-Clyde Joseph-


November 2014

Shelly Marsh bit her lip as she stared at her computer screen, at the blinking cursor at the end of the line she'd just typed.

I think we should see other people, Helio had written, to which Shelly had replied, or at least was on the brink of replying, eat shit and die, turd.


-Clyde Joseph-


Her finger hesitated briefly over the Enter key. Helio had been her boyfriend for 11 months, 29 days, and 13 hours. Tomorrow would be their anniversary, a year from the time he'd first Liked her comment on Facebook, the one where she'd replied to a post with a Grumpy Cat "Not impressed" meme. She could even remember the less than impressive post – it had been one of Stan's, of course, bragging about his stupid fantasy football picks and his fake team's performance.

It could have been anything Stan posted, because nothing he had to say ever impressed her, but she'd remembered this particular one because of the Like and because of Helio's profile picture, the one that even at one-half inch by one-half inch was dreamy. Not that Shelly thought of him as dreamy, because only air-headed bimbos thought of guys as dreamy, but still.

That Like had led to others, followed by Facebook friending and on to private messaging. Helio was super-hot, he was funny, and best of all, he was Shelly's. Except he wasn't anymore, not since he'd replied to her Hey, Helio, what's up? with I think we should see other people.

There had been no warning, but then Shelly hadn't been looking for one. She was looking now, and she went through his photos, finding pictures of him with some blonde bimbo, the occasional photo with some girl with dark skin and even darker hair, more with the blonde – oh, and the really suggestive one with a redheaded bitch making the worst duck lips Shelly had ever seen.

There were no pictures of him with Shelly, but there wouldn't have been. They'd never met in person, and even if they had, Shelly didn't really like having her picture taken. Her profile avatar was a picture of Katherine Queef, laughing as if she'd heard something absurd. Shelly liked that picture; it perfectly reflected her own oft-held opinion of her stupid brother and her stupid father and the stupid everyone else in South Park.

Now, though, Shelly felt like Katherine was laughing at her instead. Forehead furrowed in anger, she jabbed her finger on the key.

She didn't know how Helio would react or what he'd say, nor did she want to. She took the time to first block him, then to unfriend him, and after that, she deleted her profile pic, leaving a blank, gender neutral silhouette in its place.

She stared at it, hating it for its very blankness. She hated the stupid avatar, she hated Helio for breaking her heart, and she hated herself for letting him.

She would not cry. There was no way she'd let that asshole make her cry.

"What the fuck?" she heard Stan say downstairs.

Stan. The king of turds was home, playing that stupid Madden football game that he'd begged their mom for, like he did every year. Like he even needed another one.

"I told you! I fucking told you!" That was Eric Cartman, crowing in the way that only he did.

"Dude, that's awesome!" Of course Kyle was here. Kyle was the only person that Stan would let touch his precious video game controller.

"Shit, I can't...fuck, it's like I just walked right through you." Stan sounded equal parts annoyed and amused.

"I told you Kirksey was a midget in this," Cartman announced smugly.

There was muffled laughter as well, and that would be Kenny McCormick, rounding out Stan's bunch of loser friends. She hated them all nearly as much as she hated Helio.

Shelly curled her fingers into fists and stomped down the stairs. "Shut it, turds!" she yelled, punching her brother as hard as she could.

Cartman wisely took several steps back and gestured as if to say "have at it" - as if she needed his permission to pound her little brother. Her little brother, with his perfect little cheerleader girlfriend and his little fangirl base and the countless friends on the Facebook account that he swore he'd never recreate.

It felt good to bury her fist in his stomach, and when Kyle tried to intervene, she backhanded him, sending him flying into Cartman, who announced his intentions to go home. Like Shelly cared what that sack of turds did, even if she did hate him the least out of all Stan's friends.

She punched Stan again, and when he choked out something about his spleen, she hoped she'd ruptured it. Then maybe he'd know how she felt, because no matter how much he might whine about his life and his problems, he had no idea. She punched him one more time, harder than the last, and felt a little twist of satisfaction when he curled into a ball on the floor.

He wasn't suffering from soul deep pain like Shelly was, but it was a start.


"Go away, Dad." She pulled the blanket up to her chin and bit down on her lip. The last person she wanted to try to make her feel better was her father, because he sucked at it so much.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Her teeth sank a little deeper into her lip, until she could taste blood. Her breath hitched a little as she opened her mouth. "There's nothing to talk about."

Her father was silent for nearly a minute, and she thought he might not have heard the little catch in her voice. She was never that lucky.

"Your brother thinks you might be upset."

"I'm not, Dad."

She heard his sigh from the doorway, and she resented it. It was just like her father to act pained this way, as if her problems were his. They weren't his problems in the way that a caring parent shared his child's suffering; Randy just found that her having a problem in the first place was in itself an inconvenience for him. Like she was deliberately putting him out because she had emotions that he'd never understand. Sometimes he tried too hard to relate to teenagers in a never-ending midlife crisis, and sometimes it was like he'd just never grown emotionally past being a stupid teenaged boy. It was no wonder her mother had divorced him. Twice.

Why Sharon had gone back to him, also twice, was a mystery, but one Shelly didn't give two flying fucks about at the moment.

Her father sighed again, heavily, and then she heard his footsteps as they faded away, down the hall, and even though there was nothing he could do to make things better, she hated him a little more for giving up so easily.

She pulled the blanket all the way over her head and cried, just a little, and not at all over Helio, who was a big fat turd who wasn't worth shedding a single tear. And certainly not because her father's half-assed attempt at making her feel better was worse than not trying at all.

She cried because there was nothing else to do.

Shelly was tired the next morning, despite the Diet Mountain Dew she'd sucked down in the car on the way to school. She didn't realize just how tired she was until she sat in World Geography, when her head tipped forward until she jerked it up at the last second, feeling like she might fall out of her chair. Her cheeks burned and she hunched her shoulders, hoping the rest of the class, and Mrs. Feeney, her professor, hadn't noticed.

She blinked a few times at the notes she'd taken, wondering why what looked like the word "shampoo" was scribbled in the margin and what it had to do with the distance between Russia and China and how their proximity impacted their relations with Europe and Asia.

She should have taken Geology. She had more than a passing knowledge of it, and certainly there was at least a chance of finding employment in South Park with that in her educational background, but that was exactly why she'd opted to take anything else that didn't conflict with her other required classes. She had just twelve more credits to go, then she'd have her Associates degree from the Community College of Denver.

Then she could, well, Shelly wasn't sure what she could do. Continue on to the University of Denver for her bachelor's degree, perhaps, or find a job, any job, something that would allow her to get a place of her own and away from her father and the golden child that was her shit-for-brains brother.

"Did you need to speak with me, Miss Marsh?" Miss Feeney's voice broke into her thoughts, and Shelly looked around the room. She was the only one left, and she hadn't even noticed everyone else leaving. Had she fallen asleep again?

"Uh, no, sorry," she mumbled, shoving her books into her backpack and hoisting it over her shoulder. "I was just thinking about what you said."

"Hmm," Mrs. Feeney said, not looking entirely convinced. She hesitated, then asked, "Is everything all right, Shelly?"

Of course it wasn't, but Shelly wasn't about to get into a discussion about that here.

"Yeah, of course. See you Thursday," she said with a wave as she left the room. She didn't know if Mrs. Feeney watched her leave or if she'd gone back to doing whatever it was professors did at the front of the room in between classes, but Shelly imagined she could feel Feeney's eyes boring into her back all the way down the hall.

Her stomach growled and she stopped, leaning against the wall and letting her bag slide down her arm until it landed on the floor. She was hungry and tired and she'd overslept this morning, leaving no time for breakfast. Her stomach cramped a little, likely the result of the Diet Dew, and she felt like she had to "make bears" as Mrs. Cartman had called it about a million years ago, back when Shelly had agreed to babysit Eric for her. Cramps or no, there was no way Shelly was going to do that here.

She pulled the bag up high enough to dig through the front pocket, coming up with five quarters and a couple of pennies, and sighed. Not quite enough for a bagel, not if she wanted butter or cream cheese with it, but she could get a candy bar or Pop Tart or something in the vending machine before her next class. Food helped when you had too much alcohol, according to her dad, the expert. Maybe it would help take the edge off the caffeine, too.

It didn't. The Pop Tart had been a terrible choice to begin with, but it was the only thing in the vending machine that she had enough money for. Her stomach gurgled throughout Art Appreciation, earning her a number of stares and a couple of giggles from some of the girls in her class. She wanted to turn around and tell them to shut up, or to explain that it was her stomach rumbling, not that she was farting, but instead she slid down in her chair and blinked back tears, wishing she was anywhere but here.

Her life sucked.

She came close to crying when she got to her car after class, when she turned the key. The engine tried to turn over a few times to no avail. Her stomach was protesting violently by then, and she slammed the heel of her hand against the steering wheel as she turned the key again, willing it to work. She felt some of the tension slip away when it finally started and she was able to pull out of the parking lot and onto the highway.

By the time she got home, the discomfort in her stomach had blossomed into agonizing pain. Grateful that her parents were still at work and Stan was at school, Shelly dropped her bag near the door and ran up the stairs to the bathroom, where she locked herself in – just in case her stupid brother came home early – and thought for a little while she might die, it hurt so much.

She was in her room, working on her World Geography essay, when Stan came home and complained that it smelled like someone had died in the bathroom. Shelly took great pleasure in pounding him for that, because despite his accusations, she was a delicate flower. If there was any gross stench in there, it was clearly left over from whatever Stan had done in there that morning.

As stupid as Stan was, he eventually realized the truth of what she was saying, and if he was doubled over in pain when he eventually limped to the dinner table, that was further proof that his own bowels had been the culprit all along.

During dinner, her father launched into a lament over some stupid television show she'd never heard of being canceled, and her mother decided to play the role of the supportive spouse instead of being the rational one, because she clucked her tongue sympathetically and opened a new can of gluten-free beer for him. Stan poked his fork at the carrots on his plate and sighed heavily at regular intervals until Randy noticed and asked what was bothering him.

Shelly rather viciously sawed at her pork chop and refused to make eye contact with any of them.

She flopped on her bed when she returned to her room and stared at the ceiling for a while, at the little dried paint bubble near the wall where the brush strokes weren't as smooth.

Tomorrow she was going to make an appointment with Mr. Grant, her advisor, because she'd finally made up her mind what she was going to do in the spring.

"You're sure this is what you'd like to do," Mr. Grant said slowly.

"I'm sure, sir," she replied, meeting his gaze steadily.

"You know the University of Denver has several programs in computer technology and computer science."

"Not interested."

"It is, of course, your decision," he said with a sigh reminiscent of her father, "but I want to be sure you're aware of all your options."

"Not interested," she repeated firmly.

"Well, then," he said, leaning forward over the pages he had spread out in front of him. "Let's make sure your courses next semester complete the degree requirements for your AGS."

He ran his finger down one column, then the next, and while he was focused on the list of courses, Shelly took a deep breath. She knew, before he opened his mouth, what she needed to take in order to get her Associate of General Studies.

"You're missing a class in Oral Communication," he said, just as she'd known he would.

"I plan on taking Intercultural Communication."

He made a note on the page, then frowned. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather take Public Speaking? There's no conflict with that class, considering the others you've listed."

Shelly was sure. She hated speaking in front of people; she'd hated it ever since the orthodontist had ruined her life by announcing that braces alone wouldn't correct her teeth, oh no. He'd not only fitted her with the bane of her middle school existence, he'd gleefully explained that Shelly's particular misalignment would require the apparatus full-time and not, as the brochures had indicated, at home or at night. No amount of crying or pleading had swayed either the orthodontist or her parents. Not only was the headgear hideous, it hurt like hell.

Of course Stan didn't need braces. No, he had perfect teeth without any kind of intervention.

Life was so unfair.

"I'd rather take Intercultural Communication."

Grant sucked in his breath between his teeth – teeth, Shelly noticed, that could have benefited from a set of braces, full headgear, and some Crest White Strips.

"And for physical science you're taking Astronomy?"

"Yes." Anything, really, that wasn't Geology.

He made a few more notations, explained in too-lengthy detail the career resources that were available at the college, and she refrained from rolling her eyes at the way he chewed on his bottom lip, muttering "hmm" to himself, as he stared at her registration form.

However, her self-restraint only went so far. "It's not going to bite you, you know."

"Mmm?" he responded, not bothering to look up.

At this, she did roll her eyes, and watched the second hand on the clock as it moved jerkily from the large number one to just past the seven before the rustling of papers indicated Mr. Grant was done doing whatever it was he'd been up to for the past thirty-six seconds.

He was clearly waiting for a response, so Shelly nodded. "The career center. Yes."

He beamed at her then, which would have made him look almost handsome, if not for the teeth, and he stood up to shake her hand.

"If you need anything else, Shelly, my office door is always open."

"Yeah, okay. Thanks, Mr. Grant."

It wasn't until she got to her algebra class and sat down that she noticed the tightness in her chest had eased somewhat. She bit back a smile as she pulled out her pencil and a calculator. Not even a pop quiz could ruin her good mood, not when she was so close to getting her two-year degree and more importantly, getting the hell away from her family.

Four years later


There was an expression that you couldn't go home again, but like many things in life, it was just a big fat lie.

Shelly was tired of lies. Her father had promised her that he'd pay for the security deposit on her apartment when she'd moved in, since he was going to pay for Stan to go to Denver University. A lie.

Her boss had assured her that she held a critical position and she was therefore safe from downsizing; that, too, had been a lie. He'd been unable to look her in the eye when he gave her the bad news and had her sign her severance papers.

Connor had said he loved her, and he understood her desire to wait until after marriage to have sex. He'd been more than happy to wait until after marriage, because what they had was more than physical. Obviously he'd meant he was fine waiting to have sex with Shelly, but not with anyone else. They weren't officially engaged, but all signs were pointing in that direction. He'd gone from having a drawer in her apartment to two, then half the closet and most of the medicine cabinet. They'd just talked about his giving up his own apartment, since he was there more than his own place. It was reasonable to assume, when she'd come home from work early the day she was terminated, that she'd find solace in his arms.

Instead she found him frolicking in bed with some athletic blonde bitch.

Their break-up fight was mostly academic; there was no way she would have ever stayed with him after that, but that it still hurt to hear him excuse his infidelity by calling her frigid. She'd been close to giving in a few times, but she'd never been quite ready.

She was glad she hadn't given him that, at least.

She looked around the apartment, at the boxes that represented the past three years of her life, and felt a hot pricking behind her eyelids. She loved Denver; she wanted to stay here and enjoy her independence. The last thing she wanted was to go back to South Park and back to her parents' house, with no money and no prospects.

She had a two-year degree and nearly four years of practical experience in the field, but now all the positions she was qualified for required a bachelor's degree at a minimum. She'd applied for them all anyway, emphasizing the computer programming and the projects she'd been involved in, but the phone had remained silent, and she'd been forced to give up the apartment.

The only good thing about that was going far away from the scene of the crime. She'd thrown out the sheets that Connor and his slut had soiled, but she'd never be able to rid herself of the image of the blonde's bouncing boobs as Connor rammed into her from behind.

"Ready, Shell?" her father asked from the doorway. A glance around the apartment showed that the boxes had been taken away while she'd stood there indulging in a pity party for one. She made herself a promise right then. She might not have a choice but to live with her parents for now, but she would do whatever it took to get the hell out of South Park as soon as possible.

She picked up her jacket and slung it over her shoulder.

"Ready, Dad."

Despite her resolve, the sound of the door closing behind her filled her with dread.

Shelly was lying in bed a month later, staring at the ceiling, when a timid knock sounded at her door.

"Shelly?" her father asked. "Shelly?"

"What, Dad?"

"How'd the interview go?"

"How do you think it went?"

"I don't know. That's why I'm asking. Shelly? Did it go OK?"

She got up and nearly tore the hinges off the door.

"No, Dad, it didn't. They said my experience was in outdated technology."

"Oh," he said, his eyes downcast. "I don't really have that problem in my job."

"You don't understand anything," she said. "Just leave me alone!" she slammed the door and threw herself on the bed. She knew she was overreacting. It was just that she felt like she'd wasted so much time. She should have transferred to state college right away; she should have taken some other electives; she should have explored other options.

She sat up. Her father was right about one thing. His job wasn't dependent on keeping up with the latest programming language. Geologists used technology, but they were the customer, not the supplier. Rocks were rocks; they hadn't changed in hundreds of years. She'd only gone to college for two years; Stan was beginning his fourth year. Her credits would transfer to state and she could enter as a junior. She might be older than most of the other students, but not by much.

She'd promised herself she would do whatever it took to get out of South Park. If pursuing a degree in Geology was the means to do so, then so be it.

Ten months later

Spring semester

University of Colorado - Boulder

"You should come with us."

Shelly, engrossed in the paper she was writing, bit her lip and backspaced over the last line she'd written.

"Earth to Shelly, come in Shelly," Chloe, one of her roommates, cajoled. Her head hung upside down from Shelly's lofted bed.

"What?" Shelly scowled.

"You should come out with us this weekend. Take a break, have a few drinks, maybe dance with a cute guy or two."

Shelly snorted. That would be the day.

"Seriously," Brenda, their other roommate, and the only one who'd opted to keep her bed on the floor, interjected. She hadn't even bothered to look up from her phone. "Maybe you can even get laid."

"Bren!" Chloe scolded. "Don't listen to her, Shell."

Shelly didn't plan on listening to either one of them. Neither of her roommates knew that she was still a virgin, but they did know that her love life was nonexistent. Even when she'd had a boyfriend, she'd never been as obsessed with sex as these two were.

"But you know," Chloe continued, "you should still come. You don't have to bump uglies with someone."

"Says the girl who – "

Brenda didn't get to finish her sentence, because Chloe threw a pillow down at her before turning back to Shelly.

"Come on, Shelleeee," she sang. "Forget sex; forget men. Just come out with us for a little bit. You could use a break. Recharge the ol' batteries."

"I'd love to," Shelly said with mock enthusiasm, "but my brakes are wearing thin, so I'm driving home this weekend to have the pads replaced." Which was entirely true, but Chloe was not so easily dissuaded.

"We can pick you up. Both of us will follow you, and then we can all drive back together."

"She doesn't want to go, Chloe."

Shelly lifted her head and glared at Brenda, who was smirking at something on her phone. That settled it. If she didn't want to go, that was up to her, not Brenda. Shelly pushed her chair away from her desk and looked up at Chloe.

"Okay," she said, "I'll go, but when we get to South Park, we're not stopping to talk to anyone. You can wait out in the car while I drop off the keys. And get off my bed."

"Squee," Chloe said, jumping down to the floor to give Shelly a hug.

Brenda snorted. "Only you would actually say ‘squee,' Chloe."

Chloe ignored her, jumping to her feet and grabbing Shelly's hands. "I'm so glad you're coming with us! We are going to have so much fun!"

"Or at least get laid. Which," Brenda added thoughtfully, "isn't always the same thing."

"Frat boys are the worst," Chloe sighed.

If Shelly had been considering trying to hook up with someone, which she most certainly hadn't been, her roommates' comments would have given her serious second thoughts.

Hell, she was already regretting her decision, and they hadn't even walked out the door yet.

Five hours later, Shelly sat at the bar, swirling a plastic swizzle stick around her glass of Diet Pepsi. She watched the ice spin for a while, then she placed her finger over the end of the stick and put it back in the glass. When she pulled it back out, she lifted her finger and watched the soda dribble back into her glass.

"Hey, Shell," Chloe said, plopping into the seat next to her. "There you are."

"Here I am," Shelly agreed, swirling the ice around her glass again.

"Are you okay?" her roommate asked. "I didn't see you leave the dance floor."

Shelly focused her energy on stabbing at the floating pieces of ice in her drink. "I'm fine. I had to pee."

Chloe rested her head on Shelly's shoulder. "You looked like you were having fun for a while there. Zach really seemed taken with you."

She actually had been having fun. The music was retro enough to remind her of the music she danced to in her room back home, but not so retro that it sucked. She'd forgotten how much fun it was, to dance as if no one was watching. Zach, a junior from the University of Denver, and two of his friends had flirted with them and offered to buy them drinks, which only Shelly had declined. It wasn't long after that when Shelly, flushed and sweaty thanks to the CU Buffs sweatshirt she'd unwisely worn to the bar, had downed an entire bottle of water and needed to pee. The line outside the women's room had been incredibly long, so she'd been trying her best not to focus on the sound of water running through the pipes in the wall when she heard a couple of familiar voices near the men's room.

"...always a fat one in the group," Zach complained.

"That's taking one for the team," the one who had been dancing with Chloe said with a laugh. Brandon, she thought his name was. "I don't know why you're complaining. I'm the only one striking out. Matt's probably already got that little spinner in the back seat, and the chubby chicks are always an easy lay."

