Kenny sat next to Butters on the couch in the living room. It was spring break, and Kenny was over trying to complete a History project with Butters. They had the same History teacher, and though they were in different periods and working on their projects individually, it was still nice to help each other through it.
Except, two hours after hanging out at Butters’ house, both were finished with their projects and were lying on the couch with nothing to do. It was April fifteenth of seventh grade, and Kenny was taking notice that he had less homework than he did in sixth grade. He hoped eighth grade would have even less homework than seventh grade.
“We could watch YouTube. Or Netflix. Or Prime Video,” Butters suggested. He was laying horizontally on the couch, his feet in Kenny’s lap.
Kenny bent Butters’ toes forward. He had one sock on. Butters tended to do that when he was at home, for some reason. Kenny didn’t get it. It was either both socks or none, and Kenny preferred none because most of his socks had holes in them. Or rather, they used to have holes in them until he started working and earning enough money to buy himself a couple new things. Really, ever since Kevin started working, Kenny and Karen were able to wear new clothes that actually fit them.
“Nah,” Kenny said. “I don’t think I have the attention span to watch something more than three minutes right now.”
“Oh.” Butters hummed in thought. “What about twenty questions?”
Kenny looked at Butters. “Sounds good.”
Butters pointed at Kenny. “You start,” he said.
“Okay.” Kenny paused, thinking of something to have Butters guess. He glanced around the room, and the first thing that caught his eye was the potted plant next to the TV. “Okay, I have my thing in mind.”
“All right.” Butters cracked his knuckles. “Is it a livin’ thing?” he asked.
“Yes,” Kenny answered. “That’s your first question.”
Butters sat up and flipped over his project rubric to the blank side to keep tallies of the questions they would ask. “Am I able to see your livin’ thing?”
Butters surveyed the room, starting to grin. “This is gonna be hecka easy,” he sung.
Kenny mirrored his grin. “It’s the first round, so I’m going easy on you.”
Butters laughed, laying back down. “Fair enough.”
His eyes froze on the plant next to the TV and gave Kenny a look that Kenny read as Really, Ken? Butters deadpanned, “It’s that plant, ain’t it?”
Kenny grinned wider. “Yeah.”
Butters playfully rolled his eyes at Kenny. “C’mon, Ken. You could’ve thought of somethin’ a little more difficult.”
“I said I was going easy on you,” Kenny defended. He poked Butters in the side, making Butters flinch away. Kenny knew he was ticklish there. He was tempted to continue prodding Butters in his side, but he decided against it. “Your turn.”
Butters closed his eyes and thought. He kept his eyes closed when he said, “I’ve got it.”
Kenny started with, “Is it in this room?”
“Is it a living thing?”
“Is it an animal?”
“Is it a human?”
“Do I know this human?”
“Are they a girl or guy?”
Kenny had asked six questions, and he tallied up as much on the back of Butters’ rubric.
“Am I friends with this guy?”
“Technically,” Butters said.
Kenny flicked Butters’ foot, causing Butters’ eyes to blow open. “Ow!” he exclaimed. His smile indicated he wasn’t hurt.
“What does technically mean?” Kenny asked.
Butters shrugged. “Like, technically you’re friends with him. I dunno.”
Kenny shook it off, choosing to go with Butters’ cryptic answer. “Is his hair black?”
“Yeah. That’s twelve questions, mister,” Butters warned, tapping Kenny’s freckled nose.
Kenny put his head back on the couch, thinking. So he was technically friends with this guy Butters was thinking about, and he was blonde. That meant his options were Butters, Tweek, or himself.
Kenny mused aloud, “It can’t be you or Tweek because you said I’m technically friends with him, and I know I’m actually friends with the both of you. So, I mean, is it me?”
Butters shook his head. “Nope!”
Kenny furrowed his eyebrows. “Then who?”
“Can’t tell you. You gotta guess.”
“Are you sure I’m friends with him?”
“Is he in any of my classes?”
“All of ‘em, technically.”
“What does technically mean?” Kenny repeated.
“It means technically. What else would it mean?” Butters said.
“So it’s me? I’m technically friends with myself, I’m blonde, I’m in all my classes.”
“No, it’s not you,” Butters insisted.
“You gotta guess. That’s the point of the game.”
“Okay, so is it you?”
“No,” Butters said. “I’m not in all your classes.”
“But I don’t get it,” Kenny said.
Butters waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter anyway ‘cause you’re outta questions.”
Kenny glanced at the paper. There were four groups of five tallies penciled in under his name. “Well fuck.”
Butters giggled. “My person was Mysterion,” he said, as if it was obvious.
Kenny gaped at him. “Then I was right when I guessed it was me! I’m technically Mysterion!” he protested.
“Technically,” Butters repeated.
Kenny opened his mouth to justify that he won thirteen questions ago, but the words died in his throat. He shot Butters a sly grin. “I see what you did there,” he drawled.
Butters beamed. “Technically,” he said again, his tone taunting.
There was a beat of silence. Kenny was thinking of how stupid he could be to not guess Mysterion. He knew Butters chose his superhero alter ego on purpose to get Kenny to lose.
