S’iz an emese meise, that’s how all her stories started. Kyle was just a boy then, only three or four, far too young for the heavy weight of the mitzvot, when he sat beside his grandmother, to listen to her tales from the Old Country, the birthplace of her mother, a land so distant from his Colorado home. He still remembers those Shabbat evenings, his mother clattering around in the kitchen cooking potato kugel and roast chicken, while Cleo watched over him in the living room, told to keep little Kyle out of too much mischief. She would sit on the couch, smiling softly as her grandson played with his toy cars and wooden blocks, until he grew too restless. Then, he motioned for him to come join her, her crooning voice glazed with a thick Yiddish accent, saying “Come, kindele, I’ve a story for you.”
She opened his eyes to the mythical realm, the one coexisting with the world they dwelt in, teaching him of the thin veil betwixt them, the blurs in their realities. She told him of fantastic creatures rarely mentioned on the synagogue’s bimah, how strong golem and virtuous gilgulim crossed paths with valiant Rebbe and wise Melamed alike. He learned all about the bravest triumphs of the shtetl’s learned men, the awful treacheries of the shedim, the curious ways of the elvish little helpers and the wicked habits of the giant half-angels. But of all the tales, all the different stories of all the different beings, one creature truly consumed his attention, their mere mention mesmerising him: the clinging souls, dybbuks.
“Now, kindele, Hashem teaches us the value of our words, warns against breaking vows,” Cloe reminded him, with every telling their stories, “And if you fail someone before they die, Hashem lets them return to you, lets them hold your soul, because a dybbuk cannot cross to the Other Side until his reason is done.”
The Other Side, he thought, where Zayde was. He passed over there, just before Kyle was born, and Gerald chose to give Kyle the same Hebrew name as his father, the mohel blessing him as Eliyahu ben Asher. Cloe always told him they had the same eyes, green in colour, kind in composure, seeing so much more than others saw. “And if you are like your Zayde, you must be very careful,” She would say, distant, soft, “For not everyone is as… sensitive to these things.”
Kyle listened to all the stories of the dybbuks latching to the souls of the living. Grooms were haunted by the late brides they abandoned beneath the chuppah. Young girls were tormented by passed sisters they’d tricks and deceived. Stupid boys were tortured by dead friends they failed oaths to before their demise. He learned the symptoms of possession, how dybbuks imbued parts of them into their host, infiltrating their lives by forcing their customs and manners. And, after he listened, he repeated that knowledge, again and again, like how a dybbuk only leaves after its goal is accomplished, even if it meant dragging the living spirit to the Other Side along the way.
When Kyle spoke obsessively, those awful stories pouring from his mouth, Shelia began to worry. Gerald reassured her it was all innocent fun, his interests piqued by the folktales his mother told, but that was because he learned to dull his vision, and ignore what his father saw. The word dybbuk remained constant on Kyle’s tongue, and his eyes searched for tears between the worlds.
Then, Cleo’s dementia started setting in. Protein deposits built up in her frail body, late sixties marked by rigid muscles and rising blood pressure. When she looked around, she stopped seeing things that were there, started seeing things that weren’t. She started slurring and muttering her speech, then claiming she heard things that nobody else could. She couldn’t remember if Shelia was her daughter or her daughter-in-law, and stopped paying attention when to Kyle’s recaps of his preschool adventures. The light in her eyes faded, and the longer Kyle gazed into them, the more saw; and the more he saw, the more he feared, feared the dybbuk feeding on her soul.
He no longer saw his Bubbe when she shuffled by, only recognising a dark creature who failed to pass on. He hid behind the furniture and ducked his head down, compulsively muttered the Shema under his breath, hoping the prayer he spoke before he went to sleep would keep him safe, protect him from the monster. Kyle started hiding in his room when she came over, feigning sickness to avoid sharing her presence.
One night, Shelia dragged Kyle down from his room, chastising him for ignoring his grandmother, ordering him eat dinner with family. Kyle started squirming, whimpering, fighting with his mother’s arm, trying desperately to break free and return to his refuge. Then they entered the dining room, and Kyle’s eyes flitted to the table, to Cleo staring blankly at the crystal candlesticks. And he screamed a piercing, eardrum shattering, horrifying scream, “Dybbuk! Dybbuk! Dybbuk!”
He started bawling, buried his tear-streaked face in Shelia’s skirt, crying so hard his whole body shook. Shelia tried comforting him, patting his back gently or smoothing his curly hair, but each attempt prompted a violent lash, Kyle afraid to be touched. Loud as he was, Cleo didn’t move, absent and apathetic, barely even there. She opened her mouth to speak, but only low, unintelligible murmurs left her thin lips. Gerald stared at her with a gaping mouth, before looking to his son, then his wife. Shelia looked back, and they both knew it was time, time for Cleo to go.
Cleo Broflovski entered the fulltime care of a nursing facility outside of Denver, where she lived out the rest of her days. Kyle grew older, filling his mind with new thoughts and understandings, developing skips in his memory of early childhood. He forgot the time of terror, when he regarded his grandmother as a vessel of malevolent evil, remembering only fun time he spent by her side, enjoying her fantastic stories. He thought of that, when he placed a stone on her grave, and each time his family lit a candle for her yahrzeit.
After a while, Kyle outgrew those folksy old tales from the Pale of Settlement, favoured logic and science and reason to hobgoblins and demons and ghosts. After a while, Kyle stopped thinking about why Cleo told him all of those stories, about what happened in each tale, about what they all aimed to teach. After a while, Kyle forgot why dybbuks cling to people, why Hashem lets those incomplete souls wander back to those who wronged them.
“Kyle, I want you to promise me something.”
