Authors Note: Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Chapter 7: the photo

The apartment was empty when I return a few hours later. The door to Stan and Kyle's shared bedroom was partly closed; I nudged it open a fraction and peered through the crack at the rumpled, mess of a bed. Kyle was almost obsessively organized, and he kept the bed made every day.

So that confirmed what I had already known had been happening while I was gone. Although I wasn't surprised, it still knocked the breath out of me.

I tapped closed the door again and slid my shaking hands down my face.

In all the time we had lived together, I'd only heard them make love twice. Both times, I had a cancelled class and they hadn't realized I'd come home. One of the times in particular stands out to me because of the frustrating effect it had. I had heard Kyle making short, sharp, breathy moans interspersed with whimpers. That was hot, but it wasn't Kyle who had gotten me sprung; it was Stan and the stream of naughty, dirty things he was saying. He was calling Kyle his slut, his toy, telling him to be a good boy and take it all.

I had been more than hard. I had been throbbing.

Even though I hated Stan, one thing that had always been true still held firm: he was the only person I'd let treat me like his bitch in bed. It had been a dark desire I had mentally indulged in far too many times to be anything less than disgusting, but there it was, and the words he had been whispering to Kyle had only made the fantasy more vivid. It was something I couldn't get out of my head, and always seemed ready to echo in my mind whenever I thought about those two fucking.

Feeling vaguely disillusioned and slightly horny, I went into the kitchen to look for any leftover vodka from the party I'd thrown several weekends ago. I wanted to make a few Screwdrivers and drink until I forgot about everything that sucked in my life. If I was lucky, my drunken self would randomly call someone to come over and hook-up to take my mind off Kyle.

I only made it as far as the breakfast nook-which held our tiny four-seater pub table-when something on the bar counter caught my eye. It was a small square of bottle-blue silk with my name written across it in silver ink. I recognized Stan's hand immediately, but curiosity had me unwrapping it before I could stop myself.

Inside was a wallet, authentic black leather with a Celtic friendship knot embroidered on the front. He had obviously remember my perchance for anything Irish. I opened it up to check the organization layout and froze when I saw the photo sitting in the clear plastic window meant to hold a picture I.D.

It was Stan and I, mere weeks before the party where I had first kissed Kyle and my soul had come undone. Being the only two who had spent the entire summer in South Park, we had gone alone with Stan's family to Disneyland in California for a week. In the picture, we had just gotten off Grizzly River Run. The frame showed the two of us laughing, me completely dry and Stan in a wet T-shirt with dripping bangs. My arm was around his shoulders. In the background was a water fountain and a patch of flowers in the shape of Mickey Mouse.

For a moment, my heart sputtered. I had forgotten this trip. Somehow, in my rage of envy, I had forgotten. And it had been one of the happiest times of my life.

I shook my head quickly and flipped the picture in its plastic pouch so I couldn't see it anymore. It made me feel weird and I didn't want to think about it any longer.

Trying to shake of my sudden uneasiness, I turned my attention back to the wallet. Stan wasn't rich by definition, but he definitely came from a family with a hearty flow of financial security. This wallet couldn't have been less than $60, and was probably even more. I could feel the expense of it in the quality material and intricate bindings around the ledges. On the inner side of one of the pockets, my name had been embroidered with silken thread. My FULL name, which meant this wasn't one of those name sake items, sold in bulk, in which he dug through all the K's until he found one with "Kenny" on it. No... He'd had this personalized himself. A souvenir-slash-early Christmas gift, evidently.

I tossed it stubbornly into the wastebasket beside the sink, seething. Why did he have to be so kind-hearted? Although I had admittedly once found it refreshing and endearing, and yes, maybe those were qualities also easily found in Kyle and I loved that about him, I hated seeing it in Stan. It would be better if he were easier to hate. I hated him alright, but it was an effort sometimes and I didn't want to spend that much energy on him.

But when I had tossed it and turned back to the bar-counter, a note caught my eye that I hadn't seen before; it had been hidden beneath the gift. I almost didn't touch this one. I stood staring unblinkingly down at it. It took a ridiculous amount of time for me to make up my mind. When I unfolded the paper, I was annoyed to see that I was trembling.

