Lucy is convinced that the town ahead is another mirage, until she catches the scent of burnt caramel and sweet vanilla, floating over to her on the dry desert air.
Days of stumbling through the sands had left her lips and her hands cracked and bleeding, her mind wandering. She's no longer sure she remembers why she came out here at all - she had had a car, had she had a car? why would she have left the car? - why she had left the road, or what she had been looking for.
She's walked, following mirage after mirage. She has known for years now that at the end of all things, when there is nothing left, one has to hold on to hope. She knows that the end of the world could be coming, meteors raining down from the sky, and she would keep on walking steadily, because really, what else could you do?
There's a distant feeling of surprise, now, that this latest mirage has a scent, and that the view of it isn't fading. She compartmentalises the feeling away in a box in her mind, not far from the place where she's stored away her panic and her despair and the pain in her feet - not now, later, later. She walks on, one foot, one foot, one foot. She looks up to see houses and long, low buildings, a radio tower blinking out at the edge of town.
Now, there's a darkness, gathering at the edges of her vision. The landscape is fuzzy, and the desert sounds are becoming distorted, as though she's hearing them through water. A wisp of her fear escapes its box, shadowy-soft, and she looks to it curiously, wondering if she's forgotten even how to feel scared.
She shakes herself, pushes on - one foot, one foot, one foot - looks down at them to steady herself as she walks and she doesn't notice that she's come upon a street until she's looking down as asphalt instead of scrub and rocks. The darkness is coming in fast, now - the world's spinning, and just as she goes, exhausted, downwards to rest at last, she hears a voice. It's high and lilting and panicked, saying something about ringing up the local dark magic practitioner - no, go next door and do it now, dammit - but that'd be impossible, of course, because Lucy doesn't believe in magic.
Lucy goes back to the shop later that week to say thanks. She comes in during a big lunchtime rush, so Hannah sends her over to a corner table with a smile and a bowl piled up with strawberry and olive oil ice creams. She's poured a sweet balsamic dressing over the top, and Lucy's never tasted anything quite so delicious.
She watches customers come in and out, some staying at tables and others hurrying off quickly, and all of them exchanging greetings with the staff. Most of all, she watches Hannah - she's beaming and neat in her pressed uniform, and though the queue stretches out the door, she takes time to share a few words with each person. Her assistant on the till is the same, calling most of them by name, and he and Hannah dance around each other, quick and efficient from what must have been years of practice.
The crowds fade, and Hannah says something quietly to her colleague and then walks over to Lucy's table. The radio had bid them "See ya, Night Vale! See ya!" some time ago, and has now gone to a four-hour session of 1950s swing, which somehow matches the polished bar and chequerboard floor perfectly. Hannah fits right in, too, her hair expertly curled and pinned back, soft curves filling out her uniform, neat and pretty hands. Lucy catches herself staring and flushes, looks away, then manages, "thank you. For all of it - and the ice cream as well, it's, it's gorgeous."
"How's the adjustment going?", Hannah asks, swinging herself easily in to the chair opposite. Strangers stumbling out of the desert aren't unheard of here, and everyone else had also assumed she'd be staying in the town, but Hannah's the first to ask how she is. Lucy hadn't been quite sure what to make of the sudden appearances of gaping, screaming holes in the sidewalk, or the rumours of giant worms nesting out by the community college, but everyone else seemed to take them in their stride, and so she did too. There as no reason not to stay, really - she couldn't quite recall details of what had brought her out to the desert, but she remembered feeling unhappy, and desperately lonely, and then driving and feeling calmer once she could see only starlight.
Somehow, she's calm here too. It feels... kind of safe, and Hannah is easy to talk with. It had been easy to talk with Josie, too, the older woman who had visited her just to chat, and with Leann, the intern at the local news journal who had been keen to see this newcomer. Every new connection seems to lay down a brick in the foundation that's grounding her here, solid and unshakeable, telling her that it's all right, she can stay, she'll be safe.
Well over an hour later, Lucy is just about to leave the shop, when she turns around, takes in a deep breath, and asks Hannah to dinner.
Hannah speaks often about her hope of one day taking over the shop's management. The mysterious shadowy forces that had owned the shop since the town had been established - they, well, they seemed friendly enough, and mostly kept to their own office, but they had little grasp of modern accounting or effective marketing practices. More than once before, Hannah had found herself working double-time and having to ask extra hours of the rest of the staff, just to keep the shop afloat. The shop's everything to her, and she dreams of being able to look after it.
