Cartman had died on a Saturday. He hadn't come to school on Friday, which had been a little more out of the ordinary than usual; and then, on Saturday, they had found his body sprawled on the bathroom floor, and the medics who had come pronounced him dead.
He'd been twelve years old, and Stan, Kyle, and Kenny were too. Kyle remembered staring at his body for a long time, waiting, just waiting for Cartman to get back up and grin at them with blood spattered all over his face and say, "Hahah! I tricked you assholes! You totally fell for it!" Waiting for Cartman and his stupid heavy breathing again. But then the medics turned him over and there was blood on his face, yeah, and his eyes were open, but his face was pale and his skin was cold and not even the slightest puff of air came out of his nostrils.
Stan didn't speak to Kyle for a week but Kyle stayed at his house, anyways, and sometimes they just sat on Stan's bed and he held Stan's hand. He didn't know how to feel. And it felt, for the first time, that he didn't know how Stan felt.
Kenny was quieter than usual; at the funeral, Butters had burst into tears and spent the entire reception in the bathroom. Kyle thought he might've seen Jimmy go in after him, but he wasn't sure. Kenny had smiled behind his orange bandana when Stan had commented, offhandedly, "If Cartman were here, he would've ran in after Butters to tell him to stop being a pussy."
They were twelve years old, and there were only three of them at the bus stop the following Monday. None of them said anything and Kyle kind of wanted to hold Stan's hand again, except they weren't in his bedroom so he knew not to. People wouldn't stop giving them sympathizing looks all month, which bugged Kyle, because:
"We weren't even his friends."
Wendy looked mortified. Kyle knew that she was trying to be nice, because that was Wendy, but she was the fifth in a week and it was only Tuesday.
"How could you say that?" she said. "You hung out together all the time—I saw you guys—ever since middle school, the four of you. How could you say that you're not his friend?"
"Weren't, Wendy, weren't." Kyle rubbed his temples, closed his eyes. He was wearing glasses today because for some reason his contacts didn't want to stay in. He hadn't worn glasses since kindergarten until Cartman's untimely death, although if Cartman were still alive Kyle would argue that Cartman dying would always be timely.
Wendy sighed, but still looked cross. She adjusted her books in her arms. "I can tell you've been sad about it," she said. "You and the others. Well, you and Stan, at least." She looked up in thought. "I'm not quite sure about Kenny."
"Kenny's pretty sad about it too," Kyle lied, because he didn't know either. "I—thank you, Wendy, but can you just go? And just because I'm sad about someone's death doesn't mean I'm their friend."
"Was their friend," Wendy said shortly, before turning on her heel and walking off.
Cartman had gotten good grades in middle school, which came as a surprise because he always acted like he never worked hard. Backmouthed teachers, fired spitballs and paper airplanes during class. It seemed like teachers cared more about his troublemaking than his grades, and didn't sugarcoat their lack of empathy over Cartman's death, although they sympathized with the children.
"Well, it mustn't have been too easy being friends with him," said Kyle's English teacher after class, as Kyle reluctantly stayed behind, not wanting to come off rude. "But you and Mr. Marsh and Mr. McCormick must be mourning, so what can I say? I'm sorry for your loss, I guess."
"It's okay," said Kyle, not wanting to just listen to his teacher's bullshit. "It's fine, I'm fine, really. And I—gotta get to math, so—"
"Oh, of course," said his English teacher, and Kyle left.
Cartman had been only twelve years old, and it took everyone about a month to move on. But Cartman was hard to forget, you know, that fat fuck who spewed out racist comments and was determined to be the Hitler of the twenty-first century. Some people didn't even know why he'd killed himself. But some people didn't care.
Kyle's Bar Mitzvah was nearly a year later. He'd invited everyone, even Ms. Cartman, and she came bright and happy as ever despite having been alone in her house for a year now. But she'd probably gotten used to it.
Stan was beaming when he came and gave Kyle his present. "Dude, happy thirteenth," he said, clapping Kyle on the back. "Finally a Jewish man now, and all that?"
"Yeah," said Kyle, setting his present down. He'd gone back to contacts now, though he felt his eyes itching at inopportune times, sometimes. "Gotta get in touch with my inner Jew, and all that."
"You'll always be my favorite Jew," Stan chuckled, and Kyle's ears rang.
"You know, if Cartman were here, he would totally be making fun of me right now," he said. "For this, and all."
Stan frowned. "Don't bring that up now," he said. "You know Cartman, dude—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but." Kyle sighed and leaned his hips against the table. A woman came over to give him a Bar Mitzvah present, and he set it behind him wordlessly. "I just can't help thinking about it, that's all," he said when the woman had left.
"What, because your Jewishness just brings everything back to Cartman?" Stan rolled his eyes. "Dude, I know it's been like, what, ten months since Cartman died? And it sucks, man. But, like." He paused. "I'm sure Cartman's having a great time in heaven," he said.
Kyle snorted. "No way did that fat asshole make it into heaven."
"I know," said Stan. "I just thought I'd say it to make you feel better."
"The thought of Cartman in hell makes me feel better," said Kyle with a vague smile on his face, and then stopped. "Dude," he said. "What are we talking about?"
"Just don't worry about it." Stan put a hand on his back. "C'mon, let's dance. This is your birthday party—you should be having a good time."
"Yeah," said Kyle, and let Stan drag him out on the dance floor.
At one of the tables near the edge of the dance floor, Craig was eyeing everyone with a bored look on his face. Beside him were empty plates, polished from lunch. Kenny, the only one who wasn't dressed in formal attire (Kyle didn't care, but Mrs. Broflovski had given him a judging once-over before letting him in), walked over to him.
"Why are you dressed like a hobo," Craig said in a bored voice. Kenny shrugged.
Since Kenny had grown out of his parka, he'd been taking to wearing an orange bandana around his face and an orange vest and patched pants. Kyle had always commented on how he looked like a mugger, and asked how he lived with the Colorado weather wearing a sleeveless shirt and such thin pants. Kenny always shook his head, as if saying, I don't live, which made no sense, because, well.
"This is stupid," said Craig.
Kenny gave him a look.
"I barely even know Kyle," said Craig. "I just sit with you guys at lunch and just see you guys in school."
Kenny pointed to the dance floor, where many other kids whom Kyle sat with (and didn't) at lunch and saw in school were.
Kenny then did a little dance in his seat.
"Oh, right, and that time when I went to Peru with you guys," said Craig. "That was stupid too."
Craig sighed, and then got out of his seat. "I'm going to go for a smoke," he said. And then, to his own surprise, he asked Kenny, "You wanna join me?"
Kenny shrugged again, but then he nodded. He followed as Craig slipped out the nearest back door of the ballroom and sat himself against the brick wall, next to the dumpsters.
"I've been doing this since last year," said Craig, pulling out a cigarette and a lighter. He didn't even know why he was talking to Kenny about this; it wasn't like Kenny ever replied to anything nowadays. "It's good for relieving stress, y'know? Not that I actually have that much stress." He lit his cigarette, stuck it in his mouth, inhaled and then, after a beat, blew the smoke out. "Passes time."
"You want one?" he offered to Kenny, but Kenny shook his head. "Figures," said Craig. "You're friends with Kyle and stuff. You people are too pussy to smoke."
Kenny shook his head. He held up eight fingers.
"Wh—You smoked when you were eight?" said Craig incredulously. "Damn. Why'd you stop smoking then?"
Kenny shrugged. Coughed, a bit.
"Oh, well," said Craig. "You gotta get used to it. I'm used to it, I think, since I've been doing it for a year. It's a hobby, really, when people say it's an addiction. But it's not." He blew out another light stream of smoke, stuck his left hand in his blazer pocket. "I like it."
On Monday during school, Kenny came up to Stan and Kyle at Kyle's locker with Craig at his side. Kyle said, "Hi Kenny," and then did a double-take when he saw Craig.
"What's he doing here?" he asked Kenny.
"What does it look like I'm doing here, fag?" said Craig.
"Uh," said Kyle. "I don't know?"
Kenny gestured to Craig, and then the corners of his eyes wrinkled a bit like he was smiling. Kyle stood with his arms crossed and Craig just stared blankly at the both of them, then Kyle relented and said, "Fine."
"Fine? Fine what?" Craig turned to Kenny. "What's he talking about?"
"You can come over after school to play GameSphere, if you want," Kyle grumbled.
"What—I didn't ask to do that!"
"I know, but Kenny did," said Kyle. "We usually hang out after school."
"The three of you?" said Craig, gesturing to him and Kenny and Stan, who'd been quiet, watching this whole time.
"And Butters," said Stan, finally.
"Butters—ew no, I'm not hanging out with you guys," said Craig. "I'm leaving." He stormed off to his next class.
Kyle looked at Kenny, who was still standing there. "What did you think that would accomplish?" he asked Kenny, and Kenny, infuriating as always, just shrugged. "Craig's a dick, he's not going to wanna hang out with us," he said.
