Eric opened his eyes.
Well, he didn't open them as such. They were already open. But he didn't remember opening them. He'd just winked into consciousness.
He couldn't see a whole lot, that was for sure. He looked around, but all there seemed to be was infinite void. That wasn't possible, though, he was standing up.
Just to be absolutely sure, he tapped his foot a couple of times. Two very clear, very audible taps echoed off into the blackness. Which was strange, given that there apparently wasn't a whole lot of surfaces for them to echo off.
On top of that, in spite of a severe lack of light, Eric could clearly see himself. That wasn't right. All of which meant-
"I'm dreaming," he muttered to himself.
Well, a nice lucid dream wasn't entirely new to him. He started imagining a cityscape around him, trying to bring it to life - or, whatever the dream equivalent of life was. Again, it wasn't anything new, and he knew how dream control worked, so it was quite surprising to him when nothing happened. The void remained.
Well, that was awesome. He knew what to do though.
Just play dumb.
In his head, he ran through the usual checklist of things that might be responsible, but nothing seemed to match up. He couldn't even rationalise Kyle having somehow gained control over his mind while it was asleep.
But with no better answer presenting itself, he started shouting. "Kyle!" Again, it echoed into the silence. "Where the fuck are you? I know this is your fault!"
The second surprising thing about this dream happened then: he got a reply.
"Hang on!" came a voice. If Eric didn't know better, he'd say it was his own voice.
"Show yourself!" he demanded on what was, he immediately realised, a very stupid impulse. Sure, it was only a dream, but apparently not one he had control over.
"I said hang on!" That was definitely his voice. "This takes time, you know!"
Eric didn't believe that. He turned around, trying and failing to catch a glimpse of the other speaker. "This is a fucking dream, you asshole! How can it take time?"
There was a pause. Apparently that had caught the speaker off-guard. A heavy sigh filtered through the air, then there were two flashes in quick succession. The first lit up the entire void that Eric was standing in like sheet lightning, and for the briefest of moments he could see an infinity of-
No doubting it. Sizable gut, cyan hat, red coat, definitely him. Cloned a trillion times and floating through the emptiness, but definitely him. Then the second flash happened, directly in front of him this time. It had less the appearance of lightning and more the appearance of a bank of strobe lights operated by someone whose partner had cheated on them with an epileptic and now was out for revenge.
Then, he was standing in front of a mirror image of himself. "Hi," the image said.
"What the fuck?" he asked.
"Well," the image said, "we need to-"
"You can't be me," Eric protested. "I'm me. Be someone else."
The image blinked, then took a second to look dejected. "That was a good entrance though."
Eric threw his arms out, hoping he was fooling - himself, he guessed? - into looking exasperated. "I don't give two flying donkey shits about how good the entrance was, I'm not talking to you until you change your fucking face! I know you can, you fucking cocksucker!"
A second blink, then a loud exhalation. "This is exactly what-
"-I'm going to-"
Eric stuck his fingers into his ears. "LALALALALALALALALA!"
The image smacked his palm into his face. "God damn it, you shallow fucking..." Not that Eric could hear it over the sound of his own gibberish. There was a similarly ostentatious pair of flashes to that initial appearance, and then a different figure stood there - about an inch taller now, with blonde hair and a blue shirt.
"How about now?" the image of Butters asked - oddly enough, still in Eric's own voice.
Eric made a show of grasping at his chin in thought. "Hmmm," he said with excessive volume, "you don't look like me but you still sound like me. Is that good enough? Hmm, let me think about that."
Butters' nostrils flared out and he growled. He cricked his neck to the left with three uncomfortably loud pops, although that could have just been the heavy silence affecting Eric's ears some. But on the other hand, did that even work in dreams?
With the horrid noise out of the way, Butters spoke again. "How about now?" he asked, now having swapped Eric's rasp out for Butter's more Southern drawl.
"Well, you're Butters so you suck balls." Butters folded his arms and glared, while Eric doubled over at what he seemed to find a funny little joke. Even then that might have been endurable had it only lasted a few seconds, but Eric made a point of laughing for a full minute at him, and even then he showed no signs of slowing down.
Butters stepped forward. "Whenever you're ready," he monotoned.
Through the guffaws, Eric raised his hand and said "No, no, I need a minute here, it's too fucking funny." Butters trying to teach him a lesson about something, that was pretty rich. Butters was enough of a pushover that he'd be able to weasel out of it.
What Eric had forgotten was that he was not actually talking to Butters. He was talking to himself.
"I wasn't asking." Then, rather suddenly, they were in a room.
