Chapter One – I Love You, Kyle
Stan realized he loved Kyle at the age of twelve. They had been sitting on the couch watching Terrance and Phillip. A regular day in their pre-adolescent lives; snowy and cold, like the day before it and the day that would follow after; Stan lounged against the armrest with Kyle sitting at his feet. Two hours had passed as the boys focused their attention wholly on their crude television program. It had been a rerun, and both boys quietly murmured along with the characters' lines. Kyle had yawned into a laugh, stretching his arms up over his head. He'd been up late the previous night, studying. Stan could tell his friend needed sleep, but at any suggestion of departing home Kyle pouted. Stan chuckled, nudging Kyle in the side as he did so. Kyle would squirm and half-heartedly snap at Stan to leave him alone. Yet as the day wore on, Kyle's eyes had grown heavier. Finally to Stan's amusement, Kyle had drifted off to sleep, falling sideways onto Stan's lap
Stan had lain against the couch's armrest for awhile, gazing down at his best friend whose head rested against his thigh. Kyle's familiar green hat had fallen away, and Stan was presented with volumes of bushy red hair. Without thinking Stan had reached out a small hand and ran his fingers through the thick curls. He marveled at the springiness, the softness. Scooting further down, Stan moved until Kyle's head rested against his stomach. He could feel the other boy's breath whisper against his thin t-shirt. Stan decided he enjoyed the feeling and continued running his fingers through Kyle's unruly hair.
Now closer to his best friend, Stan counted the few freckles patterned around Kyle's cheeks and nose. Stan wondered where else Kyle might have freckles, and for a moment, Stan felt hot under his collar. Not sure why his temperature had risen, Stan brushed a curl behind Kyle's ear. For a moment Kyle stirred, mumbling something about fractions and decimals. Stan chuckled and played with his friend's hair some more.
Stan stayed like that for two whole episodes of Terrance and Phillip, not even caring that he hadn't paid attention to the show. Kyle was much more fascinating. As he watched his friend sleep, Stan began noticing little things he had never noticed about Kyle. The way Kyle curled his fists, as if even in sleep the redhead prepared for a fight. Stan had known Kyle to be a restless sleeper. He had lost count of the times he'd awoken to find Kyle sprawled out against him during one of their sleepovers. Stan never had the heart to move in one of these situations. Even if Kyle's arms or legs were flung over Stan, pinning him to the bed, the boy wouldn't move. He'd let his friend sleep until morning.
Another thing Stan noticed about Kyle was the way he frowned in his sleep. Similar to the way the boy curled his fists, Stan guessed Kyle's perpetual grimace indicated some unease. For a moment Stan thought of Cartman and all the insults he slung at Kyle on a daily basis. Touching Kyle's forehead with his fingertips, Stan debated about whispering to Kyle that he was safe here. Stan wouldn't let Eric Cartman disrupt his best friend's sleep.
Stan thought of all the times he'd walked away when Cartman and Kyle had fought. So often the two bickered at one another that it became so much easier to just leave, ignore it, and hope they ended their fight in a reasonable amount of time. There were times Stan had stood up on Kyle's behalf against their heavyset friend. He recalled the time when Cartman owned his own theme park, and Kyle lost his faith in God. Stan had tried so hard to thwart Eric, to show Kyle things would be okay. In the end, Stan realized, he'd been powerless against Cartman. It had been karma (or perhaps God himself) which brought Cartman to his knees. Stan remembered the unrivaled joy he felt at seeing Kyle awake and sitting up in his hospital gown; the two of them had watched Cartman bemoan his lost theme park for a good hour before Kyle had to return to the doctor.
Looking down at his friend, Stan noticed Kyle's shirt had bunched up and a small sliver of skin showed just above the boy's waist. Stan figured Kyle might feel cold with his shirt scrunched up that way. Leaning over his friend Stan tugged the soft orange fabric down past Kyle's hips. For a moment Stan's fingers brushed skin, and he jerked his hand back. His temperature rose again.
Stan figured he was getting sick. Stan didn't get sick much, unless one counted his weak stomach. Kyle got sick a lot more than Stan. Sometimes he'd be out of school for a week or even more. Stan always visited him during those times. He remembered in third grade when Kyle needed a kidney. Again Stan had found himself facing down Cartman for Kyle's behalf. Stan shivered; he did not want to think about what would have happened if Cartman hadn't been tricked so easily.
Stan was staring at Kyle again. The redhead had tucked his knees close to his stomach, his fists now pulled to his chest.
A sudden thought struck Stan and it made him ache.
What would he do if he didn't have Kyle?
This question seemed extremely important to Stan. He lay there trying to imagine a world where Kyle wasn't at his side, tagging along behind him. As he lingered on the thought, Stan's chest grew tight, and his eyes stung. Although he was right next to his best friend and rested on his mother's plaid colored couch, Stan, suddenly, felt lost. As if he was miles and miles away from home in some unknown land unable to understand the language. He imaged himself trying to communicate with the strange, mesh-colored figures in his daydream, but they merely ignored him. They moved forward in their lives, unaware of Stan's desperate yearning for human contact. He felt like he was drowning, and he sat up too quick.
