this was my first time participating in an event like this and i had a lot of fun! huge thanks to the great artist who enabled this story to be created, and peyton for beta reading for me; see if you can find their shoutout. another special thanks to the scripps national spelling bee website. fun fact: the page in the fic is real, and "eudaemonic" was the winning word of the 1960 spelling bee. congratulations to henry feldman.
There is a box hidden underneath Kenny's bed, safely tucked away between a worn baby blanket and old soda cans. When revealing the contents of the box to his friends at school, Cartman said Kenny should sell the stuff, mostly so he can turn it into a lucrative monopoly on the boys in South Park himself. Stan advised he should give the box to Kevin, who can be trusted with it but won't tell Kenny's parents; later, he approached Kenny in private and admitted his curiosity, asking if he could borrow the videos later. Kyle said Kenny should just put it back where he found it and leave it alone. "It's not a big deal," he claimed, leading Cartman to goad him about his sexuality for the hundredth time, though Kenny suspects Eric isn't as knowledgeable about the whims of the human heart as he says.
He keeps the box for reasons entirely different from what anyone could guess. After school, when his mother is at Raisins cooking food, and his father is sleeping off a hangover in his room, and Kevin is away towing cars, and Karen is at her friend's house playing, Kenny carries the box into the living room. He turns on the TV, takes a forgotten legal pad from the kitchen, and sits down on the carpet to take notes on the accidentally stolen pornography he happened to stumble across.
He skips most of the sex, instead focused on dialogue and scene. He approaches the VHS tapes like a scientist or film critic would, objectively analytical. Coincidentally, he has a purpose: to find the true meaning of love.
The Saturday after he finds the box, once he has managed to view two of the many tapes, his parents fight over cold bowls of canned Chef Boyardee ravioli, the microwave having been broken for almost a month. Kevin helps Kenny and Karen shovel the squares of meat onto slices of stale bread. They eat the sandwiches in companionable silence, sitting on the couch with their bowls on the coffee table.
"You still don't have a fuckin' job!" their mother screams from the kitchen. Kevin lifts the remote to turn up the TV. NASCAR is on. Kenny is wearing his dad's old baseball cap with the logo emblazoned on the front. Stewart used to slap it over his braids and call him his "little girl." Now he just sleeps and drinks.
"It's a tough goddamn economy! At least I don't show men my tits to get a buck!"
"I cook the food, you idiot, I don't serve it!"
Kevin leans back on the couch, folding his sandwich in half to gulp down at once. Kenny follows suit, their shoulders touching, and Kevin wordlessly bumps Kenny's knee with his own. Kenny smiles, but doesn't say anything. He remembers when Kevin used to make fun of him for being a girl and shove his face into the carpet. Ever since he dropped out of school and got a job, he's been a lot nicer.
"Are we gonna get salmonella?" Karen asks. The plastic bag around the bread crinkles as she takes another two slices to shove pasta between.
Kevin snorts. "That's, like, with ham and shit. You're fine."
Karen scrunches her nose. "My friend Stacey is allergic to pig."
"Sucks for her. She can't have hot dogs."
"Her parents get vegetarian food. Tofu and stuff." Karen turns, grinning. "They're rich. Their house is so nice! Stacey has a trampoline."
"I dunno if they're rich," Kevin says, "I towed her dad's clunker the other day. We're just dirt poor."
Karen frowns. Kenny scowls. "Stop it," he says.
Kevin rolls his eyes, drawling, "Sorry, Kendra."
"His name's Kenny," Karen snaps. "Don't call him that. You know he doesn't like it."
Kenny falls silent, staring at his half eaten sandwich.
Kevin nudges his knee again. "I was kidding. Hey, come on."
The yelling from the kitchen intensifies. Kenny grips his sandwich harder and harder until the ravioli plops onto his lap and he's torn holes through the bread.
"Oh, shit, Kenny..." Kevin gently takes the ruined sandwich from his hands and stands to get napkins.
"Get out!" Stewart yells once Kevin leaves the living room.
"Fucking bite me, Pops," Kevin retorts. He returns with a handful of paper towels and hands them to Kenny, who dabs at the oversized baseball shirt he's wearing. When he's done, Kevin takes all their plates and the bread to the kitchen. "Let's go outside," he suggests, keeping a strong hand on Kenny's shoulder as they walk to the backyard.
Karen and Kenny sit at the top of the steps of the back porch. Kevin trots down and strides to a patch of upturned soil hugging the broken fence. "I'm making a garden," he announces. Kenny hugs his legs to his chest, feeling like a stupid baby.
"Really?" Karen asks excitedly.
Kevin picks up a shovel and begins transferring the dirt to a rusted wheelbarrow beside him. "Yep. I gotta get all the grass out, though. Then I'm gonna make a little fence. I think I might plant strawberries." It's cloudy out, a mild day in March. Kenny shivers in his ruined baseball tee. Kevin's muscles flex as he works, unrestrained by the Black Sabbath shirt he's cut the sleeves off of. Random tattoos have been inked across his biceps.
Karen smiles, hands squeezed between her knees. A sparkly bandaid glitters from her ankle. "Strawberries would be awesome!"
Kevin smiles, looking up. "Yeah?"
"I'll be like Strawberry Shortcake, and Kenny can be Huckleberry Finn."
