Walpurgis Nightwritten by SekritOMG - illustrated by 8shortfuse and I-Cause-Chaos
Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Denver, Colorado.
The screen of Stan's computer flickered to life.
From across the room, Stan staggered over.
"That's right." He smiled wryly, but Kyle's tone was no less tense that it had been lately.
"You made it!"
"That's right, I did."
There was a moment of silence between them, gazing at each other while 2000 miles apart. Stan took in the sight of Kyle's hotel room, beige and narrow. "Oh," he said, trying to mask the hurt in his voice. "You shaved."
"Yeah. Well." Then Kyle unfolded, as he was wont to do, as he always did, with answers: "Well, I'm going to be on television, I guess, I can't be looking like — like some kind of hobo."
"You never look like a hobo!"
"I mean, I have to look trustworthy, I have to look..." Kyle blinked. "You know, reassuring."
"That's what I'm talking about."
"Not this again..."
"Kyle, please." Stan hadn't shaved that morning, and looked as anxious as he sounded. "I'm not being paranoid, I'm not saying something will happen, but in the event that something happens, Kyle, please, I need you to be here — we need to be together. I need you to come home."
"The taping's at 5. You know, Eastern."
"So you can get a flight out by 8, I bet. Kyle, I'm being completely serious, I have a feeling—"
"You and every sensationalist pundit in America!" Kyle had little patience for Stan's apprehensions. "Nothing's going to happen, all right? I'll talk about war on TV if they want me to, it's good for business, but you need to calm down. I'm not going anywhere."
"When do you fly out?"
"I was going to stay through tomorrow night," Kyle said. "But then I have to teach the next day, on Thursday morning, so, can't really hang around that long."
"I'll meet you in New York. I'll get a flight right now."
"That's ridiculous, don't do that. I'm here for, like, a day."
"Then I'll meet you in Chicago. It's important!"
"It's not important!" Kyle snapped. Then he said, "Oh," softly, and shook his head. "Sorry."
"It's okay." Stan looked away, out the window, to the street.
But Kyle couldn't see where Stan was looking; he could only assume. He knew the house, its layout, the size and the shape of the living room and the way the low eaves of their bungalow didn't let good light in before noon. "It's not okay," Kyle said. He put his hands over his eyes. "Okay, look." He removed them. "I didn't mean it's not important to be with you." He bit his lip. "Of course that's important."
"You're not acting like it."
And Kyle was annoyed again, rolling his eyes. "Were you acting like it." He paused. "When you, you know. ... Fucked that boy?"
"Don't 'Kyle' me!"
"Why can't I?" Stan asked. "That's your name, isn't?"
"Because I don't know if I should let you treat me like this when I'm not even sure how to proceed anymore."
"I'll tell you how to proceed," said Stan. "You can do your taping. Fine. Say hi to whoever for me. Then you're going to get a flight to Denver — no. I'll get you one, okay, I'll get online right now and book you a flight, and I will pick you up, I'll be there—"
"Stan, listen to me." Kyle sighed. He leaned into his monitor, resting his hand on his cheek. "Oh, that feels pretty weird. Being clean-shaven like this, I mean."
"I wish I could feel. I'm getting sentimental, see, I always do right before bad things happen—"
"Again, to drive the point home. Did you get really sentimental right before you—"
"Yes!" Stan snapped. "I did. I was. I did."
"Not that it matters."
"It matters to me! Kyle, honey. Listen. I'm begging you. I know you're smart. I think you are the smartest fucking guy I've ever met. But neither of us knows what's going to happen. All I know is that the New York Times is saying strikes could start as early as tomorrow night, and the government's enacted a fucking curfew, I'm getting warnings taped to my door when I get home at night, all my classes are canceled — surely it's obvious that people are convinced this thing is actually going to happen. You guys at Chicago have to know that!"
"We're not diplomats, Stan. We're scientists."
"So surely you understand that your grasp on the geopolitical situation right now might not be the most informed!"
"And yours is? Stan, you're a fucking poet."
"So? I have a fine-tuned sense of dramatic premonition. And even if I'm wrong—" Stan's voice became very quiet. "I'm sorry, Kyle. I am. I'm not perfect, I've fucked up, but you don't understand. I did what I thought I had to do, and if I thought we'd be sitting here after all this time—"
"It's only been three months."
"—if I could rip open my veins, my heart, and spill out every wrong I've ever done you, I'd do it, even if it cost me my life."
"Yes, there's that flair I adore so well." Kyle rolled his eyes. "Threaten to kill yourself, that usually works."
"I'm not going to kill myself! I'm trying to right wrongs."
"Then tell you what," said Kyle. "Have you got next weekend off?"
"Hold on." Stan minimized Kyle's window, and clicked over to his calendar. He opened the chat window again. "Yeah, I've got it off."
"Then why don't you come see me? We can talk."
"I shouldn't have to fucking schedule a time to come see you," Stan said. "If anything, I was there last month, so you should come home."
"I want to come home," Kyle replied. He was rubbing his eyes again. Stan noticed he was still wearing his ring. "But I'm busy, okay. You can't just order me around the country, all right? I'm a person, okay, I'm not your slave, especially not after—" Kyle was interrupted by a familiar chime. "Wait." He reached for his phone. Stan watched Kyle's eyes scroll over his screen. He looked up. "I have to go. Rehearsal, all that."
"I don't know. Don't look at me so incredulously! I've never been on the news before. It'll be good for my career."
"You said as much."
"Don't be bitter, Stan. I'll be back, okay? I'm tough. We're going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine."
"I wish that was something you could promise."
"Like you haven't broken any promises, lately! Fine, okay. Think about coming out next week, all right?"
"All right." Stan tried to smile. "I'm going to my uncle's tonight."
"That sounds—" The phone chimed again. "Okay, seriously, I have to go."
"Kyle, if something happens—"
"I have to go."
"—I love you, I always have. I couldn't not."
Kyle sighed. "I know. And ... I love you too, okay? We'll be fine. Maybe not in the long term. Together. But, this week, for sure. Okay?"
"I love you."
"I love you. Bye Stan."
The window faded to black, leaving only the white text at the bottom of the screen:
Call with: Kyle Marsh
Stan shut the laptop. He had some packing to do.
On Monday at 3 p.m., it was deemed safe to emerge.
Stan's uncle went first. He was an adventurer. Funny that a man who'd had a bomb shelter on his property since the late twentieth century would be the person most eager to climb out of it. Stan couldn't blame the guy. There was nothing he was less interested in doing than staying down there, piled up with his uncle, his parents, his uncle's friend Ned, his sister, her ex, and their children. It was tight, ungodly tight. Stan was glad his grandfather was dead; he could only imagine how unpleasant that would have been, all of them crammed on the floor together, taking turns sleeping and drinking. Stan found himself huddled most often against his nephew, Shelly's oldest, a boy of 8, who spent his hibernation weepily mourning the loss of his friends, none of whom had their own bomb shelters.
Upon getting inside his uncle's house, the first order of business for Stan was to take Trevor to the bathroom, and blot his eyes with a piece of toilet paper. The sky outside felt eerie, still and cloudless, about 45 degrees, no wind. An unremarkable day, and Stan felt uneasy about it. He wavered on his way to the bathroom, Trevor padding after him. Then he sat Trevor on the toilet and kneeled in front of him.
"Are we going to die?" Trevor asked, his hands balled in little fists. "Like everyone else did?"
"Not everyone's dead," Stan replied, which had to be empirically true. Someone out there had sounded the siren that called out safety. "Colorado's pretty far inland, you know. I bet everything's going to be fine."
"If everything's going to be fine," Trevor said, wiping his eyes, "why aren't you happy?"
It had never occurred to Stan that anyone in that shelter could tell. "How happy or unhappy I am hasn't got much to do with everyone being fine," he said. "I'm relieved we're all right, of course. And I'm sure your friends are all okay, Trevor, really. I'm not sure about people on the coasts, we can't know that now, but we live really far out in the middle of things, where it's hard to have a war." He didn't much enjoy lying to children.
"Why's it hard to have a war here?"
"Well, because the globe is round, right?" Stan made a round sort of shape with his hands. "And Pakistan is just about on the other side." He wasn't sure this was true, but he hoped it made conceptual sense. "So to get to the United States, how would planes from the other side of the world go?"
"I dunno," said Trevor.
"East or west."
"Oh." Trevor nodded. "Okay."
"So if you're flying west toward America, what part do you reach first?"
"What's to the east?"
"I don't care!"
Stan sighed. "See, all the big important cities are on the east coast: New York, Washington ... ah, Boston, I guess. And on the other side, Los Angeles is very big, and so is San Francisco. If you were attacking cities in America, it wouldn't make sense to send your forces with the most impact to the middle of the country, would it? Because the biggest cities are on the coasts, and they're easier to get to."
"I thought Denver was a big city!"
"Denver's pretty big. But, it's not the government or communications center of the country, right?"
"No, that's right. Because what's the capital of America?"
Trevor blinked. "I think it's New York."
Stan had to sit down, bracing himself against the bathtub. "Oh, no." He swallowed. "It's Washington, D.C., of course, but New York, ah. ... New York is very important."
"How far away is it?"
Stan looked up. Trevor was no longer crying, but his eyes were wide, and his little hands were crammed in fists against his thighs.
"Pretty far, I'd say. It might take a day to drive there."
"So that's far enough away that we'll be okay?"
"It's hard to say right now." Stan felt nausea gnawing at his stomach. "But yes, being right in the middle is like having a safety cushion."
"I wouldn't like to be in New York right now, then!"
"No," said Stan, but this time he was lying.
"Your kid's upset." It was the first thing Stan had said to his sister since the day before.
"Who?" she asked. "Charlotte?"
"Trevor." Stan was kicking his heel against the linoleum.
"Well, yeah, no shit, there's a war on." She was rifling through cabinets, her back to Stan. "I'm upset. Aren't you?"
"Of course I'm fucking upset." Stan rubbed his eyes, tapping faster, the rubber of his sneaker clicking on the floor. "Is there any coffee? I could really go for some."
"That's what I've been looking for, and I think the answer is no." Shelly slammed a cabinet shut and turned her dulled expression on Stan. "Depressing, right? I know."
Stan pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and had a seat. "You could send Greg out to look for some," he suggested.
"He went out to go check on his parents, believe it or not. I thought that was pretty decent of him." Shelly lurched over to the table. She was usually so bristly, but on that morning, to Stan, she seemed neutral in the chemical sense, lacking any charge and unable to bond. Stan couldn't call her a friend, exactly, but she liked to consult with him about their family, which was unusual not in its composition but in the absurd personalities that comprised it. For Stan's part, he liked to babysit her curious children. He and Kyle had talked about children as a future abstraction, but neither of them had ever seen a place in their lives for such an indulgence. Trevor and Charlotte were the closest thing they had.
"He said he'd come back tonight or tomorrow," Shelly continued. "You know, depending on how things are over there."
"Hmm." Stan didn't much care if his sister's ex-husband came back that night, or the next day, or even at all. "And what about everyone else?"
"Dad and Jimbo went up the road to see what's going on. Mom's still with Charlotte. She's pretty distressed, as you can imagine."
"No. Well, maybe. But, no, I meant Charlotte."
"Poor everyone, frankly," said Shelly. "But, yes. Poor her."
"It'll be all right."
"Sure." Shelly rolled her eyes.
"Trevor, um. I put him in Jimbo's bed with that thing he likes, um, the sort of elephant thing—"
"Yeah, he likes that." Shelly clicked her chipped, purple nails against the table. Then she lifted her hands and sighed into them. "Have you heard from Kyle?"
It took Stan a moment to gather his courage and croak out a hoarse, "No."
"I'm sure he's all right," she said. She didn't look at Stan when she said it.
"I hope so," Stan replied. "I really, really hope so."
"You could write about this, maybe."
"Oh, yeah? Who's gonna be around to read it?"
"How the hell would I even get it out there? Have you tried calling anything? Or anyone? Your phone's dead, isn't it? Mine's dead—"
"Stanley, you're acting like a fucktard—"
"Well excuse me for having paranoid thoughts about the future of the publishing industry in the middle of a nuclear fucking holocaust!"
"I don't think it's a holocaust, fucktard," she said. "I mean, look, we're still here."
"Okay, but where is here?"
"Here is South Park," she said, "or just outside of it, anyway."
"I can't do this anymore." Stan got up from the table.
"Can't do what, can't sit here while we wait for Dad and Jimbo to come back?"
"No, I can't fucking sit here. I gotta go. I need coffee."
"Well," she said, "if you find any, bring some back, please."
"Sure." Stan pushed his chair back in, and patted his back pocket for his wallet. "Anything fancy?"
"Fuck you, I don't like fancy coffee." She smiled at him, punctuating it by tapping her nails against the table again. "Besides, Jimbo's got a grinder. If you can manage, just bring back beans."
When Stan left the house, he took a moment to stare up at the sky. It was clear and bright but collared by the mountain crags encircling the valley. Jimbo lived next to a clearing, and that was where Stan had parked. He stood against his car, a gray hatchback with good mileage. Kyle had fought him and fought him about the shape of the car: it was ugly. It was bulky in the wrong places and too narrow at the hood. It looks like a penis, Kyle had said, it looks like a fucking big gray goblin cock. "You wish you could have your very own big gray goblin cock," Stan had teased.
They'd never fucked in the car, but in happier times, Kyle had bent over the gear shifter and sucked Stan's cock, not once but dozens of times, any time they found themselves on a long stretch of empty highway. As Stan sat in the driver's seat and squinted at the road stretching out ahead, he thought about the last time Kyle did that. It was in mid-January, at the end of his Christmas break, in the parking lot at the Denver airport. Kyle had concluded with Stan's foreskin pulled tight between his teeth, which drew blood, and Stan had screamed from how much it had hurt. Not that his bleeding dick wasn't painful -- it was -- but the thought that Kyle's teeth had always been right there, and he'd never done it before, but he'd done it then — that hurt.
"That's a little too Garp for my taste," Stan had said, still choking, wiping the tears from his eyes.
"Yeah? I'll fucking bite the whole thing off next time, and it definitely won't be an accident."
Stan smiled at the memory of such unpleasantness.
Main Street was packed. It wasn't a shock; Main Street had often been packed in Stan's lifetime, on Sunday afternoons and in times of crisis. In South Park, they used to say, every day was a crisis. Maybe they still said it. Stan didn't spend enough time there to know anymore.
At the end of a long block was a coffee shop, a national chain. There was a paper sign on the door: Yes, we are open!! Stan breathed a sigh of relief as he parked, not bothering to lock the hatchback. Why should he? People didn't steal in South Park. They were paranoid small-town panic-prone nincompoops, but they weren't thieves.
There was a long line for coffee, and the mood in the shop was subdued. Many in the queue were teary eyed, whispering to one another. A diminutive barista with long blonde hair — Stan didn't know her; she had to be only 15 or 16 — had puffy red eyes and a raw look of misery. Maybe she knew something; maybe she knew someone, someone out east. Stan didn't know -- he wasn't going to ask her, but his heart softened toward this young woman as the line inched him closer to her.
"Marsh," someone belted.
Stan whipped around.
A man and a woman, dark-haired and solemn, were sitting at a corner table. The man, Craig Tucker, was waving him over. The girl, she'd been his grade-school crush. He knew these people, safe people, without unknown miseries. So he got out of line and walked over to them.
"Not that there was any reason to worry," said the woman, "but we were just worrying about you."
"Hey, Wendy." He pecked her on the cheek, drily, with the utmost propriety, the way he might kiss his sister, if she weren't opposed to such a thing.
"We were trying to count up casualties," Craig said. "You know, of people we had in common."
"Craig, that's such a morbid way of putting it!"
"I'm just putting it how we were putting it."
"And we were wondering about you," Wendy continued. "I was worried." She'd always worn her dark hair long when they were children, layered and shaggy. Now it was cut back, choppy and shoulder-length, her bangs grown out; Stan could see her forehead for the first time since grade school. She'd pushed it all back with a blue satin headband. The haircut looked expensive, but her outfit was simple: straight-legged jeans, a pair of slip-on sneakers, what appeared to be someone else's PCHS cross country sweatshirt over a pink T.
"Worrying about me?" Stan asked. "Why?"
"Saw your girl on the news," Craig said, and Stan felt sick. It must have been apparent, because Wendy offered him some water.
"I'm okay," Stan said, crossing his arms. He used his hip to push over a free chair. "My girl, huh? What'd you think?"
"He seemed very composed," said Wendy.
"Very composed for a man who was all but guaranteeing a nuclear attack would never happen on US soil," said Craig, "about 36 hours before a nuclear attack on US soil."
"You know Kyle." Stan crossed his legs. "Always so sure of this stuff."
"Isn't he a nuclear physicist?" asked Craig.
"I think that's what it says on the back of his book, yeah."
"My kid found it very reassuring."
"You have a kid?"
Craig nodded over his mug. It looked like he was drinking a triple-shot of espresso. "I guess you miss shit by eschewing social media."
"I'm married to social media," Stan said.
Wendy cleared her throat. "How do you mean?"
"You know." Stan shrugged. "Kyle." He made a gesture with his hand, a sort of yapping pantomime. When he was done he re-crossed his arms.
"Weren't you going to get something?" Wendy asked.
"Yeah, I was, my sister asked me to bring some beans home."
Craig pointed to his cup. "Just beans?"
"God, no, I think I'm going through withdrawal." Stan looked at Wendy. "Do you want something?"
"Just a tea, I guess," she said.
"Great." Stan pulled himself out of his chair, and smoothed his shirt down. "I'll be back."
Stan usually drank his coffee black, as strong as possible. He didn't much care for anything alongside it. He'd subsisted for the past half week he'd subsisted on canned stews and freeze-dried strawberries. He found himself craving a doughnut.
Yet when he got to the counter, the case was empty.
So he ordered his pound of beans, and his large coffee, and slid a 20-dollar bill across the counter toward the register. Then he cleared his throat and asked, "Have you got any doughnuts?"
The barista was a small girl, and she rolled her eyes to the ceiling, like she felt sorry for Stan. "No food," she said. "Sorry."
"I'm kind of hungry."
"Sorry, sir. We don't have any food. Just coffee."
Stan didn't quite know what to say, so he peered down at her with intensity, hoping she might realize that he was a paying customer, eager to be fed.
She sighed. "All of our food products, like our pastries, are shipped up from a regional distribution center in Denver."
"Okay?" Stan shook his head, not really comprehending what she was getting at.
"...And, like a lot of Denver, it doesn't exist anymore." She slammed the register drawer shut, and tried to hand him his change.
Stan took a step back, nearly toppling into a woman behind him. "What?"
This finally seemed to addle her. "Are you really not aware — have you been living under a rock?"
"Yes!" Stan snapped. "I mean — well, almost, a bomb shelter, but — are you serious?"
"About not having any pastries? Yeah, I told you, our distribution center was bombed."
"Yes!" She smacked her own forehead. "Christ, it's been all over the news, it's been everywhere—"
From the further down the counter, a man called out, "Marsh?"
"That's my coffee," Stan said. "Um." He looked at her for a moment, trying to figure out what else to say. The change she'd handed him, three paper singles, was moistening in his grip. The lady behind him tapped her foot and sighed. Deciding there was nothing left to say, Stan walked away, fetching his coffee and beans, and Wendy's tea.
As Stan sat back down at the table, Wendy leaned in over her drink, a look of grim concern on her face. "You look pretty upset," she said. "What's wrong?"
Stan blinked. He was still gripping his pound of beans and cup of coffee. "What happened to Denver?"
"God, it was bombed," said Craig. He never showed much emotion, even when it was called for, but Stan would swear that Craig had hesitated for just a split second before bombed. "Where have you been?"
"In my uncle's bomb shelter!"
"Doesn't he have a — I dunno, satellite communications, or something?" Craig shrugged. "Anything?"
"He doesn't have anything," said Stan, "he's a gun-toting redneck." Instantly he felt guilty for disparaging his uncle, who was enthusiastic, and could be an emotionally generous man when he needed to be. "It wasn't, uh, nukes—"
"No," said Wendy.
"Just a blitz."
"Well, what does that even mean?" Stan asked. He felt for the phone in his jacket pocket. "How'd you guys find out? I haven't charged my phone—"
"Don't bother," said Craig. "The entire network's down. Nationwide. Presumably."
