Kyle hated opening this early, especially because he'd been staying out late. Stumbling into his dark house at 2 A.M. almost made him feel like a normal teenager. Well, a normal teenager as they were portrayed in movies, he supposed. Two nights ago he and Stan had watched the shitty Tim Burton version of Batman while finishing off the expensive micro-brewed beer Henrietta had sent from Portland. Kyle couldn't tell a difference, but it had made him feel relaxed enough to laugh along with Stan at the cheap special effects. He'd almost considered spending the night until Ethan had gotten home and wanted to talk about the pile of used Siouxsie and the Banshees albums he'd spent half of his paycheck on. Kyle had felt particularly resigned the next morning. But Stan had rang the doorbell carrying an armful of carnations.
"For Kenny's grave, dude," he had explained. "Let's go."
"Have you talked to Cartman?" Tweek asked as he wrote the morning specials on the chalkboard behind the register.
"He broke up with me," Kyle said. "This is what he wants—to be apart." It was convincing because it wasn't a lie. Sometimes it was easier to just not answer the question that was being asked. He knew that if he tried to explain to Tweek that Cartman was just scared and lashing out because of things changing so much, Tweek wouldn't believe that Cartman was capable of those emotions. It was easier, Kyle supposed, for Tweek to demonize Cartman and not believe he had depth than to seriously consider that he didn't have all of the answers. But every day that he spent with Stan made Cartman seem farther away.
"And you've been busy, right? You and Stan have been hanging out all the time."
"Not all the time," Kyle said quickly. "But yeah, we watched a movie the other night." Kyle was hesitant to put too much into his revived friendship with Stan. It was too fragile. Too scared of a repeat.
"And you're hanging out tonight—I heard you guys talking yesterday."
"We're friends—like you and me." Kyle didn't know what sort of friends he and Tweek were either. Tweek looked pleased enough at the mention. Kyle was more than looking forward to spending tonight with Stan. They were going UFO hunting. It was something they'd done together when they were younger. But now it felt like an excuse to walk around the park at night together. Or he hoped it was.
"I thought you might have been pissed at me after what happened. I wouldn't have blamed you," Tweek said as he stirred honey into a mug of tea he'd made for himself.
"No, it was stupid. You can't just run after someone when they've broken up with you." Calling the next day worked just as well anyway. Cartman had still been in town and willing to be talked around. Kyle rubbed at his arm where he knew finger-shaped bruises were hiding below his long-sleeved t-shirt.
Tweek looked over at him, his eyes lingering to side of Kyle's face. "Right. And he hit you." Kyle was sure most of the bruise had faded over the past couple days to a point that it was undetectable. Not that anyone had said anything other than an old lady who came in to order baked oatmeal and a black coffee every morning. She'd told him to be more careful. Which he supposed was fair, looking back on it now—though he'd felt annoyed at the moment.
"I liked you better when you were offering me drugs and complaining about your dad." As soon as he'd said it, he regretted it. Tweek pinched his eyes closed for second before shaking his head.
"Jesus Christ, I just think we have to look out for each other."
"I know," he said quickly. "Sorry, I'm an asshole." Cartman was always quick to point out that after Stan left him junior year, all of the friends Kyle thought were his, really had been Stan's. They'd faded into the background, and it was comments like the one he'd just made to Tweek that made him see why; he was a bad person most of the time. Stan was a good person most of the time. It evened them out to make a functioning human being. But without Stan, Kyle was just bad.
"It's fine," Tweek said, but he still looked hurt.
"No, dude, you've been a good friend. Everything is just really shitty right now. Including me." Kyle realized it was true as he said it. The part about Tweek being a good friend. Or at least, a friend at all. He wondered where all of the mental clarity was coming from.
"I think it's going to get better. Anyway, didn't you say you just got an awesome grade on your lit analysis paper?"
"School is something I've always been good at." Kyle wondered if he was allowed to feel like he'd achieved something or if aptitude canceled it out.
"Worrying is something I've always been good at."
"Ugh," Kyle motioned towards the door. "Worry about the Christian book group pressing against the door already."
Tweek frowned and grabbed the keys to unlock the café.
Stan's shift started in mid-afternoon, relieving Kyle. But he spent the rest of his day in the café anyway in the back corner, reading Carl Jung for his Intro to Psych course. He sipped distractedly at the mocha Stan had brought him a half hour ago. Stan had been sitting with him asking about the collective unconscious but he and Dougie had had a steady stream of customers until they'd started closing. Kyle had offered to help to make it go faster, but Stan had insisted that he still needed practice.
"We're good," Stan called reemerging from the back with Kyle's coat.