Kyle jerked awake beside him. Snorting and rubbing at his eyes, the redhead rose up. He blinked sleep away and tried to focus on the television in front of him.
"How long was I out?"
"Not too long, dude," Stan said in a whisper. He didn't know why he had to talk real low, but it felt like a sudden necessity. Stan had a strange urge to reach out and touch Kyle's cheek, as if to make sure the boy was real.
Kyle stood up from the couch. Stan felt his chest tighten again.
"Where you going?"
Kyle rolled his eyes. "Dude, I gotta go take a piss."
Kyle laughed at him.
They finished their Terrance and Phillip marathon, and then played outside in the cold. Riding their bikes to Cartman's house, the boys tried to splash their fat friend with slush when Eric tried to get them to participate in his latest 'get-rich-quick' scheme.
It was another normal day in South Park, Stan thought. Except with one new revelation; Stan loved Kyle. At the time, Stan brushed it off as a 'guy love' kind of thing. He cared about Kyle because he was his best friend. The thought of losing his best friend was devastating, but Stan convinced himself there was nothing out of the ordinary by thinking like that way. He was sure lots of people would be really lost and alone without a best friend.
Stan was also sure best friends thought about kissing each other too, but he decided to keep that part to himself.
If Kyle one day decided to kiss him, then he'd be totally cool with it. Cause that's what best friends do, right?
Stan realized at the age of sixteen that he loved Kyle very differently than the way he loved anyone else. He loved his parents despite their flaws. His father could get under his skin with every new harebrained idea the man thought up, but Stan still loved him. He wanted his father to be happy. He wanted his mother to be happy. And yes he even wanted Shelly to be happy. He loved each and every one of them, and knew if he lost them he'd lose a piece of himself too.
If he lost Kyle, however, he'd lose more than a piece; he'd lose half his body. Stan couldn't help but generate a mental image of being split in half, with one side falling gracelessly into a gutter, while the other half trailed after Kyle's heels.
Stan loved Kyle differently than the way he had loved Wendy too. With Wendy, Stan had felt fluttery, nervous, but good. The idea of having her next to him, holding onto his arm, made him feel full and lighter than air. He had walked the halls of South Park High with his hand firmly on her shoulder. When he was younger, the idea that he was showing her off never crossed his mind, but as he got older he felt more and more like Wendy grew into something he had to have, like an accessory. She became not so much his girlfriend, but reassurance of who he was supposed to be. He thought he knew what that was too; the high school quarterback, beloved by all. South Park's young hero. Wendy was the designated girlfriend. He had to be with her, it was an unspoken rule.
It was discovering that Wendy had turned from human girl to commodity that made Stan pull her aside one day and tell her to break up with him. She had sighed at the plea; she was a smart girl. She had felt Stan's detachment way before he had, but hadn't given up hope that he might stumble out of his funk. She simply patted the boy on the shoulder and told him to find someone he loved. Not a life preserver to keep him afloat in the shifting waves of high school life and drama. She explained that he needed someone he'd be willing to sink to the bottom of the ocean with, not someone he'd let drop like a stone to keep his head above the water.
And so Stan thought of Kyle. He hadn't been thinking of Kyle a lot. School, parents, Wendy, and football had cluttered his mind and time. Kyle, however, never vanished from his side, in which Stan was grateful. The tightening feeling he'd felt in his chest at the age of twelve often haunted him on Friday nights, when the stands were packed with fans, and he stood holding the football, debating in split seconds if he should just drop it, everything else about his life, and run away from town. He could never see Kyle in the stands despite his best friend's vibrant-colored hair during these games. The huge crowd of faces swarmed around Stan, closing in and distorting his mind. Somehow, he'd make it through the game; part of him believed he hadn't choked yet because he knew Kyle was always watching. Stan never wanted to disappoint his friend.
After Friday night football, no matter win or lose, Stan retreated from the others to find his friend. Kyle would materialize out of nowhere, small, thin and angular; a permanent frown on his face for everyone but Stan. The two would leave the noisy crowd and retire to a deserted diner to eat and chat about anything but school and football.
Stan realized he loved Kyle when he watched him undress one night after winning a big game. Stan had escaped the melee of the crowd, and following Kyle, departed for his friend's house. The two stayed up until three in the morning talking about the next Xbox game they wanted to buy or what Mrs. Broflovski would say when she discovered Ike's mold experiment in the basement.
When the two decided to head to bed, Stan unrolled his sleeping bag. His father had once caught the two boys sleeping in the same bed at the age of fourteen, and had dropped hint after hint that Stan was far too old for such things.
"You don't want people to think you two are 'funny,' do you?" Randy had asked, eyeing his son carefully.
"No, Dad." Stan had replied. He thought about telling his father that he might actually like the idea of being 'funny.' What was so wrong with being 'funny'? Maybe he could make people laugh because of it.
After his make-shift bed was made, Stan had headed to the hallway bathroom. He changed into a cotton t-shirt and boxers. He brushed his teeth, watching his toothpaste-colored spit spiral down the drain. Stan wished his father hadn't caught them. Stan hadn't thought the sleeping arrangements strange; sleeping in a bed with Kyle had become no different from sleeping in a bed alone. Stan just preferred the former scenario because he always awoke feeling a lot warmer than he would have all by himself.