"Stan." Wendy put a hand on his shoulder. "I know this is a silly question, but — is everything all right?"
"No, of course not! I haven't spoken to Kyle!"
"Haven't spoken to him since when?" Craig asked.
"Since before I drove up to South Park."
"So he's not with you?"
"Do you see him here with me?"
"Well, no," said Craig. "I just thought—"
"You're always together," said Wendy. "Always."
"Clearly not now! Not with a war on!" Stan tossed his beans on the table and took a sip of his coffee. "Christ."
"Can we not drag him into this?"
"Shut up, Craig!"
"Craig," Wendy said in a soothing tone. She was still rubbing Stan's back.
"We're all worried about someone," Craig said, like this justified everything.
"Well, I hope your kid's okay." Stan didn't look Craig in the eyes when he said this.
"Yeah, he should be okay. His mom took him out to her parents', British Columbia."
"Why didn't you go?"
"I decided to stay here with my girlfriend."
"Who's your girlfriend?"
"God, Marsh." Craig rolled his eyes. "You're pretty thick."
"Unflattering." Stan took a sip. "But accurate. I guess."
At the next table, a man in a black hooded parka started laughing.
"Oh, I'm glad I'm amusing," said Stan. "I wasn't even trying to be funny, asshole."
"You've gotten so serious," said the man. Stan could see he had dirty blond hair and a square-ish jaw. "What happened?"
Stan turned around in his seat to peer a familiar profile. But it was Craig who said, "McCormick," like he'd been expecting Kenny to show up here this whole time.
"Always," Kenny said, a bit of a sigh in his voice. He uncloaked his hood and put a hand on Stan's shoulder. "You look bad, dude, really bad."
Stan hadn't seen Kenny in years.
"I need a cigarette," Kenny said, standing up. "Stanley. Join me?"
"Not the point."
"Thanks for inviting me," said Craig. "And for saying hello."
"Pfff." Kenny swatted at Craig's ear. "Get over it, Tucker. There are some people's pants you can't charm off. Stay here with you girlfriend. By the way." Kenny stooped down to peck Wendy on the cheek.
"Kenny," she said. "It's been forever."
"No, not nearly that long. Sit tight." Kenny turned to Stan. "Coming?"
Stan hadn't seen Kenny since Stan's wedding. Kenny's had been the year before, at Grand Teton, on the far side of Wyoming. "It means 'big tits,' " he'd explained numerous times to anyone who'd listen. Even on his wedding day, Kenny had trouble rousing an audience. It was a solid drive, and it took Stan and Kyle about 12 hours to get there. They'd hung out with Kenny a lot in college, and neither had been surprised that he wanted to get married at the age of 23. He'd found a girl, four years his senior, who was ready for that kind of thing. Eliza feigned offence at Kenny's more off-color jokes, but when he walked away she was just as filthy, making offhand remarks about pegging and auto-erotic asphyxiation. "They're perfect for each other," Kyle had mumbled on the ride home the night after they'd first met her. "Did you know she's bisexual?" Stan hadn't known, and he didn't much care, but he could see Kenny falling for an older lady.
By the time Stan and Kyle were married, Kenny and Eliza were settled, expecting a baby, living in Denver. Kenny was a witness at the wedding; his signature was still on the marriage contract, beneath the funny crooked Hebrew scrawlings that Stan couldn't read. Kenny's name was clear as day, though, block letters with an 'X' at the end that made him seem like a king, Kenny the Tenth. Kyle and Stan had promised that when they moved into the city, the four of them would socialize. They hadn't.
Now Kenny stood smoking with his back pressed to the shop's brick exterior, his coffee cup between his feet. For a while, Stan wasn't sure what to say, guilt choking any thought that crossed his mind. But then, Kenny hadn't called them either, had he?
"Life gets in the way of things," Stan said, looking away, trying to glance at who was walking down the street.
"Yes." Kenny nodded his agreement, sucking at the filter of his cigarette. "Life or death."
"Well, you tell me. Aren't you the poetry teacher?"
"Creative writing, yeah."
"Tell me." Kenny paused to pull on his cigarette. In spite of the acrid smoke Stan thought he had a clean air about him, calm and unrattled. "How's that going?"
"It's all right. Um." Kenny was a wedding photographer. Stan couldn't say that he has artistic vision, but Kenny was certainly an adept hustler. "How's it going with work? How's the wedding circuit?"
"Fine. I guess. Irrelevant, maybe. I mean." Kenny paused for another drag. He exhaled. "Are any of us going to have jobs now? I mean, really."
"Well — yeah. I dunno. But, like. How's Eliza?"
Kenny had a cigarette wedged between his teeth, and a sick smile rose around it, smoke curling from Kenny's nose. "She isn't," he said.
Kenny pulled the cigarette from his lips. His demeanor became very dark, lips tensing. "Alive anymore."
"Kenny!" Stan would have laughed at his own reaction, picture-perfect, taking a step back and covering his mouth. "Oh, fuck, I'm so sorry."
"You're not the only one." The cigarette butt fell to the ground. Kenny kicked it into the pavement. "Air strikes, the whole city. You really didn't know? I heard Craig telling you—"
"I was in a fucking shelter — no, sorry, fuck. It was that bad down there?"
"Not everyone can send their precious children to British Columbia," Kenny spat. "Not everyone has an ancestral bomb shelter."
Stan had to brace himself. The coldness of Kenny's demeanor suddenly fit. "Your kid—"
"Two kids," said Kenny. "Gone. Yeah." He reached into his sweatshirt pocket, producing another cigarette and a book of matches. He pulled one from the cardboard and struck it so fiercely that Stan was shocked when the match ignited with a sizzle, rather that blasting through the pavement under their feet. Stan saw the match trembling in Kenny's fingers.
Having never met either of Kenny's kids, Stan felt a kind of loss. He hadn't met them, but he might have, one day. Now he never would. "Shit," Stan said, and he followed it with a genuine laugh at how meager and pathetic it was to just say "shit" like Kenny'd dented someone's bumper. "I am so sorry, Kenny. So, so fucking sorry."
"Like being sorry helps anything." Kenny tossed the match on the ground. After he took a long, deep breath against his cigarette, he shook his head and said, "No, fuck, sorry, I know, that's what you're supposed to say. What else could you say? ... I'm being self-absorbed. Fuck it. How's Kyle?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"Well." Stan kicked at the ground abstractly. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to break apart the loose pavement in the crack in the sidewalk that ran down between him and Kenny. He looked up and said, "He went to New York last week to film some segments for stuff, I don't know, pre-recorded late-night things, but he was also live on NBC. Because he wrote this book a few years ago, um, it's called Seek Shelter—"
"I know," said Kenny. "That shit was flying off the shelves last week. You couldn't buy it anywhere."
"If you want a copy—"
"Thanks." Kenny ashed his cigarette onto the sidewalk. "I've got it, or I had it, we got it when it came out. Not that we thought there would be a nuclear war, or anything demented like that, but, I don't know, it seemed like if I knew the author—"
"There's not a lot of him in the book," said Stan, and it was true, there wasn't. The tone was very stiff and clinical. Not that Kyle couldn't be stiff and clinical; he often was. But Seek Shelter had a detached kind of tone, with none of Kyle's deadpan candor, his self-awareness. Stan recalled the first draft he read being bitingly funny, in a cruel sort of way, but he also remembered the notes Kyle's editor sent back; apparently to mainstream audiences, Kyle's cruelty was off-putting. Stan wished he could have stomached watching him live on television. But the idea of sharing him with anyone else was so upsetting. In that regard, Stan was happy to have taken refuge underground.
Kenny finished his cigarette with a sigh, letting it fall from his lips. Some ash fell against his sleeve, but Kenny didn't wipe it off. "So?" he asked.
"I've been thinking," said Stan.
"Great, that's usually pretty good, generally."
"I've been thinking I might want to ... go find him." Stan waited for some kind of reaction, but when Kenny didn't protest, he continued: "I have a car, so. I could just — I could just go."
"Like, I think — he was last in New York, right, so if I just start driving — maybe the network will come back on, maybe ... I just can't sit here, you know, wondering where he is."
"I'd go insane. I mean, this sounds insane, right, but it isn't."
"No," said Kenny. "It's not." He reached into his pocket, as if for another cigarette, but then he stopped. "I want to come with you."
"What? Kenny, no."
"Don't you want to have company?"
"Sure, but — Kenny, you can't."
"Why? What's the matter?" Kenny asked. "Does 'I want to come with' no longer mean 'I want to come with?' "
"Sure it does. But that doesn't guarantee that you mean it."
Kenny's mouth tightened, as did his fists. Then, with a great sigh, he relaxed into a slouch. "I've got nothing here. Nothing's keeping me here."
"Well," said Stan, "at least we're together on that point." As soon as he said it, he remembered his mother and father, his sister, her children, his uncle. Even his ex-brother-in-law, Stan felt bad about forgetting him, too. But all of them put together, they didn't counterbalance what Stan was missing.
"At least I can help you pay for gas."
"Sure." Kenny narrowed his eyes. "I'm employed. Or at least, I was. Do jobs still exist in this radioactive future economy?"
Stan shrugged. "My classes are all cancelled until further notice. Or, they were. I guess I can go into town and find out. Maybe I should go into town and find out."
"Going into town seems prudent."
"Yes. ... Are you sure, dude? I mean, really and truly? Maybe we won't be able to come back, I don't know—"
"Unless this is something you think you need to do on your own," Kenny said.
"No, I don't much like doing things on my own," Stan admitted. "It's not my scene, really."
'Then I'll come with you." Kenny finished the end of his coffee, and licked the last bit from the hole in the lid. "When do you want to leave?"
"When can you be ready?"
"Like I said." Kenny slammed his empty cup into a garbage can, making the metal lid shudder. "Got nothing here. I'm good to go now."
Stan considered this. "I should say goodbye to Wendy and Craig," he said. "Then I should go home and say goodbye to my family. But that couldn't take too long. I could pick you up in, say, two hours?"
"Like I said." Kenny jerked a shoulder in a noncommital shrug. "Whenever."
Stan's mother had always seemed rational to him, fair and discerning, coolly perceptive. When Stan told her he was leaving, she crossed her arms and said, "No. No no no no no. Are you out of your fucking mind?"
He crossed his arms. "No?"
"Do you know how far the drive from Colorado to New York City is?"
"About 2000 miles," said Stan. "Maybe less. It's straightforward, Mom, just a lot of I-80."
"You're mad," she said. "I'm not letting you go anywhere."
"I have to."
"Have to what, you have to get yourself killed by driving into a radioactive bomb site by yourself? You know this is suicide, Stanley, right? What are you thinking?"
"Well, that Kyle is somewhere out there, over there. Somewhere. Anyway, I'm not going by myself, I'm going with Kenny McCormick."
"Kenny McCormick? Where did you — what, where did you even dig him up from? Oh, god. Sorry. That's not the point. Honey." His mother's voice became very quiet. She reached for him, across the kitchen table. "Please forgive me. This is going to sound — I know how it's going to sound. But, Stanley. If Kyle was in New York City when it was bombed, then the chance that he is still alive is..." She staggered over her thought, and finally had to shut her eyes and shake her head.
On Stan's other side, his father cleared his throat. "What she means, son," he said, "is that Kyle is probably dead."
Stan had almost forgotten that he was there. "I know that!"
"Well, someone needs to just say things how they are! Stan, the best thing to do now is stay with your family."
"Well — Trevor needs a good role model, doesn't he?"
"He's got a father," Stan said.
"Kind of," said Stan's mother.
"No," said Stan, "he does, and I've done what I can, but it's insulting to imply that your personal grief with the guy makes him inadequate to raise your grandson."
"What he did to your sister—"
"There's two sides to every story, Mom."
Sharon looked to her husband, appealing.
"Well." Randy shrugged. "We should let him go."
"What! Are you insane?"
"I don't think I'm insane, Sharon, but — he's not a little boy, we can't make him stay here."
"Spare me your machismo," Stan's mother scoffed.
"What's that got to do with it? The boy's a grown man and he wants to go find his missing lover? Well, who are you to stop it? Sounds heroic, doesn't it?"
"See, there you go again!"
Stan groaned and rubbed his eyes. "The fact is I am going." He stood, put his hands on the table. "And you guys can get up and say goodbye, and we can embrace, and—" Suddenly he felt very sad to leave his parents.
His mother did embrace him, crying. "You don't have to do this!"
"Oh," said Stan, feeling how light his mother's bones were under his palms. "I do, though, I — but I know how you feel. That's why I have to do it. You'll ... you'll love me more when you see me again."
"What if I never see you again?"
Shutting his eyes, Stan thought about what he could say. "Then you'll love me more still," he said, trying to evoke something metaphysical with it. When Stan opened his eyes he saw his father was still sitting at the table, gazing up at him. His father, with his infuriating eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, was also a scientist; he studied rocks, sturdy tangible things. Stan knew it was right to leave them, and still he let himself cry.
The drive from South Park into the city was eventless for a while, about an hour of climbing up into the mountains, out of the shallow valley where Park Country sat, and down again. Almost 20 miles outside of Denver, things became dim, the light thinning into a gray wash. But it was bright still, and Kenny lowered the window to throw away his cigarette, on which he'd been happily chewing.
"Oh, Jesus." Stan began coughing against the steering wheel, into his hands. "Close that, please," he tried to say, but his throat was spastic.
Kenny shut it anyhow. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"God, yeah, just sensitive to, ah. ... What was that?"
"Ash, I figure. And rubble."
"Yeah, like, little pieces, tiny little fragments, of buildings and stuff."
"I know what rubble is," Stan said. Then his gaze was drawn from the road to the city as the miasma cleared, just a bit, and he saw the low flames burning, like bonfires, dotting the landscape. He made out only the barest outline of the mountains, and the sacramental look of it almost took his attention away from the driving, but Kenny grabbed his forearm and said, "Stan! Car!" Turning back to the road and catching the brake lights in front of them, Stan threw his foot on the pedal and they jerked forward, stalled behind a line of traffic.
"I said it was bombed," said Kenny, and he leaned against the window, like this was all a great bore to him.
With the highway backed up, they got off 285 and took 85 down, and Stan cut through Littleton. Visibility was better on the streets, and there were fewer cars. There wasn't a lot of speaking between them, but Stan managed to tune into AM radio, which was reading off names. The syncopation of the staid announcer's voice was comforting, as the signal crackled. Stan hadn't listened to the radio in forever, was surprised when Kenny pointed out that he had one. After a breath and a chime, the announced paused and said, "If you're just joining us, today we're reading the names of those who we're missing in the greater Denver community. It doesn't need to be said, this is a grim day for the nation, and for Colorado. Again, if you have any information on any of the persons named here, or can confirm the whereabouts, we need to hear from you at three-oh-three—"
Kenny snapped off the radio.
"Why?" Stan asked.
"God, too much."
"I know." Stan's hands were sweating, and he peered around at the city, at his neighborhood. Things were standing here, southeast of the center, but there were few signs of life. "Most people cleared out, I guess," he said.
"Well, anyone who could," said Kenny. He sounded bitter.
"You can really only say that a few more times before it starts to mean nothing. I mean, I know, of course you are. From here on out, consider your sorries a given."
"Then what can I possibly say?"
Kenny said, "Only a fucking poet could possibly think his words could repair anything that's happened. I know you're sorry. We both are. Everyone is. Everyone."
Stan made a mental note to speak less. "We could stop at your place," he said, trying to be conciliatory.
"There's nothing there," said Kenny. "Just bodies. Rubble and bodies."
"How do you know?"
"Because I was there."
Something about this answer felt wrong to Stan, but he wasn't sure what it was, and Kenny's grief felt too raw to touch, to pry at.
At the front door, Stan breathed a sigh of relief. Even with Kyle gone, walking inside triggered the sense memory of home, although it smelled like burning wet leaves and a kind of acrid sweetness. Not the house itself — the house smelled like Kyle's usual blend of lavender candles and detergent. It was the town, the flora, even the wet asphalt of the streets, imbued this lingering threat of ending. But things inside looked as Stan had left them, and he half expected Kyle to bound out of the kitchen and tell Stan what he was making for dinner. "Baking is just chemistry," Stan heard him saying, and it almost brought tears to his eyes.
Then Kenny slammed the front door and said, "We should be quick, if we're going."
"All right," Stan agreed. He knew what he wanted, and he marched into the office to get it.
The key to the filing cabinet was on the windowsill, sitting under a potted aloe plant. Stan felt the waxy prick of its stalks, seeming alien and gray in the turquoise walls.
"Oh my god," said Kenny, following Stan in.
"I know, right?" Stan couldn't help but smile to himself, sliding open the bottom metal drawer. His fingers caught the tabs of the files. "It's pretty audacious."
"Who picked this color?"
"Well, I liked something very light, springy green, maybe." Stan scanned the labels, mouthing them: Checking, 20--. Mortgage, 20--. Taxes, city, 20--. Taxes, county, 20--. Taxes, income, 20--. Taxes, state, 20--. That was Kyle's subfolder for the past calendar year, FINANCES, not in his handwriting but printed from a label-making program. "He thought the office concept warranted something dark and stately. Uh, scientists you know, they want everything to be—" PERSONAL, with subfolders IDENTIFICATION and RECORDS. Bingo.
"Oh, um." Stan pulled the folder from the cabinet, and laid it on the dark wooden floor. "He likes everything to be, um. Stately. So anyway." Stan tipped open to file. "Yeah, we couldn't agree, just mixed the colors. That's how we compromised on that." Stan began sifting through documents, not caring if his fingers were sliced open. So much paper! He wished all life decisions, all compromises were just as easy as mixing two ill-fitting colors of paint.
"What are we looking for?" Kenny asked. He knelt down. "Can I help?"
"No, no, I've got it." Here, in two subfolders, was everything Stan wanted: their passports, his and Kyle's; their birth certificates, and Kyle's responsible Xeroxes thereof; marriage contract, with Kenny's blocky name at the bottom; an envelope marked ssn cards in Kyle's actual scrawl, like he wasn't paying attention when he'd done it, or he'd been walking away as he wrote.
"This is very sentimental of you, isn't it," Kenny said, straightening back into standing with his hands on his hips.
Stan gazed up at him. "Perhaps," he said, "but I actually think it's just smart to have legal identification."
"I think if the country's in absolutely disarray, it won't much matter if you've got a birth certificate."
"On the contrary, if things are in disarray, it might, you know. Make things easier. Aid my passage. Our passage."
Kenny shrugged, like he wasn't sure who the we in "our" could be, since he'd never thought of himself like that, in the context of another man, certainly not Stan Marsh.
"We could go get yours," Stan offered, the we sticking out like a jagged fingernail.
"Don't really know what there'd be left to find," said Kenny.
"How do you know?"
"I keep saying." Kenny rolled his eyes. "I was there."
"Fine." Stan stood up and stretched. He tucked his files back into their cabinet and slammed the drawer, locking it shut. He left the passports and things on the floor. "I'll use the bathroom," he said, clearing out.
Stan returned to find Kenny sitting in the desk chair, gazing out the window. Stan and Kyle had a mid-sized yard, which Stan was loathe to admit he hadn't touched in some time. It was just early spring, too soon for blossoms, and it seems something had shaken the buds from the trees. But the tops of the bulbs, he knew, tulips and crocus, would be peaking from the bases of the conifers.
"I hope you don't mind," Kenny said, spinning the chair from the window. He lifted a cigarette to his lips, and smiled around it, as if to dare Stan to ask him to drop it.
Stan wanted to say no, to smack the cigarette from Kenny's lips and ask him not to defile his home like that. But then, with the unfortunate reality setting in, Stan shrugged and said, "Sure, go ahead," knowing he might never see this house again.
"I just think that maybe, I don't want to do this."
It was late afternoon already, and while Kenny did not wear a watch, his eyes kept flickering toward the digital clock in the dashboard, and then to his wrist. It reminded Stan of some old habit, perhaps, that Kenny might not have been aware that he had.
"I know we have to get out of here somehow," Kenny said, "but I'd really feel better if you took 70."
"But 70 takes us completely out of the way," said Stan. "It's a straight shot down 80."
"You say that and you make it sound so easy."
"It is easy!"
"Fine, suit yourself."