Kenny rarely asked things of others, preferring to handle his problems himself. Everybody knew his situation, knew about his family’s subsistence on welfare, his father’s alcoholic tirades against him, his mother’s drug-induced indifference; but Kenny never sought sympathy, told people to spare him their pity. Those who barely knew him called him prideful, arrogantly snubbing the generous compassion offered, but Kyle knew that wasn’t why. No, Kenny didn’t want his troubles to impact others, didn’t want people to worry about him. He preferred people saw him not as a charity case, but a person, a good person, someone who could bring laughter, inspire smiles. Kyle always loved Kenny’s smile—the way his chapped lips pulled into a lopsided grin, goofy and crooked yet somehow so sublime, how his eyes sparkled like iridescent lakes, capturing the sky’s glory in pools of clear water—loved the warmth he brought.
“Ken, I told you, I’m not into suicide pacts. Make one with Craig or Jimmy.”
Words echo in his mind, and it’s that brisk autumn afternoon again, late September or early October, sitting on splintery boards of the fisherman’s pier. Browned needles fall from the tall evergreens, shedding fodder for the woodland creatures needing extra padding for their nests and burrows. Gusts of chilly alpine air blow through the valleys, welcoming the puffy clouds loafing up above, heavily pregnant with the winter’s snowfall. The sun dips leisurely behind the green mountain faces, its tangerine rays cascading on the glistening surface of Stark’s Pond, and the water makes him think of Kenny’s eyes.
“Very funny, but y’know if I’m blowin’ my brains out I’m gettin’ Stanny boy to do it with me.”
They’re fifteen years old, young and dumb and killing time. The school bells long rang out, liberating them from their classroom imprisonment, but the strain of those academic shackles and stress of overdramatic adolescence still wore on their minds. So, they retreated to the sweet seclusion of mother nature, to light their hand-rolled joints and take hits of medical grade marijuana, breathing in that Rocky Mountain High. Kyle would desperately try to air out his clothes before he got home, but for now he’d savour the sweet taste of smouldering rebellion.
“And Jimbo’ll give both of ya discounts on ammo.”
The tips of Kenny’s fingers brush against Kyle’s hand, casual and insignificant touch, barely noticeable then, but so prominent now. Kenny might have complained of the cold, always claiming he was freezing even with a parka bundling his torso, but Kyle only felt the heat, his body exuding life, radiating warmth like the high noon sun. Kenny takes a drag from his blunt, drawing in the fire as his eyes stare out across the water, and Kyle taps the ash from his cigarette. Wind whisks away the falling cinders, as it tousles Kenny’s golden hair. Kyle’s sinuses tickle, from the herbal smoke gradually leaking from his nostrils, and Kenny lets out a long, languid sigh. Before his eyes, Kyle watches the ashy cloud drift and disperse, the sorrow straight from deep in Kenny’s lungs.
“For real though… Will ya promise me something?”
His tone carries weight, leaden with austerity. The sombre key rings in Kyle’s ears, harsh on the dull euphoria building in his system, unsettling his mellow. A twinge of fear crawls up Kyle’s spine, disturbed by the change in his voice; Kenny speaks like a man on death’s verge, one damned to the grave, sentenced and awaiting brutal execution. Kyle tries to compare it, to Kafka’s Condemned or Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C, thinking of the voices he gave when reading of doomed men waiting in agony for their own ends. He turns his head, eyes flitting from the sylvan serenity to Kenny’s elegant profile. He stares, stares for a long, long moment, then settles on Rogozhin, on the intense and infatuating enigma Myshkin first spies on the train to St Petersburg, the volatile man obsessed with possessing the troubled and beautiful Nastasya Filipovna, angel of death whose presence permeates each page of Kyle’s favourite novel. Ironic, he thinks, considering Kenny typically acted more The Idiot’s titular prince, looks like him, too.
“Course, Kenny. Anything.”
Kyle’s lips quiver, tongue tasting flames, mouth burning. With an exhale, he tries expelling spare embers from his body, only then realising the smoke already left his throat. He blinks, twice, in brief confusion, disoriented, but that vanishes when Kenny leans back. He lolls his head back, rolling his shoulders, stretching his legs off the pier’s edge. Light illumines his neck, muscles accentuated as his head turns, as he draws Kyle into his gaze. Blue captivates green, and Kyle forgets about the dope filling his head. He doesn’t know it, but he loves him, loves him then, loves him now, loves him in this pocket of eternity. He loves him with every breath.
“Promise me that…that ya won’t leave me, ’kay?”
Kenny softens, asking the question, a childish lilt punctuating his query. The glint in his eyes emphasises the innocence to him, letting Kyle glimpse the brightness he possesses, that reflects all sephirot harmonised through the channels marked by the alephbet. Kyle can see but he cannot understand, instead left dumbfounded in awe, kept in stupor. And in his ignorance, he does nothing, lets it pass right over his head. He lets out a laugh, and brings the blunt to his lips, pausing just before another inhale, and teases a smirk.
“Christ, Ken, where’d ya get that retard idea?”
His laughter leaves in callous clouds, bursts of ash desensitised, unaware of gravity. Kenny’s expression remains the same, and Kyle hears the hollowness in his own chuckles, his notes of amusement curdled and soured as they reach his eardrums. With silent gasp, he stops, alerted to and embarrassed by his error, and tucks in his bottom lip. Kenny absently taps the excess from his joint, now a burnt-out roach, then puts on a grin. He sways towards Kyle, nudging him with his elbow, playfully. Their fingers brush together, hands touching so lightly, yet Kyle feels him so strongly.
Kenny laughs, lightens the air, and Kyle laughs with him. The wind blows against them, and spreads their song throughout the forest, the melody of idiotic boys and their heartfelt devotion, a tune of love realised and love potential. Kyle hates that he can’t change the memory, can’t grab the hand beside his own, can’t lean in any more than he already is and claim Kenny’s smiling lips. He doesn’t know yet, how much he loves him, and he doesn’t know yet, how much that hurts.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! I’m not gonna leave you.”
