Stan stares miserably out the window during the whole drive to Jimbo's house, and Shelly does the same on the opposite side of the back seat, doing the angry-breathing thing that used to scare Stan. Now it only sets him slightly on edge. It's been a while since she beat him savagely.
"Jimbo's real excited to have you guys for New Year's Eve," Randy calls into the backseat, doing his guilt-laced, loud-talking thing. "He told Mom that he's cooking lobsters for you kids."
"Gross," Stan says, still staring out the window.
"Lobsters are the insects of the sea," Shelly says. "They're bottom feeders."
"Well, I don't know about that," Randy says. He still sounds chipper and is clearly unconcerned about marooning his children with their weirdo uncle and his creepy manservant for a whole weekend while he and Sharon go to Denver to get drunk in a hotel room or something. "He'll have fireworks for sure!" Randy says. "Stan, huh? Fireworks, that'll be cool."
"Fireworks are dumb," Stan says, though he doesn't really feel that way.
"Stan," Sharon says. "Don't be grumpy. It's been a long time since you kids spent some quality time with-- this part of the family."
"I could be at Kyle's! He said I could stay all weekend."
"Well, Shelly didn't have anywhere to go," Randy says.
"Thanks, Dad," she says, glaring at him. "I could have stayed by myself, Jesus. I'm fourteen years old!"
"Yeah, we could have stayed at the house! Shelly could have babysat for me."
Stan wouldn't have been so enthusiastic about this a couple of years ago, but lately his sister is just morose and closed up in her room with her dumb music and dumb internet browsing and the occasional sobbing that he can hear through the wall.
"There's no reason to continue debating this," Sharon says. "Stan, you need someone to interview for your project, anyway."
"Ugh," Stan says, kicking his bookbag, which is on the floor under his seat. Before holiday break, all the fourth graders were given an assignment that would be due when they returned in January: interview a family member and write an article about their life story. Eight-hundred words minimum, plus they have to turn in the recorded interview audio. Parents and siblings are not allowed. Kyle finished his weeks ago, interviewing one of his New York aunts over the phone. Stan wishes he could do Jimbo's interview via phone, but Jimbo probably doesn't even have a phone up in his generator-powered mountain shack. Stan hasn't been up there since the whole thing with the volcano and the talking leg man.
When they reach the top of the steep dirt and gravel driveway that leads to Jimbo's cabin, Stan is surprised to see it looking a lot nicer than he remembers. It's frosted with glittering snow, light spilling from the windows and smoke puffing from the stone chimney. Maybe Jimbo has made recent improvements, or just cleaned up a little for their visit. Guilt wells up in Stan's chest as he considers that what his parents have been saying might not just be some bullshit excuse to dump them here for the weekend while they go party: maybe Jimbo really has missed spending time with him and Shelly.
"Hey!" Jimbo says, coming from around back of the cabin when he hears their car doors closing. He's wearing his usual uniform of hunting jacket, sagging camo pants and a puffy ballcap that covers his baldness. "You made it!" he says, beaming. He's carrying what looks to be a dead raccoon. Stan feels light-headed when he realizes that's exactly what it is, swinging in his uncle's hand as he approaches the family car.
"What happened to that raccoon?" Stan asks.
"Huh? Oh, him!" Jimbo lifts the raccoon. Stan wants to hit him for holding the poor, dead animal like that, by its tail. "He wandered into one of my traps," Jimbo said.
"You're trapping raccoon?" Randy says, the disbelief in his voice suggesting that he might finally be rethinking his decision to leave his defenseless children with this man.
"Not for food," Jimbo says. "I got traps around my chicken coop to keep guys like him out. They're not meant to kill, but sometimes they freeze in the trap overnight."
“He doesn't look frozen,” Stan says, hatefully. He knows Jimbo likes killing innocent animals for fun.
“Well, I thawed him out,” Jimbo says. “Thought I might make a nice cap out of him for you!”
“For me?” Stan boggles at him. “No way, dude! That's sick.”
“Stan,” Sharon says, scolding. “It was a nice thought, Jimbo, but Stanley doesn't believe in wearing fur.”
