“I can’t wait for summer. It feels like fourth grade has lasted forever,” Kenny said to Butters.
Since it was the first week of June, summer was chasing the lingering cool of spring. Kenny didn’t need his parka. It was lunch recess, and the sun was warm enough to melt the last slush of snow. Everyone was ready for summer in two days.
Butters nodded excitedly, rubbing his knuckles together. “Ditto! I’m glad it’s over! I just wonder what fifth grade’s gonna be like,” he said.
Kenny said, “Kevin says it isn’t too hard. He says it’s just a lot more multiplication and fractions and—”
Out of nowhere, Cartman appeared and slung his arm around Kenny’s shoulders, interrupting Kenny’s conversation with Butters. Kenny turned his head to give him an annoyed look. Cartman, oblivious, jumped right into talking. “So, Kenny. You’re my best friend, I’m your best friend, right? Well, I need you to do this favor for me—”
Cartman glanced at Kenny, confusion on his face. “You’re not what?”
“I’m not doing the favor, and I’m not your best friend,” Kenny said. He pushed off Cartman’s arm and stood next to Butters. He put a hand on his shoulder. “Butters is my best friend.”
Cartman’s jaw fell. His mismatched eyes flew between Kenny and Butters. Then his face hardened and he squared his shoulders. “Yeah, whatever. I didn’t consider you my best friend in the first place. I’ll ask someone else to do it for me.” Cartman turned on his heel and went into the school.
“C’mon. Let’s go to the swings,” Butters said once Cartman was out of earshot.
He led Kenny by the wrist to the empty swing set. The swings were seldom empty. They jogged over and jumped on. As they swung at two different paces, Butters asked, “Am I really your best friend?”
Kenny swung harder in attempt to match Butters’ speed. “Of course. Am I your best friend?”
“Yep! Always have been.”
“Cool,” said Kenny.
Kenny was hanging out with the boys. They were at the basketball courts. They didn’t have homework, so they had free time. The boys learned that their teacher didn’t give a lot of homework. They liked fifth grade already, and it was only the end of August.
Butters came bounding over, beaming in his signature way with his nose scrunched up. “Hey, fellas!” he greeted.
Stan, Kyle, and Cartman ignored him and continued playing Knockout. Butters’ smile faltered a bit. He brightened again when his baby blue eyes landed on Kenny. They smiled at each other. “Hi, Kenny,” Butters said softly.
“Hey, Leo,” Kenny said.
All four boys stopped what they were doing to stare at Kenny wildly. Butters’ eyes went wide and his cheeks slowly turned pink. He stammered and knocked his knuckles. Kyle stopped midshot to turn to Kenny. Stan traded a look with Kyle. Cartman scoffed and rolled his eyes.
It was because Kenny called Butters Leo. That had never been done before. Everyone knew him as Butters and called him the same. Everybody followed the example Cartman set when he first called Butters so in preschool. Nobody objected to it. Not even Butters’ family.
And there they were in the fifth grade, and Kenny had said Leo. Not Butters. Not Buttercup or anything butter related. Leo. Short for Leopold, the name on Butters’—Leo’s— birth certificate.
The boys continued to stare at Kenny. After five seconds, he got bored and took the basketball from Kyle’s hands. He dribbled thrice, then took a shot.
He caught it with one hand as it fell from the basket. He bounced it back to Kyle. “Your turn, wasn’t it?” he drawled, his tone as bored as his composure.
Kyle shook off whatever shock he held before. He lined his toes with the three point line. Being Kyle, he made it in flawlessly, not even giving Cartman a chance to take a shot.
“Show off,” Cartman barked. He drop kicked the ball to Stan.
Stan groaned and chased after the ball as it bounced off.
Butters was still standing off to the side, doing nothing but rubbing his knuckles in his nervous way. His cheeks were still pink. Kenny left the Knockout line to stand in front of him. “Is it cool if I call you Leo from now on?” he asked.
Butters nodded once, slowly, at first. But then he met Kenny’s eyes and nodded faster. “I’d like that,” he mumbled.
Kenny smiled at Butters. Butters mirrored the smile.
Kenny’s friends thought going to the sixth grade dance was stupid. None of them wanted to go when he suggested it. They all came up with excuses instead.
Stan’s was: “Wendy and I are broken up, remember? I have no one to go with.”
Kyle’s was: “I have homework.”
Cartman’s was: “Why the fuck would I wanna go to some stupid-ass dance?”
Butters was the only one Kenny hadn’t asked if he was going. Kenny was discouraged by his friends, especially since he already bought his ticket, and South Park Elementary didn’t give out refunds. Plus, Butters was probably grounded, or not allowed to go to social events, or something absurd like that.
So at 7:30 p.m., Kenny was walked to school by Kevin. Trying to cheer him up, Kevin told him, “Maybe you’ll meet a hot girl.”
Kenny gave his brother a look. He was a freshman in high school now. He was taller than Kenny by a head, and he was still growing. Kenny couldn’t wait for his growth spurt. He estimated it to happen in the middle of seventh grade, since that’s about the time Kevin shot up.
“My friends are stupid is all,” Kenny said.
Kevin shrugged. “I don’t have friends, so I can’t give you any comfort in that.”
“You have Shelly. She’s your friend,” Kenny pointed out.
Now it was Kevin’s turn to give Kenny a look.
At the line leading up to the cafeteria doors, Kevin said, “I’ll be here at nine to take you back home. I’ll be by the tables.”
“Okay,” Kenny said.
Kevin ruffled Kenny’s hair. Kenny allowed his forehead to fall to his brother’s chest. He wasn’t at all embarrassed to do it like he’d thought he might be. Kevin was wearing one of the T-shirts Shelly had gotten him for his birthday. He smelled like pine.
“Have fun, got it?” Kevin said.
“Fine,” Kenny grumbled.
Then Kevin left.