He feels distant, recalling the rest, withdrawing from the sweetness of the moment, from the sunlight to the shadows. He sees himself give Kenny a gentle push with the palm of his hand, sees Kenny rolls his eyes, flicks the roach off the dock. Kyle takes another long drag, and Kenny places his hand on Kyle’s head, ruffles the mess of crimson curls, ruining the semblance of order Kyle brought to it with a comb. They’re still laughing, together composing their sonata, but as they shift from one movement to the next, Kyle’s heart begins to ache.
“Kyle, you gotta promise me…”
Kenny asked for something so little, something so simple. Kenny, so kind, so selfless, one of the best people Kyle ever knew; he only wanted one thing—one damn thing. And Kyle knew the obligation, knew what it entailed, but he just stopped thinking. He became careless, reckless, forgetful of those teachings. He understood the significance, played ignorant until it pulled him down.
“Kenny, you have my word. I’m not leaving you. Ever. Got that?”
Slowly, a smile grows on Kenny’s face, as the sun dips behind a mountain peak. Kyle feels the memory fade, the trees and the water and the dock and the smoke all dissipating; but last to disappear is Kenny, Kenny and his stupid smirk, his blue-blue eyes, his brilliant light. The darkness creeps, as Kenny’s sincerity pierces him, at his core.
“I fuckin’ love ya, Ky, I really goddamn do.”
And the Children of Israel were told to honour their words, safeguard their vows, as one of the six hundred thirteen mitzvot. And that day, Kyle bound his soul to Kenny, when those words of promise poured from his mouth, spoken for the world to hear. But then he broke it, that oath he made, left him, failed him. And Kenny died because of it.
A dybbuk cannot cross to the Other Side…
Stark white shines from the internal webcam, laptop indicating his camera feed live. The obnoxious dinging beat of a Skype call ringtone blares from his speakers, as the call desperately fights to establish connection, struggling with both inadequate wi-fi and sloppy programming. Stan keeps telling him they’d be better off with Facetime, but Kyle always forgets to keep his phone and tablet charged. Kenny was bad about that, too.
Not that night, though; Karen told him at the funeral how Kenny spent hours before with his phone plugged in, religiously checking the battery percentage. His phone was old, had a habit of letting the power drain for no good reason, and apparently Kenny swore up a storm, telling the damn thing to actually store the charge this time. He was just so excited, she said, like Cinderella going to the royal ball, so stupid happy. They hadn’t gone out in a while, just them, and Kenny was happy to change that. Kyle really wanted change that, change a lot of things, hoped that Kenny wanted to change them too.
Kyle spent years pining, ending high school with a heavy-hearted crush, going into college still deeply enchanted by his smooth redneck charm. No amount of schoolwork or one-night stands purged Kenny from his mind, craving worsening with every passing semester, longing for the touch of his hand, the taste of his lips. Every time he talked to Kenny, even on the phone, Kyle felt himself falling, falling harder, falling desperate. There was something in him that Kyle found addictive, and no matter how valiant his efforts, he just couldn’t quit him. And he damn didn’t want to.
The little dots on screen take turns lighting up, pumping from his camera view to Stan’s display icon. It used to be a picture they all took at a Broncos game, Stan and Kyle and Kenny and Cartman, wearing orange-navy jerseys and making dumbass faces. Afterwards they all used that picture for their profiles, each cropped accordingly to focus on their faces. Although most visible was Stan’s crinkled nose and rolled tongue, there was an arm slung across his shoulder, Kenny’s arm, as distinguished by his parka sleeves.
It only took Stan a few weeks to change the picture, though Kyle still uses his months later. He can’t remember what kind of expression he was going for—full retard, Cartman said—but he remembers how intent Kenny was on pulling off his Bronco branded bear trapper. In the photo, Kenny’s hand grips one of the ear flaps, and the hat sits askew on Kyle’s head, partly revealing the crimson chaos. Kenny loved reminding him, of his preference for redheads.
People said it was obvious, obvious that Kenny had for him too, had it for him bad. People told him all the time to just ask him, but none of them spoke louder than Kyle’s pervasive anxiety. Not even an upped dosage of SSRIs assuaged him, dissuaded him from exclusively thinking of rejection, worst-case scenarios. He kept worrying, worrying that he’d tell Kenny how he felt, and for some reason Kenny would stop acting like Kenny, start laughing at him, mocking him, calling him a loser and telling him to dump his number. He knew it wouldn’t happen, on an almost empirical level, yet he couldn’t overcome that ever present fear, fear of losing someone he cared about so much. That night he intended on meeting Kenny there, telling him every-oh-so-homo-thing that crossed his mind since he was seventeen; but he surrendered to his own superstition, and didn’t leave his apartment.
His eyes wander away from the screen, gaze falling to his desk, in its seemingly permanent state of clutter and disarray. A layer of sticky notes hides pale wood, Ikea furniture caked with incoherent messages, reminders scrawled in dying ballpoint pens, sentences skipping words and words skipping letters. Watermarked papers and unopened envelopes sit in an unruly heap, stacked under a second-hand lamp, their importance so exhausting they’ve all been left ignored. A ceramic corn dish crowns the pile, acting as both a paperweight and an ashtray, grey covering the artistically defined kernels, a couple orange butts sticking out like tombstones. Bent bottle caps tote brands like Kirin Stout, Blue Moon, Asahi Super Dry, while old pharmacy tubes name drugs like Escitalopram, Diazepam, Triazolam. Coffee cup rings mark one section of post-its, piled grocery lists from weeks prior now acting as coasters, the cushioned seat for his extra-large coffee mug: white, curved lip decorated with ruler markings, SIZE MATTERS printed on either side in thick bold lettering. The remainder of his mid-evening brew fills the cup midway, dark roast patiently seeking its humble companion, the almost empty bottle of Jack Tennessee Honey towering at its side. Kenny always had a penchant for sweet whiskey, particularly fond of the Jack Daniel’s blend. Perfect for Irish coffee, he claimed, gave any cup o’ joe a smooth sugared finish.
