Stan was waiting outside the building when Kyle got there the next morning. Mr. Tweak had given him a key to the café his senior year for nights that he closed.
"Good morning dude." Stan stomped out his cigarette under his sneaker. Kyle watched him disapprovingly.
"You'll have to sweep that up," he replied, letting himself into the café. Stan reached down and picked the cigarette up as Kyle flipped the "Closed" sign around.
"I think I got the pouring thing down yesterday after you left. Well, Tweek said so," Stan mumbled as Kyle hung his coat in the back. He wanted to ignore what Stan said and reply with a non-sequitur too.
"You're just going to be on register today," he said instead. He pulled the coffee canisters from the back. "I have to set up the café. Just watch what I do."
After Kyle had gotten the coffee brewing he made himself a drink. Stan was refilling the sugar packets. "You guys should have stocked everything last night," he called. "Didn't Tweek tell you?"
"No. Yeah. He did." Stan turned and walked back to the counter. "You know, I didn't get this job as an excuse to argue with you. I need the money." Stan could pretend to be the bigger person all he wanted. It didn't make it true.
"There are other jobs Stan." Apparently Kyle had gotten better at confrontation. There was a slight thrill in his veins at the thought.
"Well then I'm working here until I find one Kyle, so can we just be—"
"Fine, but I'm a condescending dick—remember? This is how I am." Kyle had thought of saying it a second before he did. Out loud it didn't sound like he was putting Stan in his place. Out loud it just sounded sad.
"Kyle, please dude."
"Quit." Kyle shrugged, loving the way Stan's blue eyes lit up in indignation that could go nowhere, because regular morning customers were filing in. It was a mix of people on their way to work and old people still glad to have a routine. Stan rang the register, begrudgingly—Kyle liked to think—as he prepared the drinks.
Maybe it was supposed to be awkward, but he preferred hostile silence to Stan making friendly conversation. When everyone had their drinks, Kyle disappeared and messed with the CDs, and hated himself for wanting to choose something pointed. Ultimately he decided on a mellow acoustic album, thinking it would be more of an insult.
When he came back out, Stan was leaning over the counter talking to the tall goth kid that Kyle had assumed killed himself around junior year of high school. But seeing him now, he supposed it made more sense that he'd just dropped out. Neither of them acknowledged him anyway, so he busied himself by loudly unloading the new shipment of tea into the canisters on the shelf behind the counter.
"So I should order the most complicated drink," the goth teen said.
"If I poison you with too much espresso, that's your own fault." Stan turned to stare at the chalkboard menu with his friend. It was strange to hear Stan talking like everything was normal to this other person who wasn't and couldn't be Kyle. He wished another customer would come in to force an end to the conversation, but he was just as good at wishing for customers as he was at wishing them away. He could interrupt them himself, but he wasn't interested in being on the receiving end of both the goth kid and Stan's condescending stares.
"Uhm, White Chocolate Cherry Mocha," the goth teen said sarcastically, tugging distractedly at the earring hanging by his throat.
"Kay—so that's one small black coffee."
"If you insist," he said, paying for the coffee. "All this whipped cream and syrup bullshit. It's just a way to make money out of a product that is relatively cheap. And better without it," he said. Kyle wanted to rattle off some facts about fair trade and living wages. He wanted to be a part of the conversation in any way he could. He tempered the feeling by remembering that no one was actually interested in what he found interesting. Kyle could feel the ghost of the regret he would have felt at trying to join in when he was unwanted.
Stan poured the coffee from the canister behind the counter, smirked at his friend, and then added a small layer of whipped cream to the top. Kyle couldn't imagine a universe where he was on either side of this exchange.
"Stan, you're a fucking anarchist," the tall goth said, rolling his eyes. But when he took the drink, he flicked the whipped cream with his fingers, sending flying across the counter.
"Hey—I have to clean that up," Stan said, grabbing a rag.
"You have to earn your minimum wage somehow." He shrugged and licked what was left of the whipped cream.
"You like it. I knew it."
"I do not," his friend said, licking the corner of his mouth, "but I know someone that might." Kyle wrinkled his nose at the implication. Public indecency.
They both laughed, and Kyle felt the real threat of a migraine beginning in his temples. Stan's goth friend eventually retired to the back corner of the café with headphones and a book, and Kyle considered demanding that he pay for something else or pay rent if he insisted on camping out in the café the entire day. He only left when Stan had a lunch break and gave him a ride home. They walked out together discussing whatever book he had been reading.
Tweek passed by them on his way in the door. "Hey Stan and Ethan," he waved.
"I didn't even know they were friends in high school," Tweek said to Kyle. "Now they're always together." Kyle wondered when he asked for Tweek's expert analysis.
