Despite Kyle's disgust for Stan's "near-sightedness," he got right to work on finding some rakes.

"I hate the way they scrape on the pavement," he said, hanging up after speaking with his mother. "But, hey, I sure don't have a better idea. Anyway, my mom said we can use our rake but we have to do our yard first, and if the rake gets bent out of shape I have to replace it." Kyle cleared his throat; Stan admired how easily young Kyle was able to get down to business.

Stan was sitting on the couch, re-reading the handwritten IOU from his sister: "You owe me $30 until repaid in full in perpetuity - debt void once $30 is tendered," and then she'd signed it, and made Stan sign it. She'd done this twice, on two separate sheets of paper, and kept the other.

Kyle left the room and returned with his and Stan's jackets. "Ready?" he asked. Before Stan answered, he said, "Oh, stop staring at that stupid note. She's your sister — I'm sure she'll let it go."

"Shelly has a very strong moral code," Stan said. She always had. "Or, a sense of justice, or whatever." This was true even as an adult; when she got it into her head that Stan was supposed to "do something," she had a hard time letting it go.

"If my brother needed something from me I'd let him have it," said Kyle. "You wouldn't get it because you're a younger brother. When you're older you have to let a lot of things go." Stan knew Kyle didn't always practice this as an adult; Kyle was still angry at his brother for not inviting Stan to his college graduation, though as Ike explained it he had only four tickets and wanted to donate the fourth to his then-girlfriend's younger brother. (They broke up soon after, leaving Kyle even angrier.)

At Kyle's house, Stan paused at the front door, taking in the décor; in 30 years Kyle's parents hadn't redecorated. There was still a china cabinet in the family room, pictures of the family on the walls; it was so similar to Kyle's parents' house as Stan knew it that he had to remind himself that this was the past, or something, and that he shouldn't be in awe. Besides, there wasn't time to waste, and Kyle was reminding him "Take your shoes off! What are you staring at?"

"Nothing, sorry." Stan hunched over to untie his shoes. Shoes always came off at Kyle's house. As an adult, Kyle had taken this to its logical end, and was totally naked most of the time. Only briefly, Stan wished Kyle would get undressed, too. But as soon as Stan's shoes were off, Kyle started shouting, "Mom! Mooooom!"

Kyle's father poked his head out of his "study," a spare bedroom he used as an office. Stan thought for a moment of informing Gerald that sometime down the road he would really regret not having another guest room, but he kept his mouth shut as Gerald said, "Calm down, she took your brother shoe shopping."

"He's got so many shoes!" Kyle said. "Why isn't she here? I was just talking to her!"

"Well, your family members can't all stop our lives for you, Kyle!"

Kyle stood up straighter, changing his tack. "Dad, do you need the lawn raked?"

"Oh, don't you start on me too! Did your mother put you up to this? I'll do it after dinner!"

"What? No, Dad, I just — would you pay me and Stan $20 to rake the lawn?" Kyle gave Stan an urging look that he wasn't fully able to interpret; Stan decided to say, "Please, Mr. Broflovski?" which somehow earned him a kind look from Kyle.

"I'm not paying you boys $20 to rake the lawn," said Gerald. "I can do that myself."


"Kyle, someone needs to each you about economics."

"Economics!" Kyle sounded exasperated. "Don't — don't think of it as $20! Think of it as $10 for each of us, and since there are two of us we'll get it done faster! Maybe we'll get it done by the time Mom gets home, and she'll think you did it while she was out!"

"Yeah, I bet that'd make her happy," Stan added, though he could only imagine what went on between his in-laws. Kyle had often implied whatever it was, it was pretty gross.

"Hmm." Gerald was rubbing his chin, like this decision was really causing him trouble. "If you really insist, I suppose I can spare $15."

"Each?" Kyle asked.

"No, together."


"Kyle, you need to learn about economics. You start with an offer, and I give you a counter-offer. Then you have to decide if what you're willing to supply — leaf-raking — meets the demand for leaf-raking, for the price you're willing to accept. Now, I can do my own raking, so even though you boys working together would rake faster, you're still offering to do a job I can do myself, which means the demand for you boys to rake the leaves isn't very high—"

"What?" Kyle asked. "Dad, you're not making any sense!"

"Plus as your father I could just make you rake the leaves—"

"I just — need $20!"

"Well, for what?"

Stan squeezed his eyes shut, praying Kyle wouldn't spill the beans about the windshield. Gerald would go to Randy almost immediately, Stan was certain. Then he unsqueezed he eyes, wondering why he cared. What if he woke up again tomorrow in his own bed? But what if he didn't?

"For — pornography!" Kyle spat out.

Gerald was still rubbing his chin, as if this didn't phase him much. "Don't you know there's pornography on the internet for free, Kyle?"

"I just need $20! We need $20!"

"Oh." Gerald blinked at them, uncrossing his arms. "Is it something — sensitive? Something you don't want to tell me?"

"Oh my god, Dad, yes!" Kyle was nearly hopping up and down now, he was so exasperated.

