Saturday morning Kyle sat in Cartman's car, staring out at Stark's Pond. The grey afternoon had given it a particularly hollow look, combined with where the smooth ice was pocked with melting sleet.Kyle felt sweat pooling under the collar of his t-shirt and turned the air vents away from him. There was something oppressive in the way that the smell of the spilled soda never really left the car, and he wished Cartman would let him roll down a window. Still, it was better than spending another day in his room doing coursework and wondering what Cartman was doing.
"Listen," Cartman said in a feigned sincere voice that he thought could fool anyone, including Kyle. "I can't do this anymore."
"What do you mean?" Kyle felt a black hole beginning to form in his chest.
Cartman sighed heavily, shifting in his seat. His brown hair hung over his eyes in a way that was almost theatrical and for a moment Kyle wondered if this was an elaborate joke. He shook the idea from his head; he was forcing his expectations on others again. Cartman stared out the window as he spoke, "It's just, we live in two different worlds now Kahl. I'm at school and you're still in South Park. And South Park is where I come to do my laundry." The callousness of being compared to laundry almost made Kyle laugh at how bad it hurt. At how he'd never learn.
"That's fine," Kyle said. He wasn't surprised. Not really. History repeated itself, after all. Wasn't that what everyone said when atrocities occurred? That they should have prepared better; that they should have seen it coming.
"If that's the way you feel, Eric, what can I do? Drive me to work, I'm late." He still didn't know what made him lie like this when he knew how Cartman would react. But acting as if he wasn't affected was the only thing he had left. He could never talk his way back into someone's life when they decided they were done with him. He was more like trash than laundry.
Cartman sneered, "'drive me to work, Eric. I'm late for work, Eric, you know what Kahl—fuck you! I thought you had off work today! But I see you're too busy for me. Maybe you're breaking up with me!"
Kyle looked away from Cartman's wide brown eyes. They both knew it would have never worked out that way. In the distance two people walked a dog. The owner threw a tennis ball across the field of dead grass. Kyle watched it smack against the ground a few times before coming to a stop.
"Talk to me!" Cartman grabbed a handful of red hair and yanked Kyle toward him. He looked at Kyle with genuine hurt. And for a second Kyle thought he was going to kiss him. They used to kiss all the time.
Cartman's hands slipped down his cheeks until they pressed firmly against his throat. He studied him, and Kyle wondered what he wanted; for him to struggle, for him to plead. He used to do both, but now he just stared back, as if asking, what is this doing for you? Why does hurting me feel so good for everyone else?
Cartman's thumbs pressed hard against Kyle's windpipe, and he finally began struggling. He couldn't help it; tears burned in his eyes as he gasped for air. His fingers tried to pull Cartman's away, and all he could see were Cartman's brown eyes that were round as saucers as he asked calmly, "Do you love me Kahl?" in the same innocent voice as before. Kyle shut his eyes. He was almost glad at the chance to somehow be a part of what was happening to him.
"Yes," Kyle tried to say, but it came out as more of a hiss. Cartman released him and Kyle could feel him watching as he coughed in breaths. But he didn't seem satisfied at the way Kyle was gingerly rubbing his neck and not saying anything else. He tried to find the places Cartman's fingers had dug into his windpipe, as if deep recesses would still be there for him to document and push his fingers back into later. He didn't look at Cartman. He didn't think this would change anything. It was what Kyle got for not showing how affected he was emotionally by Cartman. But it was the only control Kyle had left. Cartman snapped his fingers, like Kyle was a dog who'd just had his muzzle smacked by a newspaper. Kyle exhaled in a giant whoosh and didn't look up from the carpeted floor.
"When will you learn to look at me when I'm talking to you?" Kyle felt his head slam against the glass of the passenger window. His vision exploded in inky black and he opened the door to throw up on the cement. When he could focus again he looked away from the pile of vomit between his hands and up to find the dog with the tennis ball in his mouth, sitting and watching him. But the owner must have walked too far ahead now, and somehow that was the saddest part of any of it.
"'Ey you're letting the heat out goddamnit!" Cartman said. So Kyle got back into the SUV. They sat in silence for a moment, and Kyle wanted desperately to believe that Cartman was struggling to find the words to apologize for what had happened. That he had been overtaken by passion again. He bowed his head and watched his fingernails as Cartman backed out of the parking lot. He angled his head away so Cartman wouldn't have to see any damages that might have been done. They drove in silence the rest of the way to the café.
