long time no see! happy new year and merry christmas readers thanks for the patience sorry this took so long :(
recap: store was robbed. craig has a sleepover at tweek's. tweek was being vague and confusing. craig finds a video. craig needs to talk to tweek.
I sat in silence for most of the car ride to school Monday morning. With me slouched deep in the front passenger seat, my arms crossed and my knees propped against the dashboard, my vantage point offered me a view of my legs, a cloudless sky, and little else. I was too lazy to sit up or change my position, so when I started to get nauseous I sighed deeply and leaned my head back against the headrest, sliding my eyes shut.
Being that Clyde was driving the two of us, I had expected to be bombarded with a barrage of questions for the entire ride. After all, we'd had an exciting weekend, and I'm sure he had a thousand and one questions that I hadn't been able to adequately answer when we saw each other last. I could think of three off the top of my head that were likely to fly out of his mouth the minute he saw me, none of which I had any desire to talk about, and I was prepared to bullshit my way out of each and every one.
Understandably enough, his first words to me when I threw open the passenger side door were, "what the hell, why didn't you pick up your phone last night, asshole?" I hadn't responded to him, though, nor had I said anything else or even looked at him for the rest of the way. I didn't have much of an excuse after all; I'd intentionally let my cell phone go to voice mail when he called me last night, and I'd refused the house phone when Bea tried to hand it to me.
Normally my silence isn't enough to deter him when something is bugging him. He rarely gave a fuck if I wanted to hear his thoughts; they were bound to come flying out of his mouth anyway. Today, though, he was being surprisingly courteous. When I didn't answer him for a solid three minutes, he simply sighed and turned the radio on, setting it at a reasonable volume and remaining silent for the rest of the trip. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel him shooting me glances every couple of seconds, but that was the extent of our interaction.
That left me to my own thoughts, and right now I had only one thing on my mind.
You'd think it would be the store's robbery from this weekend, but no. Sure as I was that it was one of the many things Clyde was going to bring up, the minute he didn't I shoved it in the back of my mind to be dealt with later. It wasn't really my problem. I obviously didn't steal anything. Reflecting upon the evening and replaying it a thousand times in my head (for reasons unrelated to the break-in), I'd ultimately reasoned that there was no opportunity for Tweek to have taken anything, so I ultimately and confidently ruled him out as a suspect.
No, once I'd found that video of Tweek and I under my bed the night before, everything else going on in my life right now had a tough time competing with it for my attention.
I had to talk to him, that much was certain. Simple as it sounds, and perhaps simple as it might have been for literally any other person on the planet, it seemed a lot more petrifying given the context of our relationship.
Over and over again I ran through all the possible scenarios - what I would say, how I would say it, his reaction, and what it would spell for our future. My imagination produced a variety of outcomes, a flavorful array of altered details and premises. Some ended worse than others ("you think this fucking changes anything, Craig? You still forgot! You still forgot!"). Some were nothing more than too-optimistic and unrealistic fantasies that I knew I entertained for the sake of pacifying my own nerves.
And it would need to be in person, of course. Driven by a sudden rush of impulse last night, I'd actually gone so far as to grab my phone off the side table and thumb through my address book to find his number. It would have been so easy this way. I'd never been a fan of phone conversations, but I was even less of a fan of face-to-face conversations. Over the phone meant no eye contact, no visible nervous ticks, no room to choke or pussy out - I could say my peace as one-sidedly as I so desired and he could take it or leave it, but it wouldn't be my problem anymore, not after I was done talking.
I couldn't, though. His name glowed in the screen of my phone as I cradled it between my fingers, staring at me while I stared back, and I knew I couldn't bring myself to do it. Not like this. I needed him to see my face when the words left my mouth just as badly as I needed to see his reaction. It wasn't something I was looking forward to, and it would be a lie if I said I wasn't terrified, but I needed to talk to him in person, no distance or walls or technology separating us.
…which was considerably less easy. But how often are important things ever easy?
Fortunately (or unfortunately, I suppose), my fretting was for nothing. First through fifth period came and went without me running into Tweek even once. To top it off, when Clyde and I approached our table at lunch, we found Token and only Token awaiting us.
I'd flinched once my eyes had landed on his lone figure, an unpleasant mixture of disappointment and surprise socking me hard enough that I hesitated mid-step and almost stopped walking completely. I recovered quickly, though, determined not to let my body's involuntary reactions get the better of me. Not wanting to make this a bigger deal than it needed to be and wanting to appear ever nonchalant in the eyes of my friends, I smoothed away any trace of shock that may have colored my face, and slid quietly onto the lunch table bench next to Clyde.
Token didn't comment on it and I certainly wasn't planning on it myself, so, after an agonizingly long lull that took place once we sat down, Clyde was finally the one to ask, "where's Tweek?"
Token shrugged. "Dunno. I waited for him outside of his history class, but he never showed. I assumed he'd left already."
I continued not to speak and barely moved, hoping my lack of outward reaction fully betrayed how rampantly my mind was whirling after Token's remark.
"Huh. Weird," Clyde mumbled, grabbing his sandwich and raising it tentatively to his lips. "You didn't piss him off, did you, Craig?"
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you're usually the one who pisses him off," Token said.
"Plus, you were the last one to see him," Clyde added.
He was referring to prom night, and I thought surely now was the time for him to bring up at least one of the many things he hadn't got a chance to ask me about this morning or the night before. To confirm this, I glanced at Clyde through my peripherals, watching him chew his sandwich pensively, the pace of his jaw slowing gradually as he considered what he'd just said. I could practically hear the gears turning in his brain.
"Speaking of which…" he said finally, as if the idea was slowly dawning on him. I watched his sandwich gradually descend toward the table as he lowered his arms.
When I ran out of ways to further delay the inevitable (outside of getting up and running away from the table, at least), I braced myself mentally for the oncoming barrage, and began counting down the seconds until Clyde has his fucking revelation.
Six whole seconds later and he actually let go of his sandwich with one hand so he could use it to snap.
"Shit, you left prom together, didn't you? Christ." He glanced at Token, his eyebrows furrowing together as if he was actually disappointed in himself. "We forgot to interrogate him."
Token snorted derisively in response. "Oh, goodness, how silly of us."
"Right?" Clyde's eyes fell on me. "I tried calling you, man, what gives?"
My mouth popped open ready to deliver a sarcastic remark, but he placed his hand out to silence me. "Never mind, skip it. Just tell us everything about that night." He paused. "Okay, not everything. Please spare any details that qualify for anything higher than a PG-13 rating."
I rolled my eyes. "Nothing happened. Anyway, it's none of your business. Either of you."
"Bullshit! You told me you were going to finally tell him! That's the only reason I let you borrow my key ring to the store - which, by the way, I'm going to need back."
Token, watching me pull my backpack into my lap and start digging around for the key ring I knew I threw in there this morning, frowned and asked, "wait, what does your little grocery story have to do with Craig's confession?"
"I wanted to tell him in the place that reunited the two of us," I said as I tossed the keys into the backpack Clyde was now holding open. "I thought it would be, um, symmetrical or something."
Clyde sighed and gazed over at me, resting his chin in his hands as he did. "Our Craig's a little cutie, ain't he?"
"Wait, so - " Token interjected. "Not that I'm not totally proud of you buddy, because I am, but - so that means you were the last person in the store last night, then?" He turned to look at Clyde. "Do you think this might have anything to do with… Y'know. The theft?"
I had my counterargument ready for that, but Clyde spoke before I could.
"Not now, Craig hasn't finished telling his story yet."
"'Not now'?" Token asked, balking. "Don't you think this is a little more important?"
"Dude, am I the only one who wants to know what Tweek said?"
"Well, no, but - "
"Alright, so stop interrupting!" He turned to me again. "Tell us the story!"
"There's no story to tell, you gaywad, and if there were, I'm not about to share it with you."
"Hey, dude, remember what we talked about before we left for prom? The whole telling each other shit because we're best friends thing? I am now invoking that right."
He was right of course, and for anything else I might have given up a long time ago just to get him to stop whining about it. At this point, though, half the reason I didn't want to talk about this with him was because he looked so goddamn eager for a particular answer I was probably not able to satisfy him with. I almost felt a little bad for having to break it to him.