"Well." Gerald stooped down to talk to Kyle on his level. "You know you can tell me anything, son, right?"

"I just want to rake the leaves! You told me there's nothing more valuable than a good work ethic and I figured instead of just asking you for money you might want me to rake the leaves but you're being obtuse and I really don't have time for this — Stan doesn't have time for this! He has to practice piano!"

Gerald stood up again, looking a little frazzled. "Okay," he said. "I'll just go get my wallet."

Raking the lawn took far longer than anticipated, so long that by the time Stan and Kyle had finished, the sun was low in the sky, and Sheila Broflovski's minivan was pulling into the driveway. Kyle took this as a cue to get dramatic, moaning, "We're been at this for two hours!" and throwing his rake on the ground. It narrowly missed the pile of leaves at his feet.

"It's okay," Stan said. He reached out to grab Kyle's shoulder, but stopped himself, and steadied his posture with his rake, which was planted pole-down into the lawn. It was early November and the ground was hard. Stan didn't find this a very comfortable position, and he shifted as Kyle's mother approached him, arms full of groceries.

"Hello Stanley," she said, glaring at him only for a moment, before he turned to observe her younger son, who was climbing out of the car. "Come on, Bubbeleh, we don't have all day. I'm making a vegetarian meatloaf for dinner."

"Disgusting!" Ike shouted, slamming the door of the van. It slid into place weakly, and Stan could hear that it hadn't closed properly.

"Ike!" Both Kyle and his mother somehow shouted this at the same time.

"Vegetarian meatloaf is an oxymoron!" Ike stomped his foot, and when no one heeded him, fled into the house.

"What's in vegetarian meatloaf?" Stan asked, surprised to hear himself speaking to her directly. She wasn't his mother-in-law, he tried to remind himself; he needed to calm down. In Stan's adulthood she would come to resent him for dragging Kyle to Los Angeles; she held him responsible for what she perceived to be a failure on Kyle's part to mature into a productive adult.

"Oh, it's the usual things," she said, shifting her weight. "It's bits of soy and wheat products, that's what gives it the meatiness. There was a recipe for it in Hadassah Magazine." Stan was torn between his memory of towering over this woman as a grown-up, and cowering under her throughout his childhood. She wasn't tall; Kyle, in fact, was not much shorter than she was at 12. But she was built like one of the dumplings she served with soup at Passover: squat, substantial, swollen with rendered chicken fat, which she always had and always would keep in a jar over the fridge.

"Sounds delicious," Stan said, though it really didn't.

"Mom!" Kyle had put his little hands on his hips. "We're busy!"

"Busy doing what?"


Sheila sighed, rolling her eyes. "Sometimes I don't know what to do with you, Kyle."

"Ike is right, vegetarian meatloaf is a bad idea!"

"You don't know what's a good idea until you've tried it!" She huffed and turned back to Stan. "Are you staying for dinner?"

For a moment Stan thought to take her up on it, and then the thought of his own mother crossed his mind. "I think I'm going home," he said. "But, thanks."

Shrugging as if she wasn't particularly insulted, she said, "Oh, well," and carried her groceries away, shouting behind her before going into the house, "You boys be careful if you're going to be out after dark!"

Turning back to Kyle, Stan was pleased to note that he seemed fairly disappointed.

"All this raking," Kyle said, "and you don't even want to stay for dinner?"

They discussed how things had gone so far: They had $35, but Stan owed his sister $30, which left them with a net $5, which was not an encouraging start. Besides, they had taken all afternoon to get that far. "Pathetic!" Kyle complained, rolling up the cash and hiding it in his desk drawer. "We're going for back-up."

Stan didn't much like the idea of introducing anyone else into their operation; he hated to think that he would have to start sharing Kyle.

"Kenny got you into this, Stan. He should have caught that ball. He should have been paying attention!"

Stan hadn't seen Kenny McCormick more frequently than once a year since he was 18 and left for college. Kenny had gone to college, too, in Idaho, where he had received a scholarship of some kind. That was something about extreme poverty in the United States; if one was willing to put in even a modicum of effort, help was rapidly forthcoming. Stan, on the other hand, had had to travel the country on his father's dime performing at auditions to even be accepted to schools; he was not offered very much financial support from any school that he really wanted to go to. When he'd ended up at Berklee, his sister had raised hell; she felt trapped in Colorado at Boulder, living at home for two years. Later she would move to Germany; Stan had always felt that she expected him to be jealous, though he wasn't. So Stan found himself thinking about college and, especially, college scholarships, on the walk to Kenny's house. They only ever crossed paths anymore at Christmas masses.

When Kenny opened the door, he struck Stan as an unattractive cross between high and sleepy, though he didn't smell of pot or anything other than the old gym shirt he was wearing with his name written in marker on the front, under the South Park Middle School Cows logo. "What's up?" he asked. "You guys really should have called and said you were going to come over. I would have put on clothes."

"You're helping us rake leaves!" Kyle said, attempting to thrust a rake into Kenny's hands.