“Doesn't believe?” Jimbo glances at the raccoon in confusion. “Oh well!” he says. “Ya'll come on in, it's cold out here.”
“We were just going to leave the kids and head back down,” Randy says, already backing toward the car. “We've got a dinner reservation in Denver at seven.”
“Oh, fancy. Well, kids, follow me. Sharon, Randy, you two have fun, and don't worry about these guys. We're gonna have a great time here!”
“You'll be fine,” Sharon says, under her breath, when Stan gives her a pleading look. She kisses his forehead and follows Randy to the car.
“C'mon, now,” Jimbo calls when Shelly and Stan just stand there holding their bags. Stan looks over at his sister, who hasn't spoken since they got out of the car. She sighs and heads toward the cabin. Stan follows glumly, fearing that there will be more dead animals inside. He doesn't appreciate the fact that Jimbo tosses the dead raccoon onto the porch before entering, as if it's an old pair of shoes.
The inside of the cabin looks nicer than Stan remembers, too. It's not just one room with a dirt floor, which it had somehow become in his memories. The floor is wood, the main living area is warm, and the whole place smells like cedar and cinnamon. There are two bedrooms and only one bathroom, but it's clean and has running water. Stan remembers the large stone fireplace, and there's a fire roaring in it now, heating the den and adjacent open kitchen. Ned is at the kitchen counter, slicing up potatoes.
“Hello, children,” he says when he looks up, robotic as usual. “Welcome.”
“Ned's making scalloped potatoes,” Jimbo says, beaming as if this is some kind of miraculous occurrence. “I got a real treat for us, for our big New Year's Eve feast tonight. Surf and turf – steaks and lobsters!”
“Venison steaks?” Shelly asks. Jimbo is always bringing them over to the house. The Marsh family freezer is full of them; sometimes Stan's mom gives them to Kenny.
“Nah,” Jimbo says. “Beef steaks, and good ones. Got them from my buddy's ranch. You guys know Carl, down at the foot of the mountain?”
“Yeah,” Stan says. “We have to go to that ranch on field trips, like. All the time.” It's miserably boring and also depressing.
“Well, that's great, they're showing you how real folk who live off the land, uh. Live.” Jimbo glances over at Ned, who is still slicing potatoes. “Let's see, um. How about you guys set your things down in the guest room there, and I'll make us all some hot cider. That sound okay?”
“Yeah,” Stan says when Shelly wordlessly heads away with her bag. “Um, don't you need to wash your hands?” Stan asks. He feels prissy saying so, he's like Kyle or something, but the guy was holding a dead raccoon.
“What – oh, sure,” Jimbo says, laughing a little. “Good call, Stanley.”
Stan walks into the guest room, dismayed to remember that he'll have to share a bedroom with Shelly for two nights. She's hunched over on one of the room's twin beds, looking at her phone.
“Fuck,” she says. “I can't get service.”
“What – oh, shit, no.” Stan's one hope for salvaging the weekend had been the idea that he could at least text Kyle constantly about how shitty and boring things were. He groans when he sees that his phone has no signal either. “I hate the stupid mountains,” he says. “God, what are we supposed to do? Do they not even have TV?”
“I saw one out in the den. I think they have satellite or something. I know Dad watches Broncos games with them up here sometimes.” Shelly groans and tosses her phone onto the bed. “This sucks.”
“Yeah,” Stan says, but he feels bad, because when he peeks back out into the cabin he can see Jimbo humming to himself as he puts cinnamon sticks in four glasses of hot cider. It's like this whole stupid thing is important to him or something. “We should be nice,” Stan says, though he knows his sister doesn't give a shit what he thinks they should do.
“You're the one telling that big doofus not to make a raccoon hat for you,” Shelly says.
“Well, god, I couldn't help it! He tried to make me shoot a bunny, once.”
Shelly rolls her eyes. “You're such a pussy,” she says, standing.
“Fuck you, only psychos want to shoot bunnies!”
“Then that guy out there with his surf 'n turf is a psycho.” Shelly shoves Stan's shoulder as she walks past him, but not hard enough to actually knock him over. “C'mon,” she says, mumbling. “Don't make me go out there alone.”
