On Friday night, Kyle sat at the stool against the counter, tapping his finger against his lip as he tried to focus. He'd put his earbuds in, but a girl with an acoustic guitar was singing shrilly in the corner of the café. A group of teenagers were swaying with their coffee cups to the music. Even more annoying, he'd caught two of them making out during a particularly sappy love song. In spite of the distraction, he'd missed working nights. It made him feel like he was in high school again, working a shift before meeting Cartman outside for a ride home. It hadn't felt easy then, but it had been. Everything was still on the rails and big decisions were meant to be made at some distant date.
"Hey." Stan sat a mug on the counter next to him. "Tweek said you like mochas, and this is my first attempt. So you'd be the best judge if it's good." Stan had exchanged his usual blazer for a flannel shirt that looked soft and warm. Kyle looked away abruptly. This must be that forced friendliness he was supposed to respond to.
"Tastes like a mocha."
He thought Stan would be satisfied with that and leave him to finish out his break. But they were overstaffed tonight. Mr. Tweak had just left fifteen minutes ago and Dougie and Tweek were casually weaving through the café, collecting stray plates, wiping tables, and stopping every so often to focus on the music.
"What are you doing anyway?" Stan leaned across the counter on his elbows. Apparently the mocha had just been a friendly conversation starter. Kyle wanted to pick his book up and ignore that he was being talked to, but maybe Tweek had good tactics. Kyle was starved for people acting nice to him.
"School stuff." Kyle didn't know how to make small talk. He didn't want to ask Stan any questions about himself and risk hearing how great everything's been going for him.
Stan nodded, and scrubbed at an imagery spot on the counter for a minute. "I have to admit that I was surprised you were working here. I thought you would have left South Park for the Ivy League. Surely you had the gradesâ€¦" he trailed off, looking uncertain.
"I'm taking online classes." Kyle shut his laptop. He didn't owe Stan an explanation. But he did feel embarrassed, like he wasn't living up to some sort of standard that Stan had for him years ago. It made him feel anxious in a way that he didn't want to indulge.
"That's cool," Stan insisted, edging back slightly. "I just thought, erm, well, you always planned to go to college right after high school."
"Plans change." Kyle shrugged. Surely Stan could see this topic wasn't going anywhere. Was he just trying to make Kyle feel inept?
"Hey guys." Tweek was balancing empty latte mugs on pastry plates. "You can probably head out early if you want. Me and Dougie have got this."
"Are you sure?" Stan looked disappointed, and Kyle hoped it wasn't because it meant an end to this friendly interrogation.
"Yeah, I know you have to finish that essay by midnight Kyle," Tweek said. "And there's no use in four of us being here to wipe down tables in an hour."
"Thanks dude," Kyle said.
He did find managing his time considerably harder now that he had more of it. He grabbed his coat from the back and slung his bag over his shoulder, taking his time. When he came back out front Stan was still talking to Tweek by the door. He tried not to feel betrayed by Tweek, but it was hard when he was laughing at something Stan said.
"You ready?" Stan pulled his car keys from his back pocket. "I'll drive you."
Kyle couldn't stand to think that he would be stuck in a car because social graces demanded it, or so that Tweek could see all of the efforts Stan was making.
"Really dude? It's sleeting out, I'll drive you. It's on my way."
Kyle stared at Stan like he'd lost his head in a momentary lapse of common sense.
"Yeah, I know." He deliberately pulled the zipper of his coat tighter towards his chin. Stan just laughed, and grabbed his arm. Kyle wasn't used to being touched, not like that. He followed along behind the taller teen, his black hair splayed against the collar of the hat he'd put on. And something felt intrinsically natural in the action. So much so that he didn't resist, maybe couldn't resist. It was not completely different from Cartman telling him to do something. Kyle found it so much easier to just give in to what everyone else wanted.
He slid into the passenger seat, pausing only to move a library book and several scratched mix CDs.
"Do you want to go anywhere before I take you home? Like we could get fast food or something."
"I have to finish this essay," Kyle said, glad Tweek had brought it up to add validity to the excuse.
"Alright," Stan said. They drove the rest of the way, listening to a gargled radio call-in show about UFO sightings over Houston. When they pulled into Kyle's driveway, Stan hit the radio off with his palm. "Hey, my band is playing a show at the café tomorrow night. I know you're not on the schedule. But it'd be—"
"Stan, we're not friends." It felt good to establish boundaries. To say so plainly what they both knew the score was.
He didn't wait for a response before climbing out into the wet wind. He let himself in; glancing over his shoulder once, annoyed that Stan was still idling in the driveway making sure he'd gotten in okay.
"Kyle! Did you submit your essay?!" His mom was ushering him in the house. She'd been micromanaging his course work since he'd enrolled. She'd taken his lack of formal higher education as a personal affront. He suspected she had filled out the next round of application forms herself so he wouldn't spend another year at home.
"I'm doing it now."
"Have dinner first, my god, you should have called if you were coming home early. I already put yours in the fridge." She was already grabbing the Tupperware container and placing it in the microwave. He sat at the kitchen table and waited for his laptop to load. "Tell me you didn't walk home in this weather? I would have come to get you." Kyle didn't doubt it for a second, but he knew he wouldn't have called.
"No, Stan gave me a ride."
"What? You can't mean Stan Marsh?" Finally, someone was treating this with a percentage of the gravity it deserved.
"Yeah," Kyle said, "he's working at the café now."
"All I have to say is, don't let him effect you Kyle. He's the reason we are where we are," Sheila motioned to his laptop as if it was some greater symbol for his failed future. Kyle thought that what she said was true in a way that all things are a little true.
"I didn't hire him Mom," he said, as she placed a plate of potatoes and corn in front of him. It wasn't quite what she wanted to hear, but Kyle knew it was close enough.
"You're riding in his car, what am I supposed to think? It's very sad what happened to Stanley. Did you know he moved out of his house over the summer? I wouldn't be surprised to find out he's selling drugs." He irrationally wanted to defend Stan. Mention drug tests before getting hired, even if Tweek Bros. didn't use them.
"It's fine." He stabbed at his potatoes. He needed to finish his essay soon. Tomorrow was supposed to be dedicated to Cartman, and he wouldn't entertain the idea that Kyle still had homework to do.