For nine months out of the twelve, South Park lay blanketed under snow. Whether it was four inches or four feet, the stuff never melted or lost the crisp whiteness of fresh fallen powder, and the town always looked like the background of a snow-plough advert. Snowmen littered verges from the end of August until the beginning of June, when they would dissolve down to mush and finally disappear, leaving nothing but rotting carrots and abandoned scarves behind.
The brief interlude between snow storms that passed for summer in the mountains brought a kind of giddiness to South Park. The townsfolk wandered about in a punch-drunk haze, complaining about the heat and forgetting to go to work, while their children revelled in their freedom from school and spent their days setting things on fire and tipping livestock over, or getting drunk and floating on Stark's Pond, depending on the age bracket.
Or both, depending on the individuals.
Five teenage boys hid behind a dumpster in an alley off Main street, crouched on the still thaw-damp gravel around an old paint tin and sniggering into their hands.
"You know, fellers, I really don't think this is the best idea," Butters muttered, knowing he'd go ignored. Sure enough, Stan elbowed him and Kyle just scoffed.
"Shut up, Butters, I wanna see the po' boy blow his arm off," Cartman snapped. Kenny rolled his eyes and continued to stuff the tin can with powder and newspaper.
"I've done this a hundred times, fat ass," he said, reaching behind himself for the can's lid.
"Overconfidence is the number one cause of industrial accidents in America, Kenny," Cartman sneered back.
"Where'd you read that, your latest copy of O magazine?" Kyle said, and Kenny tuned out their bickering.
"I really think we oughta reconsider this, guys," Butters said again, and Stan wrapped an arm around his neck.
"Don't you wanna see the fire trucks, Butters?"
Butters squirmed in the hold, Stan holding him easily with his throwing arm. Butters really was his namesake in human form: soft, malleable and entirely innocuous. Not to mention that his extra-curriculars lay strictly in the Arts department and nowhere near a football field.
"Hey, cut it out, guys, it's ready," Kenny said, standing and dusting his hands off on his jeans.
Cartman eyed the can with suspicion. "That's it?"
"You sure this is gonna work?" Kyle asked, running his hand through his jew-fro like he always did when he was anxious, which was pretty much always. Kenny had wondered if it was possible to go bald from excessive finger-combing.
Kenny shot him a look. "Seriously?"
Stan let go of Butters and walked over to stand by Kyle. "Dude, it's fine. Kenny does this all the time."
"Yeah, has to do something when he's not scrounging for change in the carpark at Walmart," Cartman said.
"When I'm not nailing your mom, you mean," Kenny shot back.
"So how do we do this?" Stan asked.
Kenny shrugged. "Light a match, run like hell. It's not that complicated."
Butters shifted nervously. "No one's gonna, like, get hurt, are they?"
"It's a fucking flash bomb. It's just gonna make noise and smoke a lot," Kenny said, fishing for matches in the back pocket of his jeans.
"Won't they know it was us?" Kyle asked.
"Not unless you Jew us out, Kyle."
"Shut up, fat ass!"
Kenny struck the match and flicked it. "Not to interrupt, but run!"
They all turned and sprinted down the alley as the match caught. The can started to spit and hiss, and Kenny waited. He could just distinguish the scent of the acrid chemicals as they reacted to the flame and each other when the first explosion happened. He looked over his shoulder as he ran to see the sparks shooting into the air. They sizzled against the alley's line of grey roller doors and left afterimages burned on Kenny eyes. The percussive noises picked up in speed and volume, following each other more and more quickly until he couldn't tell them apart.
Kyle laughed breathlessly beside him, Stan and Butters grinning like their faces would split in two. Even Cartman managed enough breath to whoop loudly as they pelted towards Stark's Pond. The heat closed in around them, rising from the pavement in lazy shimmers in time to their footsteps.
Kenny smiled when he heard the sirens. It was going to be a great summer.
The pond was usually busy this time of year, but most of the kids had drifted away to investigate the tumult on Main by the time the boys ran down the grass to its banks. This had, of course, been the point. Nothing ruined Stark's Pond like other people.
Barely slowing, Kenny kicked off his shoes and threw himself into the water. The cold hit him in the chest, his lungs constricting automatically. Run off from the mountains meant that the pond was never far above freezing. Kenny kind of loved it, the feeling of thousands of pinpricks brushing his skin and the shortness in his breath. It was even better than being high.
It felt like dying, but the world stayed in place and hell didn't rush up to meet him.
He surfaced with a splutter. The others trod water around him, Stan and Kyle already embroiled in a water fight that, Kenny was sure, would soon deteriorate into unnecessarily-touchy wrestling. The cool green canopy of the trees that arched over the pond cast vaguely surreal, luminous shade over the water, dapples of sunlight flickering where they hit the water through the shifting leaves.
"Marco Polo, guys!" Butters shouted, and Kenny lunged at him.
Later, after play was suspended due to Cartman's flagrant cheating, the five of them lay sprawled on the grass letting the sun dry their bodies as they lay in various states of undress, soaking the warmth in like sluggish cold-blooded creatures.
Cartman broke the contended silence. With a grunt he pushed himself to his feet. Years of junk food and too little exercise warred with his line-backer father's genetics to produce a build that was massive in bulk while still managing to toe the line between muscle and fat. The equilibrium his body had reached left him looking like an off-season hockey player – huge and imposing but soft around the edges. "Gentlemen and Jew, I have some fantastic news," he announced.
"Fuck off," Kyle drawled, skinny arm cast over his eyes. His pale chest was already starting to turn slightly pink in the sun.
"As you know," Cartman continued, "Senior year awaits us. The final hurdle between us and the big, wide world, a year of tough decisions and gruelling trials. This year we will be asked to decide how we want the world to remember us."
"As a fat ass, unless you photoshop your yearbook photo," Stan muttered. Kyle snickered.
Cartman glared at him. "As usual, I find myself ahead of the curve. I've found my passion, and I will dedicate my life to the pursuit of its perfection."
"You're gonna dedicate your life to hijacking Hostess trucks?"
"No, Kenny! I have discovered my creative genius lies in the arts. There are just so many stories that clamour to be told, so many parts of our dark world that scream for the light of film to be shone upon them. My destiny is clear. I will become a ground-breaking director. An auteur, if you will. I will document man's greatest triumphs and challenges, bringing life to the screen and transporting the viewer through the lens of the camera."
Kyle managed to hold himself together for about a second before he burst out laughing. "Seriously? You're going to be a director. Of what, porn?"
Stan snorted. "Hey, apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
"And you know what they say about nepotism in the industry," Kenny said.
"No, what do they say, Kenny?" Butters asked with genuine curiosity.
"Guys!" Cartman yelled, fixing them all with glares in turn, "I am so seriously! I am going to be a director, and when I win the Palme D'or you can all suck my balls."
Stan raised an eyebrow. "You know what the Palme D'or is?"
Cartman narrowed his eyes. "Besides, only from inside the industry can I expose the dirty conspiracy and manipulation of our media by the greedy Jew."
Kenny groaned. "Here we go."
There was a brief silence, and when Kenny hiked himself up on his elbows to stare down at Kyle, the other boy just shrugged.
"I can only rustle up so much righteous indignation in one day, dude."
"I know. I'm getting old."
"Ahem! If we could get back to the matter at hand, please?" Cartman said. "I've thought carefully about how best to begin my journey into the limelight, and it's become clear to me that there is only one choice."
"Blackmail?" Stan asked.
"No you fucking ass wipe! NYU! Tisch! God, you guys are such fucking idiots. I almost don't want to let you help me."
Kenny didn't want to ask, but that part of him that always managed to get him killed just wouldn't let him ignore it. "Help you?"
Cartman crossed his arms and nodded. "That's right. I need a film to audition with, and you guys are going to help me."
Kyle let out a laugh. "Well you can just go fuck yourself, fat ass."
Stan heaved himself up from the grass into a sitting position. Kenny eyed him sideways. Even wearing Walmart jeans and his hair still damp with pond water, Stan always managed to look like he'd stepped straight out of an Abercrombie catalogue. Kenny couldn't help but be jealous, scrawny and underfed as he was. The fact that Stan seemed to have no concept of his own looks both helped and made it worse. He was every small-town cliché brought to life, with an all-American, milk-fed athleticism, a veneer-perfect smile and the kind of easy-going likeability that couldn't be taught.
"Seriously, Cartman, why the hell would we help you?" Stan asked. Kenny met Kyle's eyes and they shared a frustrated but fond eye roll. Leave it to fucking Stan to be rational about the whole thing.
"Because otherwise I'll rat you guys out about the bomb," Cartman replied smugly.
Kyle leapt to his feet. "I fucking knew it! I knew you were setting us up the second you suggested it!"
Cartman smiled. "Careful, Kyle. Wouldn't want my director of photography to end up in the big house before production begins."
Kyle growled and was about to lunge when Stan grabbed his ankle. "Calm down, dude. What else were we going to do till school starts?"
Kyle glared down at him. "Not hang out with this fucker, that's what!"
Kenny watched as the two had one of their weird telepathic exchanges. Stan lifted an eyebrow, Kyle pinched his lips, Stan smiled faintly, Kyle huffed and slumped down next to him.
"Fine," Kyle muttered. "What's this stupid movie about?"
Cartman smiled. "Let me direct that question to our screenwriter."
Butters hopped up nervously. Kenny had forgotten he was there. It figured that he knew about the whole damn thing. Cartman had retained Butters as a personal lackey ever since Kenny stopped going along with his stupid schemes sometime back in fourth grade. Butters seemed to have a masochistic idolization of Cartman going on. Kyle had made them perform three interventions before they gave up, writing Butters off as a lost cause.
Butters clapped his hands together, glancing round at all of them with his typical bursting enthusiasm and earnest choirboy stare, his hair sticking up in blonde peaks. "Well, I sure am glad to be working on this with you fellers!"
Kenny sighed. "What's it about, Butters? Please tell me this isn't another of your My Little Pony fanboy things." A certain sophomore year media project had left Kenny scarred and wary.
Butters looked hurt. "Well, of course not, Kenny. It's a meditation on society and its failings towards the most vulnerable and marginalized."
"Butters!" Cartman yelled. "I thought I told you I wanted a zombie script!"
Butters rubbed his fists together. "Well, that's just the narrative. I'm talking about the subtext, Eric. The thematic underpinnings."
"Did you write those scenes with Kyle dying like I told you?"
"Fuck you, lard bucket."
Kenny rubbed his hand through his hair. It was getting too long; he'd get Karen to cut it, soon. "Aren't zombies a little overplayed right now, dude?"
Cartman looked scandalised. "Zombies are fucking awesome, Kenny."
Kenny just did not have the energy to argue. Besides, he'd seen the time on his watch. "Fine, whatever. Look, I gotta go to work," he said, standing and collecting his clothes. Jeans from Stan, Kyle's old tee, shoes from Good Will. God, he fucking hated being poor.
The others chorused goodbyes to him and got back to bitching at each other almost immediately. Kenny pulled his clothes on as he walked back through the trees towards Main. The tee clung to him, still damp, and he wished Kyle had a bigger torso. His hand-me-downs always ended up making Kenny look metro. Not that he cared most of the time, but he still hung on to the hope that a girl might look twice at him before high-school ended. Life had dealt him the cruel irony of both early puberty and an inability to convince any girl to date him past sixth grade. The po' boy stink had never faded.
Almost the second he'd been legally able to, he'd pounded down the doors of virtually every business in South Park, and he had been working at least three jobs for years. Dishes at Whistlin' Willy's was his favourite, since he could just turn on his iPod (the one Cartman threw away last year and didn't know Kenny had picked out of the trash) and listen to country music for hours. And he got free pizza. Always a plus.
Heat rose up from the pavement and Kenny felt himself start to sweat as he reached Main and turned north, kicking a stick in front of him. He had just enough time to swing past his house to change before his shift. He was cutting it a little fine, but whatever. This was his last summer with all his friends and he was going to enjoy it.
This was the last time they'd all be able to really hang out before they dispersed across America, heading off to college and glittering careers and kids and mortgages and what-the-fuck-ever, while Kenny was left behind in South Park. He knew it was coming, didn't try not to think about it or anything, he just tried not to let himself dwell on how his life was going to be when everyone left. A dead end job that paid just enough to send his sister to college, a shitty apartment with second-hand furniture and cheap convenience food, and weekly happy hour when he'd get drunk and talk to anyone who'd listen about his high school friends and how they were the best years of his life.
Fuck. This was why he loved blowing shit up so much.
To say that Kenny had pyromania was an understatement. Kenny loved fire, but he loved explosions even more. The first time he'd blown up a trash can, he'd had what he could only describe as a religious experience. It felt like the few times he'd been to heaven; the clouds had opened with huge-breasted angels reaching down to embrace him. He was eleven, and he'd stolen his brother's Fourth of July fireworks while Kevin snored drunkenly on their porch. Kevin had thrashed him the next day, but Kenny had already been visited by the holy spirit of gunpowder.
Kenny felt like he'd seen the face of God (well, again) and it was beautiful.
Within a week, he'd read everything their school library had about explosives. It wasn't a lot, so he'd gone to Kyle for a work-around for the school firewall and hit the internet.
Soon he was blowing up tennis balls, trashcans, wheelbarrows, shopping carts, rusted out cars, anything he could find that people had abandoned and was feasibly combustible. There was a meadow out past the interstate that he'd unofficially claimed as his testing ground. The craters and scorched earth that scarred the earth were his war wounds, treasured memories of trial and error experimentation, failures and successes, of the times he'd nearly killed himself and the more than a few times that he had. The part of him that had birthed Mysterion frowned upon the wanton destruction of property, but the larger part of him, the part that could name every separate flammable component of the average family sedan, won out every time.
He was careful with his addiction. Since an unfortunate incident in middle school involving the vice-principal's letterbox and a brief stint in juvie, he'd learnt his lesson and never blown anything up that he wasn't sure was abandoned. As far as the Park County school district was concerned, Kenny McCormick was only notable by his status as the resident poor kid whose school lunches were subsidised by the state.
And by the fact that he scored strangely well in math, physics and chemistry.
He had learned early into his obsession with explosives that he needed math to understand it. Then he needed chemistry. Then physics. By high school he was dogging Kyle and Wendy for the science prizes. Kyle loved it, and he was always nagging Kenny to help him with trigonometry. Wendy, on the other hand…
Wendy was a whole other issue.
Kenny reached his house and kicked the door open. The lock had never been replaced since the last police raid on the meth lab in the basement.
"Kenny? Is that you?"
Shit. "Yeah, ma," he yelled, still heading straight for his room. "Going to work."
He slammed his door and hoped like hell she'd get the message. Kicking off his shoes and pulling his shirt over his head, he shuffled awkwardly towards his closet for his work clothes. Being a dishie meant that those were his shittiest clothes, even by McCormick standards.
"Kenny, open the door," his mother's thin voice demanded.
Fuck, really? "Not now, ma, I'll talk to you later," he called back, finding the horrible old cargoes and thin black sweatshirt that Good Will had left in the dumpster behind their store.
"You always say that, and it never happens."
Kenny rolled his eyes as he pulled the sweatshirt over his head. "Never think there's a reason for that?" he muttered to himself, grabbing his iPod and shoving it into the knee pocket.
He opened the door and pushed past her. She grabbed at his wrist but he shrugged her off.
"Ma, I gotta get to work."
"Kenny, would you slow down for just a second? I wanna talk to you!"
"Yeah?" Kenny said and spun to face her. "What about? How I should join the bonding going on between Dad and Kevin and get sent to jail, too? Or about how Karen's going since Dad can't hit her anymore?"
His mom set her lips in a thin line. "No. About the... about what happened last spring."
Kenny's blood ran cold. "No. We're not talking about that. We're not," he hissed and turned to leave.
"You have to know how much I wish I could take it back, Kenny! It's the drink, it changes me! You know that, it's always brought out the devil in me," she yelled, following him to the door.
He paused on the threshold. "The only thing I know is that the fucking second I turn eighteen I'm taking Karen and we're getting out of here."
"It was an accident!" she wailed, grabbing at him weakly.
"You were drunk and tweaking!" he yelled back, yanking his arm back.
"I never meant to hurt nobody," she said, starting to sob.
He scowled. He was so fucking sick of her and his whole goddamn family, Karen excluded. They were fucking weak, blaming the alcohol or the drugs or whatever they could think of. Kenny couldn't count the number of times he'd died thanks to one of them.
"Well, you did. You killed someone. And nothing you say can change it," he said coldly.
He could hear her crying in his head the whole walk to work. Fuck he wished he still smoked. One of the cost-saving initiatives Kyle had talked him into was giving it up. Sure he saved a bunch by not indulging but fuck him if he didn't miss it.
By the time he opened the door into the Whistlin' Willy's kitchen from the back parking lot, he had calmed down enough to be around people. Pete the cook smiled his gap-toothed grin, and Kenny nodded back. He didn't hate the people he worked with, at least. Pete and his kitchenhand cum wife Maud were cool enough people to spend your working hours with. They knew to leave him alone when his earbuds were in, but had some pretty awesome stories about the eighties to tell if he forgot his music. Jason and Powder had summer jobs as servers, and it was hard to know someone your whole life and not be mostly okay with them. Their manager Hank was a crusty old battleaxe who thought that the Cold War was still in full swing and distrusted anyone darker than a light tan. Kenny mostly liked to egg him on or drop little conversational landmines about the Czech Republic to get him on one of his rants. The restaurant actually held a nuclear evacuation drill every six months into the bonafide bomb shelter hidden under the walk-in freezer.
His dish pile was already taller than he was, but he'd found a way to make the time fly. He'd get reamed if anyone knew just how much he loved someone actually called Randy Rogers, but he couldn't help himself. Something about country music appealed to the white trash in him, and there was nothing like a good song about guns and beer to cheer him up, or a choked up love song to make him acutely conscious of his own loneliness. He'd heard somewhere that country music was the music of pain, so maybe it was Kenny's own kind of masochism. Or maybe he just was too white for his own good. Kenny popped his earbuds in and prepared for a menial few hours listening to some thick-accented crooning and dreaming about what he could do if he laid his hands on just a pound of C4.
By the time his shift was over, his hands ached and his nose stung from the smell of bleach. He grabbed a pizza from the warmer and winked at Powder, who just rolled her eyes and waved goodbye before turning to finish mopping the floor.
He slid into the backseat of Stan's waiting car. "So, you guys got over your objections, I take it?"
He could feel Kyle rolling his eyes from the passenger seat. "Whatever, Kenny, like you're totally okay with this."
Kenny shrugged. "You know me, say the word zombie and I'm there."
"So you got the script Butters sent?" Stan asked.
"Hell no. I work, unlike you lazy pieces of shit."
Kyle laughed. "Then you're in for a real treat." He handed Kenny a stapled stack of paper.
"‘Green and Grey; a zombie love affair' by Leopold Stotch," Kenny read from the cover. "Seriously?"
"Oh, it's a masterpiece," Kyle said.
"Kyle's playing every single zombie," Stan said, "I think mostly so Cartman can watch him pretend to die over and over."
Kenny laughed. "And who are you?"
"Howard, the intrepid reporter-turned-zombie determined to find the man responsible for the zombie virus," Stan replied. "You're A Mechanic, A Soldier, A Corpse and A Truck Driver."
"Don't forget An Observer," Kyle said.
"Sweet." Kenny flipped through the script absently. "Hey, if it's a love story, who's the chick?"
The silence and awkward looks he saw shooting between Kyle and Stan clued him in almost immediately.
"It's Wendy, isn't it?" he asked, already sure.
Kyle turned to face him. "He's a shithead. Established fact. But you know she doesn't hate you, exactly."
"Yeah, dude," Stan said. "She told me that. It's just…"
"You know, it's awkward. But maybe this is a good thing. So you guys can, like…"
"Like you can work shit out, resolve it."
"Yeah, clear the air."
Usually Kenny would make a snide comment to himself about them finishing each others' sentences, but right then it couldn't be less funny to him. "You make it sound like a bad breakup."
Stan and Kyle shared another glance that Kenny knew meant they were doing their freaky telepathic thing again.
"Isn't this a little insensitive, anyway? A zombie movie?"
Stan screwed his face up, confused. "Why?"
"You know, dead people coming to life, her mom is dead…"
"Oh," Stan said. "Hadn't thought of that." Kenny rolled his eyes. "But hey, she's a big girl. She wouldn't have agreed if this wasn't something she could handle. Or, like, wanted to confront."
"C'mon, dude, I know you're scared to see her," Kyle said. "Maybe it'll be good to tackle it."
Kenny felt his jaw twitch. "Tackle what, that my mom killed hers?"
They had nothing to say to that, and Kenny huffed. "Forget it. I won't be weird if she isn't."
Stan and Kyle looked at each other again.
"Jesus, do you guys actually share a vagina?"
"Fuck off, Kenny," Kyle snapped.
Kenny grinned back as obnoxiously as he could manage with a stomach that was churning as badly as his. Stan and Kyle left him alone the rest of the ride and Kenny ate his pizza without tasting it, dreading the moment they stopped.
By the time Stan turned onto the unsealed road out to the national park, Kyle was back to his favourite subject: bitching about school. More specifically, bitching about how he was going to fail, drop out, and end up a lonely saxophone player under a bridge lamenting the lost opportunities of his past.
"For starters, you don't even play the saxophone," Stan pointed out.
"I could learn! I'll have nothing else to do, after all," Kyle argued.
"I hear Jews have no rhythm," Kenny offered from the backseat.
"Fuck you, Kenny. Some of us actually have to work for our grades. Not all of us have a supernatural affinity for math like you."
Kenny shrugged. "It's a gift."
"You know the sad thing?" Kyle asked. "If you actually applied yourself in the subjects that don't help you blow shit up, you could get into a really good school."
Kenny rolled his eyes. "Which I'd never be able to go to for reasons that have been covered extensively by us over the years."
"Bullshit! You know that we'd all help you take care of your sister—"
"And you know that I'd never let you. Let it the fuck go, dude," Kenny replied, trying to keep his tone light but mostly failing. He accepted his friends' charity to an extent, but Karen was his little sister. He was going to take care of her just the second he could. The shame of not being able to already stung.
And that wasn't even mentioning the real reason he couldn't meet Wendy's eyes.
Stan pulled the car in next to Cartman's obnoxiously large F-350 in the lee of an old station house. The railway out here had been out of commission since all of them could remember, and Cartman had deemed it perfect for the film noir pastiche he was going for.
"About fucking time, you assholes!" Cartman yelled the second Kenny opened his door and turned on the flashlight Kyle had handed him. "I said ten o'clock sharp."
"Whatever, dude, no one says that outside British procedurals," Stan said as they walked up to the old platform. Cartman and Butters had rigged up some lights around the most untouched section and a digital camera rested on a tripod facing the tracks.
"Well, thankfully I was able to use the wasted time productively," Cartman said. "We've been filming B-roll of the tracks and mountains. Jew, feel free to take over."
Kyle flipped him off and headed towards the camera.
"Butters, make up on Stan!" Cartman barked, and Butters materialised out of the shadow of the station house roof.
"Well, gee, Eric, I'm not done with Wendy yet!"
Kenny felt his stomach plummet at the same second as Wendy stepped out of the same shadow Butters had been hiding in. He never let himself look at her at school, but he knew she was even prettier now than she'd ever been. He just hadn't known how much prettier. She looked… grown up, somehow. Adult.
She saw him and managed to hide her surprise a nano-second after it appeared. She smiled at all of them in turn. "Hi, guys. Hopefully this is less of a disaster than Eric's master plans usually are."
Stan smiled and stepped forward to give her a hug. Kyle followed suit, but Kenny noticed how stiff he was. Kyle could hardly be more obvious, or Stan more oblivious. God, he wished they'd just give it up and fuck already. Even Wendy had thought so, when she'd broken up with Stan last year, back when Kenny and she had still talked, before – well, just before.
"Hey, Kenny," she said with a little wave.
"Hey," he managed in reply with a just of his chin that made him feel like a douche, before he couldn't stand it and had to turn away.
"Let's go, people, we're on a schedule here!" Cartman said, and Butters jumped to obey. He pulled Wendy and Stan towards the shadow that presumably was make-up central.
"Kenny, I want to talk to you about effects," Cartman said. "Think you could blow this place?"
Kenny raised an eyebrow. "You shitting me?"
"Production values! Miniatures are fine but there's no replacement for fucking verisimilitude!"
Kenny had no clue what the hell that meant, but he'd been around Cartman long enough to know when he was inhabiting a fantasy wholly enough to not be messed with. "Sure I can blow it, if you can buy the stuff."
He shrugged. "It's not cheap, blowing shit up. Quid pro quo, my friend."
Cartman narrowed his eyes. "I hate you so much."
Kenny grinned. "Keep telling yourself that."
Kyle called him over to the camera. "So you're gonna be second cameraman. You know, whenever I'm dying."
Kenny nodded, a little distracted by the irony of that statement. "Cool. Point and shoot right?"
He could see Kyle twitch and battle against his need to explain just how Kenny was wrong.
"…More or less," Kyle finally replied.
"What are we doing tonight?" Kenny asked. He'd left the script in the car, award-worthy piece that it was.
Kyle looked up from fiddling with the camera. "Stan's like, hiding here or some shit, and Wendy attacks him."
Kenny raised an eyebrow. "Hot."
Kyle scowled. "Not like that, pervert. She bites him."
"You're an ass."
"And you're jealous," Kenny accused, lowering his voice. He'd tried to goad Kyle into making a move about a hundred times, but Kyle seemed to think that never telling his best friend he was in love with him was a viable option.
"How about we not talk about this right now?" Kyle said, crouching to adjust the tripod. "Killing you before shooting would really put us off schedule."
"Wow, you've really bought into this, haven't you?" Kenny said.
"Stan wanted to do it. The more I help, the quicker it'll be over and we can go back to our normal summer."
Kenny folded his arms. "You know he wouldn't do it if you asked him not to."
"Not the point."
"Yeah, I think it is," Kenny replied and crouched down beside Kyle. "He'd do anything for you that you'd do for him. He's just slower than you are to connect that to wanting to jump you in dark corners."
Kyle set his jaw. "Remember that thing in the car about issues being covered extensively already? Will you just leave it alone already?"
"Whatever," Kenny said, rolling his eyes. "The day I leave it alone is the day you two finally admit the boners you have for each other."
"Kyle!" Cartman shouted. "Is the fucking camera ready or do we have to wait for you two ladies to finish your tête-à-tête over there?"
"That depends, fat ass, are you ever going to move out of shot or are we just going to dress you up like a rogue planetary body?" Kyle called back.
Kenny stood up and turned to face Cartman. "Yeah, we're ready."
Cartman clearly wanted to yell at Kyle some more but he just made a face in his general direction. Maybe he was taking this all more seriously than Kenny initially thought. Usually nothing could get between Kyle and Cartman in full fight mode other than Stan.
"Butters, where the fuck are my actors?"
Butters bounded out of the shadows again. "Right here, Eric! We're done."
Stan emerged first, looking like a goddamn Gregory Peck impersonator. He'd changed into a white shirt with suspenders and brown pants, and Butters had slicked his hair into a sixties coif. Kenny cast a look to Kyle behind him, who suddenly became very busy setting up the boom mike.
Someone else walked into the light, and Kenny had to do a double take to identify her as Wendy. Zombie Wendy.
"Holy shit, Butters! She looks fucking terrifying," Cartman said.
Wendy smiled sweetly, totally at odds with her apparently decaying face. "More than usual, Eric?"
"Whatever, ho. Hippies don't scare me."
Kyle cleared his throat. "Can we maybe get on with shit, please?"
"Curfew, Kyle?" Butters asked sympathetically, busying himself touching up Stan's makeup.
"No, this is just fucking lame," Kyle drawled.
"Hey, no one forced you to be here, Jew," Cartman snapped.
"Um, you did. Blackmail, remember?" Kyle said. "So let's just get the fuck on with it."
Wendy nodded. "Yeah, this stuff itches like crazy."
Kenny was fairly sure he'd slept through any classes involved with cameras, movies or filming that weren't about the special effects. He definitely never knew that shooting a single scene would take so long, or be so boring for most of it. Cartman had them shoot Stan sitting on the train platform from the front, the side, the other side, behind, behind and to the side, behind and to the other side, and finally from the front again. Then Wendy attacked, and they had to do it all again, shooting her approach from all the stupid angles Cartman demanded.
"Remind me again why we have to have this shot?" Kenny groaned. Holding the boom mike over his head for two hours straight was killing his arms and that pizza hadn't been nearly enough to sustain him for this shit.
"Production values, Kenny," Cartman replied. "Now, quiet on set. Marker, and… ACTION!"
Wendy started her advance, hiding from Stan under the cover of the station's fallen wall. She stalked forward, face set in a predatory snarl, fingers grasping hungrily as if already buried in his flesh. But it was her eyes, flat and unfocused, that really made her look dead.
Dead like her mother.
Kenny swallowed thickly as he felt nausea wash over him. He had to turn away and concentrated on staring out at the dark mountainside. From the train platform he could see the faint lights of South Park in the distance. The sounds of crickets and the other insects buzzed constantly in the background and he let himself fall into the mindless hum. The sky out here was so clear in summer, the smudge of the Milky Way laid out above him. The forest around them was lush and green, free from snow for a brief, spectacular moment. In the dark the fall of the mountainside looked alien, gleaming with a strange quicksilver glow. It felt so unfamiliar that he could imagine strange and impossible things living under the canopy, dark and foreign worlds running parallel to his own and totally unexplainable in the light of day. Not that he, of all people, should be particularly concerned about things that couldn't be explained. He did the Jesus resurrection trick on a semi-regular basis, after all.
"What?" Kenny shook himself out of his reverie.
Cartman was glaring at him with his customary haughty impatience. "What the hell have you been staring at, asshole?"
"Nature? Are you fucking high? What am I saying, of course you're high."
Kenny scowled. "I'm not high. Just fucking bored. Can this shit be over with already?"
Cartman sneered. "That's what I was trying to tell you, asswipe, but you were too fucking high to pay attention to anything but nature. We're done. Go home."
Kyle appeared at Kenny's elbow. "Yeah, c'mon, let's pack up."
The process of disassembling the ‘set' for lack of a better word was quicker than Kenny expected. The equipment all had purpose built bags and everything was loaded into the back of Cartman's truck in less than ten minutes.