Responding to a whine from ahead, Stan pulled over. A wailing ambulance shot past them, and as its sirens trailed in the distance, Stan slouched at the wheel. When it had passed, he rubbed his eyes and said. "I just think it would bring some closure, somehow, if you saw it or whatever."
"Oh, you're gonna lecture me about closure now? Where the fuck do you think we're going?"
"I was pretty sure it was a direct shot down I-80..."
"I really just want to get out of Colorado, Stan, okay?" Kenny's eyes had the bleary look of someone who'd gone without sleep for a while, or too much sleep, a lack of familiarity with daylight.
"You're just acting sketchy, okay—"
"Sorry I'm not being all weepy about it—"
"—like, this is really not that hard. It's the poetic thing to do."
"Sure," said Kenny. "Sure, fuck, do whatever you want, just wake me up when we're there."
Stan twisted the ignition, the engine trembling alive, like the car didn't want to go visit Kenny's house, either. Despite his entreaty about Stan waking him, Kenny didn't go to sleep, just grumbled out an address and said, "Take Chambers up there or something, I gather we won't be as miserable. And you might even be able to get through."
"Get through?" Stan asked. It did not occur to him, until he was paused at a red light heading north on a wide thoroughfare packed with stalled vehicles along the sides of the road, that the smoke cover was thicker here, and most of the side streets were closed off, more and more the father north they got.
Kenny's house was not more than a few miles away from Stan's, and yet it was a different city entirely up there. He tried not to say anything, just glanced at Kenny often, trying to catch a sympathetic beat in his eyes. But Kenny had the glazed look of someone bored and unsettled, and used to that feeling.
"You know, I told you," he said, when they found his street blocked off. "I told you it would be no use."
"I believe you have to try," said Stan.
"Yes." Kenny paused. "That's becoming apparent."
They climbed over the sawhorse and into the street, where wreckage had been piled up at the end the street, by — what, a plow? Stan saw nothing around, but there were some people in the streets. He tried not to look at them. He saw Kenny staring straight ahead, and Stan determined to do the same. The things on the ground were mostly gray, dirty with soot and detritus, but Stan made out shapes — a faucet here, Chinese food takeout boxes, couch cushions, flattened and deflated. Some cars were in better shape than others; some had garages that had toppled down around them. Kenny kicked at something and it went skittering into the void, then he kicked something else, and Stan saw it was a hard-boiled egg when it cracked against a jagged edge of plastic. Most houses were standing, but only in part, crippled shells of half-dwellings. This wasn't a nice neighborhood to begin with. Stan saw how Kenny trudged through it with dispassionate detachment. Then, after a double-take, Stan realized he'd spotted, from under the roof of a crushed pick up, an arm. Feeling sick, he refocused his attention to the back of Kenny's head.
Stopping at a corner, Kenny pointed a one-story split-level, the lower half of which was collapsed so badly the roof had sunk into the basement. "All right," he said. He sounded angry. "Does this fucking satisfy you?"
"Oh, don't fuck say you're sorry," said Kenny.
Stan stared at him for a moment, trying not to look at the house. Or to call it a house was unfair — it was half house, maybe, but at least half pile. "Ken," he said, voice on the verge of cracking. "How could you ever survive this?"
Kenny looked around like he was searching for words. His eyes narrowed. "I didn't."
Stan felt foolish for sputtering the whole way back to the car, but how could he stop himself? The implausibility and the wreckage, together — it was too much. Kenny kept his mouth tight, hands in his sweatshirt pockets, hood pulled up. It wasn't a far walk to their parking space, and they climbed over the sawhorse again in terse silence. Stan unlocked the doors from 50 feet away, and Kenny jogged ahead in a needless sprint, slamming the door shut before Stan got there.
"Kenny," Stan said, sliding into the car. He slipped his key into the ignition, but didn't turn it.
"Don't." Kenny was staring out the window. Outside, the day was still vapor-thick, the glare fading as it got later. Kenny's breath was fogging the glass. It reminded Stan of making out in the car as a teenager, not this car but his father's old Buick, the one Stan used to drive in high school, Kyle's fingerprints smearing the windows.
"I can't — I don't get it. Who could have survived that?"
"No one," said Kenny, "no one survived that. Look at the neighborhood." He tapped the glass. "I doubt very many people are alive under all that. No one's even searching."
"Well, I bet people were here before, it's been a couple of days — someone obviously came and put up a barrier and, and I bet they did a sweep—"
"Maybe," Kenny admitted. He shook his head. "But it doesn't matter. My family's dead, my wife's dead, my kids are dead — it's how I know, okay, I was there. I don't want to dwell on it—"
"What the fuck?"
"Um." Stan didn't want to contradict Kenny, but: "I think I would, yeah."
"Fine, great. I forget you get off on poetic misery and whatever."
"I don't get off on it, but—I don't understand, Kenny, I don't understand how you could have been in that house—"
"Well, I hope you're not implying I abandoned my family," said Kenny.
"No, never! But you, you must have survived, and then, I don't know, come up to South Park somehow—"
Kenny sighed, rubbing his eyes, like he was dreading whatever he was about to say. "Yes, and no. Or no, and yes. See." He shook his head. "You're not going to believe me. You never did. No one ever did. Well, Liza did, but — but, not really. Who would? So the thing is." Kenny tented his fingers. "I did die, in that house. And then, this morning, I woke up, in South Park, at my mom's house. I woke up in bed wearing this hoodie, and I got up and slipped out before she saw me, and I went down to Harbucks for a cup of coffee, or just to see who was there. So I sat down, trying to process things, and then just my luck, you know, Wendy and Craig fucking Tucker sit down next to me, there's the weird part, actually, in my opinion, these fucktards I'd known since I was 3 who didn't notice me. Then you came in—"
Stan looked at a Kenny with a very straight face. Then he said, "Bullshit."
"Oh, you didn't go to Harbucks this morning?"
"No, I don't believe that you died!"
"Well, I did, so. Sorry." Kenny shrugged.
"That's basically insane."
"Well, look around." Kenny gestured lazily out the windshield. "What's not insane about this? Why would fucking Pakistanis bomb the Denver airport, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."
Stan hasn't much thought about this. "Well," he said, trying to put himself in Kyle's analytical mindset, wishing Kyle were in the car with them. "I'd be willing to bet it's because of NORAD? Like, the closest major airport?"
"It's a civilian airport," Kenny said, "you know, civilians live here, people like my fucking kids—"
"You're asking the wrong guy," said Stan. "I don't fucking know, okay? I'm really fucking, uh — I mean, I feel for you, so much. But people don't die and then wake up in the morning. It doesn't happen."
"Of course you don't believe me. Who would? But you're wrong."
"You're fucking sitting in my car—"
"Yeah, and you know what, I'm sick of it. You said we were leaving Colorado, right? Well, I hate Colorado. Fuck. Can we go, please?"
"But I don't understand," said Stan.
"I'll tell you if you fucking drive."
"Drive!" Kenny couldn't help but kick the glove compartment, his sneaker leaving a print on the glossy wood-paneling. "Sorry," he said, leaning in to rub it off with his sleeve.
"Doesn't matter." Stan shrugged. "I don't care how it looks, only if it drives."
"Doesn't seem like a position Kyle would endorse."
Stan rolled his eyes. "Kyle bought his own car, so. Yeah, I don't presume he gives a shit what condition this one's in. I mean, we bought it together, but, you know. This is the old car." Stan wrapped his brain around that phrase, old car. He wasn't sure if he was lucky that Kyle had left it with him, or if this has been a subtle, early sign of Kyle telling Stan to go fuck himself.
Whatever the case, Stan heard Kenny make a small noise, an appreciative, "Mmm." It was like a kind of agreement that the car didn't so much matter. Stan revved the ignition, listening to the confident purr of the engine. They backed out of the space they'd parked in.
Traffic was slow-moving. Barely moving. They inched forward so infrequently that Stan turned off the car at several points, and just sat back in his bucket seat, staring ahead.
By the time it was dark, they were so restless that Stan turned to Kenny and said, "So, tell me."
"Tell you what?" Kenny sounded as though he were waking up.
"How a guy dies and then comes back to life."
"Oh." Kenny stretched out. "You mean, how a guy does it, or how I do it?"
"Fuck the semantics, dude, you said you'd tell me—"
"Well. You're not going to like this, but, it's happened before. It's been happening my whole life. In fact, this is the part you won't like — I've told you before. And you've never believed me. But no one ever has, really. Liza said she did, but she didn't. And if she had, well ... it's for the best that she didn't. Because that'd have made her crazy."
"Maybe you need a girl who's a little crazy," said Stan.
"Maybe you do."
Stan rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah."
With their car stalled, seemingly for a while, at a bent mile-marker behind someone's pick-up full of kindling and broken-off chair legs, there was plenty of time for long pauses. Then Kenny said, "It was my parents. My mom. I found this out once. They were briefly involved in some fucked-up Lovecraft cult. Don't have the details, just, once I looked into it. I used to think it was like a super power, in the 'this power is my curse' sense of super powers. But it gets lonely, so. I try to focus on being normal. But what's normal? Et cetera."
"Well," said Stan. He was still wondering what the correct response to this claim was. "Thanks for telling me."
"I wasn't going to. But I don't want you thinking I'd saved my own ass and left them there."
"I'd never have thought that. I would've thought, maybe, there was some other, more complex explanation."
"That'd be great, if there was. Maybe you can think of one. Figure it out for me."
"I'm not that kind of writer."
"Oh? What kind are you?"
Stan didn't even have to think about it; he knew. He'd written enough personal statements and volume forwards and grant proposals to know what kind of writer he was, or purported to be. "I try to find abstract ways around general concepts."
"Hmm." Kenny seemed to be considering this. "Okay."
"Like if I were writing about us in the car..."
"I might say, we were a blood vessel buttoned up in an artery, or a molecule of oxygen wanting to pass through the membrane of a tied balloon. Not that I think that's good poetry or anything, I just thought of it, but, I don't like to be too purple about it, I'd try to get around saying we were two people sitting in this car."
"You make us sound very small," said Kenny, not offering an assessment of Stan's brand of lyrical thinking.
"We are," said Stan. "We are very small."
"Okay." Kenny seemed to be amiably agreeing, much the way Stan hadn't called his inability to die a fucking psycho delusion. "Can I smoke in here?"
"Wish you wouldn't," said Stan, and that was the last time Kenny asked.
It was true night by the time they made it out of the city, the lamps petering to a shy highway darkness where only the billboards were lit. The delay in leaving was from the damage to I-76, their route out of Denver. They had to weave back through the suburbs skirting the city on tight streets, bumper to bumper, and hobble back up I-25, then east again on some county road, following 76 up until the road out of state was clear and easy, no red lights ahead. On the southwest side of the road, though, a million headlights were shining.
"People must hate Nebraska," said Kenny.
Stan had driven through it often in recent years, but never stopped since a trip he'd taken with his friends, Kyle and Kenny included, to see Eric Cartman's family in grade school. They must have been 8 or 9 at the time. "Yes," Stan agreed, counting on Kenny to remember the drive without mentioning. "Nebraska's just a prelude, though."
"Well. If you're driving into Colorado, homecoming."
"And if you're leaving it?"
"It must be demoralizing to forever be the next state over," said Kenny.
"If you're from Nebraska then Colorado's the next state over," Stan pointed out.
Kenny rolled his eyes. "This conversation's making me think we need a map."
"It's just down 80."
"Look at all the jiggering we've had to do. That's all well and good in the greater metropolitan Denver area, but what are you going to do if we end up with a roadblock somewhere in Iowa?"
Stan eyed the dashboard. "I will stop at a gas station. But only because we need gas. I don't think we need a map. I know Iowa pretty well."
"Right." Kenny could believe this; Stan and Kyle had lived in Iowa for a time. It was at the University of Iowa that Kyle had gotten his doctorate, and Stan an MFA in creative writing. Kenny had visited them there twice, in the course of his career as a photographer. "But what about on the other side of Iowa? Illinois—"
"I know Illinois, too, I think."
"Okay, but, things are going to get worse the further east we go."
"How do you figure?" Stan asked.
Kenny pointed across Stan's collarbone, out the window. "Well, look at it over there," he said. "People are seemingly trying to go the other way."
Stan didn't admit that Kenny was right. He just groaned.
"I admire your butch determination to do this without any help at all," said Kenny. "I won't even offer to help you drive."
Stan just laughed. "I've done this by myself like four times now. Back and forth. So, eight."
"To visit Kyle. In Chicago."
"Okay," said Kenny. "Suit yourself."
At the gas station they pulled into, Kenny bought a map anyhow, a large spiral-bound atlas of the country. "Couldn't hurt," he said in the long line, "to remember the country how it was."
Stan's arms were full of supplies, whatever was left on the shelves — energy drinks, wet wipes, unlikely flavors of gum and chips, pickle and catsup, leg of lamb with rosemary and spicy popadum. "I'm just being practical," he said.
They inched up in the queue, the cramped mini-mart ravaged by lost travelers, more than a few of whom were also buying atlases. The halogen bulbs overhead washed the shop in a clean light that made Stan squint. To even get in here, they'd had to wait in line for gas for 30 minutes.
Back on the road, they drove 10 miles above the speed limit on an empty road, the Colorado mile markers telling them they were 30, 20, 15 miles from the Nebraska border. Nothing outside was visible outside except for sparse billboards offering fast food in towns a few blocks or miles off the highway, the dark outlines of the trees against the dark bruise color of the sky, and the halt of westbound traffic stretching across the landscape. It was impossible to see the faces of the people in those cars; Stan was glad for this.
Coming upon the Nevada border, Kenny opened a bag of chips. The Kenny's chewing and the rustling of the bag were the only noises in the car, masking the sounds of their breathing. They'd tried the radio upon leaving the gas station, but the predominant signal was static, stations coming on for a mile, two miles, then sputtering out after a minute or two. After a while the radio noise was no longer a comfort and Stan had decided to snap it off.
Five miles from leaving Colorado, a hand-written warning on poster board was tied to a sign, obscuring whatever it actually said: PREPARE TO STOP.
"Pass me some gum," Stan said, reaching into Kenny's lap.
"Okay." Kenny lifted Stan's hand out of the way and unbuckled his seatbelt, turning around to search on the floor of the car for one of the grocery bags they'd taken from the gas station. As he found a pack of spearmint he heard Stan say his name, and Kenny turned around to the sight of a wall of cars, and flashing police lights. "Huh." He tore the package of gum open, fishing for a piece for Stan. "What happened here?"
"I don't know. But, we're stopping." Stan did not sound pleased about this.
The line of vehicles was only four or five deep, nothing in comparison to the masses trying to leave Nebraska and cross Colorado. Stan and Kenny sat for 20 minutes, taking advantage of their impromptu stop to listen to the radio. They found a station playing string arrangements. Neither Stan nor Kenny was a great fan of classical music, but they listened, until a Nebraska state patrolman knocked on the glass, and Stan shut off the radio and lowered his window.
"Hi," Stan said, turning off the car. He left the lights on as well.
"Evening," said the cop. "Where you guys headed?"
Stan and Kenny looked at each other. "Nebraska," said Stan.
"That your final destination?" The cop shined a light into their car, peering into the back.
"No," said Stan.
"Oh." The patrolman had a round face and was wearing glasses, which he pushed up his nose. Stan could smell his breath; it smelled like mint. It made Stan want to swallow his gum, and he did. "Where's that?"
"Where's what? Sorry."
"Where are you headed?"
"New York? Son."
Stan bristled at being called 'son' by anyone, even his own father. "Sir?"
"You guys know there's nothing there to get to, right?"
Stan didn't say anything. Neither did Kenny.
"What're your names?"
"Stan Marsh. Stanley Marsh."
Kenny cleared his throat. "Kenneth McCormick."
"Got some ID? Registration? Insurance?"
Stan leaned over Kenny to fish these things out of the glove compartment while Kenny reached into his pocket for his wallet, from which he was able to give the patrolman his identification before Stan found his plate registration.
The patrolman examined this stuff carefully, shining his flashlight onto it. When he handed it back, he asked, "Who's Kyle?"
"The car is registered to Stan and Kyle Marsh, she's the primary insurance holder—"
"He," said Stan.
"He's the primary insurance holder. Where is he?"
"New York," said Stan. "He's my husband, he's in New York, we're going to try—"
"Myself and Kenny," said Stan.
"We're childhood friends," Kenny added. "All three of us."
The cop turned off his flashlight, hunched over so he was at their eye level, and sighed. "I'm gonna let you guys through," he said, reluctance in his voice, maybe a bit of resignation. "We've just got word this afternoon there's been a ceasefire. You guys are headed in from Denver, don't know how much you know there with most all the comm. systems disabled still, but you should be safe to travel. To a point. I don't think you'll have much luck getting to New York, though. Our most recent instructions were to tell people there's no passage through Cleveland, that's as far as you can go. So I'm not sure you'll have much luck." The patrolman frowned. "With any of that."
"We understand," said Kenny. "Thanks, officer."
"I hope you find your friend."
"We hope we find him too," said Stan.
"Stay safe." The patrolman knocked on the hood of their car as he walked away.
By 11 p.m., Stan was tired. The 76/80 junction was outside of the Nebraska border, and around Big Springs, Kenny insisted they stop. The headlights across the median were beginning to thin; every so often they'd hit a mile or two of highway with no lamps. It was hard to tell if each stretch had never had any, or if they'd fizzled out. Stan thought of his eastbound drives with Kyle, and how eerie the middle of the country felt, flat and steady and empty, in the nighttime. When Stan and Kenny did hit a stretch of road with nothing shining on the billboards, Kenny said, "I think the power's out. We might want to keep going before we stop."
"I'm not crazy about stopping."
"Well, I'll take the wheel for a while, if you like, but we're going to have to stop. What's out there?"
"I don't know," said Stan. "I really don't."
They found themselves in a town called Brule. The blue LODGINGS sign at the exit told them there were two hotels in town, but they found that one of them, a Holiday Inn, had closed. The other was full-up.
"Sorry," said the girl at the desk. She was young, maybe 20; her bleached hair was cut into a blunt bob that didn't suit her heavy face, and her eyeliner was green, caking in the creases under her eyes when she squinted at them. "It's been a long day, sirs, sorry. No rooms."
"We've driven from outside of Denver," said Stan. "We've been in the car for 12 hours."
"We'll bribe you," said Kenny. He was cocking his best grin at her.
The girl smiled at them. She had braces; the rubber bands in her brackets had been blue, but they were faded, gray-yellow now. "I'd take it, honest," she said. "But we ain't got any rooms. At all."
The lobby was eerie, quiet and under construction. Stan and Kenny found themselves on the street under a crackling lamp, the sidewalk of hexagonal pavers uprooted. Kenny sat on a big, dirty stump that had overrun its planter.
"We can sleep on the street," said Kenny. "She might take pity and put us in a utility closet."
"No, fuck that," said Stan. He kicked at one of the pavers, shattering it. The chunks of concrete rolled down into the dirt at the base of the planter Kenny was sitting on. "We'll sleep in the car."
Kenny woke before Stan, with the early sunrise, his back stinging curled up against the crooked seatback. Across the armrest Stan's brow was furrowed, eyes tight, hands clenched into his jacket. A lick of drool was on his chin, which Kenny found touching. Didn't seem like Stan was getting much rest, though.
"Hey." Kenny reached out to tap Stan on the shoulder. "Stan."
Rousing slowly, Stan burrowed into the headrest, digging his knuckles into his eyes. "Jesus," he said, "not time yet."
"Turn the lights off."
"No, Stan, wake up," said Kenny. "We're in Nebraska."
The thought of Nebraska was so alarming to Stan that he perked instantly, wiping the spit from his chin. "Oh, fuck," he said, brining the seatback up. "I thought you were Kyle."
Stan rolled his eyes. He yawned. "Yeah, lovely."
They went back into the hotel. By morning the lobby was full of people, families mostly, with toddlers squalling and grade schoolers wrestling on the dingy leather couch. The night before it had grossed Stan out. Now it seemed inviting and he wanted to climb on it.
The same girl was at the front desk again. Her eyeliner was now smeared across her eyelids.
"Did you sleep at all?" Stan asked, like he was greeting an old friend.
"I got the nightshift," she explained. "It's my uncle's place, family business and all."
"Fuck, I'd never work a nightshift for my family," said Kenny.
