The weekend passed slowly for Stan, stuck in the monotony of upper-middle-class living in Malibu. Kyle cooked a lot of food, and talked a lot. He badgered Stan for sex, on and off. There were times, predominantly at the end of the day, when Stan actually considered accepting, and having sex with Kyle. He had an adult body now, and his adult body seemed to find Kyle attractive. This was easily taken care of, mostly in the shower. By Monday, Stan was showering enough to draw Kyle's attention.
"The water bills are going to be crazy," he said, handing Stan a pad displaying what appeared to be a previous month's water bill. "So I really hope you get this gig because it's not like I'm going to make any money this month!"
"How much money do you usually make each month?" Stan asked.
"I don't find that funny! Just, stop taking so many showers. I feel like you're hiding from me in there!"
It wasn't true, but it also wasn't untrue. The real reason Stan felt the need to get away from Kyle was simply because it was too difficult to bear Kyle's disappointment. Somehow, masturbating with the door locked felt like the gravest insult, or even cheating. The worst was in the evening, after Kyle had tried the hardest to get Stan to consent to some kind of sex act. Stan missed younger Kyle, the Kyle who was his age, a demure boy with a fine-tuned sense of propriety. This Kyle sighed too much, and not in a sarcastic way; he seemed sad all of the time, no matter what he was doing. Stan couldn't bear the fact that he had to turn sex with Kyle down — but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Kyle was an adult, and Stan still felt 13. Kyle's body appeared to be complicated, and Stan wasn't sure where to start with it. Kyle seemed to want it really badly, which confused Stan. He had always been taught that no meant no. Stan had said "no" about 40 times now, but Kyle kept asking.
On Monday morning Stan was feeling intimidated. Kyle had slept up against Stan all night, clutching at Stan's shoulders, sort of humping the backs of Stan's legs. For a moment, waking up around 2 in the morning, Stan had wondered if maybe Kyle was actually raping him? But actually, Kyle had seemed to be crying. "Are you all right?" Stan had asked. He was somewhat afraid to learn the answer.
"I'm fine," Kyle had said, "just go back to sleep." Kyle didn't sound fine, but what was Stan supposed to do?
Now it was morning, and it was apparently the work week again. Stan had been wondering if Kyle would go to some kind of job. Around noon, after cooking Stan a breakfast of egg whites and salsa over black beans and whole-grain rice, Kyle settled onto the couch with a metal box he'd taken out of the freezer. It turned out to be ice cream, and Stan sat in the living room for the next hour and watched Kyle eat ice cream. Stan also tried to pretend that Kyle was not wearing nothing but a bathrobe. That always complicated things for Stan, because he was forced to either look away (which hurt Kyle's feelings) or stare at Kyle (which felt rude).
Finally, Stan asked, "What kind of ice cream is that?"
Letting the spoon linger in his mouth for a moment, Kyle shot Stan a curious look, as if to say, "What do you care?" But then Kyle took the spoon from his mouth and swallowed, and said, "Cookie dough."
"Can I have some?"
"I guess?" Stan must have been visibly distraught at the tone of Kyle's answer, because immediately Kyle picked up and said, "Well, yeah, of course you can have some, if you want? Go get a spoon."
This took some time, because Stan was not sure where to find a spoon. Kyle had been doing all the cooking, or at least the ordering out, and he had also set all the tables and loaded the dishwasher. Maybe the housekeeper had been putting things away, but Stan hadn't been around to observe that part of the process. Ultimately, Stan had to look through every drawer in the kitchen, finding boxes of what Stan realized was his father's grandmother's formal silver, linen napkins in crystal rings, an electronic pad embossed with "takeout/delivery," what looked to Stan like rubbery thread spools, though they were clearly misshapen and felt to Stan altogether wrong ... the spools gave him an unsettled feeling, and it briefly crossed his mind that these spools might actually be sex toys. But no, he told himself, that was absurd. Even this older degenerate Kyle wouldn't keep sex toys in the kitchen. Stan wouldn't dream of fucking in the kitchen. He slammed that drawer shut and kept looking for spoons. He was about to go back and resign himself to using that heirloom silver, and then Stan found the normal flatware that Kyle had been setting the table with. It was light, burnished chrome, hammered with what appeared to be a heavy hand. Stan took a table spoon and jogged back to the living room.
