Even grey skies can be illuminating, in their own way. As it would come to pass, light could be shed even on one of the toughest egos to crack at South Park Elementary. It was all a matter of compassion.
Eric Cartman was a foreboding kid, and it was not his house that lately warded other boys away, so much as it was the back yard. Eric's mother, Liane, kept the garden tilled in the summer, the snow shoveled in the winter, the fence painted—at least, her various service men did—and to passers-by, it could be seen as one simple semi-suburban back yard nestled near another.
The other fourth graders knew better. The back yard was home to one of South Park's strangest monuments: a large stone memorial to a departed stuffed frog. Cartman, as most of the others addressed the self-important child, had been both the mastermind and the victim in what went down in South Park Elementary history as the Great Toy Massacre. Underneath that memorial was more than a little stuffed frog; it was where Cartman had buried what little compassion he had ever shown toward something other than himself.
The after-effects of the Massacre left sour tastes in many of the kids' mouths for weeks afterward, but the boy it lingered with most profoundly was Stan Marsh, who would get chills walking past Cartman's house as he recalled those events: a house burning, a doll with a bullet in her head. The other boys told him to get past it, but Stan could simply not understand why that monument bothered him so much.
So it stood to reason that, when his parents announced that he would be spending a weekend at Cartman's, Stan instantly blanched and demanded a different option.
"Come on!" he argued with his father, who was seated at the Marsh family sofa with a beer can, while Stan's mother sat nearby sorting through papers. "Can't I go somewhere else? Cartman's house sucks!"
"No, Stanley, we talked about this," his mother, Sharon, stated. She adjusted her reading glasses, and slid one of her papers into a double-pocketed grey folder propped up against the sofa's arm rest. "Wendy's parents aren't quite ready to have you stay the night there, Kyle has a Jew Scouts retreat, and you can't stay at Kenny's."
"Bullshit I can't stay at Kenny's!"
"Stanley, language!" Sharon scolded.
"Kenny's parents are always stoned, and they're alcoholics," said Stan's father, Randy, as he took a sip of his beer. "It's a bad environment." He let out a low belch, and wiped froth from his black moustache, readjusting so that he could see past Stan's head to the TV.
Stan cocked his head over one shoulder to give his father a blank stare. Takes one to know one, he wanted to say, but Sharon was generally the easier parent to plead with. "Mom, please don't make me go there," he begged. "He's gonna do something that's gonna piss me off, I know it."
"Well, then, be the bigger person, Stanley, and don't let him push you around," Sharon suggested.
But Cartman was bigger: in size, and personality. "Sure," Stan muttered to himself doubtfully as he skulked away, defeated by his parents' inability to see past their son's discomfort.
If only he hadn't had a report due on Monday, Stan thought as he crawled into bed that night. It's Mr. Garrison's fault he'd have to stay at Cartman's. Stan might have to try to get Liane to drive him to the library so he could get his schoolwork done. Maybe he'd sneak out and go to Kenny's anyway. Anything to not have to think about that back yard, and the unsettling vibe from that toy's grave.
Sharon and Randy loaded up the car the following day with overnight bags for themselves and Stan's older sister, Shelley, who punched him to move over in the back seat. "Ow," Stan flinched, giving her room. It was her fault he'd have to put up with Cartman, too. The whole weekend had been set up so that she could tour an all-girls high school out of town—oh, Stan could just hear the awful things Cartman might say about that.
"Here we are, Stan," Randy announced moments later, parking in front of the looming green building. "Have fun with your friend."
Stan had a hard time calling Cartman a ‘friend,' primarily due to the violent antics the larger boy was known for. Stan persevered, Cartman tore down. They disagreed on topics that Stan felt strongly toward: most recently, animal rights. Stan and his girlfriend, Wendy, were doing a joint report that Stan was quite proud of thus far, covering various topics of animal rights, from domestic situations to laboratory treatments.
He should have known it would start something, if he brought it into that house.
The report was tucked securely into Stan's overnight backpack, amid pajamas, a change of clothes, and an umbrella, just in case, and he double-checked for it before sliding out of the car to walk up the curved grey path to Cartman's door. Liane opened the door to usher him in, and that was that. The weekend had begun.
It started off fine—though Stan was itching to work on that report and call Wendy to compare notes, he left the subject out of conversation with Cartman. Over video games and a couple of recently-released movies (not to mention an abundance of snacks, at Cartman's request from his hard-working mother), Stan had to admit: Cartman wasn't too bad to deal with… one-on-one.
It was that back yard issue that kept on bothering him. Cartman was like a time bomb that Stan had no idea how to diffuse. He could only sit back and hope that he could shelter himself from the explosion. One was coming, it had to be. No kid with that amount of personal history purposefully buried in his yard could be completely over the situation that drove it there.
Liane mentioned it only once: "Boys, it's supposed to rain tomorrow. Why don't you two play outside, while there's still a little sun?"
Stan's heart skipped, but Cartman, lying on his stomach on the floor a couple feet from Stan, where they had the Xbox set up, called back, "Outside's lame, Mom. Besides, we're in co-op mode right now."