Butters said, “Should we play again?”
Kenny shrugged. “If you want to.”
Butters didn’t reply. Instead, he got his feet out of Kenny’s lap and sat next to him. Their shoulders pressed together. The two stared at the tally marks on the paper. Butters hardly had any tallies under his name, and Kenny had all twenty.
Butters casually stated, “You know, Ken, I love you.”
Kenny found himself smiling uncontrollably. “I love you too, Leo,” he replied. “Did you know that?”
The way Butters’ face slowly grew into a joyful smile tossed all of Kenny’s other thoughts out of his mind. When Butters smiled, he smiled brightly with all of his teeth. Kenny was spellbound by the way Butters’ baby blue eyes shone with this smile he directed at him.
It was like throwing a football, the thought that flew through Kenny’s brain. It shot from one end and disappeared through the other, a quick blur as it passed by. Kenny’s thought was of closing the small amount of space between him and Butters, and simply kissing him on the mouth. But it was gone as soon as it came, and Kenny was left wondering what he was just thinking about.
Kenny knew that if he put his head down on the counter, Lu Kim would catch him and snap at him to keep his head up so he would be ready to take customers’ orders when they came in. Kenny hardly got any sleep last night. He was up studying for the four tests he had tomorrow because his teachers were complete dicks who loved giving tests on the same day so they could watch their students suffer. He felt overwhelmed beyond belief. Junior year made him want to kill himself, even though staying dead was a tougher challenge that it seemed.
It was a Thursday, and the dinner rush hour had just died down. The restaurant was empty except for one middle-aged man who sat alone, typing on his laptop. Kenny let out a breath. He had half an hour left until he could close the restaurant for the night. He longed for a bed.
Kenny watched the man clean up, toss his trash, and pack away his laptop. He headed for the door, shouldering it open and telling Kenny, “Thank you.”
Then he left, and Kenny was by himself. He went over to the man’s table to wipe it down. There was a five dollar bill under the napkin dispenser. Kenny took it for himself. He really wished he could close up early, but he could only do that on the days Lu Kim left him in charge. Today wasn’t one of those days. Kenny could hear him in the kitchen shouting in Cantonese on the phone.
Though Kenny was the cashier, he often did more than that. Some days he was a chef. He wasn’t good at cooking Chinese food, so he was only ever a fill-in chef if Lu Kim was out of options. When Kenny was out of it, or when he pissed Lu Kim off, he was temporarily demoted to busboy. On Lu Kim’s good days, Kenny was manager. He tried to always be on Lu Kim’s good side for that reason. One of his favorite things about his job at City Wok was that because he’d been working there for almost four years, his pay had risen exponentially, and Lu Kim trusted him the most out of all his other employees. It made Kenny feel special.
Kenny was standing behind the register again. He wanted work to be over with so he could go home.
Kenny basked in the quiet of the restaurant. Lu Kim’s shouting had ceased. Lu Kim hadn’t come out of the kitchen since going in twenty minutes ago. Kenny was sure he’d gone home, automatically leaving him in charge until closing time.
He was about to pull out his phone and check Snapchat when the tiny bell above the double doors chimed.
Kenny told himself he wouldn’t look up from his screen until the customer asked if they could order, but then he heard a familiar laugh that made his head whip up at breakneck speed. Butters was walking up to the counter, rolling his eyes in a smile. Kenny felt his spirits lift at the sight of his best friend, but once he saw who was next to him, he was back to his dreary I-want-to-go-home mood. Only now, he very desperately wanted to go home.
Cartman continued with his story, “I mean, for real, Mr. Romano full on called me out. He made me walk up in front of the class and had everyone stare at my hoodie and everything.”
Butters said, “I’m not surprised. Mr. Romano’s a jokester, I heard.” He reached up and tugged on Cartman’s hoodie strings. “And he ain’t wrong.”
Cartman was wearing a maroon Virginity Rocks hoodie. Cartman shrugged, stopping in front of the counter. He said to Butters, “I’m still gonna wear it. I don’t give a fuck.” He turned to Kenny and jerked his chin in a nod. “Sup, Kenny.”
“Hey,” Kenny said. He didn’t intend for it to come out dryly, yet it did. In truth, he couldn’t say he was sorry.
Fortunately for Kenny, Cartman didn’t notice his lack of enthusiasm upon seeing his friend. Instead, Cartman nudged Butters, and Butters nudged Cartman back. Cartman, with a grin as he stared up at the menu above Kenny’s head, said, “I’ll have the beef and chicken.”
“I wanna try the pork,” Butters said.
Kenny nodded. He put in their order, trying to not stare when Cartman slung his arm around Butters’ shoulders and pulled him in close. From the corner of his eye, Kenny saw Butters thread his fingers through Cartman’s over his shoulder.
Kenny repeated over and over in his head that it didn’t bother him.
He managed to communicate their total without a crack or falter in his voice. Cartman paid for him and Butters.
Kenny left the register. As he got their food, he kept his mind blank so he wouldn’t be thinking about the drowning feeling he got from Cartman and Butters’ unforseen arrival.
