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seven days of alien summer

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Summer in South Park lasted exactly one week, and could happen any time between June and August. Everyone remembers the summer of ‘99, where summer happened in April, the same way everyone remembers that there was no summer in 2004, 2009 or 2010. But when summer happened, it was always seven days long and it was sweltering hot, book-ended on both sides by rain and snow.

This year, it started on the first Sunday in June. Stan woke up with his back stuck sweaty to the sheets, peeled his eyes open and thought: fuck.

 

 

DAY 1

 

Stan dug his one pair of non-gym shorts out of the back of his closet, where they were stuffed along with ugly tank tops and jeans he’d outgrown, and they were musty as hell but he pulled them on anyways. He didn’t know what to do with his hair without wearing his hat. He was in front of the bathroom mirror wetting it down for the third time when Kyle texted him, we’re going to the pond if it fucking kills us.

He dried his hands and sent, everyone in towns gonna be there.

yeah and i’ll fight every single one of them for my square foot of grimy pond water. see you in 10.

Stan looked up at the mirror. 20 mins, my hairs fucked up.

Kyle texted him back while he was brushing his teeth. 10. you probably look fine.

 

 

Kyle didn’t knock on his door, because he never did. When Stan stepped outside, he was slumped over his red ten-speed on the sidewalk, wearing, predictably, gym shorts— little gym shorts, or, shorter than Stan’s knee-length cut-offs—and an ancient Terrance and Phillip t-shirt. His upper arms were so pale that they hurt Stan’s eyes. He hadn’t looked up from his phone, and Stan stood for a moment on his front step.

Kyle was beautiful like a Picasso: it wasn’t everyone’s thing, but there were people who dedicated their lives to Picasso’s work. Beauty was subjective, so Kyle was beautiful. He showed all his teeth when he laughed. His ears stuck out. His hair sat like a bushy cloud on top of his head, the colour of fox fur, fire, oxidation. The line of his nose curved out and down. You could cut glass with his sharp, gawky jawline. Stan could look at him until he died, and now he was outside his house wearing last year’s gym shorts, straddling his bike.

Stan ignored the knot in his chest and walked up with his own bike.

“Good morning,” he said. “I wish I were dead.”

Kyle squinted at him. “Morning. When was the last time I saw you without a hat?”

Stan ran his fingers through his hair. It was wiry and coarse and it had been too long since he’d gotten it cut. It curled under his ears. “At home. Sometimes.”

“Literally only when you’re sleeping.”

“That’s sometimes.”

“It looks fine, you loser.”

“I don’t wear hats ‘cause I think it looks bad, I just—wear hats.”

“Whatever, dude.” Kyle shrugged and adjusted the straps of his backpack. “I brought you a towel.”

“Oh. I forgot one.”

“I know. C’mon, let’s go, it’ll be crowded if we don’t hurry.”

Kyle sped off down the street and Stan pedaled furiously to keep up. The air smelled like grass and sticky asphalt and the gutters ran with melted snow, and almost every house they passed had a set of kids playing in a sprinkler on the lawn. But Stan watched Kyle—the flex of his skinny thighs as he moved, his bare arms, the sweat on the back of his neck. He looked away, and looked back. Tried to think about anything else. Tried to switch off the part of himself that wanted to look. Failed. Looked back.

Stan wanted Kyle the same way he wanted to have his own apartment someday.

Ever since he could remember, he had wanted a small, bright space to call his own; no parents, no roommates, just him and four white walls and all of his favourite things in one little space. It wasn't an unreasonable thing to want, but it also wasn't likely—apartments cost money, and when would Stan ever be making enough to live alone? Wanting Kyle was like that: a constant thrum of need that had been there for as long as he'd ever known, but it was simple enough, and unattainable enough, that not having it just became a part of his life. A pipe dream.

His feelings for Kyle surfaced once in awhile, eerily, like movement in the corner of your eye in an empty room. He’d see Kyle’s bare chest through the gaping arm of a tank top, and it would show up. He’d see the look of pure, unfiltered joy on Kyle’s face when Stan made a good joke, and he’d see him laugh, all crinkled up and real, and he’d remember: oh, right, I’m in love with him. It’s that thing again.

He wasn’t always thinking about it, but when he was, it consumed him. He wasn’t always thinking about getting his own place, either, but when he did think about it, he disappeared into a Craigslist rental k-hole and furiously crunched hourly wages and tried to figure out how it could work.

But at the end of the day, there were no studio apartments in South Park and Stan rarely looked at Kyle and caught Kyle looking back.

 

 

Stark’s Pond was, predictably, disgusting. The water and shore were packed full of families and buzzed with the shrill, churning sound made by a throng of hot, uncomfortable people. Stan and Kyle spent most of the day sitting hip deep in the shallows, batting at leeches and first graders. Kyle re-applied sunblock every two hours like it was his job and Stan burnt across his shoulders. Kenny showed up in the afternoon and traded them half a stale joint for a warm lemonade Snapple, and later drowned in the deepest part of the pond under a stampede of fourth grade boys. They could see Cartman—in jeans a t-shirt—on the opposite side of the water with someone they eventually decided was Butters, who wasn’t wearing much of anything.

“School’s gonna be hell this week,” Kyle yawned, leaning back on his elbows in the muck. “Fifty pissy teenagers sweating balls in a giant sauna.”

“Don’t remind me.” Stan turned and blinked at Kyle. He was still a little stoned and everything was soft and nice around the edges, gentle and slow and quiet. He looked back down. His knees broached the water like dark sand bars and algae drifted in circles around them. “Do you miss snow yet?”

“It’s been like, ten hours, so, no.” Kyle lifted his feet out of the water and almost kicked a kid in the face. There was duckweed between two of his toes. “It’s kind of nice to have something different. Even if it sucks ass.”

 

 

The day was still sickly-hot when they left, reeking of sweat and pond scum. They biked to the corner store and bought freezies that melted in nothing flat, then took the long way home and rode slow.

“One week of summer and I can't even handle it. Not even one day, ” Kyle said, trying to keep his bike steady while sucking a freezie. “I don't know how I’m ever gonna live anywhere else. Somewhere with a real summer.”

“I know, right?” Stan was a little behind Kyle and to the left, which he knew was a blind spot after years of observing Kyle unnoticed. A diamond of sweat soaked through Kyle’s shirt between his shoulder blades and the back of his neck was pink. His hair got bigger in heat and humidity, and it was wild now. “Are you … gonna live someplace else?”

“Dude, we’ve talked about this. I’m taking a year off, then I’m going to college. University. I dunno, anywhere.”

“You don't care where?”

“Nobody becomes anything in South Park,” Kyle said, staring at the spin of his front tire. “Nobody famous has ever come from South Park. We’re a bunch of fucking—we breed failure, dude. It doesn't matter where I go, I just gotta go somewhere.”

“Right.” Stan’s heart got heavy in his chest; it was nothing he hadn't known since he was a kid, but applying it to his own bleak future and Kyle’s brilliant future was something else entirely. Syrupy red freezie dripped over the backs of his knuckles. “And you don't know where yet?”

“You know I don't.”

They always talked about leaving South Park like it was an abstract concept, like they weren't in their last year of school and half their grad class already had plans to leave. Sometimes Stan worried he'd be stuck in South Park forever. Sometimes he worried he wouldn't be stuck in South Park forever. Kyle didn't seem to worry about either of these things.

For the thousandth time since junior year, Stan wanted to ask him: am I allowed come with you? He'd hinted at it, but Kyle never gave him a straight answer. He liked to think they were both worried about imposing on the other, but mostly he was afraid that Kyle didn't want him around. They'd been friends their whole lives. As if he wouldn't get tired eventually.

“You've been pretty cryptic about where you're headed,” Kyle said. He turned around, his freezie hanging out of his mouth, and grinned at Stan. “Are we breaking up? What's the planley, Stanley?”

His tone was light and playful and fucking flirty and Stan almost bit his tongue off. Sometimes things with Kyle felt like an impish pig Latin of stolen glances and closeness when there was no one around to make it a joke, saying without saying, a shared language. I know you know I know we know.

Are we breaking up, Kyle had said. Easy enough to be a joke, easy enough to be serious.

Kyle smiled over his shoulder and nearly rode into a pine tree next to the street. Stan’s beast reared its head. There he is. The boy I’m in love with.

“Don't know,” he said. “I was thinking Denver. Here. I don't know.”

Kyle didn't turn around. “The limits of your post-grad imagination are Denver or South Park ?”

“Maybe. What are yours?”

“Maybe New York. Like, upstate. Or Toronto.”

“East coast.”

“Yeah, so?”

Stan smiled and chewed on the plasticky end of his freezie. “That's a very you answer.”

Kyle hopped his bike up a curb. “So was yours.”

 

 

That night, Stan fell asleep bone-weary and exhausted from the heat. He was looking at his clock: 1:12 a.m.

The next time he opened his eyes he was standing up, and his feet were freezing cold and someone was screaming.

“This is why I don't like staying at your house. This is why I don't stay at your fucking house, Craig!”

Freezing cold. Metal. Two voices. More? The shrillest voice in the world.

Stan turned around. The room was small and rhomboid, all chrome and bolts and sharp-edged girders that criss-crossed overhead.

Cartman stood a few paces away from him. Stan rubbed his eyes and spots danced wobbly across his vision. “The fuck?”

“Visitors,” Cartman said gravely. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his threadbare sweats. “You didn’t miss anything, sleeping beauty, they haven’t said anything yet.”

“Oh Christ, did we—”

“No anal probes. Uh. Yet.”

Stan turned. Craig and Tweek stood on his other side, naked.

Tweek was positioned strategically behind Craig, thumping his forehead against the back of Craig’s head, and Craig just stood there, idly scratching his stomach. His dick was big, even soft, and wiry hair ran from his flat stomach to the crux of his thighs. Even under the sickly pseudo-fluorescent glow, his dark skin shone.

He caught Stan looking. Stan spoke without thinking, just to say something first.

“Why are you naked?”

Craig raised his eyebrows. “Do you put clothes back on after sex?”

Stan’s ears went red. “Right.”

“Don't get the vapours, Marsh, it's not a secret.”

“Five years,” Tweek said from behind him, head still bowed.

“Five?” Stan asked. “Weren’t you—”

“We didn't fuck when we were ten, God. Get your mind out of the gutter.”

“Alright, well,” Cartman barked, “Whenever you're ready, it would be super cool to not talk about Craig and Tweek’s sex life, so maybe we should work on getting out of here because unlike you three, I do not want an anal probe tonight.”

Craig snort-laughed in Cartman’s general direction. “That's a fuckin’ lie.”

“I’m not a fa—”

“Don't, Cartman, Stan snapped.

“Well, you too, then, you fucking fa—”

An voice bellowed through a speaker they couldn't see.

“NO ANAL PROBES.”

“Jesus,” Tweek laughed.

“What?” Stan looked around. “Where are you?”

The voice, high and warbly, continued as if he hadn't spoken.