After finishing in the bathroom, Stan returned to Kyle's room. It was when he paused to readjust his day clothes more securely under his arm, that Stan noticed Kyle. Through a crack in the door, Stan could see the redhead unbutton his crisp, green shirt. Button by button, Kyle's hands traveled down his chest revealing his pale, thin chest beneath. Dropping the shirt, Kyle moved his hands over his belt. Stan watched as Kyle flippantly tugged the leather strap from around his waist to toss into a corner. The buckle thudded against the desk chair. Next, Kyle pushed his pants down to his ankles. He stepped gingerly out of each pant leg, tripping over the fabric and steadying himself with one hand on the bedpost.
Now standing only in his boxers, Kyle turned to his dresser. Shifting through the second drawer, he pulled out plaid pajamas. Stan wanted to laugh; Kyle was the only boy he knew who still wore the bed clothes his mother bought for him. Not even Eric Cartman, the self-proclaimed momma's boy, donned his teddy bear patterned pajamas nowadays.
As Kyle dressed, Stan examined his friend's body. Kyle was skinny like a rail. His shoulders were bony; his elbows and knees nothing but angles. The redhead's legs were knobby, sticking out from Kyle's long boxers in a comic fashion. Kyle turned around and began pulling on his pajama bottoms. Stan found himself entranced by the curve of Kyle's spine. The way the ridges stood out against his friend's pale flesh. Stan's fingers twitched. He had a sudden urge to throw his arms around Kyle, pressing his friend's small frame to his much sturdier chest.
Sweat trickled down Stan's temple.
Kyle was putting on his top now. His twiggy fingers fastening up the buttons with a certain dexterity that made Stan shiver. Stan had another new urge. He wanted to help with those buttons; he suddenly liked the idea of pulling Kyle towards him and taking his friend's shirt in his hands to fasten it. Although a small part of his mind mused over undoing the buttons instead.
Kyle was dressed now. He sat at his desk, flicking on his computer by shaking the mouse back and forth across the desk's surface. When the screen appeared, he began clicking through links. Stan decided he'd hung in the doorway long enough. With his face turned anywhere, but at Kyle, Stan entered the room and deposited his dirty clothes in his backpack. He crawled under his sleeping bag and lay down on his stomach. He faced away from the computer desk, staring at the bottom of Kyle's dresser. Stan felt his stomach flip-flop every time he heard Kyle click the mouse. Sudden nausea enveloped Stan, and the boy ducked his head into his pillow. This wasn't much help; unfortunately for Stan this pillow was borrowed from Kyle and retained his friend's scent. Stan turned on his side and glared at the door.
"Dude, Bebe sent you a message over Facebook," Kyle finally spoke, twirling around in his desk chair to look at Stan. He frowned. "Aw, don't go to sleep yet."
Stan shrugged, although it was hard to do so laying on his side. "I'm not."
"Good. You should see what Bebe said."
"Can't you just read it to me?" Stan yawned. Kyle pouted, and Stan hated himself for liking it. To save face, Stan added, "I don't even check my Facebook anymore. Why is she even talking to me?"
Kyle held out his hands as if to say who cares, and then turned back to his computer. The glow from the monitor made Kyle's skin an ugly shade of blue. For a minute Stan thought he looked attractive.
"I guess it's kind of mean, but sort of funny as hell, dude."
Stan was growing impatient. His body was reacting weirdly to Kyle's very presence. It wasn't a new sensation; Stan had felt these strange impulses before. Watching Kyle undress, however, had triggered something akin to a chain reaction in Stan. His body temperature rose and his stomach gurgled stubbornly. He flushed with heat, reveling in it and yet at the same time cursing it.
Kyle was talking, but Stan's attention was distracted elsewhere. From his angle on the ground, Stan could see Kyle's foot dangling over one knee as he sat cross-legged in his chair. The foot bobbed up and down. Kyle's pajama bottoms were too short, which was saying something given the redhead's already diminutive stature, and his bony ankle peeked out from under the pant's cuff. Stan wanted to kiss Kyle's ankle, lick it, and maybe even bite it. Not too hard of course, just strong enough to get a reaction out of Kyle. What that reaction was Stan couldn't answer. He just knew lying in his sleeping bag was torture; it was getting too damn hot.
Kyle finally shut down his computer. He rubbed at his eyes and stared blearily at his alarm clock.
"Shit, dude. It's almost four in the morning." He crawled up over his covers and collapsed on top of his bed; sheets, covers, and all. Stan watched Kyle pull his green ushanka tighter over his head and then turn his thin body to face the wall. Stan stared at Kyle's back and imaged seeing his friend's curved spine and slim shoulders bare once again.
It wasn't the first time Stan masturbated. It was the first time he did it with Kyle so near, however, and the first time he did it with full acknowledgement that Kyle was the one he thought about while touching himself. In the past, Stan could pretend that his lust-filled illusions of a shadowy red-haired figure were anyone else, but his best friend. Lots of people have red hair…and wear green hats…and have thin shoulders, and bony wrists connected to hands with thin fingers that slowly unclasp buttons and tap computer keys.