Again, I was met with the familiar looping of Stan's writing. This one was a poem, and my heart knocked warningly against my ribs. He had started writing crappy poetry in the 6th grade, and it was something that used to always make me smile. I think he remembered that it did. The bastard.

With an exhale that was surprisingly sharp, I read:

I feel like such a fucking jerk,

because I know the way you hurt

is blood on my hands I can't erase;

I see it written all over your face.

I remember all those years before

when our friendship meant so much more

than petty insults and emptiness;

everything between us is such a mess.

I miss the way it used to be

when you saw a friend in me.

How do we get back to that time

when I was your confidant

and you were mine?

A sob unexpectedly choked me. I crumpled the paper with blinding fiery and threw it hard against the kitchen wall. Softly, it patted against the custard-yellow paint and fell to the hard linoleum floor, looking as pathetically sad as a broken dove.

I leaned heavily against the counter, the heels of my hands braced against the ledge, and bowed my head. My bangs shielded my eyes, and I itched for my childhood parka, craving security.

It was the first moment the thought had surfaced in my mind, like the shadow of a secret that could only form softly. Completely foreign to me, I whispered the words aloud; not by choice, but by something I seemed to have lost control over.

"Let him go." The tears began rolling down my cheeks, freely and suddenly. I didn't try to stop them. "Let him go, Kenny. Let Kyle go."

Something was welling up inside of me. Some strange new emotion that felt like a mix of liberation and raw anxiety twisting together in a complex and confusing braid. I clung to it, fighting hard against the familiar strand of bitterness that had binded me for so long.

I cried for a long time, purging everything bad, wanting it all to go right then and knowing that it was only the beginning. There was so much rot inside me. I didn't know how I would ever heal from it completely.

Unbidden, Stan kept resurfacing in my mind: his laugh, his smile, his eyes, his touch. The soft brush of his breath against my cheek and the gentle way he'd tell me that everything was going to be okay. Stan as I had known him, when I looked and saw happiness instead of disdain.

Eventually, very slowly, my sanity began to piece itself back together. As the tears ebbed, a red sedan pulled into the drop-off space of the parking lot below.

Like an angel sent to stitch me back together, Butters emerged. Night had already fallen, but the moon was so full and bright it lit up the complex to full illumination, so I could clearly see him as he adjusted his coat and leaned in to say something to the driver-Craig, no doubt. He flashed the headlights as he drove away and Butters gave him a half-hearted wave.

I scrubbed the remaining wetness from my face and went to stand against the wall in the foyer. I crossed one ankle casually over the other and waited. Hidden in shadow, Butters didn't notice me when he first came in. With his back toward me, he closed and locked the door, then began pulling off his scarf as he turned. He started and gave a small cry.

"K-Kenny! Oh, sweet Jesus, what are you doing lurking around in the dark? You darn near gave me a heart attack."

Wordlessly, I reached up and took hold of one of the ends of his scarf, still looped around his neck, and pulled it off. I saw him swallow.

"Were you waitin' for someone?" He asked, with more than a little uncertainty.

"Just you," I said, letting the barest hint of a smile show. It was broken, but I wasn't sure if he could tell.

Clearly bemused, he pointed to himself. "Me?"

He began rubbing his knuckles together, and my smile deepened.

"Well, what did ya need?"

In answer, I hooked my finger into the collar of his shirt and yanked him against me. His hands flew out to catch my wrists, and he craned his neck back to look up at me. He was still so small. Not ridiculously tiny- where the crown of Kyle's head reached to my nose, Butters' only reached my chin—but petite. Cute. Tight.

I hadn't forgotten.

"You've been acting very naughty," I whispered, my lips close to his, a mere breath from touching. "It's time you ditch that prick Craig and show me what you've learned."

The sound he made as my mouth closed over his was a mix of surprise and raw lust. His fingers curled into my shirt front, gripping like he were about to slip off an icy ledge, like he wouldn't let go if the devil spat in his eye. His tongue flirted back with an expertise he hadn't had the last time I'd kissed him. I moaned appreciatively.

Butters released me suddenly. He was breathless as he demanded, "What about Kyle?"

Let him go, let him go, let him go…

For the first time, my conscience was actively rejecting the redhead. But that wasn't good enough because I was still thinking about him. And I couldn't anymore. I couldn't. I had to let go sometime.