“WE HAVE ADVANCED BEYOND OUR PREVIOUS METHODS.”

Tweek said, “Fisting?” and Craig choked back a laugh. Cartman groaned.

“WE HAVE FOUND A PHENOMENON OF INTEREST AMONG HUMANS AND HAVE CHOSEN TO STUDY THAT USING MORE HIGHLY ADVANCED METHODS.”

“Methods related to, or separate from, anal probes?” Cartman asked. There was a click, as if the speaker was being activated, but the voice hesitated. It clicked off and on.

After a moment, it said, “YOU HAVE BEEN SPECIALLY CHOSEN FROM A SELECT GROUP AS OUR FIRST SUBJECTS.”

Subjects is never a good word,” Craig said.

“YOUR BRAINS,” the voice bellowed. “WE ARE MORE INTERESTED THAN YOUR BRAINS THAN YOUR ASSHOLES.”

“Said no teenage boy ever,” Tweek sniggered, and again Craig choked and shoved him.

“WE WILL NOT BE SAYING ANY MORE THAT COULD COMPROMISE THE STUDY,” the voice said.

Stan panicked. “What? What do you mean?”

“THIS WAS AN INTRODUCTION TO MAKE SURE THE ABDUCTION PROCESS WENT SMOOTHLY.”

“Smoothly? Christ, could we have died ?”

“END TRANSMISSION.”

 

DAY 2

 

Stan woke up in his own bed with a splitting headache that pulsed behind his eyes like a hangover, but his boxers were on, which felt like a victory. He took two aspirin and showered, and the water was like needles against his shoulders. He crawled downstairs, made toast and texted Kyle: did anything weird happen to you last night.

Kyle texted back: I think that's the new most ominous thing you've ever texted me first thing in the morning.

He texted Cartman: u alive?

Cartman said, unfortunately.

 

 

When Stan stepped outside, squinting against the sun, Kyle and his bike were already at the curb.

“You look like shit,” he said.

“Good morning to you too, you dick.”

Kyle laughed and they kicked off down the street, still quiet and empty with morning. It was more muggy than yesterday and a haze sat low on the mountains.

“I’m gonna assume by your text that something weird happened to you last night,” Kyle said.

Stan didn’t like to lie, but he also didn’t like the idea of Kyle not believing him. He went for it.

“What would you say if I told you I got abducted by aliens last night? With Craig, Tweek and Cartman?”

Kyle raised his eyebrows. “I’d say that your wet dreams are getting weirdly specific and you should stop telling me about them.”

Stan veered dangerously close to Kyle on his bike and Kyle cackled and swerved away.

“I’m serious, dude.”

“Are you? You've dreamt about the Visitors before.”

“I can tell when I’m dreaming.”

“No one’s seen the Visitors since seventh grade.”

“Bebe saw one in the Whole Foods parking lot last week.”

“Huh.” Kyle frowned. “Imagine that.”

“It was fucking weird. They said a bunch of shit about studying us? That we were specifically chosen ‘cause they wanna … learn something.”

“The fuck? That's spooky.”

“I know. We're gonna get lobotomized.”

“Did they say what they were studying?”

“No. We were just up there, and they talked through a thing, and then they said end transmission and I don't remember anything after that.”

“Jesus, you totally got anal probed.”

“They said no anal probes!”

Kyle said, “That's exactly what I'd say if I wanted someone to think I wasn't gonna anal probe them,” and Stan almost rode into a mailbox.

 

 

“Butt stuff,” Kenny said with absolute sincerity, loud enough to be heard over the din of the cafeteria. “One hundred percent butt stuff.”

“It's not about butt stuff, Kenny, shut the fuck up.”

Kenny chewed a piece of fruit leather and eyed Cartman. They always looked ridiculous next to each other; Cartman at almost six feet tall, Kenny at five-two on a good day. Cartman in his Hollister t-shirt, Kenny in their patched up jean vest.

“Cartman, as the only one here who has confirmed alien hardware up his ass at this very moment, you aren't allowed weigh in on alien butt stuff.”

“Fuck you!”

“They're right, though.” Kyle pointed his plastic fork at Cartman. “You don't remember the Visitors taking it out, so it's totally still in there.”

“Fuck you, too!”

Stan and Kyle sat on one side of the table across from Kenny and Cartman and Butters. They hadn't talked about much other than the abduction all day.

“I don't think it's butt stuff,” Stan said. “It … it didn't … feel like butt stuff. It didn't feel like they did anything.”

Kenny said, “As if you'd admit to having a sore asshole on a Monday morning,” and Stan kicked them under the table. Kenny laughed and tucked their hands into their armpits. “Just saying. You wouldn't. You're just as biased as Cartman.”

“No one is objective about anal probes.”

Cartman threw a hashbrown cube at Stan. “It's not fucking anal probes, Wee Man, shut your mouth!”

“I’m five-five, fatboy!”

“Which is wee.”

“Christ, both of you, shut up.” Kyle elbowed Stan. He also lined his sneaker up alongside Stan’s under the table, which Stan tried not to think about it. “ Why doesn't really matter, does it? It happened. You both seem okay. Who knows what they did, they probably just looked in your brains, if that's what they said they were gonna do.”

“You're trusting the Visitors,” Stan said slowly.

“Well, why not? They don't do much.”

“They put an eighty foot satellite dish in Cartman’s asshole.”

“If that isn't reason enough to trust them, nothing is.”

Kenny roared laughing and Cartman smacked them in the back of the head.

“Shut up,” Cartman said, “All of you. I’m bored. We’re not talking about this anymore. Butters, tell us about your stupid day.”

So Butters told them about how Kevin Stoley got called on to read aloud in first period English and pronounced quinoa like quin-oh-uh, and Stan kept his sneaker right against Kyle’s and didn't listen to much of anything after that.

 

 

Kyle wanted to shoot hoops after school because it would be a novelty not to shovel snow off the court first. Stan sat on the sidelines scraping pictures into the blacktop with a rock.

“I just don't get why it was me, Cartman, Craig and Tweek,” he said. “I'd get it if it was you, me, Cartman and Kenny. That's a thing.”

“We’re friends with Craig and Tweek, too. We hung out last week.”

“Yeah, but not like, friends friends.”

“Not best friends.”

“Yeah. And then Cartman, of all fucking people.”

“The Visitors love him.”

“He's gotta be the most fucked up human specimen they could find. That's why he's always up there.”

“Totally.” Kyle missed a three-pointer by a huge margin and Stan sniggered. Kyle shot him a look, then ran after the ball. “So, you think you're all there ‘cause you've got something in common?”

“I think so, yeah. They said something about us being specially chosen for the study, the four of us.”

“What would you and Cartman ever have in common with Craig and Tweek?”

“We’re sure as fuck not dating,” Stan said to the ground. He thought about Craig and Tweek, who were dating, and were easily two of the weirdest guys they knew. Craig was a science geek who smoked like a chimney and never smiled. Tweek was bratty, cynical and utterly charming; the worst thing about Tweek was Craig. They taught a boxing class for kids in the elementary school gym on Wednesday nights, and got shitfaced at Token’s every Friday and Saturday. They were inseparable in a way that was half deeply romantic and half Children of the Corn.

“No one is like Craig and Tweek,” Kyle said. “It’s like … What’s it called where, in animals, you’ve got the little parasite that feeds on the bigger parasite, so it’s a parasitic thing, but also it’s mutually beneficial for both of them, and they’d die or be sick if they didn’t have each other? Do you remember that? I think it was in Bio 10.”

Stan blinked at him. “No.”

Kyle snapped his fingers. “Symbiosis. That’s it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well. Craig smokes a lot.” Kyle squared up, squinted at the hoop, then shot, drawing up to his full height, sneakers leaving the pavement. The ball arced neatly through the air and bounced off the backboard. “And Tweek does enough coke that he can’t tell that Craig smells like cheap smokes all the time.”

“I don’t think that’s symbiosis.”

“Sure it is.”

“Don't be mean to Tweek, he's a great dude.”

“I wasn't being mean to Tweek, I like Tweek. Being a great dude and doing coke aren't mutually exclusive.” Kyle trotted across the court to get the ball. “I’m just saying that him and Craig are fucked up in perfectly compatible ways and that’s why they’re gonna be together forever.”

“You think?”

“Who else would date them?”

Stan almost said, who else would date US? Because it was something he’d thought about. They weren’t Craig and Tweek, but Stan could see himself in five years with a girlfriend or boyfriend who got pissed off because he couldn’t stop talking about Kyle. Kyle this, Kyle that, why don’t you fucking marry Kyle, they’d say, and Stan would have to think, It’s not like I didn’t try.

Stan watched Kyle try another three-pointer. He sunk it and grinned at himself, then went to get the ball again. He did a layup. Stan stretched his feet out on the pavement and sat back on his hands and watched Kyle move. He felt like he was always watching him and wished, not for the first time, that he could draw—it was sappy, but he wanted to capture the lines of Kyle’s face in light like this, and his knobby knuckles and terrible posture. He thought maybe he could take up photography. It was easier and less weird than drawing.

Kyle shot from centre and got it closer than Stan would have thought, right off the rim. The slap of the ball against the pavement echoed back at them off the nearby houses. Kyle made no move to go get it. He was looking at Stan.

“What?”

“What what?”

Kyle paused. “You keep looking at me.”

Stan held his breath. Blinked slowly. Tell him! His brain screamed. The sun is setting! It’s summer and that’s romantic! Do it NOW!

He tipped his head up. Kyle kept his gaze, akimbo in the middle of the basketball court with muggy summer sweat shining on his brow. Stan looked from his Nikes up his bare, ropey calves, his ratty t-shirt and his long neck to his eyes, yellowy-brown like cheap whiskey.

“You're still growing,” he said.

Kyle raised his eyebrows. “No shit?”

“I think so. When’s the last time you checked?”

“Dunno, April?”

“Dudes grow ‘til they're like twenty-one. We should measure.”

Kyle smiled crookedly. Stan’s heart dropped into his shoes.

“If you're saying that ‘cause you think you're getting taller, I've got some bad news for you, Danny DeVito.”

Stan scoffed and flopped onto his back, his arms out wide. “Fuck off, I’m closing the gap.”

“I'll believe that when I see it, man. The numbers don't lie.”

“Asshole.” He blinked up at the sky, creamsicle orange and pretty-girl-sundress coral. “Go get your stupid ball.”

He heard Kyle huff, then his sneakers patted along the pavement towards the hoop.

“We should header,” Kyle said after a moment, punctuated by the rhythmic slap of a dribbling basketball. “School tomorrow and shit.”

Stan closed his eyes. “Yeah.”

 

 

For good measure, Stan tethered his ankle to his bedpost with a shoelace before falling asleep that night. He woke up freezing cold and strapped to what felt like an upright gurney, the singed shoelace still tied around his ankle.

“Goddamn it.”