"Like hell you wouldn't!" said Stan.
"Not the older generation, anyway."
She took a starlight mint from a small postwar ceramic planter on the reception desk. "You guys need something? Room for tonight?"
"Fuck no," said Kenny. "We are leaving."
"Just wanted to ask if you know where we could eat?" Stan inquired.
"And we'll bribe you for a bathroom," Kenny added.
"You don't gotta bribe me," she said, pointing across the lobby to a door with a line outside it, "but I'll take your money anyway."
"Never mind then. We'll save it for an emergency." Kenny left to get in line.
"Sorry about him," Stan said before he went to go join Kenny in the washroom queue. "I think he's grieving."
"Yeah?" she asked. "Who ain't?"
It was the first time Stan realized how lucky he'd been. Not over the past week, but in everything. "What's your name?"
"Brielle." She wiped her eye, rubbing away some of the green eyeliner remains. "There's a diner back on the interstate at the next exits. Truckers like it. Kind of a local thing, like."
Stan took the warm pack of gum from his pocket. He offered it to her. "Thanks, Brielle."
She took a piece. "I got a mint in my mouth," she said. It clicked against her teeth.
"That's okay. Chew it whenever." Stan went to join Kenny in line for the bathroom.
The diner parking lot was full, too, so Stan pulled onto the gravel behind the building. The vestibule was swamped. Brielle had said "truckers like it," but there was no single type of person waiting for breakfast; there were families clinging together in corners, and lonely, desperate people struggling to contemplate a magazine, hanging against the wall while they stared straight ahead. There were some truckers at the counter, laughing together with rolled up sleeves and drug company-branded brimmed mesh hats, but Stan didn't see anyone he could relate to. When they'd shoved their way up to the hostess stand, a frazzled lady with vivid pink lipstick in the fine lines around her mouth said, "It's a two-hour wait, sweetie."
Kenny didn't offer to bribe her. "Can we get something to go?"
She laughed, like she'd heard that request so often that it was absurdist enough to be funny. "Sorry, doll. Supplies are limited, so. Gotta serve the seated customers."
Stan thanked her and they left.
A few more miles up the road they found a fast food oasis. It was also packed, but at least the expediency of the operation resulted in hot food and coffee 20 minutes later. Stan and Kenny sat on the curb outside the restaurant, staring at the highway in front of them, on which no one was heading east and the two westbound lanes were once again packed solid. People poured in and out of the parking lot, hoarding paper bags with grease-stained bottoms. Stan enjoyed looking at their shoes as he contemplated his cedar-colored coffee. He'd asked for skim milk, out of habit, not realizing it was going to taste like sucking on a used teabag.
"I'd never eat this shit," Stan said, biting into a hashbrown patty. It wasn't full cooked, and while the outside was hot, oily, and salty, the inside was cold chalk.
"Thursday night is hamburger night in my house," said Kenny. "Liza had class, so. Yeah. I don't cook." He'd ordered two sausage biscuit sandwiches, and Stan wanted to pick off the yeasty bits that fell into Kenny's lap. "Who cooks in your house?"
Stan crushed the end of his hashbrowns, and buried them at the bottom of the sack. "No one."
"Yeah, well, I guess before Kyle left we'd sort of switch off, but neither of us is a good cook. So we'd just kind of try, you know? But I guess, if I thought about it, we ate a lot of organic rotisserie chicken." Stan had to laugh at himself. "That sounds so fucking pathetic now, doesn't it?
"Because worrying about organic livestock bullshit seems small in comparison—"
"Yeah, I guess, but because the things we used to worry about together seem almost quaint when one of you just decides to pick up and leave."
Kenny waited until he finished chewing and swallowing a piece of biscuit to say, "You left him?"
"No." Stan stood up. "He left me." Kenny was left sitting there chewing his food as Stan went to the trash can and tossed his food. When Stan sat back down, Kenny said nothing, just kept staring ahead. "He got a job," said Stan. "Or, actually, saying that makes it sound like he was just offered some job. He applied for a postdoc at the Fermi Institute. At the University of Chicago. Which, you know, isn't in Denver. And he got it. He said he didn't tell me because he didn't think he was going to get it. But he did! So, yeah."
"It's more complicated than that," Stan said.
"I can imagine." Kenny put a hand out, but Stan didn't take it. "I know I said not to say 'sorry,' he said. "But, sorry."
"We didn't break up."
"Of course not."
"But then some more things happened," said Stan.
"I figure it must sound pretty idiotic to a guy who lost two children."
Kenny withdrew his hand. He stuffed a wad of napkins into his own sack and crumpled it up. "I think, knowing Kyle for quite some time, that if the complexity of his asshole mind games increased even slightly since I last spoke to him, then you were probably the victim of some severe emotional manipulation."
"Okay, Kyle doesn't play mind games, he's not emotionally manipulative—"
"What do you call driving across a country in the wake of a nuclear strike to go rescue a probably dead guy who took a job a thousand miles away and left you in Denver to deal with it on your own?"
"That's not exactly what happened—"
"Well." Now Kenny stood, straightening out the hood of his parka. "Luckily we've got plenty of driving time for you to spell it out for me." He picked up his cup and took a last sip of his coffee. "It'll distract me from my dead kids."
While Kenny went to toss his breakfast and wash his hands, Stan sat on the curb and listened to passing snippets of conversation.
"When we passed through Des Moines we heard the cabinet was holed up somewhere," a man with a pistol strapped to his chest was saying. "Like, the government's intact and shit. Thank God. Thank Jesus Christ."
Stan put his head in his hands.
"It's a bit Steinbeck," said a girl with dreadlocks and purple thumbnails. "Not going to Cali, personally, like, I have family in Eugene so, you know."
Another couple was arguing. "I don't see any fucking horsemen!" the woman was screaming. She had on an overly tailored pair of sweatpants, and it looked a bit Eurotrash, especially with the yellow scarf tied to her waist. "I mean, hell, we're here, aren't we!"
"They'd better still be serving breakfast," said her — Stan assumed it was her husband, because his burly arm was around her shoulders. But he could have been anyone.
"Ready to go?"
Stan looked up; Kenny was standing there, hands on his hips.
"Yeah." Stan stood. "I'm ready."
Stan let Kenny drive. "There's nothing tricky about it," he'd said, handing over the keys.
"Believe it or not I've never been in a car accident," said Kenny. "When I was behind the wheel, anyway."
"Why wouldn't I believe that?"
"I guess you wouldn't," said Kenny, "since you don't believe me about the dying thing."
Stan began to say, "Well, it does seem ridiculous," but he didn't. Instead, he said, "So if something happens, and you die, you'd come back?"
"Yes, but not to here. To South Park."
"So if I do die, Stan, I'm no help to you."
"Noted." After a few minutes of silence, Stan added, "Can I see?"
"Can I see you die?"
Kenny gripped the wheel tighter. He was using cruise control, and they were on a straight stretch of recently paved freeway. "No, you can't see me die!"
"But you'd come back."
Kenny groaned. "It still sucks!" He reached over and tugged a piece of Stan's messy hair; it hadn't been brushed in several days now.
"Ow! What the fuck?"
"If you think having your hair pulled hurts—"
"It doesn't hurt that much," said Stan, "it was just a shock."
"If you think that hurt or shocked you, can you imagine how it feels to slowly succumb to particle asphyxiation in the aftermath of a bombing?"
"Okay, Kenny." Stan shook his head. "Okay." About 10 minutes later, he added, "I believe you."
For a moment Kenny didn't respond. Then he said, "Really?"
"Sure." Stan shrugged. "I just don't think you'd lie. I think it's possible you're delusional, but — man, when I was a kid I never thought I'd see a nuclear war. Or that I'd survive a nuclear war. So why is it necessarily impossible that you can't die?"
"I can die, I just don't die permanently—"
"Well, whatever. The shades of distinction are very subtle. I understand that."
"Because of Kyle?"
"Because I've gotten a master's of creative writing so it's what I've been trained to do, understand subtle distinctions. .... But, yeah, also because of Kyle."
"Well then." Kenny's grip on the wheel loosened enough for Stan to notice. "Thanks. For lying, at least."
Stan grinned. "No problem."
There were long stretches of silence in the car, during which Kenny might ask for a bag of chips, and Stan would fetch it for them. Later they found themselves at a rest area so Stan could piss. Kenny filled some empty water bottles. There was a wait for the bathroom, and the concrete-paved plaza of the rest stop and the cinderblock picnic tables were more crowded than Stan had ever seen one. He was careful to move past any conversation before he could internalize what was being said.
When they got back on the road, Stan offered to drive again.
"Your car's a piece of shit," Kenny said, relinquishing the keys. "And it looks like a big gray dick.
Stan laughed. "Yeah, I know."
Out the windows, Nebraska looked pale and unassuming, built for projecting. Stan blinked at it, remembering a long, wet drive in the opposite direction, back home, away from Kyle and the new apartment he'd leased in a touristy hub a few blocks from Lake Michigan. It was 27 storeys up, with a balcony. Looking down at the green river and the tiny people walking alongside it had made Stan queasy, wind slicing against Stan's knuckles as he stood against the railing, rustling the waxy leaves of the brittle ficus Kyle had unceremoniously brought from their Denver living room and instructed Stan to transplant on the new balcony. But driving back through Nebraska early last August, all Stan had wanted was to turn the car around. This trip he was on now felt like a bookend to driving out with Kyle in July. Chicago in high summer had been thick and exhausting.
Stan was occupied with the blanket of his reminiscence until an hour had gone by, Kenny asked about his sister and his parents. Stan considered shrugging it off, but it was so easy to say, "They're okay. Still in town, in the old place. Dad's still with USGS, I think they'll have to extract him with a crane, he's like ... grafted in. I find when you reach real adulthood, you sort of lose momentum. Clearly that's not the case with us." Stan paused for a moment, then to clarify, he added, "Me and Kyle, I mean. Um. How are yours?"
"My parents? Well, the old man is dead."
"God, Kenny, I'm so — oh, no. That sucks. Was it — was it liver failure?"
"Liver failure?" Kenny started laughing. "Liver failure? Oh, no, no — fuck no. The bastard got hit by a car. Poor bastard. My mom was just standing there, it might have been awful." Kenny tented his fingers. "Might've. Wasn't there."
Stan listened to the sound of Kenny's laugh die away. Then he said, earnestly, "How do you weather so much pain?"
"How do I — how do I weather so much pain? Stan, fuck, people don't talk like this."
"Maybe I'm not a person," said Stan.
"Maybe you're not a — oh, Christ. What is it with you?"
Stan wasn't sure what it was with him, so he shook his head, and refocused on driving.
At 10 miles outside of Elm Creek they hit a roadblock, right before an exit, a row of sawhorses festooned with police tape. Again Stan and Kenny found themselves listening to the radio while they waited for a fat cop in a khaki uniform to make his way through the line of cars. When he got there, Stan instinctively rolled down the window, sighing.
"Road's closed," said the patrolman.
Stan glanced up at him. The days' worth of stubble on his profile was striking, but Stan figured after the shelter and his panic and leaving Colorado, he must not look well-groomed, either. Stan ran a hand against his face and said, "Sorry. Why?"
"Trying to keep people out," was the answer.
Stan knew it was foolish to question a cop, but he felt himself asking, "Why?"
"Rationing," said the patrolman. "Lots of people coming from the east, don't want to contaminate the population."
"Contaminate!" Kenny said, like it was so absurd it amused him. Likely it was and it did.
"Yeah, well," said the cop, "just trying to keep order. ... That's the order."
"I don't think radioactive people are contagious," said Stan. "That stuff's going to get into the ground, you know, it's in the water supply. The wind's going to carry it to you regardless. It's not, like, cholera."
"At this point it doesn't matter. Road's closed. You have to turn around, or find some other passage."
"I'm telling you," said Stan. "We're coming from Denver. Colorado plates, see?"
"It doesn't matter where you're coming from, buddy. My duty's to the people who live here and they'll be happier this way. Sorry." The patrolman shrugged. "But good luck."
At the side of the road, Kenny pulled out his atlas. "Bet you're glad now, huh?"
"Sure," said Stan. "You're prescience is alarming."
"When you have kids, you learn to prescio."
Stan couldn't help but roll his eyes.
It happened that they had to navigate around the Kearney metropolitan area, up 183 and past several foreboding billboards imploring them to REPENT! Because, according to other billboards, HE IS RISEN. Kenny laughed these off, even as he studied the road signs for their connector, a Shelton Road that would run right into Grand Island, which they could pass through to get back on I-80. "These flatlanders are absurd," Kenny said into the atlas.
"Most people would consider us flatlanders."
"Well," said Stan, "Denver's flyover territory. Everything in the middle is."
"Everything in the middle is the most beautiful part, though." Kenny's eyes were back on the road, scanning for their exit. "It's like the center of a fucking Oreo, like, I just want to lick it out." He waggled his tongue for effect.
"Ugh, that's fucking—"
"Like you never go down."
"It's not the same on a guy," said Stan.
"No," Kenny agreed. "I imagine it's much weirder. ... Ugh, that's a nauseating thought, though, thanks."
"If it helps, I think you should know that Kyle is a meticulously hygienic human being."
"That's okay." Kenny shuddered. "I wasn't planning on making out with you."
For a moment Stan thought about how that would have played out. He decided Kenny was too substantial for such a thing to be enjoyable. Unlike Kyle, whose body was shocking, Kenny was realistically proportioned. "Anyway," Stan said, trying to banish the idea and replace it with anything else, no matter how off-putting, "the concept of preferring the middle of an Oreo, that's like, a very Eric Cartman thing to say."
"Cartman!" Kenny laughed, and it sounded bitter. "Oh, he can go fuck himself."
"Where's he at now?" Stan's only read on people he'd known from home was Kyle, and Kyle refused to connect with Cartman on any kind of network. Sometime in college Kyle had stopped even telling Stan when he received Cartman's friend requests.
"I think he's holed up in Argentina with a Brazillian tranny supermodel. I think he's got 10 million dollars? I had coffee with him over Thanksgiving. He offered to buy one of my children."
Stan laughed, despite himself.
"No, honestly," said Kenny. "I mean, maybe he was taunting, but I think he was serious? At this point I'm starting to think maybe I should have let one of my kids be raised by a sociopath and a Brazillian supermodel. At least he'd be alive then. ... He wanted the baby. Joey. Perfect blond baby. A little Aryan..." Kenny grew quieter until he trailed off, and Stan stopped laughing.
They were rerouted around York, and again at Lincoln. At least outside of Lincoln they were able to fill up the tank, although it wasn't empty, and threw away the plastic bags and wrappers that carpeted the floor of the backseat. There was panic at this gas station, not in rioting customers but in sunken eyes and hands clutched together and heads bowed outside the entrance; in purchases of flashlights and cans of summer sausage; and in parents holding their teenaged children by the collar of their shirts. Stan waited cross-legged on the hood of his car for 40 minutes in a queue at the pump while Kenny used the restroom.
When Kenny returned, shaking his head, Stan asked, "How's it going?"
"As far away from here as fucking possible," said Kenny, crawling into the car. There was a real air of unease as they drove away, Kenny sniffing the packet of cigarettes he'd just bought all the way to Omaha. He didn't smoke any, or even ask, for the entire stretch.
Only 60 miles to Omaha, according to road signs, and yet it took them until 9 p.m. to creep into the city due to rerouting and, finally, a seemingly complete shut down of all traffic entering the metropolitan area.
"We should go around," Stan said, and Kenny agreed, but by this time they were locked into their approach, the roads clogged and off-ramps totally shuttered. "I have no idea what's happening anymore!" Stan finally said at one point, in frustration. He reached for, but didn't turn on, the radio.
"Crowd control," said Kenny. "We're being managed."
With things at a total halt near the airport, which appeared to be servicing only helicopters, Stan and Kenny sat on the hood of the car. Kenny lit a cigarette, and Stan pulled his phone from his pocket. "If this works," he said, "you can use it to call anyone you want."
Kenny turned to face Stan, the cigarette between his lips. He removed it and exhaled. "Yeah? Who will I call?"
"No thanks." Kenny took another drag. "I don't really need to connect there. I'd rather she think I'm dead."
"Because I don't want her thinking I just left them!"
"Why would anyone who knows you think you'd do something like that?"
"Because the evidence is pretty hard to dispute," said Kenny. "You know, you think the same thing."
"I don't," said Stan. "I'm not sure what I believe anymore. And anyway, um — Craig and Wendy saw you, right? And I told my folks I was driving out with you, so—"
"Thanks a lot." Smoke wafted around Kenny's nostrils.
Stan sighed. He shook his head and said, "Whatever," and turned on his phone. He stared at the screen, feeling the its light sear his corneas at a microscopic level. It started instantly, but often needed a moment or two to pick up a network. Stan waited for a moment or two, then three, then he impatiently pressed the 1 key, squeezing it with his thumb. Kyle's picture came up, for a split-second, and then the screen flashed black with the red text, NO SIGNAL! NO SIGNAL! NO SI—
Stan powered it down and shoved it back into his pocket.
Kenny shook his head and laid down against the windshield, arms crossed, eyes closed, the last of his cigarette ashing onto the hood of the car; the embers, when extinguished, were the color of the gray paint job. Stan said, "Huh," and put his head into his hands. It was so easy to think about poetry when he didn't have a notebook in front of him. He looked at Omaha's uneven, jaunty skyline, and tried to recall where he'd stayed overnight with Kyle while choice pieces of their furniture sat in a trailer hitched to this very car. Kyle had taken an imitation Eames lounge chair where he liked to sit and grade papers; unused stone urns, planters that Stan had taken from his mother when she'd wanted to give them away; two of their eight dining room chairs; sheer taupe curtains from the master bedroom that Stan had never really liked; the ficus. There had been other things, but Stan didn't remember those. He remembered Kyle complaining at the house over Thanksgiving that he had nowhere to grade papers. The memory made Stan want to cry. He'd been so annoyed: "You didn't have to take it to fucking Chicago with you!" Kyle, typically, hadn't been deferential about it. "That's where I live now, so sorry for wanting my chair!" Then Stan wondered if he shouldn't go out and buy a replacement Eames, an authentic one, just to spite Kyle. He was so angry, reeling. If only he'd just bought a fucking chair. If only. Stan thought about what he might make of this moment, stranded on I-80 staring into the void of Omaha, Nebraska, while Kenny McCormick slept behind him on the hood of his car—but words didn't come. Stan realized he had nothing to say, couldn't give voice to the moment. He had no pen and no paper. And Kyle might be dead.
Two cops came by while Stan was daydreaming, at barked at them to get off of the car. Kenny, now alert, pulled his hood down and said, "Good evening, officers. Problem?"
"Where are you going?" asked of them, the taller one.
Stan was no longer sure, but he instinctively answered, "New York."
The shorter cop looked at Stan as if he'd just confessed to murder. "You must be shitting me."
"We're not," Stan insisted. "My husband's there."
"No one's there!" shouted the short one.
His partner said, "Easy. Listen, boys. Where'd you come from?"
"Denver," Stan answered. "Left yesterday morning."
Kenny ducked inside the car and produced the registration and insurance information that Stan had shown to the first patrolman they'd run into. When he tried to hand it off to the short cop, he shook his head and said, "No need. Just show us your ID."
"So here's the deal," said the tall cop. "We're clearing everyone in line here for entry into the city, where you'll be escorted to a CDP."
"What's that?" asked Kenny.
"A center for displaced persons."
"We're not displaced," said Stan.
The short cop barked, "You are tonight!"
"Calm down, Murray, Jesus."
"This is awful. I'm going to the next one."
The tall, reasonable policeman watched his partner stalk off to the next car immediately adjacent to Stan and Kenny's. "Sorry," he said. "You can imagine it's been trying."
"No problem," said Stan.
"Yeah." Kenny shrugged. "We can relate."
Stan proffered a piece of gum, which the tall cop declined, adding, "Just get ready to move in about 20 minutes."
The center for displaced persons to which Stan and Kenny were directed was housed inside the gymnasium of a large and foreboding red brick high school. Park County High, Stan and Kenny's alma mater, wasn't sterile like this one, endless hallways lined with two rows of waist-height lockers stacked against the walls. PCHS had been older, new when their parents were students, everything a kind of faded yellow or green earth tone, the high windows covered in a thin film of grimy condensation in all seasons. The school wasn't especially big, only about 400 students, but something about its age and the cloistered hallways had made Kyle especially uncomfortable. The sense of intimacy among the small population didn't help; Kyle did not much enjoy being known as that gay Jewish kid.
