It was October and just starting to snow outside when the counselor came to the twelfth grade classroom door for Kyle. Like it had been when they were kids, high school was just one room per grade, something that would not have been true without the war. Most of the boys were getting too big for the desks, their knees pressed to the undersides. Most of them were getting too big for South Park, or any place other than a battlefield.
Kyle couldn't really hear the counselor speak, because when he knew something bad was coming he tended to hear things as if from behind mottled glass, all the information that tried to enter through his ears fuzzy and blurred. He'd been near deaf for that whole horrible week after Montreal, when the few survivors from the battalion from South Park returned, Kyle's father among them, Stan's father not. Kyle looked at Stan as he crossed the front of the classroom, everyone staring. Stan flinched as if he was thinking about getting up, and Kyle looked away so that he wouldn't. Kyle was the only one who had been called. He hadn't heard it so much as felt it burrowing into his chest, an inevitable thing, the long shadow of something that was already happening, already over.
Jimbo was out in the hall like always, but he wasn't in his chair reading the paper. He was standing, looking fretful, holding his gun across his chest. Kyle's father was there, red-eyed, Ned silent at his side. Jimbo and Ned had volunteered as personal guards for the Broflovski family after the death threats against Kyle's mother started. His mother had a whole fleet of security people who traveled with her, specially trained, and Kyle knew with sick certainty he was about to be told that they'd failed.
"What?" he said, harshly, wanting to hate his father for crying. Kyle's mother had been in the middle of a month-long speaking engagement tour, rallying troops around the country. It was dangerous, but she was committed.
"Let's go to my office," the counselor said. She'd shut the classroom door behind her, but Kyle could feel everyone listening.
"Kyle," Gerald said, his voice breaking.
"Don't tell me," Kyle said. "Don't say it. I know. You don't have to say it."
He didn't cry until they were in the car on the way home, because he didn't want to go home, not if his mother was never going to be there again. Gerald was sniffling beside him, holding his hand, and Kyle still felt furious with him for irrational reasons that he couldn't even pinpoint. Jimbo was driving, and Ned was in the passenger seat.
"Goddamn rebels," Jimbo said. "We'll get 'em Kyle." He said so as if he and Ned would go after them himself. "Don't you worry about that."
"I'm glad the power's out," Kyle said, wiping his eyes with his sleeves. They'd had rolling blackouts since the second year of the war, and this one had gone for three days already.
"Glad?" Jimbo said. "How come?"
"Because they'll be reporting on it," Gerald said before Kyle could. "On TV, on the radio." He squeezed Kyle's hand. "I'm glad, too," he said. "So glad about that, for you boys."
Ike was downstairs when they walked through the door, which was dangerous even when the house was empty, but Kyle didn't say anything. He was sitting on the bottom step in the foyer, hands wrapped around his knees. He didn't rise when Kyle and his father came in, and didn't look at them. It seemed pointed, as if they were being blamed for something. Kyle sat beside Ike and put his arms around him, absorbing his quick, angry breaths. Jimbo and Ned had remained outside, guarding the front door. More guards would come now, people they didn't know. Ike would have to be more careful.
"Do you think she was tortured?" Ike asked when their father left the room, mumbling about tea.
"No," Kyle said, though he did.
"Are they bringing her body back?"
"I don't know," Kyle said. Probably not, he thought. He squeezed Ike's shoulders, and Ike shrugged him off angrily.
"Whatever," he said, standing. "It doesn't matter. She never came to see me."
"Ike." Kyle closed his eyes. He could hear his father weeping in the kitchen, gasping for breath. "It was too dangerous for her to be here, most of the time. Dangerous for you."
"I wish they had just let them intern me," Ike said. It was a familiar refrain lately, and it made Kyle's chest ache, because sometimes he wondered if they hadn't just interned Ike themselves.
"Don't make this any harder for Dad," Kyle said.
"Will there be a funeral?" Ike asked, deflating a little.
"Of course," Kyle said. "The whole town will come." The thought exhausted him. He wasn't sure what to do about his father – go in there and comfort him? Would he be embarrassed? Stan had been attached to his grieving mother's hip for a couple of years after Randy died, but it was different with mothers.
Stan showed up just fifteen minutes later, and Kyle herded Ike upstairs, because he could hear other voices on the doorstep. He thought it might be Sharon and Shelly, but as he pulled the door open he realized he should have expected Wendy. Kenny and Cartman were there, too. Kyle was surprised not to see Butters, though he supposed Butters wouldn't have been up for cutting class.
"Dude," Stan said, stepping forward to grab him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I tried to come alone."
"It's okay." Kyle put his arms around Stan and held on, closing his eyes to block out the others. He had temporary clearance to be awkward and greedy, so he rested his forehead against Stan's neck and didn't let go of him, not even when Cartman started clearing his throat. Increasingly, Kyle had been feeling like this, and it was stronger than ever when he pulled back to look into Stan's eyes: I wish it could be just me and you.
"I'm so sorry, Kyle," Wendy said, though he still wasn't looking at her. Stan's hands were on his hips, resting there lightly. Kyle dragged his eyes away from Stan's to glance at the others.
"It sucks," Kenny said. His father and brother had been killed years ago, and it had made him harder, quieter, and more determined to take care of his mother and sister. He had two jobs and hadn't been to school since he was fifteen. He talked constantly about wanting to join the army.
"Sorry for your loss," Cartman said, stiffly. Kyle wasn't sure what he was doing there, except that he always tagged along. He'd stopped caring about Cartman's schemes and motivations years ago. He mostly felt sorry for Cartman, whose mother had been entertaining male company for cash since the third year of the war.
"Come in," Kyle said, stepping away to let them through. He walked into the living room and they followed. "I think my dad was making tea," he said.
"Don't worry about serving us anything, dude," Stan said. He sat beside Kyle on the couch and tucked an arm around him. "Are you – has it hit you yet?" Stan asked. He knew plenty about the stages of grief. Kyle shrugged.
"Not really," he said. "I hadn't seen her in a month. You know?"
"These anti-war groups are disgusting hypocrites," Wendy said. She was truly anti-war, a pacifist, and Kyle knew she'd hated his mother. Her sanctimonious attitude about the cost of war sometimes made Kyle want to tell her that her boyfriend planned to join the army as soon as he graduated in May. All he could do was hope that Wendy would browbeat the desire to serve out of Stan. If she couldn't, Kyle would go with him. He couldn't imagine any hell worse than South Park without Stan.
His friends stayed for tea, which Kyle insisted on serving. He liked to have something to do, and even made a plate of crackers and some bad cheddar cheese that had come with their rations that week. Cartman ate most of it himself, getting crumbs on the easy chair that he was massively occupying.
"Just a one more month," Kenny said. "And I can finally start firing on these sons of b's."
"Not to be disrespectful," Wendy said – both of her parents were still alive, volunteering for the Red Cross, which she planned to do after graduating – "But wouldn't you serve your family better by staying in South Park and taking care of your mother and sister? Instead of getting yourself killed while you're seeking revenge?"
"It doesn't matter if I die," Kenny said, and he smiled in a worrying way. "That's the best part."
"Dude, shut up," Stan said, and Kyle wasn't sure if he was being defensive on behalf of Kyle's dead mother or telling Kenny that his life had more value than that.
"What will your mom and Karen do when you join the army?" Kyle asked.
"I'll figure something out," Kenny said. "You need a housekeeper or two?"
"I don't think we could afford that," Kyle said, though he actually had no idea how much money his mother had made doing public appearances and television interviews. His parents were still frugal; they doled out rations carefully, but Kyle had always assumed that part of that was the desire to set a principled example.
"Your sister could come clean my house," Cartman said.
"No," Kenny said. "I got nothing against your mom, dude, but I don't want Karen anywhere near there."
"Why not?" Cartman asked, glowering. "You think you're so above us? Go ahead and storm the gee-dee border, Kenny. We'll see how long it takes for your mom to come crawling to mine for a job."
"Please, you guys," Wendy said, holding out her hand when Kenny started to rise from the sofa. "We're here for Kyle."
"It's okay," Kyle said. "Just ignore me. I don't feel like talking."
Stan's arm tightened around his waist as he said so, and Kyle looked over at him. His eyes were wet.
"At least I'm not too much of a coward to join up," Kenny said to Cartman, who scoffed.
"We're all gonna get drafted, anyway," Cartman said. "Only a redneck moron would volunteer to die before they force him to."
"Hey, fuck you!" Stan said, his hand clenching on Kyle's side when his v-chip fired. "Only a fatherless waste of life would say that."
"Guys!" Wendy said. She sighed. "Sorry, Kyle."
"It's okay, really," Kyle said, annoyed by her more than any of the others. He wanted to curl up against Stan and close his eyes, maybe sleep. "Can you stay over?" he asked, muttering this while the other three continued to snap at each other.
"Yeah, dude, of course," Stan said. "Hey," he said, reaching over to touch Wendy's leg. "Can you tell my mom that I'm staying over here tonight?"
"Sure, sweetie," she said. She kissed Stan's cheek and stood. "I'll get these guys out of here," she said to Kyle, gesturing to Kenny and Cartman, who were possibly on the verge of coming to blows, leaning toward each other and spitting insults. "And I'm gonna make a casserole," she added as she herded them toward the door. "I'll bring it over tonight."
"You can bring it tomorrow," Kyle said. Wendy's face fell slightly, but she nodded.
"Okay," she said. "Just – I'm right down the street if you guys need anything."
"I know," Kyle said, and he almost regretted the bitchiness of his tone.
"Sorry," Stan said when they were gone. "I told them you wouldn't want the whole gang over, but Wendy said—"
"It's okay," Kyle said. He flopped onto Stan, putting his head on Stan's shoulder. "I know how they are. Just – don't go."
"I'm not going anywhere, dude," Stan said. He cupped his hand around Kyle's head, his fingers digging in between his curls. Kyle kept his eyes closed, wishing he had the balls to tell Stan what he'd really meant: Don't join the army, don't go. "Where's Ike?" Stan asked.
"Upstairs," Kyle said. "He's angry. My dad was crying, before. I guess he's in his room now. Should I go talk to him? I don't know what to do, man. I don't even know where to start."
"You don't have to start anywhere," Stan said. "You just found out. Give yourself some time to let it sink in."
"I can't," Kyle said. "I'm always going to feel like we're waiting for her to get back from that trip, or some other trip. God, I hope the power stays out for a week. I don't want to see anything about this on the news. But they'll be talking about it for months – years."
"Here," Stan said, picking up one of the few crackers Cartman hadn't consumed. He brought it to Kyle's lips. "Eat something."
"Why?" Kyle asked, laughing.
"I don't know," Stan said. "This is what I did for my mom when my dad died. I made sure she ate."
Kyle ate the cracker out of Stan's hand. He felt better as he chewed it, and feeling better made him cry.
News vans arrived before the security forces did. They parked in the driveway of an empty house across the street, but no reporters came to the door that first night. Stan was enraged by the presence of the vans, pacing around Kyle's room and peeking through the blinds every half hour or so, cursing them when he saw that they were still out there.
"Dude, ignore them," Kyle said. "They're just doing their jobs."
"Your dad's in no shape to talk to them," Stan said. They'd had something resembling dinner with Gerald and Ike a few hours earlier, up in the attic, which was where the Broflovskis normally took their meals. Kyle's mother had had the idea that it was good for Ike's social development to act as a host.
"And I don't want them harassing you," Stan said, dropping the blinds and heading toward the bed, where Kyle was stretched out in his too-small pajamas. "You're not a public figure. They can't make you talk."
"Calm down," Kyle said. Stan sat next to him, their backs to the headboard. Stan had been overprotective of Kyle ever since a grieving kid in elementary school kicked Kyle's ass for having a mother who'd started the war. Both of Kyle's front teeth were knocked out during the fight. He had to get a bridge, and still had regular nightmares that it fell out and all of the American dentists had been killed in the war, leaving him forever toothless. For a few years after it happened, Stan wouldn't even let Kyle walk to class alone.
"And what about Ike?" Stan said. "You can't have reporters crawling all over your house. Someone might sneak up to the attic."
"Stan," Kyle said. He stretched his arm across Stan's chest, palm up. "Dad's not going to let them in. He's not that out of it. We've had reporters out there a million times, and none of them has ever sneaked into our attic."
"What about these new guards—"
"They're all stationed outside," Kyle said. "Only Jimbo and Ned are allowed in the house. My dad made sure."
"How are you feeling?" Stan asked. Kyle shrugged.
"Numb," he said. Stan put his hand on Kyle's arm, rubbing his thumb over the little bones in Kyle's wrist. Kyle could feel Stan staring at him, waiting for him to share more feelings. When Stan's father died he'd jumped right into the angry stage of grieving, and for months he did nothing but scowl and snap at people. Kyle had been terrified that Stan would eventually turn that anger on him, because of his mother, or because his own father had survived, but Stan never did.
"Wendy had a point, don't you think?" Kyle said later, when the lights were off and they were lying together under the blankets, Stan's arm tight across Kyle's back. They hadn't been cuddly together since Stan's father died, and Kyle had missed being close to him more than he'd realized. Stan had a particular smell that felt like a warm, dark place, somewhere safe to hide.
"A point about what?" Stan asked.
"Kenny. Leaving his mother and sister when he enlists. Maybe he should stay."
"No, Kenny's like me," Stan said. "We need – we just need to go. We need to be there, where our dads were, and—"
"And what, die like them?"
Stan made a disapproving sound and tugged on one of Kyle's curls. "No," he said.
"Well, I'm coming with you," Kyle said, winding his arm around Stan's waist and moving a little closer. "So don't try to stop me."
"I wouldn't want to go without you," Stan said. Kyle looked up at him, surprised. "I know," Stan said. "It's terrible."
"Why's it terrible?"
"Because, I should want you to stay here, where it's safe! But, I don't know. The idea of going up north without you scares the shit out of me." He winced when his v-chip tazed him for the curse, and Kyle moaned sympathetically.
"You think I'm going to save your butt or something?" Kyle asked, grinning. He was flattered. Ever since the ass kicking incident he'd feared that Stan saw him as a kind of pathetic weakling who needed protecting.
"Maybe," Stan said. "But it's more like I don't want to let the war turn me into something I'm not. And if I have you there, I'll always be me. I won't get lost."
Kyle had believed that Stan no longer had the ability to surprise him, or to strike him speechless. He felt himself flushing, embarrassed by Stan's sincerity. Stan didn't look away, didn't even blink.
"What about Wendy?" Kyle asked.
"She – it's not the same," Stan said, and then he did look away. "I'd be too obsessed with protecting her if she came with me. Anyway, she's a pacifist."
"Yeah, I know," Kyle said. He'd always resented the idea that Stan felt a need to protect him, but it hurt to hear that it was Wendy who would wreck Stan's chances of being a good soldier, not him. "That's not what I meant. I meant, won't she hate you for doing it? Since she's so opposed to the war?"
"We've talked about it," Stan said. "She'd be disappointed, but she wouldn't hate me. She doesn't believe in, like. Forcing her ideals on others."
Bullshit, Kyle wanted to say, but he didn't, and not because he didn't want to be buzzed for the swear.
"I guess she'll be here in the morning," Kyle said when he saw Stan starting to drift, his eyelids heavy. "Wendy. With her casserole."
"She just wants to fix everyone," Stan said, and he yawned. "Everything, I mean. And all she can do is make these gestures. But she really wants to do something. She wants it all to matter, these little things she does."
"That's why you love her," Kyle said, feeling like someone was digging for clams between his ribs. Stan nodded and closed his eyes. "What if the war ended before you got a chance to enlist?" Kyle asked, not wanting to lose him to sleep yet. He knew he'd only be able to string a few restless minutes of sleep together himself. He could hear Ike pacing overhead. "Would you feel cheated?" Kyle asked, pinching Stan's side to get him to open his eyes. They kept hearing that the war was nearly over, that America and her allies were on the verge of victory, but they'd been hearing that since they were eight years old.
"I'd only feel cheated if Canada won," Stan said.
"Remember Terrence and Philip?"
"Of course I remember them, dude," Stan said. "But that's not –"
"We both cried when they executed them. I think – even Cartman did, didn't he?"
"Kyle," Stan said. "A lot's changed since then. It's not the same war."
Kyle knew what Stan meant, but he didn't think he was right. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep until Stan had drifted off. When he had, Kyle rolled onto his back and looked at the window, no stars visible, snow still falling. In the morning there would be a fresh blanket of white. It was much colder up north, where the fighting was. Some soldiers froze to death. Kyle rolled against Stan and wrapped his arms around him again. He didn't believe in the war, certainly not like his mother had and not even the way that Stan did, as if it was an evil that had finally become necessary. Still, he would go. Stan needed him, he'd said so, and Kyle, lacking a nobler cause, would keep him warm.
Protesters attended the memorial service for Sheila Broflovski. Kyle had seen plenty of art depicting his mother being killed in obscene fashions, and he'd never gotten used to it, but it didn't bother him as much as it once had. What got to him about these funeral protesters wasn't their anger at his mother but their unwillingness to back off even after they'd won. She's gone, Kyle wanted to shout as he filed past them after the service, flanked by his father and Stan. There's nothing left to hate. He'd heard, despite his father's efforts to shield him from the reports, that they'd even burned her bones.
He stayed out of school for a week and returning wasn't easy, even with Stan there to glower at anyone who stared. Wendy brought more casseroles to the house, and Gerald spent a lot of time crying into his hands and talking about relocating, though he knew as well as Kyle did that they wouldn't be able to get Ike across any of the state borders. Even if they had forged papers, the Broflovskis were too famous to escape, and a twelve-year-old boy traveling with them wouldn't be mistaken for anyone other than Ike, who'd been declared legally dead at three years old. One of Kyle's mother's detractors' favorite smears was the accusation that she'd killed her adopted Canadian son herself.
Kenny enlisted on his eighteenth birthday, and Kyle hired Karen McCormick as a housekeeper. He'd been given access to the household accounts, and there was no secret pile of gold, but the Broflovskis were doing far better than most families in South Park. Speaking tours like the one his mother had been doing when she was captured and killed were a big part of why.
"The only room you won't clean is the attic," Kyle said as he showed Karen around the house. She was quiet and mousy, and too young to be put to work, but Kenny wouldn't accept Kyle's money as charity, and Kyle didn't want Karen and Carol McCormick to end up at Liane Cartman's brothel any more than Kenny did. "My mother has secret government papers up there," Kyle said. They were standing at the foot of the stairs that led up to the attic, and Kyle's heart was pounding, though he'd warned Ike to be silent, and being silent was something that Ike was very good at. "So don't ever enter the attic under any circumstances. It's a matter of national security."
"Yes, sir," Karen said.
"Dude, please," Kyle said. "Don't call me that."
Kenny left for boot camp in Fort Collins just a few weeks later. He'd brought paperwork from the recruiter for Kyle and Stan, and Kyle poured over it at night, alone in bed, wanting nothing to do with the army. In his fantasies he wandered a majestic Canadian wood with Stan at his side, guns in their hands, and he stopped to peer at animals when Stan reached over to still him with a hand on his wrist. Kyle wasn't stupid enough to think it would be anything like that, but he kept returning to that mental image anyway.
April sped by, and the news reports were still full of speculation about the death of Sheila Broflovski by the first of May. Kyle tried to tune it out, but certain things leaked through, and he despaired mostly at the thought of how they must have laughed at her when she was scared, when she finally knew that she wouldn't be rescued. He imagined that she would have held on to a prideful hope that she would be saved for as long as she could, which made the idea of her finally letting that go so much worse. At night, Kyle left the house when he couldn't stand the sound of his father's weeping and his brother talking to himself, just a low murmur that seemed to ride with the dust motes in every room of the house, floating through the vents. Sneaking past Jimbo and Ned had always been easy enough, but with the new guards surrounding the house it was trickier, and sometimes he had to leap back through his window when one of them rounded a corner, but most of the time he was patient enough to wait for the right moment to escape. Sometimes he just walked for a long time, sticking to backyards because he was breaking curfew, but most nights he climbed through Stan's bedroom window. The first few times Kyle did this, Stan woke up and talked with him for a while, yawning as he tried to stay awake.
"Shh, it's okay," Kyle said on the third night, tossing his boots over the side of Stan's bed. "Just sleep. I don't need to talk. Just pretend I'm not here."
Stan moaned disagreeably and slid his arm around Kyle's shoulders. He was asleep again in just a few minutes, breathing into Kyle's hair. Kyle closed his eyes, bathed in the smell of Stan, and pretended that he was Stan, that this was his bed, his house, his own familiar scent. He wanted to be Stan mostly so he'd feel more enthusiastic about the army, but also to escape the grief of his mother and her legacy. He wanted to know for sure that he wasn't a coward, but he only knew that about Stan.
"Did you sleep?" Stan would ask in the morning when they lingered in bed. There were strict punishments for missing or being late for school, but by then everyone knew of their intention to follow Kenny into the army, and they'd been treated like death row prisoners by the teachers ever since, tip-toed around.
"I slept," Kyle said, yawning. "A little."
"There's whiskey under my bed if you want some," Stan said. Kyle laughed.
"Before school? Dude, that's pushing it a little, don't you think?"
"No, I mean at night," Stan said, sitting up. "You know." He scratched at the back of his neck. "Next time you come. To help you sleep."
"I should stop doing this to you," Kyle said.
"Coming through your window. Waking you up."
"No, it's not like waking up," Stan said. "It's like a dream, but then, in the morning, you're still here." He smiled, and Kyle thought of that Coleridge quote, though he knew that Stan wasn't thinking of it, or envisioning Kyle as a rare and beautiful flower that he'd plucked in his dreams.
"Just give me fair warning if you ever sneak Wendy in," Kyle said. "I don't want to walk in on that shit." He hadn't meant to curse and the shock took him off guard, which always made it hurt worse.
"We don't do that here," Stan said. He rubbed Kyle's shoulder to soothe the lingering pain from the v-chip before getting out of bed. Kyle watched him cross the room, stretching his arms over his head as he walked, and imagined Stan in the backseat of his car with Wendy, the windows fogged. Trying to picture it made him feel nervous for Stan, protective, and he wondered if Wendy gave orders or criticized his technique. Stan would be so wounded by that, secretly, pretending to laugh it off, and it made Kyle angry to think about it, though it probably wasn't anything like that when Stan and Wendy were alone together. Maybe Wendy was quiet and impressed when she was in Stan's arms, and maybe Stan handled her confidently, bolstered by how wet she'd get for him.
"Does Wendy know you're enlisting in three weeks?" Kyle asked. They were going to do it together, on Kyle's birthday, just two weeks after graduation.
"Yeah," Stan said, his back to the bed as he dressed.
"I don't know." He was mumbling; Kyle had suspected he wouldn't want to talk about it. "She's not happy, but. She's not surprised, either. She was surprised that you're coming with me, though."
"Why?" Kyle sat up, awake and on guard now. "Because I'm a weakling, or—"
"No," Stan said, turning. "Because, well. She said she thought you were smarter than that."
Kyle huffed, secretly a little flattered. Stan tossed a shirt at him.
"You can wear that," he said. "If you don't want to go home to change."
"Thanks." Kyle took off the shirt he'd worn to bed and pulled Stan's on. It was an ugly red and black flannel that hung off of Kyle's shoulders and clashed with his hair. It smelled a little bit like Stan's sheets. "Is your mom back yet?" Kyle asked.
"No, she's in Denver until Friday." Sharon had joined the army as a nurse the year before, around the time Stan informed her of his plan to serve. The only way she could bear the idea was to go out and immediately start patching up other people's wounded sons.
"Does she know you're enlisting in two weeks?"
"Yeah," Stan said. He sat beside Kyle on the bed. "We haven't been talking that much."
"Sorry, dude," Kyle said, touching Stan's back. Stan shrugged.
"Do you think I'm being selfish?" he asked. "For wanting to go?"
"No," Kyle said. "You wouldn't feel right staying. I get it." In his case, he wouldn't feel right because Stan would be gone, but for Stan it was about doing his part.
"What about your dad and Ike?" Stan asked.
"What about them?" Kyle asked, dreading this. He knew Stan had been wanting to ask. Stan rolled his eyes.
"What do they think about you joining up? Kyle – you've told them, right?"
"Um." Kyle scratched at the back of his head. Stan moaned and dropped down onto his back on the bed, looking up at Kyle.
"Two weeks, dude," Stan said. "Don't wait until the night before."
"I'm not even sure they'll be alright without me," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back, because Stan needed him more, or maybe Kyle just wanted to be needed by Stan more. "But, no," Kyle said. "Dad will rise to the occasion. Or Ike will."
"Yeah," Stan said, but he didn't look very certain either. "C'mon, we're already late."
They walked in during a history lesson and took their usual seats near the front. Their teacher went on with the lesson without commenting on their presence. Kyle tried to pay attention, but he couldn't. History was his least favorite subject. His mother was mentioned in their text books, and in the books she was still alive.
"You g-wads must be enjoying being treated like celebrities," Cartman said at lunch. They were eating outside, under the big oak tree in the courtyard. Kyle was missing Kenny, though he was only a few hours away, up in Fort Collins doing drills and cleaning his bunk.
"Nobody's treating us like celebrities," Stan said. "We graduate in a week, anyway. Everybody will end up getting drafted eventually. Me and Kyle don't think we're special for signing up."
"Like heck you don't," Cartman said.
"You don't know shit about us," Kyle said, so forcefully that his v-chip zapped him for a full two seconds. Stan was staring at him when he wrenched his eyes open again.
"Hey, fellas!" That was Butters, trotting over toward them, Bebe at his side. "Can we sit with you for a minute?"
"Sure," Kyle said, moving closer to Stan to make room. Stan was staring at something across the courtyard, and Kyle could guess what it was before looking. Wendy was manning the Red Cross volunteer table with Gregory, as she did every Wednesday during lunch. Gregory was an official representative, and Wendy was waiting until she was eighteen to join. They handed out pamphlets to interested students, but most people knew by now if they were interested or not, so Wendy spent much of her Wednesday lunch time chatting and laughing with Gregory, who still seemed to be holding a candle for her. Wendy insisted that he was gay when Stan got jealous, but Kyle didn't think so, and he would know.
"We heard you guys are going to sign up in a few weeks," Bebe said as she settled down beside Butters.
"Yep," Stan said. "A week after graduation. We have to wait until Kyle's birthday."
"Can we come with you?" Butters asked, blushing. "We think it would be real neat if we all got put into the same battalion."
"Sure," Kyle said, though he didn't like the idea of fighting alongside Butters, who was enthusiastic but clumsy. "I didn't know you guys were planning on enlisting."
"Oh, sure!" Butters said. "My dad says it will make a man out of me, and that's something I really want to be, you know?"
"Yeah, good luck with that," Cartman said. He laughed and brushed crumbs from his chest. "I bet it makes a man out of Bebe before you."
"Shut up, Eric," Bebe said. She looked at Kyle and quirked her mouth. "I don't care about the war," she said. "I just want to find Clyde."
"You, personally, are going to find Clyde?" Cartman said, snorting. "Or the whole lost 56th? Hey, you should go see Craig and ask him where he last saw them. Though I guess he was too busy getting his eye blown out to pay real close attention to his surroundings."
"Why are you being like this?" Stan asked, reaching over to punch Cartman's shoulder.
"Because he's always been like this?" Kyle said. "Hello?"
"I just think it's pretty sick," Cartman said. "All of you morons lining up to get your eyes blown out, too, or worse. They don't even think the rest of the 56th is alive."
"I know that," Bebe said, looking into her lap. "But I think they are."
"How come?" Kyle asked.
"Because I would know if Clyde was dead," Bebe said. She gave Kyle a sharp stare that made him want to duck.
"I don't think he's dead, either," Butters said, patting Bebe's shoulder. "Craig told the army that the rest of the battalion was alive when he got separated from 'em during that battle."
"That crazy effer probably offed them all himself before shooting himself in the eye," Cartman muttered.
"Shut your fucking mouth," Bebe said, and she barely blinked when her v-chip went off, her eyes narrowed at Cartman. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"He never does," Kyle said. "Just ignore him. But, yeah. You guys are welcome to come with us when we sign up. That'd be good."
"We could have a party later that night," Stan said, and Kyle laughed. "What?" Stan said, elbowing him.
"Nothing," Kyle said, knowing that how cheerful and naive Stan had been about enlisting wouldn't be funny for much longer.
Graduation was somber and attended by the press, reporters taking long-range pictures of Kyle with zoom lenses. The school made special arrangements so that he wouldn't be hounded by them as he left, and he went back to Stan's house with his father to avoid the news vans that had shown up at his house. It was an abnormally hot day for late May, and Kyle fell asleep on the Marsh family living room couch while his father made chitchat with Sharon and Shelly, who had come home from Denver for the occasion. She had some sort of administrative position with the army and apparently made good money, all of which Stan viewed bitterly as a kind of consolation prize for the death of his father.
"I don't want them to go," Kyle heard Sharon saying as he woke. Stan was shaking his arm, giving him a wide-eyed look. Apparently he'd forgotten to instruct his mother not to mention anything about their plans to enlist.
"Them?" Gerald said.
"The boys," Sharon said.
"Where are they going?" Gerald asked, looking at Kyle like he already knew.
The rest of the afternoon was tearful and exhausting, but Kyle wouldn't budge. He was going with Stan, even if it broke his father's heart and made his brother hate him.
"There's nothing for me here!" Kyle shouted when they were back at the house, Ike watching them fight from the top of the stairs, his fingers in his mouth. "I love you guys, and I don't want to leave you alone, but I can't stay here while all my friends go off to fight."
"This isn't about leaving me and Ike alone!" Gerald said. "This is about your life, Kyle. Now that your mother's gone, we can say it. It's a losing battle. A death wish. God rest her soul – what your mother fought for has been compromised."
"I'm sorry you believe that," Kyle said, wishing he didn't have to lie. It would be easier this way, if his father thought he had ideals and not just a slobbering, self-destroying need to go where Stan went. "I still think there's plenty worth fighting for," Kyle said, and his eyes watered when he said so, because he was thinking of Stan and the hope he clung to. "Mom would understand," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back when his father turned away.
"You're so like her," Gerald said, his voice croaky and small.
"Who am I like?" Ike asked loudly, from the top of the stairs. Gerald and Kyle turned, but not fast enough to see him dart off. He was gone, and Kyle shivered when he heard the attic door slam, thinking of ghosts. Ike called himself a ghost sometimes, and made references to his death, which was recorded as a drowning in Crystal Lake, the body never recovered.
Kyle gave Ike an hour to pout before knocking on the attic door. There was no answer, but Kyle opened it anyway. He found Ike playing the old Gamesphere that he was obsessed with, a war game that Kyle had once loved.
"Power's back on?" Kyle said. Ike shook his head, his eyes on the screen.
"I rigged it to a generator," he said.
"Where'd you get a generator?"
Ike shrugged, and Kyle sat down beside him, watching explosions on the screen. It was a first person shooter set during World War II, and the graphics still looked pretty good to Kyle. He watched Ike play for a while, wondering if this was what war looked like, every blink interrupted by the flash of gunfire.
"You can't go wandering around at night," Kyle said. "If you need things – generators, parts, whatever – ask Dad. He'll get them for you."
"You go wandering around at night," Ike said. Kyle was surprised that he'd noticed, though he supposed he shouldn't be. Ike was mostly nocturnal.
"That's different," Kyle said. "I'm not legally dead."
"Sure you are. You're signing up for the army, aren't you?"
"Where do you go?" Ike asked, putting the controller down. "At night? Have you got a girlfriend?"
"No," Kyle said. His face got red when Ike sat there in silence, studying him.
"To Stan's," Ike deduced, and he turned back to the game. "Are you going to throw yourself on a land mine for him? Is he going to make Wendy name their baby after you?"
"Do you really think I'm going to die?" Kyle asked. Ike sighed and paused the game. He let the controller tumble out of his hands like it had stopped working.
"I wish I could go with you," he said, and if that was an answer to Kyle's question, Kyle didn't know if it was a yes or a no.
"Wouldn't you hate to kill Canadians?" Kyle asked.
"Won't you?" Ike asked, looking up from the discarded controller, at Kyle.
"Yes," Kyle said. "You – don't look at me like that. You just said it yourself. You know why I'm going."
"So why'd you tell Dad that horse shit about believing in the war?"
Ike had never had a v-chip installed, and he wielded his curses more skillfully than anyone Kyle knew. He really meant to make them hurt, but he didn't have to weigh his own pain against how badly he wanted to wound someone else. It gave his curses an exactness that felt damning, at least to Kyle.
"It's not entirely horse shit," Kyle said, and when he got shocked he was glad, because it felt like punishment for believing that he really was going for a reason, and for lulling himself to sleep at night with fantasies about saving Stan. In the fantasies, they both survived.
"How could something only partially be horse shit?" Ike asked. He seemed distressed and intrigued by the idea, as if he was envisioning a teapot made only partially out of shit.
"Dad doesn't need to know why I'm going," Kyle said. "And I did tell him, sort of. I'm not going to sit here doing nothing while my friends leave town."
"What's it like to have friends?" Ike asked, just trying to make him feel bad now.
"Stan is your friend," Kyle said. Other than Jimbo and Ned, Stan was the only one the family trusted with the knowledge of Ike's continued existence. Even Sharon didn't know.
"Stan looks at me like I'm your imaginary friend," Ike said. "Sometimes I think he's right."
"You're real," Kyle said, reaching over to pinch him. Ike allowed it, unflinching.
"You'll never know if I felt that or not," Ike said.
"Your skin is turning pink, though."
"That could still be in your head."
They did this sometimes, as a kind of intellectual exercise, Kyle attempting to convince Ike that he wasn't just a figment of the Broflovski family imagination.
"Stan is proof," Kyle said. "Because he can see you. He talks to you."
"Stan would play along if you talked to the wall," Ike said, and Kyle blushed, thinking that was probably true.