“Join the club,” Tweek said from across the room. He wagged his ankle, which had what looked like a burnt piece of rope around it. He was also strapped standing into some kind of contraption, and had little things stuck to his forehead and the base of his skull, with wires that ran into the back of the unit. Stan leaned his head forward and something pulled at his, too.

“What the fuck are these?”

“Don't know.” Tweek’s hair was taller than usual like a platinum haystack, and his under-eyes were dark from lack of sleep. After tonight, Stan figured his own would look the same. “I didn't think they'd do this again.”

“At least you're wearing clothes this time,” Stan said. Someone laughed and he turned his head; it was Craig. Cartman was on the other side of the room, across from Craig, the four of them making a cross, all hooked up to the same pods.

“He llo?” Cartman yelled. “Hell-fucking- oh, this is bullshit and it's past my fucking bedtime !”

Craig rolled his eyes. “They can't hear you, fatass.”

“We don't know that! Why wouldn't they be listening? Hello? You skinny fucks better get your slimy asses down here and explain what the fuck is so important that you won't leave four innocent boys alone!”

“Innocent,” Craig snorted.

“Innocent enough.” Cartman tried to rattle his metal pod and it didn't move. “Fucking bullshit,” he said again. “If this is some sci-fi ‘solve the puzzle and save the world’ garbage we should at least know about it, this sucks.”

“I bet that's what it is,” Tweek said. “We gotta figure out why we’re here and then there's a step two. Maybe we’re the saviours of the human race.”

Craig smiled. “Or we’re the worst people they could find anywhere.”

“No, Kyle would be here,” Stan said absentmindedly. “He's … bad.”

Cartman guffawed. “You don't think that. You'd walk five miles through the desert to lick his unwashed ballsack if you thought he'd let you.”

“He's still an asshole, he laughed when you got AIDS!” Stan yelled. “I'm just saying—God, never mind.”

“I heard that still, Stan.” Cartman smiled. “ Still an asshole, you mean, despite your relationship with his unwashed ballsack.”

“That's fucking disgusting.”

Tweek said, “Jesus fucking Christ, you two are jerks.”

 

 

DAY 3

 

Stan woke up on the floor this time. When he wheeled his bike outside, Kyle was sitting on his front steps. He tipped his head back looked at him upside down.

“Holy shit, you look worse than yesterday.”

Stan rubbed a hand over his face. “They did it again. But we just fucking argued all night.”

“You're joking.”

“No. Craig tried to sleep for a bit but otherwise it was just Cartman screaming, trying to get them to come over the intercom again.”

“Shit, dude.” Kyle stood up and brushed off the back of his shorts. He took Stan’s bike from him. “We’re walking, then. You're gonna ride this thing into a telephone pole.”

It was only eight but the sun was already beating down as they plodded towards school. “Coffee detour,” Stan said. “I can hardly breathe.”

They veered uptown to Tweek Bros. The bell over the door jangled as they stepped inside, and Tweek, who was asleep slumped over the counter, jolted up. His shirt was on backwards and he had a bobby pin sticking out of his mess of hair, but it worked for him.

He saw Stan and backed up against the far counter. “Oh God, I’m not—” He patted his chest and looked around. “Oh. No, yeah, I’m still here. Thank fuck.”

“No kidding, still here. It's like quarter after, you're gonna be late for class.”

“I’m not going to class, are you nuts? We keep getting abducted, I don't give a fuck about school right now.”

“Fair enough, dude.” Kyle slapped Stan on the back. “Your alien buttfuck buddy here needs one of your strongest potions. The black shit that bubbles.”

Stan slumped until his head touched the back of the espresso machine. “I swear we’re not getting anal probed.”

“Sure you're not.” Kyle fished a five out of his wallet. “Two of ‘em, please. For sympathy.”

Tweek shrugged and filled two paper cups from a carafe at the end of the row with coffee that churned and steamed like a witch’s brew. He pushed the cups across the counter with his index fingers and waved away Kyle’s money.

“It's cool,” he said. “I owe Stan for that super good alien buttfucking last night.”

Stan’s ears went red and he said, “Oh, fuck off,” but neither of them heard it over Kyle’s loud, ugly laughter.

 

 

Stan and Kyle had homeroom together. Kyle stretched his long, wiry legs out under his desk and drew aliens in the margins of his notebook. Stan slumped down so far his chin touched the top of his desk, and he wrote a list:

POSSIBLE REASONS FOR REPEATED ALIEN ABDUCTION:

  • PUNISHMENT FOR MANY SINS
  • GOD HATES US
  • VISITORS HATE US
  • SOUTH PARK WILL BE DESTROYED???
  • SOMETHING TO DO WITH TRUMP
  • SUMMER SUCKS
  • THIS FUCKING SUCKS

He balanced his pen between his upper lip and nose and glanced over at Kyle. He was bent over his notebook, drawing the long, spindly arms of Visitors holding complex ray guns. Kyle wasn't good at drawing, but he liked doing it. Stan liked his drawings, too. They'd pass doodle sheets back and forth during class and speak in pictures when they could.

Stan reached across and slipped the notebook from under Kyle’s hands. Kyle just smiled at him and let him do it, and Stan was hit by a wave of adoration and nausea like a punch in the gut.

He drew a crude little Cartman strapped into one of the Visitors’ pods with the wired nodes attached to his head, his mouth open comically wide and yelling. He wrote IT’S PAST MY BEDTIME in a speech bubble, then passed it back to Kyle, who chewed his lip to keep from laughing.

Kyle wrote pls tell me he said that and showed Stan, and Stan nodded. Kyle grinned the most shit-eating grin. He added stink lines to the little cartoon Cartman and Stan snorted back laughter.

“Stanley.” Their teacher, a gaunt young guy straight out of college, called across the classroom. Stan shot upright and almost knocked his coffee over. “Something funny you'd like to share with the class?”

Stan thought about it.

I keep getting abducted by aliens and I haven't slept in two days. We live somewhere where we only get one week of summer. I graduate in two weeks and I haven’t studied for any of my finals. I’m in love with my best friend and I can't tell him.

“Not funny ha-ha,” he said.

 

 

At lunch, he went with Kenny and Kyle to find Craig. They found him the first place they checked, the smoke pit, and he was with Tweek. They were sitting in the gravel, Craig lying slumped in front of Tweek with his head on his chest, Tweek balancing a coffee cup on Craig’s stomach. This suited Stan fine because, as was the case with all tall people he knew, he preferred dealing with them sitting down. They were both taller than Kyle, who was already half a head taller than Stan.

“I thought you were at work,” he said to Tweek. Tweek shrugged and Craig’s head bobbed on his chest.

“I’m visiting for lunch.”

“We have a test last period,” Craig said.

“I might stay for the test.”

Stan crouched down in the gravel so he was eye to eye with them. Kyle and Kenny crouched too, and Kenny started drawing in the gravel with a stick.

“Can I bum a smoke?” Kyle asked Craig.

“No,” Craig said. His eyes were closed and he didn't open them, and didn't see Kyle flip him off.

“Ok, so, I was thinking,” Stan started. “We should come up with a game plan, don't you think?”

“You think they're coming back?”

“We haven't done anything yet, why would they stop now? I think we’re supposed to figure something out.”

“I assume they were pulling shit from our brains,” Tweek said, gesturing at his head. “Those little wire things. I feel like we just gotta be there for it.”

“Nah, man, I think … they're looking for something. Why else would there be four of us? And why us, what the fuck do we have in common with Cartman?

“I try not to think about it,” Craig said. Tweek sipped his coffee and rested the cup on the top of Craig’s head. Craig smiled.

“I bet they want us to talk.” Tweek reached down and nabbed Craig’s smoke, took a drag and handed it back. “In those sci-fi puzzle movies, it’s always like, a keyword. Or a task, but they’ve got us strapped down, so I’m guessing it’s not that. Have you guys seen Cube?”

“Yeah,” said Kenny and Kyle. “No,” said Stan. Tweek waved his hand.

“Just a sci-fi puzzle movie. Giant death cube. People don’t know why they’re in it. I forget how it ends, I think it was a gameshow.”

Stan sat back on his haunches. “Great.”

“Well, let’s not rule that out.”

“We’re not ruling out a giant death cube?”

“No. And I mean, if it’s that kind of puzzle—”

“A death puzzle,” Craig said.

“Yeah, a death puzzle—let’s all go for Cartman. Vote that fucker off the island.”

“Well, obviously.”

Craig opened his eyes and looked at Stan. “Cartman first. Don’t get too comfortable, Marsh, I’m pretty sick of seeing your face for eight hours a night.” He closed his eyes again. “And yet, here you are. During the day, too.”

“Fine, God. We’re going.”

The three of them went to stand, but Tweek put a hand out to stop them. He lifted Craig’s cigarette from his fingers and asked, “Can I finish this?” and Craig said, “Sure,” without looking. Tweek handed the smoke silently to Kyle, who took it, beaming.

“See you tonight,” Stan said as they left.

Craig said, “I fucking hope not.”

 

 

Stan used a zip tie to attach his ankle to his bedpost. When he woke up on the ship, part of the zip tie was melted to his foot.

Craig said, “Rookie mistake.” He wagged his foot, where half a set of handcuffs jangled, the chain between the two sides cleanly snapped. Across the room, Cartman groaned, and Craig glared at him. “ What, fatass? Gonna make a gay joke? A sex joke? A gay sex handcuff joke? Fucking go for it, give me everything you’ve got.”

Cartman looked scandalized. “Craig, not everything’s about sex. I know that must be hard for you to understand, living a depraved, gay lifestyle, but there’s so much in the world that doesn’t revolve around—”

“Shut up! I am so fucking sick of your face, holy shit, why do they keep putting me across from you, this is—”

“Stop,” Stan shouted. “I’m not wasting my entire fucking summer up here, we need to think!”

Tweek said, “I’ll help if Cartman promises to shut up for a while.”

“Fuck you, I don’t need to take this from a fucking cokehead!”

“Third grade,” Stan yelled. “Shut up. Let’s go back. We were all in Mr. Garrison’s class in third grade, that’s when everything started getting weird, right?”

“Yeah, us and like, twenty other kids,” Tweek said. “So what? That class was cursed and everyone knows it, we’re the only ones who fucked up shit happens to in this town.”

“God, fine, we’ll think of something. I’m not stupid, I can help.” Cartman paused, and hummed and hawed dramatically. “Well, if Craig weren’t Black, we’d all be white.”

“Peruvian, and fuck you,” Craig snapped.

“If you weren’t fat we’d all be thin, asshole!’

“Fuck you, Tweek, it’s not my fault your boyfriend’s a foreigner!”

“Jesus Christ, stop it!” Stan tried to bang his feet on the pod to get their attention. “C’mon, this can’t be that hard. We grew up together, there’s nothing we have in common?”

“Maybe it was something we did,” Craig suggested. “All together.”

“Peru?”

“Tweek wasn’t there.”

The four of them went quiet. Cartman was jiggling his left foot and wouldn’t stop. Tweek was staring up at the large, dead screen between Stan and Cartman’s heads. Craig might have been asleep. Stan was furiously thinking.