"Not this one. She's frigid as fuck."

"She's totally into you, though. You can close this deal."

"Yeah, maybe, but the fat ones are fucking clingy as balls after."

"Give her a fake number and she won't be able to text you. I'm never going to score with Chloe if she spends the whole time trying to get her friend laid first."

If her bladder hadn't been near to bursting, Shelly would have turned around and punched them both right then and there. She was still seething when she took a seat at the bar, and the woman tending it had taken one look at Shelly's scowl and hadn't charged her for the soda.

"Zach is a turd," Shelly muttered, savagely poking at the remaining ice.

"Oh, Shelly," Chloe said sorrowfully. "You want to go home?"

That's exactly where Shelly wanted to go, but not home to the dorms. She wanted to go home to South Park, which made no sense whatsoever because she hated it there, and it wasn't like her family had ever been much comfort before. Not that it mattered, because as the lone teetotaler of the group, Shelly was the designated driver and she had to get her roommates home, too.

"Hey," Brandon-or-something-like-that said, appearing next to Chloe. "There you are." He leaned his elbow on the bar.

Chloe pushed his arm away. "Your friend's an asshole," she informed him.

"Which one?" he asked cautiously, then realized Shelly was sitting next to her. "Oh. Hey, Sherry, I'm sorry about Zach. He's just, uh, going through a rough time right now, um, yeah, just getting over a breakup, ya know? We probably shouldn't have dragged him out with us, but we thought it would be good for him." He shrugged. "Obviously he's not ready to be back on the market."

Brandon waited for some kind of reaction, and, receiving nothing for his efforts, looked uncomfortable.

"OK. So. Um. It was great meeting you ladies," he said, backing away from the bar. "You have yourselves a good night."

"Let's go get Brenda," Chloe said, pushing the glass away from Shelly. "She's probably out back smoking and playing poker or craps or something." She leaned in closer to Shelly and whispered, "she couldn't wait to get away from that creep who kept trying to get in her pants. She said he was too full of himself to be any good in bed."

Shelly was glad it was dark in the bar, because she was blushing again. She followed Chloe until they found Brenda, right out back like Chloe said she'd be. They joined in the poker game, and an hour later and thirty-two dollars richer, the three of them were in the car, singing along with terrible pop songs the whole way back.

"You're a fucking fierce bitch, Sherrrrrry," Brenda said from the back seat, her words only slightly slurred. She'd been calling Shelly that ever since she heard about their run-in with Brandon. "Best bitchy poker face ever."

"She loves you, too, Bren," Chloe said, turning around. "As do I."

"'m glad you came with us, Ssshell," Brenda mumbled around a yawn.

Me too, Shelly realized with some surprise. She put on the turn signal to take the exit ramp. Me too, Bren.

Chloe was gone early the next day, bringing some of her belongings back home so she wouldn't have to do cram it all in her car in two weeks. Shelly, who hadn't needed to recover from a night of drinking, spent the morning working on her paper while Brenda was still in bed, under a mountain of blankets, where she'd passed out the night before. When Shelly got back from making a lunch run, Brenda was finally sitting up in bed, her head in her hands.

"Fuck," Brenda groaned. "Shouldn't have had that last Jäger."

"You shouldn't have had the first one, either," Shelly said, sitting in the chair across from her and taking a bite of her sandwich.

"Ha ha," Brenda replied without looking up. "Mind getting me some aspirin? And a water, if we have any left."

After Shelly handed over a couple of tablets, she also twisted the cap off the bottle without being asked. She'd seen her father like this before.

"Hey, what are you doing up so early, anyway?" Brenda asked after downing both aspirin at once.

"It's after noon," Shelly pointed out.

"Huh," Brenda said, and then she slapped her hand over her mouth and ran out of the room.

Shelly sighed and finished her lunch. She might have enjoyed going out last night, and she was actually starting to like Brenda, who had grated on her nerves until recently, but she hated how unreliable drunks could be. Not that Brenda was as bad as Randy or Stan, but she did have a habit of overindulging on occasion. It was a matter of pride for Brenda, to show that she could drink someone under the table, but Shelly couldn't see that as something to be proud of. Shelly didn't drink because she preferred not being a bumbling idiot, and she liked having a driver's license.

She was annoyed with Brenda, but she wasn't about to remind her roommate how she'd promised to drive Shelly down to South Park to pick up her car this afternoon. Maybe Brenda would be sober by then, but it wasn't likely. Living with Randy had taught her that, too. She'd just have to take the bus home instead.

Which was a great plan until she got to the bus station to find people running around and screaming – a couple of them with their heads on fire, and at least one spurting blood. She took a deep breath and turned right around, heading back to the dorm. It was a sad day indeed when a trip to South Park would get her away from rampaging dinosaurs that spewed flames.

As she walked, she pulled out her cell phone and scrolled through her contacts before realizing she didn't know most of the names listed. She turned the phone over to see the logo for the Broncos on the back.

"That turd," she said through gritted teeth. Stan had been home yesterday, too, when Shelly was there to drop off her car, and he'd obviously taken her phone by mistake when he headed out with his dork friends. This had only happened because they were both forced to use the same ugly impact resistant cases for their phones, to "protect their investment" since Randy had once again decided to chase a dream instead of working at a steady job. They'd gotten matching cases just because the pink one Shelly had wanted cost a couple dollars more. This was all Stan's fault for breaking his last phone.

When she got back to the dorm, she slammed the door behind her, momentarily forgetting Brenda was still nursing a hangover. Too used to this exact scene at home, she wasn't very sympathetic when Brenda groaned from beneath the pile of blankets.

"I'm dying," Brenda moaned.

"I'll miss you."

"Heartless bitch."

"I said I'd miss you, didn't I?" Shelly pointed out. She dialed her home number and let it ring a few times, but it went right to voice mail. She scrolled through Stan's contact list to call her mother's cell phone, getting voice mail there, too. She then tried calling her father, but when he answered, he sounded less capable of driving than Brenda. Finally, she tried her own cell phone number, figuring that Stan would answer, but the voice on the other end was definitely female.

"Wendy?" Shelly asked.

"Wendy?" the voice repeated. "I'm sorry. I think you must have the wrong number."

"No, wait!" Shelly said. "I'm looking for Stan."

"Oh, Stan!" the girl said cheerily. "He just left."

She was going to fucking kill him. Not only did he take her phone by mistake, he then turned around and left it behind.

"Where did that turd go?"

"Is this Shelly?"

"Yes," Shelly gritted out.

"I knew as soon as I saw Stan had your phone that you'd wonder what happened to it. I'll bring it back to your house and leave it with your parents so you'll know that it's safe, OK?"

"Yeah, thanks."

"No problem!" the girl chirped again. "It was nice talking to you. Good luck on your-"

The call ended abruptly, before Shelly got the chance to ask the girl to pass a message along to her parents. Shelly would bet anything that, since it wasn't his phone, Stan hadn't bothered to charge it. Just in case, she tried calling her phone again, but it went right to voice mail, confirming her suspicion.

She could wait until later to try again, but she wanted to get home, get the car, and drive back so she'd have all day tomorrow to finish the paper before it was due on Monday. She'd hoped to work on it during the bus ride to South Park, but nothing was going right today.

If Stan wasn't there, wherever there was, he was probably at his super best friend's house. She found Kyle's number and dialed, only to have Kyle tell her that Stan had gone to Kenny's. She might have wondered why Stan was going there, since no one really liked going to the part of town formerly known as SoDoSoPa, but all she really cared about was finding someone willing and able to drive to Boulder and back. Unless it was Stan, who was going to pick her up whether he was willing or not.

She called Kenny's number, thinking it was Kenny's cell and that Kenny would be the one to answer, so she was surprised when she heard Stuart McCormick's voice instead.

"Hello?" he shouted into the phone.

"Hi, Mr. McCormick?"

"We're not interested in anything you're selling!"

"I'm not selling anything!" she said hurriedly, afraid he'd hang up on her. "I'm looking for Stan."


"Stan. Stan Marsh?"

"He's not here."

She was going to seriously strangle her brother when she got home.

"Is Kenny there?" she asked, hoping he'd know where Stan went.

"Kevvy?" he asked. "Hang on."

She covered her face with both hands as Stuart McCormick put the phone down and bellowed for his eldest son.

"Yeah?" Kevin said when he answered the phone.

"I was looking for your brother," Shelly said flatly.

"Isn't everyone?" Kevin retorted. "Sorry, he's not here."

"Do you know where he went?"

"Nope. I'm not my brother's personal bitch."

Despite her aggravation, her lips twitched at the annoyance in his voice. "I know. Me neither. He's the reason I'm looking for Kenny in the first place."

There was silence for nearly a minute, and then, "you're looking for Stan."

"Not because I want to."

They both laughed, sharing the pain of being the older sibling, and then Kevin asked, "why are you looking for him?"

"I need to pick up my car today; my roommate can't bring me; I can't reach my parents or my turd brother, and I have a paper due on Monday." She winced as she finished. She wasn't sure why she'd added that last part; it wasn't like Kevin had ever shown any sign that he found schoolwork worthwhile. There was no reason for him to care about any of it.

"You need a ride?"

She blinked. "Yeah."

"I can pick you up, but your car isn't ready yet."

"Maybe it'll be done by the time I get there."

"Trust me, it won't."

Any sense of comradery they'd shared was already a distant memory. This was just one reason why they'd never gotten along, and the progress on her car was the least of things she didn't trust when it came to Kevin McCormick.

"You don't know that."

He laughed, sounding amused. "You still want me to pick you up?"

That wasn't what she'd said at all. She wasn't about to try to track Stan down, but she could try her parents again. Then again, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, and this was the closest she'd come to getting to South Park since she got up this morning.

"Yes," she growled.

"Then I can guarantee you that it won't be ready when we get back."

She rubbed at her forehead. "If I have to wait for it, I'll wait for it."

"You'll have to wait for it."

"Whatever, Kevin."

"You don't believe me. That hurts." He didn't sound hurt in the least.

"I said I'd wait for it if I had to."

"Just remember you said that. Want me to leave now?"

No, she thought. I just want to hang out here all day and hope someone else will give me a ride, because I've been having so much luck so far.


"Yes, what?"

"Yes, now."

"Come on, Shelly, you can do better than that," he coaxed.

"I'll pay for gas."

"You'd have to do that anyway."

She wasn't at all surprised. "What do you want, Kevin?"

"I want you to ask nicely."

He was the one who had offered in the first place, or at least he'd assumed that's what she'd wanted. If she had the luxury of slamming the phone down, or at least firmly pressing her finger on the End Call button, she would have. The sooner she got this done and over with, the sooner she'd be on her way back to Boulder, and she'd have the entire ride back to try to forget she'd been stuck in a car with Kevin McCormick for nearly two hours. She took a deep breath.

"Will you come and give me a ride home?"

He laughed uproariously, and she realized too late how that had come out. "That's not what I meant!"

"Good," he chortled, "because it's usually the other way around."

"Please, Kevin," she said quietly, tired of the whole thing.

"See, now was that so hard?" he asked, and thankfully he didn't chuckle over his own word choice. "Where are you?"

"Baker Hall. You can check in at the front desk and they'll let me know you're here."

"Baker Hall," he repeated. "Be there around two, two-thirty."

He hung up, and she stared at the phone, unable to believe the lengths she had to go to because of Stan.

"Who's Kevin?"

Shelly had completely forgotten about her roommate sitting there. She blushed furiously.

"No one."

"This no one seems to have you all hot and bothered."

"Shut up," she said, throwing one of Brenda's discarded socks at her. "He's just someone I know."

Brenda pulled the sock off her head, where it had landed.

"A friend?"

"No!" Shelly denied, then realized that she had to provide some sort of explanation. "He's just...Kevin."

"Uh huh," Brenda said, and Shelly wasn't sure exactly what that tone of voice was implying. "I'm going to the vending machines to get some crackers or something. You want anything?"

"Diet Dr. Pepper," Shelly said, eager to change the subject.

When Brenda returned, she handed the soda to Shelly before tearing open the packet of crackers and taking a nibble out of one of them.

"I shouldn't have gotten you anything," Brenda mused. "You're keeping secrets from me."

She laughed, then clutched her forehead.

"Fuck, why didn't you tell me not to laugh?"

Brenda ate only one of the crackers before burrowing back down in the pile of blankets. Shelly had nearly finished her paper and was working on the Works Cited page when a loud knock at the door caused her to jump. She swung the door open to find Kevin McCormick on the other side, dressed in baggy sweatpants and a flannel shirt.


-Clyde Joseph-


He was a little taller than she remembered, because she used to have to look down to meet his eyes, but he still had the same irritating expression on his face.

Shelly scowled at him. "How did you find me?"

"Everyone here is so friendly," he said cheerfully. "I helped one of your neighbors load his shit into his car, and he told me where your room was."

She debated shutting the door in his face and making him wait in the hall, but he was her ride home, so she stepped back and gestured for him to come in. He made himself at home, sitting down in the chair Shelly had so recently vacated.

"Don't get too comfortable, Kevin, I just have to get my jacket and we can go."

"Aren't you going to go to the bathroom or something first? Women always need to go."

She hadn't needed to until he'd brought it up. The ride was already long enough, but it would take even longer if he had to pull into a rest stop. It would be even worse if he reminded her that he'd told her so before they left.

He was bobbing his head and singing Start Me Up when she returned, and she wondered how she would manage to deal with him the entire ride. He followed her into the hallway and switched to whistling the Final Jeopardy theme as she locked the door. With every second she spent in his company, she was regretting her decision to ride home with him, but in two hours she'd be rid of him and she'd have her car back. That was the important thing, she reminded herself.

She had to remind herself of that again when she saw his truck. He noticed her staring at it, and said, unnecessarily, "Used to be my dad's."

There was nothing to be said to that, so she opened the door, which was much heavier than she'd expected, and climbed up into the passenger seat. He shut the door as soon as her feet were in, and then he was in the truck next to her and starting the engine.

She felt a little bit nauseous as the engine roared to life. It wasn't a terribly long distance, but she was entrusting her safety to an allegedly recovering alcoholic in a vehicle that was so rusty, they'd probably be breathing exhaust fumes the whole way home. She was glad to see the gear shift on the floor between them; that would make it harder for him to try to feel up her thigh as he drove.

Kevin reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses, then he let up on the brake and the truck started to roll forward. Shelly inched toward the door a little as Kevin shifted gears, and then they were on their way.

She'd expected awkward conversation or uncomfortable come-ons during the ride home, but she experienced neither. For the first twenty miles, he acted as if she wasn't even there, singing along with the radio and drumming on the steering wheel. She might have felt insulted, but it was actually pleasant not being forced to endure her father's attempt at scintillating conversation or her mother's concern with Shelly's love life.

It wasn't the smoothest ride, but she found herself nodding off, jerking her head back suddenly and darting a glance over at her companion to see if he'd noticed and would mock her for it. He wasn't, but he was frowning, and Shelly looked straight ahead out the windshield to see the long lines of cars ahead.

She was suddenly very glad she'd used the bathroom before they left.

At some point during the ride, Kevin must have switched radio stations, because they were now listening to the local highway conditions instead of classic rock. He lowered the volume and turned to face her. He'd taken his sunglasses off, too; she could see his eyes flick toward the road and back to her.

"Traffic jam," he explained.

Of course. Of course there would be a something to delay their arrival in South Park. She couldn't even blame Kevin, because she usually took 285 to go home, too.

It had been cool outside when they'd left, but after sitting idle as long as they had, the sun had significantly warmed the interior of the truck. She glanced at the dashboard controls, but Kevin had already turned down the heat. He noticed her glance and said, "you can put the window down if you want, but the exhaust fumes are pretty bad."

She cracked the window open, realized "pretty bad" was an understatement, and covered her mouth and nose with one hand while she used the other to roll the window back up. It was weird to be in a vehicle without power windows, but she should have expected as much considering it belonged to Kevin McCormick.

She sat back in the seat, waiting him to say ‘I told you so,' but he was staring out the windshield, frowning. After a while he turned to her and said, "We should detour at the first chance we get."

She leaned forward until her nose was practically pressed against the glass. Whatever he saw that made him think leaving 285 was the best way to get home wasn't visible to her.

"Why?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Beats sitting here."

She normally wouldn't consider anything he suggested, but he didn't look like he cared one way or another, and he hadn't tried to give her some bullshit answer. They'd been sitting still for at least five minutes now, and it was stifling. Even a longer trip home had to be better that this, as long as they were moving.

"Any idea how far we are from the next exit?"

He looked at her and flashed the infamous McCormick grin, and she knew she was not going to like what that meant. He drove along the left shoulder right up to the next break in the highway, making a U-turn where the sign clearly indicated not to, and where there was usually a cop hanging out with a radar gun.

Although her heart had been in her throat while he drove illegally, the feel of being back on the open road felt liberating. The only problem was that they were now headed in the wrong direction, but she rightly assumed he would take the first exit.

"How long will it take to get home going this way?"

"No idea," he said, and that's when she leaned over and punched him in the arm.

"No idea? You have no idea? Do you even know where you're going?"

"South Park," he said, not at all perturbed by her tone or the assault.

She punched him again, and since he didn't react, she pulled her arm back to do it a third time. His hand shot out and he caught her fist in his hand.

"You're telegraphing your punches, Marsh."

She folded her arms over her chest and sat back in the seat with a huff. They drove a while longer in silence before he put his directional on and turned onto another road. She craned her neck to see if there was some sign that indicated where they were going, but Kevin seemed to be making this up as they went along.

After a few more minutes, he pushed a tape into the car stereo. If it had been anyone but Kevin, she wouldn't have believed what she was seeing.

"Is that an 8-track?"

"Nope," he said, turning up the volume. "It's a CD."

She laughed, then bit down on her lip and scowled. It hadn't been that funny, but it had been unexpected. If he'd heard her, he didn't give any sign; he was too busy singing along with Mick Jagger.

"...went down to the get my fair share of abuse..."

She rolled her eyes. He was such a child. He was singing terribly, too, but she knew from listening to him in the church choir that he wasn't that bad. His parents had made him join the choir years ago. Actually they'd made him serve the church as an altar boy first, but that had ended so disastrously that Father Maxi had decided that Kevin was less dangerous if he wasn't armed with a tall crucifix.

"WE'RE GONNA VENT OUR FRUSTRATION!" he screamed, turning his head toward her so she could get the full brunt of his vocal chords.

She chose to sit and sulk for a while, letting him get it out of his system. By the third song, he'd grown tired of screaming the lyrics and he was singing quietly under his breath, tapping the steering wheel in time with the music.

"Do you know where we are right now? And if you say Colorado, I will hurt you."

Kevin grinned at her and then pointed at a cheap plastic compass stuck to his dashboard. "We're heading southwest. Once we get past the state park, we can get back on 285."

"Have you been there?" she heard herself ask.

"Staunton? Nah. It might be new, but it's just a park. With a waterfall. Booooring."

She turned to look at him. He didn't sound as dismissive about it as he probably meant to.

"My dad's a geologist," she began.

"That's great," Kevin said drily. "Mine's a drunk."

Despite the obvious truth of the statement, it was startling to hear him announce it so freely.

"Mine too," she admitted.

He glanced at her and nodded. "Yeah, I know."

She should have been insulted that he readily agreed with her, but it was no secret that Randy Marsh had a drinking problem, no matter how he tried to mask it as an incurable disease or the habits of a discriminating connoisseur. Instead she felt relieved. Here was someone she didn't have to pretend around. Kevin had grown up in South Park; he already knew Randy Marsh and all of his escapades. His own father wasn't any better when it came to drinking, so he was hardly one to judge. At school she had to fob off questions about her family and discourage her roommates from considering a trip to the quaint little mountain town of South Park.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"For your dad being a drunk?" He shook his head. "He was that before you ever came along, trust me."

"No, not that, turd. I'm sorry our families suck."

He cuffed her lightly on the back of the head. "I don't know. You're all right. And your mom has nice tits."

And then Kevin had to go and spoil it.

She ground her teeth together and turned to look out the window. They continued on in silence, save for the crackly sounds of the Stones through the door speakers, and then Kevin nudged the outside of her thigh.


She tried ignoring him, but he was nothing if not persistent.

"Hey, Shelly."

She turned to glare at him. "What?"

"I'm sorry I said your mom has nice tits. Even if she does."

"Why are you all so obsessed with her boobs, anyway? You, your brother, most of Stan's friends." She hesitated. "Everyone in eighth grade..."

"It's a guy thing. Tell me you and your friends didn't admire some guy's ass or pecs. Same thing."

"No, it's not. It's more than that for us."

"Really?" he sounded skeptical. "You all talk about how you want some guy who treats you right and is sensitive and all that bullshit, but then you all end up with the biggest douche-horns."