"Not bad," Kyle said, glancing at the clock, "but Tweek and I could have done it in fifteen."
"Coffee-addled Tweek and I would have it closed in ten."
"Ah well I was just slowing Dougie down, but still better than last week," Stan said, as Kyle slipped his books and laptop into his bag. Dougie glanced up at mention of his name and frowned in what seemed like agreement
"Bye guys," he said, walking to the car waiting outside. His mom waved at them from the driver's seat as Dougie stared stoically ahead.
"That kid's a little high strung." Stan took off his hat to run a hand through his hair.
"I think it's a symptom of working with me and Tweek so long."
"Should we make drinks for the walk? It's pretty cold out."
"The walk, don't you mean the hunt?"
"Well obviously, but you never know when they're listening in."
Their banter was so easy. Kyle didn't have to vet everything that came out of his mouth to make sure he wasn't saying anything that could be interpreted the wrong way. He hadn't felt this relaxed in years, he was sure. He shot Stan a look before walking behind the coffee bar and looking over the drink list carefully, as if an option might appear that would identify itself as perfect for this situation.
Stan nodded, pursing his lips in mock seriousness. "I think that whipped cream is known for warding off anal probes."
"This one's yours," Kyle said, rolling his eyes.
Stan stared down at the drink he'd been handed. "Is it necessary that the whipped cream be coming through the hole in the lid?"
"I'm an especially protective friend," Kyle said, following Stan to his car, clutching his own hot chocolate.
They'd already finished half of their drinks by the time they got to the park. Kyle licked the chocolate from the cold corners of his lips as they decided the best course of action.
"We should look for unusual star patterns," Stan said, sounding more serious than they both knew he was. "It'll be easier to see out here, away from the lights of town." He pulled two pairs of binoculars from the back seat.
Kyle looked through the lenses at Stan. "What would you do if we actually saw an alien?"
"Ask them to take me to their leader," Stan said, as they got out of the car. The cold stung Kyle's cheeks, as he followed Stan onto the cement path that lead into the park. "See if they had any advice."
"They'd probably start by telling you that your jeans are too tight."
Stan just laughed. "Nah, all aliens are punk rockers. Or else why wouldn't they conform to society and get jobs like the rest of us?"
"I knew it! I knew you'd say the word conformist sooner or later!"
"It's just a word," Stan said, as he brought the binoculars to his eyes. "There's a bench over there, I think it's a perfect base for our investigation."
Something about the tone in Stan's voice made Kyle drop the subject.
They sat on the bench, staring at the sky. Kyle wondered if he'd insulted Stan. But he seemed fine, sipping his hot chocolate, slouched against the cold wood. Still, when he began talking again, he was quieter.
"We should have done this before." Kyle didn't have the courage to look at Stan as he said it. He didn't need to elaborate on what before meant. But it felt strange referencing their half lived relationship now.
"I don't know," Stan said, "what you do blurs over what you did—or didn't do before."
"Then what's the point of anything?" Kyle asked.
Stan looked down at his binoculars, twisting the scope with his thumb. For a few minutes he didn't say anything but Kyle could tell that he was going to, that he was about to. He sighed and set him binoculars on the bench as if declaring that court was in order. "Two years ago Ethan sat across from me in the diner and told me that he once held his palm over the flame of a candle until it was burning his skin. And someone who was watching said, What's the trick?And Ethan said, not minding. He told me that life was a lot like that. Just accepting that it was going to hurt you and trying not to care." Stan looked out across the park, where patches of snow were still frozen in the dead grass. "And for a long time I believed that."
"What changed your mind?"
Stan looked over at Kyle for a moment. "It just didn't seem true anymore, I guess."
Kyle drank the rest of his hot chocolate. It was cold now. And he wished he had finished it sooner.He looked down at the names people had written on the bench with a sharpie. He wondered when everyone got so lazy with their vandalism that a sharpie seemed substantial enough. People used to carve things like that with pocketknives or sticks, or maybe if they were desperate—their fingernails.
"It's good that we're hanging out, someone's got to patrol South Park for extraterrestrial life," Stan said, picking his binoculars back off the bench.
Kyle felt like the moment had closed before it could come to any real conclusion. Then he remembered that they were supposed to be playing a part and stared through his binoculars at what he was sure was an airplane.
"There's a weird blinking light over there," he said, pointing it out across the sky. "It could be the mothership."
It was past midnight when they got back to the car. "I guess we suck as UFO hunters," Kyle said.
"Nah, we scared them away."