Kenny stood by himself in line. Everyone had someone to talk to, and he felt out of place being the only one alone. He would be alone in the cafeteria too. He wanted to be anywhere but there. Thankfully, the line was moving quickly, and before he knew it, he was inside.
Kenny stood in the middle of the dim cafeteria. It was done up in an underwater theme. Green paper was cut out to look like seaweed. Pink and purple papers were starfish. Dory and Nemo were up on the walls, along with other sea life. Kenny could see the Little Mermaid on the left wall behind the DJ.
Kenny felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to Butters. “Leo?” Kenny said, unsure if it was a trick of the light or a hallucination.
Butters smiled. “I didn’t know you were comin’!”
Kenny put his hands on Butters’ shoulders. When his hands didn’t pass through, he knew Butters was real. He said, “I didn’t know you were coming either.”
Butters pointed to the snack table. “Wanna get some pizza?”
All the tables in the cafeteria were put up to make room for dancing. So as Kenny and Butters sat at the only table in the cafeteria, Kenny learned that Butters’ parents thought it would be good for him to get out and make new friends before middle school, so they let him go to the dance. Butters had sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t tried making new friends; he had been hanging out with Scott Malkinson and Kevin Stoley since he got to the dance. Kenny assured him that just maybe a sixth grade dance with music too loud to talk without screaming at the top of your lungs wasn’t the best place to make new friends. Butters had laughed.
After eating, Butters and Kenny took to the dance floor. Kenny wasn’t as good at dancing as Butters was, but Butters made it look easy by swaying to the beat. Kenny copied him, and as he grew more comfortable, he realized he was having fun. He wasn’t so alone after all.
Two hours later when the DJ lowered the music so PC Principal could announce that the dance was over—it was nine o’clock—Kenny found that he was disappointed.
Outside the cafeteria, Butters glanced down at his phone. “My mom’s here. I gotta go. Bye, Kenny.”
Kenny waved. “Bye, Leo.”
Kenny found Kevin sitting at one of the metal tables like he said he would. Kevin looked up from his phone as Kenny approached. He stood. “Have fun?” he asked.
Kenny shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Let’s go home,” Kevin said.
Butters was the first to notice something different about Kenny on the first day back from holiday break in January. It was first period Language Arts, and their teacher started them off with a worksheet. Butters’ finger hovered over the silver stud in Kenny’s right earlobe. He didn’t touch it, because Kenny told him not to.
“It looks real cool,” Butters said.
Kenny suppressed a flattered grin. “Thanks. I did it myself. I was afraid I didn’t line the marks up evenly, but Kevin told me they were good, and so I used the mirror and”—he gestured to his ears—“voila.”
Butters touched his own earlobes. “My parents’d never let me get my ears pierced,” he said, his voice a distant daydream.
Their desks were situated in groups of three. Butters’ and Kenny’s desks were next to each other, and Cartman’s was in front of theirs, facing them. Not looking up from his worksheet, he said, “No shit. It’ll make you look like a douchebag emo.”
Kenny rolled his eyes, ignoring Cartman’s comment. He went back to the worksheet in front of him. He saw Butters do the same from the corner of his eye.
After a few minutes of quiet, Kenny asked Butters, “Would you ever wanna get your ears pierced?”
Butters tapped the eraser of his pencil against his bottom lip. He observed Kenny’s piercings again, touched his earlobes, then shook his head. “I don’t think I would.”
Cartman spoke up, “That’s the best thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth all morning.”
Butters turned his shoulders towards his paper, his lips a firm line. Kenny could tell he would no longer participate in the conversation.
In the group of desks next to theirs, Stan said to Kenny, “Hey, Kenny,” and when Kenny looked at him, he said, “Do you think you could pierce my ears?”
“Of course, dude. I’ll give you a friendly discount of seven dollars. Each,” Kenny said, grinning.
Stan gave Kenny a look that he interpreted as, Wow, how kind of you, you fucking asshole.
Kenny said, “Does after school work? Just walk home with me, and I’ll do it at my place. It doesn’t take long.”
“Yeah, that works,” Stan said. He turned around so he could say something to Kyle at the group behind him, but he stopped. Kyle was blushing as Heidi spoke to him about the assignment. He had a small smile on his mouth.
Stan turned back to Kenny. They shared a smirk.
It was finally the summer before seventh grade. Everyone was simultaneously excited and nervous to go to a new school—middle school—in a few months. To some like Tweek and Butters, the thought was more nerve-wracking than anything. For some like Kenny, the thought sent a shot of anticipation through him. Kevin had told Kenny about Mala Vista. He preferred it to South Park Elementary. There was more freedom in middle school, and new people to meet. Kenny didn’t exactly care about meeting new people. He just wanted to be away with his old elementary school teachers. They knew too much about him and his family, and he didn’t like that.
While Kenny was excited for seventh grade, he refused to think about school during the summer. Especially not this summer. Him and his friends were kicking it off with a sleepover at Stan’s. Stan had gotten a new trampoline for Christmas, and without school in the way of things, they could finally use it unbothered.
Kenny, Butters, Stan and Kyle, and Cartman spent the day jumping away. They attempted flips and tricks. Only Butters could successfully do them all. At night, they brought blankets and pillows from the house and spread them out on the trampoline. The night was warm, perfect for camping out beneath the stars. Stan’s dad helped them get a mosquito net over the top of the trampoline, creating a canopy to keep out bugs. Stan had brought flashlights from the house to light everything up.
Butters and Kenny sat against the outer trampoline as Kyle, Cartman, and Stan continued playing their board game. Butters and Kenny didn’t feel like playing.
Butters sat with his legs folded under him. Kenny held the knot of string as Butters threaded them in a striped pattern together. The tip of his tongue peeked from the corner of his mouth as he focused. He was making an orange and yellow bracelet. Kenny had a blue and yellow bracelet around his right wrist. Butters had made it for him right before starting the one he was working on. It was Kenny’s idea to wear each other’s favorite colors. Kenny would wear blue and yellow, and Butters would wear orange and yellow. Yellow was neither of their favorite colors, but Butters added it for contrast.