Stan follows her back out and accepts a glass of cider from Jimbo. It's hot; he burns his tongue on it, and the cinnamon stick bumps his nose.
“Ned, you want a little whiskey in yours?” Jimbo asks as he tips some into his own glass.
“Mhm, sure,” Ned says, still concentrating on his potatoes.
“You guys drink whiskey yet?” Jimbo asks, grinning at Stan and Shelly. He's probably joking; Stan laughs uncomfortably. Yes, he does, sometimes.
“I'll take some,” Shelly says.
“Well,” Jimbo says, hesitating with the open bottle. “Nah, I'd better not. Your mom would have my hide if she found out.”
“Who's gonna tell her?” Shelly asks. Jimbo laughs and pours a tiny amount of whiskey into Shelly's cider when she holds it out.
“You're definitely too young, mister,” Jimbo says, holding his finger up when Stan looks at him. Stan fakes another laugh.
“I have to do this school project,” he blurts while everyone else sips their whiskey-laced cider. “Maybe my mom told you?”
“Oh, yeah, Sharon mentioned that.” Jimbo pulls out a chair at the kitchen table, which looks like something he might have made himself, lacquered tree bark preserved on the rough edges. “Ya'll have a seat. What do you need for your project?”
“I have to interview you,” Stan says. He takes the seat beside Jimbo's and pulls out his phone. “And I've got to record it, and then write a report.”
“Wow!” Jimbo says. “Neat. Why me?”
“It has to be a relative, but it can't be my parents or Shelly. And Grandpa said 'hell no.'”
“Ha! Yeah, that sounds like old Marvin. He's a good guy, though. He just doesn't like bullshit. Not that your report is bullshit!” Jimbo says, holding up his hands. “It's important, um, and I'm happy to help!”
“Nah, it's bullshit,” Stan says. “But I have to do it, so. Ready to start, or do you need to cook and stuff?”
“Ned's the chef around here,” Jimbo says, glancing back at him. “He'll handle the cooking. Won't ya, Ned?”
“Yes,” Ned says. Jimbo grins and turns back to Stan.
“Fire away!” he says.
“Okay.” Stan turns on the recorder on his phone and pushes it so that it's halfway between them on the table. “Um,” he says, fidgeting. “State your name?”
“James Barnabas Kern.”
“What's Barnabas?” Stan asks, and he feels dumb when Shelly laughs.
“Ah, it's an old family name. I think he was a saint, the original Barnabas? Or just one of them guys who wrote the Bible, maybe.”
“Didn't God write the Bible?” Stan asks, already afraid this interview is going horribly.
“Well,” Jimbo says. “Sorta.” He clears his throat and drinks from his cider. “Your parents still taking you kids to St. Joseph's?”
“Sometimes,” Shelly says, and Stan wants to tell her not to interrupt the recording, but he doesn't dare. She's almost acting nice, for her. “Usually only on Easter and Christmas and stuff like that,” she says. “But we didn't even go for Christmas this year.”
“Huh,” Jimbo says. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand. What's your next question, Stan?”
“Uh.” He should have written some down before they started, probably. “Who was, like, your dad? I know it wasn't Grandpa Marvin.”
“Well, no, but your grandpa was like a dad to me, really. But yeah, Eugene Barnabas Kern, that was your grandma's first husband, my dad. I don't suppose you remember your grandma very much? My mother?”
“She died when I was really little,” Stan says.
“I remember her,” Shelly says. “She used to give me Andes mints. And Grandpa could still walk. When she was alive, I mean.”
“I think Marvin can still walk, technically,” Jimbo says, twirling the cinnamon stick in his cider. “But, oh, yeah. My mom was big on candy! And all kinds of sweets. As you can see,” he says, patting his somewhat enormous gut. “She was pretty slim herself, though. She was a great mother.” He drinks from his cider, gulping. “My dad, Mr. Kern, not so much, but maybe that's too heavy for a fourth grade paper. Marvin didn't come along until I was a teenager, but he was always real kind to me. What, uh, what else would you like to know?”
“Um. Well, after high school, what did you do?”