Something breaks inside of the house. Kevin pauses, his face turning grim. Karen bites her lip.
Kenny picks at a scab on his calf. "Do you think people can love each other?" he asks suddenly.
Kevin turns away from the backdoor to his little brother, brow furrowed. "What?"
"Love. I don't know if it's real or not," Kenny mutters. He digs his fingernail underneath his scab and rips it off. Blood starts oozing down to his dirty sock.
Kevin sighs. He sets the shovel against the wheelbarrow, takes a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and lights one. "What makes you think that?"
Kenny narrows his eyes. Kevin grins. He exhales, shrugs, and sits down, right in the dirt. He nods at Kenny's NASCAR ball cap. "You know when your favorite driver wins the race? That's love, kind of. Or, going to see your favorite band at a concert, and breaking a bone in the mosh pit."
"And when a knight saves his princess," Karen adds.
"That too," Kevin agrees.
"Do you think Mom and Dad are in love?" Kenny asks.
The end of Kevin's cigarette glows amber. He blows smoke out of his nostrils as ash falls down onto the future strawberry patch. "Maybe, once upon a time. But I'd bet Mom got knocked up with me in a bathroom stall, and they got locked in." He stares at their flaking, peeling house. "Some people just aren't meant to be together."
The front door can be heard slamming shut. The engine of Stewart's truck gurgles to life, then the sound fades. Kevin splays out in the dirt, still smoking. Karen walks towards him and lies down next to his side. "We're going to have the best strawberries," she says. She looks at Kenny.
He stands sits at his brother's left. Kevin lifts a hand to tug at one of his braids. "You hear that? The best strawberries. The best."
"In the whole entire world," Karen supplies.
Kenny ducks his head. The edge of his sock is drenched in red. He smiles anyways. "Okay."
In fifth grade, Mr. Garrison was finally fired from the elementary school for his "vulgar language" and "sexual fixations," though if anyone asked him he said it was an act of homophobic workplace discrimination. Sixth grade was strange, and something always felt absent from their school lives, though eventually everyone had grown accustomed to it and the only time their former teacher was mentioned again was during occasional moments of reminiscence. The sentimentality grew as summer loomed closer, the fear of junior high and growing up increasingly omnipresent. This is why, when walking into homeroom on the first day of seventh grade, several students gasped or groaned (Butters Stotch even screamed), upon seeing Mr. Garrison smiling from a desk that was, apparently, his own.
Kenny never had much of an opinion on Mr. Garrison, but as for his classmates, they either hated or loved him. Now, with three fourths of the year finished, it's as if their teacher was never gone in the first place. Kenny has grown to like him and his cutting remarks. The school board must have deemed them appropriate for pubescent thirteen year olds; the majority of the class is thankful.
Kenny asks Kevin if he can drop him off at school early instead of waiting for the bus. He makes up something about tutoring, and doubts his brother believes him, but Kevin agrees anyway. That Monday, Kenny is the first one to homeroom. The hallways are empty and quiet, most of the classroom doors shut. Kenny tucks a lock of hair fallen from his ponytail behind his ear and takes a deep breath before stepping over Mr. Garrison's threshold, one of Karen's glittery bandaids on his ankle; she picked an orange one just for him.
Mr. Garrison turns towards the doorway and raises an eyebrow. "Hello, McCormick." He glances at the clock on his computer screen. "You're a bit early."
Kenny shifts his weight from foot to foot. His hands sweat as he grips the straps of his backpack bandaged by duct tape. "Can I, um, talk to you about something?"
Mr. Garrison rolls his eyes. "You should go to the counselor, kid. I'll write you a pass."
"It's about something I can't talk to anyone else with," Kenny pleads when Mr. Garrison opens a drawer to write up an appointment to the counselor's office. Mr. Garrison's hand freezes above the stack of papers, and he slowly shuts the drawer.
"This better be good." He gestures to the row of desks in front of him. "Take a seat."
Kenny drops his backpack on the floor and sits in front of Mr. Garrison. Mr. Garrison analyzes him, looking at his lazy ponytail, frayed shorts, scuffed up tennis shoes, and button-down boy's shirt from the thrift store. He leans forward, fingers interlaced. "Are you confused about your sexuality?" he inquires.
"What?" Kenny yelps. He flushes, slouching down in his seat. "No! Well, maybe—but not like that! Um."
"Oh, honey, it's alright. Butches are a riot. You man-ladies get all the cute girls at the clubs."
"No, I mean. I found some of my dad's porn."
Mr. Garrison blinks. He leans back in his seat and drops his hands on his desk. "Oh, well, we'll just save that issue for later, then." He frowns. "Was it gay porn?"
"No. Well... I haven't seen all of it yet."
"Good Lord, what is with you children?"
"I skip all the bad parts!" Kenny insists.
Mr. Garrison scoffs. "Please, I'm more concerned about that! Where's the fun?" His face falls. "Wait, what? Why are you watching porn without the porn?"
Kenny bites his lip, abashed and embarrassed. He stares down at the desk, which has the word "faggot" carved into it in capital letters. "My parents fight a lot. I was just wondering... I just thought—I wanted to know if people love each other." He looks up. "My friend, Stan, his parents got divorced, then got back together, but they still seem really angry. And my parents hate each other. My older brother told me that some people aren't meant to be together. So I'm watching my dad's porn, because people are supposed to love each other when they have sex, but I haven't seen it yet. On one tape there's a teacher and his student, and they just talk about homework. On another one there's a mom and her son's friend. I don't get it."