"I'm just saying, hon…" Liane attempted again, from her seemingly permanent place in the kitchen.
"Mom! Busy! God!" Cartman turned to roll his eyes at Stan. "Can you believe her?"
Trying not to push any buttons, Stan, staring straight forward at the screen to shoot down one of their CGI enemies, said, "Heh, yeah. I'm not going outside right now."
"Plus it's all gross. Spring sucks," Cartman noted.
He was right, spring sort of did suck. In a town that took on so much snow throughout the winter, it was not impossible to see heaps of the white stuff accumulate in autumn, and stay right through the spring, packed and mucky. Every rainfall only did the ground worse: where there was snow, there would be mud. Lots of it. Too much of it. Stan could find that on any given day, he'd be cursing himself for not packing extra pants, socks or boots, since wading through the mud would do damaging wonders to anyone's clothes, at school and home alike. Stan's dog, Sparky, was a prime mud tracker as well. Sometimes it was fun, but more often than not it was a great excuse to do nothing.
Yes, Stan was fine with staying inside. No mud, no back yard, no problem.
His eyes did tire from screens after a while, and after a glance at the grey spring sky outside, Stan admitted, "Dude, I've got some homework I gotta do."
Cartman sat up, giving Stan a vacant look. One angular eyebrow rose in confusion as he sputtered, "Psh—homework? Dude. It's Saturday."
"Yeah," Stan said, "but I really wanna get a good grade on this." He stood to put away the controller he'd been using, and stepped over to his backpack.
"Dude, blow it off till tomorrow," Cartman suggested. "Aren't you partners with Wendy? She probably already did the whole thing."
"Maybe, but I'm interested in this stuff, too. It's kinda fun."
As Stan spoke, Cartman's cat, Mr. Kitty, padded through the room and brushed into Cartman's side. A loud purr came out of the pet as Cartman scratched it behind the ears. "Fun?" Cartman said in disbelief. "How can homework be fun? What are you writing about?"
"Animal rights," Stan said with a little shrug.
"Animals don't have rights!"
"Exactly." Stan narrowed his eyes at Cartman.
"Maybe some shouldn't, Stan, that's lame."
"Dude, don't knock my report, I really like this stuff."
Cartman simply rolled his eyes, clicked his tongue, and said, "Whatever."
Before the conversation could go any further, Liane poked her head in from the kitchen to call in, "Eric?" Another eye roll, in the other direction. "Eric, hon, I asked you to weed around the back yard today."
"Well, it's too dark now, isn't it?" Cartman called back, giving Stan a look as if to get him on his side.
"I suppose so, sweetie, but you have to do your chores or no allowance," Liane warned him.
"Oh, come on."
"So you can be my little helper tomorrow!" Liane announced, much to her son's immediate chagrin. Stan's heart skipped a beat. Don't ask me, he pleaded.
She did not, but Stan's thoughts still turned to the back yard. Why did the Great Toy Massacre bother him so much? Stan hadn't had a favorite toy the way Cartman had, nor played make-believe to quite such an extent. Maybe that was what bothered Stan about it: there was a piece of Cartman buried in the back yard, and it seemed strange to Stan that Cartman would never talk about it.
"But Mooooooommmmmm," Cartman pleaded in a nasal whine, which scared away his cat.
"No, hon, you're weeding tomorrow."
Cartman passed Stan a glance. "What?" Stan wondered.
"This is your fault."
"What? My fault? How come?"
"If she hadn't-a seen you gettin' all professional with your homework, she'd-a left it alone!" Cartman accused. "I am not letting you go for this."
"Dude," Stan argued. "I didn't do anything."
Cartman offered nothing more than, "Have fun with your gay little paper," before turning to plead further with his mother in the kitchen.
Stan felt his heart skip, but he tried not to let Cartman get to him. After all, sometimes Cartman would go on tirades, but mostly, he'd just get angry, blow off steam, and move on to something else. Keeping to himself while he could, Stan laid out his three-ring notebook and a copy of a newspaper article Wendy had given him for them to base part of their project on, and got to work.
This was the part Stan really didn't like: lab tests. Rats and frogs got such a bad deal, he thought. Rats got prodded and inseminated and given cancer, and frogs were given over by the dozens to biology classrooms. Stan himself knew that he'd have to play his cards right, come middle school, if he never wanted to dissect an animal for class.
Mr. Kitty re-entered the room just before Stan was called in for dinner. He smiled at the cat, which set him at ease that at least Cartman had enough heart to be kind to his pet. He had a real love for animals in there somewhere. Stan had the feeling that everyone did, they just had to reach down and really look.
Stan rolled out a sleeping bag on Cartman's bedroom floor, and genuinely thanked Liane when she lent him a pillow and comforter for the night. He made himself quite comfortable in the sleeping bag, but despite that, he found himself tossing and turning.