Now Kyle was sitting with his computer propped on a cushion, legs splayed open. "Jesus," he said, "what took you so long?"
"I was looking—" Stan stopped himself. Who cared what his explanation would entail? Kyle's look said everything. Stan hurried to the couch, trying not to get an eyeful of Kyle's junk. It was difficult, but he somehow managed. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry for me," said Kyle, "be sorry for yourself. I ate all the ice cream."
"You ate that whole thing of ice cream?"
Now Kyle's face pinkened with what Stan assumed to be shame. "Yeah, Stan." He slid the metal container away from him with a foot; it made a scraping noise against the slate surface of the coffee table. "I did."
"Is there more ice cream?"
"What do you care?" Kyle asked. "You don't eat ice cream."
"Of course I do!"
"Frozen vegan banana mush isn't ice cream, Stan." Kyle sounded so full of hurt and pain that it made Stan fall to his knees on the couch, making Kyle recoil. He said, "What the hell?"
"What is frozen vegan banana mush?"
"It's fucking soft-serve bananas, I dunno, you're the one who gets it, from that place on Escondido."
Something about the word "banana" made Stan need to steal a glance at Kyle's dick.
"Welp." Kyle slammed the computer shut and, gingerly, got up. "We've got Mercer in an hour."
"What's Mercer?" Stan asked.
"What's the fucking matter with you? Like you don't see the guy every week. So get dressed! I assume you want me to drive?"
"That'd be great! Could you help me pick out an outfit?"
Kyle ran a hand through his hair, sighing, his posture slumping. "I'm starting to hope this is a weird sex game," he said, "all this 'what's that' and 'I don't know' shit. On the other hand, if you think I'm going to be turned on by treating you like a child, forget it. That's my game, Stan, that's the role I want!"
"It's not a sex game!" said Stan. "I don't know half the shit you're talking about, I didn't know where the spoons were, I don't know why you couldn't save me some ice cream, and I definitely don't know how to drive! Or what Mercer is!"
"Who Mercer is, Stan, he's a couples' therapist. Anyway, of course you know how to drive, and if you don't I say it's the fault of those fucking programmable cars. Anyway, fine, I'll pick some clothes out for you. But I'm no longer finding this charming!"
True to his word, Kyle did pick out an outfit for Stan, and he did drive the car. Traffic was somewhat better than it had been on the way to the butcher, but it was uniformly frustrating. The air was still thick and smoggy, and it happened to be overcast outside, betraying the one thing Stan was certain he knew about California. The only bright spot on the drive was a moment when, paused at a stoplight, Kyle leaned over to say, "We can go out for lunch, if you want. Afterward, I mean. If you don't have too much work?"
"We can go out for lunch," Stan said.
"You haven't been working on your score a lot."
"I haven't been scoring, no."
"But you could!" Then Kyle shook his head: "Never mind, bad joke."
Stan shrugged. Too many puns were off-putting. He wasn't finding them funny.
Mercer's office was in a strip mall with four "no-damage, ASFCP-approved" tanning salons and a sushi bar, "all our fish caught humanely!" Stan found that reassuring. They walked by an American Apparel with four neon-print-clad mannequins in the window, perched on white pilasters. Then there was a bakery called "Everything Spelt."
"Spelt how?" Stan asked.
"It's a pun," Kyle answered stonily.
Stan rolled his eyes and said, "Oh."
This just made Kyle moan as if exasperated, and say, "It's too much!" They had reached their destination, an office waiting room with a lot of windows. The doors and fixtures, as well as the furniture, were all natural wood. Kyle went to sign in, and barked at Stan, "Stay put!"
So Stan sat on a natural-wood chair with a flaxen cushion, flocked with twiny trim. The whole office was a bit much for Stan, between the modernist touches of the white walls and wide windows, and the unpolished, unbridled look of the fittings. Also there were pad-pamphlets with unsettling titles such as, "Being the Best You" and "Making It Work, Together," and "Conquering Your Fear of the Self-Driving Vehicle." That seemed the least personally resonant to Stan, so he picked it up and began to study it. The first paragraph began, "Are you feeling ill-at-ease with the concept of a self-driving car? Does the term 'auto-guide' drive you out of the room? Every year, for every 10,000 Americans who gain auto-guide licensing, another 194 seek treatment for fear of self-driving or programmable vehicles. (Statistic courtesy of the United States Department of Transportation.)" The next paragraph began, "You no longer have to let your fear stand in the way of integrating this fantastic new technology into your life—" But then Kyle came over and knocked the pad out of Stan's hands.