They didn’t really need friendship bracelets. They already had their shark tooth necklaces from Kauai, and they never took those off. But they had nothing else to do until Kyle, Stan, and Cartman finished their game.
When Butters completed his bracelet, he knotted it off. Kenny helped secure it around his right wrist. They held their wrists together, admiring their bracelets.
“I like it,” Kenny said.
Butters smiled sheepishly.
Later into the night, Kenny and Butters laid under their blankets, staring up at the starry night sky. They were laying in a ring around the trampoline. Kenny was next to Butters. Next to Butters was Cartman, then Stan, then Kyle, then Kenny again. The other three were passed out.
So Butters whispered to Kenny for only him to hear, “Aren’t the stars just the prettiest?”
Kenny turned his head, studying the side of Butters’ face. His scar was in clear view. He always felt guilty whenever he saw it. Butters met Kenny’s eyes. Kenny smiled tiredly. “They are,” he agreed.
Butters sighed, looking up. “I wish we had fireflies that glow here in Colorado. I’ve always dreamt about goin’ out during a summer night and catchin’ a few in a glass jar.”
Butters’ hand was on top of his sleeping bag in a loose fist. His bracelet hung limply around his wrist. On impulse, Kenny reached out and slid his hand in Butters’. Butters looked at him.
Kenny said, “I promise you one day, Leo, I’ll take you to see fireflies. We’ll go out on a clear night like this, and we’ll catch them in jars. We’ll keep them for a day, then when night comes around again, we’ll let them go. Then we’ll catch more, but you’ll see real fireflies. I’ll make sure of it.”
And he meant it.
Butters smiled at Kenny. He squeezed his hand. Then his eyes began to droop, and he slept.
Kenny fell asleep soon after, and their hands stayed linked even when they woke up in the morning.
Even though Stan and Kyle were up and on their phones, they said nothing about Butters’ and Kenny’s hands. Kenny knew that Cartman would say something once he woke up, so Kenny gently shook off Butters’ hand. Butters didn’t seem fazed by it; he looked like he understood Kenny’s unspoken reason. He turned to Cartman, whose back was facing them. His shoulders rose and fell steadily.
Stan said, “Can someone wake him up? It’s ten forty-three. We need to eat breakfast. Then I’m thinking Stark’s Pond.” He looked to Kyle for confirmation. His monstrous cowlick at the back of his head waved around wildly when he turned.
Kyle nodded, screwing the heel of his palm into his eye. “Stark’s Pond is good.”
Stan looked to Kenny. Kenny nodded too.
Stan was about to give Butters the same look, but Butters was kneeling next to Cartman. He shook his arm lightly. Cartman grunted. Butters shook him harder. Cartman’s hand came up in attempt to wave Butters off, but he failed.
“C’mon, Eric,” Butters said softly. “Doncha want breakfast?”
Cartman slowly turned onto his back. He blinked and squinted at Butters. Like Stan, Cartman also had a bad cowlick, but on the right side of his head. “What time is it?” he asked.
Butters answered, “About ten forty-five.”
Cartman sat up slow and grabbed his phone. Everyone left the trampoline and ran barefoot through the damp morning grass and into the house for breakfast.
At Stark’s Pond, the boys went for a swim. Though the sun was warm, the water was cold. Since it was only morning, there was not enough time for the sun to warm the water. The boys were caught in the middle, shivering and sweating. After twenty minutes, Butters left the pond to sit under a tree in the shade. Kenny followed him to keep him company.
Now, past noon, everyone was out of the water, laying in the shade of the tree Butters still had his back against. Kenny had his head in Butters’ lap. Kenny was singing with his eyes closed, and his friends stayed quiet so they could listen.
Kenny had never wished more that he had a ukulele right in that moment. He wished he could strum along as he sang, creating music more than just his voice. He’d learned to play when he and Butters were in Kauai. When they came back, he watched YouTube tutorials even though he didn’t have a ukulele of his own. He watched the videos so he wouldn’t forget the positions of chords and the patterns of strumming. He would use whatever he found lying around his room as a substitute for a ukulele.
Butters began running his fingers through Kenny’s hair, carefully undoing the tangles.
Kenny opened his eyes. His bangs were getting long. They were starting to block his vision. Butters was smiling softly down at Kenny as he brushed Kenny’s hair from his face. Kenny smiled back, still singing.
Butters plucked a flower from the grass and slid it into Kenny’s hair. Because it was so tangled, it stayed. Kenny closed his eyes again and tried to memorize the feeling of Butters’ fingers playing through his hair as he stuck in more flowers. As the song ended, Kenny found his voice fading.
The sun was so warm, and the breeze was so gentle, and Butters’ fingers were so light, that Kenny ended up drifting off.
He woke to the sound of Butters’ laugh. Butters noticed as Kenny blinked up at him. His hand was still resting on Kenny’s forehead.
“Hey, Ken,” Butters said. His fingers started working their way through Kenny’s bangs again. “Did you have sweet dreams?”
Kenny laughed. “I did.”
He could still feel the fuzzy memory clinging to the corners of his mind, but it was too far to make anything out. All he remembered was that he felt extreme joy.
Butters said, “It’s a sure good thing you just woke up. We’re aboutta leave and I didn’t wanna hafta wake you.”
Kenny didn’t want to leave. He felt so relaxed there, with his head in Butters’ lap and his fingers in his hair, but he sat up anyway. His friends were already standing, picking up their backpacks and slinging their towels over their shoulders in preparation for the walk back home. Butters helped Kenny to his feet.
Approaching Butters’ house, Butters grabbed Kenny’s wrist. “Come in real quick, I wanna show you your hair,” he said.