"You really want to know what his answer was?"
Clyde nodded, looking very much like an agitated chihuahua.
"Well," I said as I leaned my cheek against my hand and gestured half-heartedly to the empty seat beside Token, "do you see him anywhere? Allow that to clue you in."
As if forgetting that the seat was vacant, both Token and Clyde glanced over, and you could actually see the excitement draining from their faces as realization hit them both.
"Oh," said Token.
They glanced up at me almost simultaneously and when I bothered to make eye contact with them, I found myself faced with two very different reactions.
Token wore an expression one might save for a funeral, a wretched look of pity and sympathy, like he needed to give me a hug to make himself feel better. He'd had his hand out, like he wanted to reach out to me and pat me or something, but he pulled it back into a loose fist, biting his lip as he did. I immediately averted my eyes from him, but Clyde's face was no more comforting. His mouth was gaping open, his eyebrows furrowed, his hands twitching in front of him, palms up and open as if an explanation to his confusion was floating somewhere invisibly in front of him and would fall into his hands.
"What?" he demanded, his voice squeaking slightly in his disbelief. "He said no? To YOU?"
I snorted a humorless little laugh, raising an eyebrow, "I'm not exactly the world's most desirable person, Clyde. Don't sound so surprised."
"No, I just - " His hand flew to his forehead, painfully gripping it between his index finger and thumb as if doing so would produce answers for him the harder he did so. His other hand made small circles in the air, and he started blinking rapidly. "The flirting! The touching! The blatant eye-fucking! It was just so obvious!"
"'Eye…fuc - ?' What - I - Clyde - " I sputtered, my face heating up.
"No, you don't understand!" Clyde continued as he slammed his hands on the table for emphasis. "Have you ever seen The Bachelor? It's like, okay, you think he and this one girl are hitting it off really well, always smiling at each other and hanging out in the hot tub and shit. Totally into each other."
The more he went on, the more his voice started to crack a little like he was on the verge of tears, and the sound only kept building and building as he continued to speak.
"You know she's going to get the last rose, you're so sure of it, so you're sitting on the edge of your goddamn seat through every last terrible episode until you finally get to the finale, and - he doesn't give it to her! He gives it to some other fugly bitch, your girl goes home crying, and it's disappointing as hell! It's a fucking travesty!"
It was a really stupid metaphor - accurate in putting Clyde's feelings into perspective, yes, that boy sure is invested in his trashy reality shows - but a stupid metaphor all the same. So I felt exceptionally ridiculous when, upon hearing it told to me in Clyde's broken tones and with tears welling in his eyes as he equated my rejection with what was the equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy in his world, I felt a sudden pang shoot through my gut.
I ignored the feeling, though. Squashed it down, kept it quiet. I'd had a lot of practice with that over the years so it wasn't too hard.
"Pull yourself together, Clyde. It's going to be okay."
"Sorry, Craig," Token said, smiling dejectedly. "You can't blame us though. It's pretty sad."
"No, it's just that we're sad for you, y'know? It sucks."
"I don't need the pity party, okay, look at me." I thumped my fingers against my chest for emphasis. "I'm fine. No tears or anything, I'm good. Don't worry so much over something that doesn't even bother me."
"Dude, we were fucking rooting for you man!" Clyde said. "It sucks ass, no matter how much you think it doesn't!"
"I didn't say it didn't suck. I just don't think you guys should have to worry about it, is all."
"Think of it like this," Token said. "It's like we have a little five-year-old. This shy quiet moody little five-year-old and it's his first day of kindergarten and we're scared to send him out on his own. But he's gotta do it, right, he's gotta start somewhere. We just have to hope he'll be okay."
"But then on the first day he gets his ass kicked on the playground!" Clyde chimed in. "And his teacher's mean and he dropped his lunch on the ground and nobody shared the glue with him! He's not even crying when he comes home because he thinks he needs to be strong or some shit like that, and he doesn't want us to know how much it sucked!"
Token nodded. "We sent him out with high hopes for his first day, but it all goes wrong. It sucks, right? We just want him to be happy, but, it's, like…we can't control what the world has in store for him, y'know?"
"That's you, dude!" Clyde continued. "You've never liked anyone like this before! Token and I were really worried about you! We were hoping things were going to work out! Sucks to have your first big crush end up in fuckin' heartache right off the bat."
"We want you to be happy. You're our best friend, and we just wanted to see you happy."
My friends and I obviously aren't this emotionally vulnerable with one another, so it was all the more intense when their words hit me right in the gut like a sack of bricks. The fact that they cared about me so much that their hearts broke for me was strangely touching.
It was also overwhelming. I rubbed my arm and didn't make eye contact with either of them.
"So, I mean," Token continued, "are you sure you're okay? 'Cause if you're not, we're here for you."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks." I shrugged. "I appreciate the sentiment, guys, I really do. But, I mean…that's just life, right? It sucks sometimes and then it doesn't. Whatever. I'm a big boy. I can handle myself."
"Aw, Clyde," Token said. "Our little man is growing up."
"Shut the hell up," I mumbled around a small smile. I looked up at them in time to catch Token casting a meaningful glance at Clyde, who, from the corner of my eye, I saw grin wildly and wiggle his eyebrows in response. I unfortunately knew what that look meant.
"Guys, no. I'm serious. No."
I was too late. Token had already stood up. Clyde started scooting closer to me. I scooted away, but Token had already walked around to my side of the table and plopped down beside me. Left with no route to escape except slipping under the table or falling backwards off the bench (I did consider both options, mind you) I was forced to sit there and be subjected to both their arms wrapping around me, pinning my arms to my sides.
"It'll be okay, buddy," Token said, his cheek squashed against mine.
"There's plenty of fish in the sea!" Clyde added. His left hand was petting my right arm. "'Course it did take us forever to get you interested in anyone, who knows how long it'll be before the next eligible suitor comes along."
"Get the hell off me," I growled, shoving against them. "It sounds like you're trying to marry off your eldest daughter to some wealthy landowner." Their grips were tight so it took me a bit of effort on my part to wriggle free. I held out two hands, placing one of each other their chests, and shoved them as far away from me as they would allow.
"Who's going to take care of the estate when your father and I pass on, Craigabeth?" Clyde cried in a godawful attempt at a British accent.
"That Mr. Broflovski fellow would be a smart match," Token added just as terribly, taking care to pantomime holding a monocle to his eye.
"He's unattached, too! You'd be wise to court him!" Clyde said and he daintily lifted his soda to his lips with his pinky sticking out and everything.
"Ew, God, now I'm imagining it. I might actually gag."
They laughed and even I cracked a grin. It was kind of weird. With Tweek gone, it was back to the three of us, as it had been for years before he'd walked back into my life. It almost felt like everything had reverted back to normal, except it hadn't and it probably wouldn't ever, not with all that had happened in the last few months. And of course, the fact that Tweek wasn't here right now meant far more to me than simply a missing presence at the table. We still needed to talk.
I understood things being awkward and him needing his space or whatever, but what I had to say was pretty important and it bugged me that he wasn't here so I could get it over with. In fact, the rest of the day thereafter I was desperately itching to grab my phone and call or text him, but I was pretty proud of my ability to resist.
Clyde and Token didn't ask any more questions about anything else after that. I guess they still felt sorry for me, and if it meant I didn't have to talk about this anymore then I was okay with that. We moved on to talk about Clyde and Bebe getting back together during prom - apparently she'd ditched Kyle to hang out with Clyde or something to that extent and one magical evening later they were dating again. For most of the story, however, my eyes were still fixated on the vacant spot across the table from me and I couldn't focus at all on what Clyde was saying.
The rest of the day came and went. After school, Clyde drove himself and I to work. That day was our first day back since the theft happened. On the drive over, Clyde explained that he hadn't told our boss about letting me borrow the key and come in Saturday night, and he wanted to keep it that way. So when we saw Mr. Johnson there waiting for us, of course the first thing he does after he greets us is thank us for our honesty.
"You can't trust people, kids, never forget that."