"I don't need help," said Kyle. "Those machines are untrustworthy. I can drive my own car, thanks!"
"I didn't say you couldn't?"
"You were thinking it," said Kyle.
"That I'm a pussy and I need to get over myself. I don't! Those things are death traps!"
Stan was going to say, "What things?" but they were then called and led back to a cushy office by a middle-aged man wearing a bow tie and suspenders.
"How's this week been?" the man asked, before Stan had a chance to turn to Kyle and mock the guy's outfit.
"Well, it's Monday," said Kyle, "it's hardly been anything!"
"Then how was the end of last week?"
The office had a couch in it, a club chair, and a very modern-looking desk chair, that seemed as though the cushion were suspended in air. It didn't seem comfortable, crammed under a desk that faced the window. But that man pulled it out and sat on it as Kyle dragged Stan down to the couch.
"Ridiculous," Kyle was saying, "almost impossible. We're having a dinner party on Friday, did I mention?"
"Yes," said the shrink, "I believe last week you mentioned that."
"Well, it's very stressful. This producer knows a friend of ours, and he somehow — I don't remember how. Stan, do you remember how?"
"No," said Stan, "how what?"
Kyle rolled his eyes, but continued. "He's trying to suck up to Stan, I guess — Graham is, I mean, this friend — and he got this producer interested in Stan's work. So now he's producing this kids' flick, it's a big deal, and he's interested in tapping Stan to do the composition. But, you know these industry people, they can't take anyone based on merit, they just want to see how much effort you're willing to put into sucking them off. Now, you know me, there's nothing I put more effort into than sucking some middle-aged industry-type off."
"You know I'm not being literal!" Kyle rolled his eyes, and to Mercer he said, "Suddenly everything I say, he's taking it so literally."
"That's interesting," said Mercer. "Stanley, do you think there's validity to what Kyle is saying?"
Stan found this man's tone to be very paternal and condescending. He knew he was meant to find it slightly annoying, in a productive way, but all he could think was that finally, someone was treating him in a way that didn't make him want to claw his eyes out. "What, about me being literal?"
"Yes, you!" said Kyle.
"Shhh." Mercer waved his stylus back and forth; he wasn't holding a pad of paper, as Stan assumed shrinks typically did. "Let him speak."
"If I'm speaking literally about things it's probably because I don't know where I am or what the fuck is going on," said Stan.
"That's interesting." Mercer reached for a pad on the desk, and leaned in. "Can you expand on that?"
Stan was about to roll his eyes, and then he figured, what the hell? Why not tell this guy? What was the worst that could happen? That he thought Stan was crazy? Maybe it would turn out that Stan was crazy, that his entire life had elapsed already and one morning, he'd just woken up and forgotten all of it, collapsing under the pressure. At least that would be something. At least then Kyle would understand that the things Stan was doing, refusing Kyle's advances, were certainly not meant to hurt him.
"Welp," said Stan, feeling suddenly very free to speak at will, "I don't know what's going on because I'm 12. ... Well, 13. I just turned 13. Sorry. I meant 13."
Kyle shot Stan an outraged look. "Don't waste this time! This is supposed to be about us!"
"Let's hear him out," said Mercer. "This is interesting. Why do you feel like you're 13?"
"No, I am 13. I went to sleep one day and I was 13 and in my own bed in my parents' house, and I woke up the next day in California with this gross — old body, with Kyle, and I'm still 13."
"This is interesting," Mercer repeated.
"I'm being literal now," said Stan. "I'm being very literal. I am 13, literally."
"So you're using 'literal' in the 'figurative' sense," said Mercer.
"No," said Stan. "No, I'm 13 years old."
"Bullshit!" said Kyle. "Every week we come here and you roll your eyes like it's a waste of time and refuse to cooperate and suddenly, out of nowhere, now you want to play this game?"