“Joined the Army! This was at the tail end of Vietnam, but I was real determined to serve. That's where I met Ned.” Jimbo turns to look at Ned. He's arranging the sliced potatoes into a casserole dish. Stan wonders if everything he does in the kitchen takes fifty percent longer, with him only using one hand.
“Did Ned still have his arm when you first met?” Stan asks.
“Stan!” Shelly says. “Jesus Christ!”
“Naw, that's okay,” Jimbo says. “You okay with that question, Ned?”
“Yes,” Ned says. He takes a drink from his cider and turns toward the table. His tinted glasses make his eyes unreadable, and Stan honestly thought the guy was a robot until he was about six years old. “I still had my arm when I met Jimbo,” Ned says. “And I didn't have this yet,” he says, pointing to his voice box.
“That's right,” Jimbo says. “Man, we both smoked a lot of cigarettes in Nam. Didn't we?” he says, turning in his chair. Ned nods once. “Yeah, that's what I thought.” Jimbo takes his jacket off and hangs it on the back of his chair. His chubby cheeks have gotten pink, and he seems to be sweating a little. “Shoot, though,” he says. “I might not be the best person for this project. My memory's not what it used to be, especially about the war.”
“How come?” Stan asks, and he hears Shelly groan under her breath.
“Well,” Jimbo says, shifting in his seat. “You kids know about electroshock therapy?”
“That's a real thing?” Stan's eyes bug out; he's seen it in movies, where it's always presented as some kind of arcane mental hospital torture. Jimbo nods.
“Aw, it's alright,” he says when he sees Stan's expression. “It helped me, after I got back, ah. I was having some troubles. But it futzes with a guy's memory, so I don't know how much I can really tell you about the war.”
“Oh.” Stan remembers a similar conversation when he'd had to do a report on Vietnam in third grade, and getting in trouble because Jimbo had made up some outlandish story to entertain him. “That's okay,” Stan says. “This is just about you, not Vietnam. We can skip over that part.”
“That's probably best,” Ned says, and he turns back to his casserole dish.
“What did you do after the Army?” Stan asks.
“Well, I came back here, and I was in pretty bad shape. Spent some time doing those treatments, and I needed a hand, um, getting used to regular life again, when they were done. So Ned moved here to be my roommate. We lived in town at first, in that apartment complex near Skeeter's, and I got a job at Tom Young's hunting shop.”
“Is that the shop you own now?”
“Yep, sure is! I'd saved up enough to buy it from Tom when he retired, and now it's mine and Ned's.”
“Cool,” Stan says, and he actually means it. “Did you guys build this house?”
“We did,” Jimbo says, nodding. “Took us a while, working on it here and there and getting help with the plumbing and so forth, but we've been up here full time since-- What is it, Ned? Four years now?”
“Mhm, almost five.”
“Almost five, so there you go. Everything worked out! I'm gonna get me some more cider. Shelly, you need any more?”
“I'm okay,” she says.
“Yeah.” He gives Jimbo his glass and pauses the recording, trying to think of another question. He can't really write about unspecified father trauma, unremembered years spent at war, or that electro shock therapy thing, and there's no way he can stretch Jimbo's story about buying the hunting shop and building the cabin into eight hundred words. He turns the recorder back on when he thinks of a good question, accepting hot cider from Jimbo.
“So,” Stan says. “Who were your girlfriends?”
“My girlfriends?” Jimbo raises his eyebrows. Ned half-turns from the stove, and Shelly slaps her forehead with her hand.
“You can't write about that in a dumb school report,” she says, and she's blushing when Stan glowers at her.
“Why not?” he asks. “It's the one piece of the story that's missing.”
“Oh my god,” Shelly says. “You complete turd.”
“Hey, that's alright,” Jimbo says. “It's a fair question.”
“Yeah,” Stan says, appreciating that. “So, who were they? Did you ever ask any of them to marry you?”
“Well, hmm.” Jimbo takes off his hat, which always makes him look ten years older. He scratches his head and purses his lips. “No, can't say I ever asked anybody to marry me.”