It didn't just blink in, nor did it flash. Instead it seemed to stretch in, like the bands on some humongous mental slingshot being released in Eric's direction. When he turned around, a back wall had materialised.
It was a very familiar room - the canteen at school. He could see himself and all his usual group sitting at the usual table, but everything was frozen in time. Craig had his mouth open mid-chew, it was not a pretty image.
"Okay," Butters said. "Where and when are you?"
"Canteen, lunch hour," Eric replied quickly. "That was easy."
Butters sighed. "No fucking shit." He stepped forward, and made a minor show of walking around the table and taking some detail in. "This is..." He checked his watch. "Thirteen hours ago. You and the guys had a blow up, didn't you?"
"Yeah, it happens all the time," Eric said with a shrug.
Butters raised his eyebrow slightly. Eric couldn't shake the feeling that he was being judged by... himself? "Does it ever seem to happen with anyone else?" he asked.
Eric was on the verge of saying "Of course it fucking does," but he managed to stop himself upon very quickly realising that that might not be strictly true. Instead, he said "Well, yeah."
"But?" Butters pressed.
Butters smacked his own face and sighed. "Okay, listen, I'm going to take you through what happened here, and exactly where you went wrong."
"Did I go wrong?" Eric immediately challenged.
Butters glanced up, making eye contact. "Why don't you tell me?"
"Because you already know."
"Of course I do, I'd just like to see if you can find out for yourself." Butters raised his hand, fist clenched. "Here's what you remember." He opened his palm out, and everything unfroze.
That was quite the shock actually. Up to that point the only sources of noise had been Eric and Butters, but now there was an ambient background noise. Conversations going on, cutlery rattling, the hum of the air conditioning system, tiny little things like that that just made the room marginally more alive than before. It wasn't much, but compared to what he hadn't been hearing before it was exceptionally loud.
Eric stepped towards the table. "Hey, watch-" he started, but Butters held his hand out.
"Don't try anything, Eric, this is a memory. You can't fuck around with it."
A smirk immediately materialised on Eric's face. "Oh, can't I?" he asked.
He was directly behind his own clique at this point - directly behind himself, come to that. He put his hand directly on the back of Stan's head. "Guess I can't give Stan a face full of school lunch then, huh?" He then shoved.
The effect was he pushed himself back a couple of feet, his shoes squeaking loudly on the floor. Stan continued eating, completely unaffected. His hat hadn't even moved.
"Nope," Butters said again. "D'ya want to shut up and watch now?"
"Hey, guys," Craig said. "Anyone else having trouble with the math?"
"You need help?" Eric asked. "I have it all done."
"Round about now," Butters hinted with the subtlety of an axe made of lava to the face.
Kyle spoke up. "Or you could ask me. I'm Jewish so I'm good at math."
"It's true," Stan chipped in. "You don't need Cartman's help."
Eric - or, at least, Memory-Eric - shrugged that off. "You guys are funny, you know that?"
It was then Tweek's turn to chip in. "Besides, Cartman can't even do math. You know how you can tell?" After waiting for every head to turn to him, Tweek cracked a grin. "Because he's a fucking land whale."
Underneath all the laughs that ensued, Memory-Eric chuckled nervously. "Real funny, Tweek," he said meekly.
"Fat people being good at math, could you believe that?" Craig said, smirking. He then pointed at Cartman. "You couldn't be anywhere near as good as Kyle is. You're just not Jewish enough."
Of what was said next, Eric caught very little. Everyone around the table was concurring with Craig, that much was obvious. But between everything that was being said, and its deafening volume, he couldn't distinguish one thing from the next. All he could see was everyone - everyone in the cafeteria, even - converging on him. They were sneering, they were laughing, and it was all at him.
He watched Memory-Eric holding his hands up to defend himself, but before the first physical strike came for him, silence abruptly fell. Butters had rematerialised by Eric's side.
"Okay," he said, with time now frozen again. "Where do you think you went wrong?"
That spark hit Eric's pent up rage just in the wrong place. "Where did I go wrong? They were all fucking-"
"Nope." Butters pointed again. The scene had undergone a complete reset. The clocks were wound back a few minutes, everyone was where they were before, and Craig's half chewed food was back on display. "Would you like to see what actually happened?"
Eric's face screwed up even more. "WE JUST SAW-"
"What you remember, but that's not exactly what happened, you see." Then, before Eric could protest again, Butters started time again. The ambient noise returned.
"Hey, guys," Craig said, just as before. "Anyone else having trouble with the math?"