“Maybe it’s someone we know,” he said finally. “Maybe it’s not about us, but someone else? A common thread.”

“Again,” Craig groaned, “there’s nothing that ties us together that you couldn’t say about a dozen other kids.”

“Maybe we're totally wrong. Maybe it's like Saw, and we gotta kill each other or something. Alien bloodsport.”

“They'd tell us. They'd get bored watching us bitch at each other for three nights.”

“I’m bored watching us bitch at each other for three nights.”

“Can we sleep?” Craig said. “I straight up do not care about what happens. Tweek’s right, they're just pilfering shit from our brains. We don't need to do anything. I’m fucking tired. Let's just sleep upright.”

“Like horses,” Tweek added.

“Yeah, like horses. Sleep standing, and shut the fuck up.”

Every time someone tried to talk, Craig shushed them. Eventually, they each nodded into a fitful sleep.

 

 

DAY 4

 

Stan woke up upside down with his feet on his pillow. The day dragged; class was unbearable, lunch was too long and he went home after school to help Randy put a shed together in the backyard. Sharon made tuna casserole for dinner and Stan did his laundry and folded socks in front of the TV afterwards, the volume cranked to drown out the sound of Sharon talking to Shelly over Skype. He nodded off during a re-run of Friends and when he woke up, Sharon was sitting on the other end of the couch.

She smiled over at him. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and asked, “How long was I out?”

“About twenty minutes.” She picked up the remote and flipped through the channel guide. “You look exhausted lately. Is everything okay?”

He pushed the laundry basket on the floor away with his socked foot. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just, you know. Finals. Summer.”

Sharon hummed knowingly. She switched the TV to Deal or No Deal and Stan rolled his eyes.

“Well, it was nice of you to help your father out back today,” she told him. “He wants to spend as much time with you before you graduate.”

“I’m not going anywhere, Mom.”

“Of course you are.”

There was a knock at the front door. Sharon only had time to look at it before Kyle stuck his head in.

“Hi, Mrs. Marsh.” At his voice, Stan leaned forward to look at him past Sharon, and they smiled at each other. “Can Stan come out and play?”

“Kyle, oh my God. Yes.” Sharon laughed. She pretended to yell, “ Stan, Gerald Broflovski’s son is here, answer the door.”

Stan beamed and hauled himself off the couch. “Got it.” He padded up to the door in his socks. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Behind the door where Sharon couldn't see, Kyle held up a wet six-pack of Old Mil. “Wanna go for a walk?”

Stan raised his eyebrows. He kept one hand on the door and turned around. “Mom? Can I go out?”

“Stanley, you graduate high school in two weeks. You can absolutely go for a walk with your friend.”

“Thanks. Don't wait up,” he joked, and was completely serious. He waved and she waved back.

Kyle was halfway down the walk when Stan jogged up to catch up with him. He twisted a beer free from the rings and handed one to Stan. “Wanna sit on the U-Stor billboard and watch the sunset?”

Stan looked at him out of the corner of his eye; happy and calm and freshly showered after basketball practice, his hair bouncier than ever. Stan took a risk and said, “Romantic.”

Kyle cracked his own beer and bumped his shoulder against Stan’s. “You know it.”

 

 

Stan climbed up the ladder of the U-Stor-It billboard after Kyle and willed himself not to look up his shorts. He didnt. The metal ledge was still warm from the day and burned against the backs of their bare thighs as they sat with their legs hanging over the edge.

Stan rested his chin on the hand railing. “Thanks, dude,” he said, quiet. “This is cool.”

Kyle’s thigh was close to his but not close enough to touch. Adidas running shorts, crew socks and high tops. Faintly freckled thighs and rust-coloured body hair.

“I figured you could use it. Abductions every night. Summer sweat. Finals.” Kyle held his beer up. “Here's to the Visitors.”

Stan clinked his beer against his. “The Visitors.”

They settled into a companionable silence as the sun dipped towards the mountains. The air was cool but the metal was hot and it settled into the perfect temperature, warm and cold, Stan tingling with the adrenaline that burned reckless in every teenager’s fingertips, that constant urge to build and destroy. He held back. He felt his heartbeat in his eyes. He felt every breath Kyle held in his lungs. He drank. He waited.

“You worried about finals?” he asked.

Kyle shrugged. He ripped the pull tab off his beer and flicked it into the street below.

“A little. I don't know. We’ve got a week to study still.”

Stan hummed noncommittally. He didn't want to think about finals and didn't know why he asked. Kyle finished his beer and lobbed the can into the street.

He said, “In the locker room, Token was telling this story about Clyde showing old man plumber’s crack for all of third period math, and Butters snapped him with a towel so hard it left a welt.”

“Oh, I saw that. Clyde, I mean. Red was sitting behind him and sent a zoomed-in snap of his terrible ass to everybody.”

“Gross, right?”

“Dad bod.”

“He's a mess.”

Kyle was closer than he was before, or Stan was imagining it. He could feel the heat coming off his body and the sleeve of his shirt brushed his arm. He wanted to make their knees touch, but he didn't. He hooked his chin over the metal railing in front of them.

“I don't wanna go home.”

“So don't,” Kyle said. He rested his cheek on his folded arms and smiled sleepily. “It's summer. We’ll get another sixer and stay up here, sleepover style.”

From this close, Stan could see every single one of Kyle’s million freckles; the patterns on his eyelids, the mottled patches of solid brown across his nose where there were too many freckles to stay distinguished. It was getting dark, but his eyelashes still glowed eerie, otherworldly red.

Things that Stan wanted to say included: I'd go to New York with you. Let me know if you’re tired of me. Your laundry detergent is my favourite smell. I hope you never get a haircut. I think I’m in love with you. I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.

Things Stan actually said were: “I wouldn't want you to get abducted,” and then, “I should head back.”

Kyle looked at him a moment longer, quiet and contemplative. He rolled his head so his forehead pressed into his arms. “Maybe I’ll stay out here. See if I can watch you get beamed up.”

Stan smacked his swinging foot against Kyle’s and asked, “You think they’d take you too, if we were together?” The sky still glowed purple on the mountain tops, but it was black up above.

“Nah, dude.” Kyle turned his head and looked at him again. “This kind of seems like your thing.”

 

 

Stan didn't bother tying his ankle to anything that night. He was still half drunk when he woke up on the ship, blinking into consciousness across from Tweek the same way he had for the past three nights.

“Hello again.”

“Don't be fucking cute,” Cartman yelled.

“I’m so sick of this,” Craig said. “I’m so fucking sick of you assholes.”

“I'm not just gonna sit here. Fuck this. Fuck everything. Hey!” Cartman screamed. “Are you listening? We’re not just gonna take this!”

“Cartman, shut up, they don't care.”

“We know you want something!” Cartman kept yelling. “We don't know what it is ‘cause we’re fucking stupid, but just get on with it, okay? We’re not gonna get it!”

Everything was silent.

Tweek said, “You're an idiot.”

The intercom clicked loudly on.

“Oh, shit.”

“COMMENCING PHASE TWO.”

“Jesus, I—” Stan stopped. Nausea rolled up his body from his head to his feet, churning in his gut, sloshing around in his skull. The wired nodes attached to his head felt hot, and he opened his mouth, but he couldn't speak. Tweek looked similarly pained; he couldn't turn his head to see Craig or Cartman. Slowly, the feeling passed.

“Did you guys feel that?”

“Yeah.” Tweek looked at Craig. “I feel sick. You okay?”

“My head feels weird. Cartman, I can't believe you made them do something by screaming.”

“They respect me,” Cartman said, but he sounded off. “What …”

The giant screen on the wall above Stan and Cartman flickered to life. Tweek raised his eyebrows.

“Showtime.”

An image flooded the screen as if it were liquid that was poured there. It didn't look like a photograph; it was too high-definition, too sharp around the edges, so that it was somehow uncomfortable to look at.

“Scott Malkinson,” Cartman said out loud. On the screen, Scott sat in their high school cafeteria, turned away. The image warped and changed.

“Token,” Cartman said. The next image was Token, slumped on a spotless white armchair balancing a can of PBR on two fingers. “These are shitty photos, dude, who took these?”

“They don't look like photos,” Craig said. “They're too …” He trailed off.

Tweek shifted. “I hate looking at them. I don't know why. It feels …”

“Uncomfortable.”

“Yeah.”

And then, it was Kyle.

“Kyle,” Cartman said aloud.

Kyle stood in the setting sun, in gym shorts and a sweaty t-shirt, with his hands on his hips, in the middle of the basketball court. His hair glowed like fire in the sun, and he look confused. Perplexed. The angle of the shot looked up at him from below.

Stan’s heart clenched. And then he got it.

“Oh my God, they're not photos,” he said. “They're memories.”

“What?”

“They're our memories. That one was mine, it was on Monday. We were right there.”

“Bullshit.”

“I’m serious, dude, they're looking in our brains.”

The next one up on the screen was Butters and, as if proving a point, he was sitting on Cartman’s bed. Stan knew Cartman’s bedroom well enough to know the point of view was from Cartman’s desk chair.

“See?”

“Oh hell no,” Cartman said. “This is fucked up.”

“This is cool,” Craig gushed.

Tweek seemed reluctantly excited. “Are we gonna see us? Do we get our memories of each other?”

“More like—why?” Stan said. “What are they studying, are we supposed to be doing something with these?”

“Interpersonal relationships or something,” Craig said. “Human … friendship? I don't know, none of us are friends with Scott Malkinson.”

Stan cocked his head. The little wires pulled. “They're all in our grade. And they're all guys.”

“I am so fucking tired of this shit,” Cartman groaned. “I haven't slept in fucking days ‘cause of this, and I’m sick of your faces, and now I gotta look at Scott fuckin’ Malkinson, too? This is bullshit.”

“Shut up, Cartman, we don't want to look at you, either!”

“Maybe they're watching us like movies,” Tweek said. “Maybe it's entertainment. Maybe our memories are on alien TV.”

“That wouldn't be so bad.”

“Yes it would, Craig, because that's invasive and fucked up and I’m tired,” Cartman yelled.

“Just watch,” Stan said. “There might be … something.”

More boys showed up on the screen. Clyde in the front seat of his car wearing garish plastic sunglasses; Jimmy speaking in front of a group at school; Bradley washing his hands in the boys’ washroom.

“This is weird,” Cartman said slowly. “Are we supposed to see ourselves? How long are they gonna do this for?”

“Do you guys feel sickish when it's one of your own memories, or is it just me?” Tweek asked.

“I do,” Craig said. “I think. I don't know, it's …”

“Feels weird.” Stan closed his eyes, but that made it worse. “I don't know what they want us to do.”

Cartman was still staring up at the screen, “I can't decide if this is better or worse than being bored.”