He scans over his disaster, analyses the disorder he adopted as habit, he wonders just how his former self—the honours student, conducting his graduate research, plotting career trajectory—would react seeing him now—the depressive recluse, surviving off his savings, wasting every potential. To think he once rolled his eyes at the Underground Man’s embittered ravings, but since his life mirrors the narrative Dostoevsky penned during the long twilight of tsarist Russia. Or maybe he’s more like Raskolnikov, mental state declining as he fails to transgress, ever more delusional as guilt festers into madness, the ultimate price for believing himself so extraordinary he could ignore morality. Kyle was never particularly impressed by Crime and Punishment, deeming it the weakest of the four great novels, so maybe the parallel is some form of divine irony. Or maybe Kyle needs to read less Russian literature, since, as Stan tells him every time, “…everyone ends up dead or in Siberia anyway.”
Some end up in mental asylums, too.
The window goes black, suddenly, irksome melody cut abruptly. Some static-blurred shuffles leak from his speakers, Stan’s microphone only partially working, while Skype freezes for a moment. A few seconds, Kyle judges, before their call cooperates, patches their feeds through. He takes a hand from the mouse, wraps it around the bottle’s neck. Dexterous fingers swiftly unscrew the cap, popping it off with his thumb before tilting whiskey into his mug. Sticky amber alcohol cascades from glass rim, a few droplets dripping on his hand, while the torrent splashes into the coffee reservoir. More noise picks up, a grey circling swirl appearing in the window’s centre, and the liquid rises to a stained ring beneath the rim. Kyle sets the bottle straight, then grasps the handle, puts the mug in front of him, as a picture finally appears on his screen.
Stan lives in Littleton, happily married to his high school sweetheart, still acclimating to life in suburbia and commutes to the city. He and Wendy spent months house-hunting, avoiding homes needing renovation, looking for a place to quickly move in and claim as their new home. They closed on the perfect house just a few weeks before Kenny died, then spent a good portion of their mourning process unpacking boxes and repainting rooms. Kyle doesn’t hate them for it, they at least had something to help them cope. And, in Kenny’s honour, Stan hung up a poster of BASEketball, right in their entertainment room, paying tribute to their shared hatred for the film. Kyle sees the bottom corner of the poster in the background, barely in frame, while Stan squints into the webcam.
“Kyle?” He asks, voice strained with the frustration typical of any Skype-call, questioning his sound quality. Dark blue eyes flicker down, Stan’s attention redirected to the monitor, as Kyle hears a quick succession of clicks, “Can you hear me?”
Kyle lifts the mug to his mouth, pressing the cool stoneware to his bottom lip. He inhales the scents, of stale coffee and saccharine booze, making his body fully aware of the poison he prepares to ingest. He leans back, slightly, ushers in a flow, lets his mouth fill with the sting, the bitter, the acid. Cold roast underscores sharp whiskey, hints of pine and honey washing over the scalding burn, scarcely lightening the acerbic tingle. He never particularly liked whiskey, his tastes preferring distilled potato to fermented grain, but after sitting shiva, he needed something strong. He went to the liquor store, looking for something to stop the random eruptions of sobs, but found himself browsing Jack instead of Smirnoff. He can’t say he likes the taste any more than before, but nowadays it’s the only hard shit he buys.
He gulps, lets the drink scorch his throat, before nodding, “Yeah, dude. Loud ‘n clear.”
“Thank fuck,” Stan mutters, half to himself, and leans back in his chair, stretches his arms above his head. The tops of Terrance and Phillip’s heads peek into view, printed on light blue cotton, Kyle recognising the design from the vintage Asses of Fire promotional art. Stan bought it during a limited run, but could only find an XL size; he only wears that shirt to sleep. His hand absently runs through oil black hair, chest rising as he heaves a sigh, and he looks back at Kyle, “We really gotta try Discord before Skype fucks up my desktop.”
Kyle licks over his lips, lapping up any syrupy residue remaining on his mouth. The whiskey acts as gasoline, dousing the ebbing cinders in his stomach, reinvigorating waning flame. The heat spreads, explodes in his torso, shoots along his limbs, as the liquor seeps into his blood. Practiced experience mitigates the knockback, the flash of overwhelm flooding the brain, spark that ebbs as the drink concentrates in his system. Kyle clears his throat, then, dry as gin, “I thought your dad fucked up your desktop downloading Brazilian fart porn and Japanese puke fetishes.”
Frames stutter as Stan shudders, momentarily paused on his hunched shoulders, stiff grimace. His motions accelerate, feed catching up to present intake, Stan shaking his head at unnatural speed. A grumbling sigh prefaces his murmured reply, “That hard drive was burned and replaced.”
He takes another long sip, liquor rolling over his tongue, washing down like trickling brook. He doesn’t know how much he poured—can’t convert eyeballed amounts into conceptualised shot glasses—but knows it’s enough, enough to get a little drunk, enough to maybe get a little sleep tonight. The faster he drinks, the faster he gets there, expediting intoxication. He gulps it down, lowers his cup, tilts his head back. Warmth tinges his cheeks, and a wicked smirk teases at his lips, “So how come when I hooked up your One X you had a OneDrive folder labelled Ōto Ōjo no Adobenchā?”