"Daytime scene tomorrow morning, then here again tomorrow night," Cartman was telling Stan as Kenny ambled up.
"I'm working tomorrow morning," Kenny said.
"So Butters'll hold the boom, whatever," Stan said.
Cartman was not so nonchalant. "Kenny! This is art!"
Kenny stared back at him flatly. "It's a zombie movie."
"An artsy zombie movie."
"That's like being the thinnest guy at fat camp. Oh, wait, that's not an analogy you'd get, fatass."
Cartman glared at him. "I hate you so much," he said before yelling for Butters and walking off to his truck.
Kenny shrugged and turned to Stan. "We going?"
Stan nodded. "Yeah, just a sec, we're waiting for Wendy."
Kenny felt his eye twitch. "What?"
"Yeah, she got a lift here with Cartman and she said she'd grab the wheel and drive them into a tree if she had to endure that again," Stan replied, oblivious as always.
Kenny took a deep breath. Stan had all those outdated chivalrous ideas; he'd offer Wendy the passenger seat, and Kenny would be in the back with Kyle. That'd be fine. It was only a forty minute drive. Kenny could deal with being in the car with Wendy for that long. He could. Really.
Kyle was leaning against Stan's car when Kenny walked over. He looked up and scowled. "What the fuck is taking so long?"
"We're waiting for Wendy, apparently."
Kyle choked. "What? Oh, hell no. No fucking way."
Kenny raised his eyebrows. "Calm down, it's just a ride."
Kyle shook his head and started pacing, running his hands through his fro agitatedly. "No, see, you think it's just a ride, but then he's giving her rides every day to school, and we're catching the bus, and then oh look they're dating again, and then they're getting married and fucking carpooling."
Kenny stared. "You do realise you're psychotic, right?"
Kyle glared at him. "Just you wait, asshole. Soon we'll be sitting on the kerb waiting for a ride that never comes."
"…Is that some kind of metaphor?"
"No, idiot, it's inevitable! This is fucking awful. I thought she'd moved on from him! I thought we were back to normal."
Kenny frowned a little. "Normal?"
Kyle looked confused at the question. "You know, me and Stan, just me and him."
Kenny decided to tread lightly around a delicate subject. "Okay, dude, whatever. They're not dating again, so calm the fuck down."
"Not yet! Oh shit, here they come," Kyle said, and leaned against the car in what Kenny was sure Kyle thought was a nonchalant way. Kenny thought he looked vaguely epileptic, with all the twitching. He was going to wear his hair out from running his fingers through it so much.
"I'm sorry, guys!" Wendy said as she and Stan walked up. "That zombie goop is a bitch to get off. I had no idea it would take so long."
Stan smiled at her. "Relax, Wendy, it's no biggie. Right guys?"
Kenny shrugged and looked away, and Kyle managed some kind of all body spasm that was probably supposed to be a nod. Stan gave him an odd look but let it go.
"Here, let me get this," Stan said, reaching for the passenger's side door.
"Oh, no," Wendy said, shaking her head and backing away. "That's Kyle's seat. Best friend's prerogative, right?" She smiled at Kyle, who just looked confused and uncomfortable until she had climbed into the back seat.
Kenny followed her with dread. Wendy in the same car was enough of a challenge. Wendy less than two feet from him was going to be hell. He pulled his hoodie up over his head and hunkered down, trying to scream ‘don't talk to me' with every square inch of his posture.
As Stan started back down the dirt road towards the interstate, Kyle plugged in his iPod and turned it to some kind Romanian folk duo that he was currently obsessed with. Kenny rolled his eyes as Kyle started gushing about the harmonies or whatever to Stan, who always seemed to actually listen when Kyle got on one of his pseudo-intellectual rants about musical impressionism or the Balkan context of atonal chords or whatever.
"Hey," Wendy whispered.
Kenny shut his eyes in something like a prayer. She'd said it softly so maybe he could ignore her and get away with it.
"Kenny," she hissed again, and poked his side. Couldn't the girl take a hint?
"What?" he whispered back, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.
She bit her lip a little. "Do you think…is it okay that I'm here? You know, doing this movie with you guys."
Kenny frowned. "What do you mean? Stan's fine with it."
She shook her head. "No, I mean is it okay with you? We haven't talked since… well, I hope it's okay I'm here. Like, doing this with you guys."
The little kernel of guilt that Kenny felt was a permanent part of him since that day blossomed inside him. "Yeah! I mean, of course it's fine. I mean, if it's okay with you. Like, I don't have to help with this if you want, I could—"
"No!" Wendy replied. "No, I'm glad. I guess I just… I mean, you avoid me so much now, I just wanted to make sure you weren't mad I'm doing this."
Kenny looked away made a non-committal grunt. He vaguely registered Kyle's continued impassioned music soliloquy.
"So how are you?" Wendy asked eventually, probably just to fill the air with something other than loaded silence and unspoken things.
Kenny shrugged. "Oh, you know. Working a lot. Hanging out. Usual."
She nodded and smiled, and silence returned.
It was Kenny who broke it this time. "How about you?"
"Same, hanging out, working."
Kenny was surprised. The Wendy he remembered spent her vacations indulging the frivolous side that she avoided giving in to during school session. "Working?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I'm helping Dad at the clinic. He needs someone to do the record keeping now since… well, it was always…" She trailed off and Kenny felt that guilty hollowness again.
"Yeah," he said, looking out the window, away from her.
"Kenny," she said, and he turned back to her. She looked at him with a sad kind of smile, like she was expecting to be disappointed. "Can we… do you think we could talk sometime? You know, properly?"
Kenny couldn't think of anything he would like to do less than have a heart to heart with Wendy about shit he tried not to think about on a daily basis. They'd been friends, sure, and Kenny missed her whenever he let himself, but what was done was done. They were too far past it to go back.
But his brain was too slow for his mouth. "Sure," he heard himself reply, and before he could correct himself, the smile on Wendy's face shut him up.
He swore silently at himself the entire ride home. Kenny's house was the first one that they passed, and he felt his face flush with shame as Wendy peered through the window. Everyone knew he was poor, and his friends came to his house often enough. Still he wanted to scream that no, this wasn't his house, he didn't live here, in a half-fallen down dump with cardboard windows and a disembowelled car on concrete blocks in the front yard.
"I'll call you tomorrow, okay?" Wendy said before he opened the door. He saw Kyle's ears prick at this information and groaned internally. No way was he getting away with that.
"Yeah, sure," he muttered back, pushing the door open and all but bolting from the car. He wanted them to leave, to not have seen his house, to not know what his family was like, what his life was like.
He just wanted his life to be different.
Kenny's morning shifts at the Exxon out near the county line were never particularly thrilling. He'd never needed much sleep, maybe as a side effect of so much time being dead, so he'd volunteered for the shift no one else wanted, and there was something to be said for the job security in that. He worked from five in the morning until twelve, four days a week, and unless it was ski season he only had maybe five cars pull in on a typical shift. Randy Marsh came in a couple times a week on his way to the monitoring station on the mountain, and Jimbo and Ned wandered down from the wilderness every so often to fill up the truck and as many jerry cans as they could fit in its bed. Most of the time, though, Kenny was alone, and he liked it that way.
There was something strangely meditative about an empty gas station. He used the lonely mornings to exorcise his demons, reconcile himself to his situation and try like hell to make himself okay with the life he had. He got some quality time with his country music and all the trashy magazines he could stand. Sometimes he'd do homework. More often than that he'd plan explosions, maybe ones he'd do that weekend, maybe impossible ones that he'd never be able to do without committing some serious federal felonies. He was fine with petty vandalism and other low-ball crime in the pursuit of the perfect boom, but anything that could lead to the Supermax in Florence was way above his pay grade, figuratively speaking.
Sometimes he'd just nap. Sometimes he'd write letters in his head, letters of everything he felt but couldn't say, letters he'd never send and felt vaguely ashamed of, to his brother, his dad, his mom, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Wendy.
This morning was different, because Wendy was coming to visit. She'd texted him around seven and he'd agreed before thinking again, something that was becoming an inconvenient habit.
He watched the clock warily, nursing a cup of terrible coffee. It was seven thirty, and she was coming at eight. What the hell did she want to talk about, anyway? Well, he knew what, he just didn't know why she'd want to get into it. Some stuff was just better left alone, left in the dark recesses of your past until you couldn't remember what had happened in the first place, just felt a vague sense of unease that you couldn't quite identify. Or in Kenny's place, repressed with a fucking vengeance and left to fester into what he was sure would be alcoholism in ten years.
He was so sick of obsessing over this. With an angry shake of his head, he tried to think about Cartman's stupid movie and how he'd blow the old station house up. It was probably supposed to be heritage protected or whatever, but no one went anywhere near it except Jimbo and Ned, who sure wouldn't give a damn if Kenny blew it up. No one would even notice it was gone, and that was close enough to technically abandoned to fit into Kenny's strange set of explosion ethics. It was a rotting wooden building, so it wasn't like he needed anything particularly fancy or even illegal to make it go boom. Probably a run of the mill accelerant like gas would do the trick. He'd set some special stuff under the support beams to give the explosion some height, but it was a pretty easy proposition.
Not that he'd let Cartman know that. Kenny was poor, he wasn't stupid.
He started to sketch the station house out, planning the way he wanted the explosion to go. He'd spent a lot of time staring at the roof in different places while they filmed Stan sitting around for ever, so he thought he knew the building well enough to start. He was so involved in drawing side elevations and cut-aways of the interior that he didn't hear the bell ring when the door opened.
"Geez, can't a girl get some service?"
He snapped his head up. Wendy stood on the other side of his counter, arms crossed and head cocked, cheeky little grin on her face. Last night had been the first time Kenny had been so close to her, face to face, for over a year. It had been dark and her face shadowed, the light from their torches and Cartman's floods playing angles on her face. She'd looked other-worldy and totally unattainable.
Here in the Exxon, with in the full light of day streaming through the windows, she just looked like Wendy. Black hair, bright blue eyes and still way too far above him.
"Sorry, didn't mean to sneak up on you," she said, looking totally unrepentant, and her grin widened.
Kenny smiled back cautiously. "Hey."
"Hey." She scuffed a shoe against the lino and looked away awkwardly. Kenny busied himself fiddling with a pen against the desk. He sniffed. She coughed.
She broke the silence first. "So am I gonna have to stand here the whole time or can I come sit back there with you?"
"Yeah, whatever," he said, totally flustered. Which was disconcerting in and of itself. Kenny just did not get flustered. Ever. He was a smart ass and a pervert and a cocky bastard and the one who always had a cutting comment to make no matter what. Even if he was dying and/or dead. "C'mon over to the door, I'll let you through."
He keyed in the code for the employee door and held it open for her. She smiled as she ducked under his arm and he tried not to flinch as her perfume hit him.
She sat down on his chair and started to spin, hands out and touching everything she could reach. "Slick. Spinny chair, cash register, candy, cigarettes, dirty magazine… what more could you want, right?"
Kenny shrugged, leaning awkwardly against a Bud Lite Lime poster. "It's okay."
She slowed her spinning and cocked her head. "You gonna stand there all day?"
"You're kinda in my seat."
She looked at him sceptically. "This can't be the only chair in this joint."
Kenny set his jaw, ready to lose it and demand to know why the hell she was here. But he just scrubbed at his face and sighed, turning to go fetch a chair from the break room.
When he lugged it into the narrow space, she was flipping through his notebook. He'd be pissed, but a small, neglected part of him saw how impressed she looked and soaked up the approval like rain on cracked riverbeds.
He set the crappy plastic chair down and slumped onto it.
"These are awesome, Kenny," she said quietly, flipping the pages reverently. "How come I never knew you could draw?" she asked quietly, and he knew that there was more to that question than showed at face value. He supposed that he might have told her one day if they'd stayed friends. But there were lots of things that might have happened. Thinking like that was pointless.
He settled for a shrug. "‘S just something I do when I'm bored, I guess."
"Well, you should be bored more often."
His mouth twitched. "In South Park? Never."
She smiled back at him and put the notebook back down on the counter. She didn't look back at him, left her hand on the notebook and traced patterns on its cover with her fingers.
"How come we aren't friends anymore, Kenny?"
He spluttered, feeling like she'd just punched him in the gut. "I—What—Really?"
She looked back at him then, and he remembered why so many people were afraid of her. Her gaze was direct and challenging, and he knew he couldn't lie or hide. She'd know, and then she'd probably hunt him down and shank him.
"I want to know. Why don't you want to be friends with me anymore?" she asked again, and this time there was anger in her voice.
He shook his head, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. "Wendy, I don't know… I mean, what did you expect? My mom killed your mom."
Wendy frowned. "I remember that pretty well, thank you very much."
"Then what the hell are you asking me?"
"I'm asking you what I did that made you start avoiding me!"
He gaped. She turned to face him fully and he knew he was going to be at the receiving end of one of Wendy's patented tirades.
"I thought you needed some time to, like, process or whatever, so I let you be all hermit and moody, but you never got over it! Then every time I'd try and talk to you at school you'd all but run the other way. You transferred out of the classes we shared, you never responded to a single text… what the hell, Kenny? We used to talk!"
Kenny ran his hands through his hair, trying to make his thoughts stick together and make coherent sentences. "Wendy, why the hell would you want to be my friend?" he finally settled for.
She reared back like he slapped her. "What the hell do you mean by that? What kind of person do you take me for?"
Kenny couldn't do it anymore, and he just unleashed. All the self-loathing, shame and anger he'd been feeling exploded out of him. "Someone way the hell to good to be around me, for fuck's sake. Seriously, Wendy? My mom ran yours over when she was fucking out of her mind from drugs, and she didn't even stop. Your mom died on a shitty small town side street."
"Fuck you, Kenny. I know that—"
"I'm not fucking done! Your mom died, mine went and got high. When they picked her up all I could think of was trying to make you forgive me. Then you made them drop the charges! You knew how much I fucking hated the idea of foster care, and you did that for me. Me! The son of the woman who killed your mom and doesn't even care."
Her lips were pressed together tightly and she stared stonily back at him. He lowered his voice. "Wendy, I'm a poor piece of white trash that is gonna die in the same zip code he was born in, and you're…" He let out a breath and shook his head. He didn't even know what the hell he was saying.
"Every time I look at you, all I think about is how I don't deserve to be anywhere near you," he finished. He let his head drop forward, suddenly so tired that holding it up and meeting her gaze seemed completely impossible.
"Didn't you know I needed you?" he heard her ask in a small voice. He almost snorted. Who needed Kenny? No one, not if they had Stan, or Kyle, or pretty much anyone else. Even fucking Cartman. Kenny was good for dirty comments and blowing shit up. Oh, and getting good weed. Wow, what a fucking prince.
"I needed you," she continued, and he officially felt like shit when she started to cry. "Who else could I talk to? Bebe? Annie? Stan? Bebe hasn't had a serious thought since the ninth grade, and Annie's hardly any better. Stan sucks at real conversation unless your name happens to be Kyle. Do you know what he said to me at Mom's funeral? He patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Sorry for your loss, dude.' Dude. He called me dude."
"He calls everyone dude—"
"I was at my mom's funeral and my ex-boyfriend says something out of a Walmart sympathy card and calls me dude! Everyone was so fucking awkward around me, like I had some contagious disease or embarrassing facial tumour! What I wanted was someone sitting next to me and making rude comments about Father Maxi's open fly or lamenting that he'd never be able to cross my mom off his MILF bucket list! I wanted someone to be normal to me! My mother died and at the same time I lost every friend I had that mattered!"
She was shouting and crying and Kenny had never felt like a worse person ever. "I… God, Wendy. Why'd you do it, then?"
She sniffled and glared at him. "Do what?"
"Blackmail the DA," he replied. "You know, to get the charges dropped." She'd never really made sense to him in general, but that action had confused him more than most things she did.
She looked at him like he was maybe he was the stupidest person alive. "Because I care about you, you fucking idiot. And I'm not a horrible person, despite Cartman's rumours."
Kenny shook his head. "I could never think you were a horrible person."
She glared at him. "Well, you did a good job treating me like a leper."
"Yeah, well, I'm kind of a piece of shit." She sniffled and he shifted awkwardly on his chair.
"Shut up, asshole. If that were true do you think I'd be here?"
"So, do you… like, wanna be friends again?" he asked cautiously.
Sure enough, she cast him a withering glare. "Oh, are you deigning to associate with me again? Why the hell should I be friends with you after everything you put me through?"
He shrugged. "No reason at all. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to talk to me again."
She sighed and gave him a pitying look. "You know, for such a cocky bastard you have no opinion of yourself." He didn't reply, and she tilted her head. "So that's why? You thought I'd be better off without you as a friend?"
He looked down at the shitty old linoleum. "More or less."
"Lay it out for me."
He set his jaw. "I guess I was ashamed."
"That your mom had died and you still thought to follow that DA to the strip club, to blackmail him with those pictures and get my mom off."
She shook her head, confused. "You're ashamed I blackmailed the DA?"
"No. And… well, yeah. But not that you did it, like, that you did something illegal, that's fucking awesome. More that… that you had to. That my family is so fucked up that you had to save me and Karen from getting sent fuck knows where. Like, that I couldn't sort my own shit out and I needed you to save me."
She looked halfway horrified and halfway confused. "Wait. Do you… would you prefer I hadn't gotten your mom's charged dropped?"
He shook his head and ran his hand through his hair again. This was so fucking hard. "No, nothing like that. I just… I'm ashamed that I had to be saved in the first place, that I couldn't… like, I didn't have any right to help you because you were the one cleaning up my mess of a life."
Wendy frowned. "Kenny, your parents being useless doesn't make you useless."
"Except it kind of does," he retorted.
She shook her head. "No, it doesn't. You can't help who your parents are. But you can just give up and let that define you. Look at Kevin. He's the poster child for that."
"But I'm different, right?" he asked with a scoff.
"Yes," she answered emphatically. "You're not going to end up in jail or on drugs or some pathetic waste of air because you hate who your parents are. You couldn't become like them if you tried."
He raised an eyebrow. "Says the girl who got me arrested for marijuana possession."
She rolled her eyes. "And got you out again. I know you smoke, and that you blow things up, and get drunk more often than anyone should, let alone anyone who's seventeen with a still-developing liver."
He cocked his head. "You used to be good at this arguing thing."
She just met his eyes with a flat stare. "And you're still the same person I've known my whole life. Don't tell me I don't know you, because I do, Kenny. Just like you know me."
Kenny couldn't agree less. "I've never understood you at all," he argued. "That's what I've been trying to tell you this whole time."
She cocked her head. "Okay, fine. You don't understand me, I get it. But do you at least believe me when I say I don't blame you for what happened? That I never have?"
Wendy was a lot of things. Smart, cunning, terrifyingly intense most of the time. And honest.
"Yeah, I believe you," he replied, looking away and staring at a Doritos display.
"And do you believe me when I say I've forgiven you for being a total ass this last year?"
He felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. "Sure."
"Good. And that means I can answer your question."
He looked back at her. "What question?"
She didn't reply for a while, just let a small smile grow on her face. He knew that look. The last time he'd seen that look he'd ended up breaking her into the Mayor's office for evidence of a county-wide embezzlement scandal. He was about to get in totally out of his depth.
"When you asked me if I wanted to be friends again," she finally answered. "I'd really like that. I've missed you."
Kenny had the feeling that this was all going to end about as well as it had last time, but he couldn't help the happy little kick his stomach gave. "Well, who else is going to help you plant weed in Barbrady's cruiser?"
She gasped and leaned forward to whack his shoulder. He didn't remember when she'd scooted her chair that close. "Hey, one time, Kenny! And it was for a good cause!"
He rolled his eyes. "Sure, truth, love and beauty, I know, Sailor Moon."
She punched him again lightly. He waggled a finger and an eyebrow at her.
"Now, Wendy, violence is the last resort of the unintelligent, remember?"
She laughed and before he knew it she had wrapped her arms around his neck. His hands came up to rest on her back automatically, and she pressed her face into his shoulder. He could feel each puff of breath and feel her ribs moving under his hands.
"I've missed you so much, asshole," she whispered into his shirt, and he let his eyes close briefly, breathing in the scent of her shampoo and her perfume and whatever the hell other girly shit she used. He had no idea what that combination was, but it was awesome.
"You, too," he murmured, almost too quiet for her to hear, but her arms tightened around him and he knew she had.
"Hey," he whispered into her hair, "what are the odds Kyle will kill Cartman by the end of the week? I've got twenty he does."
She chuckled, and didn't loosen her grip. "Only an idiot would take that bet." He smiled where she couldn't see until finally she sighed and let him go. He stepped back, still feeling the shape of her tingling in his arms and the scent of her in his nose.
"So… we're cool?" he asked, still slightly baffled at the whole morning's events.
She smiled and nodded, glancing at the clock on the wall. "We're cool. And I've gotta go, more movie stuff this morning. Stan's picking me up in, like, twenty minutes."
He let her out of the gas station's counter area. She swiped a stick of gum and waved with a smart-ass grin.
The rest of his shift crawled at the pace of a directionally-challenged snail. He had a total of zero customers between ten and midday, and by the time Ian dragged his whiskey-drenched oversized ass in to replace him, it was nearly one o'clock.
"You do realise your shift has been going for, like, an hour?" Kenny asked sarcastically as Ian strolled in.
Ian shrugged, sending a waft of B.O. Kenny's way. Kenny just grit his teeth, trying to remind himself that killing co-workers was generally frowned upon by employers, both present and future.
"Whatever, see you Thursday," Kenny muttered, grabbing his stuff and getting the hell out of there. Ian grunted vaguely in his direction and sat down on the attendant's chair with a wheeze.
Kenny pushed open the station's door and stepped into the Colorado summer sunshine. The scent of pine tar and damp earth overpowered that of spilled gasoline, and he breathed deeply as he started to walk back to town. The sun beat down on his neck and he wrapped his hoodie around his waist, walking only in his wifebeater. He'd never been exactly ripped, but he put in an hour here or there in the school gym as often as he could. His scrawny arms had started to get some definition around fifteen, and now he was nearly eighteen he had a lean but defined build. He figured he could put some work in on a tan, too. The window of opportunity was short but he could usually manage a light bronze by September.
The Exxon was about a mile or so from Main, about two from his house, but Kenny headed for Stan's. Kyle had spent his morning keeping Kenny entertained with a long-running, over-dramatic text soliloquy that was heavy with insults towards Cartman, Wendy, Stan, and the world in general. His last instalment had told Kenny that the morning shoot at Stark's Pond was a bust, with Stan forgetting his lines, Wendy sneezing at inappropriate moments and Cartman just existing, from what Kenny could glean. Now Stan, Kyle, and Wendy were running lines at Stan's. Kyle's latest text had given Kenny an ultimatum:
If you don't come after your shift and free me from this third-wheel hell I'm not to be held responsible for any totally justifiable homicides that may occur due to rage blackouts caused by too many fucking in-jokes and hair-flipping and pec-flexing.
Kenny had always thought that Kyle had anger issues to go along with his over-active imagination. Though it might be unconsciously done, the only pec-flexing Stan would be aimed doing was at Kyle. Kenny hoped so, anyway. The idea of Wendy and Stan together again was just… unpleasant, for reasons which Kenny definitely didn't want to examine too closely.
The walk into town went quickly with Jason Aldean for company on his old iPod, which he was quick to stash when Stan's house came into view. Kyle had said nothing about Cartman, but he took no chances with his new prized possession. Cartman would take it back just to fucking spite him.
He opened the door and walked into the living room without knocking. "'Sup," he said, noting Wendy and Stan's complete non-proximity to each other. Kyle was sandwiched up against Stan on the sofa with Wendy on the floor by the coffee table. Their scripts were all open, Wendy's and Kyle's thickly annotated while Stan's remained suspiciously pristine.
Kenny heard them all issue greetings as he headed straight for the kitchen. The Marsh and Broflovski households were open larders to him, po' boy that he was, and no one ever minded if he ate the last brownie or whatever. Kenny had his pride, but there was no pride in saying no to free food. That wasn't pride, that was just plain stupid.
He gazed forlornly into the refrigerator. Meatloaf leftovers, mash potato, some kid of green vegetable-type sludge… No left-over take-out, otherwise known as the jack-pot. Sighing, he grabbed the meatloaf and potato and dished himself a double helping. With a twitch he reached for the vegetable thing, too. Nutrient deficiency led to health problems, and he was pretty sure he'd never be able to afford that. Prevention was the best cure, right?
While his food reheated he wandered to the garage to dig for soda. The Marsh family usually had an impressive array of drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, and he usually spent his summer with a partial buzz courtesy of Randy Marsh, but he didn't think he should risk a lecture from Wendy so soon after mending their fragile relationship. Soft drinks only, then.
He about to head back to the kitchen with an armful of bottles when he saw Wendy duck out into the hallway, phone pressed against her ear and angry set to her mouth. He stopped before she could see him, hovering in the dark doorway.
"Dad, listen, just—Dad, will you let me talk for a second? I'm not going to Michigan, okay, I don't care how good the program is." She sighed heavily and he could hear the buzz of her father's reply even from the garage doorway. "I know Harvard's competitive, for God's sake. I'm not throwing away my future, I'm just not running away from South Park because you feel guilty!" More buzzing. "Who told you that? Do you have half the town spying on me or something?" She huffed angrily. "Who the hell's business is it if we are friends again? He's not a leper!"
Kenny realised with a sick, sinking feeling exactly who she was talking about.
"You know what, you're embarrassing yourself right now. And yes, I'll talk to you that way until you decide to be the person who was my dad before you became such a judgmental asshole!" she finished in a shout and snapped her phone shut.
Kenny shut the door behind him with more force than necessary and she jumped, pushing her hair behind her ear reflexively.
"Lurk much?" she snapped, and he shrugged.
"It's what we indigent poor do, you know. Hide in dark corners to take advantage of decent, tax-paying Americans."
The corner of her mouth quirked. "Indigent?"
He shrugged again. "Must be osmosing some vocab from Kyle. I think he came out of the womb with an SAT prep book clutched to his chest."
She smiled listlessly back at him before biting her lip and glancing at the floor. "I guess you heard that."
"I hate to break it to you, Wendy, you're not exactly quiet when you're mad."
"Really," she scoffed.
An awkward silence descended on them, and Kenny was trying to work out how to tactfully return to the living room and his lunch when she met his eyes again.
"He's trying to send me away. Covering it up with something about a pre-pre-law program in Grand Rapids. Like some summer program in the middle of nowhere is going to make my application that much better. He just can't stand to look at me, and he hasn't got the balls to tell me."
Kenny had nothing he could think of to reply to that. Well, nothing that wasn't so insensitive that even Cartman would think twice before saying it. Hey, so I know my mom killed yours, and now your life sucks. Sorry about that!
Not gonna cut it.
"I'm sure he just wants what's best for you," he managed finally.
She groaned. "Kenny, the only thing my dad wants is for his life to magically go back to normal, and he can't do that if he has to look at me every day. It's like he wishes I didn't exist, that I'd died, too."
"That's a little harsh," he said, narrowing his eyes. "And not in your normal harsh but true kind of way."
She just shook her head, grabbing a bottle of lemon Fresca from his arms, and started to walk towards the kitchen. "You have no idea."
He trailed after her. Seeing her slam around Stan's kitchen, so comfortable and familiar with everything, knowing what was inside each cupboard and where each thing's place was, made Kenny uncomfortable, like he was intruding on Stan's territory or something. Which was fucking ridiculous, since she'd dumped Stan and he'd seemed pretty over it three days later. He leaned against the counter beside her, crossing his arms, trying to act nonchalant and probably failing.
"Since we're friends again, how about you tell me?" he suggested.
Her eye twitched as she reached for a glass and started pouring herself some Fresca. "I don't know that I can."
He looked away so she wouldn't see him flinch. He was always failing when it came to her, it seemed.
He felt her lay a hand on his arm. "Kenny. I don't… It's hard to talk about. My dad is this whole new person that I don't recognise. It's like when I lost her, I lost him, too," she finished in a said little voice.
Kenny wondered if there was ever going to be a point where he could simply not feel more like shit. It sure as hell wasn't today.
"Look, let's not talk about it," she said with a little shake of her body. "We've got lines to run." She headed back in to the living room. He could hear her asking Stan to run through a scene with her as he trudged into the kitchen to retrieve his food. Stan's mom's meatloaf was usually pretty good, and he hadn't had anything but junk food for a few days.
By the time he walked back into the living room, plate of food and soda bottles balanced precariously, Stan and Wendy were acting out a scene in front of the television and Kyle appeared to be trying to murder his phone, judging by his scowl and how hard he was gripping it.
"But Howard, I don't want to leave you. I simply can't bear to be away from you!" Wendy said, clutching at the collar of her shirt and swooning forwards towards Stan. Kenny raised his eyebrows and sat next to Kyle on the sofa.
Stan touched Wendy's elbow gently. "I know, darling, but damn it, you're too important to risk. If something were to happen to you, well, I could never live with myself."
Kenny tried to catch Kyle's eye but he seemed far too involved with trying to incinerate his phone with his stare.
"Oh, Howard," Wendy murmured, pressing herself up against Stan. Kenny had the sudden urge to kill his own phone. "What will I do without you?"
Kenny chewed thoughtfully, half watching Stan and Wendy embrace dramatically and half watching Kyle. Kyle wound himself tighter with every second, and Kenny just hoped he didn't explode in a self-destructive kind of way. Kyle had a way of screwing himself over in his stubborn bursts of anger at other people.
"I know, Janet. We'll just have to be strong," Stan declared in his ringing voice, holding a shivering Wendy close to him.
Kenny poked Kyle with a bottle of sugar-free root beer, and Kyle grabbed it without looking up from his screen.
"Do you remember when we first met?" Wendy asked. "On the riverbank behind—"
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Kyle finally exploded. "This is the biggest pile of steaming horseshit I've read in my entire life."
Kenny shrugged. "It's pretty moving, I think."
Kyle shot him a dirty look.
"Well, it's not the best, but who knows? It might turn out okay," Stan said.
Kyle looked like he wanted to argue but still had enough sense not to lay into Stan out of his own jealousy. Kenny was relieved. He didn't think he could handle a sulking Kyle this week in addition to everything else.
"Look, let's just head out to the old station, okay?" Wendy suggested. "We'll set up for tonight and do some more practicing." Kyle looked away and muttered something, and Stan nodded for the both of them. Wendy looked at Kenny, and he shrugged.