"Are you friends with him, Kenny?" asked Stan.
Kenny tilted his hand back and forth.
"I don't understand you," said Kyle. "C'mon Stan, we gotta get to science."
Science always made Kyle think about Cartman. He thought about, what would Cartman do if he were here? and for the longest time now, things like, he would try to make a concoction that pulverized gingers or he would try to make some sort of poison to slip into my food or he would put chemicals that he knew were destructive together had been running through his mind. He was glad Stan couldn't read minds (at least, hoped he couldn't), because Stan would tell him that he was going crazy.
"You know," he said to Stan, randomly, "I think there's probably a way to make a formula that would harm one specific race of people and be harmless to all the others."
"Really?" said Stan.
"Yeah," said Kyle. "If you just get all the little aspects of the certain race—like hair color, eye color, skin color, certain muscles in their vocal chords—and figure out what they're all most sensitive to, and combine them all—voila! You could probably get rid of a whole group of people."
Stan's eyes were wide, and he said, "But Kyle, what about people who're like, biracial or multiracial and stuff—like half-Asians, or like me. I'm part Italian, part Scottish, part Lithuanian, part—" He scrunched his eyebrows in thought. "I dunno what I am."
"Oh," said Kyle, deflating.
"You're talking like how Car—" Stan started, and then stopped. Started again. "You're thinking about Cartman, aren't you?"
"I'm not!" Kyle said defensively.
"Okay, then I'm supposed to believe that my best friend suddenly thinks about getting rid of whole races of people," said Stan. "Right."
Kyle opened his mouth, but then the teacher came into the room and Stan faced the front of the classroom, seeming stubborn about not looking at Kyle. Kyle's insides twisted, especially when he saw that Stan's lips had formed a purse line as he fixated on their teacher. But Kyle knew that Stan's attention span was less focused on a squirrel's; on and off for the past year Kyle's kept mind kept drifting toward Cartman, and he couldn't forget that Saturday morning, Cartman's bloodied face pressed against the bathroom tiles.
There was something disgusting and intriguing about it and Kyle wondered if he was messed up.
"I'm sorry," he said to Stan when class was over, and Stan sighed. "I—he—you know how Cartman was, he was just—"
"It's fine," said Stan. "It's okay Kyle." Then, pausing and looking at Kyle with half his face, "Did you have a crush on Cartman?"
"What? No! I," said Kyle immediately. "Stan, that's gross, you know that even if I was gay, or-or Cartman-sexual, just—"
"I didn't say sexual," said Stan. "I was just wondering—for so long you've invested yourself in his business—"
"Yeah, well I invested myself in your business, too," said Kyle defensively. "And remember, that fat asshole gave me AIDS? And made fun of me when I had hemorrhoids? Why the fuck would I like someone like that?" And then, feeling bad because Cartman was, well, dead, "I mean, I..."
"Kyle, stop." Stan paused in the middle of the hallway and turned around to face Kyle. Kyle noticed that Stan had grown a lot in the past few years, wondered how he didn't notice earlier. Stan still had that boyish look about him, dark hair a bit too long for a mother's approval, still a bit of baby fat left on his face, still Kyle's height—but his shoulders had broadened, that must be it, Kyle thought. He looked more prominent, more—
"Kyle!" Stan snapped his fingers and Kyle jerked back to reality.
"Sorry," he apologized. "What?"
"You've got to—" Stan pinched the bridge of his nose. "For the past year, you've been doing too much. I mean, yeah, Cartman's dead. He committed suicide." For some reason the word "suicide" sounded uglier than "dead." "But there's not—dude, you gotta let it go, okay."
"Okay, okay. Gotta let it go," said Kyle, clenching his fists. "I mean, it was Cartman, he was..." Thinking about the things Cartman had done to him made him feel angry, but then the anger turned into a pit at the bottom of his stomach and he felt empty.
"It doesn't matter what he was." Stan shook his head. "And, you're. Remember that we're coming over to play on your GameSphere after school? Focus on that, okay? Just forget about things right now."
"Right, forget about things," said Kyle. "Except for, y'know, the stuff we need to know for our social studies test in two periods."
"We have a social studies test in two periods?" Stan's eyes widened.
Kyle laughed, feeling considerably lighter. "Yeah, you idiot. C'mon," he said, putting his hand on Stan's shoulder. "We can go study in art. It's not like you pay attention, anyways."
"Dude," said Stan, opening up the school's back door. "There's something wrong with Kyle."
Craig stared up at him. Kenny didn't.
"How'd you find us out here?" asked Craig.
Stan shrugged. "Butters told me," he said.
Craig frowned. "How does Butters know we're here?"
"Ask Kenny," said Stan. "Speaking of, Kenny. He did it again, the Cartman thing."
Kenny looked at him now.
"It was the weirdest ass thing," said Stan to his unasked question. "He just started—talking about destroying entire races with science-y chemical stuff and—I don't know. You think he still thinks it's his fault? I mean, like."
"I know I'm his best friend, but dude, you gotta," said Stan, and then sighed. Looked at Craig, now. "What are you two doing out here, anyways?"
"I'm smoking," said Craig, indicating his cigarette. "I never know what Kenny does."
Kenny raised his cheekbones, like he was smiling.
"Well, whatever," said Stan. "I just—I'm really concerned about Kyle. I hope he stops sometime soon."
"Okay, well now that you've enlightened us on your girly problems," said Craig, "you can go away now." He stuck his cigarette to his mouth, then turned to Stan and blew out rings to him.
Stan crinkled his nose. "Smoking can give you lung cancer, you know."
"Says you who smoked in elementary school," said Craig. "Yeah, Kenny told me. Now, go back to whatever problem you have with Kyle, and leave us alone, 'cause Kenny here doesn't talk."
"Kyle's not just my problem, he's Kenny's problem too," said Stan, and Kenny inclined his head a little, like he was agreeing. "And Butters's, to an extent," he added thoughtfully.
"Go away," said Craig.
Stan huffed, "God," and then did as he was requested.
"I don't know how you stand them," said Craig, "your friends. Kyle talks all the time, and it seems like Stan talks all the time when Kyle's not around. And then you," he said, looking at Kenny's bandana, "you don't talk at all."
Kenny touched his bandana, and then touched Craig's chin.
"Well yeah, so what if I talk when Stan's not around?" said Craig, grimacing and flicking some ashes from the end of his cigarette. "When Stan's not around, it's just you 'n me, and—" He stopped. "It's not even you and me," he muttered. "I don't know why you follow me around so much."
Kenny was still holding his chin.
"Stop that, will you?" said Craig, nudging the back of Kenny's palm with his shoulder. "It's making me uncomfortable." Even though it wasn't and he sort of missed it when Kenny wasn't touching him anymore. When they were just sort of sitting here, next to each other, Kenny staring at nothing in thought and Craig drinking in his own smoke, his own death. It made him think that Kenny might've made him feel a little bit more alive.
Kyle was, yeah, okay with thinking about hanging out with his friends than about—anything else, and that day after school they played on the GameSphere and Butters was a pussy and shrieked when Stan's race car accidentally rammed him from behind and Kenny won, which was surprising on the basis that Kenny usually sucked at racing games. But this game had been new and Kenny looked gleeful like he was suggesting for them to play it again and Kyle said, "You're going to want to play this every time you come over, won't you?" and Kenny just shrugged, like, Probably.
"I gotta pee, fellas," said Butters, getting up from the couch. "Be right back!" He looked bright and cheerful as he ran to Kyle's bathroom, and then Kyle was thinking about how he'd cried at Cartman's—
A hand was on his shoulder and he turned around and Stan's eyes were sad as he said, "Don't."
"Don't what?" said Kyle, worming himself out of Stan's grip.
Stan still looked sad, but said nothing.
(Kyle remembered when Cartman had been ostracized, had—had started growing up, remembered how that had scared the fuck out of him. "What happened to your dolls?" he'd asked the last time he'd come into Cartman's room for something stupid, like to help fund one of Cartman's dumb music videos, or to buy a giant penis poster to help Cartman give City Wok a piece of his mind when they'd accidentally left out the kung pao chicken in his fried-rice-and-kung-pao-chicken order.
"They weren't dolls, they were action figures!" Cartman had replied. "And they—" He paused for a moment. "They died," he'd said, without looking at Kyle, without turning around.
"Yeah, but," said Kyle, looking around. "I thought you might've replaced them, or something."
"You can't replace real friends!" said Cartman. "But I guess you don't know how that feels, since you don't have any friends."
Kyle had been too stunned by the statement to point out that, well, Stan, and Kenny, and maybe even Cartman—but.)
"You know," said Kyle, thinking out loud, "I wish that I just didn't remember stuff. Like, stuff would happen and I would be like, yeah, and then a few weeks later I would forget about it."