Stan turned to Kyle, trying to seem as genuine as possible. "I'm not playing any game," he said. "I swear, dude, this is real, I'm being serious."
"This is just some mind game!" Kyle shouted. "You won't touch me, you haven't touched me in days, you don't appreciate anything I'm trying to do for you, you refuse to drive anywhere, now you're making up some stupid riddle about feeling 13—"
"I am 13!"
Mercer broke in. "Well, okay. Let's — let's back up. We're not here to dismiss anyone's feelings. If Stanley says he feels like an adolescent, maybe we should brainstorm why he might be having these feelings."
"Because he's trying to make up some excuse for when he leaves me! He doesn't want to take responsibility for anything!"
"What! Dude! Why would I leave you?"
Kyle was starting to get a bit weepy now. "Because I'm a bloated old middle-aged hag and you're constantly surrounded by cute guys you could actually get because you're successful and have talent and a career and I've never done anything with my life and all I'm good for is having sex with and clearly now you've got someone else, because I'm completely used up, and why wouldn't you?" Kyle wiped at his eyes. "And for the last time, stop calling me 'dude'!"
"No, I mean, why would I leave you? I have nowhere else to go. I can't drive!"
"Oh," said Kyle, "that's super reassuring!" Then he burst into tears. Through sobs, he managed, "My whole life, all I've done is support you. Any scrape you needed to get out of, I was there. And now — now you're going to finally get what you've always wanted, a real film score, and just in time to run off with your little boy and leave me alone in that huge house with no one and I won't be able to pay the mortgage and I'll be 36 and have to move back in with my parents!"
"What little boy?" Stan asked. "I don't have a little boy. Kyle, I am a little boy!"
"Well." Mercer clicked his pen. "This is interesting, this is really, really interesting."
"Oh, fuck you!" said Kyle.
"Kyle!" said Stan.
"Well," said Mercer. "I think this is really productive!"
When they finally left the office, Kyle was still crying. "I've done everything!" he was wailing. "For fuck's sake I had my ass scooped out for you!"
Stan had no idea what that meant, but it sounded disgusting. "Okay." For the first time, he reached out, touching Kyle's forearm. They were standing in a parking lot, the sun beating down, engine noises and the sound of a gentle breeze rustling the palms and acacias blunting Stan's words. "Kyle, please, stop!" Stan was nearly on the verge of tears. "I don't think you understand! I don't know how to deal with this!"
"Of course you don't!" said Kyle. "If you did, you wouldn't be leaving me."
"Why would I leave you?" Stan asked. "Kyle, I'm fucking lost without you! Don't you get it? I'm fucking scared!" Now there were tears in the corners of Stan's eyes, and his voice was beginning to wobble. He bit his lip and turned away, hating to be seen breaking down like this. Whatever else he felt about how old he was, he knew adult men were not supposed to cry unless they were ridiculously confident in their own masculinity. Clearly Kyle was, but Stan felt hugely ashamed, crying in public. In front of Kyle.
"Oh." Kyle grabbed Stan by the shoulders, reaching up to do so. "Stanley, no, you — why would you be scared of anything? You're strong and handsome and talented and I'm—"
"I really, really need you," said Stan. "It doesn't matter if I'm being literal or not, okay? The fact is I need you, so bad—"
"I need you, too! At the very least for money, Stan. I have nothing without you, my whole life is built on being with you—"
"I really don't know what to do!" Stan wiped at his eyes. "I'm not lying, I don't know how to play the piano, I've never composed anything in my life, I'm really freaking out, I don't know how to talk to Hollywood people—"
"Obviously we have to help each other here," said Kyle. He wiped at one of Stan's eyes, though he was still crying himself. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I just know that we need to get through this week. If we get through this week we can reassess."
"Okay," Stan breathed. "If this is my life — if this is my life, dude, I want to spend it with you. We got this far, apparently, so—"
"Do you promise me you're not having an affair?"
"A what? Kyle, why, who would I be having an affair with?"
"I dunno," said Kyle. "Maybe Asher."
Stan missed a beat. Then he said, "Who the fuck even is Asher!"
"You know, Graham's boytoy."
"Shit, I hate that guy!" said Stan, though he didn't really know Graham.