"Jesus, I wish this was about the gay thing," Mr. Garrison mutters under his breath. He leans forward. "Listen, kid, you and all your pals sound pretty fucked up. And I've been dealing with you brats for years now, so I know it's true. But the only thing less fucked up than you is your parents." Mr. Garrison punctuates his last few words."That's how it was with me, and I'm gay, so, it works for everybody. The apple don't fall far from the tree, but at least you aren't stuck on anymore branches, am I right? So what if everyone's parents hate each other. That doesn't mean the rest of humanity's like that."
Kenny ruminates this, bunching the hem of his shirt in his hands. "I think I know what you're saying..."
Mr. Garrison's face softens. "Honey, you just got the short end of the stick. You were born into the wrong family in the worst possible town. You gotta remember there's a whole entire world out there. If you're smart, you'll get out out of this shithole eventually and see it."
Kenny licks his lips, staring at the word "faggot." He looks up and smiles. "You're right, Mr. Garrison." He slides out of the desk and picks up his bookbag. The clock above the door says it's 7:30 AM; Stan should be getting dropped off soon, and they can hang out on the front steps of the school. Kenny stops in front of Mr. Garrison's desk. "Thank you for talking to me."
Mr. Garrison waves him off. "Don't mention it." He lifts his eyebrows. "Really."
Kenny smirks. "Yes, Mr. Garrison."
The corner of Mr. Garrison's lip twitches. "Now scram."
Kenny turns around to leave. Before he exits, Mr. Garrison calls, "And about that other thing—"
Kenny looks back over his shoulder. "Trust me, I'm on a whole other level." He waves his teacher goodbye, who now looks confused more than ever.
Kenny walks down the hallway, a new bounce in his step. He rounds a corner and sees a flash of bright red hair and beams. "Kyle!"
Kyle looks up from a large packet of papers held tight in his hands. "Hi, Kenny," he says, immediately ducking back down. Kenny furrows his brow, slowing down to match Kyle's pace. Kyle is muttering things—letters.
"What are you doing?" Kenny asks.
"Studying for the spelling bee." Kyle thrusts the papers into Kenny's hands. "Quiz me!"
"Jeeze, okay." Kenny straightens the packet it out, scrolling through the lists of words. "Um.Telegram?"
Kyle huffs, irritated. "Pick something harder. Actually, give me that." Kyle snatches the packet back as they stop beside a bulletin board. "The Scripps National Spelling Bee website says you should study words with the same roots," he rambles as he flips through a few pages. He hands the lists back to Kenny. "The Greek and Latin section has a lot of the same roots."
"Okay." Kenny tries finding a hard word, just so he can get Kyle's panties in a twist. "Spell teleutospore."
Kyle chews his lip and thinks for a few seconds, then rears his shoulders back, posture stick-straight. He's currently the tallest boy out of all of them, the first to hit a growth spurt. Kenny, the shortest, is admittedly annoyed by it. Now he really wants Kyle to spell the word wrong. "T-e-l-u-t-o-s-p-o-r-e," he spells, enunciating each letter.
"Nope!" Kenny says gleefully. "There's an E before the U."
"Ugh. Stupid Greek."
The bell rings. Kenny lifts his head, passing back the lists of words. "Oh, crap."
Kyle folds up the worn paper and sticks it in his pocket. "I need to go. My homeroom is all the way on the other side of the school."
"I'll walk with you!"
"Won't you be late? Mr. Garrison will have your ass."
Kenny shrugs. "Scenic routes are nice sometimes."
Kyle stares at him for a second, then looks away, smiling. "Alright."
They start walking. Some kids blaze by, hurrying to class. Kyle power-walks, his red curls bouncing, and Kenny grins, amused by the sight for reasons he doesn't know, not even upset that he has to jog to keep up with Kyle's long legs. "When is the spelling bee?" he asks.
"Next Saturday," Kyle says.
"Are you nervous?"
"No." Kyle replies, as if the idea is ridiculous; Kenny knows him better than that, though.
His face lights up. "I can help you study sometime," he offers. "It'll solve both our problems."
They stop at a staircase; it's as far as Kenny can travel without seriously pissing Garrison off. "What problem do you have?" Kyle asks confusedly.
Kenny salutes him, slowly stepping backwards. "I can't spell teleutospore for the life of me!" He swings around on his heel and runs back towards his own homeroom, the slap of his beat-up Converse echoing down the hall.
He bursts through the door just as Mr. Garrison stands to take roll call. "Oh, there she is," he hums. "Miss McCormick, you're late."
"There was a fire." Kenny walks down the rows of desk to sit next to Stan and Butters in the back. "I had to save everyone."
Mr. Garrison cocks an eyebrow. "I didn't hear any alarm."
Butters snickers behind his hand, fingernails glittering pink, as Kenny exclaims: "I know! It was broken. That's why everyone was so lucky I was there." He drops his backpack on the ground and sits at his desk. Stan twists around in front of him and gives a look that says Well?
"You wanna save people, go be a firefighter," Mr. Garrison drawls, returning to his desk.