"Yeah, sure, why not?"
Wendy smiled. "Okay, let's go. Stan, you okay to drive again?"
He smiled. "No problem, Wends."
Kyle and Kenny both flinched, and Kenny hoped Wendy hadn't seen.
Kenny and Wendy took the backseat again, and he felt a weird kind of déjà vu, that everything had gone back to how it was and she'd never said she had forgiven him, that they weren't friends, maybe never had been. But then she looked over at him and rolled her eyes at something Stan and Kyle were bickering about, and the feeling passed.
The insects swarmed them the second they got out of Stan's car, and Kenny had never been happier for Kyle's stereotypical hypochondria as clouds of bug spray choked the air.
"Jesus, Kyle, what else have you got in that backpack?" Stan asked with a laugh, waving his hand to clear it.
Kyle froze like he'd been caught with his hands in the cookie jar, a vague panicked look crossing his face. "Nothing. Just… things I might need. To be prepared. In case."
Kenny grinned. Somehow he thought that among the Tylenol and gauze some condoms and lube were lurking. Just in case.
An hour later, Kenny had had enough of Butters' schmaltzy dialogue to last a lifetime. His sole lines had been, ‘Look out!' and ‘Down by the old mine' so he was feeling irritated and totally expendable, something that hit just a little too close to home.
"Tell me again why this was a better idea than Stark's?" he groaned, lying on his back on the station's platform. The air hung sticky and still. He had stripped down to his wife beater and jeans, his shoes and hoodie lying somewhere between here and Stan's car. Wendy was wearing nothing but shorts and a thin tank top that stuck to her body with sweat, and Kenny had laid back with his arm over his eyes mainly to stop himself from staring.
"Wendy's fault," Kyle replied from under the eaves.
"Hey," she protested weakly, sitting against the old door and flipping through a book that she'd brought, ‘for lulls in the action'. "You didn't exactly argue," she pointed out.
"Fair point," Kyle conceded.
"Jesus, you must be out of it," Stan laughed. "No arguing. You feeling okay?"
"Fuck off, Stan."
Kenny sighed. "When are Butters and Cartman getting here?"
"Not until eight," Wendy replied.
"And what's the time now?" Kenny asked.
Silence descended on them again and Kenny just listened to the sound of the forest. The constant buzz of the bugs was hypnotising, and the sporadic rustle of Wendy's book as she turned a page provided a soothing counterpoint.
"Hey!" Kyle suddenly yelled, and Kenny's heart nearly stopped.
"What the fuck, dude!" he yelled, sitting up and blinking in the bright sunlight. "You scared the hell out of me!"
Kyle just shot him a smart ass grin. "Big bad Kenny afraid of the nerd? Anyway, I had an idea."
Stan grunted, not having moved an inch from his prone position beside Kenny. "Uh oh."
"Shut up. Let's go for a drive."
Kenny raised an eyebrow. "Go for a drive? What are you, Miss Daisy?"
Kyle glared. "No, I mean Stan's car has A/C. Let's just drive and find somewhere to eat."
"You're hungry again?" Wendy asked.
"Yes," Stan, Kyle and Kenny replied in unison.
She sighed, closing her book. "Alright, whatever. I'm in."
"Stan?" Kyle asked.
"Sure, dude," Stan replied. Of course, Kenny scoffed. Stan sat up and stretched, and Kenny was suddenly so angry he could barely see straight. Stan had it so fucking easy, sitting there with his healthy body and stupid hair that always sat right and never stuck out at all angles with no hope of making it look normal. Stan didn't die so often he had a spare room in Satan's mansion. He had Kyle to follow him around like a puppy, no matter what Stan pulled, how many times he dug out the eyeliner and the college-ruled notebooks, or worse, the Jameson. No matter what he did, Kyle was there, and they had each other. Kenny was lucky to be part of the sideshow.
"Kenny?" Kyle finally turned to him.
Kenny shrugged. "I'll tag along."
Kyle bit his lip. "I'll buy you dinner," he said. Kenny felt his eyes twitch as his rage swelled to encompass Kyle. He knew he was poor, Kyle didn't have to rub his face in it.
"Hey, I can buy my own food, alright?" he snapped. "I'm not that fucking poor."
Kyle frowned at him but Kenny looked away. Fuck the both of them, he thought viciously.
They drove to Buena Vista and ate in a kitschy fifties diner. Kenny ordered an extra smoked pork burger just to piss Kyle off, wanting to make a point and not quite sure what that point was. Atmosphere hung low on their little booth and they all seemed to not be able to look at each other, Kyle pissed at Wendy on general principal and Stan by association and Kenny pissed at Kyle and Stan, and Stan and Wendy just sitting there looking bewildered at the whole thing.
By the time they'd eaten their weight in mid-century nostalgia and drunk enough malt to satisfy even Cartman (apart from Wendy and her green tea), even the waitress had toned down her peppy routine under the effect of the tension. She brought their separate checks without a word, and the silence followed them into the car and back to the mountain.
Cartman and Butters were waiting for them.
"Might I ask where the fuck you assholes have been?" Cartman yelled.
"Eating," Stan replied. "You should know about that, fatass."
"Can we just get this over with?" Kenny snapped, snatching the boom mike from Kyle as he unloaded Stan's trunk. Kyle shot him a hurt look and Kenny stomped towards the station house. Rage pumped through him and he was too close to punching someone for his own comfort. They all had it so fucking easy. All of them.
"Hurry up, assholes, I wanna catch the sunset," Cartman was saying, Butters flitting around like a hummingbird with his makeup palette. Wendy was remaining un-zombie-fied for tonight's scene, the goodbye they'd been practicing in Stan's living room. Kenny hoped it would be less boring than the night before.
"Here, put this on," Cartman barked, throwing an armful of clothes at Stan and Wendy.
She held the dress up and looked at Cartman suspiciously. "How do you know it'll fit me?"
"I asked the chick for skinny hippie size, that's how!"
By the time the camera had been set up and Wendy and Stan were standing in position, the sky had bloomed golden and orange, streaks of colour ripping through the atmosphere overhead. Kenny set his mouth in a tight line. Stupid fucking sunset.
"We'll just have to be strong," Stan was saying, holding Wendy to him. His sleeves had been rolled up and she tucked just under his chin like she'd been moulded for it. Kenny's hands tightened on the boom.
"Do you remember when we first met? On the riverbank behind the stables? You looked so dashing, standing there all wet and dripping."
Stan chuckled. "I was so embarrassed for you to see me like that. The mayor's daughter!"
She sighed brokenly, nuzzling her face into Stan's shirt as if to hide the tears on her face. "That day was the first day I ever felt like this."
"Like what?" Stan asked, barely above a whisper.
She pulled her face away from his chest, looking up at him like her heart was breaking. "When God created me, he put part of me in you. My whole life I'd been looking for that part, without even knowing anything was missing, but as soon as I saw you my soul leapt for it. My heart knew you before I even knew your name. If you send me away, if I have to leave you, I'm so worried that something will take you from me, and I'll never be able to piece myself back together. We're part of each other, Howard. You have to know that!" she finished, clutching Stan's collar desperately, her eyes shining with tears painted golden in the light of the setting sun.
Kenny swallowed thickly, and saw Stan's throat bob as he did the same.
"Nothing could keep us apart, Janet. Nothing," Stan replied, taking her by the shoulders.
"But… if you die…" Wendy said, her voice breaking.
"Not even death," Stan assured her, cupping her cheek and leaning in. Their lips met in a gentle kiss and Kenny could see Wendy's eyes flutter closed.
Kenny jumped. He looked over at Kyle, who had buried his face in the camera bag so deeply he was almost wearing it.
"That was great, guys!" Butters cried, leaping forward to grab Wendy and Stan around their necks in a manic hug. "You've really connected with my material, I'm so impressed, it's like you really are two lovers in this doomed situation, oh, boy I'm so happy."
Kenny sidled over to Kyle, keeping one eye on Cartman, who was blustering at Stan and Wendy and Butters, trying to hide that he was impressed.
"You okay, dude?" he asked lowly.
Kyle pulled his head out of the bag and turned away from the scene so the others couldn't see his face. Kenny could. Kyle looked wrecked, on the verge of tears and seconds from losing it. Kyle always seemed indestructible, maybe even more than Kenny, an irrepressible force of nature that would take the world by storm and hold it ransom if that's what he thought was right.
Right now he looked like he could barely hold his insides in.
"Hey guys, Kyle and I have to change some of the lights, okay?" Kenny called over to the others, not even waiting for a response before he grabbed Kyle and pulled him down the station's steps and around the back. Kyle followed, so uncharacteristically compliant and obedient that Kenny's worry escalated.
"Dude?" Kenny asked quietly.
Kyle looked up at Kenny. "I feel like I'm dying," he said, voice choking a little.
"Dude, they're just acting—"
"Do you really believe that?" Kyle asked. Kenny hesitated, and Kyle smiled sadly. "That's what I thought."
Kenny tried to find his usual ready smart assed remark, anything to take that broken look off Kyle's face. But there was nothing. Stan and Wendy, standing there in the sunset saying those things to each other…
"They belong in a movie," Kyle whispered. "It's inevitable, I told you. They're going to happen. We're just kidding ourselves thinking that we'll get them."
Kenny shook his head. "I never thought I'd get her," he said. He tried so hard not to think about it, to tell himself that he didn't want it, but Kenny had never been good at lying to himself.
"But you hoped," Kyle replied, starting to cry. "Just like I did, that maybe Stan would want me. You hoped you could be good enough for her, that maybe she'd forget just how much better she could do and see you how you see her."
"Kyle, he does see you—"
"Spare me," Kyle replied, wiping his face and trying to stop. "You saw what I saw."
"I saw Wendy pour her heart out, not Stan."
Kyle didn't argue, and Kenny was officially worried. Stan had been right earlier. Kyle not arguing was unnatural.
"Look, Kyle, I'm sorry about before. I was a dick."
Kyle just shrugged, looking totally drained and an inch from just collapsing. "I get it, dude. Don't worry about it."
"Ay, you assholes ever coming back to film the next scene?" Cartman yelled. The light had faded and the stars had started to peek out at them as Kenny and Kyle returned to the platform. Kenny was glad, for Kyle's sake, that the light had faded.
"Zombie time, Kyle!" Butters said, bounding up to them as Kyle and Kenny mounted the stairs.
Kyle followed Butters to his makeup station without a word, and Kenny saw Stan frown questioningly at him. Kenny shrugged back at him, not even enough energy for his usual matchmaking antics.
Wendy was reviewing the take on the camera when Kenny walked up.
"Was it okay, Kenny?" she asked, crouched over the camera and chewing her lip.
"Yeah, it was good," he said, fiddling with the boom for something to do.
"I've been taking drama this year, and it's been so much fun," she said, straightening and brushing her dress off.
"Yeah?" he said finally when he realised she was waiting for him to reply. She gave him a curious look and he was working out an appropriate brush off when Cartman yelled.
Kenny turned to look at what the fat ass was pointing at. On the other side of the valley a light flickered through the trees, and he realised that the insects had gone silent, a rumbling sound taking their place.
"What is it?" Wendy asked.
"A fucking train, hippie! Kyle, get behind the goddamn camera, we need to catch this. Stan, Wendy, positions! We're gonna re-shoot the farewell, remember, talk loud!" Cartman raced around the platform, more energetic than Kyle could remember seeing him since the leprechaun fiasco.
The light of the train began to curve around toward them. As Wendy and Stan began their scene, Kenny stared at it, transfixed. He hadn't thought anyone even used this old train line. Besides, why would a train be running at ten at night?
"If something were to happen to you, well, I could never live with myself."
The train was going faster now. The light flickered faster between the trees, bearing down on them. A second light at the corner of his eye caught his attention and he turned.
"Oh, Howard. What will I do without you?"
There was another light coming down the mountain from above them. Kenny strained his neck to see it. It bounced around erratically, curving to and fro in a haphazard zigzag. The train chugged steadily onward towards the station.
"I know, Janet. We'll just have to be strong."
The light coming down the mountain was two lights, Kenny realised. Car headlights, but brighter than normal. Some kind of truck?
"Do you remember when we first met? On the riverbank behind the stables?"
The headlights stopped swerving, aiming straight down the mountain as they breached the edge of the forest and the truck rocketed out into the open.
"The mayor's daughter!"
It hit the gravel on the mountainside, going at least a hundred. The gravel went nearly straight down towards the railway, just to the side of the stationhouse, and the train was nearly there.
"That day was the first day I ever felt like this."
The truck was going to hit the train full tilt, right in front of them.
"FUCK!" Kenny yelled, and they turned to him even as the truck hit a hidden rock and flew through the air. The train's horn blared and he thought he heard Wendy scream.
The truck hit the engine compartment. The explosion started small but gained momentum quickly, fire ripping through the air and stealing the breath from Kenny's lungs. Heat hit his face and the air smelled bitter. Vaguely he heard the others yelling at him to run, but he was stuck, hypnotised. The conflagration ballooned upwards and outwards, setting compartment by compartment alight. The train concertinaed as if in slow motion, reaching a teetering equilibrium before it started to slide down the mountain.
"KENNY!" he heard Wendy yell the second before he felt her hand on his arm, yanking him away. She pulled him down the stairs and behind the stationhouse even as pieces of white-hot metal and flaming rubber started to rain down around them. He came back to himself and grabbed her hand, overtaking her and pulling her with him as they sprinted for the tree line. Cartman and Butters were already huddled behind a log and Stan vaulted over it, Kyle close behind.
Kenny felt Wendy stumble and didn't think, just turned and scooped her up without breaking his stride. He ran for the others, feeling her breath pant against his neck, his own pulse hammering in his ears. A sheet of metal hit the ground barely two feet from him and Wendy shook in his arms.
By the time he reached the log and leapt over it, finding energy and strength he never knew he had, it felt like years had passed. He kept an arm over Wendy as they watched the stationhouse go up in flames, rubble raining down like a volcano, all of them too shaken to say a thing.
When the explosions had stopped and the fire had razed the old stationhouse to the ground, Cartman said quietly, "Please tell me one of you assholes grabbed the camera."
"Camera?" Kenny asked. "Did you see those explosions? Fuck me, that had to have been napalm or TEA or something major. Man, I would kill to get my hands on some of that, I could level a town—"
"Seriously?" Kyle shrieked, standing up and pointing a trembling finger at him. "That's your comment right now? Not that we just nearly fucking died? It's how you can do that again?!"
"Hey, dude," Stan said, petting Kyle's calf distractedly, "we're all okay."
Kenny stood up, pulling Wendy with him since it seemed that they were still holding hands. Huh.
Stan resorted to drastic measures. "Kyle, calm the fuck down, you're channelling your mother right now."
Kyle's eye twitched but his mouth snapped shut.
Cartman pushed himself up off the dirt and pulled a trembling Butters out from under his jacket. "Well, Kyle, you're gonna have to buy me a new camera. Fuck, Butters, don't be a fag."
Butters just mewled pitifully and pawed at him as Cartman tried to fend him off.
Kyle rounded on his new target. "Why the fuck would I buy you a new camera?"
"It's your fault my old one's gone."
Kyle goggled, his eyes standing out especially well thanks to the grime covering his face. "What?"
Cartman shrugged like it was obvious. "You didn't grab it when we ran."
"What the hell happened?" Stan asked, stopping Kyle mid-conniption with a hand on his shoulder, brushing his other hand off on his jeans. Kenny didn't know why he bothered; they were all covered in soot and dirt, their eyes white spots in dirty faces like badly done panda makeup.
"Fuck if I know," Cartman mumbled, having given up on deflecting Butters and letting the other boy cling to him. Kyle smirked at him and drew a love-heart around them in the air with his fingers. "Fuck you, Kyle."
Wendy pulled her hand out of Kenny's and he turned. She scrambled over the log and started running towards the smouldering rubble.
"Wendy, wait!" Stan yelled. Kenny swore and started after her.
"Wendy, there might be some stuff that hasn't exploded yet, we've got to get away," Kyle was shouting.
Kenny nearly ran into her in the sooty orange light. She stood at the edge of the plateau in front of the ruins of the station, looking down on the valley below.
The train lay in pieces scattered all over the mountain's slope, trees and fuel and whatever else still burning. The carriages were split open, metal torn like tissue paper, some barely recognisable as anything but rubble. It was like the end of the world, air stinging his eyes and making his throat burn with the horrible acrid stench as he breathed.
And everywhere, littering the scene, strange little purple spheres.
One was laying right by his foot, and he kicked it absently. It made a faint goop sound as it rolled, wobbling and shivering, before it rolled to a stop and reformed.
"What are they?" Wendy whispered, crouching to examine one. He shook his head, staring as she poked it with a stick. It acted like formless goo, offering no resistance as she prodded the stick inside, but when she tugged it out it returned to a perfect sphere, and the stick was as dry as it had been before it touched it.
"Weird," Kenny murmured, trying to remember what he knew about non-Newtonian liquids, and if any were purple.
Kenny turned to see Kyle and Stan wander up, shoulders bumping as they walked.
Kyle looked shell-shocked as he surveyed the destruction, and Stan had the stone faced stoic expression that he only used when things were seriously fucked up.
"Accidents like this are super rare, you know," Kyle said vaguely, like this factoid was being offered up against his will.
Kenny shook his head. "It wasn't an accident."
Stan looked sick. "What?"
"There was a car, a truck, it hit the train," Kenny said, shaking his head and trying to sort through the panicked images of before the train hit.
"On the tracks?" Wendy asked, brow furrowing.
"No, it came down the mountain, from up there," Kenny replied, pointing to where he'd first seen the light while searching the rubble for—"There!"
He was off before the others could stop him, skidding down the slope towards the remnants of the truck's cab. He heard Kyle yelling, but he didn't slow. Something propelled him forward, something that told him this was even fucking weirder than he thought.
The truck's cab was a mangled wreck, half gone, and the other half twisted and barely recognisable. Something was slumped over the steering wheel and Kenny skidded to a stop at the window.
It was a body. A bald head and a hideous Hawaiian shirt was still visible under the blood, and Kenny knew who it was instantly.
"Doctor Mephesto?" he asked, sure he was dead, grabbing him by the shoulder. The man's hand dropped from the steering wheel, a piece of paper falling from his grip. Kenny reached for it cautiously, years of horror movies and countless deaths having taught him that this was the perfect set up for a shit-your-pants moment.
He smoothed the paper open and squinted at it.
"What is it?"
Kenny jumped about a foot in the air.
"Sorry!" Wendy said, reaching for his arm and trying not to giggle.
"Shouldn't you be up on the hill clutching your pearls?" he snapped. She rolled her eyes and swiped the paper from him.
She frowned, fingers tracing the numbers and letters absently. "It's some kind of… code? Sequence? It looks familiar somehow."
Kenny nodded. "Yeah, I thought so. Like, a schedule? Or something?"
She snapped her fingers. "It's a train schedule. He must have been following this train."
Kenny raised an eyebrow. "Why the fuck would he do that? There are less complicated and fucking crazy ways to kill yourself."
"This is Doctor Mephesto," she said.
Her eyes widened and jaw dropped at the same instant as Kenny heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked.
"Turn around. Slowly."
He turned, hands raised, to see the Doctor's bloody, smashed in face staring at him.
"Get out of here," Doctor Mephesto rasped. "Run, and tell nobody. If you do, your parents, your friends… you'll all die."
Kenny started to shake his head, to offer to help, when a warning shot zipped past his ear. "Go!"
Kenny ran up the hill, pushing Wendy ahead of him, as bullets started hitting the mountainside, some missing them by a foot or even less.
"What the fuck?" Stan yelled, and Kenny heard Wendy screaming back to start the car, to get out of there, just fucking go, and Kenny couldn't think of anything but going up and away from the bleeding lunatic with the gun. They hit the flat ground, the adrenaline roaring in his ears, and Stan pulled his Honda up in front of them. Wendy yanked open the door and he threw himself in after her, barely even registering landing on top of her before she was wrapping her arms around him and clinging to him and he was clinging back and they were shaking and bleeding but alive. Wendy smelled like smoke and sweat and gunpowder and he just shut his eyes and breathed her in.
South Park was no stranger to the military. Growing up it seemed to Kenny like every few weeks there was some disaster or conspiracy that had the Army or FEMA or Blackwater or what-the-fuck-ever occupying the streets, menacing the residents and generally being annoying. So when Kenny was woken before dawn by loud rumbling and looked out of his window only to see a convoy of black, heavily-tinted SUVs rolling down his street, he was anything but shocked.
He turned away and went back to bed.
The sun rose and started to shine into Kenny's room through the torn sheet he had tacked up on his window as a curtain substitute. By seven o'clock, he'd already received ten texts from Kyle about his theories on the new military presence in town, ranging from rambling to incensed, demanding Kenny's input. Around eight Stan chimed in, presumably egged on by his Super Best Butt Buddy. Kenny just turned his phone off and threw it at the pile of clothes at the foot of his bed.
He drifted somewhere between sleeping and waking. In a nightmare dreamscape that he couldn't escape, wailing shadows reached up to suck him under as he squirmed, trying to shout as nothing came out. The train crash happened over and over in his mind, but the carriage veered and hit them, and he watched his friends go up in flames as he was helpless to stop it. Dr Mephesto's mangled face morphed into Stan, Kyle, Butters, until finally it was Wendy in that truck, body broken and bleeding, lifeless eyes lit by fire.
He came to with a jolt to see Kyle bending over him with a frazzled expression, hair even more wild than usual. His eyes were puffy with dark bags underneath them, and Kenny would have been surprised if Kyle had slept more than two hours that night.
"Why aren't you answering any of my texts?" Kyle demanded and Kenny wished fervently that his door had a lock.
"Because I'm asleep," he shot back. "Or at least, I was." He shoved Kyle away, sitting up with a groan. His body ached like he was hung over, and hysterical Kyle was the last thing he felt like dealing with. He looked around for Stan, Kyle's inevitable shadow. "Couldn't you have held him back?" Kenny asked.
Stan shrugged, leaning against Kenny's bedroom door, arms crossed and a tolerant look on his face. "Hey, you're lucky he waited till now, he wanted to come get you as soon as those uniforms starting rolling into town."
"Weak," Kenny groaned, flopping back onto his mattress and grabbing a pillow to lay over his face. Maybe if he just pretended he couldn't hear them, they'd go away.
"Besides," Stan continued, "If I have to be up and dealing with the paranoia machine, so do you."
"Shut up," Kyle snapped. "Kenny, get dressed. We're going back to the crash site."
That had Kenny bolt upright. "We're what now?"
Kyle was rooting through Kenny's pile of clothes with a look of disgust. "God, don't you know how to use a washer, dude? Sick."
"Can we leave my personal hygiene aside and return to the fact that you're completely unhinged?" Kenny asked, casting Stan a look for support, who merely shrugged and looked away.
Kyle threw a faded Raging Pussies shirt and another pair of Stan's old jeans at Kenny's head. "I'm not crazy, we need to see what's going on if we're going to be a step ahead."
Kenny pulled the shirt on for the sake of focusing the argument. "A step ahead? Of what?"
"The government," Kyle replied, like it was the most obvious thing ever.
Kenny stared at him. "The government. Of course."
"Come on, Kenny," Stan said and Kenny turned to stare at him instead. "We've done this before. Somehow they're going to find out it was us up there, and they're going to come after us, and it's all going to end badly unless we stay ahead of them and play it out the way we want it to."
"‘They?' Are you high? Did you guys spend last night dropping acid and reading ‘Conspiracy Theories for Dummies'?"
Kyle clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "You know I'm right. How many times has this kind of thing happened in South Park?"
"I don't think-"
"Even the goddamn History Channel locked us up! Over turkeys! And stuffing!" Kyle yelled. "Since when does the History Channel have a military wing? This is something serious! I don't want to spend my last summer before college being probed and studied in fucking Virginia."
Kyle's eyes had taken on the crazed tinge that Kenny knew to associate with either upcoming exams or a particularly wacky Cartman-plot. With a look like that Kenny was retroactively impressed that Stan had kept Kyle from rousing the whole town into a frenzy. "How do you know it's CIA?"
Kyle let out an exasperated breath, starting to pace up and down Kenny's room. "I don't, Kenny, but the point is that we need to come up with a plan, and we need information to do that, and to get information we need to go back to that crash site."
Kenny rubbed his head, feeling a headache coming on. And it wasn't even fucking ten o'clock yet. "Okay, so assuming we get there. What are we looking for?"
Kyle sighed, as if Kenny were asking the world's stupidest question. "Clues."
"So if I see Colonel Mustard and a candlestick, we're all sorted."
Kyle glared. "Do you have a better idea?"
Kenny was about to snap back before a jolt ran through his body. "Yes, actually."
Kyle's eyebrows shot up. "Wait, really?"
Kenny nodded. "Yeah. Go get Butters and meet me at the school. In the back, near the basketball court."
"Are you going to explain this wonderful idea you're having?" Kyle said bitchily, crossing his arms and cocking his hip.
Kenny grinned, relishing the feeling of leaving Kyle in the dark for once. "Nope."
Kyle drew himself up and was about to explode when Stan grabbed his hand to tug him away from Kenny. Kyle deflated instantly, eyes suddenly glued to Stan's hand around his.
"C'mon, dude, let's just do what he says," Stan said, pulling a suddenly-pliant Kyle after him.
Kenny rolled his eyes, reaching for his phone and turning it on. One of these days, he was going to lock the two of them in a room with some lube and not let them out until they'd fucked. Seriously.
He still knew the number by heart, and he just hoped she would answer.
"Hey, Wendy. Can you come get me? There's something we have to do."
"I'll explain on the way, Kyle's freaking out."
"He's not the only one. What the hell was that last night?"
"Fuck if I know. Look, can you come?"
"Yeah, on my way. Bye."
Kenny rushed around his room, collecting everything he'd need so he could pace outside until she arrived. Like hell he was letting her anywhere inside the house. His mom was usually unconscious until at least noon, but he wasn't taking any chances. Wendy and his mom in the same room was something Kenny really didn't like thinking about. The last time had been one of the worst days of his life, even if he hadn't been there, too busy brooding and getting as high as possible. His mom had stumbled into the Testaburger house during the wake and fallen on Wendy like a drunken, weeping limpet. It had taken Stan and Kyle almost a half hour to detach her, leaving Wendy white-faced and shaking. Not that his friends would have ever have let him find out if they could help it. Craig had filled him in, smirking the whole time like the bastard he was.
By the time Wendy rolled up in her dad's SUV, Kenny had almost worn a groove in the pavement. He jumped in and she sped away like she could read his mind.
"You gonna share this master plan now? Kyle's been on my ass since the second I got off the phone with you," she said, shooting him a half-serious glare.
He gave her a cocky grin in reply. "What can I say, winding Kyle up is one of my hobbies."
"Yeah, well, at least he likes you."
"He doesn't dislike you…"
"Oh, please," she scoffed. "As far as he's concerned I do nothing but ogle Stan and plot ways to make his and Kyle's lives hell. I may as well have a top hat and a moustache to twirl. I'm a comic book supervillain to him."
He felt a dreamy smile plaster itself on his face as the image of Wendy in a comic book costume flooded his mind. Thigh high boots, pink beret jauntily askew, the world's tiniest spandex shorts, yellow, of course, and a purple tank top that she was practically bursting out of...
"Kenny!" she shrieked with a whack to his head. Fuck, he'd forgotten what an arm she had on her. "Have you been listening to a thing I've said?"
Shit. "Of course!"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You were imagining me as a supervillain, weren't you?"
Kenny was adrift, still half-immersed in admiring dream-comic-Wendy, and he didn't shut himself up fast enough. "You should be flattered. Everyone would buy that comic."
She slapped his shoulder again with a growl. "Kenny, what have I told you about objectifying women like that? The comic book industry is a bastion of anti-feminist rhetoric and continues to promote harmful portrayals of women, reducing female worth to a basic aesthetic–"
Kenny sighed quietly and resigned himself to trying to tune her out for the rest of the drive. By the time they pulled into the high school's parking lot, he had heard more about sexism in the comic book industry than he had ever wanted to know.
The weirdest part was that some inner corner of him was giddy with relief. He hadn't been on the receiving end of a Wendy-rant in too long. Watching her get herself all riled up and passionate, spouting statistics and studies and whatever-the-hell else she used to terrify opposing debate teams into submission…. Well, it was hot.
The others were sprawled on the grass by the basketball court. Stan and Kyle's faces were even closer than usual and Kenny held in a smirk. Butters leaned back on Cartman's side. Butters stood up when he saw them coming. He looked awful, hair even more untidy than usual, and his eyes, normally so obnoxiously bright, were dull and listless.
"Shit, dude. You feeling okay?"
Butter shook his head miserably. "I didn't sleep a whisker last night. I tried warm milk, I tried singing to myself, I even tried counting sheep like that feller on the TV. Nothing," he finished with something close to a sob. Wendy tutted and gave him a hug.
"Why's he here?" Kenny asked, giving the fatass a kick in the side.
"Ay! Fuck you, Kenny, it's my movie."
Stan sat up with a sigh. "He was with Butters. What were we gonna do, ditch him?"
"Oh, if only," Kyle said, not moving from his spot on the grass, with a wistful look towards Cartman.
Cartman sneered. "Like you could. I'm the brains of this whole fucking outfit. You'd be lost without me."
"I'd risk it," Kyle said flatly.
Kenny suddenly felt exhausted. And they didn't even know his plan yet. "Guys, can you just not for, like, one fucking day?"
Kyle finally sat up and fixed Kenny with a dirty look, like Cartman was somehow all his fault. "Tell us what the hell we're doing here and not looking for clues, then."
"Yeah, Yoda. Share with the padawans," Wendy said, earning herself a baleful look from Cartman.
"While I'm sure even a hippie ho can grasp the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, what the hell is she doing here?" Cartman asked, crossing his arms.
"Environmentalist, Eric. And you're the one who asked me to do this stupid movie," Wendy snapped. She and Cartman advanced towards each other like dogs circling for a fight.
"Yeah, because Red said no," Cartman panted as he slowly worked his way up to a standing position, "and you'd do anything to be out in the wilderness with four strapping specimens of masculinity, right, ho? Got you all lubed up. Except for Kyle, of course."
"There is not a drug in the world that could turn you into a masculine specimen, asshole!" Wendy replied. "Kyle is Schwarzenegger next to you."
Kyle's eyebrows shot up and Kenny tried not to grin.