As he got out of the SUV, he could hear Cartman turn the radio up. He clung to the idea that Cartman had kept the volume low out of concern for his aching head. He staggered for a minute as he walked towards the café that was swimming into focus and smiled in spite of the way the muscles in his face stretched the whole way up. Now that Cartman was gone he could bring his fingers to where his head had connected with the glass. He was glad to see that there wasn't any blood. Everything was fixable. He frowned. Except the part where Cartman didn't want to see him anymore. Except the part where Kyle had made too much of a nuisance of himself again.
He passed Dougie who was leaning against the counter, reading a graphic novel while Tweek rang up the two teenage girls at the front counter.
"What's up Kyle? I didn't think you were on the schedule today," Tweek said. But Kyle passed by him without a response as he headed to the employee bathroom in the back. He shut and locked the door and sat with his back against it, breathing in choked gasps. He put his hand over his mouth to smother the sound; the idea that someone might overhear only made it worse. He tried to think of anything but what just happened; the way the off-white of his shoelaces matched the dingy color of the bathroom tiles, the cheap toilet paper rolls someone had stacked into a pyramid, the hum of the dishwasher from the kitchen behind him. But none of it helped. The only thing he had to prove Cartman had ever been willing to touch him were the surely forming bruises around his neck and on his head. But they would fade and leave Kyle holding Cartman's schedule while he sat in his room, knowing where he was but unable to force their paths to cross again.
For a second he thought he was going to throw up again. He stood and leaned against the sink, looking into his own green eyes, as if he was going to coach himself into putting on a brave face. Besides that, there were already angry red marks on his neck. He knew he had to get away from the mirror, and sat back on the floor. Their presence only reminded him of their inevitable disappearance, just like everything else. His head throbbed from the impact, and he pressed his cold knuckles against his temple.
He could see the edges of Tweek's boots from the gap under the door. He scrubbed his face against his palms and took a shaky breath. He tried to imagine it was Cartman coming to talk to him. But he couldn't. He felt with a soft finality that he just wasn't what anyone wanted.
"Are you OK man?"
"Yeah." He meant to it say with annoyance, as if him being OK was the most obvious thing in the world, but his voice sounded strained and quiet over the rattling fan of the bathroom.
"Do you want me to make you something to drink?"
Kyle wondered if that was all it took to make some people happy. Steamed milk and sugar.
"No," he said, laying his cheek against his knee. He could hear Tweek slowly trying to turn the doorknob against the lock.
He knew the longer he stayed in the bathroom the worse it would look so he drew open the door, laughing a little. "Sorry—I'm fine, it's nothing."
Tweek moved aside, obviously taken aback. "Is, uh, I didn't see Cartman." Tweek looked over Kyle's face quickly. But his hair hid any real injury for now, he hoped, as he zipped his hoodie to his chin. He supposed the only times that Tweek had seen him break down like this had involved Cartman. The blonde passed him and made a paper towel damp under the faucet before handing it to him. Kyle wiped his eyes. The wetness felt good against his burning cheeks. He didn't want Tweek to look at him too long. The heartbreak had to be overwhelmingly obvious to see.
"Let's go out back for a little?" Tweek suggested. Kyle nodded and followed him, comforted slightly by the status quo. They both slouched to the ground as Tweek lit a joint.
"He broke up with me," Kyle said. It hurt in a different way when he said it out loud. Duller but deeper. Tweek looked pleased and Kyle wondered why he ever expected sympathy.
"Please man, let it stay that way." Tweek kicked a clump of ice across the alley.
"It will." He took a long drag from the joint and passed it back to Tweek. He didn't say it wasn't up to him. That clearly wasn't what Tweak was looking for.
"He's a fucking prick," Tweek said. It made Kyle mad, because of how easy that was for someone to say. "I thought it would end when he went to college. I was sort of counting on it."
Kyle imagined Tweek happily counting down the days until Cartman left for school while he had been anxiously clinging to them.
"I should go home," he said instead of what he'd wanted to: why would you want the only person who cared about me to leave—what did you get out of it?
"Nah, Kyle, just stay, we could use the extra help tonight," Tweek said. "And later we can go see a movie or something."
Kyle took another drag of the joint and tilted his head back. His headache was fading but it still felt good to press his head against the frozen bricks of the building. "There should be more ways to escape. Movies and drugs don't seem like enough."
"Sleep?" Tweek suggested.