He sounded bitter, like he was speaking from experience. She was bitter, too. "Not all of us."

He took his eyes off the road and stared at her long and hard. "All of you."

"Well, love is blind," she bit out. "Blind and stupid."

"Probably," he said, "but getting all moist because some guy is hot and has money isn't love. At least when we say your mom has nice tits, all we mean is she has nice tits."

"Stop talking about my mom's tits, you turd!"

"First admit that you were with that Julio guy because he was hot."

It took her a minute to realize he meant Helio, and the familiar ache resurfaced. "It wasn't like that."

"It never is," he scoffed. A few seconds later, he added, "but would you have cared as much if he looked like Mr. Garrison?"

"That's gross, Kevin. Did you ever jerk off thinking about Mrs. Garrison?" she snapped at him.

He laughed. "OK, fine. I'm just saying you're better off without him. He was high gloss paint and spoilers on a shitty chassis."

Her mother had unsuccessfully tried to comfort her in the early days of the breakup by saying nearly the same thing, but she almost believed it when Kevin said it. Even if he was envious of Helio's good looks and charm, it was still nice to hear that someone who was unbiased didn't think she'd come out the loser.

"Fine," she sighed. "He was hot, but a real turd."

"I was going to say ass-knocker, but that works, too."

"Did you know him?"

Kevin let out a long exasperated sigh. "Oh, I know him. High maintenance asshole. Ever seen pictures of his pussy wagon? Definitely compensating for a small dick."

She wouldn't know, at least about the size of Helio's dick. The car she definitely knew about; he'd posted photos of his pride and joy often enough, but she'd never been interested in the souped-up Corvette. She wasn't impressed by flashy muscle cars, also thanks to her father and his many mid-life crises.

"Yeah," she agreed, holding up her fingers less than an inch apart. "Miniscule." It was remarkably satisfying to malign Helio's manhood, whether it was true or not. "Can we stop talking about my mom's boobs now?"

"I wasn't talking about her boobs anymore. You're the one that brought them up again."


He threw his hands in the air. "OK, OK. No more Tit Talk."

"Thank you."

Kevin looked surprised, then nodded. "You're welcome." He gestured to the road ahead. "And we're not far from Staunton now."

That reminded her the whole reason that she'd brought up her father in the first place. Now that she wasn't quite as ready to kill Kevin as she'd been a few minutes ago, she wanted to get back to the less awkward conversation they'd had.

"Do you want to check it out?" she asked.

He snorted, then realized she was serious. "You know we're still over an hour from South Park, once we get back on the highway."

"My dad gets free annual passes to the state parks, through his job."

"And you want to check out the park now," he said skeptically.

"Don't you?"

"What's your game, Marsh?"

She hadn't expected him to be so defensive.

"I haven't been there yet. I wonder if Elks Falls is as great as they say it is."

He was quiet for a minute, and just when she thought he was going to ignore her, he spoke. "The hike is about five hours round trip. Don't you want to get your car and head back to Boulder?"

She'd nearly forgotten that was why she was in this truck with Kevin McCormick in the first place. She mentally did the math, figuring if they got to South Park by eight, she could make it back to school by ten o'clock. Kevin didn't think her car would be ready when they get back, but if they stopped, it most certainly would be by the time they got in. Plus, in a small town like South Park, it wouldn't matter if the garage was closed; someone would be around to hand over the keys.

She really did want to check out the waterfall, and maybe the rock formation. The colors were supposed to be impressive. It was one of those things where she always thought she'd get there eventually, but here they were, practically within spitting distance of the park. What better time than now?

"So you're not interested," she said, testing him.

He narrowed his eyes at her. "What if I said I was?"

She pulled her keys out of her pocket and pointed to one of the many plastic cards on the ring. "This will get us in for free."

Kevin was considering it; she could tell. "It might take me a while to get to the entrance," he cautioned.

"Punch it," she said.

He stomped on the gas and the momentum made her slam back against the seat back. If he got in an accident and killed her, she was so going to come back and haunt him for the rest of his days. In a car, this would have gone a lot more smoothly. The truck, on the other hand, rattled even when they were going at a reasonable speed; with Kevin speeding down the road, she could feel her teeth chattering.

It was the most excitement she'd had in a long while.

They made it there in one piece. Once he'd shown her pass at the entrance gate and they'd found a place to park, Kevin went around the truck and opened the passenger door, holding out his hand to help her down. She put her hand in his, even though she didn't need any assistance, and he smiled at her in a way she'd never seen before, like he was genuinely happy.

She felt a little dizzy stepping out of the truck, obviously a side effect of the adrenaline rush, and she stumbled into his arms briefly before pushing him away. She totally didn't notice the faint hint of Old Spice on his clothes.

She hadn't thought about water or provisions for the hike, but Kevin surprised her by pulling a backpack out of the truck bed. He grabbed a hat as well, a faded gray cap with a Coors Light Racing logo on the front, and pulled it low over his brow before slinging the bag over his shoulders.

"Ready, Marsh?" he asked, a teasing smile on his lips.

"Shut up, McCormick," she retorted, and, armed with a trail map, Kevin's bag, and Stan's cell phone, they headed up the trail.

Shelly would never admit this to a living soul, but she found rocks fascinating. She was probably more interested in the cliffs and outcrops than her father was, but she'd steadfastly refused to consider it seriously. There was a time when she'd insisted there would be no way she would ever pursue geology in terms of a career or a life goal, but things changed. Fortunately, she didn't have to explain her interest in the rock formations to Kevin, as he seemed more interested in the occasional bird or elk in the distance.

They were nearly halfway to the overlook an hour later when Shelly got a rock in her shoe. She looked around for a place to sit down, and, finding none, grabbed Kevin's arm for support so she could remove her shoe and shake it out. Once the stone hit the ground, she dropped her sneaker and tried to shove her foot into it, glaring at the stone as she did so. He watched her struggle for a few seconds before dropping to one knee and untying the laces so there was enough room for her foot. She used his shoulders to steady herself, and the embarrassment heightened when he re-tied her laces before getting to his feet.

She took one step forward on the trail when Kevin's hand on her arm stopped her. She whirled around, ready to punch him, when she realized he was holding a dented canteen out to her. She accepted the offering and, trying not to think that Kevin's lips had also been on the canteen, took a long drink of water.

"Thanks," she said, wiping her mouth with her sleeve.

When she gave the canteen back to Kevin, he tipped it in her direction in a mock toast and drank from it himself. Shelly watched his Adam's apple bob as he drank. When she realized what she was doing, she quickly glanced away.

"See anything interesting?" he asked.

At first she thought he was making some kind of innuendo, but it was a fair question since she was staring at a tree like it was the most fascinating thing she'd ever seen.

"No," she said with a vehement shake of her head.

He removed his hat and wiped the back of his arm over his brow before putting it back on.

"Probably just a squirrel, then." He pulled the backpack over his shoulders and gestured ahead of him. "Ladies first."

She marched up the trail ahead of him, half expecting to hear him laughing at her.

The last half of the hike was more difficult. She was in decent physical condition, but the trek was more than she was used to all at once. Kevin wasn't even winded; in fact, he was whistling a song Shelly didn't recognize and acting as if this walk in the park had been nothing more than, well, a walk in the park. She cringed at her own analogy and decided it was time to swallow her pride.

"Wait," she said, bending over and putting her hands on her knees.

"Water?" he asked, offering the canteen again.

What she really needed was to sit down for a few minutes, but she'd settle for any excuse that got them to stop for a while. The water wouldn't hurt, either. She took a few sips and handed it back, trying not to gasp for air.

"Come on," he coaxed, taking her hand in his. "We're almost there. You can do it."

She could, and she did. Fifteen minutes later, they were at the Elks Falls Overlook, and it had been worth the effort. She dug Stan's phone out of her pocket and used it to zoom in on the waterfall. Kevin just stood there, looking out at the entire landscape like he'd never seen anything like it.

Which he probably hadn't; Shelly hadn't seen anything like it, either.

When he realized she was staring at him, he flashed that annoying grin of his. "Like what you see, Marsh?"

"Yes. Except for the turd blocking the view."

He thumped his chest with his fist. "Right here, Shell. You got me right here."

She snorted, and he stepped away from the outcrop to stand next to her.

"Want to chill here for a few?" he asked.

What she wanted was to get back in the truck and get home, but it was another five and a half miles back down the trail, and she had a stitch in her side. She could tough it out, but she could also use a short break before they resumed their hike. She sat down on the ground and leaned back on the heels of her hands.

Naturally he sat down next to her, but she didn't mind so much. She was going to have to sit next to him the entire ride home anyway.

He unzipped his backpack and pulled out a stick of jerky wrapped in wax paper, which he offered to her first. She tore off a piece with difficulty; it was tougher than she'd expected, and not as salty. It wasn't necessarily bad, but it tasted weird, and it took a while to chew and swallow. She attempted a second bite before handing it back to Kevin.

"Kinda chewy," she said around a mouthful of jerky.

"Yeah, venison can be like that."

She nearly spat it out before remembering the park rules about garbage, and she forced herself to swallow it. "This is deer?"

"Yep. Kenny bagged this one. Your Uncle Jimbo's the one that taught him how to shoot."

She thought she might throw up. She wasn't a vegetarian by any means, but she tried not to picture the animal that had died to provide the meat on her plate. Kevin patted her on the back, and she wanted to punch him all over again.

"Sorry. I forgot you wouldn't know what it was." He bit off a piece for himself. "Kind of an acquired taste, like squirrel."

"Squirrel? You have squirrel jerky?"

He laughed. "Of course not. By the time you skin one, there's hardly enough left to fry up, let alone peel into strips for jerky."

Shelly was no fainting miss, but hunting seemed terribly barbaric. "I could never eat squirrel."

"Oh, you'd be surprised what you could eat if you had to," he said, waving the jerky around.

She pulled a knee into her chest and leaned her arm on it. "Like what?"

"Raccoon, squirrel, possum. No skunk, though." He looked up at the sky, thinking, then added, "and rat. Kenny's like the pied piper of rats."

"You've eaten rat?"

"Not often," he explained. "Just when we had to. Usually we ate the same as you. Pop Tarts, frozen waffles, shit like that. And my mom'll sometimes bring home leftovers from Olive Garden."

She'd thought Stan had been exaggerating when he'd bitched about the food selections at Kenny's house years earlier. That the McCormicks were dirt poor was a well-known fact, but she hadn't really considered what that meant. They were certainly never hurting for beer and cigarettes. She wasn't about to bring that up now, though, so she said nothing.

Eventually Kevin stood up and held a hand out to Shelly. When she got to her feet, he pulled the hat off his head and put it on hers. She wanted to snatch it off and throw it into the woods, fearful it was full of lice or worse.

"Your nose is turning red," he explained, ignorant of her less than flattering thoughts.

"Oh," she said, touching the tip of her nose. "Thanks."

"Come on," he said again, and this time she didn't wait for him to extend his hand. She started walking, and Kevin followed.

It was easier going down the trail than coming up, and although she could have used another break, she powered on until they reached the bottom. Shelly had spent the entire trek trying to sort out her feelings for Kevin. They weren't romantic feelings by any stretch of the imagination, but she was definitely hating him less than she used to. She'd always hated him, but she'd hated most of the boys in her school. Calling them turds was often being generous, because they were, as a whole, sexist, moronic wastes of space.

Kevin had often been a passive ringleader, mostly because of his frequent absences from school and his I-don't-give-a-shit attitude. Even sober, he'd never taken anything seriously. He was slow and stupid and a total perv.

Except he wasn't. Shelly didn't know how to process this new information, or if she should. She was trying to get the hell out of South Park, not get sucked back into it. She and Kevin weren't friends; they'd never be friends. Just because they'd shared a couple of moments didn't mean anything, and they hadn't even been significant moments.

By the time they were back in the truck and Kevin's hat was back on his own head, the comfortable silence they'd shared earlier was gone, replaced by an awkward awareness of Kevin's body on the other side of the bench seat and the faint scent of his aftershave. She reacted to the change the only way she knew, by going on the offensive.

"How long until we get home?"

"About an hour once we get to 285, just like I told you before."

"That doesn't tell me how long it will take from here."

"It was your idea to stop in the first place. I told you it was a long hike. Just like a woman, never satisfied," he said, shaking his head.

That he was right only made it worse, but his sneering comment about women was the icing on the cake.

"And it was your idea to pick me up. I didn't even want you to."

"But here you are," he said. "No one forced you."

"Just drive. The sooner we get to South Park, the sooner I can leave."

"I told you, there's no way your car is going to be ready when we get there."

"What do you know, Kevin? That was hours ago."

He turned his head. "Fine, Marsh. I don't know anything."



Kevin's next expletive was a hearty "fucking shit" accompanied by a bone shaking rumbling, and Kevin pulled the truck off the side of the road.

"What happened?"

"Flat tire," he said. "Sit tight, princess."

She would have done exactly that except for the fact that he'd told her to, so she unbuckled and joined him outside, staring at the large rivet stuck in the front tire. She reached in her pocket for Stan's phone.

"I'll call Triple A."

He looked like he was going to argue, but he shoved his hands in his pocket and leaned back against the truck, looking like he didn't have a care in the world. In fact, he started whistling Oops I Did It Again while Shelly walked up and down the road trying to find a signal. When she did find one, she couldn't stay connected long enough to give any information.

When Kevin dared grin at her after she gave up and stomped back toward the truck, she threw the phone at his head, where it bounced off the brim of his cap and landed in a puddle just off the side of the road. Her eyes widened. She wouldn't normally care if Stan's phone was toast, but she'd have preferred that happen when she didn't need it anymore.

Naturally Kevin made no move to retrieve the phone, so by the time she picked it up, enough water had penetrated it to make the phone completely nonresponsive. She couldn't wait to tell her parents that the case Stan was using was obviously not a real water resistant Otterbox.

She wanted to scream. She was stuck out in the middle of nowhere with Kevin McCormick and no way of calling for help. They'd have to walk to the nearest house and hope the homeowner was willing to let them make a call.

"Look what you did," she accused, brandishing the phone at him.

He gestured to himself, raising his eyebrows in question. She threw her hands up in the air and started pacing in circles, wondering which direction she should start walking. Meanwhile, Kevin went to the bed of the truck and pulled out a jack and a full-sized tire with questionable tread, which he rolled toward the front.

"You didn't tell me you could fix it yourself," she accused.

She felt a little bit guilty. If it had been anyone but Kevin, she wouldn't have been surprised. In fact, she assumed most men knew how to change a simple flat tire.

"You didn't give me a chance," he said with a shrug. He screwed the handle into the jack and went to work lifting the front of the truck off the ground.

"Do you need me to do anything?"

"Besides standing there looking pretty?" he grinned.

"Shut up, turd."

He clucked his tongue, and then glanced at the wet phone in her hand. "What you can do is take that phone out of its case and remove the battery."


"So you can put the phone and battery in that bag of rice." He nodded his head toward the bench seat, where there was, in fact, a bag of rice. He must have moved it there while she was trying to find a signal. It had probably been in the back of the truck with his road kill jerky.

She'd heard that sometimes rice would draw out the water, and there was nothing else to do while she waited for him to change the tire. She shoved the phone and the battery deep into the bag, and then glared at it like it might work immediately.

"How long?" she asked, turning to face Kevin who was using a crowbar to remove the lug nuts.

"For the tire, just a few minutes. For the phone, probably overnight. Maybe a couple of days."

There was nothing more for her to say, so she sullenly watched him work. He was surprisingly competent, something she would have never thought of him. She felt another twinge of guilt for her hostility. She didn't like Kevin, but she had been a little on the bitchy side while he was just doing her a favor. She resolved to be nicer to him the rest of the way home.

Her resolve didn't last very long, because there was a rustle of leaves, and then a skunk peered out of the brush. She slowly backed away, not wanting to scare it, and bumped right into Kevin, who stumbled but didn't lose his balance.

"Skunk," she warned through gritted teeth.

They both stood together motionless, until the skunk, its curiosity satisfied, ambled away. Shelly let out a relieved breath before realizing that Kevin was still pressed up behind her, his hands on her hips. She swallowed and took a careful step away from him.

"I think it's gone," she said, trying not to move her lips.

"You're not going to like this, but that's not the only thing that's gone."

Forgetting the skunk, she whirled around. Kevin stood there holding his hands up. His empty hands. A quick glance at the tire showed it was on the rim, held on by a single lug nut.

"Where are the rest?" she asked.

He gestured toward the woods. "Somewhere around here, I'm guessing."

She glanced at her watch, then toward the waning sun. They should have been nearly to South Park by now, if not for the flat tire. She'd expected to be home by sunset at the latest, but now those precious hours of daylight were needed to locate the rest of the lug nuts.

They split up, combing the ground nearby. Kevin found one, but Shelly turned up nothing but a couple of empty beer cans. Twenty minutes later, Kevin got the flashlight out of the trunk, but they had no better luck than they'd had with the sun still overhead.

She stormed up to Kevin and shoved him as hard as she could with both hands. "Why were you holding them? You should have put them on the ground next to the tire!"

"Don't blame me," he said, grabbing her wrists. "You're the one that jumped on me."

"Errrrgh," she growled in frustration as she pulled her arms free. It had been harder than she'd expected, but the important thing was she showed him that he couldn't overpower her.

He went to the back of the truck and started moving things around.

"Do you have a spotlight back there?" she asked hopefully.

"Sure," he said. "Right next to my fog machine and disco ball."

Ugh, he was such an asshole. "Then what are you doing?"

He pointed toward the setting sun. "I'm trying to get us set up for the night before it gets any darker and we can't see a thing."

"No," she said. "No, no. We are not staying here for the night. We have to find the lug nuts."

His arm made a sweeping gesture toward the trees. "Go right ahead, princess. I won't stop you."

"Stop calling me that!"

"If the tiara fits..."

"I hate you," she muttered under her breath.

"I'll try not to lose sleep over it," he said, then he sat up on the edge of the truck bed, his canteen in hand. He pulled the top off with his teeth and took a swig before offering it to her. She was actually thirsty, and she'd already shared the canteen with him. She grudgingly accepted the water and took a long drink herself.

"It's almost gone," she said, shaking it when she was done.

"That's OK," he said. "I have another one back here."

In other words, she could have had her own canteen on the hike. She was too tired to point that out, and climbed into the back of the truck with him. It was nearly dark, but she could make out the blankets spread out on the bed liner.

"I want to sleep in the cab," she told him.

"And I want a blow job, but you don't hear me bitching about it."

"I'm not blowing you just so I can sleep in the front!"

"Oh, not from you. You'd probably bite it off, and I'm kind of attached to my dick. But if you want to try sleeping in the front, knock yourself out. Princess," he added.

She thought he'd been exaggerating, but he was right. There was no way she could sleep there. The steering wheel was too close to the seat, the gear shift was right there in the middle, and despite the length of the bench seat, she couldn't stretch out her legs. She even tried propping herself up against the door, but the handle dug into her back.

Fortunately for Kevin, he didn't dare tell her "I told you so" when she re-joined him in the back, where he was sitting on the wheel hub next to a battery operated lantern. It didn't provide much light, so it wouldn't have helped in their search for the lug nuts, but at least it wasn't pitch black out.

"French fry?" he offered, extending a wrinkled bit of paper with a fast food logo on it.

She wrinkled her nose. "How long have you had those things?"

He popped one in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Since yesterday?"

She would have declined, but her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly, and she grabbed two of the limp fries and put them both in her mouth at the same time. They were soft and greasy, but not as bad as she thought. Between them, they finished the fries, and she even risked trying another bite of jerky before washing it down with water from the second, much smaller, canteen.

"Do you live back here?" she asked, gesturing to the bedding and the food.

"You know where I live," he reminded her, then added, "I've been stranded a few times."

He'd been stranded in this very truck, the one he expected to make it all the way from South Park to Boulder and back again. Even if they hadn't gotten the flat tire, the truck still might not make it home. She felt a tension headache coming on and wanted nothing more than to lie down. Just not next to Kevin.

He licked his fingers and wiped them on his pants before balling up the wrappers, which he then shoved haphazardly in the backpack. Once he'd done that, he turned down the lantern until there was almost no light and stretched out.

"We can look for them in the morning," he said. "Unless a raccoon makes off with them. They like shiny things."

When she finally accepted that sleeping next to him was the lesser of several evils, she rolled over so her back was to him and prayed they would find the lug nuts in the morning.

It wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep. The padded liner was a thin barrier against the grooves in the truck bed, and although the thin blankets were warm enough when piled on top of her, they smelled faintly of fast food grease and cheap fabric softener.

Her inability to sleep, however, had been a problem long before she found herself stuck in the middle of nowhere, camping out in the back of Kevin McCormick's truck.