Stan spent the night at the Broflovski house for Kyle's eighteenth birthday. Kyle had insisted that he didn't want a party or gifts, and Wendy still gave him both. He was glad when the awkward get together at her house was over and he could go to his room with Stan, carting his gifts. Stan's was a pocket knife with a jade handle, dark green, roughly the color of Kyle's eyes.
"What'd you have to trade for this?" Kyle asked when they were in his bed together, Stan watching Kyle play with the knife. It was definitely from the black market.
"Nothing big," Stan said.
"Some books," Stan said, and Kyle felt badly, because books were worth a lot. He put the blade of the knife against his palm to see if it was sharp. "Don't," Stan said, twitching when Kyle pressed it in enough to produce a drop of blood.
"I'm not," Kyle said. "Just testing." He'd considered asking Stan to do some kind of childish blood brothers thing, but reconsidered, because he didn't want to see even a drop of Stan's blood spilled. He cleaned the knife on his jeans and put it in his pocket. "Thanks," he said, turning toward Stan, who still looked worried.
"Tomorrow," Stan said. It was a Sunday, and they would go to the recruiter's office first thing in the morning with Bebe and Butters.
"I'm not scared," Kyle said, and it was true, but it didn't make him feel certain that he wasn't a coward.
"I wasn't until now," Stan said.
"Why are you scared now?"
"Because," Stan said, and he looked at the blood on Kyle's hand. It was just a little; Kyle licked it up so Stan wouldn't have to see it. Stan's face was red when their eyes met again.
"I'm not going to die gloriously," Kyle said. "Look at me. I'm not that kind of guy."
"You know what's sick?" Stan asked, his voice very low. Kyle shook his head.
"The fact that I'm glad you're coming with me – that I want it? It means – I think it means that I wouldn't want to die without you. I'd want you to come with me."
"I will," Kyle said.
"But I don't really want that!" Stan said, grabbing Kyle's shoulder as if to stop him from doing something that would seal his promise. "Kyle, seriously. Don't ever let me be that selfish."
Kyle didn't say anything, too afraid that every explanation he tried to offer would boil down to the truth: Stan was what he was living for, anyway.
"I'd want to go with you, but not for you," Kyle finally said. Stan was staring at him, breathing a little harder, getting himself worked up. "It'd be, like, so lame if you had some awesome adventure without me. That's why I'd want to go."
"You don't know that death is an awesome adventure," Stan said.
"Well, yeah," Kyle said. "But it seems like something that could be, if we did it together. Like the war."
"They're not the same thing," Stan said. "Death and the war."
"Oh, I know. I'm holding out more hope for death, in terms of things that might be awesome adventures. Dude." He looked over at Stan's chest, watching it rise and fall with his quickened breath. "Are you sure you want to do this? It's okay if you changed your—"
"No, I'm sure." Stan rolled onto his side, away from Kyle. "Let's just go to sleep. So the morning will come faster."
Kyle stayed awake, listening to Stan's breathing calm and slow as he drifted off. When Kyle slept, he dreamed of battlefields, and in his dreams he opened his lips and felt blood pour from his mouth, hot and sticky, tasting of all the secret things that he'd managed until then to keep inside. He woke up afraid and jerked toward the window before he remembered that he didn't have to walk to Stan's house. Stan was still asleep beside him, lying on his stomach, his face turned toward Kyle on the pillow. Kyle scooted up and curved his body around Stan's until he could feel the heat of him, just an eyelash away from touching him.
"Don't go," Kyle whispered, but it didn't work. In the morning, they went to the recruiting office as planned and filled out the forms, sitting in a drab little back room with Bebe and Butters. The swish of their individual pencils made Kyle think of school.
They were made to wait for a long time after the major had collected their forms, to the point that Kyle began to worry that something was wrong. Butters was yawning but cheerful, chattering about a letter he'd gotten from Kenny, who said Fort Collins wasn't so bad but that most people in his training squad were idiots. Bebe was silent, her arms crossed high over her chest. She seemed ready for a fight, but when the major returned, it was Kyle he called on.
"Come in to my office for a minute, Mr. Broflovski," he said, holding the door open. Kyle looked at Stan, who shook his head a little. He didn't seem worried, just quietly annoyed. Kyle stood and walked into the office, feeling as if he was about to be accused of stealing from the market or cheating on a test. "Have a seat," the major said, and he shut the door.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Kyle asked when the major sat across from him, behind an ugly metal desk. Having to say 'sir' tweaked at Kyle; it would be hard to get used to calling people that. The major knitted his hands together and rested his elbows on his desk.
"Mr. Broflovski," he said, openly incredulous, "We can't have you in the Army."
"I'm – why not?"
"The official reason I'll give is that you've got Type 1 diabetes, and believe me, that's enough. Your medication needs refrigeration. There's no refrigeration where your friends are going, son. But even if I was able to station you someplace with a reliable power supply, did you really think you would be anonymous as a soldier?"
"What – what do you mean?" Kyle asked. His heart was beating fast, and he was waiting to be told that this was only a prank, something orchestrated by Cartman to momentarily crush him. "Because of my mother?" Kyle said, the angry heat on his face sinking down into his chest and tightening around his lungs.
The major nodded. "There are people in the Army who don't want to be there," he said. "It's ugly to say it, but that's the draft for you. There are some real angry men and women fighting for us, and they didn't like your mother. She always said she was fighting this war for her kids. You understand me, son? Some of those soldiers see you as the reason they're in hell."
"But I was against the war," Kyle said. "When, when I was little, I never wanted any of this—"
"Sure," the major said, a little sharply. "But you might not get a chance to explain that before someone turns friendly fire on you in the heat of battle. I just can't do it, Kyle. You're too famous, and there's too much animosity toward your family on both sides. You'd be a huge liability." He let that sink in, watching Kyle's lips move soundlessly. "I'm sorry, son."
"Please," Kyle said when he could speak again. "There's got to be some way—"
"Why are you so desperate to fight, anyway?" the major asked, frowning and sitting back a little. "Honestly, I never thought I'd need to have this conversation."
"I can't stay here," Kyle said. All the practiced reasoning he'd given his father escaped him, and he could only think of Stan's name. "Please, there's – everyone else is leaving, I can't just stay here and do nothing."
"Try the Red Cross," the major said. "I think that'd be more appropriate." He stood, finished with the discussion. Kyle couldn't make his legs work. The major cleared his throat and Kyle got to his feet shakily, moving on auto pilot as he walked toward the door.
Reentering the waiting room, Kyle felt like a ghost, someone who was already in another world. Stan sprang out of his chair when he saw Kyle's face.
"Congratulations," the major said, walking around Kyle. He put his hand out and Stan shook it, looking confused. "And to you," the major said when he shook Bebe's hand. "And you," he said, moving on to Butters. "Welcome to the U.S. Army."
Kyle tried to fight the Army's decision, had his father get in touch with people, got the mayor involved. She'd been friends with Kyle's mother. Everyone who meant anything in the U.S. government had, but nobody wanted to help him. That was over; she was gone, and they all knew the major at the recruitment office in South Park was right. Kyle wasn't a soldier, he was a liability.
Stan wouldn't give up, even after Kyle had. He acted like getting Kyle into the Army was a fight to save Kyle's life, until he seemed to realize abruptly that it wasn't that at all, and they stopped talking about Stan's approaching departure for boot camp altogether. It was a hot summer, and there were rumors of air raids as far south as San Francisco.
"It's probably for the best," Wendy said at one point. "I mean – about you not going. I bet you'll be glad you didn't."
Kyle got up and left the table where they'd been sitting, eating from a little bag of barbecue chips they'd all contributed toward at the black market. Stan followed Kyle away from the tables and sat beside him on the curb. The asphalt was so hot it felt like it was burning through the seat of Kyle's jeans.
"I told her not to say that in front of you," Stan said.
"I don't want to talk about it," Kyle said, so they didn't.
The night before Stan, Butters, and Bebe were due to report to Fort Collins to begin their training, Butters' parents threw a party. Kyle didn't want to go, but there was nothing else to do but sit at home feeling sorry for himself and worried for Stan. Ike had been especially weird and reclusive, and Kyle knew he should do something about that and that he would eventually have to, but in the meantime he was too obsessed with his own misery to do anything productive about Ike's.
"I can't believe I'm leaving tomorrow," Stan said when he was getting ready for the party in his room, Kyle sitting on his bed. Kyle was so angry about everything everywhere that he had to stop himself from snapping at Stan for saying such obvious things. It wasn't that Stan was dull, he just felt the need to fill the room with some form of conversation when Kyle got quiet and sulky.
"Time doesn't feel linear anymore," Kyle said. "It feels like something that used to be flat, like a piece of paper, and somebody crumpled it up." He didn't even know what he's talking about. It was barely five o'clock and he had already had three shots from Stan's whiskey bottle. Stan turned from his dresser mirror and smirked. He was doing the tie on his uniform for the third time, trying to get it right. Butters had insisted that everyone who was enlisted wear their uniform to the party, for picture-taking purposes.
"Let's eat something," Stan said when Kyle reached for the whiskey bottle again.
Stan's house was empty; his mother was already at the party, helping Butters' parents with the preparations. Kyle sat at the kitchen table and watched Stan rummage in the fridge. He hoped he would be able to sneak into the Marsh house when Stan was away at training and Sharon off somewhere with the Red Cross. It seemed important that he should be able to come into this kitchen when it was empty and sit in silence, grieving for the quiet rooms.
"I'm feeling a little dramatic tonight," Kyle said when Stan sat a plate of macaroni salad in front of him. It was the kind Kyle loved, with cubed ham and mayo. The kind of thing his mother never would have served.
"Whiskey tends to make everyone dramatic," Stan said. He looked into the fridge. "I wish we had some beer. I should have told my mom to get some."
"I'm sure there will be beer at the party," Kyle said. The drinking age was still 21, but nobody prosecuted for underage drinking anymore.
"Yeah," Stan said. He looked glum as he took a seat across from Kyle and picked up a fork. The remainder of the macaroni sat before him in a Tupperware container. "I don't know if I want to go to this stupid party," he said.
"Why not?" Kyle asked. He knew why he didn't want to go: he didn't want to share this last night before Stan's departure with the others, namely Wendy. Stan would be gone for two months.
"I don't know," Stan said. He picked at the macaroni with his fork, ate some. "It's just – Butters. Jesus, Kyle!" Stan threw his fork down, suddenly upset. "I'm going to war with Butters? What the fuh—" He stopped himself before the curse, and Kyle saw his throat bob as he swallowed it down.
"What are you yelling at me for?" Kyle asked. "It's not my fault. Unless you think it is."
"No – what? I'm not yelling at you, and I know it's not your fault. But – Kyle!"
"What?" Kyle forked macaroni angrily. "What do you want me to do about it? You think I didn't try hard enough to get in—"
"I just said I know it's not your fault. Don't pick a fight with me on my last night in town, Jesus."
"Don't call it your last night in town." Kyle was muttering, staring at the macaroni. Suddenly its pale yellowness seemed very unappetizing, and the elbow shapes looked like guts. "You'll be back after training – right?" He looked up, terrified that Stan would say no.
"Well, yeah," Stan said. "In two freaking months, and then they'll assign me someplace. Kyle, I'm upset, okay, can you just let me say so without jumping all over me?"
"I'm not jumping," Kyle said. He wanted to get up and sit in Stan's lap, to spend the whole evening just sitting there holding him, being held.
"You are so jumping." Stan sighed and stared at him, watching him eat macaroni. "Hey, Terrance," he said.
"What?" Kyle mumbled, not in the mood for this. Stan always did this when Kyle was gloomy.
"You have to say, 'What, Philip?'"
"Goddammit, Stan," Kyle said. His v-chip barely flashed him, because he'd meant it almost as an endearment. He looked up and smirked at Stan's expectant expression. "What, Philip?" Kyle asked, stopping short of a Canadian accent.
"You farted in court."
"Yes, Philip, I'm making a case for our defense." This had been a lot funnier when they were kids, in bed together during sleepovers. It had been funnier when Terrance and Philip weren't dead. Stan was grinning anyway, satisfied. He took a huge bite of macaroni, and something about the sight of him just then, elbows on the table, military-issue tie slightly crooked, made Kyle want to promise his soul to any willing devil for even the flimsiest guarantee of Stan's safety.
"You've got some mayo," Kyle said, pointing to the corner of his lip to show Stan where it was. When Stan wiped it off with the back of his hand Kyle was sorry he'd mentioned it. It had been part of the bitter perfection of the moment.
They left for the party an hour later, a flask of whiskey tucked inside Stan's jacket. The street outside of Butters' house was crowded with cars, and there were red, white and blue balloons on the mailbox. Stan's mother chided them for being late when they found her inside. Kyle got himself a glass of wine, noting the cut of Wendy's dress as she pushed her way through the crowd to get to Stan. It was black, conservative, almost funerary. In fact, it was the same one she'd worn to Kyle's mother's memorial service. She looked like she'd been crying.
"Kyle!" Butters said, bounding over to him. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were slightly wild; he seemed drunk, and he hugged Kyle with inappropriate vigor. The uniform made him look like a little boy in a school play about patriotism. "I'm so glad you came! I was worried you wouldn't!"
"Yeah," Kyle said, staring at him. "You're welcome."
"It's such a special night," Butters said. "My parents are actually proud of me."
"That's great, Butters. I'm happy for you." Kyle threw back the rest of his wine and got more.
"Where's Stan?" Butters asked.
"Over there," Kyle said. Wendy was tucked under Stan's arm, attempting to straighten his tie while he spoke to his mother.
"Wendy's real upset," Butters said, whispering loudly. "It's – it's a hard thing, having him go."
"I can kind of relate," Butters said, and he pulled Kyle close. Kyle leaned away, sneering when Butters' mouth bumped against the rim of his ear. "I have a – a thing to confess," Butters said. "Tonight, maybe."
"Okay," Kyle said. He squirmed out of Butters' grip. "That's – that's great for you. I think your dad's looking for you."
"He is?" Butters squawked, whirling around. Kyle used the opportunity to escape, slipping into the crowd.
Kyle's rotten mood only got worse as he refilled his wine glass, to the point that he was glad to see Cartman when he showed up late. It would be a relief to have someone to fight with over petty things, a distraction. Cartman seemed not to be suffering any of the embarrassment Kyle was feeling about not being in uniform. He made straight for the buffet and loaded a plate with hot wings.
"Ey, Jew," Cartman said. He only seemed to get tazed for the slur fifty percent of the time. "I wasn't sure you'd show up."
"Why's everyone saying that?" Kyle asked. Cartman looked up from his plate of wings, his eyebrows lifting.
"Whoa," he said. "You're drunk."
"You're drunk," Kyle said, scoffing. He took a hot wing from Cartman's plate and tore into it with his teeth, sauce smearing on his lips. "Why'd you even come? If you think they're all suckers?"
"Duh," Cartman said, lifting the plate. "Free food."
"You probably like to get out of that house," Kyle theorized, shaking the half-eaten wing at him. Cartman's face seemed to go heavily blank.
"At least my mom's not dead," he said.
"Wow," Kyle said, and he walked away.
He tried to find Stan, but the crowd was blurring together in a confusing way. Needing air, he pushed out into the backyard, but there were more people there. Butters' father was at the grill, plating hamburgers. Kyle felt hollow but not hungry, and remembering the macaroni salad made his stomach lurch.
"Hey, careful," Bebe said, steadying him as he made his way down the stairs on the short porch, into the lawn. "Are you alright?"
"No," Kyle said. "I mean – yes, but."
"I know," Bebe said. "C'mere."
She took Kyle over to a cement bench near the back fence, where they could sit and watch the party from afar. Bebe's uniform was identical to Stan's, but it made her look more feminine than ever, her usually wild hair slicked back into a neat bun. Kyle's head started to clear, and he let her hold his hand when she reached for it.
"When Clyde left," she said, and that was really all she needed to say. Kyle squeezed her hand, and he felt like he was confessing everything, though he knew then that he didn't need to.
"What if you found him?" Kyle said. "What if you really did?"
"I know he's alive," Bebe said. "I have these dreams – and it's not like I think I'm talking to him, the real him, because if we could do that he would just tell me where he is and I would – go there. But they don't feel like dreams about a ghost. You know?" Kyle shook his head, and she smiled. "Do you believe in auras?" she asked.
"I thought not." She was still smiling, still holding his hand tightly. "But you know that thing Stan has? That kind of glow? He'll be okay."
"My mother thought she'd be okay," Kyle said. He knew he was being cheap.
"Your mom wasn't like him," Bebe said. "Sorry."
"What are you saying, you can see people's fates? Don't be ridiculous. Or, okay – what's mine?"
"When there's nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire," she said.
"Nothing." She pinched her eyes shut. "Never mind," she said, and she let go of his hand. "I think it's better that you're not coming with us. He'll have a clearer head if you're not there. He won't go throwing himself in front of enemy fire when he doesn't have to."
"He said that about Wendy," Kyle said.
"I'm sure he did," Bebe said. She stood. "C'mon, you want a hamburger?"
Kyle was eating at the dining room table when Stan found him. He had a beer, and he was smiling like he'd had enough of them to feel better about going to war with Butters. He touched Kyle's back as he sat down beside him.
"Butters is so drunk," Stan said. "His mom had to stop him from making a speech."
"Fuck her," Kyle said. He barely felt the buzz of his v-chip; alcohol tended to dull it. "He should be tah – to make a speech if he wants. He's going to war and stuff."
"What have you been drinking?" Stan asked. He picked up Kyle's plastic party cup and sniffed the wine.
"I might as well drink it all," Kyle said, meaning the Stotches' entire supply of wine. "It's not like I have anyplace to be tomorrow."
"Wendy's gonna come over to your house after I leave tomorrow," Stan said, and he touched Kyle's back again, rubbed it. "She's gonna take you down to the Red Cross volunteer center. You want to sign up, right?"
"Sure," Kyle said, though he resented this, Stan and Wendy conspiring to help him when he was at his lowest. "Fine."
"Is Jimbo gonna come to walk you home?" Stan asked.
"I told him to knock off for the evening," Kyle said. "I thought – thought, you know, we'd be, me and you. Alone."
"After the party, we could—" Stan's eyebrows pinched. "But you're gonna pass out as soon as your head hits your pillow."
"Whatever," Kyle said, and he tried to drink from his empty cup. "When there's nothing left to burn."
"Nothing – Bebe's crazy. Don't you think? About thinking she can march up there and find Clyde?"
"Shh," Stan said, and he glanced around to make sure no one had heard. "I think it's – noble, I guess."
"Hey, Philip," Kyle said.
"Yeah?" Stan glanced around again. "Terrance?" he said, and he blushed. They never did this in public. It was their sacred, secret thing. People had been arrested for openly lamenting Terrance and Philip's deaths. It was considered treasonous.
"I don't know," Kyle said. He laughed, slumping against Stan's shoulder. "Farts, I guess."
"Okay, dude," Stan said, helping him up. "You need to lie down for a while."
"I want to go home, Stan." Kyle was aware that he was being loud, and that this – with the possible exception of his mother's funeral – was the least appropriate occasion he would ever have the opportunity to ruin with drunken drama.
"I'll take you home in a minute," Stan said, whispering this as he helped Kyle across the living room, toward the stairs. "I just have to say my goodbyes. Here, c'mon. You can hang out in Butters' room until we go, okay?"
"Butters' room," Kyle said, scoffing as if the suggestion that such a place actually existed was ludicrous.
He didn't remember crossing the threshold of Butters' bedroom, but suddenly he was there, being lowered onto Butters' bed by Stan. Kyle grabbed for him, panicked, thinking for a moment that this was the last time they would see each other before Stan left not for training but for the war, their final goodbye. Stan moaned sympathetically when Kyle found his shoulders and pulled him down.
"Don't go," Kyle said. "Don't go, Stan, don't you fuh – fucking – ow, God! – leave me here."
"I'm just going downstairs, dude," Stan said. He extracted himself from Kyle's arms, his face hovering over Kyle's. "I'll be right back. Some of these people – I won't see them for months, you know?"
"I'm sorry, sorry," Kyle said, and he rubbed his hands over his face. "I'm acting like a freak."
"You're just drunk." Stan kissed his forehead. Kyle closed his eyes, wanting another. "Be right back," Stan said, and he touched Kyle's chest before leaving. Kyle could still feel it after Stan was gone, like Stan had left a smoldering hand print.
Kyle dropped into something like sleep, and it was so comfortable, so dark. He opened his eyes when the bed shifted tremendously, as if half of it was crumbling away. He felt ill when he tried to sit up, and for a moment he was comforted by the weight of another hand on his chest, but this one was heavier than Stan's, hotter.
"What are you doing in here, Jew?" Cartman asked, looming over him. He winced, and Kyle laughed. If there was any justice in the v-chip it was that Cartman got shocked when he said that – sometimes. When he meant it to hurt.
"I'm resting," Kyle said. "We're leaving soon."
"Me and Stan."
Cartman laughed. "Yeah, right," he said. "I saw him bring you up here an hour ago. He just wanted to dump your drunk ass somewhere so he could get back to his big hero party. Can't believe he wore that fucking uniform, what a douche."
"Shut up," Kyle said, trying to wave Cartman away like a gnat. "You're lying. Stan's gonna come get me. He's taking me home."
"Maybe in a few hours," Cartman said. "After he's sopped up some more glory. He's down there feeling Wendy up while everyone throws flowers at his feet. Butters is an effing clown, Bebe is a delusional b-word, but Stan's the real piece of work. He thinks he's Captain effing America."
"You're jealous," Kyle said, laughing again. Cartman grunted and put his hand on Kyle's throat, not squeezing exactly, just pinching his thumb and forefinger in a little. Kyle went still, stunned.
"I'm not jealous of any of those effers," Cartman said. "I'm smarter than them. You'll see."
"Get your hand off me," Kyle said, and he shoved Cartman's arm away. Cartman smiled down at him. Stan hadn't put any lights on, and Cartman looked coolly menacing in the moonlight through Butters' bedroom window, as if he hadn't done any drinking himself. "What are you doing up here, anyway?" Kyle asked. He tried to sit up, but his head felt like it might fall off if he did.
"Keeping you company," Cartman said. He put his hand on Kyle's chest again. "Somebody has to. Everyone else is leaving you behind, aren't they, Kyle? Hmm?"
Kyle's eyes welled up, and he put his arm over his face to hide it, though Cartman would still see his lips tremble. He wasn't normally so easily riled, especially not by Cartman, not anymore. He was just drunk, so tired, and everything was coming to an end in a way he would never be ready to face. He wanted to go home, but he knew Cartman was right. Stan had needed to get him out of the way discreetly so he could continue being the normal one, the brave one, the life of the party on his last night in town.
"Shh, don't cry," Cartman said, and Kyle couldn't tell if he was being mocked or sincerely comforted; the latter was more disturbing. Cartman's hand slid down to the hem of Kyle's shirt, and Kyle jerked when Cartman's fat fingertips brushed his stomach. "You're not alone, Kyle. I'm still here. I'm gonna do wonderful things in this town. You could help me. We could be partners."
"What are you talking about?" Kyle asked, glaring at him. "Get your hand off me." He tried to swat Cartman's arm, but Cartman evaded his reach. He grabbed Kyle's thigh and squeezed hard, pulling his legs open. Kyle whined and flailed, but Cartman pinned him to the bed easily, one hand heavy on Kyle's shoulder.
"Calm down," Cartman said. "I know what you are."
"Get off of me!" Kyle said. "I'll scream." But he was whispering, already mortified.
"Scream? Why? I told you, I know what you are. I've seen the way you look at Stan. Everybody has! You want a big fat one up your butt, don't you, Kyle? You want to scream something, fine. Everything about you effing screams that."
"I hate you," Kyle said. It was like he'd forgotten, too preoccupied with real problems to spare Cartman a thought. "You want me to be your effing partner? What are you trying to do, recruit people to work in your mother's whorehouse? Branching out to boys?"
"Like you wouldn't love getting treated like a whore," Cartman said, and he flipped Kyle over onto his stomach. For a moment Kyle was certain he was going to throw up, then somehow he was losing his pants. Cartman yanked them down to Kyle's knees while Kyle tried to crawl away from him. The room was spinning; he felt so weak, like someone had been drinking his blood.
"What the fuck?" Kyle said, and his v-chip fired hard at the particularly emphatic curse. The force of the shock left him moaning and drooling, disoriented.
"Yeah, that's right," Cartman said. He was panting against Kyle's neck, still wearing his jeans while he humped Kyle's bare ass. "You like that?"
Kyle didn't like it at all and intended to say so, but he was having a hard time even drawing breath, either from being crushed by Cartman or from the aftermath of the electric charge. He felt paralyzed - it had happened to kids of his generation before, though the government denied their v-chips were responsible - and he buried his face in Butter's blankets when Cartman lifted off of him just enough to fit his hand between their bodies. Cartman went right for his ass, prying the cheeks apart and rubbing until he found Kyle's hole. Cartman hummed happily and Kyle tensed up in disgust, though by then he was sure it was a nightmare he was having, that the real Cartman was still downstairs eating hot wings. That had to be the case, because the moment Kyle was able to gather his fractured thoughts enough to wish for this to stop, Cartman's weight disappeared.
He rolled over, realizing slowly that he wasn't waking up, that he had never been asleep. Still feeling too fried from the v-chip flare to think straight, he pulled his pants up and watched blearily as Stan punched Cartman in the stomach and the face, spitting curses as if he had no v-chip at all.
"Stan?" Kyle said. His head was pounding, vision blurring. He buttoned his jeans, shuddering when he imagined that he could still feel Cartman's fingers on him. Cartman seemed smaller than he ever had under Stan, trying to fight back but only managing to flail and shout.
"Kill you, I'll fucking kill you!" Stan said, and he kept hitting Cartman until Kyle was pulling him off.
"You crazy fuck!" Cartman shouted, and his back bowed when his v-chip went off, making him flop back against the carpet like a fish. He groaned and struggled to his feet while Kyle held Stan back. "He was into it! Jesus Christ, my nose is bleeding."
"Get out," Kyle said. He was shaking, holding on to Stan's arm so that he wouldn't topple over.
"I'd press charges," Cartman said, pointing a trembling finger at Stan. "But then they'd kick you out of the army, and I wouldn't want you to miss your opportunity to die like an effing dog in the Canadian mud."
Stan lunged toward Cartman again, and Kyle held him back while Cartman bolted out of the room. As soon as he was gone Kyle turned away from Stan and threw up all over Butters' bedroom floor.
"I'll fucking kill him," Stan said. "He cah- came up here while you were drunk, while you were sleeping-"
"Just let's go, can we go?" Kyle could barely see straight, but when he groped for Stan he found him easily, Stan's arms winding around him.
"I'll kill him," Stan said, crying now.
"No, dude, please. He's not worth it."
"He - you -"
"Let's just go, I want to go." Kyle took Stan's face in his hands and made him meet his eyes. Stan's were overflowing, his mouth pinching up like he was trying not to sob. "I'm okay," Kyle said, though he wanted to throw up again.
"You're shaking," Stan said, one sob escaping along with that observation.
"I just want to get out of here," Kyle said. "Please, God, just get me the eff out of here."
Stan did as Kyle asked, taking him out through the backyard so that they wouldn't attract attention. Stan had already said his goodbyes. Later, Kyle would have no memories of the walk home, only the suspicion that he was carried.
Stan's mother was still at the party, helping to clean up. Kyle was dimly aware of this as he vomited into the little desk trash can in Stan's room, not bothering to conceal the sound of it. Stan sat behind him on the floor, touching his back while Kyle took breaks to mop his forehead with one of Stan's dirty t-shirts. By the time Stan helped him to the bed a concrete foundation of shame was solidifying at the pit of Kyle's now-empty stomach. Stan had seen - something. Kyle was blurry on what actually happened, but he would never forget the press of Cartman's finger and how it had vaporized his confusion like a bucket of ice water thrown over his head. Stan had seen that, maybe. That moment. No wonder he was still crying a little.
Stan had taken Kyle's shoes off, and he'd removed his own, too, along with his tie and his uniform jacket, which was hanging over the back of his chair. They sat in silence for a while, Kyle curled against Stan's chest, shivering. Stan drew his fingers slowly through Kyle's hair, his breath hot on Kyle's forehead, right at his hair line.
"I shouldn't have left you," Stan said.
"I shouldn't have gotten so drunk," Kyle said.
"We should call the police," Stan said, nodding to himself. "He was trying-"
"Stan." Kyle didn't want to hear what Stan thought Cartman had been trying to do. "They're not gonna - I was so out of it, I barely said no." Kyle tried to remember if this was true; it didn't matter. "Anyway, nothing happened."
"Enough happened," Stan said. He squeezed Kyle against him so tightly that Kyle thought he might be able to sink into Stan's chest at last, to become him. He wanted to give up his body and live inside Stan's, where they could share every thought effortlessly, where they would always be so close. But this was good, too, being held as if he was a source of heat that Stan would die without. "I can't leave you here like this," Stan said.
"Like - what?"
"With him around. He's after you. I knew it. I always knew it."
"Jesus, you sound crazy," Kyle said. "I'm the drunk one." He actually felt very sober now, though there was a lingering confusion that was keeping him calm.
"I won't let anyone hurt you," Stan said, his lips moving on Kyle's forehead. "Least of all him."
"He can't hurt me," Kyle said. "I could have screamed, I could have bit him. I was just too out if it. It won't happen again - I won't drink while you're not here. How's that?"
"Are you sure you don't want to call the cops? I'd feel so much better if he was arrested, if he was in jail-"
"For what, groping a drunk boy at a party? He's not going to serve time for that, dude. Just - forget it. I just want to forget it ever happened. I mean, nothing really happened. I mean, Jesus."
They were quiet for a while, and Stan continued to draw his fingers through Kyle's hair at a steady pace. He seemed to be trying to soothe himself this way as much as Kyle, who was okay, really. Just the warmth of Stan's chest was enough of a comfort to make the rest of the world feel irrelevant.
Stan's mother arrived, and they heard her coming in. Kyle hoped she wouldn't come to Stan's bedroom door. She did, but only to linger outside without knocking or trying the knob, and after a few seconds she retreated to her own bedroom, weeping softly. Kyle's eyelids had begun to droop, and he found that the sound of Stan's heartbeat was even more captivating after he'd allowed his eyes to close.
"I will never let anything happen to you," Stan said, sounding very grave, as if he was vowing not to move from that spot for the rest of his life. Kyle would be agreeable to that. He nodded tiredly, his cheek pressed to the place on Stan's chest where he was almost soft but not quite. He could feel the pump of Stan's heartbeat against the delicate skin on his eyelid, and he thought of what Bebe had said as he was falling asleep, about Stan glowing and Kyle setting himself on fire. That seemed to make sense just before he went under.
They slept like that, Stan propped against the headboard and Kyle curled up in his lap, and when Kyle woke he felt creaky and diseased, like his stomach was rotting. He shifted and Stan woke, blinking down at him. Stan looked terrible; Kyle was sure he looked worse.
"Oh, fuck," Kyle said. The v-chip assisted in waking him fully. "What time do you have to leave?"
Stan checked the clock. "Not for an hour," he said. Kyle crawled out of Stan's lap, embarrassed that he'd slept there, embarrassed about everything that he could only vaguely remember about the night before. He reached for the glass of water on Stan's beside table, and they sat together in silence for a while, shoulders touching while they traded sips.
"I keep trying to be glad that you're not coming with me," Stan said.
"How's that going?" Kyle asked.
Kyle put his head on Stan's shoulder, and Stan leaned over to rest his cheek against Kyle's matted curls. Mostly they just sat like that while the minutes ticked away, staring at their outstretched legs while the light through the window brightened slowly. Kyle was almost glad for the hangover, and the lingering sense that something about him had been physically ruined forever. It fit the way he felt anyway, and he couldn't imagine anything worse than anticipating loneliness.
"It's just training," Stan said when he lifted his face from Kyle's hair. "I'll be back in a few months."
"Will you write to me?" Kyle asked.
"Dude, of course. You have to write to me, too. So I'll know you're okay."
"Oh, really? I was just going to collect your letters and never reply."
Stan elbowed him. "I'm really glad you'll be with Wendy at least."
"Yeah, she'll protect me in your stead."
"That's not what I meant."
"Yeah, it is." Kyle slid off the bed. "Ever since that kid knocked my teeth out you've treated me like sad little weakling. That's why I wanted to go with you, to show you I wasn't. So much for that." Kyle almost laughed out loud at his own lie; as if that had been why he wanted to go with Stan. But it would have been nice to save him from enemy fire once or twice.
"It's not that I think you're weak," Stan said. "It's just that it was traumatic for me, okay, seeing your mouth all bloody like that, your teeth knocked out-"
"I guess last night was traumatic for you, too, then." Kyle was standing at his dresser, where Stan had laid his tie out so it wouldn't wrinkle. Kyle touched it, waiting for Stan to figure out how to respond.
"Yes," Stan finally said, and Kyle turned to him.
"Are you worried about forgetting who you are?" Kyle asked. "Changing, or whatever? Like you said? Since I won't be there?" Kyle thought about it every day: that moment when Stan had told him why he wanted him along.
"I was," Stan said. "Now - after last night. I'm more worried about you."
"Jesus, you think I'm just going to roll over for Cartman once you're gone?" Kyle said, glowering. "I was drunk, okay, and he was on top of me before I knew what was happening-"
"Even if you were drunk, it wasn't your fault!" Stan said, and he got up from the bed. "And that's not what I mean, it's not just him. It's this place, South Park, the way things have - gotten. I hate the thought of you here alone."
"I won't be alone. I have Ike. I have Jimbo and Ned. And my dad," he said, less certainly. Gerald had been ghost-like since Sheila died.
"And Wendy," Stan said. "I really like the thought of you guys taking care of each other. Can you help me with that?"
"Wendy doesn't need taking care of," Kyle said. "She's okay on her own. And I am, too." He was aware that this was entirely unconvincing in the wake of a drunken meltdown over Stan's departure.
"I know you guys would be okay," Stan said. "But I think you could be happier if you were more like - friends. Just consider it, alright? For me?"