I forced the image of shamrock green from my mind, the effort surprisingly easy and difficult at once. I concentrated instead on the color in front of me. Grey, like rain and storm clouds; like a silver lining; like a new chance at happiness.

I touched his lower lip. It was full and pouty and irresistibly kissable. "Kyle who?"

And suddenly he was attacking me, hands wild in my hair, his tongue forcing mine into submission. Stunned by this sudden switch in disposition, he was able to force me back against the small mahogany table that served as the unfortunate junk area used for keys, the mail, and any other loose bits that had found their way into our pockets while we were out.

I fell onto the tabletop and a pile of old receipts. An avalanche of spare change and carefully clipped coupons hit the floor like an explosion. I held myself up on my elbows as Butters prowled on top of me, pinning me down by the hips and biting into a sensitive patch in the side of my neck. I moaned gratefully when his tongue swirled against my skin.

"Don't make me stop or I'll kill you," he breathed against my throat, between nips. I laughed softly.

"Never. Never stop."

Butters took hold of my wrist moved it down to cup his ass. I squeezed and heard my own breath hiss through my teeth. He was already working on my belt buckle, and nothing about it was reserved or questioning. An instant later his fingers closed around me, cold but determined. I cried out and was immediately shushed by another dominating kiss.

Not to be outdone, I pushed myself upward. Butters arms wrapped reflexively around my neck. I secured his legs around my waist and stood, supporting him by the thighs. He laughed, the way only Butters could and still be adorable while he did.

"Your room," he told me. Fingers sifted through my hair, deliberately seductive.

I answered with a kiss that melted into a second, a third, a fourth as I stumbled lust-drunk down the hall.

I'm in South Park, only fourteen years old, running down Mayberry Avenue in the dead of night, my boots crunching ice and gravel. My left sock is soaked because of the hole in the toe of the imitation leather. My lungs are on fire from running so long and so far, and breath puffs out of me in solid white clouds. The trickling march of droplets runs down my face. I'm not sure if it's tears or blood. Probably it's some grotesque mixture of the two. Everything is cryptic silent, the passing houses nothing but silhouettes rising together in rows like enormous, nondescript dominos. Every window is darkened. It's so cold there aren't even any stray cats out.

I put on a burst of speed as the familiar green two-story comes into view. All of these lights are off too, but that doesn't matter. I can't afford a cell phone, so I can't call him, but I know he doesn't mind.

I slip a little on the ice around the side of the house when I stop beneath a window. Looking around for anything suitable, I grab a few sticks that have come loose from the naked oak tree and arrow them at the glass. One stick. Two. Three.

"Come on, Stan," I hiss under my breath, desperation closing in on me like a suffocating plastic bag. "Please, please, please."

There's a rustling motion, and then his profile appears as he peels aside the curtains. After a moment of recognition, he's gesturing me to go around to the back door.

I'm trembling when he unlocks and opens up the slider, from both the cold and the onslaught of emotions permeating through my bones. Residual terror, anger, vengeance, and a sliver of desperation and paranoia.

Stan grasps my elbow and pulls me close to him, almost but not quite touching.

"Kenny, you're shaking," he says. "and bleeding. What happened to you?"

"I beat the hell out of Larry Dannenberg." My arms are folded over my chest. I'm rubbing up and down my arms to calm my trembling, but dimly realize warmth won't make it subside.

"Why did you beat the hell out of Larry Dannenberg?" Stan's tone is calm, almost passive, his expression neutral.

This is why I came to him. Cartman wouldn't have given a damn about any of it, and Kyle would have either worried needlessly or lectured me unnecessarily. Stan has always been the perfect blend of compassionate and understanding. Maybe he and Kyle were best friends, but Stan was still the best friend I had.

There is a barely perceptible quaver in my voice. "He tried to touch my sister. Inappropriately."

I don't look at him when I say this, instead choosing to focus on some point beyond his shoulder. I never use words like "inappropriate," especially with Stan, but I can't bring myself to talk graphically when Karen is in the same sentence.

"Is she okay?" Stan asks, a look of concern passing over his face. He glances behind me, as if checking to see if she's hiding there.