When Stan finished, an undulating feeling of pity and fear rattled through his heart. He felt sad too, like he'd lost something. A part of Stan felt like he'd betrayed Kyle, using him in such a way. He thought maybe Kyle knew what he'd just done and would disown him as a friend. Despite that improbablity, Stan couldn't help but wonder how Kyle would react to the confession - Hey, dude, you make me horny as fuck. Just thought I'd let you know.
Another part of Stan, a much stronger part, also wanted Kyle to feel just as good as Stan did at that moment. Clarity had come over the black-haired teen. He felt whole and new, like his chest was slowly filling up. He could literally see his old self, that self labeled by South Park's own wants and desires, fade like smoke in the wind. He was replaced by a new Stan, a Stan unsure of what to expect with the next week or day or even minute, but also a Stan that knew he loved someone. He understood the ache in his chest and the nausea in his throat and the heat on his brow. He embraced the convoluted feelings of relief and fright.
He knew he loved Kyle.
He knew he wanted to be with Kyle forever no matter what.
And he knew he wanted to make Kyle as happy as Kyle had managed to make Stan feel in that one moment.
Picking his way carefully to the bathroom, Stan cleaned himself up. He hoped Mrs. Broflovski didn't mind her hand towels being used in such a disgraceful manner, but Stan couldn't find anything else for the job. When he returned to the bedroom, Kyle had rolled over onto his back. His arm lay slung over the side of the bed and his mouth hung open as he snored. Stan smiled down at him and pulled the covers up over his friend's skinny form. Kyle frowned despite the provided warmth and curled himself into a ball. His fist clenched and unclenched, and Stan couldn't help but think Kyle looked ready for a fight.
Stan wondered if Kyle would hit him if he knew how Stan felt towards him.
It didn't matter, Stan realized.
Stan loved Kyle, and that's all that mattered to the boy at that moment.
Their room was the last one on the hall. Adjacent to a huge window that overlooked the west quad, Stan and Kyle's dorm room was found on the fourth and last floor of the freshman building. In the heat and haze of the dying summer, Stan and Kyle had lugged many a suitcase and brown cardboard box up the four flights of stairs. The dorm had no elevator, and this was the first thing Kyle complained about that year. Other complaints would later include the college's meal plan, the laundry rooms, every fraternity on the campus, and the class scheduling. Stan would frown and nod his head, accordingly, to Kyle's ranting.
Over the years, listening to Kyle's ravings had become somewhat therapeutic for Stan. He could easily close his eyes and listen to the hum of his friend's disdainful tongue lashing. Stan, of course, tried to keep his head in the conversation long enough to add his own heartfelt 'yeah' and 'I know, dude, weak.' But in the end, Stan blocked out the words. It was Kyle's feisty, wound-up presence that somehow calmed him more than anything else in the world. And today was no different.
Stan still loved Kyle, but Kyle didn't know. It wasn't for lack of trying. During most of high school, Stan found himself raking together his courage to confess. Unfortunately, every time he attempted, his 'coming out' speech would be disrupted by one thing or another. Whether it was another of Kenny's deaths or Cartman's twisted schemes, Stan found himself having to attend funerals, stop rampaging mobs, or rescue Butters from a pack of vegans who hated tap dancing.
Stan often mused over how sane he'd turned out. Living in South Park would drive anyone into a loony bin, but Stan had managed to escape, albeit not too far (the college resided in the same state), with just the fact that he was gay teenager. Since the age of sixteen, Stan had known this one fact about himself, and rather than wallow away his life sad that 'no one would understand him,' he had embraced the knowledge and went about living his life one day at a time.
Although embracing the idea of being gay and revealing it to friends and family were two completely different matters to Stan. It wasn't that he was afraid of rejection; he just preferred to ignore conflict. If one day the topic of sexuality happened to come up between him and his parents, he'd carefully let it slip.
The same with his friends…and with Kyle.
Their dorm room was smaller than they'd been told. With a bunk bed pushed up against the right hand side wall and two desks perched opposite, the room resembled more of a cluttered closet than a bedroom. Kyle threw down his luggage and moved towards their only window, situated between the beds and the desks. Unlocking the top and pushing up the glass, Kyle let in a warm breeze. He pulled at his sweat-soaked shirt and began complaining about the size of the room.
"Dude, this is totally not what the picture looked like!" Kyle exclaimed, turning around to watch Stan heave in a blue trunk. They had already said their good-byes to the parents. It took Mrs. Broflovski twenty minutes to finally stop crying; it took her forty-five minutes to actually let go of Kyle's hand. Kyle wouldn't admit it, but Stan knew Kyle was upset too. Stan felt a new, foreign emptiness too after watching his own mother slide into the driver's seat of the family car and pull out of the asphalt parking lot. Stan had found himself waving until his arm hurt.
"Did you expect it to look like the pictures on the website?" Stan challenged, smiling to himself as he tugged in a lumpy armchair. His father had given it to him for his graduation. Stan shoved the piece of furniture in the corner by the foot of the bed. The door would hit it upon opening.