Butters didn’t let go as he led Kenny by the wrist towards the house. After unlocking the door and stepping in, Butters poked his head back out. “See you, fellas!” he called to Stan, Kyle, and Cartman.
The three waved back, even though Cartman stepped onto his doorstep a few paces later. Cartman wouldn’t be Butters’ next door neighbor for much longer, Kenny had a feeling. He stayed in the Donovan house every other week because his mom was engaged to Clyde’s dad. They got engaged in April. Kenny, along with Stan and Kyle, guessed the reason that Cartman switched houses was because Ms. Cartman was trying to decide which house her and Cartman would live in once her and Mr. Donovan got married.
When Cartman disappeared into his house, Butters next to Kenny said, “He’s bitter about it.”
Kenny looked at him. “Bitter about what?”
Butters closed the door. “His mom’s engagement with Clyde’s dad. He’ll get over it soon though. Come with me.”
As Butters began up the stairs with Kenny at his heels, a voice came from the kitchen, “Butters? Who are you talking to?”
Butters stopped and looked at Kenny apologetically. He retraced his steps and went back downstairs, into the kitchen this time. “Kenny, Dad.”
Mr. Stotch dried his hands on the dish towel by the sink. He gave Kenny a smile. “Hello, Kenny. How’ve you been?”
“Good, I guess,” Kenny answered.
According to Butters, his parents liked Kenny. If they didn’t like one of Butters’ friends (Cartman, for example) they didn’t allow them in the house, even if they were already inside.
Mr. Stotch said, “Well go ahead and do whatever it is you were going to do. I just wanted to know who Butters brought in.”
Kenny wondered if Mr. Stotch thought he could’ve been Cartman. Kenny wondered if he was prepared to kick him out if he was Cartman.
Butters brought Kenny to the bathroom and situated him in front of the mirror. Kenny laughed in surprise at his reflection. He had an assortment of wildflowers stuck in his hair. There were flowers in yellow, pink, white, and even a few blues. Kenny grinned at Butters in the mirror. “I love it. It looks like I have flowers growing from my head.”
Butters laughed, scrunching up his nose. “I’m glad you like it. But you can take ‘em out whenever you want. I’m not gonna make you keep ‘em in forever.”
Kenny gave his reflection a last once-over. “Thanks, Leo. I’m gonna go now, before it gets too late. I wanna make sure Karen’s home safe.”
Butters nodded. “Bye, Kenny.”
As soon as Karen answered the door to the Tuckers’ home, her eyes went wide and she smiled. “Nice hair, Kenny.”
“Thanks,” Kenny said. “Ready to go?”
Karen said, “Yep.” She stepped outside and called to Tricia in the house, “See you, Ruby!”
Tricia replied, “Byeee!”
In the living room at their home, Kevin sat in the armchair on his phone, and Kenny sat with Karen on the couch. Karen was carefully taking the flowers from Kenny’s hair and turning them into a flower crown. When she was finished, she placed it on top of Kenny’s head.
“Where’d you get those flowers?” she asked.
“Leo put them in my hair when we went to Stark’s Pond earlier,” Kenny answered.
Karen flitted her finger over a flower. “Butters is so nice. I like him.”
“That’s one of the reasons why he’s my best friend,” Kenny said.
Kevin looked up from his phone. “Don’t lose your best friend, Kenny. I’m telling you now.”
Kenny and Karen glanced at each other. Kevin and Shelly had stopped talking around August of last year. He didn’t ever talk about what happened, and he didn’t talk about Shelly anymore either. Even though Karen shared a room with Kevin, she was unable to gather any information about Shelly. Or rather, the absence of her. When Kevin wasn’t around, Kenny and Karen theorized with each other about what had happened. All of their theories seemed too far-fetched and unlike Kevin and Shelly, and they would find themselves in the dark again.
“I won’t,” Kenny said.
Kevin frowned. His eyes were somber. “You better remember that.”
Kenny went silent, feeling like he’d just received a harsh reprimand. Kevin was three years older than Kenny. That meant he was three years wiser; he’d seen more of the world. So when Kevin spoke in foreboding tones, shivers ran down Kenny’s spine and he second-guessed everything he knew.
It was a February day walking home from the bus stop in seventh grade. Stan and Kyle were walking at the head, Kenny was between them, and Cartman and Butters brought up the rear. Like every other day walking home, Cartman and Butters broke the steady pace of the group to walk faster. It seemed that lately, the two hung out more. Kenny didn’t doubt they were planning to take over the world together.
As Butters passed Kyle, Kyle grabbed his arm and said, “Butters, why do you never put up a fight against this asshole?”
Butters tilted his head in confusion. Ahead, Cartman stopped and turned around to watch what was happening.
“Whaddya mean?” Butters asked.
Kyle gestured to Cartman. “Why do you always go along with whatever the fuck he says? Do you not have a backbone or something? Do you not have an opinion of your own? I wanna know why you feel the need to cater to his every whim.”
Butters tilted his head and stuck out his bottom lip. His eyebrows were furrowed. Then he said, “Well, ‘cause he’s a force of nature. And if you resist a force of nature, you’ll end up in a worse condition resisting than you would if you cooperated. Besides, it’s a whole heckuva lot easier letting people in than it is keeping people out.”
Kyle made a face. “A force—? He’s not a force of nature! He’s a fatass!” he protested.
Kenny could see where Kyle was coming from. Kyle too had observed that Cartman and Butters spent more time together. He probably also assumed they were planning to take over the world, and he was trying to stop it at its root. That’s how it had been since the beginning of time. Cartman and Butters went and got themselves into a mess, and Kyle attempted to stop it, but really tangled himself up in Cartman’s scheme too. At least Butters went willingly.
Butters’ look of confusion fell and hardened into something ominous. A shadow crossed his face. “If that’s all you see in him, then I’m sorry, Kyle, but you need to grow up.” The shadow lifted and the usual look of subtle joy returned to Butters’ face. “Now if you’ll excuse me.” He shouldered past Kyle and walked back to Cartman, who was as stunned as the rest. Once at his side, Cartman followed him.