Kyle didn't necessarily want Stan to drop him back off at his house. It was always a strange dissonance to be so close to someone, and then walk back into the stillness of his bedroom. Strange being where all of his things laid during the day, fine without him, and still fine now.
But when they pulled into Kyle's driveway all the lights in the house were on. Even inside the car they could hear the incoherent music leaking through the walls of the house. "The fuck?" Kyle mumbled, unbuckling his seat belt and walking into the house. Stan followed close behind. The door was partially open, but no one noticed him come in anyway.
It was mostly ninth and tenth graders from what Kyle could tell. Some were playing Xbox, sitting Indian style in front of the TV. Kyle had to step through them, as they complained, to get to the kitchen, where another group was playing what was probably a drinking game—or had been, before everyone had apparently lost. Now they were draped over their chairs, in seemingly deep conversations they wouldn't remember in the morning. There were bottles of cherry vodka sitting half empty on the counters, and soda cans piled in the sink.
"Ike!" Kyle called over whatever Rihanna song was blasting through the house.
"Hey!" he yelled at the kids sitting at the kitchen table. "Where's Ike?"
Several of them lazily turned their heads in his direction, as if not realizing that he hadn't been there all along.
"Where's Ike?" Kyle said again, pivoting on his heel to see Ike coming down the steps carrying a stack of DVDs.
"What the fuck, Ike? Where's Mom and Dad?" Kyle yelled across the room.
Ike's grin disappeared from his face. He handed the DVDs to a group of girls clustered around the sofa before returning to the kitchen. "What does it matter?" Ike said, his eyes too bright as he reached for a plastic cup on the counter.
"You can't just have a party." Kyle was trailing after him.
"Sure I can," Ike said merrily, more to his friends than to Kyle. They laughed, and he returned to his seat at the table. "Whose turn is it?"
"Ike! These kids have to go home!"
"Relax Kyle," Ike said, and was supported by a chorus of "yeah relax Kyles," from his friends.
"Ike! I'm serious! You can't have underage kids drinking in our house! You could get Dad in trouble!"
"Fuck you Kyle, go away. Look, there's Stan. Stan's in that band. Play a song Stan."
"Maybe next time buddy," Stan said, looking worriedly at a kid puking in the trashcan by the fridge.
"Whatever, go away you're not invited. You're too old. You're both old."
In the living room a group of girls turned a Justin Beiber song louder, and Ike and his friends groaned.
"Ike, come on, this is ridiculous."
"Kyle. Go away. You're a fucking loser."
"Ike you're drunk." Kyle looked at Ike's friends and wished he didn't sound so unsure.
Ike rolled his eyes. "Doesn't matter. I don't need to be drunk to think you're a fucking loser. You work at a minimum wage job and live at home without a car or license. Real cool." Ike wouldn't even look at Kyle. It was like he was a joke Ike was making up as he went along for his friend's amusement rather than a real person standing in the room.
Kyle felt himself falter, unsure of what to say as he watched the teens lost in their own world where their youth was a concept that Kyle couldn't understand anymore. He'd once read that nineteen was too old to die young, now he believed it.
"Let's go dude, come on—he's just a kid," Stan said, his hand clamping down on Kyle's shoulder.
"Yeah, go! Go before I call up Eric Cartman. You think I don't know what you let him do," Ike yelled over the music. Kyle tried not to be stunned by the statement as it rang through his head. It seemed too heavy of a sentence to be said over the thudding bass of pop music and video game sound effects.
It wasn't until the cold hit his face that he realized that he and Stan were on the front porch now. Stan fumbled through his pocket for a cigarette and lit it in his cuffed hand.
"What should I do?" Kyle asked. All of his energy was drained. He felt like he was talking too loud, his ears still adjusting from being in the all the noise.
"Just let it go until tomorrow, or until forever," Stan said. "Come back and stay at my place."
Kyle nodded and they got back into the car. He wondered exactly what Ike had meant about Cartman, how much he knew and how long he'd known it.
"What should I do?" he repeated, not meaning to say it again.
"Nothing," Stan said, "they're all jock cheerleader conformists."
Stan was trying to look serious and suppress a smile while failing at both. Kyle laughed and punched his arm. "Shut up."
Stan grinned and turned up the volume for the CD that was in claiming he needed to clear his brain. Joy Division jangled over the speakers and Kyle was almost sure he felt better by the time they made it to the second stop light.
"Were we ever that lame?" Stan asked, tapping his cigarette out the window.
"Probably not," Kyle said, "we were and are infinitely cool."
They got out of the car and Kyle followed Stan up the steps to his apartment.
"What do you want to do? Drink cherry vodka and play Xbox or did you have something else in mind" He asked, throwing his keys in the chair by the door.