Clyde and I exchanged a glance we hoped he didn't notice, and when he finally left, we both let out a sigh of relief.
The rest of the afternoon and evening went on without a hitch and when it was time to go we packed up our stuff and headed out.
That's when Clyde had to lock up the store.
"Hey," he said suddenly, cradling the key ring in his hand. "There's a key missing."
I was standing behind him at the time, staring down the street and hardly paying attention to what was going on. "What? There's a billion keys there, what are you talking about?"
"Y'know how there's two keys to the store on the ring? One is missing."
I froze, glad he was standing with his back to me so he couldn't see my face. Without hesitating, I quickly said as nonchalantly as I could, "oh, right. I forgot to put that one back on."
He stood up straight, pivoted slowly to stare at me, and after an excruciatingly long look at my face (and thank God for my perfect poker face) he finally said, "…what?"
"I didn't want to bring the whole ring with me when I took Tweek here that night, so I just brought the one key. I forgot to put it back on the ring."
He kept staring at me.
"What? You don't believe me?"
After another elongated pause, he said in a tone that betrayed the conviction of his words, "no, I believe you. Just bring it back to me, okay?"
"Yeah, of course."
I was thankful he didn't insist on waiting for me to grab the key and bring it back down to him when he dropped me off at home later. In fact, the minute the car stopped I bolted out, yelling a thanks for the ride over my shoulder, and slammed my front door behind me as soon as I got it open. When I was in, I immediately ran upstairs, dumped all my shit on the floor, and threw myself back on the bed. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I didn't have the key. I had brought the entire key ring with me during prom, and I hadn't remove a single key from it. Everything I'd told Clyde was a lie, but that didn't change the fact that there was now a key missing and I didn't have it.
But I was pretty sure I knew who did.
When Clyde picked me up the next morning, his first question when I entered the car was, "where's the key?"
Fortunately I was able to blame it on my absentmindedness that I'd forgotten it once again. For once I was happy to be such a forgetful person. I was also happy we were running late so it didn't give him any opportunity to park the car and wait for me to go inside and get it. Instead, Clyde merely sighed and left it at that. I knew I could only use that excuse for so long before I needed to come up with a solution to this problem.
Finding Tweek had become even more imperative than ever. I'd tried calling and texting him the night before but I'd received no response, so I had to bank on him showing up today at school.
The morning dragged, if only because I wanted lunch to get here faster. I got so impatient that I ended up waiting in front of his history classroom at the beginning of fifth period instead of going to my Spanish class. I figured if he was going to bolt when class ended I might as well apprehend him there when class started. That was unreasonable and little stalkery of me, I'll admit. Hell, I was certainly guilty of avoiding people I didn't want to confront all the time. But I was lying if I thought I was okay with this. I wanted answers, and I didn't like being ignored, so I had planned on nipping this weed in the bud.
That never happened, however, because while I stood outside the door waiting for Tweek to show up, I was approached and questioned by a teacher for being out of class and not having a pass. I tried convincing her I had gotten lost, but I'm a shit liar, so she shook her head and pointed down the hall, telling me to get back to my classroom.
Of course, I couldn't leave a conversation like that without flipping somebody off and this woman unfortunately happened to be the only one in the vicinity. My punishment involved a visit with the guidance counselor, who is this cute and bubbly twenty-five year-old post-grad psychology student with whom I have developed something akin to friendship from having been sent to see her so much. We don't even talk about my "issues" anymore; she knows as well as I do that half of these visits are a result of someone else's bullshit, so we kill time by playing these dusty old 90's board games she has stored away in her office or sharing a pack of Ritz crackers. Then she sends me back to class.
When fifth period finally ended, I power walked so briskly down the hall to get outside that I didn't bother waiting for Clyde and almost ran over a freshman. To my horror, Tweek was once again not at the table. In his place today was Red, sitting next to Token. That threw me for a second.
"What are you doing here?" I asked her. My eyes trailed from her face to arms down to her left hand where I noticed it was resting on the table, her fingers laced with Token's.
"Token and I are dating," she said. "You'd think this would make complete sense to you."
"You weren't here yesterday."
"God, we're not attached at the hip!"
I plopped down on the bench, looking at Token. "Why would you willingly subject yourself to this?"
"I'm right here, you jerkwad," she snapped.
"A fact I'm so painfully aware of." I sighed. "I hope this isn't going to be a regular thing."
"What, me sitting here? What is your deal this exclusivity anyway? What are you, nine?" She scoffed, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. "Token was alone and I just wanted to keep him company."
"He wouldn't be alone every day if a certain someone weren't avoiding us." I turned to Token. "You still haven't seen him?"
Token shook his head.
"Who, your baby-boo?" Red asked with a smirk.
Clyde snickered, and I was remembering why I had insisted upon exclusivity at our table.
"I've never pinned you as the concerned girlfriend type, Craig, but I guess life's full of little surprises like that."
She began absentmindedly picking at a thread on her violet cardigan. "If you care to know, I don't think he's avoiding just you four. I haven't seen him in class at all this week."
I raised an eyebrow. "You have a class with him?"
"Physics, third period. He's been absent."
Absent. I hadn't considered that. This certainly changed things. He might be sick. The soonest I was able to, I texted and called him on my cell phone, but received no answer. After waiting a few minutes and receiving no response, I texted and called Tweek again. I repeated this several more times, only pausing to lengthen the time between calls and hopefully dispel how pathetically clingy this might appear.
By the end of Tuesday, I think I had made 5 calls, 8 text messages and left 3 voice mails. They all consisted of variants on the same general thought: Tweek where have you been are you okay it's me Craig get back to me when you can.
I considered actually physically going to his house to see if he was alright, but I wasn't keen on having to interact with his parents again if it wasn't an emergency and I didn't necessarily have to. This thus forced me on Wednesday to resort to one of my last options, one I had been hoping to avoid.
Being that I was too distracted by this whole situation to use my lunchtime properly anyway, I chose that time to hunt down Kenny and drag him off by the crook of his elbow. He'd been sitting with his dumb friends at the time, so I unfortunately had to breathe the same air as them for a few more minutes than I would have otherwise liked to. When we were far enough away, I immediately demanded if he'd heard from Tweek at all.
"Maybe I have and maybe I haven't," he mumbled, glancing at his fingernails. At the last second his eyes snapped to me. "How was prom? You guys bang or what?"
"Cut the crap and answer my goddamn question. He's been MIA for the past three days."
He sighed, placing his hands on his hips and glancing skyward. "I called him last night since I hadn't seen him since Saturday, but he told me he couldn't talk and not to call him or see him for awhile and hung up. That's it."
He'd answered for Kenny, and not for me. That was fantastic. The only reason I didn't want to resort to asking this asshole was because I hated to concede to the idea that maybe Tweek still liked Kenny and them a little more than us.
"Did he sound sick at all?"
"Sounded fine to me."
And he wasn't even fucking sick? So he was just ditching then, and deliberately not speaking to me. It was looking more and more like I would have to end up actually going there if I wanted to talk to him, but if he was trying so hard not to talk to me, then that would probably make things worse.
"It's okay to admit you miss him, Stumpy, it's a perfectly natural feeling."
I walked away from Kenny and called and texted Tweek another handful of times, and when it produced zero results, I reluctantly concluded that the only other thing I could do was go to his house.
So after school that's exactly what I did.
Not wanting to walk over there at eight in the evening, I ended up having to ditch work that day. This required informing Clyde first, since technically he was my superior. I hadn't really spoken to Clyde all that day, either. Besides skipping lunch to go confront Kenny, I'd also managed to forgo my ride with him to school in the morning. As you know, I'm a big fan of physical activity and loosing precious hours of sleep in favor of school, so naturally I was super stoked to wake up extra early to bike to school in the morning, all to avoid fumbling over the new excuse I would inevitably have to give Clyde as to why I had yet to return the store key to him.
Being that I still had yet to come up with a good lie by the time I saw him in our only shared class together at the end of the day, I had to make my interaction with him brief. I came in as close to the bell as possible so as to not give him a chance to loiter around my desk before class and talk to me, and when I finally sat down, I quickly scribbled a note to him and tossed it over my shoulder before he could beat me to the punch.