He took a plastic bag from one of the cupboards under the counter and set the take-out boxes in it. He dropped in some fortune cookies even though they weren’t free.
Butters seemed to notice what Cartman didn’t when he took the bag from Kenny.
Cartman steered him and Butters towards the doors. In a single motion, Butters slid seven dollars across the counter, smiled at Kenny in a mischievous way over his shoulder, and winked. Then that look vanished, replaced by wide-eyed innocence. It all happened in the blink of an eye. “Thanks, Ken,” he called, waving.
Cartman added over his shoulder, “Yeah, thanks.”
Kenny said, “No problem.”
They walked out the door, got into Cartman’s car, and drove off.
Kenny let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. His heart was beating fast like he’d just ran mile without stopping.
He checked his phone. It was officially time to close.
He made his rounds, and when he was positive everything was good, he locked up and made his way home.
Kenny knew that Henrietta would still be awake once he got to her place. It was only nine after all, but he still allowed himself to hope she had stayed up so she could kiss him when he entered her room before falling headlong on her bed. As he walked down the sidewalk, he saw himself face down on Henrietta’s bed. She was reading him a macabre poem as she soothingly ran her fingers through his hair until he fell asleep.
For the first time that day, Kenny felt content.
| | |
The next Thursday, Kenny was working his shift at City Wok like he did every week. He wasn’t so annoyed to be there as last week because this time, Lu Kim left the restaurant to him. That, and he wasn’t crippling under the stress of tests. Kenny was actually glad to be at work.
And when Butters walked through the door, Kenny felt his day get better. Butters put his hands flat on the counter. He beamed. “Hey, Kenny,” he said.
Kenny shot Butters his signature lopsided smile. “Hey, Leo. What can I get you?”
Butters said, “Same as usual. City chicken, beef, oh, and the pork this time too please. I really liked it. You guys are doin’ somethin’ different with the food, and it’s amazin’.” He smirked at Kenny. “That was probably your idea, huh?”
Kenny totaled Butters up, attempting to hide a proud smirk. Only Butters would notice something like that. Kenny said, “That’s a lot of food for you to eat. You hungry or something?”
Butters laughed, scrunching up his nose. He handed Kenny his debit card, and Kenny swiped it through. Butters said, “No, I can’t eat all that alone. It’s mine and Eric’s. He didn’t come in ‘cause he’s feelin’ sick. He’s waitin’ in the car.” Butters jabbed a thumb over his shoulder to the doors. Through them, Kenny could see Cartman’s obnoxiously red Mustang parked out front, the windshield facing the restaurant.
Kenny felt his smile begin to wane. He regretted asking his question. He grabbed take-out boxes and started to hastily pack up Butters’ order. He was suddenly anxious for him to leave.
Butters kept explaining, “We’re goin’ over to my house and, y’know, he’s sick and stuff so I didn’t want him makin’ anything for dinner. And I wanted Thai food, but we don’t have any close by, so we came up with Chinese food instead.”
“Oh yeah,” Kenny said, going along with it despite the prickle in his chest.
Butters sighed. “Yeah, poor Eric. He’s got a stuffy nose and everything.”
Kenny briefly glanced up and caught Butters’ pout. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
As soon as he had Butters’ order ready, he thrust it at him. Butters took it. He was unaware of Kenny’s eagerness for his departure. “Thank you,” he said.
Kenny jerked his chin in a nod. “Sure, dude. Have a good day.”
Butters waved at him as he left. Kenny found that he couldn’t look away when Butters went up to the Mustang and climbed into the passenger seat. Through the windshield of the car, Kenny read Cartman’s lips as he thanked Butters and kissed his cheek. That’s when Kenny whirled around, keeping his back to the doors before he could see the way Butters smiled at Cartman.
Witnessing the smile Butters fixated on Cartman always managed to make Kenny feel queasy, and this wasn’t an exception.
There was a dark look on his face when he leaned into the kitchen and told one of the chefs to work the register.
“I’m going on break,” was Kenny’s brusque explanation.
He went to the back of the restaurant, taking a cigarette from Lu Kim’s hidden stash on his way out. He took his lighter from his waist apron and lit the end. He took a slow drag, exhaling deeply, feeling his shoulders slump. He put his head back on the wall. He watched his smoke cloud drift higher into the air.
Kenny wished he could get over his old middle school jealousy. It started when he took notice that Butters and Cartman started hanging out more. Then in sophomore year, they revealed they’d been dating for two years, which was right about the time Butters never seemed to have time for Kenny. Nowadays, Kenny so rarely got to spend time with his best friend alone. It bothered the hell out of him.
With a roll of his eyes, Kenny took another breath of the cigarette.
Butters had what Kenny called a friendship cycle. What that meant was Butters hung out with Cartman and was always face to face with danger, but when it became too close of a call, Butters drifted to Kenny to recuperate. With Kenny, it was safe and secure, and once Butters got bored of that, he went back to Cartman where he could dance with danger until it became too much. It used to be a perfect balance. Kenny and Cartman got their equal share of Butters that way.