"Sure, fine," Kyle said. He turned away from Stan, touching his tie again. "I guess I might as well be friends with Wendy. It's not like there's anyone else left."
"And make sure Gregory doesn't try anything with her, alright?"
Kyle rolled his eyes so hard it tweaked his headache. "Sure, Stan. I'll give you weekly updates on his moves. If he stands too close to her, you'll hear about it in my letters."
Stan put his hands on Kyle's shoulders and turned him around, gently. Kyle gave him an angry stare; Stan laughed.
"Look," he said, and Kyle prepared himself for a speech about friendship or a promise that the two months would fly by. "I gotta get ready to leave," Stan said. "C'mon, I'll walk you out."
"Oh." Kyle frowned, confused. He'd somehow been thinking that he would walk Stan out, stand at the door and watch him go, but this was Stan's house. "Fine - alright."
It was a bright, warm morning, and both environmental factors made Kyle's hangover and attitude worse. He stood at the bottom of Stan's stoop and avoided Stan's eyes for as long as possible, surveying the yard, the street.
"Did you even sleep?" Kyle asked when he finally looked at Stan.
"A little," Stan said. "But it's okay. I wouldn't have been able to, anyway. I'm too nervous."
"About training camp?"
"Yeah. What if they're mean?"
"Well - of course they'll be mean, they're drill sergeants! Oh, God, they'll have a field day with Butters. And you better look out for Bebe, you know, guys will be ogling her."
"I think she'll be okay," Stan said.
"Oh, right. Bebe will be okay with those boobs in a freaking war zone, but poor, defenseless Kyle might not survive sitting on his ass in South Park-"
Stan grabbed him and hugged him, and Kyle was glad for the excuse to shut up. He hugged Stan like he wanted to hurt him with his affection, to make him really feel it, just short of actual suffering. Stan let him hold on for a long time.
"Where's your knife?" Stan asked when Kyle pulled back. Kyle was so delirious with dread that he had no idea what Stan was talking about. "The one I gave you for your birthday?"
"Oh." Kyle patted his pockets and found it. He carried it everywhere, but so far he'd only used it to cut the twine off of the packages that bore their rations. He pulled the knife out and showed it to Stan.
"Don't be afraid to use it," Stan said.
"What, on Cartman?" Kyle laughed. Stan didn't look amused.
"Exactly," Stan said. "Or anyone else who bothers you at the market. Try to go with Wendy when you go."
"Ugh," Kyle said. "Alright, I'm leaving. I - I'll write you," he said as he backed away.
"I know," Stan said. "Me too. Say goodbye to Pizza for me." Pizza was their code name for Ike. It had seemed ingenious when they were nine: when would they ever not have a reason to talk about pizza? Then all the delivery services went out of business, and mozzarella was a memory. The cheeses they got with their rations were hard, meant to last.
"Tell Butters I'm sorry for puking on his bedroom floor," Kyle said. They grinned at each other if this was a good memory, and Kyle turned around fast. It should have been like ripping off a band-aid, but he could feel Stan still back there, watching him go. He wouldn't let himself take a last look.
Two months wasn't so long. The next time they parted would be harder.
When he got home, he made brief small talk with Jimbo on the front stoop and hurried inside to shower. He'd thought he might cry, but he mostly felt tired. When he was clean he dressed and padded up to the attic. Ike was still asleep, which Kyle had fully expected. He crossed the room quietly and dropped into the bed, turning away from Ike and scooting back until the curve of their spines touched.
"What are you doing?" Ike mumbled after a few moments of quiet.
"Just let me lie here," Kyle said. "Just for a minute."
"Oh." Ike sighed. "Stan."
"It's just training. He'll be back in two months."
Ike rolled over and scooted down to press his face between Kyle's shoulder blades. He smelled terrible; he'd developed a bad habit of avoiding showers. Kyle didn't mind much at the moment.
Kyle slept, and he wasn't sure how long he'd been out when he heard the doorbell downstairs. Jimbo came up to tell him that Wendy had arrived.
"Are you alright?" Wendy asked when Kyle met her in the sitting room. He still felt like hell and he knew he looked it.
"I'm not up for volunteering today," he said. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Don't be so soft," Wendy said, and when Kyle glared at her she glared back. "Stan wanted us to do this together. You have no idea what he's about to go through-"
"Neither do you," Kyle said. "Unless you've been picking up volunteer shifts in the effing army."
"Wake up, Kyle," Wendy said. "I've been working with the Red Cross for years – I see what happens to soldiers. What can happen," she said, softening a little. "Just come with me. Maybe if we both do this as a gesture of fuck - ah-" She winced. Kyle was surprised; Wendy rarely slipped. "Of freaking karma or whatever, that'll double Stan's chances of coming back safe."
"You don't believe in things like that," Kyle said. He didn't, either, but he was already planning on getting his shoes and going with her. "Karma."
"I might believe in a lot of things in the coming months," Wendy said, standing. "Or years - you know he's enlisted for four years, don't you?"
"Stop," Kyle said, and he got up. "I'll come. Just don't talk to me."
"You're especially delightful," she said, following him to the foyer. "What's the matter, did you drink too much last night? You were swaying on your feet the last time I saw you."
"I'm fine," Kyle said. He sat down on the floor and shoved his shoes on. "Let's go."
The South Park Red Cross facility was in walking distance, just a few miles away. Jimbo still insisted on driving them, and he accompanied them into the building, hovering as Kyle filled out forms. Kyle expected a rigorous training routine - two months, perhaps - but he was brought directly into the medical ward and given menial tasks. There were dirty sheets to collect, lunch kits to pass out, and pills to fetch for long term patients. No one was moaning or leaking blood as Kyle had feared, but the quiet pall was almost worse. The fact that there was a video game station made Kyle's eyes well up for the first time since Stan had left. Two GIs were playing a boxing game while others who were gathered around watching, eating from their lunch kits. Most of the men in long term care were missing limbs.
"I don't see many women," Kyle said when he was helping Wendy make beds. He'd only spotted one woman, actually, on the small side and young, playing cards with a group near the video game station. She had a cast from her thigh to her foot and a bandaged ear.
"A lot of the women go home earlier," Wendy said. "Even if their injuries are severe – I'm not sure why. Maybe they're just less comfortable here than the men are. I wish we could afford a women's wing."
Kyle thought of Bebe: the way she'd led him to that bench, what she'd said when they sat there. He didn't really know her very well, really, but he felt certain that she would bolt from a place like this as soon as she could.
Gregory arrived about halfway through their shift, and just the sound of his voice renewed Kyle's headache. Kyle didn't have the same disdain for Gregory that Stan did, but he'd never enjoyed the guy's company.
"Kyle, I'm glad you're here," Gregory said, as if Kyle had reported to him specifically for duty. "How are you finding our facilities?"
"Fine," Kyle said. Gregory stared at him as if waiting for a more illuminating answer. It was a habit of his.
"I take it your beau has left for the war?" Gregory said to Wendy. She frowned and returned to the pillow she'd been fluffing.
"It's boot camp," she said. "Just a few hours away. Kyle - I was thinking, if Stan writes and gives us the okay, we should go up there for a visit. Surely they get some downtime."
"I don't know, Wends," Gregory said before Kyle could express his great enthusiasm for this plan. "I've heard boot camp is far more rigorous than it once was. They're strapped for soldiers, and-"
"I'm not saying it's a sure thing," Wendy said. "Just an idea." She walked away from them, her ponytail swinging behind her.
"Hmm, it's a sad day for Wendy," Gregory said. He turned to Kyle. "For you too, I suppose."
"No," Kyle said. He assumed it would be obvious that he was lying, but only because he looked like someone who hadn't slept for days. "We're proud of Stan. He'll do well."
"I heard you weren't able to join up yourself," Gregory said. "I'm sorry for you if such a thing was - important, to you."
"You know," Kyle said, jamming his fingers under the mattress of the bed he was working on, tucking in a sheet that smelled like bleach and felt like particle board. "Fuck off."
"Oh, well," Gregory said. "Fair enough." And he actually did fuck off, walking over toward the game area to organize an abandoned chess board. Kyle felt badly for being a dick, then annoyed with Gregory all over again for being capable of being so annoying and simultaneously sympathetic.
Toward the end of Kyle's shift he saw a familiar face, but he wasn't in one of the ward's beds. He walked in with the assistance of a cane, a patch over his right eye. It was Craig Tucker. Kyle hadn't spotted him since he'd showed up at the black market a few months back, patronizing the dry mushroom stall. Craig went straight for the pharmacist, muttered briefly and left with three bottles of pills.
"It's sad," Wendy said, appearing at Kyle's shoulder. She was watching Craig, too, but she looked more irritated than sad.
"Craig's – eye?" Kyle said when Wendy just stared at Craig, frowning.
"We used to think he was addicted to painkillers," Wendy said. She was whispering, but Craig was well out of earshot, limping toward the door with brisk determination. "But I've seen him – he sells the pills, you know. At the market."
"Ah." Kyle could hardly blame Craig for that; he was barely eighteen, one-eyed and crippled. Whatever the money he made on the black market bought him, it seemed to Kyle that he'd earned it. "Yeah – sad."
His shift at the Red Cross passed quickly, but as soon as he was home he realized he was starving. He made himself a mushroom soup with vegetable broth and brown rice, some instant "egg" stirred in. Before going to his room he checked on his father and Ike, asking if they'd eaten. Neither of them had; Kyle made baked potatoes with government cheddar and chives from the garden. He sat on the end of his father's bed while he ate.
"I don't want you feeling like you have to babysit me," Gerald said.
"I – don't." Kyle had been good at lying to his parents, once. Gerald shook his head and stabbed into the steaming flesh of the potato.
"Ike told me that Stan left today," he said.
"Well." Kyle felt dizzy; it wasn't as if he'd forgotten, but he'd pushed it far away, and he knew he would have to do that everyday if he intended to stay upright. "Yeah – he's. It's just training camp. What was it like for you?"
"Just a couple of days," Gerald said, shrugging. "Those were different times."
Days passed, and Kyle eventually came to realize that he was now managing the house. Even when his mother had been on tour she'd managed things from the road, calling to check in and leaving instructions for the staff. Kyle felt lost, and most of his time was divided between proving to Wendy that he could handle the germ-ridden reality of the Red Cross camp and making sure that his brother and father ate regular meals.
He was coming home from a shift at the Red Cross when he found Cartman hanging out on his stoop, smoking a cigarette with Ned. Jimbo was clearly unconcerned as they approached; anyone who had charmed Ned was okay with him.
"Hey, Kyle!" Cartman said, doing the fake-friendly thing that had made Kyle's skin crawl even when they were eight. Now – after – he felt it like a full body shudder, and he thought of the knife in his pocket. "You busy?" Cartman asked.
He was never busy. Someone as sickly intuitive as Cartman would know that. Kyle thought of asking Ned for a cigarette, just to prove – something – but he was afraid he would cough.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm busy, sorry." He hated that Ned and Jimbo were overseeing this. He felt like they knew.
"Oh, that's okay," Cartman said. He was smiling, but it wasn't for Kyle, not even mocking; he looked a bit frantic and scared, like some part of him was still afraid he would be punished for what he had done. They were obviously both thinking of it, Kyle's memories muddled and horrible, Cartman's possibly glossed over, self-forgiving. "I was just wondering if you wanted to hang out sometime," Cartman said. It felt like blackmail, him asking this with an audience.
"I'll let you know," Kyle said, and he hurried into the house.
Again, he ended up in Ike's bed, but Ike was across the room this time, working on some switchboard modification for the house's beleaguered phone line. Kyle clung to Ike's pillow and tried to hate Stan for not sending him a letter yet.
Stan had sent a letter; it was dated the day he'd arrived in camp. For whatever reason – general security, censorship hurdles, lack of postal resources – Kyle didn't receive it until five days later. He kissed it all over just for being dated: Stan had wanted him to know that he wrote it right away.
Well, they shaved my hair off. That's okay, I knew they would. They even shaved Bebe's off. We're all in the same bunk: me, Butters, and Bebe. They put the girls in the same bunk! Everything is a little cramped and not really what I thought it would be. Not that bad, though. Not like the Canadians have it, they're really screwed. And the food isn't that bad, we had these frozen pizza things. When's the last time we had pizza, you know?
I'm so tired, I feel like I sound dumb. I thought I'd have these great things to say, you know? How are you? When you write to me you have use my registration number (it's in the return address) and letters will be delivered to me directly.
I saved the bad news for last, and I hoped I'd be able to think of something else good or just normal to write before this, but I can't. They're shipping us out in a month and we don't get to come home first. Dude, I'm so sorry. I feel like you'll be mad at me about this, but I really didn't know. Tell Wendy I really didn't know.
I'm glad they told us about that right away, though. Now at least we know.
Aw, eff. I wish you were here.
Kyle sat in his backyard with the letter for a long time. He could smell the guards smoking cigarettes, could hear them muttering. It seemed like everyone who had a real job to do lived in another world, and Stan most of all. He was tempted to believe Stan was lying: he just wanted to spend all his leave time with Wendy! Maybe she'd talked him into it! He knew this wasn't the case, and when Wendy picked him up for their Red Cross shift the following morning he knew she'd received a similar letter. She didn't look as if she'd been crying but as if she'd been thinking, and as if the time she'd spent doing so had come to nothing.
"I should have joined up," she said.
"But you're a pacifist," Kyle said.
"Who told you that?" She gave him a look that made him think she might hit him. "No, that's stupid. I hate war, I hate violence – I hate this war specifically, this violence. But I'd kill anyone who hurt him," she said, grabbing the front of Kyle's shirt.
"Me, too!" Kyle said, feeling threatened.
"I know," she said, and she released him, patting his chest. "That's why I like you."
Kyle had never thought of Wendy as someone who liked him. They spent time together after their shifts, drinking wine sometimes, and Kyle thought of his promise to Stan about not drinking until he came back. That was before he'd known Stan might be gone for years, forever. He put his head on Wendy's shoulder sometimes, and sometimes she put her head on his. They both knew the other was thinking of Stan. It was why they couldn't bear to be around anyone else: anyone who wasn't always thinking about him was ridiculous, missing the point.
Not until I picked up a pen to write this did I realize that I haven't written in a letter in like five years. Everyone who I wanted to talk to was always just - around. With the exception of my mother. Who would call on the phone.
So, this is awkward already. I guess I'll just tell you what's been going on here.
First of all, Wendy is doing fine and has not been responsive to Gregory's advances, which aren't advances so much as douchey overtures. All three of us have been volunteering pretty much every day, I guess because there is nothing else to do. I always feel like the soldiers who are recovering must hate me, because of my mom or because I'm not sacrificing like they have. I asked Gregory if he ever feels this way and he laughed. He says he feels pity for the human race for not being able to let go of our primal warrior urges or some crap like that. I stopped listening like halfway through.
Writing this is making me miss you worse. Could we talk on the phone, maybe? Wendy has probably already told you, but we had this idea about driving up to FoCo and visiting you, if that would be allowed. So, let me know, or her. Maybe me and her could come at different times so it wouldn't be awkward having me there when you wanted to be alone with Wendy etc.
I'm still paying Karen McCormick to clean our house. Really hoping she doesn't find that pizza. The pizza has been kind of indiscreet lately, and less responsive to authority. Of course, the only person trying to assert authority over the pizza these days is me, because my father is pretty much comatose with grief. He keeps listening to old records from when he and my mom were dating. Do you have any grieving parent advice?
Please tell me everything you can about life on the base. I'm constantly trying to picture your day to day activities and having trouble with it.
I'm sorry it took me a week to write back, but I was really upset to find out you won't be coming home. I hope you can have visitors. You can't just leave, dude. Right?
I keep catching myself thinking you're already up north. I can't believe you're only two hours away.
Ugh I think that's enough for now. Write back really really quickly. Please.
Kyle! I got your letter today. It's so funny how I could hear your voice in it, like a recording was playing. Do I sound like me in my letters? I feel kind of stupid writing them, too, but reading them is great.
Thanks for the Wendy report. She's only written me twice so far, and neither letter mentioned Gregory, which isn't necessarily a good sign because I know she sees him all day every day. And now he's hanging out with you all the time, too, so I hate him that much more. Speaking of people we hate, is Cartman bothering you? Tell Wendy if he is. She'll waste him.
Okay, to address your questions:
1) Grieving parents - Well, I was grieving pretty hardcore at the time, too. Are you letting yourself grieve? You've been kinda closed up since it happened. I mean, not to me, but to everyone else. You know? I can totally picture your face as you read this, and you're scowling hatefully, aren't you? I actually hope you are, because I like being able to anticipate when you'll scowl hatefully.
Mostly you can't really do anything except be there and make sure they eat. Just let him listen to the records and mope around and hopefully someday he'll feel like he can function again. You're really capable and stuff so I think he feels okay letting you handle things on your own. With me, I was pretty psycho with rage after my dad died, so my mom had to take care of me and I think that distracted her from what she was going through herself, in a good way.
As for your pizza, don't let it push you around. A pizza of that age is prone to displays of aggression and independence. Especially since your dad is not really interested in pizza right now. Remind the pizza that you love and support it, even if it lashes out at you in response. Then tell it to get over itself. Everybody's got problems.
2) My day to day life at camp - It's not as exciting as you may think. Our whole day is planned out for us, every minute accounted for, and we just do what we're told. When it's getting me down I try to think about how my dad went through this, too, though I guess things were a little different back then.
Basically it's like: get up, run laps until you feel like you're gonna vomit, devour breakfast while sweaty, drills (like target practice, combat), scarf lunch (the food is not that good but you're always so hungry and also just glad to be sitting down for a whole ten minutes, so every meal seems like the best one you've ever eaten), more drills, chores, dinner, more chores, showers and bed. Showering with others is not my favorite activity. Especially because Butters gets picked on so I have to kind of watch out for him (so then they pick on me and call me his boyfriend, hur hur), but he can't just shower quick and get out like a normal person, he stands there chatting about all this stuff and dragging it out. Having to be near Butters' wang while he talks about the dream he had about riding a dragon is torture, Kyle.
Well, I hope you laughed, because now here's the bad news. We're not allowed to have visitors or make non-emergency phone calls. They said they'd make an exception if I was going to propose marriage to someone, so what do you think? Will you marry me?
No, but seriously, I'm thinking about asking Wendy. That way I could see her one more time before I leave (in only two weeks, now they're saying. It keeps getting shorter), and also she'd know that I'm serious about her and to not let Gregory get to her while I'm gone. Let me know your thoughts on this ASAP, because it's a pretty major decision.
Every day, Kyle. Just writing your name makes me sad.
WRITE BACK IMMEDIATELY, don't wait a week just because you're pissed at me for not being able to come home. Please please please.
Your loving pal,
Just read your letter and am immediately composing a response, per your request.
Well, okay. This Wendy idea. Here are my thoughts: (1) Wendy is very sensitive to bullcrap, so you'd better really mean this proposal if you're going to do it, and not just use it as an excuse to have sex with her one more time before you leave for the front; (2) although it makes me sick to admit this, going to war will probably change you. At least a little. How can you be sure that you'll still want to get married right away when you return? Is it fair to Wendy to assume that your feelings about settling down won't have changed at all?; (3) you might want to suggest this to Wendy as a ruse that you're both complicit in. Tell the army you're proposing, get down on one knee, do the whole thing, but have an understanding with Wendy that, while you will probably want to marry her eventually, this is just a practice proposal for the sake of a conjugal visit; and (4) you've never had any experience with another woman (have you?). Are you sure that Wendy is The One? You're under no obligation to marry your high school sweetheart. You described this decision as "pretty major. It is extremely major, Stan.
Alright, now I've gotten that out of the way. Writing it all out was a useful distraction from the rage that is growing in me over the knowledge you can't have phone calls or visitors unless future matrimony is involved. If Wendy doesn't like the idea of a fake proposal, you could offer one to me for the sake of a real goodbye. Ha ha.
You didn't really ask me how things are going with me or anything, so I don't really know what to say next. I guess it would be boring if I described my day. Cleaned bed pans, restocked gauze, played cards with my favorite soldier, lunch with Wendy and Gregory on the lawn (Gregory bought a triangle of brie from the black market, it was amazing), arranged the afternoon movie for the patients, cleaned more bed pans, gave someone who's lost his hands a sponge bath, awkward moment with Craig Tucker, then I walked home and found your letter.
Sorry to hear about Butters' wang. I'm surprised he has one, actually. Seems like he'd have one of those action figure smooth plastic crotches.
Mail man is coming in like five minutes so I guess I'll just end this here.
I think about you constantly. And yes, you sound like 'you' in your letters.
Are you mad at me? Stop being mad at me, Kyle. It's no fair, when I'm not there to defend myself.
I'm sorry I forgot to ask you to tell me about your day! I thought you just understood that I want to hear everything. Like, who is this 'favorite soldier' person? I thought I was your favorite soldier. Does he have hands? Is the guy without hands nice? Did Gregory make you chip in for the brie (I had to ask Bebe what brie is)? What happened with Craig that was awkward? These are just a few of the questions I had while reading what you wrote. KYLE, TELL ME EVERYTHING. There, now you have it in writing.
I think Wendy would be insulted by a fake proposal. I don't want to marry someone who I haven't known forever, and she's the only person who I've known forever who I'd ever want to marry (other than you, but you're a boy). Do you know what I mean? It's like, who am I going to meet who's better than Wendy? No one, probably. Do you even think she'd say yes? I've always kinda worried that she wouldn't, but since I'm leaving for war maybe I'll get some sympathy credit.
Kyle Kyle Kyle Kyle. This time around writing your name is more enjoyable. Not sure why. I think about you constantly, too. Every situation I'm in, I'm going, in my head, 'well here's what Kyle would do/think/say.' And I'm exactly right in every case, just so you know.
Don't even try to act like you don't know that I have a million questions I want to ask you. How is that pizza? How is Karen McCormick at cleaning? She wrote to Kenny and described you as "nice." I don't know if I agree with that assessment. Do you see yourself as "nice?" I like that you're not that nice. You're more like, honest and fair.
Nobody here is nice. It's a big joke that me and Butters are "in love" and I'm sick of it. Like I even care if these idiots think I'm gay. Just not for Butters, please. It's so insulting. Butters is not thriving. He broke down crying and confessed to me that he's gay for Cartman. I was like, "duh." But I said it nicely. I think I'm nice, Kyle, don't you?
If I do the marriage proposal thing with Wendy, you should drive her. By my calculations I would be able to see you from the guest parking lot and we could wave at each other through the fence.
I would really like to see you. Send pictures.
Putting this in the mail now, because it's effing urgent.
I LOVE YOU, KYLE BROFLOVSKI. Be nicer to me.
-Your adoring Stan
I don't know whether to be amused or alarmed by the fact that, based on your last correspondence, you seem to be going slightly insane. I guess I should say I'm not surprised. Your letter made me sort of insane with happiness, but it was brief, because after I finished reading what you'd written I was smiling at someone who was not actually present.
I've learned through Wendy that she's been granted a visitation permit next week. I take it this means you will be proposing to her at that time, against my advice. I just want that on record: against my advice. She suspects nothing; your story about a loophole in the visitation requirements flew with her. Surprisingly? Hmm. I think she's just out of her mind with excitement at the chance to see you. Anyway, I will drive her. Perhaps me and you could shout loudly enough to actually say hello to each other from the opposite sides of this fence.
Sorry I was so petulant about not being asked about my day or whatever. I'm in a weird place right now, Stanley. On to your questions:
My favorite soldier at the center is a 32 year old woman named Stephanie. I think she reminds me of my mother. She has a neck injury and has trouble controlling the volume of her voice (seeing the resemblance yet?) I've told her about you. She seems to think you'll be okay as long as you're not sent to the Wyoming/Montana border or upstate New York. So don't get sent to those places. And yes, she has hands.
The guy who does not have hands is not particularly nice, nor would I expect him to be. He's young, like 25. There's so little money available for prosthetics for injured soldiers. I never realized this was a problem until I started volunteering here. I guess we were really pretty sheltered from the realities of the war while we were in school.
Gregory did not make me chip in for the brie, but he made some passive aggressive comments about how much it cost. I ignored them and ate slightly more than my share.
Craig, oh Lord. What about Craig isn't awkward. He comes to the center on a regular basis to refill his prescriptions, then sells the pills for exorbitant prices on the black market. He's actually making quite a lot of money, I've heard, and he's opened his own booth where he employs Tweek to sell coffee that is laced with amphetamines. It's very popular stuff. I have not tried it yet myself. Anyway, the awkward moment in question took place as he was leaving with his latest bounty of pills and I was coming in with an arm load of freshly laundered blankets (I'm trying to paint a vivid picture here, don't laugh). As you know, Craig walks with a cane, and, barely being able to see over the pile of blankets, I nearly crashed into him, causing him to swerve, falter, and almost fall over. It was terrible, actually more heartbreaking than awkward, and, me being an idiot, I did not set the blankets down to help him because all I could think about was not wanting to get them dirty. Anyway, he steadied himself and toddled off, muttering about clumsy effers.
Of course I know what you mean about wanting to marry someone you've known forever. It's our small town mentality. We don't trust outsiders. I don't, anyway. Gregory is still suspect, as far as I'm concerned. Are you seriously asking me if Wendy will accept your proposal? She will. She loves you. She's a wreck without you. It's actually making me angry, the idea that you could wonder about this. But you asked me not to be mad at you, so I won't be.
Now, the most important part of the letter. Am I nice. I am nice to Karen McCormick, yes. She doesn't do a great job cleaning - forgets to wipe down the cabinet fronts in the kitchen, does not dust thoroughly, and has broken our vacuum. I'm nice about all of these things because she's a trembling little mouse whose mother will most likely end up working with Cartman's before the war is over. Am I nice to other people: no, for the most part. I'm not even nice to you, my favorite person.
You, however, are nice. You're saintly. If you've ever hurt anyone I'm sure it was unintentional. You're the kind of person who rescues insects from windowsills and releases them into the wild. Even the gross ones (like me).
That seems like a good place to stop. I think I've read your last letter 200 times. I love it when you're exasperated in print.
Looking forward to seeing you through (over?) a fence. In the meantime, I'm enclosing several old pictures of the two of us. These are incredibly precious to me, so please don't let them get singed in battle or anything. Don't let anything on your person become singed.
I could try to be nicer to you, but would you really want that? You said so yourself: you like it when I scowl hatefully on cue.
Your number one fan (yes, of course you're my favorite soldier),
Hey dude, I am starting to feel kind of nervous about this whole proposal thing. Do you think the army will get mad at me if I chicken out at the last minute? I'm glad you'll be there, anyway, even if you can't stand next to me while it happens.
Thanks for answering my questions. There is one big question that you still haven't answered, though: is Cartman bothering you? Don't be afraid to tell me if he is. I will sick Wendy on him so hard. I still have bad dreams about that night at the party. Do you? I hate him so much. As soon as I get home I'm going to pick up where I left off, punching-wise. Surprised he's not doing some black market shadiness like Craig is.
Man, good for Craig, though, really. He got a raw deal. Bebe has been going to church services here to pray for Clyde, and I've been going with her. Butters comes, too, to pray for Cartman's wiener, I guess. How could anyone be into that? I hope Cartman never finds out. He'd just use it to get Butters to do more of his dirty work.
I'm glad your other favorite soldier is a lady. Is she pretty? Wait, you said she reminds you of your mom, so I guess it's not a love connection. Sad about the guy with no hands. I bet you've seen a lot of sad stuff. But don't worry about me, I'm fine.
You're nice to me, Kyle, you are. Or maybe that's the wrong word. You treat me right. Hahaha.
I'm having a not great day today. Just tired and bored and I feel really lonely, though there are people everywhere and you can't even get a moment alone to sit on the toilet. Also it's getting really cold early this year, did you notice?
I miss you. I'm looking at the pictures you sent. I'm totally not crying or anything.
Write back soon.
It makes no sense that it should take your letters three days to get here! Not that I'm blaming you. I know they have to comb through everything and make sure there's nothing top secret being said. None of yours have been censored yet, by the way.
Well, in two days we'll be there for this proposal, unless you've called it off in a letter to Wendy. I keep catching myself thinking that they'll actually marry you then and there. They won't, will they? I hope not. That would be a depressing setting for a wedding.
I hate it when you cry, don't cry. It's hard to hear that you're feeling bad and not being able to do anything about. Maybe second thoughts about this proposal have something to do with it? You really don't have to go through with it, Stan. Don't allow yourself to feel trapped.
I ignored your concerns about Cartman because you suggested sicking Wendy on him, which is just a little insulting, Stan. I can handle that idiot myself. What happened was a drunken mistake by me, because I should have bitten or screamed or done anything other than lie there like a stunned turtle. I'm sorry you're having bad dreams, but please don't worry. Cartman is busy with black market schemes (he has his own booth now, too, and I bet you can guess what he's selling) and he's of no concern to me.
Now for my big news: Karen has discovered the pizza. I suspect the pizza itself had something to do with this. She's promised not to slice the pizza up and spread it around town, but I'm more worried about how well she's getting along with the pizza, despite the pizza being basically non-human in its communication skills. I guess it's just a case of a lonely girl meeting a lonely pizza, but I'm really alarmed by this.
I think I'm probably also jealous. It wouldn't be so bad if someone appeared and lifted the lid off my pizza box. So to speak.
I cannot wait to see you from across a parking lot, through a fence. I'm also bringing you a care package that Wendy will deliver.
But if you want to call the whole thing off, you should!
I just reread your last letter to make sure I remembered everything you talked about, and the last thing you said was that I should call off the proposal. Well, I went through with it. As you know. What did you and Wendy talk about on the drive back?
I'm glad I got to see you, even though you were kinda quiet and I was on the verge of puking from nerves. Had you seriously forgotten about the buzz cut? Your eyes were so wide when you first saw me. It's not even as short as it was when they first did it! I wish you could have seen Bebe. She's kinda working it. Butters is not, he looks like an overlarge baby.
So, I'm engaged. I don't feel different. I guess cause there's a lot of other things going on. Like I got my deployment. It's to the Wyoming border. Butters and Bebe will be on my squadron, and Kenny, too. He's all raring to go. He's gotten kind of weird. I think they might make him a sniper after his first tour, because he's really good with a gun.
Don't say that stuff about it being your fault. That wasn't your fault. He's evil, Kyle, and you shouldn't underestimate him. Don't even tell me what he's selling at the black market, it'll just piss me off.
I still can't believe it about pizza, but I'm kind of happy for it. Just make sure pizza wraps its pepperoni before it does anything crazy. I can tell you where the pepperoni wrappers vendor is at the market if you'd like.
It was so weird and good to see you. It all went by too fast. So much for a conjugal visit.
I don't know what else to say, sorry, I'm a little effed up about shipping out in a week. I feel like I just got here.
Write back and tell me everything you've done since you last saw me.
First of all, a big part of your last letter got redacted, so there's a whole paragraph that just reads "So, I got engaged. I don't feel different." And then a huge black chunk of secrecy. I'm really intrigued about what's under there, and why the army would be censoring your feelings about your engagement. There was also a part toward the end about you being "effed up" about something, and that remains a mystery, too.
I'm sorry I was quiet. It wasn't just the hair; you looked older. I guess just because of the increased muscle mass. How did that happen so fast? I'm jealous. It was really good to see you, and I'm sorry I was weird and touched your fingers. I don't know, whatever. I was overwhelmed by the whole thing, that effing fence, the idea of you as someone's husband.
On the way back, Wendy and I were silent for the most part. We've become pretty good friends, maybe she's told you, but that day we just wanted to be alone with our thoughts.
I didn't realize you were doing business with a pepperoni wrapper vendor at the market, though I guess I'm not surprised. It's sad that you couldn't have a conjugal visit, but you'll have some leave time after your first tour, right? God, why am I talking about the next time you'll stick your (wrapped, I would think) pepperoni into your fiancee, okay, moving on.
Everything I've done since you saw me: drove back to South Park, dropped Wendy off, returned to the house to find Karen McCormick giggling conspiratorially with pizza (please do tell me where to purchase pepperoni wrappers), cooked dinner - oh, Stan, this is boring already. Aren't you leaving for the front soon? Have they told you where you're going yet?
Jimbo has been asking about you. I think it would be a nice gesture if you wrote to him.
Congratulations on your engagement, by the way. I think I forgot to say that in person. Frankly I don't even know what came out of my mouth aside from comments about your buzz cut. Yes, I had really forgotten. I pictured you as you were, not as some theoretical soldier.
What else, Jesus. It feels strange all over again, writing to you, now that I've seen you again in person. Oh, I had another run in with Craig the other day. He asked about you, actually, but he really wanted information on Bebe. It was a very odd conversation. I feel badly, because I don't think he has any friends, and surely he wants someone he can talk to about what happened to him. Should I reach out to him, or is that asking for derisive laughter in my face?
Stay safe and write again soon. Sorry again about how I was in person. It's always been hard for me to acknowledge our differences. I tend to think I'm so like you, that we have so much in common, and then I get these reminders that we're miles apart in terms of like, everything.
I hope you're feeling better. I wish I could just sit with you and talk for a few hours. I'd do anything for that right now.
Hey dude, don't say we don't have anything in common. We have lots in common. It's just hard to define. We see the world the same way, you know?
Sorry stuff got blacked out. It wasn't about my engagement, anyway, and I was stupid to think that what it was about would get through. I forgot to ask you how Gregory reacted to finding out me and Wendy are engaged. Tell me!
You might not hear from me for a while, but don't worry. Keep sending the letters to the same address and they'll get passed on to me eventually, wherever I am.
Don't be sorry that you were quiet or about the finger touching. I liked the finger touching. You know I'm pretty touchy in general, so don't ever feel bad about grabbing me. I wanted to grab you that day. I guess I was overwhelmed, too. I didn't even think about the fact that I'll be a "husband." Huh. And yeah, I'll be wrapping my pepperoni for at least another five years. I guess by then I'll have some army pay banked and I might actually be able to afford a kid. I don't want to have one until the war ends, though, you know?