"Only if you woke up somewhere different than where you'd fallen asleep." Like Cartman's dorm room. Like Kenny's grave.
"Where would you want to wake up?" Tweek asked.
Kyle thought about telling him. Saying it out loud. Maybe if he were higher he would. He took another hit from their shared joint. "Anywhere but here. It wouldn't matter, if I didn't like it, I'd just close my eyes again." It was easier to be vague. Almost routine. Tweek was nodding absently, and Kyle couldn't reach the place where all of his indignant anger at everyone else was anymore.
They were both quiet for a while, and Kyle had forgotten what they'd been talking about. So it took him a minute to understand what Tweek was saying.
"I'd want to wake up the morning after Prom. I ended up talking to Bebe for the first time at Token's party. Really talking, you know? She and I slept together on the floor of Token's room under his old Terrance and Phillip sleeping bag. I stayed awake all night, just trying to find excuses to bump our knees together. And then she just left the next morning. I wouldn't, like, include that."
Kyle said nothing, but thought of that night. They'd never made it to the dance. Cartman had wanted to use the opportunity to fuck in the school. It was supposed to be this big surprise and Kyle had been excited at the time. But now as he thought about lying pinned to the glossy wood floor as Cartman grunted in his ear, blocking out the speakers in the gym blasting Good Riddance,—he felt like he'd missed a memory that he never made.
"I hope you had the time of your life," he said, repeating the lyrics into the joint he sucked.
"Yeah," Tweek agreed to some point he thought Kyle was making. Kyle wasn't though. He was just trying to remember if they'd even danced for a moment. His mom still had the picture of them in their tuxes on a table in the living room.
They were sitting there finishing off the joint when a van turned into the alley. Kyle watched with detached interest as three of the goth teens and Stan came out of it.
"You guys can just prop open the door," Tweek said to Stan. Kyle turned in surprise that the blonde knew what was going on and smiled broadly at Tweek.
"What?" Tweek laughed.
"You know everything." He felt his head lull to the side. Tweek took the joint from Kyle's lips and smoked the rest of it before standing up.
"You know where you're setting up?" He asked Stan as the red haired goth carried an amp through the doorway next to Kyle.
"Yeah," Stan said. He lingered in the doorway looking uncertainly down at Kyle, as he pulled his guitar strap over his shoulder. Kyle looked blankly back. He could hear Cartman's voice coming out of Stan's mouth. I can't do this anymore.
"Aren't you guys cold?" Stan said abruptly, turning to Tweek.
"Yeah, come on Kyle." Tweek hauled Kyle to his feet and shuffled him through the door. All of his Cartman-related feelings had been separated and sectioned off with a gauzy film of pot and apathy. He could still see them, red-hot and pulsing, but he couldn't put his hand close enough to feel the burn.
"Why don't you just hang out in the front for a while," Tweek suggested, leading Kyle to one of the overstuffed chairs in the corner of the café. He nodded even though Tweek had already turned away and watched with amusement as Dougie cast an annoyed look in Tweek's direction. The line at the register stretched halfway towards the door. It was mostly teenagers with heavy eyeliner-smudged eyes, leggings, and big hair. Kyle wondered if they'd all be duplicated off a factory line. They seemed to fit into one of two categories; those who ordered frozen drinks with whipped cream, and those who ordered black coffee. He was sure there was a distinction of some kind, and was trying to discern it when he realized that Stan was waving a hand in front of his face.
"We just need to move this chair to plug in the amps," Stan said after he'd gotten Kyle's attention.
"We're playing a show," Stan explained with an annoyance that Kyle thought seemed unwarranted. Then he explained further in slower louder voice, "in the café tonight."
"Oh." Kyle stood up and struggled to push the chair aside. Stan sighed and moved it himself before turning away.
Kyle sat back down and watched as the youngest goth set up the drum set. Kyle thought he was probably Ike's age, and thought about asking if he knew him. The younger teen wandered away before Kyle had the chance. He sighed, and leaned back in the chair, feeling the sting of his headache pulsing from his temple. At least it wasn't soul-deep. He distracted himself by staring at Henrietta's photographs of railroads lining the wall. They seemed to take on a deeper significance that Kyle had never appreciated before. He stared mystified by them, the railroad starting somewhere out of the shot, and stretching further into the distance than he could imagine.
"Pretty lame, isn't it?" Ethan said, following Kyle's gaze. "Henrietta did these to satirize all the bullshit pseudo-artistic photos the other first year students were taking for her class."