She wasn't about to toss and turn. It wasn't like she was going to make the truck bed any softer, and she wasn't about to let the pervert sleeping next to her think she was trying to invite him in her pants or anything.

She pulled the blanket up to her chin. She knew from countless sleepless nights that closing her eyes wouldn't help, but there wasn't much to see with her eyes open, either. The moon wasn't full, but there was enough light to see the clumps of dirt in the truck bed, and the long crack in the crappy liner she was lying on.

She reached out and ran her finger over the raised edge of the vinyl, biting her lip as she felt it slice through her skin. Without thinking, she brought her finger to her mouth and sucked on it, then realized she had no idea what kind of germs were in this truck. If she got sick, she was going to kill Kevin.

She still might kill him later, because it was his fault they were stuck out here for the night. She was also pissed that he was able to fall asleep so quickly. His breathing was deep and even, and loud enough that she uncharitably decided it counted as snoring, because Kevin McCormick was exactly the kind of guy who would snore.

She hated him so much. Not quite as much as she hated Stan, and nowhere near as much as she hated Connor, but definitely way more than she hated most of her exes.

She sucked in a breath. Connor's betrayal still hurt, even now. She shouldn't have been surprised that it didn't last; their relationship was just like all her prior relationships had been: perfectly perfect until suddenly it wasn't. Her mother had more than once told her she needed to go out and meet boys in person instead of texting or chatting online. Her mother was one to talk, because even without the advantage of the internet, look where she was now. Divorced twice and remarried to the same person for the third time.

Online dating was safer. They didn't expect you to put out online, and Shelly wasn't dumb enough to sext back and forth. Look at Jennifer Warner or Tiger Woods and how their private conversations and voice mails had been published online. Sure, there was a downside to dating online exclusively, like the lack of any physical contact. Shelly wanted to be kissed. She'd been a little timid with Skyler, but there had been a little thrill from the touch of his lips, dry though they'd been. She'd loved him and thought they'd be together forever, except he'd wanted her to go further than she was comfortable with and he'd dumped her.

Dating Amir had been different and so much better. He was cute, funny, and smart, and he'd genuinely liked her. They'd talked online for hours, and she'd considered him her best friend as well as her boyfriend. Then offline things had intruded on their time together, and they'd eventually drifted apart, sharing no more than a Like on Facebook here or there. She still had fond memories of him, or at least she did when she actually thought about him, which wasn't very often.

What happened with Connor shouldn't have surprised her. Before Connor, there had been Helio, and before him, Jean Pierre. Before Jean Pierre there had been Marcus, and before Marcus, there had been Guillermo, and so on.

The majority of her relationships had been almost exclusively online ones. Between Skyler, her first boyfriend, and Connor, her last, there was only one other meaningful relationship she'd had outside of a computer screen. That relationship had been the shortest of all but no less real in its brevity. In fact, it had been the most real relationship she'd ever been involved in, and the one that still hurt the most, even after all these years.

Larry Feegan had been a wimp and a dork and totally strangled by his weird vegan parents and his stupid life vest. She didn't even know why she'd stuck up for him in the first place. Maybe she just hated his parents or those awful veggie burgers the Feegans had served them for supper. She'd only been herself, voicing her opinion, and for that, Larry had fallen in love.

She wasn't blind to her own faults, at least not usually, but she knew she wasn't exactly a prize. She was temperamental and ugly and had few friends, but he'd seen past all that. He'd not only seen past it; he'd gone out of his way to show her how he felt.

No one had ever done that for her before, and although Shelly hadn't exactly reciprocated Larry's feelings, she'd fallen in like, real honest like, which was the most genuine thing she'd ever felt for anyone. They'd had exactly one date, during which Spiderman crashed the show, caused a flood, and Larry had drowned.

He'd drowned because he hadn't had his life preserver on, the one that he'd worn almost every day of his life. He'd died because Shelly had convinced him to start living.

It wasn't until he was gone that she realized she had loved him, at least a little. She'd cried herself to sleep the first few nights, and then she'd found it hard to fall asleep at all.

Spiderman hadn't killed Larry; Shelly had.

She squeezed her eyes shut. It did nothing to block out the images that still haunted her. Larry coming to her door to give her a flower. Larry singing to her, and taking off his life vest for the first time. Larry smiling at her, a real honest smile that reached his eyes and warmed Shelly's heart.

Larry would never smile again.

Her chest constricted, and Shelly buried her face in the blankets and bit her lip until the metallic taste of blood hit her tongue. She'd mourned Larry, but it wasn't right that she usually missed him most of all after some loser dumped her. Right or wrong, it was how she felt, and she took long, shuddering breaths in an effort to calm herself.

It would pass, eventually. Usually it was after she fell asleep. She just needed to wait until the fatigue in her body outweighed her overactive brain. It didn't usually take more than a couple of hours. Just 720 seconds, if she wanted to try counting them.

She got as far as eighty-three when she heard Kevin stirring behind her. She held her breath, not wanting to attract his attention, but it was too late.

When he touched her shoulder, she shoved his hand – and the cheap, crappy blankets – away and sat up. If he tried anything, she could punch him in the nose to stun him, and then go for his nuts for good measure. Unfortunately, her nose was running, causing her to sniffle to keep it from dripping into her mouth. Temporarily distracted, she gave Kevin the opening he needed to trap her, pinning her arms to her sides. Except he wasn't groping her, or trying to stick his hand up her shirt or his tongue in her mouth. His arms were around her, but that was the extent of it.

She was a little bit insulted that he wasn't at least a little bit tempted, but a heartbeat later, she realized that he was hugging her. Kevin was hugging her, and with that realization, she curled her fingers into the front of his shirt and pressed her face against his chest. His arms tightened around her, and she broke down entirely, sucking in great gasping breaths as she sobbed. When she felt his fingers stroking her hair, she cried harder. He might have made soothing sounds in her hair, or it might have just been the way he was breathing, but she cried until his shirt was completely saturated and she was too tired to cry anymore. He continued to hold her, with her head tucked under his chin, even after her sobs faded to soft little hiccups.

She was cold and exhausted, both mentally and physically, but Kevin was warm. All those nights she'd cried herself to sleep, no one had ever just held her like this. Her father would stand in the doorway and stammer his way through pep talks intended to make himself feel better. Her mother was only slightly better; she'd come into Shelly's room once in a while, sit on the edge of the bed, and brush Shelly's hair out of her eyes. Then she'd say something out of one of those parenting books, like Shelly could tell her anything, but that only showed how little her mother understood her. She couldn't tell her mother anything because Sharon didn't know what it was like, being ugly and unloved. Even as old and uncool as Sharon was, the boys in Shelly's class had always been fascinated with her boobs. It had been humiliating to know that her mother had had a better shot at dating the boys in high school than Shelly ever did.

Kevin wasn't saying anything, and Shelly appreciated that, even if it was probably just because Kevin was too stupid to think of anything to say. There were no words that would make things better, and it was better that Kevin didn't try.

Her cheek was still resting on his tear-dampened chest and she took a deep breath, catching another whiff of Old Spice and sweat. It wasn't a terrible smell; surprisingly Kevin didn't have offensive BO, and what she could smell seemed limited to the armpit region. The only reason she even noticed it at all was because he still had his arms around her. In their current position, she could hear the steady beating of his heart, and she could feel the slight ruffling of her hair every time he exhaled.

Her fingers tightened on his shirt when he shifted slightly, not yet ready to relinquish her grip or her position. She relaxed slightly when she realized he was simply scooting to the back of the cab and taking her with him.

This was where he was going to try some funny business, she just knew it. He was a redneck shithead like his father, and everyone knew how Stuart McCormick had gotten his wife pregnant when she was only thirteen and not yet his wife.

Kevin didn't try anything at all, though. A minute or two later, one of his arms dropped to his side and she still didn't realize he was asleep until he started snoring.

"Turd," she whispered into his shirt. She was definitely overtired and emotionally drained, because she had the sudden urge to laugh. Instead, the corners of her lips merely twitched, and she closed her eyes.

Kevin was gone when she woke up, and she panicked, thinking he'd left her stranded here or maybe was eaten by a coyote. She scrambled over the side, kicking her feet free of the blankets, and found him tightening one of the lug nuts on the wheel.

"You found them?"

"All but one," he affirmed. "I moved one of the rear ones to the front, so as long as I don't punch it, it'll get us home."

She held her breath when he turned the key in the ignition, fully anticipating yet another setback, and she grinned like a loon when the engine roared to life. She felt much more charitable toward Kevin now that he'd redeemed himself, so much so that she didn't mind that he had only the one tape to listen to. Just like he'd done yesterday, he sang along with it, seeming completely unbothered that she'd been a little hostile the night before.

She bit her lip. Truthfully, Kevin had had the right of it. She had been both a bitch and a princess.

She cleared her throat, and Kevin turned his head. "You need some water?"

"No," she said. "I just wanted to say thank you. For finding the lug nuts."

"It was a lot easier when I could see what I was doing."

"Yeah. And, uh, I'm sorry I was so angry last night. I shouldn't have hit you."

"You do seem to like hitting me, Marsh." He waggled his eyebrows at her. "I think you like me."

"Shut up, turd," she said, blushing.

He laughed. "You should see your face."

It was good to have him remind her why they'd never gotten along in school. She reached over and turned up the volume on the stereo.

He drummed his fingers on his outer thigh when the next track began to play. "So," he sang along nearly a minute later. "So you think you can tell."

She didn't recognize the song, but she knew it wasn't the Stones. The lyrics were either really deep or complete nonsense, but she kind of liked it. There was an instrumental break in the song, and Kevin reached over to grab her hand.

"Sing with me, Shell."

"I don't know the words!"

"How I wish," he sang loudly, "how I wish you were here!"

"Oh, God," she groaned, as he pulled her hand close to his chest.

"We're just two lost souls swimmin' in a fishbowl, year after year! Come on, Shelly, you can join in anytime!"

She couldn't help it; she started laughing. Once she started, she couldn't stop. He let go of her hand and she clutched her stomach.

"I don't know the words," she giggled.

"That's no excuse," he said. "When you don't know the lyrics, you just make them up."

She took a deep breath, testing to see if she'd burst out laughing again. It seemed that she was back in control again, and she was left pondering Kevin's words while he sang along with the tape by himself.

Never had the sight of the South Park sign been so welcome as it was this morning. Her car had waited this long; it would wait a little longer while she brushed her teeth and took a shower. She thanked Kevin when he pulled in front of her house, and he gave her a little wave when she jumped out and swung the door shut.

She brushed off her mother's question about what had happened with a curt "long story," and she took a long, hot shower, washing away the smell of Old Spice, cold French fries, and venison jerky. It wasn't until she spied her phone sitting on the arm of the couch that she remembered she'd left Stan's phone in Kevin's truck. She shrugged. Stan was friends with Kevin's brother; he could get it himself.

Of course her phone was still dead; God forbid anyone even think of plugging it in so she'd have it for the drive back to Boulder.

She went into the kitchen, hoping for a cup of coffee but settling for a glass of orange juice. She was rinsing out the glass when her mother joined her.

"I thought you were going to pick up your car yesterday."

"My roommate wasn't able to drive me until today," she said. It left out a lot of details in between, but it was one hundred percent true.

"Well, it's good that you waited until today. It's still not ready."

"What do you mean, it's not ready? I thought it only needed brake pads." If it needed more than that, she'd never hear the end of it from her father, who never seemed concerned with finances when it was something he wanted.

"That is all it needs, but your father found someone to do it cheaper. You know your father."

Shelly didn't like the sound of that. Her car probably had no brakes at all now, or it would catch on fire when she started the engine.

"What happened to my car?" she asked, feeling her temper flare.

"Oh, nothing. It's just that it was going to take longer than he thought. You'll have to ask your father; you know he can't be bothered to tell me all the details."

She found her father in the garage, hunched over an iPad Mini. "What's going on with my car?" she asked.

"Shh," he shushed her. "I'm almost done with this level."

She clenched her fists. She really did try to be less angry around her family, but they made it next to impossible.

"No!" Randy cried out. "Nooooo!" He wiped the sweat off his brow and held the tablet against his chest, bowing his head as if in prayer.

"My car?" Shelly repeated.

"Your car?" Randy blinked at her. "Oh! Your car!" Yeah, it's not done yet. He's really sorry, but something came up."

"Something came up?"

Randy let out a hiss of air between his teeth. "I think something about a girl, maybe? I can't remember what his father said."

Shelly felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Everything made perfect sense now, and she felt like punching something.

"Dad, who's fixing my car?"

"Kenny's older brother. You know Kenny, Stan's friend? What the hell is his name. You know the one I'm talking about. You were the Mary to his Joseph at church that time."

It was no wonder Kevin had been so confident that her car wouldn't be done when they got back. She was furious at Kevin for not telling her, but she was even more so at Stan, because if he hadn't taken her phone by mistake, she would have never called the McCormick's number, and her car would be done by now.

Without a word to her father, she stormed out of the garage and headed toward Kevin's house.

It pained her to see her car on the front lawn, where an old station wagon had once taken permanent residence. Even more alarming, the car was elevated on a set of jack stands, with all four tires stacked together on the ground. She would kill him if he'd been off wasting time all morning.

She could hear that same mixed eight-track tape from yesterday playing in his truck, and from somewhere in the garage, she could hear Kevin singing about along with it.

"Hi, Shelly," Karen greeted her with a wave as she came out the front door. "We're almost done!"

"You're helping him?" She glanced down at Karen's spotless white shorts, wondering how long it would be before they were streaked with grease.

"I just have to bleed the brakes to get the air out."

"Shelly can do it," Kevin said, walking out of the garage with a wrench in one hand and a bottle of brake fluid in the other. He set the brake fluid somewhere under the hood of the car. "Why don't you get lunch started?"

Karen nodded, gave Shelly another dazzling smile, and went back in the house.

"What do you need me to do?" Shelly asked, eager to get her car back.

"Shhh," he said, holding up his hand. "Wait for it."

Jumping Jack Flash it's a gas, gas, gas, Jagger sang, and Kevin jumped up in the air and played air guitar with the wrench for several seconds. He gave a fist pump when the next line of the song began and slid the , and then he gestured toward the driver's side door. "OK, get in."

Shelly looked at the jack stands and then back at Kevin. He saw the direction of her gaze and shook his head. "They're holding up a two-ton car, Shell. I think they can handle an extra hundred pounds or so. Just don't do anything until I tell you."

He pulled an empty milk crate next to the front brake and sat down, waiting for her to get in. "When I tell you to, push down on the brake like you're trying to stop the car from crashing into a wall. Don't release it until I tell you."

He walked her through the process, going around the car until he was satisfied that they'd removed all the air from the system. When he was ready to put the tires back on, she got out of the car and squatted next to him, handing him a lug nut or socket as needed. The car was back on all four tires before Karen came to the door and announced that lunch was ready.

"Are you staying, Shelly?" she asked.

"No. I've got to get back to Boulder."

"Oh, I'm sorry! I completely forgot. Have a safe trip back. You'll really notice a difference in how well your brakes respond, trust me!"

"Yeah, sure," Shelly said. To Kevin, she asked, "what do I owe you?"

"Your dad already took care of it," he said with a wave of his hand. Shelly was sure he did; he'd probably paid for the repairs with an assortment of beer.

"Good," she said awkwardly. She got into the car and turned the key.

"Hey," he said, bending down and peering in the window. "Happy Birthday."

It was weird that he remembered; it wasn't like either of her parents had.

"Thanks," she said. "For the car and for the ride, too."

"Anytime," he said, taking a step back. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and wiped his hands.

The weird thing, she thought as she pulled away, was that it seemed like Kevin might have actually meant it.

After all the time she'd spent with Kevin McCormick in the past twenty-four hours, she was glad of two things. One, Karen was right; the brakes were definitely more responsive; and two, northbound traffic was moving along with no incidents. By exceeding the speed limit just a little, she was back on campus by two o'clock.

Her roommates, however, were another story.

Brenda apologized, having remembered, once she'd sobered up, that she was supposed to have driven Shelly back to South Park to get her car. Then she gave Shelly a wink and a knowing smile and pointed out that someone hadn't come home the night before.

Shelly adamantly denied doing anything that Brenda thought she might have done, blushing the entire time, which only made her roommate more determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

"Seriously, Shelly, nothing happened? You have to admit, he's kind of cute."

Shelly snorted. Kevin McCormick was a lot of things, but cute wasn't one of them. This was what she got for leaving Kevin in the room unattended while she ran to the bathroom.

"OK, Miss Protests Too Much. Did you or did you not spend the night together?"

Shelly immediately blushed. "It wasn't like that."

"Like what?" Brenda asked, opening her eyes as wide as she could.

"We just slept together!"

"Bam!" Brenda said, pumping her fist while Shelly wished she'd phrased that a little better. "Thatta girl!"

"You slept with him?" Chloe jumped in. "Who was he?"

"Some guy from back home, right, Shell?"

"That's the best kind," Chloe added.

"The best kind of what?" Shelly interrupted, instead of reminding them that nothing happened.

"Fuck buddy," Brenda said.

"We're not fuck buddies!"

"Friends with benefits, then."

"We're not that either!"

"Ooooh!" Chloe exclaimed, clasping her hands together. "I can't believe we didn't figure this out sooner. This is why you haven't been interested in any of the guys on campus. You have a beau back home!"

Shelly slapped her hand over her face. "He's not my beau!"

Brenda whistled. "I didn't take you for the one-night stand type, Shell, but damn, I'm impressed."

Much as she was loath to, Shelly decided she'd only dig herself in deeper if she continued to argue with them, so she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her roommates.

"Whatever. Can we drop it now?"

"Sure," Brenda said with a grin. "You good, Chlo?"

"I'm just so happy for you!" Chloe gushed, and she pulled Shelly into a spontaneous hug.

Shelly was just glad the semester was almost over.

Annoying as her roommates could be, they'd become friends over the school year, so Shelly was disappointed when Chloe tearfully informed her and Brenda, via Skype, that she'd be transferring to the Denver campus in the fall so her parents could save money on the room and board.

"We have got to get together some weekend," she told them, eliciting a promise from each before disconnecting the call.

That left Shelly, who was at home for the summer, and Brenda, who was staying at a friend's apartment, coordinating their application requests for a double instead of a triple. Shelly was also busy shadowing one of her father's former coworkers as part of her internship. She was in the middle of proofreading a terribly written erosion report when the loud coughing that had plagued her all morning started up again.

She stormed down the stairs, where the sight of her brother, lying on the couch and being pampered as usual, made her even angrier.

"I'm trying to work, turd!"

Stan took a sip of the tea being held to his lips and settled back onto the pillow. Karen, who was perched on the edge of the couch, set the cup down on the end table and smiled ruefully.

"He's really sorry, Shelly," she said. Which was a complete lie, because Stan wasn't sorry at all, but Karen was just as blind to his faults as everyone else. Plus Karen was in love with him, which made it that much worse. Watching the fond look Karen gave Stan as she smoothed the sweaty strands of hair from his forehead might have made Shelly envious, if not for how utterly revolting it was.

Shelly now knew that it had been Karen, not Wendy, who had answered Shelly's phone that time. Shelly didn't know Karen that well, but she seemed fairly bright. How she ended up with Stan was anyone's guess.

She rolled her eyes and went into the kitchen. Since she was down here anyway, she might as well get something to drink.

She rummaged around the refrigerator, moving cans of gluten-free beer and protein drinks out of the way to find a single can of Diet Sprite in the back. She wasn't a big fan of it herself, but she'd given up Mountain Dew years ago due to the effect it had on her stomach, so it would have to do. She closed the door and turned around, nearly jumping out of her skin when she saw Karen standing there.

"Stan and I have tickets to see the Monster Jam in Denver," Karen said conversationally.

Good for you, Shelly wanted to say, but it was hard to be mean to Karen, who was just genuinely nice and way too good for Stan. Instead, she opened the can of soda and took a drink.

"The show is tonight," Karen continued, "and obviously Stan can't go."

It was the first piece of good news Shelly had received all day, but she was sure Karen didn't see it the same way. She took another sip of Sprite.

"I know it's last minute, but would you like to go instead?" Karen held the ticket out.

Would Shelly like to go? She'd wanted to go since she heard about it, but of course Stan was the one who got tickets.

"I understand if you have plans." Karen said. "I just thought –"

"It's fine. Thanks," Shelly said, taking the ticket. Another fit of coughing could be heard, and she held up the can of soda in a mock toast. "Your patient awaits."

Karen didn't seem to take offense at that; in fact, she smiled fondly in the direction of the living room. She glanced back at Shelly and mouthed "have fun" before rushing back to the biggest baby on the planet. Shelly shrugged and looked down at the ticket. Not quite premium seats, but not the nosebleed section either.