"Yeah." He sipped at an iced coffee that he'd made too bitter. "Friends, or something."
Tweek raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
"So." Kyle narrowed his eyes at the blonde. "When did this happen?"
"What?" Tweek looked over his shoulder as he retrieved a teabag.
"Stan," Kyle clarified.
"Oh. His band played here a couple weekends back—and my dad was talking to him. Stan said he needed some extra money."
"Where was I?" Kyle was looking at the Cafés live music schedule but realized he had no idea what the name of Stan's band was.
"With Cartman—or, uh, someone I guess. I didn't think I was going to like it; goth music. But it was pretty good. They're playing here again next weekend. My dad liked all the teenage girls that came to see them that bought the expensive frap drinks." Tweek pulled at the sleeve of his button-down. Kyle wished he and Tweek were good enough friends that he could require him to hate Stan on his behalf.
"Hey Dougie." Kyle waved at the younger teen. Dougie worked after-school, and typically signaled the end of Kyle's shifts.
"Hey, do you want to go out back and smoke before you go?" Tweek asked. The baggie of pot was already in his hand. Kyle typically said no, but the few times he had agreed kept Tweek asking. Tweek didn't like to smoke alone if he could help it; Kyle had heard him ask customers if he was desperate enough for company.
He nodded, "We'll be right back."
Dougie waved them away, and began cleaning up what he seemed to think was a mess.
Kyle followed Tweek into the alley behind the café and waited as he lit up the joint. The blonde took a drag and passed it to Kyle.
"To be honest, I completely forgot about the you and Stan thing. But my advice would be just try and get along. Don't make it weird, you know?"
Kyle thought that acting as if he and Stan were friends was the weird choice. He took another drag of the joint, feeling the familiar tingle he got in his nose when he knew he'd gotten a good hit.
"Tweek, I can't." He slid against the brick wall of the building. Tweek followed his lead and sat on the cement beside him. "Stan was," he coughed after taking another hit, "my best friend. And one day, he decided that—no, wait, he'd been wrong about me all along. You might have thought that I killed Kenny. Sometimes I feel like I did." Kyle wondered if you could get high in about five seconds or if he'd just been caught off guard enough by someone actually asking, to answer.
"Everyone remembers how upset Stan was about Kenny's death. But I think he's okay now."
He took the joint from Tweek again, "And so everything can just be okay again—like it was before because Stan decided that it can be?"
Tweek laughed into the joint, making small puffs of smoke escape from his lips. "I don't know man."
Kyle leaned his head back, and stared at the way the snow in the alley had been run over by cars. The tire treads looked like fish skeletons and it took him a few squints to decide that they definitely weren't.
"Yeah. Well, I have my own life now without him." And he's got one without me was unspoken and painfully clear.
"Do you mean Cartman?" Tweek chewed on his thumb nail after passing Kyle what was left of the joint. "Because he treats you like shit," Tweek added after Kyle didn't say anything.
"Don't talk about things you don't understand. I never have to guess at how Eric is going to act. Anyway, I never knew you liked Stan so much," Kyle said.
"Not many people are good," Tweek said, his eyes red and glassy, "but Stan is one of them."
Kyle wondered if he looked as fucked up, and hoped so. He wanted everyone to know how he felt about the world. Why should he be a captive audience to something that had proven itself to be shitty over and over again.
"By whose measure?" Kyle didn't wait for an answer. "I'm going home." He flicked what was left of the joint into the snow.
"Yeah, I better get back in there before Dougie implodes with annoyance," Tweek sighed.
"Tell him c'est la vie," Kyle said, waving his hand towards the back door.
"I definitely won't," Tweek laughed as Kyle started walking away. Kyle was halfway down the alley when he remembered he'd left his messenger bag hanging in the back. He slipped in the back door and froze when he heard his name.
"You guys have to work something out," Tweek was saying from the front.
"I want to, okay?" Stan said. "But he won't want to hear that." Kyle laughed quietly. Wouldn't believe him was more like it. No wonder Tweek was on Stan's side. He came off as perfectly rational, heart-wrenchingly earnest. Kyle closed his eyes and wished he had that afternoon in Stan's room on film. He would strap a DVD player to his chest and put it on repeat.
"Look—if you want to be friends with him, just act friendly. What can he do?" Tweek said slowly. Kyle wondered if that's all it took to be Tweek's friend.
"It's not so simple," Stan sighed. "Hi, what can I get started for you today?" his voice raised a pitch to address customers. Kyle moved quickly to grab his bag from the hook in the wall and exited the alley door. He'd heard enough.