The jingle for announcements crackles over the intercom. Kenny leans over his desk to talk to Stan. "I was with Kyle," he says. "I helped him practice for the spelling bee."
Stan snorts. "What a dork." Then he sighs. "I wish he was in our homeroom."
Kenny shoves his shoulder. "Dude, it's March. Get over it." He slides back down into his seat.
"Oh boy," Butters moans. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Stan asks.
The elderly secretary in the office recites, her lisp exaggerated by static: "Sexual education will be held in the auditorium for the seventh grade boys, and the multi-purpose room for the seventh grade girls. Eighth graders will have sexual education together, tomorrow, in the auditorium."
She continues to list the lunch menu. Stan groans in front of Kenny and starts complaining to Butters. Kenny's chest tightens as he stares at his lap. Sex ed. For girls. His hair falls into his eyes, and he angrily lifts his hands to yank out his ponytail.
"Whoa," Stan says, he and Butters falling silent.
Kenny gathers his blond hair back to retie it. "I hate being a girl," he spits.
"Aw," Butters pouts, "it seems like fun."
"Shut up, Butters, you don't know what you're talking about," Kenny sneers.
Stan looks at him, concerned. "Will you be okay?"
Kenny shrugs. "Whatever."
After lunch, all of the girls are corralled into the multi-purpose room past the trophy case. Kenny files in with them, shoulders hunched, arms crossed over his flat chest, scowl set in place. Several rows of chairs have been set in front of a projector screen. Kenny sees girls like Wendy and Bebe chatting nervously, and resolutely sits in the back, away from them. A girl with glasses and a packet of portable tissues glances at him before sitting a few seats down, sniffling. Kenny sinks lower and lower in his chair. God.
A smiling woman with red hair steps up to the podium where a laptop connected to the projector sits. Most of the girls swivel toward her excitedly, but Kenny stares at the wall directly in front of him. The girl with glasses coughs wetly. "Allergies," she mutters, as if Kenny cares.
"Hello, ladies," the young woman greets. "Today we'll be talking about the female body!"
She runs through the basics of breasts and body odor. When she pulls up a slide with a diagram of a vagina, Kenny turns to look out the window. During the bit about the menstrual cycle, the girl with allergies walks over to hand Kenny a new tampon that has been passed around.
He glares at her. "I don't want it."
She frowns. Snot peeks out of her nose. "What?"
Kenny's chest tightens up again. "Seriously, just give it to someone else. I don't care."
The redheaded woman looks toward them from where she is answering a question of Bebe's. "Honey, there's nothing wrong with—"
Kenny stands up, hands fisted at his sides. "Can I go to the bathroom?" he asks.
The woman blinks, obviously startled. "Um, sure."
He parts through the rows of seats and stumbles out of the room. Across the hall, the doors of the bathrooms jeer at him. Unsure of which one he is allowed to enter, Kenny darts in the opposite direction to his locker instead. Embarrassed and confused, he fumbles with the combination lock, eyes watering.
He swings his bookbag over his shoulder and heads to the front doors. Once outside, he sits on the steps and takes out his prepaid "emergency" flip phone. His parents could only afford ones for themselves, and Kevin has his own plan, now.
Across the street, a boy and a girl are laughing, walking down the sidewalk together. "Shh," the boy urges loudly. Kenny rises from the steps, creeping down behind a bush to hear them better, his phone clutched in his hand.
The boy slips his arms around the girl's waist. "C'mere, baby." He kisses her neck, her back pressed up against a telephone pole.
She giggles. "You're so high right now, man."
"Shh," the boy says again.
Kenny grits his teeth and runs back up to where his backpack is. He cowers beside the short wall bordering the stairs, opens his phone, and scrolls through the contacts. He presses send. It only rings twice.
"Kenny?" Kevin asks. "Is everything okay?"
Kenny whispers, wary of the couple across the street can hear him. "No. Can you come pick me up from school?" His throat is clogged.
"Did something happen? Hold on—" Kevin shouts at someone, followed by a few seconds of shuffling. "Fucking dick," Kenny hears him say. His voice returns at regular volume. "Sorry." A car door slams shut. "I'm on my way."
"Okay," Kenny mumbles.
"Are you hurt?" Kevin asks.
Kenny sniffs. He wishes the girl with tissues was here now. "No. We, uh." He wipes his nose with his sleeve. "We had sex ed."
"Oh, Kenny," Kevin laments.
Kenny's face contorts. "I'm sorry," he apologizes, tears rolling down his cheeks earnestly now.
"No, no, hey, it's not like that. Listen—I'm three seconds away. Okay?"
Kenny shoves loose pieces of hair wet with tears off his face. "Okay."
The call ends. A minute or so later, Kevin pulls up to the curb in his red sedan, stickers of flaming skulls, bikini girls, and the Playboy bunny decorating his back window. Kenny watches the boy and girl across the street walk away as he gets in the passenger side.
"Who are they?" Kevin asks.
Kenny shrugs, dropping his backpack between his feet. "I don't know. High school kids."
Kevin's NASCAR keychain smacks against the wheel as he turns out into the street. He reaches over and ruffles Kenny's hair. "You alright? Where's your hat?"