A month into his freshman year, Kyle had announced that he was going to graduate in three. "That seems absurd," had been Stan's immediate reaction, and Kyle had acted insulted, like Stan didn't believe he could do it. Stan knew Kyle could do it, obviously; of course he could. It was just that the thought of spending a year in high school without Kyle, while Kyle had gone off to college to start a new life elsewhere without Stan, seemed particularly cruel. They'd been kissing for a year at that point, nascent prepubescent makeout sessions in Stan's bedroom after school and all weekend long, both of them aware that it was atypical. If Kyle hadn't announced that he was planning to skip town as fast as possible and leave Stan in the dust, Stan would have considered using the B-word sooner. Stan assumed that if he didn't use it, he'd be spared the pain of that other B-word, break up. Luckily, it seemed Kyle had no such intentions.
"Where the fuck am I going to find another boyfriend?" he'd asked right before he left, on a soggy evening in mid-August, while they split an adult, bitter-tasting bottle of red wine on Kyle's parents' back patio, during a pause in the storms. It was preternaturally dark out, the light over the back door on at 6 p.m. "I fucking hate it here, Stan, but I'd bring you with me if I could."
Stan wanted to say, "You don't have to run away so fast!" Instead, he said, "Do you resent that you can't bring me with you?"
"A bit," Kyle had replied. Their wine bottle was almost empty.
At the CDP of Central Omaha, it was another hour in line before reaching the card table where a woman with a HELLO MY NAME IS sticker nametag (her name was Irma) greeted Stan and Kenny, asking for their IDs again.
"Oh," she said, pulling out a half-sheet of notebook paper, torn straight along an obvious fold. "Colorado, eh."
"Yes," said Stan. They were standing; she was seated.
"You fellas need a bed overnight."
"Yeah," said Kenny. "Two beds."
"Oh," she said. "I thought — sorry. We've just got cots anyway, so." She began transferring their details into the paper, neatly, with a fountain pen she withdrew from her gray ponytail. "Just have to get a hard copy in case things crash. Can't depend on cloud storage these days." She finished scrawling down their addresses and handed their licenses back. "Anything I can help you boys with?" Irma recapped her pen, tucked it back into her hair, and leaned over the card table with her arms crossed.
"We're trying to drive to New York City," said Stan.
"Why?" she asked. "You on a suicide mission?"
"Yes," said Kenny.
Stan rolled his eyes. "My husband's there. I want to find him."
"Aw, honey," she said, glancing down at the paper. "Mr. Marsh. I'm so sorry—"
Sniffing, Stan said, "I don't care if he's dead, you know, I just have to try—"
"I know, it's okay. Shhh. She uncrossed her arms and sat back. "You boys want to grab a seat? Nah, fuck it." She got up and pushed her folding chair in. "I figure I owe it to you to at least speak to you on your level," she said, although she was a head shorter than Stan. He eyes were the color of an antique auburn leather couch that had faded in the sun, under the weight of its occupants, over a generation. "While there's always a chance he might have gotten out, or sought shelter..."
"He might have," said Kenny.
That surprised Stan. "What?"
"He's got excellent survival instincts," said Kenny. "You know."
"...I hope he got out," said Irma. "I really do. But it's policy to quarantine anyone coming from the east coat, at about a 300-mile radius. That's why I had to check your licenses. And last we were told, you can't drive past Toledo."
"Then we'll take a different road," Stan suggested.
"You could try," said Irma, "but I hope you'll stay on I-80. That way you'll at least end up in Chicago."
Stan's eyebrows shot up.
"What in Chicago?" asked Kenny.
"The government," said Irma. "For now. You'll have your best shot at communicating with someone from there. Or so we've been told." She rolled her eyes. "I'm afraid Omaha isn't the information priority we'd hoped." She shrugged. "I'm officially supposed to advise you to go west. That, or get an airlift. Have any family in Canada?"
"No," said Stan. "My in-laws live in Israel."
"We came from the west," said Kenny. "The interstate is choked with people."
"Yes," said Irma. "But I think that'll clear up as more roads are closed. You probably would have been fine in Colorado."
"Kyle's not in Colorado!" Stan said.
Irma spun around the desk, sitting back down in her folding chair. "I can give you a cot for the night, and some rations. Of course, you're free to go out for food."
"I'm a sucker for rations," said Kenny, licking his lips.
"Cute!" Irma laughed, shaking her head. "I'm really sorry. I am! Honest. I've been sitting in this damn chair for 12 hours, though." She turned to Kenny. "Got a cigarette?"
Nodding, Kenny pulled the package from his front pocket. He went out with Irma, leaving Stan to find them cots. It was impossible finding two together, but Stan managed to find a pair in the gym proper, throwing his coat onto one to reserve it for Kenny, and falling into the other. The lights went out; Stan pulled the thin, scratchy blanket over his head. He fell asleep, improbably, before Kenny returned.
It was Kenny who roused Stan in the morning, with a stout styrofoam cup of coffee and a croissant.
"Thanks," said Stan, after he'd yawned and stretched and rubbed his eyes enough to acclimate to the natural light in the gym. "Any fruit?"
"There were some very spotty bananas," said Kenny. "Why, did you want one? They seemed fairly suspect."
Stan shrugged, sipping his coffee. "I'll get one on the way out."
Kenny drove out of Omaha, 20 miles over the speed limit, as Stan unpeeled his sticky, wan banana. Not a single car heading into the city was moving. It seemed to Stan as though none of them ever would.
Stan was intimately acquainted with Iowa; he'd lived there for almost two years. The beige contours of the landscape, the uniquely granular American breed of agriculture, blurred together until Stan nodded off. He awoke when they were stopped for the first time, 100 miles on, the jolt of brakes knocking the banana peel from Stan's loose grasp. It fell to the floor as Kenny rolled down the window.
Again, a cop asked them where they were going. This one was a petite lady in aviator sunglasses, her mouth hard, lips chapped under powdery coral lipstick. Again, she told them they were insane. When she handed the insurance information back to Kenny, she said, "God have mercy on you boys."
"You won't turn us around?" Stan asked.
"It'd be dishonoring all the folks that died this week to tell you you weren't at liberty to kill yourselves," she said.
"Oh, thanks a bunch," said Kenny. "That's what we like to hear."
"You being smart with me?"
"That's right." She narrowed her eyes at them before sauntering away.
Stan had to lure Kenny's gaze away as she left. "Roll up the window," he said. "Where's that atlas?"
Their next stop was another 40 miles on, outside of Des Moines. The sun was stronger than it had been in days, and Stan wished he had a nice pair of sunglasses to help him avoid squinting into the face of every patrolman and patrolwoman sticking their face into his car. Stan had no idea what they were looking for. So he decided to ask.
This cop, a tall, burly guy with no eyebrows and a lisp that made him sound as if he were struggling to breathe, looked right at Stan and said, "It's none of your business, sir." The sir was so light that it came out as a whisper.
"Sorry." Stan handed over his license and registration, reaching across Kenny, who grunted in dissatisfaction. "Here you go."
After a moment, the cop put a finger to his lips and said, "Colorado."
Stan and Kenny looked at each other.
"Yup," said Kenny.
"Yeah." Kenny began to rap on the steering wheel.
"Spent a night at the Denver Swim Club once." This was directed at Stan, who said, "Oh."
"Oh? I thought it was legendary."
"Well, legendary in the sense of being institutional," said Stan.
"What's that mean?"
Walking around to the other side of the car, the eyebrowless cop indicated that Stan should lower his window. When Stan complied, the man bent over and said, "Are you calling me old?"
"I'm not calling you anything," said Stan. "I'm just trying to get to New York."
Cocking what should have been a brow, the cop said, "Why?"
"Because I'm looking for my husband." Stan slouched in his seat. Then he remembered himself and sat up. "Sorry."
Those non-brows softened. "Don't be. I'm sorry for you." He coughed and handed the IDs and insurance back to Stan.
"My wife's dead," Kenny added dryly. "And two kids. All dead."
"Truly sorry." The cop coughed. "Don't think you'll have much luck getting there. I'd advise you to turn back." Then he walked away, to move the traffic cones that had halted them in the first place.
As they sped away, Stan said, "What an ass."
"Who, me? Or Shaved Eyebrows."
"Eyebrows. Why you?"
"I'm starting to sound very callous about this."
"I don't know, dude." Stan tucked his legs underneath him. They were starting to go numb. "I really don't know. Everything's been a blur since—" Stan rubbed his eyes, trying to figure it out. He initially wanted to say 'Lincoln,' but the more he thought about it, it seemed everything since he last saw Kyle's face on his laptop monitor had melted into one indistinct slide toward this moment. Then, slowly, Stan began to realize that everything without Kyle was like that.
"I think he was hitting on you," Kenny said.
"He was just being friendly," Stan muttered. "Just a weird guy being friendly."
"You might have gone for it."
"No. Ah." Stan stretched his legs back out. "How are we doing, with gas?"
Kenny checked the gauge. "Could use a bit."
Des Moines spread out before them.
Outside, the city, Kenny stopped for gas and a cigarette, leaving Stan to fill the tank with his credit card, punching in his PIN before sloping away. Stan slipped it into the pump and watched as the balance declined quickly, pointlessly. He blinked at the figure.
They'd been mercifully lucky in finding an empty pump when they pulled up, but the line trailing out of the single men's bathroom was absurd. Stan found Kenny far from the front of the queue. "I'm going behind the station," Stan announced, tugging at Kenny's sleeve. He handed the card back.
"I'll come with you." Kenny accepted it, slipping it back into his wallet, following Stan out to some bushes by a tree line.
In the distance, the soybean fields were fallow, stretching out to the early afternoon horizon. Stan unzipped his fly. "I'd like to stop for lunch in Iowa City," he said. "I feel like I haven't eaten anything in days.
"You had that banana," said Kenny. "But, anyway, fine."
"That banana..." Stan shrugged, trailing off. "That was pretty gross."
Kenny cleared his throat. "This might sound insane, and I really don't know the gay etiquette on this, but — did someone bite your dick off?"
"It looks like someone tried to bite your—"
"It was Kyle," said Stan. He shook his cock out and shoved it back into his pants. "What are you doing looking at my dick?"
"I was thinking about that banana, and I don't know, free association?"
"Free associ — Christ. There's no gay etiquette on commenting on another guy's dick when you're platonic friends peeing together in a corn field!" Stan snapped. "Just guy etiquette, which is that you don't do it."
"Sorry," said Kenny. He buttoned his jeans back up. "Come on, it's like, kind of gory."
"It's not gory."
"You have bite mark scars on your dick."
"I'm aware!" said Stan. "Thanks!" He began to march back to the car.
Kenny jogged after. "It's just that — I seriously — he fucking bit you?"
Stan reached the car before Kenny did, and he got in the driver's seat, contemplating whether it would be horrible to leave Kenny at a gas station near Des Moines. But he didn't lock the door, and they left the spot where Stan had parked after filling up in silence.
Downtown Iowa City was livelier than Stan or Kenny had thought it would be. The Pedestrian Mall wasn't crowded by any stretch of the imagination, but the day was mild with pale sunlight and a slight breeze rustling the buds on the trees. Some fell at Stan's feet on the pavement as he tried to orient them.
"What are we having?" Kenny asked. It was the first thing he'd said to Stan after his comments about Stan's dick. "Is there Mexican?"
"There's Mexican," Stan confirmed. "But I'm getting a burger."
At the counter in a dingy tap, Stan ordered two burgers to go, one plain with ketchup and mustard, pickles on the side; the other was barbecue sauce and bacon with cheddar. Stan didn't order French fries, so Kenny asked the bartender if they were included.
"Yah," she said. It took Kenny until she added, "Don't you read to menu?" to get that she was neither German nor affecting, and had a truly Minnesotan accent.
Kenny shrugged and said, "Sorry." He asked for what Stan was having.
Stan put his credit card down on the counter. "We'll have it to go," he said.
The bartender smiled, shaking some frizzy hair from her shoulder. "Okay, then." She clicked her ballpoint pen shut on the notepad where she'd scribbled their orders in waitress' shorthand. "I'll get this in, then."
As she walked away, Stan smiled, not broadly but with a sort of contentment. He brushed his pants off as he sat. "This is like a student hang out," he said, resting an elbow on the bar. "Kyle hated it."
"Are we eating here to spite him?" Kenny climbed into the next stool over.
Stan laughed. "We're eating here because they make good burgers."
Though there was a distinct wind, Stan insisted on eating their burgers outside, on a slatted bench in the sun. While Kenny inhaled his meal, barbecue sauce fell into his lap. Holding the greasy burger aloft, he wiped the sauce off of his jeans with the ball of his hand, then licked it clean.
Stan waited to swallow before saying, "Gross," and taking another precarious bite, chewing it slowly.
When Kenny had finished, he crumpled up his food trash into one slimy paper mess and tossed it. He then came back and sat on his hands as he watched Stan eat the short, crinkly fries in three small bites. It struck Kenny as a deeply contemplative process. "Hey. Who's that second burger for?"
It infuriated Kenny that Stan had to finish eating an entire French fry before he answered: "An old friend." Stan wiped his hands on a thin paper napkin, the kind that got stocked in an old-fashioned chrome dispenser. "The crowd seems pretty thin out here, and older, so I think most of the kids have cleared out. But I'd like to drop in on a professor. Is that okay?"
"Doesn't bother me," said Kenny. "You're the one racing to your true love's side here. How do you know he'll be in?"
"I know her," said Stan. "But, tell you what? If she's not in, you can eat this burger. It'll be lukewarm by then, anyway."
"That's all right." Kenny reached over to steal one of Stan's soggy ketchup-slathered fries. "I've dealt with worse."
Hedda Bayonne was not her real name. Kyle had, in the past, joked that it did not even sound like a real name. Stan would have to tell him, "I think that might be the point." She'd changed her name to Hedda at 18, thinking it was a bit deco, and that it made her glamorous. Stan had seen a picture of her as an undergraduate at McGill, with big, dark, kohl-rimmed eyes and a severe, angular haircut. Everything matched. Hedda didn't have a BA, but it was easier to get fellowships in those days, and on a two-year stay at a former convent in the Aquitaine, she'd met M. Bayonne, who gave her his name, which she'd kept, and a daughter, which she hadn't.
Stan knew this not because Hedda had told him; she had never spoken about it in his presence. She wrote about it, though; in fact, it was her raw, jagged writing from those two years in France that had brought Stan to Iowa, at least according to his statement of purpose. He had not written that he was following his boyfriend, a doctoral student in physics, who'd graduated college a year earlier, leaving Stan to spend all of his junior year of college, and most of the first semester of his senior year, wallowing in self-pity. Stan so hated himself for feeling sentimental that it seemed learning to write in uncomplicated verse might help him untangle his feelings, become their master. Five years (or 10 semesters) after receiving his MFA in poetry, Stan understood that such a thing was impossible. But as a 22-year-old it had seemed well within his grasp.
"You don't have to come," Stan told Kenny as they walked up the brick-paved path that led from the curb to her front door. The grass was still brown, but some of the weedy, long-stemmed tulips had already broken free of the soil, blossomed, and shed. Now they were sticking straight up from the ground, barren, or collapsed into the ground, where someone had trampled them.
"I'll come," said Kenny. He was looking up at the sky, feeling the wind push his fringe back to reveal his high hairline. "I'm very invested in the status of that burger. Do you think she might not want it?"
"She'll want it," said Stan. He pressed his thumb against the doorbell. "You should have just ordered two burgers."
Hedda was indeed at home, and when she opened the door she rubbed her eyes, as if refusing to believe who was there. Perhaps she didn't. "Darling!" she cried, extending her arms in the most dramatic possible way, enveloping Stan like a lost child. "You look so good, you look so good," she said, rocking him back and forth. Everything about her swayed as well: her mass of streaky black-and-silver hair; her wristfuls of Perspex and Bakelite bangles; the flesh of her forearms. "I saw your piece in Redwoods," she said, letting go. "And in the Review, of course."
"That was last summer," said Stan. "I've been teaching."
"Of course, of course," she said, letting him go. "Me too, of course. How are your kids?"
"Of course. They're good. Promising!" Stan held up his sack. "I brought you a burger."
"Darling." She seemed to melt when he handed it to her. There was something off about her accent; it seemed corrupted. Then Kenny realized it was charged with a Gallic affectation. "You know your way to a woman's heart."
"Naturally," said Stan. "It's essential."
She was eating the burger right there on the stoop, and she giggled with some of it in her mouth. But it didn't sound like a genuine laugh; more a social courtesy.
"This is my friend Kenny," Stan said. He did not make an effort to indicate Kenny in any way.
Her eyes found him anyhow. "Charming," she said, holding out the hand she wasn't eating with. "How do you do?"
"Not well," said Kenny. He took her hand, squeezed it, and withdrew his, leaving hers hanging.
"Well," she said. "Stanley, I think you've traded up."
"Kenny's an old friend."
"Oh." She seemed disappointed; it sounded flat. She took another bite. "How's Kyle, then?"
"It's a long story," said Stan.
"I don't really have anywhere to go," she replied.
"We're on our way, actually," said Stan, "to New York."
Her eyes went wide; this time, she waited to swallowed before saying, "How glamorous!"
"Most people find it foolish," said Kenny.
"Oh, it's utterly foolish, darling, but what do you expect? Lovers are foolish. It's the nature of the beast."
"Sorry," said Kenny. "In this case, the ... lovers are the beast? I don't follow." He crossed his arms.
Narrowing her eyes, Hedda tossed the last quarter of the burger back into its sack. "Charming," she said. "Would you like to come in?"
"I think we're headed out," said Stan. "I just wanted to say hello."
Kenny rolled his eyes. "We'd love to."
She closed her eyes for a moment, during which it was clear she was processing. Then she threw up her arms and said, "Excellent," still holding the bag. "I'll make you a drink. Follow me." She disappeared into the dark house.
It was dark because all the shades were drawn, not for lack of natural light, or good windows, of which there were several in the living room. Hedda made her way around to each curtain, drawing it back. "I don't find the time to dust as often as I'd like," she said, "and my girl didn't come this week; she went back to Nicaragua for a while. You know, I think she was frightened. But that's so silly! Why would anyone bomb Iowa?"
"Why would anyone bomb Denver?" Kenny asked. He sat down next to Stan on a boxy sofa in an indecipherably vague tribal print.
"They did?" she asked, shifting on a kind of fussy Victorian ivory silk and walnut settee. "My god, that's awful."
"Kenny, um." Stan suddenly adjusted his posture so he was sitting straight up, seeming uncomfortable. "He's lost his family."
"My poor dear! This is such a shock to me."
Stan inched forward. "You guys haven't heard about Denver?"
"We've heard very little. The Press Citizen came out, but as you can imagine it's never been very informative. Loads of people have been coming west; last week there were veritable busloads. Traffic's slowed down recently, though. ... Isn't this depressing? I don't want to talk about this. What are you writing lately?"
Stan fidgeted like he didn't know how best to escape the room. "I'm not."
"But darling," she said. "Why not?"
"I knew it!"
"—took a job in Chicago, and I just ... I don't know, he's the thing I write about. What am I supposed to say if he's not there?"
"Then you talk about his absence!"
"I'd like to, that'd be nice," said Stan. "I mean, I've thought about it. But I can't write about it. It's like — it's as if it's his presence that sort of fuels me, do you know? The idea that he's just picked up and gone and started this new life someplace else, it's just a block I can't get over."
She touched her finger to her lips, performing the act of thinking. Then she said, "What job is it? That he took in Chicago?"
"Some soulless research bullshit," said Kenny.
Hedda cracked a smile at this. "He always does this. I never liked that kid."
"He's not a kid," said Stan. "He's my husband."
"He's an emotionally manipulative little brat," said Hedda. "That's why you like him, isn't it, because he fuels your work? Why shouldn't his leaving be another source of fuel? That's what you do, if you're a writer, Stanley, that's what I wanted to teach you when I took you on. You have to profit from pain!"
"Stanley doesn't like feeling pain," said Kenny. "He'll never draw on it."