"Dude, if you forgot about stuff." Stan's eyes wouldn't stop looking sad and even Kenny was shaking his head.
"Sorry, sorry," said Kyle, trying to clear out his mind. "I—God, I've really been bringing you guys down lately, haven't I?"
"You're not," said Stan, but then Butters came back from the bathroom and, upon hearing this, said, "Well, a lil' bit Kyle, but that's why we're here for you!"
"Thanks, Butters," said Kyle. "At least some of us can be honest here."
"I am being honest," said Stan. "I want you to feel like you can tell me how you feel, I know what—" He took a deep breath. "It's more about what you feel than what you say that I'm concerned with, okay?"
"Stan," Kyle said, and his hand found Stan's wrist, somehow. Stan didn't pull away. Kyle sort of wanted to say something like, I love you, man or please don't worry about me, but all that came out of his mouth was, "I'm fine, I promise. I'll just," he swallowed, "I'll try."
Craig was found by Kenny after school again today; but instead of accompanying him on walking home (wherein Craig would complain about Kenny and then school and then a little more about Kenny, like, "God, fuck man, you never say anything"), Kenny tapped him on the shoulder and started walking in the opposite direction.
"What?" said Craig, and Kenny stopped and turned around to him.
"You want me to follow you?" said Craig.
"The hell where?" asked Craig. He started toward Kenny reluctantly, but told himself he wasn't really following—just walking with him to talk to him better.
Kenny shook his head and that really wasn't an answer even though it was a typical Kenny answer.
"You gotta tell me where we're going before we go anywhere," said Craig stubbornly, as Kenny led him around the corner.
Kenny waved him off.
"Kenny," said Craig, but then Kenny stopped and gestured to the house in front of them. "Where are we—what?" He furrowed his eyebrows. "This is Cartman's house?"
"What are we doing here?" Craig asked. "Staging an intervention for Kyle or something?" He chuckled. "I always knew they had a faggy thing about each other."
Kenny glared at him, like saying, they don't and Craig saw something in his eyes, like Kenny knew who Kyle really had a faggy thing for. Not that he was interested—he didn't ask. He only said, "So what are we doing here, then?"
Kenny jerked his head toward the house, beckoning him forward. Craig said, "Are you sure?" Kenny's eyes rolled upward and he might've huffed, a little bit—the most noise Craig had ever heard come out of his mouth—and started to Cartman's house. After a second of hesitation, Craig gave into his curiosity and followed.
Ms. Cartman was in the kitchen, because Kenny had entered without knocking and Ms. Cartman smiled and turned around. "Oh, Kenny, I thought you might not come," she said. "You're later than usual, aren't you?"
Kenny gestured toward Craig.
"Oh, a new one? Are you recruiting?" said Ms. Cartman.
Kenny shook his head.
"Well, oh well," said Ms. Cartman, returning to her cooking. "I'll have supper ready for you boys when you're hungry. It's so nice, having noise in the afternoon again. It feels like nothing's changed." She sighed wistfully and glanced out the window.
Craig leaned into Kenny. "What's she talking about?" he muttered.
Kenny just led him into the basement.
"Hey Ken—Craig? What are you doing here?"
"Butters?" said Craig, frowning. "What are you—why the hell do you have tin foil on your head?"
"I'm not Butters!" said definitely was Butters, putting his hands on his hips. "I'm Professor Chaos!"
"Dude," said Craig.
"Craig?" said someone, with black hair and a toolbelt around his waist—Stan, yeah. "Craig, what are you doing here?"
"Kenny brought me—" Craig started, turning to point to Kenny—but Kenny had disappeared. "Wait, where—"
"Yeah that happens," said Stan, and then sighed. "Well I guess if Kenny brought you here, then you're allowed to stay, since he's practically our leader," he grumbled. "Just don't—don't bring this up at school, okay? We like to keep this a secret."
"Keep what a secret?" asked Craig, as he took a better look at everyone else in Cartman's basement. There was someone in a large metal box—Timmy obviously—and then Token because Craig would know Token anywhere and for some godforsaken reason Token had tupperware on his head. There was a kid with a kite on his back whom Craig was sure was Kyle, because he'd started talking to Stan animatedly and Stan actually looked remotely interested. Clyde was also there, with a long red—nose?—and had a beanie on his head.
"Do you guys play Halloween or something?" he asked.
"Superheroes, actually," said a hoarse voice behind him, and Craig jumped—and recognized the person behind him immediately, Mysterion.
"Kenny, what's he doing here?" said Kyle, breaking out of his conversation with Stan and indicating him.
Craig's eyes got big as he looked at Mysterion. "Kenny?" he said. "You're Mysterion, you're—you talked?"
"I talk when I'm Mysterion, yes," said Mysterion—Kenny quickly. "And right now I'm Mysterion, so don't call me Kenny. That's Toolshed—" he pointed at Stan, "Human Kite, Tuppeware, Mosquito, Iron Maiden."
"Iron Maiden?" Craig raised an eyebrow at Timmy, who merely exclaimed, "Timmy!"
"And Professor Chaos!" piped up Butters. "Bringer of Doom and Destruction, Master of the Universe of the World, the Greatest and Most Powerful Scientist who will one day rule—"
"Yeah, yeah, Chaos, but remember for the time being you're a good guy," reminded Mysterion, and Butters said, "Oh yeah."
"You're talking," was all Craig could say to him.
"Don't get used to it," Mysterion said grimly.
"So what am I doing here?"
"It's a part of me that you should know," said Mysterion. "Even though you're not in Coon and Friends and all, but—"
"Wait, wait, wait, hold on," said Craig. "Coon and Friends? Wasn't Cartman the Coon when he was, you know, alive?"
"That's not why we call ourselves that," said Stan shortly.
"Yeah, it was 'cause it used to piss him off after we kicked him out," said Clyde.
"Anyways," said Mysterion.
"You guys kicked him out and he still let you hold meetings in his basement?" said Craig.
"His mom lets us hold meeting in his basement," said Mysterion. "Now stop, 'cause I gotta explain to you how this works—"
"Supper time!" Ms. Cartman called from upstairs, and all the other boys dropped what they were doing and ran upstairs.
"Thanks for the sugar-free pie, Ms. Cartman," said Kyle, and Ms. Cartman smiled at him and replied sweetly, "It's no problem, dearie."
"So, you haven't thought about it lately?" asked Stan as whipped cream was passed around. Kyle took the offered bottle from him and passed it to Timmy.
"Thought about what?" He forked at the crust.
"The, you know." Stan glanced around the dining room. "I mean, we're kind of in his house."
"Oh, the Cartman thing," said Kyle. "Yeah, yeah, I'm getting better about it. Why?"
"I don't." Stan frowned. "You seem a bit. Jittery, sometimes?"
"Sometimes I'm jittery 'cause I'm stressed," said Kyle. "It doesn't mean it has anything to do with Cartman." And, "Besides, I haven't talked about him at all for the past whatever, until you brought him up now."
"Yeah, yeah, sorry," said Stan.
"It's okay," said Kyle, working at his pie. Thinking about how his mother beamed at him every evening after he came back from his Coon and Friends meetings, saying things like, It's so nice that you boys are keeping that poor woman company.
Outside the house, Craig was sitting under the dim porch light with a cigarette in his mouth, having finished early and had told the others that he was going home, because—well, he didn't say because, but it was bizarre, sitting next to Token dressed in plastic containers and seeing Stan pretending that he was fighting Butters with a hammer he'd probably stolen from his dad's garage. He didn't even know why he was here; Kenny didn't feel like Kenny with his Mysterion mask on.
The door opened and someone with a purple cape and dark pants sat down on the porch next to him.
"Told them I was going to the bathroom," said Mysterion in his distorted voice. "They'll probably think I'm taking a dump for a long time."
"Nice underwear," said Craig, and Mysterion chuckled.
"Thought you'd mention that."
"Kenny," said Craig, facing him. "Why did you invite me here?"
He noticed that when Kenny was Mysterion, the top half of his face was covered instead of the bottom half.
Mysterion shrugged. "'Cause I wanted to," he said. "Why haven't you gone home yet? I thought you said that that's where you were going."
"Yeah, 'cause you guys are all—stupid losers, or something." The insult felt flat on his tongue.
Mysterion watched him.
"But," said Craig, and then shook his head. "Nothing." It'd be dumb to say, I just want to hear you talk more, or something.
"Okay," said Mysterion, and then grinned. "Will you come to the next meeting? There's something I need to show you."
"What do you need to show me?" Craig asked suspiciously.
"You'll see," said Mysterion, then got up. Put a gloved hand around the end of Craig's cigarette, and smiled. "Good night, Craig," he said, and then left to go inside.
Craig stood with the burnt cigarette still in his mouth, and his head felt like a pool.
"I've been telling these guys," said Mysterion, "for the longest time, but they still don't believe me."