And then Cartman and Butters started dating. It shattered the flawless friendship cycle. Cartman had Butters six-sevenths of the time, leaving Kenny with a measly one-seventh left over. It was infuriating, to say the least. Butters would hang out with Cartman until it almost killed him, and the fact that it didn’t made him want to be around Cartman more.
Kenny understood what it was like to be in love. He understood that it was more addicting than any drug. And it wasn’t like Kenny could hold much against Butters. Saying that Butters spent excessive amounts of his time with Cartman would be hypocritical.
Kenny knew that even if neither he nor Butters were in a relationship, they still wouldn’t be able to spend all their time together.
The actuality of it was disheartening.
| | |
Kenny walked to City Wok on a Monday. He didn’t usually work Mondays, but Lu Kim needed him in again to keep supervision over the restaurant. He didn’t explain why he’d often been out for the past two weeks, and though Kenny wondered, he didn’t ask. Kenny assumed it was a family thing. He understood family things.
Since it was Monday, Kenny didn’t have register duty. Some other kid his age was cashier. Since Kenny was filling in for Lu Kim, he didn’t have to do much except make sure everyone was doing their job.
Unfortunately, at the moment, Kenny was unable to do nothing like he’d hoped. He was helping the cashier with orders. He was new, and Kenny soon realized Mondays were busy days, especially around this time. The cashier was frantic.
“Keep calm, dude. It’s worse when you start panicking,” Kenny told him.
The cashier said nothing, but he nodded. His finger hovered over the screen in front of him, his eyes searching for whatever the customer had ordered on the screen.
Kenny sighed. “Let me do it. You pack the food,” he commanded.
The cashier got out of the way and did as Kenny said.
Kenny had been doing this job for years, and he was numb to the chaos of dinner rushes, so he didn’t notice when Butters stepped up to the counter and peered at Kenny, smiling in an amused way.
“What can I get you?” Kenny asked. He tapped his fingers on the sides of the screen, awaiting the customer’s reply.
“Pfft. Kenny. It’s me.”
Kenny looked up, and was startled to see the person in front of him. It was Leopold Stotch: innocence personified, ruined by Eric Cartman.
“Oh. Hey,” he said. He paused, gesturing to the register. “You gonna order something or…?”
Butters beamed. “No, I just wanted to, I dunno, help out maybe. Eric’s at work, and I finished all my homework. I got nothin’ else to do. And we haven’t hung out in a while.” He traced shapes on the counter. “Well, we haven’t hung out since we went to the park together a few weeks ago.”
Kenny had two thoughts in that moment, and they played at the same time. He thought of eighth grade, and the temporary fallout of his and Butters’ friendship that could never truly return to what it was. Kenny thought of sitting on a slide with a painted arch above their heads on a rainy spring day with Butters pressed close to him in wonder.
“Yeah,” Kenny said softly. “Let me finish up real quick. I’ll meet you at that table.” He pointed to the vacant table for two by the window.
“Okay,” Butters said.
Kenny hurriedly collected the orders of the last few customers. He showed the cashier how to work the register even though he was taught a week ago. Kenny’s heart was pounding erratically behind his ribs like it wanted to break free and run in crazy circles on the floor.
When the cashier said he understood, though with hesitance in his tone, Kenny jumped over the counter and weaved his way through the patrons so he could get to the table Butters was sitting at. Butters watched him, and it made his skin crawl in a good way. Kenny collapsed in the chair across from Butters and suppressed a shiver.
“I can’t believe you stopped by because you finished all your homework,” Kenny joked.
Butters giggled. “Dumb, right?”
“I mean, if you really are so bored after doing your homework, you should apply for a job here. We could always use an extra pair of hands. And you could work the same days as me,” Kenny added. He could already see it all in his mind. Butters gets the job, starts working Thursdays and Fridays, and they get to spend five hours together twice a week, which was already more than Kenny usually got. He could feel himself smiling.
Butters played with his fingers, thinking. “Maybe I should. I could always use a few extra bucks. Especially now that I doubt my parents’ll pay tuition when the time comes around.” He muttered the last part quietly.
Kenny watched the way Butters’ fingers twisted in tiny circles around each other. Then his fingers balled into fists and his knuckles ground into each other. Kenny looked up to see Butters’ eyebrows pressed together.
“I think you should do it. It’d be fun,” Kenny encouraged.
The corner of Butters’ lips twitched. His eyes returned to Kenny’s, and there was a mischievous glint dancing across his face.
Butters glanced at the frantic cashier. “You think we should give him a break?”
They shared a look.
“Yeah,” Kenny agreed, slowly catching on. “We could practice for when you start working here.”
Butters peered at Kenny through hooded lids, smiling like he was holding back laughter. “Yup. Makes sense to me.”
In perfect sync, Butters and Kenny stood from the table, their footsteps in beat with each other, and they booted the guy of register duties so Butters could take his place. Kenny positioned himself behind the buffet of Chinese food. They made a game of it. Butters took the order and collected totals. He hardly needed the computer to do the math for him; he was so good at mental math he did it faster. It took less time too. Kenny knew the menu better than the nine layers of hell. They worked fluidly—flawlessly—together, and soon, the rush hour was over.