“Who have you dated?” Stan asks, suddenly realizing that he's never met any woman who's ever been even loosely associated with Jimbo. He thinks of Ms. Crabtree, the dead scary bus driver lady. She might have been his type.
“Ha,” Jimbo says, putting the hat back on. “Oh, you know. Ladies from, um. Denver.”
“You go to Denver?” Stan frowns; Jimbo hardly even comes to town, except to work at the hunting shop and bring the Marsh family unwanted venison steaks once a month or so. “When? How come?”
“Just, over the years. Not so much anymore. Say, Ned, you want to start those steaks?”
“Uh-huh,” Ned says. He gets a tray of them from the fridge and takes them out to the back porch. There's a large window over the sink, and Stan can see Ned out there, no coat, firing up the grill. Stan looks back to Jimbo, confused.
“Dad says you're a lifelong bachelor,” Stan says. Jimbo smiles, but he looks kind of sad. Stan feels bad, suddenly realizing why Shelly is yelling at him for asking these questions. Jimbo is fat and weird. Probably no women ever wanted to date him.
“Well, I suppose I'm a bachelor,” Jimbo says. “But I've got Ned for. Company, so. I'm doing alright.”
“He's your best friend,” Stan says, thinking of Kyle. He decides he'd better be kind and redirect the questions away from Jimbo's sad lack of a love life. “Yeah, um, you guys used to have that hunting show?”
They talk about that for a while, and about Jimbo's various hunting philosophies. Stan doesn't like hearing about killing animals, but he listens grimly and mostly without interrupting. He frowns when Ned comes in with the cooked steaks, sets them on the counter and retrieves a pot of lobsters from the fridge. Stan can hear them scraping around inside the pot, and can see the occasional rubber-banded claw poking over the rim.
“Wait,” Stan says when Ned sets the lobster pot on the stove. “Hang on. Why are they alive?” He turns off the recording. Jimbo looks to the stove.
“Oh, the main event!” he says. “Yeah, I got those fresh today. You've got to cook them alive, that's how it's done.”
“Why?” Stan's heart begins to pound. He knows he's being a pussy, but what the fuck?
“That's just-- how you cook lobster, son,” Jimbo says, giving Stan the same look of confusion he had when Stan expressed disbelief at the idea that he might want to wear a dead raccoon on his head.
“Lobsters are over-sized insects, Stan,” Shelly says. “Calm down.”
“I'm gonna go write my report,” Stan says, grabbing his phone and hurrying out of his chair. “Before I forget everything.”
“You have it recorded, dumb ass,” Shelly says.
“Naw, that's a good idea,” Jimbo says, giving Stan what might be a sympathetic look. “You go get that done so you can enjoy the rest of the weekend without worrying about it.”
Stan closes himself in the guest room and digs his notebook out of his bookbag. It's not like he doesn't know he's being a hypocrite, because he eats meat all the time, but it's fucked up to stand there watching anything get killed, even a lobster. Sometimes he even feels a little bad for killing the ants that crawl around the kitchen sink at home, drowning them under the faucet before they know what's coming. They're only trying to do their job, and they seem so panicked when they try to run out of the reach of the water.
He sits on the twin bed that he's claimed for himself and pulls his knees to his chest, holding his pencil and staring at a blank sheet of paper in his notebook. After a few minutes he checks his phone for a signal again, desperate to text even the dumbest nothing comment to Kyle and have him respond with proper capitalization and punctuation like a little nerd. There's still no signal. Stan drops the phone and stares at the paper again, wrinkling his nose.
Dear Kyle, he writes.
This is stupid, and I'm not even going to show it to you because you would make fun of me for it, but I feel like talking to you and I can't so I'm writing you a dumb letter. I did my interview thing with Jimbo and now I feel weird about it. He had some kind of shock thing because I guess he went crazy after the war. What the fuck? And Ned barely talks and that is who he has to spend all his time with. He has never even had a girlfriend. What the fuck!
Stan stops writing when he considers the fact that Kyle has never had a girlfriend. But he's only ten years old, so he probably won't get his feelings hurt by this. He has at least been kissed, twice, and he went on that sort-of date with Nicole earlier in the year.