"I'm sorry, is your tampon degrading while still wedged up your vagina?" Cartman asked conversationally. "That would explain the amount of fucking garbage you're spewing."
Stan pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. Kyle patted his shoulder absently, absorbed in the fight. Wendy had always been the only other one to go up against Cartman like Kyle.
"That is so disgusting and offensive I don't know where to start," Wendy snapped.
"Of course not, my argument is flawless."
Wendy's hands flexed like claws. "Cartman, so help me God, I will pound you into the fucking dirt if you don't start acting like a goddamn human being."
"Ha! I'd like to see you try with your feeble oestrogen fuelled body."
Stan stepped forward and put a hand on Wendy's shoulder. The second he touched her she relaxed slightly, like he was human valium.
"Hey, Wends, he's a dick. You know it, I know it, I think even he knows it. Let it go, we've got bigger fish to fry." He looked at Kenny. "Right, dude?"
Kenny didn't look at him, just nodded. "Right."
Cartman sneered. "Gonna share this brilliant plan, ‘po boy?"
Kenny faced Kyle, wanting to see his face. "We're going to break into the school."
Kyle's skin went red and then white, like someone had just asked him to turn his mother into kosher bratwurst. The others were sharing confused glances, and Kenny could see Butters rubbing his fists together.
"Oh, nutsack," he muttered, sounding resigned.
"Excuse me?" hissed Kyle.
Kenny couldn't hold in the shit-eating grin. "You heard me."
"Dude, is this really the time for a prank?" Stan asked.
Kenny let out something like a laugh. "Nope, it's time for science," he said.
"For science?" Stan replied, drawing the words out like he was struggling to remember what they meant.
Kenny couldn't help but relish the moment for a few seconds before he reached into his pocket, pulling out the little baggie he had stuffed there. One of the weird gelatinous purple balls quivered in the plastic. Everyone went still and stared.
"Isn't that from the crash?" Wendy asked, stepping close to giving it a poke.
"Yeah," he replied, "and it's a clue. Like Kyle said. If we can figure out what the hell it is, maybe we can figure out where it came from, and what the fuck we should do now." He looked at Kyle. "So, dude? How's my plan?"
Kyle rolled his eyes dramatically, but Kenny saw a smile playing with the corners of his mouth. "Hey, far be it for me to stand in the way of you with felony on the brain. It'd be like holding back an avalanche."
"Please, this is a misdemeanour at best," Kenny scoffed. He looked at Stan and raised his eyebrows.
Stan shrugged. "Well, if we're going to break in to somewhere, you and Cartman are the experts."
Cartman scoffed. "Please. I was breaking into places long before Mysterion got his gay on."
Kenny scratched his chin thoughtfully. "And which one of us took a photo of another boy's dick in his mouth, again?"
Butters sent Kenny a doleful look. "That was a long time ago, Kenny. Eric doesn't go near my wiener, now," he said, and he sounded so sad about it that an awkward pause descended.
"Okay!" Wendy finally announced, too loudly. "How do we do this?"
Kenny shrugged. "Easy. The window lock on the south side of the science block doesn't work. We go in there."
She narrowed her eyes. "How do you know that?"
Kenny grinned. "Duh. I broke it."
Wendy sighed and Kyle shook his head. "How are you on track for the science prize again?" Kyle asked balefully.
Kenny's grin just widened. "I'm just smarter than you."
"Yeah fucking right."
Cartman strode into the centre of the loose circle they had formed. "C'mon artards, can we get this show on the road? Some of us have more important things to do."
Kyle rolled his eyes at Stan, who looked down to hide his grin.
"Feel free to piss off, fatass," Kenny said, starting towards the science block. Wendy fell in beside him and bumped his shoulder with hers.
"Like I can trust any of you to do this right," Cartman scoffed. "You fucked up my film."
"How the hell was that train our fault?" Stan asked.
"I meant about Kyle leaving the goddamn camera to get melted. I'm so seriously, Jew, you owe me a camera!"
"Suck it, fatass,' Kyle replied without missing a beat.
The window was unlocked, just as Kenny knew it would be, and he boosted himself up onto the windowsill to twist through the gap, like he'd done so many times before. Early on into his love affair with explosives, he'd figured out that doing the preparation in a lab with beakers and Bunsen burners, as opposed to trying muddle through in his kitchen with Tupperware and a temperamental stove, resulted in fewer fuck ups in the field. Soon he found himself spending most of his free time in the middle school laboratories, and those in the high school after that.
He used to bring Karen here on weekends or after school before Kevin got locked up, when his brother had smoked too much meth and was just dying to hit someone smaller than him. They'd bring their homework and do it on the floor, and Kenny would let the biology classroom's rabbit out for her to play with. Sometimes he used the Bunsen burners to cook them food, and he'd smile when the teachers would mutter about the room smelling like packet mac and cheese.
"Hey, Kenny, pull me up?"
Kenny shook himself out of his memories and reached down to grab Butters' arm. He weighed next to nothing and Kenny felt absurdly macho as he manhandled him through the window. Stan came up next, and as he pulled Kyle, Wendy and even Cartman up Kenny felt that manly feeling fade.
Kyle hopped from one foot to the other nervously, looking around the lab like Barbrady was going to leap out from behind a plastic skeleton at any second. "If this goes on my permanent file I will hurt you, Kenny. Your pain will know no bounds," he said.
"Yeah, whatever. Can you fetch the microscope? The big-ass one in Ledger's room," Kenny said, already hunting through this cupboards for slides and a scalpel.
He could hear Kyle's grumbling all the way down the hall.
"Is he in a worse mood than usual today?" he heard Wendy ask Stan.
"Yeah, he hates this stuff. You know, breaking the law," Stan replied.
"But you fellers do this all the time," Butters said. "Go up against somethin' for the good of everyone else."
Stan shrugged. "He hates, like, injustice even more. You know Kyle, he can't sit by and watch bad things happen." He gave Cartman a dark look.
Cartman assumed his choirboy expression. "Why, whatever could you possibly mean by looking at me so accusingly, Stanley? I am an upstanding citizen."
"Yeah fucking right," Kyle snapped as he entered the room, Ledger's huge microscope almost bending him double.
"Shit, dude, give me that," Stan said, rushing forward to grab it. Kyle relinquished it with a groan, and stared up at Stan worshipfully. Kenny wondered if Stan had some sort of developmental disorder that prevented him from understanding those looks. Even the least inter-personally fluent person could translate them to, ‘Please let me suck your dick'.
"Where do you want it, Kenny?" Stan asked, and Kenny gestured vaguely to a work bench.
"Wendy, could you set it up?" Kenny asked. She smiled, a little oddly, and started plugging it in to the power. He sat down at another bench, scalpel and other supplies at the ready, and pulled the blob out of his pocket.
Everyone but Wendy gathered around to stare at it.
"What do you think it is?" Butters asked, almost whispering.
"Fuck if I know," Kenny muttered, pulling on a surgical glove.
"Do you think it's non-Newtonian liquid?" Kyle wondered, giving it a poke through the plastic.
Stan frowned. "It's not a liquid, even I can see that."
Kenny grinned and Kyle looked like he couldn't decide to be annoyed or just charmed.
"What?" Stan demanded. Kenny carefully pulled the blob out of the baggie and set it into the metal dish.
"Nothing," Kyle replied. "So you gonna sample it?"
"Yeah," Kenny said, setting the slide and cover glass up in easy reach. Wendy finished with the microscope and slid into the seat next to him. "I'm thinking wet mount? Just tap water."
Butters nodded. "I guess, till we know if it's osmotically sensitive."
Cartman sighed. "Can we get on with the fucking science?"
Butters gave him a fond look. "This is science, Eric."
"And you complain when I don't go to chem," he grumbled.
"Alright, I'm gonna slice it now," Kenny said.
Wendy handed him the scalpel. "If we explode it's all your fault," she said, smiling.
He grinned back. "Hey, isn't it normally?" Readying the scalpel he placed a gloved hand over the blob. It was strangely warm, and it seemed to reach up to cradle his fingers, like it wanted to surround them.
He cut into the blob in a smooth, efficient stroke, and nothing. It didn't seem to have been cut at all, with less of a ripple than a scalpel through water.
"What the…" Wendy muttered next to him.
Kenny cut it again, and again nothing happened.
"Seriously?" Kyle said.
"Give me that," snapped Cartman. "Can't get a fag to do a man's job." He swiped the scalpel down and again the blob didn't even seem to notice that it had been cut.
"It this normal?" Stan asked.
"Fuck, no," said Kenny. "Kyle, you know what's going on?"
Kyle shook his head. "Creepy ass stuff, dude."
"Maybe we can pinch some off," Wendy suggested.
"Yeah," Butters agreed, and Kenny reached down to take the blob between his fingers. It slid up and round them, embracing them like old friends, his fingers suddenly second-knuckle deep in weird, unpleasantly warm goo. His face twisted into a grimace. "Fuck this is weird," he grunted, and started to pinch a piece between his fingers and thumb.
It slithered out from his grasp.
"The fuck!" Stan shouted.
"Dude," Kyle murmured, eyes locked on the purple blob.
Kenny tried again, quicker and more aggressively, but the second he thought he had a piece of the stuff it disappeared, reattaching to the main blob like it had never been apart.
"Okay, this is getting weird," Wendy said. "I've never heard of matter acting like that. Guys?"
Kenny shook his head. "Hell, no. Non-Newtonian or not, this shit is not normal."
Butters nodded. "I don't know what the heck kind of stuff just… reforms like that. That's not like anything I've ever heard of!"
Stan frowned. "So we don't know what the hell it is, and we can't get a sample to find out?"
Kenny looked at Wendy, Kyle and Butters in turn. They all shrugged helplessly.
"The fuck if I know," Kyle said. "And what the hell was it doing on that train?"
Butters shivered. "That train gave me the willies."
Wendy raised an eyebrow. "Before or after it blew up?"
"Before," Butters replied, like he hadn't noticed the sarcasm. "I saw that emblem on the side of the carriages and it just looked evil."
Stan's head shot around. "Wait, Butters, you saw an emblem? Like who that train belonged to?"
Butters frowned. "Didn't you fellers see it, too?"
"No, we were busy filming!" Cartman snapped. "A totally wasted effort, thanks to Kyle."
"Suck my balls, Cartman!"
"Butters, do you think you could draw it?" Stan asked.
"Well, sure, though I'm not all that great at drawing," Butters replied. Stan and Kyle shared a look and Kyle went straight for the teacher's desk. He grabbed a pen and paper and gave it to Butters.
"Just do your best," Stan said when Butters gave them all a nervous glance.
He nodded and put the pen to the paper. It became clear fairly quickly that he'd been lying when he claimed to be bad at drawing; the train he sketched out in a few quick moves was startlingly accurate. The corrugated surface of the train's carriages grew out of the bare lines as they watched, and they rusted with another flick of Butters' wrist.
"Get to the fucking logo, Butters!"
They were all startled as Cartman snapped, but Butters just rolled his eyes and added a few angular strokes to the side of the carriages.
"There. That's what I saw."
Kenny tilted his head. Was that… no, that was crazy.
"Uh… does that look like the triforce to anyone else?" Stan asked.
"Oh, it's not just me," Kyle said, sounding relieved. "I thought the lack of sleep was fucking with me for a second."
"What's the triforce?" Wendy asked, and Stan and Kyle glared at her. "Jeez, never mind, god," she muttered, backing away with her hands up.
"It's from a video game," Butters said. "And I swear that's what I saw."
Cartman rolled his eyes and cracked his neck. "Jesus, Butters, this is the kinda shit I expect from the ‘po boy. Maybe you were high last night."
"Fuck off, fat ass. Butters, seriously, why the hell would the triforce be on a train with weird science shit inside it?"
Butters shrugged angrily. "I don't know, Kyle, ask them! You told me to draw what I saw and I did. I don't know what the heck you want me to say."
Kenny was about to change the subject when the lights suddenly cut out. A second later they heard the explosion.
"What the fuck!" Stan yelled and Kenny felt Wendy grab his arm.
"Let's get out of here," Kyle shouted, and they all ran to the window. Kenny paused mid-step, staring at the sky. Smoke billowed upwards in violent swirls, coming from somewhere in town.
The sirens started while they were all climbing out, and Kenny felt his gut sink.
"Shit, shit, shit," Kyle was chanting as they ran back to their cars.
"Calm the fuck down, Jew," Cartman panted.
"You calm down, that's near where my dad works," Kyle snapped.
"Dude, he'll be fine—"
"You don't know that, Stan!"
Kenny mindlessly grabbed for Wendy's hand and let out a sharp breath when she squeezed back.
They piled into the cars without another word, Kenny into Wendy's and the other four into Stan's. As they sped towards the smoke, Kenny let himself think about his little sister. She had told him that she was going to hang out with Ruby Tucker that day, but he didn't know when or where, and in that instant he hated himself with such intensity it scared him.
"We're heading towards my dad's clinic," Wendy said quietly, her hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. All Kenny could do was think about Karen, probably at Shakey's or the Tucker's house, both too close to Main street and the thick black smoke for comfort. He typed message after message out on the bare-metal buttons of his shitty old phone, the rubber long ago flaked off.
"They'll be fine," he muttered, trying to force himself to believe it. "They're all fine."
She gave him an ashen faced look but said nothing.
When they turned into Main the scene was pure chaos. Unmarked camouflage-painted trucks and ominously non-descript black SUVs swarmed the road, and a wide cordon had been set up. Kenny could tell by looking at the crowd that they were getting nowhere near the explosion, but he jumped out the car the second Wendy parked anyway.
Kenny was a second away from plunging into the crowd and even into the fire when his phone vibrated in his fist.
@ home so calm down asshole
Relief trickled down his spine like ice water and his legs turned to rubber for a second.
"Can you see anything?" Wendy asked, bouncing on her toes.
"Nothing," he said, and grabbed someone's arm as they walked past.
"What happened?" he demanded, before recognising the red handlebar moustache and musty smell.
"Blew up the hardware store," Darryl Weathers replied, yanking his arm out of Kenny's grip. "Sure it wasn't one of yours, McCormick?"
"Anyone hurt?" Wendy interjected before Kenny could reply.
Darryl shook his head. "Doesn't look like it. The hell do you two care?" he sneered before stomping off.
Wendy stared after him. "Is he ever in a good mood?"
Kenny shrugged. "Not that I've seen. C'mon, there are the others."
Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Butters were jockeying at the back of the crowd, trying to push their way into it.
"Guys, c'mon," Kenny shouted, beckoning when they turned to look at him.
Kyle reached him first, practically vibrating with nervous energy. "What? What's happening? Is my dad okay? Is Ike?"
"I don't think anyone's hurt, dude, and we're not getting anywhere near them if they are," Kenny said, trying to calm Kyle down.
"Well, what now?" Wendy asked.
"Why don't we sit down and just… fucking think for a minute," Stan suggested, taking Kyle's elbow and gesturing with his chin to Tweek Bros.
"Fine, yeah, let's go," Kyle muttered, rubbing his face.
Tweak Tweek looked up as they all walked in. "Oh, Jesus, did you see that?" he shrieked, pointing towards the hardware store. "Fucking explosions, man, I can't handle it!"
Cartman sneered. "Too much pressure?"
"You bet!" Tweak twitched violently. "What are you all doing here?"
Kyle strode over to a table and sat down, his head dropping into his hands. Stan followed after him, pulling out his phone as he went.
"Can we get some coffees, Tweak?" Wendy asked, pulling out some money from her jeans.
Kenny reached for his wallet reflexively, feeling the same twinge he always felt when someone tried to pay for him. "I've got it."
Wendy glared at him. "If you try and go alpha male on me I swear I will pull your ears off and pickle them."
Kenny's wallet went back in his pocket.
By the time Tweak set mugs in front of them, hands shaking a concerning amount, everyone was being checked on by their parents over the phone. Even Kenny had received an illegible text from his mother.
Kenny sipped his coffee. It had gotten better over the years, but it still tasted like toxic waste that had been crapped out by an IBS sufferer. The only reason they still came here instead of the Harbucks down the street was out of a unanimous and unspoken desire to avoid setting Stan off on one of his rants about the evils of giant, soulless corporations killing small business and the American Dream and therefore Bambi or something. Stan tended to get emotional about corporate greed.
"No, sir, I'm just fine," Butters was saying into his phone. "I'm with Stan and Kyle, sir. No, no roughhousing. Why, gosh, no, of course Eric isn't here, you forbade it!"
Kenny nearly spit his coffee out. Stan and Wendy shared similar incredulous expressions. Seeing Butters outright lying to his father was almost as weird as the purple blob. Cartman just kept sipping his coffee, his face suspiciously blank.
"I know. Yes, sir, ten tonight. Love you, too," Butters said, and hung up. He took in the others' faces and blushed. "They said I can't see Eric anymore, and that's just not gonna happen."
"Why?" Stan asked, Kyle texting furiously beside him.
Butters looked away. "Oh, they think he's a bad influence."
Cartman scoffed. "Fuck, they just don't recognise genius."
Kyle looked up from his phone at that. "No, they recognise evil."
"You'd know all about that, wouldn't you, daywalker?"
Stan rolled his eyes. "Guys, what the hell are we going to do?"
"About what?" Butters asked.
"About what?" Kyle repeated. "The fucking train! The goo! Dr Mephesto! The goddamn army here rounding people up like cattle!"
Wendy smirked. "That might be an overreaction."
Kyle narrowed his eyes at her hatefully. "Says the girl who didn't spend too many of her formative years in one cell or another. Or get her mouth sewn to another guy's ass."
"Good times," Cartman said wistfully.
Butters frowned. "Why do we even have to do anything? Maybe the army will handle it. I mean, the government must know what they're doing, right?"
Cartman cast him a sideways look. "You trust the Democrats?"
Butters ignored him. "I just mean why get involved? We could pretend like it never happened."
"You sound like Craig," Stan said.
"Maybe he was right!" Butters snapped, his fists banging down on the table. He glared around at each of them, and Kenny thought it had all the menace of an angry kitten. "Why don't we just let this one go?"
"Butters," Kyle said in his snotty ‘I know better than everyone' tone that he usually reserved for arguments over tax law reform, "this is South Park. Since when does anything ever sort itself out?"
Butters opened his mouth and shut it again, slumping in his seat in defeat. "Well, I don't know why this always has to happen to us, is all," he muttered.
"That's what Craig said before he had lasers shooting out of his eyes at a giant guinea pig dressed like a pirate," Stan drawled.
"Guys!" Wendy snapped. "Let's focus. Kyle was right this morning, we don't know anything right now. But whoever that train belonged to will probably find our DNA at the crash site, and then we're fucked. That's why we have to figure out what's going on."
This shut everyone up, not just for the novelty of Wendy swearing about something that wasn't Cartman or the internalised misogyny of the cheerleading squad.
"Any ideas?" Stan asked eventually, met only by a round of shrugs.
Kyle threw his phone onto the table with an angry sigh. "Well, this is accomplishing a lot. We're sitting here getting pissed at each other while some CSI asshole is one centrifuge cycle away from nailing our asses to the wall."
"Hey, I don't see you coming up with any brilliant ideas, Jew," Cartman said.
"Why the fuck is it always me?" Kyle yelled. "Huh? Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says ‘Kyle Broflovski, fixer'? Why is it that I'm always following around after everyone, fixing the fuck ups, worrying about the consequences, thinking of the solutions? Tell me that! You know what, for once I'd fucking like to be the one blowing shit up, or exploiting the marginalised, or saving the goddamn trees!" he finished, panting.
There was a silence as everyone stared at him. Finally Stan laid a hand on his shoulder and Kyle jumped like Stan had tasered him.
"Dude?" Stan asked.
"Sorry, " Kyle muttered, looking embarrassed. "I just… I think I need to go take a nap or something."
"Heavy flow, Kyle? Maybe you can borrow a tampon from Wendy," Cartman suggested.
"Fuck off, fatass," Kyle snapped back, but it lacked its usual heat. He grabbed his phone and stood. "I'm gonna go home. Maybe I'll come up with something later."
Stan pushed his chair back with a scrape. "I'll come with you."
"Shocker," Cartman muttered.
Stan didn't reply, just gave them all an absent wave as he followed Kyle's listless way out the door. The four remaining stared after them for a while, watching Stan catch up to Kyle on the sidewalk and fall into easy step together.
"When are they just going to do it, already?"
"Butters!" Wendy gasped.
He turned to her, the expression of innocence itself. "What?"
Kenny rolled his eyes. "Well, as thrilling as this is, I have work later, so I'm gonna book it, too."
"Whoring's hard work," Cartman sneered.
"Learned everything I know from your mom."
Shoving a few sugar packets in his pants out of habit, Kenny stood.
"I'll drive you," Wendy announced abruptly.
Kenny was caught off-guard, staring like a deer in head-lights.
"Ew, this is a new low, even for you, ho."
"Bye, Butters. Fuck off and die slow, Eric," Wendy said breezily, waving to Tweek and grabbing Kenny's arm before he had a chance to think of something to say. She towed him out the door and into the noonday sun.
The ominously non-descript trucks were still crowded on Main street, but the townspeople had obviously decided there was nothing at all interesting about whatever was going on and were wandering the streets in their summer-drunk haze again. Kenny saw Mrs Garrison and Principal Victoria from the elementary school lying on a grassy verge naming clouds together and shook his head to clear it. Fuck, this town.
Wendy sighed and dropped his arm. "So, I've been kind of lying," she said conversationally.
Kenny's eyebrows shot upwards. "Say what now?"
She avoided his gaze, staring down at the cracked asphalt as they walked towards her car. "About last night. When everyone kept asking if there's anything we can do to, like, figure it out, and no one had ideas. There's something I didn't tell everyone."
Kenny frowned, actually pissed off. "So why the fuck didn't you say something? Kyle's nearly having, like, a nervous breakdown or some shit--"
"I know!" She put her hands over her face and shook her head. "I know," she said through her fingers, before dropping her hands and giving herself a little shake. "I've gone over and over it in my head and there's no other explanation for it, but it doesn't make sense and it's totally impossible and I'm driving myself crazy thinking about it so I need to tell someone."
His scowl softened. "So tell me."
"I don't want to," she said, spinning on her heel and marching towards her car.
"Seriously?" he shouted, hurrying after her.
"It's impossible, really, it was a stress hallucination or something." She hopped up into the drivers seat and slammed the door like that put a lid on the topic.
He stalked around to the passenger's side and got in, giving her a flat stare when she ignored him, pulling out into the street and heading towards his house like they'd been discussing the weather.
He let out a frustrated growl. "Wendy, I think we both know that there is nothing that's impossible in South Park. Where else could have produced Cartman, for fuck's sake?"
"This makes Cartman look pedestrian," she muttered.
She pinched her lips into a thin line, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel as they waited at a stop street for the conjoined foetus lady to cross the road. "Fine. But no giving me weird looks or making the crazy sign at me behind my back, okay?"
He grinned. "No promises."
"You're an ass."
"And a damn fine one, too," he said, twisting in his seat to admire himself.
She laughed like she couldn't help it and Kenny felt a happy bubble expand in his chest.
"Okay, so remember we were running last night? From the explosion?"
"Before the crazy genetic scientist with an ass obsession tried to shoot us?" Kenny asked. "Nah, slipped my mind."
She rolled her eyes. "And I tripped and you… picked me up?" she finished, not meeting his eyes.
He tried desperately to stay cool. He was Kenny the pervert, Kenny the womaniser… who hadn't had a girlfriend since sixth grade. Shut up. "Yeah."
She cleared her throat. "So I was watching the explosions over your shoulder, and I… I saw something."
Something inside Kenny went suddenly very still. It was the part of him that made him look warily up at power lines, stand metres back from the street when waiting at a cross-walk, check the gas station for turned-on electrical outlets almost every hour. The part that told him in a quiet, silky voice that he was going to die that day, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
"The fire was burning but I'm sure it wasn't a mirage or whatever. One of the carriages hit that big pine tree and it split open and… something crawled out."
He swallowed. "Something?"
"It was big. Mostly legs, almost like a spider? I only saw it for a second, but god, Kenny, I couldn't sleep last night, all I kept seeing was it crawling out of that carriage."
He didn't say anything, kept his gaze fixed on some point in the distance while her words rang in his ears, a tolling death knoll counting down his time until his next trip down stairs.
She turned in her seat and faced him. "You believe me, right?"
He turned back to her. He knew that he should be making a joke, cracking wise about drugs or boobs or Wendy being up all night, but he couldn't do it. "Wish I didn't," was all he could say.
She smiled a little half-smile as she turned back to the road, barely a quirk of her mouth. "So what are we going to do?" she asked quietly.
He shrugged. "You're the brain. Me, I've got to go to work and try not to think about triple-assed monsters."
She stilled, and he frowned. "You okay?"
She blinked and then slammed on the breaks. The SUV screeched to a halt and Grandpa Marsh yelled hoarsely at her from his position on Stan's front porch.
"What the fuck!" Kenny yelled, and Wendy hit him with more force than he would have guessed she had in her. "Hey!"
She ignored him and whacked him again. "I'm an idiot! We're all idiots!"
Kenny managed to grab her arm on her next swing. "You just voided your ‘Kenny doesn't call me a crazy person' contract, you know."
"Triple-assed!" she yelled.
"Okay, now I'm getting worried."
She yanked her arm back with a growl. "Mephesto! The genetic engineering ranch! We've got to go there and look around, I'll bet he knew what the hell that thing was that I saw. Hell, maybe he made it."
Kenny managed to pick up the thread of the conversation and cling on to the end. "Okay, Wendy, that's great, but I've got work."
She glared at him for all of two seconds before she deflated and started driving again. "You're right. And I really need sleep. And so does Kyle, if the fact that we both overlooked this is anything to go on. Tomorrow?"
He shrugged. "Sure, why not? What's a little more breaking and entering in one week?"
She rolled her eyes again. "You're channelling Kyle."
They bantered back and forth until Wendy pulled to a stop outside Kenny's crumbling excuse for a house. She avoided his eyes awkwardly and he was all too happy to mumble a goodbye and leap out. They'd only been friends again for a couple of days, and the awkwardness wouldn't disappear just like that. Even Kenny knew that.
That didn't mean it didn't feel like shit when she tore away from the curb with a squeal of her tires like the ghosts of hell were behind her.
He swung open the screen door and hoped guiltily his mother was out or too drunk to talk. He just wanted to go to work, not go another round of the angsty little dance where he pretended like he didn't hate the very sight of her.
He couldn't see her anywhere and she didn't let out a raspy "Kenny?" when he slammed the door closed so he figured he was in the clear. He had a shift at Whistlin' Willy's at three, time to shower and maybe jerk off before he had to leave.
He shook his head and started to slam around his kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards to try and find the stash of pop-tarts he'd hidden. When he wanted to feel like crap there was no way more sure-fire than a pop-tart, taking him back to evenings spent hiding from Kevin with Karen under the sink, to the first day he realised out he could hit his brother back, to the first time he'd punched his father in the nose and the beating he'd been given for his trouble, Karen crying behind the sofa and him desperately not wanting her to watch.
Kenny loaded a pop-tart into the toaster and leaned against the sink, staring out the window into the wreck of their backyard. It was even worse than usual, junk and debris scattered all over, dirt turned up like a digger had gone through it. Probably just the kids with the dirt-bikes down the street tearing up the ground because they could.
Jesus, he was feeling maudlin all of a sudden, and the contempt that he was so familiar with rose in his throat again. Karen deserved so much more than their family had ever given her, and if Kenny could do anything with his life he'd do it for her. Kyle tried to browbeat him into ‘living up to his potential' or whatever after-school special rhetoric he was spewing that day, but sometimes Kyle looked at him and Kenny just knew he understood, that if it were Kyle and Ike in Kenny and Karen's shoes, Kyle wouldn't hesitate to throw himself into making sure Ike got what he deserved. Maybe that was why he and Kyle fought about it so much. Stan just shrugged and said that Kenny should do whatever he thought was right, and Cartman of course never gave a damn one way or another. Kyle fought to make Kenny a success like it was his job, took it on like a crusade, and maybe it was because Kyle could see himself reflected in Kenny's train wreck of a life. There but for the grace of decent parents went Kyle Broflovski.
The toaster popped with a ping and Kenny grabbed the slightly smoking pop-tart. He bit into it without waiting, ignoring the burn of hot sugar. If there was one thing to be said for dying on a semi-weekly basis, it was that it gave you one hell of a pain tolerance.
God, when he'd thought of his last summer before the end of high school he sure as hell had never pictured it like this, snatching brief moments of calm between periods of ridiculous hysteria. Realistically, he wasn't sure why, when this kind of absurd hyperbolic disaster had characterised most of his life growing up. Maybe he was just more of an idiot than he would like to believe, but he always thought his last summer with his friends would be carefree and happy. He had imagined a relaxed idle, a slow-moving mirage of lazy contentment that he would be able to hang on to and sink into the memory of when they all left him behind. Instead, it was a montage of frenetic panic that he should be used to by now.
He rolled his eyes. A shower, a good jerk off and some songs about beer and he'd get over himself. Maybe he'd let himself fantasise about Wendy, something he only did when he was feeling particularly self-destructive. As he chewed the pop-tart, wondering idly if the water in the shower would be hot, he let himself sink into his favourite guilty fantasy.
Kenny is tired, his neck aching after a day at work. He opens the door to his apartment and she's in the kitchen. Something's on fire and the smoke alarm is going crazy.
She turns to face him, hair completely dishevelled and eyes panicked. "You're early!"
"What the… is that pan on fire?"
"Oh like you've never ruined a pan!" she snaps, grabbing a lid and covering the flame.
He feels a slow smile start to grow on his face. "Were you trying to cook for me?"
"No!" But she turns away and busies herself with something at another bench.
"You were conforming to traditional gender roles, weren't you?" he asks with a smirk.
She huffs. "Obviously not very well."
He walks up behind her and sets a hand on her neck, the other reaching around her to pull her in tight to his body. "That is so fucking hot," he murmurs in her ear, fingers trailing down her neck to her shoulder.
She shivers and tilts her head back, just a little. "Don't get used to it."
"Hey, I have some self-preservation instinct. Wouldn't want you to burn the house down."