Kyle crossed his arms. "Well, no…but I didn't expect to be placed inside a fucking closet!"
"It's not a closet," Stan laughed. "It's a nice room. We get two of everything and the bathroom's just down the hall."
"Why do you have to be so optimistic all the time?" Kyle snorted, rolling in his own luggage. His parents had bought him a whole new set of pine green suitcases and bags. They looked expensive.
"Because I tried being a cynical asshole once, and everyone knows how well that turned out."
Kyle snapped his mouth shut, his retort dying in his throat. Stan chuckled.
"Look, dude, I just try to be positive about stuff now. I mean," Stan paused, gesturing to the room, "it is small. And we could use an elevator and air conditioning."
"And without that weird sour milk smell in the common room…."
"Yeah that sucks," Stan agreed. "So does none of the TVs working in this place too."
They began to unpack. Stan threw his shirts, jeans, and socks all into one drawer. Kyle looked at him, scandalized.
"What the hell are you doing?" he asked, holding out a hand in disbelief. Stan had just stuffed a wad of underwear into his bottom drawer next to his sweatpants.
Stan blinked. "Uh, putting my shit up?"
"Don't do it like that! You won't know where anything is!" Kyle pushed him out of the way and began refolding Stan's t-shirts. He placed them gently in the third row drawer and fit in sweatshirts next to them. Stan watched as Kyle carelessly flung his underwear to the ground and replaced the space they'd vacated with jeans and sweatpants. Stan smiled; Kyle's tendency towards organization and cleanliness had grown over the years. His desire for order and logic flowed over into his daily habits and routines. Stan often found Kyle rearranging the books on his friend's shelves just to make sure all the labels faced the right direction.
"Dude, it doesn't have to be perfect," Stan laughed; he bent down nonetheless to help Kyle rearrange his sock drawer.
"You'll thank me later when you're running late to class, and don't have to worry about being cold because all your sweatshirts are right here." Kyle tapped the third drawer. Stan rolled his eyes.
"Hey, as long as you're living with me, you're going to keep organized," Kyle explained.
Stan knew it was meant to be a joke. Kyle could bitch and moan as much as he wanted, but he couldn't really make Stan do anything. However, Stan liked the implication of his friend's words. They were 'living together' in a sense. Although, Stan berated himself for thinking something so gay, he couldn't help, but feel warmth grow in the pit of his stomach.
After they finished with the drawers, the boys moved onto the closets. Two had been built into the tiny room, and the closets proved just as cramped and small. Kyle managed to fit his sweaters and jackets neatly inside. He arranged the hangers by color; all of them faced the same direction. Stan stood sheepishly at his own closet, trying to decide on what pattern he should organize his own clothes.
"Dude, give me that." Kyle grabbed Stan's letterman and hung it up. Next Kyle followed the jacket with several hooded sweatshirts and two coats. Like his own closet, Kyle color-coded the hangers and hung them so that all faced one way.
"See, how easy it is to find things now?"
Stan scratched the back of his head, "Uh, sure."
He shouldn't feel so light-headed with happiness, his stomach churning, but Stan couldn't help, but enjoy Kyle offering Stan help. It was…for lack of a better word…cute. He had to fight off the urge to hug Kyle to his chest.
"So you want to be on top?"
Stan started. "What?" he blurted out a little too quickly. Kyle tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. He jerked his thumb at the bunk beds.
"I don't like being on top, dude," Kyle explained, still giving Stan a wary look. "You know I have a fear of falling out of them. Especially these with no rails to stop me from rolling over the edge."
His heart rate slowing down again, Stan raised an eyebrow. "So you'd rather let me risk my neck up there?"
Kyle shrugged and began throwing sheets and pillows onto the bottom bunk.
"Well, you're sturdier than I am. A fall from that height would barely bruise you, mister all-star athlete," Kyle said with grin twitching on his lips. Stan rubbed his elbow self-consciously. Kyle spoke the truth. Stan was pretty sturdy. After four years of high school football with grueling practices and ferocious game nights, Stan had obtained a solid build, if not still on the lean side. Since puberty, Stan had grown like a weed, leaving Kyle far behind. Scrawny like a scarecrow and almost a head shorter than Stan, Kyle often let out snide remarks about Stan's size. Stan took the jokes in stride; he guessed Kyle was jealous. Stan did, however, wonder if it was for that reason Kyle brought up the subject so often. Maybe he had body issues in general, it seemed ever since the girls' had made that list back in fourth grade, appearance tended to always be on the back of Kyle's mind.
It would explain the tasteful dark green button-up shirt Kyle insisted on wearing today, despite the heat and physical exertion of hauling their luggage up four flights of stairs. Kyle looked like what Stan had always expected a gentleman would look like. Kyle dressed smart, held doors open for complete strangers, and tried his best to alleviate any injustice he saw in the world. Stan liked to think of Kyle as a gentleman, even if the redhead lost his temper and complained on a regular basis.
Stan made his bed next, climbing up top, to spread out his sheets. He was kind of glad about sleeping up here. Kyle would be too short to see whether or not Stan had made his bed in the mornings.