Kyle nodded in agreement; admiring the black and white polka dotted button-up the taller teen was wearing. He looked down at his own clothes, skinny jeans and a hoodie pulled over a striped cardigan he thought Cartman would like. The hoodie made him too hot in the thickening crowd, but he still knew better than to take it off. "I've always been jealous of people who can create something from nothing," Kyle said.
"You wrote some pretty scathing reviews of the school musicals in the Park County High School Gazette. Writing is creating, even if it's just to bitch about faggy school functions."
Kyle laughed, unsure if that was meant to be taken seriously. Either way it made him feel better about himself. "They weren't always scathing."
Over Ethan's shoulder Kyle could see Stan cast a suspicious look at both of them as he untangled cords for his guitar.
"So what's the name of your band?" He asked, suddenly feeling compelled to continue the conversation.
"The Belladonnas," Ethan said, flicking idly at a lighter. "I wanted to be called Intimacy is Tyranny but it wasn't as catchy. Or some people said so anyway," he looked in the general direction of the red haired goth.
"Nah," Kyle said, "I like Belladonnas."
"Do you guys want anything to drink?" Tweek yelled across the growing crowd, distracting Ethan. The line at the register had dispersed as the teens took their positions surrounding the stage.
"Maybe water for me." Ethan looked over at the teen with the red streaks in his hair as he adjusted the strap on his bass guitar. "Do you want anything Dylan?"
"Coffee," he mumbled.
"I'll get it," Stan said, turning back, "do you want me to get you anything Kyle?"
Kyle just stared back at him for a moment before shaking his head. He wanted everyone around them; the goth kids, Tweek, even the nameless teenagers, to acknowledge the neurotic way Stan expected Kyle to respond to him as if he hadn't broken his heart and then ignored him for the last year of his life.
Ethan flicked his silver lighter impatiently as the rest of the band set up. "I wanted to tell you that I think it's pretty cool that you're here. Stan was acting like a total bitch about asking you to hear us play. I told him that you wouldn't be a dick about it."
"I'm here because Tweek said he needed extra help. Anyway, it looks like you have more than enough of a crowd," he said, turning their attention to the crowd of teenagers, most of them leaning over their phones. He didn't want to think about Stan thinking about him.
"Posers," Ethan said, frowning slightly down at Kyle.
"I should help," he mumbled, feeling like talking to Ethan was too challenging an activity to participate in while slightly stoned. He passed Stan on his way behind the counter. He began shuffling milk cartons and whipped cream containers back into the fridge. Tweek shot him a look as if to say, â€˜feeling okay?' and Kyle rolled his eyes. As if he could feel anything else.
Now that everyone was settled into the tables around the band, the teens that were still coming in began filling in the back, standing shoulder to shoulder. Stan was standing to the left of Ethan, plucking a few strings to test out the equipment, but it had the effect of directing everyone's attention to the stage. Dylan stood on the other side of Ethan with a bass guitar, and the younger teen was behind the drums.
"Alright fags, let this cover be a pop quiz to see who among you know thatâ€¦" he paused dramatically and seemed to make scrutinizing eye contact with everyone in the room, "Boys Don't Cry."
Stan began the opening chords of the Cure song, making the audience bob along to the beat. Kyle leaned against the back counter, sipping the herbal tea that Tweek had made him. As the night progressed they played a set of their original songs. Ethan's throaty vocals held the room enthralled as if they were being suffocated under a hazy but deserved doom.
Kyle wondered if they toured outside of South Park. It certainly seemed like they had enough of a following to do so. He watched Stan's fingers move expertly over the frets of his guitar. He couldn't play like that two years ago. If he were a better person, he would be glad for Stan being happier without him. Glad for Cartman's soon to be happier life too. But Kyle was too selfish, too self-involved. It's what made them better off in the first place.
"We're the Belladonnas," Ethan said, wiping sweat from his forehead with a black scarf before laying it back over the microphone stand. Two girls in the audience seemed to be goading one another to take it when Ethan turned his back. "This is Stan on lead guitar," Ethan said, as Stan did a slight bow. A section of girls in the front clapped fervently, and Kyle was glad to see Ethan raise an eyebrow at them before continuing. "Dylan on bass," he continued, pushing a loose lock of hair out of the shorter teen's eyes and twisting it carefully behind his ear. Dylan kept his eyes on the ground, staring at Ethan's high laced boots.Ethan walked to the back, where the youngest goth was pushing his own bangs off his sweaty forehead. "And," Ethan said, tilting the microphone slightly in the other teen's direction, "wunderkind Georgie on drums." Georgie hit a cymbal anti-climatically. Some teens were taking pictures over the shoulders of their friends.