“Okay, first off,” Stan perks up, and raises a finger, prepared to either count out his exhibits or point in accusation, one of the mannerisms he picked up while rooming with Kyle in college, “Best friend or not, you don’t snoop through a guy’s Xbox apps.”
“Stan, it opened by accident,” Kyle rolls his eyes, thumbs the rim of his mug. Normal conversation, he thinks, relief washing over him. Talking this way is a rarity, with so many people obsessed with his life, his health, his future plans. He gives his family status reports, minimal updates out of obligation, but he hears the concern wracking them, eating into their artificial calm, exposing their worry and disappointment. Most other friends—from high school and university—are too distant, either pushed away by Kyle or stepping away of their own accord. Not even Cartman treats him the same, his occasional insulting texts too tame, genuine fear underlying unconscious censorship, scared to set Kyle off and forever ruin his spiteful fun, “Because someone jammed every damn button on his Elite controller.”
“That’s a used controller, not my fault,” Stan is the last one, last one to offer Kyle moments like this. But he knows it won’t last, knows Stan’s been losing patience, knows he’s too good a friend to let Kyle keep this up. Already, in their talks, Stan’s slipped in a couple suggestions, like weaning off tobacco and reapplying for his Masters, long-term goals he can place far in front of him and gradually work towards. If he wasn’t married and working, he’d probably be a lot more adamant; at least Kyle has that on his side, “And two, when did you start speaking weeb?”
Bang, Stan pulls a trigger, stops Kyle dead. He feels the smirk ebb from his face, evanescent happiness snuffed out. Stan will never realise, never make the connection; he was always far too methodical for these things. Kyle was, too, before. He bites the inside of his cheek, straightening his neck. He raises his mug, he affirms, “I don’t.”
He doesn’t, he thinks, and welcomes another rush of booze down his throat. Any traces of caffeine die out, overwhelmed by the sweet and the burn. Whiskey might not be the most civilised of spirits, considered the liquor of high class hicks evolved above moonshine, but it’s got a charm, a way of searing the buzz right into body tissue, saturating the system so completely. Kyle drinks it, inhales it, and thinks how he doesn’t speak weeaboo, but Kenny does.
Stan stays quiet, doesn’t talk; must’ve been something with his tone, with the way Kyle spoke, that struck a chord. Kyle sees him shift in his seat, awkward, filing through the options, what he ought to say. Stan understands the mentally fucked up, yeah, coping with chronic nihilist thinking since age ten, but he knows Kyle’s got something different, something not quite right. But he’s far too methodical, too grounded to comprehend his sickness. No, to him it’s just grief, bereavement bordering depression, maybe even the precipice of suicide ideation. As if killing himself was the worst he could do.
“Dude,” Stan says, deciding on his approach, and Kyle pauses mid-sip. That’s right; that was their opening, tinged with the nostalgic aspects of their lives prior, niceties and courtesies that all fall away. Kyle’s teeth tap the ceramic edge, a reflexive chattered bite as he anticipates the inevitable, “You know Wends ‘n I have a spare room. If you wanted to stay here with us for a while…”
That’s right; this is how it is now.
Kyle gulps, hard, and slams his mug on the desk. The paper layers muffle the clang, but the microphone still picks it up, the annoyance, aggravation, irritation. He looks into the webcam, while his eyes glaze over, while the buzz kicks in. His eyes shut, feels it crawl up his spine, send tingles through his neck, spread through his skull. This, he reminds himself, is his normal now: fending for himself, fighting off concern, convincing those around him he’ll recover, recover soon, just needs more time. Maybe one day he’ll fuck up, a slip of the tongue sending him to some psych ward, with nurses pushing Lithium and doctors dealing Xanax, so sedated he can barely remember his name. On the back of his eyelids, he sees Kenny, smiling his dopey puppy-dog smile, smiling like he did that day. Kyle swears again, to never forget; because he can’t leave him, not again, never again. He opens his eyes and, voice serrated, “And I have an apartment. Which is leased for another four months.”
Stan opens his mouth, words teetering on the tip of his tongue, then swallows them down, deeming them too charged, too cutting. Insults and anger would only hinder the imagined recovery process, make Kyle resentful of any tools he gives him, gives him in hopes he’ll fix himself. No, Stan’s too good of a friend to jeopardise his ‘recuperation,’ so blinded by his loyalty to his lifelong best friend, that devotion deluding him into believing Kyle can overcome this. He’ll never understand this; not a sickness of body nor affliction of mind, diagnoses and therapies nothing more than easy answers further obscuring the root. Stan will speak out when he can, but never push too much, always resigning before that point, and yielding at Kyle’s side, futilely offering help for something he cannot conceptualise. He heaves a long, slow sigh, controlled and calculating, so composure masks frustration, hides upset. Then, finally, voice restrained, “Kyle, you live in a piece of shit apartment by yourself.”
His fingers tap-tap-tap against the mug, with a metronome’s steadiness, evenly spaced beats measuring the silence, Kyle’s delay. His hand keeps time, sending tremors through ceramic, creating ripples on the coffee’s surface. His body is a clock, but his mind runs on a different tempo, quick and sharp. Thoughts flood his mind—he won’t get it—overwhelming and repetitive—he doesn’t get it—like an insect’s buzzing wings—he can’t get it—a hornet or a bee.
No, like the Flight of the Bumblebee; that song Kyle played solo at some local competition, that song Kenny told Kyle to play and show off his flautist prowess. Kyle accepted Kenny’s dare, loving the challenge, spent the whole week leading up to the contest practising his technique and execution. But the moment he was called to the stage, natural perfectionism pulled the trigger on his nerves, distracted through his entire performance, self-conscious of making the slightest mistake. He won, gifted a gaudy glow-in-the-dark medal, but his heart wouldn’t stop pounding, not until Kenny surprised him in the auditorium hallway, dragging him into a tight, tight embrace before Kyle could utter hello. His pulse mellowed, from a painful hammer to a breathless flutter, as Kenny showered him with praise and congratulations. Kyle spent months thinking of that moment every time he masturbated, getting hard thinking of that enveloping embrace, orgasming to those complimentary whispers. Closest he ever got to the real fucking thing.