As they got further away, Kyle shouted after Butters, “Fine! Walk away! But if you end up on your knees sucking his dick, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Butters didn’t react. He didn’t even turn around. He acted like he hadn’t heard Kyle in the first place.
Kyle turned to Kenny and Stan. They all shared incredulous expressions.
“He’s becoming more like him every day,” Kyle muttered.
Stan shook his head. “Just leave it be, dude. Butters has been a lost cause since—” Stan’s face contorted as he thought. “Since—well, since he met Cartman, I guess.”
Kyle resumed walking again. “He’s been like that a lot more lately.”
Aloud, Kenny wondered, “What do you think they do?”
The three looked at each other. At the same time, they said, “World domination.”
They threw their heads back and laughed.
At the end of May, Kenny received a text from Butters on a Sunday.
Meet me by tweek bros asap pleaseee
It was followed by three red-faced angry emojis.
As Kenny was walking to Tweek Bros as Butters requested, he wondered what was up with the three angry emojis. Butters never used angry emojis, and especially not the red-faced ones. It was barely eleven in the morning too. Kenny wondered if Butters was actually mad, and what made him so. Butters rarely got mad.
Butters was sitting on the bench in front of Tweek Bros. His arms were crossed and he was practically scowling as he glared at nothing ahead. He resembled the emoji perfectly.
“Hey, Leo,” Kenny said.
Butters’ head turned, and the look of anger vanished from his face when he saw Kenny. He sighed in relief. His arms relaxed. “Hey, Kenny.”
Kenny sat next to him. As a cool gust of wind blew by, he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “So… what’s up?”
Butters shrugged. Kenny noticed he was without a jacket and he had goosebumps on his arms. “I’m grounded,” he grumbled.
Kenny blinked, processing the words slowly. He now understood why Butters looked so angry. But if Butters was grounded, why was he out here—Kenny jolted back in surprise. “You snuck out?” he asked in disbelief.
Butters blushed, hugging himself as he smiled shyly yet proudly. Kenny realized he was cold. Kenny took off his jacket and draped it over Butters’ shoulders. Butters smiled gratefully, putting his arms through. “Thanks. Um, yeah. I snuck out,” he said. His ears turned red.
Kenny grinned. “Damn. I can’t believe you did that. You disobedient rebel.”
Butters nodded, starting to smile wider.
Kenny asked, “Why’d you get grounded though?”
The smile fell. Anger returned to Butters’ face. He thrust his hands out in exasperation. His voice sounded exasperated too. “I had Eric over yesterday. My parents don’t want me havin’ friends over at our house when they’re not around, and they especially don’t like it when I have a friend over without their permission or them knowin’. It doesn’t help that they don’t really like Eric. And how was I s’posed to know they’d come home early! Nowadays I never even see ‘em in the daylight! Anyway, they saw us on the couch playin’ on his Switch. They got furious, kicked him out, and grounded me. They locked me up in my room, but I decided to sneak out the window today when they left for church. They told me they were goin’ to Denver after, and wouldn’t come home till late. I was still pissed that they kicked him out! He wasn’t doin’ nothin’. So I picked the lock on my door, went into their room, and got into their dresser where they keep my phone when I’m grounded. That’s when I texted you to come here because I don’t wanna be alone right now.”
Kenny had two thoughts in that moment. The first was that he was wrong about how Butters was angry he was grounded. He was angry because his parents kicked Cartman out. That brought along Kenny’s second thought. Why was Cartman at Butters’ house? He found himself answering his own question thereafter: Cartman probably stopped by to ask Butters to help him stir up trouble.
Kenny disregarded both thoughts to say, “Wanna get something inside? Since I started working here, I get a discount.”
Butters brightened. “Sure.” He dimmed. “But I don’t got any money on me.”
Kenny put the hood of his jacket up over Butters’ head. “It’s cool. I’ll pay for you,” he said.
Butters smiled. “Gee, thanks, Ken. I’ll pay you back when I can, I promise.”
Kenny smiled too. “You don’t have to.”
Butters nodded vigorously. “But I do.”
Kenny was about to protest lightly again when two teenagers—probably juniors, from the looks of it—dropped their skateboards next to the bench Kenny and Butters sat at. They landed with loud clatters. Kenny whirled, glaring at the teenagers. They went right into Tweek Bros, not noticing Kenny’s death glare at all.
Kenny turned back to Butters to continue to insist he didn’t need to be paid back, but Butters was already on his feet, pulling Kenny up by his wrist.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Kenny stood and let Butters take him into the coffee shop. Butters got a hot cocoa, Kenny got a latte. They sat at a table near the window. They spoke about homework, teachers, and cute girls in their classes. Butters was hesitant to speak about that subject, and his cheeks were red.
“Who is it? Tell me,” Kenny said.
“No one!” Butters insisted. “Honest!”
Kenny looked at him skeptically. The corners of his lips twitched. “Uh-huh. Who is she, Leo?”
“She ain’t no one! There’s no one, Ken. I’m serious!” His tone got whiny, but his blush deepened.
Kenny sat back, crossing his arms, smirking. “Yeah, sure. No one. Your blush says otherwise.”
Butters slapped his hands over his cheeks. “Aw, heck! I ain’t blushin’ ‘cause I like someone, I’m blushin’ ‘cause you’re embarrassin’ me!”
Kenny continued to smirk, not believing Butters in the slightest. “Is it Annie? Heidi? Lola? Millie? Esther? Nelly?”
“Nelly doesn’t even go to Mala Vista,” Butters said.
“Oh yeah. Is it—?”
Butters jumped up, reaching across the table to put a hand over Kenny’s mouth. His tone got serious. “No more namin’ off names. There’s no one, Ken. End of discussion.”
