A Dustland Fairytale
Kenny is five years old when he meets Eric Cartman. Five years old, lying in the snow beside Stark's Pond, which is completely iced over, huddled in a too-big orange parka (a hand-me-down from his brother Kevin), and still slowly freezing to death. His brain hasn't quite grasped the concept of Death yet, not properly, but with his own simple logic, he has realised that the things which break other people can't seem to break him.
Cartman and Stan Marsh are friends by force, pushed together by their mothers who seem to be friends by choice. That day, Sharon Marsh visits Lianne Cartman for a coffee, and the two boys are bundled up in hand-knitted scarves and hats and thick, warm coats, and shoved outside to play. They complain as they shuffle through the still-falling snow, almost tripping over Kenny's limp body when they reach the pond. His lips have already begun turning blue, but he still manages to glare at Cartman when the other boy prods him.
Stan and Cartman argue over whether they should take him home with them. Cartman seems all for leaving the boy here to freeze, or even dumping his body in the pond so it'll be faster, and Stan looks ready to puke at the suggestion. Finally, he runs back off in the direction of his house, presumably to get his mother, calling back over his shoulder "Just stay with him Cartman, you big fat meanie!"
Kenny rolls his eyes (the only part of his body he can still move) and mutters "What a wimp...", the words slightly muffled by the hood of his parka.
Cartman looks surprised for a brief moment, before a grin spreads over his face. Wordlessly, he pulls off his own warm jacket and hands it to Kenny.
Kenny is seven when Kyle Broflovski arrives in South Park, dragged away from his old life in San Francisco by a pushy mother who wants her son to grow up in a quiet mountain town, away from all the "bad influences" of city life.
It turns out that Kyle's father was friends with Stan's father in high school, and once again the boys are pushed into an awkward friendship by their parents. Gerald Broflovski and Randy Marsh plan a barbeque, and Sharon Marsh invites Lianne Cartman. Once again, Stan and Cartman are sent outside to play, this time with the addition of Kyle.
Cartman is somewhat annoyed by the new boy. He and Stan aren't the greatest of friends, he knows, but he can't help feeling just a little jealous when he sees how Stan and Kyle have already hit it off. He's also irritated that he's being ignored by the other two (who are holding an animated conversation about football, which he can't stand), and so he cuts Stan off in mid-sentence by grabbing him by the arm and dragging him in the direction of Kenny's house.
Kenny waves at them cheerfully with a mostly empty glass bottle of whiskey from the rickety front porch of the crumbling house. "I've gotta finish collecting Dad's bottles so Kev can take them to the recycling plant, but I'll be down soon!" he calls. Cartman and Stan nod, and slump down in the snow to wait for Kenny, their breath misty in the chilly air.
"Is he your friend?" Kyle asks curiously, with just a hint of disbelief on his face. "I mean, he looks super poor. Is his dad an alcoholic or something?" He raises an eyebrow at Stan, who looks uncomfortable.
Neither Cartman nor Stan have ever really thought about it, but now that they do, they realise their friend is poor. Maybe that's why their parents are allowed to be friends with Kyle's parents, but not Kenny's. Cartman is really angry at Kyle now, but he also feels a sudden rush of shame.
"Yeah, he is" he snaps at Kyle. "You should see the inside of their house, it's a real dump".
Stan looks a little startled by his outburst, but Kyle just nods, apparently satisfied by Cartman's answer. Kenny finishes his job soon after, and the four of them end up sitting on the snow-covered embankment beside the railway tracks that run close to Kenny's house. Cartman keeps looking over at Kenny, trying to figure out if the other boy had heard what he said earlier. It's hard to tell, because Kenny's still-too-big parka covers up most of his face, but Cartman has a nasty suspicion that he did.
He looks for an idea to prove to Kyle that Kenny is actually really cool, and suggests that they play chicken. Stan is excited by the idea, telling his new friend "Kenny's super good at this game, dude! He always wins!", but Kyle hangs back, saying his mom wouldn't want him to play such a dangerous game.