Six hundred beats per minute, that’s how fast the song is. Kyle’s fingers tap a solid sixty per, one a second, exactly like an analogue’s second-hand: thin red needle, ticking round and round, pristine and precise. Time is illusionary, but he still must adhere to the smoke and mirrors, feign sanity for his own soul’s sake. Kyle puts on a smirk, a sardonic twist of the lips, and tells Stan, “I’ll get a cat.”
Stan tilts his head, pixelates, then sharpens, quirks a brow. Even through the low-quality imaging, Kyle can read his face, know exactly what he’s thinking. Stan thinks about how Kenny started taking care of cats, back when he discovered the psychedelic qualities of their piss, using them to cheese out on his Heavy Metal fantasies. He got over huffing their marking urine fairly quickly, though he still favoured their company, housing neighbourhood strays during long winters, fostering kittens abandoned on the roadside. Swiping paws left scratches on his hands, but Kenny always laughed telling the stories of the claws, never held anything against them. After all, cats can be extremely affectionate, though they can also be extremely stubborn. Kenny used to joke that Kyle was like a cat, loveable but finicky, could go from cosying up to throwing punches and back all within the span of a minute. Kyle rolled his eyes at the comparison, but Kenny wasn’t totally wrong. Besides, he loved cats.
“I’ll name ‘im Kvetch ‘n only feed ‘im gefilte fish.” Kyle fills the gap, with his own musings, but even he notices, how he doesn’t sound like him; too lax on abbreviation, drawling like the backwoods hick his mother taught him never to speak like. But they were all just that, the redneck runoff populating the mountainside, quaint and cute image of Middle America. Nobody in Denver or Boulder or Fort Collins or Grand Junction gave two shits about how the folks in South Park acted, whether they lived up to their weird-ass yokel reputation or presented as a socially conscious haven of dialogue and discourse. The only ones who didn’t play pretend like the other families were the McCormicks, Stuart and Carol already considered the epitome of white trash, social standing suppressed by poverty and substance abuse. That’s why Kenny slipped into that—that rustic way o’ talkin’—more than the rest of them. Lots of people looked down on it, said it made him look bad, but Kyle always liked it, thought it added to his rakish charm, rugged appeal.
“Yeah,” Stan’s voice infiltrates his head, intruding on the reminiscing, taking him from daydream. His voice echoes in the speakers, from bad call quality, and jogs Kyle back to reality, back to the world where Kenny McCormick lies interred at Park County Cemetery, the remains of his body infested with maggots, decomposing in a little pine box. Kyle cast a fistful of dirt at the funeral, as the casket lowered into the darkness of the earth, left a stone after each painful visit to his grave, but no amount of soil and rock could replace their vow, could complete him. Kyle tilts his head back, as he focuses on dark blue, on a mix of compassion and distress. Stan furrows his brow, scrunches his nose, as he soaks his tongue in sarcasm, “Cause you’re just taking great care of yourself.”
Kyle tongues the inside of his cheek, holding his gaze. Stan uses provocations when he fears he’s losing him, takes the risk and gets a rise out of him. It’s some psychological trick, one that parents use on unruly ornery little shits to get them to open up. Kyle tries to remember, whether Stan ever treated him like this—like a child—before Kenny died. Maybe he did, just took a subtler approach, or maybe he didn’t, only now practising parenting skills; either way he should just stop. Stop framing his death as another commonplace tragedy, another mundane report on the six o’clock news, another victim of loose gun control and unreliable response times. He raises the mug to his lips, takes a long, long sip, letting liquor coat his tongue to qualm the chaos in his mind: it’s like he forgets what actually happened.
He forgets that, really, Kenny should have been with Kyle, not at some Podunk corner store buying Camels to smoke off being stood up, not leaning over the counter counting out coins to give the cashier exact change, not ending up with a Glock against his back. He took one, two, three shots at point-black range, spilt twenty-nine cents in crimson-spotted pennies on the floor when he crumpled over the display of scratch-off lottery tickets. Paramedics arrived on the scene twelve minutes later, in time to debate what finally killed him: the lack of oxygen in his brain or wealth of blood in his lungs. Doctors said it wouldn’t’ve mattered when they got there; his shredded respiratory system would never have lasted the entire ambulance ride, he would’ve gotten to the hospital only to be dead on arrival.
Honeyed whiskey lines his throat like napalm, sticky and incendiary, and Kyle’s eyes flicker down, peer into the mug. His vision focuses and blurs, re-focuses. Empty space supplants dark liquid, half his drink already gone, consumed, in his veins, his blood. Dull electricity creeps up the back of his neck, crawling along his vertebrae to the base of his skull. He blinks his eyes, notes how numb his cheeks are, muscles too relaxed to process feeling, register sensation. His nostrils flare as his lips twitch, the briefest twist of a smirk, anticipating intoxication seizing him, turning him catatonic, lulling him into comatose. Kyle’s grip on the cup tightens, as he spews cinder, “I’m breathing, aren’t I?”
The words cut deep, Stan stiffening in place, features hardening like concrete, as he supresses an instinctual flinch. His jaw clenches, teeth grinding, and Kyle sees it in his eyes: the remorse, the anguish, the look that assures he hasn’t forgotten the details of that police report. He saw the same set of photographs Kyle did, the register drawer busted open, the nine-millimetre casings mingled with broken glass, the streaks of dried blood just everywhere. Kyle read somewhere that the human body holds four or five and a half litres of blood. A bottle of Tennessee Honey holds one and three quarters. One body roughly equals three bottles, the same amount Kyle goes through in… a problematically short period of time. Yes, Stan has a valid point, warranted concerns, but rationality will only get Kyle so far, before logic stretches too thin and he loses all sense.