"That's because you're delusional, Kenny," said Kyle, folding his arms and rolling his eyes. He was in his Human Kite outfit thing again.
Mysterion pulled out a butcher's knife and the others gasped.
"Watch," he said to Craig, and then before any of them could stop him, he started to stab himself in the chest.
"Kenny!" Kyle cried, and Stan ran over to Kenny's body and said, "Someone, quick, call an ambulance!" Butters and Clyde started crying and Craig watched, shocked, as Mysterion choked and started bleeding all over the floor.
"It hurts," he said, "but it's gonna stop, I promise." He looked up at Craig.
"Kenny, what are you saying? You're dying," Stan said to him.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god!" said Butters through his tears, running around. "Oh god, what're we gonna do?" He ran over to Craig. "Craig, you have a cellphone, call the police or something!"
"I," said Craig, his hand moving toward his pocket immediately, but he couldn't stop staring at Mysterion, whose hood fell so that Craig could see his mess of golden hair. His eyes were still covered with the mask, and Craig wanted to remove it, so that he could see Kenny's full face, at least once. Blood spurted from his mouth and Craig wondered what it would be like if he'd still been wearing his bandana—and then he stilled.
"Oh god," Kyle was crying, "oh god, it's just like Cartman all over again, Stan—"
"Shh," said Stan, letting go of Kenny's body and putting his arms around Kyle instead, whispering, "It's okay, it's okay," as Kyle whimpered into his shoulder.
Kenny had said to him earlier, everyone always forgets about it, and Craig wondered how the hell they could forget something like this.
The next day in school, Craig saw him by Kyle's locker while Kyle was ranting incessantly about their math midterm to Stan.
"Kenny!" Craig said, running up to him, and Kenny turned to him and there was an inexplicable smile behind his—well, Craig couldn't quite see it but he knew that Kenny was definitely smiling behind his bandana.
"But you," said Craig. "You died yesterday—"
Kyle laughed and even Stan looked amused. "Dude," he said to Craig. "If Kenny died yesterday, then how is he here now?"
"He died when you guys were doing your gay little," said Craig, and then hissed, "superhero thing!" Louder, "He killed himself!"
"Uh, Craig," said Kyle. "If we saw Kenny kill himself, don't you think we'd remember?"
"That's exactly what I'm trying—" Craig broke off, exasperated. "Never mind."
Kyle and Stan started off towards class and Kyle asked, "Coming Ken?" Kenny shook his head and tugged at Craig's sleeve and dragged him till they were at the back of the school again.
"So that's what you mean," said Craig. "That none of them would remember."
Kenny stared at him.
"Fuck me, I don't know!" exclaimed Craig. "I don't know, I mean, how could they—they're actually your friends—not remember that you killed yourself? God!"
Kenny held up four fingers, and then two fingers.
"Holy fuck," said Craig. "You killed yourself forty-two times?"
"And they didn't remember a single one," said Craig. "Wow, your friends are assholes."
Kenny shook his head.
"No, they are," said Craig, and Kenny gently touched his wrist. "Like, what the actual—Jesus Christ, Kenny," he said, it suddenly dawning on him. "You are immortal."
Kenny looked unsure, but Craig said, "No, no, you are, I've seen this on a TV show before. It's—it's, I don't even know how to explain it, but you're like. A god or something."
"Oh, fuck, forget I said that," said Craig, burying his face in his hands. "That was the stupidest thing that ever came out of my mouth, really—"
But Kenny adjusted his grip around Craig's wrist and Craig thought he should say something like, god, don't hold my hand, fag, but it felt kind of nice, Kenny's hand, so Craig didn't and let them skip fourth period without Craig taking out even a single cigarette.
It was the first November of high school—Thanksgiving break freshman year—and Stan was coming over and Kyle was glad. Ike had been doing nothing but bitching about Mr. Garrison all Wednesday and Thursday, having just entered the fourth grade. Kyle wondered if his brother was going through puberty before him, even though Ike was still a solid six years old.
Breaks from school also meant breaks from superhero meetings, and Stan had family over and had been required to spend quality time with them during the holidays; so Kyle had been stuck with his parents and Ike and Ike's bitching for the past thirty-six hours. When the doorbell rang, he jumped up from watching the television and yelled to whoever was interested in the house, "I'll get it!"
He expected to see Stan and his perky little dark-haired head, but instead saw Ms. Cartman with a bowl of what looked to be gefilte fish. "Can I come in?" she asked, smiling winningly.
The gefilte fish smelled amazing, and even though she wasn't Stan and the sight of her made Kyle's stomach drop, Kyle said, "Sure," regardless. Ms. Cartman stepped in, and Kyle called upstairs, "Mom! Ms. Cartman is here!"
His mother appeared. "Oh, Liane!" she said. "How nice of you to drop by!"
"I just thought I'd share some post-Thanksgiving specials with your family," said Ms. Cartman. "I didn't want to intrude yesterday because I know Thanksgiving is family time and all—"
"No, no, feel free to intrude on our Thanksgivings," said Kyle's mother, and if she wouldn't glower at Kyle for doing so, Kyle would've groaned. "It's fine—wow, your gefilte fish smells amazing!"
"I've always been fascinated by Jewish customs," said Ms. Cartman as the two of them started toward the kitchen, "and gefilte fish is one of my favorite foods, along with latkes..."
Kyle stared after them, and the thought, god, how was she his mom ran through his head a few too many times. The doorbell rang again and since he was still there, he opened it.
"Hey dude," said Stan, grinning. More and more Kyle was starting to notice little things about him—his skin roughing, his voice deepening, the inch he currently held over Kyle.
"C'mon in," said Kyle. "I already got the GameSphere ready if you got the game."
"Got it," said Stan, taking it out of his pocket. "Living room?"
"Yeah, let's go there," said Kyle, wanting to avoid the kitchen as much as possible.
As they settled down on the couch, Kyle said to Stan, who was putting the game in, "Um, Ms. Cartman's over right now."
"She is?" said Stan, surprised. "Where?"
"In the kitchen, with my mom," replied Kyle. "They're talking about cooking, I think. And like." He bit his lip. "This is really fucking weird."
"It's not weird if you don't make it weird," said Stan. And then he paused. "Please don't tell me you're thinking—"
"I'm not!" said Kyle defensively, and then when Stan looked at him, he said, "Okay, maybe a little bit. I. God, he's like a fungus or something, just even—now."
"You shouldn't even be feeling guilty, Kyle," said Stan, and Kyle said, "I'm not! I'm feeling—I."
"Look," said Stan. "Just because you were the last person he saw before he killed himself—I mean, it was with a fucking razor, it could've been by accident!"
"Yeah, because Cartman shaved at age twelve," said Kyle.
"He could've been trying to prove a point to himself or something, who knows what goes through Cartman's mind," he said. "Or. Well."
"And it wasn't even like he had a dad to borrow one from!" Kyle continued. "He went out, bought a fucking electric razor, and then killed himself! God, I." He stared at his lap.
Stan put a controller in his hands.
"Let's just play some GameSphere, okay?" he said, and Kyle gave a small nod and said, "Okay."
That night, Kyle rolled over and looked at Stan, who was asleep on his floor. The moonlight shone on Stan's hair, contrasting against it, and Kyle's eyes drifted shut, still seeing Stan's face.
In tenth grade, Coon and Friends disbanded because Mysterion said something like, "We're growing up," and Butters—or Professor Chaos, as Butters had insistently told Craig to call him at every meeting—had been the only one to say, "Aw." The others had looked mildly disappointed but unanimously agreed that now they were fourteen and fifteen, it seemed a bit silly running around in masks and capes, pretending they were superheroes.
"You are a superhero," Craig said quietly to Mysterion as they left, and Mysterion shrugged.
"Yeah, but they don't know that. And they don't care," he said. "Besides, I already do Mysterion things on my own, this is just for fun."
"My sister," explained Mysterion. "She's bullied in school, sometimes—well, she was, but I gotta look over her anyways."
"Oh," said Craig, and he was looking at Kenny with a smile that would've made him want to punch himself if he could see himself.
"Don't look at me like that, I'm not a hero," muttered Mysterion. "I just do it for her. Only for her."
"All right," said Craig, walking down Ms. Cartman's driveway.
The other boys had left, them bringing up the rear, and Mysterion hesitated as Craig said, "I guess I'll see you in school tomorrow." It was Thursday, and he still had his backpack on.
"Wait," said Mysterion as Craig turned to leave. Craig glanced back at him. "Do you want to, uh. Meet my sister?" When Craig's eyebrows shot up, Mysterion narrowed his eyes and said, "I brought her up so I just thought you might want to know. You don't have to say yes."
"Sure," said Craig, thinking it would piss him off—it didn't, and Mysterion just turned around as Craig, with his hands in his hoodie pockets, joined him toward the more run-down part of South Park. The neighborhood was only two blocks away from Ms. Cartman's house. They walked over in silence.