"She's fine. It was just a—" I pause to let out a tight sigh. "It was just a suggestive touch on the knee. But his hand was moving up. She told him to stop and he didn't listen and I lost it." I blink up at Stan; he's still a little taller than me. "I lost it, Stan. I snapped, like a fucking monster. I'm not even drunk, I—"

"Whoa, whoa," Stan says, his voice soft as snowflakes."Calm down, Kenny. It's okay."

I don't realize I've been clinging to the soft cotton of his shirt until he pries my fingers loose. He leads me by the wrist to the table and makes me sit. I fall unresisting into the chair and cover my face with my hands..

Stan comes back with a first aid kit. He hands me a bag of frozen peas and begins cleaning up the blood. I have a split bottom lip and a gash on my cheek. My left eye is already swelling and will be black and purple by tomorrow. I press the bag of peas to it. We don't speak until he gets to the mess on my face.

"You love Karen," Stan says, suddenly. "You're a good brother."

"I'm just like my father," I whisper. "I can't control myself."

Stan has been dabbing at the blood on my lip. He pauses to take hold of my jaw. He doesn't speak again until I meet his gaze—clear, unwavering blue.

"You are not your father. You are not your father."

Stan has this sincerity about him that's overwhelming at times, in a world where most people wear masks and two faces. I blink, surprising myself when two hot tears trickle down my cheeks. I fist my hand into the collar of his shirt and pull him downward, pressing our lips together. They connect with a familiar sort of ease, though it's the first time we have ever kissed.

And it's good, and it's perfect, and in that moment there isn't anywhere else I'd rather be, and there isn't anyone else I'd rather be with. My love for Stan is deep and uncomplicated. Nothing about this sudden gesture feels wrong. No feelings for Kyle exist to poison it with jealous hatred. The golden rule hasn't been made, the rule that had stopped me from perusing Stan the way I had badly wanted to back then.

I kiss him passionately and deeply and surely, pouring all of my fears and helplessness and need into him, wanting and craving his steady security. He places one knee between mine on the chair and kisses back, heedless of the blood still dampening my lips. My heart pounds harder than it ever has. I feel like I'm drowning in his sweetness, and it's the most beautiful death I could hope for.

It scares me; it makes me want more. But above all else, when he slides his arms around my shoulders and pulls me closer, I don't ever want him to let go.

I woke up crying out for Stan, his name wrenching out of my throat in a hoarse, rasping gasp. Blood pounded in my ears, panic seizing my throat. I felt like he had been torn from me, cruelly and violently. And Kyle was at the source of it; Kyle was doing the tearing.

"Stan," I said again, unconsciously, his name a dry whisper.

Distantly, I registered my surroundings. I was in my bed, sheets tangled around my legs and torso. Inside, no lights were on, but the door stood ajar and faint light poured in from the hallway. Across it, the bathroom door was closed. Butters had to be showering—the recognizable sound of pattering water filled the otherwise quiet apartment.

I forced myself to breathe more slowly, steadying my frantic heartbeat. Kyle had taught me how years ago, when too many signs of mortality would send me down a spiral of panic attacks. This was before he had even picked his major; he was going to make one fucking amazing psychologist . Although Stan… Stan probably would have been an even better one had he chosen psychology over Veterinarian medicine.

For the first time since high school my declining pulse sped up at the thought of Stan. It was a surprisingly familiar reaction. When had I forgotten how wholly he used to affect me?

But this was different than it had been then. This was an ache; an emptiness; a wrongness.

Seized with a forcible urgency, I thrashed out of my sheets. My boxers had been tossed onto the floor by my desk, forgotten in mine and Butter's haste. I grabbed them up and hiked them on, making a beeline for the kitchen.

Once there, I snatched up the crumpled poem and fished the wallet out of the garbage tin. Unsteadily, I reopened it and flipped the picture over. My thumb rolled across the image of Stan's youthful face, and another sob caught in my throat.


I whirled. Butters stood in the kitchen doorway, dressed in Pandapple pajama pants and a matching T-shirt. His eyes were wide and the exact color of a rainy day. His baby blonde hair shone in the harsh fluorescent lighting. And something was happening to me. Something was happening because where I had numbed myself off to Butters there was feeling, like slowly melting honey—the sweetest kind of affection.

"Oh, Kenny." He closed the space between us, his small hands cupping my cheeks. He had to balance on tip-toe to stretch his petite frame enough to reach me, but he somehow made the task look effortless. "It's okay," he whispered, and I realized he was wiping gathering tears from my eyes with his thumbs.

