I remember dying for the first time when I was four. It was painful. Like, super painful. I was playing through my mom's lighter, trying to see if I could get the flames to latch onto my clothes. Then a bus drove over me.

I woke up in hell. Naturally, I was very confused, and when I tried to ask what was going on, everyone ignored me. There was another little kid there, named Damien, and Satan took me to meet him and told him I would be his playmate forever and ever. We played Cops and Robbers for seventeen minutes, and then I came back to life. I remember the shocked expression on Damien's face as his first friend faded away and left him.

xxx

I gave my first blowjob when I was eight. I got paid ten bucks to do it. I remember thinking, just five more minutes, five more minutes, five more minutes and it'll all be over. The bastard came in my mouth.

When I died the next week, Damien punched me in the face and told me I was gross and homo. I refused to play checkers with him and sang a muffled, 'la-di-dah, I'm not listening" when he tried to apologize.

xxx

I tried my first drug (not cat pee, but real weed) when I was ten. The high made me feel alive. I could sing. I could dance. The colors consumed me. Everything felt a thousand times more real than it ever did.

And then, of course, before I could even come down, another freaking bus had to hit me and I woke up in hell.

Damien, who'd been watching me, dragged me up to his house and made me tell him exactly what it was like.

"It was awesome," was all I could say.

He sits on his bed, hugging his pillow, rocking back and forth. "But what was it like?"

"Don't you have drugs down in hell? Try it yourself."

"Maybe I will," he says.

"Don't let your dad find out," I warn.

He snorts and waves his hand. "Every night at dinner he asks 'how was your day' and every night I say, 'fine.' He won't find out."

"Okay, then." And, smiling slyly, I pulled the rest of my joint out of my pocket and shared it with him.

xxx

I wanted something, really wanted something, really, really badly, for the first time when I was eleven years old. I stood in front of the shoe store, staring at the boots. They were brown and had black-and-white laces. They would lace up to my knees, if I ever tried them on. But I couldn't. Mr. Donovan wouldn't even let me into his store.

I glanced down at my sandals, three sizes too big and falling off my feet. The snow soaked my socks and numbed my toes.

I pressed my nosed against the glass.

"Hey, kid."

I turned to see a man in his late thirties standing behind me. He wore an expensive coat and expensive watch. I pulled my weathered parka tighter around my body.

"How badly do you want those shoes?"

I glanced up at the sky. Near-dark. The walk home would take about thirty minutes. Snow was falling. My feet would probably freeze off.

"Pretty bad," I mumbled through my parka.

"I'll buy them for you," he said, "if you let me fuck you."

My skin crawled. "The fuck is wrong with you?" I snapped, then turned and stomped off. Halfway down the block I tripped in my sandals and hit the pavement. My palms scrapped against the sidewalk. The impact tore my ratted jeans even further.

I walked back to the man with the expensive watch.

"Do you have a place in mind?"

I wore those boots home with pride that night.

xxx

I had my first real argument with Damien three days later. A real argument, with screaming, throwing things, saying things you don't mean. The kind of argument that breaks friendships.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he screamed at me. I backed up against his bedroom door, my back hitting wood. "You're just throwing yourself away!"

"It's not like you would ever understand!" I yelled back. "It's not like you've ever wanted something and not had it immediately! You're the spoiled prince of fucking darkness! You'd never understand!"

"Shut up," he snapped at me, and stalked over to me and grabbed my shirt and pulled me up to him. "That's not true."

"Oh, spare me your pathetic daddy issues." I gave him a sardonic smile. "So what if he doesn't love you? You're not worth his attention anyway."

He punched me in the face and I kicked him in the shin. He screamed at me to get out, and I woke up in my bed seconds later.

xxx

I regretted something, really regretted something for the first time that night. Staring up at my shiny new shoes, which I hadn't yet taken off my feet. Peering through the darkness to examine them.

They weren't as pretty looking close up.

I wrapped my arms around my pillow and hugged it close to me. It smelled like mold and musk.

I grabbed the Swiss army knife from my dresser and stabbed my own neck.

xxx

I apologized to Damien for the first time that night. I sat down on his bed next to him (he hadn't slept either) and said I was sorry.

He said he was sorry, too.

I took off my boots and told me he could burn them. He said he didn't want to, that I'd earned them.

I said I hated it.

He said he hated it, too, but I needed shoes.