Butters sat up on the empty space of the counter between the register and the buffet, and Kenny leaned his back on the counter opposite to him. They took each other in.
Butters’ cheeks were dusted pink from the excitement of rush hour. His hair was white like snow in the setting golden sunlight behind him. His eyes were a piece of the clear blue, almost summer sky. Between his lips, he chewed on one of the strings of the hoodie he wore. Kenny felt he hovered an extra beat on Butters’ lips, but it was easy to look away when he realized Butters was wearing one of Cartman’s hoodies. Kenny’s gaze fell to Butters’ shoes. They were once white, but now they were spray painted various springtime colors.
Out of the blue, Butters asked, “Are you gonna go to Bebe’s party this Friday? I heard only juniors Bebe knows are allowed ’cause she wants to keep it small.”
Kenny locked eyes with Butters. “I was thinking about it. I know Henri’s not going. Parties are too conformist for her.” He smiled warmly as his girlfriend’s voice echoed through his mind. She was telling him that no, she wouldn’t go to some stupid party, even if it was a small one. And in truth, Kenny would rather stay home with her. He would love lay back on her bed, watching her strip down. His mouth watered as he imagined her in lingerie crawling into his lap so he could grind her hips on his thigh at they made out slowly—
Kenny stopped. It hit him that he and Butters had sat in silence for too long. Kenny did his best to restrict himself of thinking about Henrietta when he and Butters were alone. This was their infrequent time together, and Kenny tried to get the most out of it before it was over too soon. It happened once in eighth grade, and Kenny swore to himself that he’d never let it happen again.
He mentally kicked himself for being so stupid.
“Are you going to the party?” Kenny wondered.
Butters scrunched up his nose and gave his head a curt shake. “No. Eric doesn’t wanna go, so I don’t really see a point in goin’ if he ain’t.”
Kenny stifled his annoyance. He ignored his tightening throat. He kept his mouth shut and his reaction within. Being not much of a talker, Kenny was no wordsmith, so all he came up with was, “Oh.”
Silence between them never used to be so desperately filled with small talk. They used to be able to sit with each other without talking for hours, and when conversation started up again, it was as if it had never ceased in the first place. Now, ever since recovering from their separation in eighth grade, things had never returned to normal. Kenny knew they’d never return to normal. Not ever again.
He had hoped that when they started talking again bit by bit during the summer after eighth grade, they would both realize how much they missed each other’s company and would go right back to what their friendship used to be—the way Stan and Kyle’s did after elementary school. Similarly, Kenny remembered how Kevin and Shelly grew apart in high school roughly around the same time Kenny and Butters did, but his brother and Shelly made up eventually, and they’d never been happier once they started dating.
Kenny could hardly compare his friendship with Butters to his friends’ or his brother’s. Unlike those instances, Kenny and Butters’ gap of friendship never became something better and stronger. They never fully recovered from that dreadful absence.
Now, there was a permanent curtain between them that could never be lifted. They could still hear each other through it, but the fabric was too thick to see through, and it was seeing Butters that Kenny missed the most.
Kenny supposed that his inability to die wasn’t the only curse he had, and it wasn’t a curse he beared through alone. Growing apart from the people who meant the most was a curse the whole McCormick family had. And like everything else, maybe he just got the worst end of it.
Kenny’s suggestion came out as a soft plea, “Wanna play twenty questions?”
Butters’ smile was modest, but it was still bright enough to light up a room. “I’d love to.”
“Let’s ask ten questions that add up to twenty instead of asking twenty each.” It was the wrong way—the boring way—but it was the way they would play. “You go first.”
Butters bit down hard on the left hoodie string as he thought. “What’s your favorite thing about workin’ here?”
Kenny didn’t need to think long about his answer. “I like how Lu Kim trusts me to run the place when he isn’t here. It makes me feel important and proud that he even trusts me at all or something stupid like that. It’s also kinda fun when the chefs have to listen to me even though I’m younger than them by at least a few years.”
Butters giggled. “Yeah, I’m sure. Everyone wants to feel like they’re in charge sometimes.”
It was Kenny’s turn, and he asked, “Where do you want to travel the most?”
Butters sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Um, well… I’ve been wantin’ to go back to Kauai lately. I dunno why, but we haven’t been in so long, and it’d be nice to go back.”
Kenny felt his heart leap at the way Butters used “we.” Before his mind could wander, he pushed the tiny detail to the side and nodded. “Yeah, it would be cool to go back. Like, just to see what’s changed.”
Butters smiled again. “Hmm… what’s the best present you’ve ever received, who gave it to you, and why was it so special?”
Various gifts Kenny had been given throughout his life cycled through his mind, but one particular gift stood out vividly. He didn’t even realize he was speaking until the wave of nostalgia hit him. “The friendship bracelet you made me the summer after sixth grade. Remember? It was blue and yellow, and you’d made it when we were on Stan’s trampoline. That was the best gift I’d ever received, and I think it’s because it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas when you gave it to me. It was just a random summer day, and that made it unexpected.”