About Craig, man, I wouldn't bother. I don't like the idea of you becoming friends with him, even if it's the right thing to do. I don't trust him. But back to pepperoni: the condom/birth control vendor sets up near the back left exit, usually, and it's a total rip off but you gotta do what you gotta do. I guess we never did talk about me and Wendy going all the way or whatever. I'll tell you about it if you want? Probably not in a letter, though.
I wrote to Jimbo. It's always been hard for me to talk to him, though I guess we're close in a way? Since my dad died, anyway. Give him a hug for me, if you're cool with hugging him. I told him to give you one for me.
I wish we could sit together and talk, too. Especially now, I really need it. I want to write out everything I'm feeling but I hate the way it looks on paper, you know?
I'm carrying the pictures you sent me in my front pocket all the time. I think they'll be good luck.
Take care of yourself, and don't worry too much.
Today is Friday the 13th and I have the worst feeling. I can't put my finger on it, but of course I assume it has something to do with you being in danger. You can't tell me not to worry, that's cruel.
I guess we have things in common, but it's more history than personality, you know? It's a good thing, really, because I could never get along with someone who shares a personality with me.
Gregory: he's been very congratulatory toward Wendy re: the engagement, but I can tell he's hurting. Maybe not because he feels like he could make Wendy happier himself, but just because he's lost some part of himself to her, and she's giving that part of him, unknowingly, to someone else. I have an eye for that kind of hurt. It's actually making me like him, and we went to see that 'Hummingbird' movie together. Wendy's always said that he's gay. I suppose you know by now that I am.
I should crumble this up or burn it, but there it is. I have a horrible feeling that it will be a very long time before I see you again, and I don't want you to think I don't trust you with what I'm sure you already know.
Now I'm shaking like crazy, check out this bad penmanship. I think I will send this, though.
Don't tell me about you and Wendy, anyway. I got some condoms for Ike and he laughed, then turned pink in a way that makes me fear it's too late. They're only children, it's insane, but the war has made us all grow up fast.
I have to stop this here or I'll never have the balls to put it in the mail.
Kyle, I'm sorry it's been so long, things here are not how I thought they would be. There's no stuff for writing or mailing. It took me forever to get this pen and I don't know how long it will take this letter to get to you or if you've written me anything since I left. Butters and Bebe are here with me, and we try to keep each other warm. Kenny was killed three days ago, maybe Karen will have told you by the time you read this. I want to see you again someday so I can try to describe what's happened. I can't write it here.
I think my mother is still out of town on Red Cross business, but if you see her please tell her I'm okay. Are you okay? I still have our pictures, no burns on them. Love, Stan
I don't know if this will ever reach you, or if my last letter has. I've been in turmoil for months over your lack of response, and now I hate myself for how petty and self-pitying I've been. I've just received your letter dated November 1 and this gritty scrap you wrote it on terrifies me. I'm terrified for you.
We've had air raids here; the movie theater and that whole strip of shut-down stores was bombed. I'm still volunteering, and we had a new influx of patients around Thanksgiving. It's so overcrowded and sometimes I don't go home until eleven o'clock.
The pizza is gone. Karen, too. They left a note telling us not to worry. My father is inconsolable. I try not to think about it. There's so much work to be done, and I've been very determined to lose myself in it in the weeks and months without word from you.
I actually took heart in Wendy telling me she hadn't heard from you either, though I thought she might be lying to save my feelings. I'm such a coward, an idiot, and I should die a thousand times before you suffer a moment's discomfort. Wendy has always been braver than me, and she's certain that we'll hear from you soon. I find her crying sometimes, but she always pushes me away and pretends I'm imagining it.
Kenny's remains have not been returned, so far as I know. I could have sworn I saw him in town just two weeks ago, filling up an unfamiliar truck at a gas station, but I suppose I've just gone a little crazy.
Stan, what will happen? I wish someone could tell me. I wish I could even know that you'll read this.
I want you back here where you belong. This is madness and I'm done with it.
Stan, I know I'm spitting into the wind, but I had to write something. Clyde Donovan appeared in the field hospital today, battered but intact. Alive all this time, surviving just outside of enemy territory, finally able to make it as far south as the last outpost in California. I took it as a miracle, and I was only briefly glad for it, because how many miracles can one town hope to have? I wanted that one reserved for you, just in case.
I spoke to your mother on the phone (she's serving in Virginia) and she said she'd had no news of you. How can they leave us with nothing for months? This is hell.
Though he was the only survivor from his missing platoon, Clyde's return seemed to lift the spirits of everyone at the Red Cross center, and Kyle tried not to resent Clyde for not being Stan. He could see that Wendy was struggling with this, too. Clyde was weak but mostly unharmed. He still had all of his limbs, and his mental facilities seemed intact. Angrily, Kyle thought that Clyde was the perfect soldier: he was too dense to actually internalize any of the brutality he'd seen. Stan was the opposite. Kyle had to remind himself daily that it was inaccurate to think of Stan as "lost" just because he hadn't written. There had been no news reports about an entire platoon disappearing.
"I just heard about Kenny," Clyde said when Kyle came to serve him his lunch. "Jesus." Clyde stared down at his pimento cheese sandwich as if he wasn't sure what to do with it. "He was in Bebe's platoon, Wendy said. I can't effing believe she joined up."
"Why?" Kyle asked. "She's no delicate flower."
"That's not what I meant," Clyde said. "I just thought she'd still be here when I got home. That whole time, I was imagining-" He trailed off and picked at the crusts on his sandwich.
"Sorry," Kyle said. "I wrote to Stan this morning, telling him you were here, so if he's with Bebe he'll tell her."
"If he is?" Clyde said. "You haven't heard from him-"
"In months," Kyle said, shortly. He didn't want to discuss it. "His mother thinks he was sent to the Wyoming border, but we don't know for sure. Things there—" Kyle stopped himself, not wanting to pretend he could know what things there were like. "I think you have a visitor," he said when he looked up and saw Craig hurtling toward them, thumping the floor with his cane as he came.
"Craig!" Clyde called out, as if there was a dense crowd between them.
"I heard the rumors in the market and I-" Craig seemed to be holding back tears, something Kyle never expected to witness. He got out of the way before Craig could fall onto Clyde's bed, letting his cane clatter to the floor. Craig grabbed for Clyde with a sharp inhale of breath, and Clyde embraced Craig with the same desperation, smiling onto Craig's shoulder. Kyle turned to busy himself with stripping the linens off the neighboring bed. Craig was weeping softly, Clyde was shushing him, and Kyle found the whole thing embarrassing. It made his eyes sting to imagine that he might receive Stan this way.
"Your eye?" Clyde said.
"It's nothing," Craig said, his voice muffled, buried against Clyde's sleeve. "You're here."
Kyle left them to their reunion, bringing the stripped linens to the laundry area. Wendy was there folding towels, unfurling them with an angry snap as she pulled them from the dryer.
"Well," she said. "If Clyde's okay." She stopped there, and Kyle didn't need her to continue. He knew she'd meant to say that if Clyde was okay after disappearing for months, Stan certainly would be. He knew, too, that she was aware how unlikely it was for one small town to get even one happy ending for its returning soldiers.
"Craig is out there with him now," Kyle said. "It must be so weird for them to see each other, after. All that."
Wendy gave no response except to continue snapping towels into order, and Kyle was actually glad for the approach of Gregory, who stood watching Wendy's progress with the towels for a moment before speaking.
"Kyle, I wonder if you'd help me with the lunches," he said. "I'm afraid Annie is late for her shift."
"Fine," Kyle said, and he touched Wendy's shoulder before leaving. It was unfair for her to be anything but relieved by Clyde's safe return, but Kyle appreciated it when Wendy's irrational rage aligned with his own. It only ever happened where Stan was concerned.
"Since we're celebrating today, I thought I'd give them something special," Gregory said as they walked toward the kitchen area. "I bought some cookies at the market. With my own money, of course."
"Of course," Kyle said. "That was nice of you."
"Well, part of my duty here is to see to their emotional needs, and, odd as it sounds, something as simple as the addition of a cookie to a lunch tray can go a long way toward satisfying some people."
"Some people," Kyle said, because Gregory seemed to be excluding himself from this group that could be so easily cheered. Gregory shrugged.
"The downtrodden," he said.
"Do you ever feel downtrodden?" Kyle asked. "About the war?"
"My God, what a question," Gregory said. "Yes, every day. It's the great tragedy of our generation."
"I mean on a personal level."
"What could be more personal than seeing most of my former classmates crippled or struck down by battle?" Gregory asked, and he stopped walking, peering down at Kyle with a frown. Gregory was taller than him by several inches. Kyle wanted to push him over.
"Never mind," Kyle said. "Let's just - onward to the cookies."
"I know you're a bit preoccupied these days, like Wendy," Gregory said as they entered the kitchen. "About Stan Marsh."
"Why do you always say his full name?" Kyle asked, muttering. He went to the lunch trays, not really wanting an answer to that.
"Definitive news from the north has been sparse, I know," Gregory said. "It's disconcerting, but it doesn't mean certain doom."
"Don't talk to me about certain doom," Kyle said. He turned to see Gregory opening the bag of gingersnaps he'd gotten from the market, sniffing them.
"I hope they're not too stale," he said.
"Try one and find out."
"Here, we'll split one," Gregory said, and he lifted one from the bag. He halved it very carefully, and the cookie split almost precisely down the middle. They watched each other while they chewed, and Kyle suspected Gregory felt guilty, too. Rations had diminished around Christmastime, and Kyle hadn't had anything frivolous in months. "Still snappy," Gregory said, and he hurried to add the cookies to the lunch trays.
The men and women in the ward did seem grateful for the cookies as Kyle made the rounds delivering lunches. Stephanie, the only soldier he'd really befriended, had left to stay with family in Denver weeks before, and he missed her as he moved amongst the beds, still wondering what the others thought of him. The only one who'd made a point of telling Kyle what he thought of him was the soldier who'd lost his hands. It had taken Kyle some time to recognize his old playmate, the boy from a neighboring county who had thought he could save Terrance and Philip from execution when they were all too young to know better.
"What the hell is this?" Christophe asked when Kyle set a lunch tray in his lap.
"Food," Kyle said. He'd become accustomed to Christophe's surliness, and he could hardly blame him for it. The prosthetic hand that was supposed to be provided for him had been on backorder since October.
"What are you serving me, cookies? Am I six years old? The government is spending money to treat us like toddlers?"
"Those are special gift from Gregory," Kyle said, smiling at the expression that followed. Christophe loathed Gregory more than any of the volunteers, and made no attempt to conceal this.
"If that prick wants to do me a favor he can light a cigarette and stick it in my mouth," Christophe said. "Cookies." He mumbled some curses in French.
"I'll eat yours if you don't want them," Kyle said, and he sat down on the bed. Though Christophe had told Kyle exactly what he thought of him and his dead bitch mother more than once, Kyle was the only volunteer other than Wendy who Christophe would actually take food from.
"God," Christophe said, speaking with his mouth full and watching something across the room. Kyle turned to see that he was staring at Craig, who was still sitting on Clyde's bed and still crying, his hands on Clyde's cheeks. "Are those two going to fuck right here in the ward?"
"Don't be a jerk," Kyle said. He envied Christophe's ability to say 'fuck' without flinching in pain. Veterans could elect to have their v-chips removed, but it was a dangerous surgery that could result in serious brain damage. Christophe was either fearless or felt that he had nothing to lose, or both. "They're best friends," Kyle said, turning to look at Clyde and Craig again. "They thought they'd lost each other."
"I think it's more than that for the one with the eye patch," Christophe said.
"Oh, please," Kyle said, though he suspected that was true. Even before the war, Craig had trailed after Clyde in a way that made Kyle wonder. "Leave them alone. They're happy. People are still allowed to be happy."
"Psh," Christophe said. "Anyone who can be happy living in this hell God has thrust us into is blind, a fool, and will be sorry he let his guard down. Give me one of those cookies."
"You changed your mind?" Kyle said, snapping one in half.
"I'm still hungry," Christophe said sourly, and he sucked the cookie from Kyle's fingers, crunching it angrily. "Here he comes," he said when Gregory approached the bed. "Looking for a pat on the back."
"Doing alright today?" Gregory asked, standing at the foot of Christophe's bed with his hands clasped behind his back. He was pretty unflappable, but Kyle sometimes got the impression that he was afraid of Christophe.
"Oh, yes, I'm doing quite well," Christophe said. "As you can see, I regrew my hands, and I'm not sitting here getting spoon fed like an infant by monsieur clown hair."
"Don't call me that," Kyle said. Gregory just fidgeted for a moment and walked away, sighing.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" Christophe asked. "He wants everyone to be smiles and rainbows so he can feel better about spending thirty dollars on a bag of cookies?"
"I guess he just thinks he knows everything," Kyle said. "He means well, though, in terms of the cookies. You want the other one?"
"Yes," Christophe said, frowning, and Kyle fed it to him. "Tell him to bring me cigarettes next time," Christophe said, still chewing. "I'm serious, red."
"My name's Kyle, and this is a non-smoking ward."
"Fuck you, Kyle, and do I look like I care about your do-gooder policies?"
"No, I guess you don't." Kyle dabbed the crumbs from the corners of Christophe's lips and got a snarl in exchange. Every time Kyle wanted to walk away and demand that Wendy deal with him from now on he tried to picture Stan made helpless like this, dependent on a volunteer in a Red Cross camp. Then he would try desperately not to picture that at all.
Wendy stayed late at the center and Kyle walked home alone, his hands stuffed in his pockets. Someone had stolen his last pair of good gloves. He was pretty sure it was Annie, actually. The winter had been harsh so far, and gas and electricity were increasingly unstable. Kyle worried about Ike every day, and felt guilty for having stripped the blankets from Ike's attic bed and piled them onto his own. The note Ike left had promised that he and Karen had 'a plan,' but he hadn't lived in the real world since he was three years old, and even a genius wouldn't find many resources or places to hide.
When Kyle got home Jimbo, Ned, and his father were all in the foyer, his father dressed as if he was preparing to go out, buttoning up his coat.
"What's going on?" Kyle asked. He hadn't seen his father fully dressed in months, and now the sight was unsettling.
"Kyle, talk some sense into him," Jimbo said.
"Nobody's going to change my mind," Gerald said. "I know what I have to do."
"What?" Kyle pulled his hat off and hung it on the coat rack, trying not to panic. "What do you have to do, Dad?"
"I have to find your brother," Gerald said. "Jimbo and Ned have been searching around town, and I appreciate that, but it's time we cast the net wider."
"So let me and Ned go," Jimbo said. "We know how to track people, we could—"
"No," Gerald said. "I'm not having Kyle here unguarded. What are you doing walking home alone?" he asked, whirling on Kyle. "It's not safe. From now on, if you can't get a ride with your friends, Jimbo will take you to and from the Red Cross camp."
"You're not—" Kyle said. "Dad, you can't just – I mean, what are you going to do? Where are you going to look?"
"Everywhere," Gerald said. "Ned, Jimbo, I'd appreciate it if you'd help me pack the car with provisions. I might be gone for a week or more."
"Dad!" Kyle said. "This is crazy, just – we can ask to have the bodyguards who were here after mom died back, then Jimbo and Ned can look for Ike—"
"There's no time for that, Kyle! Ike has been gone for months, and I can't just sit around here waiting to see what will happen. Not anymore," he said, and he took Kyle by the shoulders. "Not for a moment longer. I know I've been – distant since Mom died, and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to lose Ike, too. Or you. Jimbo and Ned have to stay, and I don't want you going anywhere without one of them with you and one of them guarding the house. Understand?"
"No!" Kyle said, though he did. His father was currently his most expendable protector. "Dad, you're—" He couldn't bring himself to say, You're all I have left, because that would be like admitting Ike was really gone. Stan, too.
"Try to understand, Kyle," Gerald said. "I've done nothing since your mother died, and I haven't really been myself since the war. It's not fair to you, I know, but none of what's happened is. Now I need to do this, for us, for our family – I can't stare at the walls of this house for another minute, not while your brother is out there somewhere."
His father meant that literally; he left that night, with a rifle and the backseat of the car packed with provisions. Jimbo tried to gather Kyle into a hug after Gerald had gone, but Kyle evaded his grip and hurried up the stairs. He shut his bedroom door softly, not wanting Jimbo to follow him, and sunk down to the floor, marveling at the fact that Jimbo was related to Stan, that they shared some of the same blood. They looked nothing alike. Kyle would have been so comforted by even a dimple of similarity. Like Stan, Jimbo had a big heart, but it wasn't enough of a resemblance to make Kyle feel like he wasn't suddenly and completely alone. He folded his arms over his knees and rested his head down, trying to breathe normally.
When he was undressing for bed that night he felt the weight of the knife Stan had given him in his pocket as he slid his jeans down. He took it out and climbed under his blankets in only his underwear, wiggling down to try to get warm. He pressed the jade handle to his lips as if to warm it up, too, thinking of what he'd told Stan in his letters, that Cartman hadn't bothered him. Every time Kyle went to market Cartman called him over, leering, and asked how Captain America was doing. Kyle lied to Cartman, too, or began to after he stopped hearing from Stan. He always answered shortly that Stan was doing fine, fighting bravely, writing often.
He couldn't sleep, so he lit a candle, pulled the blankets around him and took Stan's last letter from his bedside drawer. It shredded him every time he read it, mostly for what was left unsaid. There was no way of knowing if Stan had received Kyle's spontaneous confession about his sexuality, which he'd sealed up and run to the mail box in town before he could change his mind or even read over what he'd written. His angst about Stan's lack of reply had seemed frivolous as soon as he received Stan's letter of November 1, almost two months after that date. I want to see you again someday so I can try to describe what's happened. Kyle could never read that sentence without a shiver of dread that lingered and became heavier after he'd put the letter away. He didn't need to be holding Stan's letter to hear those words in Stan's voice, flat and exhausted. He heard it all the time.
"I just want," he said, speaking to the letter, and he pressed it to his face. He wanted Stan, wanted to be held; even after everything that he knew Stan had been through, and the things that he knew he couldn't possibly imagine, he still wanted Stan to appear and comfort him. He hated himself for it, but he could never get to sleep without pretending he was in Stan's arms. He knew that if Stan did come home he would marry Wendy, that the sleepovers were done for good either way. Kyle would give up his hands to endure that in lieu of losing Stan entirely, but both potential outcomes haunted him. For as long as he could remember, some part of Stan had belonged to him. Stan's marriage would undo that, even if they both pretended otherwise. Kyle fell asleep praying that he'd have to opportunity to suffer that particular heartbreak.
The next few days were dark and snowy, and Jimbo made sure that Kyle was rarely alone. He was like Stan in this way, hanging back and fretting in silence, gently encouraging Kyle to eat. Kyle tried to appreciate this, but he mostly felt harassed by the company, and the only time he was glad to have Jimbo with him was when he visited the market and Cartman didn't have the balls to make any comments about Stan in front of his uncle.
"What can I get for you today, gentlemen?" Cartman asked when Kyle approached his booth. He sold "surplus" food rations, and Wendy had been working on proving that they were stolen, but Cartman had always been careful about covering his tracks. Every time Kyle saw him he thought about how what had happened in Butters' bedroom that night had gone unpunished. Cartman had done it knowing Kyle would be too ashamed to try to get him in trouble without proof. He still curled in on himself in horror when he thought about how no one had ever touched him like that before Cartman, and how likely it was that no one else ever would.
"Do you have cigarettes?" Kyle asked.
"Why, Kyle," Cartman said, eying Jimbo. "I didn't think you had it in you."
"They're not for me," Kyle said, and he clamped his mouth shut, hating how Cartman always seemed to be able to pry information from him without much effort.
"Cigarettes are expensive," Cartman said, and something in his eyes changed, a subtle meanness that Kyle would recognize from twenty feet away. "Who are you willing to spend that much money on, when you've got mouths to feed?" He glanced at Jimbo again. The Broflovski family paid for Jimbo and Ned's expenses personally since the government-supplied bodyguards had packed up around Thanksgiving, needed elsewhere.
"Do you have them or not?" Kyle asked. "I don't have all day to stand here and tell you things that aren't your business."
"Oh, Kyle," Cartman said. "Always so feisty. Let's see, hmm. I don't think I have any in stock right now, but I'm meeting with my supplier at close of business today. If you came by my house, say, eight o'clock this evening—"
"No, thanks," Kyle said, his heart pounding with rage at Cartman's nerve. "Put them aside for me and I'll come get them tomorrow."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Kyle. I can sell them to the girls at the house, after all. And they've got the money – business is booming." He leered at Kyle, leaning over his table until Kyle took a step back. "My mom's even got a boy working there now, if you're looking for some company."
"Fascinating," Kyle said, assuming that boy was Cartman. He could feel his cheeks heating. He knew Cartman could see it, and was relishing it. "Well, if you can't help me I'll ask somewhere else."
"Oh, I could help you," Cartman said, lowering his voice. "We both know that, and how. Don't forget it, Kyle!" he called as Kyle stormed away, Jimbo following him.
"You alright, kiddo?" Jimbo asked.
"I'm fine, I – I should have known better than to – I just don't know who else would have them. He's cornered the market on so many things. I don't know he does it." Kyle gritted his teeth, wishing he didn't have to care. It wasn't just Cartman's ability to conquer the black market that made his blood boil, it was everything he'd always taken so easily, laughing, careless.
"Well, let's see," Jimbo said. "Ned had to quit a few years back when smokes started getting too expensive, but back in the day he got them from – damn, who was it? Some guy who worked down at the theater. Shit, I wonder if he's dead?"
"Probably," Kyle said, because the movie theater was now an ash-filled crater. He heard how cold he sounded and stopped, turning to Jimbo. "I just wanted to do something nice for someone who's lost – everything, basically. He's a veteran, at the Red Cross camp. Cigarettes are, like. The only thing he still loves."
"We'll find him some," Jimbo said, and he gave Kyle's shoulder a squeeze. Something about the gesture was so Stan-like that Kyle had to turn away before he could get upset. He was always most vulnerable to that sort of thing after an encounter with Cartman.
They didn't find cigarettes, but Kyle sprung for a good-looking pork loin and brought it home for Ned to butcher. He'd been a cook in the army and was pretty good at it, even when the power was out. Like most families in South Park, the Broflovskis had invested in a wood-burning stove and had it installed alongside the gas stove for desperate times. Even when the gas was working they burned wood in the stove to heat the kitchen less expensively. Jimbo usually did the wood chopping, but Kyle insisted that evening, needing to feel useful. He was still rattled by what Cartman had said. We have a boy now. Kyle had no doubt that Cartman would sell himself until he'd stockpiled enough cash to buy up more stalls at the market. He already had almost the entire back wall since he'd merged with Craig, and they employed Tweek and Craig's sister Ruby to run the counter for them. Still, Cartman was always there, overseeing, and he would appear whenever Kyle stopped by to browse his wares, which were impressive in variety and often impossible to find elsewhere.
It was late afternoon, the sun already sinking, and though Kyle hadn't eaten all day and was quickly out of breath, he was glad to do some physical labor. He was glad, too, to hit something, to cut the wood in two with one blow when he struck it right. Angry tears froze at the corners of his eyes when he thought of Randy Marsh teaching him and Stan to do this when they were ten years old. It was the second year of the war, a good one for America, and Randy was home on a month-long leave. He'd said that Stan would have to be the man of the house if anything should happen to him, so he'd better know how to chop wood properly, and Stan had rolled his eyes as if it was just some joke Randy was telling, the idea that he could be gone. Most of the casualties had been Canadian in those early years. They didn't yet know anyone who had died, unless they counted Terrance and Phillip, who did feel like dear friends once. Stan and Kyle had remembered them together in secret; when they called each other by those names it made Kyle itchy with excitement, the way all of his secrets with Stan had.
He heard a car in the front driveway when it was almost too dark to continue with the ax, and was immediately startled. As he came around to the front, still holding the ax, he feared he'd see Cartman's truck with its giant snow tires, that he'd come with some cigarettes to sell for the purpose of harassing Kyle further. He wasn't expecting a military Jeep and three men in full uniform.
"No," he said, the word whimpering from him weakly as he stood watching Jimbo receive the officers at the front door, and he had to screw his eyes shut and remind himself that if something had happened to Stan the military would have no reason to send notice to the Broflovski house. Kyle was not Stan's fiancee. Ike, he thought, and he dropped the ax into the snow, running for the front door.
"Here he is," Jimbo said. "Kyle, these officers say they need to ask you about something." He looked worried, and Kyle saw his rifle leaning against the wall in the foyer.
"Me?" Kyle said. "What's happened? Is it – my father?"
"We were hoping to speak to him," said the officer who seemed oldest, gray hair at his temples. "But we've just been told that he's away. On what business?"
"He's just – he's gone to Denver to see some friends and shop for things we need," Kyle said. "We're running low here on – everything, actually, I work at the Red Cross center and we really need—"
"Might we come in, Mr. Broflovski?" the gray-haired man said.
Kyle had no choice; if the military asked to enter a private home, it wasn't really a request. He brought them in, and was glad that he had Ned to serve tea, his own hands shaking conspicuously. The gray-haired man introduced himself as Colonel Rogers and said he was stationed in Fort Collins.
"At the training camp?" Kyle asked, stuffing his hands under his knees to hide how hard they were shaking. They were seated in the living room, both of the officers Rogers had come with still stationed by the door, Jimbo leaning near the fireplace.
"That's right," Rogers said. "I oversee things at the camp there. One of my duties is to monitor communications that are marked as suspicious."
"Oh," Kyle said. He was afraid that he was about to be arrested, his mind racing as he tried to imagine what he might have done.
"That's how this particular letter came to my attention," Rogers said, pulling an envelope from his inside coat pocket. "It's addressed to Stan Marsh from Kyle Broflovski, dated October 13."
Kyle didn't have to wonder which letter that was. He remembered clearly, because he'd counted the days with no response from Stan. It was the letter that contained the first and only admission Kyle had ever made about his sexuality.
"It's not illegal," he blurted, his face heating. "I mean, not for a civilian—"
"In the letter," Rogers said, opening it, "If I may read from it. You say, at one point, to Lieutenant Marsh, 'I got some condoms for Ike and he laughed, then turned pink in a way that makes me fear it's too late. They're only children, it's insane, but the war has made us all grow up fast.'" Rogers looked up from the paper and gave Kyle an unflinching stare, letting that sink in for a moment. "This struck me as odd, because Issac Broflovski died many years ago. Or so we were led to believe."
"Excuse me?" Kyle said, hoping fake outrage would buy him some time. It seemed impossible that he'd slipped now, after all the years when no one who knew the secret had, but he'd been in such a hurry to get the letter out, to keep up his courage— "My brother – are you actually suggesting—"
"Mr. Broflovski," Rogers said. His voice had hardened, but only slightly. "It's a very serious crime to assist a Canadian citizen in avoiding internment."
"But I haven't!" Kyle said, trying to make himself believe his own anger, his hands slipping out and curling into fists. "My brother is dead, and this is very – I wish that he was alive, I wish, but—"
"Then how do you explain this letter?"
"Has Stan seen it?" Kyle asked. He felt himself crumbling from the inside out, wanted Jimbo to chase the officers away with his gun.
"I'm sorry?" Rogers said.
"Stan – Lieutenant Marsh, has he seen that letter?" Kyle's face was burning, but at least he had this as an excuse. "I'm sure you can. Since you've read the whole thing. You can imagine why I'd want to know."
"He has not seen it," Rogers said. "It's been classified as sensitive. But there is a graver matter here than your communications with your – friend." Rogers stopped there for a moment, studying Kyle. "I need you tell me the truth about your brother before we search this house and find him. It will make things easier for both of you."
"You won't find him!" Kyle said. His terror lent some authenticity to the appearance of outrage, he supposed, since his eyes were watering. "Have you even got—"
"A warrant? Yes." Rogers produced another paper from his coat pocket. "Men," he said, turning to the officers at the door. They nodded, one heading up the stairs while another went into the dining room. "You can examine this if you like," Rogers said, holding the warrant out for Kyle. "Please, son," he said when Kyle took it, his hands still shaking. "Just tell us where your brother is."
"In the graveyard," Kyle said, scowling. "Buried. How dare you. That message to Stan – it's a sort of code we use. Nothing, ah, sinister, just a friendship thing, something we've done since we were boys. If I didn't want to implicate one of our friends in something – embarrassing, I'd use my brother's name. It was – was, ah. To honor him."
"That doesn't make much sense, Mr. Broflovski."
"Well, we were kids when I invented it, and, and—" Kyle pretended to study the warrant, unable to go any further with such a stupid lie. Even in the midst of his panic, he was immensely relieved, because they wouldn't find Ike, and because Stan had never seen that letter.
After the officers had searched for almost an hour, not quite tearing the house apart but not being especially careful, either, they could only question Kyle about the bed in the attic. By then he had his story ready.
"Our maid slept there, Karen McCormick," Kyle said. "She was employed by us for six months, but she's left town now. The bed is stripped, as you can see."
Rogers stared at Kyle for a few long moments after he'd said so. Kyle knew he'd won, in a sense, despite not being able to come up with a better lie under pressure. There was nothing to find, but he knew he'd be watched now, at least for some weeks.
"Thank you for your patience," Rogers said as the men prepared to leave. "I'm sure you can understand how a letter like this would arouse our suspicions."
"I'm sorry you were confused," Kyle said sharply, wanting him gone.
"I met your mother once," Rogers said. "You're like her."
"Thank you," Kyle said, though he didn't get the impression it had been meant as a compliment. "I wonder," he called out when Rogers turned to go, fitting his hat back over his closely cropped hair. "Um, I wonder if I could ask you about Lieutenant Marsh? If you've had news of him?"
"Marsh left camp with the 92nd back in October," Rogers said. "He hasn't written to me, either, I'm afraid." He gave Kyle a tight, mocking smile before turning to go.
"He did write to me," Kyle said, holding back tears as he stood at front windows, watching them go. Jimbo was behind him, still biting his tongue about what had just happened. He remained very patriotic, to the point that Kyle had often wondered if he'd turn Ike in himself. "He did write," Kyle said. "He wrote me as often as he could."
"Well, of course he did," Jimbo said, and he patted Kyle's back. "That pork smells like it's about ready, huh? Come get something to eat."
"I feel like I'll throw up," Kyle said. "I'm such an idiot. To slip like that, I – I can't believe I did that, I could have cost Ike everything, and for what? For what," he said, again, to himself.
"Shh, alright. We got lucky, but it's not your fault. Ike might have some – tainted ancestry, but he's American, dammit. How else would he have the balls to run off with the first girl he kissed, huh?"
"He's an idiot, too," Kyle said. "God, and now my father. He's delusional, I think, and I'm not using that word lightly. They're all just – gone." He looked up into Jimbo's eyes, embarrassed to be having this conversation with him. Jimbo always looked like a loyal dog who'd just been kicked when he had to face something emotional.
"They'll be back, though," Jimbo said. "Stan, too. Don't you worry."
Kyle managed to eat only a few bites, and as soon as he was up in his room he was sorry that he'd left the company of Jimbo and Ned. They weren't very good conversationalists and Kyle often ignored whatever they were talking about in favor of losing himself to his own grim thoughts, but it was nice to be around other people. He thought of going to Wendy's house, because Stan would like that, but he wouldn't be able to explain why he was so shaken. She didn't know about Ike, and he would never tell her the contents of the rest of that letter, his confession and what it meant. Stan was humble enough that he might have read what Kyle wrote without connecting the dots, but Wendy would. If she ever heard it from Kyle himself that he was gay, she would know that he longed for Stan and always had. She was too smart to miss it.
In the coming week Kyle received two very unexpected items in his mail box. The first made his skin prickle with goosebumps: an unopened pack of cigarettes, no note. Kyle hurried into the house after finding it there, feeling as if Cartman was hiding somewhere nearby, watching for his reaction to this seeming gift. He hid them inside his sleeve and threw them away in the kitchen garbage as soon as Ned's back was turned. He felt terrible doing it, because their monetary value had to be at least forty dollars, and if they hadn't been tampered with Christophe would have been so glad for them. Kyle couldn't take the risk – Cartman knew, thanks to Kyle's stupid admission, that he wasn't looking to buy cigarettes for himself, and anyone who Kyle was willing to spend that much money on would be considered a rival. Cartman had probably poisoned the things somehow; he didn't give gifts, or anything, without ulterior motives. Kyle was unsettled for the rest of the day, and he felt watched wherever he went.
This preoccupied him for the next two days, but it was all wiped away by the next unexpected thing he received. Kyle was pretty sure he'd never seen Ned smile, but he was making a valiant attempt at one when Kyle came into the kitchen with Jimbo after his Red Cross shift.
"Kyle," Ned said, holding an envelope out. "Something for you."
It was a letter from Stan. Kyle tore it open with a half-swallowed shout, turning his back on Ned and Jimbo, who watched him fondly, like he was a child unwrapping a birthday present. It was hard for Kyle to make himself focus on the actual words, so swept up just by the sight of Stan's handwriting, and he tried not to be very disheartened by the date on the letter.
I can't tell you where we are, but I want you to know that I'm safe and we've found this place to stay, a kind of inn where they have beer! And we're allowed to drink it. I feel like myself again for the first time since I left training camp. It makes such a big difference, having an actual bed (well, cot) to sleep in. Butters got drunk and sang pop songs while this guy in our platoon (Davis) played the piano, and everyone was cheering and singing along, and he (Butters) danced with Bebe, who is a superstar by the way, I can't tell you why exactly but I will when I get home. It was like real life again, last night. We pretended it was New Year's Eve.
I miss you so much that I'm afraid to see you again. Do you know what I mean? I feel like you'd be in some sort of danger if I laid eyes on you now, like I'm covered in this film that would get on you.
I meant for this letter to be happy, so ignore that. But I'm leaving it in, because I want you to know everything, I want to tell you everything sometime. Things I wouldn't even tell W because I wouldn't want to scare her, not that she's easily scared, but there are some things that I want to protect her from anyway.
So thank you for being the only person I could ever say it all to. I think about that whenever something indescribable happens, like: I'll try to tell Kyle someday.