I had Stan's poem clutched in one hand, the wallet flipped open to the picture in the other. From somewhere in the next room, my cell phone began to sing. It was Stan's ringtone, a bell tone version of Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave—his favorite instrumental. Kyle had set it for me.

I bolted for it. Butters didn't seem surprised. I could see him through the half wall that separated the kitchen from the living room.

"Stan?" I said into the receiver. There was a momentary pause. I could feel his surprise crackle down the line.

"Yeah, it's me," he said. "Look, I'm sorry to bother you, but—"

"It's no bother."

Another pause. "…Okay, Kenny."

The knot in my stomach loosened a little. "Did you need something?"

"My car won't start. We're in the parking garage on twelfth street. I called Triple A, but there's been a lot of spin off's from the weather and I can't turn on my heater. Can you—?"

"I'll come get you," I said. "Of course, I'll come get you."

There was another stretch of silence. I could hear the faint sound of traffic in the distance. Finally, his voice a little too tight, he spoke.

"Thank you, Kenny."

The parking garage was dank and compact, with barely a half foot of space between the top of my Toyota and the ceiling. Dim lighting gave it a surreal orange glow that played tricks on my mind and made it feel like I weren't really there; like I were in some ominous dream. Every so often the sharp squeal of tires burning rubber echoed off the cement walls. A few of them made me jump. I was still cautious of the Grim Reaper, and I briefly wished that Kyle were there to place a comforting hand on my wrist, like he had done so many times before. Quickly, I dismissed the thought, not wanting the sourness of my jealousy to take precedence over my actions.

Butters had stayed home, promising to keep the bed warm until I got home. I focused on that as much as I possibly could as I made my way toward the left middle of the second level, where Stan had said he was parked. There, between an old Ford truck and a banana yellow SUV, a familiar silver tailfin gleamed.

I slid into an empty parking space six cars down from Stan's- the closest one open. When I got out, Stan had already emerged. We started toward each other, hands in our pockets. I squeezed the palm-sized watch there, drawing comfort from the familiarity of its smooth, round shape. I felt nervous and sweaty beneath my orange hoodie.

Kyle hadn't yet gotten out of the Mustang, and with him out of sight I was able to grab hold of the feeling of intense need I had felt for Stan when I had been startled out of my dream.

Cautiously, I tried a smile. It worked.

"What'd you go and break your car for? Miss me that much?"

Stan's smile was halting, but he seemed unable to help it. He began to speak, but was never able to form the first word. I heard the echoing pound of running footsteps the same moment Stan's smile faded.

"Kenny!" he shouted.

I spun and collided with someone running toward me. The weight of my pocket watch vanished. Instinctively, my foot shot out as the snatcher tried to run, tripping him forwards. His arm encircled one of my legs, and Stan lunged toward us as I fell, hitting the concrete on my hands and knees. There was a faint rustling and then the unmistakable click of a gun lever.

"Stan!" I screamed, but it was lost beneath the earsplitting sound of gunfire.

The mugger shot off, running right past Kyle, who had leapt from the car and stood shell-shocked by the fender of Stan's car.

I had shoved myself upwards, making it to my knees just in time to catch Stan as he crumpled. Blood had already blossomed across his shirt front, right over his abdomen.

Kyle screamed, long and loud and from the depths of his very being. It was the absolute worst sound I had ever heard; a sound more horrible than anything in the most terrifying of nightmares, one that would have rocked me to the core on earth, in heaven, or in hell.

It was the sound of his soul shattering.

The emergency waiting room was eerily empty, all fluorescent lighting with a single flat screen showing a local news channel in one corner. Kyle and I sat in the row of chairs closest to the corridor leading into the critical care unit. They had given us both a quick examination, then turned us over to a pair of law enforcement agents who split us up and penned separate reports of the incident.

"Incident" made it sound like some minor disturbance, and I might have gone off about it if I hadn't been numb to my marrow with shock. As it was, I answered mechanically, devoid of emotion. I had been discharged from my interview before Kyle, and when he had come out, he'd crushed me in a hug. I'd given the Marsh's contact information over to the hospital and policemen while waiting for him to come out, not wanting to be the one to make that phone call, and knowing Kyle was in no state to make it either. I had then been informed when the Marsh's had been reached; they were on their way and had consented to release both Kyle and I from the net of HIPPA laws and we'd be updated on Stan's condition as soon as information was available.