The erosion report would still be here when she got back.

A couple of hours later, she was ready to kill Karen.

She didn't know what she'd thought. Karen had clearly said that she and Stan had tickets. That meant there was one ticket unaccounted for. She supposed she'd expected Karen to leave the patient to his lonesome and meet her here at the Pepsi Center.

That Karen would give her own ticket to her brother had never crossed Shelly's mind.

"Marsh!" Kevin greeted her when she sat in the seat next to him. "I haven't seen you all summer."

"Yeah," she agreed, looking away from him and toward the arena.

"You OK?" he asked, touching her shoulder.

"I'm fine," she snapped, then, more quietly, "I'm fine."

"Right," he said. "Of course you are."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know," he said, spreading his arms wide. "Why don't you tell me?"

She looked around, hoping no one was paying them any attention. "Nothing. I just..." she latched on to the first excuse she could think of. "We lost one of our roommates, and it's been a real pain trying to get a double for me and Brenda."

"Brenda," he mused. "The ginger that can't hold her liquor, right?"

Shelly couldn't help but smile. She'd have to make sure Brenda knew what the ‘kind of cute guy from back home' thought of her. She probably wouldn't, though; she was hoping Brenda would forget she'd ever met Kevin.

"Yeah, that's her."

"So, who are you most amped to see today?" Kevin asked.

"Black Stallion," she replied without hesitation. "And you?"

"I'm not saying anything yet. I don't want to jinx it."

"So not Gravedigger, then."

"Gravedigger's great and all, but so many posers like him. Plus I like-" he clamped his lips shut and waggled his finger at her. "Uh uh. I'm not saying anything until I hear the intro."

It was easier to talk to him after that. He was so excited to be here that it was contagious, and they both cheered on some of their lesser favorites. He acknowledged that Black Stallion's freestyle was impressive. And yes, he admitted, that had been a great save at the very end.

When Poison's Nothin' But a Good Time blared over the speakers, though, Kevin nearly lost his mind.

"Yeeaaah, baby!" he said, pumping both fists in the air. He looked like he could barely keep his seat while Backwards Bob went through his freestyle, and when Bob drove off the field, Kevin looked at Shelly and grinned. His expression was so open and genuine that it took her breath away.

There was a small chip in one of his canines. She'd never noticed it before. She didn't think it had been there when he'd still been wearing braces, but she'd been rather focused on her own dental apparatus at the time.

He looked away, back toward the arena, and she shook her head to clear it. It had been a momentary lapse, a trick of the lighting or something, because she thought maybe Brenda had been right when she'd said Kevin was kind of cute. But only kind of.

"So," she said as they walked out of the arena together an hour later. "Backwards Bob. Why Bob?"

"Bob is the shit," he said. "It's like, you're watching it go backwards, but it's really going forward. What you see isn't exactly what you get, but what you get is fucking awesome. You know?"

"Yes," she said, nodding slowly. "I know."

Shelly found out, once she returned to school in the fall, that with switching from computer science to geology, there were too many required classes that she had to make up. She'd been upset when her advisor first told her, but she'd been assured that, if she maintained her current grade point average, she'd qualify for a scholarship, which would help cover the expenses for the unexpected third year.

Brenda would still be graduating in May, so Shelly decided she'd look into apartments in the spring, when other graduating seniors were ending their leases. She didn't regret living in the dorms, since she'd missed that experience while attending community college, but she didn't want to break in a new roommate or get stuck with a chronic partier.

Despite the plans that were in place, she was concerned about her future. She wondered if she'd be able to afford her own apartment in Boulder or Denver, and she worried whether she and her new friends would stay in touch or become too busy once life got in the way. There was also the very real possibility that she'd get stuck working in South Park with her father (who was, unsurprisingly, back to being a geologist since his last venture hadn't quite panned out the way he'd hoped).

Fall gave way to winter, and the shorter daylight hours made her feel melancholy. It was while she was home during the winter break that she realized that, despite all that was going on, she was lonely.

"You miss him, don't you?" Chloe asked her one day over video chat.

"There is no him," Shelly reminded her. "Brenda made that up."

Chloe sighed, making the speakers on Shelly's laptop crackle. "It's too bad," she said. "You just"

"I miss you," Shelly said. "And after this year is done, I still have one more to go."

"Oh, that's right. I forgot. It's just...I don't know. Obviously I don't know what I'm talking about. I really know that I'm a hopeless matchmaker, right?"

"I know," Shelly assured her.

It was one of Chloe's most annoying traits, her need to pair off all her friends. She'd claimed it was her inner Cupid, bursting to get out, and it was only because she was blonde and petite that comments like that weren't treated more harshly. Guys who didn't view Chloe as a piece of meat or a bimbo were actually quite protective of her.

Shelly didn't need some testosterone driven ape to protect her, but she thought it might be nice to feel that way just once.

Chloe extracted a promise that they'd get together for New Year's, and Shelly sat back, biting at her thumbnail when she signed out of Skype. She'd given up making New Year's resolutions, which had nearly always included something about reining in her temper and trying to be more patient with her family, but this year she wanted to feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. She was just so tired of it all.

Less than a week after Christmas had come and gone, Shelly was lying on her side, sniffling and unable to sleep. She scrubbed at her eyes, as if that would be enough to stop the tears from welling. Finally, she gave in to the urge to look at the clock.

3:14 the red numbers glowed in the darkness, and she rolled onto her back with a sigh.

Fifty-one minutes of being curled in a fetal position. Since she was no closer to sleep, she decided to get up and research off campus apartments so she had a few options when school resumed. She swung her legs around and winced as her feet touched the cold floor.

Once seated at her desk, she opened the bottom drawer and rummaged through the flyers and take-out menus she stored there. The envelope was near the bottom, unsealed, the seams near to splitting. She drew it out and stared at it, then shook her head and propped it up against the lamp, where she promptly ignored it in favor of staring blankly at her computer screen.

Her eyelids were heavy and she shook her head again, still determined to do something besides lie in bed and wait for the alarm to sound.

Her gaze slid back over to the envelope. It had been stupid to take it out. She picked it up and tried to shove it back in the drawer where it belonged. She could hear the envelope tear and she bit her lip as she pulled it back out.

The corner was torn, so the edge of the top photo was now visible. She glanced back at the computer screen before opening the flap of the envelope and removing the stack of photos, which she brought back to her bed. There weren't many. First there was a family photo, one they'd used for a Christmas card when Shelly was a junior and Stan was in middle school. The next three were photos Shelly had printed from the high school's Facebook page, of various secret crushes she'd had, then there were a couple from the senior class canned food drive.

She smiled at the picture of the school mascot whose ass was getting bitten by a dog. Next was her senior class photo – the same one that had made it in the yearbook. At the very bottom of the stack were the pictures she'd been thinking of.

Her gown had been an unflattering shade of pink that night and, with the gift of hindsight, trimmed with way too many flounces. Her date had looked bored and Shelly had been caught off guard. This photo had been taken at the very beginning of the night, when they'd first arrived at the rented banquet hall in Denver with a couple of friends and been immediately accosted by the roving photographer to "preserve the memories."

The last photo, taken that same night, told a different story. In this one her face was flushed and she was gritting her teeth. Kevin, on the other hand, had his arms around her waist, and he was grinning like he'd won a lifetime supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

After the first photo had been taken, Kevin had disappeared without a word, leaving Shelly alone. She'd only agreed to go with him in the first place because Marcus, her then-recently ex-Facebook boyfriend, was going to South Park's prom with Yvonne, a recent transfer from Middle Park. Oh, and of course who could forget the way her parents and Kevin's had conspired to get their eldest offspring paired off for the night, dropping anvil sized hints about how they'd one day be sorry for skipping out on their senior prom.

She'd spent much of that night drawing air circles around classmates she'd like to see trip over their dresses and making X's over the ones whose heads she'd like to see explode. When she hadn't been doing that, she'd been clenching her fists, glaring at everyone and wanting to kill the class officers who'd wanted to upscale this stupid party and have it here in Denver instead of at the high school. At least she could have walked home from there.

It wasn't until the end of the night when Kevin had reappeared, staggering up to her and dragging her to the dance floor without even asking. She'd tried to punch him, but he'd been so unsteady on his feet, her fist had swung right over his head. He'd laughed then, and before she could ball up her fist to try again, he'd leaned in to kiss her, all sloppy drunk and reeking of booze and cheap beer. It was when he'd lifted his head and grinned at her, not at all bothered that she hadn't kissed him back, that the picture had been taken. Why she hadn't torn it to shreds, she didn't know. He'd copped a feel right there on the dance floor, and had said, acting all surprised, that she looked kind of pretty, like she should be flattered.

He's kind of cute, Brenda had pointed out after meeting Kevin once.

Shelly swallowed. The saddest thing of all was that despite everything, she'd slept better in the back of his pickup that night than she usually did in her own bed. She put down the photo and picked it back up three more times. Finally, she reached for her phone and punched in the number before she could change her mind. It rang only twice before she remembered it was the middle of the night and that no one in their right mind would be calling this late. She was just about to press the End Call button when a deep voice answered.


She tightened her grip on the phone. Mr. McCormick sounded drunk. Even with just that single syllable, Shelly knew what drunk sounded like. She should just hang up. Hang up, pretend it was a wrong number or a butt dial. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, but before she could end the call, she heard a loud clunk, like the phone had been dropped.

"Kevin!" the voice bellowed in the distance. "That friend of yours is fucking prank calling again!"

She couldn't hear any response, but Stuart McCormick must have, because he yelled something back – and then there was nothing but background noise. She glanced at her phone and winced as she saw that the call had already lasted nearly a minute, which was already a minute too long.

"What the fuck, asshole," Kevin yawned into the phone. "You're lucky he didn't jack it to your heavy breathing this time."

Shelly cringed at the thought. It didn't surprise her in the least that the McCormicks were used to getting weird phone calls at all hours. In a way, it was a good thing, because that meant this call wasn't terribly remarkable.

"It's me," she whispered into the phone.

"Me who?" Kevin asked crossly, then, "Shelly?"

She cleared her throat. "Yes."

"It's like..." there was the sound of some cups or glasses being moved around, then something being dragged across a table or counter. "Three in the morning."

"I know. I..." she closed her eyes and took another deep breath.

He was quiet a minute, then asked, cautiously, "Is this like a booty call?"

Why the fuck had she even called him? She hated him. He was such a typical guy.


She cradled the phone against her chest, unable to answer.

"Shell?" he asked again, his voice through the speaker muffled.

She finally pressed the End Call button, the way she should have when Stuart McCormick first answered. She was still holding the phone in her lap when the first tear fell on the screen, blurring the image. She bit her lip hard and pulled her knees to her chest as the tears continued to fall, wondering why it hurt so much. She didn't even know why she was crying. It had been an incredibly stupid idea to begin with.

She pressed her forehead against her knees and sank her teeth even deeper into her bottom lip. It didn't help keep her nose from running, and she sniffled a few times. She lifted her head and wiped her sleeve across her face, picking up the phone only once before dropping it back on the bed.

What the fuck had she been thinking? What was he going to think? What could she possibly have said to him, and what exactly had she expected him to do? Listen to her cry over the phone?

She wiped at her face again. Ugh, she hated crying. And when Shelly hated something, she took great pains to eliminate it. This was no different. Determined, she moved her phone to the nightstand and shoved her feet under the blankets before punching her pillow a few times. She needed sleep before driving to Denver later to meet Chloe; therefore, she would sleep. Simple.

It wasn't until her eyes adjusted to the darkness that she realized they were still open. She sighed. She wanted to sleep. She was tired, and if she fell asleep right now she could get at least a couple of hours of sleep before she had to get up.

Her doorknob slowly turned, and Shelly held her breath. Was it an intruder? A psycho rapist? Her fingers curled into a fist. She wasn't going to go down without a fight.

"Shelly?" the voice whispered from the doorway.

She sat up, clutching her blanket to her chest. "What the fuck are you doing here?" she hissed.

He fumbled for the door behind him but didn't move any closer. "Did you know your brother sleeps with a Peyton Manning teddy bear?"

She snorted, not at all surprised.

"Naked," he added.

"Eww," she responded, wrinkling her noise. "And shhh!" She motioned him toward the bed, swinging her legs over the side to give him a place to sit.

"Sorry," he muttered, and he plopped down on her bed, lying on his back while his feet remained on the floor. It might have just been the dim lighting, but he looked as tired as she felt. She bit her lip, tasting blood this time. She moved to lie next to him, using his shoulder as a pillow, and closed her eyes as he lifted his arm and dropped it over her.

They lay there for a while before he asked, "What's wrong?"


This time Kevin was the one who snorted, but thankfully he didn't press the issue. His hand was resting on her hip, and after a minute or two, he began moving his thumb, doing nothing more than lightly caressing her through her pajama pants. She put her hand on his chest and splayed her fingers, the better to feel the rise and fall with every breath he took.

He'd come. She'd called him, and he'd come to see her. She wasn't quite sure how she felt about that, although it was suspiciously close to being almost-kinda-sorta pleased. There was a small hole in the front of his shirt, and without thinking about it, she poked her finger in it, touching the skin beneath.

She heard his breath catch, and his thumb stilled on her hip. She propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down at him. His eyes were closed, so she waited until he blinked one eye open.

"What?" he asked.

"Yes," she blurted.

"Yes?" He sounded confused.

"Yes. what you asked before."

He chewed his bottom lip for a second. "You already knew Stan slept naked?"

She closed her eyes and shook her head. Her mother was right. All men were stupid. She could still get out of this; the words had just tumbled out without thinking.

"Shell?" he asked, reaching up to brush her hair away from her face.

She shook her head again, her eyes still closed. It was all his fault for even thinking, let alone suggesting, that she'd ever intended this to be a booty call. She felt so very stupid.

He cupped her cheek and gently ran his thumb over her bottom lip. Her chest ached, and she bit back a sob. His fingers moved – slowly, cautiously – to the back of her neck, and she dipped her head to touch her lips to his. His reaction was instantaneous; he kissed her back, his fingers threading through her hair. When his tongue began wrangling with hers, the ache intensified.

She hadn't realized how much she'd wanted this until now.

He broke the kiss only long enough to roll over so that he was on top of her, and then his tongue was back in her mouth. She sucked on it, causing him to mumble her name, and then he moved his lips to her jaw, her neck. She could feel the rough texture of his stubble against her collarbone and it sent a shiver down her spine.

"Don't," she breathed. "Don't you dare give me a hickey."

Apparently that hadn't been his intent, because now it was his nose pressed against her neck, and he was grinding against her in earnest. The bed, oh, shit, was the bed creaking? Shelly barely had enough presence of mind to bring her hands to his chest, ready to push him off, when he arched his back. His mouth hung open, making him look even stupider than usual, then he collapsed on top of her with a grunt.

"Did you just – did you – oh, gross. Get off!" she whispered, pushing at his shoulder.

"Just did," he mumbled.

"Get up," she urged, pushing at him again. "Kevin! Get off me!"

She managed to roll him over so he was lying next to instead of on top of her, but when she tried to sit up, she realized some of her hair was pinned beneath Kevin's left shoulder.

She grabbed the lock of trapped hair and gave it a tug. His left arm curled around her as she struggled, and that lifted his shoulder up just enough to free her hair. She could easily push his arm away now, but she'd let him rest here just a little bit longer before she kicked him out. He probably needed to recharge or something after doing...that.

It wasn't because she felt sorry for him or because the rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek reminded her of that night in the truck bed. She yawned. She hadn't been sleeping well; she never did. Why she'd called Kevin in the first place wasn't important right now, not when she could barely keep her eyes open.

He was gone when she woke up, almost as if he hadn't been there at all.

She managed to stay awake during the drive to Denver, and she carefully avoided mentioning Kevin at all around Chloe. Their big plans involved a girls' night in, watching Ryan Seacrest and playing board games until the west coast had also rung in the New Year. Chloe dozed off on the couch first, and Shelly looked at her tousled blonde head fondly. She'd needed this; she'd been so busy trying to plan for everything that she'd forgotten to take some time out to unwind.

Shelly didn't know what time it was when she woke up, but she knew what had roused her from a rather interesting dream. It was Bret Michaels singing Poison's party anthem, and it took Shelly a minute to realize that the Backwards Bob theme was coming from Chloe's phone.

It woke Chloe, too, and she slapped at the phone a few times before she could get her fingers around it. "Hey, Bren," she slurred into the phone. "Happy New Year to you, too. Shell's here, want to say hi?"

"Good morning, Sunshine!" Brenda shouted into the phone. Wherever she was, it was crowded, because Shelly could barely hear her over the noise in the background. "Happy New Year!"

"Happy New Year!" Shelly shouted back.



"I thought that's what you said! Listen, I can barely hear you. I'll call you guys later, OK?"

Shelly didn't bother answering; there was no way Brenda would hear her anyway. She handed the phone back to Chloe and rubbed at her eyes. "Where is she again?"

"She's in Alaska," Chloe yawned.

"That's where I want to be in January," Shelly said with a shiver. "So what's with the ring tone?"

"I don't know; Brenda picked it. It used to be Bad Blood, but she wanted me to change it for New Year's." She looked over at Shelly. "Is everything OK?"

Shelly pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Just thinking about New Year's Resolutions, is all."

Chloe yawned again. "Did you make any?"

"Just one."

"Mmm," Chloe said, her head nodding forward.

It was just as well that she'd fallen asleep before she could ask Shelly what it was, because there was really only one person who needed to know.

It took her nearly a week to get up the courage to follow through on it.

Kevin was standing on that stupid milk crate, doing something under the hood of his truck when Shelly showed up at his house. He didn't see her until he stepped down, holding a funnel in one hand and a glass jar with motor oil in the other. From the expression on his face, he was surprised to see her, and why wouldn't he be?

He moved the funnel to his other hand and leaned in the window to turn down the stereo, which was once again playing Kevin's favorite mix tape.

"Hey," he said, wiping his hand on his pants. "Did you have a good New Year's?"

"Yeah," she said, folding her arms over her chest. "You?"

Kevin shrugged one shoulder. "It wasn't bad."

"Did you go anywhere?" She clenched her hands to keep them from shaking.

"Nooooo." He shook his head vehemently. "No. I. No. No. So. You're not mad?"

"About what?"

"About me leaving without saying good-bye. I figured it was better if I wasn't there when everyone else was awake."

"Oh," she said, blushing. "No. It's fine. Thank you."

"So," he said again. "What brings you to this side of town?"

She took a deep breath. If she was going to ask, it was now or never. "I want to do it. With you."

The funnel and the empty jar hit the ground, and he stared at her open mouthed. "What?"

"Nothing," she said, wishing the ground would open up and swallow her. "It was nothing."

She turned to walk away, but he grabbed her arm to stop her. "I'm sorry. It's surprised me, is all."

She looked at the grimy hand on her coat sleeve, and she was sure she was going to throw up. "This was a mistake."

He let go and took several steps back. "Yeah. Well, now you can go back to your college friends and tell them whatever."

"Why would I do that?"

Kevin picked up the funnel and the oil. "To prove you did whatever they dared you to."

He went into the garage, and against her better judgement, Shelly followed him. "That's not why I'm here," she protested.

He kept his back to her while he put things back on one of the numerous wooden shelves along the wall, and then he folded his arms over his chest.

"It's not every day a woman tells me she wants me to fuck her."

She winced at the crude term. "I'm sorry." Sorry for bothering him, but also sorry she'd ever thought this was a good idea.

He stared at her for several seconds, then sighed. "Don't be. If you meant it, I'm flattered."

"It's just..." She was at a loss what to tell him. She couldn't tell him about her New Year's Resolution to lose her virginity. It seemed such a cliché sort of goal, something she was too mature to have ever considered. Yet it was her age that made her seriously consider it – that, and the way she'd felt in Kevin's arms the other night.

Adding sex to the equation could only make it better, she reasoned, and at least she'd finally know what it was like. There were a lot of good reasons behind this decision, despite the lingering doubt in the back of her mind.

"So were you thinking you wanted to do it now?"

"No!" She was agog. It had taken all her will to come here and ask him; she'd given no actual thought to the logistics of it.

"Just checking," he said. They stood there for several seconds, staring at each other, and he looked away first. "You're headed back to school when, tomorrow?"

She nodded.

"When are you coming back?"

She licked her lips. "In March."

"If you haven't changed your mind by then, you know where to find me."

The first month back at school, it felt like her last encounter with Kevin had been more of a dream than something she'd actually done. She went to the Housing Fair at the end of the month; she and Brenda were partnered on a project with two other students in Baker, and they spent a lot of time hanging out together.