Ethan did slight twirl to unravel the mic chord twisted around his feet. Everyone's eyes seemed focused on him, including Stan's. Kyle narrowed his eyes, was it true they were living together? "And I'm your lowly vocalist; Ethan. You can buy our demo at the front counter for $5. Or don't, whatever." Ethan said, as he reached for his water.
Kyle went into the back, knowing that they were about to be overwhelmed by dishes of the dispersing crowd. Besides, his headache was coming back, and he welcomed any excuse to get away from the noise. He sprayed a few plates and loaded the dishwasher. While he waited he stared hopefully at his cellphone. Maybe Cartman would reconsider despite all the evidence to the contrary.
He pulled the beanie from his head, and tugged with irritation at his hair, grimacing when he touched the bruising lump on the edge of his temple.
"Hey," a voice said from behind him. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, Stan. Somehow I manage without you," he said through a sigh, as if Stan has already asked him this twenty times before. It was clear any distance he had gained from the pot was now staring him in the face. He continued to look down at the water in the sink and wondered if his face was already bruising, and wished he had just gone home.
"With the dishes," Stan said, "I met with the dishes."
"Yeah I know," Kyle snapped.
"We're all going to the diner to talk about the show," Stan said. "Tweek's coming, I thought you might want to come too?"
"Yeah," Kyle said, looking down at his hands, angry red from the hot water they were sunk in. "That's fine. But I have to finish here first." He continued to spray a plate before looking over his shoulder to make sure that Stan had gone before letting out a breath. He felt stupid to have believed that Tweek had been serious about going to the movies with him. That he could have been anyone's first choice. It wasn't fair that on the night he most wanted to be around people that Stan was the person who was offering him company.
After they'd closed down the café, everyone loaded into Ethan's van. Kyle was pressed between Tweek and Stan's amp. The bass from a Depeche Mode song he barely recognized made the seat pulse under him. No one was talking, but Kyle sensed that this typical. In the front Ethan passed a pack of cigarettes to Dylan.
"I'm glad you're coming," Tweek said under his breath. "I'll buy you pancakes or something, you know? It'll be good."
"It's fine." Kyle knew better than to bring up the movies. He didn't think he could take Tweek's inevitable, 'oh, you didn't think I was serious did you? I was stoned.' He just wanted someone to want to be around him.
Stan twisted around in the seat in front of them, making Georgie lean away from him as he stared down at his phone. "It's cool your dad lets us play in the café Stan said over the music.
"Yeah, he thinks he's this big patron to the arts or something. I guess it's true in some way."
"Remember that time he had us make that ad?" Stan laughed, looking quickly over at Kyle.
Tweek grinned. "Not much has changed."
Stan turned back around. Kyle stared at the back of his neck for the remainder of the drive, hoping he felt it and didn't know what to do about it.
The diner was virtually abandoned. A waitress rolled her eyes, as they sat at what Kyle could assume was their typical booth. She didn't bother with menus, but looked hopefully at him and Tweek as she pulled out her pad.
"Tea and banana pancakes?" Tweek asked hopefully. Kyle ordered a cherry coke, and the waitress didn't bother asking the rest of them before she wandered away.
They all continued to sit in silence for a few minutes, with Tweek tapping his fingers on the table.
"So how long have you guys been in a band?" Tweek asked.
"It feels like too long," Ethan said. "We should be marginally more successful by now so we could feel disgusted with the self-worth we gained from it."
"We have a heavy online following," Stan explained. "We sell t-shirts to help pay the rent."
"I work at a hole-in-the-wall record store outside of Denver. We sell our album there too," Ethan said. He pushed a creamer container into the formation of the tower he was building out of them.
"My dad would probably let you guys sell them at the café Tweek offered. Kyle sipped his coke, and cringed when he sucked a glob of pure cherry flavoring. He wondered what the appeal of the diner was at all, and looked down at his phone.
Cartman was calling.
He pushed his way out of the booth and headed towards the door.
"Hey," he said quickly.
"Where are you?" Cartman sounded strange, and Kyle looked in all directions of the empty parking lot for the SUV that wasn't there.