"Play me a song Stan," Kyle said in the same whiney demanding voice Ike had used. He shifted into the overstuffed chair and watched Stan check in Ethan's room to see if he was home. He shrugged.
"Okay," Stan said. He grabbed his guitar from his room. He propped it against his knee as after he sat on the sofa. "But only if you sing."
"Not happening," Kyle said, folding his arms over his chest. Stan looked like he wanted to argue, but started playing anyway.
"Do you know it?" Stan asked, looking in concentration as his fingers moved across the strings.
"Is it some faggy Bob Dylan song?" Kyle laid his head back against the chair.
"More or less." Stan continued to play. Kyle stared at Stan's hands moving over the strings.
"Are you tired?" Stan asked, stopping a song that Kyle hadn't realized he'd started. "You can sleep in my bed," Stan said. "I'll sleep in Ethan's. He'll probably be gone all night."
"I'd rather just sleep on the sofa. It's comfy." Kyle didn't like the idea of Stan in Ethan's bed under any circumstance.
"Are you sure?"
Kyle nodded, his eyes slitting closed again. "Yeah," he yawned. "But keep playing for now."
The next morning he was sipping a Chamomile tea latte Tweek had made him as he walked home from his shift at the café. Ike would still be in school, and his parents were still vacationing in New York at his aunt's house, which meant an afternoon sprawled across the living room catching up on his online classes. But Cartman's SUV idling in his driveway dissolved those plans. He was supposed to be at school still.
"Where's Stan?" Cartman yelled across the driveway. "I heard you've been hanging out." Kyle didn't know what kind of recon Cartman had in town, but he figured he was probably better off not knowing.
"He has a boyfriend," Kyle said tersely as Cartman grabbed his arm, leading them both to the doorway of the house. Kyle fumbled with his keys, trying to let them both in before someone saw them together.
"Does he," Cartman said into his ear.
"I guess so. It doesn't matter, he just wants to be friends again."
"Why? Why now?"
"Because we work together." Kyle was still under Cartman's touch.
Cartman let him go and began to pace around the living room. "So. Emo Stan was depressed because Kenny died. At some point he got better again and never contacted you. Never reached back out. And now, because you happen to work together, he's willing, so generously willing to acknowledge you. To pretend like he's some friend to you. How special." Kyle thought about them sprawled out on Stan's couch. Cartman was right, though. Why now?
"You don't know everything!"
"I don't need to! Remember how I was there when all of Stan's friends fucked off. I'll be there when Stan does it again. Because you're my little monster Kyle. And my hate for you makes me hard and it always will."
Kyle looked up at Cartman. He remembered. Months had gone by where Cartman was the only person besides his mom and teachers he would talk to. Cartman was always right, that was the problem.
"I know you feel it babe," Cartman said, tilting Kyle's chin up. "Do you know what that hippie did to me? I should give you a demonstration," Cartman said, his hands bunching the fabric of Kyle's shirt in his fists.
"Please, let's go to the mall, I'll buy you that football jersey you wanted" Kyle said weakly, but Cartman was smiling down at him like he didn't hear. He leaned in and kissed him hard on the lips. Kyle tried to pull back, but Cartman's hands kept his head in place, forcing his tongue between Kyle's lips until he gasped for air against Cartman's mouth.
"Kyle?" his mom called from the doorway, "Oh hello Eric," she said, shifting a suitcase in her hands. Cartman rushed to her side to grab the suitcase from her.
"Good Afternoon Mrs. Broflovski, Mr. Broflovski," he said.
"Oh thank you Eric, you're such a gentleman," Shelia said, unzipping her coat and hanging it by the door.
"I'm sorry I didn't call first but my schedule is so unpredictable with my football practices and scholarship obligations." Cartman swung a careless arm around Kyle's shoulders. His fingertips digging into the socket. Kyle moved his arm out to relieve the tension. Something he would never have done in the past.
"I'm always glad to see you two boys together," she said. "You're such a good example on my Kyle." Kyle caught himself before he laughed. He looked at the ground. He didn't want this anymore. He didn't deserve it.
"We were just heading out for dinner," Cartman retrieved Kyle's coat and held it out for him to put his arms through. "My treat," he winked. Kyle watched his mom clap her hands together in excitement.
"How thoughtful!" Shelia said as Gerald brought in the rest of the bags.
Kyle smiled thinly at his parents and followed Cartman out the door.
"I missed you," Cartman said innocently, squeezing Kyle's hand as they walked to the car. Kyle hadn't. And he wondered if having a buffer against Stan's fleeting interest was worth it.