"Fuck you," said Stan. "What if he's dead, what if he's dead and I never got him to accept my apologies?"
"For what?" Kenny asked. "Being a doormat?" He lowered his voice to try to match Stan's: "Hey dude, sorry I was such a doormat."
"You don't understand, neither of you understand!" Stan put his head in his hands. "I slept with someone else."
"Oh." Hedda crept forward. "Who?"
"A student," said Stan. "Not one of my students. Some 21-year-old."
"Isn't that perfectly acceptable? I mean, darling, lord knows how many hoops you're expected to jump through. Kenny, do you agree?"
It was the first time she'd appealed to him for an opinion. "What?"
"Honestly, he's very old-fashioned about sex if he just expects you to sit there and go without it ad infinitum."
"We talk on the computer," said Stan.
"That's not very satisfying!" she pressed.
"I can't pretend we aren't who we are." Stan finally slumped back against the sofa.
For a time they all sat together. Kenny glanced around the room, at the old thrift store treasures on the brick mantle, faux-Delftware and ornate, tall crystal vases jammed with brightly colored Mexican paper flowers. At the center of the display was an oil portrait of Hedda in her youth; it looked as though it might have been painted in the 20s, with the slick cut of her hair and the fox fur falling off her shoulder. It wasn't hanging but leaning.
"You know," Hedda said after some minutes had passed, "I've been awfully rude." She looked right at Kenny as she said this. "Can I get you a drink?"
"I'd love a cigarette," he said. "I should step out."
"Oh." She brightened. "So would I." She got up, straightening the drape of her black cardigan, which hit at the crooks of her arms, and fell around her knees. "Let's stay inside, though. It's so windy. Would you follow me?"
"I'd love to." Kenny turned to Stan. "You'll be all right?"
"I need to think," Stan said. Then he shook his head. "No, I need to get to Kyle. I wanted to be off by now."
"Won't be long," said Hedda. "Just a smoke."
"Right." Stan watched them go, shutting themselves into her bedroom. When he heard them beginning to laugh, and the click of the door locking, he laid down on the couch, brought his knees to his chest and, savoring the only partial privacy he'd had in a while, began to cry.
The road was quiet now, devoid of most traffic in either direction. Kenny offered to drive out of town, but Stan wouldn't let him. The strain between them felt heavy, like it increased the pressure inside the car, another entity taking up precious energy and oxygen.
Stan was disinclined to have a conversation. The longer he drove, the less Kenny seemed present. Familiar sights crept up on the sides of the road: houses, billboards, and monuments Stan had marked when he drove this way before, or back in the other direction. Each reminded Stan of Kyle's commentary: "That barn is falling down. Can you imagine living there? If that was your farm?" Or, "If abortion's such a sin, why don't they save their billboard money and give it to some pregnant girl?" Each quip sounded, the more times Stan replayed it in his head, too polished with stylistic flair to possibly be verbatim. At the same time, Stan loved the cadence of Kyle's voice, the short, shrill way he gave one-word answers when he was tired or angry.
Soon they were in Davenport. They were stopped only once, and allowed to pass. This patrolman, a nervous wreck, just shuddered at their identification and sent them on. Stan sped over the Mississippi.
No one was manning the toll booths. They shot through them, the toll pass on Stan's dashboard silent and unlit. Stan didn't expect it to work. Then, a split-second past and open-road toll structure, the little device beeped, and flashed green for a moment.
"I guess something's working in Illinois," Stan said, although not really to Kenny, just to voice his amazement.
"We're almost halfway, then," Kenny mumbled back.
In response, Stan grunted, turning his attention back on cruise control, which he increased by three mph. There was no one around to stop them.
Near Joliet, traffic began to pick up; by Tinley Park, they were no longer moving at all.
"Utter bullshit," said Stan, turning on the radio. Static began to filter in.
"It's a big city," Kenny said.
Stan rolled his eyes, rolling the FM dial between his thumb and forefinger. "Right." He skipped over the 90s and paused to listen to some light contemporary warbling between settling on the news: "—are advising citizens to stay in their homes—" Stan turned this off quickly and left it on a station playing a commercial for mattresses. Then they suffered through an ad that began with, "Men, are you giving your partner everything she wants?"
"Oh," said Kenny. "This is interesting. Who can give anyone everything they want? Shouldn't anyone be able to do things for themselves?"
"I think it's euphemistic," said Stan. He laid his forehead against the steering wheel.
"I know that," said Kenny. I'm just trying to make conversation."
"Well, don't," Stan snapped. "Don't really want to talk to you."
"Because I boned your professor?"
"She's not a professor, she's a poet, and no, I don't give a rat's ass if you bone Hedda. She's psycho, enjoy."
"Okay. I thought you admired her—"
"She's a great poet," said Stan. "We're dramatic. I have dramatic premonition."
Kenny was quiet for a moment, shifting his feet to the dashboard, opening the window just a crack. The air coming in was crisp, the sun behind a cloud. Eventually, he said, "I think you get off on this pretense of being some hip troubadour with heavy thoughts. When we were younger, Stan, I sort of thought you were just selfish and sad. But you're not sad, are you? It's both deeper and more shallow than that. It's this sense of melancholy that you're curating. In fact, I think even as I'm speaking now you're probably crafting some way to make this conversation throb with, like, some overwrought poetic vibe."
Kenny expected Stan to have nothing to say to that, but he was incorrect.
"You want to know what I'm pissed about?" Stan asked. "I'm not sure why you're here. If you hate me—"
Kenny laughed. "I don't hate you, fuck, I pity you. I pity you like I pity myself, burdened with some, I don't know, lifelong curse."
"What's my curse?"
"Kyle, obviously — and don't tell me you love him. I know you love him, it's touching and uncomfortable. And I'm here, like in this car, because I wanted to get away from Colorado. That's all. It's been fascinating, though. So thanks for that. The best distraction from my problems."
"You are such a fucking creep!" Stan shouted.
Instead of answering, Kenny just shrugged.
Inching toward Indiana was a slow process. Stan did comment, at the 57 junction, that they'd take it into the city, if they were headed in that direction.
"Fine," said Kenny.
"Make fun of my curse if you want," said Stan, "but I don't need it right now."
"Fine, of course not."
At the 94 junction, however, they reached a checkpoint. An Illinois state patrolman asked where they were headed.
"East," said Stan.
"We've given up on any particular target, apparently," Kenny added.
"You can't head east," said the patrolman. His breath smelled like bubblegum, although he wasn't chewing any. When he articulated a vowel, he sounded a bit like a mobster. "Everything's closed eastbound."
"They've been telling us this since Nebraska," said Stan. "Honestly, officer, we know."
"Then you know I can't let you go east. You can head straight down to Missouri, if you like."
"We want Indiana," Stan insisted.
"I'm sure it's perfectly safe to go into Indiana," said Stan. "I don't think the fallout would have drifted that far west yet."
"Oh, and you're an expert?"
"Yes, by proxy!"
"Sorry, sir." Kenny leaned over the gear shift to speak to the patrolman more directly. "You'll excuse my friend. He's grieving."
The patrolman grunted out, "Sure."
"We know you've got a long line of cars to direct, so, what are our options?"
"Well." The patrolman coughed into his fist. "I'd advise you go west, honestly. That's our orders, advise you go west."
"We just came from there!" Stan cried.
"Sorry," said Kenny. "Really. What else?"
"Well, like I said, you could go down to St. Louis, last we were told the road's clear, you can take 55 down there, or you can take 57 down a number of places, it's a big state, you can always park in Chambana, Springfield — or go on to Nashville, Clarksville? Most people are headed west, so anything down south should be a quick drive."
"Okay, but — long-term, thank you, that might work. But where can we go right now?"
"Into the city."
"We don't want to go into the city," said Stan. "We want to go east on 80."
"Maybe you can try going around to Michigan, sir, when traffic's cleared up a bit, through Wisconsin—"
It was 7 already, the sun setting, the sky ahead of them nighttime-dark. "If we were going into the city," Kenny said, "how'd we get there?"
"It's a good idea," said the patrolman. "Just take 94 up. Lots of good displacement centers set up. They can at least help you figure out where you're going."
"Then I think that's what we're gonna do, sir," said Kenny. "Thanks, officer, really."
"No problem, boys." To Stan, he added, "Sorry for your loss."
"Kenny," Stan said when they were moving again, "really, go fuck yourself."
"Fuck myself?" Kenny asked. "Are you retarded, arguing with a cop? Just, fuck, you want to go east so badly? Chicago's a lot closer to New York than fucking — where'd he tell us to go? Clarksville? Just calm down, fuck. Maybe the displacement people can help us."
"Oh, it's us, is it? You pity me so fucking much—" Stan cut himself off.
"I pity you so much what?" Kenny asked.
But Stan didn't answer him; Stan just drove.
The displacement center they were routed to was unlike the last one; this one was in a large old church, lost persons sheltered in blankets and spread across pews. They church itself was a red terracotta tower with three gothic thresholds, wooden doors gaping with a hasty banner that advertised, ALL ARE WELCOME. Stan stood in front of it, reconciling the holy old monster with the prefab postwar rectory and administrative buildings clustered behind the churchyard, a playground with plastic equipment on an asphalt ground. Here, too, there were fat buds on the trees, green and reddish brown, and the skeletons of hyacinths that had already shed the majority of their blossoms. It was no time for personal reflection; kids in dirty ski jackets and old men playing poker crowded the steps.
Stan and Kenny were led through the sanctuary and into one of the baldly lit hallways. It was night now, and the drawings on the walls, primary colored scrawls, told Stan that this was a school, too, at the very least a Sunday school. One of the classroom doors had a sign in tempera paint, 5-D MRS DONNELLY, with the names of 15 students scratched in crooked block letters or bad illegible cursive. Stan noticed there were two Kyles in the class, Kyle Q. and Kyle T. Then they turned down a hallway.
"It's a common name," Stan said to himself.
Kenny sighed, but didn't implore Stan to answer him.
They found themselves, once again, in a gymnasium. This one was smaller, on a more human scale than the last. Because it was an elementary school, maybe, the basketball hoops were on a more reachable level, hanging from the rafters, which were not terribly high. The line wasn't quite long, with only a few persons ahead of them. Despite the lack of confusion, Stan felt more claustrophobic than he had on the journey up to then.
The woman they spoke to introduced herself as Giselle; she had her dark hair in a sloppy bun that had come undone near her face, loose strands hanging from her temples, covering her ears. "I'll help you any way I can," she said, and her accent betrayed her origins.
Stan didn't dare ask her where she was from, although he was sure it was central America, and he wanted to know. "Thanks," he said, taking a seat next to Kenny on a folding chair. "We're trying to go east. On I-80."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I don't think it's gonna happen."
"Stan." Kenny put a hand on Stan's shoulder.
Stan shrugged it off. "Listen, ma'am — Giselle?"
She nodded. "Yeah?"
"We're trying to get to New York. At close as possible."
"You gotta be out of you mind, thinking I'm gonna tell you to drive to New York. I don't think they'll let anyone through, even," she said. "It doesn't even exist anymore. You must be insane. Why don't you wanna stay here? We're a nice city."
"I know. It's a great city. Trust me. I know. We're from Denver, which is also a great city. This country is full of great cities. So, like, I'm not doubting you."
'I think," she said, "if you want to know what I think you should do, I think the best thing's go to back where you came from, to Denver."
"I know," said Stan. "But, we've driven all the way here already. We don't want to go back. Kenny—" Stan nodded at Kenny.
"Hiya," said Kenny.
"—lost his whole family. And his house. He's got nothing there. I'm looking for my husband."
"Okay," she said.
"When last I spoke to him, he was in New York. I know we could die. I don't really care if I die. At this point."
"What about your friend?"
"Don't give a shit," said Kenny. He sighed, standing up. "Thanks Giselle. I'm — I think I'll go have a cig."
And Kenny shuffled away, darting out to smoke.
Stan turned back to Giselle. "You don't understand."
"I understand," she replied. "Honest, mister. The whole world's missing someone right now. I'm real sorry."
"They told us you could help!"
"Yeah, I'm here to help," she said. "But I can't help you do the impossible. I can help you find a place to go. You can stay here if you like. I mean, in the city, or even at the center. We got good beds, though they're filling up."
"I don't know if I consider a pew a good bed."
"Well, we got beds in the classrooms, like, cots? But listen, you just can't go. I'm sorry. I don't make the rules. And if I made the rules I don't think I'd let you go and kill yourself."
"I don't much care anymore," said Stan. He sounded hoarse. "I really don't. And I'm sick of people telling me not to kill myself, if that's what I think I have to do. And I've been trapped in that car for, like, two days straight with that lunatic—"
"He didn't seem like a lunatic—"
"—he thinks he can't die, he's a lunatic. Anyway—"
"Look, mister, it's like 8, there's other people," she said.
Stan looked around to see who else was waiting; it seemed like there was just one family, a young man and woman with an overweight son, his mother's arms around his chest, maybe 7 or 8. He reminded Stan of his nephew, Trevor. Trevor wasn't fat; he was a bit scrawny, in fact. But the way the boy in this church clung to his mother's arms reminded Stan of Trevor's crying in the bomb shelter. Stan missed him, and began to wonder if this trip hadn't been a mistake.
Giselle said, "Hey, you there?"
Stan shook his head, and turned around to face her again. "Yes, sorry."
"No, it's okay. Just, listen, in the morning we can talk about it more, maybe? You obviously gotta go somewhere. But where are you gonna go tonight? You can stay here, or, do you know anyone in town?"
"It's funny," Stan said, "but, actually, my husband."
"You mean, who you're looking for?"
"Yes. He works at the University of Chicago."
"That's not far," she said. "Why don't you go over there, try to see who you know?"
"He's only been there since August," said Stan.
"But where's he got an apartment?"
"Um, kind of — downtown?" Stan shrugged. "Like, by the river, it was kind of on the river — River North maybe? I'm not great with all the Chicago neighborhoods. We went to dinner in Boystown once and we drove there."
"That doesn't really help me know where he lives. But, listen, I don't think going up there's gonna help you. We got hit a little right downtown there."
"You got bombed."
"Yeah, not real bad, not a lotta casualties, but I'd stay away from downtown. In the morning you can see the dust clouds. Anyway. Maybe you go to his department at U of C and ask what they know?"
"What — tonight?"
"Sure," she said. "They got a center in Hyde Park, too, so you just sleep there if no one helps you out."
Stan got up. "You really think they might know something?"
"I dunno what they know," she said. "I just know you can't go to New York anymore. But it sounds like you're not ready to stop trying."
"No," said Stan. "I'm not." He thanked her, and offered her a piece of gum.
"Thanks," she said, unwrapping it. "Good luck."
Stan found Kenny sitting on a swing in the asphalt playground. "This is my second," Kenny said, lifting a cigarette to his lips.
"How have you not run out of cigarettes yet?"
"Because I keep buying them at gas stations," Kenny said, rolling his eyes.
"Oh!" Stan had been about to sit down on the other swing, but Kenny stood. It was night out now, the sky starless and dark like fountain pen ink. "Did Giselle help?"
"Kind of," said Stan. "Actually, she told me to go to Kyle's department at the school and ask what they know."
"Perhaps they don't know anything."
"Then I won't know any less," said Stan. "Apparently there were some bombs here? But it wasn't so bad."
"That's great for them," Kenny scoffed. "Lucky them."
"Anyway, I'm driving over there. If you want to come, come. If you want to get away from me — don't come."
"Do you want me to come?"
"I don't give a shit what the fuck you do," said Stan.
"Then I'll come," said Kenny. He took another drag, and then caught Stan glaring at him. "What? I want to see how this plays out. It's better than dwelling, anyway."
Stan announced that he knew where they were headed before Kenny could offer to drive. He turned the radio to a classic rock station playing something that sounded twangy. Stan turned the volume down so that it coursed through the car, ever-present but indistinct.
The streets were quiet, rigid, lined with trees whose branches arched over the middle of the road, canopying it with green buds. Young helicopter seeds fell on Stan's windshield as he drove, and with a swish of the wipers they were flicked away. Back home, it had felt like the dregs of winter, if Stan felt anything about his environment at all; things were slate-gray, unanchored from the passage of time, everything since August a bleary mess. Here there was an incendiary smell, but also a kind of wetness. It must have rained before they'd arrived, perhaps in the morning, and Stan wondered whether if he stepped on the grass in bare feet, his toes would get wet.
The University of Chicago sat on the lakefront, the midway of the 1893 world's fair slashed through campus. Stan had been there before, but in the darkness, with little traffic, he found himself lost, not in the sense that he did not know where they were, but looping around the old midway, all the way down until Kenny tapped his shoulder and pointed to the ivory crest that rose in front of them, foreboding.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Oh." Stan wiped his nose, snapping off the radio — it had devolved into a set of commercials anyhow. It shocked Stan for a moment, before he turned made a U-turn and hooked around to the left, but then he recalled the walking tour he'd been led on with Kyle their first evening in town last summer. "It's The Fountain of Time."
"You'd like it in the daytime."
"Fuck you," said Kenny, "you don't know what kind of art I like! But more generally, I meant this whole campus is creepy."
"I find it quaint," Stan countered.
"What is quaint about a lumbering gothic cathedral?"
"Do you know," said Stan, "that there's a Frank Lloyd Wright on that corner?"
"No, I don't." The sidewalks were mostly empty, and although there were streetlamps, Kenny strained to glimpse anything recognizable.
They left the car in a parking structure, and shuffled down the sidewalk, past modernist libraries and dormitories, outside of which Stan finally noticed people, or rather, students, who smoked on the steps and whose laughter carried across the street to bother Stan deeply. They reminded him of his students, his creative writing students, little freshmen undecideds; it was Stan's mission to convert them to English majors by the end of spring semester. Stan led Kenny through a passage that sliced between two buildings, and he began to miss the idea of wandering into his next seminar with a paper cup of coffee, sitting on the desk, kicking his legs against it. Stan knew he should hate this place for stealing Kyle, but after the long drive, the hours spent in traffic, the realization that he was pathetic, Stan couldn't muster the intellectual energy required to hate something with a purpose. Now he just wanted to sleep. He wouldn't mind sleeping in the plastic sling of a cot, either. He just wanted to turn his brain off.
"This is it," Stan declared, stopping in front of a gray building. "The physics department. Or whatever."
"Is it just me," said Kenny, "or have we — I feel we've gone in something of a geographical circle."
"Maybe." Stan shrugged. "You coming?"
"I'll have a cigarette. You go."
"Okay." Stan sniffed and braced himself, and turned to ring the doorbell. He waited a moment, figuring it was possible at 9 p.m. that no one was even at the department, or, for that matter, in residence, in light of the situation. But when Stan turned to shrug at Kenny again, someone came for him at the door.
"Hi," she said, a tired woman with a silver pixie cut. She wore a white boat neck with navy stripes and a chunky necklace of coral. It took Stan a moment to process that she was speaking to him, and not Kenny.
"I'm looking for someone," said Stan. "I mean, hi." He stuck his hand out. "I'm Stanley Marsh."
"Yes," she said, wrinkling her nose. "I remember you from — something. Were you at the Christmas party?"
"I was at a new doctoral students' luncheon in October—"
"It must be that, listen, it's—" She sniffled, rubbing her nose. Stan took a moment to glance away, to look for Kenny, but he was gone, and Stan wasn't sure what to make of this. "Listen," she continued, after sneezing, "come inside. This season's awful for me. Here we go."
Stan followed her back into a dark vestibule, where a stack of old student newspapers from two weeks before sat on the staircase. She pushed some hair out of her eyes.
"I wasn't sure you guys would be here," Stan said.
"Yes, we're here all right," she said. "Working through the night." She said this with a bit of an intonation that made it sound like she wanted Stan to ask what she was working on.
"This must seem horribly abrupt, and maybe even pointless." Stan stuffed his hands in his jean pockets, trying not to come off as foolish. "But — remind me of your name?"
"Nancy." Stan sighed. "I've driven here from Denver. I'm looking for—" He squeezed his eyes shut, and put his face in his hands. He couldn't even look at her when he asked, "I know it's pointless, but, I had to come and ask — have any of you heard from Kyle? Do you know what happened to him?"
"Well, yes," she said, although she didn't sound thrilled about it.
"Oh god," Stan choked.
"Oh, no! Sorry. It's not that bad, Stanley — he's just in his office."
