Preemptive apologies for the melodrama?
Stan is holding a gun.
A real one, from the look of it. Silver. A short barrel. A rotating chamber.
The knock on the door hadn't prepared him for this: Stan, small, scared, Smith-Wesson in his outstretched palm. There's something like terror beneath Stan's eyelids, and, as Kyle stares forward, taking in the scene, he can feel his own eyes widening. Not because he is afraid, exactly; he knows that Stan, in all his seventeen years of life, has never pulled a trigger. No, not afraid, he thinks to himself. Unsettled, maybe. Confused.
When he finally manages to speak, the words come out slow, halting. "Stan," he whispers, leaning into the doorframe. "What, um... what is that?"
"I... I... uh..." Stan stammers. "My dad's desk. Top drawer. I... I found it."
It's cold out, and his white teeth are knocking against each other, but his voice is level. Nonchalant, even. When he swallows, hard, and the hand holding the gun begins to tremble, Kyle notices a weary, unfamiliar slope in Stan's shoulders.
"I didn't know where else to go, dude," Stan mutters. "I'm sorry."
Suddenly, Kyle understands.
"Don't be," Kyle says, stepping back. "God, come inside. It's, like, fifteen degrees out."
Stan shuffles inside, and Kyle pushes on the door, hears it sigh on its hinges. Blood rushes in his ears. Stan sucks in a deep breath, and Kyle allows himself to exhale. The rest of the house is silent.
"Has he been acting weird lately?" Kyle turns, making for the stairs. Stan follows close on his heels.
"No. I mean, well... kind of," Stan mumbles. His free hand slides idly along the banister.
Kyle chews on his lip. "Do you know how long he's had it?"
"No, but like... not that long, I don't think."
They reach the landing and turn, padding down the unlit hallway to Kyle's empty bedroom.
"Do you know where he..."
"Uncle Jimbo? I mean, I don't know. Probably."
Kyle's hand freezes on his doorknob.
God, he could kill Randy Marsh.
Of course, he assumes, that's precisely what they're trying to prevent. It's the reason Stan is here at four o'clock in the morning on a school night, why he's toting a nine-millimetre pistol, and why he's still shivering, even though the cold is far behind them. Kyle knows, of course, that Randy would never actually do anything, that he's just wallowing in the wake of this latest marital breakdown. This knowledge, somehow, only makes Kyle resent him even more. The weight on Stan's shoulders is heavy enough already.
He knows his thoughts are callous - unspeakably cruel, even - and he forces himself to bite his tongue. His hands, though, he permits to curl into angry fists as the door falls open.
Stan is quick to cross the floor, taking a passing glance through the foggy window. He drops the gun next to Kyle's mousepad.
"Dude!" Kyle shrieks.
Stan's head whirls over his shoulder. "What?"
"Don't put it on my desk!"
"I didn't want to hold it any-"
"Is it loaded?"
"No!" Stan answers, insistent, as he slumps into Kyle's chair. "No, no, of course not. I poured all the bullets into some random garbage can on the way here."
"Oh, my God," Kyle groans, and his hands fly to his face. "Stan, you... you know you're not supposed to just toss live ammunition into the trash, right?"
"Uh, maybe because bullets are flammable? And because Park County still incinerates garbage, even though it's fucking terrible for the environment. Do you know how much greenhouse gas..."
"Jesus Christ, Kyle." He forces the words out, pushing them through his teeth, and Kyle realizes, suddenly, that he's close to tears.
Kyle pauses, chews on his lip.
"I wasn't thinking," Stan insists. He lifts his knees to his chest, folds his arms across his calves, and lets his voice disappear into the fabric of his jeans. "Jesus. I was really freaking out. I just... I had to get... I had to get it out of there. I had to get out of there."
"I know," Kyle says, softly. "Look, dude, I didn't mean to... I wasn't trying to lecture you or anything. It's just... we have to go find those bullets you dumped. Like, right now."
Stan is weary when he unfolds himself, moving like Kyle's father after a long day at the courthouse - slow, stilted, arthritic.
"Okay," Stan mumbles, moving toward the door. "Let's go. I think I remember whose..."
"Hey," Kyle interrupts, pointing at his desk. "Bring the gun with you."
"Dude, can't we just..."
"I don't want Ike to find it." Kyle inhales, long, shuddering. "He comes in here sometimes, in the middle of the night. He still has bad dreams."
"Oh." Stan halts, hand against the doorjamb. "Look, I... I don't want to, um... can you?"
Kyle nods, and pockets the gun.
It's heavy in his coat, even empty, and it's cold against his palm. The sensation is bizarre, one he can't quite place. He feels dangerous, and yet, somehow, fragile. He's seen plenty of guns before - long ones, usually. His classmates are always pilfering their dads' shotguns to fire blanks into the air at tailgates. Hunting enthusiasts drop by the convenience store sometimes, for last-minute jerky and Coor's before driving off into the mountains to shoot whitetail deer. For reasons Kyle can't fathom, they carry their rifles with them, slung proud across their broad shoulders.
But the gun in his pocket is not for hunting, and it's no harmless game-night accessory, either. Kyle can see from Stan's posture, that defeated curve of his spine, that this weapon has already done unspeakable damage.
"It was near Butters' house," Stan mutters to himself, halting on the sidewalk. "Clyde's place, maybe, or Craig's."
"I thought you said you remembered."
Stan breathes out, white whirling from his mouth. "Not exactly. I... like I said, I couldn't think straight. I just... my only thought was, â€˜I have to dump this stuff, and I have to go to Kyle's.'"