The boys looped but the images changed; Tweek’s Butters was different from Craig’s Butters was different from Cartman’s Butters. They each felt a sweeping wave of nausea when their brain was accessed. They showed up in each other’s memories—Craig’s Stan crouched in the smoke pit, his blue eyes wide and serious; Tweek’s Stan was exhausted and leaned on Kyle’s shoulder on the other side of a counter; Cartman’s Stan sat on the floor at his feet with an Xbox controller in his hands. Everything blurred together. Eventually, it ended.

 

 

DAY 5

 

“It was funny,” Stan explained, “‘Cause you could always tell whose pictures were whose, ‘cause like, Token, right—if he was half blocked out in the hallway and making a face, it was mine or Cartman’s, but in Craig and Tweek’s he looked happy.”

“No shit.” Kyle was lying on the floor of his living room fanning himself with a People magazine. Stan was on the couch playing Street Fighter. Kyle’s calf was touching his and he was having a hard time ignoring it. “Did I show up?”

“Yeah, a couple times.”

“What was I doing?”

“In mine, it was from—what, Monday? When you were shooting hoops.”

“What about everyone else’s?”

Stan tried to remember. “I think … there was one where you were in class, someone sitting behind you. It was from Craig or Tweek, ‘cause in Cartman’s, you were … in his backyard? I don’t know when it was from. You were sitting in the snow.”

Kyle stopped fanning himself for a second. “I don’t remember that. Was anyone else in it?”

“I don’t remember.” Stan picked Chun Li for a 1v1 against the computer, having long since gotten bored of story mode. “All of Cartman’s were weird, to be honest—no one else was ever in his. Just … him and that person. Craig and Tweek’s were always at school, or at Token’s, or … you know. Normal stuff.”

Kyle hummed. He dropped the magazine over his face. “Did Craig and Tweek come up in each other’s?”

“Yeah. Craig was asleep in Tweek’s, in bed. Tweek was … I don’t know. Driving, I think. Smiling a lot.”

“Cute,” Kyle said from under his magazine, and Stan looked at him.

It had been cute. That’s exactly what Stan had thought when they came up. Craig and Tweek had looked at each other from inside their uncomfortable Visitors’ pods when the other had come up on the screen—mutually remembering the moment, almost apologetic about it. Bashful, after nearly a decade of dating. And Kyle thought Craig and Tweek’s soft memories about each other were cute.

Don’t read too much into this, Stan told himself, as he read way too much into it.

To Stan, Kyle was a red button in a control room, the kind kept under glass so no one pressed it by accident, and the button was unmarked. It could start World War III or make Skittles rain from the sky, and Stan had no way of knowing until he pressed it. Lose the best friend he'd had since before his memories started being recorded, or enter a relationship that felt so perfect and neat in his head that it was almost physically painful to think about. What if they were together, in a situation like this? He could slip off the couch and lie on the floor next to him, push the magazine off his face and kiss him. They could nap on the carpet with this weird math rock playing from Kyle’s phone.

“Super cute,” Stan agreed, and unpaused the game.

 

 

Stan was awake when the visitors took him that night and it was terrifying; it wasn’t a tractor beam as much as it was light, heat and the feeling of being lifted, but then just suddenly being someplace else, on their ship, as if they took him apart in his bedroom and put him back together once he was aboard. He was put straight into the pod, with no recollection of being moved there or getting attached to the brain-wires, he just was. That uncomfortable nausea churned in his gut and he shut his eyes against it, tried to focus on Craig’s voice next to him, saying see, it doesn’t matter whose house we’re at.

Stan looked at each of them in turn, all markedly more drained than they were at the beginning of the week. They were all silent, even Cartman—just blinking at each other in turn, sighing, waiting.

Tweek was the first to speak. “I’m so tired I can feel my teeth. Like, each and every one of them, in my head.”

Craig lolled his head to look at him. “I’m so tired my heartbeat has a heartbeat.”

“We can’t keep doing this,” Stan said. “Are they doing memories again? I didn’t miss anything, did I?”

“Craig Tucker is wearing pants this time, for which I am eternally grateful.”

“Shut up, fatboy, you can’t even tell.”

“I’d like to not be in the same room as your ugly dick, Craig. I’ll thank you to keep it caged.”

The screen above their heads flickered on.

“If we have to see Craig’s dick ‘cause I said it out loud, I’m gonna flip.”

“Jesus, Cartman, shut up.”

Stan watched as the familiar look of nausea passed over Tweek’s face. The screen morphed into an image, but this time, it was moving.

“That’s new.”

An image of Clyde churned to life on the screen, still such a strange mix of hyper-realistic and yet not quite right. Clyde was in an aisle at what appeared to be Wall-Mart, peering down at a can of corn in his hand. He turned towards them and said, “Is it true that you get a discount if the can’s dented, or is that a myth?”

“Myth,” Craig said quietly.

“Shit.” Tweek hung his head. “It feels grosser this time. ‘Cause they’re moving. I don’t know.”

Clyde became Token. Token stood at the edge of the pool in his backyard, wearing just short red swim trunks, wringing out a towel. It was nighttime and he was lit only by the pool’s underwater lights. He looked back over his shoulder and said, “I’m glad it’s going well. Half the time I can’t even believe it, you know?” and a smile played over his lips.

Stan’s stomach knotted with guilt. Token looked good, and he felt bad for thinking that Token looked good. They were friends and it felt like a gross invasion of privacy, the same way that thinking about Kyle always did; he felt like a spy, a sleeper agent, a liar. A sneaky gay. Token would kick his ass if he knew. Kyle might kick his ass if he knew.

Cartman made an exaggerated gagging noise. “Christ, Craig, we can tell that one’s yours, that’s gay as fuck.”

Craig scoffed but was too out of it to say anything back. Stan told him, “Don’t puke,” and he managed a glare.

“You okay, dude?” Tweek asked, and Craig nodded, his eyes fixed on the floor.

On the screen, Token laughed sunnily. Stan quietly hated himself.

“It goes counter-clockwise,” Tweek said. “You’re next, Stan.”

Stan took a deep breath. The sickness rose from his feet and rolled around in his head like a hangover, pounding at his temples. It wasn’t unbearable, but it felt wrong. He tried to watch the screen, but looking down felt better.

“Uh.” That was Cartman.

“Oh.” That was Tweek. “It’s me.”

Stan looked up. A memory of Tweek played—he was in the locker room at school, his hair wet from showering after gym. Guilt made Stan’s eyes snap back to the floor. He remembered the conversation from a few weeks ago, and remembered that Tweek hadn’t been wearing anything.

“It’s not how everyone thinks,” Tweek was saying in the memory, “It’s just like—it feels like you drank twenty jager bombs and five americanos, and also you’re the coolest person on the face of the planet.”

If Stan remembered looking down, would the memory show that? His head spun and he kept his eyes trained on the floor, but he heard Cartman laugh, which answered his question. He hoped it wasn’t too bad.

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Craig, of all people.

Cartman hadn’t stopped laughing. “That was gay as shit, dude, holy hell. Now he knows you looked at his junk, you must be so embarrassed, oh my God.”

Stan squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the sickness to pass, hoping that maybe if he waited long enough, the Visitors would kill them all and he wouldn’t have to look at anyone ever again. Fuck Cartman, he thought, furiously trying to get over his shame. If it weren’t for his stupid ass it wouldn’t be so awkward, he’s the only one here who doesn’t like dudes.

Stan’s eyes flew open.

“Wait,” he said. “Holy fucking—wait—”

“For what,” Craig said dryly.

Cartman had his eyes shut and sweat shone on his brow. On the screen, Butters spun in his desk chair, his socked feet hitting against the side of Cartman’s desk with every rotation.

“Cartman,” Stan tried. Cartman said nothing, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Cartman, listen to me, I’ve gotta ask—

“Fuck off, Stan, this feels like I just slammed a forty and I’m trying to get through it with style and grace.”

“Cartman—”

“Stan—”

“Do you like boys?”

Craig laughed so suddenly and sharply that he almost choked on his tongue. Cartman’s eyes flew open and he glared at Stan with so much unbridled malice that Stan would have been afraid if they weren’t both strapped down.

“Ex-fucking- scuse me?”

“I—I think that’s it. Why we’re here. Showing us our friends, and, I don’t know … It’s only guys … guys our age. Maybe they’re collecting data or something.”

“You’re saying that’s what we have in common,” Tweek said slowly. “We all like boys?”

“Oh fuck no!” Cartman yelled. “Don’t fucking drag me down with—”

“So you’re saying you like boys, Stan?” Craig raised his eyebrows, and looked more interested than Stan had ever seen him. “That’s what you just said.”

It was just Craig, Tweek and Cartman, but Stan had never said it out loud to anyone before. The whole town would know in less than twenty-four hours, the same way they knew about everything. His heart raced, thundered, beat off-time. He didn’t want to spend his life being anticlimactically abducted by aliens, but he also didn’t want to come out to Eric Cartman. But it was worth a shot.

“Yeah,” Stan said. “That’s what I’m saying. I think that’s our thing.”

There were a handful of perfectly still, silent seconds, where not even Cartman spoke.

The intercom clicked on.

“COMMENCING PHASE THREE.”

“You’re kidding me!” Tweek shrieked, laughing.

“Fuck no!” Cartman yelled. “Fuck this! Fuck you, Stan, I’m not fucking gay!”

“I don’t give a shit!” Stan shouted. “Nobody cares, I’m just saying—”

“I don’t like dudes!”

“You do, man!” Craig laughed. “This is so fucked up, holy shit.”

“Gayliens,” Tweek said seriously. “Gay aliens.”

“I fucking hate this,” Cartman spat, “They’re fucking framing me, putting me up here with you fags—It’s some kind of sick conversion therapy, they’re gonna see how long it takes three queers to convert an upstanding Christian kid and it’s fucked up!”

“We don’t know what it’s for!” Stan screamed. “Shut the fuck up and let me think!”

“I’m not shutting up, you’re calling me gay!”

“I don’t give a fuck if you’re gay, Cartman, Jesus Christ!”

“I knew you were!” Cartman was riled up in a way that wasn’t funny anymore. his usual arm-waving, theatrical hysterics, but a manic, intense sort of anger that still, after a lifetime of being his friend, still scared Stan a little. “I always knew you were, I fucking called it, it’s you and Kyle, isn’t it? You’ve been all over his dick since we were kids, that’s what this is about!”

“God, shut up!”

The screen started to come to life.

“I don’t like this,” Cartman said, panicked. “I don’t like this, turn it off, turn that fucking TV off!”

“Dude, calm down—”

“I’m not gay,” Cartman insisted. “That’s fucking sick that you’d even say that to me, I don’t know where the fuck you get off suggesting—”

“Oh, shit,” Tweek interrupted. “It’s Craig.”

“Whose is this?” Craig asked, looking around. “Who feels sick?”

They looked at each other and everyone seemed fine. Tweek was still staring at the screen.

“Is it just me, or does this one not look like a memory?”

“It’s off,” Craig said, “like, not human. Or it is human, but see how it’s like … wrong?”