"Through the window," said Mysterion, nodding upward.
Craig adjusted his backpack and tried not to squeak, "U-Up there?"
"Yes. God, it's not that bad," said Mysterion when he saw Craig's face. "Here, you can go first—I'll help you up."
"This can't be safe, Kenny," said Craig. He didn't know why he was letting Mysterion help boost him up on the roof of the shed behind the house, but a second later he was eye-level with the window sill. Don't look down, he told himself.
"Nothing I do is safe," said Mysterion. "See the latch in the right corner? Flick that and the window should open."
Craig flicked and the window did, and he crawled in before there was even a chance for him to lose his balance and fall down. Mysterion was up in a matter of seconds, Craig still sprawled on the floor.
"My parents don't know about this," Mysterion said to Craig, crossing the room to turn on the lights.
"Yeah, I figured," said Craig, clutching his hand to his chest. "Jesus."
"Be right back," said Mysterion, and then he disappeared.
Craig looked around Mysterion's—well, Kenny now, he supposed—room. It was brown, not even painted brown, just—brown, and the carpet was ragged with little dots of things that Craig didn't even want to know were. There wasn't really much: only a near-empty orange backpack, textbooks similar to the ones that Craig had, and a box shoved under his bed, the side of which Craig spotted.
He didn't even need to go through it to know that it was porn, but he went over anyways. The tips of a few magazines poked out, so, curious, Craig tugged the top to see their titles. Nothing But Tits and Ass, read one; Can Your Pussy Do This? read another. Craig's ears burned and he slipped them back, but then the title Big Young Cocks caught his eye, and—
Curiosity got the better of him and he tugged that out, because he'd known how he'd been for a while and it was something he tended to ignore and tried to forget about, like a bad birthday year or a middle school date gone wrong. But this wasn't—Craig's mouth ran dry, as he stared at picture of young men with their large penises, holding them or doing the weirdest as things with them, like dressing them up in Santa Claus outfits and it wasn't even hot or anything but Craig couldn't, wouldn't stop staring at them.
A hand touched his shoulder and he yelped, falling to his side on the floor. The magazine dropped out of his hands and he turned to see Kenny back in his Kenny outfit, grinning at him—mischievously, perhaps.
"I, uh, didn't know you were gay," Craig stammered out quickly, and Kenny raised an eyebrow, like, I didn't know you were, either.
"I'm not—I'm not gay, I was just," said Craig, but those pictures of those guys gripping their penises and putting them against each other, or just penises flashed through his mind again and Craig said, "Okay, well, I dunno, maybe a little—"
Kenny picked up Big Young Cocks and put it back in the box, not once removing his eyes from Craig. Craig managed to get up from the ground and scrambled onto Kenny's bed, saying, "So, uh, what are we gonna do now?" but then Kenny climbed on after him and before he knew it, Kenny's palm was at the crotch of his pants.
"Kenny!" he yelped. "What are you doing?" But Kenny kept rubbing and Craig shuddered; it felt too good. Kenny's eyes were still focused on him and his hand made circles near Craig's dick—and then he unzipped Craig's jeans and Craig wanted to tell him to stop but didn't want to and then suddenly Kenny was touching him, callouses along Craig's cock and Craig couldn't—
"F-Fuck, Kenny, what are you doing?" he panted, because god his nipples were hard under his shirt and he fell back on his elbows, letting Kenny do—whatever Kenny was doing with his hand, but it felt amazing. "Is that why you wanted me to come to your house?" he gasped. "Because you wanted to—"
Kenny leaned forward and pressed his bandana-covered mouth against him, shoving the head of Craig's cock into his mouth so that Craig could feel the slight warmth and wetness through the fabric of Kenny's bandana. It was too—and then Craig looked down and saw his cock enveloped by Kenny's bandana, and it was too much as he threw his head back and shuddered again, and Kenny pulled back just in time as Craig came on his bed, and a little on Kenny's clothes and arms.
"Sorry," he breathed when he was done, and then, "Well, not entirely sorry, since you practically provoked me and everything, but—"
Kenny just shook his head and licked his wrist and Craig had to look away because, fuck. He adjusted himself and zipped his jeans back up and said, "I should just—I should just go, and we can pretend that never happened—"
Kenny grabbed his hand before he could leave the bed. Sat him down. Then, he looked at the door—and at just the right moment, it opened and a young, probably elementary school little girl poked her head into the room.
"Kenny, Mom wants you to—oh, I didn't know you had a friend over!" said the girl brightly, walking to them. She was holding a teddy bear. "What's your name?" she said to Craig. "My name's Karen."
"Uh, I'm Craig," he said. "And yeah, uh, I guess I'm your brother's friend, sorta."
"Oh cool," said Karen. "Will you be coming over more? None of my big brother's friends usually do," and then she sent a teasing smile to Kenny, who rolled his eyes.
"I," said Craig, glancing to Kenny, then Karen, then to Kenny again. "I guess," he said.
Kyle pretended not to notice that Stan saw that he was crashing this year. He was trying, really hard, he was, and he smiled and didn't talk about Cartman and told bad jokes and didn't talk about Cartman. Once every few weeks he'd pretend that he didn't get a fifty-eight percent on that test yesterday, because most of the time he'd gotten A's and that was all that was important, right?
High school was just a bitch.
"I didn't know you bit your nails, Kyle," said Butters, joining him at a table in the library during study hall. Kyle looked up from his Chemistry textbook and smiled as Butters sat down.
"My parents always said that biting your nails is a bad habit," said Butters. "They always told me to stop, an'—an', well, it wasn't easy, 'cause my counselor said that it was because I was always stressed and my parents telling me to stop gave me even more stress—" He paused, staring at Kyle for a moment. "Are you stressed, Kyle?"
"No, I'm just," Kyle shook his head, "I'm fine, just studying and all."
"Oh, yeah, studyin' can give a lot of stress too!' said Butters.
"Dude, you're practically a straight-A student." Better than Kyle, which pissed him off to no end (although he'd never let Butters know that it did.)
"Well yeah, I said it can give a lotta stress, but I didn't say it gave me stress!" Butters laughed. "Silly goose."
"Kyle's the silliest goose," said Stan, coming over to them.
High school had done Stan well, and Kyle pretended not to notice—because he wasn't even jealous of Stan's good looks, just—noticed. Kyle had grown too, but Stan's inch on him felt more like three inches by the way his shoulders had broadened out even more, in contrast to Kyle's narrow shoulders. His face had lost most of that baby fat, and it also didn't hurt that Stan was on the football team of the school, although recreationally, always telling his dad (whenever his dad made a big deal out of it) that no one on the football team actually took football seriously.
"Thanks," Kyle grumbled as Stan took the seat opposite from him. Stan kicked him gently in the ankle and smiled.
"You know I'm just teasing."
"Yeah, I know," Kyle sighed. "This Chemistry test though is—agh." He shoved his fingers through his curls, feeling like he was grasping only the edge of the concept of moles.
"Take a break," said Stan.
Kyle made a soft sobbing noise.
"My test is next period."
"Take a break anyways," said Stan soothingly. He closed Kyle's textbook and Kyle closed his eyes, not even bothering to stop him. "We could talk about something interesting," Stan suggested.
"Oh, I know!" said Butters eagerly. "We can talk about how Craig's goin' to Kenny's house a lot! I mean, what's goin' on with them?"
"I didn't mean gossip, Butters," said Stan, "although you bring up a good point."
"What does it look like?"' said Kyle tiredly. "They're fuck buddies, obviously."
There was a silence, and when he looked up, Butters and Stan were staring at him with wide eyes.
"I was joking," said Kyle.
"No, no," said Stan. "I think you're right, I think—" he was shaking an approving finger in Kyle's direction "—I think you may have a point with that."
"I didn't have a point, I was joking."
"Fuck buddies?" said Butters, looking between them. "Does that mean they're buddies?"
"Yeah, buddies who fuck," Stan said grimly. "I just hope Kenny knows what he's doing."
"I was joking, you guys! They're probably just—watching TV together, or something." Kyle buried his face in his arms. "Can we talk about something more interesting? Or less interesting? I just want to sleep here," he said, pressing his face against the table.
He felt a warm hand rubbing circles on his back and assumed it was Butters because Butters was right next to him and seemed to be the type of person to do that. But when he peeked back up, he saw Stan's arm stretched across the table above him.
"Dude," said Stan. "If you want, you can skip the rest of the day and I can cover for you."
"No!" said Kyle immediately. "No, I-I don't skip school."
"You sure?" said Stan.
"I'm fine." Kyle shook his head and pulled on the best smile he could right now. He wasn't sure if it came out the way he intended. "See?" he said, and then the muscles on his face relaxed when he saw that Stan was smiling back.