I said I still had the sandals.

He and I raided his father's bedroom and found a pair of shoes that probably belonged to one of his dad's ex-boyfriends. They were three sizes too big but we stuffed them with newspaper. Then we burned my boots.

xxx

When I was twelve I got into my first gang fight. I was hanging with Craig, the meth-addicted Tweek, Kevin, a kid named A.J., and a kid named Adam. We were drinking beers we'd gotten A.J.'s older brother to steal for us, feeling pretty damn cool and high on life and overconfidence. We sat on the bridge, staring down at the water before us.

We were the poor kids, the kids who couldn't be at home this time of night because our parents were either working as prostitutes (Adam) or fighting each other (Craig, me) or they were worried about getting hit by their parents (A.J., who cross dressed way too much for his own good in a redneck town like South Park, Tweek, and Kevin).

A half-dozen North Park kids showed up. They were drinking Budweiser's from the bottle and joking amongst themselves. Their leader, a kid with spiky emo-cut hair, told us to get out of their way.

"We're in South Park," Craig said, which immediately established him as our leader.

"Well, get out of our way." Blondie said.

"No. Fuck you." Craig raised his middle finger for emphasis.

"Fuck YOU!" And Blondie rushed at Craig.

Needless to say, I died.

xxx

I got arrested for vandalism for the first time a month later. We'd come up with our symbol, our gang had. A black S over a white P. It was supposed to be meaningful.

The police just shook their heads when they picked me up. I was stoned out of my fucking mind and giggling as I played with my spray cans, teasing the other guys with puffs of paint. They threw us all in jail overnight to get the weed out of our systems.

I was suspended from school for three days. "McCormick," the guidance counselor said, sighing as she shook her head. "You do realize you're throwing away your life, don't you?"

I had been spacing out, staring out the window. I managed to turn my attention back to her.

"Okay."

xxx

I cried for the first time in front of Damien when I was thirteen. I curled up on his bed and buried my face in the pillows. Poor kid had no fucking idea what to do with me.

"Hey, Ken, don't cry, it's okay." He patted me on the back. I ignored him and continued to sob into his pillows. "Kenny, it's okay."

I sat straight up and glare at him. "How can it fucking be okay?" I shouted, my voice clogged by my tears. "I'm going to fail the seventh grade!"

"They're putting you in summer school. That's not failing."

"I'm going to fail summer school! I don't care about math at all, I have no fucking idea what I'm doing!"

I buried my face back into the pillows.

"You just need to work hard," he said.

"I don't know how," I muttered.

"I'll help you," he said, and grinned nervously. "Trust me on this one."

xxx

I got my first A on a test when I was fourteen years old.

xxx

I went through my first sex-ed class when I was a freshman in high school. At the end of the class period the teacher asked if anyone had any questions she wanted to ask.

No one spoke.

After class, the teacher came up to me and gave me a couple of condoms.

I gaped at her, although my coat hit my mouth.

"Everyone at the school knows what you get up to, Kenny McCormick," she said. "Just try to be safe about it, will you?"

The next day in sex-ed, when she asked it anyone had any questions, I raised my hand and asked her how much I should charge for a blowjob versus a handjob. I said I felt like my customers had been ripping me off.

xxx

I first told Craig's gang to fuck off the night before my Chemistry Final. They knocked on my door at one in the morning, when I was still cramming.

"Dude," A.J. said excitedly, "that North Park blondie fag, Jared, has this chick. And you know how he punched Craig's little sister the other night when we were out at the drug store? Well, we're gonna get him back tonight by fucking her up."

I stared at the five of them, all of them grinning happily (except Craig, because he doesn't really ever smile).

"You guys are fucking insane," I said, and slammed the door in their faces and went back to balancing my double-replacement reactions.

I got a B+ on the final.

xxx

I first got a compliment from Damien the night after that (I'd died falling out of my bed, landing on the floor, and having a splinting piece my temple).

"Brave," he said. "You're brave."

I laid back on his bed, staring up at the ceiling.

"Yeah?" I said, savoring the compliment. "You think so?"

xxx

I was first tortured three nights later.

Craig held me under the water at Stark's pond until I was screaming and choking and begging. He dragged me up and let me breathe, then pushed me down again.

"You do not back out on us," he said. He pushed me back down and let me up after two minutes of drowning. "You do not back out on us. Ever. We're a family, understand? A family."