Surprised at how fast they had unpacked their life into their tiny closet of a room, Stan and Kyle decided to explore the building. Finding it just as cramped, musty, and dull as their own room, the boys ventured out onto the campus. Freshman everywhere unloaded cars and trucks. Suitcases, bags, televisions, microwaves, and beanbags littered the sidewalks. Students waved goodbye to parents while younger siblings now rejoiced at the prospect of acting like an only child for almost ten months out of the year.
"I miss home already," Stan said quietly. Kyle looked disgusted.
"Why the hell would you miss South Park?"
Stan raised and lowered one shoulder. "I don't know, dude, I just do, okay?"
Kyle softened. "Yeah, I'm going to miss South Park too."
"At least we have each other," Stan ventured, trying to sound goofy, but failing. He hesitated, raising his hand, and then placed his arm around Kyle's shoulders, pulling him into a hug. He was never sure he could pull off platonic touches; his strong feelings almost always wanted his physical contact to tumble into new and exciting territory.
To Stan's immense pleasure, Kyle hugged him back. In the middle of their quad, they stood arm in arm, Stan's arm wrapped around Kyle's thin shoulders, and Kyle's hand lingering around the small of Stan's back.
"I don't think I could have left South Park without you," Kyle confessed.
Stan started and glanced down at Kyle. His friend stared off towards one of the classroom buildings. Students lounged together on the lawn outside its front steps.
"Yeah?" Stan asked, not liking the strained sound of his voice.
Kyle smiled up at him. "Yeah."
After dinner in the cafeteria, Stan and Kyle walked back to their room in silence. Outside the dorm, loitering around the front steps was a group of students smoking. As the boys approached they recognized one of the smokers by his orange hoodie. Kenny McCormick waved down to them from his perch on the stone banister. His legs propped up before him; Kenny reclined like some lanky feline, his messy blond hair falling into his eyes.
Kenny had made it to college. Somehow after countless nights of cramming, repeated emergency calls to Kyle about test questions, and endless searches for scholarships, Kenny had found himself enrolled in the same school as his friends. Whether or not he had that same determination to push him through four years of college still remained to be seen.
As Stan and Kyle climbed up the stone steps, Kenny stretched and held out a long hand, offering a pack of cigarettes. Kyle rolled his eyes at the package and continued towards the door. Kenny turned to Stan and smiled.
Stan had once had a crush on Kenny. A brief little moment of infatuation, where Stan wanted Kenny to whisper something dirty in his ear the same way he did for the girls. The crush only lasted a week, during a time before Stan's serious epiphany about Kyle and after Wendy had broken up with him for the last time. He had been fifteen and Kenny had been making out with Tammy Warner behind the school gym. Stan remembered catching Kenny with his hands stuffed up under the girl's blouse. She had moaned, resting her head back against the brick wall. Tammy's hands had inched down the front of Kenny's jeans, and Stan watched in rapt fascination as Kenny arched his back and groaned.
Stan had, for those brief moments, imagined himself touching Kenny that way. Desperation had torn through Stan during those weeks following his breakup. He had the strangest longing for any kind of physical contact. At the time, watching his blond friend make out with Tammy, Stan had settled on a half-hearted plan provoking Kenny into teaching him something in the area of sex.
Stan had never mustered up the courage to go through with this delusional scheme. However, one evening, as Stan sat amongst all his friends watching some dumb movie, Kenny had leaned over the armrest and touched Stan behind the ear. The blond teen's fingers had been soft and cold. Stan had shivered, and Kenny had given him a lopsided grin. When he pulled his hand away, Kenny only asked if Stan felt alright. Confused by the question, Stan had chuckled nervously asking why the concern. Kenny's eyes had lingered on Kyle for a few seconds, before the lanky teen shrugged and said no reason.
"Want a smoke, quarterback?" Kenny smirked, jiggling the carton in front of Stan's face.
"Stan doesn't smoke," Kyle stated as if his word was final. Kenny nodded and pulled out another cigarette for himself. The odd group Kenny sat among consisted of members that could easily pass for a Goth kid. Stan didn't recognize any of them though.
"What are you his mother?" asked one young man with skin-tight jeans and faded white blond hair. He wore large square-framed glasses which he peeked over to examine Kyle.
"No," Kyle said tersely. "I was stating a fact."
The guy turned to Stan. "Is it a fact?"
It was, but Stan was distracted by how much he enjoyed Kyle bossing other people around on his behalf.
"Yeah, it is," Kenny answered for Stan. "I just like messin' with him. He's a good boy. Our town's hero."
Stan frowned. "Shut up, Kenny."
"It's true," Kenny wheedled with a sad smile. Kenny guessed that South Park liked their heroes normal, financially sound, and not running around with a cape and underwear on the outside of their pants.
Stan rolled his eyes and marched up the rest of the stone steps.
"Dude, let's go back to the room," he told Kyle. Waving to Kenny he said, "See ya later."
Kenny nodded and lit his cigarette. Kyle swiped his ID card through the reader and he and Stan walked inside. Just as the door swung closed, Stan heard one of the girls sitting at Kenny's feet ask,
"Are they together?"