Kenny stared at it, blinking. Stan couldn't believe he'd gotten a scholarship to Idaho, he looked so dumbfounded and stupid. "What?"

"Remember that time we were playing catch recently and you didn't catch the ball Stan threw to you and it went through Craig's dad's windshield?"

"Yeah, heh. That was pretty awesome."

"No, it was not awesome! Now Stan owes Craig's dad $200."

"Whoa," Kenny said. He had enough holes in his socks that Stan could easily believe this was a lot of money to Kenny, though to Stan it still sounded rather unremarkable, like what a nice lunch for himself and Kyle might cost. "That's rough, man," Kenny said, leaning against the doorframe. "I've got your back, you know. I feel kind of bad about that ball. ... Just kind of, though. Craig's a dipshit, and I'm pretty sure his dad is too."

"Fuck his dad," said Kyle. "We're raking leaves and you're helping. So put some clothes on!"

"Aw, I dunno, man, I'm kind of in the middle of watching college football with my dad."

"Like your dad knows what college is!" Kyle snapped. "Put your clothes on, Kenny McCormick, or I'll—"

"All right, shit! I have no interest in finding out what you're going to do."

"Thank you!" Kyle pushed Kenny aside and made his way into the house, shouting, "Come on, Stan! Christ, I have to do everything."

Perhaps it should not have been surprising that the McCormicks did, in fact, possess a rake. It was badly rusted and the wooden handle was rough and splintery, but they had one. Kenny's family had a lawn, though it was untended and scraggly, more dirt than grass. Stan almost offered to rake it, but most of it was matted pine needles, and Stan considered this more ground cover than anything. When Kenny was ready to go, baggy gray sweatpants dragging and tight orange parka pulling across his chest, Kyle gave only a small noise of disgust. Stan considered this a major accomplishment.

"So what's the plan here?" Kenny asked. The elastic on the cuffs of his pants had been cut so that after walking only a few blocks, they were already dirty.

"Ringing doorbells, asking for $20 to rake lawns," said Kyle.

"What's my cut?" Kenny asked.

"There's no cut! We're all doing this to raise money to pay Craig so he'll leave Stan alone."

"Oh." Kenny was quiet for a moment; his rake was dragging on the ground as they walked, and it made a horrible noise. Stan didn't feel it was his place to ask Kenny not to let the rake scrape the pavement. "Why aren't we knocking on these doors?"

"You really think your neighbors are going to pay $20 for lawn-raking?" Kyle asked. "I mean, it was hard enough convincing my dad to let us."

"You dad's contrary," Stan said, recalling for a moment Gerald Broflovski had refused to stay at Stan and Kyle's gorgeous house unless they replaced the flax sheets in the bedroom. He'd had a very annoying way of saying, "I only sleep on 100-percent linen."

"My dad is not contrary." (Stan tried to figure out how long it would be until Kyle changed his mind — maybe 10 years? Or 12? Kyle had been infuriated at the flax incident, and Stan recalled him breathlessly shouting at his father in the foyer, "These sheets have a very high rating from the Green Homes Report! You literally cannot buy better sheets!") "He's just making the point that people can rake their own lawns. That's why we have to offer something they can't offer — manpower!"

It took a moment for Stan to realize that Kenny had stopped in his tracks. He turned and asked, "What's wrong?"

"So, what?" Kenny said. "I'm just free manpower to you?" He threw the rake down on the ground. "To hell with your manpower!"

"Kenny, you need to help us!" Kyle demanded.

"Or what?"

"Or — you should have caught that ball! It was a good throw and you should have caught it!"

"I was busy!"

"Busy what?" Kyle asked. "Scratching your ass?"

"Checking my pager."

"Pager? What are you, waiting for your pimp to call?"

"No, that's you."

"Fuck you!" Kyle shouted. "No one has a fucking pager! Who even are you?"

So Kenny unclipped the pager from the inside of his sweatpants, where it was clasped to his elastic waistband, and chucked it at Kyle.

Kyle screamed, like a girl (Stan thought), but he caught the pager and threw it on the ground forcefully enough to break it. Or break the clip, at least, which went tumbling down the sidewalk.

"What the fuck?" Kenny screeched. "I need that!"

"For what?" Stan asked.

"For if my mom needs me! That's it, you guys can't boss me around like this."

"Shut up, Kenny." Kyle crossed his arms. "You owe us. Big time. Craig is being such a douche — don't you think Craig is a douche?"

"I think he's a douche, yeah," said Kenny, "but what I know is that he's not dragging me around town at 6 o'clock on a Saturday trying to get me to rake fucking leaves!"

While standing on the street listening to Kenny and Kyle argue, two things occurred to Stan. The first was that he had forgotten over the years just how obstinate and self-righteous Kenny McCormick could be; he was sort of like Kyle in that way. The other thing Stan noticed was that he was cold and it was late, and all of this arguing was essentially over Stan himself. So Stan decided to speak up, and cleared his throat. "Guys?"