Kenny's lips quirk. He unzips his backpack, takes out his battered NASCAR cap, and sticks it on, pulling his ponytail through the hole in the back. "There."
Kevin smiles. "That's better."
Kenny holds his arm to his chest to inspect a cut near his elbow. "I'm sorry for making you leave work," he mutters.
"It's whatever," Kevin says, "I hate that place anyways." He falls silent. Kenny glances at him, surprised to find his brother looking thoughtful and pensive. Kevin turns on the blinker and snaps out of it. "You gotta stop doing that," he advises, flicking his eyes to Kenny's arm. "You're gonna get an infection or some shit."
Kenny drops his hands in his lap. "Sorry."
Kevin playfully smacks him upside the head. "Stop apologizing, too. Jesus."
"Okay, Mom," Kenny says. Kevin smiles bitterly.
It's warm, the sun breaking through the thick clouds that have stayed for the past couple of weeks. The last piles of snow glitter goodbye as they melt. Kenny rolls his window down and sticks his arm out, reveling in the feeling of the sun against his skin. Light freckles are starting to show around his moles.
"So, what happened?" Kevin asks ten minutes later. They're at McDonald's, sitting at the cement tables fenced in beside the building, underneath the golden arches eating ice cream. Kevin got a regular chocolate cone.
Kenny spoons up some of his hot fudge sundae. "Nothing. I don't know. We had this dumb class. It was stupid." He flips his spoon upside down in his mouth to get the most hot fudge. "I should just drop out like you, right?" He smiles around the spoon, but Kevin doesn't seem to think it's funny.
"Sure, if you wanna tow cars for a living." Kevin shakes his head. "I was an idiot, man."
Kenny stares at one of Kevin's largest tattoos: an yellow-orange sun radiating long rays wrapping around his shoulder. "Why did you get that tattoo?"
Kevin stuffs his empty cone into his mouth. "This one?" he mumbles, spitting out crumbs. He swallows and pulls up the sleeve of his t-shirt. "It's so shitty out here it helps me remember that, you know, the sun'll come out tomorrow and shit."
Kenny lifts another spoonful of ice cream. "Deep," he muses.
Kevin snorts, grabs the back of Kenny's head, and uses his other hand to smash the ice cream-filled spoon against Kenny's face; it goes up his nose. "Shut the fuck up, twerp."
"Asshole!" Kenny throws his spoon at Kevin's chest and smacks his arm, but Kevin quickly overpowers him, holding him tight in a headlock and forcing him off the bench. Kenny laughs, submitting. His NASCAR hat falls off. Kevin releases him, picks it up, and sets it back on his head. They smile at each other, recollecting their breath.
Maybe Kenny will always be Kevin's little sister. And maybe, someday, he could be okay with that.
Kevin swipes a napkin off the table and takes Kenny's jaw, roughly wiping off his face. "You're a pretty cool little brother, you know that?"
Kenny's chest warms, erasing all the embarrassment from the stupid sex ed class earlier. "Really?"
"Yeah." Kevin throws away Kenny's styrofoam bowl, the fallen plastic spoon forgotten. He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his shorts. "I'm sorry about the other day, using the wrong name and all."
Kenny's fingers twitch to pick at the cut on his elbow. "Oh," he says. "It's okay."
His brother throws an arm over his shoulders and starts walking back to the car. "Nah. I was being an ass."
Kenny smirks. "Don't worry. I'm used to it." He laughs and dodges another headlock.
The next day, Kenny walks to Kyle's after school in jean capris and an orange shirt, his hat slapped on with the bill swung around backwards. Ever since eating ice cream with Kevin, it has become something special to Kenny. He's been wearing it constantly ever since.
Mrs. Broflovski beams when she answers the door. Kenny smiles awkwardly, stepping inside. Sheila is kind to him but slightly overbearing, always observing his skinny arms and skinned knees, giving him Tupperware containers full of casserole by the dozen. Kenny doesn't know how Kyle takes it every single day.
Ike is playing the Xbox in the living room with the headseat on, sniping his friends. "Ha!" he exclaims. The game ends, his team having won. The map reverts back to the lobby.
"Enough video games," Sheila scolds. "You have homework, Ike, don't you?"
"Ugh, Mom, come on," Ike groans. He's a certified genius, taking extra online courses.
"You've been playing since you got home," Sheila says.
Kenny heads upstairs to avoid the argument, passing certificates which acknowledge Ike's achievements as he goes. One of them is from one of those robot competitions—last year, Ike supposedly tried programming the robot to automatically say "blaze it" at 4:20 PM, along with many other creative ideas. From Kenny's understanding, Ike is against most of what he's forced into, and only participates to shut everyone up. Sheila—and Kyle—think differently.
Kenny pushes open the door to Kyle's bedroom, which has his name in blue stickers surrounded by basketballs and the Broncos logo. Kyle is at his desk, on his fancy Macbook, in a dorky sweater.
"Winter's almost over," Kenny says, throwing himself on Kyle's plaid bed. "You don't have to cover up anymore."
"I have sensitive skin," Kyle protests, swiveling around in his chair. "Did my mom invite you over for dinner?"
Kenny sits up, adjusting his hat. "No, I'm here to help you study, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Kyle picks up his laptop and hands it to Kenny, who is always annoyed by nice things he can't afford. He sets the computer down in front of him gingerly. "I have the list up," Kyle says. He reclines in his seat, pulling his legs up and crossing them. His baggy sweats bunch at his socked ankles. "Quiz me."