Stan didn’t say anything. Someone who was clearly Craig came into focus, but it was and wasn’t Craig—it looked like someone who could have been Craig. It was close, but it was strange, and he moved in the same way the other images had, with something that felt uncomfortable to look at.

The Craig on screen was smiling, which was uncomfortable to look at in a different way. Wherever he was it was sunny, all white, like he was lying in bright sheets, and he was smiling like he was laughing. His hair was flipped over messily on one side and he was naked, like he’d just woken up, and it was so painfully sweet and intimate that Stan looked at the floor.

“Not to make this weird,” Tweek said, quiet, “and I know you’re not gonna believe me, but—I think they’re fantasies.”

“What?”

“Our imagination.” He was still staring at the screen. “I know it’s not real ‘cause neither of us have white sheets. And … I think about sleeping in a lot. We basically never get to wake up together, ‘cause of our parents.”

Craig had his head turned to look at Tweek and Stan couldn’t see his face, but he heard him go, “Oh.”

“I don’t like this,” Cartman said again. “Make it stop.”

“I don’t know, man, it’s not my fault. It doesn’t even make me sick like the other ones.” Tweek looked at Craig and smiled. “Are you next?”

“Guess so.” Stan could only assume that Craig was smiling back. “Sorry in advance if they see your dick.”

“My fantasy dick.”

“Yeah. And sorry if your fantasy dick is different than your normal dick.”

“I wouldn’t care.” Tweek nodded at the screen. “Your shoulders are bigger here.”

Craig laughed. “Asshole.”

The screen began to change.

“That’s gotta be it,” Stan whispered. “Something about human sexuality. Homosexuality. I don’t know.”

“Makes more sense than anything else,” Craig said. “But why us, you think?”

“That’s not it,” Cartman yelled again, “When did we decide that was the answer? It can’t be, ‘cause I’m not.”

Stan ignored him. “What if it’s like … Oh.”

Tweek showed up on the screen. It was instantly less wholesome than Tweek’s imagination of Craig had been, because in this one, Tweek was kneeling on the floor. He was sitting back on his hands and his face and chest were flushed, his hair sticking up, and he looked pretty pleased with himself. It was Tweek but not Tweek; it looked startlingly like him, as had Tweek’s version of Craig, but little things seemed off. It was hard to place exactly what.

“Jesus, Craig,” Tweek laughed.

“It could have been so much worse.” Craig squinted at the screen. “I wonder if I can change it. Make him put some pants on.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments, waited, then opened them. “Nope.”

“Why the four of us?” Stan asked.

“Maybe we’re the only ones in our grade.” Tweek shrugged. “Wouldn’t be totally impossible.”

“No!” Cartman called out. “There, I got you, that’s how I know you’re wrong—Kenny! Kenny’s not here, Kenny likes dudes and Kenny’s in our class!”

“Kenny’s not a boy,” Stan said. “They didn’t show up in any of our memories, either.”

“Oh, don’t you fucking start with that—”

“Cartman, I’m gonna beat the shit out of you when we get down from here, I swear to fucking God,” Stan snarled. “Stop being an asshole for one second of your entire life.”

“What if they wanted a specific sample?” Craig said. “Tweek and I are out.” He nodded at Cartman. “Then, you got someone who’s totally batshit crazy in denial.” He looked at Stan. “And then, uh, you.”

“Closet case,” Tweek offered.

“Yeah, closet case.” Craig frowned. “Sorry.”

Stan wasn’t sure he’d ever had Craig apologize to him before. “It’s cool.”

They know, Stan thought. There are people on this planet who know I like guys, and by tomorrow, everyone’s gonna know. He felt both lighter and more afraid than he had in years. He thought about his parents, his teachers, Wendy, Kyle.

It dawned on him that his imagination-vision would be up next. Craig’s was fading out.

“Oh, God,” Stan mumbled. He thought of all the things it could be and tried to school his thoughts somewhere safe, but there were so many variables; Craig wasn’t able to change his, so were the scenes picked from earlier thoughts? Did it matter? He tried to think about Kyle, just normal Kyle standing somewhere, fully clothed, smiling. Sunny Kyle, pretty Kyle, normal Kyle.

Before it had even come into focus, Stan’s was already different.

Kyle wasn’t anywhere real. He was in a peachy-pink void, like a sunset or a strawberry ice pop or this season’s hottest fashions. He was facing a little away from them with his hands locked around the back of his neck, and he was wearing a big, threadbare shirt. The bottom of the screen cut off at his waist. Stan breathed a sigh of relief.

“You got him pretty good,” Tweek said. “The likeness, I mean.”

“I think you made his nose smaller,” Craig chuckled, and Stan wanted to smack him.

Kyle had his eyes closed. The hands around the back of his neck tightened, and he tipped his head back a bit and sighed. Moaned, maybe.

“Don't watch this,” Stan said quickly. “Seriously.”

Craig laughed. “Nice try.”

Stan knew why this was in his imagination; he always thought about making Kyle come, how he'd look and sound when he touched him, and it was always a lot like this. Gentle, hitched breaths, clutching hands—it was deeply, humiliatingly personal, and he felt his face burn. He looked down and looked back up. The Kyle on the screen grabbed his shirt at the back of his neck and pulled it over his head, and Stan saw that it was one of his, an old Colorado Avalanche shirt that he wore pretty often. The only person who might recognize it was Cartman, and he silently begged him not to—

“That’s your stupid hockey shirt he’s wearing,” Cartman said, deadpan. “That’s gay as shit.”

Craig laughed again. “That’s the softest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Kyle’s shoulders were freckled a little more than they were in real life and a little broader, but Stan was absurdly proud of how his imagination included Kyle’s acne. Then Kyle hung his head and gasped and it was so obviously erotic, and Stan was much less proud.

“This is fucking sick,” Cartman said, “I shouldn’t have to watch Stan’s Ginger-Jersey-Jew-specific spank bank, I didn’t sign up for this shit!”

“None of us did, you idiot,” Craig snapped, “Keep your fucking panties on, you can’t even see dick.”

“Fuck you, Craig! Just ‘cause you’re gay and loving this doesn’t mean I have to!”

“You’re next, fatass,” he snarled, “so shut the fuck up.”

“I’m not next,” Cartman said, going red in the face. “I’m not next ‘cause they’re not gonna find any gay shit in my head. I’m here as like, the control group. The token straight.”

“I think Stan’s right,” Tweek said mildly. “Definitely the gay thing.”

Stan exhaled the breath he’d been holding when his image of Kyle dripped off the screen.

Craig looked at him and said, “That was more a love letter than a sex scene,” and Stan glared at the floor.

“So was yours,” he said. Then he got to watch Craig try to casually shrug while strapped into an alien brain-reading pod.

When the next image came into focus, they all saw the red hair before anything else.

“See?” Cartman said quickly, “They’re going back to Stan again, this one’s Stan’s!”

Stan watched in horror as the image came together. “No, it’s not.”

The other imaginary boys they'd seen had been ‘off’ in subtle ways, in the shoulders and nose and movement, but this was fucked. It was clearly supposed to be Kyle, but it wasn’t: instead of his tall ginger afro, cut short on the sides, his hair fell in shiny red barrel curls. He was smaller, his shoulders less gawky, his skin less freckled and alabaster white, missing his acne scars and stretch marks. He was naked, and like the last Kyle, he was in an out-of-focus coloured void. This one was yellow.

Stan was speechless.

Craig wasn’t.

“The fuck, Cartman? Is this yours?” He stared slack-jawed up at the screen. “This is fucking disgusting and I hate looking at it, what’d you do to him?”

“It’s not mine!” Cartman screamed. Stan snapped out of his stupor, looked at Cartman and wished he hadn’t; his face was blotchy and red and his eyes were wide and panicked. “It’s not fucking mine, I wouldn’t, it’s Stan’s, it’s—”

“Dude, chill—”

“This is what this is about!” He tried to wrench his head free from the wires. “They’re after me, the social test they’re doing is this, trying to see how we react when—when I’m framed for—”

“He’s changing,” Tweek said quietly.

Everyone stopped. The Kyle on the screen morphed in a way the fantasies before him hadn’t, twisting and changing shape until he was something else entirely. Stan was the first one to get it.

“It’s Kenny.” He paused. “I think.”

In real life, Kenny’s hair was chopped above their shoulders. Here, Kenny’s hair tumbled down their back, golden blonde, and they were running their fingers through it. Their eyes were unimaginably blue and their hands were tiny and delicate, their naked shoulders blushing pink.

“Turn it off!” Cartman screamed. “Fucking turn it off, these aren’t mine, they aren’t, I have no fucking idea where they’re getting these but it’s fucking sick and I don’t—”

“Cartman, calm down, ” Stan tried, “you’re freaking me out.”

Kenny became Butters. Butters sat with his shoulders back and tucked his hair behind his ears; he looked like a drawing of a person, with big, bright eyes and too-shiny skin.

“I shouldn’t be here with you faggots!” Cartman shouted, still viciously trying to free himself. “I’m not—I’m not, I’m fucking not—

Stan was glad no one else was here to see this.

He’d known about Cartman—assumed, as much as someone could, that a person could only vehemently deny something so many times before he became transparent—but he never thought it was like this. It didn't take a psychiatrist to know that Cartman was an asshole because he was scared. Stan wasn’t sure that any of them were really friends with Cartman, but it still hurt so, so badly to see him like this. He couldn't think of many things sadder than looking at a seventeen-year-old boy and thinking, I hope you get to be happy someday.

Butters became Kyle again. It was worse this time, more sexual and louder. Stan screwed his eyes shut and Cartman kept yelling and spitting and thrashing and swearing.

Craig said, “Kyle’s an asshole, I don’t know why you’re both so obsessed with him,” and Stan didn’t blame him for not caring about Cartman, because no one did. By all measures, Stan shouldn’t have cared either, but he’d known him so long and it was just fucking sad.

“I’d never!” screamed Cartman. “I’d never fuck that fucking ginger Jew, I’d rather die, I’d never! Let me go! Fucking turn it off!”

Stan had never seen someone so incensed, and he honestly believed that Cartman believed what he was saying.

Panic rose in his throat at the thought of that being him. He saw himself running into Wendy or Bebe or Butters on the streets of Denver ten years from now and having to see the pitiful look in their eyes as they gently said, hey, I heard Kyle got married, and everything they wouldn't be able to say. He saw himself getting shitfaced at their high school reunion and pulling Kyle aside to say I thought we had something back then, reeking of whiskey and failure. He didn't want to get to a point in his life that it was easier to push feelings down than it was to be genuine. He never wanted the confused, panicked look on Cartman’s face to be on his own.

“So that’s it, yeah?” Tweek said. “That’s totally why we’re here.”

“Looks like it.” Craig slumped down. “Thank fuck. Maybe it’s over.”

Cartman managed to tear one of the wired nodes off his head and the screen went wonky. A moment later, the intercom clicked on.

“END TRANSMISSION.”

 

 

DAY 6

 

Stan woke up sweaty and disoriented.