The sky opened, that night, and buckets of spring rain showered down from dark grey clouds that choked the sky. Stan was not afraid of thunder, but it kept him awake. He frowned, and tossed under his sheets, reaching under the pillow for his iPod. He was just closing his eyes to the steady drumbeats of a new band Wendy had taken a liking to when a clap of thunder overpowered the soft music, getting Stan to sit bolt upright.
He yanked out his earbuds and kicked off the sheets. To keep himself occupied, he stumbled downstairs into the dark kitchen, propped up a chair at the sink, and climbed up to pour himself a glass of water. When another thunder clap startled him, Stan dropped the cup, thankful that it was plastic, into the basin, and, water still running, watched as lightning illuminated the back yard.
The rain was cutting up the grass into muddy pockets and puddles, and Stan could swear that he saw frogs jumping and worms and dancing around in the muck before they buried themselves deeper and deeper, down toward Clyde Frog's casket. Startled that he was even having such thoughts, Stan shook his head and chastised himself, "Dude. What the fuck. Just go to bed, it's just a dumb memorial to a dumb old stuffed frog that wasn't even yours, it was Cartman's, and he doesn't respec—"
"What don't I respect, Stan?"
Stan yelped, and turned in the chair, gripping the back as he turned to see Cartman standing in the doorway, brown hair mussed with bed-head, feet lumping out from the hems of his Wellington Bear pajamas. "Uh…" he tried, without argument, "I wasn't saying anything…"
"Yes you were," Cartman scrutinized him. Stan gulped, but said nothing.
For a moment, there was a stare-down. Neither of the boys moved, neither knowing quite why.
Stan worried that Cartman knew of his insecurities about the back yard, and his nerves made him the first to break. "Okay," he started, "so—"
"Aha!" Cartman exclaimed triumphantly. "I knew you were up for some reason, Stan. What is it?"
"Well, I—" Lightning flashed in the sky again, and as he swallowed his nerves, Stan jumped down from the chair. "Dude," he finally confronted Cartman, "did you have to put up a huge monument to Clyde Frog in your back yard?"
Cartman gave a laugh of only half understanding. "Heh, what?" he wondered.
"I… it's kinda extreme, you know? It looks like a pet cemetery out there, but it was just a stuffed frog."
"Just a stuffed frog?" Cartman repeated, almost sounding hurt. Stan thought he may have tripped a wire. Cartman collected himself quickly, though, and brushed off his minor lapse into reality. "Dude, Clyde Frog died. When things die, they get graves."
"Not—always," Stan pointed out. "Especially animals."
Cartman let out a snort, but gave no further replies. He went to the refrigerator for a cup of pudding, to a drawer for a spoon, and made his way back out through the living room and up the stairs. Stan was left attempting to process what he had seen, and spent a few minutes in the living room before journeying back upstairs, and another half hour attempting to sleep, while still wondering if or when Cartman would ever bring up the subject of that monument to not just a stuffed frog, but his childhood.
The sun rose, but hardly shone; grey clouds lingered in the sky, and though the thunder and lightning had gone along their way, there was still a soft rainfall hitting the ground at a slow pace. Stan was hesitant: the day could go either way. Hopefully he would have time to work on his animal rights report, since it was a good day to be stuck inside.
If there was one good thing about Cartman's house, though, it was the food, Stan had to admit. Even the thunderstorm left his mind over Liane's puffy, home-made waffles. But something was still looming, and Stan didn't like it.
"So, Stanley," Liane started, midway through the waffle breakfast, "your parents aren't picking you up until sometime this afternoon…"
"Yeah," Stan said, "and I kinda have this report I've gotta do, so, uh—"
Cartman gave him another disapproving look, while his mother suggested, "Well, maybe before that, you might be able to help my son do a little work pulling weeds outside. I'd sure appreciate having two little helpers out there today."
And though Stan attempted to put up a valid argument against the suggestion, he eventually found himself pulling on his coat and boots, while Liane helped her son into a yellow rain slicker. Stan took a look at his unfinished part of the report and sighed, then grabbed his umbrella from his backpack, and followed Cartman out into the back yard.
It was not raining hard, but the clouds poured down a steady mist over the puddle-ridden, muddy ground. Stan shivered under his coat, half wishing he had a rain jacket as well, not to mention a larger umbrella. Cartman's own umbrella was huge, and so vibrant Stan had to choke back a laugh over its contrast to the dreary day and Cartman's less-than-sunny outlook on having to pull weeds for his mother. It was decorated like a rainbow, that umbrella, boasting bright hues of various colors, with bobbles on the segmented tips and at the very top. Stan's own, brown umbrella shielded him from the rain well enough, but Cartman's seemed to make a statement.
Everything about Cartman was one big old statement, from the big bright umbrella to the somber stone in the middle of the yard.
There had been snow in that yard merely weeks ago—now the entire plot of land was dull brown. Patches of grass were barely poking up from the rising spring soil, making Stan doubt that there were any weeds to pull at all. "Dude," Cartman said, summarizing the entire drizzly scene, "lame."
"Ugh, no kidding," Stan agreed. "Do you think your mom would even notice if we did any work or not?"