"He's contemptible," said Kyle, "but what are you going to do? These are our friends, Stan."
"You've always been my only friend."
"That might be the sweetest thing you've said to me in a while."
It was hard for Stan not to smile at that. "Good," he said. "No matter what's happening, I'd be alone without you, okay? Totally alone."
"Good," Kyle agreed. "Good, I'm glad. Just — are you sure you're not having an affair?"
Knowing it was essential that he didn't miss a beat on this, Stan immediately said, "Of course I'm not having an affair!" After he said it, though, Stan had that same burning feeling he experienced when some little asshole accused him of being gay, and he denied it. (This was Eric Cartman's specialty.)
Later that night, in bed, Kyle was reading something on his tablet, and Stan was lying in bed, wondering. "Hey," Stan said, rolling over.
"Hey what?" Kyle asked. He had his fingers in his mouth, or just lighting touching his lips, anyway. For just a split second, it made Stan want to reach out and kiss him.
Yet Stan resisted. "Whatever happened to Cartman?" he asked. "And, like, Kenny? And all those other people?"
Setting the tablet aside on the table by his side of the bed, Kyle sighed. "Whatever happened to those people? They're losers, Stan, they're all stuck in South Park."
"All of them?"
"I mean, not all of them, but — you know. That's how it is with people who figured into earlier parts of your life. You see the ones you see, and the others, I dunno, you run into at Christmas. Don't you run into Kenny sometimes? At mass, or something?"
"Oh," said Stan, "do I?"
"I wouldn't know," said Kyle. "I never go. I think you said you did some year — two years ago? Whatever, he's a loser. Most of them were losers."
"Wendy? What about Wendy?"
"Is she a loser?"
"Who knows? She studied abroad in Dijon and met that guy and never came back. Maybe she's got eight kids now. Maybe she moved somewhere else. Who's to say?"
"But do her parents still live in South Park?"
"I guess," said Kyle. "Is this because we had that fight today? And you said you never had any real friends besides me? Because if so, just — I do think these people were your friends, Stan, or our friends, it's just that — being a kid, you have these kid friendships, and they're very difficult to gauge the reality of." This sounded to Stan like something from an undergraduate psychology textbook, but Kyle seemed to really mean what he was saying. "When you're a child you only get to be friends with the people you're exposed to, so in effect you don't really get to choose who your friends are. I guess, what I'd say is ... hm. Well, if I had to say something, I suppose I'd say what was always so special about us, or when I knew we were meant to be together, was that we always seemed to pick each other. Like, we chose to go into this, you know?"
Stan really didn't, but he said, "Yeah."
"So if you're feeling insecure, or whatever, I know today was rough, but — don't."
"Okay," said Stan. He was about to consider the conversation over, but when Kyle reached for his tablet again, Stan had a thought that just popped out: "Whatever happened to Craig?"
"Craig?" Kyle asked. He dropped the tablet on the covers. "Craig Tucker?"
"Yeah," said Stan. "Uh — that guy."
Kyle rolled his eyes. Kyle seemed to do that all the time. Stan wasn't sure if he found it vexing, or kind of attractive. The more he looked at older Kyle, the more he found Kyle's features sort of cute, the way Stan found Wendy sort of cute, too. There was something attractive there, and perhaps if the fundamentals of the present situation were different — if Stan were an adult, too — he might lean over and kiss Kyle right now, fully, on the lips. But no tongue, or anything. Nothing else. Just full-on kissing.
"You know," said Kyle, picking up the tablet again. "It's too bad there's no Facebook anymore. Fucking antitrust lawsuits!"
"What's an antitrust lawsuit?" Stan asked.
"Do you really think you can't play the piano?" Kyle replied.
"What? Dude, I know I can't play the piano."
"Right, you keep saying. Well, how about this? If you can't play for them, if you're really blanking — I mean, if you're having a temporary mental-creative block — I think we can still pull this shit off. I don't know if we can get you a contract, per se, but — well, I think we can do it!"
"Give the best fucking dinner party ever."
"Oh!" said Stan.
"At the very least it'll keep them interested."
"Well, that sounds fine. What do I have to do?"
Kyle thought for a moment. "Whatever I tell you to!"
That didn't sound so bad. "Okay."