Anyway I guess I never realized how sad this guy's life is. Like no wonder he wants to kill everything he sees. But then he's kind of nice at the same time. Like how he brings us those dumb steaks. Like he wants to be a part of the family or something. Jesus that is depressing. Have you ever eaten those steaks at our house? They are really dry and my mom doesn't like them. Remember when we went hunting and you guys all made fun of me for being a pussy and not wanting to shoot stuff? Did you make fun of me? I can't remember. Probably. I wish I was at your house right now. I wish I could at least text you. Sometimes I worry I am going to be like Jimbo, like that I will go kind of mental at some point and then somebody will have to show up and be my roommate and wipe my ass for me until I'm normal again. Would you do that for me? I would do it for you, dude. Not that you are going to be the mental one.
Stan wants to burn the stupid letter when he's finished writing it. He tears it out of the notebook and balls it up, hides it at the bottom of his bookbag. He keeps thinking about that whiskey. Jimbo keeps the bottle right on the counter, not even on top of the fridge like Randy does.
There's a knock on the door ten minutes later, when all Stan has written on a fresh piece of paper is JAMES BARNUBUS KERN at the top.
“Yeah?” Stan calls. Jimbo opens the door and pokes his head in.
“Dinner's ready, kiddo,” he says. “The lobsters had a quick death, I promise.”
“I don't care,” Stan says, and then he feels bad for lying to well-meaning Jimbo and on behalf of the lobsters that he did actually care about, sort of. He's still going to eat one, probably, if there is melted butter to dip it in.
“All done with your report?” Jimbo asks when Stan puts his notebook away.
“Yeah,” Stan says, lying again. He'll write it when he gets home. Maybe Kyle can sit next to him and suggest sentences, after listening to the recording. Sometimes Stan feels like he wants to spend his whole life with Kyle next to him, telling him what to say, do, think. It's weird, and Stan stares at Jimbo and Ned when he's seated at the kitchen table, watching the way one of them gets the silverware while the other moves easily around him, reaching for plates. Stan wonders where Ned moved from to come and be Jimbo's forever roommate. He wonders what Kyle is doing, if he's checking his phone and if he's annoyed that he hasn't gotten any New Year's Eve messages from Stan. He's probably smart enough to figure out why. Stan puts his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands, feeling homesick.
“Should we say a prayer?” Jimbo asks when they're all seated at the table, the steaks and lobsters and steaming potato casserole waiting to be grabbed for.
“Do we have to?” Shelly asks. “We never say dinner prayers at home.”
“Yeah,” Stan says. “It's kinda weird.”
“I agree,” Ned says.
“Oh, fine,” Jimbo says, lifting his beer. “Ya'll be that way. I'll just say how glad I am to have you kids here, and how good this meal looks, buddy.” Jimbo grins at Ned and reaches over to clap him on the shoulder. Stan isn't sure he's ever seen Ned smile before now.
The food actually is really good, and once he starts eating Stan realizes how hungry he is. He used to be a picky eater, but recently he's been starving all the time and able to put away seconds on a regular basis, which he hopes means he'll have a growth spurt and start puberty soon. He wants to grow up, because he feels like he already knows some things that even his smartest friends don't, even Kyle, and he wants them to catch up and make him feel like less of a doomed freak for seeing the shitty things that used to be invisible to him. Kyle still eats like a fucking bird, scowling at anything with onions in it and leaving his pizza crusts on his plate. Stan used to ask if he could have them; now he just takes them and eats them without a word. Sometimes Kyle puts them directly on Stan's plate.
Stan is quiet during the meal, vaguely annoyed with himself. He doesn't usually think about Kyle this much, maybe because he's always just around, back home. He eats a steak, a lobster, and two big helpings of scalloped potatoes.
After dinner, they sit by the fire in the living room and play card games. It's pretty boring, but Stan doesn't really feel like standing out there in the cold, in view of that dead raccoon, and shooting off fireworks. Maybe fireworks are kind of lame after all. It's a depressing thought, one more thing he used to love revealed to be actually pretty shitty.
By the time he's getting in bed, he's already planning to sneak some of that whiskey. Just a little bit to help him sleep. He never goes overboard with it; he's smart.