“Kyle,” Stan speaks with alarm, speaks like an alarm. His voice is the wailing siren of an ambulance, the tense commands of emergency technicians, the ominous beeping of portable life support machinery. Kyle blinks, and Stan pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezing tightly as he organises his thoughts. He’s always done that, since they were in elementary school, using the pressure point to decongest his mind, keep his thinking clear. But he only does that when he finds something unreasonable, nonsensical, bullshit. Is that what Kyle sounds like now? “Kyle, you look like shit.”
The pixilation worsens, Stan moving in stutters, as thick blocks of colour, but Kyle says nothing. His mouth stays shut, lips locked in a thin line, green eyes narrowing at the monitor. He feels a cough roll up, air shelled in molten magma, bubbled up from his insides. It rattles up his throat, scrapping against wet tissue, as he exhales billows of heat. Kyle pushes his tongue behind his front teeth, presses it to the roof of his mouth, as it pops, acidic and astringent, flavoured with vomit. Kyle washes the taste out with another hearty swig, savouring piquant poison, before his lips tug into a sneer, “Gee, Stan, thanks for the compliment.”
“Cut the crap,” Stan booms from the speakers, and his display quality refines. Ebony brows arch high over wide eyes, a few thin red vessels exposed to the white. Kyle’s eyes flit to the corner of the screen, away from the pleading blue, and find his own camera’s feed, find the sad reflection of his own self’s shadow. Kyle was always pale, courtesy of his Colorado upbringing and Ashkenazi genetics, but his skin never had this pallor before, looked so white. He looks devoid of colour, even with the alcohol coursing through his blood, a sheet of snow diluting the drunkard’s flush. The most prominent pigments are the violet streaks below his eyes, staining his face with scars of insomnia, bags hanging below his eyes. Even those don’t look quite right, something wrong with the colour; they look less vibrant, verdant green wilting into blackened rot. No, that can’t be right… he has his Zayde’s eyes…
“Seriously, you need to see a doctor.”
Sensitive, not everybody’s sensitive the way he is. Kyle looks back at Stan, at his best friend’s pleading grimace centred in the window’s frame, and he knows exactly what he sounds like: bullshit. Anything he says is just a fucking load to his ears, because he doesn’t understand, he won’t understand, he can’t understand. His hands tremble, shaking as something raw runs through him, engulfs him in fire and animus.
“I’ve seen doctors,” He can’t taste the sweetness on his lips, all traces burnt off with his spite, slurring his words, “’N all they’ve done’s give me shit pills ‘n a pat on the back ‘cause none ’f ‘em know what the fuck’s wrong with me either!” His nails scratch against the laminate paint, chipping bits of the measurement tics, “Not tha’ I blame ‘em ‘sidering Hells Pass screwed up my medical hist’ry with misdiagnoses. I mean, fuck dude, those things still say I’m diabetic ‘n places.”
“You’re dodging,” Stan says some more words after that, but Kyle isn’t listening.
Instead, he puts the mug to his lips, unleashes a rapid rush buoyant bliss, downpouring and deluging. He tastes mostly liquor, pooled like molasses, and remembers that’s how he always thought Kenny would taste, like honey whiskey, but mixed with twenty-five-cent bubble-gum, with cold ham-and-cheese, with cracked cans of Coors and menthol cigarettes. That night, Kyle wanted to tell Kenny everything, wanted to taste every trace of flavour in his mouth, then add his spit and his cum. He invited Kenny all the way out there, to a little place he never went to, and when being stood up finally set in, he finally went home, but was a-long-ways-away. Kenny was so sad, bummed, disappointed, that, when he passed a corner store plastered with ads for discounted tobacco, he decided to get a pack of smokes, even though he’d been trying so damn hard to quit. The security footage caught him waltzing into the store, making small talk with the overworked cashier, then sorting through his cash to pay for his dose of nicotine. Neither of them noticed the figure sneak out from the chips aisle, grab something out from under his pullover, and ready, aim, fire.
“What’s in that?” Bang. Bang. BANG.
“Wha?” Kyle’s eyes widen, as his vision oscillates: too blurry, too sharp, sort of hazy, sort of not. The numbness spreads, from cheekbone to jawline, blooming poppies with opioid qualities, depressing his muscles into a state of sweet sedation. Drinking is a sacrificial ritual, giving up feeling to claim a few moments of solace. After Kenny died, benders are the closest Kyle’s felt to feeling alive, feeling like he did when Kenny was with him, laughing and smiling and joking and flirting. Kenny was strawberry milkshakes and Rosh Hashanah honey cakes, cereal box toy prizes and Chinpokémon limited-edition plushies, care and passion and feeling and love.
“God, that’s the Tennessee Honey Jack, isn’t it?” Kyle promised Kenny he would never leave him, bound their souls together on the pier of Stark’s Pond. But then when he needed to be there, to show Kenny how he truly felt, he broke his promise, left Kenny alone. And it’s because of him, of his broken promise, that Kenny died, incomplete, unable to cross to the Other Side.
“Yeah? S’wha ‘f it is?” Kyle cocks his head to the side, as the monitor duplicates, doubles. He looks at two overlapping images of Stan, both wearing scared looks, scared because neither of him can do anything to change this, change what he did, what he has to do. The flames rise, to his head, his brain. The backs of his eyes burn, sting, activate his ducts, “I don’t poh-lees yer Hen-ne-ssey ‘ntake.”