I gotta skip work today if that's okay. I'm not really feeling well. I'll cover for you some other time, I promise.
It didn't take him very long to respond. The crumbled up ball landed on my desk before our teacher even got up from her desk to begin her lesson for the day.
Sure I guess? You okay? Is it TERMINAL?
I stared at the note, not sure if I should respond to it. He'd given me the okay, but I supposed I could spare one more exchange.
Do you think I'd be sitting here in class right now if it was terminal? Look, I'll be fine, I'll be back tomorrow. It's just one day.
Again, no more than a minute passed before the paper was back on my desk.
Alright alright I understand! And hey dude where've you been all day? I haven't seen you at all!
That was all the conversation I could make for now without giving too much of my true intentions away. In order to more convincingly avoid responding to him, I purposefully made and averted eye contact with our teacher more times for the duration of this class than I had collectively with any teacher for the last three years of high school. Everyone knows you don't make and avert eye contact with a teacher if you want to avoid getting called on in class. I'd mastered the ability to avoid this unnecessary attention and avoid getting called on for all of my school life, but I needed to undo all of that, just this once. I did it so many times during this class period that she ended calling on me to answer almost every other question and read every problem out aloud.
Since getting called on was my goal, I'd forced myself to pay attention to better accommodate the situation, so everything went pretty smoothly on my end. Clyde would understand that I couldn't respond to his note, but I could probably imagine his surprise at how participant I'd been for class. I'm fairly certain everyone was surprised. I could feel Stan Marsh's eyes on me every time I spoke up. This was probably the most my class had heard my voice that entire year.
On the bright side, I'm sure my class points had gone up by a few percentages just from this one day alone. That should tide me over to slack off for the remainder of the year.
When the bell rang, I didn't linger long enough for Clyde to speak to me. I quickly gathered up my shit, shoved it into my bag, spared him a quick wave, then dashed out the door before he even acknowledged what I was doing. I made my way to the bike rack I'd chained my bike to and, after unlocking it, took off in the direction of the residential area of South Park.
Since I don't drive, I have a bit of a lousy sense of direction, so, coupled with my godawful memory, it took me a bit of time before I was able to navigate my way onto Tweek's street. In the amount of time it took me to get there, I'd thought a lot about what I was about to do. Tried to rehearse it in my head. I couldn't imagine a single scenario where bringing up the lost key or the video camera would end well for me, and this entire idea of chasing Tweek down to his home was sounding less and less appealing. I'd already began to entertain ideas of giving up and turning around to go home, but that was around the time I was starting to see houses and landmarks that looked familiar, and I knew I was near to his house. I'd gone this far; I figured I might as well see him.
His mustard colored house rose in the distance and I slowed my pedaling so that the bike cruised by at a crawl. I'd had my eyes trained on the second floor window, the one right above the front door, where I knew his room was. His curtains were drawn and for a brief second I considered standing on his lawn and just calling to him up at his window.
It was only when I placed my foot out on the snow-covered asphalt to halt the bike that I noticed that his garage door was open. I hopped off my bike, wheeling it with my hands as I took steps closer to the house. Leaving the bike to lean against the mailbox right by the front lawn, I walked around the one car in the driveway and peered into the garage to investigate.
Inside were mountains of cardboard boxes. Most were closed and with various labels written along the sides, but a few were scattered around the garage floor with their lids opened.
I wanted to get a closer look but wasn't sure how close I was allowed to approach their area of their property without feeling invasive. That's when Tweek's mother stepped out from around one of the mountains of boxes. She was holding something wrapped in newspaper in her hands and when she had deposited it in the nearest open box, she picked up a cigarette from an ashtray I hadn't noticed before and drew it to her lips.
Now that I noticed it, I could smell it too and wondered why I hadn't seen or smelled it sooner. Likely it's because I had no idea she smoked and would have never pinned her as the type, but I suppose there was a plethora of other things about this family that I had no idea about. She held it delicately between her fingers and the languid way she went about raising it to her mouth and lowering it back down to her side was weirdly fascinating to watch.
I debated walking any further. I didn't really want to interact with her at all, but she was like a dragon standing between me and my true destination and was inevitably something I had to get through. While I stood around weighing my options, though, she spotted me in her peripherals, raising her head in my direction.
"Craig, sweetie! This is a surprise!" she said in that soft twinkly voice of hers.
I was thankful for the cigarette in her hand, as it kept her from reaching out to hug me, but I saw her put it out suddenly and I kept my distance.
"Hey, Mrs. Tweak." I spared a look at the boxes. "Spring cleaning?"
She appeared momentarily surprised, then glanced down to where I was looking and her face softened. "Something like that…" She dusted her hands on her apron and looked up at me again. "Well! What brings you here today? Don't you have an afterschool job of some sort?"
"Yes, uh, I took the day off. To see Tweek, actually. That's why I'm here."
She didn't say anything in response to that. In fact, after I spoke, she turned away from me, taking a few steps back into her garage to where I could now see her procuring mugs and dishes out of a laundry basket before she wrapped them each in sheets of newspaper.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets nervously and waited for her to at least respond. When the silence following my words became excruciatingly lengthy, I finally said, "he hasn't been at school at all this week and I figured he might be sick. Just wanted to check on him." I hoisted my backpack higher on my shoulder for effect. "I brought his homework assignments."
Something about what I said finally triggered a response from her. She glanced up at me again, smiling gently now. "Ah, yes. Sick. Yes, he hasn't been feeling well, so I've kept him home."
Oh really? That wasn't what Kenny said to me.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Just…a flu. Nothing dire, but he does need his rest." She took a few steps toward me, the bells on her earrings tinkling as she moved. "It was very sweet of you to miss work just to bring him his schoolwork. You're a good boy." More steps, more tinkling. "You can go ahead and hand those to me. I'll give them to him, and I'll let him know you stopped by."
"Actually," I said. "I was hoping to see him. I just wanted to talk about something with him -"
"Oh, no, dear, he's much too sick right now to be having visitors. He's been in bed all day and I'd really like him to rest and recover. Plus, I wouldn't want you to catch what he has." She kept smiling all while she spoke, but it had stopped looking friendly long ago.
"Please, it'll be really quick," I continued. "I can even stand on the other side of the door so I don't breathe the same air as him or whatever, it doesn't matter to me, I just-"
"Craig." The way she said my name made me shut up immediately. Her tone had completely changed. I was used to softness and the floaty, tinkling mannerisms of her speech. But she'd my name so sternly and commandingly, in a shift that was so unexplainably sudden it was like the water of a babbling stream instantaneously solidifying into ice. Her face too had changed, the smile of her lips straightening into a pert line, her eyes narrowing, her fingers tightening at her sides.
If I hadn't heard or seen it in person, I wouldn't have believed her capable of looking and sounding like this, but in an instant, it was gone. If I'd blinked I probably would have missed it. Her whole demeanor softened and she cocked her head when she looked at me, all the tenderness flooding back into her eyes.
"Dear, please trust me. As Tweek's mother, I believe I know what's best for him. And right now, it isn't you."
We stood at a standstill for a long time, her gaze unwavering, and after a moment, when I'd let the sudden stab of fear dissipate, I relented, reaching into my bag and removing the folder of assignments I'd collected from Tweek's classrooms at lunch. She accepted it from me, smiling and brightening up as she did so.
"I'm so sorry, dear, really, under other circumstances, you'd be more than welcome here. For now, perhaps come back some other time, yes? And make sure you let us all know before you do."
I nodded, not sure what else I could say, then retreated back to where I'd left my bike resting against their mailbox. As I rolled it off down their driveway, Mrs. Tweak suddenly called, "and Craig?"
I turned to look at her.
"When I say 'come back later,' I of course mean…after Tweek has recovered. In fact, for awhile, until you absolutely know for certain that he's well, it would probably be best if you didn't come back at all. I wouldn't want him to know you've been coming to see him and he's had to miss you. It would upset him too much and I don't want anything impeding his recovery."