Kenny had never heard Butters speak so grave. It almost scared him. He still remembered the Butters in fourth grade who burned down the gym, and the Butters who led a boys-against-girls riot.
“Okay. I’ll stop,” Kenny said, voice muffled by Butters’ palm.
Butters lifted his hand and sat back down. “Thank you.”
Conversation after that was hard to pick up again. Kenny felt bad, and he regretted pushing it in the first place. He sipped his latte, letting it burn his tongue so could feel something worse than the guilt in his chest.
They still hadn’t said a word to each other even as they tossed their empty cups and walked out of Tweek Bros.
Kenny happened to glance at the bench he and Butters first sat at, and saw that those teenagers’ skateboards were still there. Odd too, because Kenny saw them leave ten minutes ago.
“Those guys left their skateboards,” Kenny pointed out.
Butters stopped walking and turned. They stared at the upturned skateboards. The underside of one skateboard was covered in stickers. The other looked like a motherboard.
Butters looked at Kenny. “Let’s take ‘em.” He went to the bench and picked up one of the skateboards.
“Take them?” Kenny echoed. Butters suggesting taking left-behind skateboards was a very Cartman thing of him to do. But then again, Butters had been adopting Cartman’s bad qualities since fourth grade. It was just that as of lately, they’d been more prominent in him. “But what if they come back for them?”
Butters said, “We won’t keep ‘em forever. We’ll use ‘em for a bit, then we’ll put ‘em back.”
Kenny hesitantly picked up the other skateboard. “I don’t know how to skate.”
“Neither do I. Let’s learn together,” Butters said.
They walked with the skateboards tucked under their arms to the park. There, they put them down and stood with one foot on the board, the other on the ground.
“So we just push against the ground like a scooter, but without the handles. Easy,” Butters said.
He started pushing his foot along the ground, picking up speed. When he was going fast, he put his foot on the back of the skateboard.
Kenny grinned. “Go, Leo!” he cheered.
He heard Butters laugh. But then there was panic in his voice when he shouted, “Wait, Kenny, how do I stop?”
“Oh shit,” Kenny muttered to himself. He abandoned his skateboard and sprinted towards Butters, who was slowing down. His arms were out for balance.
“Kenny!” Butters shrieked.
Close, Kenny held out his hand. Butters managed to grab it. Kenny put his other hand on Butters’ waist, successfully slowing the skateboard to a stop. Butters looked at Kenny with wide eyes. On the skateboard, he was the same height as Kenny. Kenny was starting his growth spurt.
“That was scary,” Butters breathed. His face split in a grin. There was a manic glint in his baby blue eyes. “Let’s do it again!”
Kenny laughed. “You’re just full of surprises today, aren’t you?”
Butters smiled, and there was something about it that Kenny couldn’t understand. Butters put one foot back on the ground and began pushing. Kenny let him go so he could have more freedom to move.
They started off slow, carefully pushing against the ground. Butters began going faster, and Kenny was too busy trying to keep balance on his skateboard with both his feet on it that he didn’t see Butters’ skateboard slip from under him up ahead, causing him to topple over and fall.
When he did notice, he skated over to Butters. He was getting to his feet, brushing off his hands.
“You okay?” Kenny asked.
Butters nodded and smiled. “Course I am. You think I wouldn’t know I’d fall some?”
Kenny quirked his head to the side. “That’s true.”
At two, Butters said he should probably go back home. He had a list of chores to do, and he wanted to complete them before his parents came home.
Kenny skated back to Tweek Bros with Butters. They weren’t very good at skateboarding, but they were better than when they’d started. They left the boards next to the bench where they originally were before they borrowed them. Kenny walked Butters home.
On Butters’ doorstep, Butters took off Kenny’s jacket and gave it back to him. “Thanks for lettin’ me borrow that. And thanks for keepin’ me company. And thanks for payin’ for my drink—Oh! Hang on, don’t move a muscle.” Butters spun on his heel and blasted up the stairs.
He came back down a few seconds later. He took Kenny’s wrist and pressed five dollars into his palm. “Thanks for everythin’, Ken. I dunno what I’d do without you,” he said.
Kenny smiled, pocketing the five dollars. “Anytime, Leo. We’re best friends.”
Butters grinned, pressing his knuckles together excitedly as he bounced on his toes. Then he threw his arms around Kenny. Kenny hugged him back, tightly. After a few seconds, Butters pulled away, waved, then closed the door.
Kenny walked down the driveway, putting his arms through his jacket. He began his way home. And out of the blue, he wondered, How does Leo have chores if he’d been locked up in his room?
In October of eighth grade, Kenny’s math teacher allowed her students to choose where they sat, but they had ten seconds. The classroom went into a flurry as kids tried to find seats next to their friends. The teacher was counting down. Everyone was starting to sit in the rows of desks set up by twos. Kenny, for the life of him, couldn’t find Butters in the chaos.
When Kenny finally saw Butters, the teacher was telling those still standing to find a seat because time was up. Kenny sat in the nearest empty desk at the back of the class. Butters was on the opposite side of the classroom, sitting in a desk next to Cartman. They were talking, and Butters said something that made Cartman laugh.
Kenny thought it was weird. In previous grades when their teachers let them choose seats, him and Butters would always sit next to each other. And if they couldn’t sit right next to each other, they’d sit close enough to talk.
This was the first time in the school year that Ms. Falls let her students choose their seats. She was usually strict about seating charts. Kenny couldn’t understand why Butters wouldn’t want to sit next to him. Math was the only class they shared that year, and they weren’t even sitting next to each other.
His thoughts were cut off when Ms. Falls called for attention and began explaining the day’s lesson. When she was done explaining, she said, “Introduce yourselves to your new partners—though I’m sure you already know them—and get to work on the problems. Help each other!” she added, but it was lost in the noise as kids started talking.
Kenny realized he was lucky when he noticed he was sitting next to the smartest kid in the classroom. He didn’t have many friends, but Kenny had spoken to him with Butters before. Kenny never knew his name though, and he learned it was Jalen.