“He’s fucking dead, Kyle,” Pain resonates in Stan’s voice, words blurted out in a croaking sob, choking on his own panging heart. The agony amplifies him, makes him so loud—too loud—a gunshot bursting through his eardrums. Kyle shuts his eyes, feels water well at the corners, as Stan bombards him with sound grenades, with screaming artillery, “Kenny’s been dead for months and you’ve been destroying yourself ever since.”
“YOU don’t fu-uckin’ KNOW wha’ yer talkin’ ‘bout,” Kyle talks through cotton, cheeks padded with fluff. Eyes open, tips of fire searing his retinas, with dry and scratchy discomfort. He blinks in a flutter, to replenish the film of tears protecting his eyes, but the sting only worsens. The water diverts, trickles into the ducts, building and building, until someone breaks the dam.
“You dropped out of grad school,” Kyle couldn’t write a thesis with Kenny constantly on his mind, withdrawing from the programme shortly after the funeral, “You skipped all your internship interviews,” Kyle didn’t have the heart to go, even the highly competitive ones he applied to months prior, “You talk to me more than anyone and you fucking ghost me half the time,” Kyle forgets the time, short-term memory riddled with gaps, too lost reliving the hope of his past, “Do you really think Kenny would’ve—”
“DON’T s-say it,” The command leaves him as a guttural growl, sleeked with kerosene, sprinkled with embers. Kyle doesn’t notice his tone change, too preoccupied with thoughts of him, flashing through his mind, every moment of every memory, all at once. Kenny, everyone uses his name that way, as a justification for their own means. But do any of them really know what Kenny would’ve wanted? No, none of them do; because only Kyle can still see him, “Aaall this ’s sooo easy fer YOU t’say…”
Stan’s camera freezes, with his mouth gaping open, but the audio feed still goes through, “It really isn—”
“‘Cause YOU,” Thunder erupts from his chest, the maelstrom escaping from within. Tear drops roll down in an avalanche, one after the other streaking down his face, all in quick succession. He doesn’t notice he’s crying, too numb, too drunk, too heartbroken. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because tears can’t replace what Kenny lost that day, no matter how many Kyle sheds, “Di’n’t fu-uckin’ LOVE ‘IM th’way I DID!”
“Fine! So, I didn’t wanna suck his cock!” No, no, he just doesn’t get it! “Wanting his dick in my ass has nothing to do with—!”
“YOU di’n’t LEAVE ‘IM,” He can’t tell how loud he is, how much he raised his voice, but Stan goes silent. The camera resumes, Stan sitting speechless on the other side, jaw quavering as he holds his gaze. Kyle wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt, only realising his state after seeing tear stains splotch the light green fabric. He sniffles his nose, loosened mucus pushed back into his sinuses, then heaves a deep, shaking breath. His voice breaks, cracks when belts out, “BUT I DID!”
Stan opens his mouth, but shock stalls his words. He tries, in his pensive pause, to spit something out, but his muscles refuse to cooperate, leave him stuck in perpetual quiet stutter. He then bites his lip, teeth burrowing hard, as he exhales through his nose. Only one emotion floods his eyes: terror. Terror, because he doesn’t recognise his best friend anymore. He exhales slowly, feigns calm, “You never le—”
“I DID, Sta-an…” Kyle interjects, in an awful wheeze. Wavering breath morphs into rough coughing, felt in his gut, filling his mouth with gaseous acidity, stomach juice and bad cocktails. He fights the hacking, his hoarse voice struggling between each one, “I di-ID… L-lee-eave’m…” Kyle puts a hand on the desk’s edge, anchoring himself in place, “‘N no-ow I see ‘im…” Fog invades his brain, a drowsy haze like cigarillo vapours, “E-eh-ver-ee night…” And he knows that’s not from the whiskey, “I CA-AN’T do it ag-AIN.”
“Kyle?” He hears Stan, panicking, rightfully. He’s already lost one of his best friends to untimely demise, and now one even closer threatens him, with risky behaviours, with foolhardy habits. But he thinks this is a mere matter of guilt and forgiveness; no, that was never the point. This is about consequences, about honouring obligation. This is about completion.
“H-he do’sn’t…” Kyle pauses, puts his sleeve back to his mouth, covers his cough. His throat feels stripped, all the char crumbling off the sides, leaving only bare and aching tissue. His lungs ache, sore, throbbing, as he leans over the desk, staring down into the empty mug, “D’sn’t wan’ me t’le-eave ‘gain…”
“Dude, you’re freaking me out,” Stan says, as Kyle watches, watches a shadow loom over him. Kyle may be wasted, looking through a glaze of drunkenness and sobbing, but sees the silhouette cast over him. He recognises him, his clinging soul, his dybbuk, his Kenny…
“I-I ca…can’t leave ‘im, Stan-ny…” Kyle says, watching the darkness intensify, shroud him. Nobody understands that Kyle and Kenny complete one another, that failing Kenny that day meant his soul would be incomplete. That’s why he clings, because Kyle is the only way he can be whole, “He nee-ds me…”
“I…” Kyle looks up, swaying, bleary-eyed. His hand reaches forward, guided by the shadow’s gesture, grabs the mouse. His hand moves, without his control, the cursor sneaking over the Skype window. The arrow inches towards the red call-end button, as he mutters, “Go’ta go…”
“Don’t hang up on me!” Stan screams, as Kyle’s finger hovers over the mouse button. He hesitates, green eyes staring into the camera unseeing. He blinks, rapidly, but the light simply dims, more and more, fading and fading. He wonders, for a moment, what Stan sees, through the camera. Does he see Kenny too?
As Kyle clicks the mouse, he hears a voice, maybe a memory, maybe real: “G’night Stanny boy.”
Because Kenny cannot leave, until his reason is done…