She turns in his arms and kisses him. Her skirt is riding up under his hands and he lifts her onto the bench, her legs twining around him and pulling him into her. She's so hot, her skin is burning him, it's like there's nothing else in the world but her—
He shook his head, trying to clear it. Better to stop there, unless he felt like getting his junk out in the kitchen, which he did not. He laughed a little at himself as he walked to the bathroom. He would think it was funny, that renowned pervert Kenny McCormick's hottest fantasy was based around domestic bliss with Wendy, having sex in the kitchen of the apartment that they shared in the imaginary perfect world he only occasionally let himself visit. But Kenny could see it for what it was. Just sad.
He opened the bathroom door and all thoughts of Wendy and sex and anything else fled from his head.
She was sprawled on the chipped tile, red hair everywhere, and he could tell by the way she was lying that something was off. He had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of various substance-induced stupors, and this one set alarms bells ringing in his head. He dropped to his knees to touch her shoulder. She wasn't moving, and he could see the pool of sick that had run from her mouth to the floor.
"Aw, shit," he muttered, flexing his fists. Yet another trip to the emergency room was in his future. He was just glad Karen wasn't here—
Wait. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his phone. Karen's message had said she was here. There it was, @ home so calm down asshole. Nearly two hours ago.
He called her. Okay, she was probably with Ruby. He called Ruby.
"Ruby, it's Karen's brother. She with you?"
He hung up. Karen was okay, he was sure. She was fourteen, what trouble could a fourteen year old girl get into?
He called her again. And again. And again. Sometime around the twelfth call he felt bile start to rise in his throat.
His mother groaned and shifted a little near his feet, and he dropped to his knees.
"Mom? Can you hear me? Where's Karen? Did she tell you where she was going?"
She moaned and pawed at him weakly. "Kenny… I…"
"Where is Karen?" he snapped, losing patience. If she wasn't such a dead-beat excuse for a mother this wouldn't be happening.
She managed to turn onto her stomach and he saw the blood. It had mingled with her hair, obscuring it while she was laying there but the side of her head was matted with it and it mixed obscenely with the pool of vomit on the floor.
"Mom," he whispered, reaching for her. She moaned again and turned to throw up, missing the toilet and spattering the sagging vanity. It drooled down her chin and she moaned pathetically, while Kenny's mind raced.
If she was hurt, and Karen was missing… Kenny's imagination went to a scary place and he felt cold.
"Oh, fuck," his mother groaned, arms shaking as she tried to push herself up. "I need to… to get her…"
"It took her, oh, Kenny, it took her." Overtaxed, she fell to the floor in a faint again.
Calm logic came to the fore of his mind as the part of Kenny that was Mysterion quickly took over. He wrapped his mother gently in a blanket and carried her to the couch. He grabbed a pair of pliers and a jimmy from the pile of tools by the front door that his dad had always kept there for fixing the meth lab and walked outside.
It took him less than a block to find the right car, and within five minutes it was idling at his kerb while he fetched his mother.
The drive to Hell's Pass was surreal. He though of that time he'd died and been stuck as a ghost for ages, possessing Cartman and Rob Schneider of all people just to interact. This was kind of like that, like he was cut off from his body and was watching someone else control it.
He very carefully did not think of Karen.
The emergency room wasn't crowded, a combination of it being summer, a week night and that something was happening in South Park that was interesting enough to keep people from trains of thought that started, "Say, I wonder what would happen if…". Kenny parked the car in the ambulance bay and took his mother inside.
Having spent most of his childhood in the hospital and then developing an interest in explosives meant that Kenny's was a familiar face to the staff of Hell's Pass, and he knew almost everyone by name, especially in the emergency room.
Gloria was on the front desk. "Kenny!" she cried, hurrying out from behind the counter after announcing some code over the loudspeaker. "What happened?" she asked, snapping her fingers at an orderly.
"Don't know," he grunted, laying his mother down on the hospital bed the orderly, Buster, brought. He gave Buster a tight smile. "Came home, she was unconscious. I think you're gonna have to pump her stomach."
"Drinking?" Gloria asked, pulling at his mother's eyelids and flicking a torch at them as Buster started pushing the bed into the ER ward.
Kenny followed in their wake. "You're kidding, right?"
Gloria carefully examined the bloody side of his mother's head and shot him a look that he couldn't interpret. "Your father isn't… He's not out, is he?"
Kenny scoffed. "Hell, no."
She pursed her lips, grabbing a heart rate monitor and clipping it onto his mom's limp finger while the other nurses bustled around, readying the equipment to empty her stomach. "So you don't know how this happened?"
Kenny shrugged, watching a nurse try to start a drip. He thought her name was Sandy. "No."
Sandy still couldn't find a vein that hadn't collapsed years ago, and she was getting flustered. Gloria opened her mouth to ask him something else, but a doctor pushed through the ER doors and swept in to take charge. He was new, as far as Kenny could tell. Gloria barely spared him a glance, grabbing a tube and Kenny looked away. He hated watching intubations.
The doctor started to pull on a pair of gloves. "Has she regained consciousness at any time?"
"Once, just for a minute," he replied, frowning.
"Right, well, son, let us do our jobs," he announced, glove snapping against his wrist. Kenny almost groaned but just rolled his eyes at Gloria as he walked out to the waiting room. She frowned at him and he knew she was worried. About him, about his mom. Maybe he was, too, somewhere, but the only thing he could afford to be right then was calm, and for Kenny calm meant being a sarcastic asshole.
It took way too long. Kenny sat on the uncomfortable plastic chairs and played snake until his battery died. He had forgotten to call in to work, he remembered then, and got up to walk to the payphone. In true South Park style, the only one that worked in Hell's Pass was in paediatrics, so if someone wanted to make a call they had to do it with the too-large eyes of cancer kids staring them down and making them feel like shit for not being ten years old and dying.
Kenny thought he should be immune to those looks, considering how many times he had died when he was ten, but he still left his conversation with Hank guilt-ridden and twitchy. The mental blocks he'd set up were starting to fade, and images of Karen being eaten by the leggy monster that Wendy had seen started to flash into his brain. Because he knew that was what had taken her. Knew down to his bones, the same way he'd known that Cthulhu knew more than he was telling.
He walked back into the waiting room to see one of Barbrady's deputies leaning against the wall. Gloria shot Kenny a remorseful look and Kenny just shrugged at her. She'd take care of his mom. He was surprised that it had taken this long, to be honest. He shouldn't have stolen a Cadillac.
He looked over at the deputy. He'd been the one to finally take Kevin in, and he'd checked on Kenny and Karen a few times since then. "Alright, let's go, Mick," Kenny said.
Mick shook his head. "I'm real disappointed in you, Ken. You're better than this." He even sounded like he meant it.
Kenny just gave his best shit-eating grin. "Seems like I'm not, after all."
He didn't look at Gloria while Mick cuffed him, and said nothing all the way to the station. The numbness was wearing off, but slowly, and Kenny could feel his brain starting to reboot. He sleepwalked through the booking process, probably looked totally stoned in his mug-shot. But the cogs were turning again, and by the time Mick locked the door to his cell in the county police station, he knew what he had to do.
"Good morning, Kenny," Gerald Broflovski said gravely when the duty officer unlocked his cell. Kenny grinned and tried to pretend like he didn't smell like someone else's urine and look like total shit.
"Morning, G-man," he said, almost skipping past the cop, who sneered his disgust. "Thanks for the solid, I owe you one."
Gerald shot him a sideways glance as they walked past the other cells and the drunk tank, where one of the Mayor's aides hollered at them, clearly still rolling. Gerald's face screwed up with distaste and he cast Kenny a baleful look. "I'm sure there's a totally rational explanation for all this."
Kenny nodded, smiling too widely. "You bet."
Gerald didn't respond, just signed Kenny out and watched impassively as Kenny collected his meagre possessions.
Kenny gave a sarcastic salute. "See you on the flipside, Mick."
Mick didn't smile, just crossed his arms. "I really hope this was a one-time thing, Kenny."
"You know what they say, can't keep a McCormick down," Kenny replied, turning and strutting out of the lobby into the thin morning sunlight.
Gerald didn't say another word until they were on the road back to South Park.
"Was this a one time thing, Kenny?" he asked quietly, fingers flexing on the wheel.
Kenny's smile finally died, and he tried not to let himself be hurt. Gerald and Sheila fed him, gave him their son's old clothes, and somehow Kyle always ended up with too many copies of their textbooks at the start of the school year. "You know it, Mr B."
Gerald let out a heavy breath. "You're a good kid, Kenny. I'd hate to see you ruin your life over something like this."
Kenny turned away to the window, watching the snow-free landscape flash past. "I won't," he muttered, knowing that he was probably lying.
When Gerald and Kenny walked into the Broflovski house, Kyle all but flew at Kenny. "Dude! You stole a car? What the fuck were you thinking?"
"Kyle, language!" Sheila snapped from the kitchen.
"Grand theft auto, bad-ass," Ike drawled through a mouthful of Lucky Charms, apparently ‘the most egalitarian of the breakfast cereals'.
"Ike, don't make me come in there. Would you like some eggs, Kenny?"
"Thanks, Mrs B," Kenny called, grabbing Kyle and towing him towards the stairs. "I'll just wash up."
Kyle followed after a meaningful glare from Kenny. The second the bedroom door shut behind them, Kyle was on him, fists flying.
"What the hell, dude!" Kenny cried, throwing his arms up to deflect Kyle's punches.
"You are a fucking idiot! Stealing a car? What the fuck?" Kyle yelled, punctuating each sentence with a swipe at Kenny's head.
"Kyle, will you stop it? Karen's missing!"
Kyle froze mid-swing. "What?"
Kenny glared at him, rubbing his shoulder where Kyle's fist had connected. "Karen's missing, you asshole. I panicked."
Kyle's jaw dropped. "We have to tell the police!"
"I told them, dude. They don't care, not till tomorrow night, anyway. Besides, I know who has her."
Kenny shook his head. "Not here. Call the guys, and Wendy. We'll meet them at Tweek Bros in an hour."
Kyle bristled. "Kenny, what the fuck, man—"
"Kyle," Kenny snapped, grabbing Kyle's shoulders and staring him straight in the eyes. He breathed in a few times deeply through his nose, trying to calm himself down. "Just fucking… listen, to me for once. I need you to do this for me, okay? It's Karen, I have to find her. Please, dude."
Kyle's face twisted as he vacillated between stubborn insistence on knowing what was going on and capitulation to Kenny's sincerity.
"Fine," he muttered. "But this had better be fucking good."
Kenny smiled. "Thanks, man. You're the best."
Kyle waved a hand and turned away. "Yeah, whatever. I know."
"I need another favour," Kenny said.
Kyle spun, eyes narrowed. "You're really getting on my nerves, you know that?"
Kenny shrugged. "Yeah, yeah. Can I borrow some clothes?"
Kyle held the glare for a second before his mouth twitched into a grin. "You do kind of smell like a urinal."
An hour later, Kenny and Kyle were nursing cups of Tweak's trademark drain cleaner/coffee waiting for the others to arrive. They were both almost vibrating with tension, and had declared a mutual ceasefire in the car after spending most of the last hour sniping at each other.
Kenny pulled at the neck of the shirt Kyle had loaned him, overly conscious of how tight it was. Kenny's leg wouldn't stop bouncing, and he could see it grating on Kyle, who held his mouth in a tight line.
"Will you quit it?" Kyle hissed.
Kenny stilled his leg with an effort, tugging at his collar. "Sorry."
"Well, that too, but stop fucking with my shirt. You're pulling it out of shape."
Kenny blinked. "Pulling it out of shape? Jesus."
"You are," Kyle muttered.
"Wow, I'm sorry for fucking with your style by ruining your totally un-ironic American Apparel tee," Kenny said sarcastically.
"Fuck off," Kyle snapped, taking a sip of his coffee.
They were back to ignoring each other when a snotty voice rang out across the coffee shop.
"Get bent, Cartman," Kyle shot back, but Kenny thought he sounded relieved.
"Hey, fellers," Butters said cheerfully. "Boy, I slept a whole lot better last night, I tell you. I had a dream that we were all My Little Ponies! You had a green hide with an orange mane, Kyle. You were real pretty."
Kyle's face coloured instantaneously, and Butters seemed to realise his mistake when Cartman exploded with honking laughter.
"Oh, I'll bet you were a pretty pony, Jew! Hell, you're halfway there with that nose of yours," he declared, slapping the table with each braying laugh.
Butters shot Kyle a guilty look, and then flashed a smile at Cartman. Kenny would say it was almost crafty.
"Well, you were one, too, Eric. You had a rainbow across your rump and you left magical glitter wherever you ran!"
Eric's laughs stopped with a choking sound, and Kyle smirked. "At least I didn't fart glitter from my ass rainbow."
"Your what now?" Kenny turned to see Stan standing behind him with a mug of coffee and a half-amused half-concerned expression.
Kyle snickered. "We were all ponies in Butters' dream last night. Cartman had an ass rainbow."
Butters looked at him reproachfully. "A rainbow on his rump, Kyle."
"Right, his ass."
Stan shook his head and sat down. "I swear, I'm the only sane one in this town."
"Hey!" Wendy objected, sliding into the seat next to Stan. "I object."
Stan glanced sideways at her. "Uh, no. You shot someone into the sun."
She held her hands up. "Totally reasonable course of action in the circumstances!"
"Kinda like Kenny stealing a car last night, right?" Kyle yelled, crossing his arms and sending Kenny a triumphant look.
Kenny groaned as the table erupted.
"Dude! What the hell!"
"That's what I said!"
"Now w-what would you do a silly-duffer thing like that for, Kenny?"
"I knew it, white trash can't fucking help themselves, didn't I always say this was gonna happen?"
Wendy didn't say anything, just frowned at him. Somehow that was the worst.
"Look, can I just explain?" Kenny snapped, and to his surprise everyone shut up. He sighed and scrubbed at the back of his neck. "My mom was passed out on the bathroom floor, alright? I had to get her to the hospital."
Stan nodded his head, Cartman yawned, and Wendy and Butters frowned, but Kyle just rolled his eyes. "Like that hasn't happened before. Why didn't you just call an ambulance like the last few times?"
"Kyle!" Stan objected, sending Kenny an apologetic look like Kyle was his fault.
Kenny scowled. "I wasn't thinking clearly, okay! This time was different."
"No, dude, she was hurt."
That shut Kyle up. He frowned at Kenny, and someone gasped. Probably Butters.
Kenny stared down at the table, drawing patterns in the mess of spilled coffee and sugar on the worn old tabletop. "Something hit her on the head and she was bleeding."
"Oh, my god," Wendy whispered.
"But that wasn't it," Kenny continued, not looking up. "Karen's missing."
There was a chorus of gasps and curses, but Kenny still wasn't done. "Something took her, and I think it's the thing that Wendy saw come out of the train."
"What the fuck?" Stan said, and Kenny finally looked up. Wendy had a hand at her mouth and she had turned a sickly white.
"Wendy?" Kenny prompted. "Tell them what you told me."
She gave him a half-hearted glare and swallowed thickly, looking around at each of their faces. "I did see something. When Kenny was carrying me," she continued, pausing to glare at Cartman as he snickered, "one of the carriages hit a tree and this… thing crawled out. I didn't imagine it!" she finished in a snap, glaring at Kyle like he was going to accuse her.
Kyle shrugged. "Hey, we've seen enough fucked up things in South Park. Giant robot Barbra Streisand comes to mind. You say you saw a monster, I'm not gonna call you a liar."
Stan smiled at him fondly.
Butters frowned. "How do you know it took Karen, though, Kenny?"
Kenny bit his lip. "My mom told me. She woke up and said, ‘it took Karen' and passed out again. Unless Scuzzlebutt has started abducting kids, it's our best bet."
Silence lay on the group for a minute, before Cartman let out a loud belch. "Is there a point to this tragic story, Kenny?"
"Cartman, I swear to God…"
"I'm serious, Jew. So a monster has the littlest poor kid. What the hell are we supposed to do about it?"
Stan frowned. "He… actually has a point. What are we going to do? We don't know where this monster thing is, or where it's taken Karen."
Kenny gave Wendy a look and she smiled sadly at him. "We do actually have an idea," she said slowly.
Stan raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Yeah. Dr Mephesto was tracking this thing, right? So he must know something about it."
Kyle slapped his forehead. "Of fucking course. I'm such an idiot."
"Fuck off, wide load."
Stan rolled up his sleeves in an overly dramatic fashion. "So we're heading out to the Genetic Engineering Ranch, right?"
"Right," Wendy said.
Cartman yawned and pushed away from the table. "Well, have fun with that."
"Oh no you don't," Kyle growled, "you're coming, too."
Cartman scoffed. "Oh, I don't think so. I have better things to do today than rummage through an old dead guy's collection of ass porn."
"Yeah?" Stan asked. "What?"
"A clash of between the forces of good and evil, if you must know."
"You're gonna play God of War all day, aren't you?" Kyle asked flatly.
"I might stop for snacks."
Wendy stood from the table with such suddenness that her chair clattered to the ground. "I can't believe you!" she yelled, stomping around to stand in front of Cartman, who looked down at her warily.
"Your friend's sister is missing! Do you even have feelings?" she demanded.
He looked contemplative and tapped his chin. "Does contempt count?"
She growled in frustration and reached up to grab his collar. "You better get something into that vast ego of yours really fast, Cartman, because I am going to say this exactly once. I know that most of your thoughts revolve around narcissistic megalomania but there's enough self-preservation instinct in there to hear this. If you don't help us find Karen, I will ruin your life. Not straight away. I'll wait until you've convinced yourself I can't do it, till you feel safe, then I'll find you, castrate you without anaesthetic, and display your balls for all to see in a travelling exhibition in the world's biggest museums. Your detached scrotum will be up there next to King fucking Tut, and that will only be my first effort. Do you understand me?"
She was breathing heavily as her rant ended, and her grip on Cartman's collar had slowly tightened until his face started to turn red. He stared down at her with widened eyes, sweat beginning to bead on his pudgy brow.
"Do you understand me?" she yelled again, and he nodded.
She let him go and strode from the coffee shop, muttering the whole way. Kenny stared after her, blood thundering through his veins.
Watching Wendy threaten someone on his behalf was the hottest fucking thing he'd ever seen.
"Uh, should we, like, follow her?" asked Stan.
"Guess so. Coming, Kenny?" Kyle asked.
Kenny shook himself. "Think I'll ride with Wendy," he said absently, following her. He noted the smirk on Stan's face and remembered himself enough to flip him off as he went through the door.
Wendy was seething behind the wheel of her car when Kenny got in. She slammed the car into gear without looking at him and Kenny tried not to grin. He started to poke around her car, something he hadn't felt comfortable enough to do the day before, but Wendy had threatened violence on his behalf. He was feeling invincible.
"He's such an asshole!" she finally yelled, smacking the steering wheel to punctuate the thought.
"Like you didn't know that?" he asked, pulling the centre console open. Jackpot! He helped himself to some watermelon-flavoured gum.
"Please, take some," she said sarcastically, and he just grinned obnoxiously at her. She rolled her eyes but a smile played on her lips, and Kenny basked in a feeling he hadn't had in ages.
Until Karen's face flashed in his mind and he came crashing down again.
Wendy sensed his mood change and sent him a worried look. "You okay?"
He looked away, chewing the gum absently and watching the pine trees flick past as they moved out of the town and pulled onto the interstate "What if we don't find anything?"
"Don't think that."'
"I'm serious." He turned back to her. "If we don't find anything at Dr Four-Ass's ranch, what then? I'm out of ideas, how about you?"
She shook her head. "We'll find her, Kenny. I promise."
"You can't promise that," he said, but she turned to glare at him.
"I promise," she insisted, and he kind of hated that he believed her.
The gate was hanging off its hinges when they pulled into the Ranch, the ‘Keep Out' sign on its side in a ditch, and Kenny's foreboding worsened with every turn of the winding road up the hill. Grass covered the hill but dead brown patches seemed to be spreading, and the skeletal black trees loomed above the road like gargoyles over a crypt.
The giant doors were cracked open, and Kenny felt the hope in his chest ebb even lower. He should have known. Barely waiting for Wendy to stop he bounded out of the car.
He ignored her and ran up the steps two at a time. A light flickered in the entrance and Kenny made straight for the lab at the back. He could hear the others arguing outside.
The lab was in chaos. Broken glass covered the floor and the multiple-assed creatures were missing from their cages. Paper littered every surface and Kenny snatched at a notebook on a bench by his hand.
Digestion through multiple intestines.
Nope. He threw it behind him aimlessly and grabbed a bound thesis.
The Colon: Mysterious Orifice.
Ew. He growled and reached for another, and another, and another. His frustration mounted, escalating with each useless title, ridiculous experiment, utterly stupid and pointless research that was all that was left.
"Nothing!" he yelled. He grabbed a vial of something orange and hurled it at the opposite wall, satisfaction rising savagely in his chest when it exploded on contact.
He whirled to see the others, minus Wendy, standing in a huddle in the doorway. He was furious, with himself and his mother and Dr Mephesto and that goddamn monster from the train and even them, his friends who weren't helping him get his sister back.
"What?" he snapped, trying his best to look scary. "Those fucking uniforms were smarter than us, they cleaned this place out. Anyone else got an idea, ‘cuz I'm fresh out." He laughed bitterly, chest heaving as he breathed hard enough to hyperventilate.
Butters cringed back but Stan just set his jaw and stepped forward.
"We found something, dude."
Stan smiled tightly and held out an arm, beckoning. "C'mon."
Kenny felt a burst of gratitude, and he thought that this was how Kyle must feel all the time, that Stan was an anchor in the crazy storm that life in South Park tended to be. He followed meekly, ignoring Cartman's taunts and Kyle's worried looks.
Stan led him outside. Wendy was crouched in the dirt of the driveway, and Kenny's eyebrows shot up when he recognised the tiny figure next to him.
"Is that Mephesto's freaky monkey dude?" he asked incredulously.
Wendy shot him a glare, and raised a comforting hand to the tiny little creature's shoulder. "This is Kevin," she announced, with a meaningful look.
Kenny waved, totally lost. "Uh, hey, Kevin."
Kevin scowled, fisting his hands in his tacky Hawaiian shirt. His skin looked almost leathery close up, and his eyes bulged with the gooey sheen of a pug with glaucoma.
Kenny coughed awkwardly. "So, you got something to tell us?"
Kevin shrugged and sniffed, looking away. Wendy rolled her eyes at Kenny and scooted closer to Kevin. "We're so sorry about your dad, Kevin. We want to find out what happened to him. Can you help us do that?"
Kevin gave Wendy a watery glare that seemed to say, "I'm not a fucking idiot, lady," but he smoothed a hand over the stalks of wiry hair that stuck up out of his scalp and then waved a hand towards Kenny.
Kenny cocked his head as Kevin started towards the woods at the base of Mephesto's hill.
Kevin turned to roll his eyes expansively and beckoned. Kenny met Wendy's gaze and shrugged. What the hell else could he do?
He followed Kevin. He could hear the others behind him having a muttered argument, but Wendy soon caught up with him, slipping her hand into his like they did it every day. He swallowed hard and concentrated on keeping an eye on Kevin's glaring orange shirt. Little bastard was surprisingly fast.
The woods were no less spooky than the rest of the Ranch, and Kenny really hoped there wasn't a group of multiple-assed velociraptors waiting for Mini Mephesto to feed them. Just when he had convinced himself to give up and turn around, the bunker appeared through the trees.
Wendy squeezed his hand and he let the smouldering ember of hope in his chest flicker into life.
Kevin pulled a cinder block out from behind a bush and pushed it towards the door with high-pitched grunts. Kenny turned to watch the others crash through the undergrowth, Cartman huffing like a steam train, red-faced and sweating.
"I hate… you guys… so much," he panted in between wheezing breaths. Butters patted his shoulder.
A horrendous screech made Kenny spin around. Kevin had unlocked the door and was pushing it open, and it was protesting every inch. Kenny strode forward to help.
Kevin gave him a reluctant nod of thanks and Kenny stepped over the cinder block into the bunker. Kevin tugged at his pants and pointed to a light switch when Kenny looked down at him.
The halogen light flickered on slowly, crunching and groaning. "God, did something die in here?" he muttered, trying not to gag. Wendy and the others crowded in behind him, hacking at the smell. It was like a cow with IBS issues had died and been partially decomposed, then left to marinate in a bath of sewage.
Kenny swallowed, trying to ignore it, and walked further into the bunker. It was small, barely fifteen feet deep and about six feet wide. Cork boards hung on most of the walls, images and scribblings pinned on every spare inch. Red string connected pictures and words across the boards, and a rudimentary desk was blanketed in paper towards the back. A huge whiteboard covered the back wall behind the desk, and Kenny saw the date of the train crash circled in thick black ink. Line drawings of a strange creature were everywhere Kenny looked, and he looked at Wendy. She nodded when he jutted his chin at one, and he stepped forward to take a closer look. So this was the thing that took his sister.
Mephesto had obviously been an okay artist. The thing was rendered in bold, confident lines, eight legs drawn up towards what Kenny supposed was its torso. It had a huge, triangular head that seemed to be mostly mouth, and in the picture Kenny was studying, a huge, muscular tongue protruded out of it, saliva dripping from it in viscous gobs. The eight legs all ended in a dexterous-looking trio of claws. Kenny sure as shit wouldn't want to come across that thing in a dark alley at night, immortality or no.
Kevin hopped up on the chair behind the desk and caressed an old notebook, tears gathering in his already dewy eyes. Kenny shoved his hands deep into his pockets and tried to look away, but Karen's face hovered in his mind and he couldn't wait.
"So, little dude, wanna tell us what the hell that thing is?" he asked, gesturing at the picture he'd been studying. Kevin glared up at him through his tears and Kenny heard Wendy sigh exasperatedly. Kenny winced. "I know your dad's, like, dead. Sorry about that. But this thing, it has my sister, and we really need your help to get her back. So. Please. Help me."
Kevin stared at him and Kenny tried desperately to look sincere. He was sincere, but he had been told his default expression was, to quote Kyle, ‘bitchy sarcasm'.
He must have succeeded, because Kevin let out a squeak that Kenny guessed was his version of a sigh and opened a drawer. He rummaged around and pulled out a voice recorder. He cocked an eyebrow at Kenny as he proffered it, and Kenny could recognise that expression anywhere. "Don't make me regret this, asshole," it said.
"Thanks," he murmured, taking the recorder. He turned to the others, who were nosing shamelessly through the old man's things. "Hey, guys," he called, and they froze guiltily. Except Cartman, who kept going. Kenny held up the recorder and pressed play.
"If this recording is being played, then I am dead," Mephesto's voice began. Kenny turned and glanced at Kevin, who kept stroking the notebook, lip quivering.
"This is a recording of my dealings with the creature I know as Stephen. When I was young I worked at the research facility of a private company. We were working on the genome, on manipulating it for the betterment of mankind, and for profit, of course. The company obtained Stephen, how I don't know, but we began to study him. He was a fascinating subject, immune to disease and self-healing almost to the degree of being immortal. We tortured him, you see, to test this."
Kenny looked at Wendy. She was turned away, jaw clenched. He wanted to go to her, hold her hand like she'd held his, but Mephesto wasn't through.
"Finally Stephen figured us out. He tricked us, and escaped his restraints. He grabbed me, and… we shared something. I can't explain it, but Stephen touched my mind and I knew him. He came from somewhere else, another planet, and he has been trapped here, tortured and imprisoned, since the day that he crashed here. I saw his life, his journey, the pain he had suffered, as if it were happening to me. In that instant, I knew I had to free him. I tried while still with the company, but they took him away before I succeeded.
"That was many years ago now, and I've found him again. Finally. I will try to free him, and if this recording is found, I hope you, listener, whoever you may be, will help to continue my work. Stephen just wants to go home."
The recording clicked off, and there was silence. Kenny opened his mouth to ask Kevin if he knew where Stephen might be, when the door to the bunker exploded inwards.
"COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!"
"Shit," Kyle muttered, glancing at Stan. "I fucking told you."
"Yeah, great, want a fucking medal?" Kenny hissed. "How are we gonna get out of here?"
Kyle narrowed his eyes. "Think we're going to get out of it?"
"We have to, my sister—"
"THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING," the voice blared. "EXIT WITH YOUR HANDS ABOVE YOUR HEAD!"
Wendy looked around at them all desperately. "Any ideas? Anyone?"
Butters was shaking as he shook his head. "Hamburgers," was all he could say, rubbing his fists together frantically.
"Fuck!" Kenny swore, and ran for the door. Maybe he could just get through…
A beefcake in black Teflon tackled him before he ran four feet. Kenny thrashed on the ground, twisting and biting, hitting anything he could get his hands on, but the guy on top of him was solid and unrelenting. It was like hitting a sandbag, and by the time Kenny was hauled to his feet he'd exhausted himself.
The others were being herded through the forest, Kevin nowhere to be seen. A man in a navy suit and lavender shirt, unbuttoned far enough to be crass, looked Kenny up and down with a sneer. "God, I hate country towns," he said in an exhale, as if it pained him to look at Kenny.
Kenny wanted so badly to flip him off, or just punch that sneer off his fake-tanned face, if his hands weren't cuffed behind him. "Fuck off, then," he spat.
The man rolled his eyes and gestured vaguely at the soldier holding Kenny. "Come on, let's hurry up."
Kenny's mind raced as he stumbled through the woods, trying to think of any possible way to get away. Karen's face floated in front of his eyes, tear-stained and terrified, crying out for her big brother to save her. His panic ratcheted up higher and higher until he wanted to puke, but he couldn't think of a thing. Not a single fucking thing.
The soldier shoved him up into one of the nondescript SUVs that had been crawling Main street the day before, and Kenny glowered at him.
"Fucking ‘roid junky," he muttered after the soldier slammed the door, shifting to try and get feeling back in his hands. He was the only one in the car, apart from the driver, and his panic expanded to include the others. What had he dragged them into? Fuck, he couldn't protect his sister and he got his friends arrested. Piece of shit.
The tint on the windows was so dark he could barely see out, but he spent the car ride trying to figure it out anyway. If he could just memorise it then maybe he'd find his way back, and Kevin would be hiding in the woods, and they'd find Stephen and save Karen.
To his surprise the ride was short, and he knew the location as soon as a soldier opened the door. The fire-station was swarming with soldiers in black, and Kenny's eyebrows shot up when he got a glimpse at a couple of tanks behind the building. Camouflage-painted jeeps and black SUVs were parked in neat rows by the tree line, and Kenny saw soldiers loading stacks of ordnance into the backs of them.