"And, you know. Just be your charming self!" Kyle leaned over, and planted a soft kiss on Stan's cheek. Then he rolled to his other side and snapped off the light.
Stan lay there in the dark, hand on his cheek, dick throbbing in his boxers, remembering the feeling of Kyle's warm, dry lips on his skin. This could be his life, he figured. It was imperfect, and he was not overall certain he would be able to master the art of dinner party lingo, let alone composing a film score. But if he really had grown up and forgotten the past 25 years, well, it could have gone so much worse. Stan thought for the first time that he was going to be able to make the most of this.
It was a trying week for Stan, who felt useless to help Kyle, or himself. On Tuesday Kyle called all of their dinner guests, making a final list of attendees, and then a seating chart. Stan watched over Kyle's shoulder as Kyle sketched an outline of their dining room table, then six places, then started filling them with guests. Kyle placed Stan at the head of the table; Kyle placed himself far away, nearest the kitchen, next to Victor, the producer, whom Kyle seated at the opposite head of the table, across from Stan.
"That doesn't make any sense," Stan remarked, gazing into the tablet's screen.
"Why aren't I next to you?"
Kyle scoffed. "You mean, 'why aren't I next to you?' "
"I don't know," Stan said. "Why aren't I?"
"It's politicking," said Kyle.
"Come on, Stan, you've been to enough dinner parties. When you're wining and dining someone, you try to give them a place of privilege. You're the head of the household, clearly, so you sit at the head of the table, but we can't place Victor anywhere subordinate to you, so he's got to sit at the head. Then, as the evening's hostess" — Kyle rolled his eyes as he said it — "it's an honor to sit near me, so I'm putting myself next to Victor. Then we distribute people evenly according to where they best fit. Graham knows Victor so I'm putting him on Victor's other side and across from me. You know Butters—"
"Butters?" Stan asked. Suddenly he felt almost pathetic in how excited he was.
"Yes, Butters!" Kyle pointed to the place where he'd seated Leopold. "Butters knows you but he doesn't know anyone else, so I'm seating him on your left, so that puts Butters and Graham, both of whom we know, near Azure, who's coming with Victor."
"Oh! Well, I don't get it — I mean, why not sit her next to Victor if they're coming together."
"They already know each other," said Kyle. "Shit, I've been doing this for too long. Listen, it's about creating little pockets of social activity. You don't want anyone to feel left out, but you don't want anyone overwhelmed. You don't want the conversation to center around one guy who's the king of the dinner table, but you also don't want anyone to have to make too much effort. And you definitely don't want awkward silent moments! Making a party is like, kind of weaving something really complicated together, you know?"
Stan didn't, really, but he nodded and said, "Makes sense. I guess. Gosh, you're really smart."
"Thanks," said Kyle, though he sounded as though he felt less than flattered. "Glad I could use my doctorate for something productive for once."
"You got a doctorate in party planning?" Stan asked.
"Don't be an ass!" Kyle turned away and went back to planning his seating chart. Then, a moment later, he looked up, rubbing his eyes. "Why are you suddenly so interested in this?"
"Interested in what? The party?"
"Well, yeah, I mean—no, like, party-planning, or, what I'm doing with my life, or whatever. I guess. My housewifing, or ... whatever."
"I guess I just think you're kinda cool," Stan said.
"Thanks," said Kyle. "I feel pretty flattered. That's nice."
It was difficult for Stan to tell if Kyle was being serious. It sounded as if there was some hurt in his tone. "I do appreciate this, dude. I mean, Kyle. I mean — everything you're doing for me, I know it's a lot of work, so. I guess I just want to say—"
Kyle interrupted Stan, getting up. "That's okay! I know. Just — let's save these conversations for next week, okay? Let's just get through this."
"Okay," said Stan, "I guess." All of a sudden he was greatly looking forward to picking this conversation up again next week, looking forward to something in his life here. It was a new feeling, and it didn't seem entirely weird.
Kenny could not come raking on Wednesday afternoon. He sat square in the middle of the free-throw line at the public basketball court after school, interrupting a game of HORSE.
"I'm not fucking raking with you," Kenny said, planting himself on the ground. Kyle was brandishing a rake, pointing the rusty end square at Kenny.
"Like hell you're not," said Kyle.