Kyle looked up from his meal. "You need help, Tucker?" Eric caught a brief look of disgust on Kyle's face as he realised that Craig had a mouth full of chewed up food that he'd been speaking through.
Craig swallowed his mouthful. "Sure would be appreciated."
"Heh," Memory-Eric said loudly. It did sound obnoxious, but then that was just his voice. Wasn't it? "Of course the Jew's going to help with the math."
Everyone else around the table did some variation on rolling their eyes, rubbing their palm into their face, or hitting their face against the table. No. That wasn't right at all.
"Got to keep track of all your Jew gold somehow, huh, Kyle?" Memory-Eric continued. Kyle didn't even look at him. Kenny and Tweek both climbed over their respective benches and walked away. Tweek had a disgusted look on his face, and probably so did Kenny. But then, it was hard to tell with that boy.
"Was that really necessary?" Stan asked after a couple of seconds. Butters then waved his hand in front of his face, like he was swatting a fly away. Time stopped again.
"You get the idea," he said.
"Okay, okay, so I remembered that one thing wrong," Eric conceded as the room and everyone in it shimmered and faded, leaving only the table that everyone had been sat around. "What the fuck is your point here, Butters?"
Butters sat on one side of the table and motioned to the opposite seat. Eric didn't need the invitation - he was already in the process of sitting down. "I'd like you to think back for me. How many times do you think your memory's screwed up?"
"My memory's awesome," Eric said, almost on reflex. It was dodging the question, they both knew that. Maybe Eric had been hoping that Butters would let it slide.
And maybe the sun would rise in the north the next morning.
"Because fuck if I know. I lost count three years ago."
Neither of them spoke for a second. Before the second of silence could upgrade itself to an awkward pause, Eric intervened. "So, let's say I believe you, Butters - which I don't - if I've got a problem with my memory, how come you know what happened? You're still me, aren't you?"
"Oh, your memory's fine." Butters laced his fingers together in front of him and rested his chin on top of them. "It's less what you remember and more... Okay, let's take another example. Of course you remember your famous joke, don't you?"
"Yeah, that one. At this point I'd say I hate to break this to you, but I'd be lying." Eric tried to laugh that off, but it came out a lot more uneasy than he'd have liked. "That was Jimmy Valmer's joke. He came up with it in its entirety."
"Bull fucking shit," Eric shot back immediately. "That was my-"
"Do you remember this?" Butters asked. Eric had to look around again. At some point, a room had materialised around them. Vomit yellow walls, green rug on the floor, crutches leaning against the table - Jimmy's lounge. Eric watched himself lying back on the sofa, very obviously bored, and Jimmy was writing at a table.
"...I can't eat fruit," the other Eric was saying. "Doesn't your mom have something more substantial to eat?"
Jimmy glanced back. "You can check the freezer. There might be some frozen fishsticks or something, if you like fishsticks."
Even as he watched himself answering, Eric noted two things. Firstly, this was absolutely not what had happened. Jimmy had been in serious trouble coming up with his new routine, sure, but Eric distinctly remembered coming up with that joke himself. Jimmy had even called him cool over the whole thing.
So he found it hard to reconcile that memory with the second thing he had noted - this was ringing quite a number of bells in his head.
This was not - not - how it had gone.
"How did I never think of it before?" Jimmy asked himself before writing something down.
"Because you never fucking thought of it, you fucking cripple!" Eric screamed. But, of course, Jimmy couldn't hear him. He was strictly observing, not interacting.
"He can't hear you," Butters needlessly reminded him.
"I fucking know that!"
Butters simply shrugged. "Well, that's what happened. You might not like it but that's what happened."
"Look, cut the bull crap," Eric said, still louder than was necessary. "What the fuck is your point?"
Butters shrugged. At some point, Jimmy's house had disappeared and the void had returned, and Eric only now noticed. "I'm not cutting to the chase, Eric," he said. "You want to know why?"
"Because I'm not letting you just skip to the important bit, pretend you've learned something about yourself and then immediately forget it."
Eric folded his arms and cocked his head. He made a point of forcing his expression into blankness. "And what makes you think I'm going to immediately forget whatever bullshit you want to teach me?"
"Six things," Butters responded. "Firstly, your calling it bullshit without having figured it out yet. Second through sixthly, them." He pointed behind Eric and, of course, Eric turned to see what the mysterious reasons were.
The first of his old toys he recognised was Clyde Frog, with the others swiftly following. Rumpertumpskin, Polly Prissypants, Peter Panda and Muscleman Marc were there as well.