"What?" Kyle snapped.

"Can we get a move on?"

Kyle sighed and tapped his rake against the ground in a way that communicated the seriousness of the moment. "Stan's right!" he said, mostly to Kenny, thought Stan was proud to catch the determined look on Kyle's face. "It's not getting any earlier!"

"I'd say I had to be home for dinner soon," said Kenny, "but I don't know when dinner is because you threw my beeper on the ground, asshole!"

"Then can we just start raking?" Kyle asked. "One lawn, Kenny. It's not like you're having anything good for dinner anyway, dude, it's probably just waffles."

"Just one lawn?"

"Well, let's start with one and you'll see how easy it is!"

"Fine," Kenny agreed. "One lawn. Just one. I guess that's fair."

But none of them had considered that it might not be easy to find "just one" lawn to rake. Kenny's neighborhood, being low-income, was a poor place to begin the hunt for someone, anyone, who needed their lawn raked. When finally a woman over on Britches Street looked interested and asked how much the boys were charging, Kyle plastered a fake smile on his face and said, "Thirty dollars."

"Thirty dollars!" she screeched, as if it were a ludicrous sum. "Who do you think I am! I'm hardly made of money!" Her brittle graying hair fell into her eyes. Stan imagined she'd been flattening it for some time. He restrained himself from telling her she needed more volume, though the thought did make him wonder how Shelly was able to manufacture just that with only a flattening iron.

"It's just $10 for each of us," Kyle reasoned. Stan was not sure Kyle was the best face for this operation. "We're expert leaf-rakers! We can be done in just 20 minutes. Guaranteed!"

Under his breath, Kenny muttered, "Dude."

The woman no longer seemed outraged; now her face was scrunched in concentration, as if deliberating on this fantastic deal.

"You'll have a clean lawn in no time. My colleagues and I won't let you down." At this Kyle adopted a look of humility. "We're a good team. Best friends!"

"Fine," she said. "All right, fine.

"And we'll need the $30 up front," Kyle added.

After their client had shut the door on them, Kyle walked to the middle of the lawn, hitting the spot of wet leaves in front of his feet with the butt of his rake. "Okay guys! I'll take this section. I think, Stan, do you want the back? By the pine tree?"

"Raking pine needles is the worst," Kenny said, unhelpfully.

By the time they finished it was cold out, and Stan's fingers were trembling around the handle of his rake. Kyle handled the money, accepting it graciously from their client. "Recommend us to your friends!" he suggested.

"Maybe," she said, peering down at them from behind her unflattering bifocals. "Get home safe." She nodded, as if to conclude their interactions, and shut the door. To make matters worse, she seemed to have snapped off the porch light, which went out a moment later.

"I'm charitable enough to consider that a coincidence," Stan said.

When they were back on the sidewalk and 40 feet from the front door, Kenny said, "Nah. She's just a bitch." Kenny slumped, his ears sinking toward his shoulders. "We're not doing any more of this, are we? My rake gave me blisters."

"Nah." Kyle seemed disappointed. "I actually have to get home for dinner." He turned to Stan. "You coming?"

"Where, to your house?"

"Oh, feel free not to invite me."

"Shut up, Kenny," said Kyle. Then he turned back to Stan: "Well, are you?"

"I suppose I could," he said, "if I call my mom when I get there."

"I'm out," said Kenny. "Dealing with you guys is no fun whatsoever."

"Whatsoever!" Kyle mocked, as if that was the ridiculous part. "We're raking again tomorrow. At 9. So be there!"

"Excuse me," said Kenny. "My family goes to church."

Kyle scoffed, as if he hadn't been to synagogue that morning himself. "Fine, be that way! At noon, then."

"Fine!" Kenny flipped his hair out of his eyes. "You guys are so lucky to have me! So lucky!" He turned and stormed off, dragging his rake behind him. It made an awful racket.

Dinner was awkward for Stan; after all, these were his in-laws. Or, they weren't, but they would be. He felt an enormous sense of pressure to charm Kyle's whole family. This proved difficult because every single Broflovski was a talker, and there was very little room for Stan to break in. He also felt it was important to finish everything on his plate, something he'd never felt necessary before in his life, because Sheila Broflovski was an absolutely horrific cook. Nobody in her family seemed to notice this. Kyle had grown into a good cook, something which he credited to his mother, and it was a challenge for Stan to keep himself from questioning this. Kyle didn't just cook dinners, but dinner parties, elaborate affairs with multiple courses and lavishly set tables. In contrast, this dinner at Kyle's house on Saturday night boasted not one but two preparations of wilted green beans. Tonight they came either plain or dressed in bread crumbs and béchamel sauce. Stan choked both down while Kyle shot him odd looks.

"How are you enjoying that?" Kyle asked, while he brother was babbling about some stupid second-grader thing.

"It's great," Stan said, trying not to retch after swallowing.

"I never realized you were so into green beans."