Butters’ smile split into a laugh. “I remember. I think mine’s somewhere in my room. I’m not sure.”
Kenny was silently surprised Butters hadn’t thrown his away. Kenny had worn his bracelet long after Butters had taken his off. He knew exactly where his was—hidden away in his bedside drawer. Every time he opened that drawer to grab his lighter, he saw the bracelet, and despite the memories it brought back, he couldn’t get rid of it.
To keep those memories away, Kenny asked his second question, “If you could get a tattoo, what and where would it be?”
Butters put his thumb across his left wrist. “A small palm tree right here,” he answered simply. He moved his thumb back and forth across his skin. “But I’d never get a tattoo. I’d be grounded for sure. Especially if my parents found out.”
Kenny wondered, “Why a palm tree?”
Butters shrugged. “They remind me of Hawaii.” Kenny wasn’t used to Butters’ look of mischief, but he’d seen a lot of it lately. It was by far the most peculiar thing Kenny had ever seen. Butters said, “It’s my turn to ask you now.” He paused, and in that silence, Kenny was almost paranoid about what Butters would ask with that look of his. “What do you do when no one else is around?”
After a second delayed, Kenny laughed out loud, tipping forward at the question. He looked up at Butters through his honey blonde bangs, mirroring his grin. “You really think I’m gonna say something dirty, don’t you?”
Butters closed his lips over his teeth, his smile still sharp. He lifted a shoulder. “Maybe.”
Kenny found himself playfully shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “Well, for your information, when I’m alone most of the time, I pretend I’m going on world tour. You know, the full package—singing in the living room, dancing in the kitchen, grand speeches about how thankful I am for my adoring fans.”
Butters threw his head back and groaned. “C’mon, Ken. Everyone does that when they’re alone.”
For a moment, the two did nothing but stare at one another and share the same grins and sparkle in their eyes.
Then Butters whispered, “It’s your turn.”
Kenny snapped out of it. After a pause of thought, he asked, “When have you laughed the hardest?”
Butters’ lips screwed to the side. “Well that’s a hard question. I always laugh hard. I can’t think of one specific time, so I’m just gonna say… that one time Stan straightened Kyle’s hair, and it was a terrible look on poor Kyle.”
A bubble of laughter left Kenny at the image that came to mind. “That was pretty hilarious.”
“Yeah, it was! But anyway, what’s your favorite thing you own?” It was Butters’ fourth question.
Kenny reached into his shirt and pulled his shark tooth necklace from behind his collar. “This.”
Butters brought his necklace from the depths of the hoodie too. “I can’t believe you still have it,” he murmured.
It was an implication that made Kenny wince. Sometimes, he convinced himself that it was only him who was still upset over the loss of their friendship, but he was always reminded that Butters felt it too.
Kenny pushed the thought to the darkest depths of his mind, where all his haunted thoughts and memories went. He cleared his throat and continued with his next question. “What’s your favorite memory you have?”
Butters’ eyes fell to the floor. His reply was a warbly whisper Kenny barely caught. “The day you said I’m your best friend.”
The mood of the game had shifted. Kenny felt it happen deep in his bones. When Butters asked his next question, chills crept up Kenny’s spine. “What’s one of your worst regrets?”
These questions Butters asked brought easy answers, and this question was just as easy as the others. Kenny folded his arms, digging his nails into his skin in an attempt to conceal his pain. His face was schooled to blankness, but his voice was a traitor. “Not trying hard enough to keep our friendship in eighth grade.”
Butters’ lips pursed to a thin white line. Kenny saw the way he blinked hard. “I regret that too,” he said softly. “And that wasn’t all your fault. I shoulda tried harder too.”
Kenny’s throat burned. It was hard to swallow back the dryness of his mouth. He looked everywhere but Butters in front of him. He took in the red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, the golden Chinese characters on the wall, the vacant and occupied tables. Kenny acknowledged that there were still people in the restaurant, most of them talking, and yet, it was almost as if he and Butters were alone in the quiet dimness of an empty restaurant.
Kenny watched Butters’ hands drag up and down his thighs. Every time his hands slid down, Kenny heard him exhale deeply. His hands were pale like the rest of him, though his fingertips were pink and his knuckles were scabbed. Kenny didn’t know why he remembered, but he remembered the calluses on Butters’ palms. He could never figure out where they came from, and Kenny wondered if they were still there.
The hands on Butters’ thighs stopped. It was followed by a soft sniffle. Kenny glanced up at him, only to see that his eyes were dry, but they were rimmed red.
Kenny hadn’t seen Butters cry in so long, and even then, he didn’t see Butters cry often. Despite the way he looked and the way he acted, Butters wasn’t generous with his tears. Kenny found he had difficulty even imagining what a crying Butters would look like.
Kenny didn’t intend his next question to make it further than his thoughts, but it happened anyway. “When was the last time you cried?”