This didn't feel good to me, but there was little I could do outside of sneaking around to the back of the house and scaling the walls. I glanced up, staring at Tweek's window where it was located right above the front door. He was so close, right there. Although, who's to say he was even home? Who's to say anything she said was true?
I stared back at her. She was still smiling.
So there went that plan.
In my sleep, I see stars, thousands of them, everywhere, so far and yet so close I feel I could touch them if I held my fingers out to do so. I'm in a desert, vast and red against the dark blue sky, and I'm standing at the edge of a cliff. I glance down and far below my feet are clouds and a bright blue sky, like I'm looking into a giant puddle that opens up into a different, mirrored world to my own. I take hasty steps backward, until I hit something, and when I turn around I see it's Tweek. He's holding a sack and without looking at me, he strides forward, close to the cliff's edge. I try to say something to stop him, but my voice sounds like it's coming from underwater, muddled and indecipherable. When he reaches the edge, he upturns the bag, and into the ravine, he dumps cold coins, thousands of them in an endless stream. My body started moving involuntarily, my feet taking shaky steps forward, my hands arms stretching out. I tried to pull them back to me but I was powerless to do so.
Then I pushed him.
I woke up covered in sweat.
I didn't get much sleep after that, and I went to school groggy and uncomfortable. I biked to school once more and at lunch, I found Kenny again.
"He said he didn't want to see you?" I asked him.
"That's what he said."
Kenny wouldn't work, then. Clyde and Token wouldn't work either. I didn't want them doing my shit for me anymore and anyway I needed a neutral party. A nice, likeable, neutral party that not even Tweek could reject if he showed up on his doorstop. I needed someone who had no affiliation to me.
Kenny stood by patiently while I racked my brain for my next move, watching me tug and twist the strings of my hat tightly around my fingers
"Who in our class lives the closest to him? Do you know?" I tried to keep any knowledge about my classmates as minimal as possible, so I certainly hadn't he faintest clue.
"Uh, Bebe lives a street over, Jimmy two houses down-Oh! Petuski, he lives across the street and three houses down."
Without thanking Kenny or even acknowledging what he said, I spun around and walked away immediately, ignoring the cries of confusion and protest he shouted at my retreating figure. Only when I put a few yards of distance between him and I did I stop to rifle through my backpack for a loose, unmarked sheet of notebook paper. Finding one and a pen, I set off again for the backfield that stretched out far behind my school's gymnasium.
The perimeter of my school is surrounded by a high chain-link fence, which really only completes the "state penitentiary" atmosphere I'm sure this place was going for. Near the section of the fence that bordered the backfield sat a tall row of aspen trees, and between that row of trees and the fence behind them was a dip in the ground that led to a long stretch of dirt. The elevation of the dip meant that all the rainwater and melted snow water seeped from the grass and trees and collected down here, leaving the dirt continually damp and muddy.
It was here that I found Reggie Petuski.
That name may not sound familiar, and that's because, to most of us, he was more unpleasantly well-known as Dog Poo.
It's not the most flattering nickname, but everyone has been calling him Dog Poo pretty much since our elementary school days. For reasons that still elude those of us that remember that day, he showed up to the classroom one morning covered in dirt and grime and smelling like wet dog. There was even this little flock of flies following him around, and he actually took to naming and addressing most of them.
I'm sure it would shock no one to discover that it was Eric Cartman who coined the name in the first place (although I believe his initial words were, "dog shit" rather than "dog poo"). His friends caught on, then some of the more popular girls caught on, then eventually by the end of the day everyone was calling him that.
Despite being a perfectly genial and well-mannered guy, someone who could probably rise in the social hierarchy if he so well pleased, it was by his own choice that he continued to go out in public covered in various shades of brown and smelling fouler than the boy's locker room. No one knew why he was like this and no one thought to ask, and people in general are often resistant to change, so the name stuck.
Or at least it stuck with most of us.
Kenny is actually the first person I've ever known who's insisted on calling Dog Poo by anything but that horrid nickname. When I asked why, he explained to me that he felt like he was returning his identity to him by refusing the nickname. This was important to Kenny, for whatever reason, and, because it sounded reasonable enough to me, I opted to pick up the practice as well.
"Petuski," I said when I was close enough for him to hear me but far enough away so that I didn't have to smell him.
Reggie glanced up from where he was laying flat on his belly, his attention previously fixed on the pages of what looked to be a copy of Les Miserables. He smiled a closed-lip smile.
I smiled back. "Dude, can you do me a solid?"
His reaction was less immediate, his eyebrows slowly knitting into a slight frown.
Realizing I was being a little forward, I tried again.
"I'm not bothering you, am I?"
He shook his head vigorously, and when he did, his mousy mop of hair tossed around ridiculously, sending dirt and twigs and grass flying out of it and all over the place.
"Thanks." I moved to sit down in the dirt about two feet away from him, but not before asking, "is it cool if I join you?" He nodded again, more dirt flying out as he did, and I plopped down, quickly reaching into my back pocket to pull out the sheet of paper and pen.
"If you don't mind, I'd like you to give this to someone for me," I said, my attention focused on scribbling on the paper. I glanced up to meet Reggie's eyes. "You know Tweek Tweak, right? He lives on your street."
Reggie nodded furiously, sending more dirt and grass all around him.
"He hasn't been to school in a few days, and I need to talk to him."
My note done, I began creasing and folding the paper, twisting it this way and that until it took on the shape I desired.
"Can you give this to him for me? When you get home from school today?"
It was a boat now, crude, but the only other shape I knew how to fold paper into besides an airplane.
Crawling closer to him, I held it out, and he didn't hesitate to accept it from me.
"The thing is I can't go because she specifically told me not to come back, and I couldn't ask any of my friends do this because she'd know this probably has something to do with me." I went back into my bag again and pulled out another folder of his homework assignments that I had collected. I handed it to Reggie. "As far as she knows, we don't hang out. Make sure it stays that way. If she asks, you're just there to give him homework. You don't know me. You don't associate with me. She's not going to let you see him, but you have to do what you can just to get five seconds with him. Just make sure he gets the boat, make sure he sees it. Can you do that, man?"
After inspecting the note for a second, turning it over and even pretending to float it along on an invisible river in front of his eyes, he suddenly reached out and patted the back of my hand, still smiling and now nodding.
I automatically flinched at the touch, but didn't pull away. Instead, I tried to return the smile again, but he'd already rolled away to where his canvas messenger lay in the dirt a few feet away. He carefully tucked the boat inside and then rolled back over to me, collecting more mud on his clothes as he did.
"Thanks, bro. I owe you."
I held out a knuckle and he bumped it automatically.
The deed done, I placed my palms flat against the mud, ready to push myself back to my feet.
Before I heaved myself forward, however, my eyes flickered to glance at him again, and I watched him turn back to his book, a soundless sigh shuddering across his shoulders.
I placed my hands back into my lap, remaining where I was.
"Could I crash here with you for the rest of lunch? We could walk to class together. I won't bother you. I swear"
He jumped slightly at the sound of my voice, and when he looked up at me, blinking, it became clear that he was actually surprised by my request.
The surprise didn't last long. His wide eyes and slightly gaping mouth were swiftly replaced by another grin, beaming this time and with a mouthful of teeth. I'm pretty sure there was a clump of dirt between his molars, but it didn't make it any less charming.
Before I could do anything else, he eagerly patted the dirt next to him, then pointed upward.
Following his silent instructions, I eased myself into a lying position, with my back flat on the ground and my gaze fixed upward. Peeking through the canopy of green leaves above us, the sky stretching wide and blue, a field of puffy white clouds crawled in varied shapes across my line of sight.
He leaned over close to me. He didn't smell too bad, I noted, maybe like a shirt that had sat in at the bottom of a laundry basket for a few weeks, but nothing too terrible.
When he placed his head close to mine, he bumped them together clumsily, and exclaimed, "cumulus clouds! Gorgeous, huh? That one kinda looks like a puppy!"
I grinned and nodded.
Reggie took that as an invitation to keep talking, which was fine by me, as I had a lot to get off my mind.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't the slightest bit nervous. About him not getting my note, about him not accepting my invitation. Worst of all I was afraid of confronting him and terrified of the hundreds of possible outcomes that could arise from it.