"What are we even supposed to do with the weeds when we're done?" Stan wondered, looking at the patches of grass around the house's immediate foundation. There were some dandelions poking out from the mud, but nothing too obtrusive.
"Like I know," Cartman shrugged. "Let's just stomp ‘em down, she's not gonna notice."
Stan set a wary red-and-white sneaker onto the ground, which was much more firm and solid than he'd been anticipating. Then again, as far as he knew, spring mud and puddles were really sink holes into other dimensions. He laughed at the idea in his head, and kept that in mind as he maneuvered his way around the watery splotches here and there. One wrong step and he could fall right through: Cartman's yard didn't seem so bad now.
Stan did cast glances over his shoulder, as he crushed dandelions into the ground with the toe of his left shoe, at the ominous monument. Someday that would stop bothering him… but he wondered when that would be; when he'd finally be able to go over to Cartman's house and not think about it.
Cartman took one side of the house and Stan took the other. As they crushed down weeds, they tallied a score:
"I got, like, three over here!" Cartman yelled over the yard.
"Yeah?" Stan challenged him, squishing down yet another. "Well, I'm up to six!" He was exaggerating, of course, but Cartman didn't know that.
"Nuh-uh! Well, I just found a whole patch of weeds and now I got, like, twelve!"
"I do so have twelve!"
Stan squished another weed down into the muck, and scraped his foot back to uproot it. "Well, I found a patch, too!" he lied, adjusting his umbrella as the wind blew the rain toward his right side. "I have fifteen!"
"Yeah, well I—oh, sick!" Cartman's forced triumph from his weed count turned into a real sense of accomplishment, mixed with a bit of wonder. "Dude, check it out!"
"I'm seriously, come here for a second."
Whenever Cartman had made a discovery, it was either something stupid and self-serving, or it was actually pretty damn great. Since there was little in the yard that could lend itself to the former outcome, Stan eagerly rounded the house—forgetting all about the play rule about falling through puddles—to see what his friend had found.
Before he could even get a look, Stan heard a kind of chirping coming from Cartman's direction. A weird, throaty noise… a croak? He stepped closer when Cartman's bright yellow jacket and rainbow umbrella came into view, and found the larger boy bending over a bed of little green frogs, each about the size of one of the boys' shoes.
Stan grinned at the find, while Cartman seemed to be ambivalent. Bulging eyes stared up at the boys from the weeds and muck: four sets of them. At Stan's arrival, however, two leapt off, and began hopping through the puddles, happy in their element. It may not have been kid weather, but the conditions were certainly right for a nest of amphibians.
"Heh, I wonder if these guys are weeds, too," Cartman laughed, looking over the two remaining frogs.
"Dude, they're frogs," Stan said firmly, so as to stop a bad idea from taking root in Cartman's head before things could turn ugly.
"I know they're frogs, Stan," said Cartman, scorning him, "I don't have to be writing a gay-ass animal report to know that."
"Would you lay off making fun of my report, dude?" Stan asked. "I'll stop talking about it and finish it at home, okay? Happy?"
"Eh." Cartman shrugged, and watched one of the remaining frogs start to hop away.
Suddenly, a gust of wind came along, blowing Stan's umbrella right out of his hands. Stan cursed and ran after it, with Cartman waddling behind. The rain blew the plain umbrella inside-out and turned it in a loop once before it fluttered toward the fence.
"No!" Stan called to the object. He made a last sprint toward the umbrella, then skidded to a halt just before it sailed off over the fence.
The skidding halt was not enough, however, to save Stan from accidentally kicking another frog that had leapt into his path, while his focus had been on the umbrella. Stan gasped and back-tracked, barely keeping his balance, but he'd kicked the little animal a good two feet off, where it plopped into a puddle.
It was stunned, but hopped back up, and splashed its way away, toward Clyde Frog's grave stone.
Just before Stan could heave out a sigh of relief for knowing the frog was all right, however, Cartman called out, "Holy shit, how many of these things are there? You've got the right idea, Stan."
Afraid of what he might find, Stan whirled around to see that Cartman had been right: more frogs were coming out from the garden patches around the yard and delighting in the puddles the rain was providing them. Stan counted about ten… which went down to nine when Cartman, copying Stan's accident with a giddy purpose, kicked one of the frogs out of the way.
"Hey!" Stan shouted at him, rushing across the yard to meet Cartman. "What are you doing?"
"Come on, Stan, let's see who can kick ‘em farther," Cartman suggested, laughing as he kicked at another one.
"Don't!" Stan snapped.
"What? You just did," Cartman pointed out. "Put that in your hippie report." He grunted out as he went for another kick.
"Dude, would you stop?" Stan said through grated teeth. "Look, sorry. I'll drop the damn report, let's just go back inside and play games or whatever…"
"Only if you tell me what you were gonna say about me last night," Cartman bargained. He rushed after another frog, which hopped out of the way before his black-and-yellow galoshes could kick or crush it.
"I was—sleepwalking," Stan attempted in defense. "I wasn't saying much of anything, dude, I swear!"