He immediately thought: I need to see Kyle.

This was followed quickly by: I can never look at Kyle again.

Kyle had asked about the Visitors every morning this week, and Stan couldn't just say, oh, nothing. He was a bad liar. He wouldn’t be able to look at Cartman, either.

He lied in bed, sweat cooling in the small of his back. He texted Kyle, sorry man im not coming in today ill ttyl

Then he made a phone call.

“Hey, it's Stan. I know, you too. Yeah. Listen, Uncle Jimbo, can I come visit today?”

 

 

He ignored Kyle’s flurry of texts and rode his bike to Jimbo’s, then spent the morning shooting cans and drinking cheap beer and absolutely not talking about his feelings. He went to Jimbo’s because it was one of the only places he wouldn’t be found, with one of the only people who wouldn’t care that he was playing hooky. He’d drank enough by noon to have a faint hangover, so he stopped. Jimbo was older now and got tired easy, so when he went inside to catch Judge Judy, Stan walked through the woods, which were hot and stuffy with the smell of peat and pine and decay. Jimbo had made him take a gun for safety, he said, and Stan swung it limply at his side.

He hadn’t stopped thinking about Kyle for more than two minutes all day. Kyle and Cartman. He knew he had to say something to Kyle. Whether it was now or in two weeks or in a year, there would be a time where it felt right, and Stan had to do it. Even if it brought on World War III, he had to press that button.

He wondered if Craig, Tweek or Cartman had already told the whole school about it—about how he liked guys and, specifically, Kyle. It wasn’t how he wanted to come out, but it would do. He guessed Cartman wouldn’t tell anyone, not with what happened with him, and he had no reason to trust Craig and Tweek, but he sort of did.

He came to a clearing and stood still on the spongy, pine needle covered floor, bathed in sun. An empty solo cup sat on top of a fallen log ten paces away, surrounded by other party garbage that had gotten covered by snow, and would be covered by snow again in a few days and forgotten.

Stan raised his old, battered rifle and took aim.

If I hit the cup, I tell him today. If I get it in three, next week. Four or more, sometime this month.

Sweat ran down the back of his neck. He closed an eye, exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger.

The gun kicked back against his already bruised shoulder and the plastic cup shattering in the silence of the forest was the loudest thing he’d ever heard.

 

 

He rode back into town once school was over and texted Kyle on the way: hey sorry where are you

Kyle texted back in a minute: front lawn

When Stan got to Kyle’s, Kyle was lying spread eagle on his back on the edge of his lawn, just outside the reach of a slowly oscillating sprinkler. The sun was still syrupy hot and Stan’s heart was beating so fast that everything else seemed to move too slow.

Kyle sat up when he saw him. It was right when the sprinkler passed and the water clipped his shoulder.

“Hello.”

“Hi.” Stan was out of breath. Kyle looked concerned.

“Where were you?”

“Have you talked to Cartman?”

Stan dropped his bike on the lawn. Kyle hauled himself to his feet and met him on the sidewalk; his shirt was damp but not wet and he smelled like sunblock and freshly mowed lawn.

“No, he didn’t show up either.”

“Did you talk to Tweek or Craig?”

“Uh, I found Craig at break to make sure you weren’t dead, but other than that, no.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said you weren’t dead.” Kyle narrowed his eyes. “What the shit happened last night?”

“I don’t want to be like Cartman,” Stan said quickly, all at once, the sentiment rushing out of him like wind into a sail.

“What? Obviously, dude, but—”

“No, I mean like—he’s—he’s fucked up, he’s hiding everything, he won’t even admit it to himself and I can’t—I can’t fucking live like that, dude, I’m not gonna be like that, I can’t—”

“Woah, Jesus, slow down, what the fuck are you talking about? Did Cartman kill someone?”

Stan put both his hands on both Kyle’s arms, stood up on his toes and kissed him.

After an entire lifetime of waiting, it was that easy: it was four p.m. on a Friday, on the second-to-last day of summer in South Park, and Stan kissed Kyle.

Kyle made a soft sound against his mouth; it wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad, just surprised, and Stan didn’t move. Adrenaline made his fingers go numb. Kyle smelled like sweat and his upper lip prickled with invisible stubble, and their lips made a sound when Stan moved back. They looked at each other for a silent moment, Kyle’s eyes like cheap whiskey, Stan’s Aquafina blue.

Kyle said, “What the fuck, Stan?” but it bubbled out of him, overflowing with happy, giddy confusion. Stan’s heart sung ; he was Ziggy Stardust, Zoloft, First Day Of My Life by Bright Eyes. That wasn’t the voice of someone who was angry.

“I like you,” Stan breathed. “I like guys. I like you. I didn't wanna—”

Kyle kissed him.

Their noses hit so he tried again, tipping his head and pressing closer, kissing him again and again and again. Their lips slid, their hands touched and it was easy.

“I didn't—” Kyle sucked a breath in, kissed him again, tried to breathe. “I didn't want to fuck it up, I thought it'd be, like—like kissing your—”

“Your brother?”

“Yeah, fuck that.” Kyle kissed him, hands on his cheeks, and sucked his bottom lip. “I was really wrong. I’m sorry. Super fuckin’ wrong.”

“Super wrong.”

“I can’t believe this—”

“I know.”

Stan thought about what Craig said last night: Kyle’s an asshole, I don’t know why you’re both so obsessed with him. Kyle was an asshole, mostly, but he kissed like a nice boy. Stan had a very narrow frame of reference, but he was pretty sure he could kiss him forever. He felt Kyle laugh against his mouth when he had to stop standing on his toes and dropped a couple inches.

Stan started pulling on Kyle’s sleeves, walking clumsily backwards.

“What?”

“Are your parents home?”

“Yeah, and Ike.”

“My place,” Stan said against his mouth, “Or somewhere, I don't know, just—”

“Your place.”

They left Stan’s bike on Kyle’s front lawn. Stan’s hands shook unlocking his front door; Randy and Sharon were out and the house was closed up, all hot and stagnant. He dragged Kyle up the stairs by the front of his shirt, his mouth messy and demanding on his. They fell through his bedroom door, kicked it shut and collapsed together on the bed in a patch of slatted sunlight, Kyle up on his hands over Stan, one thigh cinched between his. It felt like a mind-drunk fever dream, all clutching fingers and wet kisses, rolling and grinding anywhere that felt like it fit, Stan’s hands fisted in Kyle’s hair, Kyle’s shaking forearms holding him up.

“Do you—”

“It's fine,” Stan breathed, two seconds away from sobbing, pushing his hips up into Kyle’s over and over again. “Fuck, just—this is good, don't—”

Kyle didn't. They kept moving together, Stan pinned to the mattress, and Stan came with a suddenness that took his breath away, still in his jeans and t-shirt, locked around Kyle. Kyle laughed softly into his ear and Stan shuddered under him, rolling his hips in desperate, needy aftershocks.

Kyle curled his forearms around Stan’s head and started, “I’m—can I keep–” and Stan nodded dumbly, his ears rushing with static. Kyle bowed his head and kept grinding against him, his breath hot on his mouth. He kissed him and Stan’s lips were tired and lax under his.

He took Stan’s hand in his own and stuttered, “Here, just,” and moved it clumsily between his legs. Stan pushed the heel of his palm against Kyle’s dick through his joggers and it was enough; he felt him come, his fingers tightening in Stan’s hair, bare feet digging in the sheets.

When he moved back enough to look at him, Stan hoped he could squeeze every ounce of adoration he’d been hiding for the past decade into the look he gave him.

Kyle looked stunned and whispered, “Wow,” so he must have done okay. “Alright.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

They took turns awkwardly going to the washroom down the hall, and when they came back they lied together in Stan’s bed, in the patch of sun, facing each other on their sides.

Silence stretched, but it was comfortable. After what felt like a lifetime, Kyle said, “You didn’t throw up.”

“I grew out of that.”

“I thought this might be a special case.”

“It is.”

“Thanks for not throwing up on me.”

Stan slid one of his calves between Kyle’s. He didn’t know what to do with his hands so one was under his head and the other laid on the bed between them, very close to Kyle’s own.

Stan whispered, “How come you never said anything?”

“Life is long.” Kyle ran his thumb over Stan’s brow and the lines of his cheeks. “I was waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“I thought you were confused.”

“Confused.”

“You’re friendly,” Kyle explained. “You’re nice to everyone, I thought you were just being … a friend.”

“I’m not. Well, I am, but I’m just also, uh. Into you. I don’t know. There’s no good way to say that.”

“I’m crazy about you,” Kyle said. His blushing ears looked ridiculous with his hair and Stan loved him so, so much. “I know that sounds stupid, but—if we’re gonna say it, I’m saying it.”

Stan kissed him. Kyle’s hands came up and held his face; his palms were hot and clammy and Stan couldn’t have cared less. All of this, the kissing and grinding and Kyle’s sweaty hands, was so painfully awkward and beautiful and right in a way that coiled in the pit of his stomach, overwhelming like the highest peak of a rollercoaster, like public speaking, like bungee jumping. Stan kissed Kyle and it felt like plummeting, like an exhale after holding his breath, like coming home after a long, long trip.

Stan wanted to say: stay here tonight.

He said: “Stay here tonight.”

Kyle smiled at him. “Okay.”

 

 

Stan’s parents got home after the sun set, and Kyle stayed for dinner and was painfully polite. No one said anything about how the two of them retreated to Stan’s room afterwards. The sat on the floor next to Stan’s bed and pretended to watch old episodes of Futurama but were actually absorbed in touching each other’s hands for the first time in a long time. They were each more quiet than normal, because their friendship was impenetrable but this new thing was a breach in the hull, a soft spot, something delicate to be protected. It was scary and thrilling at the same time.

During the credits of an episode, Kyle asked, “You gonna tell me what happened last night?”

They were both staring at their joined hands, lying on the carpet. Kyle’s thumb tapped against Stan’s knuckles.

Stan said, “It sounds really stupid.”

“I don’t care.”

He chose his words carefully. “Instead of pictures, the memories were little movies, almost. Eventually we figured out that we were there ‘cause we all like dudes.”

“By we, you mean …”

“Me, Craig, Tweek and Cartman.”

“You’re joking.”

“Not. They, uh … started playing stuff from our imaginations, we think, instead of memories. Boy stuff. Craig and Tweek were in each other’s.” He turned his hand over under Kyle’s. “You were in mine.”

“Yeah?” Kyle’s voice lilted. “What was I doing?”

“You were just standing there in mine, sort of. You took your shirt off and it was my Avalanche shirt. They gave me shit for that.”

“That’s stupidly cute.” He looked at Stan. “Wait, Cartman? Cartman’s gay?”

“He said he’s not.”

“Who was in his?”

Stan had already decided not to tell him. It wasn’t funny. It was none of his business, and Kyle’s even less so.

“I can’t say, dude. It wasn’t cool. It was fucked up. He was screaming.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah.”

“That must have sucked.”