Opening his eyes, Stan said, "You're shitting me."
She laughed. It was abrupt and short, and it startled him. "No, I'm not, he's — I think it's upstairs and to the left. You're been there, right? Do you need me to—"
"No!" Stan bounded up the stairs, and it was only when he had turned the corner and began speeding down the narrow hallway, his footsteps echoing, that he realized he hadn't thanked her.
It was an unaccountably old building, in the sense that the painted stone walls and maroon tile floors could have dated to the 1960s or the Columbian Exposition, the New World Oxbridge simulacra of the place unconvincing but earnest. The halls were lit as if by torchlight, with flickering incandescent bulbs. Things seemed yellowish and, even running, Stan felt as if he were moving slowly.
Kyle's office was at the end of the hall. It wasn't large, 10 by 15 feet, with shelves of books towering to the ceiling. Kyle's desk was under a window, and in Stan's recollection, it didn't give much light. Everything was neat; it always was. Kyle kept his papers filed and off his work surface; there was nothing on the desk aside from the phone, the computer, and an old picture of Stan and Kyle at someone's college birthday party, 10 years prior. They were standing on the steps in a rented townhouse, Kyle a foot above, a red cup in his hand, his other hand on his hip, talking down to Stan, who gazed up. Stan's hair was much longer back then, hanging around his chin, and in the picture, his expression was obstructed, his hand clutching the banister. Why this was the one picture Kyle had on his desk, Stan really didn't know. He imagined it might have been because Kyle looked good, his skin all clear with a kind of youthful vigor. Stan hadn't worn his hair like that in ages.
Kyle was sitting with his feet on his desk, keyboard pushed to the side, and his hands folded in his lap. The door was side open, and Stan glanced around the small office before rapping on the door jamb.
"Now's a bad time," Kyle rasped, not bothering to turn around and see who'd come calling.
"And here I thought we'd be greeted as liberators." It was the best Stan could do, and he found himself cringing as Kyle swiveled around in his desk chair.
Rubbing his eyes, Kyle looked up. "Jesus Christ," he said, smoothing down the front of his shirt. "You really look like shit."
"Yeah," Stan agreed, although he wasn't entirely sure what he looked like. "I bet I do, huh."
Instead of replying, Kyle held his arms out, like a child waiting to be picked up.
So, Stan picked him up. With his heel, he shut the door, and pressed Kyle against the back of it.
Kyle's legs wrapped around Stan's waist, his arms around Stan's shoulders, his first instinct. "What'd you do?" he asked. His voice sounded so thin and small, not at all like Kyle's usual authoritative bombast. "How'd you get here?"
"Drove," said Stan. "With Kenny."
"Oh god," Kyle replied. "Good. He's okay. Good."
Stan didn't want to talk about Kenny at the moment. He put his lips to Kyle's, pushing him firmer against the door. Carefully, Stan licked the corner of Kyle's mouth, moving inward, until Kyle's tongue came out to meet his. Stan shut his eyes, felt Kyle grab handfuls of his shirt. They hadn't kissed, not well, for months now. The best part of it was the scent, Kyle's scent, so clean and just slightly antiseptic. Antibacterial. Clinical. All of these things and more. Stan breathed it all in so deeply that his sinuses felt dry.
"This is just like something you'd do," Kyle said, against Stan's lips. He untangled his legs, giving Stan another peck, and falling back into his desk chair.
There was nowhere for Stan to sit. "I wasn't going to sit around just wondering if you were all right."
"Did you think I was?"
It was beginning to rain outside, which was disorienting for Stan, as at that moment he felt the entire universe was stuffed into Kyle's overheated office; the sound of water on glass, slow pattering that grew in urgency as they both sat there staring at each other, said otherwise.
"How did you—?" Stan started to say, but Kyle spread his legs out and shook his head.
"Later," said Kyle. He sighed. The office was so compact that Stan had to step back to give Kyle's legs some room. Kyle held his arms out again. "I know shit's fucked up. But, I really need it."
"To be close to you. You know, now that you're here."
"I thought you hated me," said Stan, wondering it he might cry again, still standing closer to the door than to Kyle.
"Well, I'm not thrilled. But I don't hate you. How could I hate you?" Kyle sniffed and wiped at his eye. He always cried like this, slow and dry, like he was in a play about two people fighting. Stan had never tried to write a play, but he appreciated how Kyle emoted like he was a character in something Stan had written. "Please," Kyle said. He was wearing an old long-sleeved gray T-shirt and an inconspicuous pair of jeans, which he opened, although he didn't go so far as to pull his dick out. Kyle wasn't that forward.
"You're testing me," Stan said.
"I'm not, honest." Kyle rubbed his other eye. "I'll tell you everything after, I promise, I just need this, because even if I'm angry at you and you hurt me, can't we please just have this one nice, unspoiled go?"
"All right." Stan swallowed back his doubts. Even as he regretted his decision to play along, he said, "Have you been a good girl?"
"No." Kyle sniffed, looking up with big eyes. "But I've been a sick one." It wasn't his usual answer.
This more or less did it for Stan, who fell forward and grabbed Kyle by the forearm, yanking him down to the ground. He put a hand to Kyle's waist, both of them on their knees, and pulled Kyle against him, their mouths touching for the first time since New Year's Eve, when Kyle had offered Stan a kiss at midnight, a bit drunk and not entirely proud of it.
As they parted, Stan said, "I don't mind sick girls, and you're an awfully pretty one."
The allure of calling Kyle a girl: He was so un-girl-like, physically. He was tall. He was long. He had hips, that was perhaps the most feminine part of his figure, but there was nothing to balance them out with, no bust, just the compact slope of his shoulders. Once when writing about Kyle, Stan had called him
A cord with one knot in the middle
Ropy with one hard swell
Fibers woven intricately like into one single tug of a pulley
A simple machine
Nobody liked that passage except Kyle. Stan didn't like it. He was proud of it, for some reason he couldn't quite identify, but he didn't like it. "It makes me feel like my body isn't awful," Kyle had said, "like you've got some use for it."
"Yes," had been Stan's reply, because the shallowness of that assessment hurt him. Here Stan had been pleased with his unlikeable passage, ostensibly about physical objects, actually about his lover's naked body, and subtextually about Kyle's mind, how complex and singular it was. This had been in Iowa, as Stan was preparing his first volume for publication, getting ready to leave. This poem itself, all 27 stanzas, was the gem in the middle of the thesis, all of which was about Kyle, about deconstructing their relationship, about the long, slow crest of Stan's feelings.
It was hard, following a boy from place to place. Kyle had forced himself out of high school a year early, and out of college a year early, and into a PhD program at the University of Iowa. Stan had little aptitude for anything, but he liked writing well enough. He'd been living with the English language his entire life, about as long as he'd known Kyle; why shouldn't he master it? Kyle received his doctorate after a three-year march through well-lit laboratories and poorly lit offices, taking Saturdays off to sleep in until 10, waking Stan with a tongue on Stan's dick, Stan's hand in Kyle's hair.
So it was now, with Kyle fishing through the bulk of Stan's jeans for Stan's cock, which was becoming harder and straighter; the foreskin receding; the scar distorting. Stan flinched when Kyle pressed on it.
"Does it hurt?" Kyle asked.
"I don't know," Stan replied. He was blushing, feeling hotter. He didn't want to take off his shirt, but he did slide out of his jacket, tossing it against. "Sense memory or something."
"I can't believe I did this," said Kyle. "It's like something a crazy person would do."
"You were so angry."
"I was so scared. Like a fucking animal, like you were threatening my eggs, I dunno—"
"Your eggs, huh?" Stan clasped a hand to Kyle's stomach. "That doesn't make much sense."
"I'm not great with language. I'm not poetic. Can we just, like—"
"I think you're okay with language."
"Yeah." Kyle snorted. "You're super objective about it, too."
"You know, it is my job."
"Being objective about language." Stan inched the hem of Kyle's shirt up, stroking Kyle's skin with the side of his thumb. "Or writing, at least." Stan moved to the fly on Kyle's jeans, unfastening each button carefully.
Shuddering as Stan slid his thumbs into the elastic of Kyle's Y-fronts, Kyle said, "I never really thought about it like that — mmmf, yes — I mean, like it gives you some critical advantage."
"Well, you teach—"
"Only if I really have to—"
"So wouldn't you say your authority on, like, physics or whatever is pretty solid? Solid enough to give you a critical insight into how your students are doing, their grasp of the subject matter?"
"What?" Kyle shrugged, allowing Stan to pull his sneakers off without untying the laces; his socks followed in short order. "Why — I don't know, I've never been a very good teacher."
Stan slid Kyle's pants and underwear from his legs, and balled them up on Kyle's desk chair. They were now sitting on the floor of Kyle's office. Stan's cock was hanging out of his open fly, wet and hard; Kyle was naked from the waist down. They were staring at each other.
"What are we doing?" Stan asked.
"Do you want me?"
"Of course I do." Stan wasn't sure if he should get any further undressed, or if he would fall asleep on the floor there, the rain thumping against the window, Kyle's breath on his neck, both of them unsatisfied. "Why do you think I wouldn't?"
"Because you fucked that kid."
Stan flinched. "And it fucking tears me up inside! But please stop talking about it like he's some romantic rival. He's probably back with his family right now. I mean, I hope he's okay, but — god, don't make that face at me! I just hope he's not dead."
"I'm not making a face," said Kyle. "I'm just—I don't, we heard Denver got hit, but ... ugh, I don't know, I don't want to think about it. Is the house okay?"
Stan beamed in spite of his frustration at Kyle's mention of their house. "Yeah, it's fine, actually. Are you glad I'm okay?"
"Stan, I knew you would be okay. You told me you were going to your uncle's stupid bomb shelter. Plus I really don't think the highly strategic stronghold of South Park, Colorado was under threat of attack."
"Well, you thought nothing would be attacked."
"I know what I thought," Kyle snapped.
"I ran into Craig Tucker," Stan said. "He was gloating about it."
"About me being wrong?"
"Where?" Kyle asked.
"In fucking South Park."
"Figures. Well, whatever, I'm fucking wrong about everything."
"Not everything." Stan reached out, to try to take Kyle by the hand.
Kyle jerked his arm away. "I'm wrong about the apocalypse. I'm wrong about what color paint to put in the office. I'm wrong about taking the chair I like to Chicago—"
"I'm wrong about you cheating on me. You weren't actually cheating, it was some — I don't know, my fears are just invalid. I was wrong to try to punish you. I should have let it be, I guess. And I was wrong to want to leave high school, graduate college, get a PhD, and get married by age 25. I can see those were all bad decisions now. I just had to do it, you know, because I just enjoy being wrong so much!"
"Well, no," Stan said, "your ambition is something I love about you."
"Oh Jesus," Kyle said, and he burst into tears.
Stan crawled over and scooped Kyle into his lap. Their bodies fit together well, Kyle's long legs arching over Stan's, his head tucked against Stan's shoulder. Kyle's eyelashes brushed against Stan's neck.
"Don't cry," Stan said. "You don't want me to have to compose any pithy little sayings about this moment."
"Of course I do," Kyle wept. "I love your pithy little sayings, I love you — why'd you have to go and come all the way over here and get me? I didn't need you to rescue me. I was fine."
"I didn't come to rescue you," said Stan. "I came to be with you."
"Well then, have I got news for you." Kyle wiped at his eyes, sucking snot back into his nose.
Stan kissed Kyle's cheek. The feeling of week-old stubble was familiar, Kyle's default. He was vain to the point of laziness, preferring to hide behind his intellectual acumen. Stan sort of admired this denial. He kissed Kyle on the lips, stroking Kyle's bare thigh, while Kyle swallowed sobs away, his sadness dissolving until he kissed back, pushing Stan down on the floor.
"We don't have to if you don't want to," Stan said, looking up.
"I know." Kyle wiped his nose on his sleeve again, and turned around, reaching into his desk drawer for what turned out to be a small tube of lotion. "It gets dry in here when the heat's on," he said, answering a question Stan hadn't asked. Kyle placed the tube on Stan's chest, and turned around again, positioning himself on his knees and elbows. "Don't put it in," he ordered. "Put it, like, sort of between my thighs? Or — wait, no — surprise me."
"Yeah." Kyle clenched. "Just, I want to feel close again. Please, do something, I don't know what I want anymore."
Since Kyle sounded like he was going to cry again, Stan got up behind him and clasped his hands to Kyle's narrow waist. His whole body was shaking.
"And please say something pithy."
"How about something dramatic?"
"Oh. Huh." Kyle sniffed. "No. No, there'll be time for that later."
Stan uncapped the lotion with his teeth, sniffing it. It had a fine, indistinct scent, nothing Stan could put a name to. He wasn't sure if this was because it wasn't a readily identifiable smell, or if he was too overwhelmed to think abstractly about lotion. The label was printed in red Helvetica on a white background, "For sensitive skin." It was organic. Stan ran his thumb over the word sensitive before squeezing a good-sized dollop onto his fingers.
Kyle was trembling. "That stuff's not cheap," he said.
Stan failed to restrain himself from laughing at that. He started with two fingers. "I'd think your comfort is worth more than 10 bucks," he said.
"Try 18." Kyle sounded annoyed, but the tension was leaving his body, his hips pressing back into Stan's fingers, his shoulders going slack.
"This thing cost 18 dollars? Wow."
"It's nice lotion."
Not wanting to talk much more about lotion, Stan curled his hand around Kyle's erection. This proved effective, Kyle groaning with relief. "It's so much better than doing it over video chat," he said, thrusting into Stan's fist. "Even if I'm pissed at your and you don't deserve it." Kyle sounded like he was crying again, but Stan couldn't see his face.
"You deserve to feel so good," Stan said, pressing a kiss to the prominence of Kyle's spine. "I thought I'd never get to do this again."
"Close call," said Kyle, in a short, breathy way. "Mmmhm, can you—" Before Kyle could specify, Stan shifted the rhythm of his fingers, adding a third, pressing harder but less frequent. "That's perfect." Kyle sighed against his arms. "Perfect, it's perfect. Keep going."
It was awkward for Stan to angle himself between Kyle's thighs, pressing his weight against Kyle's back. He held both of their cocks together, continuing to press inside of Kyle with his fingers, using a sort of stabbing motion that brought Kyle off first, making him wail. It didn't sound like relief, to Stan; it sounded like a little goat bleating in agony while it watched its mother slaughtered. Stan tried to put together a stanza about it as he continued to thrust against Kyle's slick skin, but pleasure distracted him. He really didn't think well during sex.
Kyle rolled over. He did have big, wet eyes, his hair all mussed from pushing into the industrial-grade carpeting. "You can put it in," he said, putting a foot to Stan's chest.
For a moment Stan was unsure if Kyle was going to push him over, but Kyle didn't. "Do you want that?" he asked. He felt very close, and had to use his hand to pinch the base of his cock.
Kyle just nodded. "I don't even have a condom," he said. "But just — yeah, here." He angled his hips up. "Do it. Here. Just — can we stop overthinking it?"
"I don't believe for a moment you can stop overthinking anything," said Stan.
He came almost immediately.
Kenny was sitting at the top of the stairs, head against the wall. He had the distinct smell of cigarettes on him; it lingered in the air, Kyle wrinkling his nose at it.
"You smell like an ashtray," Kyle said, settling down next to Kenny. "But it's good to see you're all right, I guess."
"Of course I'm all right. I'm shocked to see you, to be honest."
"Why? There are bomb shelters in the greater New York metropolitan area. Then I caught a ride back."
Kenny shrugged. "I don't know, people along the way seemed rather pessimistic about the prospects of finding you alive."
"Oh, the city's leveled, it's gone," Kyle said, as if it were no big deal, as if he'd barely noticed. "But I was hanging out with important people, so. I got evacuated."
"Well, isn't that neat," said Kenny.
Stan was wondering what he could add to this conversation. "I'm grateful," he said. "I'm relieved."
"Do you want a cigarette?" Kenny asked. "Because that's all I can offer you right now. That or cash."
Kyle asked, "Cash for what?"
"Shelter," said Kenny. "You've got an apartment, right?"
"It's not fit for human occupation — I mean, the building's still there, but there's structural damage, so ... I don't really care, to be honest. It's just a rental; I've got no sentimental attachment to the place. I just hope I get my stuff back. And I'd never make you pay for staying with me, I mean — god, I'm not that horrible, I hope."
"Where were you planning on sleeping?" Stan asked. He walked to the bottom of the stairs, by the entrance, and looked up at Kyle and Kenny, sitting arm-to-arm, looking away from each other. It was a short staircase, but Kyle felt so far away; Stan just wanted to wrap him up and drag him down to the floor again.
"I was just going to sit at my desk all night. Maybe I'd pass out on the floor. ... Fuck, Kenny, you really smell like cigarettes, Jesus."
"You don't even want to know what you smell like," Kenny snapped.
Kyle laughed. "Well, okay. Let's just — are you guys hungry?"
"No," said Kenny.
"We had burgers," said Stan. "In Iowa city. It was a while ago, but—"
"I met what's her face," said Kenny.
"Yeah," said Stan. "We saw Hedda."
"Oh, of course you did." Kyle rolled his eyes. "How is she?"
"Fatter," said Stan.
"I didn't mind," said Kenny.
"Good," said Kyle. "That fat bitch can suck my cock."
"I think she would if you offered," said Kenny.
"Ha, no, she hates me. She thinks she's on Team Stan, or something, and she has to hate me."
"She's not on Team Stan," said Stan. "There's no Team Stan, for one thing. For another, she's on Team Hedda."
"How was the rest of the drive, then?"
Stan and Kenny looked to each other, as if together they could figure out the perfect word.
Kenny shrugged. "Like two blood vessels in an artery, or ... something."
"All right then." Kyle stood, stretching, his shirt lifting up to reveal the expanse of skin above his hip bones where Stan had left conspicuous, albeit vague, pink marks, evenly spaced like fingers. Stan stared, admiring, a moony look in his eyes. Kenny turned away.
"All right," Kyle repeated. He yanked his shirt down. "Let me go get my coat and — and we can go." He went up the stairs again, and disappeared around the corner.
When he was gone, Kenny smiled, wanly, and said to Stan, "I'm glad for you."
Stan took a step back. "Thanks."
"You don't have to thank me. Just, really, I'm glad. I'm glad something came out of it. It doesn't much make up for things, but it balances everything out a little."
"Then I'm glad I could give you something to balance things out," said Stan.
Kenny said, "Thanks."
Stan sat down next to him to wait for Kyle to return.
There was a large dorm complex not far from the physics department—just on the other side of the library, across the street and around a corner. The façade was red brick with modernist touches that looked dated to Stan, their angular neutrality and the primary-colored accents on the building contrasting with all the gothic revival pomposity of the rest of campus. University dorms had been evacuated, most students sent back to their families; it might have been the same at Denver; Stan imagined only the few students from out east choosing to stay behind. Classes had all been cancelled before Stan left town.
At the reception desk, a security guard could only offer them one proper room, a single, and only after Kyle flashed his university ID. "There's lots of cots set up in the rec room," he said, "nobody wants one of those. But lots of people passing through or who can't go back home to downtown needed beds, and it's kinda late so—"
"The rec room's perfectly fine for me," said Kenny. "I like a nice cot. I'm getting used to them."
"Ken, no," Stan said. "We'll take cots."
Kyle shook his head, weary, as if this were the sort of thing Stan would do, offer Kenny the last proper dorm bed, and it was utter bullshit.
Kenny snapped up the key to the room. "Thanks, guys," he said, pocketing it. "I'll see you in the morning, I guess."
"Sure," said Stan.
"Not too early," said Kyle.
"No," said Kenny. "Of course not."
"Breakfast stops at 9," said the security guard. "In the attached dining hall."
"That's so early!" said Kyle.
"What's after breakfast?" Stan asked.
"Brunch. Starts at 10."
Kenny rolled his eyes. "See you at 10 for brunch?"
Stan was satisfied with this, nodding. "Sure."
"Great." Kenny stood there for a moment, absorbing the annoyance radiating off of Kyle, who was glowering. "Well, good night."
To Stan's surprise, Kyle didn't chide him for giving away the bed, but asked why.
"Well, he drove across the country with me," Stan said, "and we did basically just leave him stranded there for a while."
"Sure, but Kenny's an adult, he can sit tight for a bit."