"Yeah, well, it's still lame!" said Cartman. "Just like your stupid hippie activism! Know what I think of that?"
"Look, would you shut up? I didn't—"
A smug look on his face, Cartman closed up his rainbow umbrella and raised it high over his head. Thwack! It came down on the muddy spring ground with a sound that made Stan's insides flip. Chirps and croaks echoed through the yard around the two boys as the group of frogs scattered in all directions, their webbed feet catching with an almost rhythmic shlup, shlup, shlup—one after the other.
Glottal laughter, unbecoming of a ten-year-old, sounded from Eric's throat, as he brought the umbrella down again, again, again. Stan's vision was already foggy from the grey sky and persistent rain, but he gulped up sobs as he chased the frogs away from his cruel friend's unforgiving weapon.
"Check it out, Stan, I bet I can get five at once!"
"Stop!" Stan pleaded, rushing from puddle to puddle to chase the tiny green creatures off. "They didn't fucking do anything to you, Cartman, stop it!"
"Ugh," Cartman scoffed. He folded his arms, leaning to one side with the bobbled tip of his umbrella stuck in the muddy ground, and narrowed his gaze at the other boy. "You are seriously so not fun right now, Stan," he said. "Stop thinkin' about that lame-ass report—"
"Well, maybe I'm reporting because people do this crap all the time!" Stan interrupted. "This isn't fun, dude, you're just being a jerk."
"So what?" Cartman chortled. "They're just frogs."
He had set his eye on one that had not scattered with the others. Up went the umbrella, and down again it came, hitting the frog's back leg. Stan held his breath and made another dive when Cartman raised the umbrella again, this time managing to grab the frog out of the way before the weapon could once more descend. The animal was hurt, and stunned, but alive, and safe in Stan's red-gloved hands.
"What do you mean ‘so what?'" Stan shot back at Cartman's previous comment. He took a moment to look around the yard. Most of the creatures had scattered, skittering off between cracks in the fence, or finding better ground near the house. "You wouldn't do this to your cat, would you?"
"That's totally different," said Cartman. "Cats are pets. These little fuckers are just gonna make the yard all gross."
"The yard's already gross, and frogs can be pets, too. You don't have to do this," Stan said pleadingly, cradling the wounded animal in his arms. The frog croaked, and Stan thought he could feel its timid heart beating wildly through the soggy fabric of his winter coat.
"Jesus," Cartman mocked him. "I see the sixth graders doing this all the time. And you know where we're gonna be in a couple years, Stan? That's right. I'm not gonna get all walked over!"
"Is that really what this is about?" Stan shook his head disapprovingly. "Growing up doesn't mean mutilating something just because you can."
"It does to sixth graders."
"Well, not when I get there!" Stan affirmed. "Plus, I thought you liked frogs. Look at this thing, dude, it's scared. Caring about something isn't a weakness, you know."
"That's exactly the kind of crap that gets you touchy-feely crunchy granola tree-huggers walked over in sixth grade," Cartman huffed.
Stan let out a dissatisfied grunt. "Listen, Cartman," he said, "you can further a trend of the older kids in school being assholes, or you could really take a good look at what you feel, and actually do something decent, and—"
The frog plopped out of Stan's arms. The boy's eyes went wide, and he fumbled to save it, rising only to trip into a puddle in the path that the escaping amphibian was taking. Stan fell hard onto his right knee, and broke the rest of his fall with his palms. He pushed back his blue and red hat over his damp black hair for better visibility as he made another reach for the frog.
He gripped only dirt, and had to yank his hands away when Cartman's right boot came down onto the creature's back. Stan sat back, glaring up at Cartman as he loomed over the helpless frog, rainbow umbrella raised in triumph over the lower creature.
"Gotcha now!" Cartman exclaimed. His eyebrows furrowed and a smirk was set into his face. Stan noticed something interesting about that look… as if Cartman was doing this deed for some kind of finality. As if the frog was some part of him he'd leave behind to attain those higher, tough-kid ranks.
The little frog croaked, and rolled its bulging eyes up toward Cartman, at an angle that only Stan could see. It was as if the animal were trying to sound one cry for release. There was nothing Stan could do but provide a voice.
The umbrella came down again.
One final swipe, and the tiny creature was squashed into the mud puddle, barely discernable from the rest of the muck in the ground.
Stan felt his face get hot, and his eyes pooled with tears. How could anyone—anyone willingly do something like this? There was no remorse in Cartman's face, and Stan wanted to think that his friend looked a little stunned, but he could hardly sort out his own thoughts and feelings. A little animal lay dead in the ground, and neither boy moved to do anything about it.
For a few seconds, Stan could not respond to the call from across the yard. He looked from the ground to Cartman, not knowing what he could say. What he wanted was for the other boy to feel bad about what he'd done. He had to, right? Stan had to have some reason for staying friends with him; Cartman had to have some redeeming qualities… there was no way, Stan thought, that someone could not simply pass off having done something like that.