I love you, just writing this made me cry, I don't wish you were here anymore (I'm so glad you're not, so so glad, and don't take that the wrong way), I'm still kind of drunk.
Don't want to stop writing cause it's like I'm hanging up a phone and you'll be gone again but as you can see I'm running out of paper. I haven't gotten any letters from you in a long time, but I have more hope about this getting to you than yours ending up in the right spot here. I'm sure you still write to me all the time, so don't feel bad that I haven't gotten them. We move around a lot – we're going to have to leave this place soon.
The pictures of us are a little crumpled, but mostly from me handling them too much. Not singed. No part of me is singed, because I promised you it wouldn't be.
Kyle read the letter three times before turning back to the kitchen, hugging it to his chest.
"He's okay," he said, though he had no way of knowing. The Stan in the letter was the Stan of over a month ago. So much could have happened, and Kyle was teetering between joy and horror, because Stan was still so fragile and hopeful and perfectly intact. There was still so much to lose, and he'd been somewhat immune to knowing that before reading the new letter. Kyle clung to Jimbo when he came forward for a hug, sobbing just once against his shoulder. Kyle was trembling and tired, like he'd just spent three days climbing out of a hole in the earth.
Wendy was at his door five minutes later, clutching her own letter from Stan. They grabbed for each other, both talking at once, babbling about what they'd learned. It seemed to be mostly the same information, but neither of them offered to show the other their letter. Wendy stayed for dinner, and she was there when Stan's mother called on the phone. She'd gotten a letter, too.
"I have this feeling that he'll be home soon," Sharon said. "In my gut, and I hate that I have to go to New York."
"New York?" Kyle said, looking at Wendy. She was lingering close, listening in.
"Yes, there's – I'll be needed," she said. "There's – the fighting up there. I'm sure you've seen the news."
"I have," Kyle said. It was being billed in glaring headlines as the decisive battle. "Be careful."
Jimbo drove Wendy home, and Kyle rode along with them. He walked her to her door and let her hug him hard. They were both thinking of Stan, trying to pull the other close enough to make whatever pieces of Stan they held in them feel it, too.
"I know I'll see him again," Wendy said, and Kyle nodded, because he felt the same way.
The following day was Valentine's Day, and Wendy and Gregory persuaded Kyle to help them decorate the ward a bit. There was also candy to hand out, again courtesy of Gregory. Clyde had checked out of the center and reemerged as a volunteer, along with Craig.
"We can't have you working here if we know you're selling pills," Wendy said as Craig stood overseeing the hanging of pink and white streamers in the dining area.
"You always were subtle," Craig said.
"I can't respect dishonesty on any level," Wendy said. "Subtlety included." She turned to Craig. "There are shortages, you know, and—"
"Keep my pills," Craig said. He looked across the room, at the poker game Clyde was participating in. Clyde seemed to be in good spirits, laughing and popping candy hearts in his mouth. Kyle wondered if he'd gotten a letter from Bebe. "Just don't tell Clyde," Craig said, moving closer. "Don't tell him I did that."
"It's not my business to tell him anything about you," Wendy said, muttering, and she turned back to the streamers.
For Valentine's Day Kyle received no flowers, no cards, no new letter from Stan or any anonymous cigarettes in his mailbox. At home, Ned had made a special dinner, with candles lit on the table, and it took Kyle only a few minutes to realize that it wasn't for him.
"I'm fine," he insisted as he made a plate to take up to his room: a modest slice of an optimistically creative casserole with white sauce, lasagna noodles, bell peppers and corn. Kyle wished he'd thought to buy something nicer for Ned and Jimbo to eat on Valentine's Day, but he'd somehow never realized what they were to each other before then. He had noticed that they both slept in the guest bedroom, but he'd thought they were only trying to be polite by leaving his parents' bedroom untouched.
"You sure?" Jimbo called as Kyle darted from the kitchen with his plate. "I mean – aw, geez, alright."
Kyle celebrated Valentine's Day by sucking on the handle of the knife Stan had given him and jerking off for the first time in months. He came and was immediately disappointed, as usual, by the perfunctory anticlimax of beating off a batch alone in his bed. He continued to suck on the knife handle until he fell asleep.
The weeks that followed were cold but less bleak. Every time Kyle crossed Wendy's path at the center they would give each other a secret smile, and it was like a holographic image of Stan that was generated between them, a hope that felt like a promise because they were together in wanting it. Clyde was popular in the ward and Craig seemed warmer every day, less dependent on the cane, more determined to walk alongside his friend without it. Christophe's prosthetic arrived on the first of March, and Kyle sent Gregory to the market for the ingredients for a little cake for him.
"I'd send my bodyguard, but you'll have to buy at least the sugar from Cartman, and—" Kyle left off there, not sure how much he wanted or would be able to explain to Gregory about Cartman's pathetic obsession with him and how it might manifest in poisoned sugar.
"No, I'm glad to go," Gregory said. He was distracted, watching Wendy help Christophe with the functions on the prosthetic. "He's – it's so good for all of us. Just. I think it's something we've all been waiting for, in a way." His eyes were a bit red-rimmed when he smiled at Kyle, and he left in a hurry.
Predictably, Christophe scoffed at the cake, but Kyle knew him well enough not to be hurt, and Gregory didn't seem deterred as he cut a slice.
"Try it out," Wendy said, meaning the hand, and she placed a fork on the plate Gregory had offered.
"Wendy, please," Gregory said. "Don't pressure him."
"Don't coddle me," Christophe said. "You think I'm afraid to look like a fool in front of you idiots? I'm not." He clumsily scraped up a piece of cake, and got it into his mouth with only minimal frosting smearing, which Kyle cleaned away. "Thank you for not applauding," Christophe said, scanning the crowd that was gathered around his bed, and everyone laughed nervously.
Days began to blend together again, and Kyle felt a jolt of brand new pain in his chest when he checked the mailbox on the way into the house in the evenings. He knew there would be nothing there – Ned would have picked up any mail that came by then – and he knew better than to expect another letter from Stan so soon. But he was wanting for something, a beastly hunger he'd always had newly fed, never satisfied. The rational parts of him were horrified that he expected anything from Stan, and especially now, but sometimes he went to bed feeling angry, because Stan had not reappeared.
And then he did. It was Jimbo who shook Kyle awake after midnight, and Kyle scrambled for his knife, wanting to be battle ready. He kept it under his pillow, and he was half ready to stab an imaginary Cartman by the time he realized what was going on.
"You have to come, she says!" Jimbo said, fat tears coursing down his cheeks. Kyle had never seen him cry, and part of him knew what had happened before he heard it said. "Stan's – back, he's in the Red Cross camp, he's home!"
Kyle felt like he was in a dream, sleep-walking, half awake in the passenger seat of Jimbo's truck as it trundled through dark streets, a light snow dancing off the windshield, insultingly whimsical. Wendy had called, apparently, after being called by Gregory, who seemed to never leave the ward. Something had changed in Kyle where he once was hopeful, and he found himself angry at the prospect of relief, prepared himself to wage war against the disappointment that was forthcoming. Surely Wendy had been misunderstood, or had hallucinated. Surely it wasn't as simple as Stan being home.
It wasn't simple, but it was true: forty new soldiers had been brought in from five different platoons, and the ward was crowded, chaotic, noisy with suffering. Kyle found Wendy and she grabbed his hand, her eyes dark. She said nothing, just pulled him toward the back of the ward, and he was glad she'd made no attempt to explain. Stan was there, in one of their beds, but it took Kyle a moment to place him. He was pale and quiet, his eyes closed.
Wendy jerked Kyle back hard when he tried to bolt for Stan, and for a moment Kyle was so irrational, unhinged, and childishly wanting that he thought he would strike her. Her eyes were soft, and she dug her nails into his wrist as if trying to prove by pinching him that was actually awake.
"Kyle," she said, but she didn't seem able to continue, her voice just cracked sandpaper, eyes dancing away from something unsaid. Kyle ripped free of her grip and went to Stan's bed.
It was like only seeing a picture of him, and someone else had drawn it. Kyle's picture of Stan was not this one, and he fell to his knees beside Stan's cot, his hands hovering over Stan's arm, his chest. Stan didn't seem asleep, but he wasn't opening his eyes.
"Dude?" Kyle said.
Stan's lips were dry, and his skin looked – off, like it had been scrubbed in sea water. He even smelled wrong, antiseptic but dirty, too. Wendy was hanging back, and even with her back turned on them Kyle could tell that she had both hands pressed over her mouth. Stan opened his eyes and looked at Kyle when Kyle grabbed his hand. Kyle was reduced to a heart beat, just an overwhelmed, erratic noise between his own ears, and he was afraid Stan wouldn't be able to see him. Stan looked at him as if he couldn't, but Kyle saw recognition in his eyes, too, as if Stan had seen his own ghost and failed to be frightened by it. Stan's eyes were like a Christmas tree with one strand of lights burned out. Maybe two.
"Weird," Stan said, and he squeezed Kyle's hand.
"What?" Kyle said. He wasn't crying, but his voice was some alien thing, thrown and broken like it was on a roller coaster or passing through a windmill.
"Just," Stan said, and he closed his eyes again.
"I can't believe you're here," Kyle said. "Shit, fuck, goddamn." He squeezed Stan's hand harder with each curse, wanting him to know that he was willing to endure the legendary fifty-string curse word death wish. It was an urban legend, based somewhat in fact, that fifty in a row would kill anyone with a v-chip. Kyle wanted to die, sort of, because that seemed like what Stan was doing, sort of. But he wasn't bleeding, and all his limbs were in place.
"You're okay?" Stan said, looking at Kyle, his eyes barely slit open. Kyle nodded hard.
"I'm okay," he said, and he kissed Stan's knuckles, then again, again, unable to stop. "I'm okay, I'm okay."
"Good," Stan said. He turned to look at the ceiling. "That's good, I'm glad."
"Are you really here?" Kyle asked, his teeth nicking Stan's knuckles.
"Um," Stan said, and he closed his eyes. Kyle felt a hand on his shoulder and startled, realizing as he looked up at Wendy that he'd thought it was Death touching him, wanting Stan. He'd been so ready for a fight.
"Sweetheart," Wendy said, speaking to Stan. She'd been transformed, too, into a liar – Kyle had never heard that tone on her, beseeching and fake, desperate. "Me and Kyle – we're going to get you something to eat. Do you want something to eat?"
Stan didn't answer. Kyle noticed that his hands were curled into fists as Wendy dragged him away.
"What," Kyle said, still speaking to Stan. "What—"
"Shh!" Wendy said, so harshly that Kyle expected to be slapped. She dragged toward the linen supply, around the corner.
"But he's there," Kyle said, crying, wanting to go back to him.
"He's hurt," Wendy said. "The doctors. The ones who brought this ship- shipment – that's not the right word!" she said, almost shouting, pinching her eyes shut and pulling at her hair. When she looked at Kyle again he knew he was about to get a knife through the heart. "The doctor who treated him in Michigan," she said.
"Michigan?" Kyle said.
"He –" Wendy shook her head hard. "He said he was sure."
"Sure about what? Wendy, fuh – tell me! I feel like I'm dreaming, why did he look like that, why are you—"
"He's paralyzed," Wendy said, meeting Kyle's eyes like the slap he'd been waiting for. She'd made herself mean in order to be able to say so, and maybe she'd been mean before, but Kyle didn't recognize her. "From the waist down. He won't walk again. He won't. He's. From the waist down. The waist."
Kyle stared at her shoulder. She was wearing an ivory blouse with a high neckline, a surprisingly delicate material. It took him several seconds to realize it was a nightgown, that Wendy had rushed here without even putting on a coat.
"What," Kyle said, and then he lost his voice again.
"Butters came back, too," Wendy said. "He's at Hell's Pass, though."
Only the serious cases went there. Kyle turned around, wanting to look at Stan again, or to look and see the Stan he knew, who was not in that bed. Wendy caught his arm and pulled him back before he could.
"Butters isn't going to make it," she said. "He's going to die, Kyle. You'd better be fucking – grateful. We should be glad. Stan will live, so don't. Don't look at me like that."
"I'm not," Kyle said. He had no idea what his face looked like at the moment. "Bebe?"
"Oh – no," Wendy said. "I didn't see her in the register. She's, I don't know, still out there. Go sit with him, okay? Okay? I'm going, I. I'm going to call his m-mother, I should do that, I should—"
"I could," Kyle said. "I could call her, if you—"
"No," Wendy said. "Let me. I need—" And she was gone, her ponytail bobbing as if she was about to break into a run.
Kyle took careful steps, afraid the ground would crumble beneath him. Stan was lying motionless, his eyes still closed, fists uncurled now. Kyle stood five feet from Stan's bed for a while, watching, waiting for someone to come and tell him what to do. But surely Wendy was wrong, just being a pessimist. If she'd said so before Kyle laid his eyes on Stan, he could have believed she was only being paranoid, fearing the worst, afraid to hope. Looking at Stan, he knew she was right. Something had gone out of him, and it was bigger than a sadness, bigger than a foot or a hand.
"Your hair is longer," Kyle said when he sat on Stan's bed again. Stan blinked his eyes open and turned his head slowly. He seemed to be in another dimension where the gravity was heavier. Kyle felt like he was in one where the air was too light. He felt he'd be smashed against the wall like a gnat with the slightest wind or the next harsh word.
"My hair?" Stan said. "Oh. Yeah, I guess." He stared at Kyle, the corner of his eye quirking, then his lips. Someone had done a bad job of shaving his cheeks. There were a few sore-looking spots. "She told you," Stan said. "You're all white. She told you."
"I can't—" Kyle said, and he looked away, then hated himself for it. He looked back to Stan, made his gaze as steady as he could. "She said. She said—"
"She told you," Stan said. He was holding Kyle's hand like he wanted to snap a few of his fingers off, but Kyle understood it as a kind of limitless love, and he wanted to lose a few fingers to it.
"Jimbo is outside," Kyle said.
"He took care of you," Stan said. He nodded once. "I told him to."
"Stan," Kyle said, and he fell down onto him, his forehead resting high on Stan's chest. He didn't cry, just shook like an earthquake. "Please," he said. He wasn't sure what he was asking, and hated himself for wanting anything.
"I know," Stan said. "Just don't. Don't drag Jimbo in here, don't. Don't go."
"I won't," Kyle said, and he grabbed Stan's uniform shirt, pulled it against his face. "I won't."
He did, though, when Stan was given fresh drugs, when he'd fallen asleep. Kyle didn't go far, just to the nearest corner to throw up. Wendy was there when he turned around, stone-faced, offering a rag. Kyle used it to wipe his mouth.
"You're not sure," Kyle said when he could speak again.
"They're sure," Wendy said. "I'm sure."
Kyle felt that she had something he never could, and it wasn't an unfamiliar feeling, but it was still new. Wendy was marching ahead into what Kyle was still unwilling to see, his hand over his face as if this were just some scary movie. He dropped to Stan's bed again, against his side, and he could feel Christophe watching him from across the ward. Only when he recognized that Christophe was doing so with pity did he accept what Wendy knew, what the doctors knew, what Stan knew: everyone knew what had been said was real, final, actually happening. And then Kyle knew, too.
Someone had donated the lumber for the ramps; Kyle wasn't sure who, and didn't care enough to find them and thank them. Everyone should lay whatever they had at Stan's functionless feet, as far as he was concerned. Clyde came over to help Kyle and Jimbo construct the ramps, one at the front door of the Marsh household and one that led into the backyard. The problem of the staircase to the second floor was more complicated, and for now they would simply set up Stan's bedroom in the den. It was decided that Jimbo, Ned, and Kyle would move in with Stan until Sharon returned from New York. Jimbo and Ned would be there for protection, Kyle for companionship and general nursing duties. Stan was refusing all of Wendy's offers of support. He had ended their engagement.
"I feel useless," Kyle said when Clyde took the hammer from him, burying a nail into the wood with two strokes. Kyle meant that he felt useless generally, because there was nothing he could do to help Stan beyond ramp building, and also specifically, in this moment. His hands were shaking too badly to properly operate a hammer. Stan would be released from the hospital later that afternoon, into Kyle's temporary care.
"It's alright," Clyde said. "We're almost done." He looked up from the ramp and wiped his brow. Kyle knew he should offer some refreshments, but he was too drained to even think of what might still be in the fridge at the Marsh household. "You heard from Stan's mom yet?"
"No," Kyle said. "All lines of communication are down, except the military channels, I guess. It's a mess up there." The residents of South Park barely knew how the battle in New York was going, except via rumors. Power outages were the norm instead of the exception in recent weeks.
"What about his sister?" Clyde asked, and Kyle began to feel accused of not being capable of taking care of Stan. He knew that he wasn't, but Shelly would be no better. She would almost certainly be worse, impatient and cold. She'd barely spoken to Stan since leaving home.
"I'm not sure where Shelly is," Kyle said. "I assume Wendy wrote to her." Wendy was handling that sort of thing, despite Stan's attempts to shut her out.
"Poor Wendy," Clyde said, and he returned to his hammering.
"Yeah," Kyle said. "But - Stan will come around. She thinks so, even. He's just in shock."
Stan's position was that he was saving Wendy from a life as his nurse, when she had wanted to be his wife. Certainly he had not envisioned a homecoming like this one when he made his spontaneous proposal. No one had said so out loud, but everybody knew that he was thinking more of what he couldn't do in the bedroom than the fact that he would never walk again. Wendy had rejected Stan's resignation but was giving him space until he came to terms with this new reality, and she was furiously researching degrees of paralysis and the potential to regain feeling in certain areas. Just yesterday she'd had a long conversation with Kyle about Stan's ability to mostly control his bladder and what this might mean for erectile function in the future. She was very protective of Stan's feelings, though sad that he would not even look at her in his attempt at a "clean break." Meanwhile, Kyle was hearing her every thought on the sensitive matters that no one else was willing to discuss, and which he could safely assume she was not discussing with anyone but him. He tried to be supportive, but it was hard for him to think about in a way that he couldn't explain to her, or anyone.
They were nearly done with the backyard ramp when Craig appeared, walking at a faster clip than perhaps was wise with his injury. He had his cane, but he was using it more to vault himself forward than support uneasy steps. At first Kyle assumed that he was just eager to see Clyde, but he looked stricken when he came closer.
"You guys should come to the hospital," Craig said when he'd reached them. "If you want to see Butters one last time."
"Are you sure?" Clyde asked.
"The doctors are," Craig said. "Can we use your uncle's truck?" he asked, looking to Kyle.
"Jimbo's not my uncle," Kyle said. Craig grunted, as if Kyle was missing the point. "He's - Stan's uncle, but yeah. Let's go."
Kyle drove and Craig rode up front, Clyde in the back. Only Clyde spoke, muttering about his disbelief that Butters wasn't going to make it, though they'd been told that from the start, when he arrived home weeks ago. Kyle kept trying to drive the matter home in his head: Butters was dying. This was the last time he would see Butters, if they even made it in time. He couldn't make it feel real.
It was a gray day with no fresh snow, not especially cold but certainly not warm. Kyle was shaken by the time he parked, afraid to enter Hell's Pass and endure the sight of Butters on the verge of death. Stan had been at Hell's Pass for the last two nights, having been moved there from the Red Cross camp in preparation for his return to civilian life. He was working with nurses who specialized in training paraplegics to attempt a kind of normalcy. When they reached Butters' room Stan was there in his wheelchair, and Kyle was surprised to see Wendy there, too, standing on the opposite side of the room. Mrs. Stotch was at Butters' side on the bed, weeping silently while Butters breathed in and out in harsh, rattling pulls and wheezy exhales. He'd suffered undetected internal bleeding in the same landmine blast that had crippled Stan, and by the time he was examined by a field doctor his heart and lungs had been damaged badly. He'd survived a surgery in Michigan and one here in South Park, but the prognosis had always been grim. Kyle wanted to stop looking at him, because this didn't seem to be him at all. He fought the urge to search the room for the real Butters, who would surely weep for the pathetic creature in the hospital bed.
"Is he coming?" Butters rasped out, scanning the room without moving his head.
"Gregory found him at the market," Wendy said. "He told me - he said he'd be here as soon as he could."
"Who?" Kyle asked, quietly, speaking to Stan.
"Cartman," Stan said. "He'd better hurry." Stan's voice was tight, angry, and Kyle knew he was wondering if Cartman would come at all.
"Oh, Eric," Butters said, as if Cartman had arrived. His eyes slid shut and he began to visibly shiver. "Eric, Eric."
"He's coming, baby," Mrs. Stotch said. She looked ancient, and Kyle supposed this had been true even before Butters returned in this condition. Mr. Stotch had been killed in action around Christmastime. Kyle rested his hand on the back of Stan's wheelchair and dared a look at Wendy. She was looking in Stan's direction but not at him, her eyes unfocused. It seemed to Kyle that someone else was missing, and he realized he was thinking of Kenny, whose death had never reached Kyle fully. It seemed like he was still out there somewhere, fighting the war.
There was nothing to say, and nothing to do but stand and stare at Butters in his death bed. He looked frail and younger than eighteen, his eyes sunken and his skin the kind of pale that could only be called deathly. Kyle wished Mrs. Stotch would say something, a prayer or just some wibbling nonsense about Butters going to see his father in heaven, but she was only crying and stroking Butters' hair. Memories of the days before the war bombarded Kyle's defenses until he was chewing his shaking lips, thinking of Butters dragging that little blanket around in pre-school and cluelessly sporting a Hello Kitty bandage on his cheek in first grade. Butters had covered his eyes during the scary parts in movies even during high school. How had he ever faced war? Kyle looked down at Stan, wondering if he and Butters saw Kenny die.
Though he knew it was hardly the most urgent matter at hand, Kyle couldn't help wanting to speak to Stan, to ask him how the training had been going. They hadn't seen each other much since Stan had been moved to Hell's Pass. The nurses were teaching him how to transfer himself from the wheelchair to a bed or toilet, practical things. He'd refused counseling. Kyle and Jimbo had installed a metal bar near the downstairs toilet and along the wall of the bathtub, though one nurse had cautioned Kyle not to allow Stan to try to bathe himself until his arm muscles were stronger. Kyle had no idea how either of them were going to do this. He wanted to touch Stan's shoulder, but he was afraid Stan would shrug him off, and aware that it would hurt Wendy if he didn't. Being allowed to touch Stan would feel too much like bragging, as if Kyle's situation was enviable. Wendy represented the life that Stan now had to give up. Kyle represented what Stan was stuck with, a kind of half-alive hell.
Meanwhile, Stan's every sigh felt sacred to Kyle, more so than ever before, and he wanted to lean down and cup Stan's breath between his hands to keep it safe. He still didn't seem quite like the Stan that Kyle had known, but he was here, breathing normally, alive enough for Kyle to cherish. His hair had been recently washed; Kyle could smell a kind of hospital-grade shampoo aroma emanating from him. He knew it was disgusting to still want Stan so much, or at least to still be so focused on it, but he couldn't be in a room with Stan and not adore him in quiet agony, and couldn't be away from him without feeling crazed with the need to have him near again.
"I think that's him," Craig said when they heard someone running through the hallway outside, approaching the room. Kyle was doubtful; Cartman didn't show that kind of selfless urgency for anything, and he'd never pretended to care much about Butters.
"Eric?" Butters said, his eyes opening slightly, and Kyle's heart broke. He thought of Stan's letters, the news that Butters had confessed his love for Cartman. The sendoff party at Butters' house seemed as if it had taken place two lifetimes ago, and Kyle thought of how Butters had been drunk, smiling, whispering about his secret. Kyle imagined himself in a bed like this, asking for Stan, still unable to say why or how much he wanted him.
To Kyle's surprise, those heavy footsteps reached the door of Butters' room, and it was thrown open. Cartman was breathless and disheveled, and he made a visible attempt to compose himself when he saw that he had a larger audience than Butters and his mother.
"Eric?" Butters said again, weakly. He tried to turn toward the door, only managing to twitch.
"It's him," Clyde said when Cartman said nothing. He lingered in the doorway, panting, the color draining from his face as he stared at Butters. As far as Kyle knew, Cartman hadn't been to visit Butters yet, and hadn't seen him at all since he returned from the war.
"Here's your friend, baby," Mrs. Stotch said, motioning Cartman toward the bed. "Here he is, right here."
"Butters?" Cartman said. His voice was weak, maybe from the strain of running. He walked toward the bed like Butters was a bomb that might go off.
"Eric!" Butters said, and he managed a smile, his eyes widening when Cartman loomed over him. "Oh, you. You came."
"What is this bullshit about you dying?" Cartman asked. He was sniffling, and he actually reached for Butters' hand. Kyle tried to exchange a skeptical look with Wendy, but she was staring at the Cartman and Butters, her eyes wet. "You can't die," Cartman said. "I need - you, my business is booming, okay, I need you in my employ."
"Don't fuck around, Cartman," Stan said, and his voice was so mean that Kyle startled. This time Wendy did meet Kyle's eyes when he looked at her. "This isn't the time to talk shit," Stan said, muttering now.
"I wish I could work for you," Butters said to Cartman, his fingers twitching when Cartman squeezed his hand. "I would - love to, Eric. I would just love it."
"Okay, so." Cartman was actually crying; Kyle was stunned. "So you can't die, then, goddammit. Do as I say, Butters, you hear me? Don't die."
Mrs. Stotch lost it at that, sobbing loudly into her hands. Butters didn't seem to notice. He just went on gazing up at Cartman, blinking slowly. Something was trembling in Kyle's chest, alongside his disbelief at Cartman's behavior. He'd spent so much time worrying about Stan, about Ike, about his father - he'd somehow never really considered that he could lose his other friends like this, that they could ever really be gone. It still seemed impossible that Butters was going anywhere, that he wasn't just sick.
"I always wanted to do - whatever you wanted," Butters said. He coughed a little, and Kyle noticed how dry his purplish lips were. Shouldn't someone get him some water? A chapstick? "Always," Butters said, the word barely scratching from his throat. "You remember."
"That's right," Cartman said. He was sniffling and wiping his face with his free hand, his other hand still squeezed around Butters' limp fingers. "So, just. Just get it the fuck together."
"Don't make him feel bad," Wendy said, softly.
"I got something to say," Butters said. He swallowed; it sounded painful. "Something - to you, Eric. Something I gotta say."
"What?" Cartman asked. Kyle heard Craig groan under his breath.
"I love you," Butters said, and he seemed to sink down more deeply into himself, as if he was embarrassed to say so even now. "I hah-have for a long time."
"Well, that's just fucking great, Butters," Cartman said, blubbering now. Kyle saw Stan go tense in his chair, his shoulders jerking as if he would have rushed to Butters' defense already if he had the use of his legs. "Because I love you, too," Cartman said. Kyle heard someone gasp; probably Wendy, it sounded girlish. "I love you, okay?" Cartman said, shaking Butters' hand. "So cancel this. Cancel this shit and we'll do something about it."
"Oh, Eric," Butters said. He was actually beaming, but it looked ghastly with his hollow cheeks. "Eric, you do? You love me?"
"I just said so, didn't I? Goddammit, Butters. Goddammit."
"That makes me happy," Butters said. He closed his eyes. Kyle closed his, too; he couldn't watch this. "Eric, oh. My silly old Eric. All this time. Oh, gosh, I should have told you sooner."
For a moment it actually seemed as if Butters' voice was getting stronger, as if he might be making some miraculous turn for the better, but he was gone within the hour, his breath growing more and more ragged until finally it stopped. When the machine by his bed began droning an angry flatline, Mrs. Stotch screamed for a doctor, though the decision not to prolong his suffering by reviving him had already been made. Wendy was crying softly and Craig was clinging to Clyde, breathing hard. Kyle had grabbed Stan's shoulder at some point, without realizing it. Stan was still tensed, his eyes wet while his profile remained stoic. When the doctor that Mrs. Stotch had shouted for reached the room, she could only pronounce Butters' time of death.
Cartman said nothing. He released Butters' hand and backed away from the bed, white-faced, his lips trembling. Wendy was frozen in the corner, both fists pressed over her mouth. Mrs. Stotch had thrown herself onto Butters to weep, and Clyde moved away from Craig to lay a hand on her back. Kyle was numb, feeling as if he was watching a film about people he once knew. The colors didn't seem right, everything washed in dim florescent glow. Kyle held back his tears until he remembered Butters bringing homemade sugar cookies to Sheila's funeral, as if that was a thing people did, but he'd only meant to help. Cartman ran from the room, and Kyle heard him begin to sob in desperate gasps, as if someone had their hands around his throat.
"Someone should go after him," Clyde said. Kyle looked to Wendy, but she was focused on Mrs. Stotch, whispering to her that Butters was a hero, that he'd saved Stan's life by pushing him clear of the worst of the blast. It was a story Stan told often, the only thing he wanted to talk about most days. The opportunity to visit Butters had been the only thing that could motivate him into a wheelchair that first week.
Craig remained motionless, staring at Butters with a kind of grim recognition; he'd seen young men die before. Kyle sighed and moved toward the door, not sure what he could say to console Cartman but unwilling to let him cry alone. He'd only taken one step when Stan grabbed his wrist and held it, hard.
"Not you," Stan said, still looking at Butters.
"I'll go," Clyde said. Wendy had taken over with Mrs. Stotch, holding her while she cried. Stan was still holding Kyle's wrist as Clyde left the room. Kyle tried to meet Stan's eyes, but he was focused on Butters, unblinking.
Kyle and Stan left the hospital together an hour later, after Stan had done his exit paperwork and listened in silence as the nurse described support programs for veterans, paraplegics, and grief in general. They were both numb, quiet, and Kyle couldn't stop thinking of the current location of Butters: was he already in a cold drawer down in the morgue, zipped into a bag? Stan wheeled himself out to the parking lot, refusing Kyle's coat when he tried to offer it. Kyle was carrying Stan's things, which were stuffed in a modest duffel bag, not even a jacket or hooded sweatshirt among them. Who had let him leave the Red Cross without bundling up properly? Kyle had been at Stan's house that morning, receiving the lumber for the ramps, and he'd been furious when he showed up to find that Stan had already been packed off.
"Well, hey!" Jimbo said when he met them at the hospital's front doors. Kyle was extremely grateful that he'd shown up; he must have walked. "How's it going, soldier?" he asked Stan. Kyle winced.
"Bad," Stan said. "Butters is dead. I just want to go home."
"That's where we're headed," Jimbo said, and he gave Kyle a kicked puppy look that Kyle didn't have much sympathy for at the moment. "I'm real sorry to hear it about little Butters. Shit, that poor kid. He died a hero, I tell you what."
Stan said nothing, just wheeled himself out the door. Jimbo and Kyle followed. Kyle was glad not to have to lift Stan into the passenger side of the truck himself, and ashamed of his relief, though he suspected Stan was relieved about this, too. Jimbo hoisted him up while Kyle averted his eyes, busying himself with putting the wheelchair into the truck bed.
"Me and Ned got a big homecoming dinner planned for you," Jimbo said. He was driving, Kyle sitting in back with Stan's duffel bag, hugging it. He needed a hug back from someone, anyone. He should have tried with Wendy, but Stan might have taken it personally.
"I don't want any company," Stan said. "Not tonight."
"Oh, no company involved," Jimbo said. "Just some real good fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, and we even found you some broccoli, didn't we, Kyle?"
"Yes," Kyle said, wishing he would shut up, though he also appreciated the fact that they weren't all stewing in separate silence.
"Gotta stay healthy," Jimbo said, the cheer draining from his voice as he heard what he'd said. Stan just stared out the window.
When they reached the house, Kyle went to unlock the door while Jimbo helped Stan back into his chair. They'd shoveled the front walk in preparation for Stan's return, and the pavement was just wide enough to accommodate both wheels. Kyle was nervous as he watched Stan approach the ramp, afraid that a wheel would slip off the walkway or that the ramp would collapse under his weight. Stan stopped and stared at the thing for a moment, Ned waiting awkwardly in the front doorway. There were good smells coming from the house, but Kyle felt queasy.
"How'd that get here?" Stan asked, still looking at the ramp.
"We built it for ya," Jimbo said. "Me and Kyle, and Clyde Donovan helped. Go on, give it a try!"
The optimism of his tone made Kyle's eyes water with a combination of rage and defeat, and he could see Stan's embarrassment in his hesitation. Had they practiced with ramps at the hospital? What if he rolled backward? Kyle moved to take the handles of the chair, but Stan rolled forward before he could, making it up the ramp with minimal struggle. The thing seemed sturdy enough. Kyle was wiping his eyes as he followed the others in, trying not to be such a goddamn baby. His hands were shaking when he locked the deadbolt behind them.
Jimbo showed Stan around his new room as if he'd never seen the den before, or the bed that they'd brought downstairs for him. It had been in the guest bedroom, a queen-sized mattress with a thin wooden headboard. They had assumed it would be more comfortable than Stan's little twin. Kyle wanted to climb into it with him and sleep until this was all over.
"Can you get in on your own?" Jimbo asked, hovering near Stan as he approached the bed. Stan tried, his face growing redder with each awkward attempt, and he made no protest when Jimbo gave him a hand. "You'll get the hang of it," Jimbo said as Kyle fluffed pillows for Stan to lean against, and Kyle heard a shake in Jimbo's voice. It was subtle, but it was there. Jimbo left the room then, making excuses about helping Ned with the meal. Kyle shut the door behind him.
"I was thinking I'd make a fire?" Kyle said. The den worked well as a makeshift bedroom, because it had doors that could be closed for privacy and there was a guest bedroom attached. The fireplace was a nice feature, too, Kyle thought. Stan was staring into space as if he hadn't heard Kyle's question. Kyle knelt down to get the kindling in place, blinking a kind of fuzz from his eyes that wasn't moisture, exactly.
"You don't have to stay," Stan said.
"What else am I going to do?" Kyle said. He'd prepared himself for Stan's attempt to dismiss him along with Wendy. "You know I've just been sitting around here waiting for you to get home. And I'm tired of volunteering, anyway. I'd rather just hang out with you." He had composed more eloquent versions of this statement in his head. He was nervous, trembling, like Stan was pointing a gun at him.