"'Ey! Answer the goddamn question."
"Why? I'm at the café. Where are you?" The lie sat heavy on his tongue. He knew Cartman wouldn't like the real answer, but lying seemed like one of those character traits that people openly despised.
"One day," Cartman laughed into the phone, his mouth too close to the receiver so his loud intakes of breaths hurt Kyle's ears. "Not even one day and you're cheating on me. And do you know why Kahl? Because you're a slut for Stan's dick and you always have been. Did you think I didn't know?"
"What are you talking about!" He paced back and forth on the cement of the parking lot. "I'm at work." If he could say it three times it might become the truth.
"If you're really at the café, you'll be able to walk here in fifteen minutes. So I'll wait that long. I want to apologize to you babe, about earlier." Kyle felt elated and crushed at the same time. Of course Cartman was understanding enough of human nature to forgive him. To tolerate him. Of course Kyle couldn't go five seconds without fucking it up.
"But—I have to finish closing. I can't just leave."
"I guess I see how important I am to you."
Kyle's ribcage turned into a vice and squeezed his lungs and heart together. He could fix this. He could do it right this time.
"I'm so glad you called," he said, trying to buy time.
"Then do what I say."
"Fine. I'll be there!" Kyle said, shoving his phone in his pocket, and running back into the diner to grab his coat. It'd be too suspicious for him to get home without it. The only way to get home would be to run; even then he wasn't sure if he'd get there in time, but he had to try. He would do whatever Cartman told him if it meant not feeling like this.
"Where are you going?" Tweek looked up at him as he shoved his arms through the sleeves. He didn't have time to respond as he continued back towards the door. Understanding appeared on Tweek's face. "Kyle no," he said, following him out of the diner.
"I have to go, he's waiting," Kyle yelled over his shoulder, sprinting across the parking lot.
He didn't realize that Tweek was chasing him until the blonde grabbed his arm. "No! You're not doing this again!"
"Let me go!" Kyle yanked hard against Tweek's grasp. "What do you care?"
"He's going to hurt you Kyle! Jesus Fuck!" Tweek yelled, sounding like his 4th grade self. Tweek wasn't any bigger than Kyle, but he desperately clung to him making it impossible for him to get away, and certainly impossible to make it to Cartman on time.
Kyle shoved Tweek hard in the chest with his free hand, sending them both tripping over one another's feet.
"What's going on?!" Stan asked, panting from running after them.
"GET OFF OF ME!" Kyle yelled at Tweek as he against shoved the blonde again. "You don't understand!"
Stan hulled Kyle away from Tweek, looking baffled as his hands fought to control Kyle's thrashing arms. Tweek shook his head, "I know how this ends; you coming into the café tomorrow wincing when you have to lift up the coffee canisters."
"Fuck you Stan!" Kyle said ignoring Tweek, as Stan held the redhead in a tight grip, seemingly realizing the importance of doing so.
"Don't let him go!"
Stan tightened his grip on Kyle, listening to Tweek because he seemed saner out of the two of them. Stan was taller and broader than Kyle, and unlike his struggle against Tweek, he couldn't free himself to shove Stan away.
"You are both," Kyle said between breaths, "ignorant assholes." They were ruining everything.
"What's going on?!" Stan's voice was loud against Kyle's ear.
"I can't explain," Tweek said.
"Like hell you can't!" Stan yelled, as Kyle's elbows dug into his ribs.
"Stan I hate you!" Kyle wished he could think of something to better articulate the pain that Stan had and was causing him. The year of his life that he'd never get back.
"I saw what he did after the Fourth of July," Tweek said, as Kyle stopped struggling in Stan's arms to stare at Tweek. "He came to the café drunk right before we'd closedâ€¦"
"I know what happened!" Kyle yelled, staring down at Stan's boots between his own Chuck Taylors.
"He wanted, fuck—he wanted you toâ€¦" Tweek stopped and drug his hands through his hair, looking at Stan.
"It's not like that anymore!"
"How'd you get those bruises on your neck and your face?" Tweek asked, looking searchingly at him. Kyle could feel Stan's chest rise and fall quickly as the taller teen held him close. He wished everyone would stop acting like he trying to run out into traffic.
"Who?" Stan asked slowly, like he already knew and dreaded the answer.