Eric waited for them to speak. They always had.
They did not.
"Do you know what they are?" Butters asked.
"My old toys. I'm past them." Once again, he found himself hesitating more than he'd have liked to.
"They were also your coping mechanism, weren't they?" Butters pressed. "Alter egos that you could use to not have to face reality."
"Don't listen to him, Eric!" came a new voice - Eric's own, but significantly lighter. Cupid Me made an appearance on Eric's shoulder. "You know you're cool just the way you-"
"Will you shut up!?" Butters shouted at the new arrival - the first major display of emotion by the image. He threw his hand out and, in an overly dramatic burst of fire, Cupid Me disappeared. Butters exhaled far louder than could possibly have been necessary. "That was another one, and I'm not having that little shit wreck this."
"He could be right though," Eric said, smirking.
"I didn't wait two months for the opportunity to talk to you to-" Butters cut himself off and took a deep breath. "And while we're at it, Mitch Connor. He's another one. You're not past them at all, though, are you?" When Eric didn't respond, Butters continued. "You might not, let's say use them much any more, you might not need them, but you come back to them because you don't see what is."
"So now you're just explaining it to me?" Eric questioned, but his front had completely failed. It came out wobbly, not firm as he'd tried.
"I'm guiding you. As long as you realise of your own accord rather than me telling you, you're more likely to remember it as your own, sort of, idea. Besides, you're realising yourself now, aren't you?" Butters started walking forward, slowly. "Look, your friends treated you like shit for a long time, but that's been over for just as long a time. You haven't noticed because you take everything as a slight against you personally then, whether you realise it or not, you distort your own memory to make yourself the victim. You're either everyone's idol or everyone's target and there's no middle ground, when the fact of the matter is they've all grown past that. They're past the stage of one-upmanship, and now they all just want to get on with life."
Butters stopped there, both in his gait and his speech. Now that Eric wasn't being belligerent, it was obvious he was connecting dots. He was looking down, holding his hand to his head, he was even sweating.
The conclusion was obvious. It was simple, but repulsive. Eric Cartman didn't just let things go. Eric Cartman took revenge. He handcuffed people he'd poisoned to flagpoles by the foot and gave them a hacksaw as a method of getting to the antidote in response for implying he was fat. He ground people's parents into chilli and fed it to them over seventeen dollars.
He didn't just forget things.
But there it was.
Forget it all.
Accept that maybe people could change. Even himself.
"And..." he said quietly, without thinking.
"Yes?" Butters pressed.
"So should I."
Butters leaned forward. He allowed a few seconds to pass. Then, just for good measure, a few more. When it became apparent that Eric had nothing further to say, he finally spoke. "And you're saying that because?"
An even longer pause came then, while Butters assessed Eric's tone. Of course, he didn't need to. He was part of Eric's brain after all. He knew that it was genuine. But, even so, there were certain amounts of precautions that had to be taken when dealing with Eric Cartman.
He pretended to assess Eric's tone and manner for nearly three full minutes, before finally saying "Alright," and stepping back. "When you wake up you're not going to remember much of this, just the important bit. And I know you, you'll try to forget about it, so I warn you now that if you do choose to forget and carry on as you are, you're going to end up an old man with no friends, and you'll die and the only person at your funeral will be the priest."
Still in the absence of a response, Butters stepped back again. "You'll be waking up now. Remember what I told you." He disappeared. The dream was over.
And, indeed, Eric woke up. In his room, quite safe and sound. He breathed in the frosty morning air seeping in from where he'd forgotten to close his window the night before.
He looked around for anyone else. Just a double check that he was actually awake. He remembered back to how he'd gotten here. He'd woken up where he'd gone to sleep the night before, after an evening watching Breaking Bad and playing video games, which he'd gotten to after coming home from school. Yes, he was awake.
Which meant Butters was gone.
He exhaled sharply, then allowed himself a private snort. Against all the practice he'd had, it still wasn't especially easy tricking himself into believing things that weren't technically true. In particular it wasn't easy when half of his own brain was rebelling against that sort of thing.
But he was Eric Cartman. As he'd demonstrated to himself, he'd done it so many times that one more wouldn't hurt. Hell, this must have been the sixth time that dream had happened. Hell, he'd even fooled himself within that dream with lightning speed.
Jews being good at math. Hilarious. Craig had failed the assignment just like Kyle, and Eric knew it.
"Sucker," he muttered to himself, satisfied. With that rebellious portion of his brain thoroughly tricked and forgotten about, he pulled himself out of bed and set about business.
Just like usual.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!