"I'm not, I'm not and you can't make me!"
"Then what are you going to do?" The rake was perilously close to Kenny's face.
"I'm playing HORSE with these guys." Kenny stood up and brushed his jeans off. They were weirdly dusty, and Kyle took a step back, not wanting to be contaminated.
"I don't remember saying you could play with us." This was Clyde Donovan, a large boy from whom Stan had received a Christmas card every year since graduating high school. At 37 Clyde was unmarried, seemingly sexless, and the owner of a very large, very hairy, white dog. Kyle (adult Kyle) liked to surmise that Clyde was paying for multiple photo shoots every year with this dog, because the Christmas card always had a standard format: a picture of Clyde and the dog, each of them in a different seasonal sweater. Most recently they had been ready for Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas. The dog's name was Whitey, which Kyle found funny and Stan found offensive. "There's no meanness behind it," Kyle would say, "Clyde Donovan doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He's just stupid."
Stan didn't know if this was true, but he did know that Clyde had a blonde girl hanging off of him. It was Bebe Stevens, one of Wendy's best friends, and while she seemed to be dating Clyde, she was giving Stan a troubling, accusatory look.
"I will do anything to get out of raking," Kenny insisted. "Donovan, I challenge you to a game of HORSE."
The third person in their party, a black boy with well-trimmed nails and hair, stepped forward. "We already started a game of HORSE," he said. "It's nothing personal." Token Black was married to a Brazilian former model and lived in a great Victorian in Denver. He was the president of a nonprofit that trained low-income children in rural parts of Colorado in tech products and graphic design software. It was also rumored that he owned a lion.
"It's personal!" said Bebe.
"How is it personal?" Kenny asked.
"He knows what he did!" Bebe stepped away from Clyde, crossing her arms. She was clearly talking to Stan.
"Me?" Stan asked, unsure of what business they had together. "What did I do?"
"You stood up Wendy!"
"That's ridiculous!" Kyle interjected. "That was all of like, four days ago!"
"It was five days ago and if you'd been stood up, you'd damn well remember."
"If I were stood up I'd get over it, Bebe," Kyle said coolly. "I'm an adult. Or, I mean, I'd be mature about it."
"It's not about that one time," she said. "If you think it's about that one time, you're stupid. It's about a pattern of behavior! That's Wendy's term. It's very hurtful to be constantly neglected."
"I don't neglect you," Clyde interjected, needlessly.
"If you did I'd shove a shoe down your throat."
"That's very violent!" said Token.
"Token, man," said Kenny. "There are worse things."
"What the fuck, Kenny?" Kyle took a step forward, clearly no longer afraid of getting dirty. "You were supposed to catch that ball! If you had caught that ball Stan wouldn't be in trouble!"
"Oh, shit," said Clyde. "Is this about Craig's drama?"
"What drama?" Token asked.
"Marsh threw a football through Thomas Tucker's windshield."
"Ohhh." Token shrugged, stepping back. He was generally aloof, and even in adulthood, Stan liked him. "Man, that's rough. I wouldn't cross that guy."
"Why not?" Bebe asked. "Craig's parents are okay. They're never home when we come over and we drink their beers."
"That guy's just kind of a jerk," said Token. "You guys have my sympathies."
"How is never being home and letting your kid's friends steal beers being 'okay'?" Kyle asked. "Christ, those are the sort of people who would extort a kid."
"They're extorting you? That's rough, man. That's really rough. There's got to be some way out of that. Why don't you just tell your mom and dad what happened?"
"Well, I—" Stan looked to Token. He remembered feeling overcome five days ago by the idea that his parents absolutely could never find out. Now he wasn't so sure why he didn't just tell them. Even in old-time money, how much was 200 dollars to an adult, really? Didn't Stan's dad work for the government, kind of? Surely it wouldn't be too much out of his wallet.
Unfortunately, before Stan could voice this to Token, Kyle stepped in. "That's absurd!" he cried. "Stan'll be grounded!"
"So?" Bebe took a step toward Kyle. "Why don't you let him think for himself? Why don't you let him take responsibility for his own actions? Stan doesn't care who he hurts!"
"Why do you care about Wendy so much?" Kyle asked. "Are you gay for her, or something?"