Eventually she noticed that Brenda and Jacob, the straight guy in their group, were spending a lot of time together outside of the project. She wanted to ask, but if she said anything to Brenda, somehow it would get turned around to Shelly's relationship status.

It was Chloe, who came to visit for a weekend in February, who confirmed that Brenda and Jacob were a couple and not just "fuck buddies." Shelly had never seen her roommate blush before, and Chloe was ecstatic over her friend's good news. She did once look at Shelly thoughtfully, but she said nothing, and Shelly thought maybe she'd imagined it.

By the time March rolled around, Shelly grew increasingly on edge, something she blamed on project deadlines. Brenda's relationship with Jacob had grown more serious, and she confessed to being nervous about meeting his parents over spring break. It was like living with a different person, but Shelly was relieved that Brenda was so preoccupied with her new boyfriend and his family that she had no time to ferret out information about Shelly's vacation plans.

Then it was spring break, and Shelly was mostly sure she hadn't changed her mind.


She'd never been in Kevin's room before. She hadn't even realized that he'd moved out of the main house and into this space above the garage. It made it seem more real, which was silly, because of course it was real; she was here, after all.

She looked around the room. The furniture, to use the term loosely, consisted mainly of wooden crates in a variety of shapes and sizes, arranged to form a nightstand, an entertainment center, and a dresser. The bed, nothing more than an air mattress in the middle of the room, wasn't unmade as she'd assumed was the case in all boys' rooms. Faded blue sheets were pulled tight on all four corners, and a threadbare but brightly colored quilt was folded over the foot of the bed, giving the room a surprisingly homey feel.

There was a single window in the room, which faced the front yard. Raggedy blankets were tacked to that wall, likely as insulation from the cold. A couple of speakers were mounted behind the bed, and in between them was a framed finger-painting of what might have been a multi-colored elephant or might just as easily have been a flower. A torn Rolling Stones concert announcement from decades earlier hung, at an angle, on the adjacent wall, and next to that, a number of photos, printed on regular computer paper. There were a couple of classic cars that Shelly recognized but didn't know the names of, and a picture of Karen in a cap and gown in front of the middle school. Only one of the pictures included Kevin. It was one of all three McCormick children taken the year they'd all gone Christmas caroling. Shelly remembered it well; she'd been one of the carolers, and an active participant in the inevitable snowball fight that had broken out soon after.

The biggest surprise was that there was a sink in the corner. A sliver of soap was next to the tap, and a small hand towel was draped over the side, so it looked like it probably worked. Maybe this room had been a bathroom or a work shop at one time.

Kevin stood against the wall, hands in his pockets, while she completed her visual inspection of the room's decor.

"Yes," he said. "It's a sink."

"I know it's a sink."

"It's pretty convenient to have one here, in case I have to piss in the middle of the night."

She whirled around and stared at him slack-jawed.

"I'm kidding, Marsh. I'm not a fucking animal. It's also too high to use as a urinal." He gestured at the crates. "You can put your coat anywhere, if you want."

She nodded and fumbled with her zipper. Taking the jacket off was even more challenging because her arm got stuck, and she smacked the recalcitrant sleeve on the wall several times before Kevin grabbed hold of it so she could pull her arm free. She dropped the coat on the nearest crate and gathered her hair away from her face, as if putting it in a ponytail, before letting it go.

"You can still change your mind, Shell. You don't have to do this."

She let out an audible sigh of relief as she finally looked at him. He shook his head and sat down, then patted the bed in invitation.

She sat.

He was quiet for a minute, and then he said, "I'm not mad."

"You're not?"

"Nah. Disappointed, sure, but not mad."

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

He turned to face her and brushed some of the hair out of her face. "You don't have to be. Sorry, I mean."

"Why are you being so nice to me?"

He shrugged. "I like you. And I have a sister. I'd kill anyone who tried to force her into anything she wasn't ready for."

She believed him. The killing someone part, mostly, but also that he liked her, which was weird, because she'd only recently stopped mostly-hating him.

"Thanks," she said. "So, what now?"

He cupped her face, and she held her breath, waiting for his next move. He didn't kiss her, as she thought he would. Instead, he stroked her cheek with his thumb before sliding his fingers into her hair. When he started massaging her scalp, she closed her eyes and sighed in contentment.

"The cat likes this, too."

She opened one eye. "You have a cat?"

"No one really has a cat. Frisk just hangs around when she feels like it, looking for handouts."

"And you give them to her."

"Shhh," he shushed her, his lips near her ear. "Cats are mind readers. If she knows we're in here, talking about food, she'll show up at the window and meow until she gets what she wants."

It might have been the release of tension she'd felt since she'd walked in his room, but she laughed, leaning her head back into his hand. She'd only heard of massages in the context of sexual innuendos, but this was relaxing. When she felt his fingers leave her hair, she opened her eyes, disappointed it had come to an end, but he was moving behind her on the bed. She tensed again, but he went back to work using both hands, and she sighed again in bliss, dropping her chin to her chest.

His hands moved from her head to the nape of her neck, and then to her shoulders.

"You're still tense," he said, working on a knot in her muscle. "I'm not going to jump on you. Unless you want me to?" he added hopefully.

"Shut up," she said, making no move to push him away. He gave an exaggerated sigh of disappointment, and she snorted.

"You're a cold woman, Shelly Marsh," he sighed, working his thumbs between her shoulder blades. The words were like being doused with water, and she stood up, hugging her arms to herself.

He raked his fingers through his hair, looking confused and hurt, but not annoyed. She hadn't meant to overreact, but she was too embarrassed now to apologize. She settled for glaring at him instead.

He crawled to the edge of the bed, swinging his legs over the side. "Shelly," he said, holding out his hand. "I was just teasing."

She stared at his hand for several seconds before twining her fingers with his and allowed him to draw her closer to the bed. She let out a huff of frustration. "I know," she admitted. "I'm sorry."

He turned her hand over and massaged her knuckles with his thumb. "Want me to bring you home?"

She hesitated. She did, and yet she didn't, not really.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do." He put one hand over his chest and held up three fingers of the other hand. "Scout's honor."

"You were never a Scout," she reminded him, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips

"Nope," he said, turning her hand over again and tracing the lines in her palm. "Never had any money for uniforms and all that shit."

"Wasn't Kenny in Scouts with my brother?"

"Yep. And my dad was in Scouts with your dad."

When they were kids, the thought of Kevin McCormick even wanting to be a scout was ridiculous. He was the antithesis of everything she'd ever believed about Scouts, at least until Stan had joined. She'd never dreamed that Kevin might have asked his parents to join, only to be told no. And then to see his brother granted the very same opportunity he'd been denied, when their family's situation hadn't really improved...

She squeezed his hand, and he shrugged. It was a gesture she'd seen from him many times, but this time she didn't see it as dismissive or condescending. She let go of his hand and sat next to him on the bed. The more time she spent with Kevin, the more she realized she'd never really known him. He'd been a drunken asshole most of the time their paths had crossed, but maybe beer had been his way of coping with his family, the same way anger had been hers. She looked down at his hands, which were loosely clasped between his legs. The knuckles were abraded, and there was a faint scar across the back of one of his hands. She'd felt the calluses on his fingers when he'd held her hand, but there was no dirt or grease under his nails.

During her first year at the Community College at Denver, she'd taken an online liberal arts elective. They'd discussed various idioms and proverbs, and a heated debate had ensued when someone brought up eyes as the window to the soul. A surprising number of students felt that a person's hands were more telling than their eyes, while others felt that the eyes might be the windows, but the hands were the means of expressing the soul. Shelly had glanced down at her own hands and decided her short stubby fingers weren't nearly as nice as her eyes, which she considered her best feature, and had vehemently disagreed with that point of view.

Now, though, she understood.

She was discovering that she and Kevin had more in common than she'd ever thought possible. She'd known him most of her life, and hated him a good portion of that time, often justifiably. When Shelly was in pre-school, her mother had been pregnant with Stan. Shelly had been excited about it back then, and had made a point of telling everyone she met that she was going to have a little brother or sister soon.

Kenny was only a couple of months old when Shelly and her mother had run into the McCormicks at the supermarket. Mrs. McCormick had been carrying her younger son, leaving Kevin to browse on his own. He'd had a box of some kind of generic sugary cereal in his hands, one with a free prize inside, when Shelly had told him the news.

He'd taken one look at the heavily pregnant Sharon Marsh, then rolled his eyes and gone back to looking at his cereal box. Shelly had been annoyed at the time, because he clearly found the prize more interesting than her and her news. That was before she found out herself what it was like to be forgotten when there was a new baby in the house, and even then, she hadn't realized what it must have been like for Kevin.

His sole purpose in school had seemed to be annoying her, but otherwise he'd been on the quiet side, except when he'd shown up at school drunk. That's when he'd been full of himself, boisterous and belligerent, but on occasion, charming as well. How much had been the real Kevin, and how much had been the alcohol?

She touched his shoulder, startling him. He stared at her, his eyes traveling over her face, and his gaze darkened.

"I told you it was fine. I don't need to be your pity fuck."

She curled her fingers into a fist and punched him in the arm, hard enough to make him flinch.

Shelly was at a loss. She'd been irritated with Kevin, who was getting all sorts of wrong signals when she'd only been trying to be nice. He was confusing her, and she hated that. She didn't care for the sarcastic resignation in his voice, which made him seem paradoxically younger and older than he was Then there was that small part of her that had been flattered that he'd assumed that he was the pity fuck. She was used to hearing comments about her appearance and snide comments about how fat girls were so grateful to get laid, they'd do pretty much anything in bed. But here was Kevin putting himself in that role, as if the only way he could get laid was if someone felt sorry for him.

"You wouldn't be my pity fuck, asshole."

He shrugged one shoulder, and she ventured to put her hand there again. This time he merely sighed.

"So," he said, staring at the far wall. "What now?"

He turned to look at her then, and for the first time in her life, she made, albeit accidentally, full eye contact with Kevin McCormick. She'd known his eyes were brown, but this close, she could see they were more of a dark amber, like maple syrup. A strand of hair was stuck in his lashes. She'd never noticed how long they were, long like Amir's had been. She'd been a little bit envious of Amir's lashes, but with Kevin, it seemed like he deserved them, considering the other shortcomings in his life.

"I don't know," she said, reaching up to pull the hair away from his eyes.

He caught her hand in his and turned it over to press his lips against her palm. It made her feel fluttery inside, and she stared at the top of his head, wondering how long she should wait before pulling her hand away. His lips moved to her wrist, but he went no further, lifting his head and letting go of her hand.

She curled her hand against her chest and stared at him.

"What?" he asked after a few seconds.

He's kind of cute, Brenda had said, and Shelly had only recently started to agree with that. It wasn't what made her heart beat faster. Even though they were facing each other, they'd needed to turn to do so, since they were both sitting on the bed. As a result of their positions, she could feel his outer thigh pressed against hers. Slowly, as if in a dream, she cupped his cheek, and when he closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, she couldn't breathe.

He'd held her that night in the truck, but had anyone ever held him?

She slowly lifted her hand from his face and eased him into an awkward one-armed embrace. In this position, with his head was resting against hers, she could feel his breath, warm and with a hint of mint, on her face. She felt restless; not only was the dampness of his breath uncomfortable, she didn't know what to do with her other arm. Should she put her hand in her lap, or touch his hair? Maybe she should stop worrying about the idle limb and think of something else.

Then Kevin touched her breast, and she sucked in a breath. He lifted his head and stared at her, then his lips twitched.

"Sorry," he said, his crooked grin suggesting he wasn't at all.

"I could break that hand," she stated.

"Will you?" he asked.

"No," she replied, and the next thing she knew, she was flat on her back with Kevin's hand up her shirt.

"Wait," she said, pushing against his shoulder. She reached behind her neck and pushed her hair up and out of the way. "OK. I mean, not OK. I mean, I do mean OK, but it's just..." she covered her face with both hands.

When he tried to pull her hands away, she resisted for a while before giving in and letting him pin her wrists to the bed. She squeezed her eyes shut. She'd never been so embarrassed in her life. She could hear him sigh, and she wished she could turn back the clock to before she'd ever set foot in this room.

"Shelly," he said, brushing a finger over her cheek. "I'm not...I'm used to...not that I'm used to, used to, but I've never...the women I've been with were more...fuck, not like there have been a lot of women, it's not like I'm...shit, I'm fucking this up."

She opened one eye and he was dragging one hand over his face. She propped herself up on her elbows, her shirt still hiked up to the edge of her bra, and stared at him. She'd kind of assumed that he'd had a number of drunken orgies, she supposed, or that he'd at least slept with a number of boozed up sluts when he'd gone out binge drinking, but she didn't want to think about them right now. If she thought about any of this too much, she'd feel, well, she didn't want to know how she'd feel. The fact that he was flustered was almost adorable.

"It was's too fast."

He lay next to her, propping his head in his hand. "So..." he gestured at her and the bed. "Do you want to go home yet? Or do you want to try..."

Her heart hammered in her chest, and her mouth had never felt drier. She licked her lips. "Just...go slowly."

He cautiously put his hand on her abdomen. When she didn't protest, he moved his thumb back and forth experimentally, making her squirm. He removed his hand and looked at her questioningly.

"Tickles," she explained, a blush staining her cheeks. She closed her eyes again, unable to maintain eye contact.

"Ah," he said quietly, and then he slowly lowered his head to feather a kiss where his hand had been. It, too, tickled, but she managed to keep mostly still, right up until she felt his tongue swirl around her navel. She hesitantly placed her hand on his head, and his mouth moved lower, to the waistband of her jeans. She held her breath while he tugged at the top button of her jeans.

Her toes curled as he explored her torso with his mouth, moving his lips closer to her hip while he reached for the zipper tab. He pulled it down slowly, one set of teeth at a time, as if he expected her to call a halt at any moment. She knew she could tell him to stop, but she didn't want to, despite feeling nervous and quivery and close to vomiting. Her fingers buried themselves in his hair and she found it more difficult to think about anything when all she could do was feel.

When he touched her, there, a small part of her brain registered the intrusion and tried to analyze what he was doing, but she was overwhelmed. It felt good, better than good, and she was still muzzy headed when he slid his finger inside.

He's fucking me with his finger, that fuzzy part of her brain realized, and she squirmed again, but this time in an effort to give him better access. It was beyond strange to Shelly, being touched intimately like this. She winced as the sharp edge, probably a callus on his finger scraped her inside, and she tightened her grip in his hair.

"Stop," she gasped.

He removed his hand, and she felt bereft, incomplete. She took a few deep breaths before opening her eyes, but she wasn't prepared for the sight of him sucking on his finger. It should have been disgusting, but she found it a little bit arousing. She brought her thumbs to her jeans but couldn't bring herself to push them down any lower.

"Need help?" Kevin asked. She couldn't say it out loud, so she nodded. He grabbed the pockets and tugged until her jeans were halfway down her thighs, then he sat back and sucked on his middle finger some more.

It was still gross. And yet, not.

"Shelly?" he mumbled around his finger.

"OK," she said, squeezing her eyes shut again. "It's OK. You can. Just. Um. Go ahead."

He rubbed his finger over her a couple of times, slowly, and then she could feel his breath. She barely had a chance to open her eyes before the tip of his tongue grazed her, and the question "what the fuck are you doing?" never made it from her brain to her lips.

It should have been illegal for anything to feel this good.

"Kevin," she choked out. To her own ears, it sounded like she was close to crying. Maybe she was, because she felt jittery and on edge and she gripped his hair hard and tried to guide him where she needed him most. She felt like she was on the abyss of something incredible, and then, without warning, it was too much. She wriggled away, trapping his head for a moment while she strived to put distance between them, and as soon as she was off the bed, she kept her back to Kevin as she pulled up her pants and zipped them.

How could she have let him to touch her like that? How could she have enjoyed it? Now that it was over, she felt dirty and whorish. She might have come over here to lose her virginity, but she thought he'd just stick it in and be done with it. She hadn't expected to be finger fucked, let alone be kissed down there.

She nearly jumped when Kevin, who'd come up behind her while she berated herself, put his hands on her arms. One of those fingers had been inside her, ewww, and she shook him off.

"Don't," she said. "Please, just don't."

"Fuck!" he swore, and there was a crashing sound behind her, making her flinch. She'd heard stories about the knock-out, drag-down fights the McCormicks had on a regular basis, and although she was confident she could hold her own against Kevin, if he dared put his hands on her right now, she didn't know what she'd do. She felt brittle and close to shattering. Her hands were shaking, so she curled her fingers into a fist, a reassuringly familiar gesture. She was ready now and wouldn't hesitate to punch him if he so much as came near her.

It turned out that all Kevin had done was broken one of the crates. He was now pacing back and forth, muttering under his breath in between a string of "fucks" and the occasional "douche knuckle." He was obviously pissed as hell, but he wasn't calling her a dick tease or frigid, so she found it very confusing.

She wanted – no, needed – to put as much space between them as possible, so she said, "I should leave."

He stopped his pacing. "I'll walk you home."

"I'm fine," she said stiffly.

"Walking you home anyway."

She didn't want him to. She felt too awkward around him now, too aware of his presence, but fighting with him over it would only make it worse. At least he seemed to understand that she needed some space, because he followed her across the tracks from a distance rather than walking her right to her door.

She went right up to her room, not wanting her parents to see her. The last thing she needed was for either of them to ask her what was wrong, because she had no answer to that. She sat on the edge of her bed, nervously wringing her hands for a while before deciding that what she needed was a shower. Not only would it wash away the memory of Kevin's hands and mouth on her, it would give her time to think.

It did. No matter how desperately she tried not to replay what had happened, that was all she could think about. He'd taken her by surprise, but he hadn't forced himself on her. She'd allowed him to do everything he'd done, and she would have allowed even greater liberties if it hadn't suddenly become too much.

She paused in the washing of her hair. She'd let him do what he did because she'd enjoyed it. It had been unlike anything she'd ever experienced before. It hadn't been terrible, but it was the sort of thing she'd once thought that only Certain Types of Girls, or Certain Types of Women, let happen. When she'd first heard about it, she hadn't believed people really engaged in something so filthy. There was nothing about it that sounded even remotely arousing, and it just had to be one of those things that were only done in pornos.

Even when Kevin had teased her about sitting on his face, it hadn't seemed like a thing that normal people did. Kevin was just the sort of guy who would sit around jacking off while the actors on screen pretended to enjoy themselves.

Shelly hadn't been pretending with Kevin.

She leaned her head back and rinsed her hair, imagining the water washing away the girl who had enjoyed that sort of thing, at least a little. She was a grown woman, not a girl. Sure, she was still (mostly) sexually inexperienced, but that was by choice.

She turned off the water and wrapped her hair in a towel. As much as she'd like to blame Kevin, he'd given her plenty of opportunities to change her mind. She'd been afraid, but not of Kevin. She'd been afraid of still being a virgin at thirty and just as afraid of doing it with the wrong guy. She'd asked Kevin because she knew he'd say yes, and because he didn't have a smart phone to upload his conquest to social media immediately afterwards.

She shivered before realizing she was still standing in the bathroom naked. She grabbed her old ratty bathrobe from the hook on the door and wrapped herself in it, tying the belt tightly.

Maybe she'd made a mistake with Kevin, but it wasn't the end of the world. He'd actually been a gentleman about it, which was an odd thing to think about someone whose tongue had gone south of the border, but there it was. And if it had been all that bad, why was she wishing it had gone on just a little bit longer before it had become too much?

These were the thoughts that kept her awake half the night. She didn't think once about Skyler or Amir or Helio, or even of Larry Feegan, and when she finally did fall asleep, she hadn't shed a single tear.

He didn't call her the next day. There was no reason on earth why he should have; it wasn't like their aborted sexual encounter had been the stuff of dreams, and she'd given him no encouragement whatsoever. She was actually relieved that he wasn't trying to finagle a second tryst. In fact, she wasn't even thinking about Kevin McCormick, except to acknowledge how she wasn't thinking about him. Today was a brand new day and she had absolutely no place to be.

"You seem to be in a good mood," Sharon commented when she went down to breakfast.

Shelly poured herself a glass of milk so she wouldn't have to make eye contact with her mother. "Mmm," she responded as she drank.

"Are you doing anything today?"

It was the tone of her mother's voice that made her suspicious. Shelly knew that whatever came next, she wasn't going to like. She set the glass down on the counter and folded her arms over her chest.

"I kind of had plans," she lied.

Sharon sighed, then beckoned for Shelly to follow her to the living room. The two of them stood in front of the couch, staring.

"Randy!" When there was no response, Sharon shouted his name again, louder, and then looked over at her daughter.

Shelly sighed, then gripped the edge of the blanket and gave it a vicious yank, causing her father to tumble off the couch and onto the floor, where he blinked his eyes a few times and then curled himself into a ball and went back to sleep.