"I understand," I coughed out.

"Good." He kicked me down when I tried to stand. "I have a job for you."

xxx

I sold my first cocaine three weeks before school let out. The kid took my crack, gave me the money, and left without another word.

I sold to eleven kids that day. I had to cut school to make sure I got it all out. I missed my Geometry class, which I was only getting a B in.

Craig counted the money to make sure I wasn't cheating him. Satisfied, he gave me my twenty-dollar cut.

"You want to go drinking with the guys tonight?" he asked.

I watched his shirt, the way it twisted against his body when he leaned back against the bricks.

"Sure," I said.

xxx

Damien told me he hated me for the first time when I went down to hell two weeks later.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because you're strong," he said, "but you pretend you're weak."

He apologized to me later, but it still bothered me.

xxx

Craig fucked me for the first time on July Fourth. The gang was hanging out on the hills behind Park County High School, watching the fireworks.

"Hey," Craig said, "Kenny, your sister's what, thirteen?"

"Twelve." Three years younger than us.

"Damn," he said. "You really can't tell. She's kinda hot." He smiled. "You wanna introduce me to her?"

I pulled my knees up to my chest. "No," I said.

"Yes, you do," he corrected me.

I dragged him away from the rest of the gang and pressed him against the alley wall, running my lips over his collarbone and breathing against his skin.

"If you really want to screw a blonde, blue-eyed McCormick," I whisper into his ear, hoping that I was right about the looks he'd been giving me, "then you really just have to ask."

xxx

I sold my body for sex for the first time a week after that. She paid me two hundred dollars to fuck her. Not a bad deal. I spent it on new shoes and a new parka and three new Nancy Drew novels for my little sister.

xxx

The results for my first STD test came back a day before the first day of my sophomore year of high school. Negative. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then Craig texted me and told me to come over. I curled my fingers into fists, relaxed them, and headed out the door.

xxx

Damien came up to earth specifically to see me for the first time later that night. I woke up to find the dark form slipping into my bedroom from the window.

"What the fuck are you doing?" I lifted my head blearily from my pillow and staring at him. "I have school in . . . like, three hours, douchebag."

"I know." He crawled into my bed next to me. I would tell him to cut it out with the homo stuff, but considering what had been up my ass six hours ago, that probably was a little hypocritical.

He was warm next to me. He smelled like brimstone, too. I felt him relax.

"Why are you here?"

"I was lonely," he said.

"Wow. What a fag."

"Just shut it, McCormick."

"Okay."

I fell asleep next to him. He was gone when I woke up the next morning.

xxx

I cried in front of Craig for the first time two weeks later. I'd had a math test and he'd made skip it to go to his house and have sex with him. After we fucked, I cried, with my head buried into his pillow.

He smoked his cigarette and looked at me with more than a little amusement. "Godddamn, McCormick," he said. "When'd you turn into such a little pussy?"

I wiped my eyes, sat up, accepted a cigarette from him, and made the decision to never let anyone see me cry again.

xxx

I told the honest truth for the first time in my life, ever, at the end of the first semester of my Sophomore year.

I'd failed art class because I never showed up. The teacher, Ms. Kings, was young and black and smiling.

She caught up with me after school just as I was about to board the city bus to go catch the guys at the drug store.

"Sorry," she said when I missed the bus. "I just wanted to talk to you."

"Okay," I shoved my hands into my pockets. The next bus wouldn't come for twenty minutes. "What do you want to talk about?"

We stood in front of the school. The school buses had already left and the only students left hanging out in front of the school were the stoners who had nothing better to do with their lives. Many of them I sold to.

"I want to know why you never showed up."

"I had stuff to do," I said, and then I looked away because I didn't want her to see my shame.

"I would say you're throwing your life away," she said, "but you probably already know that and really don't want to hear it again."

I looked at her and met her gaze.

"I'm a prostitute," I said.

She nodded.

"I deal crack cocaine and marijuana and ecstasy."

She nodded again.

"I'm really, really scared."

There. See? I told the truth.

xxx

I filled my first sketchbook by Spring Break. Pencil led imbedded in my fingers. I became obsessed with the quality of my erasers.

My first drawings were horrible. Ms. Kings showed me how to look at things in real life, how to shade light, how to draw perspective. When I wasn't fucking Craig or dying, I was drawing.