"There's so much you don't know about me." As Stan said this his mind drifted to the subject of sex. If he was stuck in this 13-year-old body forever, trapped in his own past, it would be years before he would gain the opportunity to have sex with Kyle. And what then? How many years of eating two types of green beans for dinner?

"What are you boys discussing?" Kyle's mother asked.

Stan looked up to see that Kyle's brother was rolling his eyes and clearing his plate from the table.

"Sheila," said Kyle's father. "Let them chat."

"No, I'm curious," she said. Stan noticed she'd somehow scraped her plate clean while talking all through dinner. "You boys spent all evening raking leaves, huh?"

"Yeah, Ma," said Kyle. "We sure did."

"That's so responsible of you!"

"We're very responsible," said Kyle.

"Any particular reason why?"

"Just seemed like a wholesome activity!"

"Your father tells me you had an interesting chat with him today."

At this, Kyle turned bright pink, and spat out, "Dad!"

"It's not wise, keeping things from your mother, Kyle."

"What's not wise about it?" Kyle asked. "God, is it so hard to get some damn privacy?" He stood up and threw his balled-up napkin on the floor. It was a cloth napkin, so it didn't make much for dramatic effect; still, Stan found it vaguely attractive. "If I want to rake leaves all week then I'll damn well do it!"

"No need to use the 'damn' word twice in one breath," said Kyle's mother.

"The damn word!" Kyle spat. "Can't a guy get any kind of privacy here? Ugh!" He yanked Stan away from the table, right in the middle of a mouthful of green beans. "Come on, dude, we're out of here."

"This seems very dramatic," Kyle's father called after him.

"Let him go, Gerald. I admire his chutzpa."

"Chutzpa!" Kyle raved, dragging Stan up the stairs. "They're crazy people!"

Stan chose not to mention that he felt Kyle did have a lot of chutzpa; he always had and he always would. Instead, Stan said, "Your dad's kind of a tool."

"Don't call my dad a tool!"

"Here we go," said Stan. They were now standing in front of the door to Kyle's room.

"Here we go what?" Kyle asked. "All day we raked fucking leaves — I raked fucking leaves for you! I've been busting my ass!"

"I've been raking, too," said Stan. "And Kenny—"

"Oh, fuck Kenny," said Kyle, a sentiment Stan didn't entirely disagree with. Mostly it was because he now realized that adult Kenny, who was kind of an asshole, had always been kind of an asshole. "Fuck my mom, fuck my dad, and fuck you!"

This caught Stan off-guard. "Fuck me? What'd I do?"

"You call me super early in the morning, on the way to shul. You demand I come over. When I come over you have Wendy fucking Testaburger over. You can't even hang out because suddenly I'm embroiled in your backdoor shenanigans with fucking Craig."

"Backdoor shenanigans?"

"Then we go out there and rake leaves. I waste my whole Saturday afternoon and evening raking leaves with you — and you don't even have two words for me?"

"I have two words for you," Stan said. "I mean, I just said 'backdoor shenanigans.' "

"It doesn't count because I said it first! Here's your fucking blood money." Kyle pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and shoved it in Stan's face.

"Blood money?" Stan took the bills from Kyle and folded them nearly into his front pocket.

"Just go," Kyle said. "Just get fucking out." He paused to wipe his nose. When Stan didn't leave, Kyle cleared his throat and said, in a throaty voice, "What time are we raking leaves tomorrow?"

"You ... want to rake leaves with me?"

"Yeah, well." Kyle's back was to the door, and he reached behind himself to grab the knob. "I suppose it would feel good to see the project to its natural conclusion?"

Stan took a step toward Kyle; the personal space between them shrunk to a mere foot. "What's the natural conclusion?"

Kyle shut his eyes. "Um, $200. Well, 230. I mean — $30 for your sister."

Stan took a step back. "Right."

For a moment Stan was unsure what to do next; he felt lost, and though Kyle was standing right there, somewhat lonely. Then in a whisper, Kyle said, "Good night," and vanished into his bedroom.

"Good night," Stan tried to say, though the door shut just as he was saying it. Before leaving, he added, "Thank you!" but even if Kyle had heard this, he hadn't responded. Stan felt his front pocket for that wad of cash; counting what Shelly had given him he now had $65, which was far from $200, but still pretty good. Stan couldn't complain.

On the walk home, Stan puzzled over his interactions with Kyle, especially the very end, when Kyle had freaked out suddenly and disappeared into his room. It reminded Stan of the awkward end of a first date, like a coy girl running into her house to avoid being kissed. Not that Stan knew anything about that; he'd never been on a real date with a girl, only middle school dates with Wendy, and she had tended not to run away from those. It was Stan who'd simultaneously anticipated and dreaded kissing her. Besides, Stan's only real first date had been with Kyle, and Kyle certainly hadn't fled at the end of it. And what was more, this hadn't been a date at all. Stan doubted seventh graders even could date.