Two years earlier, Lucy had briefly considered leaving. She'd loaded up her station wagon, left a small chocolate cake in offering to the writhing shadows that snaked out from under her stairs, and sung the requisite chants that the car needed to start (plus another she'd worked out herself, to make the mileage a little more efficient.) She'd driven out, just to see. Just to consider it, to test out how the idea felt.
As it turned out, she hadn't been able to stop thinking about Hannah and Josie and Leann and Steve and Trish and all the other people she'd gotten to know in town, and the idea of leaving them behind sent grief and longing washing over her like she'd never experienced before. She'd pulled over, hands numb on the wheel and heaving with sobs, desert landscape blurring and sinuses popping with the force of it. When she'd cried it all out, she'd driven straight back to the shop and gone to Hannah, held her close.
Now, she stands just outside the bloodstone circle the staff have set up outside management's office door. They're wearing ceremonial robes in various states of disrepair (Lucy had been mortified to spill cactus raspberry sauce over Hannah's sleeve that afternoon, but Hannah had insisted that it could only improve the ritual, really), and are all deep in concentration. Lucy's job is to run around the outside of the circle and keep the bowls of melted ice cream, goat's blood, and sawdust from running out. They've been at it for hours, and Lucy's having to run faster and faster between the bowls and the storeroom, but a glance at Hannah's face gives her the energy she needs to carry on.
The answer comes back: the staff blink out of their trances, and two collapse into nearby chairs. Hannah turns to her, exhausted and bright-eyed, shaking a little with the adrenaline. "They said yes. They said yes!"
They both work, harder than they ever have before. The shop will be bought with their cash and time and blood and joy, so Lucy works double shifts at the diner while Hannah stays up late in the shop's office to sort paperwork. They siphon off blood and store it in the fridge, and they pile up banknotes in boxes. Their free time doesn't overlap much, but they're able to create enough joyful experiences, crowded together in the tiny flat above the shop, to stretch out over decades.
Hannah keeps track of what they've covered using a chart on the wall, and Josie brings over corn muffins twice a week, badgering them both to eat more. They're tired, and they're happy - they see dozens of people every day, give them ice cream and coffee and conversation. Finally, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, management's office bursts out into a loud rattling that goes on for the last three hours before sunset, and after that the shop is theirs.
The shop is theirs, and Lucy gives up her shifts at the diner, passing them on to the amorphous shimmering cloud that did most of the washing-up. It had flashed different pastel colours at the news, and floated upwards from the table to leave behind a card signed by all the staff, with messy kisses drawn on and promises to visit.
She works the tills with Hannah now. They experiment with new flavours together - mango paprika, wasabi fig, aloe lime - and give samples to regulars in exchange for opinions. Josie visits often, parking up with a bowl of blue cheese apricot in the corner; Leann is busy all hours at the Journal, but comes in first thing to share coffee and gossip.
The man from the local radio station sends over intern Brad to sort out their lion problem, and after that, the interns come in for their breaks all together. They come in wary and suspicious, always with their backs to the wall, and a few scoops of blueberry and chocolate sorbet later, they're relaxed around a couple of tables, swapping stories about dodging poisonous-spined horrors between the aisles at the Ralph's, or comparing notes on the sacrifices necessary to get the Weird Scouts to agree to an interview.
The elementary school holds a sports day far out in the sand wastes, and Lucy drives them both there, the back of the car loaded up with drinks and ice cream packed into huge coolers. Between races and sparring and survival strategy competitions, they chat with parents. Steve had been in a few times recently, worrying about being a good enough parent to his newly adopted daughter: Lucy takes a break to sit with him and watch the shelter construction round, and notes the cautious pride that colours his voice, now. Dana, the new NVCR intern she'd met that week, buys cones for herself and her little sister, and Lucy watches her giving instructions in saving water and making snares, in preparation for the overnight round. She worries, a little, about the Sandero family: their mother had always seemed so noisy and overbearing, and she drags her sons past the ice-cream cart to get them ready at the starting line.
She and Hannah eventually take a break together to sit, eat, and look out over the desert landscape. Lucy wonders what kinds of challenges the children will be facing that evening, and considers the gaps in the her own knowledge, feels the smallest pang of regret at not having experienced a Night Vale education. She's not the only person to have not grown up a local, but they're few and far between and these days she generally socialises with those who've never known anywhere else. She's sure she could have been better equipped to deal with visiting the library or avoiding the howling vortex always moving around Main Street, but that said, Hannah had always seemed more terrified at the sight of the pitiless void hovering above their homes than Lucy was, so perhaps it all balanced out.
She finishes up her vanilla avocado, kisses Hannah's forehead, and opens up the cart again. She loves this part of the job: watching the long queue go past, being able to exchange helloes with so many people. She scoops a little extra chocolate into Ruth Carlsberg's cone, and smiles at her father, standing behind.