Naturally, I died several times with my sketchbook, and after too much begging, I finally let Damien look through them.

He traced his fingers over a sketch I did of my little sister, Kendra, while she did her Math homework. Her lip stuck out and her eyes narrowed at the page before her. You couldn't really tell it was her because I couldn't draw that well yet, but something in the faded sketch's eyes made me like this drawing.

Damien liked it, too. "This is beautiful," he said.

xxx

Craig looked through my sketchbook two days later. He didn't have to cajole at all. I just gave it up to him after we'd fucked and he was smoking his cigarette and I was waiting for him to tell me I could leave.

He looked at the drawing of my sister.

"Who's this supposed to me?"

I told him.

"This is horrible. It doesn't look anything like her." He tosses my sketchbook to the ground and tells me to blow him.

xxx

Damien and I had our first conversation about Craig right before school let out for summer.

"Why do you sleep with him?" he asked. "You hate him."

I was lying flat on my stomach on the floor, drawing his face while he flopped back on his bed and read Twilight. He'd kill me if I told anyone he fangirled over anything with sexy vampires in it.

"Dunno," I shrugged, a difficult task from my position, and returned to smudging his cheekbones to just the right shade. "Because."

"Because why?"

"I'm horny."

"You don't like guys."

"Yes, I do."

"No, you don't. You're straight."

"I'm bi-romantic," I said.

"But heterosexual."

"Your point?"

"It means you don't like fucking Craig Tucker."

"Okay, fine," I said. "I don't like fucking Craig Tucker. But I like Craig Tucker NOT fucking my sister."

That shut him up.

xxx

"I'm entering you into an art contest," Ms. Kings told me the first day of my junior year of high school. School had just ended, letting me out of her class, which was Intermediate Drawing and Painting.

I blinked at her. "What?"

"I'm entering you into an art contest," she said with some amusement.

"Why?"

"Because at the rate you've been progressing, you could get a scholarship off your artwork."

I processed this for a few seconds, then said, "what do I draw?"

"Whatever you want." She smiled. "It's due in three months. Get onto it."

xxx

At first, I had no idea what to do. I sketched my entire family. I sketched Damien while he slept. I sketched Stark's pond. I sketched the high school.

"You should draw something with soul in it," Damien told me late one night. He was hogging the covers.

"I'm not?" I demanded, slightly insulted.

"You sort of are," he muttered into my pillows, and then fell back asleep.

xxx

I drew Craig's gang spray-painting the train tracks. There was Tweek, twitching with needle marks decorating his arms. A.J. in with his high heels and his wig and makeup hiding what his face really looked like. Adam with his latest fucktoy of a girlfriend under arm. Kevin, who always refused to take part in the vandalism, just watching from the distance.

And there was Craig, surveying it all, and smiling his half-smile (he never smiles for real). In my drawing, he stood with his arms crossed and his legs apart.

In the drawing, I stand behind him, my head bowed and my eyes fluttering closed. There are handcuffs on my wrists and a bruise on my cheek.

I inked the drawing with a sharpie. I never had to use white-out. I colored it with colored pencils.

Craig found it after sex one night, when I was in his shower.

He stormed in on me and dragged me out. I was still soaking wet and I shivered in his bedroom, my arms wrapped around myself.

"What the fuck is this?" he shouted, pointed to the picture, still in my third sketchbook.

Cold dread shot down my spine.

"Art contest submission," I said.

He ripped it up and crumpled the shreds. Then he punched me. Twice. Then he kicked me to the floor. Then he fucked me. To my credit, I didn't cry the entire time, although when I limped home later I couldn't keep my eyes from stinging.

xxx

Damien threatened to kill Craig the next day. "I'm going to use a screwdriver," he snarled.

"No," I said. "He's an asshole, but he doesn't deserve to die."

"Yes, he does!"

"There are a million others like him in the world."

"Look what he did to you!" He raised his hand and I flinched away. "See? See!"

He grabbed me and pushed me up against the wall.

"You're killing yourself," he told me.

"I die almost every week," I said.

"Not like this, you don't," he said, and he cried into my shoulder.

xxx

I first met her while I was waiting for the bus the next week. She had headphones with stoner coloring on them and crooked teeth that her braces hadn't yet managed to correct. Later, when I asked her, she admitted she'd never smoked weed in her life but thought it was funny how people assumed she did.

xxx

I spoke to her for the first time the next day.