"O-kay," said Stan like he was humoring Kyle; then the warm hand on his back suddenly turned into little flurries of fingers and he was tickling Kyle and Kyle was giggling now, squirming and choking out, "H-Hey, what are you doing? Stop!" as Stan's fingers found his armpits, Kyle's weakness.
"Making sure that you're fine," said Stan with a grin. "Looks good, seeing as you can still laugh."
"That was unfair," said Kyle as Stan stopped. "You didn't give me a warning!"
"I shouldn't need to give you a warning. You should always be ready for my deadly fingers," said Stan, waving said fingers in Kyle's direction, and Kyle snorted.
"Ticklin's not the best way to go, Stan," interjected Butters. "Kyle's real stressed, and his tickling could give him even more stress."
Stan and Kyle exchanged a look, and Stan said, "Go back to your reading, Butters." Butters blindly said, "Okay!" with his usual eagerness and when Kyle looked at Stan again, felt as if at least something in this world was all right.
In eleventh grade Stan got a pickup truck and drove them to the football games even though they didn't care about going, much less winning at all. He also drove the four of them to school, and Kenny had suggested Stan to pick up Craig once, by pointing at his house, but Stan had said, "Dude, no," and then looked at Kyle and whispered, "Totally fuck buddies, dude."
Kyle didn't care, to be honest: Kenny could do whatever he wanted with his life, and Kyle wouldn't be one to try to control it. Or have any part in it, really. He just nodded and stared at the road ahead with the houses and cars whizzing past him.
(Sometimes he'd think, if Cartman were here, we wouldn't have Butters and that would actually be worse because Butters was nice and sometimes shared his Poptarts with the rest of them, while Cartman would have a huge breakfast every morning and belch on car rides to school. He'd take up the entire backseat and Stan would complain every day why he even drove Cartman anywhere anyways if Cartman was just going to stink up his car and Cartman would say something like, because you're a pussy and Stan would say hey even though everyone knew it was true.
Kyle wanted to stop thinking.)
At school, they broke off toward their lockers except for Stan, who stayed with Kyle. "So dude, coming over today?" he said.
"I," said Kyle, trying to think if there was any reason for him not to, and then coming up with nothing, said, "I guess."
"Good, 'cause I need your help with Trig," said Stan. Math had been the constant in Kyle's life, because it was logical and there was nothing to memorize—you either got it right, or you got it wrong. Well, Kyle supposed that Stan was another constant in his life, aside from them growing up; but when Kyle really thought about it, not much had changed because Stan was still his best friend.
Kyle closed his locker. "I'm just some sort of math helping pet to you, aren't I?" he said, but he smiled at Stan and Stan chuckled back.
"No. Well, maybe a little," he said, and Kyle nudged him with his shoulder. "But hey, I don't see you complaining." Kyle could hear what Stan didn't say, that every other class is practically a rollercoaster for you, and they walked together until Kyle had to say good-bye to get to homeroom.
During third period he left to run an errand for his shop teacher, who loved him even though Kyle hated the class. He was on his way back when he glanced out the window and saw two figures, one clad in orange and the other with a blue beanie, sitting outside the back the school. It caught him off-guard—Kenny and Craig were friends now, sure, but they'd been doing this—Kyle ran down the stairs and burst through the back door.
Craig turned around, and then seemed to be exasperated at the sight of Kyle. "Oh, it's you," he said, and flicked the ashes at the end of his cigarette to the ground.
"Yeah, it's me," said Kyle. "Why are you guys out here all the time? Kenny doesn't even talk."
"None of your business," said Craig, flipping him the bird. Kenny made a circle with his thumb and index finger and thrust his other index finger in and out of it, his eyes laughing.
"Oh, dude," said Kyle, scrunching his nose. Craig hit Kenny's hand down.
"We do not do that!" he said, and then something about the way Kenny looked at him made his cheeks go pink. "Shut up," he said, and Kenny looked amused behind his bandana.
"You guys—actually, you know what, I don't want to know what's going on between you two," said Kyle. "Have fun skipping third period." He closed the door and went back to class.
(He hated Kenny for this sometimes; he thought, If Cartman was here, you wouldn't be spending this much time with Craig, would you? You wouldn't need a new best friend, because Cartman would be your best friend. He's been your best friend.
Because Kyle had Stan and Kenny needed someone too, and Butters was like their pet dog, not really needing anyone. But Cartman had once been there—could be here, and Kyle didn't want to let it go.)
Stan had been the one who suggested the road trip, saying, "We need to do something together before graduation." Kyle had said, "All of us?" and Stan said, "Yes, all of us," and he'd meant only him, Kyle, Butters, and Kenny, really. It was spring break of senior year and Kyle was going to the University of Colorado at Boulder because they knew him and at one of the interviews they asked how Fatty Poo Poo was doing and Kyle had said Fatty Poo Poo had died so they'd given him sympathetic looks and let him in.
He also had okay grades despite the rollercoaster turmoil, and didn't want to leave this awful little mountain town. Not yet.
Stan was going too and both were overjoyed and then all of a sudden they were planning a road trip to the east coast, at least, "because of musicals," Stan had explained.
"Gay," Kyle had said, and Stan had laughed and elbowed him.
But then suddenly they were road tripping and it was Sunday, the first day of their road trip and it was seven in the morning and Butters was already in the car when Kenny came up to them with Craig in a tow.
"Hi K—Craig? What are you doing here?" said Kyle.
Craig shrugged. He had a duffel bag in his hand and bags beneath his eyes. "Dunno, but Kenny woke me up this morning and put this together," he indicated his bag, "so here I am."
"Kenny," said Kyle, looking at Kenny, and when Kenny blinked innocently at him, Kyle said, "No. No. No, Kenny, you can't just—" He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. "You can't just bring Craig along like he's some pet."
"I'm not Kenny's pet," said Craig, and would probably sound more indignant if he were more awake.
"You are," said Kyle, because Craig had sat with them at lunch once and insisted to smoke even though they were inside, and another time the four of them had to go to the museum for a history project this year and Craig had been brought along as well.
Kenny just looked at Kyle with those eyes, then looked at Craig again and glanced pointedly at his bag.
"Kenny," sighed Kyle, but Kenny continued staring at him.
"What's the matter?" said Stan, coming out of his house. "Oh, hey Kenny. What's Craig doing here?"
"He wants to bring him along," Kyle grumbled.
"Oh," said Stan, and then blinked. "Oh, um."
"The more the merrier!" Butters chirped from inside the car.
Kenny looked at Stan now, apparently giving up on Kyle.
"Well it looks like he's all packed," said Stan, and when Kyle shot him a glare, Stan smiled feebly. "Well, if he went through the effort to pack—"
"Can I just get in the goddamn car already?" interrupted Craig. "My legs are tired and I want to sleep."
So they did, Kyle not exactly feeling as excited about the road trip as he could've without Craig along. He climbed into the shotgun seat, and Stan joined shortly after making sure that all the luggage was packed and together. Craig's duffle took up only a tenth of the space than the rest of theirs.
The first few hours of the trip were rather eventful, as Butters and Craig rested in the backseat and Kenny looked oddly alert, glancing between his two backseat mates and then occasionally to Stan and Kyle in the front. Kyle had the map spread on his lap, pointing Stan toward particular roads and highways, and Stan had switched on the radio to some crappy pop station that they listened to as Stan drove.
At some point around eleven in the morning, Kyle heard a small pop! from the backseat and looked behind to see Craig with a cigarette in his mouth, smoking.
"Craig!" Kyle snapped. "Don't smoke in the car."
"Or, if you're going to, then at least open the window," said Stan, reaching to the side to roll Craig's window down.
Craig stuck his head out, letting the wind from the mountains whip him in the face. "Thanks," he said through his cigarette.
"This is disgusting," Kyle hissed to Stan. "Why did we have to bring him along? Why did Kenny even bring him with us in the first place?"
"Kenny's attached to him, what can I say?" Stan whispered back. "I mean, c'mon. Kenny doesn't talk anyways, and the only other person we have is Butters."
"What about us?" said Kyle.
"Yeah, but, you know," said Stan. "We'll have us in college too." And he smiled.
A few hours later Butters's eyelids started to open as he floated back into consciousness, and he said in a bleary voice, "I'm hungry."
"Yeah, dude, when are we getting lunch?" Kyle asked.
Stan shrugged. "Next rest stop I see," he said. "We passed one about an hour ago so I think there might be another one coming on."
"Where are we, anyways?" said Craig. "And god, shut that music off, will you? I've heard that dumb Gotye song three times in the past hour."
"Sorry," said Stan, and shut the radio off. Kyle didn't think he needed to be sorry (for the sake that it was Craig, though; he actually didn't want to hear the Gotye song again either.) "And we've just entered Nebraska. I think we'll be staying here overnight."
"Fucking great," muttered Craig.
Kyle glanced at him through the rearview mirror. "What do you have against Nebraska?"