"Shelly, do you mind?" her mother asked. "We were supposed to go pick up Stan's car today, and I can't drive my car there and both cars back."

Shelly did mind, because it wasn't her car. Since Stan was nowhere to be found, he'd either not come home last night or he was in his room, just as hungover as their father. Of course that was perfectly fine, because Stan was ‘going through a tough time right now' or ‘dealing with the pressures of college football' or some bullshit excuse.

"Can't you walk there?" It wasn't like you couldn't get pretty much everywhere in South Park on foot. At least she knew they weren't going to the McCormicks to pick it up; she would have seen it last night otherwise.

"Oh, no. We have to go to Jefferson to pick it up. That's where your brother left it when he called Karen for a ride home last night."

"Fine," she said, even though it wasn't, and she grabbed her jacket and followed her mother outside.

"So," Sharon asked, once they got on the highway. "Are you seeing anyone?"


"So no, then."

Shelly crossed her arms over her chest and slid down the seat a couple of inches. It was better that her mother thought her perpetually single than to have even the slightest clue what Shelly had been up to last night. She couldn't wait until she got back on her feet so she could get her own place again.

"I was talking to June yesterday. She's one of my coworkers, you know."

Shelly did know; June had been working for Tom's Rhinoplasty nearly as long as Sharon had.

"Her son is about your age."


"Although he might be gay. Or maybe it was bisexual. Or am I thinking of Betty's nephew from Boulder?"

Shelly silently prayed that her mother had gleaned the stats on her coworkers' relatives through the course of normal conversations and not through an active attempt at setting up blind dates, because she really didn't need to be the topic of conversation around the water cooler, especially in a town as small as South Park.

"I know you're much older than the boys at your school, but you'll learn that doesn't really mean anything. The older ones aren't any more mature than the young ones. Just look at your father." She sighed dreamily. "Although there was a time when he was quite the catch."


"My point is that you shouldn't worry about robbing the cradle. There's nothing wrong with being a cougar, if you want to find one you can teach a few things to."

"I'm only twenty-six!"

"Don't tell your father I said this," Sharon continued, "but men aren't the only ones who like to test drive the car before driving it home from the lot. You might also be able to influence a younger man who is less set in his ways." Her mother patted her on the knee. "We'll think of something."

Please, let's not, Shelly begged her mother silently.

"Thanks for coming with me. I could just kill your father right now."

Shelly wanted to point out that this was a strong argument against getting involved with anyone, but as long as her mother was focused on someone else, she'd be less concerned about the ticking of Shelly's biological clock. Shelly took advantage of the lapse in conversation to put her earbuds in. They weren't even plugged into her phone, but her mother didn't have to know that.

"I think this is where he left it," Sharon said, checking the GPS on her phone. "We should be coming up to an Irish pub. It's on one of the side streets nearby."

Shelly doubted that Stan had called his girlfriend because he was a responsible drunk; there was no such thing. She fully expected to find the car sporting a prominent dent in the grill when they found it. She was half right; the dent was there all right, but it was in the driver's side fender. The bigger surprise was to see Karen McCormick leaning against the back door while her older brother was squatting next to the front tire, hammering out the dent from behind.

"Oh," Sharon said when they walked up to the McCormicks. "Stan never told me that you were coming out here."

Karen twirled her keys around her finger. "He asked me last night if I could get Kevin to fix it. The only problem is that it's pushed right against the tire, so he couldn't drive it home last night. Kevin's just trying to give the tire enough room so we can drive it back to our house."

"Good thing he couldn't drive it," Kevin said. "The boy was way-sted."

Karen kicked him in the ankle, and he looked up at Sharon.

"Oh. Sorry, Mrs. Marsh." His eyes widened when he spied Shelly standing with her, and he cleared his throat. "Shelly."


Karen looked from one to the other, then walked over to Sharon and gestured toward the older woman's car. "Would you like to go on a coffee run? My treat."

"I could use a cup of coffee," Sharon agreed. "And don't even think of paying. Shelly, are you coming?"

"She can stay here and keep my brother company," Karen reasoned. "She can also make sure no one coming up the road runs him over or anything."

Sharon nodded. "You're always so thoughtful, Karen. Stan is lucky to have you."

Karen beamed at her as they walked back to Sharon's car, and it felt like an hour later when they drove away.

Kevin stood up and slipped the hammer in his belt loop. "I would have called," he said, rubbing the back of his head, "but I don't have your number. I thought about stopping by, but then Karen asked me to..." he gestured at the tire.

"I didn't expect you to call."

"Oh," he said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. "Well, then I guess it's good I didn't."

"It is," she agreed vehemently.

"So," he said.


"Fuck," he sighed. "Shelly, I'm sorry if I was...if I weirded you out." He shook his head again. "What the fuck am I saying, you were obviously weirded out. I would have stopped, if I'd known. I didn't mean to – "

"Stop!" she interrupted. Thinking about what they'd done had her feeling warm and fluttery again. She took a step closer to straighten the button placket on his shirt. "Just stop talking about it. It''s fine."

"Shelly," he croaked, and he reached up to cup her cheek.

She looked up then, right into his eyes. She felt weak then, and a little lightheaded. That had to be why she found herself leaning forward, and melding her mouth against his. He turned so her back was pressed up against Stan's car, and he picked her up and put her on the hood so he could nuzzle her neck.

"No hickeys," she reminded him as his mouth worked its magic. She wanted him, she realized. She wanted him fiercely, and he obviously felt the same. He was caressing her breast, right here in the open, and she let him for several seconds before remembering where they were and shoving him away.

He was breathing heavy when he stumbled back, and his pupils were large and dark in his eyes.

"God, Shelly," he groaned. "I'm so fucking hard for you right now."

She glanced down at his crotch, saw that he wasn't lying, and quickly looked away. She'd done that to him. It made her feel like they were a little more on equal ground.

"Tonight," she said, unable to meet his gaze. "Let's try again tonight."

He leaned forward, splaying his hands on either side of her. "You're killing me, Marsh," he said, leaning in for another kiss. She let herself enjoy it for a few seconds, then pushed at his shoulders.

"My mom," she reminded him.

"Fuck your mom," he growled, trying to kiss her again.

"What about Karen?"

That did the trick, because Kevin backed away and leaned back against the car, where his sister had been standing earlier. "Mr. Garrison naked," he chanted, staring down at his erection. "Mrs. Garrison naked. Dead puppies. Garrison naked. Both Mr. and Mrs. Garrison naked. And 69ing."

Kevin had just barely finished talking down his erection when Sharon's car pulled up behind Stan's car. Shelly slid off the hood, walking around the other side of the car to put some distance between her and Kevin as she approached her mother's car. Karen opened the door and stepped out, a cup of coffee in her hand. She was surprised to Shelly standing there, and she again looked from her brother to Shelly and back.

"Coffee?" she asked, holding out her cup. "It has cream and two sugars."

Shelly wasn't really interested in the coffee, but it gave her an excuse to avoid making eye contact with any of them, so she accepted it with a muttered "thanks" and brought the cup to her lips.

Sharon got out as well, and stared at the dented fender. "You haven't made much progress, Kevin."

Kevin shook his head. "No, sorry, Mrs. Marsh. I'm going to have to take it off when I get it home. This was just so we could get it home without calling a tow truck."

Sharon pursed her lips and shook her head. "I thought you drove a tow truck."

That was news to Shelly. She'd thought his only income was doing side jobs.

"Only sometimes, and they didn't call me in to work today."

"Obviously not," Sharon replied, giving the fender a pointed look.

"So, Mrs. Marsh," Karen said, jumping in to smooth things over. "Do you want me or Shelly to drive Stan's car back?"

"You're such a sweetheart for offering, Karen. If you don't mind, I'd appreciate if you drove it. It has to go to your house anyway, and Shelly can keep me company on the way back. Besides, Shelly doesn't know how to drive a stick. Girls today don't bother learning like we did in my day. It's good that Stan taught you."

"Actually, Mrs. Marsh, it was Ke-"

Karen stopped abruptly when her brother touched her arm and shook his head.

"Karen's a pro with a five-speed," Kevin said politely. "I'm sure Stan would be happy to teach Shelly if she ever wanted to learn."

"If they didn't kill each other first," Sharon laughed.

Karen looked at her brother. He stared back at her and neither said a word.

"We'd better head back," Sharon said. "I've got to get home to cook dinner. God knows if I leave it up to Randy, the kitchen will be a disaster. You know you're welcome to join us, Karen."

"Thank you, Mrs. Marsh."

"What do I keep telling you?" Sharon chastised. "Please, call me Sharon."

"Thank you, Sharon. I'll call Stan when it's ready."

Shelly climbed back in the car with her mother and dug her ear buds back out of her jacket. This time her mother was not so easily dissuaded, because she grabbed the bud closest to her and tugged it out of Shelly's ear.

"What did that boy say to you?"

"What? He didn't say anything."

"Did he try anything? I'll get Jimbo's gun myself and shoot his balls off. He's just like his father, you know. Stuart and Gerald Broflovski used to run around in the same crowd when they were younger, but Gerald went and made something out of himself instead of knocking up an under-aged girl. They didn't even get married until she was pregnant with Kenny."

"That's not Kevin's fault," Shelly pointed out.

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Sharon stated. "Look at Stan. I love your brother very much, but he's just like his father, too." She touched a lock of Shelly's hair. "I want so much more for you."

"Why are you even still with him?"

"Who, your father? It's complicated, Shelly. You'll understand when you're older."

"I'm twenty-six," Shelly reminded her.

"I know," Sharon sighed. "Maybe someday I'll understand when I get older." She put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. "Now we'd better get home. You know I wasn't kidding about your father. I don't know why that man can't put a simple pot roast in the oven."

Shelly said nothing; when it came to her father, ignorance was often bliss.

When Stan's car was done, Karen drove it over instead of calling, and she did stay for dinner. She kept sneaking glances across the table during the meal, making Shelly wonder if she had something on her face or between her teeth. She excused herself while her mother went into the kitchen to get dessert, making up a story about having to buy tampons, because it was just the sort of thing that would keep her brother and her father from asking her to get anything else while she was out.

It wasn't a long walk to the other side of the tracks, but tonight it seemed much shorter, which was strange because the rest of the day had dragged leading up to this moment. She stared up at the room over the garage and wondered if she should just go up when Kevin poked his head out the window, saw Shelly standing there, and told her he'd be right down.

"You came," he said, breathless from his short run down the stairs.

"I said I would."

He grabbed her hand and led her up the stairs, then slammed the door shut behind them. Before she could even remove her coat, he pinned her to the door with an arm on either side and kissed her.

It started out hard and hungry, but he had to pull back to take a breath, and when he leaned forward again, the touch of his lips was less aggressive, like he was asking permission. She gave it willingly, grabbing a fistful of his shirt for emphasis. He maneuvered them away from the door and toward his bed, letting her grip on his shirt drag him down with her. His knee went between her thighs and she threw her head back, breaking the kiss.

"Too many clothes," he said, running his finger under the collar of her sweatshirt. "You need to be naked."

When Kevin was kissing her, she couldn't think straight, but when he opened his mouth, she was too aware of what they were doing. She wanted this, though, she did, and she reached for the hem of her shirt.

He watched her, his eyes darkening the way they had in Jefferson, and she pulled the shirt over her head and tossed it over the side of the bed. She hugged her arms over her chest, embarrassed by her boldness.

"No, don't," he murmured, circling her wrists with his fingers. "Let me look."

She let him pull her arms away and pin them to the bed, but she had to close her eyes so she wouldn't see his reaction. It had been so much easier to fantasize about this earlier in the day than to actually go through with it. He released her wrists and slid his hands beneath her to deftly unhook her bra. Before she could protest, he had it halfway down her arms, baring her breasts.

She swallowed, trying not to cry, and then she felt his tongue flick over one nipple, and she no longer cared about being half naked on Kevin McCormick's bed.

"God, Shelly," he mumbled around her breast. Eyes still closed, she slid her hands over his shoulders and into his hair. She loved that he'd grown it out and she arched her back off the bed as he continued his ministrations.

He stopped for a moment, and she cracked open one eye to see Kevin sit up and yank his own shirt over his head. He pulled her close, nuzzling her ear, and the feeling of his naked chest against hers made her shiver despite the warmth of his body. His hands ran up and down her bare back and she pressed her face against his neck, wanting more.

She got it in the form of Kevin's thigh, back between her legs and pressing against her core. She moved her hips experimentally, groaning when the pressure sent an arc of pleasure through her.

"Pants on or off?" he whispered in her ear.

"Off," she whispered back before she could change her mind.

His hands went to work on the front of her jeans immediately, and she crossed her legs instinctively, trapping one of his hands between her legs. That was much worse, however, because even though he couldn't move his fingers, she could feel the heat of his hand there.

He must have learned from last night to keep his mouth shut, because he went back to work when her legs slowly parted, and he slowly inched her jeans and her panties down over her hips, past her knees, and all the way to the floor in a single heap.

She was glad she'd kept her eyes closed, because she absolutely could not look at him while she was stark naked in his bed. She wanted to cover herself, but he was back on the bed next to her and did nothing but run his hands up and down her body.

She heard a soft moan and realized it had come from her.

One of his hands slipped back between her legs, coaxing her to open for him. It sounded kind of squelchy, which was also embarrassing, and then his finger slid inside. It was amazing how much deeper he could go without the restriction her jeans had posed the night before.

His finger left her, leaving her bereft, but then she heard the sound of a wrapper being torn open, and the snap of the condom being unrolled over Kevin's...thing...and she couldn't keep her eyes open anymore when she felt the blunt head of his cock nudge at her entrance. He slid it back and forth a few times, then he positioned himself and paused.

"Last chance to change your mind," he cautioned. Unable to speak, she shook her head, and then he began to push inside.

Fuck, it hurt. She gripped his shoulders, digging her nails into his skin, and was ready to tell him to stop, that it was too much, that he was too big and he'd never fit, but he backed up a little, and she breathed a sigh of relief that it was over.

Except that it wasn't, because he was pushing back in, a little further this time.

He must have noticed she wasn't enjoying herself, because suddenly he was no longer trying to impale her. Did it count as losing her virginity if just the tip had gone in? What about his fingers, did that count?

"Almost forgot," he said, feeling under the bed for something. "I picked this up on the way home today."

He held up a bottle of Astroglide, looking quite pleased with himself. She knew what Astroglide was, and she was suddenly fearful of what he was planning to do next, especially when he flipped open the cap and squirted half the bottle on his erection.

"You're not sticking that up my ass," she warned.

He looked at her, surprised. "I wasn't planning on going there, at least not today."

She wished he had something on his nightstand that she could have grabbed and lobbed at his head. Instead, she had to threaten him with grievous harm if he was lying.

"Why would you even think I wanted anal? We've never talked about it."

"That," she said, pointing to the clear gel dripping off his dick.


"It's the kind of lube," she explained.

"Astroglide?" He continued to look puzzled, and then his mouth dropped open as he worked it out. "It's not called Astroglide because it's only used in the ass."

She'd thought exactly that. She crossed her arms over her chest defensively.

"Shelly," he said, lying down next to her. He splayed his fingers over her abdomen. "I want to be inside you more than anything right now, but nothing kinky, I promise. Lube just makes it easier for both of us."

She just needed to let him stick it in her, and then they'd be done, and it would be over, and the next time, she'd know what to expect. Not that she was planning that the next time would also be with Kevin, because it wouldn't.

"Shut up and just do it." She closed her eyes again and waited. A drop of lubricant jelly dripped onto her belly and she wanted to wipe it off immediately, but she didn't have a tissue and didn't want it on her bare hands, not after it had been on Kevin's dick.

The fact that she was waiting for said dick and lube to go somewhere much more personal than her hand was beside the point.

"Come ‘ere," he said, rolling onto his back and making her straddle his thighs. "Maybe it'll be easier this way." He rubbed the tip against her a few times, occasionally hitting that sensitive spot he'd found last night. If he could just focus there, she'd forgive him his idiocy.

He didn't, of course, because he was again trying to push inside her.

"It's hard in this position. I mean, you know, more difficult. You have to help me."

She already hated this position. She didn't want to help him; she wanted him to just do it so she didn't have to worry about it anymore.

"I can't," she said, her voice catching. "Please, Kevin."

"You want me to stop?"

"I want...I want..."

He was still poised to enter her, but he waited.

"I can't be on top," she said. "I don't know what to do."

He rolled them over again, and this time he didn't even try to enter her slowly. He pushed it in all at once, and it hurt. She started crying, but Kevin either didn't hear her or he thought they were cries of pleasure, because he began ramming inside her, again and again, and she thought it would never end. It wasn't even because of the pain, which wasn't that bad now thanks to the lube. It was that sex was disappointing, which was somehow worse.

After two more thrusts, Kevin's entire body tensed, and then he collapsed on top of her, rolling to the side and pulling her into his arms. He kissed her sloppily and lay there panting while Shelly cried in silence.

"God, Shelly. That was...fuck, that was awesome."

She hadn't meant to sniffle, but she couldn't help it. She knew he heard her, too, because he froze.

"Are you crying?"

"No," she said, biting her lip.

"No, no no no no!" he said, cupping her face in both hands and wiping the tears away with his thumbs. "Oh, fuck, Shelly, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"

"I think it's supposed to the first time," she mumbled, unable to meet his gaze.

"That was...I was your first?"

She couldn't speak, so she nodded, and he pressed his forehead against hers.

"God, Shelly, I'm sorry. I didn't know. I should have known. Why the fuck didn't I know?"

She'd thought everyone knew; at least everyone in South Park. God knew that even her parents were aware of her reputation or lack thereof.

He sighed heavily. "Want me to take you home?"

She shook her head. She couldn't go home like this; everyone would know. He shifted next to her, and then she felt something tugging at her feet. That something turned out to be the quilt folded there, and Kevin pulled it up to cover them both. She was still naked, but she at least now she felt less so.

"Does it always hurt the first time?" she asked him.

"I don't know," he admitted. "Never been with a virgin until today."

She bit her lip, hating that he'd had sex with more experienced women before doing it with her. It shouldn't have mattered, but for some reason it did.

"It must get better, right?" Otherwise why would anyone want to do it again? Or maybe it was that there was something wrong with her.

"I guess, maybe."

They both lay together, lost in their own thoughts for a while, before Shelly spoke again.


"Yeah, Shell?"

"It wasn't as bad as you're probably thinking."

He laughed, but it was a weak, sad sound. "It was your first time. I don't know how it could have been worse."

She rested her head on his chest, closed her eyes, and breathed in his scent. It could have been better, sure, but it could have been worse, too. She could have done this with someone who lost patience with her, or who laughed at her naivety regarding lube, or with someone who would have been glad to see the backside of her immediately after satisfying himself.

She liked this part, though. She thought guys weren't big into cuddling, but beneath the quilt with him, she felt content. A little sore, but content. Maybe she would try it just once more with Kevin, now that the pain and awkwardness of the first time was over.

He started toying with her hair, and she sighed contentedly, using Kevin as her pillow even after the steady sound of his heartbeat lulled her to sleep.

When he nudged her awake several hours later, her mind was foggy enough that kissing him seemed to be a good idea, so she did until she felt the hard ridge of his arousal pressing against her bare hip. That was enough to fully wake her, and she pulled back and stared up at him.

"Karen's home, and I didn't think you'd want to explain to your parents where you were all night," he said, touching the back of his fingers to her face.

She clutched the quilt to her chest as she scooted off the bed. He sighed, then picked her panties up off the floor and handed them to her. He followed suit with the rest of her clothes, which she tried to put on while still holding up the quilt. Kevin could have turned around to make it easier for her, but he sat on the bed watching. When she needed both hands to zip up her jeans, she threw the quilt over his head to accomplish the task. By the time he'd set the quilt aside, she was frantically trying to comb her fingers through her hair.

"Shit," she muttered under her breath. "Shit, shit, shit."

Still naked, he stood up and retrieved a brush from who knew where, because she'd hastily averted her eyes. He turned her around and began brushing her hair, taking his time and going much more gently than Shelly would have.

If not for the anxiety gnawing at her, she would have felt it soothing. A small sigh escaped her when the brush scraped over an itchy section of her scalp.

"What did you tell your parents when you left?" he asked. "Do we need a cover story?"

"Shit," she repeated. "I said I was going out for tampons."

He laughed as he worked one tangle out with his fingers. "Well it did go in the same place."

She reached up behind her and cuffed the side of his head. He kissed her neck in retaliation and went back to brushing her hair.

"I can get you a box of tampons if you want. Between my mom and Karen, you know."

The thought of taking another woman's feminine hygiene products, even unopened, was not only disturbing, it was a terrible violation of some kind of etiquette, and she told him so.

"I'll just buy them a new box, and they'll never know."