"Stanley!" Liane called from the back door again. "Hon, your parents came home early! They're waiting inside for you right now. Eric, poopsie, come on in and say goodbye to your friend."
Cartman turned to leave before Stan did. The boy in the soaking brown coat stood still a moment longer, as if to pass off his condolences to the departed animal. All he could say before he wandered inside was, "Sorry." He blinked back the rest of his tears, and followed Cartman inside.
As he caught up with his parents, as he listened to his mother worry about where his umbrella had gone and to his father say something along the lines of how that school wasn't quite right for Shelley, Stan glared over at Cartman, who stood innocently in the corner, his face completely blank.
Stan shuddered—not from the cold jacket he wore, but from a simple thought about the back yard. About the greyness that had really dampened his weekend, about the neglected monument, about the gathering of frogs. It seemed to Stan that Clyde Frog's funeral had sort of been the end of whatever Cartman had once had of a conscience. The stuffed toy had been buried in mourning. A living thing had been admitted back to the earth without a second thought. All so that Cartman could act big and shoulder some façade of ambivalence toward anything he'd once cared about.
And Cartman was saying nothing.
Stan couldn't eat dinner that night. He felt awful. Awful for something he had taken no part in but as accidental spectator, yet here he was, guilty as if he had been the one making a teasing game out of innocent animals' lives. All Stan knew was that he wanted to do something… anything.
When Cartman did not show up to school the next day, nobody seemed to care. Garrison carried on with his pop culture lecture from the week before, Clyde and Kenny tried to copy off of Kyle's homework, and Wendy and Bebe had their Doctor Who fanclub lists to maintain. Cartman's absence only allowed these other activities to carry on longer and without interruption, but Stan knew that the common cold could not have been the reason for Cartman's failure to show up.
All day, Stan tried to get his mind on other things: homework (Wendy had pulled more than her weight on the report, which was a saver), dinner, the new video game he and Kyle were going halves on, some stupid dance Wendy wanted to go to (and Stan kind of did, too, but didn't want to admit it). Nothing worked. It got even worse when he overheard Craig, ignoring the teacher, say, "Dude, did you hear they're dissecting frogs in the eighth grade class?"
"Nuh-uh," Kyle laughed, "gross."
"I fucking hate dissecting things," Kenny muttered.
"Wuss," Clyde taunted him.
"Stan, didn't your sister do that?" Kyle asked, nudging Stan, who was trying now to shake the image of the squashed frog in Cartman's back yard out of his head.
"Dissect frogs! Did she come home smelling all funny like chemicals?"
"Or entrails?" Craig wondered.
Kenny requested a bathroom pass and was gone in an instant.
"Let's go steal some," Clyde suggested.
"Entrails or just frogs?" asked Craig.
"Dude, sick, no way," Kyle said.
"I'm out, too," Stan insisted.
While Clyde and Craig continued discussing their awful planned operation, Kyle nudged Stan with the butt of his pencil and said, "Dude, you sick or something?"
"I dunno. Kinda," he sighed. When the bell rang, and Kyle asked if he wanted to wait up for Kenny to play a good round of mud football, Stan passed, saying he'd take up the offer possibly tomorrow, and took the bus alone.
He didn't plug in his iPod, he didn't check his phone. All he could think about was seeing what the hell was wrong with Cartman. Did his mom find out about the little killing spree? Whatever happened, Stan knew he had to do something. No, Cartman was not someone who could be reasoned with, but Stan wasn't going to get through the week without trying.
When he got off at the boys' usual stop, Stan made a beeline for Cartman's house. Grey clouds hung overhead just as they had during the weekend. Stan held his head high, and swallowed back any remaining nerves he had. This was about confrontation, and about the truth. This was about Stan not being afraid of his friend's past actions, and about Cartman hopefully saying or doing something moral, something right.
The sounds of Terrance and Philip could be heard blaring from the TV when a perfectly healthy-looking Cartman opened the door. Healthy, sure, but not all there. He seemed like he'd been shaken, like his spirits had sunk rather low. His eyes were pink and misty, and Cartman blinked to give the illusion that the glassiness was not there… though Stan only picked up on it more when Mr. Kitty meowed from the couch, and Cartman flinched a bit at the innocent sound.
"What are you doing?" Stan asked flatly.
"Oh," said Cartman, sniffing a couple of times as he turned his back to the door. "Stan. Hey. What's up?"
"N-no, I'm not, I—I have conjunctivitis."
"Yeah, I do so have conjunctivitis!" Cartman snapped, whirling back around.
"Your eyes aren't puffy and pussy and gross," Stan pointed out, his voice like a needle. "You're crying. And you know why? Because you feel bad. Don't you?"
"Yeah I feel bad, I feel sick! Leave me alone!"
"Why didn't you come to school?" Stan accused again.
"Because I have fucking conjunctivitis."
"You don't know what that is."
"Yeah, well I could still have it."
"Right, except you don't."