Cartman scoffs at him, and the three boys assemble in a line across the tracks as Kyle watches from the safety of the embankment. Soon enough, the rails begin to hum beneath them, indicating an approaching train. Predictably, Stan is the first one to chicken out, making a break for the embankment when the train is still only a blotch in the distance. Cartman stays longer, waiting until the train is only a few metres away, before he scrambles up the side of the bank as well. Kenny remains fixed to his spot, not moving as he gazes steadily at the dark shape bearing down on him. For a moment, he wonders if his life is worth anything at all, since his friends are obviously ashamed of him.
Kyle screams (like a little girl, Cartman thinks) as the train hits the boy head-on, splattering his insides across the tracks. Both he and Stan start laughing hysterically at the horrified expression on the new boy's face. Cartman is too busy laughing at Kyle to remind Stan that he used to freak out every time Kenny died as well. Both of them have seen it happen so many times by now that they are desensitized to the whole concept of Death. In their seven-year-old minds, it is funny.
"It's fine, dude" Stan says to Kyle, trying to calm him down. "He'll come back soon. He always does".
Sure enough, Kenny materializes without a scratch a few minutes later, on the other side of the tracks. Cartman and Stan both cheer as he raises his arms above his head in victory.
Kyle is still in shock, so Stan ends up taking him home. Cartman chooses to stay behind with Kenny, and the two of them stretch out in the cold afternoon sun, and talk about their favourite television show, Terrance & Phillip. It's something they can't do with Stan, because Sharon won't let him watch it. At that age, the fact that Kenny's parents don't give a crap about what he does seems like an advantage. As for Cartman, Lianne would let her son get away with murder.
Kenny's older brother, Kevin, comes back from the recycling plant a few hours later, and tosses the two boys a bag filled with cheap candy. Most of the money he makes from selling his father's empty bottles goes toward groceries, but he always makes sure to get a treat for his younger sibling.
Cartman ends up spending the entire afternoon at the McCormick's house, and Kevin teaches him and Kenny to how to skateboard. Kevin is eleven years old at the time, and to Cartman's seven-year-old eyes, he is one of the coolest people on the planet. Cartman wants an older brother too, one who owns a battered skateboard and has colourful band-aids on his knees (the sign of a true dare-devil), and most importantly, one who spends time with him.
The three of them are still outside when sunset arrives, the sky awash with crimson and violet and gold. They lean against the creaky wood of the house, watching the steadily darkening sky. When Cartman asks if he can share Kevin, Kenny laughs and nods proudly, and Kevin leans over to ruffle Cartman's hair. In his mind, Kenny has already forgiven Cartman for what he said earlier, because it's clear to him that, out of all Cartman's 'friends', he is the only one that was chosen by him and not his mother.
Kenny is eight when Cartman proves just how much of a sociopath he is. Having been cheated out of sixteen dollars and twelve cents by ninth-grader Scott Tenorman, he tries to get every kid in their class to help him with his revenge. Most of them (Stan, Kyle, and even himself included) refuse immediately, but that doesn't stop Cartman.
Instead, he comes up with the most twisted plan that anybody in South Park has ever seen, one that involves him arranging for Scott's parents to be shot, chopping them up with a hacksaw to turn them into chilli, and worst of all, tricking Scott into eating it. He literally gets away with murder on that day, because he didn't kill them himself, or pay anyone off to do it. The only weapon he used to ensure the murder happened was the stupidity of crazy redneck farmers.
It's the most cold-blooded thing the boys have seen, and Stan and Kyle immediately begin to distance themselves from Cartman. Kenny doesn't. Cartman accepted his biggest fault on that long-ago day, when they were seven and Cartman asked to share Kevin, despite the fact that he and his brother were nothing but poor white trash. Now he will accept Cartman's faults.
Kenny is nine when Cartman finds out he has a brother after all. Scott Tenorman turns up again, a ghost from Cartman's past come back to haunt him. Cartman is disbelieving when Scott throws everything back in his face by screaming "you killed your own father – and then you fed him to your half-brother!", disbelief that soon turns to shock.