She looked at him over her shoulder. "You'll go out and buy a new box."

"It's not that hard, you know," he said defensively. "I'm dumb, but not that dumb."

That was not at all the reaction she'd expected. "No, I mean, aren't you embarrassed, buying something like that?"

"Why? It's not like they're going to think they're for me."

That was true, but the idea that a guy wouldn't care about being seen with them was a foreign concept. Her father and brother acted like there was a mad badger in the house if they accidentally set eyes on the box under the sink.

"All set," he said, combing his fingers through her hair from underneath to demonstrate.

"Thanks," she said, darting her eyes all around the room.

He grabbed his discarded jeans and pulled them on. It sounded like he was struggling with the zipper, but then he said, "OK, you can look now."

"Sorry," she mumbled. It was ridiculous, not being able to look at him when they'd both been writhing on the bed naked hours earlier, but she'd kept her eyes closed during most of it.

He put his finger under her chin, tilting her head up. He wasn't that much taller than she was, so his lips were right there. She expected him to kiss her again, but instead, he pulled her into a brief hug before stepping back.

"Let me get those tampons for you."

Her parents were sitting on the couch when she walked in the door, armed with a box of Tampax Pearls.

"I didn't think you were coming home," her mother said. "I tried calling, but you forgot your phone."

"Sorry. I didn't expect to take that long, either. The store was out of the ones I usually use, so I had to go to Wall-Mart."

Incredibly, her mother seemed satisfied with that explanation, considering the evidence in Shelly's hands.

"They get cheaper and cheaper," Randy said, holding out a hand as if the tampons were blinding him. "Couldn't they at least have given you a bag?"

Sharon rolled her eyes and shook her head, and Shelly bit back a smile as her mother told her to put them away before her father had to gouge out his eyes. She didn't put them in the bathroom; she brought the tampons to her room instead and sat on the bed, turning the box over in her hands.

It was the sweetest, most thoughtful gift anyone had ever given her.

He caught her outside, getting the mail, the next day.

"What are you doing today?" he asked.

She wasn't sure how to answer that. Did he want to do it again so soon?

"Why?" she asked cautiously.

"Got a couple of Nascar tickets for replacing a radiator. Want to go to with me?"

She let out the breath she didn't know she was holding. It had nothing to do with sex, at least that she could figure. Maybe in redneck circles, Nascar was like champagne and roses. She thought of the Monster Jam, and decided to take her chances.

It became the first of several outings they went on. A week after Nascar, there was the hockey game between the CU Buffaloes and the visiting University at Buffalo Bulls, thanks to a residence hall raffle that Shelly had won. During the summer, they went to see the new Terrance and Phillip movie when it came out, because Kevin had really wanted to see it. According to him, it wasn't as good as their earlier stuff. Shelly had to take his word for it because she'd never really liked them, especially since Stan had always been such a big fan.

The subject of sex never came up again, but whenever they were together, Shelly felt an awareness of Kevin that hadn't been there before.

It came to a head in September, when he helped her move into her new apartment off campus. They'd just unloaded the pull-out couch, which was unbearably heavy, and he plopped onto it with a sigh of relief once they'd managed to push it against the wall.

He arched his back and stretched, causing his shirt to ride up and reveal a strip of skin. She tamped down the urge to kiss him there, and hastily went to the kitchen to fetch some bottles of room temperature water before he could notice her discomfort.

He touched his bottle to hers in a silent toast and guzzled it down without taking a breath, and she stared at him, amazed at what she'd just witnessed.

"Just wanted to see if I could still do it," he said, recapping the empty bottle.

"You just shot-gunned that entire bottle."

"That's not really shot-gunning, but what the fuck ever." He tossed the bottle over her head and grabbed one of her hands. "I want to show you something," he said, reaching into his pocket. He placed something in her palm and waited for her reaction.

It was a bronze coin. She recognized it as a sobriety token immediately, although most of the ones she'd seen around her house were of the white 24-hour variety. There was a V inside a triangle on one side and the serenity prayer on the reverse, and she raised her eyes to meet his.

"You haven't had a drink in five years?"

He looked a little ashamed. "Should have been seven, but I, uh, I had to start over a while back."

"Why are you showing me this?"

"Because I want you to know what it means when I do this," he said, leaning in and kissing her.

She straddled his lap and kissed him back eagerly. Eventually her shirt ended up on the floor, followed by her bra. When he finally stood up, with Shelly's arms and legs still wrapped around him, he managed to stagger to the bedroom.

When they were both naked in her bed, he ran his hands over her skin. "I've wanted to do this for so fucking long," he murmured.

She was both terrified and aroused beyond belief, but he'd obviously learned from the last time. He used his lips, tongue, and fingers everywhere, and she cried out a rather short time later, having finally reached that elusive peak that had been denied her the last two times.

While she was still weak and trembling, he rolled on a condom, and then he covered her mouth with his as he slowly entered her. After her climax, she'd thought she couldn't possibly handle anymore, but this was different. He was more attuned to what she needed, and she raked her fingernails down his back when he began thrusting. She gasped out his name, breathless, and any doubts that she was incapable of enjoying sex were put to bed when he managed to get her to cry out a second time before collapsing on top of her, sweaty and grinning.

"God, Shelly," he said, panting in her ear. "I've always wanted to make you come."

She snuggled against him, incapable of doing anything more than breathing heavily. After a while, other things permeated the sensual haze, like the wet slimy thing against her leg, which turned out to be the used condom. She picked it up with two fingers and dropped it into the wastebasket with a shudder.

They had sex once more in the morning, and he went down on her again just before he left, wanting her to have something to remember him by until the next time.

Her legs were still shaky as she walked him to the door. He cupped her face and looked deep into her eyes, saying nothing. She put her hand over his, just as unable to speak as he was, and then he was gone.

She looked around the apartment, found the empty bottle he'd thrown on the floor earlier, and picked it up. What was the normal way of things in these situations? Were they officially fuck buddies now? Did that mean they were at liberty to enjoy each other whenever they wanted? What if one of them got involved with someone else?

The other questions she had, she tamped down. She had much to do before the fall semester began, and she could really use a shower.

Christmas couldn't come soon enough, but it had nothing to do with seeing Kevin again. They didn't exchange gifts; the relationship between them wasn't exactly the gift exchanging sort, but they did go for a stroll through town to check out South Park's attempt at a Victorian stroll. He'd managed to find a bit of mistletoe hanging over a street light, and he kissed her in public for the first time. It seemed only natural to discreetly slip her hand into his for the duration of their walk.

They had their first fight the very next day. Kevin hadn't liked the way some guy was looking at her, or the way that she'd apparently smiled at him in return. Shelly had hotly pointed out that he had no say over who or what she did. He'd retaliated by pointing out that as the guy whose dick she was bouncing on, he should have some sort of say, and then she'd punched him for being a possessive asshole.

He'd kissed her hungrily then, and she'd given back as good as he gave, and they stumbled up the stairs to his room. Being angry brought a whole new level of excitement to their sex life, and once he'd rolled off her, she got dressed and left, sorry that they'd fought over something so stupid but not at all sorry for how they'd resolved it.

They spent a quiet New Year's Eve together. Kevin had promised to bring her to orgasm by the time the ball dropped, and he completely missed his goal by a few minutes. It was had to believe, after he'd finally gotten her to arch her back and cry out his name, that it had been exactly one year ago when she'd decided to throw away her virginity with Kevin.

Things between them were far from perfect. They fought on occasion; Shelly didn't even remember over what, but the makeup sex was incredibly hot. They didn't have sex as often as Kevin would have liked, but the distance between them and Shelly's academic schedule meant there was a lot of making up for lost time when they did get to see each other.

All in all, 2022 was off to a good start. She had a few good leads for a job after graduation; she was on track to graduate summa cum laude, and for the first time in her life, she didn't care about measuring her success against Stan's.

She'd just received her first paycheck, working as a geologist for the Department of the Interior, when she got a text from Brenda, announcing her engagement to Jacob.

The invitation to their June wedding arrived at Shelly's Lakewood apartment a year later.

"What do you think?" Karen asked as she handed Shelly the mirror. She turned the chair around so Shelly could check out the back as well, and, once Shelly approved of the style, removed the barber's cape and hung it up.

Shelly was still admiring the cut. Her hair was still long enough to reach the top of her bra strap, but Karen had layered it and shaped the sides to better frame her face. She tried giving Karen a generous tip for her efforts, but Karen refused.

Before Shelly left, Karen cleared her throat. "I know you've got to head out soon, but I was hoping I could talk to you for a minute."

"Sure," Shelly said.

"Everyone's been surprised that Stan and I have been together as long as we have. Everyone thinks he'll go back to Wendy eventually."

Shelly nodded. Her brother and his ex-girlfriend had a long history.

"I love Stan, but I know he has faults. He tries to pretend he doesn't have a drinking problem, but I know the truth, probably better than anyone."

"Yeah," Shelly said.

"If Stan does go back to Wendy, I have to believe it's because their love is true, but I can't be with Stan and worry that it's not going to last. I have to commit to us; otherwise I'm the problem, not Stan."

"Do you think Stan is cheating on you?" Shelly asked, afraid of the answer.

"No," Karen shook her head. "I think Stan is still trying to figure out where he fits in."


"Thank you for understanding," Karen said cheerfully. She handed Shelly her coat. "And thank you for never acting like I wasn't good enough for your brother."

There had never been any chance of that. Shelly slid her arms through the sleeves and carefully flicked her hair from under the collar before buttoning her coat.

"Oh, and Shelly? Just one more thing."

Shelly looked up, and Karen leaned in close enough that their noses were nearly touching.

"If you hurt my brother," she murmured, deadly serious, "I will fuck. You. Up."

Karen stepped back and smiled as if she hadn't just delivered a rather convincing threat.

"Now go off and have fun. Dance like no one is watching."

Shelly pulled on her gloves and stared. "Yeah. Uh, thanks."

Kevin was waiting for her outside. They were taking Shelly's car, but he'd volunteered to drive, claiming her hair would get messed up if she had to keep moving her head to check for oncoming cars. Karen had done something with her brother's hair, too, using mousse because he'd refused to let her use hairspray, and she'd given him the closest shave Shelly had ever seen. There wasn't even a trace of stubble when he leaned over to brush his lips over hers.

The drive was awkward only because Shelly was thinking about what Karen had said, at least until Kevin flashed a shiny CD at Shelly and reminded her of the Driver's Choice rule. Now she knew why he'd insisted on driving. She rolled her eyes at him before he inserted the disc, and then the hissing, popping sound of Keith Richards on guitar filled the car.

"You didn't," she said, shaking her head.

"Yep," he said, sounding incredibly pleased with himself.

"You didn't even download a clean copy. You copied this from your tape."

He flashed her a grin before turning his gaze back to the road. "It's vintage."

"You're an idiot," she said fondly, the weird confrontation with Karen momentarily forgotten.

The only person she knew at the reception, besides Brenda and Jacob, of course, was their old roommate.

"Shelly!" Chloe said, greeting her with an enthusiastic hug. "Oh, and this is Brian, my plus one."

Brian shook his head and extended his hand. "Nice to meet you," he said, shaking first her hand, then Kevin's.

"This is Kevin," Shelly introduced.

Chloe's eyes widened. "Is this the Kevin?" She clasped Kevin's hand in both of hers. "Oh! It's so great to finally meet you! I've heard so much about you!"

Shelly wanted to explain to Kevin that Brenda had been the one to talk about him; Shelly had carefully hidden their quasi relationship just to avoid uncomfortable situations like this. She thought of Karen's warning, and decided not to say anything. She'd let Kevin reach his own conclusions.

Chloe excused herself to use the ladies room after they'd eaten their meal, and she practically dragged Shelly with her. It wasn't the ladies' room they went to; it was a conference room at the end of the hall. Brenda was there waiting for them, and Chloe shut the door behind her.

"I told you," Brenda said, smirking at Chloe. Chloe counted out five ten dollar bills, looking not at all sorry to relinquish the funds. Brenda tucked the money into her bodice before turning toward Shelly.

"Looks like you've finally moved past the friends with benefits stage."

"What? No," Shelly denied.

"Babe," Brenda said, putting her arm around Shelly's shoulder. "No one brings their fuck toy as their plus one."

"He's not my fuck toy!" Shelly shouted, then remembered where they were and ducked her head.

"That's what I said, too, isn't it Chlo?"

"You should see them together," Chloe gushed. "It's so romantic. They can hardly keep their eyes off each other."

That was so patently false, Shelly didn't even know where to begin.

"So did you get a room for the night?" Brenda asked.

"No," Shelly said, glad that Kevin hadn't wanted to spend the money on one. "We're heading back home after this."

"Home to Lakewood," Brenda asked, "or to South Park?"

Shelly didn't answer. No matter what she said, she suspected it would only give Brenda an answer that she hadn't intended.

"Ooooh!" Chloe squealed, pointing up. "We have to go back! They're playing the Cha Cha Slide!"

Shelly had no intention of getting dragged into a line dance at a wedding, which was how she found herself between her former roommates, doing left foot, two stomps, followed by a slide to the left. When she dared look out past the dance floor, her eyes immediately found Kevin, who was enjoying himself immensely. He gave her a slow clap, and she shook her head, laughing all the while.

It was inevitable that the DJ would eventually announce that he was going to "slow things down," and it seemed only natural that she'd end up in Kevin's arms, dancing to Jason Mraz.

He wasn't much of a dancer, but that didn't surprise her. He danced like most of the men in South Park, by shuffling his feet from side to side as they moved in a circle. She found she didn't care, though, because when he looked at her, she felt like there was no one else in the room but the two of them. He leaned in a little, and she was sure he was going to kiss her, but he only put his lips close to her ear so only she could hear.

" breath fogged up the glass," he sang, and his breath in her ear made her shiver, "and so I drew a new face on my ass."

She hit him lightly in the chest, laughing again. He was so juvenile.

He stopped singing and hummed instead as he continued to twirl her around the dance floor. He twirled her so much, in fact, that she was dizzy by the time he led her back to their table. She sat down harder than she'd intended and reached for a glass of water.

"Hot in here," she explained, fanning herself.

Chloe, who was sitting with Brian's jacket draped over her shoulders, just smiled.

For her birthday earlier in the year, Kevin had taken her out shopping in Denver, and he'd refused to let her buy anything loose and baggy. He'd looked at her appreciatively when she'd modeled a form fitting shirt, and despite her misgivings, she'd let him buy it for her. It had remained balled up and in the bottom of a dresser drawer, forgotten for months, until today, when she'd cleared out that very same drawer for Kevin.

He'd pounced on the shirt and held it up, a questioning look in his eyes.

"You said this got shrunk in the wash."

"I lied," she said, because there was no point in making a new excuse.

"Shelly," he said, hooking a finger through her belt loop. "Wear it tonight. I want to take you out."

"It's wrinkled."

"You can iron it."

She pushed at his shoulder. "I told you I hated that shirt."

"Put it on," he said, kissing her neck.

"This is stupid," she said, tipping her head back to give him greater access.

Somehow he managed to get her out of the blouse she was already wearing, but instead of unhooking her bra as he usually did when he'd gotten this far, he took a step back and held up the wrinkled shirt again.

"I already tried it on once before," she pointed out.

"I know, but you didn't see what you looked like in it."

"Yes, I did. There were mirrors in the dressing rooms."

He actually started trying to pull it down over her head until she smacked him.

"Fine, I'll put it on," she grumbled, shoving her arms through the sleeves.

"Come here," he said, leading her to the closet where a full-length mirror hung inside the door.

"Kevin," she protested. "This is stupid."

"You already said that," he replied, opening the door to the closet. He turned her around and stood behind her. "Now look."

She looked, winced, and then looked over her shoulder at him. "Happy?"

"Look again," he coaxed, and this time when she did, he pointed out the way her body fit against his.

Kevin had always been a little on the skinny side, but in the mirror, they looked much closer in size than she'd imagined. His hands rested on her hips and she could feel the warmth of his touch through her jeans.

"See?" he asked, his lips moving against her hair.

She did.

It all came crashing down just two months later.

Everything was fine, she thought, until she ran into Liane Cartman at the supermarket. Everyone in South Park knew about Mrs. Cartman. They knew the "Mrs." was a courtesy title, since she'd never been married. They also knew of her long history as a slut and a crack whore and a pushover for her son, but she'd always been nice to Shelly.

"Oh," Liane said as she saw Shelly picking up some potatoes. "That's right; I need to get some of those, too. I'm making a beef stew, you know."

"Oh?" Shelly said, not really caring.

"Have you ever made one in the slow cooker? Those things are such a miracle. I just throw everything in before I go to work in the morning, and supper is ready when I get home."

"Yeah, pretty great," Shelly said to be polite.

"And that young man certainly appreciates home cooking."

At first Shelly thought she was talking about her son, Eric, but usually Mrs. Cartman referred to him in juvenile endearments, never as "that young man."

"What young man?" she couldn't help asking.

"The one who's been keeping me company these past few months. I think you might have gone to school together."

Shelly's throat felt tight. "Do you mean Kevin?"

"Yes, Kevin. His brother Kenny and my little Eric have been friends forever."

"Yeah," she heard herself say. "Stan, too."

Once Mrs. Cartman had moved on to a display of Cheesy Poofs, Shelly had convinced herself that it was all some sort of misunderstanding. "Keeping me company" could mean anything. Maybe he was working on her car and Mrs. Cartman, being lonely, had simply spent time with him handing over a wrench or something. Maybe she was stoned out of her mind and was thinking of Kenny after all, since he had a reputation that nearly rivaled Mrs. Cartman's.

Liane Cartman was probably just making a beef stew to thank Kevin for whatever work he was doing for her. It was as simple as that. She'd never paid attention to any of the rumors about Eric's mother, because she'd pretty much heard them all as a kid. That Mrs. Cartman had orgies at her house, that she was open to pretty much anything, as proven by a number of adult films her father had watched, that was not news.

Who was invited to these orgies had never mattered to her before now.

She and Kevin weren't exclusive, but they had an understanding of sorts. He'd helped Shelly discover that she had a sex drive, and she'd let him see her without any clothes on. The idea that he'd touched her with the same tongue he might have used to give Mrs. Cartman a rim job was ludicrous.

Still, she had to know, and then they could laugh about it later. He'd pretend to punish her by giving it to her slow, and then fast, and she would know that he only did this with her.

She obsessed over it until it was nearly dark, then she went to the Cartmans' house and pounded on the front door.

"Yes?" Mrs. Cartman asked when she opened the door. She was dressed in one of her prim blouses buttoned up to her neck, not like the dominatrix Shelly had built up in her mind.

"Is Kevin here?"

"Oh, yes, hang on just one moment. I'll go get him."

Shelly couldn't believe it. She wouldn't believe it. Kevin McCormick wasn't the only Kevin in South Park. Despite the fact that Kevin was "keeping company" with Mrs. Cartman, maybe the one that was here tonight was that Stoley kid that Stan went to school with. Or that weird genetic doctor's assistant. Mrs. Cartman might be into doing kinky things with...whatever the assistant was.

The shocked face that stared at her from Mrs. Cartman's front door wasn't Kevin Stoley's or that other Kevin's. Shelly balled her hands into fists and turned on her heel.

"Shelly," Kevin said, walking after her. "Shelly, wait."

She turned and glared at him. "I have just one question for you."

He rubbed the back of his neck. "OK."

"What were you doing there?"

His face turned red. "I swear, it's not what you're thinking."

"Fine. Tell me, honestly, that whatever reason you had for being in that woman's house has nothing to do with sex."

He looked suddenly unsure of himself, and she wanted to kill him.

"Stay the fuck away from me," she growled.

"Shelly..." he tried one more time to touch her, and she knocked his hand away.

"Touch me and die."

"Shelly," he pleaded. "Please. I can explain."

He was making her feel guilty, but she didn't care what he had to say. Even if he had a good explanation this time, there would always be something. She didn't want to have to deal with all the shit that came along with being involved with Kevin. She'd never wanted to be involved with him in the first place. Well, Kevin could fuck Mrs. Cartman, if that's what he was doing, and anyone else he wanted. She hoped his dick fell off.

She hauled off and punched him as hard as she could in the face, dropping him on his ass. "Don't you ever talk to me again," she hissed at him.

Shelly slammed into the house and stormed up the stairs, locking herself in her room. She didn't cry. Crying would remind her of the times she'd cried while Kevin had held her. Crying was for the weak. It was her fault for ever thinking she could trust Kevin McCormick. He'd more than once admitted to her that their fighting had turned him on, because his parents nearly always fought before sex. Who knew what else he thought was normal? Maybe the things they'd done to each other were things only crack whores and skanks did. It didn't matter. She knew better now.

As far as she was concerned, Kevin McCormick was dead to her.