After completing a few math problems, Kenny stopped. Jalen was almost done with his share, and Kenny was starting to feel dumb. He glanced at where Butters was sitting. Butters had his back to him, but Kenny assumed he was the one doing the talking because Cartman had his whole body facing Butters, and he suppressed a smile and rolled his eyes. Kenny read the words coming from Cartman’s mouth: Fuck off. Kenny wondered what they were talking about. He’d never seen Cartman smile like that.
Kenny watched as Butters faced forward and gestured to the textbook between him and Cartman. Cartman rolled his eyes again and said something. It made Butters laugh and lightly shove Cartman’s shoulder. Cartman grinned widely.
There was something about it that was different from Cartman’s other smiles. Whenever Cartman smiled, anyone looking could tell it was guarded. As Kenny stared, he realized the strange thing about the smile Cartman directed at Butters was that it was genuine. Kenny had never seen that before.
Disturbed, he distracted himself with finishing his math equations. He asked Jalen for help on the ones he didn’t understand, because he felt so unsettled that he was willing to do anything to keep his mind off of what he discovered.
Ever since noticing that little detail, Kenny began to realize how distant he and Butters were getting. The thought came to him as he was about to fall asleep that night, and it made him panic. He couldn’t fall asleep after that.
At school the following day, he talked to Butters at lunch. He offered to hang out after school.
Butters winced and said, “Sorry, Ken. I’m busy today. Maybe some other time.”
Usually, Butters would give Kenny a definite answer of when he was available the soonest. This time, though, Butters moved past it and started talking about a new topic with Kenny. Kenny tried not to be too hurt by it.
The next week, Kenny stopped by Butters’ house on Saturday. He knocked. There was no reply. He knocked again, and Butters’ mom answered the door.
“Oh, hello, Kenny,” she greeted with a smile.
Kenny said, “Hi, Mrs. Stotch. Is Leo home?”
Mrs. Stotch said, “I’m afraid you just missed him. He left ten minutes ago on his bike. He went that way.” She pointed east.
Kenny felt himself deflate. “Oh. Thanks anyway.”
“I’ll tell him you stopped by,” Mrs. Stotch said.
“Okay. Thank you.”
Kenny stood in the middle of the sidewalk for a minute, contemplating where to go. Karen was with her friends. Kevin was at work. Stan and Kyle were probably at Kyle’s. Kenny could stop by there.
He didn’t though. He ended up in his bedroom, staring at the wall. He felt lonely. He hadn’t felt so lonely in a long time. The last time he felt this lonely, it was at the start of fourth grade. He hadn’t felt lonely since he and Butters came back from Kauai. Kauai was a turning point in their friendship, and it bettered the both of them. Kenny felt lost and confused, and he didn’t even know why.
Leading up to Thanksgiving break, Kenny and Butters shared quick conversations. Kenny was always meaning to ask why they hadn’t hung out in so long, but he always found it slipping his mind when he and Butters spoke. He was so caught up in the conversation and being able to talk with Butters again that the thought vanished. It only came back once Butters was long gone.
Along with their absence of conversation and time together, Kenny observed that Butters was spending more of his time with Cartman. They spoke often, but their hushed conversations made it seem like an inside joke that no one else was in on. Their secret words between each other were tongue tied and riddled with laughter. Kenny felt left out.
During one of his shifts after school, Kenny saw them biking past Tweek Bros together. Even then, they were smiling and laughing.
Kenny began wondering if Butters had found a new best friend. Sometime during fifth grade, Kenny had heard from someplace that Cartman considered Butters his best friend. Kenny always knew that their friendship was unique from his friendship with Butters. Everyone called Cartman and Butters partners in crime, because they were. They worked best when they were in danger together. Their friendship was treacherous and adrenaline-induced, while Kenny’s friendship with Butters was safe and calm.
Butters’ parents did everything in their power to keep him a well-mannered, obedient boy—everything Cartman wasn’t. Little did they know, they created Butters’ taste for danger in the process.
Cartman was danger in its human form. He always got into it and somehow managed to come out unscathed. Consequences didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was getting out clean and free. Sometimes, Kenny wished Cartman came with a warning sign so everyone could know that trouble followed wherever he went.
Kenny was afraid of danger. He knew of the pain it brought. He knew that it burned, stung, paralyzed, and was so lethal that sometimes, you couldn’t feel anything at all as you slowly withered away. He avoided danger. He took caution in everything. He double-checked and made sure everything was protected. He played it safe.
Butters was unpredictable because he was both. He took caution, but he was addicted to danger. The two contradicted and made for worse.
Kenny remembered how Butters once called Cartman a force of nature. He was right, but what he didn’t realize was that he was a force of nature too. And with two forces of nature so close, the world was bound to end up destroyed.
And maybe that world was Kenny’s.
Kenny was hoping that during Thanksgiving break, Butters would have time to hang out.
Kenny spent the break with Stan and Kyle, his siblings, or his thoughts. He constantly wondered what Butters was doing. He wondered where he went wrong with Butters, and why Butters never wanted to spend time with him anymore.
Returning from Thanksgiving break, Kenny and Butters spoke briefly. Their conversations weren’t deep like the ones they used to have. They were superficial and basic.
How was Science? Fine. Isn’t the homework tricky? Yeah. I hate the project we have to do for History. Me too.
During the holiday break, Kenny began to believe with every part of him that he had been replaced. Cartman was Butters’ new best friend.
Kenny was working his shift at Tweek Bros when Butters walked in. He was with Cartman as usual. Their bikes were propped up outside against the bench Kenny and Butters had once sat at.
“Hi, Ken,” Butters greeted.
Kenny smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and he didn’t feel it in his soul. “Hey, Leo.”
Cartman scoffed when he heard it.