Cartman turned, and huffed his way back into the middle of the living room. Stan followed in at a secure distance, and watched as Mr. Kitty soundly ignored Cartman when he reached for the cat. There it was, Stan thought. There was the conscience that Cartman had been ignoring. Stan just had to make the other boy come clean about his act: that it had distressed him, and that it was linked, somehow, to the Massacre. That Cartman was still trying to run from something.
He'd destroyed his toys in an attempt to show a certain kind of maturity. But Stan knew well that the only way Cartman could really be mature about that situation was to find true closure. The frog in the puddle had been closure of a sort, but not one that even Cartman would be able to live with forever.
If he could fess up and learn to not exactly bury his childhood, but honor it and move on in a positive direction, Stan got the feeling that Cartman could yet turn out to be a good person, and a good friend. The only way to get there, though, was through a little more trauma.
After Mr. Kitty had gone, Cartman started after his cat, leaving the conversation hanging.
"The eighth graders are dissecting frogs," Stan said quickly.
Cartman stopped on a dime, but did not turn. His shoulders hunched, he asked, quietly, "What?"
"Dissecting frogs. When we get to eighth grade, that's what we're gonna have to do. So congratulations, you got a head start. You were right, they're just stupid animals, I guess."
"Buh—n-no, wait." Cartman turned, and waddled up to Stan, plunking his thick hands down on Stan's shoulders. "No, they just—just, cuz?"
"Yeah. And I'm sure the sixth graders are crushing the ones that didn't get dissected. Just like you did." Stan let that sink in, then asked, "So I bet you're happy, huh? You get to just mutilate something, for school, that doesn't even deserve to—"
"All right, all right, all right!"
Abruptly, Cartman began bawling. "I'm sorry I killed it, okay? I—I—I—"
Stan was shocked. He was expecting a turnaround, sure, but not this quickly. Then again, Cartman was that kind of time-bomb personality. He just had not quite expected an explosion like this. "Cartman?"
The larger boy was messy with tears. He wheezed and coughed, trying to get a hold of himself, but remorse began pouring out of him. He did care… and he did not know how to cope or heal.
"I didn't mean tooooo-oohhh—ohh!" he started to wail. "It's just—that—I—"
"You don't have to explain, dude," Stan shrugged. "I get it. You still haven't let go of Clyde Frog."
Cartman winced. Stan had hit a nerve. "You shut your dumb Jew mouth!"
"I'm not Kyle."
"Hippie mouth! Whatever!"
Stan sighed and rolled his eyes. "Dude, nobody's gonna bust your ass for still feeling bad that you fucking ripped up your old favorite toy," he said. "And nobody's gonna bust your ass for killing one frog. But you're feeling something the rest of the world calls remorse, and you'd better get used to it, because you're the one who can decide when you start to feel better." Cartman sniffled, and choked, but said nothing. "So you have a soft spot for frogs. So what," Stan offered. "A lot of peop—"
"You don't understaaaand," Cartman started wailing like a siren again.
"Oh, God." Stan pinched the bridge of his nose and prepared for the waterworks.
"I don't just have a soft spot, dude, I just—I love them!" Cartman bawled. "I love… how… they, like, squish when they walk and when you h-huuuug theeeemmmm…. Like… like… like…"
Cartman blared out another teary bellow.
"DUDE," Stan said firmly, finally shaking Cartman off of him. "Okay." Cartman sniffed a little more, hitting the floor on his butt and sitting there like a toddler who failed to pick himself up. "So, okay, a) don't fucking actually squish them, then—and," he continued before Cartman could start wailing again, "b) I'm willing to help you get over this. Just this one time. And I won't say anything to anyone if you don't want me to, but I am really gonna be fucking pissed if all that comes out of this is you crying to me because you finally have an ounce of guilt in you. All right?"
A thought took root and sprouted in Stan's head as he watched Mr. Kitty skitter again through the room, as he watched the cat eyeball Cartman's defeat. "Okay," Stan decided, as Cartman was winding down, "now stand up, and let's go downtown."
"We're going to the pet store. Sparky needs a new chew toy anyway."
Cartman looked at Stan pleadingly, as if Stan had just shone a new light on a subject Cartman had not even realized was there. "Really?" he wondered.
"Yeah, dude, come on." Stan held his hands out to hoist Cartman to his feet. It took a couple tries, but they managed. "Bring your umbrella, it's not raining too hard, but we might need it."
The bobbled, rainbow umbrella was large enough for both boys to walk underneath, and they took turns carrying it as they walked into town (particularly when Cartman had to dig into his raincoat for another tissue). As they walked, Stan finally admitted, "So, the thing that was bugging me Saturday night, dude?"
Sniff. "Uh… uh-huh?"
Stan sighed, and took the umbrella again as Cartman blew his nose into his sixth tissue. "I was just—dude, that thing in your back yard," Stan started to explain, "that, like… that monument to Clyde Frog? It kinda freaks me out."
"How come?" Cartman wanted to know.
"I dunno. Maybe because you, like, never talk about it." When Cartman did not respond, Stan gathered himself to offer, "You can, if you have to, though, dude, I don't mind."