Stan found himself missing Kyle, his Kyle. It was chilly that night, as Stan walked; they never walked anywhere in LA, but the wind on Stan's face made him wish Kyle was there with him, holding Stan's hand. Then he paused in the middle of the sidewalk and said to himself, in a moment of revelation, "But we never hold hands." He stood there in the cold, looking around. There were houses with televisions flickering in the windows, but not a soul was on the street. Stan shook it off and kept walking.

Waking the next day, Stan was shocked, though perhaps he should not have been, to find Kyle drooling onto his shoulder, and Kyle's erection pressing into his thigh. The surprise of it made him jerk away, hastily, though it was hard to get too far away in that large, awkward bed; it was also clear that Stan himself had a boner, something that Kyle clued into pretty quickly when he woke up just a few short minutes after this.

"I was having the sweetest dream that you were eating me out," Kyle said with a yawn, reaching for Stan's cock. "Don't you think I deserve it?"

"Um, I dunno," Stan stammered, thinking about it. "Do you think you deserve it?"

Kyle laughed at this, or maybe giggled; either way it sounded like a mix of early-morning sleepiness mingled with a little bit of embarrassment. "Of course I do!" said Kyle, which Stan found immediately annoying.

The truth was Stan was trying to think out the complex problem of what "eating out" a guy entailed, and he was blanking. Guys in his seventh-grade class made crude references to vaginal oral sex pretty often; Clyde had been doing that V-thing with his fingers at his mouth lately, and kind of abstractly licking around them. Stan had honestly lacked any idea as to what that referred until Kenny had clued him in a few weeks before: "You know, going down on a chick. Like, using your fingers to spread open her vag and licking inside and around it."

"Sick, dude!" had been the only thing Stan was able to say to that. Kenny had then mumbled something like, "gay," under his breath, and then Cartman had added, "licking carpet, you know, chewing box," and then about 14 other euphemisms that increasingly sounded invented on the spot. This had been while Kyle was still in line for lunch that day. Stan remembered that it had been fishstick day, which was always awkward for everyone.

Now he was lying in bed trying to figure out what about this activity appealed to Kyle and how Stan would even perform it on a guy. Maybe Kyle sensed this interest, because he tightened his fist around Stan's dick and said, "Come on," in a husky voice.

This made Stan hop out of bed and announce, "I need a shower!" Then he fled into the bathroom.

Kyle cried after him, "You're neglecting me!"

Stan tried not to let it bother him as he bathed. He hadn't done so yesterday, and took the opportunity to smell the contents of every bottle. They were all glass containers with elaborate metal pumps, and Stan had never seen shampoo or conditioner or aftershave or "refreshing morning burst of moisturizing beads and lather for delicate face and hands" (he hoped that one was Kyle's) come in glass bottles before, so he wondered if they hadn't been put there decoratively. Then it occurred to Stan, while lathering his hair with something called "Yotenga Rooibus All-Natural Shampooing Product for Normal Hair" that each of the bottles was too branded-looking and, besides, they were not uniform. Every other shampoo (and there was a selection of shampoos) was for "difficult" hair. It felt to Stan like those were Kyle's and sure enough, when Stan smelled them, the scent was familiar. It made him a little harder.

Torn between not wanting Kyle to walk in on him masturbating and not wanting to leave the bathroom with an erection, Stan beat off with a handful of difficult shampoo. He did this while squeezing his eyes tight and bracing himself against the tiled wall, which was cold and uncomfortable. After Stan had come he'd opened his eyes and looked down, slightly disappointed that most of everything had washed down the drain already. It figured; there were three showerheads. Some shampoo (which smelled like Kyle) and some come (which didn't) still clung to Stan's hand. He rinsed it off quickly and washed his hair a second time. It occurred to Stan that this was the first time he'd jerked off as an adult. It didn't feel super special or anything.

When Stan went downstairs, Kyle was semi-naked at breakfast again. He served himself a tower of pancakes; Stan got an egg white frittata with rainbow chard, new potatoes, Neufchatel cheese, and a side of what Kyle described as "silken whipped tofu." It had the consistency of flan and tasted like one of the hot sauces with ridiculous names Stan's father collected and sometimes dared his family to try. Stan gulped down water until the feeling on his tongue dulled to a kind of numb sensation.

"You usually like my tofu," Kyle groused. He didn't offer Stan any pancakes. He went on to finish the tofu.

After eating Kyle leaned back in his chair to read, robe splayed open. Stan could see everything, though he noted that today he minded slightly less.

Lowering the pad, Kyle asked, "What are you doing today?"

"Um. What are you doing today?"

"Collecting RSVPs. Finishing shopping for your fucking party. If there's time this evening I'd like to try to write. Like that'll happen. You know?"

"Not really," said Stan.

"Rub it in!" Kyle brushed some hair out of his eyes and slouched lower in the chair. "Whatever. I don't feel like leaving the house today. Thank god I don't have anything in my date book."

"Then I guess I'm not leaving the house today, either."

"Go wherever you want!" Kyle said. "You're a grown man, fuck. Stop being so clingy!" There was something in Kyle's voice that told Stan Kyle didn't really mean it.