"Cartman," Tweek said. "Fucking Cartman." Like Tweek knew anything about it. Kyle stared at the blacktop under his feet. He felt like he was on some after-school special. Newly introduced so the main characters could look empathetic without having a messy follow-up or lead-in.
"He hurt you?" Stan yelled, shifting Kyle in his arms, eyes narrowing on the reddish purple bruises poking over the top of Kyle's hoodie. "He choked you?" he said, somehow louder. He kept a hold on him, regardless of the fact that Kyle had stopped struggling.
"Please dude," Tweek said. "You can't go home tonight." Kyle tried to not lock eyes with Stan and stared over his shoulder where he could see the rest of the goths staring out the window at them. They obviously thought it best to let Stan and Tweek handle it. Kyle was glad his could always count on the tact of the goths, if nothing else.
"I'll kill him," Stan said, letting Kyle go. "Where is he? At your house?"
Kyle just stared back at him, trying not to be scared of the way Stan's fingers were in fists at his sides. He couldn't answer. He didn't have the script. He just knew that he wasn't the one who got to make decisions about his life again. It was almost comforting.
"Is he at your house?!" Stan yelled again. Kyle felt sick at the way Stan seemed so much taller now than before. When he stuffed his hand in his coat pocket Kyle flinched back.
A disgusted look passed over Stan's face. "Fuck," he mumbled under his breath, continuing to tug the cigarettes slowly from his pocket. He looked forcibly calmer when he lit the cigarette, cupping his hand against the wind.
"Just spend the night at my house," Tweek said after a long pause.
"And what? Have your parents call my mom when they see my face?" He was tired of them assuming they had all the answers. That all he needed was a quick pat on the back and a few words of wisdom and he'd be back on the right track again.
"Kyle! It doesn't matter! Your mom will see them anyway—it looks like you were hit in the face with a shovel!" Tweek said, grabbing distractedly at a clump of his blonde hair.
"I'll sneak in." Kyle didn't venture further to explain that he had ways of hiding bruises like this from his parents.
Stan waved a hand at Tweek, "No," he said, only comparatively calm. "Kyle can come back with me. No one will be there." Kyle frowned. It was clearly a play at being the good guy. All he had to do was agree and Tweek would let them go. Stan wouldn't want Kyle actually hanging around him. He would be late, but maybe Cartman could be convinced not to care.
"If it means that you won't go to my house," Kyle said, not looking at Stan, "then fine." They looked cautiously optimistic. Kyle wanted to laugh in their faces.
"Good," Tweek said, giving Stan a pointed look, "we'll go to Stan's."
"No Tweek, why don't you go back in the diner and make up some explanation for everyone." Stan was doing the work for Kyle. He must have had the same idea. He almost felt a new kinship with Stan.
Tweek looked unsure for a minute before agreeing. "Are you sure?" he mumbled.
"Yeah. Kyle and I will go back to my apartment," Stan blew a cloud of smoke over his shoulder. "Because neither of us should be around Cartman right now."
"Call me, if you change your mind about coming over, Kyle," Tweek said, but Kyle wouldn't look at him. When he finally turned Kyle looked up and watched Tweek's blonde head disappear into the smudged glass doors of the diner.
"This way," Stan said softly. They walked across the empty lot to where it met the sidewalk.
"I can take it from here," Kyle said once they'd turned a corner. "You are relieved from duty."
"Dude, what? We're going to my place. You said."
"Tweek's gone. You don't have to pretend to be concerned anymore. You and Tweek can still be chummy tomorrow at work and I can go about my night." He tried to make it sound like he wasn't going to get the shit beat out of him like Tweek implied. And he wouldn't, not twice in the same day. But he didn't know how to explain that to Stan without blowing everything out of proportion. He knew he would make it sound terrible and Stan would be overcome with some sort of Good Samaritan impulse, even if he wasn't emotionally invested.
"That's not what's happening. You're coming back to my place."
Why did everyone have to insist that they knew what was best for him? It was especially rich coming from Stan.
"Come on. Tweek is really blowing things out of proportion. It's not like that. You have nothing to lose here. We'll pretend I went with you and everyone's happy." Kyle wished he wore a watch. Pulling his cellphone out of his pocket and checking the time was surely too obvious and likely to make things worse.
"Kyle, I don't care. I don't care how misunderstood you think Cartman is or whatever shit you must tell yourself. Just shut up about it. You aren't going home, or to his house, or to any where that isn't my apartment." Kyle focused on Stan's coat sleeve. "Alright?" Kyle told himself he wasn't scared of Stan. But when he turned and started walking toward his apartment again, Kyle followed, even though he was pretty sure he could have outrun him.