"Cartman, that thing was like your best friend up until you buried him," Stan noted. "You played with him more than I play with my dog sometimes. It sucks growing up, dude, but you don't have to forget about being a kid. Otherwise, life's just gonna get nasty."
"Nasty like frog entrails nasty?" Cartman guessed.
"Something like that." Stan handed back the umbrella. "Why'd you kill it? Why'd you really kill that frog yesterday?"
Cartman once again fell silent. It was not easy for him to cling to his bouts of compassion, and much harder still for him to cope with guilt. He generally ignored his guilty conscience, and turned it into a sick victory. After allowing himself some time to think, however, he offered Stan a response:
"I hate my back yard, too."
Stan nearly recoiled, unsure of how to take Cartman's bluntly-stated answer. "Really?"
"Those frogs've been coming out like, all the time," Cartman elaborated. "I feel like they're, like, out to get me."
"Really? You mean for…"
"I know it sounds fuckin' stupid—"
"It really doesn't."
"But, like, they're mocking me!" Cartman snapped, back to his usual aggression for the time being. "It's like they want something from me, and I needed some excuse for ‘em to go away, and maybe that'd make Clyde Frog go away, too. Like, for good."
The boys rounded a street corner, and found themselves on the block leading to the pet store, a large building newly painted yellow and orange, like a sunrise forcing its way through the cloudy horizon. "Here's some advice, Cartman," Stan suggested, as the two stepped up to the front door of their destination. He held the door open for his friend while the latter folded up the rainbow umbrella, then finished while they entered, "Bury the toy, but not how you felt about it. Let's find you a friend you can love just as much."
They must have spent close to an hour at the pet store after that. The longer they lingered, the broader Cartman's genuine smile became. He'd done bad deeds, sure, but Stan thought that Cartman deserved to be rewarded for finally owning up to his feelings, and taking time to discover what kind of closure he really needed after he'd let the first nine years of his life boil down to just a monument in the yard.
Stan found a chew toy for Sparky rather quickly, and tossed it into the basket he carried behind Cartman as the two wound their way through the aisles of terrariums. Cartman had to find just the right one, and settled on a smallish model with an easy-to-use light. Stan even offered to buy a couple fancy little rocks to go inside.
There were frogs of all kinds, in a row of display terrariums toward the back of the shop. A man wearing an apron as a store uniform approached the two and offered guidance, and Cartman got a little teary again when asked if he was purchasing the frog as a snack for a larger reptilian pet.
"Nope," Stan answered for him. "These guys make great pets, too."
The final selection was a frog of a similar nature to the one Cartman had squashed in the back yard. Bright green with little lines of yellow, perfectly webbed feet and big, bulging eyes. Cartman had hardly ever seemed happier to have made a purchase.
Stan held the umbrella during the entire walk back, while Cartman carefully cradled the terrarium containing his new pet, which the boys then set up on top of Cartman's old toy chest once the two had returned to the house. "You gonna name it?" Stan wondered.
"Yeah, sometime," Cartman said, pretending to pass it off. He dropped a few crickets into the terrarium, smiled a little, then walked Stan back downstairs. "Hey, uh," he added before his friend could leave, "sorry I bitched about your report. You finish it?"
"Nah," Stan shrugged, "Wendy did, like we figured she would. Sorry I didn't think you had any respect for… well, a lot of things. Don't run from stuff or just keep destroying if you already feel bad."
Cartman sighed. "Yeah, gotcha. Oh, here." At the front door, now, Cartman reached into an umbrella stand, and returned Stan's slightly-mangled brown umbrella. "My mom found this out back."
"Thanks," Stan grinned, glad it hadn't been completely destroyed in the rain and mud.
"Oh, and Stan?" said Cartman, his eyebrows furrowing somewhat, as if to threaten, or at least try.
"Nobody finds out about this," Cartman warned.
Stan gave it a second. He thought about Clyde Frog, and how neither of the two boys were like to be nervous about the buried memories in the back yard anymore; about the rainy Sunday and the deafening whack; about the terrarium upstairs, and the turning over of a new (if small) leaf for Cartman in his acceptance of what truly mattered to him. And Stan replied, "About what, your conjunctivitis?"
"Dude, I don't have conjuncti—oh. Right." Cartman smirked a bit. "Right, about my conjunctivitis."
Stan patted his friend's shoulder, said, "See ya sometime, dude," and, glad to be parting on better notes than he had the day before, turned, opened his umbrella, and walked out the front door. Before he could go, however, Stan wanted a little closure of his own. Casting a look back at the house, he walked around the side and into the back, where the ground remained puddle-ridden, and full of half-squished weeds.
As Stan passed through the muddy yard, he saw a small grave stone situated beside the elaborate one erected to the memory of Clyde Frog. Stan stepped closer through the muck for a better look, and shifted his umbrella to avoid the shadow it cast over the crudely-written—in permanent ink—letters, Puddle Frog—Gone Too Soon.
Stan folded up his umbrella, shook it twice, and tucked it under his arm as he walked around to the front yard, to hit the sidewalk and start heading home. The grey sky was starting to clear up, after all.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!