Kyle was on the national spelling bee website, looking at past winners and their final words. Kenny makes a face. "I don't know how to pronounce any of these."
"Just try your best," Kyle encourages.
"Uh. Spell you-day...-monic?"
"Can you use it in a sentence?"
"Pft. No," Kenny scoffs.
Kyle rolls his eyes. "Google the definition."
"This is so much work," Kenny complains as he types into the search bar. "'Conducive to happiness' is the first result, whatever that means."
Kyle folds his legs against his chest. "Well, it doesn't sound too foreign. English comes from Latin. Latin words usually have 'ae' in them... Okay!" He straightens up. "You-day-monic. E-u-d-a-e-m-o-n-i-c. Eudaemonic."
Kenny smiles. "You got it right, dude."
"Yes!" Kyle spins around in his seat. Kenny laughs.
Someone stomps up the stairs and they turn. "Jesus fucking Christ, Mom" Ike snaps. His door slams shut a few seconds later.
"Wow," Kenny says.
Kyle snorts. "He gets like that all the time. It's stupid."
Kenny observes him. "Yeah?"
Kyle narrows his eyes, staring at the floor. "Just because he's a genius he gets whatever he wants."
"Doesn't sound like it."
"Kenny, you don't know anything." Kyle stands and returns the laptop to his desk. "I don't feel like practicing anymore."
"Okay." Kenny falls back on the bed. "Let's just chill." He takes his hat off and sets it on his chest.
Kyle climbs up beside him and lies on his stomach. "Wendy told me in math you ran out of sex ed yesterday."
Kenny lifts his hat and spins it around his finger. "She needs to mind her own business."
"She was worried."
"I got ice cream with Kevin. It's no big deal." Kenny drops his hat. "Sex sucks."
Kyle flushes red. "I don't know. It doesn't seem too bad."
"For you, maybe."
"Oh. That. Sorry."
"Forget it." Kenny rolls onto his side, meeting Kyle's eyes. "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Kyle shuffles closer, the fabric of his pants pressed up against the hole at Kenny's knee, his lanky legs nearly hanging off the mattress. "What's up?" His breath smells like toothpaste; he brushes his teeth like ten times a day.
Kenny stares at the bed spread, suddenly nervous. "It's stupid."
"I really bet it isn't."
"Well." Kenny rolls on his back, his hair splayed out around him. "Do you parents ever fight?"
Kyle sounds surprised. "Sometimes, yeah. It's normal."
Kenny purses his lips. "Mine fight all the time. Sometimes they break stuff. Saturday, they got so into it my dad left the house."
"I'm sorry..." Kyle trails off.
"You shouldn't be," Kenny assures, sitting up, "because I don't give a damn about them."
"Yeah. Fuck them. I don't care about them anymore." Kenny wrings his hat in his hands. "Love is stupid," he mutters.
"Love? I thought we were talking about your parents."
"Whatever. Everything is pretty much horseshit." Kenny twists back to Kyle. "My brother has a tattoo of the sun. He says it reminds him that things will be okay. I want to move out somewhere warm, like California, when I'm older. I'll get a van. Me, you, and Stan, we'll all go together, we'll get out of here. We'll strap Cartman up top."
Kyle laughs. "As long as we stop for food, I think don't think he'll care."
"I'll drive. Stan can bring his guitar or something, and when we stop he can sing gay songs."
They sober, smiling softly. Kyle's hand has somehow found its way to Kenny's thigh. "I call shotgun. You need a co-pilot, after all."
Kenny's heart flutters. "Sounds like a plan."
"Kenny?" Mrs. Broflovski calls up the stairs. He and Kyle jump, darting away to opposite ends of the bed. Sheila pops in through the doorway. "Are you staying for dinner, dear?"
"Yeah," he says, glancing at Kyle, who's beet-red. "Yeah, um, sure." He smiles tightly. "Thanks."
"Oh, don't mention it."
"You're the devil!" Ike yells from his room. "Satan has overtaken this home!"
Sheila scowls and shouts over her shoulder, "Don't start with me, young man! You're grounded!"
"The power of Christ repels you!" Ike's flies open. He steps out into the hallway, thrusting forward a cross made of two pencils taped together. "The power of Christ repels you!" he repeats with added fervor. Sheila storms over to berate him.
"I'm sorry," Kyle apologizes, sliding off the bed. He busies himself by messing around with things on his desk. "My mom and Ike get kind of crazy sometimes."
Kenny puts his hat back on. "It's fine." His heart is still hammering. He picks at the scab on his elbow. "Um, what's your mom making?"
"I think spaghetti."
Kyle pins something on the corkboard above his desk, next to the calender, and pauses, touching a circled date. He walks out into the hall. Kenny leans over the edge of the bed and watches him from the open door.
"Mom," Kyle says when she leaves Ike's room, "the spelling bee is Friday, okay? Friday, at five."
"Oh?" she hums. "Is Kenny in it, too?"
"What?" Kyle wilts. "No, Mom. The school already had its spelling bee."
"I already lost," Kenny clarifies.
Kyle ignores him. "I won," he reminds Sheila. "Remember? I'm going to district now. I got first place. First place," he repeats.