"Hang out," Stan said, and he scoffed. "No, Kyle. You're not family. You don't have to deal with this."
"The world is falling apart, for all we know," Kyle said, trying to sound angry. Stan could respect anger, maybe. "Just let me do what I want. I want to do this."
Stan was quiet for a while, and Kyle avoided looking at him, concentrating on the fire. Once he'd gotten it going he turned to see that Stan had sunk down into the blankets. He was lying on his side, facing away from the bay window that looked out onto the front yard.
"You asleep?" Kyle asked. Stan sighed.
"They gave me some pills," he said. "I can't sleep without them. They're in my bag with the rest of that shit." He twitched and grunted when his v-chip fired. "I'm getting this thing out," he said. "Soon as they'll let me."
"It's dangerous," Kyle said. "It's like, fifty-fifty whether you'll have brain damage, it's not even legal in California-"
"What do I care about California? Or brain damage? Maybe it'll eff me up enough so I don't know what I am anymore. I'm half vegetable anyway. Might as well go all in."
Kyle didn't tell him not to say that; he was glad Stan was talking at all. There would be time to talk him out of the v-chip removal when he wasn't so angry and exhausted. Kyle went to the bed and sat there, wanting to drop down and spoon himself around Stan, to tuck in and leech comfort from him. He was horrified by his own greed, and settled for touching Stan's blanket-covered shoulder.
"What a fucking day," Kyle said, springing for the curse in honor of Butters. His hand clenched on Stan's shoulder when the shock hit him. It was a particularly bad one, and he felt dizzy afterward, remembering suddenly that he hadn't eaten anything since a modest breakfast of bran cereal with no milk.
"Butters saved me in Dakota," Stan said. Kyle had noticed that veterans never differentiated between Dakotas, and he wasn't sure why. "And for what?" Stan said. He looked down at his legs, and Kyle looked deliberately away from them. "He should have stayed out of it. He always had to be so effing helpful, and - and what was that B.S. with Cartman? I would have gotten up and slugged him if I could have. Lying like that, to a dying kid. That was sick."
"Maybe he was telling the truth," Kyle said.
"Cartman?" Stan lifted his head from the pillow and turned, glaring. "Kyle, he tried to rape you."
Kyle made a kind of protesting sound that died in his throat, looking to the window. It wasn't untrue, but it hurt to hear it said out loud. He felt accused of something himself, dirty.
"So don't give him the benefit of the doubt," Stan said. He was quiet for a moment; Kyle heard him swallow and thought of getting some water. There would need to be a pitcher by the bed, always. "He didn't do anything, did he?" Stan asked. "While I was gone?"
"I can take-" Kyle cut himself off before he could say the rest. Care of myself. Stan couldn't say the same now. Kyle didn't want to gloat. He turned to meet Stan's eyes again. "You're probably right. Cartman probably lied, but at least Butters died believing it. I know it's not ethical, but. It's something."
"Something," Stan said. "That's what I'm supposed to be grateful for. Have they got any whiskey, do you think? Or even a beer, anything?"
"They? Oh." Kyle looked toward the door that led to the kitchen. He could hear Jimbo's voice, and something frying in a pan. His appetite was returning, slowly. "I'll check," Kyle said. "I'll bring you some water, too. Unless you want milk?"
Stan shook his head and turned his back on Kyle, retreating into the blankets again. Kyle wasn't sure if he was refusing milk or just exasperated by Kyle's efforts to take care of him, already.
Jimbo had some cheap bourbon and was all too happy to offer it to Stan. Kyle wanted to ask questions about how it might react with his sleeping pills, but he decided to suspend them for now. He returned to Stan's room with a glass of bourbon and a pitcher of water. Stan seemed to be asleep, so Kyle set both on the bedside table and went to get a glass for the water. When he returned, Stan was slumped against the pillows and the bourbon was gone.
"I'll take another," Stan said, lifting the empty glass.
"Are you hungry?" Kyle asked.
"Sure," Stan said, and he scoffed as if it was a stupid question. "Are they going to make me eat out there? Like it's a special occasion or something?"
"You can eat in here if you want," Kyle said. "Don't worry about Jimbo, he's just trying - you know how he is."
"So are you getting me another?" Stan asked, lifting the glass again.
Stan slept after his second glass of bourbon, and Kyle convinced Jimbo not to wake him for dinner. He ate at the table with Jimbo and Ned, barely tasting his food. He brought a plate in for Stan when he was finished, and added a log to the fire. Stan was twitching in his sleep, moaning.
"You okay?" Kyle asked when he went to the bed. Stan jerked awake when Kyle touched his shoulder, whipping around to look at him. "It's me," Kyle said, and he moved back a little. "You were. Are you okay?" Something felt off; there was an unclean smell wafting from the bed. Kyle thought of Ike when he was little, and helping to change his diapers while their mother was away on national business. Stan was already throwing the blankets aside, muttering half-formed curses that didn't seem to set off his v-chip.
"It's just 'cause I drank," Stan said, glowering down at his wet sweatpants, the ruined sheets. "I don't normally. This wasn't happening much, there. At the clinic."
"It's okay," Kyle said. "We'll just - here." He was standing with his hands halfway stretched out, no idea what to do first. "Do you want me to get Jimbo?" he asked. He felt his dinner lurching in his stomach, and it wasn't just because he detested the smell of urine. It was - this, everything. This was impossible. It couldn't really be happening, not to Stan.
"I can't deal with effing Jimbo right now," Stan said, mumbling. He pulled off his shirt and then sat there glumly in a puddle of piss, Kyle uselessly hovering. "Help me lift up," Stan said, not looking at him.
Kyle steeled himself; it wasn't like he hadn't done this before, at the Red Cross camp. Once he'd even done it for Christophe, who'd cursed him the whole time. He wondered if Christophe would be good company for Stan, eventually, and tried to think about only this as he stripped Stan's pants and underwear off for him, not allowing his eyes to settle in any one place. He helped Stan into a robe and got him into the chair. Stan wheeled himself into the bathroom while Kyle yanked the sheets off the bed; he flinched when the door slammed. The power was on, at least for now, and the light that flicked on inside the bathroom felt like a small blessing. He heard the bathwater turning on, and regarded Stan's untouched plate of food sadly. It would be cold by now, and the Marshes had sold their microwave during hard times. Kyle would bring the one from his house tomorrow.
The Marshes still had laundry machines, at least, and Kyle got fresh sheets after the dirty ones were loaded in. Jimbo and Ned were upstairs somewhere, possibly already asleep. Kyle listened carefully as he fitted the bed with new sheets, and by the sound of it Stan had lowered himself into the bath tub successfully. There was some splashing as he washed himself, then quiet. Kyle waited as long as he could before knocking, stoking the fire and growing ill from the unsettling pound of his own heartbeat.
"Okay in there?" he asked after knocking. He heard a movement in the water; at least Stan hadn't fallen asleep.
"I'm gonna get out," Stan said. His voice was like a frightened animal, trying to make itself bigger and scarier in vain.
"Need help?" Kyle asked, his hand on the knob.
They both stayed quiet for a moment. Kyle wasn't sure what kind of 'no' that was, but he was afraid to burst in and contradict Stan. After a moment, he heard the water sloshing, Stan's palm sliding on the railing. He felt hopeful, and then came a thundering crash, the wheelchair slamming into the wall, Stan's cursing.
"Okay, here, okay," Kyle said when he entered, trying not to look directly at anything. Stan was soaked and splayed on the floor, groping at the wheelchair, which was on its side. Kyle got the robe and put it on Stan before doing anything else, propping him up before tying the sash. He didn't even need to look at Stan to know that he was trying not to cry; he was trying so hard that the air in the bathroom seemed to tremble. "Here we go," Kyle said, and he told himself to shut up, to just shut the hell up altogether, because he sounded like he was talking to a toddler. He righted the chair and lifted Stan into it, surprised by how heavy he was.
"I can't even curse," Stan said. His voice was shaking, and his hand was, too, when he brought it up to cover his eyes. "I can't even say what I want to right now." The shocks were always worse when you were wet.
"I know," Kyle said. "Fuck." He jerked at the shock, hoping Stan would be comforted by his pain. "Goddammit."
Stan rolled out of the bathroom, sniffling. Kyle drained the tub. When he returned to the bedroom, Stan had crawled from the chair into the bed and was slumped there lifelessly, not answering when Jimbo knocked and asked if they were alright.
"It's fine!" Kyle called. "Just a slip. Everything's fine."
There was quiet, then Jimbo's footsteps on the stairs. Stan was sobbing into the mattress, bouncing with heavy jerks of his shoulders and making no sound so far. Kyle couldn't take it anymore. He dropped the towel he'd carried out for Stan and went to the bed, sliding onto Stan's back and pressing his wet face to Stan's neck.
"I know, I know," Kyle murmured, putting his arms around Stan slowly, afraid he would be bucked off. "I know."
"You don't know anything," Stan said, his voice buried against the mattress.
"I know," Kyle said, and he rolled his eyes at himself. "I mean. I'm just. I know I should stop talking."
Stan didn't refute this. His sobs turned to hiccups and shaky intakes of breath. Kyle wanted to lie there with him forever, pressing Stan down where he was safe, where he could hide.
"Do you want to eat?" Kyle asked. He would restrict his conversation to practical matters. He would be as useful as he could. "There's some cold chicken and potatoes over there. And broccoli."
Stan sniffled. He was warm and smelled like soap. Kyle was aware of how disgusting it was to take even the smallest amount of pleasure from the fact that Stan was willing to be held, to have Kyle this close.
"I wish I was dead," Stan said. Kyle shook his head against the back of Stan's neck, unwilling to try a response. "I feel like." He sniffled again, wetly. "Like I'm only alive as a favor to my mother. And Jimbo, like I owe him anything."
"Jimbo's not so bad."
"And you," Stan said. "Kyle." He stretched one arm across the mattress, gripping the edge of it, his face still hidden. "I lost my pack in that field where this happened. Your letters were in it."
"It doesn't matter," Kyle said. "You're here now, and. God, Stan, I missed you. I already don't know how I got through the days."
"It's not gonna be like before."
"I know," Kyle said. He wanted to gush about how he would never leave Stan, that Stan would never have to be alone with this, but he doubted that now was the time for that, and it was probably obvious, anyway. "Hey, eat something," he said, though he didn't want to move. "At least have some water."
Stan sat up and allowed Kyle to push a glass of water into his hand. He drank from it in gulps, then accepted the plate of food. At first he just picked at the potatoes, but he was tearing the chicken off the bone with his teeth before long. Kyle sat next to him on the bed, making no attempt to conceal that he was finding this fascinating, just watching Stan eat.
"Don't throw your life away for me," Stan said when he was almost finished, still chewing.
"What life?" Kyle said. "Ike is gone. My dad is gone, my mom is dead. Kenny's dead, and Butters. Half the country wants to hang me because of who my mom was. I'm here for good, Stan. And I don't mind, as long as you're with me."
"What about a wife?" Stan said, staring at his plate. "Children?"
"You know I don't want that," Kyle said, his heart pumping hard. It was like Stan had read that confiscated letter without actually needing to see it, or maybe he had always known. The air in the room felt slightly heavier, but not uncomfortably so.
"Don't let me be a stand in for a real guy," Stan said, presumably meaning a gay one. Or maybe one with working legs, or. Other functioning parts. "When my mom comes back, you have to let her take over."
"Just don't cut me out," Kyle said. "Wendy, she. She wants so badly to have you in her life-"
"She'll get over it," Stan said. "You would, too, I suspect."
"It's not the same," Kyle said. "I'd never feel - without you, I'm not me."
Stan sighed and put down his last chicken bone, cleaned of meat. Kyle passed him the napkin from the bedside table and watched him wipe his hands. The fire needed stoking, those bedsheets would need to go into the dryer soon, and Jimbo and Ned had left most of the dirty dishes for Kyle, since they'd cooked. There was plenty to do, but he didn't want to leave Stan to sit and think.
"The cable doesn't work anymore, but we could watch videos," Kyle said.
"I'd kill for a Terrance and Phillip one," Stan said. "I wish I'd been fighting for them. We wanted to, didn't we? When we were kids? Our little movement?"
"I'm sure they exist somewhere," Kyle said, taking the plate. "Videos, I mean. I'll look into it."
"Don't," Stan said. "You'll get arrested. Forget it."
"We could probably act them all out from memory, anyway," Kyle said. "Ey, Phillip?"
Stan stared at him for a moment, then his mouth quirked in an irritable little smile that really wasn't one at all.
"It's not gonna be like before," Stan said. Kyle nodded, the wind knocked out of him, and he turned for the kitchen. "Bring me a bourbon when you come back in?" Stan said.
"Are you sure?" Kyle asked, turning back only halfway. There weren't any more clean sheets.
"Fine, right," Stan said. Kyle hadn't heard him sound so angry since that night at Butters' house, when Stan had torn Cartman off of him. "I guess that's over, too."
"You can have one, just-"
"Forget it," Stan said, and he pulled the blankets up over his head.
Kyle went into the kitchen, set the plate on the counter and stared out at the backyard for a long time, waiting for a jump cut that wouldn't come. He wanted to skip to five years from now, or ten. He'd even take five months. Anything, anyplace that wasn't this one, this first day and all the days ahead. Stan was broken forever, and half the people they'd once known were dead. Kyle realized with a stab of shame that he wanted his mother. But she would not know how to fix this. She was the one who broke it.
He couldn't hate her, but when he returned to the room and couldn't get Stan to meet his eyes when he brought him his sleeping pill, he wanted to.
"So," Kyle said, lingering after an unnecessary adjustment to the fire. "Goodnight, I guess, um. I'll sleep on the couch, so if you need anything, just-"
"C'mere," Stan said. Kyle wondered how fast those pills worked, not sure if he was afraid or hopeful that Stan was already half asleep. He climbed into the bed and slid under the blankets when Stan held them up. Kyle moved closer, and closer, until he could smell Stan's fried chicken breath. How would Stan brush his teeth? Kyle hadn't thought of that, hadn't even remembered to brush his own. "I don't really want to be alone," Stan said. He was already blinking heavily, slipping under.
"Me either," Kyle said.
"I know you don't, dude," Stan said. "That's why. That worries me." He closed his eyes, only faking sleep for a moment before he sunk into the real thing.
Kyle slept fitfully, his dreams a sour mixture of loved ones in peril, just out of his reach: Butters being choked by Cartman and Stan walking through a minefield, deaf to Kyle's shouts of warning. He dreamed about his father's car being drug from the bottom of a frozen lake after the thaw, and Ike on an electric chair between Terrence and Phillip. When he woke he clung to Stan, who was out cold. Kyle tracked Stan's breathing obsessively, pressing the back of his hand to Stan's parted lips to feel the heat of it. At dawn, he remembered the wet bedsheets that were probably growing icy in the washing machine, and he slipped from the bed, hurrying into his jacket and boots.
He rekindled the fire first, fretting about their firewood supply, three long months of winter still to come. He tried to put the sheets in the dryer, only to find that the power was out again. He was halfway through the dishes, the sun barely up, when the front bell rang. When it was clear that Jimbo and Ned weren't going to rouse to answer it he went himself, checking through the window before unlatching the door. It was Wendy. He groaned under his breath, not ready for this.
"You look like you just woke up," Wendy said when Kyle pulled the door open.
"It's six in the morning," Kyle said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. Or is it? How is he?"
"Sleeping," Kyle said. "Let me get my coat - we can talk in the yard."
"I'm not even allowed in his house?"
"I don't want to be overheard," Kyle said, though by the look of it Stan would probably sleep until noon.
He bundled up for the cold and walked with Wendy down to the end of the driveway, under the pretense of checking the mail. Every time he opened the box he feared some mysterious new gift, but nothing had come after the pack of cigarettes that he'd thrown away.
"How was Cartman when Clyde found him?" Kyle asked before Wendy could start in on the Stan interrogation.
"Oh, he was - confounding, I guess," she said. "He told Clyde to get away from him, that he was a fag - Clyde was, that is - and that he'd only said that stuff to Butters because he was going to die anyway. Who knows what goes on in his head, he's sick. How's Stan?"
"He's okay," Kyle said. He decided not to mention the bath tub incident. Stan wouldn't want her having a mental image of that, and certainly the bed wetting was off limits. "He's pretty into drinking."
"Well, don't let him be!" Wendy said, frowning. "God, Kyle, I knew you were going to coddle him. You have to be firm, even if he fights you."
"He's not an effing dog who needs to be housebroken," Kyle said. "It's not like I'm going to keep the liquor flowing all day long. It was his first night back home, and he was really freaked."
"He was?" Wendy's face fell. "I mean, of course he was. God, how long is this standoff going to last? I need to be with him, I need-" She trailed off, and took a deep breath. "Has he been surly with you?"
"A little," Kyle said. He definitely wasn't going to mention the fact that he got to cuddle up to Stan all night, and that even with Stan passed out like dead weight, having him there was an instant comfort when Kyle woke from his nightmares. "He ate a full meal, so. That was good."
"Are you going to come for your shift today?"
"No," Kyle said. "I'll stay with him. As long as he needs me to. He did tell me, last night-" He paused, not sure he should have brought this up. "That, um. He doesn't want to be alone."
"I'm sure he only admitted as much after a few drinks," Wendy said, tightly. "Okay, well. Take a few days to let him mope if that's what he needs, but you need to get back to the Red Cross as soon as possible, and bring Stan with you. He can play cards with the other guys, and help us with paperwork-"
"I don't know if he's going to be into that," Kyle said.
"Of course he won't be, at first! But you have to demand it of him, it's the only way he's going to acclimate into society. You have to help him do what's right for himself, even if it's hard. Even if he looks at you like he hates you." She turned away from Kyle, toward the sound of a stray dog's claws clicking along the icy pavement. "Butters' funeral is on Saturday," she said. "I'm helping Linda with the arrangements. She's barely functional."
"That's nice of you," Kyle said, glad to hear that she had a project.
"How was his bladder control last night?" Wendy asked, more quietly. Kyle made a face.
"Fine, as far as I could tell." He could see Wendy noticing his blush. She was a difficult person to lie to. "I'd better go," Kyle said. "I've got a ton of work to do around the house."
"Get Stan to help you if you can," Wendy said. "Even something as simple as chopping vegetables. He likes to feel needed."
"He's not the same guy," Kyle said, and it hurt to say so. Her eyes hardened, and she raised her lip slightly.
"Like I don't know that? He needs to get counseling. He's like any of them, he's. He's going to be okay, Kyle, eventually. Don't let him suck you into his depression. He's very lucky to be alive."
"Wendy," Kyle said. "I know. But you're not thinking about - I mean. Think about what he's lost."
"You think I can't understand because I'm not a man?" She made a disgusted face that crumbled into something pitiful but still angry. "I lost that, too, Kyle," she said. "I know it's not the same, but that part of him was mine, once. Well, not mine, but. It was a part of who we were, together."
She left then, and he didn't have the heart to try to call her back or the maturity to apologize. He walked back to the house slowly, trying to imagine what that would be like: to have Stan that way, and to get him back after fearing him lost forever, but without that intimacy, that joy, that feeling of completeness. He knew Stan was mourning it, too, and not just the idea of never having it again, which he surely couldn't wrap his head around yet, but the loss of it with Wendy specifically. Kyle spent the morning in the kitchen, taking stock of the Marsh pantry and imagining that Stan would have gotten Wendy pregnant right away if she'd been willing when he came home, as a kind of celebration of life. Kyle would have hated them for it. He hated himself, now, for knowing that.
"How's my little nephew doing?" Jimbo asked when he came into the kitchen, looking sleepy. Ned was with him, already smoking, wearing a robe over his pajamas. Their sense of needing to stand guard at all times had faded considerably since Ike departed.
"Maybe don't call him little," Kyle said, trying not to sound bitchy. "And he's fine, I guess. Sleeping. I'm going in to check on him now, in fact."
Stan was indeed still sleeping, and he slept away most of the afternoon, grunting disagreeably at Kyle's suggestions that he eat something. Kyle sent Jimbo to the market with a list of supplies to get, including more bourbon. He didn't want to rob Stan of every simple pleasure; they would just have to be more careful. At three o'clock, he decided enough was enough and went in to wake Stan.
"Are you alright?" Kyle asked. He sat on the bed and touched Stan's forehead to check his temperature. "You've been asleep for like fifteen hours."
Stan moaned, his eyes still closed. He felt a little overly warm to Kyle, and he wondered if Stan would be willing to let him take his temperature.
"Wendy came over this morning," Kyle said, testing to see if this would get a reaction. Stan blinked his eyes halfway open, his face still pressed to the pillow.
"I don't want to see her," he said, mumbling.
"I know you don't. But she's thinking about you. I'm sure that's not surprising to hear. She thinks you should come volunteer at the Red Cross with us."
Stan scoffed. "Fuck that," he said, and he groaned when his v-chip went off. He rolled onto his back, rubbing his eyes. He looked so normal, perfectly intact, from this angle.
"I didn't think you'd be interested," Kyle said. "I told her that."
Stan left his arm draped over his eyes and said nothing. Kyle looked to the window; it was already getting darker outside. Jimbo was still at the market, and Ned was off somewhere negotiating a firewood purchase.
"Are you going to sleep again?" Kyle asked, poking Stan.
"Do you want something?" Stan snapped, and Kyle didn't recognize him when he took his arm away from his eyes. He was viper-like, ready to strike. His face changed a little when he saw Kyle's expression, and Kyle stood from the bed. "I mean, I haven't earned the right to stay in bed for one effing day?" Stan said, more mildly. He sounded embarrassed by his outburst, and Kyle hated making him feel guilty. He knew he shouldn't object to being Stan's punching bag, at least at the start.
"You can," Kyle said, but he was thinking about what Wendy had said, that Stan liked feeling needed. It was true, and Kyle knew he wasn't going to do Stan any favors by letting him stay here indefinitely, sneaking him bourbon and quietly changing his wet sheets. "I was thinking about your mother, though," Kyle said, and he turned back to the bed. "When she comes home. She's been through a lot, and she'll be - God knows what she'll have seen. I think it would be a nice thing, for her, to see you doing okay. You know what I mean?"
"No," Stan said, sourly. "I don't know what 'okay' means for someone like this. Like me. Breathing? Not sitting in a puddle of piss? That's a start. What the hell else am I supposed to do?"
"You don't have to do anything," Kyle said, quick to back down. Stan sat up a little, his shoulders propped against his pillow. He seemed to still be listening, at least. "I'm just saying. Your mom could find you in here when she comes back, or she could find you at the Red Cross, helping other vets get through this. Obviously you don't have to do anything right away. It's just something to think about."
"I can't help anyone," Stan said. "I can't even pull myself onto the toilet without help. Or can I? Let's find out." He groped for his chair, and Kyle moved to get it for him, but Stan was able to slide into it on his own. The sight of his legs thunking heavily from the mattress to the chair was gut wrenching, like watching a loved one's lifeless body be thrown from a ship. Stan picked up one socked foot and placed it onto the leg rest, then the other.
"Should I come with you?" Kyle asked as Stan wheeled toward the bathroom.
"Let me try it on my own first," Stan said, mumbling. He turned back to Kyle just before he'd reached the bathroom door. "Do you get it now?" he asked. "Why I didn't want Wendy around, trying to wipe my ass for me? Pretending she didn't mind?"
"I do understand," Kyle said. "I never said you were wrong about that, did I? I just think you could still be friends."
"Eff you, Kyle," Stan said. "You don't think I considered that? And how excruciating it would be for both of us? Jesus Christ." He wheeled himself into the bathroom and closed the door hard behind him.
Kyle's eyes watered with shame, and he wondered if he should leave the room, just leave Stan alone. He knew he was being unfair, insensitive, but treating Wendy like invisible garbage wasn't going to work as a long term plan, and Stan would hate himself for it someday. Kyle heard the sound of piss hitting water and thought about Stan having to pee sitting down. There were so many mini humiliations waiting to be uncovered, below the largest ones that everyone would be thinking about when they saw Stan now.
There was some awkward-sounding shuffling, but Stan managed to make it back to the door and open it, firmly in his chair. Kyle decided not to mention that he hadn't washed his hands.
"Look," Stan said, lingering in the doorway of the bathroom. "I don't want to talk about Wendy with you. I know you're just trying to be nice or something, but you really don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"Fine," Kyle said. "I mean, I know. I've never had anyone. I know."
"Just drop it," Stan said, eyes narrowing. "Everything you say on the subject only pisses me off more."
"I just said I understand! I wasn't being sarcastic!"
"Yeah, but you don't effing understand, Kyle, because you will have someone, someday. You're only eighteen. You're going to stand there feeling sorry for yourself because you didn't get laid during high school? Really?"
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself!" Kyle was shouting, wanting the volume of his voice to convince Stan that he hadn't said any of this to hurt him, that he could never feel more sorry for himself than he did for Stan.
"Everything alright in there?" Jimbo asked, speaking through the door. Stan groaned.
"We're fine," he said. "Mind your own business."
"Don't talk to him like that," Kyle said, whispering. He pictured Jimbo retreating to the kitchen in tears.
"You're much bigger on telling me what to do than I thought you'd be," Stan said.
"I know things are different," Kyle said, forcing himself to calm down. "But I just want to be able to talk to you, even if I end up making an ass of myself, which I obviously will. I hated how it was as the Red Cross, how I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything at all. Did you like it that way? Me tiptoeing around you like a scared mouse? Do you want it to stay that way?"
"Fuck no," Stan said. He gritted his teeth and curled his fists, bearing out the shock. His face softened as the pain receded, and Kyle watched him take a few deep breaths. Kyle's heart was pounding. He hadn't expected to have this conversation, not ever, and especially not right away. But this was Stan. He didn't know how to hide his feelings from Stan, except for that one very crucial feeling.
"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "I don't want to be a dick, to say stupid things, but. I don't want to pretend, either, or treat you like you're made of glass."
"Well," Stan said, and his eyes watered a little. Kyle wasn't sure if he should let on that he'd noticed. "I actually, like. Appreciate that. I mean. Thanks."
"Um," Kyle said. He was flushed as if he'd confessed something, and he supposed he had. "I guess Jimbo's back from the market. You want to come out and get something to eat?"
"Fine," Stan said, and he sighed, rubbing his face, as if Kyle was asking a lot of him. "I shouldn't have yelled at Jimbo."
"He'll get over it," Kyle said.
Kyle had sent Jimbo out with an especially indulgent shopping list, though they weren't exactly financially secure in recent months. This was a special occasion, and Stan's willingness to chow down on that fried chicken had been heartening for Kyle. If Stan was going to take comfort in food, Kyle was going to provide it. He'd find the money somehow.
"Oh, dude, these are too expensive," Stan said when Kyle laid a bag of Cheesy Poofs on the table. "Don't blow your money on this junk." Even as he said so he was handling the bag with wonder, almost stroking it.
"It's just a welcome home gift," Kyle said. "I hope Cartman didn't rip you off," he said to Jimbo, who was milling around with his tail between his legs.
"I got those from Barbrady," Jimbo said. "He traded me for some ammo, said he'd been hoarding them for months. Cartman's booth was closed."
"Seriously?" Kyle said. "Craig wasn't there, even?"
"Nope, totally closed," Jimbo said. "People were gossiping at the butcher stand, saying Cartman got his heart broke when Butters died."
"Cartman doesn't have a heart," Stan said. "It's some kind of scheme. Believe me." He looked to Kyle, expecting him to agree. Kyle nodded, though he wasn't so sure.
Clyde and Craig appeared on the doorstep later that evening, Clyde bearing a box full of his mother's homemade toffee. Kyle expected Stan to turn them away, but he invited them in, and they sat in the living room for a while, everyone but Kyle telling war stories. Kyle still wanted to ask how Kenny had died, but he didn't dare. Stan would tell him when he was ready.
"Here's to Butters," Clyde said when Jimbo poured them all a round of bourbon. He did not know about the bed wetting incident; Kyle was nervous as he watched Stan drain his glass quickly after the toast.
"You coming to the funeral?" Craig asked, directing this to Stan. Kyle had been afraid to ask, and he was relieved when Stan nodded solemnly, looking down in this glass.
"Of course," he said.
"I didn't go anywhere for two months after I first got back," Craig said. "I felt deformed."
"Think Cartman will show up?" Clyde said, perhaps to change the subject, because Stan still staring down into his glass.
"I'm sure he will," Kyle said. "After that display at the hospital."
"I don't know, man," Clyde said. "You should have heard him when I tried to comfort him after all that. I know he's prideful and immature, but he was livid, telling me I was stupid to fall for that, that it was all fake, that he was just trying to get Butters' mother to leave him some money. It was pretty gross, even if he was just being defensive. I mean, Butters had been dead for five minutes, and Cartman was already talking like that."
"I bet he'll come," Kyle said.
"It's fucking sick," Stan said, and the sharpness in his voice made Kyle's skin prickle with goosebumps. "It's sick that Cartman is alive, and guys like Kenny and Butters are dead." He looked up from his glass, finally. "Any news about Bebe?" he asked.
"No," Clyde said. Another silence fell over the room. Craig was drumming his finger against the side of his empty glass, his nail making a clicking sound.
"You should have seen her, man," Stan said. "Bebe, she was. Not the best soldier in our unit, but fearless, and everyone trusted her completely, she was just so-" He shook his head. "I don't mean to talk in the past tense," he said.
"It's fine," Clyde said, tightly. "I knew what you meant."
He and Craig left shortly afterward, and Kyle was glad to see them go, though he was also glad that Stan had been willing to entertain them. Stan took a piss before getting in bed, easing Kyle's fears somewhat. He wasn't sure what to do with himself when Stan returned from the bathroom. Should he get in the bed? Go out to sleep on the couch? They had both brushed their teeth already; Jimbo had brought home a fresh toothbrush for Stan, and Ned had collected Kyle's from his house, along with a list of other things he'd been too absentminded to pack. Things were settling into place, but Kyle wasn't sure where this left him, in terms of sleeping arrangements.
"Was that mean of me?" Stan asked as he rolled toward the bed. "Bringing up Bebe?"
"No, not at all," Kyle said. He was standing near the door to the living room, hugging his elbows. The Marsh household was drafty, and the whole first floor got cold at night.
"I think it was, a little," Stan said. He was muttering, staring at the bed in preparation for vaulting himself into it. Every dismount was still awkward at best, heart wrenching at worst. "It's like I wanted to hurt him," Stan said. "Because he's still in one piece. I bet he'll wear his effing medals to Butters' funeral. God, I'd bet you a million dollars, he will. I'm not wearing mine, and he can kiss my butt if he has a problem with it. And Craig - that comment about feeling deformed? Like I wouldn't have taken one less eye and a limp over this?"
"Craig's an a-hole," Kyle said. He had taken objection to that comment, too.
"I can't stand being around these people," Stan said, mumbling, and he sort of flopped into the bed, crawling forward with his arms until he'd pulled his legs in.
"I never know when I should help you and when I should stay back," Kyle said, hoping this wasn't the wrong thing to say. Everything was the wrong thing, but he couldn't shut himself up. "You can just tell me. If you want to make rules. And I don't know - should I sleep in here? With you? I don't want to crowd you, um. Or anything."
Stan said nothing for a long moment, and Kyle was sure that he was trying to figure out how to politely refuse Kyle's offer to spoon him.
"Aren't you afraid I'll pee on you?" Stan asked. For a second Kyle thought it was a joke. Then he was sure that it wasn't.
"No," Kyle said.
"But you hate pee. You had to - and you hate it, it's like, one of your worst things-"
"That's not even close to one of my worst things," Kyle said. "Not anymore. Every day you were gone, I would have swallowed two gallons of pee to have you back. More than that. I would - I would be a fish who lives in a river of pee, Stan, if that was the alternative to losing you."
"That's the thing, see," Stan said, pointing at him. "That's the mother effing thing, everybody saying they didn't lose me, at least they didn't lose me, at least I'm here. They lost that guy, though, and it's like nobody's even noticed. That guy is gone, Kyle. He got lost, and I don't even get to be sad about it."
"Yes, you do," Kyle said, his voice pinching up. He still thought, all the time, about what Stan had said before he left, that he would get lost without Kyle up there. "I wish I could have come," Kyle said, not sure Stan would follow his thought process.
"No," Stan said. "You don't know how glad I am that you're still the same."
"I'm not, though," Kyle said, and he chewed his tongue to keep from crying. He'd never been much of a crier; lately it was out of embarrassment more than anything. He felt ridiculous when Stan looked at him like he was just a dumb kid who needed protecting, somebody who should be glad to know so little about the real world. Mostly because he knew there was truth in that assessment.
"Don't say you're not the same." Stan put his hand out, reaching for Kyle. "Even if it's true, don't tell me that. C'mere."
They got under the blankets together, and Kyle clung, hiding his face against Stan's chest. Stan's heart was beating against his cheek, and his arms were tight around Kyle, stronger than they'd been when he left home. His breath was warm against the crown of Kyle's head. All the important stuff was still here. Kyle would make Stan see this in time, somehow. He'd find the Stan that had been lost, take his hand, and lead him home.
It seemed as if the entire town turned up for Butters' funeral, with the very obvious exception of Cartman. Tweek, Ruby and Craig were all in attendance, and Kyle supposed Cartman's excuse was that he had to stay and run his booth, which had both reopened and expanded. Normally Kyle would have taken Cartman's increasing financial success as very bad news, but he seemed to have reached a stage in his black market career where he could charge fair prices for a wider variety of products, including some fruits and vegetables that hadn't been seen in South Park in years. No one was sure who his supplier was. Wendy was investigating him, quietly.
Stan was silent during the ride to the funeral, and he did not want to mingle before or after the service. Kyle had expected this, and nodded in agreement when Stan expressed a lack of interest in attending the reception. Stan had been right about Clyde: he was wearing his full dress uniform, including medals. Craig was wearing his as well, and Kyle thought he looked uncomfortable. As they were leaving the cemetery, Kyle thought he saw Kenny lurking in the distance, crossing between mausoleums and smoking a cigarette. He suspected it was some sort of trick of the light or stress-induced hallucination, and he didn't mention it to Stan.