"Gay for her? Ha! That's a laugh. Figures you'd only understand caring about someone you were gay for."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Kenny spoke up. "It's pretty obvious, dude."
"God dammit I am not gay!" Kyle cried, and he picked his rake back up. "I am trying to be responsible! Nobody else ever manages these situations and I am trying to manage it! Everything always goes to shit in this town. Always! And I for one am not going to stand by and let it happen! I am going to get out of this town unscathed and if that means starting with placating Craig Tucker, I'll do it!"
Then Kyle turned to Kenny. "And you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! You were supposed to catch that ball! You owe us!"
"Oh, bullshit I owe you," said Kenny. "Sorry I didn't catch your precious ball. Maybe Stan's throw was bad!"
"It was a good throw!" Kyle insisted.
"Maybe we could make him throw it right now," said Clyde, "like, to Kenny, and see who's right?"
"That's stupid, man," said Token.
"I don't want these guys hanging out here if they're going to cause drama," said Bebe. "Everywhere drama!"
"What drama?" asked Stan.
"Wendy! You're such a dick to Wendy! She's going to do something really stupid and it's going to be your fault!"
"How is it going to be my fault?"
"Wait," said Clyde, shaking his head. "Wendy's going to kill herself?"
"No!" Bebe reached out and slapped him. "No, god, don't over say that! I just mean — she might start looking at other people. Some people care about what they have."
"I care," said Stan, though not about Wendy, he didn't. This entire conversation on the basketball court was, for him, simply a delay to spending more time with Kyle.
"Then be a man and do something about it."
"Are we going to do this ball toss? Stan can't throw for shit."
"Shut up, Kenny!"
"No, Kyle, you shut up! I'm not your slave. And it's not my fault I didn't catch that ball. Why isn't it Stan's fault that he threw it toward a bunch of cars?"
"That's where you were standing!" Kyle said.
"Then why didn't he throw it to you?"
"There were cars everywhere! You know that."
"Then it was bound to happen that someone might damage a car, I guess," said Kenny. "It could have been any one of us! Or none of us! And it happened to be Stan. I'm sick of being the victim of random chance. It's someone else's turn now! It's not my fault you're a little control freak."
"I am not a control freak!" Kyle poked at Kenny with the rake.
Kenny hopped away. "Nope, I'm done. I'm out." He turned to Clyde. "I'm playing HORSE with you guys."
"Get lost," said Clyde. "My dad says it's not good for me to be around this kind of negativity. That's why he won't let me hang out with Craig."
"That's mean," said Token. "Kenny, if you want to play with us you can sit out until the next round."
"Deal!" said Kenny, and he went to go plop himself down on a bench, where he sat with crossed arms, hunched over.
With a healthy bounce, Token whacked the ball to Clyde, who failed to catch it, and ran after it as it dribbled slowly down the court, toward the chain-link fence.
"Okay," said Clyde, panting as he trudged back to the group. "Um, how did you shoot again, last time?"
"Give it," said Bebe, and she plucked the basketball from his arms.
"Come on!" Kyle cried, grabbing Stan by the hand. "We're leaving. This is ridiculous!"
"That ungrateful asshole!" Kyle squealed, when they were trudging down the road, rakes balancing in their hands. "After everything I've done for him!"
"What have you done for him?" Stan asked.
Kyle paused in the road, kicking at the newly laid sod on the parkway next to them. "It's the principle!"
"What principle?" Stan grabbed Kyle by the hand, instinctively. When Kyle recoiled, Stan dropped the hand and said, "Come on. I didn't want him around, anyway."
"But we can rake more yards—"
"Whatever," Stan said quickly. He no longer much cared about the yards, or the money, or Craig. The autumn afternoon sun was disappearing behind the pines at the end of the block, and Kyle's hair was lit up as the light shone through. The most beautiful color, Stan thought, and he wondered when he had last taken in Kyle's hair. Hadn't it been far too long? "I don't care how many fucking yards we rake. All I really care about is spending this time with you."
Kyle's eyes grew about eight sizes, and he said, "Do you mean it?" He had turned bright pink, and bit his lip.
"I mean it!"
"Well. At least that's flattering!" Kyle hoisted his rake again, and made his way up the garden path toward the next doorbell.