But I had to do something.
When I'd woken up from my nightmare last night, I had a lot of time to think about my situation.
I'd gone almost a week without seeing him again and this whole thing was starting to look all too familiar. I recalled back to a month or so prior, back before this silliness had been considerably less intense and less complicated, when the extent of our relationship was me sitting at my lunch table willing him to sit with me or talk to me or look at me. That seemed like a thousand years ago and like a very different Craig had been the one experiencing it.
So was I going to let this be a repeat of that? Just perpetuate this endless cycle of Craig being too much of a lazy uncaring fuck who gave up on anything that seemed too hard for him? Wait until my friends make the first move for me and accept whatever bullshit comes in my path with no complaint or action on my part?
I had to do something, something that wasn't big, something that wasn't small, something that would make things okay.
It was this or nothing.
It was getting closer to summer now, which meant the weather was getting hotter, more uncomfortable. Back here, though, the heat was barely noticeable. In fact, it was rather nice. The trees cast fat circles of shade around us and the mud wasn't so much wet as it was damp and cool. A low breeze raced through the trees, dancing across my skin, blowing through my hair, ruffling my clothes.
I slid an arm behind my head and let my eyes ease shut, dozing off to the gentle caress of the breeze and the sound of Reggie's seldom-heard voice spouting off cloud types and cloud shapes, right up until I couldn't tell whether I was dreaming them or they were really floating miles above me in the sky.
Friday is the third day in a row I've skipped my ride to school in the morning with Clyde, but I choose to ride my bike that day with the forethought of my destination after school. By the time I reach South Park Elementary, their dismissal bell has just barely rung and kids have already begun slowly filtering out the front doors.
I parked my bike at an available spot on a bike rack, then sat on the low brick wall next to it and waited. I watched kids and parents pass in and out of the building, saw cars and buses pull up to the curb and take off, all the while hoping I don't look too creepy sitting out here and that no one shoos me away for loitering or some bullshit like that. At some point I see my sister, and when he shy and giggly friends point me out, she glances at me, shoots me a thumbs up, then ushers them all off to the bus stop with her.
When the time between departing children lengthens dramatically, I assume most of the kids have left. I get up and march my way behind the school, to where I know the playground is. The snow has mostly melted and the ground is covered in dirty wet patches of grass, so with each step my shoes slide precariously. I slow my pace, and it lets me soak in my surroundings. I haven't been here in awhile, and it's hauntingly eerie when it's mostly vacated. I like it in a way that I've never liked it when I was a student here and its grounds were constantly filled with kids I knew.
The merry-go-round is exactly where I remember it, lonely and beckoning in the wide expanse of playground. I half-smile at it, as if to reassure it that I was coming, and I'm standing before it in seconds, running my fingers over the chipped paint of the handles.
When I ease myself onto it and sit, it jerks and squeaks and dips low to the ground and I fear it's threatening to give way under my ass. I picture myself busting the damn thing and ruining some kid's day come Monday, and chuckle a little to myself.
Glancing at my phone tells me it's about 3:45. If he was coming on time, it would be relatively soon.
My limbs were too long for me to be on this thing. With my legs drawn to myself, it felt cramped and uncomfortable, so I laid them both straight, my shoes poking out a foot over the edge and hovering above the ground. Idly, I stuck out my foot and pushed it against the ground, letting the merry-go-round turn and turn in a slow circle while I sat and stared out into the distance. Around me, the mountains and trees and buildings became a continuous blur of indecipherable shapes. Loud squeaks and creaks filled the silence around me. This thing hadn't changed a bit.
Then I saw him, small and approaching in the distance, and I stuck my foot out again, stopping it immediately.
I hadn't seen how he had arrived, whether he'd walked or drove or got dropped off. He had his hands shoved in his jacket pockets and his gaze was fixed on his feet. It felt like ages before he got close enough to me to speak.
"Hey," I said, ignoring the flip-flop of my stomach that occurred when he stood before me and raised his eyes to make contact with mine. I hadn't seen him in too long and seeing him now for the first time in awhile put into perspective just how badly I'd noticed his missing presence in my life. I'd been planning to tell him off for ignoring me for the past week but for the life of me I couldn't focus on much else besides the fact that he was in front of me right now.
He twitched in what could be construed as an acknowledging nod, then reaching into his back pocket. "I, uh, I got your boat."
He held it out. It was a bit crumpled from sitting in his pocket, but was mostly intact. From where I was sitting I could make out my handwriting on the side of it, the words, "Friday. 4pm. South Park Elementary. I'll see you there," clearly visible.
"You like it? Sorry it's not hardcore, like the fucking Eiffel Tower or something. I'll leave the fancy shit up to you."
He turned it over between his fingers. "Well, the folds could use some work, but it might hold up in a puddle."
"Shut the fuck up," I said through a grin. He smiled, his first of the day, his first I'd seen way too long.
"So," he heaved a small sigh. "What am I doing here exactly?"
I patted the space on the merry-go-round next to me. He hesitated at first, but then eased down next to me. The thing groaned under our combined weight, but it was still able to spin, and when Tweek sat down, it began to do so slowly.
"Haven't seen you around in a few days," I said offhandedly.
He paused before responding, choosing his words carefully as he does. "I've, er, I've been at home."
"No shit. Why the hell were you ignoring me?"
"Is that your one question?" He's smiling, but the smile doesn't reach his eyes.
I didn't return the look and the smile left his face.
"No, we're not doing this game right now," I said. "I'm serious."
"I wasn't ignoring you…specifically. Sometimes I just don't want to be around people or talk to people. It happens. I've done this before."
"Were you even sick?"
"That's what your mom said. I stopped by the other day to drop off your homework."
"Oh, well." He shrugged. "She knows I need to stay home sometimes, obviously; otherwise she'd just make me go to school. She lies for me so no one really asks questions."
"You could've told me that," I said, avoiding eye contact by reaching over for my bag and rifling through it.
"Sorry. To be fair, I'd literally cut off contact from the world. I left my phone in a different room."
"So what changed your mind today?"
"Look at this boat! How could I say no to this?" In my peripherals I saw him turn it over in his hands, a faint look of fondness flooding his face. "And I did eventually check my phone. Sorry I didn't return any of the calls. I wasn't really up for talking."
When I didn't respond, he continued, laughing, "what a needy girlfriend you are, though. Seriously. You averaged about eight calls a day. Don't even get me started on the texts."
"Well, I mean - " I pause in my rifling and shut my eyes tightly, suddenly blurting out, "missed you." Oh, god, that was weird, that was way too weird - "I mean, we missed you." Still weird. "Like, we noticed you were missing. Um."
nice save, moron
I snuck a glance at him. He wore a small, hopeful smile. I drank in the sight before staring back into my bag.
My hands had long since found what I was looking for and I finally pulled it out, holding it before him. "I've got a surprise for you."
When his eyes landed on the video camera, his smile faded and a flush colored his whole face. "Y-you…" He bit his lip hard and tore his gaze from the camera to stare at me with wide eyes. "You still have that?"
I nodded and pushed it into his fingers, which opened up automatically to accept it.
I was hoping that he would press play himself, but even with it cradled between his hands, he merely stared at it like he couldn't believe it was real, so I reached over and pressed it myself.
Judging by the look on his face when the video started, I could tell he knew better than I had what was on it. He looked nervous at first, but as the video progressed, his expression faltered, changed. He was soon smiling, small, then wide, then laughing quietly to himself.
By the end of it, his eyes were downcast again, his eyebrows knitted together.
"I didn't know you kept this," he said quietly, lowering the camera slowly onto his lap.
"I assumed you got rid of it or taped over it or something."
I nodded at it. "Didn't you hear that little dork? He said he didn't want to forget you. Of course he was going to keep the video."
He sat forward, frowning. "But you did forget!"
"I didn't want to! It just happened!"
"'It just happened,'" he sneered. "You had this fucking thing! That was the point of it, so it wouldn't 'just happen'!"