Kenny watched Butters’ face grow into slow uncomfort—the way his brows pressed together, the way the corners of his lips downturned. He didn’t like the question, and he didn’t like how Kenny was asking. “Um.” Butters fidgeted on the counter. He rubbed his knuckles together. “Uh, last week. E-Eric and I got into some stupid fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, which makes it that much stupider. I kept shoutin’ at him, and he got so fed up that he turned his back on me and wouldn’t speak to me. And when it registered in my head that he wouldn’t turn around… it was like I couldn’t breathe. It was like my hands were made of static, and I could hear myself hyperventilating. It—it felt like the world was swallowin’ me whole.”
The fury Kenny felt in the pit of his stomach was cold as ice. Cartman knew—he knew—Butters’ parents started neglecting him when he was twelve. Of course Butters would panic when the person who had told him he loved him started ignoring him. By tenfold, he was probably experiencing what he felt when his parents first started neglecting him.
Kenny felt his hands curl into fists. Cartman could mess up a billion times over, and Butters would still go back to him without a heartbeat of hesitance. It was a bitter shame it hadn’t been the same for Kenny.
Kenny didn’t hate their relationship. Most of him was glad they were happy together, but there were times a part of him couldn’t stand the thought. These were times when he saw them together unexpectedly, when he didn’t know they’d show up together, when he didn’t know one would be there at all. That was why whenever the two walked into City Wok for dinner, Kenny buzzed with frustration. Seeing them together always made Kenny feel like an eighth grader again, watching Butters and Cartman from across the quad whispering closely and laughing loudly with each other as he sat alone waiting for first period to start, wondering where he went wrong with Butters, wondering what Cartman offered him that Kenny didn’t have. That was why he needed mental preparation before seeing them.
And he hated that. It made him feel like a bad person, a bad friend—to the both of them.
Butters noticed the change in Kenny’s composure. Butters sat up straighter. His body went tense. Words rushed, he blurted, “Wh-when was the most difficult time in your life?”
Butters already knew the answer, and that was why he asked it. The question was in retaliation to Kenny’s. It was meant to evoke raw, painful emotions. It was meant to cut deep, and it did. Kenny’s voice was croaky when he admitted, “Being without you.”
Butters’ question worked in taking down Kenny’s defenses, but Kenny wasn’t ready to let go of how Cartman had made him cry. If Butters wanted to cut low and deep, Kenny could too. Through gritted teeth, he growled out, “And what did Cartman do to comfort you after he pretended you didn’t exist?”
Butters flinched at Kenny’s words, and for a second, Kenny regretted his word choice. Butters pulled the sleeves of the hoodie taut over his hands. The collar tugged downward, and Kenny glimpsed the faint yellowish marks on the side of Butters’ neck. Unlike Cartman, Butters insisted on hiding his hickeys, and seeing them on him made Kenny’s gut twist.
Butters’ words were sharp as knives. It was Kenny’s turn to flinch. “He didn’t pretend I didn’t exist. He caught me before I could hit the ground. Then he held me and told me he was sorry. He made me feel better.”
The hickeys healing on Butters’ neck told Kenny he was leaving out a certain method Cartman used to comfort him. He focused on that instead of how he’d agitated Butters, something that was extremely difficult to do.
Butters scooted back on the counter so he could pull his knees up to his chest.
The silence they sat in was stifling. Kenny didn’t have the heart to break it, not after Butters’ answer. He was sure the game was over because he’d ruined it, until Butters mumbled into his knees without making eye contact with Kenny, “What are some personality traits you love in a person?”
Nothing specific came to Kenny’s mind. Instead, the flares of the sun edging Butters seemed to brighten, emphasizing his shape. Butters glowed golden, the answer to everything.
It was a dazed question that Kenny asked on impulse without answering Butters’, “Before you and Cartman kissed, did you have feelings for him before that?”
As soon as the words escaped his lips and fell between them as a complete thought said aloud, Kenny knew he’d went someplace he never should have been, and there was no way to find his way back.
Butters jolted back like he’d been slapped. His eyes blew open wide. His hold on his legs loosened.
It was a memory the both of them had long forgotten: the floor of Butters’ living room, a project rubric turned over and marked with tallies, twenty questions just like this, the lost I love yous.
Kenny knew that on April fifteenth, Butters had no thought of Eric Cartman. None at all.
Shocked and searching for words, Butters’ mouth opened and closed. He didn’t blink as he gaped at Kenny. Kenny said nothing, awaiting his answer. He didn’t meet Butters’ stare.
He knew it was too late to take the question back. And despite his mind begging him to tell Butters never mind, Kenny wanted to know if he was stupid for thinking he’d had Butters for his own in seventh grade as much as he was stupid to hope their friendship would go back to the way it was.
Butters said eventually, “Yes. Of course.” Butters had become a better liar since being with Cartman, but the lie was obvious as daylight. He swallowed hard. “Does it really matter though?”
By now, the two were no longer playing a game. They were tearing into each other, stripping back pieces of them they’d kept hidden for years, pieces neither of them realized they’d been hiding at all.
“Yes,” Kenny snapped.
He still didn’t look up. He couldn’t look Butters in his light blue eyes. Kenny had already started down this path, and he could do nothing but continue.
There’s no turning back.