Stan didn't stop to hear Kenny's answer. Rushing through the disserted lobby, Stan found the entrance to the stairwell and tugged open the door. Kyle raised an eyebrow at his friend, but said nothing as the two began the long trek up four flights of stairs.
College proved a lot different than high school very quickly. Classes for instance weren't always scheduled back to back. Homework consisted of volumes of text to read, two page response papers to write, and thoughtful note taking to provide conversation fodder for next class periods. Stan and Kyle eventually got into the swing of it all after the first week, lugging overloaded backpacks across campus two or three times a day.
The university had familiar elements to their high school days. The food in the cafeteria was still subpar, people melded into cliques without hesitation, and some teachers were still complete assholes. Stan also started up his football practice, spending a lot of time with a new team. It had been intimidating at first, having to settle in with so many new people. He realized quickly that most of them had already joined fraternities and upperclassman recruiters started hounding Stan with speeches on the benefits of joining the Greek system. They often bombarded him with fraternity history and propaganda in the locker room after a long evening of practice; when he was nearly dead on his feet. It was this new annoyance that made him miss Cartman, Clyde, and the rest of South Park High's old team.
Stan refused the fraternity recruiters each time he was cornered. Not because he had anything against the Greek organizations or that he felt some kind of self-righteous power at withstanding their conformity. No, it was much simpler. He knew Kyle didn't like fraternities, and if Stan joined one, Kyle would be disappointed in him. Not to mention the fact that Kyle would have to find another roommate the next year if Stan lived in a frat house. Stan could not fathom the idea of Kyle living with anyone else.
Another familiarity about college was Kyle necessity for constant study and achievement. As he had entered his high school career, Kyle's love for education had overflowed, leading him to advanced classes and snide remarks from Cartman about being a huge nerd. Now in college, Kyle figured out his schedule with color coded diagrams and post-it notes. He spent hours in the library and woke up early to cram in last minute scanning of his books to prepare for the day's lessons. Stan watched him in wonder.
Kyle's so smart Stan would think to himself.
Just like Stan believed Kyle represented the pinnacle of gentlemanliness, he also believed Kyle was the smartest kid in the world. A little bit of an over exaggeration, but to Stan there wasn't a single question the redhead couldn't answer. Stan recalled how totally lost he'd been when it came to picking out his own classes, afraid he'd stumble his way into a class way over his head. During the summer, Kyle had scoffed at Stan's reluctance and, taking the schedule booklet from his friend, Kyle had listed off and explained each class for Stan. It was this kind of calculated rhetoric and clear sign of a collected mind, that Stan garnered the strong belief that Kyle could handle anything.
One night at the beginning of October, Stan lay in his bunk staring at the ceiling. Kyle had bought some of those glow-in-the-dark stars and pasted them all over the walls and ceiling. He had tacked most of them over Stan's bed. Kyle had arranged all of them to resemble real constellations, and Stan had sat in amazement as Kyle labeled them all over their room.
Raising his arm, Stan traced a star with his finger. He wondered how long the glow would last in the cheep plastic. He hoped all year; maybe even forever.
The door to the room opened and light spilled into the room. The yellow glow from the hall silhouetted Kyle's small frame as the boy threw off his bag and kicked off his shoes. He turned and closed the door. Stan turned to face the wall pretending to sleep. As a young teenager, Stan would have continued watching Kyle, hoping for another glimpse of his friend undressing. Now with several more years under his belt and with a spark of maturity igniting his actions, Stan kept his eyes to himself.
He listened as fabric rustled revealing Kyle had shucked some article of clothing from his body. Stan forced his mind away from possible inappropriate fantasies about his friend unbuttoning shirts. Instead, Stan focused on something innocent, if not a bit lame. He thought about holding Kyle's hand. Just his hand. Stan saw himself walking down a road lined with trees and gravel under his feet. The sun peeked through leaves, dappling the ground in front of their path. He looked at Kyle and his friend smiled up at him.
A struggling gasp brought Stan out of his reveries. He called his mind back to the dorm room and listened. Another muffled sob rent the air. Stan bolted out of bed and was half-way down the bunk bed ladder, when he saw Kyle tuck up his legs and throw himself under his thick covers. Stan dropped to the floor, and peeked into Kyle's bed.
Wrapped in his blankets, Kyle feigned sleep.
"Dude, you okay?" Stan asked, scooting closer. He pressed his knees to the edge of the bed, debating about sitting down.
Pulling the covers away from his face, Kyle sat up. Taken aback by the quick movement, Stan started backwards. Kyle rubbed at his face, sniffing hard. He stared down at his hands with bloodshot eyes. His usual unruly curls looking more frantic and disheveled hinted to Stan that Kyle had been running his hands through it multiple times.
"I'm going to fail everything, Stan," Kyle croaked out. Stan blinked.
"I can't do it. It's too much! I thought I got it all figured out, but – but it never ends!" Kyle pulled at his hair. Stan made up his mind and perched on the bed at Kyle's side.
"I don't understand…," Stan said.
Kyle leaned over the side of the bed and dragged his backpack up into his lap. He ripped open the zipper and began flinging thick textbooks over his bed. Stan read the labels as they landed with soft 'thumps' on Kyle's sheets. Science, math, physics, all subjects Stan shied away from.