“You guys need anything?” Jimbo asks when he pokes his head in to see them both looking at their phones in bed.
“I'm good,” Shelly says.
“Yeah,” Stan agrees, hoping everyone else will fall asleep quick.
“I'm gonna shut out the light,” Jimbo says. “But you guys can stay up and play with your gadgets if you like. G'night! Sleep tight.”
“Gadgets,” Shelly mutters when he's gone. “Like they're some kind of experimental technology. They're fucking cell phones-- does he seriously not have one?”
“I don't know,” Stan says. “Who cares if he doesn't? He does things his way. He's not a conformist.”
“Oh, god, shut up. I cannot fucking believe you asked him about his 'girlfriends',” Shelly says, whispering.
“Why the hell not? Just because he never got married--”
“Stan, are you fucking stupid? Jimbo and Ned are gay. They're boyfriends.”
“What!” Stan whirls toward the door. He can hear Jimbo and Ned walking around in their bedroom, which is on the other side of the kitchen. “No, they're not! Wait.” They share a bedroom. “Isn't this normally Ned's room?” Stan asks, turning back to his sister.
“Are you kidding? They call it the guest room, and look around.”
Stan does, fretting. The room is bare of any personal touches, outside of a generic painting of an elk wandering through the woods and quilts on the end of the twin beds that might have been homemade by somebody. Maybe by Stan's grandmother.
“Does Dad know?” Stan asks. Shelly snorts.
“What the hell do you think? Mom says nobody talks about it but everybody knows. They can't come out because the rednecks who go to their hunting shop would stop coming if they knew, and their shop would go out of business. Get it?”
“You are really dim.” Shelly puts her phone on the table between the two beds and rolls over for sleep. Stan remains sitting up, staring down at the paused game of Solitaire on his phone. Kyle downloaded it for him. It's pretty boring, but it's one of the only phone games available that doesn't reactivate Stan's addictive freemium urges.
So Jimbo is gay. It doesn't matter, but Stan feels a sense of secondhand embarrassment, maybe only because he stupidly asked about a girlfriend. He thinks of that letter to Kyle, crumpled up in his bookbag, and his face starts to burn. He'll tear up that letter and scatter it in the woods, first thing in the morning.
Stan drifts into a thin sleep, lying on his back in bed. He wakes from a bad dream about Cartman finding the letter in his bookbag, at school. In the dream, the letter said 'I AM GAY I LOVE KYLE' in huge print, and the worst part about Cartman taunting Stan in front of the whole class was that Kyle was absent, his desk empty, and Stan was sure that he had ruined Kyle somehow. In the dream he knew it was his fault, and that letter's fault, that Kyle was missing.
Stan sits up in bed, feeling queasy. The cabin has gone quiet, and when he checks his phone he sees that it's ten minutes until midnight. They didn't even stay up to ring in the new year. This seems like a horrible omen, and he decides to celebrate by himself, with a few swigs from that whiskey bottle.
He creeps out into the silent den, closing the door softly behind him. He can hear something coming from Jimbo and Ned's room. He freezes, afraid he'll overhear something gay and intimate, but it's just a TV playing in there. He can see the bluish glow from under their bedroom door. He wonders if they're snuggling or something, wrinkles his nose and tip-toes into the kitchen.
Jimbo and Ned are talking quietly inside their bedroom, or maybe it's the TV. The whiskey is still sitting on the counter, and there's also an open bottle of champagne with a fat cork sitting beside it. Stan lifts the champagne bottle. It's still heavy, more than halfway full. He isn't sure he's ever tried champagne, but whiskey is more effective.
As soon as he reaches for the bottle, a door opens. Stan's heart rate skitters madly and he dashes behind the heavy curtains covering the glass doors that lead out to the back porch. There are heavy footsteps: Jimbo, and Ned's softer gait trails his.
“You want a refill?” Jimbo asks, whispering this but still managing to be pretty loud.
“Yeah,” Ned says. “Thanks.”
“Here we go,” Jimbo says, and Stan hears the champagne fizzing as he refills their glasses. They're close; Stan's heart is still thudding hard. He's not even sure why he hid. He could have said that he was only getting a glass of water. Jimbo would have believed him.