"Hurry up," his escort barked, and Kenny sneered at him, getting cuffed in the head for his trouble.
He was herded into the station and up the stairs to a room full of bunks. The man with the lavender shirt was waiting for him, running his hands through blonde-tipped hair that Kenny thought was probably supposed to look ‘beachy'.
"Put him there," he barked at the soldier, gesturing at a chair in the middle of the room. Kenny was shoved down and re-cuffed, and when the soldier straightened Kenny tugged at his restraints. They clanked against the metal of the chair and Kenny growled.
The blond man raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Leave," he instructed with another wave, and the soldier locked the door behind him.
Kenny glared. Everything about this guy just screamed asshole. From the bleached tips of his gelled hair to his hideous pointed loafers.
"You're Kenny," the guy announced, crossing his arms.
Kenny said nothing. The man smiled and cocked his head.
"I'm sorry, how rude of me. I'm Jeffrey."
Figured. Asshole name.
"You're in an awful lot of trouble, Kenny," Jeffrey continued breezily, turning to wander towards the window. "Do you know why?"
Kenny stayed silent.
"Let me tell you. It has come to our attention that you witnessed the little… incident with our train. That is bad, Kenny, very bad. For you, at least."
Kenny rolled his eyes. Jesus, this guy had to have failed interrogation 101.
"Do you know why it's bad?" Jeffrey asked, turning to face Kenny again. "It's bad because you've seen something you weren't supposed to see. That makes you a loose end."
Jeffrey pulled out a nail file and started to shape his nails. "Do you know what we do to loose ends, Kenny?"
Kenny had a pretty good idea.
"We get rid of them."
Well, he'd seen that one coming.
Jeffrey sighed like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. "So you see the kind of trouble you're in. But before we talk about that, there's something you should know. It might interest you."
Kenny doubted it.
"We know quite a bit about you, you see. You've had a most interesting life. But you seem to have, shall we say, risen above the challenges of your circumstances in recent times. It's commendable, really."
Jeffrey smiled thinly. "Certainly, with the rest of your family in the… situations that they're in, you must know how rare it is that you chose an alternative path. Until last night, of course."
Kenny sighed. Really, this shit was boring, more than anything. When were they just going to throw him in a cell so he could come up with a plan?
"So I wondered what your motivation was. Was it a sense of civic responsibility? Simple rebellion? Ambition? Ah, but these are all too complicated. It's much more simple than that, isn't it, Kenny?"
Jeffrey leaned in until his awful orange tan was barely two inches from Kenny's nose.
"You did it for love. For your little sister, isn't that right?"
Kenny's jaw tensed and he wished so much that he could wrap his hands around this asshole's neck.
"Little Karen, not so little now, of course," Jeffrey continued, standing straight and wandering over to the window again. "She must be fourteen, I think, if I remember correctly. My, she'll have a time in the foster system, won't she? I hear the rates of abuse for girls that age is just horrendous. Especially for ones as pretty as your sister."
Kenny's breath sped up and he ground his teeth.
"Not to mention how unlikely it would be for her to go to college in that setting. No, she'll much more likely end up back somewhere like South Park, abusing substances and probably being abused herself. Really, it's a tragic situation. Almost like she wouldn't have a chance, without her big brother."
Kenny's eye had started to twitch.
Jeffrey turned back to Kenny and smiled, a slow, creeping smile full of self-satisfied malice. "And that's assuming she survives to graduate high-school, of course."
Kenny snapped. He rushed at Jeffrey with a growl, holding the chair behind him and swinging it to catch Jeffrey in the guts. He barely got in three head-butts before soldiers pulled him off, but he took in the sight of Jeffrey coughing breathlessly, blood rushing from his nose, with raw satisfaction.
"Take him," Jeffrey bit out, wincing when talking moved his nose. Kenny smirked as the soldiers un-cuffed him from the chair and shoved him from the room.
That'd teach the asshole to threaten his sister. No one, no one fucked with Karen on Kenny's watch. He'd become a goddamn superhero to protect her. Some dick with a bad dye-job was nothing.
Stan and Kyle shot to their feet when Kenny was thrown into the room. Butters was curled up with Cartman in a corner, crying his eyes out on Cartman's huge shoulder.
"Dude!" Stan cried, and Kyle rushed forward to hug him. Kenny hugged him back after a second, ready to swear at Cartman the second the word ‘fag' left his lips.
Cartman stayed silent, and Kenny didn't know whether to be relieved or worried. Kyle drew back and stared at Kenny with a frantic light in his eyes.
"Where'd they take you? Why is there blood on your face?" he asked, scrubbing at the point where Kenny's forehead had met Jeffrey's nose.
Kenny batted Kyle away and started to pace. "Never mind. How are we going to get out of here?"
Stan and Kyle shared a look.
"Dude," Stan said, "I don't know that we're getting out today."
Kenny glared at him. "We have to, man, Karen's still out there! Who knows what that monster or Stephen or what-the-fuck-ever has done to her."
Kyle frowned. "We'll make a plan, Kenny, just sit down, okay?"
"No!" Kenny yelled, the ring of Jeffrey's words roiling in his head, mixing with the steady undertone of terror that had been humming in his blood since his mom had whispered, "It took her," her eyes shining with actual awareness and fear. That more than anything fuelled his panic. Anything that could break into the drugged-out haze of his mom's brain was something epic.
Butters had stopped sniffing and looked up from Cartman's shoulder, who stayed uncharacteristically silent. "Kenny, we're all worried, but what can we do?" he moaned, wiping at his face.
Kenny sputtered. "I don't fucking know, Butters! Where's Wendy?" he demanded.
Kyle and Stan shared another look, and Stan winced. "We haven't seen her since the bunker, dude."
"Seriously?" Kenny yelled, hands fisting in his hair. "So I got Wendy killed, too?"
Kyle frowned. "Wait, what? Calm down, Kenny, I'm sure she's not dead."
Kenny didn't hear him, just turned and started pacing the room again. "That's great, that's fucking great. My little sister's going to die and it's my fault, and Wendy's gone, too. Really awesome job, Kenny, you're a fucking star. She's finally talking to you again and you manage to get her locked up or disappeared or whatever in less than a week! Two days! Is that a record for fucking up, because it should be," he ranted, pulling at his hair.
Stan and Kyle looked at each other and Stan stepped forward to grab Kenny by the arm. Kenny slapped his hand away, but Stan grabbed for him again, and then Kenny was hitting him, fists flying out. Each punch that landed, each reverberation up his arm as his knuckles struck into Stan's body sated his anger at the same time as it escalated higher and higher. Kyle was yelling and Butters was crying but Kenny didn't care. He just hit Stan again and again until finally he couldn't anymore and he sagged with exhaustion and self-loathing.
"You done?" Stan asked, his voice tight and gruff.
Kenny nodded, so ashamed he couldn't bare to look up. Stan grunted and then his arms wrapped around Kenny, pulling him in to a hug.
Kenny let out a choked sob and clutched at Stan's back. Stan mumbled nonsense comforts in his ear, and Kenny let himself sag against him. For all the times he'd almost hated Stan for his stupid football physique and shampoo commercial hair, things Kenny would never have no matter how much he ate or what haircut he got, he'd never appreciated Stan's strength until then. Not just his muscles, which held Kenny up like he was barely a weight at all, but the character that let him stay sane and moral in a town as insane as South Park. Stan was strong, inside and out, and Kenny was stupidly grateful as he sobbed into Stan's shoulder.
"It's okay, dude, we're all gonna help you, we're gonna be okay, we're gonna get out of here and find Karen and Wendy and they'll both be fine, you'll see," Stan murmured as Kenny cried himself out. The last time he'd cried in front of his friends he must have been no older than ten, but this felt natural. Stan was his brother, after all. They all were, even fucking Cartman.
Finally he managed to pull himself together and pushed away from Stan, who let him go with a last squeeze. Kenny looked at Stan's face and winced.
"Jesus, dude, I'm sorry," he said, reaching up to touch Stan's already swelling eye.
Stan shrugged, grinning and twisting his face up further. "Eh, I've had worse. You've seen me after a game."
Kyle hovered at Stan's shoulder, looking pissed and worried all at the same time, and at both Stan and Kenny equally. "Kenny?"
Kenny reached back to scrub at the back of his neck, embarrassed and awkward in the aftermath of his breakdown. "I'm okay, really. Sorry I, uh, flipped out."
Cartman honked out a laugh from the corner, the first time Kenny had heard him make a sound since he'd entered the room. "That was the gayest thing I've ever seen."
Kyle opened his mouth to yell at him when Butters leapt to his feet.
"That's enough, Eric!" he yelled. "I've had it about up to here with the gay jokes, mister! What do you think we are, huh?"
Butters pinned Cartman with a glare and a pointed finger. "How many times, Eric? ‘Oh, Butters, make sure the others don't think I'm a homo', ‘Oh, Butters, don't let the others know what we do at our sleepovers', ‘Don't tell anyone about this, Butters, they'll think I'm nothing but a pussy faggot'." Tears welled in Butters' eyes and his bottom lip quivered. "What do you think that makes me?" he asked.
Cartman had frozen, staring up at Butters with abject horror. Kenny didn't know why he was surprised, in retrospect. It was fucking obvious. The really shocking thing was Butters standing up for himself.
Butters shook his head and scowled, looking angry at himself more than Cartman, and when he spoke again, the trembling in his voice was gone. "I'm tired of lying, hiding our relationship because you're so obsessed with making yourself look tough. This is the last straw! Either you stop with the hiding and the mean comments and we become real boyfriends, or we're through, you hear me?"
Kenny shot Kyle a look. His mouth was hanging open in something between a laugh and a retch, not knowing whether to be amused or sickened by the idea of gay Cartman.
"Butters, I—" Cartman began.
"No! I'm not gonna let you trick me again, with your… your words and what-have-you."
Kenny very carefully did not think about Butters and Cartman having what-have-you.
"You just better think about what's more important, me or your stupid reputation," Butters said, his voice wavering but jaw set, and stomped to the opposite corner of the room to slump to the ground with a huff. Kenny met Stan's eyes and they both grinned. Way to go, Butters.
Kyle had to be tugged to sit down by Stan, still frozen in semi-amused disgust. Kenny stretched out on the hard linoleum, hands behind his head, staring up at the cracked ceiling and its mid-century light fitting. Dodgy wiring, no doubt. His meltdown with Stan had helped, oddly enough. He'd gotten enough perspective on the situation to give himself some distance from it. There was nothing he could do from in here, but he just had to wait. An opportunity could be made as soon as something changed, and his friends would help.
Cartman kept shifting in his spot, grunting and muttering under his breath. Kenny figured he was trying to plot a way to get Butters under his thrall again, but Butters knew him too well. His ultimatum was pretty clear, and Cartman never did well with an ultimatum. Kyle and Stan whispered together against the wall. Kenny grinned up at the ceiling. When they finally figured themselves out, Cartman wouldn't even be able to give them shit about it.
It was only about an hour before the soldiers opened the door again and Jeffrey strolled in. Kenny took in his bent nose with smug satisfaction.
Jeffrey beckoned more soldiers into the room. "You're being moved," he announced.
Kyle frowned. "Wait, what? Why?"
Jeffrey sniffed and looked down his misshapen nose at him. "The town is being evacuated. You're to be debriefed and moved to a holding location."
Kyle goggled. "We're being arrested? But we're American citizens, you can't just do this to us!"
Jeffrey turned and waved to the soldiers again. Kenny set his jaw and tuned out Kyle's rant as the handcuffs were clapped on him, watching every single move carefully. The soldiers were impassive and professional, but everyone had a weakness. All Kenny had to do was wait and find one to exploit.
The soldiers frog-marched them to a huge bus that looked like it had been requisitioned from prison transport duty. The windows were barred and shackles attached to every seat. Kenny just stayed quiet and meek as he was chained to the seat in front of him, trying to ignore Butters' crying. Cartman looked totally shell-shocked as he was jostled onto the bus, and Kenny saw him cast a desperate, longing look towards Butters.
"Safe journey, gentlemen," one of the soldiers tossed at them sarcastically, and Kenny's jaw twitched.
"Kenny, what the fuck!" Kyle hissed furiously. "This is totally unconstitutional, not to mention fucking stupid. Who the hell do they think they are? Apple?"
"Quiet," their driver barked, and Kyle flipped him off. Kenny grinned but didn't say anything. He was waiting for his moment.
"Hey, Kenny," Kyle hissed again, canting his body as far towards Kenny as he could, "do you think you could dislocate your thumb? Because I was watching Papillon and that's what he did at one point—"
Their driver barely got in a yell before something slammed into the side of the bus and the world flipped upside down. Kenny heard someone screaming, maybe it was him, but the bus was tumbling over itself and his arms were being pulled from their sockets and all he could do was grit his teeth and try not to puke. He was hanging from his shackles and scrambled with his feet for purchase on the slick steel surface of the seats across the aisle, trying to find somewhere to support his weight as his shoulder screamed in pain
There was a bellowing roar and the screech of tortured metal as the side of the bus was torn away. Kenny looked up, his head spinning, and his pain was forgotten as more adrenaline flooded his system. The monster of Mephesto's drawings loomed over them against the sun, massive head cocked and rows of teeth clicking. It let out something like a dark chuckle and that horrible tongue licked around its mouth, before one of its clawed limbs darted down to grab the driver.
He screamed and writhed in Stephen's grip, twisting every which way to try and escape, but Stephen soon ended his terror with a quick bite to the neck. The man's skull crunched between its teeth and it groaned in satisfaction, licking its lips again.
Kenny was going to die, and it wasn't going to be pretty.
He started to wriggle again, not taking his eyes of Stephen's gory meal but feeling his legs slip on the metal again and again. Finally he managed to bring his legs up to hook them through the seat behind his, and he'd go to his grave not knowing how he managed it. His shoulders flooded with relief as he transferred his weight off them.
Stephen finished the rest of the driver and belched, licking the blood off its claws. It lowered its limb slowly to rest on the bus again, and its eyes flicked over Kenny and his friends with curiosity. Kenny opened his mouth to yell, me, take me, I'll come back, they won't, but even as he took in a breath a concussive blast struck the bus, rocking it on its side and nearly flipping it again. Kenny tensed his jaw so hard it ached, and his legs shook with the effort of clenching around the steel bar. Stephen winced, its giant head swinging to face towards the blast. It roared again, and Kenny heard someone whimpering, but as suddenly as it had appeared Stephen was gone.
Kenny panted. Someone was groaning, and Kenny tried to twist around to check on the others. He could barely crane his neck it ached so much but he caught a glimpse of Kyle's flaming rat's nest out of the corner of his eye.
"Everyone okay?" Stan asked in a strained voice, and Kenny let out a breathless chuckle.
"I think our escort's having a bad day," he said.
"Yeah, I'm okay," Kyle replied, sounding subdued.
"My arms hurt like fuck, but other than that, fine," Cartman wheezed, and Kenny waited for Butters to chime in.
Kenny managed to swing his body around far enough to meet Kyle's gaze, which just reflected his own panic back at him.
"Butters?" Stan called. "You there, dude?"
It was then Kenny realised the moaning had stopped.
"Fuck!" Cartman shouted, and Kenny's eyes widened. "He's bleeding, guys, I think its bad. Oh, fuck, baby, wake up, please?"
No one was in any state to properly process the idea of Cartman calling anybody baby, let alone his unconscious semi-professional lackey. "Shit, shit, shit," Kyle chanted, and Kenny's mind raced.
"How the hell do we get out of these things?" Stan yelled.
"Kyle, what did you say about breaking our thumbs?" Kenny asked, and Kyle turned pale.
"Fuck, it was just some dumb old movie, I don't know!"
"Will it work or not?" Stan shouted.
"I don't fucking know, okay!"
"Baby, please, just look at me, fucking look at me Butters, you asshole!"
The sound of a car broke through Kenny's panic and he tried to weigh the chance of whoever passing by being able to help. Odds were slim.
"Guys, shut up! Someone's coming," he yelled, and they all quieted, except for Cartman who continued his litany of furious pleas interspersed with insults.
Kenny managed to lift his head enough to see the road, and watched a camouflaged jeep round the bend. His heart sped up as it drew near, and then raced when it slowed down.
A woman in black Teflon armour and a dorky black beret got out and unslung the heavy gun at her back. Kenny swallowed, mouth suddenly dry.
She approached the bus with light steps, eyes hidden behind mirrored aviators. Kenny tried to think of a plan, anything to get the hell out, but he was all out. Everything was gone to shit, Karen missing, Butters dying, Wendy probably dead.
"Guys?" the woman called, and Kenny's jaw dropped.
"Wendy?" he called back, voice hoarse and barely recognisable, craning his neck up further and ignoring the burn in his muscles. The others swore and called out to her, and Kenny couldn't believe it.
She pulled off her aviators and the stupid goddamn beret, and it was her, it fucking was.
"Oh my god, what happened?" she asked, shouldering the rifle.
"No time, we need help. Butters is bleeding, you have to find the keys," Stan said, and Wendy was climbing the bus' undercarriage before he had finished.
Kenny finally let his neck relax and dropped back down to hang between the seats. Screw a knight in shining armour. He'd take Wendy in dirty black fatigues any fucking day of the week.
She swung over the fractured lip of the bus and down into the carriage, squeaking when she landed in something that used to be part of their driver.
"What about neck injury?" Kyle asked, sounding panicked.
"He's hanging from his wrists, Kyle, I think we're way past proper neck care," Kenny snapped. "Find anything?" he asked Wendy.
She shook her head, boots crunching as she searched. "No, nothing. Just lots of glass and blood. Shit."
"Oh, god, what if they were on him? You know, like in his pocket?"
"Don't even say it, Stan," Kyle warned, but Wendy bit her lip and met Kenny's look.
He shrugged at her, knowing what she was asking. He had no fucking clue, but they didn't have time to make sure. She nodded and set her shoulders.
"Right," she said and marched down the bus to Butters, pulling a sidearm out of its holster at her thigh.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Kyle shrieked, trying desperately to swing around and follow her progress.
"No time, Kyle," she bit out, and Kenny heard her cock the gun.
"Do you even know how to use it?" Stan asked.
"Don't you remember freshman year?" Wendy asked. "We took militant feminism to its logical conclusion. I can shoot a misogynist between the eyes at eighty yards."
"Ho, if you miss…" Cartman sounded nothing like himself.
The gunshot made Kenny jump, but the soft slump of a body hitting the floor was a relief.
"It's not that bad," Wendy called. "But it's his head, so he lost a lot of blood. He probably has a concussion."
"You're not a fucking doctor!" Cartman snarled, and Kenny could hear him thrashing, the metallic clang of his shackles striking metal echoing through the bus.
"No, I'm not, but my dad is and I've done senior first aid, so I'm the closest thing we have right now, Eric. Now shut up and hold still."
Kenny expected the flinch and heard Cartman's body slam to the ground. Glass tinkled as he crawled to Butters.
"Oh, fuck, Butters, baby, you're gonna be okay, alright, I swear, and if you're not I will cut you, Butters, I will end you, understand?"
Wendy choked. "Eric?"
"Just… leave it," Stan said tiredly, and another shot rang out. Kenny's body jumped again and he wondered how much adrenaline it could actually produce in a twenty-four hour period. Would it ever just run out, leaving him groggy and useless in successive crises?
Kyle yelled when Wendy shot through his chains, and Stan caught him before he could hit the deck.
"Thanks," Kyle said softly, colouring.
Wendy walked to stand below Kenny's seat and he grinned down at her.
"Have I mentioned how fucking awesome you are lately? Like, superhero badass levels of awesome?"
She smiled back. "A girl likes to be told." Quicker than he could prepare for, she raised the gun and squeezed the trigger, and Kenny fell through the air to land unceremoniously on his ass.
"Fuck," he groaned, reaching back to rub it. "Doctor? I need assistance."
She scoffed, holstering the gun. "You big baby. You wanna be feeling my shoulder right now, recoil is a bitch."
Kenny's eyebrows shot up and he was on his feet in a second. "Well, if you insist," he purred, reaching out to grab Wendy's shoulders.
"Pervert!" she laughed, slapping his hands away. He waggled his eyebrows at her for effect and she rolled her eyes but kept smiling as she reached down to retrieve her rifle and re-sling it over her shoulder.
Kenny had to drag his eyes away from Rambo-Wendy, otherwise known as The Hottest Thing On The Whole Planet, No, Seriously, Russia Included. Butters' head laid on Cartman's generous lap as he stroked his face, and Stan and Kyle were hovering awkwardly.
"Guys, we better get out of here," Wendy said, and Cartman's head shot up.
"And where the fuck are we going to go?" he snapped. "The town's been evacuated, that means Hell's Pass, too. Butters needs help, ho. Even you can understand that, right?"
Kyle sighed. "As much as it pains me to admit it, and believe me, it does, he's not wrong."
Stan frowned. "So what? Do we take Butters to the evacuation point? What about the soldiers? They'll just lock him up again, not to mention us."
Cartman glared. "Wow, and you guys call me selfish."
"Everyone shut up, okay!" Wendy said. "We'll take him to the Clinic. You guys can take care of him till this is over. I don't think it'll be long."
Stan frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Yeah, how did you get that uniform, anyway?" Kenny asked. Not that he was complaining.
"Let's just say Little Miss Military underestimated this ‘hick-town hillbilly'," Wendy said, air-quoting with her fingers. "I overheard something when I was sneaking out of the fire-station. Whatever's going down with these guys in black and that monster, it's going down tonight."
Kyle stepped closer to Stan and Cartman's fingers tensed on Butters' slack face.
"Alright, then, no time to lose," Kenny said. "How are we going to get Butters out?"
Kyle squinted up at the graunched side of the bus. "No way can we lift him out over that. The glass will shred him."
"Hey, what about that?" Stan asked, point at an emergency hatch on what was once the roof, now the side.
"Worth a try," Kenny said, and walked over to yank the handle. For once their luck was good and it popped open.
"Cartman, think you can carry him?" Stan asked. Cartman scowled at him darkly.
"Just you try and fucking take him, asshole."
Stan held his hands up. "Okay, Jesus. Let's go, then."
Cartman waddled down the bus, Butters clutched in his arms, wheezing and puffing, till he reached the escape hatch. Kenny had jumped out already and held his hands out for Butters. After a moment's hesitation, Cartman passed him through the hole, hands surprising gentle. Kenny took Butters' weight and pulled him out, trying to jostle him as little as he could. Butters weighed next to nothing, and Kenny watched Cartman clamber through gracelessly. Cartman held his arms out for Butters the instant he righted himself on his feet, and Wendy went with them to the jeep.
Kyle and Stan crawled out with more agility, Stan stumbling a little as he landed. The three of them walked to the jeep together slowly, lined up, shoulders bumping.
"That's kinda fucked up, right," Kyle said, gesturing with his chin to Cartman and Butters. Cartman was ensconced in the back with Butters cradled to him, and his expression was as thunderous as it had ever been in one of his crazed hate-fuelled tirades.
"I dunno," Stan replied. "It makes a weird kind of sense. Like, why all the gay jokes, at least."
Kyle scoffed. "Butters could do so much better."
Stan shrugged. "You can't help who you love," he said, meeting Kenny's gaze.
Wendy drove like a maniac. Kenny crouched in the bed of the jeep, hanging on to the side for dear life as she flung the car around turns like she was in a rally. He could hear Kyle screaming at her from the front seat and her yelling back, but he wasn't interested in getting anywhere near that fight. Kyle drove like his grandmother, anyway, spending five whole seconds at every single fucking stop-street in town, even the one out by Kenny's explosive test site, which had approximately three cars drive through it a week.
The town was deserted as they made their speedy way towards Main street. Cars had been pulled over and abandoned, doors still open, and evacuation flyers littered the street, severe sans-serif font warning about contaminants from nearby military testing ground. Nothing like the threat of unexpected new limbs growing out of your head to scare people into obedience.
Wendy screeched to a halt outside the Rhinoplasty office. Kenny jumped out the second he could, trying to walk some feeling back into his ass. Kyle looked a bit green and Stan hovered at his shoulder, trying to be discreet.
Wendy proffered the rifle to Kenny. "We're going to have to break in. I don't have my keys."
He smirked. "Never thought I'd see the day."
"Just shut up and do it."
The plate glass on the door took three hits to breach, but when they were in Wendy was all business again. Cartman laid Butters out on one of the examination beds in the back and Wendy barked orders. The clock above the door said it was closing in on four in the afternoon. Kenny obeyed blindly, trying to keep his mind off Karen and what might have happened to her after almost a whole day alone with Stephen. Not to mention how the fuck he was supposed to find her even if she was alive.
Butters moaned as Wendy cleaned his cut, Cartman holding his hand tight. It stretched from the nape of his neck, up past his ear and around over his forehead, like he'd turned into the blow as it sliced him. It had missed his eye, and Kenny saw the little scar that he himself had left there, all those years ago. Butters looked so pale and fragile under the harsh medical lamp, his skin almost translucent and hair glowing. Cartman was a hulking beast beside him, covered in dried blood and dirt, his sweater frayed and filthy.
Stan scrubbed at his face and pulled a face. "Fuck, I need to shower for a week."
Kyle moaned like just the mention of it caused him pangs of longing. "Don't say the s-word, please."
Wendy paused in her gentle patting of Butters' face to roll her eyes at them. "We have showers here, if you want."
Kyle shook his head. "Nothing worse than getting back into dirty clothes when you're clean," he said, shuddering.
Kenny smirked and was about to make a smart-assed comment when something tugged at his pants.
"What the fuck?" he muttered, looking down.
His pants were moving, something pushing rhythmically at the front.
Stan looked over curiously and screwed his face up in disgust. "Aw, awww."
Kyle and Wendy turned to see what he was talking about and twin looks of irritation clouded their expressions.
"Fucking really, Kenny?" Kyle snapped. "This isn't the time, okay?"
Kenny resisted the urge to ask why not and settled for rolling his eyes. "It's not that, guys."
Wendy raised her eyebrows, but Kenny dug into his pocket and pulled out the thing that was straining at his pants.
The little baggie of purple fluid pulsed in his hand. He could feel it trying to yank itself free, always in one direction.
"Well that's a relief," Stan said.
"You have no faith in me, dude."
"No, I've just known you for too long."
"What do you think it's doing?" Wendy asked, squinting at it as she wrapped a bandage around Butters' head.
"Fuck if I know," Kenny said.
Kyle's eyes widened and he snapped his fingers. "Oh my god! Of course!"
"What? Of course what?" Stan asked.
"If it's naturally homogeneous and has some kind of attractive quality," Kyle was muttering, staring at the goo like Frankenstein at his creation.
"Kyle!" Kenny snapped. "I don't mean to interrupt your eureka moment, but what the fuck are you talking about?"
"And why are you allowed to make gay jokes now?" Cartman muttered darkly from his seat by the bed. Wendy swatted him on the head as she walked over to examine the blob.
"You found that at the crash site, yeah?" Kyle asked Kenny with a fevered tone.
Kenny frowned. "Uh, yeah. You were there, dude."
"So this shit is probably connected to Stephen somehow, right? And it's, like, trying to rejoin the mothership or something like that! Like when you were trying to cut it and it wouldn't separate? What if it's trying to do that now? It might lead us to Stephen."
Wendy gasped. "You're right! Kyle, you're amazing."
Kyle started and looked over at Wendy with astonishment. She was oblivious, poking at the blob quivering in Kenny's grip. Kenny grinned at him, who just huffed, blushing lightly.
"So that's our best bet, then? Follow the blob?" said Stan.
"Dude, it's our only bet," Kenny pointed out and pocketed it again. "I'm going. If there's even a chance I can get Karen back…" He couldn't finish.
Wendy laid a hand on his arm and patted her sidearm with the other. "I'll cover your ass," she said with a smile. "Fine as it is."
Kenny couldn't even think of a response for that one.
"Us, too," declared Kyle, crossing his arms and glowering. It wasn't a particularly intimidating sight, five-foot-six-inches worth of skinny diabetic Jew with a crazier-than-usual ‘fro, but Kenny grinned anyway. Stan just nodded, looking a little dazed about the whole thing.
Kenny glanced over to Cartman and Butters, who was still unconscious but moving a little, an encouraging sign. "You guys gonna be okay here?" he asked.
Cartman scoffed. "Like I need you assholes."
Stan shifted uncertainly. "If you want us to stay…"
"Just fuck off, will you? I'll take care of him."
They all stilled at that, even Cartman. A less likely thing for him to have said Kenny couldn't think of, but he shook it off.
"Okay," he said, squaring his shoulders and lifting the gun Wendy had given him. "Let's go."
DAY FOUR (CONTINUED)
They were barely three blocks away from the Rhinoplasty Clinic when the firing started. Burst of sharp ‘ratatatatatat's and concussive booms split the air and Wendy swerved when one hit a house too close for comfort. Kenny leaned almost out of the jeep's window, holding onto the baggie by only a corner. He twisted his head to watch more jeeps rolling into town, along with tanks, soldiers running alongside them.
"Should we go back?" Stan yelled, and Wendy shook her head, stepping on the gas.
"No time. They'll be okay, they're indoors."
"Left!" Kenny shouted when the blob pulsed again, and she spun the wheel, jaw clenched.
They all swore when a shell fell from the sky with a whistling noise to land on a house right next to them. Kenny watched the explosion with awe, the conflagration a thing of holy beauty. Smoke billowed upwards in roils of grey and yellow, slashed through with black and fiery orange.
"Kenny! Which way?" Wendy yelled and he tore his gaze away.
"Towards the mountains."
"Shit, are you sure?"
"Yeah I'm fucking sure!"
"You know what's out that way, right?" Kyle asked, his fingers digging into Wendy's headrest with a white-knuckled grip.
Kenny swallowed. "Yeah, I know."
The road up to the mountains felt like a whole different world, not a route they'd travelled together two days ago. Military check-points and cordons had been set up on the road, but they had been abandoned, their staff probably enmeshed in the chaos that was South Park at that minute. The best Kenny could tell their weapons had gone haywire, tanks rolling into ditches and firing their shells without warning, guns shooting or jamming for no reason.
Frankly he didn't give a shit, but he'd taken the clip out of his rifle just in case.
Wendy didn't see the tank roll into the road. She had turned to Kenny to ask him something, and all he could do was yell. She looked back in time to jerk the wheel just as the barrel fired, but the blast knocked the jeep spinning. Kenny held onto the baggie for dear life, because it was dear life, it was Karen's dear life, and her life was worth more than his own, a thousand times more.