"My name is Kenny McMormick." I said. I stretched out my hand.

"I'm Alice Kim." She shook hands with me. She was Korean. She carried a violin.

"Are you new here? To Park County High?"

"Yeah. I'm a Senior."

"Cool." I shift uncomfortably, unwilling to admit I was a year younger than her.

"Nice to meet you."

xxx

I stalked her for the first time the next day. She took the bus down to North Park, which was considerably larger than South Park.

She smiled in amusement when she watched me get off the same stop as her.

She played her violin in the middle of the courtyard. She played simple fiddle songs. She didn't seem to care when people dropped money into her open case. The pigeons fluttered around her.

xxx

I asked her on our first date the next week. She said yes, which made me go home and squee to my myself for several hours. When I died by heart attack at about eight that night and went down to hell, all Damien could do was tease me. I think he was relieved. He thought I was going to break up with Craig.

When I got back at about twelve that night, Craig called me up and asked me to come over. When I hesitated, he asked me if there was a problem. I said no.

xxx

On our first date at the local coffeeshop that Friday night, Alice and I sat in awkward silence for a few minutes. I asked her about her violin. She said she'd been playing for three months and knew she wasn't very good, but it was still fun to practice.

I told her I thought she was awesome, because even though she didn't sound very good it was still awesome.

Then I told her about the art contest I was going to enter. She asked to look through my sketchbook. I let her.

She said my drawings were, quote unquote (she even added the finger quotes) "awesome."

"Can I sketch you?"

She said yes.

"Not right now. When you're playing."

She said yes again.

xxx

My submission was due in three weeks. I spent hours watching Alice play in the North Park courtyard that next Saturday afternoon. I couldn't get her shoulders right until I'd erased her several times. I drew the birds fluttering around her and the people watching. I drew her violin case with a bit more money than it actually contained. I drew her smiling.

I would have to ink it later, but I liked the way it turned out. It looked like Alice. Happy and full of life.

I walked her to her house in North Park later that night. She looked at my drawing of her and told me she didn't look nearly that pretty.

"Yes, you do," I told her.

I kissed her goodnight and she didn't push me away. In fact, she kissed me back. Her lips felt soft against mine. Craig always kissed me roughly.

I did a victory dance home.

xxx

Tuesday night after we had sex, Craig said he'd heard I'd been seeing a chick.

The dangerous tone in his voice told me to tread with caution.

"I see a lot of chicks," I replied. I was still naked and sweaty and too tired to get up and take a shower. "I'm paid to fuck a lot of them, too."

"You know what I mean, McCormick," he growled.

"You do realize you're sleeping with a prostitute, right? I'm not going to promise fidelity to you."

"McCormick."

"I'm not seeing any chick romantically," I said. "I'm gay. That'd be stupid. I'm with you, aren't i?" I smirked at him and kissed him on the cheek the way I knew he liked. Then I got up to take a shower.

xxx

I brought Alice roses on her eighteenth birthday, a week later. I had to sleep with three johns to pay for all of them. I threw stones up to hit her second-floor-bedroom window at eleven-fifty-nine on her birthday night, and then she squealed and ran downstairs and outside and threw her arms around me.

"Want to go steady?" I asked her, even though we'd only been on one date.

"God, yes," she said, and kissed me.

xxx

Next Friday I was waiting at the bus stop for Alice so we could go on our second date. She never showed up.

I called her cell phone. No response. Her home phone.

"She's in the hospital," her mother said.

xxx

I showed up with flowers. Bruises ran over her cheeks and sealed her eyes shut. She was missing several teeth. Her fingers were broken. The doctors said she'd never play violin again. She smiled when she saw me. She was conscious, but barely, (and loopy on medication). I told her it was my fault. She said it wasn't my fault.

Her mother told me they were moving as soon Alice healed; they hadn't realized the gang violence in Park County was so high.

When I stepped outside the hospital Craig was waiting for me. He pushed me up against the alley wall and told me this was my fault. I said I believed him.

He punched me in the gut. I doubled over. He kicked me shins and I hit the ground. Then he dragged me into the hospital again, and into Alice's room.

She and her mom were still there. She stared at me. I huddled behind Craig, refusing to meet her gaze.