“This stuff's pretty good,” Ned says.
“Sure is.” Jimbo sighs. “You think they're having an okay time?”
“I don't know. They're not, mhm, the most expressive kids.”
Jimbo snorts. “That's funny, coming from you.”
“I express myself.”
“Only when I'm around. Aw, c'mere, I'm only teasing. I love it, you know that. You're the strong, silent type.”
Ned makes a noise that might be disapproving, but then it sounds like they're kissing. Stan pinches his eyes shut tight, though the curtain is completely blocking his view.
“Maybe we should have done fireworks,” Jimbo says, sighing again.
“I think they had a fine time. Stop worrying about it.”
“Well, the food was great. I don't know, shit. I don't want them thinking I'm some sad old man. They're the only family I got, really. It's not like me and you are gonna have kids.”
“I'm not great with kids.” There's more kissing, but this time it's brief. “You are, though.”
“Aw, hell, not really. Stanley looks at me like I might pull a gun on him.”
“I don't think that's true. Come back to bed, it's almost midnight.”
“Alright, here, let me top you off.” More champagne fizzing. “Did I do okay, before?” Jimbo asks, whispering. “When he was asking where all the women in my life got off to?”
“You did fine.”
“I'd have thought Randy would have told him, but maybe he's too young.”
“I'm sure he knows what gay people are. It's not as if you've told Randy.”
“Well, I have so! Just not in so many words.”
“Mhm. C'mon, we'll miss the countdown.”
They shuffle back into their bedroom with their drinks and close the door behind them. Stan stays behind the curtain, waiting to hear the heavy creaking sound that means Jimbo has climbed into bed. He darts out from behind the curtain and approaches the whiskey again, but suddenly the idea of drinking something so heavy hurts his stomach. He grabs the champagne and takes one gulp directly from the bottle. It doesn't taste like the stars.
Back in the guest bedroom, Shelly is still asleep. Stan wanders around in the dark, holding his phone up and moving it around, trying to find a signal. He'll be nice to Jimbo tomorrow, even if more dead raccoons turn up. He doesn't mean to look at Jimbo like he thinks he might get shot, because he doesn't actually think that, and he wishes he could write his report on how much it fucking sucks that Jimbo can't say what he really is without losing his business.
Stan gasps with delight when, in the corner across from his bed, he gets two bars. He leans in the corner, careful to hold the phone just so, and types a message to Kyle as the year rolls over, 11:59 changing to 12:00.
happy ny, cell service here sucks. what are you doing?
Kyle's response comes quickly, and Stan grins as he reads it, though it's really nothing special.
Watching CNN with my parents and Ike. How's it going up there?
boring Stan types, and then he deletes it, because that's mean. interesting, he sends instead.
I'll tell you, Stan sends back, already imagining Kyle's face when he hears the news. Now Stan has a gay dog and a gay uncle. I'll tell you all about it dude
Kay. Is Shelly being a bitch?
yeah Stan types, and before he can add another letter he loses reception. He curses under his breath and moves the phone around, but it's no use. He can hear the wind blowing hard outside, pines rustling and icicles shattering on the roof of the cabin.
“Fuck,” he mutters when he finally gives up on recapturing the signal. He gets into bed with this phone, and puts it on his chest under the blankets. Out in the kitchen, he can hear Jimbo sneaking out for another champagne refill. There's only one set of footsteps, and Stan imagines Jimbo returning with the two champagne glasses, handing one to Ned before shutting the door and climbing into bed with him. Ned probably puts his chin on Jimbo's shoulder while they stare at the TV, or maybe it's the other way around. Jimbo seems like more of a cuddler. Stan's nose wrinkles, but only because they're old, not because they're two guys. The idea of a dude cuddling in bed with his best friend, also a dude, is not the worst mental image ever.
He checks his phone again, imagining Kyle waiting and waiting for a response to his question about Shelly's bitchiness level. Not being able to answer him makes Stan's heart ache, though it's not some big deal. He'll go to the same college as Kyle, anyway, someday. This being apart shit is for the fucking birds.