"The same thing I have against everyone else," said Craig.
"I'm hungry," Butters whined again, and Kenny patted Butters on the shoulder.
"Butters, why do you hang out with these fags, anyways?" said Craig, gesturing to Stan and Kyle. "Like, they don't even treat you like you're their friend."
"We so do!" said Stan defensively.
"Yeah, Butters's is our friend!" said Kyle.
Craig snorted. "Don't make me laugh," he said. "If I didn't know better, I would say that you guys are trying to replace Cartman with him—oh." His eyes widened. "You guys are trying to replace Cartman, aren't you? You've been trying for the past seven years."
"Fuck off, Craig," said Kyle, his stomach turning into lead again. He looked at Stan, thinking, I told you this was a bad idea.
"No," said Craig, "no, you guys are totally trying to just find someone else to fit your perfect fucking four-man group. See these douches you hang out with, Butters?" he said, jerking his head in Stan and Kyle's direction again.
Butters looked terrified. "Th-They're not douches," he said. "They're real nice to me."
"See, Craig?" Stan said shortly. "Butters doesn't feel like we don't care about him or anything."
"Well," said Butters, but then Stan glanced at Kyle, who'd suddenly taken it upon himself to stare out the window, and Butters stopped as well.
Kyle's stomach was turning, his brain buzzing, because he knew—knew that he'd never tried to replace Cartman once with Butters, because—god, Cartman. It was fucking Cartman and fucking—Cartman wouldn't stop it, existing in his head, and it was like his mere existence from the very start was just to torture Kyle and Kyle hated it. Hated that he couldn't feel happy or sad or anything that Cartman was—that Cartman died, that Cartman—and he couldn't get rid of it, either, get rid of these stupid thoughts and memories and reminders that hey, one of your friends whom you're total in denial of being one of your best friends committed suicide and hated everything you stood for and just, fuck.
It hadn't even been because of anything Kyle had said (at least that's what he told himself) because shortly before the razor incident, Cartman had started slimming down. Kyle had thought it was his imagination, and when he'd talked to Stan about it, Stan said that he thought that he saw it too but wasn't sure, and they hadn't made fat jokes for months ever since some lady had come to their school for an assembly on body shaming. That had been a joke and Kyle had stopped caring and thought Cartman would use it as an excuse to eat more, and he did, for a while—then suddenly everything stopped and he looked almost normal and then he was dead.
They found a rest stop soon enough, and then Stan and Kyle looked at the map again and Kyle said that they could stay in Iowa instead tonight, if they were on the road for ten hours today. Craig groaned and said, "Do we have to?" and Kyle said, "We already prepared this and you've tagged along," so Craig grumbled and said, "Fine."
After lunch, they climbed back into the car again and Kyle heard Craig complain, "God, I didn't notice this car was this goddamn small before." Kyle exhaled, telling himself that he could do this, that as insufferable as Craig was, he could last a whole week on a road trip with him. He was an insensitive bastard, yeah, and at this point Kyle was really hating his guts—
—and fuck he didn't want to hate anyone's guts so he tried to clear out his mind as he got into the driver's seat instead, and Stan went shotgun.
It was near evening when they arrived at an inn in Iowa, and the inn was mostly empty so it was no trouble getting a room. Unfortunately, since the world hated South Park and all those who came from it, the inn had only large rooms big enough to fit five people and Kyle was stingy about money so Craig had to suffer sharing space with the four of them.
"I call the bathroom first," said Kyle as they lugged their stuff upstairs, because Kyle was an asshole like that.
When they arrived at the room, Craig went through his stuff and found only three pairs of mismatching clothes and five boxer shorts. And no toothbrush.
"What the hell, Kenny?" he said. "Do you even know how to pack luggage?"
Kenny shrugged: his own luggage consisted of three white shirts, a pair of jeans, and four pairs of boxer shorts, as he showed Craig. Craig remembered the parts of Kenny's bedroom he'd seen various times, and recalled that Kenny had only four pairs of boxer shorts, anyways.
"But I don't even have a toothbrush," Craig said, and Kenny nodded his head toward the bathroom. And then shrugged, like, who brushes their teeth, anyways?
There were four beds and a couch and Craig refused to take the couch, as did Kyle. Stan and Butters had already thrown their bags on two separate beds, which left Craig feeling kind of guilty, and he kind of thought of offering, you could share the bed with me except then the other guys would look at him and Kenny would give him one of those smiles like the ones he gave when Craig sometimes moved Kenny's head out of the way before he came. Kenny was infuriating like that.
Most of them passed out at nine—eight according to their internal clocks—but Craig lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd texted his mom earlier that he was on a road trip with Kenny "and his friends", and his mom had asked why and Craig had said it was because he'd been invited and his mom had just said "okay" because it wasn't like there was anything she could do about it now that he was ten hours away from home.
He didn't get it, either, when Kenny had appeared at window so early this morning and woke him up and shoved a duffel bag in his hand and gave him a look that said, We're leaving. Didn't get why he left with him, either. Why Stan and Kyle were complete assholes but he was hanging around with them, anyways. Why he was here. It was like Peru all over again, except he didn't really have a reason—no money was involved, no blackmail or ransom. Only Kenny and his stupid, stupid eyes and that smile Craig could never see underneath his bandana.
Craig lifted his head up a bit, to the couch across from him where Kenny was. Stan and Kyle had gotten beds next to each other, predictably, and Butters had gotten the one next to Kyle's, and Craig the one next to Butters's. The figure of Kenny looked so alone, curled up on the couch, and Craig wanted—at least Kenny deserved a blanket, or something, and—
He shook his head, then flopped it back down, because no. He'd beat the thoughts out of his mind, if he could. Because yeah, he knew that there was a small lust he had for Kenny, because Kenny had been giving him amazing blowjobs for the past couple of years and Craig had seen his dick before and it was kind of nice, and god, just.
But Kenny was as bad as Stan and Kyle too, because he never talked, never lifted up his bandana anymore because he was never Mysterion anymore, so Craig never heard him talk, either, and sometimes he wanted to invite Kenny and maybe even Karen over to his house because their own home looked like shit and he didn't really think he could give them anything better because it was their own business but he kind of wanted, wanted to like, take care of him, or something—
The darkness felt suffocating and without thinking, Craig got out of his bed and grabbed one of the four card keys lying on the table, and then went outside the room to think.
The lights in the hall were yellow and Craig sat against the orange-brown walls, trying to think more of the patterns in the carpet and less about Kenny, about—that time when Kenny had come over, once of three times at his house, and when they were done Craig had almost offered for them to shower together. The times Kenny was just being Kenny, with his goddamn orange vest and arms and the way he just knew how to look, when Craig was complaining or venting or saying nothing, or anything—
He heard, and saw, from the corner of his eye, the door opening, and Craig hoped that of the four inside, it was Butters.
It was Kenny, instead.
He looked a bit tired but he had his bandana on, and Craig tried chuckling, "You sleep with that on?"
Kenny sat down next to him.
"Fuck," said Craig, because he didn't know what else to say. "I could really go for a smoke right now."
Kenny pulled out a cigarette from inside his vest.
Craig stared at him.
"You have my lighter, too?"
Kenny took out Craig's lighter.
Craig sighed, and then shook his head, because it was only ten o'clock or something and they were supposed to wake up at a godawful time tomorrow again to continue traveling across the country. Fuck, he hated America.
Kenny put the cigarette and lighter on his lap anyway and Craig said, "Thanks, but," and he was going to say more but then Kenny lifted up his bandana and kissed him on the lips.
It was alright, and a surprise because Kenny never lifted up his bandana before, not even to kiss Craig—which he'd never done before, either, Craig realized as Kenny held onto his shoulder and Craig saw that Kenny's eyes were closed so he closed his, too. Then Kenny pulled away and kept his bandana raised, like in case Craig wanted to kiss him again, and the triangle almost covered his eyes and Craig chuckled and said, "You look ridiculous."
Kenny gestured to his mouth and Craig said, "You can talk, if you want," but Kenny shook his head. Craig frowned, because he'd never asked Kenny about that before, and thought he should've or at least might've, for all the time they'd spent together.
"Why don't you talk?" he questioned.
Kenny shook his head.
"Do, like, your vocal chords not work anymore or something?"
Kenny brought his legs to his knees and wrapped his arms around them. Craig thought back to Kyle's bat mitzvah when he'd brought Kenny outside for the first time, but Kenny had stopped talking before that. A year before that, actually.
"Cartman?" he said quietly, and Kenny jerked up to look at him, blue eyes surprised. His bandana was back down.
"That's it, isn't it," he said. "You became a select mute, because—" He swallowed. "Well, Cartman was an asshole, but I guess he was your friend, so—"
Kenny shook his head, and then shrugged. Stared at his kneecaps.