"What did you think of the service?" Kyle asked when they were on their way back to the house in the truck. Jimbo and Ned had stayed for the reception.
"Pretty much what I expected," Stan said. "That religious bullshit."
Kyle was afraid to ask Stan if he still believed in God. He felt as if he heard the answer anyway, in the heavy silence that followed.
"There's supposed to be a bad storm tonight," Kyle said, though Stan had been there during these conversations at the church and the graveside, too. "People were, you know. Saying so, anyway."
"Well, we've got food," Stan said. He sounded only mildly irritated, and this was such a cheerful development that Kyle wanted to touch Stan's shoulder with gratitude. Anytime they had a banal exchange that wasn't filled with stomach-clenching emotional weight, Kyle's heart soared.
"Tweek looked awful, did you notice?" Kyle asked. "I haven't seen him around the market much lately, not even at Cartman's booth. I think that was the first time I'd seen him since you guys got home." He regretted saying 'you guys,' because Butters was dead, and 'home,' because he feared that what they'd offered Stan at his house hardly felt like that.
"He never looked that great to me to begin with," Stan said. "In school he was always hunched and tense. Especially after his parents, you know."
"Yeah," Kyle said. Tweek's father had been killed in combat, and his mother had been killed when the movie theater was bombed; Tweek Brothers Coffee had been right next door. "Do we know anyone with a surviving set of parents?" Kyle asked.
"Wendy," Stan said. "And Clyde." He scoffed.
"You must worry about Bebe," Kyle said.
"She was doing okay when they packed me off," Stan said. "Crying, and. I didn't really get the memo that Butters wasn't going to make it until we got home. Bebe knew, I think. She said her goodbyes. Effing Cartman. He couldn't tear himself away from his empire for an hour, just out of respect for Butters' mom?"
"Nothing he does surprises me," Kyle said, though that wasn't true, and perhaps Stan knew where Kyle's thoughts had wandered to, because he reached over to touch Kyle's thigh.
"I still have dreams where you let me kill him," Stan said.
"Stan," Kyle said, disturbed. He was sorry for his tone when Stan took his hand away. "It took me a long time to figure out that he's not even worth hating," Kyle said.
"It's not like I'm sitting here making the decision to hate him," Stan said. "I just do."
The house was quiet and chilly when they returned, and Kyle made a fire in the den, which he was beginning to think of as a bedroom that belonged partially to him. Stan was in the kitchen, putting together a snack of some kind. They'd done their best to move everything into his reach, but he still couldn't use the kitchen sink.
"Want to talk about our memories of Butters or something?" Kyle asked, feeling awkward as he stood watching Stan eat some black market peanut butter off of stale government issue bread.
"Well," Stan said, his mouth full. "I remember the first time he killed somebody, if you want to hear about that."
"I don't know," Kyle said. He sat beside Stan, dragging his chair closer. "Do I?"
"It wasn't anything too dramatic," Stan said. "We exchanged fire with some Canadians in Montana, near the border, when we were on a restocking mission. It was me, Butters, a guy from California and two senior officers. There were just three guys who ran up on us, and we mowed them down, and then there was this fourth guy who came out of nowhere, and Butters was the one who got him. I guess we were all sort of stunned, and congratulating him, because he'd never had good aim in BCT." Stan was holding what was left of his bread with both hands, staring at it. "He got real quiet and white. Everybody knew he didn't really want to be there. He was just trying to impress his old man, and, Jesus, maybe Cartman, too. He didn't find out about his dad until we got back."
"What did you do with the bodies?" Kyle asked. "Of the Canadians, I mean?" He wasn't sure if he should add that Stan didn't have to tell him if he didn't want to.
"Well, Kyle, what do you think?" Stan asked, and he laughed meanly. "We took their guns and left the rest for the wolves. The wolf population is out of control, did you know that? Do they tell you that kind of stuff, here? I'd never heard it. They're not normally scavengers, but I guess the lower tier wolves who might have starved otherwise, they'd been feasting easy for ten years. When we'd have to camp on the trek between the forts, Jesus, it was horrible. The howling, I mean. There were stories about smaller units being eaten alive by some of the big packs."
"God," Kyle said. He'd wanted some peanut butter himself, but now he felt sick. Stan set the rest of his bread down and wiped his hands on his pants.
"You asked," Stan said.
"I'm not mad," Kyle said. "I want to hear this. You didn't tell me this kind of stuff. In your letters, I mean."
"I didn't have much time for writing once we were in the shit." Stan winced and pounded the table with his fist. "I need to see about having this chip out," he said.
"Please," Kyle said. "I know it's frustrating, but-"
"You don't know what frustration is, okay?" Stan said. He left the table, wheeling himself into the bedroom. Fairly sure that he shouldn't follow, Kyle made himself busy with chores until Jimbo and Ned returned. He was glad to have the noise of them in the house again, something to listen to other than the silence from the den and imaginary wolves howling in his head.
"Where's the big guy?" Jimbo asked. He had about a thousand different nicknames for Stan, all of them well-intentioned but demeaning.
"Having a nap," Kyle said. He lowered his voice. "I think it look a lot out of him, today."
"Well, I'm sure that's true," Jimbo said. He took off his furry hunting hat, and without its shadow on his face Kyle could see that he'd shed tears. "What a sad day."
"Would you like some whiskey?" Ned asked, already getting it down.
"I would," Jimbo said. "Kyle?"
"No, thanks." He left them to their drinking and slipped into the den. The fire was still going strong, and Stan was slumped on the bed, the curtains open to the fading late afternoon light. "Here comes the snow," Kyle said, not sure that Stan was awake. He went to the window to watch it fall, and found himself wishing for a blizzard, though lasting out a bad one would be a nightmare.
"Sounds like they're having a drink out there," Stan said. Jimbo and Ned were chipping ice from the back patio into their glasses, a normal custom for them that Kyle found ridiculous.
"I could get you one?" Kyle said. Stan hadn't had an accident since that first night. He had a fairly routine bathroom schedule, and Kyle got the feeling that half the time he just went in as a precaution.
"Yeah, please," Stan said. "And get one for yourself," he said when Kyle was halfway to the door. "Jesus, Kyle. I know everything's terrible for you, too. I do know that."
"Not as terrible as when you were gone," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back, because at least while Stan was away he still had the use of his legs. "I mean, when I didn't know if you were okay. When I'd stopped getting letters."
"You haven't heard from your dad or Ike, still?" Stan asked. He lifted his head a little. His hair was all messed up, pressed flat on one side and standing up on the other.
"No," Kyle said. He thought of them in a thick wood somewhere, surrounded by wolves. "I'll, um. I'll get a drink, too, yeah. Be right back."
He returned with the drinks, glad to find Stan sitting up in bed and looking toward the window, at the falling snow. Kyle climbed in with him, sat with his shoulder pressed to Stan's and brought his knees up to his chest. Stan didn't look at him, but he reached over to hug Kyle's knees to his side.
"Here's to Butters, right?" Kyle said.
"Yeah," Stan said. They toasted and drank. Kyle glanced over to watch Stan's throat bob. "I think this will be harder in the summer," Stan said.
"Just. Living like this." He turned to Kyle, hugging his legs more tightly. "Right now it's like, well. This is where I'd be anyway. Inside, by the fire. It'll be hard when the weather's nice."
"I'll still be here," Kyle said. He knew that was a small comfort, or maybe no comfort at all, but he didn't know what else to say. He drank more and rested his cheek on Stan's shoulder, melting against him. He was always a little afraid to initiate touches if they weren't settling in for sleep, but the drink was making him bold.
"You're not a human crutch," Stan said.
"I know," Kyle said. "I'm your best friend."
"Craig today," Stan said, and Kyle was glad for the change of subject, though he worried Stan had thought of Craig in relation to Clyde, and Craig's obvious infatuation with him. "In that uniform. Jesus."
"He looked like somebody from a comic book," Kyle said, and he realized that was inappropriate and cruel, because he'd mostly been referring to the combination of Craig's military uniform and the eye patch.
"I could never believe it about Craig leaving school to join up," Stan said. "I know he just followed Clyde, but still."
"I would have only been following you," Kyle said. He'd been afraid to tell Stan so, but he wanted to show Stan his every vulnerability now, or at least all the ones that wouldn't make Stan feel as if he owed Kyle something. "You knew that, didn't you?" Kyle said when Stan was quiet.
"I guess," Stan said. "I knew I was selfish for wanting you to."
"That's bull, I was selfish for wanting to go along. I would have been some kind of liability, I'm sure."
"Don't underestimate yourself," Stan said. "But I'm glad, you know. I'm glad you weren't there, hearing things go snap in the woods at night and not knowing if it was a tree branch breaking or a wolf tearing the arm off some corpse. God, sorry."
"It's weird," Kyle said. "It's upsetting, hearing that, but I feel, like. Glad to hear it. I want you to talk to me, um. If you want to."
"Kyle," Stan said, and he sighed. Kyle wasn't sure if it was an admonishment or an endearment, but he decided it was probably the latter when Stan's arms wrapped around him. "I'm still sorry I lost your letters," Stan said, mumbling this into Kyle's hair. His glass was empty and he sounded a little tipsy. "They were so great. Like hearing your voice."
"I remember you saying that. You should have seen me here, at the mailbox. My heart used to pound when I even saw the envelopes, your handwriting." Kyle was possibly tipsy, too; he finished his drink and pressed his face to Stan's neck. There was nothing that calmed him as quickly as the feeling of Stan's pulse against his cheek.
"Did you worry I was dead?" Stan asked. "When the letters stopped coming?"
"Well, of course," Kyle said, but then he thought about it a bit more. "Or maybe not? I think I decided I would feel it if you were gone. Remember, I promised not to die until you do? I felt like you would have shown up and asked me to come along."
"I probably would have," Stan said. "Selfish prick that I am. I know I've been a pain in the ass." He moaned a little when the v-chip fired, his embrace tightening. Kyle wanted to extract himself to stop his arousal from solidifying, but he also didn't want to draw attention to it. In the mornings, he kept his boners as discreet as he could. "Is this weird for you?" Stan asked. Kyle shifted, wondering if Stan had noticed his dick.
"No," Kyle said. "For you?"
"I don't know," Stan said. "Maybe. Sometimes? But it's also, like. Other than whiskey, it's the only thing that feels good anymore."
"Mhmm," Kyle said. He was too sleepy and warm to attach much significance to this exchange. It felt natural, and mostly non-sexual, though Kyle's cock was hard at the moment, mostly from that sound Stan had made when he was shocked. The heat of Stan's body was nice, too, admittedly. And his whiskey breath. The way his chest rose and fell as Kyle began to drift off.
Kyle startled awake when Jimbo knocked on the door. He hadn't really managed to fall asleep, but he'd been close enough that he felt as if he'd just had water thrown over his head. Stan's arms slid away from him as he sat up, too.
"Dinner ready?" Stan asked. Kyle could smell garlic frying in oil. It actually smelled fresh, not like the jarred kind that came with their rations and reeked like it was rotting.
"Still working on dinner, but there's someone here to see you two," Jimbo said. "A couple of your friends."
"Which friends?" Stan asked, and he frowned at Kyle as if to accuse him of arranging this. Kyle shook his head.
"Gregory, and - aw, hell, I forget the other one's name. Something foreign."
"Christophe?" Kyle said, quietly, to Stan. He was actually glad at the thought of seeing him, since they hadn't gotten a chance to speak at Butters' service. He looked to Stan, not willing to leave him if he wasn't up for company.
"What do they want?" Stan asked.
"I don't know," Jimbo said. "But they've got a bottle of wine for you, they say."
"God, Gregory is the worst," Stan said, but he reached for his chair.
Gregory was still dressed for the funeral in an expensive-looking suit, his hair slicked back with too much gel as usual. Christophe was wearing a baggy military jacket with sleeves long enough to cover his missing hand and most of his prosthetic one. Underneath, he had a shirt with a collar, a loosened tie hanging around it. When Stan wheeled himself over to Gregory to accept the wine, Gregory started to kneel down to his level, then thought better of it.
"It's a good vintage," Gregory said. "I was saving it for, I don't know. I suddenly feel I've been saving it too long. I thought perhaps the four of us could share it."
"Wendy wasn't interested?" Stan said, and Kyle flinched. Christophe smirked. "Sorry," Stan said while Gregory turned pink. "That's - nice of you, thanks. I'll get an opener."
"I'll get it," Kyle said.
"I can manage," Stan said, and he pushed the bottle into Kyle's hands. It was red wine, and the bottle was cold to the touch. Kyle stared at it, wondering if he'd dreamed the conversation they'd had in bed, where everything had felt okay for a few cozy seconds.
"This place is not bad, red," Christophe said, strolling around the room. He had the sharply curious attitude of a robber who was casing the joint.
"It's not my house, it's Stan's," Kyle said.
"But you live here?" Christophe raised his eyebrows when he turned from the pictures on the mantle to look at Kyle.
"I'm helping out," Kyle said. "Like I helped you."
"He's doing really well with the prosthetic," Gregory said.
"Yes, please, talk of me like I am not here," Christophe said, glaring at him. Kyle was increasingly surprised that they'd come together. "He treats me like I am a monkey and he is my trainer," Christophe said to Kyle.
"But it's working out?" Kyle said, nodding to the hand. Christophe shrugged angrily.
"I suppose it is slightly better than a rusting hook," he said.
Stan returned with the opener and a stack of four tumblers, three of which matched. Kyle was afraid this visit would be awkward, like the one with Clyde and Craig had been, and that it would turn Stan off to company even more. There was something about Christophe, however, that dispelled awkwardness.
"I heard that pig Cartman was professing his love for your dead friend," Christophe said after a few gulps of wine. Gregory was swirling his in the glass, sniffing it. "For insurance money or something?"
"I think he was just overwhelmed," Kyle said. "And now he's embarrassed that we all saw him like that."
"What is with you and defending him?" Stan asked. "Cartman doesn't get embarrassed. He has no shame."
"I went to his whore house recently," Christophe said. "Or to his mother's whore house, I suppose. I got a bad feeling and left before fucking anyone."
"Honestly," Gregory said, giving Christophe a look. "We should do something about shutting that place down. I'm not certain all of the employees are of age."
"Take it up with the mayor," Stan said. "I've heard she's a regular customer."
"I heard she sleeps with Liane," Kyle said.
"Who the fuck is Liane, some famous whore?" Christophe asked, and Stan actually laughed.
"That's Cartman's mother's name," Gregory said. "And yes, I'd heard they have some sort of romantic arrangement that's resulted in the mayor turning a blind eye to this illegal activity. Wendy and I were talking about-" He broke off there and looked at Stan, who laughed again, though he sounded less amused this time.
"You can say her name in my presence," he said. "I won't burst into tears or anything."
"We were talking about what could be done," Gregory said. "Wendy is of the opinion that we could encourage the mayor to legalize prostitution, since there's clearly an economic demand for it, and that way there could be some regulation involved, instead of this shady criminal approach. What do you think?" he asked Stan, who was throwing back the last of his wine.
"Uh," Stan said, laughing darkly, and Kyle's throat clenched up when he realized what was coming. "I'm not really the person to ask. Whores are pretty much irrelevant to me. Now."
Christophe said something in French and shook his head. Kyle cast around desperately for a change of subject and came up with nothing. Gregory stood to pour Stan another glass of wine.
"I meant in the political sense," Gregory said. He was blushing again, pretending not to be embarrassed by Stan's unblinking stare.
"To be honest, dude, I couldn't give an eff." Stan drank, and gestured to Christophe with his glass. "How long did it take them to approve your v-chip removal?" he asked.
"Bastards postponed it for months," Christophe said. "You have to be tenacious."
"Because it's so dangerous," Kyle said. He looked to Gregory. "Right?"
"Ah, yes," Gregory said. "How I would love to have this government censorship removed from my skull. It sickens me every day to think of it in there, but the success rate for the surgery is much too low. I hope you're not serious, Stan?"
"His worked," Stan said, flicking his chin toward Christophe.
"I was not afraid to die," Christophe said.
"And I am?" Stan said.
"It's not just death!" Kyle said. "You could end up drooling like an idiot for the rest of your life, dead inside your body-"
"And I'm not?" Stan said.
"Please," Kyle said, his voice breaking. His hand was so tight around his tumbler that he was surprised he hadn't cracked the glass.
"Sorry," Stan said, turning back to Gregory and Christophe. "But I do want the chip out. Every time I slip and get buzzed by this son of a bee I think about how they did this to me, all of this, and now they won't even let me angry about it."
"I suppose you mean the government?" Gregory said.
"Of course he means the fucking government, you cow!" Christophe said, glaring at him. Gregory gave him a look of mild irritation. "And he's right, but I do caution you, my friend, to think if you have anything at all to lose. I did not, when I got the surgery. Or, I felt that I did not," he said, mumbling.
"Now you've seen that it wasn't so?" Gregory said. "Now that you've gotten your prosthetic at last?"
"Don't tell people who've lost things about what they still have," Christophe said. "I only mean for him to think. Not for you to tell him." He looked at Kyle when he said this. Stan waved his hand through the air.
"Forget it," he said, and for a moment Kyle was hopeful, thinking Stan meant that he wasn't serious about wanting the surgery. "Let's talk about something else."
"There is something, specifically, that I came here to talk to you about," Gregory said. Kyle prayed it wasn't Wendy. "It's a sport I've invented."
"Jesus, here he goes," Christophe said.
Gregory and Christophe stayed for dinner, during which Gregory told them the details of this sport that he was so excited about: it was played by a variety of handicapped persons, who were assigned to teams based on their abilities as a group, with players in wheelchairs given certain basketball-like goals while those like Christophe who had the use of their feet would aim for goals on the ground. Kyle found the whole proposal insanely offensive, but Jimbo was quite enamored with the idea and Stan didn't object, just sipped wine until the bottle was empty. For dessert there was a pear, one fat slice for each of them, and then Christophe and Gregory headed back to the Red Cross.
"Can you believe that effing guy?" Kyle asked when Stan emerged from the bathroom after dinner, having drained the wine. "What the heck was that nonsense about making up a sport? He's effing nervy, acting like you'd want to do something like that."
"I could barely follow him," Stan said. "Wine was pretty good, though. I like Christophe, too."
"I don't want you to have your v-chip out," Kyle said. He was standing near the bed, like always, waiting to be invited into it as Stan arranged the blankets over himself. "I'm sorry, but I just. I can't stand by and let you do something like that."
"Well, I guess I am at your mercy," Stan said. He seemed to be in a better mood, or at least too drowsy to fight. "You could tie me up and make me do whatever you want. I can't fight you."
"You know what I mean, Stan. Don't joke."
"I'm actually just stating facts here. Kyle, dude, what are you doing? Come to bed."
"I have to pee," Kyle said, and Stan smiled a little. "What?"
"Nothing," Stan said. "You look like you're about to cry."
"So you're laughing at me? For being afraid you're going to kill yourself over some words you're not allowed to say?"
"You don't how much those words mean when you're really angry," Stan said. "When you're this angry."
"Please, just wait until summer," Kyle said. "At least promise me that. See how you feel then. Like you said, it will be different. Maybe you'll be angrier, maybe not."
"Go pee," Stan said, and he flopped down to the pillow, turning onto his side.
When Kyle returned to the bedroom, hands washed and teeth brushed, Stan appeared to be asleep. Kyle shed his boots, socks, and jeans. The room was icy; he shivered while he built up the fire. Outside, the snow was still coming down. He thought of closing the curtains as usual, but why bother? What would anyone who looked inside see: a mound of blankets, Kyle's hair and Stan's, and they wouldn't be able to assume the things that Kyle had once feared they would. Not if they knew what had happened to Stan.
He left the curtains open and got into bed, hurrying toward the heat of Stan's back. Being the big spoon was dangerous: if they fell asleep this way and didn't wake until morning, Kyle's morning erection would be pressed to the place on Stan's back where paralysis met feeling. At the moment he was soft, and he squeezed up against Stan as close as possible, threading his arm around Stan's side. At least partially awake, Stan put his hand over Kyle's under the blankets.
"My mom would never let me," Stan said.
"Huh? Oh, the operation?"
"Yeah, never. Kyle. What if she dies?"
"She won't," Kyle said, though he had no idea what was going on in New York and the rumors weren't good.
"Do you think about your mom?" Stan asked. Kyle went tense and buried his face between Stan's neck and shoulder.
"It's all her fault," Kyle said. "You, everything. But I don't think about that. I guess I should, like I inherited the guilt or something."
"Shut up," Stan said, but it was a kindness, and he pushed his fingers down through Kyle's, spreading them apart. "No, tell me what you think about. Good memories?"
"I worry about how she died. How they hurt her."
"It wasn't all her fault," Stan said. "Everyone went along with it. Me included. I thought I was going to be a hero, like. I thought I was going to go up there and protect people without having to kill anyone. I really effing thought that, Kyle. Then I'd come home like Clyde, with my medals."
"You had to kill people?"
"Nn, yeah, didn't I tell you? Earlier? Or before? Yeah, three guys. Three guys who'll never walk again, or fuck." They both jerked when Stan's v-chip went off, Kyle squeezing him to try to absorb some of it. "Or swim, or come. I feel as dead as they are sometimes, and I think about how there were three, and I'm just one. Like it's a math problem. You know, the ones where you balance out the equation?"
"They would have killed you," Kyle said. "If you hadn't, you know. If they could have, I mean."
"You sure about that? I don't know. But you don't need to tell me that. I'm too angry to feel guilty yet."
Stan didn't feel angry when he slept in Kyle's arms, but Kyle wasn't sure what angry should feel like, from the outside. Red hot, or trembling with rage, grinding teeth. He realized as he drifted off that Stan must have taken one of his sleeping pills while Kyle was in the bathroom. Soon they would run out, and Kyle knew from his experience of working there that the Red Cross center considered sleeping pills a luxury they couldn't afford. The only place where he'd been able to find them, on special request, was Cartman's booth at the market.
They rode out the storm in a gray, blanketed blur, the snow half-covering the front window by the time Kyle woke up on the first morning. Jimbo and Ned did the work of keeping doorways clear, and Kyle did the cooking, rationing things carefully, just in case. Stan's moods fluctuated between quiet helpfulness in the kitchen and days when he refused to get out of bed except to use the bathroom. Kyle had brought Stan's letters from his house, and he kept them on the second floor, in Stan's old bedroom. Sometimes, when things were bad downstairs, he would sneak up to read them and press his lips to Stan's words, as if the old Stan was in them, lonely and cold while Kyle kept the new Stan warm downstairs.
When the roads were clear enough, Kyle went to the Red Cross center to see what kind of medication he could rustle up to replace the sleeping pills Stan had been given as part of his exit package at the hospital. He felt badly for leaving Stan at the house with Jimbo and Ned, as if Stan was an exotic pet that they wouldn't know how to care for. It was absurd, because Stan could care for himself in most ways, as long as he had his chair within reach. The only thing he hadn't mastered was getting out of the bathtub. He hadn't attempted it since that first day, and had been taking only sponge baths. His hair had started to smell kind of awful. Kyle was working up the nerve to offer to wash it for him.
"Fancy seeing you here," Wendy said when Kyle found her at the center. It was quieter than it had been when Stan was in residence, and colder. Wendy was bundled into a coat as she sorted charts, wearing fingerless gloves. "Is Stan okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," Kyle said. "But he's only got two sleeping pills left. I'm sort of afraid of what will happen when he comes off of them. They knock him right out, and. He needs rest, you know?"
"Everybody needs rest," Wendy said, her eyes still on the charts. "But sleeping pill addiction is no joke. Especially if he's drinking, too. And don't even try to tell me that he's not. Gregory told me that he brought him wine."
"Why do you say it like that?" Kyle said, though he knew why she was being this way, and he felt for her. "Anyway, um. Anxiety medication, maybe? Something to calm him down."
"Is he having rages?" Wendy asked, and she finally looked up.
"No," Kyle said. "I mean, I don't think so? He gets mad sometimes. Or, a lot. But he doesn't, like. Throw things." He actually did throw a shoe, once, but only at the wall.
"I'll look through our inventory," Wendy said. "But don't expect much. Things are kinda bleak. There's so much effort being poured into the battle up north, supplies are trickling in at a pathetic pace. I heard they declared a cease fire, though. Or agreed to one, or something."
"No word from Stan's mom, I guess?"
"Not to me," Wendy said. "C'mon, we'll check the supplies. But I think you already know where you'll have to go for anything stronger than aspirin."
"Cartman," Kyle said.
"He's been surprisingly reasonable lately," Wendy said. "Price wise. Maybe Butters' spirit visited him in a dream and convinced him not to be such a disease on humanity."
"Where's Christophe?" Kyle asked as they passed his bed.
"Gregory is fostering him," Wendy said. "His mother is destitute, apparently - Christophe's, I mean. She lives in Denver somewhere. He was only brought here because it was on record as his hometown, but apparently he and his mother have issues, so he doesn't want to find her - it's this whole drama. Gregory is weirdly invested. Here, look. I told you."
They were standing in front of the medicine cabinet. It was alarmingly bare.
"I'll go to the market," Kyle said, glumly. Some part of him had known that he would have to. "I need to get some shampoo, anyway." His theory was that a special bottle, something that smelled and felt nicer than the astringent puck that came with their rations, would inspire Stan to let Kyle help him into a real bath. He could wear swim trunks if he liked, for privacy.
"Hello?" Wendy said, waving her hand in front of Kyle's face. "Are you still there?"
"Sorry," Kyle said. He hadn't been sleeping well himself. He had nightmares, usually that Stan needed him and he couldn't get there in time. Waking up and being able to huddle around Stan protectively was a huge consolation, but getting back to sleep was never easy. "I'm gonna go," Kyle said. It was a long walk to the market. He hadn't wanted to take the truck, in case Jimbo needed it for some Stan-related emergency.
"If you wait for a minute, Clyde can drive you," Wendy said. "His shift ends soon, and I'm sending him there for sugar. I want to make a cake," she said, so seriously that Kyle thought for a moment that she was being sarcastic. "For Stan."
"His birthday's not til October," Kyle said.
"I know that," Wendy said, looking like she wanted to kill him. "It's not a birthday cake, it's a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Ideally, I mean, if I can get the cocoa. Clyde thinks his mom has some."
"That is Stan's favorite cake," Kyle said, and he was embarrassed by how threatened he felt. What if the cake was all it took to win Stan over? What if he left Kyle in favor of being 'fostered' by Wendy as soon as the chocolate frosting touched his tongue?
"You look ill," Wendy said, and she touched Kyle's forehead. "Do you want some of that flu tea?"
"That stuff doesn't really work," Kyle said.
"I know, but it's comforting, isn't it? Some of the patients think so, anyway. Here's Clyde," she said, and she waved him over.
The sun was already fading behind the clouds as Kyle and Clyde made their way out to his truck, and Kyle was glad that he didn't have to walk, though being alone with Clyde made him feel uneasy. They had nothing in common.
"I heard there's a cease fire in New York?" Kyle said as Clyde pulled out onto the road, which was still a bit treacherous after all the recent snow.
"I'd heard that, too," Clyde said. "Damn if I can get a radio signal, though. Remember TV? Remember video games? Jesus."
Kyle had to stop himself from bragging that Ike had somehow rigged that video game up at their house not long ago, in the attic. He'd hidden it after Ike left, and now he wondered if he could get it to work for Stan.
"Where's Craig?" Kyle asked, because the two of them seemed inseparable since Clyde's return.
"Working," Clyde said. "If you're going to Cartman's booth, you'll see him. I'm going to drive him home after his shift. I'll drop you off, too."
"Thanks," Kyle said. "Craig's, uh. Doing okay?"
"Oh, sure," Clyde said. "He showed me his eye socket. Have you seen it?"
"No," Kyle said, recoiling.
"It's intense," Clyde said. Kyle wanted to pummel him. He was still a big, dumb kid, even after what he'd been through, all that time alone in the occupied wilderness. Oafish optimists like Clyde were built for war; he seemed as untouched mentally as he was physically. "How's Stan holding up?" he asked.
"Amazingly," Kyle said, feeling defensive. "Considering."
"Stan's such a great guy," Clyde said. Kyle turned toward the window and rolled his eyes.
The market was busy, crowded with people who worked during the day and could afford a few luxury items, most of them just coming off shift. Kyle hadn't been to the market since Stan had moved home, and it was nice to be among a crowd, jostling to see the contents of each booth. He spent more than he'd intended to as he made his way toward Cartman's booth at the back, possibly out of a desire to avoid asking Cartman for anything for as long as possible. Maybe he could deal with Craig, or Ruby, whose stoicism made her brother seem effusive. Kyle appreciated that in a cashier.
Cartman's booth was bustling, always the busiest in the market. He had a whole produce section now, and he seemed to have bought the butcher out. Ruby was manning the meat station, hacking up a tenderloin for Wendy's mother. The more mundane items were in the middle of the shop: candles, toothpaste, shoelaces. Kyle noticed two additional security guards, guys who he still thought of as 'sixth graders' because of his run-ins with them during elementary school. He selected a bottle of moisturizing shampoo that smelled good when he flicked the lid open to take a sniff. Like most of the cosmetics available on the black market, it was half empty, but it was a big bottle and the price was fair. Kyle brought it to the back, where Cartman doled out the most lucrative items from behind a high counter: cigarettes, alcohol, pornography and prescription pills.
"Well, well, look who's showing his face," Cartman said when Kyle approached, pretending to browse the items that were under glass at the main counter. It was mostly tacky jewelry and knives. Kyle could feel Cartman's eyes on him. "Where have you been?" Cartman asked when Kyle looked up. "I was afraid you and Marsh had suicide-pacted each other or something."
"That's not - what does that even mean?" Kyle glared at him. Cartman was smirking, in his element. It was cold in the market, but Cartman wore no jacket, just a maroon shirt with a collar, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. "I'm interested in your prescription selection," Kyle said, before Cartman could come up with his next smart ass remark. "Sleeping pills, ideally."
"Ah, I see," Cartman said, and he tapped his chin with his finger. "Drugging Marsh so you can fondle his limp dick? Interesting choice, Kyle, I like it."
Kyle turned away, and he'd taken two steps before he had the presence of mind to remember that Cartman was the only person in town who might have what he needed. It was so unfair; it seemed as if it has always been this way, ever since they were kids. Cartman was always able to hold something over him.
"That's right, come crawling back," Cartman said when Kyle returned to the counter. "Oh, Kyle. You don't look well. Are you eating? Here, have one of these." He took a packet of beef jerky sticks from his pocket. They smelled delicious. Kyle imagined they were disgustingly warm, from being pressed to Cartman's overlarge thigh.
"No," Kyle said. "Do you have sleeping pills or not? I don't want your food, and I don't want any conversation. I know you want to torture me as much as possible - fine. Do it, and then take my money."
"I can hardly torture you as much as possible in public," Cartman said. "So, we'll save that for another time. Sleeping pills, hmm. I think I might have something."
He opened a big drawer behind the counter, and when he did Kyle recognized where the counter itself had come from: the old pharmacy, which had shut down during the third year of the war. He wondered if Cartman had bought the thing from the previous owner or just smashed the windows and stolen it.
"Let's see," Cartman said, rifling through pill bottles. "Painkillers, allergy medicine, erectile dysfunction drugs-" He looked up. "Don't need those for Marsh, do you? Or maybe it's worth a shot?" He held them up and gave them a shake. Kyle was boiling inside his coat, his fingers flexing into fists, nails cutting into his palm. He tried to keep his gaze impassive, and knew he was failing. "No?" Cartman said, his expression mockingly mild. "Alright, then. Ah, here we are." He held up another bottle. "Sleeping pills, the finest in the land. Let's see, what can I let these babies go for? I'd say around, hmm. Nine hundred seems fair."
"Nine hundred dollars?" Kyle said. "Very funny. What are you really charging for them?"
"These are the only sleeping pills I've been able to get my hands on for six months," Cartman said. "They're nine hundred, Kyle. So do you want them or not?"
"You know I can't afford that," Kyle said. He was beginning to wonder why he'd even bothered. It was mostly his fear that Stan wouldn't want to be held if he wasn't out like a light after swallowing a pill. Selfish, sick, and maybe Cartman's taunting was what Kyle deserved.
"Sadly, I can't lower my price on these," Cartman said, putting them away with a fake sigh of regret. "However." He lifted his eyes to Kyle's again. "I might be willing to make - a trade."
"For what?" Kyle asked, trying to sound bored by this. His heart was pounding. Cartman's gaze was like red ants crawling across his skin, under his clothes, little bites stinging him everywhere.
"For my cock down your throat," Cartman said, predictably. Kyle turned away, so blind with anger that he crashed right into Craig.
"Jesus," Craig said, his remaining eye going wide. "What's wrong?"
"Your business partner is a sick sack of shit," Kyle said. He heard Cartman laugh when his v-chip fired. "And I'm just, I'm. Leaving, or. Clyde's driving us both home. C'mon, let's go."
"Not so fast, Kyle," Cartman said, and when Kyle turned to snarl at him he remembered the shampoo bottle.
"I'll pay Craig," Kyle said. He pushed the bottle into Craig's hands and dug a ten dollar bill out of his pocket.
"Going to massage that into Stan's pubes or something?" Cartman asked, and Kyle heard a hint of desperation in his voice. He decided this was, therefore, a perfect time to land a direct hit.
"You know," Kyle said, turning to Cartman again. "Butters would be heartbroken if he knew what you'd turned into. If he'd even had the ability to imagine you could sink low enough to make fun of Stan's injuries. Butters was willing to die for his friends in battle," Kyle said, his voice gaining strength as he watched Cartman's face fall and then harden. "He was a real man. You're just a coward hiding behind a counter. Making money off of misfortune. There's no hell deep enough for you."
"Security!" Cartman shouted. His face was turning red. "Security!"
"Hey, back off," Craig said, and he waved the guards away when they came. "He paid for the shampoo, let him go. And I'd better not hear you talk garbage about Stan while I'm around, you a-hole. Or any veterans."