Again, Stan was at a loss for how to dress himself. He waited in the bedroom after breakfast for Kyle to come in and put on his own outfit; it was Stan's plan to ask Kyle at this point to pick out something for Stan to wear. But Kyle never came. With little else to do, Stan lay down on the bed and stayed there for what seemed to be forever. He shut his eyes but did not fall asleep, opening them again when he thought it must be lunchtime. To his dismay, only 30 minutes had passed.

Not wanting to lie there in the bedroom alone indefinitely, Stan got up and went downstairs.

Kyle was sitting in the living room, phone wedged between his shoulder and chin. "Going somewhere? Oh, never mind, you're still in pajamas."

"I'm not sure what to wear. Could you help me find something to wear?"

"Why bother, if you're not going anywhere?"

"I'm not sure it's okay to sit around the house half-naked. Or — or in pajamas."

Kyle narrowed his eyes, pointedly shifting so that more of his bare thigh was visible. "A lot of men would really like to have me hang around their house in pajamas. Or even half-naked!"

Feeling sort of aroused again, Stan found himself sort of biting his thumbnail. It seemed an effective deterrent.

"Don't do that, it's childish," Kyle chided, though he was becoming aroused, too. "Put on clothes if you feel so vulnerable — oh, right! Yeah, I'm here, hi."

It took Stan a moment to realize that whoever had Kyle on hold had picked up the call again.

"Oh, well, dinner's at 8," Kyle was saying, tracing designs on the inside of his thigh lightly with his fingertips. Stan felt this came perilously close to Kyle's hardening cock. He kept that phone against his chin; it seemed so natural, it barely even appeared uncomfortable. "We'd be so honored if Victor would join us. When we spoke last week, or when he spoke to Stanley, he said 'maybe,' and I followed up with an invitation — yes, a fucking print invitation! No, no, it was handwritten — more like a note. ... Yeah, they say I'm very gracious. Do they say that? Well, I can see people saying that. About me, I mean. What's for dinner? Oh — steak?" Kyle paused for a moment, and then he laughed. "Yes, good steak! But you know how this shit is, so much is dependent on what's fresh that day. That morning." Kyle nodded. After a minute or so he said, "Yes, that's great. Yeah, Stan could have something ready — I'm sure. Oh, you know him. ... Oh, you don't know him? Well, he's good, he's very good! Yes, he is. I promise, he is. ... Well, yeah. I guess I am biased! But—okay. Okay. Good! ... yeah. All right! Well, no. Thank you!" Kyle was grinning. He grabbed the phone and tossed it aside, landing on the couch without a sound.

It took Stan a moment to notice that Kyle was staring at him. "What?" he asked, not really wanting to know.

"I got him," Kyle said.



"Who's Victor?" Stan asked.

"Ha," said Kyle. "That's pretty funny." He didn't sound amused, though.

"Okay, well."

"Wanna blow me?" Kyle asked.

"Um." Stan found himself taking a step backward. He could see Kyle's penis, from a distance. Stan imagined what it would be like to put that penis in his mouth. He'd tasted his own dick, sort of, licking precome off his fingers or sniffing his underwear. Would Kyle's taste different? How would Stan fit it into his mouth? Suddenly, he felt ill. "I think I just — I want to get dressed."

"Whatever." Kyle picked the phone back up. "I've got shit to do. I'm sure you do too. I can't wait to hear this score." He picked up the phone, dialing it.

Stan didn't wait to find out who Kyle was calling or why he had the number memorized. Running up the stairs, Stan thought about putting on clothes. Maybe he had something normal in the closet, like a T-shirt. He picked up the same pants he'd worn the day before and slipped them on, hoping this wasn't a taboo. Granted, he did this every day, wearing the same jeans to school until his mother pried them out of his hands and threw them in the washing machine with the rest of his laundry. Yet Stan had the impression that older, richer people — people like him now, apparently! — didn't wear the same thing every day. But the idea of finding new pants seemed immense and challenging beyond that which he was prepared to handle. Stan also felt guilty about going through the closet to thoroughly, like he was trespassing, or worse, stealing. But he wasn't, right? He eventually found a soft red T-shirt that said "Berklee" on it, in collegiate block lettering. He slipped this on, feeling how well it fit. There were small holes in the hem, he noticed, as he studied his reflection. He smoothed his hair down with both hands, and went downstairs, where it seemed as though Kyle was still on the phone. Stan went into his office.

Once there, he sat down at his desk and fretted. He felt anxious about what to do next.

The problem Stan faced, most immediately in that particular moment, was that he wanted to write out his feelings on a piece of paper, and he had been in this house for something like 30 or 32 hours now, and try as he might, he couldn't find one. There were no pens, really, though Stan had found some things that looked like pens, things that mocked the general shape. Styluses, Stan believed they were called, and he though immediately of learning about cuneiform, the writing of ancient Mesopotamia. This had been a unit at the beginning of the year, and they'd had an art lesson one Friday, the Friday after Labor Day, where they'd dug little wedges into leather-hard clay slabs no larger than a wallet. That thing they used, the thing that dug out the wedges was a stylus. There were styluses all over the house, but Stan had yet to find a pen or paper.