The jeep slammed into the side of the mountain where the rock had been cut for the road, and as Kenny's ears rang and the ache from his seatbelt made its way to his brain, all he could think was thank fuck they didn't spin the other way, out into clear air and down the pine-filled slopes.
Wendy groaned and lifted her head from the airbag that had popped from the steering wheel. Her side of the jeep was pushed in, graunched and twisted. "Everyone okay?" she asked groggily, Kenny just nodding, his head pounding and wanting vaguely to be sick at the taste of blood in his mouth where he'd bitten his tongue.
Kenny had heard Stan terrified a few times in his life, and he'd hated it every time. Before he even turned to the backseat he knew something was the kind of wrong that scared Stanley Marsh, made his voice small and timid.
Stan nose was dripping fat drops of blood but it was Kyle's ashen white face that made Kenny's heart stop. His arm was bent strangely, and Kenny knew that joints didn't work that way. Kyle bit his lip like he was trying not to scream, the arm that cradled the other close trembling.
"Fuck, dude," Kenny breathed. "Anything else hurt?"
Kyle whimpered and nodded. "My leg."
That hit Kenny like a punch to the gut. He unbuckled his seatbelt, silently thanking Wendy for being an anal bitch and making him wear it, and opened his door. Every muscle hurt, his neck felt like it had been turned into a concertina, but Kyle was the only thing he could worry about right then.
He opened Stan's door, waiting for him to scramble out, and looked down at Kyle's leg.
Halfway down his calf, a bone stuck straight out of his blood-soaked jeans, stark white and jagged.
Stan turned his head and retched, his hand shaking against the side of the jeep.
"Jesus," he heard Wendy breathe, and Stan let out a sob.
"This is fine, right, he's going to be fine? Oh, fuck, Kyle, I can't handle this, you can't do this to me—"
"Stan!" Wendy barked. "He's not going to die. We just… need to get him out of the car."
"What!" Kyle yelped. "No, you can't, it'll hurt so much."
Kenny nodded. "No, she's right. You'll be fine, Kyle. You'll do great."
Kyle looked terrified, Stan maybe more so.
"Stan, help me make a stretcher," Kenny said. Stan nodded and hugged himself, shivering.
The tank sat ominously in the middle of the road, but other than that the road-block was deserted. Stan and Kenny hurried into the command hut.
"Here, help me break those legs off," Kenny said, pointing at the desk. Stan jerked like he'd been hit and Kenny winced. "Sorry."
Stan shook his head and pushed the desk over with a heave, papers flying. "Yeah. Hurry up."
They both cringed when the legs cracked off.
Kenny found an emergency kit behind the door, and they tied the legs into pairs long enough for Kyle's body with muslin bandaging. Kenny stretched the thermal blanket over the desk-leg frame, and Stan frowned.
"We're gonna carry him with that?"
"You got a better idea?"
Stan just looked away.
Wendy was patting Kyle's face and cooing to him when they ran up with the stretcher, a bizarre sight that Kenny didn't question.
"Alright, dude, it's show time," Stan said, trying for chipper and just sounding wrecked, his voice cracking and hoarse.
Kyle took a deep breath and nodded. "I'm ready."
The process of getting Kyle onto the stretcher was one that Kenny hoped he would forget quickly. They tried to be as gentle as possible but Kyle still screamed, his leg inevitably jostled, the bone jarred.
Stan started crying almost the second they started, and by the time Kyle was lying, shivering and blank-faced, on the make-shift stretcher Stan had almost hyperventilated with sobs. Still, his hands were steady as he and Kenny carried Kyle into the command hut.
Kyle winced when they laid him down on the sea of paper beside the ruined desk.
"I'm sorry, dude, I'm so fucking sorry," Stan chanted, just like he had the whole time they'd been moving Kyle. Kenny grabbed a bottle of Tylenol and a bottle of water from the emergency kit and handed them to Wendy, who helped Kyle swallow more than usual with some water. Kenny grabbed another water bottle and tried to rinse the taste of blood from his mouth.
Kyle smiled up at his Super Best Friend. "I know, Stan." His face screwed up again, but not in pain this time. Kenny though he was wrestling with something. He had the look that he got when Ike suggested a trip to the mall, or Cartman asked for his help. Like he was performing a costs versus benefits analysis. He chewed his lip and Stan knelt beside him, taking his good hand in the way he never would if this was a normal day and Kyle wasn't half-broken.
"What, dude? What do you need? I'll do anything, fuck, whatever you say."
Kyle's face cleared almost the second Stan's skin touched his, but he stared up at Stan with tears in his eyes, like he couldn't believe he could have what he wanted, like Stan would deny him at the last second. "Could you, like," he sighed and squeezed his eyes shut, "could you just lay here with me?"
Stan let out a cry and leaned down to press a kiss to Kyle's forehead, cheeks, nose, every inch of skin he could reach, breathing out laughs that were half sobs. "Of course, dude, anything. I'd do anything you asked, I'll lie here with you forever if you want me to, don't you know that?"
Kyle was crying, too, suddenly, and he pawed up at Stan with his good arm, clutching Stan to him, their foreheads pressed together and their tears mingling on Kyle's cheeks.
Kenny looked over at Wendy and shot her a thumbs up. She gave him a shrug and mouthed, "Sort of." Kenny grimaced and nodded.
"So, guys," he said, able to think of no less awkward way to remind them that he and Wendy had witnessed that moment, and really not wanting them to forget it anyway, after all he'd gone through to try and get them together, "I'm going to keep going."
Stan frowned. "After what happened to Butters? To Kyle?"
Kenny shrugged helplessly. "I have to find Karen. No matter what. She's my baby sister, dude."
Stan opened his mouth to yell some more but Kyle touched a hand to Stan's forearm. "I get it, Kenny," he said.
Kenny nodded, jaw tense, and turned to Wendy. "Look after them?"
Her mouth was set in a thin line. "Hell, no."
She just scowled at him, crossing her arms. The black uniform made her pretty intimidating for someone even less muscular than him.
"You think I'm letting you go up there on your own? Are you high?"
"Wendy, it's too dangerous. You heard Stan, look what happened to Kyle and Butters."
"And look who saved all your asses in that bus! I don't care if this is some male pride thing or male protective thing or what-the-hell-ever, because it doesn't matter. You're not going to win this argument. I am the goddamn Secretary-General of the Colorado-wide mini-UN. Do you know how competitive those Boulder bitches are? I fight dirty."
Kenny sighed, exasperated. "Wendy, why the hell would you do that? You don't have to do this. She's my sister."
Wendy cocked her head and smiled at him pityingly. "And you, Kenny McCormick, are an idiot."
Whatever the fuck that meant.
"Look, I'm coming with you, so we can stand here and waste time arguing, or we can go find that fucking alien and save Karen. Which one?"
Kenny growled. "Fine. Let's go." He looked down at Stan and Kyle who had watched this exchange with interest, Kyle's eyes starting to fog over from the painkillers. "Stay safe, okay?"
Wendy unclipped her sidearm and proffered it to Stan. "In case you need it."
Stan looked a bit sick, but set his jaw and nodded.
Kenny and Wendy requisitioned another jeep and started another hell-for-leather drive up the mountain. The blob of purple goo led them unwaveringly towards the old station-house where the train had crashed, and Kenny tried to think of ways to kill Stephen. He'd been ready to kill Cthulhu, but he'd never really had a plan, so to speak, not as to how to actually kill him. It had been more of a conviction that he should, and that he'd be technically able to, immortal to immortal. This was different, and the stakes were higher. That had been the world, but this was his sister. Cthulhu had been bigger, but Stephen was way faster, and Kenny thought probably smarter, too.
"What are you moping about?"
He looked over at Wendy, black hair whipping in the crosswinds, dirt on her cheek and a split lip and all dressed up like GI Jane crossed with Black Widow.
"I love you, you know that?" he blurted.
He clapped a hand over his mouth and she blanched, a blush blooming across her face. He groaned, dropping his head into his hands.
"Okay, so after I save Karen if you could shoot me, that would be awesome," he groaned.
She laughed half-heartedly and his stomach dropped even further. She thought it wasn't even pathetic enough to laugh about.
"I do know, Kenny."
Wait, what? His head shot up and he goggled at her.
She was still blushing but her jaw was set like it always was before she won something. She opened her mouth and shut it, and again, before taking a steeling breath and tensing her fingers on the wheel.
"When my mom died, I did sort of hate you for a bit. I was so mad, not just at your mom, but at mine for dying, at my dad for caring so much, at the whole world for, like, existing and just carrying on when I'd had this terrible thing happen. And you, you got to wallow in guilt, hating yourself and me, I figured, and I thought how nice that would be, to be able to pin the blame so easily. You thought it was your fault, but I never did. I did hate you, a little bit, for a little while, but it was for blaming yourself when I couldn't."
Kenny's throat was so full he would never swallow that lump down.
She looked over at him nervously. "I told you the truth, the other day, about how my whole life fell apart. I spent the weeks after the funeral telling myself that I shouldn't want to be friends with you, that I couldn't bear to look at you, but it was all I wanted to do." She smiled ruefully. "And I spent so much time alone I had nothing to do but think. My grief began to lessen, but your guilt… didn't. I had a long time to figure out why."
Kenny had died a thousand times and nothing had ever felt like this: not heaven, not hell, not anything in between. Like dying and being reborn in the same moment, pain and joy and aching anticipation all at once. He wanted to live suspended in this moment, but at the same time he couldn't wait for the next, caught between hope and relief and blinding happiness.
"When I realised, I panicked. We'd been avoiding each other so successfully I didn't know what to think. Maybe you'd gotten over it. Maybe I didn't like you like that. Maybe my dad would freak out and have a heart attack. Maybe we're badly suited."
She met his eyes and his breath caught. "Maybe I don't care."
She braked slowly and turned onto the bumpy dirt road to the station-house, the trees bent over them, bowing to touch their leaves together in an evergreen embrace.
"Wendy," was all he could say, all he could think. He reached his hand out, seeing it was shaking, and covered hers on the steering wheel. She stretched her fingers out and his laced between them, and they guided the jeep to a standstill with hands twined.
"Wendy," he murmured again, and she turned to him, eyes shining. He could see into her, deep and dark and wanting and Wendy, and she was the best thing he could ever try to deserve. He pulled their joined hands from the wheel and pressed their palms together.
"I don't know what you could see in me," he said, and she frowned.
"You're an idiot."
"Ugh, no, that's not—Look," she said, fixing him with a direct stare. He met it and her frown softened as she brought her free hand to his cheek.
"You're so brave," she whispered, and he scoffed. If only she knew. If only she could remember. "Stop it," she chided, giving his face a light, teasing slap. "You are. Here you are, charging into danger to save your sister. But it's more than that. You work so hard, take so much, and you just keep going. Do you know how many people would give up?" She smiled, and her eyes seemed to glow. "Most people would have. Your brother did. Your parents did. Not you. Never you."
He couldn't handle it anymore and he darted forward, pressing his lips to hers with a barely held-in whimper. Her hand on his cheek flexed and dropped to his neck, pulling him into her as she sighed into his mouth, breathing her soul into him and stealing his with each breath, every move of her lips, every touch of her tongue to his.
With Herculean effort, he pulled away. She opened her eyes slowly, like it was a whole new world for them to see, and Kenny supposed maybe it was.
"Let's go save your sister," she whispered. He smiled, feeling like his heart was swelling enough to burst out of his chest and float skywards, taking on a new life of its own apart from him, this thing he was feeling bigger than he was.
"You realise you're stuck with me, now," he said, and she rolled her eyes, but she couldn't stop smiling either.
"Like I'd let you go."
The rubble of the station-house was covered in grey ash, but it looked picked over, organised. Yellow tape had been strung up in grids over the whole area, but other than that Kenny couldn't see any evidence of the soldiers in black.
"Where now, oh oracle of goo?" Kenny muttered, holding the baggie in the palm of his hand and waiting for the pulse.
It pressed downwards, and Kenny frowned.
"So? Where are we heading?" Wendy asked.
"I don't know yet," he said, and waited through three more insistent pushes towards the ground before he looked over at her. "I think… I think Stephen's inside the mountain."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Well. Lucky neither of us is afraid of the dark."
He pocketed the blob and held out his hand. She took it without hesitation and together they picked their way over the debris and flapping yellow tape, flakes of grey ash puffing up from the ground as their feet landed.
At the lip of the plateau Kenny's breath hitched. The lumpy blanket of pine trees that he'd studied while they filmed Stan sitting around had been torn into ragged strips by the train crash, trees burned or pushed over or cracked in half. Mephesto's car was gone and the carriages had mostly been removed, but a few still lay in the dirt like abandoned toys. On their sides Kenny saw the symbol Butters had drawn. It was the triforce, exact enough to inspire a lawsuit by Nintendo if they spotted it, but now Kenny had seen Stephen it made a weird kind of sense. It looked kind of like his head upside down, and who would believe a person who said they had seen a shadowy train with a video game sign on the side?
Wendy squeezed his hand and he jerked out of his cynical train of thought. He looked over at her and his jaw dropped. To the north, behind where the old station house had stood, something had carved a tunnel into the mountain. Sod and rock had been thrown out of it down into the valley like a landslide.
She turned to look when he pointed. "Uh, I think that's how we get in."
He heard her swallow. "Well all right then."
"Got a flashlight?" he asked.
She smiled. "Military Barbie comes with all the accessories," she said, pulled a mini-mag light out of a pocket.
The air quickly turned thick and wet as the tunnel twisted around and down, and soon Kenny was sweating as they walked. Wendy led the way, and he ran into her back when she stopped suddenly.
"What?" he panted, partly from exertion and partly fear. He didn't mind dying, but Wendy and Karen weren't expendable like him.
"Shut up," she hissed, leaning around the corner. "I hear something."
"It's like humming. Buzzing? I don't know, can't you hear it?"
He tilted his head and listened. As his breathing calmed he started to hear it, an undercurrent that throbbed rhythmically.
"Let's keep going," he said.
She nodded, and crept around the corner.
The tunnel slowly lightened with a weird purple glow. Eventually it was bright enough that Wendy turned her flashlight off. The thrumming intensified and pulsed in Kenny's brain.
"I think we're about to find the mothership," he said, and then they walked into the cavern.
Kenny barely knew where to look first. A giant version of the purple blob in his pocket sat in the middle of the room, humming and glowing. All around it was scattered what looked like the contents of several Lowe's and Home Depots; lumber, metal, cables, tools, and the disembowelled shells of a dozen cars, their guts strewn among the general detritus.
"What the hell?" Wendy whispered beside him, voice choked. "Do you see that?"
He chuckled darkly. "You'll have to be more specific."
"Are they… people in there?"
She pointed at the blob, her arm trembling.
Kenny squinted. The purple goo glowed eerily but not brightly enough that it hurt to look at. It was mostly translucent, like oversized jell-o. There were a few objects suspended in it, and as he stared they twitched. Grabbing Wendy's hand, he walked closer.
The things in the blob were people, but they weren't whole anymore. It looked like they had started to dissolve into it, their limbs in various states of dissolution. One woman was gone below the waist, another only legs and lower body left. Another person was disappearing from the outside in, their skin dissolved to leave the muscle and bone exposed, slowly being eaten away.
Wendy ripped her hand from his and turned to retch.
Kenny forced himself to study each of the four bodies to check if any were the size of a skinny fourteen year old girl, but none of them were small enough. He let himself shudder in relief and horror, slowly rubbing Wendy's back as she knelt by his side.
"Those poor people," she said, her voice thick.
Kenny nodded. He couldn't say anything; if he opened his mouth he'd throw up again, and he was pretty sure he couldn't afford to be dehydrated yet.
Wendy took long, slow breaths until finally she stopped shaking.
"Is she…are any of them…"
"No. She's not there."
Wendy let out a sigh and stood up, wiping her mouth.
"So where is she?" she asked, and Kenny was about to reply when a roar echoed around them. The blob quivered, ripples flowing over it like it was shivering in anticipation.
Wendy and Kenny dove behind a car a second before Stephen barrelled into the cavern, eight legs thudding in a rhythmic canter, and Kenny nearly yelled when he saw what it was carrying.
An unconscious body hung limply from Stephen's thick grey tongue. Karen's blonde hair dripped with saliva and she looked way too pale, but just as Kenny's heart prepared to break she moaned and twitched and he nearly shouted again in pure relief. Wendy's nails dug into his arm and he realised he was half-way to standing. She yanked him back down, and he wrapped an arm around her.
Stephen yanked a plastic water tank from his stockpile of hardware and squatted over it. Wendy clapped a hand to her mouth when a black liquid gushed out of its body.
"Is it… pissing?" she asked, gagging when the smell reached them.
Kenny stared, horrified and totally speechless. This had to be the weirdest—
That thought screeched to a halt when Stephen dropped his sister into the tank of alien piss.
"Oh my god," Wendy whimpered, clutching at Kenny's arm. He could feel her shuddering, or maybe that was him.
Stephen grabbed a girder and started to stir the Karen/piss mixture, making weird clicking noises like it was talking to itself. It reached into the tank and pulled Karen out. She was coated in Stephen's horrible black urine, and it made a contented whirring sound, petting her idly as it walked over to the blob.
"No," Kenny whispered the second before Stephen threw Karen in. She slipped inside the thing with barely a ripple to its surface.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god," Wendy moaned.
Stephen looked immensely pleased with itself, caressing the blob and making happy hums and clacks. Kenny could feel himself shaking and his mind had shut down. All he could think of was killing that thing. Ripping it apart and listening to it scream.
With a final pat to the blob, Stephen turned and cantered out of the cavern.
They waited until they couldn't hear its thudding footfalls and then ran back to the ball of goo.
"Oh fuck, how do we get her out?" Wendy said.
"I don't know, shit, shit," he said, tugging at his hair and barely managing to stop himself falling into blind panic.
He grabbed a shovel and started to hack away at the goo, but just like at the school it ignored the cuts like they hadn't happened, reforming instantly without a mark.
Kenny dropped to his knees, every muscle shaking and his breath heaving in shuddering gasps. "Fuck, this isn't working. We can't get her, I've failed. Oh, fuck."
"Wait," Wendy said, and her hand was suddenly at his hip. He barely had time to choke out a yelp before she had delved into his pocket and pulled the baggie out.
"It is possible," she said firmly, staring into his eyes like she could bore her conviction into him. "See? It's separate. It can be done. We just haven't found a way yet."
He stared back bleakly. "I'm out of ideas. You?"
Wendy unslung the rifle from her shoulder. "Maybe?"
He shrugged, starting to feel unhinged and wanting to laugh or cry hysterically, he couldn't quite tell which. "Try it."
Biting her lip she inserted the clip and backed away. With a last worried look over at him she opened fire. Wendy screamed a war cry as the bullets ripped out of the gun and hit the blob. It shook as they hit, and as more and more battered it, little droplets started to jump from its surface. The instant they separated their glow disappeared and they fell to the ground, inert and unmoving like the one in his pocket had been when he'd found it.
The clip emptied too quickly, and the hole Wendy made was only two feet deep. But Kenny was laughing, and Wendy looked over at him, sweat dripping down her face and a smile on her face.
"See? We just need to use more force." She looked down at the rifle. "I guess we could go get more guns?"
He grinned and shook his head. "I know what to do now."
The first time Kenny had made a fertilizer bomb, he'd been woefully unprepared and wound up in Hell in three seconds flat. Damien had just rolled his eyes when Kenny tried to spread the gospel of ammonium nitrate. That had been years ago and Kenny had become an expert in the meantime, dying more than a few times in the pursuit of excellence in explosives.
As he and Wendy carted the ingredients from Stephen's hardware stash he thought of that first time, the millisecond between when the vapour caught alight and he exploded. It had been a perfect moment of suspension, his brain blank but for awe and excitement. Like discovering porn or drugs but before he realised the dark side that came attached, inevitable and inescapable, like a long shadow at dusk.
Wendy frowned at him as she fiddled with a pair of scissors. Whenever he looked over her she jerked her head away, pretending to be busy. He knew what she was wondering but refused to ask him.
"What if it kills her, right?" he said, unscrewing the cap off a jerry can and upturning it on the pile of newspaper at his feet.
She looked away. "We can't think like that."
"But we are. Both of us."
"But we're not going to say it. She'll be fine. We'll all be fine."
Kenny smiled and nodded, because she needed him to, and maybe he needed to pretend to believe it, too. Maybe he really did believe it.
They worked in silence after that, the only exception when Kenny needed to tell her what to do. It was nearly finished when a familiar roar echoed up through the tunnel.
Wendy threw him a battery. "How much time?"
"I don't know, not enough, fuck, I still have to set up the detonator."
She nodded, wiping her hands on her fatigues and grabbing his face with both hands. "That's it, then."
"What are you—"
He barely had time to register her kissing him, hard and chaste, before she pulled away with a sad smile. "I'll get you enough time."
She was running before he realised what she meant.
"Come on, fucker, want some more goo meat?" she screamed and Kenny felt sick to his stomach and furious and grateful all at once as he watched her disappear into the tunnel. He hated her and himself but he loved her all the same, too much to let her down, because suddenly saving Karen meant saving Wendy, too.
Stephen's roars shook the cavern and Kenny finished the bomb with trembling hands, nearly slicing his finger off stripping a wire. Time had both slowed and sped up, and he couldn't tell if an hour or a minute had passed when he finished. He grabbed the fuse and ran full tilt to the other side of the cavern, feeling like his feet never touched the ground. He was counting on the sturdiness of a pile of iron girders to shield him from the explosion. He was counting on a hell of a lot of things.
He yanked the fuse with every bit of his strength and the detonator sparked. He hit the deck and waited for the explosion.
It ripped through the cavern and hit him in the chest. He could see the flash through his eyelids and the heat seared him a second later. The blast hit him with the heat, straight to the chest and the head, with as much force as any of the trucks he'd been run over by, and he felt his eardrums burst with the pressure. The air was burning and smoky in his lungs and he tried to cough but he had no breath left. He writhed on the ground, gasping and wheezing and trying to make his lungs inflate, spots appearing in his vision and his ears in agony until finally he managed to suck in a breath, and another, and another.
For a minute all he could do was lie there, blinking the spots away as his eyes stung and watered. The air was filled with smoke and the purple light had gone. The lumber pile had ignited in the explosion and the flickering orange glow of wood on fire lit the cavern. His head pounded and he could feel blood oozing from his ears down his face. The crackle and pop of burning wood sounded muffled and distant, like he was ten feet underwater.
Kenny rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself up. He stumbled over to where the blob had been, barely able to see through his streaming eyes. He nearly tripped over the remains of the legless woman. Her skin was steaming, the purple goo lying inert in little bubbles around her, and she was dead. Had been dead. For a while, by the look of her. He tried to step back, away from her, but his feet tangled with another body and he fell to the ground. His hands flew out to catch himself and one went straight through the torso of the skinless body. He froze, his mind replaying the crunch of bone and then the obscene sucking sound of his fist sinking into the chest cavity. Kenny screamed but nothing came out except a hoarse whistling breath and he yanked his arm out to scramble backwards in a hysterical crab-shuffle.
He didn't stop until his back hit something solid and his legs collapsed. He could see the bodies in front of him and he squeezed his eyes shut. His head hurt so much, like twin drills were boring into his ears. Something between a sob and a cough jolted him and he couldn't tell if he was crying or it was just from the smoke.
He heard a sound through the muffled wreck of his ears, and it cut through the pain like daylight through fog.
His heart skipped a beat and he opened his eyes. Through the haze in his eyes he saw Karen, covered in steaming black alien piss and looking terrified, but standing, talking, breathing, fucking breathing.
He staggered to his feet, and his vision spun as the pain nearly floored him. She rushed forward when he stumbled and grabbed him around the waist, and he knew he was crying now. She babbled questions at him and he tried to answer, but the only sound that came out was husky croaking. He clung to her, leaning all his weight on her but trying not to, and she held him up with her skinny little frame, hardly more than bones and smelling terrible but fucking alive.
"Come on, let's go," he whispered, and she nodded, talking back at him. He couldn't understand her through the fuzziness of his hearing or the pain in his head, but the sound washed over him like cool water over dry lands, soaking into the cracks and broken parts.
They walked slowly, supporting each other by turns. The light from the fire petered out after a few turns of the tunnel and they walked with fingers trailing along the wall.
He didn't hear the roar but the jerk of Karen's shoulder under his hand was enough. His other hand pressed up again the tunnel wall and it started to tremble rhythmically, in sets of eight.
Kenny believed in God. It was hard not to, when you'd met him.
"I don't fucking believe it," he yelled, head tilted back and screaming at the unseen ceiling. "Really? You're gonna let me get this far before you decide to fuck me over? Let me think I've saved her and then pull the rug out? I fucking hate you, you cock-sucking motherfucking son of a bitch!"
The thudding of Stephen's feet was loud enough that Kenny could hear it fuzzily, and then it was there, skidding to a stop barely two yards from Kenny and Karen. Stephen's eyes shone with the same eerie purple of the goo, and Kenny stared back at him.
"Do it," he said. "Take me, let her go. I won't even fight. It won't matter, just fucking do it."
Stephen slowly cocked its head to the side and Kenny growled, clenching his fists.
"Don't you hear me? Do it,!" Kenny screamed.
He heard Karen scream and Stephen's leg whipped forward. He was ready for it but the instant before the alien touched him he wanted to yell, wait, not yet, I'm not ready for them to forget.
Then Stephen wrapped a claw around his waist and—
…he's always been a risk-taker, but this time he fucked up and flew too close to a gravity well, and he's running out of options. The singer can't take much more before it's totally done in. Emergency alarms blare at him and he takes a breath before just making the jump, hoping against his better judgement that he winds up somewhere safe…
…he doesn't remember the jump, the landing, anything, just that he woke up and there are weird bipedal pink creatures poking at him. He tries to talk to them, ask them to help, offers them anything, but they can't understand him and why can't he hear the song anymore…
…the first time they cut into him, he thinks it's a mistake. But then they do it again and again and he doesn't remember what it's like not to hurt…
…it's worse when they take his eyes, because the song lives only in his eyes, now, and being cut off from it for the time it takes them to grow back is worse than any pain they inflict…
…he doesn't know exactly how long it's been but he knows it's a very long time. Sometimes he sees his family, and they tell him everything is going to be alright, which means he's finally going mad, and he's so relieved…
…his legs are taking longer to grow back now, and that means he's nearly dead. He starts to fight them more, make them angry, because the angrier they get, the more they hurt him, and the sooner it will be over…
…the sky above him must be a trick, but there's air and fire and he can run…
…he tends the singer and it grows, new voices slowly joining, lifting their songs up to the stars…
…the song has stopped, and he is so angry, so heartbroken, he'll never find them if they take them again, but standing there is one of his voices with another of the creatures, and it's yelling and he hates it. What does it know of agony? Nothing has suffered like he has. He'll show this creature just what pain is…
…but then he sees the rats, and he knows. The alien spaceship is almost a given but he doesn't see the police cruiser coming, and then Kathie Lee Gifford is horrified and everyone else looks embarrassed but it's his body that slowly slides to the bottom of the flagpole. He's torn apart and bullets rip through him and his vision slowly blacks out, his lungs burning, and there are cars and trucks and tractors and a mining cart running over him, again and again and again.
He's crushed and trampled and burned and drowned and electrocuted and shot and blown up and stabbed and eaten. Hell rushes up at him again and again and he wakes to the same cracked ceiling every time. His friends don't remember and he can't make them, gave up trying years ago, so he dies over and over, and he does it alone.
Kenny slowly opened his eyes, his heart thudding hard enough to hurt. Stephen stared at him, strange glowing eyes blinking one by one. Its hot breath panted against Kenny's face and Kenny lifted a hand up, reaching forward even as Stephen jutted his head into Kenny's palm—
But Karen is rolling her eyes at him and Wendy kisses him and Kyle and Stan and Cartman and Butters and the song is not gone, only paused, and there, isn't that it playing in the distance?
Stephen dropped him and took off towards the chamber, and Kenny could hear it trumpeting in triumph. It was pitch dark before he hit the ground. Karen ran forward and dropped to her knees beside him in the dirt.
"Oh, god, Kenny, are you okay? Please don't be dead."
Kenny smiled as Stephen's happy cries echoed down the tunnel. "I'm fine, Karen. Everything is fine."
"Can we get out of here, then?" she asked, sounding panicked and tired, and Kenny grabbed her hand. With lightness in his feet that he hadn't felt in years, they made their way through the tunnel. The sun had just set and they stumbled out into the twilight, Kenny looking around frantically.
He spotted her sitting on the edge of the plateau, legs drawn up to her chest and face buried in her knees. She was crying so hard he wasn't surprised she hadn't heard them come out.
Karen frowned. "What the hell is Wendy Testaburger doing here?"
Wendy froze and Kenny rolled his eyes at Karen. "Show some respect. She saved your ass, you know."
Wendy lifted her head and turned to stare at them as Karen raised an eyebrow. "I thought you did that."
He grinned down at Karen, watching Wendy stand up slowly out of the corner of his eye. "Trust me, I couldn't have done it without her."
Karen looked sceptical but she didn't have time to ask anything else. Wendy tore across the plateau and threw herself onto Kenny.
He caught her with a laugh and clutched her tight, her legs and arms around him and her face buried in his neck. She didn't say anything, her breath hot against his skin and body shivering in his arms. He couldn't say how long they stood there. He breathed her in, sweat and fire and gunpowder and electricity, and he had almost lost this, almost lost everything, and he knew how that felt. Emptiness yawned open inside his chest, but the feeling only lasted a second before he flooded it with the memory of this moment, Wendy in his arms and his sister beside him, not a galaxy away but right here.
Wendy finally unwound her legs and stood on her own feet again. He grinned, feeling like his face would crack in two from it, and he heard Karen scoff.
"Oh, I get it now."
Wendy shot her an awkward glance. "Hi, Karen."
Karen grinned. "Hi, Wendy. Thanks for saving me. Oh, and for finally putting my brother out of his misery. I couldn't stand the moping."
"Shut up, brat," Kenny said, but he couldn't even put any heat into it because Wendy was looking up at him again.