Kyle opened a small assignment notebook. His hands shook, and Stan had a sudden urge to hold him.
"I have to read a forty page chapter by Thursday. Thursday! It's only Tuesday. I have three pages of Stats equations to figure out. I haven't even started on my essay for Physics," Kyle rattled off his voice growing high. "I can't. I can't do it."
Tears actually leaked from Kyle's eyes, trailing down his pale cheeks. Stan rarely saw Kyle cry, and when he did it always frightened him. Kyle spared little emotion for trite things. If he felt strongly enough about something to actually cry, Stan knew it had to be serious.
"It's not so bad," Stan tried to reason. He himself took far fewer classes than Kyle, but it didn't mean he failed to understand the pressure of a college workload. He had had this panicked revelation earlier, some six or seven days ago. With his football practices encompassing a good chunk of Stan's time, he found himself spending whole Sunday afternoon stuck inside the library, buried by shelves wondering if he'd managed to chug through all his homework before midnight.
Kyle shook his head. "It's not just school. I have to keep my job at the library too. And yeah I get time to do shit, but it never seems enough. It's like I finish with one thing and fifty more things surface to take its place!"
Kyle threw himself back against his pillows and covered his face. Stan rubbed his wrists awkwardly.
"Dude, you're like the smartest guy ever. You'll be okay." Stan reached out and patted Kyle on the shoulder.
"I just feel like I'm going to fall into this hole and never climb back out," Kyle whispered staring up at the bunk above. Stan continued to rub his friend's arm, trying to make it look as platonic as possible. Kyle didn't seem to notice.
"If I can get through it, you can, dude. You always do good at school. And you're all organized and shit," Stan comforted. He scooted closer. "We have a free period tomorrow, right? We should totally spend it doing homework together. I'm sure after you've gotten some sleep you won't be so freaked out. And once we're sitting down and get working on it all, you'll realize it isn't so bad. You can do it."
Stan touched Kyle's hand. For a moment Stan feared he was being too friendly, but Kyle just took in a deep breath and let it out shakily. He rubbed at his chest, and Stan realized for the first time that Kyle wasn't wearing a shirt. Heat enveloped Stan, and he averted his gaze, staring instead at the green digital clock on their microwave.
"You're right, dude," Kyle said as last. He smiled. "I'm being stupid."
"No, it's understandable. I kind of had a moment like this where I thought I was going to shoot myself if I got any more homework."
Kyle laughed, sitting up straighter. He sniffed again but kept his grin in place. Stan was still touching Kyle's hand. They both stared down at their fingers, entwining, and Stan thought of walking under trees with spots of sunlight flashing high over their heads.
"You ever feel like running away from it all?" Kyle asked suddenly. Stan knitted his brows in confusion. Kyle explained, "I mean like no one's telling us to do this. Go to college. There's no law saying we have to go here. It's not like for high school. We don't have our parents here to stop us or tell us to do homework or clean our rooms."
Stan snorted. Like anyone needed to tell Kyle to clean his room. Their dorm room had remained spotless from day one.
"I don't know. Haven't really thought about it," Stan confessed.
"We have so much freedom all of a sudden. I realized it the other day and it made me dizzy. I've been going to dinner at six o'clock every day since we got here, but I don't have to. That was when my mom always had dinner ready, but like I could totally wait 'til ten at night to eat, dude."
Stan shook his head; Mrs. Broflovski haunted her son even from miles away in South Park. Kyle's little revelation about defying ingrained routine made Stan ache with the need to hug him again.
Kyle laid on his back his fingers still brushing Stan's.
"Sometimes I feel like I can do anything…and then I feel like if I even try, something really important might shatter."
They were silent for some time. Stan wondered if Kyle was drifting off to sleep.
"Kenny invited us to a Halloween party."
Stan blinked. "Really?"
"Yeah, Bebe and Wendy are throwing it. We should go." Kyle turned on his side to face Stan. Their hands remained connected.
"Dude, you hate parties."
"I do not."
"Okay, correction you hate parties with other people."
Kyle thought for a moment and then said, "Alright true. People are stupid."
"I still want to go. I love Halloween. And I already have an awesome idea for a costume!"
"What is it?" Stan asked, leaning closer. Kyle tapped Stan's fingers.
"You aren't going to tell me?"
Kyle shook his head.
"Aww…but I'm your best friend. You got to tell me." Stan clutched at Kyle's wrist, pumping the redhead's arm up and down in a childish manner.
"You just have to wait."
They changed the subject and discussed when they'd meet up for tomorrow's study period. After awhile Kyle glanced at the clock on the microwave and pushed Stan off his bed, complaining he'd never forgive him if he overslept in the morning. Stan laughed, but allowed himself to be shoved. He ascended the ladder and flopped down on top of the bunk. It creaked with his weight and then settled. As the silence engulfed the room, Stan closed his eyes and moved his thoughts back to gravel roads and hand holding.
"You know Kenny's right about you," whispered Kyle after a few minutes.
"What would that be?"
"That you're a hero."
Stan opened his eyes, his heart thudded in his chest as he waited for Kyle to say more, but it appeared that he had finally succumbed to sleep.