So he got out of the chair and set to work looking around the office. He knew where the sheet music was, and he stayed away from it, that pile with the requiem. It was odd, looking through the vestiges of someone else's life, even as it was his own. Stan hesitated to cause any lasting damage. What if he never went home? What if he stayed here forever? How about that? It was upsetting, that thought. Stan refused to let himself cry. Adults didn't cry, and he didn't want Kyle to hear him crying, not because Stan didn't want to be perceived as weak, or anything of the sort. It was more that he didn't want Kyle to have to shoulder the burden of Stan's crying, or to think that Kyle had been the one who caused it. Somehow, Kyle was the only good thing about this. They were disconnected, but the very thought of Kyle sitting on the living room sofa, talking on the phone and reading the paper, brought some comfort to Stan, and he calmed down.

After 20 minutes or so he located a composer's notebook that had a number of blank sheets in the back. Better yet, it was spiral-bound, and a mechanical pencil, loaded with thick graphite, was clipped to the binding. Flipping through the book, Stan tried to follow some of the compositions in it. A few of them were marked with comments: "This is shit," "A child could do this," "Good enough." The writing was Stan's hand, but a bit smaller and sloppier. It was recognizable, but the writing looked mature, as if it belonged to someone bored of their own ideas. Stan helped himself to a few sheets of this from the back of the book, though it was clumsy to try to write on the staves, each of which was marked with a requisite treble or bass clef.

Sighing, Stan clicked the pencil until the graphite lengthened; he was careful not to lengthen it enough that it might break. At the top of the sheet, in block letters, he wrote, "WHAT AM I GOING TO DO"

Staring at it, Stan shook his head and added a question mark: "WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?"

The writing looked childish to him, having seen examples of what his hand would one day become, though it certainly wasn't his own, either; it was slightly less shaky, as if his hand had a kind of sense memory, had formed letters like these before. "Read," Stan wrote, on the top bar of the first staff. Then he continued:

- Read

- Write

- Cook

- Talk to Kyle in a friend way

- Practice keyboard

This last one made Stan sigh again, because he hadn't figured out how to turn it on.

- Who are my friends?

This one was most distressing. Stan thought of those people Kyle had mentioned, the guy who had messaged him, Graham or whoever and the other guy. Stan's best friends at home — what had happened to them? Was there a way to learn? Did he want to know? He thought primarily of Wendy, wondering if she ever thought of him. At this point it occurred to Stan that, when last he'd seen her, they'd been dating. Somehow he must have dumped her. Or had she found out he was gay and dumped him? Maybe it was mutual. Maybe he'd cheated on her with Kyle! Surely not at age 13. Maybe in high school. Stan instantly felt both bad and horny. He hadn't meant to cheat on her. He hoped he wasn't that kind of person.

At a loss for what else to write, Stan jerked off again. This time it brought some relief with it. He tried not to make any noise, not wanting Kyle to know. Again, not because he was ashamed, but because he hated to think that Kyle, after the repeated attempts at intimacy, would be hurt by Stan's repeated private masturbation. Kyle was part of it anyway, or at least younger Kyle was. In Stan's mind he was himself, 13 years old, and he and Kyle were kissing and fondling each other in a very tentative way. It felt more beautiful and special than it did hot, yet Stan came anyway, right after he imagined his girlfriend walking in and exclaiming "Stan!" in a disappointed tone. After ejaculating, Stan was more concerned with cleaning up the evidence of this situation than he was in examining the meaning of his brief fantasy. Thinking of Wendy as he wiped his hand on the carpet felt uncomfortable and he pushed her out of mind.

Being a man, Stan thought to himself as he zipped his pants back up, was horribly complicated. He had the compulsion and the freedom to masturbate whenever he wanted, and yet now that he was done the idea sickened him.

When he felt reasonably assured that all the proof was hidden and he was well past the incident, he noticed that the pad on which he'd found the guest list the day before was flashing a notification that Stan had a new message. After tapping on it he was able to read it, the entire note filling the screen:

You can't treat me this way! It's not right. It's not that I expect you to leave her, I know you won't leave her, or at least say you don't want to leave her, and while I don't entirely get it (she's crazy and you could do better, let's face it, you ARE doing better!) I do understand you guys have been together forever (there's something nice about being with someone you know so well, someone you have all those years with I guess, it's not that I don't get it because I GET IT) and I don't ask to be a replacement (though I'd be happy with that too).

This was a run-on sentence so egregious it almost made Stan throw the tablet across the room. Yet he persisted, wondering who the fuck had sent this to him. It was plainly too disjointed to be Kyle, whose prose was crisp even at 12 years old.

But it gets hard to believe you're not just using me when you make plans to see me and blow them off.

Now that Stan had read this note, he wished he hadn't. It was from Casey. Who or what the hell was Casey? Who was 'she'? Was Casey a she? Stan suddenly felt very sick.