"Yeah, I wondered about that," I said, trying to remain calm so he would hopefully follow suit. "If I remember correctly, after you left, I watched it a lot, maybe at least once a day? The longer you'd been gone, though, the less frequently I watched it. It turned into once every other day, then once a week, then once a month. I think about a year or so after you'd been gone I just stopped watching it altogether."
"I think it started making me sad?" I shrugged. "I mean, it was there to remind me you exist, but it also reminded me that I didn't have the real thing. It wasn't the same."
"It made you sad, so you let yourself forget? Wow," he shook his head. "What about me, huh? Don't you think it made me 'sad' not to even have the option to do that? I didn't even have a video of you I could just FORGET about."
I was quiet a moment. "Would you? If you could? I wouldn't blame you if you said yes, it's okay."
He laughed a harsh little laugh. "What a fucking JOKE. I can't imagine a universe where I wouldn't remember you. You have no idea. Even if I could just forget about you like that, even if I wanted to? It would have been impossible, not with how comfortably you'd made yourself a home in my brain."
He shook his head. "God, you will never understand how badly I clung to you." He looked up at the sky. "I memorized you. I could have recreated your likeness. If I hadn't seen you in a hundred lifetimes, I would always remember you."
He glanced at me. I could see in his eyes that he knew exactly what I was asking, but he still said, "why what?"
"Why did you…cling to me?"
His eyes averted to stare into the horizon. "South Park sucks, but no matter how many places I moved, I missed it. It was home and I couldn't say the same of anywhere else I'd been. I guess I clung to you because my fondest memories of you were my fondest memories of home. I was clinging to my memories of something stable, of something fixed and stationary and unchanging."
I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding, my long stream of warm breath visible in the cold air. My insides were churning. In the silence that pervaded, my brain whirled with a single question repeating itself over and over until I felt like the top of my head would pop off and it would spew out like a volcano.
I wanted so badly to say it, with only the fear of what he might say holding me back. Much stronger was the fear that I would wait too long and I would lose the moment and he wouldn't give me an answer at all.
Before I could press further, he started speaking again, and I feared I lost my chance. "Can you imagine? After all that time, I remember everything about you and the first time I see you again in eight years, you don't even know my name." He rubbed at his eye with his knuckle. "What a waste of time."
I remembered back to the day Red had confronted me a few days before prom, when she'd told me she was happy to have finally gotten over her infatuation for me. She too had called her years mooning over me as a waste of time. I suppose this was to be the expectation for anyone who unwisely laid their affections with me. Time wasted. Made sense to me. I could have told anyone that. I should come with a warning label.
"Tweek, I'm a piece of shit," I blurted, staring at him. The suddenness of my comment surprised him into glancing up at me in surprise. "I'm weak and I'm a coward. When my emotions go haywire, I bury them deep and let myself forget. I couldn't deal with you being gone and for eight years I did what I always do and let myself forget. And I was okay with that.
"But you didn't. I don't know what you went through in the past eight years being away from home and all your friends and everything that was familiar. I don't know because I never had to go through it myself, but you did. Your life fucking sucked but you met it head-on, all on your own, without the luxury of blissful ignorance. I mean, I can't imagine your parents were much comfort?"
"Not really, no."
"Didn't think so." In a rush of impulse, I grabbed placed my hand over his, where it was resting on the metal of the merry-go-round. "You're a fucking amazing, y'know that? Holy shit."
He shook his head in disbelief. "I'm not! No, don't you get it? You don't know me, man, I fucking told you - "
"Shut up, I don't care. You did it and you survived and you're awesome. Jesus Christ Tweek. I said you were the strongest person I know, and I fucking meant it."
I felt him freeze up from where I was touching him. He stared up at our hands, then back up at me, his eyes wide. "You remember that too?"
I nodded. "Only when I mentioned the hospital in the video, but yeah. I remember. I remember you kicking my ass on the playground and kicking my ass in our hospital room. I remember the black eye and the broken nose you gave me. I remember spending the night at Hell's Pass because we were both too beaten and bruised to go home yet. I remember staying up late that night because neither of us could sleep and realizing we knew very little about each other, even though we'd been going to school together for years.
"It was 2 AM and you told me about your rock collection and your useless Indiana Jones trivia and your pet bird. You told me about your inattentive parents, about all the anxieties you have, the way the other kids made fun of you behind your back and to your face because they thought you were fucking weird. I told you that I thought you were the strongest kid I'd ever met, that you didn't need anyone to protect you, and eight years later, that's never been more true. I hope you haven't lost sight of that."
He stared at me for a long time. I could see his eyes searching my face, looking for…what? The honesty? The sincerity? Whatever it was, five long seconds passed before his expression crumbled. I didn't have a chance to react to that, though, because he quickly whipped his head around so I could no longer see his face. He'd snatched his hand out of my grasp as well, using it and the other to grip the sides of his head. He continually ran his fingers through the strands of his hair, over and over in such a nervous flurried fashion, and his breathing was coming fast and short, his shoulders heaving and shaking along with it.
At long last, his movements halted, his shoulders relaxed, and after a deep breath his hands dropped down into his lap.
"You're still the only one who has ever told me that."
"Well, more people should say it because it's true."
"Stop talking." He turned back to me, staring at me with solemn eyes. "Have you ever had someone tell you something about yourself that you'd been insecure about your entire life?"
"I don't - "
"That was a rhetorical question." He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, and then, saying it as if it were a breath he'd been holding in for too long, he finally uttered, "I fell for you that day."
I didn't really process the words right away. They zipped past me like they were in a hurry to get away unnoticed, but I heard them all the same and my mouth went dry.
Tweek's eyes popped open and he flushed brightly as he glared, as if he wasn't eager to repeat himself. "When we were eight-years-old and side by side in the hospital and you told me you thought I was strong, I fell in love with you. I mean, about as in love with you as an eight-year-old can be with another eight-year-old."
I swallowed. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." He glanced at the snow. "I still remember the feeling when it happened. Like - Like I was going to throw up? But in a good way?"
"That…" I was still having trouble forming words. "Sounds familiar."
He smiled wryly. "I'm sure."
I was hoping he'd elaborate after this but it just ended there. About a thousand more questions had now flooded my brain and I didn't know where to begin or even whether I should speak. What was happening right now was so bizarre and unreal to me that I felt like if I said too much I might shatter the illusion.
"So…" That was as good a start as any I guess. "So…then…?"
"We were friends for a year and then I left!" He threw his hands up in the air. "I was hoping that would help me get over it since I doubted we were ever coming back. But in the years I was gone, I couldn't stop thinking about you, like I said. I fell more deeply for you just because of how much my memories of you meant to me, y'know?
"The worst part is that we did come back! I was hoping my stupid childhood crush had ended but in my first week back I caught glimpses of you on campus and across town and it was so embarrassing how bad I still had it for you." He the blush on his face only grew deeper the more he spoke. "So I tried to avoid you, but I couldn't, it's impossible in a town so small. Even when I found out you had forgotten me, I hated you for it because I still loved you so much."
"Then why - ? I mean..." I was flustered and it was hard to form words. "Why didn't you say anything when I told you how I felt? You made it seem like you didn't reciprocate!"
"I tried to dissuade you so you would drop it. I mean, just because I had feelings for you didn't mean I wanted you to feel them back for me." He shrugged. "I didn't think you would like me so much if you really knew me. And I didn't want to wait for that to happen. Being loved by someone is a lot of pressure when you don't feel like you deserve it."
I wanted to protest here, of course, wanted to touch him again and reassure him with all the words I could muster that no, you do deserve it, I like you so much and I don't care what you're really like -
But he kept going.
"'But, Tweek,'" he heaved with a sigh, his tone dropping all emotion and adopting a nasal monotonous quality as he imitated my voice. "'Why tell me now? If you didn't want me to know so I wouldn't get my hopes up, what the hell is this?'" He glanced up at me, and speaking in his normal voice again, said, "right?"
"Don't worry. I'll let that be your one question." His cleared his throat. "The is not the first time I've been continuously tempted by something that's hard to resist but I know is bad for me. It's hard to fight it and it's easy to just give in and let it happen. So here I am, letting it happen."