No-one's quite sure what to make of the yellow helicopters, when they arrive. Lucy is worried about Josie - well, she's worried about most people, truth be told. The manager of Dark Owl Records comes by that weekend to let them both know that StrexCorp had stopped by their store: several oddly cheerful people dressed in neat suits, talking about co-management opportunities and leaving behind piles of orange leaflets.
The next week, Lucy hears similar stories from the cleaner at the Ralph's, a waitress from Jerry's Tacos, and the shimmering cloud from the Midnite All-Nite Diner. StrexCorp are buying up their shares, moving in their own managers, and replacing their workers with ones from out of town. Those employees who haven't been made redundant have had zero-hours contracts introduced, and they're struggling.
The first time StrexCorp representatives come in asking for a meeting, Hannah glares openly at them, says nothing, and throws away their leaflets before they've left. The second time, she slams the shop door in their faces before they've even come in. After that, Lucy meets with them instead: she offers them coffee, listens and nods politely, and asks for more time to think it over, just a little more time. She later wonders whether her courtesy would have even made a difference.
The barista district swells, and out-of-work baristas crowd in to the hardware shop and sporting goods store every morning. Those townsfolk who still have work know their scrip won't buy them anything from the White Sand - well, not yet - and in the meantime, Hannah insists on handing out ice cream for free. They won't last long like this, Lucy knows, but they won't last long charging for it either, so, why not?
The letter that comes through the door has a smiling yellow sun on it, and informs them that, according to the new guidelines put into place by Strexcorp, they've gone bankrupt, and that as part of the Old Town renovation programme, they'll be terminating all holdings associated with the White Sand a week from today.
They talk about it. Hannah's all in favour of running, driving out of town to start again elsewhere. Lucy admires her courage - Hannah's never lived anywhere else - even as she thinks back to the time she had considered leaving. She knows she could never drive out beyond that boundary again: there's nowhere that could be as impossible or exciting or terror-inducing or exasperating as this, her own dear sweet Night Vale. The idea of moving elsewhere is incomprehensible; of leaving their shop behind, even more so.
They talk in circles. They could stay in town - what, and live in the barista district? the dandy look never did suit me, Hannah laughs into Lucy's shoulder - they could run, maybe - you know Strex won't allow that, they said all assets and I'm certain they meant us as well. Hannah sobs, apologies for her rudeness to the executives coming out in a soggy, incoherent stream, and Lucy holds on to her, strokes her hair, it wouldn't have made a difference, none of it would. It's better that you weren't polite, better to have been angry and loud - I wish I had been. I mean it. The shop is home. They decide to stay.
Lucy thinks that even when surrounded by mortal dangers and existential despair, humans still manage to find the concept of death too bizarre to consider seriously. She thinks that this is one thing that keeps people getting on with their lives in Night Vale, and that this is what helps her compartmentalise away her uncertainty and fear in that final week.
They bring out all their stock and hand out double portions. They carry on experimenting with new recipes, and they remake some old favourites. They don't tell anyone about the letter. Once or twice, Lucy finds herself holding back tears when chatting with Steve or Ms Flynn or the interns: she hopes Ruth will grow up happy, and she prays in her illegal bloodstone circle for Tamika's victory and Dana's safe return.
She catches Hannah's eyes, and draws strength from her, and they carry on as they always have, because really, what else can you do? They argue that week - it's over something silly and inconsequential, new stock orders, she thinks - and the row's reached a peak when suddenly Lucy is laughing and sobbing in Hannah's arms, overwhelmed with the mundanity of it.
The day before, they dig out some illegal pens to write out recipes, business advice, and long letters to absent friends. They bury the papers and the majority of their bloodstones in a cache out in the desert. The night before, they stay up, cycling through hours of quiet talking and lovemaking and just breathing together, soaking up all they can of each before the morning.
In the end, the helicopters arrive an hour earlier than Lucy had anticipated - she hears them coming, and bites back a sudden rush of regret and disappointment, there's not enough time, there's never been enough time. She breathes hard, and looks over to where Hannah is steadily polishing tables. The shop had been crowded, and the mid-morning lull now sees it empty, so Lucy locks the door and draws the curtains, then dips a spoon in the caramel swirl and carries it over to Hannah.
"Thank you. For everything", is all she allows herself to say, now, and she looks around at the gleaming shop and the colourful boxes of ice cream, the well-used chairs and tables and the worn floor in front of the till. She savours the burnt sugar on her tongue and the warm curves of Hannah in her arms, and she holds on tightly to her as the helicopters rattle overhead.