"I just want you to know," he said, "that your little boyfriend here is a slut. One of mine, actually. He's also a drug dealer. And he's also been fucking me for the past year and a half."

He kissed me right in front of them, and I kissed him back because I knew what he would do if I didn't.

"Get out of town fast or me and my crew will not hesitate to rip you apart," he snapped, and dragged me out of the hospital after him.

xxx

I cried in front of Damien for the second time that night. He held me. Eventually, I managed to pull myself together and apologize to him.

xxx

I went to the police and told them what had happened. Incompetent assholes they were, they laughed in my face and told me to go smoke a joint and stop making up bullshit. Alice's beating was declared "random gang violence," even though I told them I knew who the perpetrators were. Unfortunately, Adam's mom was fucking the deputy sheriff.

xxx

I found the sketch of Alice in my fourth sketchbook a week before the submission was due. I looked at it for a long time. Then I found my sharpie.

xxx

I needed to use whiteout twice. I fucking hate whiteout.

xxx

I colored everything in shades of gray, except for Alice's eyes. Those I made dark brown.

xxx

I went over to Ms. Kings' house at ten that night and knocked on her door. She answered it in her nightgown. I apologized for interrupting her. She told me it was okay and let me in.

I showed her my artwork.

"She's my ex-girlfriend," I said. "I think I was in love with her."

She raised her eyebrows. "How long did you two date?"

"About two weeks."

"Ah."

She scanned it on her printer. "I'll send this in tomorrow," she promised.

"Thank you so much, Ms. Kings." I was suddenly aware of how much she'd down for me. "Do you want anything in return?"

"Oh, no, I'm fine." She waved her hand.

"Are you sure? I can . . . " I hesitated, but it was my instinct to give it up for anyone who's spent so much time and effort on me. "I can give you a quickie free of charge."

"Kenny McCormick!" Her eyes widened. "Are you trying to solicit sex from a teacher?"

"Er . . . "

She flicked me on the head. "Bad Kenny. Go home, it's late."

"Yes, Ma'am," I said meekly, and headed out the door.

xxx

I won second-place in the art contest, which earned me a three-thousand dollar scholarship to a summer art camp of my choosing.

xxx

My days had a routine to them. I would wake up, go to school, sleep through Math class, sell drugs during lunch. After school I would meet the guys at the drugstore and hang out and do stupid shit. I would meet with customers later that night. (Condoms are your friends.) I would go home and do my homework at about nine. Sometimes Craig would call me over and tell me he wanted some. Our sex got wild and angry. He hit me constantly. I would show up to school with bruises on my face and arms and neck, and no one would care.

I drew from midnight until one, two in the morning. If I died, I would go down to hell and hang out with Damien. He stopped berating me after a while and settled for playing video games with me or playing fighting with me or talking about boobs with me. Normal guy stuff. Relaxing. It made me smile. He was the only one I didn't have to put on a masquerade around.

xxx

The art camp that summer was like nothing else I'd ever experienced. We drew every day. I met a bunch of other art freaks like me. I met a girl named Maddie who drew manga comics about dark people doing dark things to each other.

We ended up making out behind the girls' bathroom every day for the month I spent at the art camp. We never formed a romantic attraction, although we became pretty good friends.

I died several times at the art camp, and when I came back the third time she finally asked me how I was alive.

"You remember me?" I asked her in surprise.

"Hell yeah." She raised her eyebrows. "Care to explain?"

My doormates and I had midnight Fullmetal-Alchemist-viewing sessions. We watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show and sang along with all the songs. We stayed up until four in the morning every night for a consecutive week in order to finish our final projects, running only on adrenaline and caffeine.

I didn't want to come home.

xxx

During the middle of my senior year of high school, Craig made me skip a huge math test again to come fuck around with him. I hadn't done that in years, and when I said "no" he outright threatened to get Kendra hooked on the shit I'd been selling for him for years.

So I said yes, and came to his house, and spaced out the entire time, thinking about all the extra-credit I'd have to beg out of Mr. Sanders if I wanted to pass Pre-Calc.

xxx

"You have to ditch him."

I looked up at Damien, who was smoking a cigarette and staring out his window. I was reading Naruto manga, which Maddie had gotten me hooked on and I hated her for.

"Craig? Yeah, I know I do."

"I'm serious, Kenny," Damien said. He stubbed his cigarette out and sighed. "He's dragging you down. If he keeps this up you'll be stuck in South Park for the rest of your life."