It's then that Kyle reaches out, looping his arm through Stan's. He hesitates, and then berates himself for the very thought: it's late, and dark, and no one is around to see them, anyway. Stan seems grateful for the gesture, too, curling against Kyle and resting his head on Kyle's shoulder. His nose is cold on the skin of Kyle's cheek, and his breath tickles. Kyle swallows.
"You're really worried for him."
"I am," Stan says, and those are the words that do him in, open the floodgates. His face crumples, and the first long sob gets lost in the wool of Kyle's jacket. He's shaking, too; the windbreaker he's wearing is a poor defense against the cold.
"Okay, okay, it's okay." Kyle tries to pull Stan closer, reaching out to wrap an arm over his shoulders. "Your dad's going to be okay. You did the right thing."
Stan is barely intelligible, hysterical. Kyle has to strain to make him out, catching only fragments: mom went away to Arizona... he's just so... all the time... out of bed... four in the afternoon... don't even see him eat...
There is a pause, a low wail against Kyle's lapel, and then, "What happened to him?"
And Kyle can't answer, as much as he wants to. He has so many questions. He wants - no, needs to know why Stan didn't tell him it was this bad, why this is the first he's hearing of any of it. He's been to Stan's house dozens of times in the last month, for Christ's sake. He's seen Randy, said hello to him, watched him stare blankly into the television and nurse a bottomless bottle of Avery's. And Stan had complained about moping, and oversleeping, and about dirty dishes piling up, but... his fingers brush against the cold steel of the barrel, and his eyes flutter shut.
"Kyle," Stan whimpers, and Kyle tightens his grip on Stan's shoulder, turning so his forehead presses against Stan's.
"I think it's starting to rain."
Kyle looks up, feels the first lonely drops of water fall on his face. "Okay. We should get back inside."
"But we have to..."
"Fuck," Kyle exclaims. "All right, do you remember? What did the house look like, the one where you threw out the, um..."
"I don't... red bricks, I think?"
Kyle racks his brain. "Cartman's house?"
"No!" Stan shakes his head, and lets out a breathy little laugh into the crook of Kyle's neck. "No, dude, I'm not that stupid."
Kyle manages a grin. "Okay. Let me think... oh. You said it was near Butters' house, right? I think Al's new place has red-brick facing."
Stan contemplates this for a moment, and then nods. "Yeah, I... probably."
Kyle moves to break away from Stan, and Stan stops him, wrapping his hand around Kyle's forearm.
It takes them fifteen minutes, but they eventually locate all six little bullets nestled in the recesses of Al's trash can. It's a good thing, too; their sleepy little town is beginning to wake up. Cars are passing on the side-streets - commuters on their way to Denver, most likely, or day labourers heading out to nearby shale sites. And Kyle is acutely aware that the rain is only getting heavier. He had used the loose lid of Al's garbage can as an impromptu umbrella for Stan, but it was meagre protection against the worsening storm.
"All right, dude," Kyle said, packing the last of the ammunition into the pockets of his jeans. "We should go home now."
Stan's mouth falls open. "Dude, no, I don't want..."
"My house, I mean," Kyle interrupts, looking into Stan's eyes, making sure he understands. "School doesn't start for another two hours, okay? I'll make you some cocoa, and... and you can take a shower, and a nap, and..."
"Okay," Stan nods, and he stands, extending a hand to Kyle. Kyle means to grab his wrist, but he misses, somehow, and blushes when his open palm collides with Stan's.
They make their way across Al's lawn and around the side of his house, stepping carefully through the dark. Kyle is surprised at himself, surprised that he doesn't let go of Stan's hand.
If he felt fragile before, with the Smith-Wesson burning a hole in his pocket, he feels positively breakable after Stan's confession, like the assured, quiet existence they've built for themselves in this backwoods town could shatter at any moment.
Before he is finished with this thought, and before he and Stan emerge from the muddy pathway which runs between Al's house and Butters', thunder rips the sky open. Stan stumbles, pulling Kyle with him, against him. Sludge splashes up between them, licking at the legs of their pants.
"Shit," Stan mumbles, and drops Kyle's hand. "Thunder freaks me out, dude. Sorry."
Kyle inhales, attempting to steady his breathing, and he buries his hands in his pockets. His fingers collide with the butt of the gun.
"Don't be," he whispers.
And then Stan is reaching for him, his fingers curving toward Kyle's face. Kyle's eyes go wide. He knows what's about to happen, and he knows that Stan has spent the last fifteen minutes rifling through unspeakable filth, and he cannot, will not, let Stan's hands touch his face.
"No, no, no," he chants, and, seeing Stan's face fall, he pauses, clarifying: "No hands."
He is the one reaching out now, his left hand grasping Stan's wrists and pinning them to the brick. He nearly loses his balance, ankle-deep in mud, and his spare hand, still enveloping the pistol, falls out of his pocket and hits the wall.
The sky goes white with lightning. He presses his mouth to Stan's.
It's a quiet morning. They abandon their muddy clothes in Kyle's hamper, and Kyle lends Stan a pair of his pajamas. Sheila believes him, somehow, when he tells her that Stan slept over. She makes scrambled eggs.
Kyle forces Stan to wash his hands before breakfast, twice, and he still cringes when Stan swipes a finger along the edge of his plate to scoop up the last of the ketchup that he insists upon pouring all over his eggs.
He puts a kettle on the stove. He pours out two tall mugs of cocoa and watches, silent, smiling, as Stan takes his first sip.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!