"And he just lost his family, poor guy."
Kyle stopped walking, in front of a unisex bathroom. "What, he did? Oh, fuck, I didn't even ask. What's wrong with me? I must be completely evil."
"Completely evil? Oh, honey, no. Some fundamentalist autocrat just killed off millions of people." Stan was disappointed in how impassive he felt. "That's enormous. Compared to that, you're nothing. You're very small."
Kyle seemed to concede this point. "Oh, all right. But we nuked them back, did you know?"
"No," said Stan. "I didn't."
The rec room was fairly empty, with handful of free cots in one corner, by a piano covered with a sheet. Stan fell onto the first one next to the piano, burying his face in the pillow. It had been so long since he'd slept, so many hours of driving and frustration, dealing with people. Stan wanted to believe he liked people, he really did, but now all he wanted was to wake up in the morning with Kyle in the same room, breathing the same air. He didn't know where they'd go, and he didn't want to think about it for the time being. Those were questions they could face later.
"Hey." Kyle nudged at Stan's side with his knee. "Hey, move over." Kyle didn't wait for a response, just shoved himself onto the cot next to Stan. It was a tight fit, with Kyle's body coiled around Stan's, a hand tucked against Stan's sternum, Kyle's feet dangling off of the cot. Kyle unraveled the thin fleece blanket, tucking them in together, its color murky in the dark. Stan's thoughts wandered — was it olive green, navy blue? He wished he could see. He wished he could see Kyle's face, the back of Kyle's head. He wished they were in their bed, in their little bungalow, the rainy night around them the beginning of springtime in Denver. Stan wanted to be the one to hold Kyle, to kiss the crook of Kyle's neck and the shell of his ear, to smell his clean hair. If the cot were larger, Stan would have held Kyle, but their bodies fit together best like this, with Stan as the little spoon. He fell asleep and didn't dream.
Stan woke up with the sun, which he didn't much mind. It took a moment for him to realize that he was sprawled on his back, an arm hanging off the cot, the blanket wedged between his legs and below his knees, as if he'd bee kicking it. Sitting up, he glanced around, wondering what had happened, if everything had been an exhausted hallucination — but there was Kyle, asleep on the next cot over, curled up under the covers, drooling. Stan laid down on his side and watched Kyle sleep until it was 9:40, according to an analog clock ticking on the wall, and time for brunch.
"Wake up," Stan said, kneeling beside the cot, kissing the bridge of Kyle's nose. "Are you hungry?"
"No." Kyle didn't open his eyes, just turned his head to bury it in the pillow. "Not hungry. No good."
"We said we'd meet Kenny."
"Come on." Stan wasn't sure why, but he felt the need to get Kyle out of bed. "I'll carry you if you don't get up."
"Obnoxious," said Kyle. "All right. Give me 10 minutes."
In daylight, Kyle seemed pale and tired, and as he straightened his hair in the bathroom mirror he complained that he wasn't hungry; Stan insisted he come eat something, to which Kyle only shrugged and said, "We'll see." He let Stan hold his hand as they walked the two blocks to the cafeteria. The sun was out and the sky was mostly cloudless, but the ground was still drying from the previous night's storm.
Kyle's ID got them into the cafeteria, but he repeated that he wasn't hungry and sat down with Kenny, who was eating dense scrambled eggs and burnt toast with the char scraped off. He was reading the Chicago Sun-Times, flipping through it quickly, and only glanced up when Kyle cleared his throat. "Morning," he said, folding the paper up and pushing it aside. He reached for his mug of coffee. "Do you eat here often? This coffee's abysmal."
"I never eat here," said Kyle. "This is a dining hall for undergraduates."
"I bet you could do worse."
Sighing as he sat down, Kyle said, "I'm sure I could, but I don't even live in this neighborhood. Why the fuck would I eat at a college cafeteria?"
Kenny shrugged, and peeled the foil from a small tub of butter.
"Kenny." Kyle leaned forward, and grabbed Kenny's forearm, forcing him to stop buttering his toast. "I'm so sorry."
Dropping his knife, Kenny said, "Okay. Thanks."
"Because I know I—"
"You really don't have to say anything else." Kenny's hand shook as he reached for his knife again. "You really, really don't."
Smearing butter on his burnt toast, Kenny asked, "Are you going to eat anything?"
"I don't think so. Not hungry."
"Okay." Kenny had no reservations about speaking as he chewed. "Do you know anything about volunteering?"
"Volunteering to what?"
"Help with displaced persons." Kenny swallowed, wiping black crumbs from his shirt.
"Not really." Kyle glanced around the room. It was moderately full, with tables of families, some lingering students, some professors. "I imagine you'd do best just going to one and asking."
"Like the one from last night?"
"That was just a dorm," said Kyle.
"I thought it was a displaced person's center."
"I don't know!" Kyle snapped. "Why don't you go ask? I'm not an encyclopedia."
"Calm the fuck down."
"Calm down? You don't fucking know anything!"
This was, perhaps fortunately, when Stan returned. He brought a tray of granola with a banana and a cup of milk. "What the hell?" he asked, setting his breakfast down and sliding out the chair next to Kyle. "What's up?"
"We're discussing options for what to do next," said Kyle. He looked Stan's right in the eyes as he spoke, and rested a hand on Stan's thigh. He gripped it. "Kenny wants to volunteer for ... something."
"I want to help displaced persons."
Stan tossed his banana peel aside and began slicing chunks into his bowl. "That's a great idea. Maybe we should—"
"No." Kyle didn't let him finish. "If we're doing anything we're getting out of here."
"Okay," said Stan. "How would we do that?"
"Simple. I've been offered the chance to take an airlift."
"And airlift to where?" asked Kenny.
Kenny snorted. "Figures."
"For your information," said Kyle, "while it's true the Israeli government is actively offering evacuations to Jewish Americans, the priority is being given to highly skilled migrants with legitimate reasons for being there, and since I've been collaborating with colleagues at Technion, and I have family connections—"
"His brother went to the army," Stan said, dousing his granola with milk. He offered Kyle a bite, asking, "Do you want some of this?"
"I said I'm not hungry."
"Suit yourself." Stan bent over his bowl and took a bite of cereal. With his mouth full, he muttered, "This is really not very good granola."
"Well, it's a student dining hall, what do you want? Ugh, Stan, Jesus, focus. I'm trying to explain — they offered me a place on an airlift leaving from O'Hare tomorrow evening—"
"Were you going to take it?" Kenny asked.
"My mother obviously wants me to."
"You spoke to her?" Stan said.
"Yes, over satellite, will you please let me talk?" Kyle paused, daring anyone to speak up. When no one did, he said, "Thank you. No, I didn't think I was going to take them up on it."
Stan nearly spit out some of his cereal. "Why not? I think it would be nice! I mean, assuming we could go together. ... I mean, assuming you wanted to be with me."
Both Stan and Kenny looked to Kyle to say something, but Kyle didn't respond. Instead, he crossed his arms and pinched his lips together.
"I think if we went somewhere together," Stan continued, cautiously, "that would be really wonderful. Israel is beautiful, but — honestly, I'd go anywhere with you. The idea of a new start — I really like that."
"Well," said Kyle, "I don't know if you'd be allowed. I'd have to make a call."
"Then let's do that after brunch," Stan suggested.
"Sure," said Kyle. "Let's."
Kenny shook his head, and turned back to the newspaper, taking a bite of his buttered toast. They finished the meal in silence, with Kyle stewing, and Stan scraping the last dregs of granola from the chipped bowl he was eating from.
"Are you sure you don't want something?" Stan asked as they were leaving the cafeteria.
"Yes!" Kyle said. "I'm fine." He grabbed Stan by the arm and yanked him downstairs, and out the door.
At the entrance to the physics department, Kenny bid them a good day. "I'm going back to try to ascertain the volunteer situation."
"That's really great," Stan said. "Honestly."
"I think it's best," said Kenny.
"Should we meet up for dinner?" Stan asked.
"I don't know, maybe. I'll call you?"
"My phone's not working," said Stan.
"It probably is," said Kyle. "Have you turned it off? Most everything went back up last night."
"Oh, excellent," said Stan. "I could call my parents, then."
"And I'll call you about dinner, okay?"
"Sure," said Stan. "Good luck with the volunteering thing."
"Yes," said Kenny. "We'll see, won't we?"
While Kyle went to his office to call the Israeli consulate, Stan sat outside on the steps. It was a mild day, a bit breezy, things drying up quick. There wasn't much happening in the neighborhood, but every now and then a car would roll by. Stan thought he saw something dart across the street. When he shifted to get a better view, he realized it was a brown rabbit. The thought of a little bunny risking his life to run into traffic while crossing to the other side of the street made Stan smile. He watched the rabbit until it disappeared behind a shrub.
Pulling his phone from his pocket, Stan stared at the screen. He held down the power button, watching the device power up. He wasn't shocked when he saw he had a signal, but he felt something good — relief, perhaps. Maybe sudden confidence.
Stan's parents were certainly overjoyed to hear from him, and to hear that Kyle was all right.
"Oh honey," his mother said. Stan could picture her crying. "I was so worried."
"There was nothing to worry about," Stan said, squinting. It was so bright out. "They wouldn't let us go anywhere dangerous."
"Like, highway patrol. Cops on the interstate."
"Oh. Oh god, Stanley, I'm just so relieved. Honey, you have no idea — and Kyle's okay?"
"He's fine," said Stan. "He seems kind of shaken up but okay."
"Thank god, thank god," his mother repeated. "Are you going to come home?"
"I—" Stan paused. "We're not sure what we're going to do. Kyle's trying to — make some plans."
"But you're going to come back to Colorado?"
"Well, the house is okay. But honestly I think maybe — Mom, what are you going to do? Stay in South Park?"
"Presumably," she said "Why?"
"Because maybe you'd be safer, or the kids at least would be safer, if you moved further west. To, you know. Get away from the fallout."
"Stanley, that's absurd. The scale of destruction here, it's not like that."
"Well, nuclear matter gets into the ecosystem. It gets into the water you drink. The air—"
"Thanks for the lesson on fallout, Stanley." Now she just seemed annoyed. "I read Kyle's book, too."
It was then that Kyle came back outside, still in his clothes from the day before. It made Stan internalize the fact that he'd been wearing the same outfit for days. "Listen, Mom, I'm going to go. But, I'll call you back when I know something, okay? Talk to Dad — actually, no, don't talk to Dad. Just, think about whether you shouldn't make some kind of plans."
"All right," she agreed. "I love you, honey. And give my love to Kyle. Tell him we're so happy he's all right."
When Stan hung up, Kyle sat next to him on the steps. He seemed so tired; Stan hoped he'd managed to get at least a bit of sleep. "Mom's fine," said Stan. "She's a stubborn bitch but they're all fine."
"Great," said Kyle.
"What'd you figure out?"
"Oh, um. Well." Kyle was also squinting. Stan tucked some of Kyle's messy hair behind his ear. "I can bring a spouse."
Stan slumped. "Then I suppose it won't work."
"Well, except that this is a Jewish government we're talking about, so — we'd be considered legal. Or valid, at least. Substantial. If we could prove it with a license—"
"Well, I've got it! I went to the house and I got it."
"Then you could come, conceivably," said Kyle. "I have to call them back by, um ... 2 p.m. And let them know who's coming."
"Fortuitous!" Stan exclaimed. Then he covered his mouth. "Oh fuck, that was the dorkiest thing. I think I'm really tired. You look really tired."
"It's all right." Kyle sighed. He wasn't laughing. "I am tired. But — can we take a walk?"
"We need to talk." Kyle's voice had a grim element to it, as if he were dreading his own words. He untangled Stan's hand from his thigh and stood up.
"Kyle." Stan had no other words.
"Come on." Kyle held out his hand. "Take a walk with me."
"I don't want to. I don't want to find out."
"You have to. Come on, Stanley. I need you to—"
That was all Kyle really had to say. Stan got up, stretching, and Kyle took his hand.
It was a quiet stroll, through the campus and down through the park. They headed down the midway, where a group of kids, boys in third or fourth grade, were playing a game of soccer. It was very sunny out now, not quite noon, but it was warm out, relative to the recent weather Stan had experienced, and it smelled like spring, the rain clinging to the grass, although the sidewalks were mostly dry. They didn't speak much, as they walked, Kyle gripping Stan's hand, his untrimmed nails just long enough to bite into Stan's skin. It hardly hurt, but Stan found it nice in a perverse way. He found himself wondering if, when they let go, Kyle's nails would leave marks.
Kyle tried to give a half-hearted tour, pointing out the sights, although he wasn't really sure what they were. He made Stan stand in front of the neoclassical science museum while he explained caryatids.
"I remember caryatids," was all Stan could say.
"Right, I forget, your liberal arts education," Kyle scoffed. He was trying to be himself, condescending and superior, but he just sounded so drained, like his heart wasn't in it.
To get to the lake they had to go under an overpass. Though it was empty, Stan was embarrassed by how their voices carried. "I think my colleagues hate me," Kyle said. It echoed, dully, and made Stan cringe.
"How could they hate you?"
"They think I'm a joke." Kyle sniffed, trying to pretend he wasn't wounded. "I made an idiot out of myself on national TV."
"I'm sure it wasn't that bad."
"Ugh, no, I sounded like a fucking crazy person. Just the fact that I wrote that fucking book — a popular book, I might as well have been in gay porn. That's what they look at me like, like I'm prostituting myself, like, I'm exploiting the discipline for personal gain. Which, I am, but — they're so uptight, these people. Why should I starve just because I research for a living? I made a joke, when I first got here, about having a poet to support — I don't think anyone realized I was joking."
"That's, I don't know, honey, it feels a little insulting."
"Sure, but it's insulting to you, not them!"
"Very reassuring," said Stan. "Very, very reassuring."
"Sorry." Kyle shrugged off this apology. He seemed distracted.
Getting to the water, Kyle took a seat on a concrete ledge overlooking the lake. There were steps leading down, green wavelets rushing over the painted warnings, NO DIVING and NO SWIMMING, with block paintings of black stick pictures crossed out with red X marks. To the left, the skyline was shrouded in a fine smog, which at first looked like bad fog, but it was too bright and clear out for that; it reminded Stan of the aftermath of the bombings in Denver, standing in Kenny's neighborhood. Stan had never been impressed by skyscrapers, but the lake was so expansive and choppy that he pulled Kyle closer, and sighed into his hair.
"This looks like a place you'd go to cruise," Stan said.
"Not here," Kyle said. "Although I hear there's a bit up north."
Jealousy pricked at Stan. "I want to go," he said. "Not up north, I mean — to Israel. I want that for us. If you want to be an 'us' with me. If not I guess I'll go back to Colorado—"
"But you should go," Stan continued. "You can have a life. You could work at Technion. You like those people, right? They wouldn't judge you?"
"I don't know that they'd put me on fellowship."
"You could get citizenship, at least," Stan said.
"It's pointless." Kyle's voice hitched. "Stan, I — you don't understand. I'm not going to make it to Israel."
"What? Why not?"
"Because I've been poisoned, um, I have been exposed to radiation, so, I've got radiation sickness." Kyle's voice started to break down. He pushed Stan off of him, and turned away, looking south.
"Yes," Kyle croaked.
"Oh, oh — Kyle." Stan was barely speaking above a whisper. He wanted to grab Kyle again, but he didn't.
"I got sick—"
"A couple of hours," said Kyle. "Leaving New Jersey on the drive back."
"You seem okay right now — you seem okay."
"I'm okay right now." Kyle turned back toward Stan. "For the time being. Just — I think, based on the symptoms—"
"Oh god." Stan felt all of the optimism he'd been clinging to evaporate. He could almost visualize it, before remembering that he was looking at the mist of the lake currents sloshing against pavement.
"—three or three and a half gray," Kyle concluded. "I did the math."
Stan grabbed Kyle, absolutely enveloped him. He tried to say something, but his words broke up into a strangled, "Poor Kyle," and he began crying against Kyle's shoulder.
"Stan," Kyle said. He put his fingers in Stan's hair. "You smell so bad. You need a shower."
"This isn't funny!"
"No, it's not, of course it's not, I'm going to fucking die."
"You're not going to die—"
"Yes I am," said Kyle.
"Wait a minute..."
"No, I will, you'll see. I'll get very sick, I would think in about three or weeks. And then I will die."
Stan pushed Kyle off of him. He wiped his nose. "You must think I'm so fucking stupid, don't you? Maybe I'm just some poet you have to support but I read your damn book. You made me proofread it, like, six times."
Kyle's eyes were huge. "Of course I don't think you're stupid."
"Sometimes I don't know what the fuck you think of me, but whatever it is, I did absorb what you wrote. Unlike you, I care about what you write."
"I care about what you write! Stan, please, this is hard for me, this whole thing is hard—" Now Kyle was starting to tear up, trying to blink it away.
"Yeah, everything so fucking difficult for you."
"It is! I have fucking radiation sickness."
"Which you can treat!"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"I told you," Kyle sobbed. "I've been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, didn't you hear me?"
"Of course I fucking heard you! You know, people have been telling me since I was 16 that you're emotionally manipulative, that you're — you're abusive."
"What? That's insane, I'm not abusing you. You just have to let me go!"
"I'm not letting you go! I fucking drove halfway across the fucking country to find you! I didn't even think I would, people kept telling me to turn back, that I was going to die — well, I didn't! I found you! I found you, and—" Stan's voice was becoming hoarse.
Kyle was wiping his tears away with his fingers, both hands. "I didn't expect you to come find me."
"Why wouldn't you expect that? Why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know," said Kyle. "I just thought I'd die, I'd die quietly here, you'd never know."
"Of course I'd know, I'd fucking find out! Jesus, what are we doing sitting here? We need to get you to fucking doctor!"
"There isn't that much they would do for me," Kyle said.
"Again," said Stan. He was crying less and yelling more. "Are you fucking insane? You know there are things they could do for you! You — you'd have a 50-50 chance I think even if you didn't seek treatment!"
"I don't want treatment, Stan, don't you understand? I just want to die." Kyle fell into Stan's chest. "It's been so fucking hard, don't you know, being wrong about everything. I wasn't kidding when I said it, I've fucked everything up. I didn't think we could repair things, I just thought — I figured—"
Stan wrapped his arms around Kyle's back, pressing kisses to his hair. "You smell so clean," he said. "You always do."
"Shut up about my hair smell!"
"I can't believe you," Stan said. "You were just going to let your body disintegrate on the floor of your office because you thought we couldn't repair things? Kyle, the only thing to repair is that you ran off without me."
"But I fucked it up," Kyle wailed. "I wanted to do everything, I wanted to do everything before I was even old enough to knew what it meant, I wanted to do everything and when I got it I fucked it all up, you slept with that kid and I bit your dick and even if we forgive each other I'm a laughing stock, I'll never work in any field ever again..."
"That's just untrue," said Stan. "That's not true. Being slowly poisoned hurts, honey, you're delirious. We need to get you to a doctor. And you need to call back the Israeli consulate and ask if it's possible to get an airlift when you get better. Here, let's get up, let's go."
"Go where?" Kyle clung tighter. "There's nowhere to go."
"Yes, there is. We're going to find a doctor, okay? Fuck, you probably need, I don't know, a bone marrow transplant or something. A transfusion at least. Come on."
"Then where?" Kyle asked. "If I don't die and I survive getting sick and I have to wake up every day and look at you and see how much pain I've caused you ... maybe that's why I had to leave, maybe I didn't want to look at how much I was hurting you anymore."
"Shhhh, you're babbling." Stan was rubbing Kyle's back. "Come on, let's get up. Or—my phone works now, I could call, I don't know ... Kenny. Or an ambulance."
"I want to walk," Kyle insisted although he didn't let go.
"Then we'll walk."
Stan lifted Kyle from the pavement, wrapping Kyle's wiry figure in a tight hug, kissing Kyle's wet eyes and saying, "Shhh."
"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "Everything I've done is wrong, everything, and I'm so sorry."
"I'm sorry, too." Stan sniffed. "But I think I know now, how people weather an insurmountable amount of pain."
"How?" Kyle asked.
"Well, I guess — if they survive it, then no amount of pain is insurmountable."
"That doesn't really mean anything. But, it's nice, I don't know. You should write that. I mean, in a poem."
"Would you like that?" Stan asked.
"Then I might."