I think back to the first time I saw him at my job, when he stole that apple. He came back every day that week and stole something new, and I wondered why a thief would return to the scene of a crime again and again. And I think back to all the times he had nasty attitude toward me, but then all the other rare moments where he was considerably sweeter. I thought about all the ways these moments both confused me and drew me to him at the time they were happening.
Everything made sense now. He wasn't just playing around with me. He was fighting himself. He wanted so badly to squash his own feelings, to not get too close to me, but he couldn't help himself.
That sounded familiar too.
"One Craig question answered," he continued, pointing lazily in my direction. He pivoted the finger and jabbed it against his chest. "My turn. Question one: what now?"
"Huh?" I was still reeling from everything else that had just happened, I couldn't quite focus on the simplicity of the question.
"You brought me all the way out here to show me that thing, you coerced way too information much out of me, now what?"
I didn't really have an answer for that. I didn't expect anything. I did hope that this would magically fix everything, but I didn't know what "fixing everything" was supposed to look like. I guess I just wanted us to be friends again and for everything to be normal. I certainly didn't expect him to confess his feelings for me.
"It wasn't supposed to do anything, I just - wanted to show it to you. Show you that I still had it." I shrugged. "I'm sorry I forgot about you, okay? I was just trying to find a way to prove how sorry I am so you could forgive me and we could move on." I glanced up. "But now I know why you were really upset. It went far beyond me simply forgetting your name and I get it now. I understand."
He raised an eyebrow. "Do you?"
I hesitated. "…or maybe I don't? Maybe I don't know the extent of it, I'm not going to assume anything anymore, but I at least have a better idea, alright? I know I fucked up. You had every right to be livid with me. I'm sorry."
He didn't say anything, so I continued.
"The point was to be able to move on. I wanna start over. Not ignore everything like it didn't happen - just start making some new memories or something gay like that. Especially now that - "
"Now that we've both made it clear that we have feelings for each other?" He snorted. "Okay, question two, kind of a follow-up to the first one: what kind of new memories, Craig? Ones where we're dating? You wanna be my boyfriend?"
It was one thing for me to imagine it, for other people to say it, for me to say it myself. Hearing him say the words brought about a whole new sensation, one I couldn't give a name to, one that involved my heart dropping into the pit of my stomach and a chill sweeping across every inch of my skin. I now understood why Marsh vomited on everyone he's had romantic inclinations toward.
"And what happens when you get tired of me? Or when you come to your senses and realized how fucking awful it is to be around me too long? Those memories are just going to be a slew of new ones for you to forget, huh?"
"That's not going to happen!" I said. "Dude - fuck - I mean fine if you wanna shit all over yourself, whatever! I think you're pretty awesome, but I'm not going to sit here arguing about that right now. And I'm not going to sit here making promises that I'm never going to forget about you again, because I've done that once before and I doubt you're going to believe me at this point. I can tell you though, all that stuff doesn't fucking matter too much, because I'm not going to let you go."
"You sound fairly confident." His raised his eyebrows. "Do you really mean that?"
"That your third question?"
I sighed. "Because I've never liked anything or anyone quite like how I like you and I doubt I'm ever going to again. Trust me, this is the most bizarre thing I've ever gone through, I doubt it's gonna happen again."
He cocked his head ever so slightly, still staring at me, still reading me. "What if I tried to leave?"
"Not in the sense that we date and I leave you, mind you. What if I just leave? Physically leave?"
"I'd try and convince you to stay, I guess."
"But would you follow me?"
"If you didn't stay?"
"If I didn't stay."
I blinked, mulling it over in my head. "I might, yeah. I'm not so impulsive, but for you, I just might."
Silence again, and then,
"Because I want to, you know."
I looked up at him. "What?"
"I want to leave."
"Leave…where? Where are you going?"
"I want to leave South Park."
I froze. "What? When? Why?"
"It's like you said. Start over and make new memories and all that. I want to leave, I want to go somewhere far."
I remembered my visit to his house a few days ago. "Is that why your mom had all those boxes in the garage? Are you moving again?"
"No." He cast his eyes downward for a moment. "Well, they want to move again. I won't disclose why; you can use that for your one question on a different day. This is unrelated."
"Weren't you just saying you missed home?"
"I was also saying I've been fighting a long battle with myself that I can never win. I was hung up on this place, but it's time to leave. No parents. No agenda. My own terms. I'm done playing safe. I want out. I want to leave."
"Is this—" I licked my lips. I wasn't going to bring this up yet, had planned to do it in a more timely and calculated manner, and it was a great risk on my part to do it now, but I asked anyway. "Does this have anything to do with the break in at the grocery store?"
Fire flashed in his eyes for the briefest of seconds. "That has nothing to do with me."
I didn't say anything more. We had made so much progress I didn't want to ruin it by pressing further.
Now would probably not be a good time to ask him about the missing key.
"No, I've wanted to leave for awhile. Just pack up a bag full of my crap and start walking."
He was being ridiculous. There were a million and one reasons why this was not a good idea. We were seventeen-year-old high schoolers, there was no way he could just up and dump his life and expect it to end well. It was not as romantic as the movies and books led anyone to believe.
"What would it take for me to convince you that that is a pretty stupid idea?" I said.
He shrugged. "Maybe show me there's something worth sticking around for?"
That would be kind of hard. I wasn't particularly fond of our small town myself. It didn't really have a lot going for it.
Tweek could tell I was struggling to formulate a response. He was smiling a smug little grin at my silence.
"After all, why should I stay? So I can finish in school and graduate and go to college? Like I have ambitions that high."
I could work with that. "I thought you wanted to be an archaeologist or a geologist or something. You gotta go to school for that."
"I also wanted to be Indiana Jones."
"He's a professor! Hate to break it to you, dummy, but that requires school."
"No, Dr. Jones was a professor. Indy was an adventurer."
He had a point.
After I fumbled to think of something more to offer and failed after uttering the beginning of two or three different thoughts, he smiled pitifully at me and I gave up.
"Well if you're finished with your compelling argument," he said, "may I offer a rebuttal?"
I said nothing.
"If you come with me - " He picked up the camera where it laid forgotten next to us. "New memories start right now." I watched his fingers dance along the buttons, hovering over the red REC button, and before I could stop him, he stamped the button with his thumb, and aimed the camera right at me.
"Look, it's Craig. Say Hi, Craig."
"What the hell are you doing."
"Craig is seventeen years old and he's about to go on an adventure with me. We're going to walk all the way to Norway or Mali or fuckin' Idaho or some shit."
"Yeah? You sure of that?"
"Yup, and here's how I know, you ready?" He turned the camera on himself and started talking straight to it. "When you watch this in eight years after having forgotten me for the second time, I hope you remember exactly what happens next, alright, you asshole?"
Then he put the camera down, reached forward, grabbed the strings of my hat flaps, pulled me to him, and crashed his lips hard against mine. My eyes were wide and I could see every bit of his face, could see the curve of his nose and count the eyelashes of his closed eyelids. I felt his lips vibrate as he hummed against me, could feel the tip of his nose brush mine as he tilted his head to get a better angle. I memorized all the details, drinking them in, and just as my eyes started to slide shut, he pulled away, standing up as he did.
I'm a bit embarrassed to say that a whine may have escaped me and my body may have involuntarily moved along after him.
He smiled in amusement at what was likely a ridiculous look on my face and I was gracious he resisted the urge to laugh.
"There's more of that where that came from," he said, now holding out his hand. "You wanna see for yourself?"
This was still really stupid to me. There was no way this was going to work and I was so utterly convinced that if we didn't get abducted or lost or murdered somehow, we were just going to end up coming home within a day.
But he had his mind set and I couldn't just let him go off alone. If anything, I could spend the whole "adventure" convincing him that turning around is the best idea. No, it had nothing to do with how badly I wanted to kiss him again, nor did it have anything to do with how I'd say yes to anything he asked of me at this point. Certainly not.
I reached out to grab his hand and let him pull me to my feet, and when neither of us let go at all, our interlocked fingers swinging together between us, I figured, eh, why the hell not.
I could deal with that missing key later.