"Oh... Was that the week Ike had the meeting for this year's robotics competition?"
"No," Kyle answers flatly, "I don't think so."
"Oh, Kyle," Sheila coos, placing a hand on his head. "I'm sorry, I must've forgot. Your father and I will be there, okay? Friday at five."
Kyle ducks away from her touch. "Yeah, whatever."
He returns to his room and closes his door. "You were right," he tells Kenny. "Everything is horseshit."
The night of the spelling bee, Kenny's mother comes home to see her husband asleep on the couch. Kenny, sitting in the kitchen playing seven card stud with Kevin, sees her jaw tighten and knows a storm is coming. She looms over the back of the couch and smacks Stewart, hard across the arm. Kevin's head jerks up from his cards.
"Oh, fuck." His chair screeches as he stands. "I'm getting out of here." He ruffles Kenny's hair and says "Good game, champ," before heading to his room.
"Wake up, you son of a bitch," Kenny's mother yells. Kenny looks at the cards Kevin threw on the table. He had a full house. Kenny huffs and tosses his cards down, takes his can of soda, and also retreats to his room. He closes his door just as his mom complains about how the microwave still hasn't been replaced.
Kenny finishes off his soda and lies on his bed. He stares at his bookshelf, where picturebooks from his childhood stare at him, all pink with Barbies or horses or whatever. He rolls around to face his wall, shoves his pillow over his head to block out his parents. Across the hall Kevin turns on Metallica, increasing the volume every few seconds.
After "Enter Sandman" finishes, Kenny can hear Stewart storm down the hall and barge into Kevin's room. "Turn that fucking shit off!" he shouts over the music.
"Don't yell at your son like that," Kenny's mother snaps.
"Come on, Dad, it's Metallica," Kevin goads. Kenny curls into himself, knowing what comes next. Kevin has never been able to watch his tongue.
"I said turn it off! Now!" Stewart demands.
Kenny screws his eyes shut.
"Make me, old man," Kevin replies.
"Oh, stop it, you two!" their mother says.
After more shouting the music abruptly cuts off. "Fuck you!" Kevin yells.
Kenny flinches when he hears the slap reverberate throughout the house, hot tears leaking from his eyes. "If I tell you to do something, you fuckin' do it," his father warns lowly.
Kevin says something intelligible. "What was that?" Stewart asks angrily.
"I fucking hate you," Kevin pants. "I hate you."
He grunts. There's stumbling, then the sound of things falling to the floor.
"Stewart! Stewart, get off of him!" Kenny's mother yells.
Kenny bites his lip so hard the pain makes his eyes water even worse. He wipes snot on his blanket, trying to think of California, the sun, strawberries. He hears the front door slam shut yet again, and his mother cry in the living room. Kevin is silent. A door opens, little footsteps pattering across the carpet. "Mom?" Karen asks nervously.
Kenny rolls off his bed and walks to Kevin's room. His brother is sitting on his bed, the back of his hand held up to his bleeding nose. "Are you alright?"
"Shut up, Kendra," Kevin orders. He examines his hand and lifts the collar of his shirt to wipe up his upper lip. "Just fuck off."
Kenny grits his teeth. "Fine." He shuts Kevin's door and goes to the bathroom, opens the cabinet, and pulls out a pair of rusty scissors. He gathers a large section of hair and, obstinately staring at his reflection in the mirror, cuts it off.
The strands fall in a pile at his feet. Kenny chops off the other side.. He grabs new shortened chunks of hair at random and trims them to different lengths. Snip, snip, snip. He sets the scissors on the sink and runs his fingers through his newly destroyed hair. It looks awful.
He returns to his bedroom without cleaning up, puts on his shoes, and grabs his parka. He walks to the living room and stops when he sees his mother sniffling at the kitchen table, Karen worriedly sitting next to her, resting her head against their mom's shoulder. "It'll be okay, Mom, don't worry," she comforts.
Kenny moves to the front door and steps outside. No one notices. It's strangely warm. The sky is dark, the stars are bright. Distant patches of snow are melting in the distance as spring inches closer. He arrives at the sidewalk and sees an approaching figure with bright red hair.
Kyle stops in front of him in blue pajamas dotted with yellow stars. "Kyle—" Kenny starts.
"I'm running away," Kyle declares. "Ike got suspended and my parents didn't come to the spelling bee."
"I'm running away too," Kenny says.
"Then come on." Kyle takes Kenny's wrist and leads him across the railroad tracks. He relaxes his grip and matches his pace with Kenny's, still holding his arm. "You cut your hair," he observes.
"You grew some balls," Kenny observes.
"So, are we going to California already?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of Stark's Pond," says Kyle.
"Sure," Kenny agrees. "Gotta start small."
"In three years we'll have our licenses. We'll go anywhere we want."
"I always thought you'd go to med school, you know, not across the country."
"Ike's the doctor, not me." The conversation trails off.
They circle around neighborhoods, head to the back of town, and move between the trees, sticks crunching underneath their feet. Kenny slips on his parka and pulls up the hood. "Here we are," he announces as they stand in front of the lake.
Kyle sits on one of the benches, its old paint peeling. Kenny sits beside him. They look at the water. "I feel so old," Kyle says.
"You sound like Stan," Kenny comments.