There wasn't anything left to do but wait, so we sat side by side, hands clasped together over our adjoining armrest. He had a silver band on the ring finger of his left hand that hadn't been there a few hours ago. We didn't speak- there wasn't anything we could say. The tight wire of hope and dread that had curled itself around us like a serpent seemed to have choked off all of our words.

Kyle watched the colors from the TV flicker dully against the waxed floor, probably not even seeing it, and I stared down at my shoes, praying silently. For the first time in years, all I could feel was a relentless flood of love and tenderness and heartache for the boy I'd selfishly and cruelly pushed away for so long. All I could see was blue eyes and a smile more precious than a breath of air. All I could think was "why him?"

I wanted to break down; the sobs continually rose in my throat like waves, and I had to swallow them back and force the bit of hope tangled in my despair to resurface. I had to be strong; I had to believe he'd be alright; I had to believe I was going to be given the chance to apologize.

The personal revelation that had shot into me when the trigger was pulled was disgusting. This was what it took (was this really what it took?) for me to realize I did not want Kyle more than I wanted anything, because losing Stan, irrevocably, was a thousand times more unbearable. I was beyond repulsed with myself, and all I wanted was to spend forever making it up to him, even if forever stretched out into eternity.

A whimper escaped me. I stifled against my sleeve. Kyle squeezed my hand and whispered, "He's going to be fine. I refuse to lose him."

There was such calm conviction in his voice that for a moment I believed it, too. Then his hand suddenly tightened on mine and I looked up just in time to see what little color remained in his cheeks melt away. I traced his gaze to the corridor, where a doctor all in white scrubs with graying hair was walking toward us, his expression too neutral to guess at the news.

My whole body went sickly hot, and a static-y buzz swarmed my head as terror engulfed me like I'd never known before. Kyle and I looked at each other for a brief half-pause, my heart stumbling over itself with trepidation, and then we both rose slowly as the doctor stopped in front of us. Kyle did not let go of my hand.

"Kyle Broflovski and Kenny McCormick?" he asked, which I assumed had to be standard procedure considering we were the only two left in the room. At Kyle's almost indiscernible nod, he added, "I'm Dr. Bakerson. Kyle, you're Stanley's domestic partner, is that correct?"

Another nod and the doctor suggested we have a seat. Kyle refused, his palm beginning to sweat against mine.

Dr. Bakerson would be comforting just to look at in any other circumstance. He had a soft face with warm brown eyes and circular glasses that made him look more like a milk-and-cookies-eating grandfather than an ER doctor. Instead, his gentle voice was like a knife, ripping up my stomach when he said, "We did absolutely everything we could. It's with my deepest sympathy to inform you that Stanley has passed away."

There was a heartbeat of silence in which the toxic words oozed over my disbelieving mind. Then Kyle's voice rang out like a shot.

"Well, fix him!" he screamed, the words reverberating all the way down the hall and echoing back.

Dr. Bakerson must have expected an outburst because he didn't appear startled in the least. "I assure you that every effort was made to…"

His voice became an unintelligible garble beneath the whirring in my head, lightheadedness taking over. My thoughts were in sync with Kyle—Stan was alive less than two hours ago. There was no way he could just be gone; there had to be some way they could fix him. The feeling was so surreal my vision began blotting out in white patches.

Without any conscious deliberation, I gulped a sudden breath of air, and the world sharpened around me. Dr. Bakerson's sympathetic voice was muffled to muted beneath the rushing sound of blood and frantic breathing in my ears. It was as if my eardrums had switched its sound reception and my internal reaction of terror was all it could pick up. I could feel Kyle's violent trembling emanating up my arm and through my whole body—or was that trembling coming from me?

"…there's nothing more we can do."

"I don't believe you!" Kyle ripped his hand from mine and shoved passed the doctor. His footsteps echoed as he tore down the hall toward the room Dr. Bakerson had come from.

I broke into a run after him, shouting his name, but he wouldn't even slow down. Some distant part of myself registered that he was calling Stan's name, screaming it, and he couldn't hear me over his own commotion.

