY.”
“No,” she said again. She would not accept it. Not this too.
Maybe it was the surface. She pushed the paper aside (where it immediately sprang back, the marks from the pen completely gone, into her left hand) and wrote directly on the counter.
“Hey,” said Laura, the waitress, as she walked by. “I’ll have to clean that later.”
Laura had many branches growing from her body, laden with fruit.
“TEST,” Jackie wrote on the counter. And again it came out as “KING CITY.” She yelled in frustration. The man with the long forehead and the woman with the clipboard glared at her. Teenagers don’t usually write things while yelling, they thought, worried.
“Shhh,” said a voice from under the man’s hat.
Even if she did go to the pawnshop, she wouldn’t be able to write tickets for the customers, or price tags that said “$11.” She felt utterly defeated, and this feeling made her angry and defiant. What had she done to deserve this? She punched the counter, and then held her aching fist.
Her phone rang. She pulled it out, and the woman next to her slipped in an earpiece so she could listen along.
“Hello, dear!” Her mom didn’t quite grasp that phones bridged the distance between people, so shouting was unnecessary.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m busy at work right now.” The woman with the clipboard, one hand on the earpiece, raised an eyebrow at her, and Jackie waved it off. “Do you need something?”
“I can’t just call my child? I have to need something?” “Of course you can, Mom, that’s not what I—”
“But now that you mention it …”
“See?” Jackie mouthed to the woman with the clipboard. The woman shrugged.
“What is it, Mom?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“I’m glad we could talk then. Was there anything else?” Jackie wrote “KING CITY” on the counter again and cringed.
“No. I need to talk to you in person. It’s important. I have something to tell you. It’s about … Well, it’s better if you just come and we can talk about it.”
Jackie’s eyes burned. She wasn’t sure if it was an allergic reaction. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this sensation. She touched the corner of her eye. It was wet. There was water coming from her eyes and trickling down her cheeks, and she knew she was crying but she wasn’t sure if she had ever cried before. She let all the air that was in her out, without using her mouth to make that air communicate anything. This lack of communication communicated a great deal.
“Jackie, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m wherever I am. Here I am. Mom, have I ever … I mean, do you ever remember a time when I …”
She looked up and froze without actually stopping movement. The freezing happened inside.
One of the cooks was staring at her. He was tall and blond. His smile was wide and warm, and it unnerved her. He was flipping burgers (who was ordering burgers this early in the morning?), but he wasn’t taking his eyes off of her, so the burgers were landing on the floor, in the sink, on the edge of the griddle, in a haphazard splash pattern starting from where his spatula tossed them. His smile was so wide and so warm. Jackie didn’t feel safe.
“Jackie, come on over. I think this is a good time to tell you.” “Okay, Mom. Okay, I’ll be there. I just have a few things I need to do first.”
She shut off the phone and her mom was gone.
She would need to start somewhere. Old Woman Josie had mentioned that the angels wanted to see her, and even though no one could legally acknowledge their existence, they did tend to know what more legally existent creatures did not. It was, if nothing else, somewhere to start at. She got up to leave, glancing back to the kitchen.
The cook was still staring at her, a burger in midflip. Her quick glance did not take in its landing, and so, in her mind, it was always in the air, tumbling, never landing, never consumed, only spinning and falling, spinning and falling.
Excerpted from Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor with permission from HarperCollins. Copyright 2015 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.