Kenny felt his words tumble down his tongue as he said them. “Do you remember the day before you and Cartman kissed?”
Butters’ eyebrows twitched. “No. Why?”
Kenny sucked in a breath. He knew it was a lie, but the words still stung in a way they shouldn’t have.
Kenny looked up so he could watch Butters carefully, craving to see the exact moment the realization dawned on him. He explained, “The day before you kissed Cartman, you and me were playing twenty questions at your house. We’d only played two rounds, and once it was over, we didn’t talk for a moment. But then you broke the silence and told me—”
“That I love you.” Butters’ face went slack.
Kenny nodded. He didn’t have the strength to keep their gaze steady. His eyes returned to the floor. Choked up, he croaked, “Yeah. We said ‘I love you’ to each other.”
Butters’ knuckles rubbed together. The skin of his hands turned the shade of the lanterns strung up around the restaurant.
For a while, everything was still as the two relived the memory. It was like being there all over again. Kenny remembered everything. He remembered Butters’ feet in his lap and the plant by the TV. He remembered the history project. And unlike when it actually happened, Kenny remembered what he’d thought after he told Butters that he loved him too.
To himself, Kenny said under his breath, “I wanted to kiss you after that.”
Butters’ hands fell limp in his lap. He’d heard. Fear clawed up Kenny’s throat. Butters’ hands were still. All of him was still. He was a statue up on the counter. He was staring through Kenny, but, at the same time, he was seeing him right there across from him. It was petrifying. His mouth moved, but the rest of him didn’t. “Why didn’t you?”
The question made Kenny go cold. He ran the silver barbel of his tongue piercing against the roof of his mouth as means to expel the nervous energy the question shot through him. This question he didn’t have an answer for, so he didn’t answer directly. His laugh was a puff of hot breath. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, if I did, you and Cartman might not be a thing, and you love him and everything…”
Butters frowned. He looked down and to the side. “Ask me how I felt about you and Henrietta gettin’ together,” he said, his words gruff.
Suddenly, Kenny found himself staring at Butters. He couldn’t look away, and in the back of his mind, he was aware he was stalling. He wondered what could possibly become of the question, and soon, the curiosity got the best of him. “How did you feel when Henrietta and I started dating?”
Butters’ lips turned up in a sullen smile. He admitted, “I was jealous. I thought it was unfair, but I didn’t know why. Honestly, I still dunno why.” He paused. He brought a drawstring up to his mouth and stuck it between his teeth. He avoided eye contact with Kenny when he asked his next question, “Do you love her?”
Kenny crossed his arms and stared down at his dirty combat boots and his black ripped jeans. His shoes, his jeans, his shirt, his piercings—all of it was influenced by Henrietta. Despite the situation he was in, the corner of his lips lifted. With a humorless laugh, he said, “I’m obsessed her, to put it lightly.”
Though they’d asked more than twenty questions, though the game caused unwanted tension between them, Kenny thought about what he should ask next. He wanted something lighthearted to brighten the mood from the dark turn it took in hopes of salvaging the game in whatever way he could, but his question became insignificant.
Whispering and looking down at his knocking knuckles, Butters shakily asked, “Do you love me?”
Kenny was at a loss for words. Saying the question shocked him was an understatement. It downright incapitated him. He grasped at his thoughts, desperately searching for a way to answer without messing up their friendship or their relationships with their lovers.
Before Kenny could answer, or even come close to having one, Butters’ phone began ringing. He took it from his pocket and stared at the caller ID. He had his phone laying flat on his lap, and Kenny saw the name of the caller—Theodore. The contact photo was of wet wavy brown hair that had a pale hand raking through it.
With a quiet sigh, Kenny realized that the last time he and Butters hung out alone, Cartman had interrupted with a call urging Butters home just like this.
Butters’ thumb hovered over the green phone icon before he accepted it and put the phone to his ear. “Hello?” he said. He paused. “Yeah, I am.” He looked behind him, through the doors.
Kenny followed his gaze and saw a red Mustang parked out front, waiting beyond the doors like danger.
Butters faced forward. “Okay. I’ll be out there soon.” He took the phone from his ear and hung up. He dropped to his feet. Standing, he was close enough that Kenny could see the faint flush in his cheeks. He looked drained.
Butters glanced at Kenny for the briefest moment. The light blue of his eyes deprived Kenny of his ability to speak. “See you at school tomorrow. Have fun at Bebe’s party if you end up goin’.”
He rounded the counter and exited through the left door. Kenny watched through the glass as Butters walked towards the Mustang with rushed steps. Kenny saw a smile spread across his face when he had his hand around the handle of the passenger door. He pulled it open and climbed into the seat. There was a second before the car backed up and turned until the tail lights glared red in Kenny’s eyes.
As Kenny watched the car get further and further away, he found himself thinking, Of course I love you, Leo. I thought you knew.
When the car was out of sight, Kenny kept his back against the counter as he slid to the floor. He hugged his legs to his chest so he could rest his heavy head on his knees. His breathing was shallow. He felt nothing but a freezing void thrumming beneath his skin.
Kenny resented Cartman.