“Pretty shitty,” Stan said. Understatement of the year. He turned Kyle’s hand over in his. “But, I mean, I guess it made me realize that I don’t wanna be like that. Ever. I’d rather you shoot me down than never go for it at all.”

He expected Kyle to joke you kissed me because of Cartman? But he didn’t. He looked at him, serious as anything.

“I’m glad you did.”

 

 

They stayed up late, talking in hushed, giddy tones like newlyweds. When they got into bed, Stan pulled his shirt off and let Kyle fit in next to him. Kyle ran his fingers over the front of his shoulder. “What’s this bruise from?”

“I went to Jimbo’s this morning.”

“Shooting cans?”

“Yep.” Stan ghosted his fingers across Kyle’s shoulder in turn, finding paths like constellations through his freckles. “Didn’t know what to say to you. Or Cartman.”

Kyle sighed. He slid closer and Stan could smell his minty toothpaste breath. “You think they’re gonna beam you up tonight?”

“Dunno. Maybe not, ‘cause you’re here. And because I think Cartman broke one of their brain-reading things.”

“What do I do if I see you getting beamed up? Is it loud?”

“I don’t think so. Just stay out of the way.”

Kyle burrowed his face in his shoulder. “This is so weird.”

“I know. They’ve gotta stop eventually.” Stan closed his eyes. “I don’t think they’ll show up tonight.”

 

 

Stan woke up on the ship.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

Like their first night, but no other night since, they weren't strapped into the standing pods, but were left to stand free in the middle of the room. Stan wished he'd put more than boxers on.

Without thinking, he looked around and asked, “Is Kyle here?” and Craig, who was there, smirked meanly.

“Knew it.”

“He's not,” Tweek said from Craig’s other side.

Stan didn't bother trying to cover his tracks. He shrugged. “Where’s … oh.”

He spotted Cartman sitting on the floor next to the pod that was previously his, in sweats and a Coca-Cola t-shirt. He was scowling at the floor and Stan was scared to talk to him now that they weren't held down.

“What do we do now?” Stan asked.

“Last time, we said anal probes and they started talking,” Tweek said. “What do we say this time? We know it's a gay thing?”

The intercom clicked on.

“Goddamn it.”

“WE COULD NOT COMPROMISE THE VALIDITY OF YOUR THOUGHTS BY EXPLAINING THE STUDY.”

“What fucking difference does it make?” Craig yelled at the ceiling. “What were you looking for?”

“ABERRANT HUMAN SEXUALITY.”

“Why?”

There was a pause.

“WE ARE WRITING A BOOK.”

Tweek closed his eyes. “This is anticlimactic.”

“Were we right?” Stan asked. “Was it us because we’re the only gay kids in our grade?”

The pause was longer this time. Craig said, “Aw, you scared them off.”

“NO,” the voice boomed, “YOU WERE JUST THE MOST INTERESTING.”

 

 

DAY 7

 

Stan woke up with Kyle wrapped around him, limbs tangled in the sheets and a warm, dull ache between his legs. Kyle’s leg was thrown over his and it was sweltering hot, but he didn’t move. It was still early and everything was silent, the sky yellow and pink outside his window. Kyle tipped his head up and smiled at him.

“Morning.”

“Hi.” Stan kissed him, just because he could, and it was the best thing he’d ever done. He was sure it would be topped by the next time he kissed him. “Did they put me back under you?”

“No, that was me. They beamed you back down and you were half off the bed and I pulled you back on.”

Stan ran his hand up Kyle’s back. “Thanks.”

“Any time.”

He breathed out steady and slow, his mind a steady beat of this is real, this is happening. They stopped having sleepovers when they started high school, unless they were booze-related sleepovers of necessity, and this was much nicer.

“What happened?” Kyle asked, moving his fingers back and forth across Stan’s stomach.

“We weren’t in the brain things this time. Just standing there. They talked again. We were right—it was a gay thing. Human sexuality, they said.”

“Wild.”

“Yeah.”

“So it’s over?”

“I think so.”

“This is so weird.”

“The aliens or the waking up together?”

Kyle pinched him. “The aliens.”

“Good.”

Stan turned his head and touched his mouth to Kyle’s hair, and watched the rise and fall of his skinny back and the criss-crossed patterns of the sheets pressed into his skin from sleep. He thought he was asleep until he moved, and he felt his dick hard against his thigh.

“Oh.”

Kyle hesitated, then kissed his throat. His hair tickled Stan’s cheek and Stan couldn't remember anything in his life ever being so perfect.

“This okay?” Kyle asked, quiet and unsure, and Stan laughed.

“Super okay.” He turned over and pressed himself against him, moving until one of his thighs was between Kyle’s. “Ugh, I’m sweaty.”

“It’s fine,” Kyle laughed, and kissed him. He wound his arms around his neck and kissed him again and again, slow and sleepy, out of practice but getting there. When Stan curled a hand around his hip and pulled him closer, he held him back. “No, no, no, we’re doing this right.” He ran his hand up his thigh and touched him through his boxers; Stan tried not to look surprised or terrified. Kyle said, “Touch my dick,” in this put-on bratty voice, and then they were both laughing too hard to be nervous.

They kicked their boxers down and Stan furiously tried to remember the last time they were naked around each other and couldn’t, tried to keep his hands from shaking, tried to keep himself from coming the second Kyle touched him. His hands were bigger than his own and it felt funny, good, unimaginable, better than the previous day’s frantic bump and grind. Kyle made all these quiet, needy sounds against his lips and it was what he’d always wanted; his chest got tight with the thought of having this for more mornings after this one. He tried not to come first but did anyways, muffling his cries in Kyle’s shoulder, and Kyle followed him after another minute, kissing him as he came all over his fist.

Stan said, “Get away from me, it’s so hot,” and rolled away from him. Kyle laughed, sharp and loud.

“Fuck you, you love it.” Kyle kept some space between them but kept a hand on Stan’s stomach, unwilling to go without contact. “It’s Saturday. We could stay here and jerk each other off all day.”

“Mom and Dad’ll check on me if I don’t come out.”

“I’ll hide in the closet. Like on TV.”

“Roll under the bed.”

“Yeah. It’s not like they’ll look.”

Stan tipped his head to the side and looked at him; bright eyes and his red cloud of hair.

“It’s the last day of summer. I feel like we should do something.”

“Let’s start with showering.”

They did, separately. When Stan came back into his room, Kyle was sitting on his bed, still in just a towel, and he shook his phone at him. “Text from Kenny.”

He showed him: last day of summer bitchesss come sit on the roof with me

While he was looking, another one came through: byob.

“There’s your something,” Kyle said. “Can I borrow clothes? I don’t wanna go home.”

 

 

They paid a homeless guy to boot them a case of Bud and stopped at the corner store for Cokes. When they came out, Stan said, “That cashier was so cute. I like her hair,” and Kyle laughed at him.

“You fall in love with every girl that smiles at you.”

“I’m an old soul.”

“You're a sap.”

Stan carried the beer under his arm and Kyle walked next to him close enough to brush arms, which made him giddy and happy in a childish kind of way, as if touching arms in public was more intimate than touching dicks in private. He wanted everyone to see their arms touch. He was unbelievably proud of himself.

Kyle was tossing a little red vial in his hand, throwing it up in the air and catching it.

Stan asked, “What’s that?”

“Red ginseng.”

Stan gave him an unamused look.

“I got it at the corner store. I read about it online. It’s a natural-health-spirituality thing, it’s really cool.”

“Sounds gay.”

“It’s not,” Kyle said, turning the little vial over in his hands to read the label. “No, yeah, it like, improves mental clarity and concentration and just like, physical and mental well-being, basically. But you gotta get the stuff from Korea, ‘cause American ginseng isn't the same, you know? There are all kinds of studies.”

He looked at Stan as if waiting for an answer. Stan smiled sunnily.

“You're the most insufferable douche I've ever met.”

 

 

When they walked up to Kenny’s place, they could see everyone sitting on the roof around a sweating cooler, huddled under a beach umbrella wedged between broken shingles. Cartman was sitting with Butters and Kenny was lying upside-down with their head near the gutter, and spotted them first.

“You made it!”

Stan waved. “Duh. Last day of summer.”

“Climb up the shed in the back,” Kenny said, flipping around so they were sitting. “Did you bring any food?”

“We can get stuff later.”

Stan made eye contact with Cartman. Something passed between them, a wordless, tense understanding. A grudging truce. Cartman was sitting closer to Butters than he normally did.

 

 

The five of them spent the day on Kenny’s roof, drinking and shooting the shit and fighting each other for space under the umbrella’s shade. Kenny got Karen to come out and spray them with their garden hose at one point, which was appreciated by all. In the afternoon, they got delivery from City Wok and made Tuong Lu Kim climb up on the roof to give it to them, and he stayed for a beer, then left.

Cartman was saying, “If you think feet are beautiful, that's a sex thing, Butters.” He stabbed at sweet and sour pork with a single chopstick. “That's just how it is.”

“That's not true! You can appreciate feet in a non-sexual way!”

“You totally can't. It's called a foot fetish. If some dude called my feet beautiful, I'd be like, if you want me to oil these bad boys up it’s gonna cost you a hundo, cash.”

Kenny leaned forward from Butters’ other side. “That's all you’d charge for a foot job?”

“I’d do, like, one-fifty,” Kyle said, already significantly drunk. He was half under the umbrella, but his calves were sunburnt in a neat line where they stuck out into the sun.

“Well, Eric, I think you're wrong,” Butters interrupted. “If—if you see a real elegant cat, like one of those real pretty ones with the long fur, and you call her beautiful, does that mean you wanna put your wiener in that cat?”

Kenny laughed so hard beer came out their nose.

“That’s sick, Butters,” Stan said, and downed the rest of his beer. He tossed the empty into the City Wok bag they were using for trash. Cartman went on about the inherently sexual nature of liking feet, and Kenny tried to get him to admit how much money it would take him to fuck a cat, and Butters was extremely put off by all of this. Kyle, who hadn’t moved from his spot next to Stan all day, carefully and quietly put his chin on Stan’s shoulder. Stan turned his face into his.

“Hi,” he said softly.

“Hi yourself.”

They didn’t realize everyone else had stopped talking.

After a moment, Butters said, “Aw, fiddlesticks,” and his sneakers scraped against the shingles.

Stan looked back. Butters got his wallet out of his pocket and held a twenty dollar bill out to Kenny, who said, “Yoink!” and took it.

“What?”

Kenny pocketed the bill and grinned widely. “Butters bet post-grad. I bet pre-grad.” They twiddled their fingers at Stan and Kyle. “For this, I mean. So. Thanks for the twenty, boys.”

Stan let his knuckles brush the back of Kyle’s arm. “You’re welcome.”

 

 

They stayed out until it was dark and Kenny had to leave for their graveyard shift. Kyle spent the night at Stan’s again. Stan woke up the next day at noon with Kyle’s face pressed into his stomach and his arm across his warm, bare shoulders, and through the gap in his curtains, he saw snow.