"Are you okay?" she asked, and he could hear the terror in her voice as she took in his face. He knew he looked awful, blood caked down the front of his neck and onto his shirt, black soot and dirt all over his skin, but there wasn't a scratch or bump left on him. He didn't know how but Stephen had fixed him. Nothing hurt, and he could hear, and Wendy was alive and so was Karen and all his friends would be fine and there was nothing in the world that was wrong.
"I feel so great right now," he said, and she choked out a laugh, looking unconvinced.
"You look like a bomb hit you."
He opened his mouth for a smart comeback but he froze mid-breath when something deep in the mountain pulsed. The first notes drifted out to tease against his hearing and he let out a shaky breath.
"What?" Wendy asked, sounding frantic and he stroked her arms gently.
"Nothing, but we better move away from here."
They walked back to the jeep in silence, Kenny holding Wendy with one hand and the other wrapped around his sister's shoulders. Wendy made to open the door but he put a hand on her arm.
"You're going to want to see this," he said and she frowned.
He smiled. "Trust me."
He hopped onto the hood of the jeep and scooted up to lean back against the windshield, the thrum of the music building with each second. Wendy frowned at him but climbed up anyway, curling up against his side with a little encouragement. Karen rolled her eyes again but hopped up on Kenny's other side, and Kenny knew she cuddled closer than she had to.
"So, what are we waiting for?" Karen asked.
"You'll see," he replied, and then he felt it. The singer had been rebuilt. It was ready, and he clutched Wendy's hand tight as the pressure built.
The earth started to shake and Karen yelled his name, but as quickly as it started it was over, and something exploded out of the side of the mountain. It shone with coruscating purple light, and inside it Kenny could see the dark shadow of a figure. It shot over the valley and then up into the sky, leaving a glowing trail in its wake, shrinking into a dot and then into nothing, the burst of music playing happy scales along Kenny's mind.
"Isn't that the goo thing we blew up?" Wendy asked, and Kenny nodded. "How did it do that?"
Kenny just shrugged, listening as the notes faded to silence. "I could tell you something about the power of song, but you wouldn't believe me."
Wendy looked at him sideways. "Yeah, we're getting you checked for a concussion."
They piled into the jeep and Wendy started to drive them back to South Park. Karen was asleep almost the second the engine turned on, and as Kenny listened to her snores he relaxed for the first time in days. Wendy's hand was warm in his own, and he turned to look out at the stars.
He found the one he was looking for almost straightaway, instincts that weren't his guiding his eye to it with unerring accuracy. It looked much smaller than he expected, and he probably couldn't have seen it from town, but in the clear mountain air it twinkled. He couldn't pronounce its name and the memory of it faded more with every second, but he smiled as he watched it disappear behind mountains and trees. It popped back every time, steady and sure. Kenny knew that all he was seeing was a memory that forgot to fade, burning across space and time till it finally reached him, but memories were real, and songs could fly, and there were mysteries in the universe that even an immortal teenager couldn't comprehend. But there were truths that couldn't be denied, too, and maybe he had learned a couple. Some things never died, and some things never should, so Kenny watched the star flicker in and out of view until his eyes slid shut, Wendy's humming and Karen's snoring lulling him to sleep.
The evacuation camp didn't open its gates until morning, so Wendy parked the jeep on a hill overlooking the town. Kenny spent the night curled around her in the bed of the jeep, her head pillowed on his chest and the scent of her in his lungs with every breath.
When he woke, the sun had peeked its rosy head above the horizon, enough to cast a light on their town. South Park was used to disasters, and Kenny supposed that they'd all bounce back from this one. Most of the town had been levelled, whether by runaway tanks or unruly ammunition or trucks gone wild he couldn't tell. The black uniformed soldiers had begun the clean-up already, piles appearing out of the chaos.
"Shit," Wendy whispered, sitting up beside him.
"Yeah," he replied, voice scratchy and sleep-thick. "Let's get to that camp."
The camp had been set up a few miles out of the town, a tent city ringed with a fence and checkpoints manned by soldiers. Those soldiers were far too busy to care about one of their own and two teenagers wandering in past the gates, and Kenny wondered what they'd do now that Stephen was gone, and the company had lost its most valuable asset.
The camp was teeming with frazzled South Park townspeople, but Wendy found her father almost instantly, pulling her hand out of Kenny's to run forward and throw her arms around him. Dr Testaburger looked haggard, his face white and drawn like he hadn't slept in days. He clutched Wendy tightly, and when she pulled away he looked like he could barely stand to let her go.
Then he noticed Kenny and Karen standing awkwardly to the side, and his eyes hardened. Kenny lifted his chin and met his gaze straight on.
"Wendy, what is he doing here?" Dr Testaburger hissed, his hands flexing on her shoulders.
Kenny couldn't see her face, but she stepped back.
"Dad, you know Kenny. My boyfriend."
Heat rushed through Kenny's veins hearing her say that out loud. Dr Testaburger paled further and set his jaw.
"That's not going to work. Kenny, Karen, leave us, if you would."
Wendy whirled and stormed to Kenny's side, grabbing his hand. She brandished their joined hands at her father. He turned away, mouth thinning like the sight made him feel physically ill.
"Look at him, dad," Wendy said, her voice strained. "At least do that. Do you know what he's done wrong? Nothing. Nothing. The only thing you can say against him is that he has a crappy home life and a shitty family."
Her father's eyes narrowed. "Wendy, this isn't up for discussion," he said.
"Why not?" she demanded.
"Why not?" he said, voice tightening. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. This is about Kenny and me, not you, not Kenny's mom, not my mom. I love him, dad." She looked at the ground, her voice cracking. Kenny squeezed her hand. "But maybe you don't care about how I feel anymore."
Dr Testaburger looked stricken. "How can you say that?" he asked breathlessly.
She met his gaze again and shrugged. "You're the one who's trying to send me off to Michigan because you can't bear to be around me."
"Wendy," her father choked, starting to tear up.
"Am I wrong?" she demanded, her own eyes starting to mist over. "I love you, dad. Don't you love me anymore? When mom died it's like you did, too. You barely even look at me anymore."
"Of course I love you!" Dr Testaburger cried. "But how can I do this without her? How can I give you what you need? You need a mother, and she was taken from us."
"I know," Wendy said, her voice tight. "But it wasn't Kenny who did it. And you're all I've got, now. Please don't send me away."
"Oh, god, I won't, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Her father was crying properly now, sobbing into his hands, and Kenny took his hand back.
"I'm gonna – I'll just be – like, over there," he said vaguely, giving Wendy a little push towards her dad. She bit her lip, looking conflicted, but he smiled reassuringly back at her.
"I'm not going anywhere, Wendy," he whispered, and she nodded, kissing him before moving to hug her father.
Karen raised her eyebrows at him as he towed her away, weaving them through the crowds of people and cots. "It was just getting good," she whined.
He turned to see Ike Broflovski bounding over to them. "Hey, Ike," Kenny said, giving Karen a discreet pinch when she groaned. Ike was only eleven but already a freshman with Karen, and she had never made a secret out of how annoying she thought he was.
"Have you seen Kyle?" Ike asked, fairly vibrating with anxiety. "He's been missing since yesterday. Mom is about to rip this place apart."
"Uh, he's fine," Kenny said, looking over at a soldier ticking people off a list. "Probably at Hell's Pass by now."
"Why?" Ike said, hopping from one foot to the other. "What happened?"
Kenny shifted guiltily. "He broke his arm."
"And… a leg."
"Jesus!" Ike's eyes were wide and terrified, and Kenny's mouth started talking before his brain okayed it.
"I'm on my way to check on him now, though."
Ike slumped, looking relieved. "Thanks, Kenny. I'll tell mom. You know, after you've left."
Kenny nodded, and Karen tugged his sleeve. "Kenny, I'm going to find Ruby, okay?" She looked at Ike with barely concealed irritation.
"Sure, yeah, whatever," Kenny said, distracted. "Be safe, alright?"
She rolled her eyes. "Okay, dad, jeez."
"Seriously? After last night you're going to give me shit for being overprotective?"
"Fine, whatever," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "Can I go now?"
He sighed. "Sure. See you later."
She bounced on her toes before lunging in to hug him fiercely. "I love you," she whispered into his ear and he squeezed her back.
"You, too, brat."
She pulled away and smiled before disappearing into the crowd. Kenny's stomach clenched when he couldn't see her anymore, but he let her go. He drifted through the sea of people, smiling when he saw someone he knew. A cafeteria had been set up and Kenny grabbed a tray of breakfast and a coffee. It was pretty terrible, mass-produced meal of powdered egg and cardboard bread, but it was food, and the coffee was hot. Kenny wolfed it down with barely a breath between bites.
Wendy and her dad were sitting side-by-side on a cot, both looking drained and cried out, when he found them.
"Uh, hey," Kenny said, shoving his hands deep in his pockets and rocking awkwardly on his heels. They both looked up and Wendy smiled through puffy red eyes. Her dad didn't acknowledge Kenny's presence, but he wasn't staring his ‘I hate the very ground you walk on' stare, either. Kenny counted that as a win. "I'm gonna go check on the guys."
"I'll come," Wendy said, standing. Her father clutched at her hand, but let her go a second later, turning his worn-out gaze on Kenny.
"Look after her," he said, and Kenny nodded. That was a promise he could get behind.
Sneaking back out of the evacuation centre was easy with the soldiers frantically sorting through people and Wendy still in her black fatigues. They drove to the hospital mostly in silence, Wendy all talked out and Kenny content to watch her handle the jeep, her hair flying in the breeze from the open window. He felt vaguely drugged, like this happy feeling wouldn't last, and as he realised that fear crept in, but every time apprehension weighed him down she would look over to smile at him and he'd be soaring again.
The hospital looked like a war zone, and Kenny kept his hand wrapped around Wendy's as they weaved through the mass of people. The corridors were packed with moaning patients, tense soldiers and exhausted nurses. Kenny had sent a text from Wendy's phone as they were driving, and Stan had confirmed they were at Hell's Pass.
"They said they were on the fifth floor, right?" Wendy said when they reached the lift, cramming in with a soldier on crutches and a surgical team pushing an empty bed.
"Yeah. The sooner we all get out of here the better," he muttered, dropping her hand to wrap an arm around her shoulders. The soldier was looking at them, and Kenny was too keyed up to ignore it. He lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes, staring the guy down.
Wendy elbowed him in the side.
"Down, boy," she whispered, squeezing her arm around his waist and smiling up at him. He felt his face relax, couldn't help it, not when she was looking like him like that, all soft and open, bruise lying yellow against her cheek and butterfly suture in her lip. He dropped his forehead to hers and just breathed, the air smelling of antiseptic and recycled air conditioning and a little bit of sweat, but also just of her.
They left the elevator without a look back.
None of the others noticed when Wendy and Kenny walked into the ward, and Kenny pulled her back to stand in the doorway, wanting to scope the situation out before he walked in.
Kyle had casts around his arm and leg, and he was clearly high on painkillers. His eyes were unfocused and glassy, and he was staring at Stan like he couldn't believe he was real. Stan was stretched out on the bed beside him, their shoulders pressed against each other and Stan cradling Kyle's uninjured hand tenderly. Kyle kept looking down to stare at their entwined fingers, then back up to Stan's face, his expression wondrous and floored.
Butters slept peacefully beside them on a bed of his own. He was turned away from the door but Kenny could see the bandage wrapped around his whole head.
"I can't believe it," Kyle said, slurring a little.
Cartman sighed, leaning back in his chair by the foot of Butters' bed, hands behind his head and an obnoxiously calm expression. "You know, Kyle, a lack of willingness to accept empirical evidence is a key symptom in a number of mental disorders."
Kyle didn't reply, just stared at Stan again. "Is this real?" he asked, and Kenny's heart ached a little at the fear in his voice.
Stan just smiled and kissed Kyle's nose, then their joined hands. "It'll be real forever, dude."
Cartman gagged, and Butters shifted on his bed, moaning.
"Look what you did, Stan!" Cartman said, standing to hurry over to Butters' side and fuss with his blankets, still managing to look totally put out by the whole thing. Kenny never knew you could dote on someone and look like it was beneath you at the same time.
"Fellers?" Butters asked sleepily, turning over. Kenny's heart nearly stopped when he saw Butters' face almost totally covered in a bandage, only one eye and his mouth visible.
Wendy pulled him forward then, and Kenny didn't have any strength left to resist her.
Butters saw them first. "Kenny! Wendy! Oh, am I glad to see you, when I heard you'd gone after some kinda monster I was all torn up with worry," he said in a rush, scooting up to sit against his headboard and wincing when talking pulled his face.
Cartman barely spared them a glance, fluffing Butters' pillows.
Stan leapt off Kyle's bed to grab first Wendy then Kenny in a fierce hug. "Fuck, I had the worst feeling. I was so sure you were dead, dude," he mumbled into Kenny's neck, clutching at his back and squeezing him tight enough to hurt. Kenny felt a rush of affection for Stan, who was so larger than life with emotions to match. Stan loved easily and hugely, and he hurt just the same way, and Kenny couldn't believe he'd resented that a few days ago. Kenny just hugged him, trying to apologise, and when Stan let him go to lean back and smile, tears in his eyes, Kenny smiled back.
As Stan climbed back into Kyle's bed, gingerly trying not to jostle him, Kyle's foggy eyes turned to Kenny and Wendy's intertwined hands, which had gravitated together unerringly.
"So," he said, slow and dreamlike, "Everything worked out? We're all okay?"
Kenny smiled. "Yeah, we're all okay."
"Speak for yourself," Cartman snapped. "Butters had to have fifty-three stitches. Fifty-three!"
"Eric," Butters said, reaching out to lay his hand on Cartman's arm, who blushed.
"I'm just pissed off. Who's gonna have to look after you now, huh? Me, that's who. My whole summer is ruined. Fucking weak."
Butters just smiled.
"Shut up, fatass," Kenny said with a roll of his eyes and a gesture towards Stan and Kyle. "I'm finally going to be able to collect on the betting pool on you two."
Cartman scoffed. "Who would take that bet?"
"Clyde," Kenny said.
"Fucking idiot," Cartman muttered. Butters frowned and tapped Cartman's chin lightly.
"Honey, that's not very nice."
Kyle finally rose out of his trance. "Honey? Honey? Oh, sweet Jesus, thank you," he muttered.
"Way to keep the faith, Jew."
Kyle didn't reply. He had already turned back to Stan, tracing his face with his good hand. Stan stared back, his eyes full and glistening. It was so intimate that Kenny had to turn away.
Wendy was watching Kenny with a glint in her eye. "You don't have any bets out on me, do you?"
Kenny laughed, and he couldn't get used to how easy it felt. "Are you kidding? Even I'm not that hard up for cash. I don't have a death wish."
"Stan?" Kyle said.
"Do you really love me back?"
Stan smiled. "I really do."
Wendy cocked her head. "Has this been going on a while?"
Cartman groaned. "Ever since he woke up. Sappy question, sappy answer. It's fucking sick."
Stan just kept smiling, never looking away from Kyle's overwhelmed gaze. "It's not sick, its amazing."
"Awww," Wendy cooed. "Everyone's in love. It's like a movie."
Cartman scoffed. "I'm not in love."
"Hey!" Butters said. "What did I tell you about lying like that, mister? No more hiding."
"But Butters," Cartman whined, "They're making me sound like a pussy. Like fucking Kyle."
Butters crossed his arms and fixed Cartman with a steely look, albeit with only one eye visible. "I'm serious, mister. No more pretending."
"Ugh," Cartman said, slumping down into his chair.
"You're not going to leave me for Wendy, are you?" Kyle asked, his expression open and totally disingenuous.
Laughter exploded out of Wendy and she doubled over, wheezing. Stan just touched Kyle's cheek fondly. "No, Kyle. Not ever."
"I'll say," Kenny muttered.
Wendy managed to get herself under control and straightened. "I'm pretty sure I was the other woman in the whole Stan and Kyle scenario, anyway," she said dryly.
"But Kenny said," Kyle insisted, and Wendy sobered, looking over at Kenny, who wished very fervently that Kyle would just shut up.
"What did Kenny say?" Stan asked with a gleeful grin, and Kenny shot him a nasty look.
Kyle frowned, like it was hard to remember. "He said that perfect people should be with other perfect people. And you're perfect, and Kenny thought that Wendy was perfect, so you should be together."
Stan looked like he was going to cry, and Wendy's expression had softened from the stony glare she had levelled at Kenny.
"Well, Kenny is an idiot," Wendy said, taking his hand again, and Stan nodded with a sad smile.
"Besides," he said, cupping Kyle's cheek, "Don't you know you're perfect, Kyle? There's no one in the world as perfect as you are."
"So," Cartman interrupted with a retching sound, looking over at Kenny and Wendy, "Care to share the details of how you're, you know, not dead?"
Kenny grinned at Wendy and she just rolled her eyes. "Go ahead. I know you're dying to."
Kenny rubbed his hands together. "Well, my friends, it all begins with the power of song."
"Oh, god, you're high again, aren't you?"
"Cartman, this is going to take a really long time if you keep fucking interrupting," Kenny snapped.
"Sounds like someone's on the rag."
"Fine, Jesus. Touchy."
By the time the story wound down and Kenny and Wendy were kicked out of the ward, it was closing in on midday.
As they walked out to the parking lot, Kenny looked over at Wendy. "So, we're not giving the jeep back?"
She scoffed. "As far as I'm concerned we earned that truck. Besides, I don't think they'll even notice."
He hummed in agreement. An announcement over the hospital PA had ordered all the soldiers to move out somewhere between the goo explosion and Kenny's alien psychic experience. The soldiers had cleared out of the hospital with freakish efficiency. When Wendy and Kenny had left Kyle and Butters' ward, the soldiers who had been interspersed with injured townspeople were simply gone. Kenny wondered idly about Jeffrey, the asshole in the lavender shirt.
When they reached the evacuation camp again, soldiers still milled everywhere, but they were dressed in normal camouflage fatigues and the words ‘US ARMY' were blazoned on every truck in sight. The camp had been opened and townsfolk spilled out onto the dirt around the fence. It looked like they had been organised into rough groups, each gathered around a table with a computer and a contingent of soldiers.
"What's going on, do you think?" Kenny asked. Wendy shrugged, and they started to make their way into the chaos.
"Hey, Kenny!" Ike shouted, jumping up and down and waving his arms. Kenny and Wendy weaved through the army personnel towards the Broflovskis.
"Kenny, Wendy, oh my, I've been so worried!" Sheila gushed, rushing forward to hug them both. Kenny could feel the tremble in her arms and he hugged her back.
"We're fine, Mrs B. Kyle is, too, we've just seen him."
Sheila's hand flew to her mouth and Gerald visibly relaxed.
"Oh thank goodness. What happened? Where is he?" Sheila asked.
"Hell's Pass. He's got a couple broken bones, but he's fine. Everyone's fine," Wendy said, and Sharon Marsh appeared, dragging Randy behind her.
"What about Stan?" she asked, her voice shaking.
"He's fine, really," Kenny said. "What's happening here?"
Sheila huffed, casting a dark glare over at the army sergeant and his computer. "They're trying to work out who still has a house. Some streets are totally gone."
"Yeah, we saw," Wendy said. "Pretty crazy."
Sharon frowned. "Where have you kids been, anyway? Gallivanting around at a time like this? And why are you dressed like that, Wendy?"
Wendy laughed. "It's a long story, Mrs Marsh," she said, glancing over at Kenny. "I think I'm going to find my dad."
"Of course, honey, he must be so worried," Sheila said, patting Wendy on the cheek. Wendy squeezed Kenny's hand and he smiled at her before she disappeared into the crowd.
"How about you, Kenny?" Sharon asked. "Don't you want to find your mother and Karen?"
Kenny looked down, shifting awkwardly. "Mom's at Hell's Pass, and Karen's fine. She's with the Tuckers, anyway. Don't want her to find out till she has to," he muttered.
"Find out what?" Gerald asked, and Kenny jumped. He really needed to stop talking before his brain caught up.
"I just – our house. I saw when Wendy and I drove in. It's gone. We're officially homeless," he tried to joke, but it fell flat. Sheila, Gerald and Sharon all looked horrified, while Randy just looked bored.
"Oh, Kenny, that's terrible," Sheila said, reaching forward to hug him again. "Well, you know you can stay with us as long as you have to."
Kenny tried to pull away, but Sheila was in full-on mother mode, and she kept firm hold of him.
"Wait, can't I stay with Ruby?"
Sheila released him then, and Kenny turned to see Karen standing with Ruby and her family, Craig with his hands in his pockets and looking bored as always. Mr and Mrs Tucker nodded together.
"She'd be welcome, of course. We love having her around," Mr Tucker said, and Karen smiled triumphantly.
Kenny didn't know what he felt at that moment. His gut was churning, and he wanted to yell at them all, to tell them to leave him and Karen alone, that they didn't need anyone. He remembered when he was growing up, haunted so many times by the feeling that his world was teetering on a knife edge, and anything Kenny did could send it tumbling to the ground, the pieces smashing as they fell. His life was a balancing act, a delicate game of keeping his mother, father, and brother happy and stable. Then he'd gotten older, and he'd seen the familiar fear start to haunt Karen's eyes. That was when Mysterion had been born. He had done everything he could to keep that feeling from Karen, to offer her the stability that he had never had, to be the one thing in the world that she could count on. How could he give that up? Karen was his responsibility. No one else would ever take care of her if he didn't. No one took care of him.
"Kenny?" Gerald said, frowning a little. Kenny looked around at all their faces. They were all worried, expressions open and kind, everyone but Craig, who just looked indifferent. He thought of all the times Karen had come home from Ruby's with a giant casserole in her arms, all the extra sandwiches Stan brought to school ‘accidentally', Kyle's over-supply of school books.
The revelation dawned on him slowly, like a hatch yawning open, letting light flood in. He saw Wendy out of the corner of his eye, dragging her father through the crowd towards him, and it just clicked into place.
People did care about him. People cared about Karen. There was nothing his family could do, no dark place they could sink to, that would change that. Wendy saw him looking at her and grinned, the brilliance of her smile hurting his eyes to look at.
She paused a few yards from him, dropping her father's arm as he turned to talk to Randy, and they just looked at each other. Kenny thought of the past few days, of his fists hitting Stan's chest and Stan just enfolding him with his massive arms and holding him as he cried, of Stan and Kyle following him with gun shots blazing and shells falling around them, of the sight of Wendy's back as she ran screaming into the tunnel to give Kenny a chance to save his sister, of the feel of her pressed against him, the smell of her hair and the taste of her tongue, and the way she'd looked just a few days ago when she'd asked him why he didn't want to be her friend anymore. If they could come through that, if he could survive death and war and blood and fire and still have Wendy smile at him like sun through fog, then Kenny couldn't be afraid anymore.
"Kenny, are you okay?" Sheila asked, and Kenny smiled.
"Yeah. I think I am."
DAY THREE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED EIGHTY SEVEN
Kenny's neck ached and he tried to crack it as he turned his key in the lock. Work had been hell that day, some other company trying to muscle in on their patent and his boss riding him like hell to get the lab working on tweaking the compound. Kenny didn't see how that was his problem and not the legal department, but he'd done his best, and now his eyes felt like they'd never un-blur from hours of staring down a microscope.
He dumped his bag and jacket by the door and arched his back, stretching and twisting till he heard a series of pops. With a satisfied sigh, he wandered towards the kitchen, the beers in the refrigerator calling his name
He stopped dead in the doorway at the sight of Wendy bent over at the oven, her ass stuck up into the air straight at Kenny's face, firm and so tempting in her favourite shorts.
She straightened and turned, holding a pan of something delicious smelling in her oven-mitted hands. The first time Wendy had cooked for him Kenny had nearly fainted with lust, and even now coming home to Wendy making dinner on her nights was enough to get his motor running.
"Hey, Kenny," she said, setting the sizzling pan down on the bench. "How was work?"
He managed to turn his mind from Wendy's ass, and grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge, flicking off the caps and throwing them aimlessly onto the counter. "Fucking awful. You?"
She shrugged, accepting the beer he handed her. "Same as always. Other lawyers, annoying clients. Boring."
He grunted as he took a swig, leaning back against the fridge. "Fuck, I'd give anything for boring right now. Pfizer is trying to contest our goddamn patent on the diabetes drug."
She frowned, taking a delicate sip. His heart rate spiked at the sight of her lips wrapped around the bottle, wet and full—
"Can they do that?" she asked with a frown.
He shrugged. "Sure. They might win, too."
"How is that your problem, though?" she asked, and he could see her getting worked up about it as she talked. "You made it, it's the goddamn company's job to keep it."
He groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't you? Fuck."
"Awww, poor baby," she said, setting down her beer and walking over to him. She hopped onto the island and pulled him towards her, spinning him so he rested between her legs. She started to rub his shoulders, dropping kisses in his hair. He groaned again and let his head slump forward.
"You're all tense, baby," she said, almost purring, her fingers working their way into Kenny's tight muscles. "You need to relax. What can I do to help you do that?"
He chuckled, trailing his fingers up her legs. "Let me think about it."
"Mmm, okay," she said, nipping his ear. He hummed happily, stroking her thighs, the soft skin on their inside, the light scratch on her calves where she hadn't shaved in a couple of days.
"Any ideas yet?"
He didn't say anything, just turned and pulled her into him. She grinned and twined her legs around him, tilting her face away when he leaned in to kiss her.
"Playing hard to get?" he said, nuzzling her neck and running his hands up her sides, toying with the hem of her shirt.
"You didn't tell me what you want," she said, nosing his hair. She loved his hair, loved to pull it and play with it, and he let her cut it for him, let her do whatever she wanted with it.
"Well, let me think," he said, and flicked her earlobe with his tongue, smiling when she sucked in a sharp breath. "I think I want to take this off," he said, tugging her shirt, "and these," he said, moving down to push a hand into her shorts to palm her ass, "and then I want to lay you back and eat you out, right here."
She whined, pulling at his hair.
"You like the sound of that?" he asked and she giggled breathlessly.
Kenny grinned and kissed her, finally, the familiar but still so wonderful sensation of her lips and tongue sliding against him as she breathed her soul into him making him feel drunk with pleasure.
The phone rang somewhere but Wendy was tugging at his shirt urgently, starting to pant into his mouth, and he heard the machine click on, his own voice blaring into the apartment.
"Hey, it's Wendy and Kenny, we're not here or we're screening, you know what to do."
The beep sounded and Kenny managed to undo Wendy's bra with one hand.
"Uh, hi. It's Karen. What's up? Um. So. I met this guy. Well, I didn't meet him. I already knew him. But, uh. We started dating, and it's, like, serious. So. Yeah."
Wendy pulled away from him to raise an eyebrow. "What the hell?"
He shrugged and attached his lips to her neck, sucking and nipping.
"I just wanted to give you a heads up. We're coming in to Chicago this weekend, and I don't want you to beat him up, okay? Seriously."
Kenny grunted. "Like I'd do that," he murmured against Wendy's lips. She giggled.
"Because you kinda know him. Well, I mean, you do know him. It's, um. It's Ike. Broflovski."
Wendy burst out laughing. Kenny turned to stare at the machine.
"I know he was a dick in high school, but he's good now. I mean, again. He's like he used to be, before he got all cocky. I really like him, okay, so don't be an ass. Wendy, help me out here. Okay. Love you guys."
The machine clicked off and Wendy was still laughing, clutching at Kenny's shoulders, her bare breasts shaking with each breath
"It's not funny!" Kenny said, but he was distracted by her jiggling chest and it lacked heat.
"Oh, come on," she said, still laughing. "You remember how much she hated him at school. Especially after he got cute and figured it out. Ike is probably the only fifteen-year-old kid in the country who could pull college girls."
Kenny scoffed, reaching up to palm a breast, rolling the nipple with his thumb. "I don't know how he learned that ‘hit it and quit it' shit. Kyle was in a monogamous relationship from age ten."
She just hummed in response, laughter gone, and leant forward to kiss him, her mouth eager and wet. The phone rang again, and Kenny ignored it.
"Kenny, dude, did you hear? My brother and your sister! What the fuck, dude?"
"Seriously?" Kenny muttered.
"I give it a month. Stan says I'm being a bitch but whatever. Ike will fuck it up. What the hell is Karen thinking? Is she an idiot? Sorry, I mean I know she's your sister, but she knew what she was getting in to."
Wendy half laughed half groaned as Kenny shimmied her shorts off.
"So, anyway, call me back. I need to rant about my little brother's lothario antics. Hi Wends. Make sure he calls me back. Stan says hi and sends his love. Bye guys."
Wendy was bowed back over the island, writhing while Kenny teased her, kissing her legs and belly and everywhere but where she wanted him, when the phone rang again.
"Oh. My. God. If your sister and Ike breed, the apocalypse is seriously fucking nigh. The spawn will be poor and Canadian and Jewish! It'll be a fucking abomination!"
Kenny stormed over to the phone's cradle. "Seriously?" he snarled when he picked it up.
"I knew you were fucking screening," Cartman said. "Butters said no, but I knew it."
"Cartman, go away. I don't care if Karen and Ike are together. I don't care what you think. I don't care what Kyle and Stan think. I don't care about anything right now except fucking my wife, alright?"
He could hear Cartman making retching sounds but ignored it as he slammed the phone down and yanked the cord out of the wall. Wendy was watching him from the kitchen bench, hair tousled and cheeks red, naked and shameless, and Kenny couldn't get back to her fast enough.
"I'm going to hold you to that," she said as he leaned over to kiss her. "No beating up Ike."
He just smiled and ran his hands over her body. Her skin was still the softest thing he had ever felt in his life. "'Kay. Whatever," he muttered, and she chuckled before he stole her breath with his mouth.
They didn't talk after that.
Kenny lay in bed later that night, Wendy breathing softly beside him. He thought about all those times he'd stood in the shower dreaming of this, of simple domestic bliss, and how it had felt so far away. Sometimes he'd cried after he'd jerked himself to bittersweet completion, convinced that he'd never have anything even close, that he'd stay in South Park alone and unloved for the rest of his life. But now, lying in the apartment he owned with his wife, the memory of Wendy spread out on their kitchen island, flushed with pleasure as their dinner cooled unnoticed by the sink, moaning his name, rings glinting on her finger and lying heavy on his, he couldn't help but smile.
The stars glinted in the window, and Kenny heard the ending strains of a strange song, floating through the air like dust motes, buoyant and weightless. He wondered how Stephen was, if he was happy, too, and fell asleep to dreams of purple balls surfing on seas of music and stars.