Kenny chose to ignore it. He chose to be more aware of the fact that Butters was speaking to him. Maybe that meant he was just being paranoid and everything between them was fine. “What can I get you?” Kenny asked.
“A small hot cocoa, please,” Butters said.
Cartman said, “Yeah, I’ll do the same.”
Kenny punched in their orders. When their total came up, he said, “That’ll be…” He trailed off.
Resting against Butters’ collarbone was the shark tooth necklace. The ones they got in Kauai.
Kenny’s own burned against his chest.
If he was no longer Butters’ best friend, then surely Butters would’ve taken off the symbol of their friendship. Surely he would’ve stopped wearing the necklace.
But he hadn’t.
And that was all Kenny needed to assure him he was still Butters’ best friend.
Kenny was about to graze his thumb over his shark tooth, but Cartman slapped the counter, making Kenny jump and snap out of it. “What’s the total, airhead?” Cartman demanded.
Butters put a hand on his elbow. “Calm down, Eric. And don’t call him that.”
Cartman whirled around to Butters. They glared at each other, arguing without words. Kenny had seen Stan and Kyle do the same numerous times. Then Cartman looked away by rolling his eyes. Butters smiled at Kenny apologetically.
Kenny successfully communicated their totals. Butters and Cartman paid for their drinks. Then they left.
Kenny watched as they got on their bikes, steering with one hand, sipping their drinks with the other. Kenny rubbed the fraying thread of his blue and yellow bracelet he still wore around his right wrist. Butters had long ago taken his off, but Kenny hadn’t.
Kenny didn’t see Butters again for the whole rest of the break.
Back in school, Kenny didn’t bother striking up conversation with Butters. He felt exhausted by trying and failing and trying again only to fail.
Butters didn’t seem to notice that they had stopped talking. That made Kenny feel worse.
His loneliness was getting the best of him. He consumed himself with schoolwork for distraction. But it was too soon that homework stopped functioning as well as it had. Kenny missed talking with Butters at school and in class. He missed their text messages and quiet phone calls. Most of all, he missed Butters’ laugh. Butters’ laugh was so particular from everyone else’s. His giggle was lilting, but his laugh came from the heart. His nose scrunched up when he smiled, showing all his teeth. His bottom teeth were a bit crooked, but they were pearly white.
Kenny missed all of it. And now Cartman was in the constant presence of that straight-from-the-heart, scrunched-up-nose, showing-white-crooked-teeth laugh. Kenny hoped that at least Cartman noticed it all. But knowing him, he probably didn’t.
Kenny missed his best friend.
Kenny couldn’t recall the exact events that led him up to this moment. He stood in a pitch black bedroom at midnight. It wasn’t his bedroom. It was a girl’s bedroom, and it belonged to the girl he found himself talking to for the past few months. Though, thinking of her as any general girl was disrespectful. She was his girlfriend, but the term felt too intimate for what they had.
It was April now. Spring had arrived. Flowers were blooming and leaves were returning to trees. Kenny was numb to it, just as he was numb to this moment.
His girlfriend didn’t let him remove her clothes. She stood away from him so she could do it herself. As she got undressed, Kenny did too. When they were finished, she took his hands and put them on her body. He felt her up, feeling the smoothness of her skin under his palms.
When he was younger, he’d thought his first time would be memorable. He’d be living in the moment, relishing every taste, touch, scent, sound, and sight. But here he was, fourteen in the eighth grade, in the bedroom of a girl he didn’t know very well, unfeeling. In some way, he was aroused, but it felt muffled.
Kenny backed her up slowly to her bed, where she laid down on her back. He could feel her shallow breathing against his face. She smelled sweet, like perfume. She didn’t deserve to be in this situation when Kenny wasn’t completely feeling it.
But he couldn’t be alone.
Kenny could only focus on his right wrist as he crawled on top of her. His wrist was bare. He’d taken off the bracelet in February. By then, he and Butters had ceased to talk completely. That was when he started chatting up his girlfriend. But he kept the shark tooth necklace on, because even though Butters stopped wearing the bracelet, he kept the necklace on, and Kenny would wear the necklace even if Butters stopped wearing his.
Once it was over, Kenny would recount the memory as sweaty fumblings in pitch blackness. He never told the story in detail to anyone. If they asked if he really did lose his virginity at fourteen, he would say yes. If he was asked if it was nice, or as amazing as sex was made out to be, he would say yes. If specific questions were asked, he would walk away.
His friends found out, and they were desperate to know what it was like, but Kenny refused to tell. He was the first of all his friends, Stan’s gang and Craig and Those Guys alike, to be the first to lose his virginity. He supposed they all thought it was something special, and not as mundane as it was in truth.
Two weeks following, Kenny stood in the quad before school started. The campus was milling with students talking and doing last minute homework. Kenny met his girlfriend by the amphitheater every morning so they could talk, maybe kiss.
He saw her approaching. Her hair bounced as she walked. He wondered if she was cold in her tube top. He wondered if he should offer her his jacket once she got close enough.
She came up to him, her hands on his cheeks. They kissed deeply. She pulled back, her hands slipping to his. “We should talk,” she said.
She led him to one of the vacant tables under the amphitheater. They sat, facing each other. She smiled tight-lipped at him.
“I think you’re a great guy, Kenny. Definitely one of my better exes,” she said.
Kenny jolted. “Exes?” he repeated.
She smiled sheepishly. “I think we should break up.”
He was silent.
She continued, “It’s not that you did anything. And it has nothing to do with sex. That was great, actually. You’re good at that. I’m glad my first time was with you. I just move on quickly. I have flings. I don’t want to stay committed. I don’t know if that’s what you wanted, but I just want to enjoy short relationships for now. I want to experience as much as I can. I don’t want to be restricted by long-term, committed relationships.” She patted his hand. “Sorry, Kenny.”
The people around Kenny were blurs of color. Conversation was static in his ears. He was frozen, feeling nothing but defeat. She got up and walked away.
And he was alone again.