"Maybe he's right. The world is such shit." Kyle pauses. "I lost the spelling bee." He pulls his legs up to his chest, rests his chin on his knees. "Tenth place. Not even fourth, or third."
Kenny scoots closer to him. "I'm sorry."
Kyle stares out at the water, where the moon has been prettily reflected. "I forgot how to spell teleutospore. I blanked out."
"That's a dumb word anyways," offers Kenny. "E before U," he echoes.
"I don't even know what it means," Kyle mumbles. "I don't know what half the words I spelled meant. It seems so dumb now. What a waste of time."
"I read that website you were obsessed with," Kenny says. "Spelling bees actually widen your vocabulary and junk, just in case you didn't know."
Kyle turns to him, a red curl falling into his eye. Kenny could give him a haircut. "You're cute," he says.
Kenny reddens. "Heh. Thanks."
Kyle returns his gaze to the lake; Kenny follows suit. "What were you talking about, in my room on Tuesday?" Kyle asks. "About your parents?"
Kenny shrugs, feeling dumb. "Nothing."
He sighs and lulls his head back on the bench, to stare at the stars between the spindly tree branches. "Do you think love is real? Just in general."
"Of course I do... Don't you?" Kyle sounds apprehensive.
"Sometimes. But sometimes I don't." Kenny shoves his hands in his pockets, thinking of eating ice cream with Kevin, then Kevin calling him Kendra. "Sometimes things get so bad I don't think I believe in anything."
"Now you're the one who sounds like Stan." Kyle twists toward him, bringing his legs down onto the seat of the bench, so close his arm is against Kenny's, and his voice is right in Kenny's ear. "Just because things get bad, it doesn't make all the other good times before meaningless." He whispers, and Kenny doesn't know why, but he finds it calming.
"Can I kiss you?" Kyle asks, warm clouds of air hovering in between them. Kenny's eyes widen. Kyle continues, "To give you something to believe in again."
Kenny's chest tightens like how it does when he wants to cry, but in this moment it is good, it is so much better. He nods silently and closes his eyes. Kyle leans forward, sliding his hands onto Kenny's knees, pressing his perfect, mint chapstick-flavored lips against Kenny's rough ones.
Kenny is shaking all over when Kyle pulls away. It takes him a second to open his eyes, and when he does, Kyle is beaming, his freckles crowded together underneath his pretty eyes.
"Thank you," Kenny says.
Kyle laughs. It's happy and true and rings through the forest, the lake, back up to the bright moon. "Don't mention it."
They stayed out for a few extra minutes afterward, but with the gravity of the situation gone, there wasn't anymore reason to remain. They held hands while walking, and split once they emerged from the trees. Kyle's absence and what awaited at home made Kenny nervous and sad, but he kept touching his lips and felt calm once more.
His mother was a nervous wreck and hugged him when he stepped into the living room. Karen did too, then smacked his arms a bunch and called him a stupid idiot. Kevin was holing himself up in his bedroom, but the next morning he sat across from Kenny at the table and talked about his strawberry patch, nose swollen and eyes red. Kenny went along with the conversation, not mentioning either things about his brother's face.
Now it is Sunday afternoon. Stewart still hasn't returned since Friday night, but Kenny isn't letting it bother him. He is in the backyard with his siblings, plus Kyle, who got grounded for a month. Kevin, who was out getting supplies, made the genius move of nonchalantly mentioning to Sheila that he was landscaping the backyard when they bumped into each other at Wal-mart. Sheila must've considered it an opportunity for some type of community service, because when she got home she ordered Kyle to help them as much as they needed; Kyle gladly accepted.
The wheelbarrow and shovel are gone, the small square of land entirely tilled. Kenny and Kyle are thrusting short sections of white picket fence into the perimeter of the dirt and hammering them down. Kevin is busy bringing bags of mulch in from his car. Karen is helping, tottering behind him with the top half of her body overwhelmed by the huge bags, back and forth around the house.
"Thanks for helping out," Kenny tells Kyle when they've finished with the fence. He stands and wipes his hands off on his shorts. His hair is cropped close to his head now with a few floppy locks up top; Kevin helped Kenny turn presentable in the bathroom this morning with his electric razor, but not enough to "look like a cancer patient."
"It's a pretty awesome punishment," Kyle muses. Kenny gave him the NASCAR hat to wear so he could shield his "sensitive" skin.
"Heh." Kenny laughs nervously. "Thanks for the other night, too."
Kyle smirks. "No problem." He steps forward, circles his arms around Kenny's sweaty back, and kisses him again. Kenny freezes, his entire body hot. Kyle laughs against Kenny's lips. His breath smells like toothpaste.
There's a piercing squeal and a thump and Kenny and Kyle tear away from each other. Karen jumps up and down, a broken bag of mulch at her feet. "Oh my god! Oh my god!"
"What, are you gay now, too?" Kevin walks up behind her, mulch also on his shoulder, but unbroken.
Kyle splutters wordlessly. "No," Kenny insists, red.
"Oh, well, you must be bi then. Nice work on the fence." Kevin drops the mulch beside it and rises, hands on his hips. "By the way, you don't have to steal my porn, twerp. Next time, just ask." He flicks Kenny in the forehead and when he passes Kyle, knocks the hat off his red head.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!