In the distance Kyle could see cars passing on the road, and he wished he was in one of them. He tried to think of anything to say, about Cartman—not about Cartman. But either way seemed wrong. Stan seemed to be lost in thought anyway, and smoked another cigarette on the two block walk it took them to get to his apartment. Kyle followed him up a flight of steep metal steps onto a porch that seemed to be slanting to the left. He felt like he was in a fun house, and traced the bricks with his fingertips to balance himself.
Stan unlocked a door that Kyle wouldn't have noticed in the night. At first he'd suspected they'd chosen the apartment based on its proximity to the diner, now it seemed it may have been chosen for its dramatic reclusiveness. Kyle could appreciate the sentiment.
"You all live here?" Kyle asked quietly, looking sideways at Stan. Movie posters cluttered the walls. He'd only seen The Crow,—and he barely recognized the titles of the other movies. The frames around the posters were colorfully gaudy and plastic, and he suspected Henrietta had a hand in decorating. There were strings of white lights hanging at different angles from various points of the ceiling. And there was an underlying scent of a candle just being blown out that Kyle thought never went away. It was probably comforting, to know that you impacted your environment that much.
"Just me and Ethan," Stan said tersely. Kyle sat on one of the mismatched overstuffed easy chairs in the room and tried to talk himself out of how badly that hurt. He told himself it was only because of him and Cartman breaking up. Stan was staring at him, so he looked down at the rugs on the floor. Stan paced around the room once, like he'd forgotten the layout, and then turned abruptly and sat in the mauve chair opposite of Kyle.
"So you got this place after graduation?" He knew it was best to keep asking questions when someone was upset.
"Kinda," Stan said, his leg bouncing up and down against chair.
"Why?" Kyle asked. He wanted to be uninterested in Stan's answers. To be completely unaffected by everything that was remotely connected with Stan. But it had always been so hard.
"It just worked out that way." Stan wasn't playing the game right. He was supposed to be absorbed in talking about himself the way that everyone else was.
"It's really cool. And thanks for letting me stay here, that's cool of you." Kyle wanted to stop saying cool so much, It was too obvious of a lie. Too obvious he was just talking to fill up the space.
"I can't do this. I can't listen to you talk to me like I'm about to lose my temper and hit you or something." Stan stood again to pace back and forth through the room. "I can't believe he's done this to you."
Kyle felt as if he was waking up from a bad dream. As if this musician Stan had reverted into a tough little fourth grader ready to punch Cartman for taking one of Kyle's French fries during lunch. Stan's blue eyes were livid as he searched for his car keys.
"Is he still waiting for you? I'll go instead."
Kyle opened and shut his mouth, "I don't know if he's there anymore." At one time he would have loved this, now it made him want to puke.
"I don't care. I'll find him. Stay here."
Kyle realized Stan had never taken off his jacket. "No," Kyle jumped up. "Please!" He wished he could revert to his fourth grade self too. He was better then. He would have never let this happen to him.
"Don't expect me to do nothing!"
Kyle grabbed Stan around the torso, "Please, Stan. Please just stay here with me," his voice was higher as he pleaded. Stan felt warm and sturdy under Kyle's arms, and he wanted to keep holding onto him. He shut his eyes and squeezed a little harder. Nothing was ever fair.
"And what? What happens tomorrow? What happens Monday?"
"Please! It's fine! I won't talk to him tomorrow! I'll stay here!" Kyle looked up him in a way that he hoped was convincing. He looked at him in the same way he'd looked at Cartman a year ago when he could still hope to convince Cartman of anything.
Stan just shook his head and opened the door. "I have to."
"Fine!" Kyle yelled after him, "it won't matter!" He slammed the door to the apartment. From a bedroom window down the hall he could see Stan's green Corolla pull away from the curb. He considered going after him, but there wasn't any more fight left in him. It wasn't lost on him that this was exactly the sort of scene he'd imagined playing out when he and Cartman had first started dating. Mainly it had involved Cartman kissing him under the bleachers during one of Stan's football games. And Stan running between them leading to a dramatic confrontation. But that was before Stan had quit football. And that was before Cartman had ever hit him. It'd been his goal, if anything, to make that scene a reality. But now he could see it for what it was: the bored daydream of an 11th grader during a biology lecture.