Cartman accepted the fact that he would never know who his father was a long ago, but Scott has reopened his deepest emotional scar and then dumped a truckload of salt into it (Kenny, incidentally, knows exactly what it feels like to have a truckload of salt dumped on your wounds). When Cartman cries later on, he tries to pass it off as just another joke, "I just found out I'm half-ginger, of course I'm upset!", but everyone can see that for once in his life, Cartman is truly horrified by his own actions. Nobody rips on him about it, not even Stan or Kyle.
The snow is beginning to thaw a few weeks later, and patches of soft, green grass are peeking through, when Cartman and Kenny sit side by side in their old spot on the embankment beside the railway tracks. It's the first time Kenny has seen him for almost a month, and he's ridiculously glad to know that Cartman hasn't done anything stupid like committed suicide or something. Death may be an open door to him, but Kenny doesn't think it works that way for other people.
They sit there for almost an hour without saying anything. Finally Cartman says "Well... I guess we won't need to share your brother anymore". His voice is choked by unshed tears.
The sunlight is brighter than Kenny can ever remember it being, and he is boiling inside his orange parka, which fits him perfectly at last. He loosens the strings and pushes back the hood, running a hand through his messy blonde hair.
Softly, he lays a hand on Cartman's shoulder. "Eric" he says, his voice unmuffled for once, "It will be okay".
Kenny is twelve when their group of four breaks up for good. Stan and Kyle, who have become increasingly distant over the years, drop Cartman and Kenny completely.
Kenny spends an increasing amount of time over at Cartman's house after that. They play video games and eat junk food, and pretend not to notice as Cartman's mother gets thinner and starts drinking more every day. Sharon Marsh stops popping over to Lianne's for coffee. The Broflovski's have not invited her over for a barbeque in a while. The shelves in the usually well-stocked pantry begin to empty, and are not refilled. Lianne leaves the house less and less, and spends more time just lying on the couch or in bed, staring at nothing.
Neither of them says anything, but both have realised that Lianne is getting old, and her looks have begun to fade. And that her looks were necessary for her to make an income in the way she did.
They keep the curtains in the house drawn, so the sunlight streaming through the windows will not give Lianne a headache while she deals with being hungover. Outside, the snow has almost completely disappeared except for the occasional patch here and there.
Kenny is thirteen when Cartman leaves South Park.
His mother is dead, her body worn down by years of abuse, and he is being sent to live with his closest relatives, which just happen to be Scott Tenorman and his paternal grandparents. That makes them Cartman's grandparents as well, although he can't really think of them like that, having never met them because they live all the way out in Kansas.
He doesn't say goodbye to Kyle or Stan, but just before he leaves, he presses a quick, light kiss to Kenny's cheek. It is over so fast that Kenny is left wondering if it ever happened at all.
Kenny is fifteen.
He hasn't spoken to Stan and Kyle in years, not properly. His sort-of-friend Craig Tucker lets him tag along with his group, and he repays them by supplying them with the leftover alcohol strewn around his house (years of watching his father, and later, Cartman's mother, waste away on it have ensured that he will never touch the stuff). Occasionally, he supplies Tweek Tweak with weed, the one thing that can get him to stop twitching, and hands his father's discarded Playboy magazines over to Clyde Donovan. In return, they accept him and his poverty without question.
He spends most of his time sitting alone beside the railway tracks, watching the pale wisps of cloud morph in the dusky blue sky. The sun melts and twists the metal rails slowly, and the rising shimmers of heat cast a haze over the ground.
As he gets older, it takes longer for him to come back after he dies. It used to take only minutes, then hours, but now he comes back to find whole weeks have passed. He wonders if it's because there's not much left for him to live for.
Kenny is seventeen when Eric Cartman comes back.
That day, he walks past the tracks in the direction of Stark's Pond. The sun beats down mercilessly from the cloudless sky, as he crunches over the dead brown and yellow grass.
Stark's Pond is beginning to dry out. A dark ring has formed around the edges as the water slowly shrinks away. Dustclouds rise up from the scorched earth and swirl around his shoes as he walks.
He stops next to the figure spread out on the dry ground, reminiscent of the way he lay in this very spot at the age of five, waiting for the cold to take him.
He smiles, bitterly, when Eric's lips meet his own.
Cartman, who seems to break other people, can't break him.