"I mean, whatever," said Craig. "It's all right if you don't talk, as long as—as long as you, like, show me Mysterion again," and then Kenny looked at him in such a way that Craig was sure that if he would, Kenny would be rolling around in rambunctious laughter right now. "Don't look at me like that," he grumbled. "I just—our relationship feels one-sided sometimes, that's all."
Kenny grinned and lifted up his bandana and kissed Craig again, and his mouth was warm and wet and felt better on Craig's lips than it ever did on his cock, and Craig pulled Kenny closer and kissed him back.
"Staying in the outdoors today!" Stan said cheerfully when Craig had asked him where they were going to stay today, and there was a chorus of groans.
"Shit, Marsh, why?" said Craig through his cigarette, which he was oh-so-thoughtfully smoking out the window. Kyle could smell it from the front, though.
"'Cause that's the kind of stuff Stan's into," he said. "We packed two tents and everything, so. It won't be that bad."
"I fucking hate the outdoors," said Craig, and then from the rearview mirror Kyle saw Kenny slide his hand on Craig's thigh. They'd been doing things like that all morning, Craig stealing a single tater tot from Kenny's plate this morning, and Kenny looking like he was getting a little too comfortable in the backseat next to Craig.
"So, what," said Stan, who'd apparently noticed this too. "You guys are fuck buddies, or something?"
Craig shot his head up and let out a vehement, "No!" but Kenny's eyes twinkled and Kyle saw his cheekbones go up and said, "That's good enough as a yes for me." He sent Kyle a quick I told you so look.
"Kenny," Kyle heard Craig say in a hushed undertone, and rolled his eyes. Kenny didn't stop grinning and Kyle was sure his hand went up even further by the way Craig's ears turned red, and Stan said loudly, "No sex in the backseat."
"Sex? Where?" said Butters, jolting out of his nap.
"Those two," said Kyle, and Butters looked at Craig and Kenny and probably where Kenny's hand was and yelped, "Oh gosh!"
"Don't worry, we'll make sure that they don't do anything back there," said Kyle. "And you could, too."
"I respect your life choices, fellas," Butters said to Craig and Kenny, "but I ain't wantin' to see anyone's wieners anytime soon!"
Kenny gave him a mischievous grin and Craig said, "Oh no, we are not having a threesome with Butters," and Kyle wondered when Craig had gotten better at reading Kenny than him.
They passed through Iowa and were just exiting Illinois when Butters said timidly from the back, "F-Fellas, there's something I gotta tell you guys."
"Yeah, Butters?" said Kyle, because usually the things that Butters told them were things like that he'd accidentally forgotten to pack a pair of pants or might've left the sink on at the inn, goshdarnit.
Butters fidgeted and rubbed his knuckles together.
"Well, spit it out," said Craig. "You can't just say that you're going to tell us something and then not tell us."
"I-It has something to do with Eric," said Butters quietly.
Kyle straightened up from the front seat, eyes focused on Butters through the mirror. Even Stan, though driving, kept glancing every second or so at Butters who seemed to be having second thoughts about having brought it up.
"I wasn't s'pposed to tell anyone, you see," said Butters, "but then I heard Kenny and Craig last night, an'—"
"What'd you hear?" Craig said sharply.
"Aw, no, no one wants to know that," said Kyle.
Craig glared at him and Butters said quickly, "Nothin', nothin'! Just that you said somethin' about Cartman had something to do with, um, Kenny," he gestured to the bandana.
Kenny glowered and Butters flinched.
"What is it, Butters?" said Stan, jerking his attention to them. "What weren't you supposed to tell anyone about Cartman?"
"Eric, um," said Butters, "he'd started seeing this—um. Back in elementary school my parents took me to a doctor 'cause they thought I had split-personality disorder, and um, Cartman started goin' there in the beginning of seventh grade, and, um—"
"Oh my god," said Kyle. "Don't tell me he was diagnosed."
Butters gave a small nod.
"I, uh," he said, "I went over one time, 'cause, y'know, Eric always calls me over to do stuff, an' I went over an' I thought he was playing with his action figures, 'cause it looked like he was playin' with his action figures, but then he stopped playin' to—talk?—to them, and then he saw me an-and told me that there was nothin' wrong with him but then he did it again a-and then Polly Prissypants told me what was goin' on, and—"
He whimpered and looked like he was about to cry, and Kenny had his arm wrapped around Butters while Stan said, "It's okay, Butters, we're not—" He exhaled deeply, and Kyle did as well. Craig just looked shocked.
"But I thought," said Kyle, "I thought he got rid of those dumb dolls a long time ago."
"I don't know," said Butters, shaking his head, tears forming at the bottom of his eyes. "I jus-just remember Polly sayin' that he couldn't get rid of 'em 'cause they were a part of him—and then one day I didn't see them anymore and asked him where they went and he said they were gone, and you," he looked at Craig, which surprised all of them, "you'd been complainin' at school that your lighter was missing, an'—"
He was sobbing now and Stan was saying, "It's okay, Butters," and Kenny was rubbing soothing circles on his back and Kyle was frozen in shock, had no idea what to do.
"God," said Stan, to Kyle. "That's so fucked up, that's—"
When they arrived to camp in Ohio, Butters had stopped crying for a while but was still sniffing, a little bit. Stan stopped in front of the campgrounds that he'd made reservations at earlier, and suggested, "Why don't we just—not do anything, for a while."
Kyle nodded numbly and the others seemed to agree, as well. "Let's go outside," said Kyle quietly, and then climbed out of the car without looking behind to see if anyone was joining him.
It was warmer out here than it had been in Colorado and Iowa, and Kyle took off his jacket, feeling a bit like he was suffocating from the heat, anyways. He saw that Stan, despite his suggestion of not doing anything, had started throwing their stuff out of the car, as well as the tent, and then started setting up. His eyes lingered a bit too long when Stan lifted up his arms to take off his hoodie, a little bit of his stomach showing before it was just his red tee shirt. Butters and Craig took off their jackets as well, though Kenny went without sleeves all the time. Kyle sighed and climbed up onto the edge of the trunk bed, staring at the sun, which was setting in the distance.
"You all right dude?" he heard Stan say, and Kyle sighed, holding his elbow behind him. He felt Stan lean forward against the truck.
"Yeah, I'm," he said, and thought about Cartman again. Thought about, he couldn't get rid of 'em 'cause they were a part of him—Polly had been wrong, because Cartman did get rid of them. He got rid of all of them.
"It's okay, Kyle," said Butters. From the corner of his eye, Kyle saw Butters climb onto the hood of the car. "We all gotta—Eric was a complicated fellow."
"He was," said Kyle. "He was—the most fucked up—"
He bit his lip and wished he would stop talking. He heard Craig say, probably to Kenny, "Stop, I want to smoke," and then a silence and Craig exhaling, like Kenny was giving up on trying to make out to watch Craig smoke.
So they stood there, and Kyle felt Stan, wanting to see the world, wanting to throw it away with him. The day was ending and it felt like life was ending and soon enough, they'd be in college and this road trip would be nothing but a dumb memory to them, six days gone and wasted across the lands of America. They'd be in New York by tomorrow, pretend that they were having the time of their lives, while people were dying and breaking and wasting away in the corners of the earth they didn't think about. And it was the brightest, Kyle thought, when the sun would sink so low that the last oranges and yellows flickered before they disappeared.
Kyle left when they were in the middle of setting up the tent, and when Stan came after him to find him, Kyle was sitting on the rock at the edge of the creek and wishing that he were crying, because that would make a better story.
"Kyle?" said Stan quietly, and Kyle just said, "It wasn't my fault."
"It," said Stan.
"It wasn't just—" Kyle took a deep breath. "It was all of us, Stan. What if it was all of us? What if it was—fucking South Park?" He grabbed a rock and threw it in the water.
He grabbed another one, too, but Stan held onto his wrist and said, "You can't blame a whole town for the death of one kid." He gently let Kyle's wrist go.
"I can't," said Kyle. His voice was trembling. "I don't know how—I don't know how to forget, Stan, please help me forget—"
"You don't need to forget," said Stan, and his hands were on Kyle's shoulders, one arm wrapping around them.
Kyle bit his lip and nodded into Stan's bright red shirt, which made Kyle think of blood, and blood, fucking blood, Cartman's blood. "I do, I do," he said. "I can't—it's impossible—I've never—" He whimpered and buried his wet eyes into Stan, and Stan rested his chin on Kyle's curls, holding him tight.
"There's more, it's okay," Stan was whispering, and Kyle didn't believe any of what he said but let himself fall into Stan's words anyways. "It'll be all right," Stan promised. "It'll be okay, you weren't—" Kyle felt lips press to his temple, and shuddered, wanted to weep even more. "I'm here," was the last promise Stan gave, and Kyle wanted to believe him.
The sky was still orange above the treetops, slipping away like the world and everything that surrounded them. One day, Kyle would want to sink and let go of everything, letting Stan be his anchor.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!