"You watch your effing mouth, Craig!" Cartman said, jabbing a finger in Craig's direction. "You'd be nothing without me and you know it."
"Yeah, yeah," Craig said, pulling Kyle away. "Go home to your whorehouse, fat boy, the market's closing."
"Aren't you worried he'll cut you out?" Kyle asked as they walked away. Craig shrugged.
"I don't worry about much these days," he said. "Where's Clyde?"
"Around here somewhere," Kyle said. "He went straight for the fortune teller's tent when we got here."
"Of course he did," Craig said with a snort, but he was smiling a little.
They found Clyde at the bakery, buying sugar for Wendy. He'd also bought a few thin madeleine cookies, and he pressed one into Craig's palm. Craig shook his head, his smile widening.
"I asked the psychic about Bebe," Clyde said. "She says that Bebe's doing great things, and that it won't be long til she's back."
"That old crone is full of it," Craig said. "Don't waste your money on her. Or on this junk," he said, and he gave the cookie back.
"What's with him?" Clyde asked as Craig hoofed it toward the exit, walking more stiffly than usual.
"Are you really so dense?" Kyle asked. Saying so made him wonder if Stan knew everything. He must, even if he'd buried it for the sake of their friendship.
"Huh?" Clyde said, following Kyle toward the door.
"Nothing," Kyle said. "Craig had a disagreement with Cartman."
"Oh, dang, really?" Clyde said. "I hope those two can get along. Craig was the one who convinced Cartman to lower his prices, to give people a little help. It was my idea, though, and you know what I told him? I said, tell Cartman that Butters would have wanted that. I figured it was a long shot, but hey. Prices went down."
"Not on everything," Kyle said, feeling like he might retch, Cartman's proposed 'trade' sitting heavy on his shoulders. He couldn't shake the feeling that someday Cartman would have something he couldn't do without, and that his price would be the same, or worse.
After the company that he'd suffered for the last few hours, Kyle was bouncing in the backseat of Clyde's truck, eager to get home to Stan. He thanked Clyde for the ride and Craig for the rescue at the market.
"Don't provoke him by showing up," Craig said. "If you want things, just give me the money. I'll get them for you, wholesale price."
"Jesus, that would be great," Kyle said. He was standing in Stan's driveway, Clyde's truck emitting exhaust into the frosty air while Craig spoke, his window rolled down. "You'd really do that for me?" Kyle said, stunned.
"It's more for Stan," Craig said. "I bet I can guess what Cartman was saying about him. Knowing Cartman. And, I just. I can't imagine," he said, looking toward the den window. The curtains were closed today.
"Thanks," Kyle said, a little irritated by Craig's overly specific sympathy.
Inside, the house smelled like boiling potatoes and celery, which was the base for Jimbo's chicken and dumplings. It was one of five recipes he made on a regular rotation, if they could get the meat for each of them. This was Kyle's least favorite, because Jimbo's soggy dumplings were nowhere as good as Sheila's had been.
Kyle was glad to find Stan in the kitchen and in good spirits, laughing with Jimbo and holding a beer, his chair pushed up to the table. There were two empty beer bottles sitting on the table, and a bowl of peanuts that Jimbo was cracking and eating, scattering bits of shell everywhere.
"Hey, finally!" Stan said, beaming at Kyle in a way that lifted him ceiling-ward before he realized that Stan was probably a little drunk, or a lot drunk. "We were worried about you."
"I'm fine," Kyle said, wanting to hug Stan's shoulders. He never touched Stan in view of Jimbo or Ned, though - or maybe because - he was beginning to suspect that those two humped each other nightly on the second floor. "I got something for you," Kyle said, jostling his shoulder bag. The shampoo was inside, along with the madeleine that Craig hadn't wanted.
"Yeah?" Stan said. "Well, Jesus, today's my lucky day. Look." He lifted his bottle. "Beer! Jimbo got it for me."
"Traded a couple of old hats," Jimbo said, grinning. He was rosy-cheeked, clearly thrilled that Stan liked his gift. "My nephew deserves something special once in a while," he said.
"So what'd you get?" Stan asked Kyle, who shook his head.
"It's a surprise," he said. "I'll show you in the bed- in the den, I mean."
"Uh oh!" Jimbo said. "Kyle's gone wild."
Stan laughed hard, and Kyle went into the den, blushing. He shut the door behind him, and was working on the fire when Stan opened the door and rolled inside.
"Hey," he said. "Kyle, always working. Come have a beer."
"I'm not always working," Kyle said. He felt like he spent half his time sleeping, keeping Stan company in the bed. "And, no, you should have the beers. Jimbo got them for you. I don't like beer, anyway."
"I closed the door," Stan said.
"I can see that."
"So? What's this secret thing you bought?"
"Well," Kyle said, and he stood, sighing. "First off, and I wasn't sure I would tell you this, but. I tried to get you some more sleeping pills, and I couldn't."
"What - oh." Stan nodded. "I'm almost out. Yeah, I'll try sleeping without them. Save those last two for a really bad night, or whatever. Hey, and don't. You don't have to buy me things."
"This is for both of us," Kyle said, going for the bag. He took out the madeleine first, carefully wrapped in a tissue that had absorbed some grease from the buttery cookie. Stan smiled when Kyle showed him what was inside the tissue.
"You didn't want Jimbo to know you only got one for me?" Stan said. "Kyle, he wouldn't care."
"I didn't get this for anyone," Kyle said, and he broke it in two pieces, offering half to Stan. "Clyde bought it for Craig, and Craig rejected it." He popped the other half into his mouth.
"Craig's weird," Stan said, chewing. "This is good, thanks. What, there's more?" he said when Kyle went to his bag.
"Yep," Kyle said. He got out the shampoo and showed it to Stan.
"Hmm," Stan said. "Moisture locking."
"It smells good, see?"
He popped the top off, and something about Stan sniffing the bottle was so alarmingly erotic that he had to turn away, taking the bottle with him.
"I know I'm gross," Stan said.
"You're not. Well, your hair is getting a little greasy. I thought, if it's okay, if you want. I could make you a bath, help you in, help you out." He kept his back to Stan, pretending to arrange things in his bag, afraid to witness a change in Stan's good mood. "If you want."
"Fine," Stan said. "Actually, yeah. Let's do it now. Before dinner."
Kyle tried not to show his surprise. He nodded and went for the bathroom, turned on the faucet full blast and plugged the tub when the water was hot. Stan was in the doorway, pulling off his shirt. Kyle had gotten accustomed to helping him with his pants, and he was kneeling in front of Stan before he really thought about it, untying the drawstring on his sweatpants. He noticed that Stan breath had quickened, and looked up with cautious wonder when Stan touched his hair.
"You could get in with me," Stan said.
"Ha." Kyle assumed he was joking and stood to lift Stan up a little with one arm, clumsily shoving his pants down with the other. He gulped when his palm slid over the bare flesh of Stan's ass. "You're not wearing anything," he said, meaning underwear.
"I figured, why bother?" Stan said when Kyle set him down in the chair again, stripping the pants off and trying not to look up. "It's not like I can feel the difference, and it's just another piece of laundry to wash."
"Okay," Kyle said. "Makes sense. Want me to get you some swim trunks?" He was peeling off Stan's socks, his face burning. He was close enough to feel the heat between Stan's legs, or maybe it was more like a secret smell.
"Swim trunks?" Stan laughed. "No, dude, just. You can look at it, like. It won't bite, it's not a snake. It's not much of anything anymore, I guess, so. Just look, if you want to."
Kyle's eyes watered with humiliation, but only a little, not enough for Stan to notice. He stood and moved back before looking between Stan's legs. Having grown up with red ones, he'd always found dark pubes a little alarming at first. He must have glimpsed Stan's at some point when they were younger, but he felt as if he'd never seen this before: a soft, uncircumcized cock. Even the color of the foreskin was soft, pink against the pale insides of Stan's thighs.
"Okay, you don't have to stare," Stan said, laughing, and he was blushing hard when Kyle looked up.
"Sorry," Kyle said. His eyes burned again, but again there was no threat of real tears.
"Just help me into the tub," Stan said, some of the new bitterness in his voice returning. There was only an edge of it, and Kyle was glad to bring him to the tub, though this would be another moment of intense awkwardness. He wheeled Stan over and took his legs while Stan braced himself on the handle bar and the edge of the tub. Touching Stan's legs always felt slightly wrong, like piercing the veil of death. Once he was in, Kyle tested the water and adjusted it, turning the temperature down a little.
"Too hot?" he said, and Stan shook his head. His face was still pink, but not blazing now.
"I wouldn't want it to be my mom, really," he said. "And not Wendy, never her, never Jimbo. Only you, you're the only one I'd want - like this. And it's so effing much to ask, I know it's a lot-"
"I like it," Kyle said, or admitted. He was sweating, the steam from the water making him feel overheated. "I mean, I hate that you're. But if you are, or since you are. I'm glad it's me."
"Will you do the soap?" Stan asked, and he leaned back to rest his head on the rim of the tub. It wasn't an especially big one; Kyle had bent Stan's knees so he would fit.
"Do the soap?" Kyle said. He'd left the shampoo in the bedroom. His hands were shaking.
"Yeah," Stan said. "I don't like how, uh. After I get down to a certain point, I can't feel it. I hate that, so. Could you just do it?"
"Yeah, of course," Kyle said, still not entirely sure what he was agreeing to. He got the soap, thinking of the shampoo, weirdly worried that he would have to leave Stan in here alone when he went to fetch it, as if Stan would slip under and drown. He washed Stan's left knee first, feeling absurd. Stan closed his eyes and took deep, steam-filled breaths, sighing. He seemed okay.
"You can do between the legs," Stan said, eyes still closed. "I won't look. Or feel it, so. Don't worry."
"I wasn't worried," Kyle said. He pulled Stan's knees apart, so that his thighs were resting against opposite sides of the tub. Kyle was hard, but only a little, too overwhelmed and confused to really become aroused. He washed between Stan's legs as quickly as possible, scrubbing soap into the coarse hair and thinking of what Cartman had said about the shampoo.
"Did you see Cartman at the market?" Stan asked, as if Kyle had said his name. Kyle glanced up at him; Stan's eyes were still closed, his head tipped back. His Adam's apple looked very obvious, shining with moisture from the water, or from the steam. Ready to be licked.
"Um, yeah," Kyle said, shaking himself. He moved up to Stan's stomach with the soap, and he could feel it when he touched the first spots where Stan still had sensation, Stan's stomach muscles twitching under his fingers. "Yeah, he was there. Offering me beef jerky."
"Yeah, I didn't eat it. I mean, of course I didn't. I wouldn't eat from that idiot's hand if I was starving." He thought of how he'd felt earlier, that Cartman would someday have something that he couldn't refuse, and wouldn't give it freely. "Clyde went to that fortune teller," Kyle said, tired of thinking about Cartman.
"Fortune teller?" Stan peeked at him and smiled. "What?"
"Oh - that's right, she set up after you'd already left! Yeah, she's this old lady, nobody knows where she came from. People actually go, you know, she does a pretty good business, and at no expense to her, except for her time. I think it's kind of cruel. She told Clyde that Bebe will be home soon."
"I had a dream about Bebe last night," Stan said, and Kyle was jealous. "I can't remember - she was in this movie, or something? But she was real into that stuff, actually. Omens, and everything. We'd see a fox and she'd get all excited. Owls were bad news."
"Did the omens prove to be, uh, accurate?" Kyle was washing Stan's chest now, wanting to linger on his nipples.
"I don't know," Stan said. "I don't think so. If she comes back like Butters did, or in a body bag, I don't know what I'll do. Shit, that's a lie. I'll do nothing. Exactly what I did for Butters."
"You were there when he died," Kyle said. "And you were a good friend to him in life, you didn't do nothing."
"I wasn't that good of a friend," Stan said.
"You were so. You told me in your letters, you protected him in the showers."
"Oh, yeah. I remember trying to be funny, saying I had to see his dick, how much I hated it."
Kyle was washing Stan's arms, and he could feel Stan looking at him expectantly as his soapy fingers slid into the hollow of Stan's throat. He felt Stan swallow.
"Want me to do your hair?" Kyle asked. Stan nodded, slowly, and Kyle's cock responded with a jolting throb. Stan might see his erection when he stood. No, he definitely would. Kyle turned away before rising, his legs shaking.
When he reentered, he held a towel and the shampoo over his crotch, certainly for obvious reasons. Stan's cock was sort of bobbing in the water, and Kyle's eyes kept sneaking to it, now that he'd been given permission. It didn't seem lifeless at all, and Kyle hated himself for wanting it in his mouth, even soft like that, but not if Stan couldn't feel it.
"Oh, yeah," Kyle said when Stan leaned forward, showing Kyle his back. "I forgot."
"It's really nice," Stan said while Kyle rubbed soap in circles on his back, moving up to squeeze his shoulders. "Um, that you're doing this. Thank you."
"It's nice that you're letting me," Kyle said. He would have to jerk off before dinner, somehow, though he hated the idea of ever coming again, if Stan couldn't.
He washed Stan's hair, trying to be gentle yet efficient. Though it was something he had actually fantasized about in the past - his fingers massaging Stan's scalp, Stan's eyes sliding shut in seeming pleasure - he couldn't enjoy it, already worried about getting Stan out of the tub. Stan was heavy; Kyle cursed himself for not having begun a weight-lifting routine as soon as he'd learned of Stan's condition. For weeks he'd been too shocked to envision lifting Stan out of anything, and at no point had he thought that one of those things might be a bath tub.
Kyle passed Stan a towel so he could dry his hair and upper body before Kyle helped him out. He could see that Stan was feeling awkward, too, and there was no hiding his erection now. Stan was kind enough not to mention it or stare. He could have berated Kyle for it; Kyle knew he deserved no less.
"Put that on the seat," Stan said, passing the towel to Kyle, who folded it and did as he asked. He had a robe at the ready, hanging on the back of the chair. Getting Stan out of the tub was a clumsy process that got water everywhere, and as soon as he was in the chair Kyle knelt down in a puddle and dried his legs. Stan pulled the robe over himself and touched Kyle's hair again.
"I'm sorry," Kyle said, trying to apologize for the erection, and also for everything, just everything. Stan stroked his hair and said nothing.
Kyle felt calm at dinner, glad to have Jimbo's incessant talking to keep everyone involved in the conversation. Stan was talkative, too, complaining that he'd lost the little camera someone had traded him during his campaign.
"I had all these great pictures," he said. "Of wild turkeys, and these weird red mushroom things that everybody called zombie brains, and Butters. Damn, I wish I had all those pictures of Butters."
"We'll get you a new camera," Jimbo said, and Kyle went tense, afraid that Stan would complain that he had nothing to take pictures of, now. Stan just shrugged and forked a dumpling into his mouth.
"I might have an old one," Ned said. "No film, though."
"I could tell Craig to look for film at the market," Kyle said. "He claims he'll start selling to me wholesale. And that he'll deliver."
"That's good," Stan said. "Just don't let Cartman find out about it. He'll put a stop to it."
"Now why would he do that?" Jimbo asked. "To try to get more money out of you?"
"That, and to force Kyle to show up at his booth." Stan looked up from his plate. "Cartman's obsessed with Kyle."
"No," Kyle said. "C'mon."
"He always has been," Stan said. He looked across the table, at Jimbo and Ned. "If you ever see him hanging around, and I mean anywhere near the house, tell me about it. I'll sick every vet I know on him."
"Sometimes a guy needs a beat down," Jimbo said, nodding.
"Don't start trouble," Kyle muttered, though he did like the idea of Cartman taking a humbling beating.
After dinner, Kyle helped with the dishes, feeling more exhausted than he normally did after the long walk to the Red Cross center and the stress of the market. His hands were burning from the cold water once he'd finished. They normally reserved their limited hot water supply for quick showers.
He went into the bedroom, wondering if he should have brought a brandy to help Stan sleep. He was awake, in bed, staring at the fire.
"You worry too much about Cartman," Kyle said as he undressed. "He's just a petty bully."
"Hm. What he did to you wasn't petty, to me."
"Let's not get into it all over again," Kyle said, stopping himself from reminding Stan that he'd been drunk, and that he would never let his guard down like that again, not outside of the house. He pulled on the fleece sweatshirt that he slept in and stepped out of his pants, hurrying into the blankets.
"I just get a bad feeling, sometimes," Stan said, pulling Kyle to him. He smelled a little doughy from all the dumplings he'd consumed, and his hair was still damp. "When you're away from me," Stan said. He was speaking so softly that Kyle expected to be kissed, dazed by this development. Stan didn't kiss him, but he tucked Kyle to his chest under the blankets.
"It's because of when we were kids," Kyle said. He moved his leg against Stan's, and swallowed down his sadness when he thought about how Stan couldn't feel it. "When that other kid beat me up, because of my mom. That's why you're all, like. Paranoid that I'm going to get clobbered."
"Maybe," Stan said. He was quiet for a while, breathing into Kyle's hair. "I got attached to you," he said. "Somehow."
"You think?" Kyle said, and he wiggled his arm under Stan's, clutching at his back.
"It's the great mystery of my life," Stan said. He'd had two more beers with dinner. Kyle felt his whole body lift with the deep breath that Stan took, and lower when Stan exhaled.
"The great mystery of your life?" Kyle said, very quietly, but it had taken him too long to work up the nerve to question that statement. Stan was asleep.
Kyle didn't sleep well, and neither did Stan. He woke with nightmares four times, and it took Kyle longer to calm him each time. He offered to get Stan a pill, but Stan shook his head. Kyle kept adding logs to the fire, until the room was fairly well lit from the blaze and they were both overly warm under the blankets, but Stan kept shaking.
"Wendy wants to bring you a cake," Kyle said at dawn, when they'd given up on going back to sleep and were just lying with their foreheads pressed together, sighing. "Yellow cake," Kyle said. "Chocolate icing."
"I'm doing this for her," Stan said. "Even if we just ate cake together, it would be like starting all over again."
"I don't know," Kyle said. He had no idea why he was encouraging Stan to see Wendy, when that was the last thing he wanted. He cared about Wendy a great deal, but he'd always jealously doubted her ability to make Stan happy.
"It's a little bit for me, too," Stan said. "I don't want to face her like this. Even seeing those guys, Clyde and Gregory, it's not easy." He pressed his nose to Kyle's cheek. "I don't know what it is about you, why it doesn't seem to count. Or counts more, or. It's like you're part of me, like-" He pushed his hand up under Kyle's shirt, pressing his palm to Kyle's heartbeat. "Like this is mine, too. All this. You."
"It is," Kyle said. He was probably saying too much, but what the hell was Stan saying? "I mean, I am."
"Do you feel that way about me, too?" Stan said, his thumb moving on Kyle's skin, over his heart. "Like this happened to you, too, because we almost, like. Share a body, or something?"
"I guess," Kyle said, not sure what Stan wanted to hear. Kyle had never felt like he had any shared ownership of Stan's body. Its separateness was what made Kyle want him so much.
"Take this off?" Stan said, reaching down for the hem of Kyle's sweatshirt. Kyle did without hesitation, a kind of fog rolling in to clog his thought process. He had no expectation of what would happen next, but it felt good to submit to Stan's mysterious agenda, and he offered no resistance when Stan rolled him onto his back. Stan sat up on his elbow and touched Kyle's chest, pausing to toy with his nipples. Under the blankets, Kyle spread his legs to accommodate his erection. "You cold?" Stan asked.
"Mhmm?" Kyle could barely speak, or maybe he was afraid to add a dialogue to this. "No, not cold."
"They're stiff, though," Stan said, pinching Kyle's left nipple. Kyle sighed and closed his eyes, turning his head to press his face to Stan's arm.
"I'm not cold," he said.
"I wish I could just ride on your shoulders," Stan said. He abandoned the nipples and stroked his fingers over Kyle's ribs. "No, I don't. I wish you could ride on mine."
"I just want to stay here forever," Kyle said, mumbling. He twitched his hips a bit and withheld a moan. Maybe this was still non-sexual for Stan.
"What, in the bed?" Stan asked.
"Mn, yeah. Like this, I mean. With you. Connected."
Stan had no response, and Kyle was glad. He wanted to be quiet, and to keep his eyes closed, to melt into nothing but the feeling of Stan touching him like this, possessively, assessing his property. Kyle twitched when Stan tickled his fingers around his belly button. He'd pushed the blankets down to Kyle's hips, but Kyle still didn't feel cold.
"You're hard?" Stan said, like he really needed to ask. Kyle's cock was tenting the blankets along with his boxer shorts. He nodded, heart pounding. Stan's hand was resting softly on his stomach, just above the elastic waistband of his boxers.
"Sorry," Kyle said.
"Yeah," Stan said. He moved his hand down and poked one finger into the slit of Kyle's boxers. Kyle's whole body jerked when Stan stroked his dick with his fingertip. "Can I?" Stan asked. He sounded oddly untroubled.
"God," Kyle said, nodding. "Yeah." Eyes still closed, he reached down to shove his boxers off. They got kicked under the blankets somewhere, and Kyle spread his legs, afraid to look, shivering with anticipation.
"Dude, you're so-" Stan said, and then his hand was wrapped around Kyle's cock, loosely, maybe nervously, but so warm. Kyle moaned and let his thighs inch apart more widely. He was afraid to open his eyes. "I never knew you could be like this," Stan said, whispering. He was touching Kyle in experimental swipes of his fingers, never venturing as low as his balls.
"Like - what?" Kyle said. If Stan kissed him he would blow apart, they both would, the world would end beautifully.
"All twitchy and trembling and shit," Stan said. He grunted and squeezed Kyle's cock when his v-chip fired. Kyle whimpered. "Are you okay?" Stan asked.
"Yes," Kyle said, because Stan was still holding his cock. He twitched his hips a little, trying to fuck Stan's palm, feeling guilty about it but unable to stop.
"You want to come?" Stan said. He sounded surprised. Kyle whined, nodding. "Okay," Stan said, and he rubbed his thumb through the wet tip, spreading pre-come. "Yeah, alright. I want to see it, anyway."
"Stan," Kyle said. He felt like pure energy, barely contained, everything throbbing. He had the stupid, burning urge to reach down and rub his balls while Stan pumped him too slowly, and he didn't dare.
"Man, it's crazy how normal this feels," Stan said. "Like I'm giving you a back rub or something. You know?"
"Nh." Kyle didn't feel normal at all, but he was too close to argue, his hips working more desperately now.
"Well," Stan said. "I guess it's different for you."
He pumped Kyle hard, once, twice, and Kyle came with a shout that would surely be heard on the second floor. He felt like he'd been waiting to explode since the first night he'd spent with Stan under the blankets, and it was overwhelming, receding waves of relief still washing over him as his come went cold on his stomach. He cracked his eyes open, breathing hard, afraid to see Stan's face. Stan was studying him mildly, unsmiling.
"Here," Stan said, and he pressed his thumb to Kyle's bottom lip. Kyle licked his come off of it, hating the taste, wanting to be kissed. The cold in the room seemed to swoop over him like a flock of birds.
"Stan," Kyle said, uncertainly. Stan sat up, sighing, then reached over the side of the bed to pick up a damp towel from the floor. He wiped his hand, then Kyle's belly.
"I can't believe you just let me do that," Stan said. His voice was different, hard, hiding all the parts of him that Kyle knew. Kyle didn't say anything, his mind still cloudy and his whole conception of the world as he'd known it blanked over by this, its possibilities and limitations. He didn't even move to get warm, just concentrated on how proud he was of himself for not crying, and how disgusted he was about everything else.
Stan slid into his chair and went into the bathroom. Behind the closed door, he turned the water at the sink on full blast, so that Kyle wouldn't know if he was pissing or just sitting in there seeing if he needed to. This was his habit. After the water turned off, he flushed. The water bill, which arrived irregularly, would be astronomical. Kyle stared at the ceiling and thought about this, the cold seeping into him until he was shuddering from it.
"You never wash your hands," Kyle said when Stan returned to the room.
"What are you doing?" Stan said. "You're shivering. Kyle, fuck." He growled and punched the arm of his chair, but that would be about the v-chip, not Kyle's behavior, or at least not entirely. "Don't freak out. I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that. It was like sleepwalking. I won't touch you like that again."
"Fine," Kyle said. He sat up, and when he met Stan's eyes he saw that they both knew it was not a promise Stan would keep. Kyle was glad, and terrified. He pulled the blankets up and draped them over his shoulders.
"You look like a different guy when you're naked," Stan said. Kyle was going to ask him what he meant by that, but then he realized that he knew, exactly.
"So do you," Kyle said. "With your leg hair, and everything."
Stan smiled. Kyle couldn't quite manage one.
They spent the afternoon in separate parts of the house. Stan had asked Ned to teach him how to make bread, so that was going on in the kitchen. Kyle was skeptical about Ned's bread-baking abilities, but Stan had somehow gotten the idea that he knew what he was doing. Kyle was upstairs, sorting things into piles: what he knew they couldn't bring to market, what he knew they could, and things he would have to ask Stan about later. It was cold on the second floor, and the quiet just seemed quieter when he heard noises from downstairs, Stan's voice and the bang of the oven. He startled when Jimbo was suddenly walking up behind him.
"You okay, buddy?" Jimbo asked.
"Yeah," Kyle said. He was in Stan's childhood bedroom, holding a plastic lizard that he had been contemplating for half an hour: did Stan care about this toy when they were kids, enough to want to keep it now? Kyle felt he should remember, or just know. "We're low on money," Kyle said. "We've got to sell some of this stuff, or trade it for staples."
"Sure, sure," Jimbo said. He went to sit on Stan's old twin bed. "You really okay, though?" He must have heard the shout that morning, but would he be able to piece together the cause for it?
"I don't know," Kyle said. "I thought I was. Maybe I'm not."
"When Ned lost his arm." Jimbo shook his head as if recalling widespread famine. "That was real hard."
"Well," Kyle said. "I'm sure. But he had the other one."
"Fair enough," Jimbo said. "He felt different, though. I heard this quote once. Shit, let's see if I can remember it right - it's easy to accept other people's baggage if you don't have to bring it home with you."
"Uh-huh." Kyle began to wonder if Stan had sent Jimbo up to check on him.
"We brought it home, though, me and you," Jimbo said. "Maybe not like they did, but we're carrying it, sometimes."
"The whole war is my baggage," Kyle said, and he wanted to vomit when he heard his self-pity out loud. "My mother's, I mean. And she's gone. Dad and Ike, too. It's just me now, with this boulder of gore and grief and disappointment on my shoulders. The last accursed Broflovski."
"Nobody thinks that way, Kyle," Jimbo said.
"It's like I'm not even allowed to be angry about it," Kyle said. He dropped the lizard and groaned when he realized he was quoting Stan. "God, no, forget it. I'm overtired. He ran out of pills, so. We barely slept."
"That's a long battle after war," Jimbo said. "Learning how to sleep again. You're good not to leave him alone with it. You're a good man, Kyle."
That word seemed ridiculous, applied to him, but he was over eighteen. In just a few more months he would be nineteen. Spring was coming; it was hard to believe.
Wendy showed up with the cake just before dinner. Stan refused to leave the den to greet her, so Kyle went in his place. She looked shaken as she held the cake with both hands. It was on a normal china plate, a delicate film of saran wrap pressed down over the chocolate icing.
"Wow," Kyle said. "Smells really good."
"He won't come out?" Wendy said.
"He's kind of in a weird place right now."
Wendy looked away from him as if she had to gather herself or risk throwing the whole cake in his face. She thrust it toward him in a way that made him flinch.
"Take it," she said. "Just take it."
"He'll love it," Kyle said, easing it from her hands.
"I wasn't in love with his cock," Wendy said, whispering this sharply. "Only a man would think this way. He doesn't understand. If he would just talk to me."
"It's just too soon," Kyle said.
"I know," she said. "Patience is not a strength of mine. Baking, either. My mom helped a lot. I hope it will taste alright." Her voice pinched up and she hurried for the door. Kyle started to shout that Jimbo could give her a ride home, but he could see Gregory's car parked down the street, idling. She'd known that Stan wouldn't see her, and she'd brought the cake anyway.
"I can't eat that," Stan said when Kyle brought the cake into the den to try to show it to him. Stan was curled up in the bed, his arm folded over his face. "I saw her, through the window. Driving off with Gregory. That's good."
"She still loves you," Kyle said. He felt numb, and very far away from Stan now, or at least from this Stan. After spending hours upstairs with his old things, he felt closer to the Stan he'd lost, his boyhood friend, the one who had cried when Randy released the squirrel Stan had been keeping in his closet. Kyle had called that thing Nutcase, because he was afraid of its manic energy, and Stan had insisted that its proper name was Fry, since they'd found it eating some french fries near a garbage can. They'd been six years old, then, and only two years away from the war.
"Leave me alone," Stan said when Kyle lingered with the cake, feeling like an idiot. It was as if he'd made the thing himself, in hopes of winning his own Stan back, the old one.
Kyle took the cake into the kitchen and set it on the table. The house was quiet; Jimbo had gone to the market with some of the things Kyle had set aside to sell. Ned was somewhere upstairs, doing whatever it was he did all day. Kyle removed the saran wrap carefully, and laid it flat on the table so he could reuse it when he put the cake away. Unless he ate the whole thing, which was a possibility. He got himself a fork.
The cake was good, made with love. Kyle choked that particular ingredient down bitterly. He'd joylessly demolished a quarter of the cake by the time Ned appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"What's that?" Ned asked.
"I don't know," Kyle said. He wiped frosting from his lips. "I'm wasting food. I'll put it up, I just. Jesus, this is the longest day."
"Do you want one?" Ned asked, getting the bourbon down from the top of the fridge. Where Stan couldn't reach it; Kyle had considered this before. He accepted a glass, but he didn't really want to drink it. He brought it into the den and set it on Stan's bedside table, built up the fire, and got himself a book from Randy's old office upstairs: Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions.
Stan woke up when Jimbo came home, his truck crunching up the driveway. Kyle was in bed, on the opposite side, reading by candlelight. They had power, but there was no use wasting light bulbs when a candle would suffice. He pretended not to notice that Stan was awake. Stan heaved a couple of heavy sighs.
"Did you eat some?" he asked.
"Huh?" Kyle looked up from the book; he'd barely read three pages, had mostly been zoning out and thinking about Stan's hand on his cock and what it would mean, or not mean, in terms of the rest of his life. "Oh, the cake. Yeah, I had a few bites."
"Was it good?" Stan asked. He was lying on his back now, his arm draped over his eyes.
"Yeah," Kyle said. "How'd your baking go? I didn't see any bread out there."
"First experiment was a failure, but we have some ideas about how to improve. I threw the least offensive pieces out for the birds."
"I'm sure they'll appreciate it." Kyle looked back to his book. His heart was hammering. He wanted to ask Stan what they were to each other now, though he knew Stan wasn't sure, either. Stan crawled over to him and rested his head on Kyle's thigh. Kyle stroked his hair, pretending to read.
"Volcanoes?" Stan said.
"I'm working my way through your dad's geology books," Kyle said. "This was more exciting than tectonic plates."
"I see." Stan pulled himself up with a grunt, until his head was resting on Kyle's shoulder. "I smell that chocolate," he said.
"You want some?" Kyle asked.
He hadn't intended for Stan to interpret that as an invitation to kiss him, but he let Stan turn his face and lick his lips apart. Kyle opened for him and offered answering swipes of his tongue, pushing the taste of frosting into Stan's mouth. He felt hot all over, not sure he was allowed to enjoy this. He was a surrogate, a middleman, lamely relaying what Stan really wanted from Wendy, her sweeter taste. Still, when Stan pulled back to kiss Kyle's cheeks, Kyle collapsed into the feeling of having any part of something Stan wanted.
"Open your legs," Stan whispered. "I want to feel it get hard."
Kyle did as was asked, holding back tears. They both watched Stan's hand on his cock with a kind of solemnity, and Kyle was comforted by the fact that Stan's breath had quickened, as if there was something actually at stake for him here. Kyle wanted to be able to give orders, too, wanted to say, kiss me, I want to feel like you love me. He knew Stan did, actually. But it wasn't as simple as that.
"Guys?" Jimbo said, from the other side of the door, and Stan's hand went still. Kyle pulled the blankets up to cover himself.
"Yeah?" Stan said.
"Got two more beers out here if you're interested."
"In a minute," Stan said. He leaned over to bite at Kyle's neck, gently, then his ear lobe, less gently. Kyle whined at the back of his throat, thrashed up into Stan's grip, and came. "Oh, God," Stan whispered, watching. "I love the way it sorta jumps when it goes off."
Kyle was aware that Stan was speaking about dicks generally. He rolled against Stan's chest and clung, unwilling to let him get away this time. Stan rested his cheek on Kyle's head.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I thought you'd be happier someplace else," Stan said.
"I wouldn't be," Kyle said, and he grabbed a handful of the front of Stan's sweater, holding it over his face and breathing in his smell. He couldn't get Stan close enough, even now.
"That's not your fault," Stan said. "That you couldn't be happy somewhere else, that there's no other place for you - that's the world's fault. And maybe mine, too. But I know, dude. I know."
Kyle fell asleep like that, and dreamed that Stan carried him into the kitchen and placed him lovingly into a chair at the table. He realized, once there, that Stan had taken his ability to walk. There were cakes all over the table, and Wendy was at the oven with Butters, making more of them.
"Kyle and I worked it out," Stan told Butters while Wendy decorated a tall wedding cake with yellow roses. "He doesn't even want his legs that much, so we figured I might as well use them."
This was a lie, and Kyle knew it in the dream, but he said nothing. He was stuffing his face with cake, grabbing it by the handful, ruining carefully applied frosting.
He woke up when Stan moved away from him, toward his chair. Kyle was still groggy, half in the dream. He'd been angry at the table with those cakes, hurt, left behind, but now that he was awake, watching Stan reach down to place his feet on the wheelchair's leg rest, he was sorry that it hadn't been real.
"C'mon," Stan said when he saw Kyle blinking at him from the pillow. "Let's have a beer."
This time, Kyle took him up on the offer.