I pulled up short upon entering the room, panting, and nearly slammed into Kyle's back. He had stopped just inside the door and was staring wordlessly at the operating table. Stan-it must have been Stan-was on top of it, a sheet covering him all the way up to the crown of his head, where a wisp of dark hair stuck over the top. Blood stained the sheet in a few irregular splotches.

"Kyle," I said, extending a hand out to him just as he stepped out of reach and further into the room. I stood rooted to the spot, unblinking, my heart racing so fast it felt ready to give out any moment.

Kyle's inhale was audible when he pulled back the sheet. It was Stan, and I'll never understand why books always make it sound like people who have died appear to be sleeping. Maybe it was from so much blood loss, but his face was a pale-gray, and just looking at him I could see that some vital part of him was missing, like an empty sea shell.

I half-walked, half-stumbled into the room, closer to Kyle, feeling like I was caught in some horrific nightmare. It didn't feel real.

"Oh my darling," he whispered. "I love you so much." He leaned forward and kissed Stan's cheek, lingered a moment, then turned toward me. He looked deathly ill, almost as pale as Stan.

"Kenny?" His voice was high, helpless.

He took three unsteady steps toward me and then his eyes rolled back in his head. I caught him just before he hit the floor.

Before I have time to begin to wonder what I should do, two male nurses are taking Kyle from me and lifting him onto a gurney. They wheel him out, and I'm left alone in the too white room. With Stan. I'm not scared, but the panic of the whole affair hasn't worn off. My breathing is labored, heart racing, sweat clamming up my palms.

I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to steal myself; I felt like I was losing my grip on reality. The world spun surreally beneath my shoes as moved to Stan's side and looked down at his beautiful face. Thick eyelashes just brushing his cheekbones; a short, softly rounded nose; smooth lips with a perfect cupid's bow. I reached out and traced a fingertip over one of his naturally arched eyebrows as a memory of freshman year overtook me.

We were only 14, alone in Stan's room with the door closed and no one but his mother at home, asleep on the couch with a migraine. We made-out for nearly an hour straight on his bed, rolling around the royal blue sheets with restless abandon to a soundtrack of soft-rock music playing quietly from his iTunes. I could still feel the warm grip of his hands on my hips, my shoulders, my hair; feel the gentle but dominant way his mouth had taken possession of mine, his tongue brushing artistically over my lower lip and slipping inside; I could still taste the sweet cinnamon-sugar of his breath from the gum he so often loved to chew.

A sob rose up and choked me. I closed my eyes and pressed the back of my hand to my mouth, letting the tears march quickly down my cheeks. With my other hand, I reached out and covered one of his. He was still warm, and the realization that it was so temporary a state for him completely undid me. I fell to my knees and took his hand in both of mine, pressing it to my cheek and crying like I hadn't since I was a small, frightened kid… since the day my mother smacked me across the face and I went straight to Stan and he hugged me and gave me hot chocolate and stayed up talking to me all night until I was laughing again.

That time, we had been nine. It was more than half my life ago, but clear as the sun on a bright autumn day, I could hear him promising me that as long as he was alive, there was at least one person who would always have my back.

As long as he was alive.

"God, Stan," I said, whimpering, saturating his hand in tears. "I've always loved you. I hope you know I always loved you."

But of course he didn't know. Of course he didn't. And it was my fault. All my fault. The gravity of it, the finality that the last exchanges between us were hate-fill and poisonous and ugly, made my stomach convulse violently. I was sick all over the floor, trembling so badly I had no choice but to let go of his hand.

The nurses reappeared while I was vomiting and sobbing and laid out on my hands and knees beside the bed. They helped me into a sitting position and coaxed me into rinsing my mouth and spitting it into a small paper cup. I tried to calm myself with deep, slow breathes, but I was asphyxiating, the room spinning, sweat beading off my forehead.

"You're having a panic attack," came a voice, which I would only recognize much later as Dr. Bakerson's. "We're going to give you a sedative to take the edge off ."

Everything was now swimming in and out of focus. I had just enough left in me to look up at Stan, see his arm hanging limp over the side of the bed. He was still wearing his watch.

10:08 pm. It's five days before Christmas. Stan Marsh is nineteen years old. And he's dead.

I hold out my arm and let the needle penetrate my skin.