"If you call what I have a life."

"Kenny-"

I turned the page.

xxx

When I went to pick Kendra up from her friend's house a week later, she was tweaked out on Ice.

Needless to say, I went batshit crazy.

xxx

I stalked up to Craig as he was just stepping out of his house and tried to punch him in the face, forgetting how damn strong he was. He took my punch without a flinch, then kicked me to the ground and planted a boot on my stomach.

"What'd'ja do that for?" he demanded.

"Why the fuck did my little sister's friends have meth?" I demanded. "You promised, dude, you fucking promised!"

"Hey, it's not my fault your sister's retarded enough to try that stuff out-"

I tried to grab his leg but he kicks me again.

"You're going to be sucking me off tonight for this," he remarked, then let me up and started sauntering down the street.

"Fuck you, Tucker!" I screamed, my fists clenched, my voice muffled through my park.

But he was right, because now my sister had tried it once I'd do anything to keep it away from her.

xxx

"You have to stop him," Damien said. "I'd kill him for you, but it has to be you."

"I know."

"Then why don't you?'

He was curled in my bed next to me. My cheek rested against his neck. I felt so warm with him. I never felt warm with Craig.

"I don't know."

"You're scared."

I didn't deny it.

xxx

The Denver police listened to me and took my seriously, and none of them were fucking Adam's mom.

"He's blackmailing me," I said, "by threatening to get my sister on drugs."

"Do you have any proof of this?" the lead police officer asked. "Because we'll have to at least take you into custody, son, for professed drug use and prostitution."

"I can get proof."

xxx

I knelt down in front of Craig in his bedroom. My fingers hovered over the zipper.

"I don't want to, dude," I said.

He glared down at me. "We've been doing this for three years," he reminded me.

"I still don't want to."

"You think I fucking care?" he snarled. He lifted me up and shoved me against the nearest wall. I tried to jam my elbow into his neck but he grabbed my wrists together behind my back and used the other one to yank down my pants.

"No! Dude, I don't want to!"

"I still don't fucking care. Now, imagine how Kendra will look after a year of meth," he snarled.

I could have screamed. I could have given it all up and screamed for help. But without absolute proof that Craig was blackmailing me, the police could still have to arrest me.

So I let him fuck me one last time. And when I was curled up on his bed and hiding my face from him as he smoked his usual cigarette, I said, "You made me sell myself to guys and girls. Prostitution."

"Wow, big news." He took a long drag.

"And you made me sell all that crack."

"I guess I did. What's your point, McCormick?"

"And you said you'd hurt my family if I didn't."

"Again, what's your point, McCormick?"

"So does this qualify as blackmail?"

"I guess. What's your fucking point?" His glower was dangerous. His fists were raised. Ready to hit me again for stepping out of line.

In response, I snatched up my pre-planted tape-recorder from under his bed. He processed the sight for a few seconds. Then he made a lunge for me, but I was already halfway out the window.

I ran with faltering steps, gasping for air, my entire body bruised and sore. He ran after me, screaming and cursing at me and telling me how he was going to fuck me up.

Then we heard the sirens. Craig turned to sprint away but I grabbed his arm with one hand and punched him with the other. Right in the face. Cracking his nose. Damn it felt good.

xxx

Later, when the police had picked up Craig and I'd told them the addresses and names of the other guys, I was sitting in the police station with a blanket wrapped around me, sipping a mug of coffee.

The head officer assured me that if they could confirm Craig's involvement with the drug ring and the judge listened to the tape recorded – specifically the spot where I got forced into non-consensual sex for the umpteenth time – then I was almost guaranteed to get off scotch free, although they might want me to go into therapy.

"Hey."

I looked up. Damien stood above me, arms crossed, a sad little smile on his face.

"Hey," I said back.

He sat down next to me. I pulled my knees up to my chest. He pulled me against him.

"Tired," I say.

"Did you call the cops?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks." If he hadn't, Craig would have killed me.

"I will never let anyone hurt you like that ever again," he said.

I looked at him and for the first time it occurred to me that Damien was the only one who'd stood by me through thick and thin, though all the stupid things we've both done, through all of our stupid arguments and fights and bullshit. For thirteen years he'd been by my side.

"Thanks," I said again.

xxx

And just like that, I fall in love for the second and final time in my life.